Top Ten Day 4 ISTE 2017

Last day of ISTE 2017.  Here are my final thoughts:

1. Crowds. There were definitely fewer people at the closing keynote than there were yesterday at the random Tuesday keynote. I guess a lot of people had to jet out of there, literally. Hooray for being local, y’all.

2. Music. Still digging this live music at the keynotes. Three for three on high school-aged artists from Austin. Quick recap: Tianna Girls, Charlie Belle, and Grace London. Makes waiting for the keynote to start much more fun.

Grace London

Made on Canva.

3. Serendipity. I started talking with a computer science teacher in North Carolina and it turns out that we had been to several of the same sessions throughout this conference. Great minds think alike.

4. Fatigue. While this has been an amazing learning experience, I am ready for ISTE to be over. I am overflowing with new apps, cool tools, and learning that I can’t wait to take back into the classroom. But I am tired.

5. Social media in the classroom. I went to another session that talked about the importance of using social media in the classroom, modeling it for students, connecting with them, and creating a respectful and responsible community of learners. This session was about Snapchat. I can see how this would be very popular with high school students, but I am curious as to how it would work with elementary students.IMG_51856. Global collaboration. My class next year will likely be very small. Because of this, I am nervous that we will create a sort of “echo chamber”, without a wide variety of voices, perspectives, and opinions. Today, I learned about several tools that should provide us with some collaboration opportunities: Flipgrid, Recap, and PenPal Schools.

7. Sketchnotes. You have probably seen some of these floating around the internet. If not, just Google it; the images will blow you away. Anyway, today I learned how to do my own sketchnotes and use them in the classroom. I like the visual nature of them; I can think of some students that probably would’ve paid better attention were they taking sketchnotes. Here are my first two humble attempts:

8. Rental car shenanigans. My husband and I just downsized to one car, so I rented a car for ISTE. Enterprise closed at 6. I left San Antonio at 4:05; that should’ve been plenty of time. Car returned: 5:55. Whew.

9. Closing keynote. The woman who started Girls Who Code spoke to us, and it was both uplifting and depressing. Depressing that there are so many coding opportunities and so few women in computer science fields, and uplifting because there are people working to get young women interested in these lucrative, in-demand fields.img_1673.jpg10. Reflection. I wasn’t sure how much I would really enjoy ISTE. I loved the math conference I went to, but I am very passionate about math instruction, while edtech is more of a personal hobby. I thought there might not be much I would be interested in (HA…with over 1,000 sessions, how could there not be!?!). Well, it was amazing. I learned so much, and I am excited about a lot of the things I learned. Now it’s time to prioritize what I am going to do first when school starts up in the fall. And it’s time to start budgeting for ISTE 2018 in Chicago.Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 8.00.32 PM

11. Bonus: Yesterday, I talked about people with excessive name tag decorations. Today, I secured a couple of photos so you can see the madness for yourself. 🙂 IMG_5206IMG_5200

Top Ten Day 3 ISTE 2017

Whew. These days are long and action-packed. Here’s my top ten for day 3.

1. Keynote. Wow. The keynote today was awesome. We had a student panel. We compared student growth to cilantro that grows wherever it wants. We compared teachers and wizards. We learned about single stories and untold stories. Amazing. IMG_1626IMG_16312. Talking to exhibitors. I think their favorite sentence might be, “Tell me more about your product.” Their eyes light up, their voices pick up, and they look like Christmas has come early. They must be exhausted by the end of the day, all that enthusiasm.

3. Tidbits. Today was my day for learning little things. I didn’t do as many “sit and get” sessions, but I did a lot of poster sessions and short 20-minute bursts. Like how to search more effectively on Google.IMG_16544. Buncee. Never heard of it before, but it looks like something my students would love to use for presentations. It helps that the person I talked to was also a fifth grade teacher. Holla!

