Covington’s Math Teachers: Meeting Their Students Right Where They Are in Their Learning Journey

 Covington’s 7th grade PLC decided to tackle a common problem by collaborating and ultimately creating a “just-in-time” learning experience for their students.  This team of math teachers wanted to figure out how they could support their students in filling in knowledge gaps while still moving forward with the 7th grade math standards.

We all know firsthand that if we aren’t using a subject or chunk of knowledge, we are apt to forget it. With this acknowledgement in mind, the teachers decided to use their PD time to create a data base of videos, notes and practice that students can access any time via ItsLearning and OneNote.

The goal is for students to access this digital resource twice a week for 20 minutes while the teachers meet individually with five-eight students during this work time. While the rest of the class is accessing this “just-in-time” content, the teachers are conferring with students on an individual basis and learning more about each student’s learning journey.


The Power of Brain Breaks

As I was reading 17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t Be Wrong17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t Be Wrong by John Antonettti (our keynote speaker for One by One 2017), I learned some very interesting facts about the human brain. Antonetti, in turn, discovered these facts from Brain Rules, a book written by molecular biologist John Medina. One of the twelve big ideas in Brain Rules includes the notion that exercise boosts brain power.

I saw this firsthand with Brian Pederson’s 8th grade math students when I visited his classes.  Brian says, “Sometimes I can just tell that they (my students) are very tired and need an energy boost, or just something to make their brains kick on again.”  As a result, he tries to have a brain break each class, specifically during the last half of class. From what I saw, his students very much look forward to them.

Brian said that  brain breaks usually last about 5 minutes but some can go longer or shorter. When he and his students are pressed for time, he “will sometimes have them do a very quick, 30-second break, such as ‘go high five 10 different people’ or ‘go and touch 10 non-adjacent chairs.’ The students appreciate even the small breaks.”


I asked his students to capture some of the brain breaks on video for us to share with other classes.This video gives you a view into one of the many brain breaks that Brian uses to re-energize and re-engage his students throughout his 80 minute periods.  This one is called “Pass-Clap”.  Brian is more than happy to share his resources…thanks, Brian!

Student-Driven Learning

As we think more about student agency and how we can help our students learn for the sake of the excitement and power of learning, we are challenged to change how we approach our lesson planning. Rather than be lesson planners, I wonder if we are called to be lesson designers with a forward-thinking approach focused on helping our students become more active learners in our classrooms.,

In the article The Continuum from Teacher-Controlled to Student-Centered Learningauthors Kallick and Zmuda provide seven variables that factor into transitioning from teacher-driven to student-driven learning, in essence, personalized learning. They are:

  1. Learning Goals
  2. Inquiry and Idea Generation
  3. Task and Audience
  4. Evaluation
  5. Feedback
  6. Instructional Plan
  7. Cumulative Demonstration of Learning.

The authors share that a teacher who wants to personalize instruction can “ turn the volume up or down, amplifying or reducing the amount of student agency as the teacher and students begin to feel more comfortable with student self-direction.” They liken this to how an audio technician uses a sound board.  Image result for soundboard

As you take a few moments to read their short article, you will see concrete examples for each of the seven variables on how to transition from teacher-centered to student-centered learning…what they call the “personalizing sound board”.

Math Anxiety

I wonder how many of us experienced some degree of math anxiety as we moved through our required  math courses and how many of us pursued another subject due to the knots and angst in our stomachs. Perhaps just the title of this blog post brought back unpleasant memories of your own mathematical encounters.

I remember struggling with and dropping out of my high school trig class and being chastised by a college professor who informed me in front of the class that “You are stupid.” Yet, I still saw math as challenging, rewarding and exciting all at the same time. This is why I chose to persevere, ignore the insults and pursue both my Bachelors and Masters in Mathematics. I felt accomplished and as if I could tackle challenging problems outside of math and be a contributing, problem-solving team member.

In Math Anxiety, Jo Boaler shares five reasons why math anxiety is still prevalent in our educational system.

  1. Math is taught as a performance subject. Students see their role in math as to get the correct answer.
  2. Communication to students centers around either having a math brain or not in spite of the fact that all students can learn math.
  3. Math is often taught as a series of procedures and calculations rather than an opportunity to be creative and collaborative.
  4. Math is not portrayed as an opportunity to struggle, to dig deeper and to generate ideas.
  5. Math seems to be the subject that has the most homework.

As I read these, I easily saw how, at times, my teaching fell into several of these areas and wished I could have a mulligan and better meet the needs of my students.

Research by Ashcraft and Krause indicates that math anxiety “severely impacts student’s ability to enjoy math, motivation to take more math or do well in math.” As math educators, we get this and we continuously battle with the age-old stigma of  “You either get math or you don’t”.  We have the opportunity, though, to change this and mold our students’ thinking to perceive math as both pleasantly frustrating and exciting as well as to believe that they can be successful at it; in other words, they can become mathematical thinkers!

Mathematical Thinker



The Learning Pit

I saw this on Mindshift today and thought it excellently captured what we want our students to experience as they spend time learning in our classes. I like to think of this as pleasantly frustrating, a term from James Paul Gee, who explained it this way:  “Learning should be both frustrating and life enhancing, … , pleasantly frustrating. The key is finding ways to make hard things life enhancing so that people keep going and don’t fall back on learning only what is simple and easy.”

The simple and easy is the learning that results when students leap over The Learning Pit. As a teacher, I used to think that this leap was good as my students weren’t frustrated, annoyed or ready to give up and made me feel like I was successful as a teacher. When I reflected on my own learning, I realized that my best ‘A-ha’ moments were when I had that opportunity to progress through the descent into and the ascent out of my own Learning Pit. That is when I truly felt like a competent learner and my self-confidence reflected this.

Perhaps, we need to give ourselves the freedom to let our students travel into and out of their own Learning Pits and let them experience the success of doing so.



Excitement at Shahala…8th Grade Math!

All six of our middle schools are piloting Illustrative Mathematics, an Open Educational Resource (OER), that strives to make math more meaningful, understandable and doable. The authors of Illustrative Mathematics believe that “critical to students’ success in life is their ability to think about unfamiliar problems that they don’t yet know how to solve”.

Debbie Steffen and Carey Doyle were asked if a video crew from Open Up Resources could spend time in their eighth grade classes capturing the incredible teaching and learning that is resulting from the intentional use of this curriculum. They, their students and their instructional coach, Melina Dyer, are highlighted on  Open Up Resources. Once you access this website, scroll down to see pictures of Debbie, Carey and their students at work. Click on Math Curriculum to see the video of the awesomeness occurring in their classrooms!

Thank you to all three for ‘daring greatly’ and giving others an opportunity to learn from your learning.

Open-Ended or Open-Middled…??

I just read this article from Robert Kaplinsky about the difference between these two types of questions. His explanation makes a lot of sense, so I thought I’d pass it on. Many times, what we think of as open-ended questions are really closed-ended, meaning there is a specific final answer. There is definitely a place in our math classrooms for both types of questions. As professionals, we need to decide what works best based on our purpose and desired outcome.

Kaplinsky explains that sometimes the preferable problems are those with open middles and closed ends. “These problems all have the same answer (closed end) and allow for great discussions around the strategies students used (open middle).”

Check out the website Open Middle for problems you can use at the kindergarten-high school levels.Below is an example of an Open Middle problem from Kaplinsky…share it with your students or your colleagues and discover some of the incredible math discourse that results.

Decimal Product Close To 50

Directions: Use the numbers 1 through 9 at most one time each so that the product is as close to 50 as possible.