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.  




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.



Orchestrating a Class Discussion around Mathematical Goals

I keep detailed notebooks of thoughts gathered from PD, readings, and meetings, ideas for future problems, lessons, and units, and reflections of small victories, detours, or interactions.   I’ve used this system since before I’ve taught and it works well for me to process in the moment or look back on my thoughts.

I am in the process of rewriting/rethinking my course standards for next year and I reviewed my pie-in-the-sky thinking and goal setting.  And I stumbled upon my hopes and dreams of class discussions from July 10, 2009. Here’s what I came up with back in the day.

My non-linear notes:


And the more traditional notes:

Use sentence starters – How can I scaffold students to being good mathematical conversations?  How can we talk about the process and not just the solution?

  • Our approach was like ______’s work in that we both ______.
  • Our approach builds on _______’s work in that we _______.
  • Our approach was different from ______’s approach because ______.
  • I know this works because ______.
  • When I see ____, I infer ____.
  • I think this was _____ when I saw/heard <evidence> because <explanation>.
  • This work is similar to what we did before because …

Leading Questions (always connect to the objectives AND think about is the question to orient, assess, or advance student thinking – questions don’t always need to come from the “teacher”):

  • How were you thinking about it?
  • What stayed the same?
  • What changed?
  • Where did you start?
  • What seems significant?
  • How does this representation show your thinking?
  • Where are we able to generalize?
  • What is different between these two problems?
  • How do we capture that thinking onto paper?
  • What does you agree/disagree with from this group?
  • Think and digest this thought and rephrase their thinking.
  • Are you able to come up and explain/walk through your thinking?
  • What’s s/he doing?
  • What is the story of your work?
  • How could you show it another way?
  • How could you explain this in context?

I think this flash back is a bit exciting.  I know SL has been thinking about this a bit deeper than I have more recently, but my beginning thoughts from four years ago may persuade me to think a bit more about how to incorporate more sustainable discussion routines into classes.

Other awesome things I should think about/remind myself about for math discussions?


It is 6:30am on a Saturday. I’ve been up for at least an hour, worrying about how in the world I’m going to teach my students to do so many routines next year, many of which are new to me, many independently, all while trying to honor autonomy/purpose/mastery (love, Daniel Pink).

First, I want to share my current idea of how the week could look (note: this hasn’t dealt with the fact the first period rotates and has students trickle in).

weekly sched

(Bloggers, how do I make this image bigger in the post?? It’s big if you click on it…
Also, YLP = Year Long Project)

From this, I have started a list of what routines I need students to be really good at. It’s rather intimidating.

–  Class meetings
–  Class jobs
–  Using the math “rough draft” journal (or whatever I end up calling it)
–  End of class
–  5 minute math
–  Group work
–  Individual work
–  Whole-class learning from each others’ work (discussion, gallery walk, etc.)
–  Revision days
–  Year-long-project days
–  Making a final product in writing, video, voice, or artistically (or other)
–  Submitting work on a blog

This scares me. I have only taught some of these as routines before. And not that successfully, all the time. But I want to do it. And I don’t think only doing some of it will work for me.

Hopefully, if I’m incredibly intentional, it will be fine/great?  Like, maybe September will only include …

–  Class meetings
–  Class jobs
–  Using the math “rough draft” journal (or whatever I end up calling it)
–  End of class
–  Group work
–  Individual work
–  Revision days
–  Making a final product in writing, video, voice, or artistically (or other)
–  Submitting work on a blog

Umm. Did I say only? Oy.


September 2013

Today, I’m thinking about September.  In the last two weeks, I was fortunate enough to get to visit two non-traditional schools Four Rivers Charter School in Greenfield, MA and the MET School in Providence, RI.  Both schools are more student-centered and seem to do extensive work on social-emotional, scholar skills with students so that their community is calm, safe, and welcoming – qualities that are important in every school but even more important when asking students to constantly share their thinking.

I am wondering what social-emotional or scholar skills do I need to teach?  How do I teach them genuinely?  How do I balance the building of those skills/classroom community with doing math?  I’ve done this before, but never so intentionally, and I never felt like we had the time.  Throwing everything out the window means that I’m going to grant myself and the classroom community the time.

The social-emotional, scholar skills I am currently thinking about include …

– Working in groups

– Working alone

– Holding a math discussion

– Respecting the people and the space

– Peer review/feedback

– Revision of work

– Self-awareness around strengths and weaknesses

– Making good choices within more freedom

While it is challenging to pinpoint all the SE/Scholar skills, the how is even harder, at least for me.  My main ideas for the how right now include …

– Student generated anchor-charts with norms

– Self-reflection (but how to make meaningful?)

– Community meetings

– Anonymous suggestion/feedback box

So, brilliant readers, what ideas do you have for me?  What books should I be reading about this?  I know there are teachers who are way smarter than I am in general and particularly about this.