5. Newsela. I’d never heard of it before this conference, but it looks like a good nonfiction resource, especially now that they have US history and thematic units for my students to use during research. Score!IMG_5145

6. KidBlog. Started by a teacher, it’s a safe place for students to blog and share their writing with a wider audience. I ever got a picture with the CEO!IMG_51737. Tired feet. I clearly did more walking today as my feet hurt more than they did yesterday. Just a little more walking to do…

8. Clever session names. I did a session called Under the Sheets with Sheets, which I just thought was so funny. Bonus: I learned lots of cool tricks to try with Google Sheets.IMG_5146

9. WriteSteps. It’s fun to talk to educators about products they are passionate about, especially if they created them. This looks like a good resource for writing instruction. I’ll have to check out the free unit they are sending me.IMG_5136 10. Name tag accessories. You can get these tags to attach underneath your name tag. I have zero. Most people have 3ish. I saw a couple of people today with 20. 20! Clearly I have a lot of catching up to do tomorrow.

Last day and last top ten tomorrow!

Top Ten Day 2 ISTE 17

Another day, another top ten of ISTE 2017.

1. More student presentations. I was really impressed by the student presentations yesterday at ISTE Ignite, and I was happy to see more of them today at the poster sessions. I also saw a lot of regular teachers like me. Since I am a novice conference attendee, I tend to think that only researchers or professors or super teachers can present at conferences. While I know that logically this is not the case, it’s still nice to see regular teachers being given a space to share the amazing things they are doing in their classrooms every day.

2. New things to try with my students. Today, I learned about podcasting, which I am excited to try with my students as I love podcasts.IMG_1593

3. Swag! While I spend most of my time at the Expo trying not to make eye contact with the over 3,600 vendors that I don’t care about, it is definitely worth my while to stop at the ones I do care about. Shout out to IPEVO for hooking me up with my very own document camera!IMG_1603

4. The Expo. While we’re on the topic of the Expo, there are so many pleasant surprises there. I can’t seem to find any of the vendors that I want to visit, but I always stumble upon undiscovered gems that I am so glad I did find. Like the Global Oneness Project, which will be amazing for my globally-minded, IB-learning students.FullSizeRender

5. Powerful presentations. There is always one presentation that causes a monumental shift in my thinking as a teacher. Today, it was the presentation on rubrics. Why are rubrics so vague? Why can’t students use them to improve? I am really excited about changing my rubrics to make them more student-friendly and skill-based.IMG_5129

6. Taking breaks. With so many presentations, attendees, and exhibitors, ISTE can be very overwhelming. I found that taking breaks during the day made me a lot less brain-tired. I brought along a handy non-tech-related book to keep me company (because being continually surrounded by 20,000 strangers is surprisingly lonely).517oaelnrcl-_sx402_bo1204203200_

7. Ponderings. Thinking about how to model good social media usage for my students if I don’t use social media in the classroom with my students.IMG_5115

8. Fun new apps! Like Newsela for reading and vocabulary practice.IMG_1617

9. Google. I love going to “tool” sessions where I leave with new tools under my teacher belt. Today, I learned about the autoCrat add-on to Google Sheets and Google Arts and Culture. Hooray for virtual field trips and high-def artwork.


Fun things to do with autoCrat.

10. The Expo, part 2. From all my wanderings throughout the Expo, the vendors I saw could pretty much be placed into one of three categories:

  1. Hardware that is meant to protect expensive devices from grubby, droppy hands
  2. Super amazing tech security that will protect everything in the district from scary things like viruses
  3. Other (things teachers actually want to use)

Plenty  more fun to be had tomorrow!

(Featured image created on Canva.)

Top Ten Day 1 ISTE 2017

After my first successful professional conference experience at NCTM this year (check out my exploits here, here, and here), I decided to come to ISTE (International Society of Technology in Education)’s conference in San Antonio.  There were several reasons why I wanted to come for the first time to ISTE: 1) I learned so much at NCTM’s Annual Meeting this year, and I was eager to learn more about edtech, a personal interest of mine; 2) I was very envious of everyone’s tweets about the conference last year; 3) I am already very familiar with San Antonio’s convention center, since NCTM was in the same place; and 4) San Antonio is close enough to my home in Austin that I don’t need to fly.

