Is there a debate: Are students behind in math?

To be behind insinuates there is a line, someone must be first, and someone must be last, with everyone else lined up in order. As parents we want our kids to be near the front of the line, and anything else is difficult to watch.

Before diving into the debate, and more serious discussions on matters related to education, math, and the future of our children, let’s set up an analogy. Are you behind in the laundry? I know it’s not exactly the same, nor is it “worth” the same. I get it, because I love math, and I live math. But, this is also a family blog, so hear me out.

Laundry (or fill in the chore of your choice)… some weeks I feel so caught up, it’s glorious. But, in reality, it just keeps coming, and if I am being honest, I should never rest because there is always more clothes to wash, or fold, or put away, or organize. There is always something new to do with clothes to make the laundry situation better. Most days and most weeks, it is good enough. Sometimes, though, it is overwhelming, and all of our bedrooms plus the laundry room are overflowing with clothes in multiples stages. Am I behind? I think the questions really are: Am I not up to my standards? I am not keeping up with the other people in the neighborhood? Am I disappointing people in my family? Is my mother-in-law judging me? Am I behind the laundry chore timeline that earlier generations of laundry care have set?

You have probably seen some of the articles about students being behind in math because of being out of the classroom since March, in whatever fashion that looks like in your schools. Or, maybe you have seen some discussion about it on social media. Here are some resources for background:

So, are students really behind?

Due to Covid-19, most of our kids have been schooling differently for almost a year now. Will that make a difference in their education? In their futures? In our collective society? No one really knows the answer to these questions. There is a lot to conjecture, but I think it is clear there are concerns about students falling behind academically. As an expert in learning gaps, I can examine the impact of remote (or hybrid) learning might have on your children, and give you some advice moving forward.

The opinions in articles have used test scores as evidence for lack of growth, as in every other school year. Among other findings, a highlight is that math scores “slipped 5 to 10 points” compared to 2019, while reading scores have remained stable or have increased. Further investigation, in my opinion, needs to be done surrounding the assessments. Granted a very small sample size, my own children have been in a school building with any consistency since March, and I do not know how they would have taken any standardized assessment of the caliber or validity needed for data to determine the progression of learning this year. On some tests they take, their cameras and microphones need to remain on, so distractions from every home is abundant. Other assessments allow for both cameras and microphones off. Not sure how any test results can be valid in that situation. The impact of internet stability, computer accessibility, and home environment are variables that cannot be overlooked when determining progress. Best practices in recent years has shown that for K-12 classroom assessments, a low-stakes test is preferred, especially in our current climate, but if we are trying to measure progress, we cannot rely on taking online assessments at home.

But, there are articles, opinions, and some data. So, what does all this mean?

Reading scores are doing well, according to the reports. My hypothesis is that students are most likely performing better in reading than in math because the majority of students can read at home with little to no adult assistance, at least by third grade. It’s an independent activity, and also does not necessarily build on the skills of the previous year. For example, let’s say last year your child was supposed to learn idioms, but did not do that due to the schools closing and remote learning is difficult. While there is a gap in his learning, one that will need to be filled eventually, it may not be inhibiting him from learning about sentence structure or protagonists now. Parts of learning in language arts are linear, but it isn’t as dependent on prior concept understanding as math. 

Math is a less- less independent of an activity, less understood by parents, less liked by children, but also it is more linear. It is more important for students to have mastered (or at least been exposed to, and actively participated in) a previous concept before moving on. For example, let’s say now your child is learning to solve for x in what you think are simple algebraic equations and she is struggling. The issue may not be the remote learning, per se, but that it may be hard for her to learn so solve all problems for x if she either never learned or never was exposed to adding and subtracting with negative numbers, or does not understand inverse operations. Some parents try to teach the current skill, in this case, solving for x, but it is harder to really understand what is missing that is most challenging for the student.

There are many issues, educational and otherwise during this pandemic. I am not minimizing them, and certainly not trying to compare them to dirty clothes. Students who struggle in math have been struggling prior to last spring, and may be continuing to do so now. Parents worry about their kids, that’s our job. We feel the pressure of so much now, and when data is coming out that math scores are lagging, and we know we alone might not be able to catch them up, it feels similar to the experience of when the laundry is piling up. Do we give up or do we panic? I’d argue, somewhere in between, or really neither. When the laundry starts to feel overwhelming, as wonderful as it may be to just throw our clothes out and start over, we certainly can’t give up. It’s not practical, and definitely unrealistic for most of us to do that. We just need to take it one task at a time, and get caught up. The laundry will get done, at least for the moment, and then we will get to a place where we will feel the pull of being behind and then ahead. For laundry, like learning, there is always something to do, for all of us.

