A New Normal

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Last week all of my classes spent their time at home.  They participated in “eLearning” by  visiting a district website, picking their grade level and choice board activities.  Most of the feedback from the community was very positive.  The kids were engaging in content and the choice element was a bonus.  This week we have spring break and I’ve spent a good amount of time outside and away from school work.  I went on a walk outside this morning and ran into many different chalk drawings.  The kids can’t wait to get outside and return to something normal.

As we’re mid-week now, I’m noticing a couple trends.  We still don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last.  Right now school is supposed to resume on April 8th, but that doesn’t seem feasible.  Some districts have closed their doors for the entire year and have gone straight to eLearning.  I’m looking at you Virginia and Kentucky! State testing has been abolished (okay, more like canceled just for this year). Some states have pushed their soft opening date later down the line even closer to the end of school. More will probably follow, but that’s the current status until we get more information from the state of department of education.  The stock market continues to wildly change and the ticker at the bottom of the televisions indicate the new pandemic numbers.  It’s stressful.

Looking forward there are some things that have become apparent.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that as a country, I don’t think we were prepared to teach solely online with eLearning (more like emergency eLearning). Many districts scrambled to get devices into students’ hands in order to send them home for a prolonged period to time to be determined later.  Immediate etrainings and putting together lessons/resources were quickly slotted on agendas and superintendents sent out mass communication emails indicating safety and learning.  For the most part and from what I’ve observed, administrators have done a stellar job in keeping staff and parents informed of what’s happening even though the news is changing so frequently. I’m finding that updates are pushed out and emails are read a bit more critically nowadays.  A “high importance” email has become more of the norm lately. Next week my district will begin it’s second week of eLearning.  It’s not all rainbows, but I believe the first week was a success and I believe we’ll build on that and offer more ways to transition instruction online.

Teachers are often expected to be flexible and pivot as needed.  Fire drills, assemblies, loud speaker interruptions, weather delays, and many other instances highlight the flexibility that teachers often exhibit as they pivot their instruction and make decisions  quickly.  The type of pivoting is now different.  Teachers are now sent into this online world where the expectations are different. Some teachers take to this better than others, but it’s different than what most are used to.  Instead of using educabulary like essential questions and mastery objective, teachers are figuring out how to use Zoom and SeeSaw. Teachers are relying on each other to figure out how to make this situation work. The learning curve is high and teacher are rising to the challenge. Right now differentiation and feedback look different and priority is given to issues regarding access and opportunity. We don’t know how long eLearning will last this year, but I’m fairly confident that it has added to our skill set and has made us better educators in the process.  Ideally, I’d rather be in the classroom and be with my students as we explore pre-algebra concepts together.  I want to be able to see them as we explore functions and algebraic expressions.  I’m a bit anxious even thinking that school might be online for the rest of the year (hoping that doesn’t happen) as I wasn’t able to say goodbye to the students that I’ve looped with over the years.  Regardless, the cards have been dealt and educators and school are working for the best outcomes. We need to make the best of it whether it’s online or in person.  I’m optimistic for the next transition as we reach students through a different medium.



It’s official.  The 2015-16 school year has concluded.  The final bell rang last week I’m starting to look at my summer book list. My reading takes on different forms during the summer.  I have a few books on hold at the local library just for that purpose.  I’m looking forward to digging into those later this week.  Before reading these I enjoy catching up on blogs that I missed during the last hectic month of the school year.  This year I’m also looking back at my personal goals for this past year.

As I reflect back on the school year I often categorize how classes went that year.  Were the classes successful?  How did students learn?  Did I create an environment that optimized student learning and their curiosity?  Did I leave a lasting impact that students will remember?  How many of these students will invite me to their graduation.  Okay, the last one was a joke.  Kind of.  I tend to reflect back on these questions as well as others.  Last August I wrote a post about the goals that I had for the new school year.  This post is designed to reflect on those goals.