My first day of ISTE top ten, in no particular order:

1. Live music. I was into the jazz duo in the lobby of the convention center and the girl band from Austin. Shout out to the Tiarra Girls. img_1583.jpg

2. New books. Well, just one new book.  I find that reading is a nice way to take a break from all the tech-ness of this conference. IMG_5108

3. Fan girling. I feel pretty good about myself when I recognize someone that a presenter references. In this case, Jennifer Gonzalez and the Cult of Pedagogy being awesome, as usual.IMG_1569

4. Student presenters. One of the coolest parts of ISTE Ignite (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide, lots of information in a short period of time, whew) was the student presenters! One student was an entrepreneur who founded Studio1ne. Another student talked about different apps and websites that he uses, that maybe we might want to use with or introduce to our students:

We also heard from a student (@steamnerds) who was “too young” to join his school’s robotics team, so he started his own. Rock on, Generation Z! (Learned about them in another adult-led Ignite talk).

5. 90 minutes to wait for a session?!? No way, Apple. I don’t care how great your presentations are, that is too much time standing in line and not enough time checking out all the other cool sessions. I will never know what I missed anyway.

6. Good questions. A good thing to keep in mind, as edtech can be pretty overwhelming, and there can be a pretty big feeling of FOMO.IMG_1578

7. Innovation ≠ Technology (necessarily). A good thing to keep in mind at an edtech conference. Just because you use technology does not mean that it is innovative.IMG_1567

8. Radiolab. New fan of this guy right here: Jad Abumrad. Great thoughts about productive struggle and how to work through difficult things to make greatness, or something closer to greatness each time. I like the model he made for Radiolab. I think it also works for education.IMG_1589

9. The Gap. The difference between knowing you can do high-quality work and actually producing it. So good for students–and their teachers–to keep in mind during the learning process.

THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.

10. Size matters. ISTE 2017 is huge! Over 21,000 exhibitors and attendees. All 50 states and over 70 countries represented. Over 8,000 different schools and organizations represented. Maps and “Ask Me” helpers everywhere. People everywhere. Oh. My. Gosh. This thing is so big.

I hope tomorrow is just as thought-provoking!

A Year in Review

I wrapped up my 6th year of teaching on Friday. It was, as usual, a bittersweet day. I love my class and will miss them a lot next year, but I always look forward to a summer full of professional development, travel, reading, and recharging by myself and with my friends and family. As I am now in day two of Official Summer Vacation, I thought it might be good to do a little reflecting on the year as a whole and see what I want to do differently next year. This was my first year in 5th grade, and I will be teaching 5th grade again next year.

Reading in my classroom was a success this year. My students loved to read, and I was able to introduce to them so many amazing books through our daily read aloud. I would have loved to give them more independent reading time, but I was able to give them about 15 minutes every day.  We practiced a lot of reading skills during our independent reading and read aloud times, so they had authentic practice with literary features such as tone, theme, main idea, author’s purpose, and figurative language. Also, I did book clubs this year using a variety of different formats, and by the end of the year, I finally found a format that seemed to work well for everyone. Next year, I want to do more with independent reading time, including more consistent reading conferences and more writing about their reading.

Math was another success this year. I started a self-paced classroom, and while there were some challenges with it, overall, I loved it, and so did most of my students.  My students were able to work through the material as quickly or as slowly as they needed to, and I only had one student not complete the curriculum by the end of the year; the rest of the class finished early enough to review learning from the whole year and/or complete some student-led inquiry projects. Next year, I want to start each class with a modeled word problem; word problems always seem to be tricky for my students, and I want them to see a lot of different types of problems over the course of the year. I also want to include more review throughout the year; since our curriculum isn’t really spiraled, they tend to learn it once and then forget it. We have cumulative assessments that I am thinking about using in place of traditional end of the unit assessments. Also, I have some “math minute” resources that could be useful to get in additional, spiraled review, even though I probably won’t time it.

My students made good progress in writing this year, but I would say that in general, it is a weakness at our school.  My schedule is very tight, and there are some days where I didn’t have writing instruction. Next year, I am going to make daily writing instruction a priority; I also need to include more grammar in my writing conferences and/or mini-lessons.  I am planning on reading this book when it comes out in August, and I am hoping it prepare me with additional explicit writing strategies to bring to my students when school starts.

Finally, I need to do better with executive functions next year. We didn’t clean out folders or backpacks often enough, and I know that they got messy this year.  I was just lucky that my students this year were more or less on top of their own stuff.

Just some things to think about as I head into my summer vacation. Now, time to hit the pool!


