Redesigning the Math Classroom using Personalized Learning

My math time is not optimal. To begin with, I have significant issues with the idea of what mathematics content consists of. Mathematics is about problem solving, finding patterns, asking questions, and thinking logically. It is not about the rote memorization of outdated numerical algorithms. Students today no more need long division than they do buggy-driving. Calculation is faster and more accurately done by computer.

However, until more people begin to recognize this, obsolete math skills will remain “tested” and therefore central to our math curricula. Given this reality, what can I as a teacher do to best meet the needs of my students? How can I give them practice in problem solving, logic, and critical thinking; while still giving them the skills based instruction required by the state?

I believe this is where a move toward personalized learning comes in. With these thoughts in mind, I began a systematic overhaul and revisualization of my math period. I took the framework of the Daily 3 Math that I used last year and have added a layer of intentionality and personalization that was lacking last year. This is the result:

This complex ecosystem of elements is necessary in order to create an environment that fosters student agency, collaboration, and critical thinking. It is a system that hand fundamental control over student work to the students themselves. It gives them personal control over what they learn and how they learn it.

Personalized Pacing
A key component to this system is that while there will be a basic scope and sequence set by me, students are (at any time) free to ignore that scope and sequence in favor of their own interests and pacing. Given this emphasis on student control, regular check-ins with each student via individual conferences will be crucial to making sure that each student is making progress and not simply floundering. If a student is having difficulty with their pacing, or seems to be drifting, this is where I will step in as the teacher to bring them back to the scope and sequence in order to scaffold them into making adequate progress.

This system will require diligent note taking and scheduling in order for me to monitor progress. However, given that I already use a compatible system of tracking in the CCPensieve that I use for reading conferences, adding a layer of math conferences should take no extra organizational output on my part.

No Direct Instruction
Given that research on brain functioning and attention span is very clear, I was already limiting my direct instruction to 10-15 minutes each day. Even then, however, only 50-60% of my students attend to what I am saying and most instruction is either tuned out or quickly forgotten. This is a huge amount of time to waste each day. Since 15 minutes of instruction meant that each of our Math Daily 3 sessions was (by necessity) capped at 15-20 minutes, this gave the students little time to truly explore. By giving up talking to the whole group, we will hopefully be able to make three 25 minute sessions a reality. This will greatly increase the amount of time students have to work.

Replacement for Instruction (i.e. flipping the classroom)
So what replaces me talking and instructing in front of the class? Self-paced instruction via videos. There are hundreds of videos online for every conceivable math topic. In addition, my students will be frequently using Kahn Academy which includes instructional video on each topic. If a video is unavailable, or I want something taught a specific way, I can create a video for students and post it on our YouTube or blog in practically no more time than it takes me to deliver the same lecture in front of the students.

The huge advantage of videos vs. me lecturing live is that students can choose when to use the video (if at all) and can replay the video at their convenience should they need a reminder, something they can’t do to my live lecture. Another advantage of videos is that the videos can be assigned as homework so that no class time need be spent learning the material. Our time can be spent fixing misconceptions, practicing skills, and aiding any students who need extra assistance.

In addition, any video that I create/find can be added to the site where I can pause the videos to add comments, add follow-up questions, or even quizzes.

One final piece to this puzzle: It will often be in our best interest to have the students be the ones to find the videos that we use. Imagine a homework assignment where students are required to scour the internet to find the 2 best videos on adding fractions and submit them to me. Students will have to watch multiple videos (thereby learning the content) in order to find the best ones and I will end up with a library of videos to be used in the future.

EdCamp Model
In addition to the use of videos as instruction, the EdCamp model holds a significant amount of promise as an instructional tool for students. Again, this is a method that gives agency and control over to the students, forcing them to be accountable to their own learning and needs. This model gives students the chance to identify areas of strength, weakness, and interest. It gives them the opportunity to seek out others with those same needs/interests in order to help and instruct each other. It is my hope that this mindset will begin to seep into other areas of their work as they become more comfortable with seeking each other out for help.

This would not be a daily method of instruction, but would rather be utilized in a bi-weekly rotation with our complex problem solving routines.

Problem Solving
Giving students an opportunity to work in groups on complex, multi-step problems is a crucial piece of getting students to think critically. This set of routines takes most of a class period and involves giving students into groups and giving them a complex problem to tackle with no help from the teacher. It gives them a chance to work on their own, collaborate with their small group, compare ideas with the whole class, and then come up with a final answer with evidence. Using problems that solicit thinking on a variety of problem solving strategies and discussing those strategies will be key to this process.

While this set of routines for complex problem solving has been part of my class for years, I hope to make it a more formal rotation with the EdCamp model, with each one taking one part of a bi-weekly rotation.

Work will be a variety forms as needed. Sometimes the Everyday Math Journal or games will be the best place to practice; sometimes it will be something like However, given that self-pacing will be a key element of our math time, Kahn Academy will likely fill a majority of the role for our daily work.

There will also be time each day for students to write about their thinking, solve word problems, write word problems, and show their knowledge in creating video or coding. Creating and maintaining a task board will be crucial to the management of each student’s time and tasks. Making sure to have each student verbalize their working time tasks before each session will be important in order to give each student the message that their time is valuable and that they are accountable to themselves and their learning.

This will also be the time during which I meet with students for conferences and small flex groups for accountability and additional assistance or instruction.

In this model, students will be responsible for pacing themselves. In order to achieve this goal it will be equally important for students to keep track of their progress and how they are mastering material. We are still held responsible for each of the state benchmarks and learning targets, and so tracking student progress through the list of learning targets will be essential.

