Are They Talking?

I read a statistic somewhere that English Language Learners in the United States talk only 4% of the time during their day.  That shocked me, but when I thought about it I realized that for most students there is not a lot of talk in their day. Classrooms that are looked upon as “in control” or have “good management” tend to be quiet in our own minds as teachers.

But talking can be done with good management and can be powerfully done. I’m hearing over and over that research says that talk is so important for both language development and understanding new concepts.

So I thought I’d try out some mini debates with my intervention groups. I was thinking that these are my students who are talking the least because they are the most unsure in the classroom.  What I did was present them with 4 solutions to a problem.


At first it was painful trying to get them to see anything, or even say a word. They are so used to waiting out the teacher, or waiting for another student to see what they notice. And then, they began to see things…I started to write what they saw, and it was exactly the things that I’ve been showing them for weeks.  When it was their time to talk about it, the light bulb clicked on.  What an eye opener this was for me!  I’ve been talking about tens and ones and addition strategies…showing them one at a time. I WAS DOING ALL THE TALKING. Ugh. I don’t know how many times I need to learn this hard lesson. Check out what they noticed:


So I whipped up a few this weekend for you to try.  I’d love for you to try it with small groups, with partners or with your whole classroom. Just click on the image below to download and let me know what you think!



It’s Nothing If It’s Not Concrete

Pro-tip: Give them tools. Give them tools! Really…give them the tools!

I was told this over and over by a math coach when I was a third grade teacher, and for some reason it really did not sink in at all. I made them “available”, which means I had buckets of them in a cabinet and they could go and get them if they needed them.  No one ever got them unless I brought them out. I don’t know what my problem was, were they too messy? Too loud? Too much of a pain to have available? Did I not know how to use them properly?

It wasn’t until I was an interventionist and coach that I have gotten to see why the tools are not only valuable, but essential.

Without tools or imagining what the tools can stand for, students are really not connecting the numbers to anything whatsoever.  We can tell them what to connect it to, but you know they aren’t all with you all the time.  The tools are something they have to manipulate and understand.

Right now I’m using The Cupcake Shop for my intervention group. Just because it’s cupcakes it’s a highly motivating projects, but also the stones we are using make it so REAL.  They are building orders and figuring out that in this case, the multiplication symbol actually stands for the words “boxes of”.


If I were to tell them that the multiplication symbol stands for “rows of, groups of or boxes of” without concrete materials, what could they possibly connect it to but something in their mind? And with students of all different backgrounds, we really can’t rely on them connecting it to something that we are thinking about.

Let them touch it and try it! In the preview of The Cupcake Shop you can try this project out for free to see if it’s right for you.




Don’t Worry, They are Learning

Tonight I watched my beautiful daughter at her archery class.  It’s rare that I ever talk about anything personal, but I was so moved by her tonight that I felt compelled to write something. It was only her third time attempting to shoot a bow and arrow and tonight she hit the target over and over again.  Why is this so special to me?

Well because the first time was awful. The first time was absolute chaos for her brain. She dropped the arrows over and over, never once hit the target and looked like she might cry the whole time. She was always the last one at the line struggling to get all 5 arrows off her bow.  But she never stopped.  The master archers teaching the class gently guided her, adjusting her arm, her stance and making small tweaks to her form.

The second class was a bit better, but not much.  She was hitting the target this time, but the arrows wouldn’t stick.  She didn’t give up, and as she listened to the instructors you could see her confidence growing.

And tonight? BAM. She nailed it. Over and over again, she hit that target, and the arrows stuck. Her smile when she turned to me was ear to ear. She was SO PROUD.

This reminds me not to be discouraged when I’m working with my students at school.  Every day, that small amount of feedback and gentle guidance is moving them forward. They really are learning, and sometimes it’s so small that I’m frustrated and wanting more. But I need to trust the process, and not stress about the data, the protocols, the progress monitoring, and the pressure from above.  I know they are learning, and they are PROUD of their learning. I know that I won’t stop finding new ways to teach them because they deserve to feel the same success that my daughter got to feel tonight.