NCTM Annual Meeting, Day 3 and Beyond

I am back home after an exhausting and completely wonderful experience at the NCTM Annual Meeting in San Antonio.  I was so wiped after yesterday that I sat around my apartment doing nothing for the rest of the afternoon; obviously, I needed a little time to process everything I had learned over the past 3 days.  Today, I have a fresh perspective and some final thoughts on the last day as well as on the conference as a whole.  Day 1 and Day 2 were pretty awesome, so the last day had some big shoes to fill.  Luckily, it didn’t disappoint.

I started Day 3 by going to a “celebrity” session by Dan Meyers. He might not be well-known to the wider population, but his talk was held in the theater (the largest meeting space), which is also where John Urschel (a Baltimore Raven and current PhD student at MIT–an actual celebrity) had his talk during the conference.  And given the number of people at Dan Meyer’s talk, he was definitely a celebrity at NCTM.

His talk was on creating intellectual need in students.  Most of the time, when students ask us, “why do I have to know this?”, we tell them one of two reasons: 1. so they won’t fail the test/class/grade, or 2. so they can get a good job in the future.  We are hoping that the students feel a social need (don’t want to fail the class) or an economic need (want a good job), so they will feel obligated to learn what we are teaching them.  Well, that just don’t work for some students.  And they aren’t very good reasons anyway.

He suggested creating an intellectual need for the students to learn the material.  Instead of posing a “problem”, pose a “puzzle”, and they need some additional knowledge in order to solve it or solve it efficiently.  For example, Dan put a bunch of dots on the screen and asked one audience member to describe the location of a dot that she had chosen to another audience member.  It didn’t go very well.  Then, he put the dots on a coordinate plane.  The audience laughed.  It was so much easier to explain the dot’s location.  He created a communication need, giving us (and our future students) an intellectual need for knowing how to use a coordinate plane.


With all of the talk that I heard about posing good problems in class to get students engaged and thinking (and hopefully writing), I thought this was a perfect tie-in with that.  Create a problem that they can’t solve without the next math content.  This creates a personal incentive to solve the puzzle.  And the math is a superpower that makes it all possible.  I love this idea.

Then I went to a session about mathematical argument.  We watched some videos of classrooms in action (I love when they show classroom videos because it makes it so much easier to see what this would look like in an actual classroom).  They give us a step-by-step method for implementing this, which I also love.  It’s nice to leave a session with an actual plan, not just a vague notion.  The idea is that students look at some examples and try to make generalizations about math using these examples.  Then, they talk about it with their classmates and make their generalizations as specific as possible.  They even test it out with “nonexamples” to see just how general it really is.


I like the idea of introducing making generalizations and conjectures in elementary school, because the students will need this skill a lot in high school (think proofs in geometry).  Also, it gets them creating math concepts–how very inquiry-based–instead of having the teacher just tell them the concepts.  Then, they can use the concept really understanding it and its limitations.

My last session was about connecting fraction work in elementary school with ratio and proportion work in middle school.  As a 5th grade teacher, I love these kinds of sessions because I am trying to prepare my students for middle school, and it is nice to get an idea of how to do that with at least one concept.

We spent a lot of time talking about the differences between fractions (comparing part of a whole) and ratios (comparing part to a a part or part to a whole).  This discussion really made me think about how similar yet different they are and how knowing fractions well can make working with ratios confusing.  This was especially evident when looking at equivalent ratios and fractions, as seen in this picture:


For equivalent ratios, you actually increase the number of “objects”.  In equivalent fractions, you just cut the pieces differently.  I enjoyed getting to dig deeply into this topic, especially because my curriculum introduces ratios in 5th grade (even though the Common Core doesn’t introduce them until 6th grade).  Plus, we got to watch a few classroom videos.

The closing session was a talk about a British science writer who writes about math in the Simpsons.  It was interesting to see just how much math is hidden in the show by it’s math- and comedy-loving creators and writers.  This picture shows a taxicab in the show Futurama (similar creators and writers) that has a “taxicab” number as the number of an actual taxicab.


All in all, it was an amazing experience; one of the best professional development experiences I have ever had.  It was fun to walk through the Expo and see all of the materials, books, and activities for math teachers and their students.  I enjoyed getting to talk to educators at different levels from all around the country.  I learned so much from my presenters, whether they were math celebrities, college professors, or classroom teachers.  I learned about some content (fractions, ratios, order of operations) and some concepts (argumentation, intellectual need, writing, play, formative assessments), all related to my favorite subject.  I am excited to try out my learning in my classroom tomorrow.  While it was nice to get a break and spend time with other educators, I miss my students, and I am ready to get back to the work that took me to NCTM in the first place: teaching.