I will be creating a spreadsheet of each of the learning targets and giving a copy to each student in order for them to track their progress. When they feel that they are ready, they can take the district learning target test for the benchmark. I will grade it, and share feedback with them. If they show mastery, they may move on, if not, together we will generate a plan for their next steps.

In addition to the learning target tests, students will be required to create some sort of artifact showing their mastery of the content before they can take the test. It could take the form of a video, and game that they code, etc. As long as they can demonstrate mastery of the topic, I will encourage them to be creative with this process.

Together it is my hope that these two methods of assessment will give students a sense of control over their learning. By giving them control, I hope to make their math instruction more relevant and motivating for them.

A final piece of this puzzle will be gamification. Since students are tracking their own work and monitoring their process, it would be nice to be able introduce an element of gaming to add to the experience. At the moment I am planning to use Classcraft in order to give experience points and awards for the successful completion of each benchmark. It is possible that we will add other tasks and items to the game as we work on this process together.

This is a newer element for me, and as such, will be built together as we move through the year.

This is still very much a work in progress. As I look at this flow chart I am struck by the distinct lack of activities for students to practice their critical thinking skills with. I need more and I need to see how it works in an actual classroom. However, all my experience in getting kids to be independent workers points to this being a successful and achievable model. I’m excited to try it out.

If you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment.

Why is our Math Instruction Stuck in the 19th Century?

Our math instruction is stuck in obsolescence. There was a time when it was necessary to do mathematics by hand, but that time has passed. The advent of computer technology has opened up new doors to us as teachers of numbers, but we have yet to walk through them.

This is an issue that has been nagging at the back of my consciousness for some time now, but only recently has it been brought to the forefront. Recently I watched as day by day a handful of my students struggled to master the procedures for long division, even when the rest of them had moved on. I began to wonder why; why is this necessary? Why do I bring some of them literally to tears by making them repeat steps for an algorithm I have never used in a practical sense in my entire life? How far do I push them to master this?

The answer, of course, is that I have to. This skill is on the big high stakes standardized test, so I am required to have them master this skill. After all, we are ALL graded by their performance on this test, so they must be competent in all of the skills as laid out by the state and federal government. But what if that test weren’t there? Would I still force them to master this skill?

It wasn’t until watching a Ted Talk by Conrad Wolfam that my thinking began to clear. Wolfram argues that solving a math problem is made up of 4 steps:

1. Pose the right question about an issue
2. Change that real world scenario into a math formulation
3. Compute
4. Take the math formulation and turn it back into a real world scenario to verify it

And while each of these steps are crucial, we as teachers spend an astounding 80% of our instruction time exclusively on step 3: computation. Worse, this step is one that can easily be taken over by computers. In fact, it is often better if computers take over this step since computing numbers is what computers are significantly more efficient and accurate at.

Yet in many cases computation is all we teach. Teachers (myself included) feel that if we can just get our kids to know how to compute well, the other three steps will take care of themselves. In reality, steps 1, 2, & 4 are quite complex and require a different kind of thinking entirely. Knowing how to effectively compute alone will never get students to a place where they can strategically solve complex real world problems. And we wonder why our students are bad at word problems?

Bookkeeping c. 1890

Keith Devlin makes a similar argument when he points out that if you “go into most math classrooms and what you see will most likely bring to mind a room full of clerks in the pre-computer age when companies employed large numbers of numerically-able people to crunch their numbers… Which was, of course, what the system was set up to provide.”

There was once a time where it was necessary to know how to compute well, just as there was a time where it was important to know how to to hitch a horse to a buggy. And while both of those skills may still be quaint and interesting to know nowadays, neither are essential to functioning in the 2st century. So why do we continue to teach them?

I think the reason is threefold. First we have teachers who feel very strongly that teaching computation gives students a good sense of numbers and how they work. While this is true for many kinds of mental calculations, it does not hold up when it comes to more complex algorithms. Take, for example, long division. The standard algorithm for long division is a complex pattern of steps designed as a shortcut to ease with calculation. These steps walk you through a process which actively circumvent knowledge of place value and division in order to arrive at an answer. Of course, this algorithm is complex, difficult to understand and is easy to make a mistake anywhere along the line that will result in a wrong answer. It is much faster and almost always more accurate to simply use a calculator or spreadsheet when it comes to division. The same can be said for multi-digit multiplication, fractions, linear functions, calculus, etc.

Of course, teachers are not alone in their expectation of calculation as the dominant form of math instruction in the classroom. Parents play an active role as well. Many parents expect daily calculation instruction and homework and can become frustrated when they don’t see that work coming home. Parents expect things to look the same as when they were in school and if it isn’t there something must be wrong. While this is not true of all parents, of course, it is enough to make the job of changing difficult.

The final reason why we are stuck in a computational training system is the big standardized test. If the test requires computation, then it is assured that teachers will teach those skills. Until we recognize that we are testing the wrong thing, we will continue to spend a majority of our time teaching computation.

I think that this issue can best be summed up in an interaction I had with a student a few weeks ago. He was working on a complicated word problem in class. It was the kind of problem that required not only steps 1, 2, and 4, but also a heavy dose of step 3: computation. As he began to delve into the computation I suggested that he use a calculator to both improve his accuracy and to free his brain from the challenge of calculating so that he could focus on the bigger picture. When the steps were finished, the calculations complete, and the problem correctly solved I congratulated him on a very excellent job of thinking through a tough problem. He thanked me, then sighed and said, “yeah, but I cheated.”

