Monday, July 27, 2015

Math Tips: Asking the Right Questions

One of my favorite parts of the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice is the attention paid towards getting students to actually think about the mathematics they are being asked to work with. 

That being said, after I read the Standards for Mathematical Practice, I sat back and wondered, "Exactly HOW do we support kids to do this kind of thinking?" I could have the greatest, most engaging math problem in the universe, and if I just threw it at them and walked away, I knew the results could be disastrous.

At the time, I was participating in some pretty amazing PD through my district and a local university. It was all about math and how we could improve students' learning and understanding in a variety of ways. One of the things we discussed was questioning.

Once we started having conversations about questioning, I knew that the questions I asked students (and they asked each other) could potentially be the key to the kingdom of having a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.

1. Have a Plan: This was probably the hardest one for me when I first started shifting my thinking about using questions more effectively in mathematics. How was I supposed to know what questions to ask? To begin with, I found a few "go-to" questions - I especially liked "How did you figure that out?" and "Why do you think that idea is working?" Each time I planned a lesson, I kept a few of these types of questions in my back pocket to help kids extend their thinking. I even put them up on posters or cards at the back of the room to remind me! When you know what questions you might ask ahead of time, it helps you to bust those bad boys out when you are circulating around the room or working with a small group of kids.
2. Think Like Your Students: After you make a list of the questions you want to use, start thinking about what answers kids might have. Think BIG, because you know they will say exactly what you aren't expecting! I've even made plans that go something like this: If So-and-So says _____, then I will ask _____. Be prepared for lots of answers, but don't get thrown off if they say something you didn't think of! Sometimes, I have to take a minute to think of how I want to answer or what I want to say, and that's ok! (Don't tell anyone, but I've even said things like, "I don't know if I completely  understand your idea yet. Can you give me a minute to think about it?")
3. Don't Rescue: As teachers, we HATE to watch kids struggle. It's painful and we want them to get it! But, I'm here to tell you, it's ok to let them struggle. That's where the real learning happens! Questions are a great way to fight the urge to jump in and rescue a child who is struggling. Use your questions as a way to push their thinking, especially when you just want to give them the answer or tell them the next step. Ask them a great question instead, so they can come to the idea on their own.

Here's a hilarious video about what NOT to do:
4. Let Them Lead: The best kind of questions are the ones where they get to take the lead, not the ones that lead them to the answer. (See video above?) I always know I've asked a leading questions when the answer sounds like a question! It gets to that point where the student is just saying what they think you want them to. A question that gets them thinking in the right direction, does just that! Gets them thinking and back to working on the task at hand. The more open ended your question, the more thinking will happen!
5. LISTEN! Last, but not least, LISTEN. Once you've asked them a great question, really pay attention to what they are saying in response. It can be really hard when you have a great toolbox of questions ready to go, but be prepared to just take the time to hear what they have to say. It's the most important part of the questioning process, in my opinion!

I hope that if this is a new idea to you, it will get you started! If you are already using questioning as a great instructional strategy, I hope it maybe gave you a new idea.

If you are looking for some ideas for questions to ask, you can check out these Math Talk Questions that are in my TpT shop.

I would love to hear your favorite question you use during math, so make sure and tell me in the comments!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Classroom Management: A Culture of Respect

I will never forget my first year as a teacher. I got a job late - and when I say late, I mean 3 weeks after school had already started. I was lucky though - a friend a knew a principal who was looking for a teacher, and that helped me get an interview. It turned out that the job was a split position - the morning at one school and the afternoon at another. It was one of the hardest years of my teaching career - even harder than the year I taught 36 4th and 5th graders in one room while having a sub once a week while I was mentoring teachers in my building. Well, ok. Maybe they are tied.

Anyway, the main reason I made it through that first year and even considered continuing as a teacher was the amazing support I got from the instructional coaches in both buildings. I know that not every new teacher is so lucky, so today I'm happy to be able to pay it forward (many moons later).

If there is one thing I feel like I handle pretty well in my classroom, it is management. My classroom is (usually) a good place to work, take risks and feel supported. (I think my students would say they feel this way.)

I have done a lot of the usual classroom management things: clip charts, flipping cards, and even points on the board, but I have found that none of these things are particularly effective unless you have some underlying classroom foundations. And that's where my tip comes in:

When I was a new teacher, I didn't really understand this idea. In fact, I don't think anyone ever talked to me about it. I thought respect meant that I was the only person in the room that got a say. I thought it meant classroom control. I thought it meant that everyone was quiet all the time. I remember feeling really panicked if kids were talking at all in my classroom during my first couple years of teaching. I felt like if I let anything go that I would lose complete control of the class. Boy, was that exhausting! (Side note: You know those back to school dreams you start having around this time of year? Mine are ALWAYS about an out of control class that I can't seem to get to listen to me!)