1.  I plan on taking the first few days of school to engage students in community building activities. The class will be completing a “get to know you” survey and set expectations for the class. We’ll also be completing the marshmallow challenge and have some rich conversations around math and mindset. I feel like instructional strategies make little impact if students have a fixed mindset. The same could be said for teachers. Before delving into content I want to ensure that the classroom community is moving in the right direction.

Looking back, I was ambitious with my planning.  At the time I thought this was a realistic goal.  I started off the school year with community builders.  We completed the marshmallow challenge and other activities.  I didn’t actually survey the students.  Instead, students wrote in their journals about math experiences.  I reviewed their journal entries and had brief conversations with each student.  The students felt comfortable in the classroom and seemed to develop rapport with each other.

I didn’t get into the rich discussions about math mindset as much.  Having a growth mindset has been emphasized in my district but the practice of it in individual classrooms vary. This is also a byproduct of the mindsets coming from other students, at home and at school. Honestly, it was challenging to not dive into content immediately.   Regardless, the classroom community was set on a sound foundation.  That foundation played a pivotal role throughout the rest of the school year.

2. I‘d like to make learning more visible in the classroom. I’m planning on having students use math journals to reflect and document their learning journey. I’m also planning on using effect size data to show student growth over time. To do this I’ll need to create additional pre-assessments to analyze pre/post data. I’m also planning on moving away from letter grades on unit assessments. Instead, I’m going to have students reflect more on the skills being learned in class.  This is a change from past practices so a lot of modeling may be needed.

I had students use math journals this year.  I intentionally had students use them to reflect on assignments/projects throughout the year – more so at the beginning of the year.  I also dabbled with students using foldables this school year.  The foldables were used primarily for process-oriented skills involving conversions.  These were glued or taped into the student math journals.  By the end of the school year the math journals were thick and looked like scrapbooks.  I’m looking at changing this format next year.

I used effect-size with one of my classes this year.  Students took  a pre-assessment and explored a particular concept for around three weeks.  After the three weeks, they took the same pre-assessment.  I calculated the effect-size and placed the data in a spreadsheet that was shared with my teaching team and administrator. I felt like this was good practice as my district is moving towards effect-size next school year.  Students received both the pre-assessment and assessment back at the end of the unit to see how much progress was made.

My unit tests didn’t include letter grades on the top of them.  This seemed to bother some students as they wanted to know their exact grade.  By the end of the year, all some students weren’t as concerned about the percent/grade.  I emphasized, as much as I could, that the skills were the focus.  I believe progress was made in this area and I’d like to keep this practice intact for next year.

I tend to agree with the philosophy that deep reflection can lead to growth.  I’m looking forward to the new school year in August and have some new goals that I’d like to put in place.  For now, it’s time to reflect and recharge before the new school year comes around the bend.

Classroom Learning Spaces and #Edcampldr

Yesterday I participated in #edcampldr Chicago. A huge thank you goes out to Jeff and Jason as well as many others that helped organize this event.  Notes from the event can be found here.  It was great to be able to meet many educators and administrators in and out of the local area.  I’ve connected with many over Twitter during the past few years, but meeting them face to face was a great opportunity.

I found many takeaways from all the sessions, but I want to focus on one session in particular for this post. The fantastic Erin, Ben and Tom all helped facilitate the session related to creating classroom learning spaces. The session helped participants recognize the need to change the way classrooms are organized. Just like adults, the environment in which we learn in can significantly contribute to outcomes.  Unless there’s some type of mandate, teachers generally have control over how/what their classrooms looks like.  I think it was beneficial to hear from other educators and administrators that we have more control in our classrooms then we’d like to admit.  I feel like educators know this is true, but hearing from others in the field help affirm our own beliefs.  Powerful discourse has an opportunity to develop when educators move out of their district’s boundaries.  I believe these types of conversations happened in this particular session.