NCTM Annual Meeting, Day 2

I finished my second day at the NCTM Annual Meeting; it was another great day full of learning.  I still can’t get over how much teaching experience and wisdom is floating around the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.  It is amazing to think about how much learning and connecting is going on all around me, all day long.  So now I’m going to try to synthesize the highlights of my day.  I updated my post from yesterday about Day 1; I felt like it was lacking actual reflection, so I tried to dig a little deeper in this revision.

I started with a session on including writing in the math classroom.  While this may seem a bit odd at a math conference, this was one of several sessions about writing.  Apparently, it’s a thing.  After participating in the session, I can see the value of having students write in order to share their thinking.  You can really learn a lot about what they write about math.


As I often do with sessions like this, I left feeling excited about what I just learned, but a little overwhelmed with how I was supposed to fit another thing into my already busy math class.  My second session, however, tied in perfectly with it; it was about the importance of formative assessments (assessments that affect how you teach based on what the students have learned and still need to learn).  The presenter talked about how important formative assessments are (of course, everything is important…you must include everything!), and how great it is to get into the minds of our students to see what they know and what we need to teach them next.  This was starting to sound familiar.  Then, I made the connection.  I already do formative assessments in the classroom.  If I replaced them with a rich mathematical task related to the topic we are studying, the students could write about it, instead of just solving more problems (side note: several presenters today talked about how bad it was for math to call the work we do “problems”; such a negative connotation!).  I could give formative assessments that involve deep problem solving as well as writing.  Check and check.


I love when presenters leave you with a call to action.  That was a big thing at ShadowCon last night, and I really like that idea.  I also like that our presenter wants to know what formative assessments look like in our actual classrooms.  This isn’t some hypothetical thing that would be great in an ideal classroom; he thinks it will be great in your classroom, and he wants to hear about it.

I went to the Expo for the first time…it’s a little dangerous in there.  So many fun teaching tools and books!  I bought one book about fractions and decimals (the trickiest content for my 5th graders), and then I got a couple of fun games to review different math concepts.  My students love the “I have, who has” format, and the “stacks” are one big card sort, and I love card sorts.  The students have such great conversations when they are working through them.


While it’s nice to come home from a conference with new ideas in my head, it’s also nice to come back with actual “stuff” I can use with my students on Monday.

The next session was about communicating with parents about math in your school.  The presenters talked about how to implement a parent math night (with lots of good suggestions and activities they have used in the past) and how to talk to parents about assessments if you don’t use grades.  Or even how to give more specific feedback if you do use grades.  Going “gradeless” and using standards-based assessments are very “in” in education right now, so this was an interesting topic to learn more about.  I liked how the presenters made an assessing system that is easy to follow and more objective.  I can see how using this would really communicate a lot to both parents and students about how students are doing with particular concepts.


Fun fact: I posted these on Twitter (I have been posting a lot of things from my sessions), but these two pictures have gotten the most likes and reposts.  I have never been so popular on Twitter; apparently, other people are interested in standards-based grading and going gradeless too!

My last workshop of the day was a content-based session on order of operations.  I snuck into a 6-8th grade session (shh!) because I didn’t feel like I really did order of operations justice at the beginning of the year, and I am not sure how well my students really understand it.  Plus, this title is intriguing.  (The reference is to the common mnemonic device “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” for remembering what to do in order of operations: parenthesis, exponents, multiplication and division, addition and subtraction.)


I left this session with some really good ideas on what to do instead of excusing my dear Aunt Sally and how to get my students to think more flexibly about the numbers they are using. One thing the presenter said that was interesting was that many of these types of textbook “problems” are actually just written very poorly and do a bad job of communicating what you are supposed to do with the numbers.  Order of operations is really just a way to trip up students, when the expression should be written more clearly by the authors.  So there.

