Crystal Clear Expectations with Student Photos

Don’t tell my principal, but at the last staff meeting I wasn’t perfectly focused on everything he said. For a few minutes I was thinking about all the stuff I had to do at work, about how I needed to mow my lawn REAL bad since it was looking like a jungle out there, and how I couldn’t wait to see my daughter.

Imagine if I was 30 years younger and had an even smaller attention span, a need to move in my seat more and unclear expectations of what I was supposed to be doing.  Maybe this doesn’t happen in your classroom with your students, but it happens in mine. And basically to every teacher I ever talk to. So let’s all just assume that this is a common problem, right?

So while we won’t eliminate this problem, we can certainly reign it in a bit. With crystal clear expectations laid out for our students, and an added bonus of posting their photos we start to see some changes.  When you’ve been on video or see yourself in a photo, do you find yourself immediately analyzing every bit of it? You’re looking at your messed up hair, you’re thinking about what you are wearing, thinking about what you are doing in the video or the photo.  So…we can do that with kids, but instead of making them look for what they AREN’T doing, we can catch them for what they SHOULD be doing.

I tried this first in a second grade classroom.  I told them that I was going to be looking for students that were on task and showing the behaviors that we all agreed upon in workshop expectations.  Then I explained that I would be getting my mobile device out to take photos of them doing these things. I told them I would use the photos to make something special. Suddenly they sat up straighter, got immediately to work, and were perfect tiny little angels. For real. Angelic.

So here is the special thing I made them:


I looked at each part of the teacher’s workshop and about what the students needed to look like to be successful. I targeted my photos to be able to show them exactly what they look like when on task.  When the expectations were crystal clear, and they were in the photos…that’s when we started to see more focused behaviors.

I believe this can be adapted to any grade level. Children love to be validated and honored for doing great work. I think that we all do in some way or another. This gives them great recognition for being on task, with the added benefit of reinforcing your math workshop expectations.



Adding Rigor to the Math Classroom

Yes, I know. The R word. Ugh. I’m only starting to hate it because it sounds like a buzz word that you hear over and over, yet it’s like some kind of mystery to classroom teachers.

When I began teaching I thought that raising the rigor in my math classroom meant using bigger numbers, more problems, or homework projects.

And the kids hated it. They didn’t feel energized or motivated in math. They felt bogged down and I pretty much sucked all the joy out of their little faces.

Nice going Ms. Smith.

Instead now I know that rigor has a different definition. It might mean solving open ended problems, finding multiple solutions, connecting math to real life situations, using visual models, and thinking deeper instead of faster. And I’ve realized that sometimes rigor can be injected in very simple ways. Take this example (used in a second grade classroom early in the year):


This is really quite a simple idea, and almost any number (or number sentence!) could be put in there to adapt it to any grade level.  Notice how open ended it is? The teacher is not telling them to use: tallies, ten frames or cubes. We started with 10 to show the routine and the process, allowing them to find more and more ways and share their thinking.  Students are given a number and need to think of how many ways to build it and show representations of it. The beauty is they begin to see the need for shortcuts in math more naturally. It doesn’t make sense to show the number 110 with 110 individual cubes, we can group them into packs (rods/sticks..whatever you call them) of 10 or 100!

The more students can use tools and visuals, the stronger their mathematical thinking will become!


“What do I do when I’m done?”

That’s the question I would dread the most during math class…

“Mrs. Smith, what do I do when I’m done?”

In the early days I didn’t have any clue what to do with students when they were finished with their work.  During Readers Workshop, they could read. What could they do when they were done with their work in math? Fact fluency games were a great option, but I wanted fact fluency instruction and game time for all students. What could I do with these early finishers that would be engaging?

Enter deep math tasks.  There are so many out there that it can be overwhelming to try to find them. But my favorite math tasks I find for free at Youcubed.org.  Here is just one example called Nine Colors that can work for just about any age.  It can be a station in your math centers, or it can be a challenge that is open for those who finish early.


This is what we call a “low floor high ceiling task”. This means that anyone can attempt it, but it’s challenging and rigorous for any student.


You can find this one and much more at Youcubed.org!



5 Tips for Establishing Respectful Group Work Routines

When I first began to have students work in groups I gave it up immediately. Like literally, gave it up during the first activity I ever tried. As a new teacher I felt like half of the students were not paying attention to the task, kids were arguing, there was noise and chaos and I didn’t know what to do except abandon it.  Luckily there was an instructional coach who came in and modeled what group work can look like…and then I could see the benefits. For a long time I was afraid of math talk because I felt like I was losing control of the class. I also had my own learning preference, that I personally like to work alone. I felt uncomfortable forcing students to work in a group. But having a balance in the classroom and teaching them those skills is SO important. I noticed that with practice every year, students became more comfortable and more accountable to the task they were asked to do.