The presenters advocated for changes to the traditional classroom setup.  This session gave participants time to analyze their own classrooms, discuss possible changes, brainstorm ways in which to better organize their current structure and create a plan on paper. I felt as though the rich discussions that happened were valuable.  Hearing other plans helped participants question their own design and what to modify in the future.  Near the end of the session participants went around the room to view all the different types of models that were created. Opportunities were given to ask questions regarding the plans of others.  The focus of the discussions revolved around what learning environments best meet students needs.  Regardless of the many titles evident in the room, so many questions initiated a dialogue that moved participants to question their own structure. Here are a few questions that I heard in the process: do students need a charging station, research station, comfy seating, desks with casters? Students from the local high school were also a part of this process.  They offered opinions and ideas related to what designs work best for their own learning needs.  This was an amazing opportunity as educators are truly building their learning environments for the students.

Looking forward, I have a few steps that I’d like to take in redefining my classroom learning space.   I’d like to revisit ClassroomCribs to find additional examples and discuss possibilities of using both desks and tables in my classroom.  Also, I’d like to ask my own students to be part of the classroom learning space design process. I thought this session helped participants become more aware of how classroom spaces impact student learning.  This is a worthwhile topic to discuss as it directly impacts students.

Classrooms that Encourage Risk-Taking Strategies


Creating a Classroom Environment
Encouraging Risk-Taking in the Classroom

A positive classroom environment often plays a pivotal role in student learning.  Fostering a classroom climate that promotes the learning community can reap benefits for all stakeholders involved.  Feeling a sense of belonging to an organization can increase participation and build confidence.  Primary and elementary grades often spend a good part of the first few days of school focused on creating a classroom community. Building that classroom community can take many forms.  Joy Kirr’s Livebinder provides many classroom community building activities that I found helpful.  A focus on team building, sharing and reflection can all aid in building a productive learning environment that will set a strong foundation for the school year.

This isn’t necessarily easy as there’s always curriculum to cover, but setting aside time to create a classroom climate is worthwhile.  Once established and continually reinforced, it can be a driving force in which students take academic risks in the classroom.  Whether its student council, clubs, art class, or whatever, that sense of belonging often enables students to participate at higher levels as they feel that their voice is truly valued. When I speak of risk, I think of the term in a positive way.  The risks that I’m speaking of often help students move beyond taking a stagnant stance with their education.  Student risk can take many forms in the classroom.

Taking a risk could mean that students:

  • Answer/ask questions more often
  • Are more open to feedback given by peers and teachers
  • Are able to collaborate with others
  • Show perseverance when approaching challenging tasks
  • Take more ownership of their learning
  • Able to explain their mathematical thinking in more detail
  • Take pride in their work more often
  • Reflect on their performance and set goals
  • Rise above their own personal expectations
  • Start to develop leadership skills

For some students a risk is to raise their hand in class. For others, students might engage in mathematical conversations with their peers or use feedback as a learning tool.  Another student might want to take what was introduced in class and start an enrichment project.  Personal risk is truly determined by the student. To make sure that students take academic risks they need to feel as though their community supports them.  Modeling how to approach risk-taking in the classroom is important.  Sharing personal stories and continually reinforcing that making mistakes is part of the learning process can help create opportunities for students to take risks on their own. Teachers can start by creating low-risk opportunities in the classroom (See Reed’s post for examples).  These tasks can be powerful and foster a positive classroom climate in the process.

How do you create a classroom that encourages risk-taking?



Planning Better Learning Experiences

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Spring break is now here and many schools are still bustling.  There’s not as much student laughter inside the school, but the parking lot is still busy.  A fresh batch of snow has covered the local area and vehicle tire tracks have carved their way into the teacher section of the school parking lot.  Many of the teachers inside and those at home are planning for the last few remaining months of the school year.  My plan book for each class is now starting to fill up.  Regardless of how I plan, student understanding of a particular concept doesn’t always align with my 3-inch plan book squares.  Specific curriculum and lessons can be planned to a tee, but it doesn’t guarantee an ideal learning experience for the students. This break has given me time to think of how educators plan their instruction.

