Wednesday, August 1, 2018

When Teaching Gets Really Challenging

Today is August 1st, the day teachers all over the US transition to back to school.  I myself am only about two thirds of the way through summer but there is something about the calendar changing to August that makes me feel a bit anxious and a bit excited at the same time.  The familiar flutter in my teacher heart that happens at back to school time is definitely there this week.  The new year means a fresh start, new students, new colleagues and new adventures.  I am savoring the last bit of my summer and the extra time I get to spend adventuring with my family but am also looking forward to being back in the routine of school.  I am looking forward to continuing my work on personalized learning and designing math blocks that work in multi-age settings.  I am very happy that I am feeling this way because just a few short weeks ago, my teacher heart felt very broken as I struggled with a challenging end to the school year.

It has been 4 months since I last sat down to write on my blog and in that time, my school year went from okay to overwhelmingly challenging.  There were multiple things that contributed to things going downhill so quickly but much of it had to do with an administrator who changed the climate of my school in a way that made it very hard to go to work each day.  I am not ready to write about the details of the situation but I do want to share that for the first time in my career, I didn't want to go to work anymore.  The climate changed so quickly, that it felt like a completely different place and I was not sure I would ever look forward to teaching again.  I guess I got a strong dose of what teacher burnout feels like and it was more challenging than I ever expected it to be.  I was on the edge of making the decision to leave teaching for good and it is not a place I ever want to go back to again.

I am feeling much better about things now and I am even looking forward to getting back in the swing of things.  The administrator who caused the situation to unravel is not returning and I am hopeful the climate of our school can recover and we can go back to the way things were.  There are a few projects I am really looking forward to tackling, I finally started back on my professional reading and I am even back on my blog writing about this journey we call teaching.  I have grand plans to write more about how I managed to survive the end of the year and what I have done to help me move past it that I hope to share with you in the coming weeks.  I will also be writing about re-establishing a positive school climate and teaching math of course.  I am ready to get back to my series on personalizing learning which has been my focus in my classroom over the past few years and that I have long neglected to share about on my blog.  

If you are thinking back to school and are looking for new lessons, games or activities for this fall, the Teacher's Pay Teachers back to school event is today (August 1st) and tomorrow (August 2nd). Everything in my store is 20% off and if you use the code BTSFRESH you will save an additional 5%

If you have any advice to share with a teacher who has been on the edge of burnout or has suffered from a bad school climate, please share in the comments below or go to contact at the top of this page and send me an email.  



Monday, April 2, 2018

Autism Awareness Month

April is National Autism Awareness Month and today (April 2nd) is World Autism Awareness Day.  Many students and families are effected by Autism and there are many things happening all month long that you can get involved in.  For much more information about Autism Awareness Month, to read stories or share your own, check out Autism Speaks.

Graphic by Audi Devon 



Sunday, April 1, 2018

Personalizing Learning With Math Centers


Earlier this week, I shared how I have been working on personalizing learning in my math classes.  This change came about because I was challenged to teach math in a multi-age setting but has led to some great discoveries that have helped me improve math instruction for all of my learners whether they are in a single grade or a multi-age setting.  

Today I want to talk about math centers.  Math centers, also known as math stations, guided math, workplaces or math menu really can help with differentiation and personalizing learning.  Despite the fact that there are many names, strategies and ways to do math centers, their central purpose is to provide students with differentiated practice so that learners are engaged and occupied, freeing the teacher up to meet with small groups and provide further targeted instruction or enrichment to those who need it. It also solves the age old question of what to do with early finishers.

Math centers have long been popular in the primary grades in many schools and have been mostly absent in upper elementary and middle school.  At my school, we have been doing some version of math centers in K-2 for as long as I can remember.  In grades 3&4 there has been some sporadic math center activity and at the 5th and 6th grade level, we have had very little math center time.  All of that has changed over the past 2 years and now all of our learners K-6 participate in math centers in one form or another.  Our younger students participate in something closer to guided math and our older students' model looks more like math menu

I have found math centers are most successful when kids can be offered choices.  There are many things you can either require or give choices for depending on the age of your students and the behaviors in the group.