Obviously it is easier for most kids to learn in the classroom. Under all of the debate out there, I don’t think anyone is disputing the school setting is what is best for students, where kids and students are not solely on their computers, regardless of the location, where interaction and discussion, and real learning can happen. I envision that education will change in 2021 and beyond, as we address priorities, learning styles, advancements in technologies, societal shifts, harsh realities, etc.

Learning gaps will need to be filled, and I am hopeful, and passionate about that. The questions are many, and should be asked now by educators and administrators at all levels: If students learned less, what skills do they need to learn? Are they missing skills, and how do we make sure they “fill the gaps” before moving on to learn concepts that require foundational concepts? Can we do this concurrently? How is the best way to fill gaps? And most importantly, when can we get started? Remote learning has some benefits, that I will call silver linings. No one is saying it is ideal for everyone. However, we can fill gaps virtually, with targeted lessons. All teaching and learning is valuable, and any time we can get our kids to log on and be engaged, even if it is with the ceiling in view and not their faces, it is critical to do so. But, more than just logging in and teaching math, which is more than a challenge now, but an uphill battle, let’s do it, target gaps and personalize the learning for students. Let’s let technology be our co-pilot and help our students with lessons they can use. And, when we return to the classroom, let’s continue to be patient. If we readjust the expectations, and then rise back to our levels of normalcy, in every facet of our lives, including math education and math learning, I know we can be back on track. The future of our kids’ education is dependent on how we handle the transition back to school. Sometimes slow and steady really does win the race, filling the gaps and sealing the holes along the way.

Photo by Mateusz Dach on

The laundry will always be there. Learning will always be here, and no time like the present to start filling gaps. But, the debate remains: Are students behind? To be behind insinuates there is a line, someone must be first, and someone must be last, with everyone else lined up in order in the middle. As parents we want our kids to be near the front of the line, and anything else is difficult to watch. We want to do anything we can to help our kids. But, my fear, as a math educator and as a parent, is that we are doing too much comparing and labeling right now, at a time when a better strategy might be to take each day as it comes, and work through each task. Learning, like laundry, will always be there in the sense that there is no end, it’s a journey towards our own destination, whatever that may look like. There’s no end to learning, as there is always something more to learn.

Is there a debate? Yes. But, are students behind? No. Not really. I guess that’s for you to decide whether we can use relative terms to determine students’ progress. In my opinion, even though we might be able to use arguments of curriculum position (“My kid isn’t where he should be compared to other years”) or scores and grades are lower (“My kid’s GPA is much lower than when all the kids were in school), all of these, we must remember, are also constructs created by educational institutions to build the journey towards an end destination (promotion, graduation, school advancement, etc.). It is important to remember that math learning is a journey, and even though it may seem different now, it’s the impetus we need to change the way we teach and learn.

However, I will leave it up to you, my readers, to decide, and to debate. I encourage you to comment, or to go to my my Facebook page or website for resources on education.


Hear me out- Give “2020” a break

Let’s give 2020 a break. After all, it’s not the number’s fault or the year’s fault, and certainly not our kids’ fault.

I am making a plea, on behalf of the kids. Let’s stop using 2020 as a synonym for all the bad that is happening. You know you have done it. I have. I have said, “That’s so 2020” or “Can 2020 get any worse?” or “Is it 2021 yet?”…

I mean, of course there is a whole lot in this past year that seems completely incongruous with what our lives have ever looked like before. And, sure, so much is really negative, really awful, really sad. There are silver linings, and many days I try to be among the optimists. But there are also the kids out there trying to be kids, and until recently, I didn’t realize just how much our disparaging the concept 2020 may be doing to the our children, especially our teens.

Remember the other week when an alert came across our cell phones about the passing of Alex Trebek. Just like how we seem to find out about anything- immediately, and intrusively, we saw the story from the news station, and three of us, me, my husband, and my 8th grade daughter all were saddened. When my son wasn’t expressing sadness I thought it was because he doesn’t nightly watch game shows with us. He is, after all, trying to have one foot out of the house as he is practicing for going to college. The three of us have become fans of Wheel of Fortune and will occasionally catch much of Jeopardy, which in our market comes on between the nightly news, a must, and our family preferred Wheel. Then, I thought, well, you know girls tend to be a little more outwardly sympathetic.

Immediately, I heard my son cringe when we were lamenting how this year keeps getting worse. You can hear the continued tirade, right? Insert yours here. And then I was stopped in my tracks. He verbalized something we weren’t even thinking… this is his year to [celebrate], I am using that word to summarize his feelings, using that word judiciously in respect to all of the people who have suffered in more ways than missing school milestones. But, thinking about our kids, and more specifically to what triggered my son- this year, and into next will always be his senior year. 2020 will be the year he remembers, a milestone, when looking back. Good things are happening to him, despite all of the bad. He is learning, he is growing into an adult, he is applying to college, he is trying to maintain all of what makes him who he is while trying to look towards the future. Not to belittle all of the negative in the world, and not to belittle any of the struggles he and all his peers have had to overcome, but every time we focus on the negative, and then connect it to 2020, are we not imprinting our feelings? Simply put, we have a saying in our house, it’s like we are “yuckying his yum.”

