Math – It’s not always about numbers!

Last Friday we engaged in a fascinating math lesson in the fourth grade. Students used a math manipulative/construction tool called INTOOBA. They each had a turn to build a structure and then gave directions to their partner to build it without using any visual cues. It was so interesting to watch this learning unfold.


One of my co-teachers and I modeled how it would work. At times I would step outside my role with my partner and share my thinking and my process out loud. “Do you notice how I’m touching the structure as I go? It’s helping me keep track of what I’ve told Ms. Rogers to do since I can’t see her progress.” “Watch my hand. I’m putting it on top of this connector to help me figure out what direction to tell her to turn and how far.” Demonstrating also gave me empathy what my students would experience as they did it. I could refer back to my modeling if I needed to when I talked with partners.

I saw students adeptly give directions, and I saw students be less specific, for example, saying that it should “look like a laser.” Sometimes the errors came from the way the direction was given, and other times one occurred because of the way that the listener interpreted the directions. I got insight into who has a visual thinking strength and how students communicate their spatial sense. I could see how students handled frustration and who had persistence to push through their challenges. I also noted students who needed a little scaffolding in this lesson and gave it to them as needed. I watched fascinating strategies unfold, for example, one student figured out which direction in the classroom was north and directed her partner to make the rod point north.

Additionally, one of my goals was to provide a different sort of math experience. Unfortunately, it’s true that by 4th grade some students have already decided that they don’t like math. I feel a deep responsibility to show students the many faces of math. It was gratifying to hear students exclaim that this math was actually fun. When students wrote in their math journals to respond to the reflection questions, many replied that they learned that math was also about communicating or that math didn’t always have to be about numbers. This feels like a good first step on our 4th grade journey into math explorations.

I love having the opportunity to sit back and watch how students tackle a task. I think it’s important to be a “watcher of learners” and to carefully observe what tools students are using and which ones they’re ready for next. I need to remember to create multiple  opportunities to informally assess their skills in this way throughout the entire school year.

Back to School Organizing

It never fails. A new school year approaches, and I am overcome with the NEED to organize my environment. Of course that includes my classroom environment, but often it carries over to my home life as well. I wonder if it felt a little more intense this year because my youngest child went off to college this month. All I know is that I have been consumed with organizing and RE-organizing my environments for the past five weeks.

It started simply – this summer, my son added electrical wiring to the walls of my home office so that we could install better lighting. Once he finished, I needed to tidy up the construction mess. Somehow, the chaos of the space inspired me to rethink how I use it. My desk moved out, I consolidated paper files into nearly half the space (while recycling a lot of paper!), and I’m moving in a comfy chair for reading. My own cozy retreat for reading – something that I’ve dreamed about. I credit the change to technology upgrades. I no longer need a desk to house my computer as a laptop is far more streamlined and portable than a desktop PC.

Then my classroom. I wondered last spring if I could possibly rearrange furniture and like it anywhere near as much as it was configured at the time. I loved the cozy “living room” feel of our classroom library, and I definitely didn’t want to lose that. That wondering must have percolated in my brain’s subconscious all summer long for after our first day of meetings, I started emptying bookcases and moving furniture around. I knew that I would have to live in it for a bit before I could commit to it with kids, and I wanted time to work in the room. Turns out, I love it and I can’t wait to see how we actually use our new classroom configuration. I kept my flexible work spaces and seating options because I think that control and choice is important for students. Registration is tomorrow, and I’m so curious to see what my former students think of the rearrangement.

Next? Our schedule and our curriculum! Our school adopted a new schedule for this school year. It seems to have a minimal impact on the Lower School, but to my everlasting gratitude, both fourth grade homerooms have identical specials schedules. That means that our fourth grade team has maximum planning time in our week. Thank goodness! While we see the good in it, it meant we needed to reexamine how we allocate our teaching time across the week within the larger schedule’s structure. I may also make a change in our Social Studies units later this school year. I’m letting those ideas stew in my brain, and I’ll be talking with the 5th grade team and department chair to flesh out the plan further. My co-teacher and I also want to improve what we’ve done with reading and writing instruction. I focused on reading this summer, and she contemplated writing. I’m excited to add Notice and Note signposts to our reading work this fall.

Whew, is there more?! Yep. I spent much time today cleaning and organizing in my house. I’d gotten sloppy about putting things away this summer, and I had piles of items to put into their “homes.” I now have a couple of boxes to donate to the thrift store down the street, I reorganized cleaning materials into baskets, I emptied my ironing board that I’d been using as a horizontal catch-all surface, and I returned books that had piled up to their rightful shelves or baskets. Definitely, whew!

And … I feel mostly ready for the new school year. “Mostly” because I’m never fully ready. There is always something else that I could do or change or make. I’m not trying to achieve perfection. Learning is messy, and I’m excited to start finding out about these individuals that will make up our new fourth grade community.

It’s Not About the Climbing!