“You cheated?” I replied, surprised.

“Yeah, I used a calculator.” He said sadly.

He solved the problem correctly and yet he felt like he cheated because he used a better tool and didn’t solve the problem in the most difficult way possible. The idea of using the best computational tool available didn’t just not occur to him, he actively rejected it because he had been drilled to look at calculators as cheating. How is this helping this student?

This is a massive and difficult shift in thinking for everyone. We have been teaching math the same way for over 100 years. It is difficult to move beyond that. For the sake of our students, however, we must.

The Importance of Real Publishing for Students

I was struck again yesterday about the importance of real publishing of student writing in the 21st century classroom. We are now 5 weeks into our school year and since the beginning of the year we have been working on a writing unit called Personal Essay. This is not really an essay, per se, rather more of a small moment autobiographical story. The students spend a lot of time working on generating ideas through lists, testing different seeds, drafting different stories, and spending a lot of time revising their writing.

This year, though, I tried something a little different. I have used in my classroom for two years now, and I knew that I would use it again with this class. But this time I didn’t say anything to them about it. For whatever reason, I just didn’t feel like opening that door until we were ready. There was too much going on in my room what with setting up rituals and routines, getting to know each other, mandatory testing, and rolling out iPads, to warrant another piece to the puzzle. So I held off.

Until yesterday.

We are finally getting ready to publish our essays and so I broke the news to them that they wouldn’t just be handwriting a final copy to be turned in to me to read and grade. Rather, they would be publishing their work so that any and all could read their final stories. And this is where I was surprised by their reactions. Many of them were immediately visibly shaken, surprised, and discouraged. Hands went to faces and many had worried expressions.

They were used to the comfort of knowing that their writing didn’t truly matter. It would only be read by me, maybe a friend, and their parents. But now the stakes had changed. Their writing meant something and they were scared by that.

Their perspective changed in that moment. Now they had no choice but to take their writing seriously, which is exactly what they did. Suddenly the act of editing their work became serious and they began to work harder, they were more focused, they asked me more questions about what I was looking for and how to make their writing better.

When I finally gave them the keys to blog to experiment with before they published, they were excited to try it out, to write, to know that others were reading and commenting on what they wrote, even if it was just their classmates. They wanted to write more, to share more, to take it home and write this weekend.

We haven’t published our stories yet, but there is already a different feel in our room because now they have an audience. A real audience.

And it matters.

Read Aloud Schedule

Why have a read aloud schedule?

I taught 6th grade for a number of years when I first began teaching. I enjoyed that grade and was sad to leave. Now I am entering my second year of teaching 5th grade after bouncing around for a while. This will be the first time in a long time that I have repeated the same grade two years in a row. One of the things that I always loved about teaching the same grade consistently was that I had a progression of read aloud books (with enough copies for everyone to read along with) timed just right. My progression fit the year, what we were learning, and the messages that I wanted to get across in such a way that the year flowed very smoothly.

While I read a number of good books out loud last year, I want a much more intentional progression than simply looking for a new book when we finish the old one. My reasons for this are twofold. The first is that I want to books that we read to fit some of the lessons that we teach. When we are learning about Renaissance painting, it would be good to be reading or have just read Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald as it is a mystery about two girls who think they have found an original and yet undiscovered Raphael painting. When we begin to learn about the Civil War and slavery, I want to have just finished Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis so that some of the realities of slavery are in the front of their minds.

The second reason that I want a predictable sequence is that I am going to be using the strategies and signposts from Kylene Beers’ and Robert Probst’s book Notice & Note: Strategies for close reading extensively this year. The six literary signposts that they outline in their book are excellent ways to teach explicit thinking skills to all readers. The signposts are literary elements that most authors use in their writing and by teaching those signpost to our students, we are able to give them things to look for and think about as they read. Reading is comprehension, and for students who struggle with interacting with text (i.e. who think reading is simply reading the words) the Beers’ and Probst’s signposts are an excellent place for students to begin looking within text so that they can read closer and comprehend on a deeper level.

Quality reading instruction revolves around a complex ecosystem of elements. One of those elements is the idea of explicit instruction and modelling of reading strategies. By reading aloud with the six signposts in mind, I am able to demonstrate, isolate, and model finding them in a real and explicit way. To this end, my read aloud can become a direct part of my mini-lessons and explicit instruction. By creating a specific progressions and a set bank of read aloud books, I am able to locate, plan for, and teach the signposts in each of the books that we read aloud. Together, we as a class can have a common set of stories and experiences around both the joy of reading and the specific mechanics that make us better readers.

The List

  • Blubber by Judy Blume

    (September) This is an excellent book about the power of bullying, particularly among girls, and the perfect way to start off the year. Since the main character is actually one of the bullies who doesn’t see that about herself, this book lends itself to excellent class discussions around the subject. In 5th grade the social drama starts to get intense and this book gives us a great touch point to return to throughout the year when this subject comes up. My students get very uncomfortable and squirm a lot during this book which tells me we are just where we need to be.

  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

    (October – Early November) This is the ultimate fantasy book and the book not only started but continues to define the genre. Given that the movies were just released in the last few years, this is an excellent lesson in reading the book first (it’s always better). Last year, some of my students used this book as an inspiration to begin playing Dungeons & Dragons during lunch, and I hope that I can inspire a similar group again this year.

  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman

    (Mid-November – December) Yes, everyone knows and loves the movie, but what they don’t know is that the movie is actually based on the book, and that the book makes the movie look like the worst thing ever put on film. This twisted fairytale is hilarious to read; full of action and excitement; and because it is so sophisticatedly written, gives us lots of signposts to look for. Plus, this way I get to RUIN the movie for another 30 people by showing it after we finish reading the book!

  • Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald


    (January) This mystery is the perfect book to read in conjunction with our Renaissance artist slideshows and presentations, while still giving us plenty to explore in relation to the genre of mystery. Because the students will be learning all about Renaissance painters at the same time, they will have plenty of background knowledge to bring to bear on this book. Plus, it is a fantastic book!

  • Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis


    (February – early March) This has quickly become one of my favorite books for this age. This book about the first child born to escaped slaves in a settlement in Canada is set in the 1850’s. It is the perfect story to bring the realities and horrors of slavery in a way that is appropriate for this age. The main character is charming and funny, and the story is extremely well told. The end is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. Finishing this book is a guaranteed tear jerker and an amazing shared emotional experience that brings us together as a class.

  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster


    (March – mid April) This is a classic, yet often overlooked book. This lighthearted tale of a boy who goes off to an imaginary and silly land is full of laughs and groans. Rest assured, the students will well understand the concept of the “pun” by the time this book is over. Even then, there is still an excellent lesson and moral that can be explored.

  • One or Two More?


    This leaves me approximately one, possibly two books short. There are lots of options that I could go with, but I am still missing that just right book that makes the perfect read aloud. Having looked up some other lists of read alouds for this age, I will be picking up and reading some of the following possibilities:

    A Year Down Yonder (Richar Peck)

    Out of My Mind (Sharon Draper)

    Tortilla Sun (Jennifer Cervantes)

    Schooled (Gordan Korman)

    Of course, I am always open to suggestions, so please feel free to leave your ideas in the comments section.

Math Daily 3 and Task Board

The second item on my back to school list is a math task board similar to the one that I made for reading. This seems simple enough, in fact, I will likely end up making a modified copy of what I use for reading to use in math.  However, as you can see from what I wrote on my list, this item is far less about the task board than it is about the guiding philosophy and intention of how I want to structure my math period:

Task Board for math- With a heterogeneous group in place will we need to shift to a Daily 2/3 system? What will that look like? What will the pieces and task board look like? How will EM fit into the system? ThatQuiz? Hopscotch? Problem solving?

While the implementation of The Daily 5 (Boushey & Moser, 2014) has been extremely successful for our literacy block, our math time has been a little more haphazard. This coming year I would like to be more intentional and focused in using what Boushey & Moser (2014) call the Math Daily 3.

Math Daily 3

Boushey & Moser describe the Math Daily 3 as having three elements:

  • Math by Myself
  • Math Writing
  • Math with Someone

As with the Daily 5 for literacy, the Math Daily 3 is not a content specific organism.  Boushey and Moser stress very clearly that “Math Daily 3 is not about providing specific content” (p. 123). Rather, the Math Daily 3 is a framework of independence and choice around which students engage in mathematical thinking, activities, and work. It gives the students a specific set of tasks and activities to be working on and allows the teacher to be freed up from classroom management to instead focus on small group work and on individual conferences. Like with the Daily 5 for literacy, this kind of organization and independent setup is perfect for my classroom.  We are a space in which independence and student choice are paramount, and the Math Daily 3 fits that thinking perfectly.

The difficult question to address is what will each of these elements look like in my classroom?  It is interesting to note, that while Boushey and Moser give a few general examples, there are very few specifics as to what each of the three part of the Math Daily 3 should look like.  In the end, this is probably for the best.  While the Math Daily 3 is a fantastic framework, there is still the necessity of making sure that I address both our state and district standards and expectations when it comes to content.  However, there are a few specific ideas that I am beginning to solidify as the new year approaches.

Math by Myself

This is perhaps the element most consistent with a more traditional style of teaching.  Give the kids work and have them do it in silence is fairly standard stuff.  There is a place for rote practice and drill, and this may be one of the things that gets placed here.  One of the best tools that I have come across for basic algorithmic skills practice is ThatQuiz is a fantastic resource for teachers who have students who need skill practice.  It has an amazing variety of skills to be practiced, from arithmetic to calculus, and each skill comes with a large number of different degrees of difficulty.  You can set easy practice or hard practice across a wide range of skills.  One of ThatQuiz’s best features is it’s immediate feedback.  This allows students to see whether or not they are correct as they progress through the assignment.  This kind of independence is perfect for Math by Myself.

Math by Myself is also a good place for certain Everyday Math pages (this is our district mandated curriculum).  The teacher’s guide for Everyday Math denotes whether or not each page is better used as independent or partner work. Depending on the skill and the quality of the work on the page, I will specify which pages of the student’s math journals should be done during their Math by Myself time.  One of the drawbacks to this, however, is the lack of feedback to the student other than us taking the time at the end of class to go over the assignment and the answers.  It is therefore quite easy for students to practice their skills incorrectly using the math journals.

Math Writing

This is the area of the Math Daily 3 that is most different from a traditional math program.  Perhaps because of this, it is also the area that is most ambiguous in The Daily 5 book as well.  Boushey and Moser (2014) describe that Math Writing is “the time students express and articulate their thinking and understanding by working on a particular math problem or math concept through pictures, numbers, and words, and occasionally by creating problems of their own” (p. 124).

So what exactly does that mean?  It seems quite open to interpretation and because of this I am deciding to take it in a couple of different ways.  First, the idea of practicing problem solving seems quite important.

