So, I’m also not really a math teacher this year…

I’m taking a year off from teaching the high schoolers to work with the teachers.  I’m really excited to visit different schools, students, and contexts as I support Boston Teacher Residency Graduates.  For the past week, I’ve been working with people to get their classrooms up and running.  I’ve been giving the same advice a lot, so I thought I’d consolidate it.

1) Keep it simple.  Better to do fewer things more in depth/well than be scattered.  If you have shortened periods, don’t try to cram things in.  As my boss put it, students will remember the “how” more than the “what.”

2) Don’t forget the “how”!  Especially at the beginning of the year, it’s important to outline expectations for how things get done.  Make sure you know how you want everything done and can explain it concisely.

3) What’s the purpose?  Backwards plan even “Unit 0.”  Know exactly why you are doing each activity.  Tell students why and how what they’re doing connects to the course.

4) Be positive and enforce your expectations.  Do it.  From Minute 0.

Happy first day of school, BPS teachers!


One Teacher’s Attempt at Teaching Metacognition in her Math Class

In my classes, students have many opportunities to show what they know and make revisions on their work.  But more importantly, they think about their process of learning. 

In the revision process in the lovely room of 054, students receive their previous self-assessed work with each standard assessed and feedback given.  Students are then given the option to revise their work.  If they choose to, the little ones use the Revision Criteria for Success (see below) to improve their work and sentence starter (see student work) to reflect upon their changes.

The Revision Criteria for Success (CfS):

In order to revise your work for reassessment, follow the Criteria for Success.

Your successful revisions include:

  • New work shown on a separate sheet of paper;
  • New work stapled to original work;
  • An improvement statement for each standard you have improved (use the template);
  • (as applicable) a retake of the same objectives.

In my geometry sections, we recently finished a unit about classifying polygons in which we focused on standards in the strands of Problem Solving, Communicating Clearly, and Geometry.  Here’s the adventure of one student, Student K, towards her mastery of the standard and more importantly thinking about what she needs to continue to improve going forward.

Company Logo Project – Performance Task on January 23rd and 24th, revision on January 27th

Students created a logo of a known company using appropriate notation and relationships. 

K submitted her work after the two days of class and it needed major revisions to demonstrate mastery of many objectives.  She used the Revision CfS and submitted her improved work.  See the work below to read the sentences she wrote about each standard and how she improved each one.


This sentence frame encourages/forces students to think about how the improved project is lots of working pieces and different aspects of the product demonstrates mastery of different standards. 

Mystery Figure (Stage 4) – Original Performance task on February 11, revisions on February 12

In this multi-part, whole-year project, students show their ability to do the unit task with the same coordinates unit to unit and for Unit 4: Classify, students classified the polygon formed with their points.  K submitted her work, received feedback, and opted to make revisions on one standard (see work sample below).


K’s original work had the more traditional “math” work (Problem Solving and Geometry) fairly accurate.  However, she still needed to improve on writing a claim with mathematical evidence and reasoning (Communicating Clearly). In her revision, K made her mathematical facts become a strong statement.

Unit Assessment – MCAS problems.  Administered on February 12, revision on February 13.

After the guidance of their Mystery Figure project as a review, students independently attacked the MCAS practice problems, which served as our end of unit assessment.  The standards addressed on the assessment appear below.


Note that K somewhat accurately assessed her work in terms of the Problem Solving and Geometry standards above.  She opted to only revise one standard – solution.


As she submitted her revisions, she remarked “Ms. Always with the writing!”  She then began her portfolio, filled with writing.

Portfolio for Unit 4: Classify – End of Unit (February 13)

In this four-page template, students review their work from the unit, examine the unit objectives in multiple ways, reflect deeply about a product that demonstrates their mastery towards the unit goals, create and solve their own problem, describe and reflect on their growth, and assess themselves overall in terms of effort, achievement, independence, and community leadership.

On the bottom of page 3, students describe the other important skills involved in this unit.  K’s work is below.


After reviewing her work, K determined she needed to improve on writing up her work verbally (versus algebraically or pictorially).  She noticed that nearly all of the revisions in this unit involved a Communicating Clearly standard and she needed to focus on that for the next unit.

Unit 6 has just begun.  In the pre-assessment on February 25th, as K self-assessed her work, she realized she needed to describe her process in words as well as showing her calculation.  Huzzah! She is already consciously improving on the goal she set in the previous unit.


(Note for the concerned reader:  K’s process is inaccurate.  Fear not, this is just the pre-assessment.)

(Exercise for the eager reader: Identify why her math demonstrates a common misconception around proportional thinking.)

So that’s the story so far.  Please let me know if you have any questions/comments/concerns about the process I use to incorporate metacognition into mastery of Problem Solving, Communicating Clearly, and Geometry standards.    

What needs to exist at the beginning?