My school has the good fortune to have built a challenge course on our campus. It was completed last winter and this summer training was offered to any interested faculty to become a facilitator with the course. I decided to participate in part because I was directly approached and invited by our challenge course manager. (What a good reminder about personal investment and direct asking.) I also knew that my students would be thrilled! I went into it thinking that I would become more comfortable at heights and learn more about all the elements and how they can be used with students.

Wow, was I wrong! Yes, there were practical skills involved. I learned how to self-belay up a pole and safely set a pulley system for a dynamic belay. I learned how to tie specific knots. I learned how belay a person traversing a high element and on a climbing wall. How high? 35 feet off the ground! I even got to play on the elements where I felt comfortable pushing myself. I learned about a couple of the low elements, options for use with my fourth graders. But the key takeaway for  me was that our challenge course is simply a tool. A tool much like a classroom, a whiteboard, books, science equipment, maps, everything that we use to guide our students to access the curriculum. It’s an exciting tool for sure, and I have a responsibility to keep the focus on the learning.

What I learned has so much carryover into academic areas and especially into the social-emotional learning that we do. As a facilitator on the challenge course, I must create an environment of emotional and physical safety so that students can thrive. That’s what I do as a classroom teacher. If I don’t enable a student to feel safe, especially emotionally safe, it doesn’t matter how dynamic and exciting my teaching is – little learning will happen.

Choice and Voice are two other key components that work together to help learners develop self-efficacy. I feel strongly about giving kids choices in the classroom and making sure that they have input whenever possible.This isn’t new to me. Somehow, seeing it in this context and experiencing it as a learner this past week, helped me own the understanding in a deeper way than I had before.

I learned about the difference between encouragement and coercion, and how the words can sound EXACTLY THE SAME, depending on who made the choice. That was mind-blowing to think about, especially in connection with how I present and guide our Reading Challenge. I will be spending time in the next couple of weeks before kids arrive thinking about how to better present the Challenge and engage kids in making real-to-them choices so that I can encourage them throughout the year, not make them feel coerced to meet a goal that I set for them. So much of the language that I learned last week around identifying a person’s chosen challenge on the course is directly applicable to goal-setting with kids. I’m excited to use it and increase how much goal-setting and reflection we do as a learning community.

There was so much that I learned, and so much that I still have to digest. I can’t possibly represent it here in a single reflection. I imagine that my learning will be pondered frequently in this blog over the coming year, and I know that the facilitation learning I gained will play a role in my professional goals for this coming year. I’m still churning ideas in my head for how to craft the wording of my goal.

The icing on the cake is the stronger connection that I feel with the nine other faculty members who were in the training with me. I got to know teachers who I rarely see because of the different ages of learners that we teach. We decided to make our group an ongoing Professional Learning Community (PLC) for this school year. We’ll create times to practice our practical skills and talk about how to implement these ideas into our everyday teaching. We’ll celebrate success that happens. We’ll invite each other into our classrooms so that we can refine our skills. We’ll collaborate in ways that we don’t even know right now. It’s exciting, and I’m so glad that I took this class. It was definitely NOT about the climbing!


Self-chosen element + self-chosen goal + personal challenge = celebration!

NSTA Engineering Workshop

I had the privilege of presenting a workshop at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) STEM Forum in Denver last week. Last winter I was incorporating engineering design challenges into my science curriculum at the same time that I saw the NSTA call for proposals. I thought about what I had been doing with my students and chose a challenge that I could implement and demonstrate at a conference. I called on two of my colleagues, our Technology Integration Specialist and an Upper School English teacher, and they graciously reviewed my proposal draft to provide helpful feedback.

I was excited this spring when I finally learned that I had been accepted, and true to form, pulled my slides together in the week before the conference. As always, the ideas had been percolating for the last month, and I had proactively asked our parent and faculty community to save and bring in any cardboard tubes in the last weeks of school, so my procrastination was not quite as bad as it sounds. Every time that I went into my classroom this summer, I continued to discover even more tubes! I’m grateful to work within such a kind and supportive community. It’ll be great to have our cardboard tube collection be robust for future projects.

I had so much fun presenting. It was interesting to reflect that the last time I did a full presentation at a national conference was over 20 years ago, during my first incarnation as a teacher. The technology has changed (online slides vs overhead projector, for one thing), but it’s still all about sharing knowledge and making connections. I appreciated that the adults fully embraced the hands on challenge to build marble runs, and I loved that their products reflected the inherent creativity in the challenge, the necessity of collaboration and communication to be successful, and the critical thinking required to problem solve.

There’s a chance that I might be able to offer this workshop for preservice teachers. I’ve already begun thinking about how to adapt it for a different group, teachers with less experience and training. They’ll need more scaffolding and more opportunities to hear their peers’ ideas.

When the session was over, I felt energized. It was a successful workshop, and a great conference. I appreciate that NSTA thoughtfully invited speakers to address a wide range of teacher populations (preschool through high school and even higher education), a variety of science topics, and an array of teaching questions and strategies. The length was a perfect time to attend sessions, gain information, and not feel overloaded. I’m grateful that I took a chance writing a proposal this winter and for the opportunities that resulted.