Problem Solving

All too often we as teachers focus on our students knowledge of particular algorithms, then assume that by knowing how to divide, they will automatically know how to solve complex problems using division.  Unfortunately, solving complex problems is significantly different than simple division, so much so as to really be separate skills.  Teaching students to be strategic about how to solve problems isextremely important and one that I feel is actually more important.

Therefore, the idea of having students solve problems during Math Writing time, might be a valuable experience.  This might mean a daily problem of some kind, or even a collaborative problem that students could work on together.  This idea of collaborative problem solving is one that I have used for a number of years, though this kind of work is better suited for a whole class period than a single 20-30 minute session.

Math Concept

I think that perhaps the better way to interpret the idea of Math Writing is in the idea of the math concept.  Students are often taught math concepts, without really making any deep connection or exploring the concept in a real way.  What if we gave students the time to explain a topic in their own way, with their own voice, and in a media of their choosing?  What if instead of simply learning about right, obtuse, and acute angles, they had to explain the concept on their own and give examples that they themselves found?

I experimented with something like this late last year when my students were exploring the concept of pi and where it comes from.  All of my students understood that pi is approximately 3.14, but did they understand why?  I had them all bring in different circles, then measure the circumference and the diameter.  Then they made a spreadsheet and divided the circumference by the diameter to get a number approximately close to pi. You can see from this Tweet how it went.

This wasn’t enough however.  I still felt that my students’ grasp on this concept was too thin.  It had been fun, but even by the next day I could tell that they hadn’t really absorbed the concept.  This gave me the chance to have them try and explain the concept.  Using their iPads and whatever app they felt like expressing themselves in, I had each one describe the concept of pi to each other.  The results exceeded my wildest expectations.

I had students creating videos, stop motion animation, coding games and movies in Hopscotch, and creating presentations in Adobe Slate.  I was impressed not only with the quality of the work, but in the level of sophistication and understand of the underlying concept. I feel quite strongly that this is exactly the kind of in depth work that should be done during the Math Writing time. Here are some examples:


The final important piece that I think will fit into the Math Writing sessions is writing computer code.  Last year my students used the iPad app Hopscotch to learn to code.  What began with a couple of lines of code to draw different geometric shapes, blossomed quickly into my students coding animations, their own computer games, and even movies.  The critical thinking, problem solving, error analysis, tenacity, and logical reasoning all increased as a result of their working in Hopscotch.

Coding is another vehicle for students to express their thinking and understanding of a concept, and is an essential 21st century skill.  Giving students time during their Math Writing time to practice their coding skills will be extremely important.

Math with Someone

The third piece of the Math Daily 3 is Math with Someone.  This time is set aside for students to find a partner to work with on some set of math activities.  Math with Someone is another time for students to work on a variety of tasks.  As with Math with Myself, this is another time for students to work on their math skills.  While Everyday Math often denotes certain pages to be worked on independently, it equally as often denotes having students work in pairs to complete some of the math journal pages.  Giving students certain pages to be completed during this time will be a fixture of this partner time.

Another integral part of Everyday Math is the program’s math games.  Everyday Math includes a wide variety of math games designed to be played in order to practice certain skills and concepts.  These games are almost always designed to be played with two players and they lend themselves well to be played during this partner time.

The final piece of Math with Someone is Math Review.  As put forth by Ainsworth and Christinson (2006), Math Review is the first of the Five Easy Steps to a Balanced Math Program. Our district has adopted this program and using Math Review as part of our daily routine is expected.  While Math Review is supposed to only take 10-15 minutes per day, even this amount of time severely limits our ability to get through all three of the Math Daily 3.  I am looking for ways to integrate at least some of the Math Review work into my students’ Math with Someone time.  If the students can work on the problems together with a partner, we can save anywhere from 5-10 minutes of class time each day.  We can still correct the problems together at the end of the period and make sure that we are going through the progression and error analysis that makes Math Review an important activity.

What About the Task Board?

As you can see, a task board was the least of my issues when it comes to structuring my math period this year.  In order to be consistent, I think I will default to something very similar to what I use for reading.  Something like this, though of course with three sessions instead of four:

Daily 5 session task boardThis task board will allow me to schedule flex groups and individual conferences in such a way as to allow the students to better plan their work time for the entire math period.

I am looking forward to being able to sink my teeth into the Math Daily 3 and to create in math what we already have during our reading time: a classroom that is actively engaged, independent, creative, hard working, and that is built around student voice and choice. I look forward to the challenge.


Ainsworth, L. & Christinson J. (2006). Five Easy Steps to a Balanced Math Program for Secondary Grades. Englewood, CO: Lead + Learn Press.

Boushey, G. & Moser, J. (2014). The Daily 5: Fostering Literacy Independence in the Elementary Grades (2nd Edition). Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers Review

One of the best tools that I have come across for basic math skills practice is ThatQuiz is a fantastic resource for teachers who have students who need skill practice and access to enough devices. ThatQuiz is a web based software that gives students practice (they refer to them as tests) in a wide range of skills. While ThatQuiz has other options besides mathematics practice, I have only used it for mathematics work, and am limiting this review to that subject.


ThatQuiz has an amazing variety of skills to be practiced, from arithmetic to calculus, and each skill comes with a large number of different degrees of difficulty. This allows you to set easy practice or hard practice across a wide range of skills.

Making an assignment is incredibly simple.  Click on the skill category, then on the subtopic, and from there you are given a great range of options and difficulties.  Depending on the options picked, the assignment will repopulate itself with new problems each time a new option is added, taken away, or changed.