Edward Burger gave a keynote address at the end of the day about how to help students think more effectively about math.  He was the first, and so far only, presenter not use a PowerPoint presentation, but he didn’t really need it.  He was so engaging and really got me thinking about how to help my students who get stuck when trying to solve word “problems”.  One strategy he suggested was to have students provide an answer that they know is wrong, and then explain why it is wrong.  This is an entry point into the problem, and students often see a way that it could be solved by talking through a way that it couldn’t be solved.


I always tell my students that in order for me to help them with a “problem”, they have to do something with the problem first.  For students who were truly stumped, this would be a great way for students to get started on the problem on their own (they could even write about what they are thinking!).

Finally, the last presentations were told in a series of short, 10 minute flash talks.  Each presenter had 20 slides, and the slides changed every 15 seconds, whether the presenter was ready or not.  It was a fun and fast-paced way to end the day.


We talked about working in an area of learning that is “hard”, the importance of play in learning, differentiation, introversion, all students can do the math, math mentors, math in the media, 12 steps towards accepting the challenges of teaching, math is all around us, and teaching and learning math in a circle.  It was interesting to learn about so many different things in such a short period of time.  The 3rd grade teacher and I left thinking about what we would talk about if we had to do one of these presentations.  So far, we haven’t figured it out.

It’s been an amazing two days.  I am sad that it is over tomorrow, but I still have a few more sessions in the morning to learn even more!

NCTM Annual Meeting 2017, Day 1

Wow. I just experienced my first day at my first NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) Annual Meeting in San Antonio. I have wanted to go to one of these since I started teaching six years ago, but this year was the first year I was able to make it happen. My principal was not only supportive of me missing 2 days of school, he was even able to pay for part of my registration. I appreciate his support because this has been an invaluable professional development experience. And it’s only the end of day one.

The event kicked off with an opening presentation by Jordan Ellenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talking to us about how important it is for mathematicians to be wrong, be the critic, and fight for truth. He pumped us up with “mathematics is a superpower”, and we all left energized and ready for the next few days of learning


Today, I went to many presentations, and while I am exhausted, I learned so much. I  learned how to use models to show the connections between fractions, division, and decimals.


Just yesterday I had an interaction with a student that would’ve been so much more productive and conceptually-sound had I used this type of reasoning with him.

I learned how to teach multiplying fractions and whole numbers in a structure that makes sense and encourages using prior knowledge.  The presenter, a 5th grade teacher from Boston, says that his students think multiplying mixed numbers is so much easier than multiplying fractions.  If this method makes that true for students, I want to use it.


I love leaving a session feeling like my conceptual knowledge of a topic was deepened, and this was one of the sessions in which that happened.  This has been the session that I have talked about the most, which I think is interesting since I stumbled upon it by accident.  I just keep thinking about this session; it has really stuck with me.  It is going to completely change how I teach multiplying fractions next year.

I also learned a few new multiplication fact practice games, including this handy do-it-yourself flashcard that allows students to practice both multiplication and division using it.  Hooray for making connections between the operations!


I tutor a 3rd grade student who struggles with her math facts, and I will be able to use the games that I learned in this session to help her enjoy math more (and practice her math facts).  The 3rd grade teacher that I came with thought this flash card was pretty neat, and if a flash card passes the 3rd grade teacher muster, than it must be good.

I went to a session about productive struggle, which I already use in my classroom, but I left with this interesting self-assessment tool for students to use to monitor their own struggle.


What I like about this tool is that it gives students an idea of how much help they really need, and what they should ask for from me.  There is a difference between giving a hint and posing a guiding question; the students should be able to tell the difference and know when they need each one. (Helpful note: 5 is not struggling, and 1 is very struggling; I was confused by the scaling at first.)

The 3rd grade teacher and I were very intrigued by the event this evening called ShadowCon.  The program didn’t give many details, just that it was back by popular demand.  Apparently, everyone already knows what it is.  So, obviously we had to go.



Well, I now know what ShadowCon is: a series of short presentations on a math education related topic that ends with a call to action.  To support you in this action, each presenter also created a short 5-week free online course in the fall to help facilitate you taking action and creating change in your classroom.  It was a really cool idea!  We learned about noticing those “hidden” students, how to incorporate play into our math classroom, and how to create learning activities that support student reflection.

It was a great day.  I am so excited to see what I will learn tomorrow!