Here are 5 things you can do to make group work really amazing:

  1.  The Classic T-Chart: Have the students work in a group, share out what and record it on a t-chart. DEFINITELY do this together as a group. The ideas should come from them, then they’ll own it.tips-for-group-work-elementary-students
  2. The Role Model: Find a role model group and point it out. The best thing ever is to get the groups going, and then stop the whole class about 30-60 seconds in after you find one that is working really well.  Point out the behaviors of the group and praise them: heads together, everyone is engaged, all hands on deck, they are clearly invested.
  3. The One Person Share: (THIS IS MY FAVORITE!) Tell the students ahead of time you are going to ask ONE student to explain the thinking for the group as you walk around. Do not tell them which student. In your mind choose a student from each group that you KNOW struggles to explain their thinking, or who might often check out.  When you get to the group, do not allow others to talk when you approach that student.  If the student cannot explain, tell the rest of the group members that their job is to ask questions and help until the student can explain. Tell them you’ll come back.  The rest of the group will bring them up! Keep returning until that student can explain more about the task.  It’s an AMAZING strategy.
  4. The Fishbowl: Try a fishbowl activity when students are getting lazy! They love to watch each other and learn what is expected. Read about how to do that here.
  5. The Task: Last, have naturally engaging activities for them to try that encourage math talk. Reasoning Puzzles(try them free!), games (like Sink that Ship), Equality Elimination (my newest kind of puzzle) or consider trying some deep tasks from YouCubed! An engaging task takes care of most of the group work problems right from the start.





3 Free and Quick Math Activities to Start Your School Year

Those first days of school are a bit tricky and at times a giant blur.  SO MANY routines to teach! You don’t know the students yet and it’s all about establishing routines.  You want to create a warm, welcoming space, but also have some fun activities to get your kids pumped up to be in your classroom! They are easy prep, meaningful and engaging. Here are three of my favorites to open a school year, able to be fit in at any moment in the day:

People BINGO: This is the “find someone who” game where you get signatures, except this one has a little math flavor.


Math Attitude and Interest Survey: This goes without saying, it’s super important to know how kids feel about math! Give the survey and reflect on their responses, giving you a heads up about their mindset. I loved giving it at the start and the end of the year, and I especially love giving it to my intervention groups.Math-attitude-inventory-survey-mindset
Reasoning Puzzles: Get the kids talking about math during that first week of school. It’s especially a great activity when you want to set up group work expectations. Students study a puzzle and then try to figure out whether the statements given are true or false.




Push Past the Discomfort of No Worksheets

The first time I taught a math lesson without using worksheets was the worst mind shift ever. Why ditch the worksheets to begin with? Well, my biggest problem with worksheets is that a TON of the work has been done for the child already.  The problems are all set up, and a lot of the thinking is pre-determined. Here I’ve got students checking their thinking by writing what they did with place value blocks. Much more eye opening than checking just the answer they got!


So in an effort to do this more I tried group work surrounding a key concept using Reasoning Puzzles.  I was panicking at the end, wondering what did the students even practice, did they learn anything, and how do I know they learned anything???

What I really wasn’t doing was giving myself enough credit as a professional.  There are things that every teacher has in place, or can easily put into place to remedy that panic:

  1. Observation: Tell me about the time that you gave an assessment and were surprised when someone didn’t do well.  Oh? That’s never happened? That’s because you are in their faces all the time and you know what the students are able to do on a daily basis.  You’re never surprised because your careful observations tell you when students are lost. How you take notes is probably up to your own personal style, but what you do with those notes we’ll talk about in another blog post.
  2. Exit slips: One or two problems just to check on the key understandings is all you really need to know if someone understood what was going on. Sometimes we get caught up on things looking “pretty”…and it took me a long time to let that go. My favorite exit slip for whole group, small group or even 1 on 1 teaching is the ever useful post it note.
  3. Trust in the conversations:  You know that when are you are learning something new, you don’t always have to prove it with a worksheet.  Sometimes you watch a video, talk to others, write it down. You have multiple learning modalities which is true in the math world as well.  Watch their demonstrations and listen to their conversations. They don’t need a piece of paper to prove it EVERY time.

If you are truly very tied to worksheet based mathematics, no one is suggesting you let it all go on the first day. Maybe try something different once a week, but build in the routines for it as well.  In coming blog posts I’ll highlight some of those routines and procedures to help us brainstorm together how we can keep students accountable.