In the following example, you can see that under the category for Fractions & Decimals, I am giving my students an assignment that contains twenty addition and subtraction problems of mixed fractions.  The level of difficulty is set at 4, meaning that the problems are likely to have uncommon denominators that will not be too difficult, and may contain some borrowing.  The students must also express their answers in lowest terms or it will be counted as wrong.

ThatQuiz Make an Assignment

Another nice option of ThatQuiz is the ability to make your own assignments.  There are times where the standard set of assignments and skills are not enough, or not the skills that you need.  In those cases ThatQuiz offers the ability to make your own tests.  You are able to make your own slides, create your own problems, and are also able to put a space for correct answers.  I have used this option a few times when what I want to specifically address just isn’t covered by ThatQuiz.

Once the assignment has been assigned to my class, the students go to the student portal to take the test.  There are options to have them sign in to make sure that no one else takes their test, however I have never used that and have really only had a couple of accidents like this.  I have my students create a bookmark on their iPad homepage, so that once the have found the student portal page, they don’t have to find it again.  Once at the student class portal, the student then chooses their name and can see all of the tests assigned to them.  By clicking on the test, a new window will pop up and they can take the test.  As they take each test, the test will disappear from their home screen until there are no assignments left for them to complete.

ThatQuiz Student Portal

This is a very handy feature, because the student can never say they didn’t see an assignment and if they are absent one day, I don’t need to worry about giving them a makeup assignment.  It is still sitting there waiting for them.   I’ve even had students who were sick or otherwise absent who have gone into ThatQuiz from home and completed their assignment while they were away.  This kind of flexibility is really amazing.

In my opinion the best feature, and the thing that really makes ThatQuiz invaluable, is the ability to set each assignment for immediate feedback.  Students will know immediately upon answering the question if they got it correct or not. In my experience, this causes most students stress and forces them to search out help immediately, rather than waiting until we (maybe) correct the page together at the end of class, or even worse, after the end or unit test is given and they no longer are able to do anything about it. Getting that immediate feedback about whether or not they understand pushes them get that help during their work time and while their understanding is still developing. It is an invaluable tool.

ThatQuiz assignment

The student can see immediately if they are getting the problems right or wrong.

Equally invaluable is the immediate feedback that I get from the students as soon as they finish each assignment, I am able to look and see how many they got correct, what their answers are, even how long it took for them to answer each question if I wish.  I can look at a global view of all of my students to get a picture of how the class is doing or look at an individual student’s test to try and find what mistakes or misconceptions they might be making.

ThatQuiz Grades

Class Grade Report for a quick global view.

ThatQuiz answers

Individual student grade to help assess individual difficulties.

This immediate assessment of their progress allows me to see, in real time, whether or not a student is understanding the material or not.  It allows me to catch those students who do not understand, especially those who did not seek out my help during the assignment itself.  I can either address the issue and try to fix it immediately, or I can schedule an individual conference with that student the next day.

Student grades sorted by percentage correct.

Student grades sorted by percentage correct for ease in gathering flex groups.

I am also able to sort the results by percentage, so that if I see enough students are not succeeding, I can pull those students as a flex group, and reteach the concept. Because ThatQuiz automatically generates new problems at whatever difficulty I desire, it easy to give those individual students or small groups another assignment of the same type with just a few clicks of the button.

This feedback and flexibility is particularly noticeable when it comes to the idea of homework.  Whereas before, I would hand out the same homework to all students regardless of skill level, now I am able to specifically target students with homework.  If a student got 90% or more on an assignment in class, that tells me that they are understanding the concepts extremely well. In this case, I would actually not assign this student any homework at all. Why should a student who has obviously mastered this concept be forced to redo work they already know?

This is in contrast to a student who has gotten a very low score on the assignment who can be given a quick lesson, then assigned homework at perhaps a lower level of practice more their speed.  Should a student get most right, but look like they could use more practice just to be sure, another assignment at the current level is just what they need.  As long as they have access to the Internet at home  they are able to get extra practice tailored to their skill level.  There is also the added accountability of the fact that they can’t loose this homework.  If it isn’t done at home, they will be responsible for doing it in class the next day.

The issue of Internet access or a computer can be a tricky equity issue.  Luckily, this year we are allowing our 5th graders to take their iPads home with them, thereby significantly increasing the number of students who will be able to do this kind of work at home.  This could be where the paid ThatQuiz iPad app could come in.  They themselves recommend only using that option for students who do not have access to the Internet at home.  For all other students, the free web based app is more than sufficient.

This idea of differentiating student work brings up one of my only issues with ThatQuiz: the fact that you cannot selectively give students assignments from the same class is a minor inconvenience.  If I have a subgroup of student who need another assignment, I cannot make that assignment then select which students in my class get the assignment.  Either all of the students get it, or none of them do.  There is a work around for this issue that I use, but it isn’t the most convenient.   In order to get tailored assignments for students, I have to make a new class of just that group, then make the assignment for that class.  This can be a bit clumsy and it means that the students have to go to a new homepage for their assignment instead of their usual one.  In the end, however, this is more awkward than prohibitive.

I have found the staff at ThatQuiz to be extremely responsive.  When I discovered that one of their quizzes did not include a functionality that I needed, I emailed them and was pleased to find that they had fixed the issue and included the function into their quiz making algorithm within 24 hours.  This was an incredibly responsive turnaround and impressed me greatly.

Overall, I find that for arithmetic and traditional “math” algorithm work, ThatQuiz is a fantastic tool.  It gives immediate feedback to both myself and the students, is flexible, and fun.  The students love doing their assignments in ThatQuiz and engagement in math is improved.  Best of all, it is completely free!