Making It Real When They Struggle

I think I’ve discovered the number one problem in just about every math classroom.  It’s a problem that I see over and over in every math classroom.  Students that struggle and students that excel have this problem. They tend to look only at numbers, not thinking about what they represent.   They try to memorize vocabulary without connecting those words to anything in their life.  We race through math curriculum teaching quickly because we have to get through SO MUCH CONTENT.  With standards and interventions and assessments to give, we don’t have time to think about what the numbers and vocabulary mean.

So we have to sneak it in.

We need to make math real all day.  Not in some silly contrived way, but to make our thinking known as we notice math throughout the day. Take this example of real life geometry:


When we connect these terms to their real life, they begin to sink in, and you don’t have to write some fancy lesson for it.  When they open their pencil box, their desk, their books we can mention these words and bring the vocabulary into the front of their minds.

When we have two packs of gum, let’s connect it to numbers.  Do we have enough for the whole class? Is there another way I can write that number sentence?


If you think about it, we read all day long, we write all day long…let’s make an effort to bring mathematics forward all day long!


Put That Pencil Down! How to Practice Perserverance

So this is my WORST habit. When a child doesn’t understand something, I pick up their pencil and start explaining. Bah! It’s my immediate go to strategy because the solution path is clear in MY mind.

Why is picking up a child’s pencil a terrible idea?

  • Some parts of the thinking may be clear in their mind, and I’ve just muddled it now with my own strategy.
  • After several times of picking up their pencil they may believe they need to wait for me for the next time they struggle, can you say learned helplessness?
  • I do think that from the moment you pick up their pencil, they check out and stop thinking…some students even feel like they’ve given up.

3 ways to combat this and develop perseverance:

  1. Model the struggle.  Over and over and over and over.  Every day model the struggle yourself. Screw up, get stuck and talk out loud about how you get unstuck.Kids who struggle have no idea how to work through that inner dialogue that comes with digging yourself out of struggle. Have other students share their struggles in front of the rest of the class if they are brave enough. Make struggle and mistakes a normal and wonderful part of your math culture.  I mean really…if you make a mistake when you read a word, you can still read.  When you make a mistake in math, you can still do math!
  2. Promote positive self talk. We need this in all parts of our day, but the recent studies on Mindset really truly are RIGHT ON.  When you hear a student say something really positive, capture it and repeat it.
  3. Give kids as many opportunities as possible to see each others work.  Right after they solve for a minute, ask them to slide their papers together to compare each other and look for similarities and connections.  When they start to see more thinking, they start to make more connections, giving them ideas for how to get “unstuck”. We have the luxury of walking around to see all of their thinking, so let them have that same experience.

In what ways are you putting down the pencil?


A Little More on Rigor, and Differentiation

A third grade teacher I was working with was feeling anxious about differentiation, as we all do.  It’s a constant worry for teachers, and I’ve been on a mission the last few years to find small ways to differentiate in the classroom.

I’ve come to realize that rigor comes hand in hand with differentiation.  That often times even my own daughter, who has been identified as a gifted and talented student, has not learned mathematics deeply.  She can do some amazing calculations, but when asked to go deeper she isn’t always thinking deeper. And neither were these 3rd graders, or most students that I meet on a daily basis.

Enter our math challenge. We decided that rigor can mean understanding the complexity of something…not harder, more and not even always something different. Differentiation can simply mean deeper. So we chose ONE problem from the assignment that the students were working on and asked them to do this on the back of their paper:


We were pretty surprised with what happened. They could build it with tools, they could make visual models, but not ONE student could do either a real life story or tell us how it works.  Their stories were muddled, didn’t make sense or were missing information.

So, for the next few weeks, we put an emphasis on the story. Every day we picked one problem and had them all write a story about it. This story was shared then to the rest of the class to help the rest of the students become better. And it worked, more and more students were able to match the equation with a real life situation (hello math practice standard #2!).

This is a great small step for differentiation because of the open ended nature of the two prompts on the right side of the poster.  After a few days, students started asking very cool questions. They were talking about why we regroup when there is 10 of something. Why not 7? Why not 9? It led to much deeper conversations with our gifted students as well as elevating others.

EVERYONE had access to this rigor. EVERYONE is learning.  EVERYONE is going deeper, not just your gifted students.


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.