February #Blogamonth

Over the summer, I learned about self-paced learning from Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy podcast interview with Natalie McCutchen.  Ms. McCutchen is a middle school math teacher in Kentucky who conducts a self-paced math class.  Most of her students work through the material at their own pace, using pre-assessments, instructional videos, practice problems, and formative assessments to assess their understanding and learning through a particular unit.  This idea was interesting to me because I love teaching math, but I find differentiation tricky, as many teachers do.  When I brought up this model with my administrator, he was unsupportive, so I tabled the idea.  I either had to change my vision for a self-paced classroom or let it go.

As the year progressed, I found that the more traditional math class structure was frustrating both me and my students.  No student was really getting what he/she truly needed because they were either being pushed along at an unsustainable pace or being held back.  I was annoyed that my favorite class–the part of the day I most look forward to–was not actually working very well.

While all of this was hanging out in the back of my mind, I had a meeting with a parent of a high-achieving, eager-to-please, genuinely good student.  She told me that her daughter was unhappy at school, for a variety of reasons.  This was disheartening for me because she is such a happy, enthusiastic, eager participant in class; I immediately started thinking about how to improve her classroom experience.  Her mom then made a throw-away comment about how she felt that her math partner was “holding her back” in class.  There it was.  Something I could change, something I could do to make math class better for her (and hopefully other students as well).

After that conversation, I made the change.  I decided to have a self-paced math class.  By troubleshooting with some colleagues, I launched the idea to my students on the next Monday.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  It has been wildly successful, and math has again become my favorite part of the day.  While managing individual students’ movement through our curriculum can be challenging, I feel like I am supporting all of my students so much better than I was before.  For some students, I just had to get out of the way.  For other students, they needed so much more than I was able to give before.  Now, I can do both of those things at the same time.

Advantages of my self-paced system so far:

  1. I get to teach individual or small group minilessons as needed by my students, instead of generally ineffective whole class lessons.  I prefer this for its immediacy, effectiveness, and individuality.
  2. Students can spend an extra day on a concept if they need more practice.  They aren’t “holding” anyone else back.
  3. Students can fly through a concept if they get it right away.  They don’t have to “wait” for anyone to catch up.
  4. Absences are no longer a big deal because I don’t have to “catch them up” with the rest of the class.  They just pick up right where they left off before they were gone.
  5. My fast-moving students provide me with “beta-testing” as they move through a particular unit.  If they get stuck on a particular concept or skill, it is likely that their classmates will when they get there.  This gives me extra time to prepare different strategies as students move through the unit; I am a better math teacher because I have the opportunity to explain a concept in different ways to reach different students.

Change can be hard, but it can also be exhilarating.  I feel that I have breathed new life into my math class, and my students have experienced a lot of confidence and success with it.   I have escaped from the idea of a “traditional” math class, and my students and I are all better for it.

November #Blogamonth

November is frequently a month that people reflect on who and what they are thankful for.  To honor that practice, I will write a gratitude letter to my assistant principal, who has been so instrumental in my growth as a teacher over the past year.

Dear Eleanor,

Thank you for helping me grow as a teacher.  I think of you as a friend and not just a colleague; I truly value the friendship and camaraderie we have cultivated over the last 15 months.  You are such an integral part of our school community, and my job would be much harder without you.  You make everything at school run smoothly, and you are so organized, which I love (great minds think alike).  You have figured out how to be both a “boss” and an “ally”, and you do both jobs beautifully. You are the most diplomatic person I have ever met–I think its your Britishness–and I know I can trust you if I need a confidant.

Thank you for being there during my first year of teaching at a private school.  Thank you for showing me the ropes and talking me through some of the difficulties of that teaching environment.  Thank you for encouraging me when I am frustrated or feeling like a bad teacher.  Thank you for smiling and being enthusiastic when I have a success story to share.  Thank you for taking my questions seriously and following up with me when you get an answer (or don’t).  Thank you for listening to my suggestions and passing them along.  Thank you for treating me like a valued coworker, a professional, and a friend.

I really appreciate all the times you listened to me complain about teaching 2nd grade and gush about teaching 5th grade.  You listen when I rant, and then we problem solve, so I hopefully won’t face the same problem in the future.  I never leave a meeting feeling down or angry or frustrated; I always learn something when we have our meetings, and I really value your feedback and advice.

Thank you for everything you do for me and our school.