Who To Work With

Students work in pairs at a table playing one version of Movin' it Math
Many of your math centers will involve games or activities that lend themselves well to kids having chances to socially construct their knowledge.  Who a student works with can be something you choose for them or that you let them choose for themselves.  This is one of the areas where I am least likely to offer kids the chance to choose.  I almost always choose groups or pairs for my students.  As they get a bit older, I might offer them some limited choices about who they work with.  I find a lot more work gets done during math centers when I make intentional decisions about who is working together.

I do want kids to work with a variety of other students.  I want them to have a chance to work with kids of similar academic ability sometimes but other times, I want them to work with someone who may have stronger or weaker skills in math.  I find that when I try only to group for academics, behaviors deteriorate quickly.  I also believe that kids learn so much from each other and do my best to facilitate this learning among kids of all ability levels.

What Level To Work On

Each of my math centers contains the same activity at multiple levels (I will be writing a full blog post about this soon!). I almost always allow students to choose the level of the activity they are working on.  I do quite a bit of intentional teaching around choosing a level and find kids do very well choosing the just right activity for them.  

Which Activity to Work On

If you are offering several different math center options, you can decide which ones everyone has to do and which are optional.  You can let kids choose the activities and the order or you can pick who does which activity when.  In this area, my classes are kind of all over the map.  In general, the older students are the more choice I offer them in terms of which activity they want to do and the order they want to do them in.  With my upper elementary students, I often have a short list of "have-to's" and then a longer list of "get-to's".  

The younger the students are and the wilder the class' behavior, the more I assign them a task and/or set a timer for when it is time to go onto the next class.  With my most challenging behavior classes, or when math centers are new to a group, I make more of the choices for them.  As the year progresses, I transfer responsibility of the choice more and more to the students.

Where to Work

On a beautiful day we may even take math centers outside!  
My classroom has several large tables in the center, some desks along the perimeter and plenty of wide open space on the carpet.  While I often set math centers up on the tables, my students will often make a choice to work on the floor nearby or at one of the desks on the perimeter, particularly if they are working independently.  This is another area that I feel like kids in general make good choices.  I almost always let kids choose where to work and only very rarely will I have to ask someone to move to a different spot.  The variety of sitting a table, standing at a table and working on the floor seems to help keep my students engaged. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Personalizing Learning in Math Class



Over the last few years, the enrollment at my school has continued to decline.  This led us to create several multi-age classrooms.  I had not experienced a multi-age classroom since I was an elementary student myself so I did what any professional reading junkie would do and looked up books on Amazon.  I was surprised to find that almost all the books written about multi-age classrooms were published in the early 90's.   This must have been the last time there was a big push to make classrooms multi-age.  After doing some research, I ended up purchasing Multiage Portraits which gave me some good information to start with.  I also visited a classroom at another local school who had been doing multi-age classrooms for years and learned a great deal there.

As we began doing multi-age classrooms, classroom teachers found a way for most subjects to work in a multi-age way.  The subject they were struggling the most with was math.  We ended up in a model where we were pulling kids into grade level groups for math.  This meant I was doing primary instruction for several grades and eliminated a great deal of the time I used to have for co-teaching, intervention, coaching and the myriad of other tasks being a math specialist in a small school entails.  

These factors along with the fact that there are already huge spreads in ability in a single grade, led me to believe that we could teach math in a multi-age setting.  I recruited one of my most enthusiastic colleagues and last school year we co-taught a Kindergarten/first grade combination math class.  There were a few bumps in the road along the way, but in the end it turned out better than we could have ever imagined and we learned a great deal about personalizing learning along the way.  The lessons we learned from doing this combined math class together have helped me create a 2/3 and a 5/6 combination math this school year.  In addition, it has helped both of us better meet students' needs in single grade classrooms as well.  We might have needed the push of attempting multi-age to get us there, but personalizing math class benefits all learners.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing detailed posts about what I learned last year and how I have been using that to personalize learning for students from K-6 this year.  Here are some of the basics of what we did, each of them will be posted on in greater detail soon! 

-Leveling Games
-Curating Online Resources
-Color Coding
-Math Boxes
-Teaching Mindset
-Independent Practice
-Number Talks
-Flexible Groupings
-Formative Assessment
-Math Journals
-Co-Teaching
-Low Floor, High Ceiling Tasks

Sunday, March 25, 2018

How and Why I Spring Clean My Classroom


This school year has been one big long example of how life sometimes gets in the way.  Every time I feel like I have things under control again, something happens to push me back into survival mode.  I finally am fighting my way back to a semblance of normal now and one of the first I things I did to help me ensure I stay here was give my classroom a big old fashioned spring cleaning.  