Reading Task Board

August is here, and that means that it is time to really start planning for the new year. At the end of last year, I made myself a list of things that needed to get done this summer. However, rather than actually working on the list, I found myself stressing over why I wasn’t working on it, and still managing to put it off. So I decided to give myself a break. I wouldn’t look at anything school related until August (other than Twitter, of course, but that is different).

Now that it is here, I am back to looking at the list of things to do for this coming year. First up (and yes, this is what my to do list actually says):

Task Board for reading– a place to put up/write which groups and/or conferences will be met with during which sessions. This will help the plan their sessions better and keep me from having to put off conferences because the person is busy. It will also help keep them better organized.

Marking the session's choices.Since I am a firm believer in the both the Daily 5 (Boushey & Moser, 2014) and The CAFE Book (Boushey & Moser, 2009), this piece of daily organization has become very necessary. Over the past year, my students have become extremely adept at using the Daily 5 to make their reading/writing/partner tasks each day. They are good at choosing their sessions and getting right to work.

However, what is lacking is a larger schedule that allows me to more efficiently meet with them. Too often I would have a conference scheduled, or a reading group scheduled, and I would be unable to get to them because the students had chosen a different activity during the time when I was free and looking for them.

As I moved through the year, I began to compensate for this by telling the kids at the beginning of the first session (when I remembered), which groups I was meeting with and during with sessions. I began to do that with my conferences as well. However, this always felt a little haphazard and loose, not to mention not particularly practical. The kids or I would sometimes forget which session I was to meet with them, and then we were back to square one.

So this year my goal is this: Create a space on the board, next to our session choices, where I can schedule each day’s conferences and small groups ahead of time. I will be responsible for planning this before the day starts, so that I can plan better. I will put up the names, and make sure to read them (or have my teacher helper read them) before the kids make their choice for their first literacy session. It will be prominent and large, with a section for each session to have names written down that will be visible to students who forget or need to plan their day.

As I sit here, I am wondering how to best do this. The simple way to go about this would be to simply create a document with some boxes for the session number, and a space for the place to write in the kids’/groups’ names. Something akin to this:

Daily 5 session task boardThis seems like a good way to go.  Simple, clean, and efficient.  I can put it on a piece of construction paper for a nice color backing and so that it matches the backing on the student’s choice board.

However, there is the teacher part of me that looks at this and wonders what could be.  Individual cards with each kid’s name on it? A card for each group? Laminated!? Oh, what about a felt background with velcro on the back of each card so they stick to the task board!!?

Ok, take it down a notch.  Maybe I need to be realistic about the realities of a task board in relation to the other things on my to do list.  Let’s have some perspective.  For now I am calling this one done and checking it off of my list.  There may be some tweaking to be done with sizes once I get it printed out and put up, but I can tackle that once I am able to get back into my room.

On to the next task!


Boushey, G. & Moser, J. (2009). The CAFÉ book: Engaging all students in daily literacy assessment & instruction. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishing.

Boushey, G., & Moser, J. (2014). The daily 5: Fostering literacy independence in the elementary grades (2nd ed.). Portland, ME.: Stenhouse Publishing.

Why I Chose to Rethink What a Classroom Looks Like

Early in my journey to becoming a 21st century teacher, I visited a couple of inspirational classrooms. These classrooms were designed with flexibility and choice in mind. It was clear that these spaces were no longer just classrooms, but learning labs, where students were given a wide amount of flexibility in their daily routines. Equally important to these spaces seemed to be the opportunity to move.

These visits coincided with my own studies on how the brain learns best. In discovering that movement is a key part of learning, that our brains need physical activity, choice, and manageable chunks of time in order to process new information, I began to make a shift in my thinking of what a classroom should look like.

The final piece to my new shift in thinking came with the publishing of the 2nd Edition of The Daily 5 by Gail Bushey and Joan Moser. I was already using the 1st edition extensively in my classroom, and at this point my room still looked very much like every other elementary school classroom in the US. Desks arranged in pods or groups which were all oriented towards the whiteboard, along with a small carpet for gathering a morning meeting, or for some kids to read on if they chose during reading time.

However, upon reading the new Daily 5, I was struck by their description of how they designed their learning spaces. In particular, I was impressed with the idea that traditional desks and tables could be mostly eliminated. If students were to stay focused and work hard during work times, then the comfort of the child was paramount, not the needs to the teacher to keep order. The key idea here is that without formal seating, I no longer needed desks, and I could reduce the number of tables such that there would only be enough formal seating for about half of the students at one time.

With these new ideas in mind, I began to redesign my classroom.

My Two Worlds of Teaching

More and more I feel that I live in two different educational worlds. Neither of these worlds intersects in any meaningful way, yet both of them profoundly define me as a teacher and affect how my students learn. They affect my school, my district, and my profession in ways that they have never before, and yet they are so completely at odds as to actually contradict each other.

In the first world, I work hard to perfect my craft. I am learning a variety of techniques about how the brain works, how to incorporate character into my curricula, and how to move forward as a dynamic educator. Based on the coursework that I have been engaged in over the past two years, along with my own independent research into edTech, I was excited about the prospect of completely overhauling my classroom last year. I gave my students more choice in the order in which they complete tasks throughout the day, and gave them choice as to where they want to actually do their work. I also structured our schedule to break the learning time into smaller chunks with movement and brain breaks where we are able to come back together, regroup, change working choices, and then find a comfortable place to get back to work (Boushey & Moser, 2014).