What I learned was that in order to get respect, you have to give it. I know that sounds simple. But it changed how I ran my classroom.

1. Let It Go
From the very beginning, I let my students know that I am not the only one in charge of things. Kleenex box empty? Grab a new one. No paper in the basket? Open up a new package and fill that bad boy up! Stomach growling for your irresistible snack? Go ahead and eat it. I started to let go of the little things - the things that don't disrupt others and let kids have the feeling that they can control parts of their day.

This doesn't mean I don't have boundaries. It just means that I respect them enough as people to take care of things. I have very clear boundaries. For example, they know that my Teacher Toolbox is for my teacher tools! They have their own supplies, so mine are off limits. But feel free to get in the kid friendly cabinet if you need new glue sticks for your table. They know where the line is because I tell them. No sense in making those things a secret!

2. Get To Know Them and Be Real
The other, even more important part of giving and getting respect is getting to know your students.  Older kids especially are masters at knowing how much you care - or how much you don't.

Get to know them. Talk to them. LISTEN to them. Understand them. Let them know that you are all on the same team and you have their back. It doesn't hurt to show them your human side - they love to know you are a real person. Silly, sad, happy, funny...

Fake mustache optional
Sometimes this is simple - lots of kids love to make connections with their teachers. But sometimes it's hard. Sometimes there's that kid (or kids) who doesn't trust adults or doesn't want to make connections. Guess what? Those are the same kids who need great classroom management the most. They can be your biggest ally or your worst enemy. By making the effort to show those students how much you respect and care about them, you will be improving your classroom culture a million percent. I always find that once they know you they will do just about anything for you, if you just ask. (Side note: This, for some reason, does not apply to asking them to behave for a substitute. I have not figured that one out yet.)

This year, I had that student. Every teacher before me told me how hard he was, and how much trouble he would cause our classroom. I got to know him. I enjoyed his sense of humor and I think he recognized that I wasn't judging him based on his past. Now, I'm not saying we didn't have our tough days, but he knew that I had a lot of respect for him and he returned it. The ultimate compliment came at the end of the year. He was sitting at my table working on a project and talking to a friend. He said, "The teacher never likes the class clown." (He meant himself.) I looked at him and told him I was a little offended by that. He made a face and said, "Well, not you. Regular teachers. You're not just a regular teacher." It made all that hard work to get to know him worth it.

As a new teacher, it can be difficult to give up control of those kids in the desks. It can be really hard to get to know the high-flyers who make your life hard. But if you can keep some of these things in mind, you might find that your classroom runs more smoothly!

If you have ideas about classroom management for new(ish) teachers, please add them in the comments!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Viva Las Vegas!!! TPT Conference Adventures

True story: I got lost in the Venetian.

I stayed in a different hotel than the Teachers Pay Teachers conference, and after filling my brain to the brim on Thursday, I got lost. I had no idea how to get out of there. It was NOT my finest moment. (I didn't actually sit down in once place and cry and wait for someone to rescue me, but I was tempted.)

After I got in bed that night, I started getting really down. I kept thinking to myself, "What am I doing here???" I'm a really small seller on TPT and I just was not seeing how I could possibly live up to all the awesomeness I was seeing in the sessions! Once I got over my self-imposed pity party, I thought about what I might say to one of my students.

I think I would say something like, "You, my friend, are here to LEARN. That means you aren't supposed to know it all before you get here! The best you can do is try."

Once I could turn off that negative part of my brain, I reminded myself that some sellers are in a really different place, and that's ok! We all have to start somewhere. And all that matters is that I'm ready to start!

It was a lot easier for me to enjoy the rest of my trip once I got over myself and my own mental blocks about what I should be doing! It was better to take an open-minded learning stance and soak in every minute that I could. And then I started actually having a ton of fun!

If you managed to stick with my story, I'd love to share a few highlights of the trip with you! And no, getting lost in a giant resort hotel would not be considered a highlight!

Thanks to Jessica and Melissa from The Elementary Entourage, I'm linking up with the Viva Las Vegas Linky Party!


I met so many amazing people in Vegas. I feel especially grateful that I got to hang out with Mercedes from Surfing to Success a TON! We really got to know each other and had a great time learning together. I also met Kristin from A Teeny Tiny Teacher, which was like meeting a celebrity for me. I tried not to sound like a goober when I talked to her. It was also great to meet Melissa from Wild About Fifth Grade, Deb from Crafting Connections, Emily from I Love My Classroom, and Stephanie from Falling Into First. I also met Chandra from Powerpoint Gaming and Kelly from An Apple for the Teacher. PLUS (I told you it was a great week!) I got to hang out with lots of my Colorado girls - Sara, Cecelia, and Kristen to name a few! I know there's more that I'm forgetting. I couldn't be happier to have met all of these awesome people that will no doubt make me a better teacher. :-)


First and foremost, I learned that I have a lot of work to do!! I got tips on how to be a better blogger, how to create amazing resources for my buyers and how to be myself even when it's really, really hard. Watching Adam Freed during the keynote speech actually got me a little misty eyed! It is amazing to see what kind of a company TPT really is and what kind of a community it fosters.