5 Reasons Why I Prioritize Spring Cleaning My Classroom

Clear Out Clutter  

Like many teachers, I have a hard time getting rid of things that might be useful someday.  I have fought back against this urge by ruthlessly pitching things I no longer use each spring.  I think this works best in the spring because I can think about whether I have used something at all this school year or if I have plans to use it in the coming weeks.  If the answer to both of those questions is no, it gets thrown away, donated or recycled.  I also get ride of anything that is broken or no longer works as it should. This year I got rid of a bunch of non-geared mini clocks, a pile of very well loved student sized white boards, 2 boxes of math curriculum our district no longer uses, several board games that are no longer used and some old files on students who are no longer in my school.
When your flat surfaces are completely covered in books, manipulatives and more you know it's time for a good cleaning

Save Time

There is certainly some upfront time to spring clean my classroom, but in the long run, I save a lot of time.  As the weather gets nicer and I want to spend more time outside, I find myself wanting to be able to leave school earlier in the afternoon and not work so long once the kids go home.  When my classroom is clean and organized, I save time by being able to find what I need when I need it and having less clean up that I have to do by myself because my students know where to put things when they are organized. 
The way the heater is supposed to look!  I am so much more energized in clean spaces!

Rearrange and Revitalize

As I spring clean my classroom, I take a few minutes to think about the furniture and arrangement of the room.  Is there any furniture that I no longer use that can be removed to make more space?  Is there any furniture I am lacking that I can check the storage area for or think about ordering for next year? I re-arrange furniture to better meet the needs and flexibility of the space before I am finished.  This year I got rid of a few chairs that were starting to break along the side and dug out a few better ones from our storage shed.  I also rearranged some desks along the perimeter of my room to make them friendlier for pairs of students working together.  
This one is a bit embarrassing to share with the world, but this is what a math manipulative shelf can look like after being neglected for a bit.  Once things start to unravel, students don't know where to put things so they just shove them anywhere on the shelf.  

Clean and Disinfect

After 8 months of not getting wiped down, my book shelves, walls and those nooks and crannies the vacuum doesn't quite reach all needed a bit of love.  I use a bucket of soapy water and some microfiber cloths to give everything a once over.  I also disinfect all tables, desks, doorknobs and the sink area to help clear out those winter germs.  I also open my windows if the temperature allows it!  Getting everything back to clean and fresh makes me feel better every time I enter the room.  
So much easier to put things back where they belong now! 

Make Things Seem New

When I clean things up and move things around some, it makes things feel fresh and new to me and to my students.  I am much calmer and my thoughts seem better organized when I am in an organized space.  Switching things up with a few months left to go in school seems to help everyone feel more energized as well.

Finding Time For Spring Cleaning

I have three different ways I have found time to spring clean my classroom over the years.  Depending on my schedule and other life events happening during a particular year, I may use one strategy over the other.

This one is almost painful to look at!  Here is what it looks like when I have been in survival mode for to long! 

The Dedicated Day

I used this strategy for spring cleaning this year.  We had a week off for winter/spring break and my family was not traveling.  My mother in law wanted my own children for the day and the weather was terrible.  I spent the better part of a day at school alone and totally revamped my room from start to finish all at once.  I felt like I accomplished so much and got things exactly as I wanted them.  I feel like I have saved 1-2 hours a week in the 3 weeks since then.  As the weather gets warmer, those extra hours outside or at home feel great!
The top of my desk is brown!  I also have some empty spots on my shelves which is always a good thing! 

A Little at a Time

If I can't dedicate a bunch of hours together, I try to do a bit at a time.  Either choosing one area a day or just setting my timer for 10-15 minutes and cleaning furiously each day are great ways to get a lot done in small chunks.

Recruit Help!

Particularly for teachers who have the same kids in their room all day, spending an hour or so at the end of a school day doing a group spring clean can be a great way to get your classroom sparkling and teach your students about being responsible for their things and their space.  It can be a lot of fun to put on some music and work together to things back to the way they belong.  It is also a great chance for students who are great at organizing to get a chance to shine! 