Hear me out. My 17 year old knows how awful the world is. He knows it’s divisive. He knows there is hatred and mistrust. He knows people are getting sick and dying. He knows people’s careers are hanging in the balance. Closer to home, he knows how the virus has impacted our family. And he knows that education has shifted, and the impact that may have on the path his future may take. But, he is still 17, and filled with dreams. What years did you spend in grade school? What year did you graduate high school? Did you go to college? Did you like it? I bet your childhood and some of your adulthood can be connected to years, and easily. If someone mentions a year, you can place yourself there, and hopefully very happily- like those were the best times, or at least great times.

My fear is that each time we mention how bad these times are right now, and connect it to 2020, we should fast forward to our kids in fifteen, twenty, or thirty years from now. They will be watching a TV show, and think, “I wonder how old so-and-so is?” They will ask their smart house, and she tells them that the star was born in 2020. “Ugh” they say, “I was a senior in 2020… that year was awful! It was so 2020!

Let’s give 2020 a break. After all, it’s not the number’s fault or the year’s fault, and certainly not our kids’ fault. They are trying to live their best lives during the first worldwide pandemic we all have lived through. Who is with me?

The Gaps…

Finding and filling the gaps are the critical missing pieces… to student success, to curriculum development…to how the whole child is truly learning.

So my life has become about gaps now. At least my professional life. I promised in my last post that I would explain my new professional venture and here it is. I am filling gaps. A passion of mine, or it has become one.

In the latter part of my two plus decades in education, most of which was teaching mostly math, I spent a great deal of time researching and practicing personalized learning. I was wondering how personalized learning differed from individualized learning, as they seem really like synonyms until you dive deeper. And, I also spent an even greater amount of time unpacking the years we were drilled as teachers on differentiated learning. I did a lot of drilling myself, that differentiated was the way to go. Differentiated learning seemed to work, especially for a whole class, and especially for one teacher with a lot on her plate. But, then as education seems to do, it cycled to different ways, along with different words, and one is left to decide are the new ways just new words or are they worth trying?

Without diving too deep into educational practice, as this isn’t a post about that, when I think about differentiating a math lesson, I think about making sure that each student has something at their level or their interest, for whatever portion of the lesson that may be. When I think about individualizing a lesson, I am making sure individuals have what they each need, but in a way that really understands the individuals and gives individuals attention. This is not an easy task, when compared to differentiation, in both planning and in implementation, for any size classroom. Think about differentiating versus individualization for an ice cream bar for a kids’ birthday party. Differentiation would be comparable to providing a range of choices based on different abilities and interests, gauged prior to the kids’ arrival at the party. The adults would then be available by walking around and making sure that the kids are able to enjoy the party. The choices were available to the kids and the adults were there to guide them to what was better for them. This would be easier than an individualized ice cream bar that may look like every child receiving their favorite flavor and in a vessel they are able to eat out of, which was accomplished by the same pre-party survey.

Personalization of learning is a buzz word recently, but for me, in math, it is one of the hallmarks of best practices. All teachers personalize to some extent, just as they differentiate and individualize at times. Actually using a combination of the three is an excellent way to run classrooms, and knowing when to use techniques for which students and which subjects is the true art of teaching. Personalization is knowing that groups of students may need the same skill, but may need it presented in different ways, or vice versa. Groups of students may be able to learn in the same way, but may need different skills. Personalization of learning is understanding that while all students are individuals, their course of learning does not need to be individualized, and while choice and differentiation is often a great way to organize input or output, it always required. Using the birthday party analogy, at a personalized ice cream bar the guests would be grouped upon arrival based on previous experience with ice cream, again either gauged by a pre-party survey or by the adults knowing their experience through relationships built with them. At those stations the students would enjoy the flavors and toppings presented at the station, and adults would be at the station to help make sure the kids were making the most of the options presented. No child was at their own table, and once the ice cream station was complete the students could then move on to the next activity at the birthday party. The tables looked relatively similar but each one was personalized for the group assigned to each, with flavors that were around their liking, and toppings and vessels that they could handle for their age and understanding, etc. Each table had a different type of creation to build, guided by an adult.

When planning the ice cream party, and figuring out which kids to put into which groups, often you realize that kids don’t have all the experiences they need to to truly enjoy the dairy deliciousness to its full extent. Grouping helps, of course, filling the lessons with help from adults, and peers to some extent, also helps, but if students don’t know that how to construct a perfect sundae, or that the salty-sweet of pretzels adds an extra dimension, there is really only one way to go… back- to fill the foundational gaps… allowing true success to open up for children during the lesson, I mean the party.