Not to mention I attended amazing sessions with people like Erin from Lovin' Lit, Stephanie from Falling Into First and Lindsay from Beyond the Worksheet. It was so inspiring to hear from sellers and to think about how I can apply their ideas into my own blogging and creating.


It was so fun to win an awesome t-shirt from Watson Works Edu (those girls are so funny and sweet!), a fabulous bunch of clip art from Glitter Meets Glue Designs AND I even got to do a little sightseeing when the conference was over, thanks to my hubby who flew out on Friday night. :-)


It is worth noting that I am a country mouse, through and through. I live in a rural area, and while Denver isn't THAT far away, I usually prefer to hang out in less city-like places. I don't catch cabs regularly, or walk through crowded streets. I like my wide open spaces. I live in a very quiet area and I like it that way!

But in Vegas? You need to be a city mouse, people. I know it's way out there in the desert, but I really had to dig deep and find my inner city girl. Once I did that? Things seemed to go more smoothly and I enjoyed myself!! In fact, I am REALLY glad I got to go.

I can't wait to see what's in store as I start collaborating with new friends, applying what I learned and remembering that sometimes you have to dig deep to find your inner strength!

Make sure you head over the The Elementary Entourage for the Viva Las Vegas linky party and see what else was going on in Vegas this past week!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Whatever Wednesday - Math Shifts Continued!

Hello all!! This will be the second post in a short series about MATH! Hooray! (If you aren't as excited as me, just play along!)

Last week, we started talking about the 3 key shifts required by the Common Core State Standards.

The first shift was all about the focus and you can read about it {here}.

Today's post is all about shift #2: COHERENCE.

Has this ever happened to you?

It's halfway through the school year. You've already taught a great unit on addition of whole numbers and your class did pretty well. You feel great about their understanding and now it's time to start on your unit about adding fractions. When you start teaching your lesson, the confused look on your students' faces tell you that they have no idea what you are talking about.

Teacher Meme - Giving Instructions

Even though it's frustrating, this feeling isn't new, right? Every time you start to teach a mathematical idea, your students treat it like it's the very first time, even if they've been taught it before. As the teacher, you know there are connections to what's been previously taught, but most students act like every day is completely brand new and relates to absolutely nothing they've ever seen before. (I'm not blaming the students or the teacher here! It's just something that happens!)

This is where coherence becomes your new best friend! Coherence is the intentional linking of topics and thinking across and within grade levels. It's overcoming the idea that mathematics is a set of disconnected procedures and rules, and helping students see how mathematical ideas are interconnected. Coherence allows students to see that each standard is "not a new event, but an extension of previous learning."

Some very smart people created learning progressions to help design the CCSS for mathematics in a coherent way.

For example:
In third grade, students are introduced to interpreting products of multiplication by thinking about equal groups of a certain number. i.e. 4 X 5 is the same as 4 groups of 5 objects each. (This is 3.OA.A.1, in case you were wondering!)

Fast forward to fourth grade, and students can use what they learned about equal groups in multiplication to help them start to think about how to multiply fractions with a whole number. This foundational understanding about equal groups of whole numbers can apply to "groups" of a fraction. i.e. 3 X (1/6) is the same as 3 groups of 1/6. (This is 4.NF.B.4.A!)
Click the picture to buy the great basketball clipart from Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah Designs!
I LOVE that the same representation covers this type of problem with whole numbers and fractions AND it's easy for kids to transfer that underlying concept from one year to the next. I think this is especially true if we put the problem into a context (read: word problem) but that is a post for another day! 

This is just one example of how coherence appears in the CCSS for mathematics. We could even extend this example to show how this concept supports fifth graders when they begin to learn about multiplying two fractions.

Remember those confused faces from before? With a combination of focus and coherence students can start to see mathematics as a set of interconnected concepts and ideas, instead of a bunch of disconnected topics and tricks. Lessons are extensions of their learning from previous grades and earlier in the year, and hopefully the look of "I've never seen this before" will be a thing of the past. :-)

I've linked up with April from Grade School Giggles for

Whatever Wednesdays

Want to learn more? Check out the resources below for more information.

Achieve the Core: VIDEO - The Importance of Coherence in Mathematics

 Achieve the Core: Shifts in Mathematics - At this link, you can find information about the major work of each grade level, and general information about the Shifts.

Core Standards website: Key Shifts in Mathematics - You can read more about all 3 Shifts here.

Are you working towards having a Common Core aligned math classroom? I would love to hear about your experiences with the 3 shifts in the comments or through email!