Celebrate: Living in the nuance

This week I celebrate the last place I thought I’d want to be in the second week of summer vacation: a classroom learning how to teach algebra. Seriously.  Strange. Even more strange, was the five hours of video I watched after the four-day session. On the same material. And this was all voluntary. Could I actually like algebra? No. Seriously?

I won’t get into the gory details of the importance of the equal sign, or how to build conjectures with students. But what I will mention is the beautiful pedagogy that envelopes Megan Franke and Cognitive Guided Instruction. It fits with everything I know about teaching young people to read and write.

Build on the details of student’s thinking. When we look at student work of any kind, teachers have this natural tendency to find what is wrong. Put it in piles of high, medium, and low and then attempt to fix. I’ve worked hard to contain that impulse in my teaching of reading and writing, but in math, the answer is the answer. Right?

Not. In math, as in reading or writing, the details of how a student came to a wrong answer, has a whole lot of right thinking inside it. A young person may have not answered this problem or interpreted that text accurately, but what they did along the way contains what they know.

Leverage partial understandings by starting with questions that open up a dialogue about their thinking.
“Tell me about what you did here.”
“How did you get that?”
“How do you know?”
Discovering the thinking work done along the way to an answer, contain the understanding. By asking a student to explain their process we see the unseen smart thinking. So much of this reminds me of the reading work of Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton.

Position students as competent. Always. This, reminding me of Katherine Bomer’s Hidden Gems. Holding up student’s work as beautiful and smart positions them as capable. They can do this work. That idea alongside the knowledge of what students need to know should be how we sort student work. What are they doing well (as a reader, writer or mathematician) is ALWAYS the starting point.

Young people are just that, young people with partial understandings of our world. As they build on what they know as they grow. Helping them do that is the exciting work of a teacher. This week I celebrate learning how to find student understanding. To as one smart teacher wrote this week: “Live in the nuance and go for the nudge.”






Summer Reading, Here we go!

Last Saturday, the day after the last day of school, I heard Lee Watanabe Crockett speak about developing a classroom of “future-focused” learners.  I sat there, nodding to these words:”The most underutilized resource in the classroom is the learner. The most underestimated person is the classroom is the learner.” Crockett then detailed three things we can give our students.

  1. Give students problems that matter, to them.
  2. Give them access to the tools. Not hardware but the “head ware” the ability to analyze and communicate their thinking.
  3. Stand aside by moving the responsibility for the learning from the teacher to the learner.

The “head ware” Crockett talks about is what he calls “essential fluencies” that follow the same path that writers, designers, and scientists use to create:

Define: What am I suppose to do?
Discover: What do I need to know and be able to do? Why is the problem here?
Dream: What might a successful outcome look like?
Design: What steps do I need to take to accomplish the task?
Deliver: How will I know I’m successful? Produce/implement
Debrief: How could the process/product be improved.

Yes. Good. This will help.
My students prefer working with others.
Others that they get along with.
All want to engage in purposeful work.
But, not with just anyone.
Too often, something got in the way.

Certain children had that “get along” quality that allowed for successful group work. Mary* was one of them. Something about her smoothed over rough edges. Mary could see others and gave them space to be heard. I wondered, what could nudge others to take this stance. I wondered about who saw her.

As I read Sara K. Amend’s book, Being the Change, I think of Mary, and I realize the essential work I need to do next year. Not just so students can have better group dynamics and work cohesively on problems that matter to them, but be able to see their classmates’ humanity and the issues that exist in their world.

We humans can have a tendency to become silos. All wrapped up in ourselves and our hidden biases. Not seeing our neighbor who is not like us because they are not like us. For my students to do the meaningful work  Crockett suggests,  we will need to see and hear each other. We need to learn to be more like Mary. These two books have a lot to teach me this summer.



Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Tuesday’s Slice of Life. Read more slices here.


Lingering as the Classroom Door Closes

Thursday morning I packed their alphabetized files into a box and handed them to the next grade. The first act of the last day with my students.

Thursday morning they walked into their classroom, in pajamas, carrying board games and stuffed animals.  We started as usual, with a circle question and literary choice. They blogged and read picture books, worked on their writing in google docs. And then, slowly the board games came out. Groups of students naturally formed. Chess, Sorry. Mancala, Apples to Apples. A group began construction of a dinosaur world on the carpet. Beside them, Twister’s plastic sheet of dots was placed, In the corner, the group of Rubik’s cube enthusiasts spun the geometrics into solid sides of red, yellow, blue, green, white, and orange.  The noise levels rose and fell. Natural rhythm and a sense of calm filled the room. All were at play. Negotiating their space and the rules, kids at their best.

This class. This year. Each child with their own set of needs and wants had times when they did not get along. Yet today, they meshed perfectly. Choosing the game, finding someone to play with. Taking turns. Two times I’m asked to intervene. Other than that they take care of the business of play. They are experts in no need of assistance.

Watching this community of cooperation and calm, I couldn’t help but wonder, how to capture this in the daily life of a classroom. We did group work across all subject areas but based on my classroom survey and daily observations, working in a group isn’t preferred. Group work is difficult when struggling with a problem, determining the next step or negotiating differing opinions. Clearly, the task of play is less challenging than a math problem, but these kiddos have the skills to negotiate moments of discord and disagreement.

Is it the task, the novelty, the self-selected grouping, or the freedom to choose that creates this competence and general satisfaction? Is it a combination of these elements? I couldn’t help but wonder and think, what if I’d done this sort of play as a precursor to group work? What if I did this form of play on a continual basis? Would our community be stronger and more productive in the end? How could we promote the transfer of skills all children own when at play, to the more difficult group work in the classroom?

As I hand over my kiddos to the next teacher, their responses and reactions to our year linger in my heart.

Today I celebrate the end of the year deep breath and the exhale of summer. An opportunity to wonder and grow.