There is a joke that floats around that aludes to the idea of making a beautifully organized classroom will make the school year perfect.  As if the children will walk in and think to themselves “ooooh, look at the boarders on that bulletin board!  And the scissors are labeled!  I will do my better than my best to corporate with everything this lovely lady has to say!”  I mean, it’s pretty amusing.  But true to some extent.

I teach ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders at a 9-12 high school.  The tenth and eleventh graders are, more often than not, students who I have already had the pleasure of teaching for at least one year; they know what they are getting into when their schedule declares I am their math teacher.  But the ninth graders, oh the ninth graders, have no idea.  I tell my former students to warn my new students about their upcoming adventures.  Most respond with something along the lines of “I won’t even know how to begin, oh maybe I’ll tell them the story about when you…”  

In the first days of school, we are checking each other out.  What will happen if I do this?!  Students test out behaviors like trying not to read, helping their peers with communicating their thinking, or following me around for more hints.  I test out jumping around, not giving reasonable answers to many questions, and taking students’ words at face value.  Both parties are trying to glean as much information about the other as possible without being painfully obvious.  (I mean, I am probably able to write a best-selling book of student questions (and how I answered them) from days 1 and 2.)

Surely the students are also looking at the environment they will be working in for the next 10 months.  I can’t vouch for students looking carefully at the coordination of the manicured classroom but I know they look to see what sorts of supplies are available and how used/cared for they appear, what sort of wander space is at their disposal, and how clean common spaces are.  

I’ve recently continued to think deeply about the ACTIONS of the first days of school (and not just how I should set up the bookcases).  I am trying to record what I notice (and note) in a variety of mathematical, teambuilding, and building routines activities.  I am thinking deeply about their purpose for me and the students.  Will students be able to make a better estimate of the adventures if we do A versus B?  Will the scholarly routines we want to happen consistently throughout the year (without too much prompting) really be driven home with this modeling or demonstration or discussion?

Unit 0 is just the beginning.  And simultaneously it is a big deal (to set up the culture of our classroom, the school, and mathematics) and not a big deal (so students don’t freak out by day 3).  Oh, Unit 0.  So, I am going to continue to think deeply about the routines, systems, activities, objectives, standards, goals… And attempt to implement.  More adventures to come.  



Celebrate (Professional) Independence

So, it’s Independence Day here in good ol’ USA, so I figure I should write about how I use my professional independence.

Working at a pilot high school in an urban school district means I have a bit more freedom around day-to-day and unit-to-unit curriculum, while still enjoying acknowledging the accountability measures that hover overhead.  I know that other teachers are not as lucky to have such liberties in their classroom; I know because I have been one of them at a different school!   I am lucky and fortunate enough to work in a building that values teacher knowledge.  While I may grumble and gripe about the amount of planning that I end up taking part in because of these freedoms, truthfully I won’t have it any other way. 

This summer, SL and I are throwing much of what we have made over the past years out of the window to do what we feel is better for our little ones in terms of their mathematics and human development.  We didn’t need to persuade other people that this crazy idea was worthwhile.  We just decided to do it.  Believe you me, SL and I put much thought and research into our work.  We use the cycle of inquiry habitually to reflect on our practice and make improvements.  We don’t need an outside source telling us what to do on which day.  

Huzzah freedom to do our job the way that we see fit based on our knowledge and expertise!  




Standardized Testing Hurts My Soul

For the fifth time this year (so the 11th day), I proctored the MCAS to various students for various subject areas.  Students who needed a wide-range of accommodations were paired with me in tiny or large rooms.  I am glad that I am a provider of consistent accommodations, silly faces throughout the exam, and healthy snacks and treats.


However, I am not glad that I need to watch children sit through a high-stakes, high-anxiety situation.  I try to teach strategies to help students cope with these types of feelings – because we all know these feelings don’t go away just because high school is over – but it still hurts my soul to watch students become upset over these exams.  I’ve watched as students use paperclips and pushpins to scratch and cut themselves, cry through the entire (3-hours) exam period, and even hold their breath until they passed out so they didn’t have to take the exam (oh, but we still made him).  While these behaviors are extreme and are not universal to all students, we need to stop and think about why do these things happen!

Not only do I watch my students take these exams, I am somewhat required to ensure that my little ones are ready to take (and pass) these exams.  Perhaps if students feel they are more “prepared” for the exam, they will not see the exam as pure torture.  I’ve noticed, in the past, when I stress obvious test-prep, the students tend to freak out more in the actual exam.  So that’s not very helpful.

In the future, I may be judged on the scores my students earn on these exams.  At the moment, there is just a dark cloud that rests over me that grows for each student who does not pass.  And a bit of guilt that on the first try some of my students don’t successfully jump over this hurdle and that they need to sit through this painful experience again.  And sometimes again.  I try to tell myself that my value as a teacher cannot be measured through pass rates or growth percentiles, but you know, many people think and tell me otherwise.