Obviously, overly simplistic in its nature, the ice cream party example of gap filling is very small. However, if a student is in sixth grade and trying to learn complex operations with fractions, maybe even with variables, but never truly was able to add fractions back in elementary school, or never really understood that a fraction was part of a whole, the student will struggle. Sure, the teacher can try to patch the gap, or push ahead with computation procedures in hopes that the student will get it enough to manage some level of success. But, what the student really needs is to understand. The gap needs to be filled and the hole needs to be sealed, in this case, on fraction understanding. Does this take time? Sure. Does it take a lot of time? Maybe not. Is it worth it? YES.

So, circumstance aside, I created Filling the Gap Educational Services. I made it official, with an LLC. We do it a lot of different educational “things,” all virtual now so we can reach a wide audience. I have a good colleague-turned-friend off of which I bounce a lot of ideas, who is gracious enough to be providing her services for free. I have a husband who is allowing me to play entrepreneur right now, as I build all of the foundations of curriculum, assessment, and instruction for my “brand.” And, I have a few educational peers who have joined me on this journey, waiting for the time when education and families move beyond the daily grind of will or how will schools reopen.

What we do and how we do it is certainly not all unique, but some of it is in the way we not only believe in personalization as an educational best practice but we also personalize, and at times, individualize, our educational plan for our clients. We aim to help students, parents, educators, and schools. We offer a wide range of services, all centered around our why- finding and filling the gaps are the critical missing pieces. And there are many ways to fill the gaps, and then seal the holes, through diagnosis and detective work, through education and tutoring, through family and educator education, through curriculum development and alignment, through lesson design and modeling, and more. We want students to experience success and feel confident, and we want to make sure students are not pushed forward without the foundation and true understanding to do so. As a team, we work to make sure that our service is the right one, and then as a team we find the right path towards success.

As readers, new and old, of my words about talking math, I hope you can join me in filling gaps too. I believe that teaching math through talking about it is important. How else can anyone understand math, the why, not just how-to, without talking through problems? The future of our education and our careers are about discussion, real discussion, and being able to explain understanding is preferred to completing pages of computation problems. Teachers understand students’ challenges in current math skills and they find them through daily interactions or through formal assessments. My goal, through Filling the Gap Educational Services, is to bring awareness that the challenges in learning (math and other subjects) could actually be gaps from content introduced years prior. The gap finding and gap filling are critical pieces to student success, to curriculum development, to lesson writing and implementation, and to overall thinking about how the whole child is truly learning.

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Back from a pause, 2020 +

So, now I have a new gig… I took the leap of faith, pushed by 2020 and all that the pandemic has brought.

This will be a personal-ish post. For any of you who have been following my writing, I haven’t written anything new in a long time. Actually, I haven’t posted anything in awhile on this page. I do have a draft, sitting. I can’t post it because it is like a game of ping pong. I argue with myself, back and forth, about the merits of how school should be- open, not open, virtual, real-world learning, focus on health, focus on relationships, no focus… It got ridiculous, because every time I went to finish my draft I had a new, very strong, opinion, about education in these “unprecedented times.” So, I am leaving it be. I am sure you can relate to how emotions, and even facts, have changed since we began in our “new norm.”

So, now I have a new gig… I took the leap of faith, pushed by 2020 and all that the pandemic has brought. My kids were virtual learners, and even though my kids are teens, I felt I needed to be there for them. Blessed that I was told I could not teach remotely for my private school, I had to resign teaching in the classroom, something I loved for over two decades, and now I am doing something intellectually that is pushing me in ways that I haven’t done since my college days. I look forward to the days of turning my brain power into an extensive network of helping others and, hopefully, reaping those rewards. But for now, I am so appreciative of the path in my journey given to me by the silver linings in pandemic.

Here’s a snapshot of part of today. Not only I am writing in my Talking Math blog, a subject about which I am passionate, but I am able to multitask as a mom, an educator and an entrepreneur. I helped review some Algebra 1 content with my 8th grade daughter during her class period. During her virtual schooling she has come to rely on my love of the subject (lucky her?). I kept our 5-month old puppy occupied while completing the FAFSA application for our high school senior. Then, I returned some emails and publicized my new business’ October special.

Oh, did I tell you, I started a business! Check it out….

Next post… more about how and why I started my business. It embodies Talking Math philosophy. You can access the blog from the website’s resource page.

Student Choice in Middle School Math

So, I am trying something new this year with my middle school math units. I am offering a choice of three. After I assess a unit, I am setting up the next unit, for three different levels of math, and then allowing students to decide what they want to learn next.

Full disclosure before I begin describing, in my middle school classes, I teach grades six through eight, in four different sections, all multi-grade.  The sections are also single gender.  I have two sections of girls and two sections of boys.  