Before break I was able to have a conversation with my classes about learning.  We discussed metacognition and analyzed how we learn best.  The class had a conversation about what math concepts will be introduced in April.  The conversation transitioned to what math activities are on the schedule for the months of April and May.

While discussing this I emphasized the words learning experiences instead of referring to the objectives that were posted to the board.  I find that students can easily see written objectives on the board.  Writing the objectives on the board is required, but I don’t believe many students actually internalize the meaning or they need more information to do so.  The objectives may say something specific and some benefit from reviewing them, but I want students to be able to understand that they are participating in intentional learning experiences that will give them opportunities to question, make connections, and become better math communicators.

Many of my students and parents are aware of the implications of the PARCC assessments and CCSS.  Common Core aligned material is everywhere.  Marketing and advertisers are consistently promoting the newest aligned Common Core material.  Many districts are in the process or have already purchased content that matches the CCSS and PARCC.  Regardless of what district adopted curriculum is purchased, learning experiences that meet students’ needs should be high on the priority list.  My colleagues and I are finding that there are many ways to follow the CCSS and still create engaging student learning experiences and activities.  This year I’ve modified and used different learning tasks that were created by members of my PLN.  Fawn, Dan, Julie and the MTBOS community have been generous in sharing their thoughts and resources.  These experiences don’t have to be scripted word-for-word (like the first curriculum that I was given) and many supplement the curriculum that the district provides. These student learning experiences are what will create beneficial memories that students can use going forward.  In addition, they will drive students to ask questions, make connections and develop math reasoning skills that will help them in the future.

Math Classroom Setup


This Monday students will be entering my school for the 2013-2014 school year.  Classrooms have been buzzing with movement all this week.  The sound of  bulletin boards being put up, desk being moved, pencils being sharpened, and some major cleaning has all happened during the last few days.  Friday’s in-service day covered the topics of security and community.  This year the district and state have decided to focus on social/emotional learning standards and making sure students feel like they belong, not just attend school.  It looks like eventually school AYP will be connected to school climate data.  Teachers were asked to keep this in mind when starting the school year and setting up their class.  Generally I’m not a fan of filling in all my wall space before school starts.  I like to leave some major room for student work as the year progresses.   Below you will find a few photos and short explanations of my class setup this year.

desk setup

I decided on changing my desk setup after reading  this inspirational post.  My class now includes connected rows and group tables.   Students usually pick their own desk to start the year.  Students randomly switch seats approximately once per month.  I find that a combination of rows and tables is conducive for a lot of group work that takes place in class.

procedure wall

As soon as students enter the classroom they take a sharp right turn and see what’s in the picture above.  Students turn in their homework/notes and pick up their math folders.  Students then sit down in their desks and work on individual assignments in their folder or directions that are displaced on the whiteboard.


Community building and procedures are emphasized during the first few days of school.  I’ve used the right and left charts in the past to remind students of the procedures used in class. The middle poster is a percentage/stats/probability that’s used with my math curriculum.  Using the arrival and departure charts helps maximize instruction time and learning.

We all fit in

This blank canvas is filled with a completed puzzle by the end of the first week. (example)  The puzzle is cut out by the teacher and each student fills out their own puzzle piece.

puzzle template

On each puzzle piece, students put their name, favorite math topic, one activity that they participated in over the summer and whatever else you’d like them to write.  Students then put the puzzle together and it fits right on the blue tarp for the remainder of the year.  This activity also gives insight to the group dynamic makeup of your class.


I put my excess tarp into use as a bulletin board.  The lines were actually constructed with thin duck tape. This grid will be used throughout the year for our algebra units.

At some point I want to have some type of “genius board” in the classroom where students can ask questions about math topics.  Eventually the questions will spur topics that will lead to our genius math projects.

A Sharing Culture

photo credit: overgraeme via photopin cc
photo credit: overgraeme via photopin cc

Teachers Aren’t Meant to be Islands

The ISTE 13 conference in San Antonio is now over.  I wasn’t able to attend this year, although I was amazed with the amount of digital sharing that occured during the conference.  I was able to follow the #iste13 hashtag which provided me with links that were directly associated with conference keynotes, slides, sessions, speaker notes, videos, pictures and a multitude of useful information.  This type of generous sharing should happen in education more frequently.

