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!

Same Problem, Multiple Days (Part 2)

I’ve been mapping out Unit 1 more specifically, and I feel I may have partially resolved my own query about spending more than one day on the same problem (in a way that incorporates some of the commenters from my first post!).

Many of the weeks are set up the following way now (after Kogut and I got some time to talk during our awesome retreat).

Monday: Community building, week set-up, and launching of several problems
Tuesday: Students continue working on the several problems.
Wednesday: Students wrap-up their work on several problems, choose one to make into a product (paper, video, pamphlet, flipbook, etc).
Thursday: Peer-feedback and revision on the product.
Friday: Year-long project, Unit project, summarizing, big picture, community building again etc.

So on Monday-midday Wednesday, students will have some number of problems (3-6 or so) that they can spend their time on. Then Wednesday and Thursday, students will choose a problem to spend more time on, making their work more formal and complete.

How does this help resolve my earlier question? First, this system means that a student controls how much time s/he spends on each problem earlier in the week — if someone gets into a problem, they can stick with it or if they want to do a bunch of problems in slightly less depth, they can do that too. Further, if a student does multiple problems on Monday-Wednesday, they will have to spend more time with one of them, but will get to choose which one it is and will get to work on it in a creative way. Hopefully all this will mostly lead to meaningful engagement with problems, whether in passing or in depth and will remove the angst of my trying to get the whole class to dive deeper on the same problem in the same way at the same time.


Howard Gardner and I Should Be Friends

I realize that everyone and their mother has to read Gardner for education grad school. Or at least learns about his multiple intelligence theory. But I am currently reading a book about something different, his book “The Unschooled Mind” (1991). Why am I telling you this? Because Gardner is fairly radical in ways beyond the multiple intelligences and I’m enjoying reading him, despite the fact that it’s going at a snail’s pace. (If he also was problematic, feel free to let me know!)

His basic idea in this text (at least so far) is that when we are small, we are able to learn lots of things (language! walking! sneezing!). We also build ourselves a schema for understanding the world that mostly works. Then we go to school where people try to teach us things and for most … none of it sticks. Or very little. And so we often, out of the classroom, revert to our pre-school intuitions, most of which are incomplete, inaccurate, or unsophisticated. (His example: What forces are acting on a ball that someone has tossed in the air? Most people imagine a force besides gravity/friction.)


A few people will, Gardner argues, reach “disciplinary understanding” where we can apply our deep conceptual and skill knowledge to novel situations. But that’s just because of their own interest/motivation. School doesn’t really foster this “disciplinary understanding.”

Perhaps, knowing me as you do, you can see why reading about Gardner’s premise had me jumping up and down. Plus, he’s snarky and dry.

  • Explaining how entrenched our young-selves’ understandings are, “in nearly every student there is a five-year-old “unschooled” mind struggling to get out.” (p. 5)
  • Defining school learning, “students simply respond, in the desired symbol system, by spewing back the particular facts, concepts, or problem sets they have been taught.” (p. 9)

I am totally looking forward to reading more about how to bridge intuitive learning and school learning (or even better, turn most of school learning into intuitive learning where students revise their thinking and lose the naive parts of understanding). This past week, Kogut and I spent the week holed up in a cottage, working on curriculum. Here’s hoping that my work during that time (Unit 1: Linear and Non-Linear Patterns) encourages students to discover and add to their intuitive schema rather than regurgitate meaningless symbols.


How do we do skills in a problem-solving oriented class?

You’ve got a really awesome, quick answer for me, right? This one’s easy-peasy?

I’ve been having many conversations about how to include skills/review in a class that is much more centered around problem-solving. It really helps when students can efficiently and effectively calculate with positive and negative numbers, solve equations, etc. How do we get that to happen?

So, how to incorporate these skills without compromising values/the classroom? My first idea was to have 5 minute math sessions 3 days/week, emphasizing to students that this was about improving YOUR score and keeping everything fresh. Quick, clean, done.

But … is 5 MM really the best for this task of review/skill retention? First of all, if a student is really stuck on how to do something effectively and efficiently, 5 MM is not going to help him/her get smarter.  Second, even if I frame 5MM as a competition against yourself, we don’t care how you’re doing just that you’re getting better, etc., the practice still comes from a place of competition and drill.

Plus, I went to a talk this weekend that included a statistic about how large a percent of people remember 5 MM as literally harmful.

So, enter Number Stories, about which I learned in “What’s Math Got to Do with It?” (good book). With a number story, the teacher posts any problem that one could reasonably choose to do in one’s head on the board. Students then solve it in their head, giving a thumbs up when they have reached the answer. After some large percentage of students have thumbs up, students share different methods for doing the problem in their head.

Why is this (maybe) better? It decreases competition, but more importantly, students who try to do problems in their head inefficiently are expending incredible mental energy on calculation, rather than other areas of a problem. Having students share their methods opens up pathways for students who do not yet have as efficient methods. Everyone wins! (I think?)

Now, how to track data connected to number stories for my educator goals is another story …

What are your thoughts on how best to incorporate skills and review into a task-oriented class?


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.