So, I am trying something new this year with my middle school math units. I am offering a choice of three. After I assess a unit, I am setting up the next unit, for three different levels of math, and then allowing students to decide what they want to learn next. On the surface, it sounds like a lot of voice, and a lot of choice… new educational buzzwords. I’d like to defend my reasoning. I will do so by way of example as I think that is easier for us linear math-ies.

I start the first day of the new unit with a preview day. First up, ratios. The unit is a “typical” sixth grade level unit on ratios, understanding and application. I do three problems that the students would see in the beginning of the unit so that the students can ascertain for themselves if they have every seen ratio notation and can manipulate a fairly simple ratio table. I also set up a proportion, solving for a variable. The second level unit is proportional relationships, and is crucial, in my opinion for foundational learning of math. I always over-estimate to students that if they can master learning of proportions and how they work, they can solve 80% of all math problems going beyond the 7th grade. To preview the proportional relationship unit I give students three problems to try- scale factor, percentage decrease, and estimation of sales tax and tip (using number sense, not a calculator). Again, these preview questions were ones that would be found in the beginning of the unit, giving the students a sense for themselves if those are types of problems they could solve with ease, with or without a simple reminder. The last unit offered was an abstract unit on understanding numbers. On the surface it seems simple because it starts with sorting numbers such as fractions, negatives, and decimals into categories; however, at the heart of the unit it is about exploring sets of whole numbers compared to natural numbers, about closed versus open sets, about what makes a rational versus irrational number and how to describe them, etc. Most middle school students, even the most advanced ones, are able to calculate and manipulate the numbers, but are not able to describe and apply the vocabulary to numbers enough to truly understand them.

The preview lessons were interactive as students use their individual whiteboards to try their best to answer all of the questions presented. In the mixed ability, mixed grade classes, there were students who could answer most or all of them, and some students who had not even been introduced to ratios at their old schools. The challenge of using the class time wisely is not to get too bogged down in teaching the concepts, but also to allow for some validation of the dedication of work of the students. For example, after the first problem I put on the board: Write the ratio of stars to all shapes as a ratio in 3 ways: △ ★ ★ ⮹ ⮹ ★ ⮹ ★ . I gave the students only about a minute to answer because they either knew it or they didn’t. Then when providing the answer, I used language such as “remember there are 3 ways” and “colon is the most common” and “the word ‘to’ is the one most people forget” so that all students would begin to feel comfortable, even those who have never seen ratios before. After demonstrating the answer as 4/8, I ask all students to reduce to simplest form, as just about all do not. This task is something that even students who have never seen a ratio can do, and then they feel some success. All of this teaching takes 2 minutes, at most, which allows me to see who knows ratio, gives the students an idea of their understanding of ratios, and also provides a nice review or learning experience for the day before we move to the next question where more learning occurs. In this way, pre-assessment is also a learning activity.

After the preview of all three units, which took approximately 3/4 of our class period, or about 40 minutes, I encouraged students to decide where along the continuum they felt they would best be served, even if they would not be following the path of their previous unit. For example, students who just took a post-assessment on decimals and volume would next be studying ratios, if only following a sixth grade curriculum was the norm; however, if they have previously learned it, or feel confident doing that unit on their own without direct teaching, they can move “up” to proportional relationships. Similarly, if students previously studied and tested on square roots (a pre-algebra level class), but really missed studying proportional relationships and need the foundation, they can choose to do one or two units with direct teaching.

The practical- I had the students write their names next to the unit(s) of their choice on a public dry erase board in the classroom. From there I assigned their first lesson on our LMS so that the students could independently answer the questions and complete the learning activities. I knew that a few students would select units that were a little too difficult for them, and from this first unit they could adjust before starting the direct teaching and the more difficult, lesson two. I also knew that some students would choose units that were too easy, and some students did self-select to move on to other units, and others needed help to select other learning. A third by-product of allowing students to self-select unit was that some students chose to challenge themselves and also reinforce their own learning by doing multiple units- one that is self-taught that is reinforcing their gaps from previous years and one that is guided by the teacher and moving them forward in their curriculum. Utilizing the LMS helps me personalize the learning.

This isn’t the first time this year I have had the students self-select their learning or their units, but it is the first time I have been as pragmatic and, honestly, as thorough and personalized once chosen. I am challenged by the shift and I am excited to see where it goes.

As always, I encourage discussion, on this forum, or on the social media from which you found this post. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Time Management or Managing Time

A Ramble: What are we doing well as educators, as parents? What are we really helping our students and children learn through, and beyond, academics?

There are many ongoing debates in education right now. One of them that seems to pit teachers against parents and teachers against teachers, leaving students somewhere in between, is the debate over the value of homework. For that matter, there are plenty of conversations as to how class time is best spent, and how curriculum, instruction, and assessment can be utilized, in tandem, to guide students towards the ultimate potential. Sounds great! Sounds great?