I’m now reflecting on how schools and teachers share resources with each other.  I’ve experienced sharing through social media and have a variety of experiences sharing ideas/resources in schools.  When comparing schools and social media PLNs, I find differences in the volume and quality of sharing that occurs. I’ve observed teachers that actively share resources with their PLN through social media, but not so much in their school and vice versa.  There may be reasons behind this that are directly associated with how many people are in your PLN compared to the amount of staff in your school.  Regardless, the amount of sharing within a school truly depends on the culture.  Some teachers are very private with their resources and ideas, while others will freely handout their resources to anyone who asks. I believe the reasoning can be partially tracked down to who completes the work and a fear that their resource wouldn’t be used correctly.

Current teacher evaluation systems that include VAM may also play a role. VAM scores seem to be making a splash and are unintentionally causing teacher competition. One byproduct of competition is often isolation, which causes a decrease in sharing as teachers are numerically pinned against each other.  This culture negatively impacts teachers, students and the community.  I believe teachers aren’t meant to work in isolation. One of my newest PLN members, Victoria Olson said, “…we are not intended to be islands, yet many of us are.”  I believe that quote is spot on and applies to educators everywhere.

How do education leaders encourage sharing and collaboration?

I believe every staff member has something that they can share, regardless of their position in a school.  Sharing often brings opportunities to innovate as one idea is built upon another. Sharing also empowers teachers to find additional resources and possible teaching strategies that may help their class.  This sharing may strengthen the trust between teachers and school teams.  It may also encourage teachers to begin to direct their own learning, as Dean Shareski says in his post.  Teacher and administration sharing sessions can benefit many stakeholders and can lead to brainstorming opportunities.  This is not a top-down approach and isn’t necessarily consistently embraced, but it can yield positive results.  Administrators should encourage sharing with colleagues (like this) and incorporate staff sharing moments during scheduled meetings. Sharing shouldn’t be seen as being narcissistic. George Couros expands on this idea in his post.  Sharing your ideas/strengths also validates that we’re all learners attempting to improve our practice.  Having a dialogue about the sharing is essential in the process and may improve teaching practices.   No matter who you are, or what experience you have, there’s always a way to become better at your craft.  Starting off the school year by sharing ideas/resources can help build a solid foundation that encourages additional sharing.   What should be shared?  This depends on the school and leadership.  Here’s a rough idea list:

  • Workshops
  • Conferences
  • Education Journals
  • Education related books
  • Blogs
  • Experiences over the summer
  • RSS feeds
  • Colleagues
  • Teachers

I have respect for administrators that share what they’ve learned when they were teachers.  I believe that sharing these experiences and resources have potential to build a positive rapport between administrators and teachers.  This modeling may help motivate others to share as well. When sharing becomes the norm, administrators can encourage teachers to participate and even lead professional development sessions with their staff.   This type of professional development has many benefits.

How do you promote collaboration and sharing with your staff?

Using End of Year Classroom Survey Data

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For the past few years I’ve used a student motivation survey with my class.  The survey is used for reflection purposes and to plan for the next school year.  This year approximately 80 students in grades 3 – 5  answered questions related to what helps them learn best.  The statements are below (click picture to enlarge).


I usually explain each question to the class and then the students  individually respond as they see fit.    After the results were compiled and averaged (1 being the most important, 10 being the least), I shared the top three motivators.  They are as follows:

  • The teacher shows she/he cares about you and the other students in class – 1.20 / 10
  • The teacher is fair to all students in the classroom – 1.22 / 10
  • The teacher allows you to use technology to learn – 2.02 / 10 

After the results were presented, the class had a discussion regarding why they felt the motivators were especially important.  I also shared that the results were very similar to last year’s results.   One key takeaway was that having a teacher that cared about them was extremely vital in motivating students to learn.  This isn’t surprising, but a passionate teacher can be contagious and elementary students often feed off of that excitement.  Another takeaway, relationships matter in the classroom.  Also, it seems that technology continues to play an increasingly important role in the learning process.