What are your best classroom organization tips? Please share in the comments below!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Yohaku: The Ultimate Low Floor, High Ceiling Math Task



Last spring when I was doing the Mathematical Mindsets book study, I wrote a lot about rich mathematical tasks that all students can access but that also keep going or growing for students who need more challenge.  Since then, I have been on a quest to add more tasks like this to my repertoire and recently I cam across one that I just have to share with the world.

I first heard about Yohaku in this month's issue of Teaching Children Mathematics.  I was sitting in a waiting room while reading about them and was instantly engaged in solving the examples offered in the magazine.  I quickly moved to their website and was amazed at the variety of puzzles they offered to meet many different math skill levels.  I knew this was going to be my next school wide low floor, high ceiling task.
A great Yohaku for beginners!  

I started by introducing my second and third grade group to Yohaku puzzles and by the end of the week, I had kids from K up through grade 6 working on them.  I highly recommend starting with one of the easier 2X2 addition puzzles when you introduce the idea of a Yohaku even if your students are older.  It is nice to be able to focus on the challenge of the puzzle and how to solve it and develop some strategies for solving these puzzles before moving onto more challenging puzzles.

Some Yohaku puzzles have some text at the bottom which limits the numbers you can use.  We have found these puzzles can be more challenging that the ones that do not include additional limits. 
The puzzles increase in difficulty by getting larger (2X2, 3X3, 4X4), changing the operation from addition to multiplication and changing the numbers included in the puzzle (whole numbers, fractions, decimals, algebraic symbols)

My students have generated so much enthusiasm for these puzzles that many adults in the building have joined in on the fun.  A few brave teachers have even been working together to tackle the algebraic puzzles which has really helped them move forward in their understanding of algebra. 

A teacher sent me this picture along with the words "I finally did it!"  


When kids (and adults!) are working on these, they are not only deepening their understanding of math content, they are also working on the Math Practice Standards.  

My students have decided that since these are so fun and since the entire school is working on them, we should turn our HUGE front hallway bulletin board into Giant Yohaku puzzles that are laminated so we can use dry erase markers on them and folks can solve them as they walk by or visit our school.  I think its a great way to get parents involved as well and will keep you updated here on the blog or over on Facebook once we get the project done.

I highly recommend trying these out with your students, you can get started over on their website or grab the Yohaku book!

I also have started documenting my journey toward personalized learning!  You can read more about that here

Friday, March 23, 2018

Playing With Integers

Living in the northeast, my students get a lot of real life experience with negative numbers every winter.  Integers don't show up in our standards until grade 6, but my students get a fair amount of exposure to them much earlier than that through real life experiences with temperature.  Here is a problem I posed to my students earlier this week on the first day of spring.


I just snapped a picture of the outside temperature as it shows up in my car when I got home after school one night and then again the next morning as I was leaving.  We had quite a temperature swing and unseasonably cool weather for the first day of spring and many kids were talking about the weather that day.  I love when I get a chance to capitalize on their interest with a well timed math problem.  This problem led to some great discussions about addition strategies and integers in all the grade levels.  Many students used or thought about number lines and in the older grades we talked about writing equations to go with this type of problem.  

My sixth graders will have a more formal unit on integers in about a month but in the meantime, I introduced a game to my 5/6 math group a few weeks ago that is giving them a lot more experience playing around with integers. It is a card game called Absolute Zero.  Each kid gets between 3 and 5 cards in their hand then draws and discards a card each time it is their turn.  The cards are positive and negative numbers and the goal of the game is to get zero.  
The current sum of this hand is 10.  On the next turn, if I draw a -3, I could discard the 7 and the sum of the hand would be zero and the round would end. 
One particular group of kids has been playing this game every spare minute they can and really playing around with strategies for winning depending on if you have 3, 4 or 5 cards in your hand at a time.  

Another group of kids has loved playing war with these cards.  They have been playing addition war at this point, but some of them are ready to start thinking about integer multiplication so very soon I will be showing them how to play the same game with multiplication.  


Kids have been integer addition war.
You can learn more about Absolute Zero, print record sheets and see some videos of the game in action over at their website.