In order to reach every student’s potential, units and lessons should be a combination of differentiated, personalized, and individualized (check out my presentation in the resources section). Learning should be engaging, active, rigorous, and relevant. Along with content, students should be taught executive functioning and social-emotional skills that will help form learners and citizens that will succeed in school and in society at large. No small task, of course. Is it possible for teachers to plan, implement, and assess in classrooms that are truly teaching and reaching students in a way that are society is expecting? How is there time in a 24-hour day, 7-day week?

Of course, my statements are slightly hyperbolic. No one can, or should, work 24-hours in a day, every single day of the week. And no one can possibly expect every lesson to be as described above. However, on the flip side, it is exactly the type of pressure educators are putting on ourselves, and the type of pressure that is driving educational movements today, in and out of school buildings. So, the questions arise- how are educators using time? How should we, as teachers, plan for students to spend their time out of school? How should we, as parents, expect our children to spend their time out of school?

It isn’t an exaggeration that time is limited. We are only given so many hours in a day, and so many weeks in a year. Knowing we cannot literally use all of the time available, how do we best use the time provided. I’d like to give my opinion at this point in my career, at this point in my life, and at this point in the year. I say it this way because I know that experience has changed my views. I also believe that as the year ends, and I am a reflective person looking towards a fresh start of sorts, I want to give another caveat to my point of view.

I encourage dialogue via the comments section below, and also via the social media outlet from which you may have been directed here.  Discourse is a way to learn.

The role of adults is to help guide children, to guide students towards becoming educated and productive members of whatever group and society in which they choose to live. Teaching our students and our own children to manage their own time is important, a skill, I believe, most people do not naturally learn on their own. We like to say that we can’t teach intrinsic motivation, but wish that all people had it, of all ages. I think we want students to be intrinsically motivated so that true learning can take place. When learning is authentic and genuine, time, and its management is often not a factor, only a constraint by our school system or our families’ busy schedules. It’s a dichotomy we need to teach our children to manage, for better or for worse. We need to help guide our students to love learning for its own sake through instruction that facilitates it and we need to explicitly teach time management.

Do we teach time management skills through the mundane necessities that often come in life, but we are wanting our children to experience less and less? Or do we teach them to manage their time and their energies to focus on what is priority at the moment, and what is fun and engaging? How do we balance learning for its own sake, with the stark reality that there are tasks that do need to be accomplished, and accomplished well, for their own sake, for the means to the ends, and also for learning how to be members of whatever productive society and culture in which we are happy and healthy participating members. Teachers and parents need to work together for the sake of a next generation that, unfortunately and fortunately, have so much more to learn, and can learn in ways that are beyond exciting and beyond fun. Students of today are able to have almost a customized education, of sorts (an oversimplification, best understood by knowing the difference between differentiation, individualization, and personalization), one that many parents are demanding, and schools are trying to find balance to figure ways to accommodate. However, is the push to find the potential in every child, every lesson, of everyday, leading us astray of skills that may be necessary to help facilitate learning, one of them being the management of time, and with it comes the management of mental energy? All of the new trends in education today, and all of the debate over whether homework is needed, or what type of homework should be given, or when school should start and what students should be doing while in school, may all come down to how well are we, as adults, helping to explicitly teach our students how to realistically manage their time and energy in a world that is 24 hours a day, 365 days a week in their demands.

I encourage dialogue via the comments section below, and also via the social media outlet from which you may have been directed here.  Discourse is a way to learn.

Faith, Family, Football:

Sunday Priorities? Perhaps.

How do we determine priorities?

It’s another Sunday. I am not planning for the week tonight, but I will probably assess some tests, if I can muster the energy. This week has been one of reflection, about education, its state, and my place in it.

So what are the priorities this Sunday? Family, for sure. We spent a lot of time together on this rainy Sunday. To me, some of the best days are the nothing days, the days when everyone is home, doing nothing, or avoiding what they should be doing, television on, and just hanging out. It’s even better with football games on, in today’s case in the background, with the big games to come tonight, and tomorrow night.

Was there nagging to do more chores? Of course! Was there even more encouragement to do reading and homework? Definitely! Not sure how effective I was today, but, then again, I know when to fight the battles, and today was not one of them.

On this Sunday, not motivated by a particular football team, it’s even more of a time to reflect upon the gifts of faith and family that push me to continue in the field of education. This week has tested me. I did not work directly with students this week and without the ultimate beneficiaries of my dedication I find it easy to start dreaming of what life would be like with another profession. What would my hours be like? Would I have more time to read for pleasure? Would I have more energy so that my house would be cleaner or I would exercise? Would I have saved more money so that I could be in my “happy place” on the water of CI, VA instead of dreaming of it?