I then presented the bottom three categories.  The bottom three aren’t necessarily negative, but they scored the least important out of all the categories. The class then discussed why they felt like those categories deserved a less than stellar score.

  • The teacher gives choices to complete an assignment – 5.51 / 10
  • The teacher allows you to move around the classroom – 4.43 / 10
  • The teacher gives assignments that connect to the real world – 3.53 / 10

At that point I thought it might be beneficial to bring up the topic of motivation and rewards in the classroom.  This year I decided to eliminate material rewards (pencils, stickers, auctioned prizes, etc.) to reward my elementary students.  It took some research and a bit of teeth grinding, but I went cold turkey with the external rewards this year.  This was a shift from years in the past.  After analyzing the positive results and increase in student ownership, I may do the same next school year.

Taking Math Outdoors

Math Outdoors

Recently I had an opportunity to attend an outdoor education trip with our elementary students. The trip took place over three days and was located in a very remote part of the state, away from high rises, city lights, cell phone signals, and televisions.  The trip focused on learning about birding, forest ecology, Native Americans, orienteering, and pioneering.  For many students this trip is a different learning experience.  It’s outside of the classroom and therefore a different learning environment for them. Acclimating to this environment took a bit of time for staff and students.

The adults were responsible to teach many of the concepts during hikes on campus.  Being outside is a great opportunity to introduce or highlight academic concepts that are generally taught through abstract means.  While talking about math outdoors, students expressed interest and asked questions that often led to additional mathematical questions.  Students that might not usually be fully engaged in a math lesson at school were shining on the hike. This experience led me to reflect on our current mathematical practices.  At times there’s a disconnect between what’s happening in the classroom and what’s occurring right outside of the doors to the school.  Teachers often attempt to bridge the gap, but self-directed student questions often come from real world experiences and curiosity.  Curiosity is often followed by questions.  Finding answers to those questions can lead students to find their passions (eg. #geniushour).  This motivation can be encouraged but not genuinely bought or sold.  Students decide how engaged they want to be and internal/intrinsic motivation often leads to learning experiences.

Below are some (of what I can remember) of the questions/topics that were discussed while on the trip:



Letting Students Decide

You Decide

Last week I decided to introduce one of my math classes with a complex algebra problem. The problem had multiple solutions and a variety of different ways to achieve the answers.  I grouped the students and they began to discuss methods to solve the problem. Each group was given an iPad, whiteboard and marker to get started.  After approximately ten minutes I had group coming up to me asking if they were on the right track.  I asked the students to decide on what path to take to solve this problem. The students waited for additional instruction but I decided to say no more. Often, students are looking for affirmation or some type of hint.  I told the students to rely on their math skills to validate why they think their solution is best. The students went back to their group and continued to work and validate their reasoning.  Students continued to have questions and I decided to answer those questions with questions that pointed students in the right direction. By facilitating and guiding I felt as though students were taking more ownership of their own learning.  After approximately thirty minutes student groups presented their answers to the class.  The majority of groups indicated that they hit multiple roadblocks, but eventually achieved some sort of success in finding a solution to the problem.  After listening to the presentations I concluded that the students took another step this year towards becoming responsible learners in the classroom.  Moreover, I found myself reflecting on what was communicated to the students during the process.

The words you decide can be powerful.  In a classroom setting, the words can enable students to make decisions that impact their learning.  Students need to be able to take ownership of their own decisions and what a teacher communicates can benefit or limit learning in the classroom. I’d like to move my students beyond the stereotypical systematic focus of finding the one right answer.  Mathematical understanding might not permeate when students feel that finding the answer is the only goal.  Giving students opportunities to make decision within a safe environment prepares them to own their own learning and become more accountable in the classroom.

What strategies do you use to encourage student ownership?

Photo Credit:  S. Miles

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