I talk with students, parents, administrators, other teachers, and outside partners about our next steps for preparing for the next round of retests.  When I talk with students, I stress that I have several back-up plans for them in case they do not pass the last rounds of retests.  And I do!  And they see that!  So they can relax about potentially not receiving a high school diploma but instead focus on asking questions about topics they don’t understand and help each other by reviewing their open-response write-ups.

When I interact with liberal educators, and the topic roles around to high-stakes exams, there is always a group that suggests we encourage students to boycott the exam like other groups have.  I would love for a system that use portfolios – rather than a single exam – to determine if a student holds a sufficient amount of knowledge/skills to move on.  Can we get there through boycotting?  What will I lose (I mean, other than my job) if I talk to children about it?

Part of me wants to continue to ride the train of good curriculum that pushes critical thinking will help students prepare for exams like the MCAS.  Part of me wants to incorporate more Do Nows/Exit Tickets/Periodic Multiple-Choice Questions into the usual curriculum to assist in assessing mastery of the standards I created (from a variety of sources) and for test prep.  I need to think deeper about how this may be implemented.

Who knows, as I think about it more, I may try to stage a revolt against the whole system.



What Constitutes a Reward?

I’ve been reading (slowly, ever since I realized I should take notes on my for-work reading, a task much harder on the T than just reading …), Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, recommended to me by several people. I think all the teachers should read it (in our copious spare time). So far, it’s focused mostly on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators, and how external rewards often decrease internal motivation.

That’s really important for teachers, no?

So here’s my current wondering. I’m doing some sort of class meeting/circle next year. It’s happening. My current plan is to do this (at least) on Mondays (main purpose: build community, transition back to school check-ins, launch the main math task of the week) and Fridays (main purpose: close the week, celebrate community leadership, celebrate completed work).


So I got the idea of celebrating work from ROLE Reversal, the same book that recommended Daniel Pink (along with my coworker). But, is celebrating completed work/final products, etc a reward? That would then decrease the intrinsic motivation of students to attempt more problems/revise more products? If so, I don’t want to celebrate completed work! But if not, I think it’d be a way to build community and get excited about math.

Hmm.  (Maybe I should keep reading?)

What I learned from the AERA conference…

SL and I went to San Francisco to present our work at the American Education Research Association (AERA) conference.  AERA, a national research society, strives to advance knowledge about education, to encourage scholarly inquiry related to education, and to promote the use of research to improve education and serve the public good.  The conference had a very large amount of educational policy writers, researchers, and professors.  SL and I were in the EXTREME minority of practicing teachers.  While I understand we did not represent the intended audience of the conference, it is a bit … sad … to have such a large education conference without teachers.  I’ve never been to a conference that didn’t give me positive energy and push me to think more about my place in the field. 

This is what we look like.

Look! We are listed! It’s official!

Our panel presentation was well received.  Our discussant, Ann Lieberman, recommended additional readings and pushed us to think about the social (and not just individual) aspects of teacher leadership.  Attendees asked us questions along the lines of how to do we differentiate leading adults versus teenagers, which amused me.  Days that I treat my students more like functioning adults rather than adults-in-training have better results.  PDs and meetings that I plan for like I am planning a sub-sep class seem to run better than those I plan for as if they are just meetings.  So perhaps I need to think more about what leading adults versus kiddos actually looks like.  All of this work started with a group of East Coast teacher leaders who I am always in awe of whenever I check in with them. 

And, of course, the conference made me think about many things about me, my profession, and my classroom.

1.  It was a bit weird to attend a conference about education without many teachers (as I stated above).  This thought leads me to believe I need to involve students in more school-wide decisions.  I need to think about what sorts of scaffolding I need to provide to students so they understand the norms and traditions of typical meetings and so they feel comfortable participating in decision-making situations.  I am continuing to think on this.

2.  Perhaps I should read more scholarly works about my field.  I mean, I looooove reading blogs, NCTM and ASCD articles, and PD books, but I feel this conference reminded me there are people who are “representing” my voice and I should probably stay on top of what they are saying.

3.  I need to continue to process my whiteness professionally.  Because the organization’s focus this year centered around poverty, there were many panels about race and class.  I enjoyed participating in conversations about preparing pre-service teachers for urban teaching, helping students think about the many aspects of their identity, and structuring anti-oppression teaching.  In one particular panel, the chair stated it was intended NOT to follow typical panel etiquette (silence while the presenter speaks, questions during the set aside time, and praise when the session concluded), instead she wanted to set up a Baptist Church environment (introductions which highlighted accomplishments and various ways of verbally and visually announcing one’s agreement to whatever was currently being stated).  The panel was a much more celebratory feel of the work being presented and reminded me of my classes in BPS.  I need to continue to draw on all of my educational experiences and backgrounds to build a culturally responsive classroom.  

4.  I need to continue my development of scaffolding that help students be successful in a variety of settings.  I want to not only think about what sorts of things will help students think about the math but also how to communicate their thinking to others.  Social and scholarly behaviors objectives need to become crisper and more transparent to the students.  

Hooray for conferences!  I am eager to continue to process the experience and think about what future work may stem from here.