The flip question has to be, what would education be without me? The same, for sure. I mean, seriously… I am just one person, easily replaced in a job, even in a career, as everyone is. If there is one thing I have learned in my 2 1/2 decades in the “real world,” it is one is only irreplaceable to their family. With that perspective, however, my reflection this week centered around career goals and what type of impact I want to make on the field of education. After 22 years in education, is it time to move on and find another field where I can utilize talents and potentially focus on other talents? A perfect storm of a pro-con list… but in reality, the cons outweigh the pros. I am not done impacting students. I just want to do it on a grander scale. You are all a part of my dream because you have taken the time to read my blog posts, and explore my presence on this site and on social media.

In future days and weeks to come, please visit back for resources, for more discussion, for information on my presentations, for my curriculum, for education. Faith comes in all forms, and this Sunday I reflect on a week that has led me to regain faith in myself. Thank you to my family and my like-family for always supporting me. And, well, football… thank you for my escape.

“I thought there would be no math.”

I was watching one of my favorite morning shows, Good Morning America, and the anchors were jokingly laughing off their inability to quickly calculate something that would have added to the light-hearted conversation with an off-handed quip we often hear, “I thought there would be no math.” In other words, ‘it’s okay that I can’t do math, because I can read and I am good at other things.’ One of my other favorite morning shows, Golic and Wingo, even has a button they push that sounds when the personalities become befuddled by the numbers. Theirs is similar, “I was told there’d be no math.” I always take exception to these sentiments because, obviously, we are sending the wrong message.

An even further wrong message was heard at a recent college tour we took with our son, a high school junior. As the admissions counselor was describing the requirements of their liberal arts program, hoping to hook the kids, she opened with, “Has anyone ever been victimized by math?” Victimized?? Seems a bit harsh. I always joke as a teacher when students tell me they are not fond of math (that’s a nice way to put it). I joke with them by asking in what ways numbers have actually hurt them. That gets a laugh, but maybe you need to hear my tone and see my corny face when I say it :). But, this counselor was actually trying to insinuate how painful math class and math with numbers can be, to the point that this college was going to replace all of the kids’ harmful K-12 experiences with a better, more fun class that will be more useful to them. I can’t argue with making math class more real and more meaningful. Whether something is fun, that’s for another conversation, I believe. What bothered me most was that our son, and seventh-grade daughter with us, already both not math-lovers, are once again hearing how awful math is, and in this context, from an educator.

Math educators have uphill battles, maybe more so than other subject areas, but what are parents to do? Society is not subtle about a preference for reading, for history, for science, for art, for sports, for almost anything besides math. Some kids start out with a natural propensity for counting and numbers, and continue a lifetime love of math, paralleled with success in math classes. The parents of these kids probably have an easier road through school, as many subjects and leveling, etc. are tied to math success or failure.

On the flip side, other students struggle with math concepts their entire lives. While still others are up and down depending on many factors, including the type of math involved. The parents of these two types of students may find themselves needing to support their children during their years in school, and at home, and most do not know exactly what to do. I have seen that many battles with math in kids, and probably adults, comes down to confidence, more so than any other subject. Due to many of our schools’ tendencies to tie their overall class structure and opportunity to math ability and/or successes, it is an unfortunate product that math confidence is tied to overall academic self-confidence. I believe I have counseled more children than I would have liked in what seems basic: one’s self concept should not be tied to math ability (perceived or actual). At the heart of the college described above, I do believe they are trying to find the math mind in every kid and try to build up those students who have lost their confidence, however, the message came across like all of the others we hear in society- you either know math or you don’t. If you don’t, it’s okay. If you do… well, you must be the smarter one because us here certainly can’t figure it out.

In our house, one of our the things we like to say is, “Math puts food on the table.” Both my husband and I teach middle school math, for many years. Both of our children are far stronger in writing and history (our son) and writing and science (our daughter). In fact, they will do anything possible to avoid math, and many nights have been a complete struggle to finish math homework. Some years, passing math class has been very close, and too many dinner conversations, car rides, and money have been spent making sure math is understood enough to pass the tests the school feels are important to pass. Don’t get me wrong, I support the school, and their assessments. I just wish, somewhere along the line, someone, or something had sparked a love of math, or at least something that would have provided a like for the subject and the potential that it can have. Math can be more than just learning concepts and completing assignments.