In this world I have had the freedom to re-imagine the physical structure of my classroom. I did away with desks entirely and retained only enough table space for about half of my students to sit at in any one time. Instead, I created a variety of comfortable spaces around the room where the kids can choose to work on the floor, on couches, even under tables if they choose. All of this to try and give them options, choice, and a chance to move (Boushey & Moser, 2014). A boy rolling around on the floor or moving his body as he is focused reading a book is fine, whereas the same boy being forced to sit at a desk while he fidgets and talks to his neighbor is a problem.

In this world, I work at keeping my lectures to no more than 8-12 minutes (Jensen, 2005), as my students attention spans are limited to about that in any given sitting. This is another reason to break the day into smaller, more manageable chunks, rather than larger lectures and/or working times. The brain’s natural circuit breaker kicks in after too much time on task, actually halting the absorption of new information; so smaller, choice driven sections will increase not only motivation, but overall learning and retention as well (Jensen, 2005).

In this world, I am also a valued member of a tight knit school community. I am friends with many of the parents across grade levels. I am well liked by all of the parents of my students, and feel remarkably appreciated by them each time I see them. I love going to work every day, and I see each day and each year as a new and exciting challenge. I am fulfilled in my role as a teacher.

The second world I teach and live in is markedly different. It is a place where I am the root cause of all of the issues that face education. I am a failure because not all of my students pass an arbitrary, shallow, and essentially biased standardized test. The unions of my fellow teachers are under attack because apparently they protect greedy and lazy educators who do nothing to help their students. I am repeatedly told that I must narrow the curriculum because only the subjects on the test should be taught. Innovate? Experiment? Inspire? Forget it, kids need to pass the test, nothing else matters.

I am having a hard time reconciling these two different worlds. How can I be treated so differently simply because I move across town from a school with low a socio-economic status to one with high socio-economic status? Don’t all students deserve the same opportunities to explore, create, and develop a love reading and learning? I have trouble reconciling these two worlds because I am a professional who is working hard to learn to be better at my job. I know what my children need in order to grow, and yet I have been told so often that what I know and what my professional judgment says is wrong.

I look at what I have learned about motivation, teaching, and the brain and I ache to work in a world where all of our teachers are trusted enough to know and practice their craft, not just those of us lucky enough to work in a low poverty school. I dream to work in a world where we are given the freedom and support to push ourselves and our students in healthy, interesting ways instead of in painful narrow ways.

Boushey, G. & Moser, J. (2014). The Daily 5: Fostering Literacy Independence in the Elementary Grades (2nd Edition). Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Reflective Statement on Professional Growth

I have grown an amazing amount as a professional in the past five years. Really though, much of that growth has been just in the past year. I have grown so much that it is hard to compare the teacher who I was to the teacher that I am now. The reason for this change has been the intense amount of professional development that I have undergone as a result of getting my Master’s Degree.

In the January of 2014 I enrolled in an accelerated Master’s program that would take me through eleven classes in thirteen months. It was an unbelievably intense year that saw me working on teaching, parenting or school for an average of 12-15 hours per day, every day, for the entire thirteen months. In spite of the intense hours and constant work, I found myself energized by the experience. Never in my life have I put so much effort into one thing, and never in my life have I been so rewarded by the experience. To say that my coursework was transformative is not an overstatement.

The course work for my degree was focused on curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in reading. The first few courses I took were on a variety of subjects, and while I found them to be interesting, it was the class on Theories of Teaching and Learning that was my first big breakthrough. This class focused extensively on how brains function and the best ways to teach in order to optimize learning. In this class I began to really look at my instructional practices and to realize that I needed to move away from a teacher centered style of instruction to a more student centered one where the students were doing the majority of the work.

This class also caused me to rethink what a classroom looks like. I began to look at the “traditional” classroom with a new eye and to question assumptions about a learning space that most often taken for granted. From there I began a radical redesign of my classroom based on the brain, comfort, and choice. This year my classroom looks completely different. There are no more desks, hardly any tables, and instead there are an abundance of options for students to choose from when it comes to seating. I have also learned to break my students learning into smaller chunks with brain and body breaks between the chunks so that my students are more relaxed and fresh as we move through the day. Because of these changes, my students are much more on task, work harder, and are happier at the days end.

Besides the radical redesign of my classroom that came out of my classes, the reading classes that I engaged in were also immensely valuable. In these classes I learned the importance of and techniques of reading assessment, current trends in children’s literature, how to manage and organize reading programs (i.e. how to be a literacy coach), and many advanced techniques for reading instruction. To quantify all of the amazing things that I learned in these classes would take too long, but there were some larger themes that I learned that I will share here.

To begin with, I learned that reading instruction is a complex ecology. There is no one strategy that will work for any given child. Also, reading itself is a complex act and must be taught that way. Teaching skills in isolation cannot be the only aspect that is focused on. Rather, students must be taught how to engage with text, how to ask questions of themselves and the authors, and how to love the act of reading. This complexity must be taught, modeled, and coached in students. In the end, the students must put these ideas into practice and be given ample opportunity to read.

All of these larger themes have dovetailed perfectly with the redesign of my classroom, and as a result my students have read like never before. Their skills and love for reading have grown substantially, and at the end of the year, almost all of my students made impressive gains on their reading MCA’s.

I have learned many things over this past year or so. I have learned many specific techniques and many larger themes. I have made some seismic philosophical shifts and have improved my teaching enormously. In the end, however, I think that the most important thing that I learned was that I should never stop learning. I now devour professional books, and am always reading articles on best practices in education. I am actively looking forward to the next five years and wondering what classes I can take and what my professional development will be. If it anything like these past five, I will be very happy at the end of it.