Will math put food on my grown kids’ tables? Probably in some form or another, but not in the way we have provided for them in our house. I mean, seriously, without math we literally would not have food as we have made our living teaching math to hundreds, if not thousands, of students. The most important students are the two that eat dinner with us every night. We do not hold class each night. We have already taught during the day. We have sparked, we have provided opportunities that will create critical thinking and joy, and we have followed our curriculum, and our own children have already gone through their day, exhausted also by 8-12 hours of learning and activities and practice and work and chores. Should we do more? Should we tutor in a way that will provide what we want out of math that ensures math directly puts food on the table? I am sure we will be greeted promptly with eye rolls like every parent gets. The best we can offer is to be there to support our children when they need help with all homework subjects. To make sure that every subject gets equal billing. To make sure that all subjects gets positive words, but especially math. That we “Yay MATH” whenever possible. We are role models by living the life of math, selectively nagging, so as not to push two teens away. We lit the fire of math and let it simmer, until one day it will come out as it is intended in our children, as this world, and our daily lives in it, cannot function with numbers, and at least a basic understanding of them.

It’s Sunday Night- Planning Time!

In my opinion, Sundays are one of the best days of the week. Although it is obvious and imperative to build upon the academic and SEL work that has been done last week, and the entire school year, it’s like a fresh start for a new week of learning, Whatever may have caused any stressors last week seem to fade to distant memory of Friday and Saturday with family and activities. Sundays are days of football watching, of straightening and organizing, and, of one of my favorite intellectual pursuits, planning for the math learning of my students, this year in grades four, and in grades six through eight.

I have always enjoyed the development of curriculum, and have never been able to just stick to the program that the school purchases. I use “the book” as a guide and a resource, combined with a the standards that students need to reach by the end of the year. I am blessed that I have always worked in schools throughout my career that have allowed me to utilize my creativity and my education to do what I feel is best for my students. I have added activities and ideas, from resources that I research or from my own creation, that I know will interest my students, or more importantly, be impactful to the students’ needs as math learners. As teachers, I know we have an intuition that sometimes supersedes data, we know what our students know and don’t know, and can use the “art of teaching” combined with the “science of teaching” to produce the perfect balance of challenges within a learning environment.

At this point in my career I am focusing on teaching math so that they get excited when they figure out problems, to excite students about numbers, to increase the confidence of all students, especially in mathematical pursuits. And… I personally strive to reach every student in a way that all of their gaps are filled without overlapping with prior mastery. My hope is that if I do overlap learning they have done before, I do it in a way that is more meaningful, more rigorous, and/or in greater context so that it builds numeracy, critical thinking, and appreciation. It is not easy to teach math in a personalized way, it takes time. And, as I am learning this year, and slowly documenting here, and in a notebook, and of course, in my mental notes, it takes prioritizing beyond just time.

Tonight’s planning for this week? Well, the middle school students, grades six through eight has been set with an upcoming assessment. My focus, as part of the prioritizing, is a new way to look at a fourth grade class of almost thirty students that I feel has not learned in a way that provides the education the students deserve- it needs to be more personalized. It needs to be more math. If I had my way, we would do math the entire school day! But, alas, I am only allowed so many minutes, so it’s about flexibility and thinking outside-of-the-box, and being grateful for the generosity of colleagues. Tonight, I am solidifying what I have been thinking about for a week- I am putting in a plan for hands-on, and face-to-face, and paper-and-pencil centers, all surrounding the topics of factors, multiplication and division, at a variety of levels. Let’s see how it goes!

Thoughts in the Trenches

New: I will have an occasional post of more journal-like blogs. An inside look into feelings, activities, thoughts, etc. of my experience as a teacher, or as a teacher-mom, or as a mathy-mom. Frequently, it is my hope, as I grow, to have them quickly followed up by a more professional post. It is not my intent to vent, so I hope you do not find that they are full of grousing. My goal is to share, while also providing a springboard to conversation, or at least of thought.

So, I have so many ideas of posts I want to share. I have been keeping notes in my classes over the past couple of weeks- when students get excited, and when they celebrate the little victories they didn’t even know they wanted to have in over numbers. I also have ideas from my recent trip to the NCTM Regional Conference in Boston, which I followed up with a couple of college tours. I will post them… soon. I want to document them, and I want to document how I am personalizing learning, and I want to document my curriculum growth. But first, I want to connect with something that seems to happen every fall…

Teachers, has this happened to you? Has your year begun to get away from you, and quickly? That is what is happening to me. Best intentions for success in all aspects, has quickly become a game of ‘which priority should I attend to today’? Is planning important? How about assessment? What about utilization of the assessment? Implementation??

I have chosen implementation. Of course, I plan. I have planning down as curriculum is my area of expertise, at least I am hoping so after all of this time and all of the money I spent on my degrees in curriculum. Plus, I just love planning. So, I plan, before AND during my implementation with students. But, the real priority is the learning of students, and with the miracle that is teaching that allows the students to have the power to push all of the teacher “stress” out of the window while I just teach them to love math and to learn math. I choose implementation over all else because if I leave nothing else in my wake after the sunset of my teaching career, it will be that math can be learned, and it can be fun!

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and welcome you to make this a collaborative venture.