Reflections on 2020-21

Reflections on 2020-21

I’ve been reading a book, Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, and I appreciate its methodical approach. Even though I am only through Chapter 4, I am beginning to feel school again, if only a little at this point. I’ve been reading threads on Twitter from colleagues around the country about their planning for this coming academic year, and I am feeling school a bit more. Before I can plan for next year in earnest though, I need to process last year.

Last year (2020-21), began with teachers teaching in the building and students studenting entirely online. Because I had experimented with technology so much since March 15th, 2020, I was ready for this year. I had to wait to execute my own class design, however, until the district gave the green light a month into school. The first month students went through the first module of the curriculum using Nearpod and those students that bothered to do that hated it. This was NOT the way to start school. Students really do not know how to learn online except the mechanics of it which were taught through some videos and their experiences the prior spring, which were varied. They went through the motions; checked boxes; and learned nothing. I was ready to teach and my kids were ready to learn. Live, online classes were consistently being held by September.

Finally, there was a system in place for students to log into class, participate in lessons, and go forth and learn. Classes were 40 minutes 4 days a week. That isn’t much time. I put multiple tutoring sessions in place for my students. I could see student faces during online tutoring and learn personalities and interact with people rather than a chat stream. That was time well spent.

We got back from Christmas break and by late February, classes moved to 5, 70-minute periods per week. The extra time was necessary to make progress in student learning, but left little time to support students outside of class. Live class time essentially doubled and that time came from planning time. In truth, the shorter the class period, the more time is needed for planning because every teacher move must be preplanned in order to stick to the schedule. Teachers with shortened class periods must be addicted to coverage to a greater extent than teachers with generous class periods of 60 to 70 minutes.  This 70-minute schedule continued as we gradually began moving students into the building, live and in-person in March. At the same time we continued to have many students learning from home.

This shows merely some of the constraints under which school was held last year. Here is the technology side of how I operated my classes:

LMS (Learning Management System): We use Canvas and had a district designed format to use to make it easier for students to navigate. That was a positive result that came out of spring 2020’s emergency adventure into online learning. This format helped me stay better organized in my planning. I tweaked lessons and daily plans as we went along, of course, but all of my weekly structures were in place. I already harvested my activities for the week and I knew where I wanted my students to be by week’s end. I committed to my plan and published it through Canvas for my students to access.

PPT: My district also provided pre-made PowerPoint (PPT) presentations for each lesson throughout the curriculum. These PPTs follow the students’ workbooks exactly. Proofing, editing, and resizing, are required, but these PPTs were a real time saver. I shared my screen and took notes right on the PPT presentation. After class, I saved those notes of as pdfs and posted them to Canvas for students. The only tool required was my stylus (x-Pen 640) that I had gotten at the end of last year. I inserted blank screens among the PPT slides where I could write if the class needed to do some extra problems or take some extra notes. I did this before schooling changed to virtual and will continue this when workbooks are used.

DUAL MONITORS: I had been using multiple computers—as many as 3—but I resisted using dual monitors for quite a long time, though my media specialist encouraged me to do so. My mind was fixed, thinking it was yet another thing I had to learn and coordinate. Mid-year I finally tried using dual monitors. I will never be without dual monitors again when teaching whether online or in-person. Not only are transitions smoother within the same class period, transitions between class periods are also more efficient. When sharing a screen, simply drag the new visual you want to display for students to the new screen. Also, I can keep my eye on the chat on one screen while working with the class on the other shared screen. I can monitor student work on the screen I am not sharing as well. Split screens are useful, but using those in combination with dual screens takes teaching to a whole other level. This is a derivative of online teaching that will stick going forward.

DESMOS: Sometimes I had learners use a Desmos activity that duplicated the lesson for the day. That allowed me to see the work of all students and to pace the class so we could pause for discussions and quell student misconceptions. At times I would use selected screens in a Desmos activity for the lesson rather than the entire lesson. Some of these Desmos activity files, I created, but more often than not, I harvested collections from other users that I had saved in my library. I hate Facebook, but that is where I came across most of the lesson collections.  In my district, we use OpenUp Resources curriculums (authored by Illustrative Mathematics and Mathematics Vision Project).

I also created a daily Desmos work file my learners bookmarked. If I needed to see student work, they immediately jumped into that Desmos class work file. I made student draw screens, which served as white boards. And I had graphing calculator screens and screens which were split between a Cartesian plane and a writing space where students showed their thinking. I paced my class to the screen I wanted them to work on so I didn’t have to instruct students to be on a specified screen and then wait for them to get there. Having this file at the ready allowed me to immediately check for understanding. I could make adjustments to the lesson as needed, and this improved learning outcomes for students. (Hint: If you pace one screen at a time and a student does not automatically move to the screen you designate, they are looking at a different tab on their computer. This is an opportunity to make certain everyone is engaged, whether they are sitting in the classroom or elsewhere.)

KAMI: I integrated Kami into Canvas. I used Kami for worksheet files to supplement the student workbooks. I had free, full access to all the Kami features for 100 days, then they wanted money. I seamlessly downgraded to the free version and it was fine for my purposes. With Kami, I can take a worksheet (like a sheet I get from Mathbits — legal because it is within the password protected LMS) by retrieving the pdf from my Kami folder in my school Google drive folder. I assign the sheet through Canvas and students access the sheet there as it populates in Kami. There, students can type, draw, highlight, and annotate as needed. Individual student work is saved in a class Google drive folder. I can access the student copy through Speed Grader in Canvas and write comments on individual student sheets. With Kami, I am more environmentally responsible and I save time making copies.

MATHBITS: The rigor of the Mathbits materials is top-shelf. The topics and sheets are well organized and cross-referenced to the standards. I know “worksheet” can be a bad word in education, but these are far from the worksheets I endured in the 70s. I write PTA mini grants to get my subscriptions funded if my school does not pay for my access. Because I now teach Integrated Math, I use three version of Mathbits regularly: Algebrabits; Algebra2bits; and Geometrybits. I use pre-algebrabits as well in years I teach the standard grade 8 math course. Beyond the worksheets, Mathbits has interactive quizzes and activities to which I facilitate student access. Also, Mathbitsnotebook is free and is where I send students who need a refresher or want extra practice.

QUIZIZZ: I used Quizizz a bit for quick checks for understanding. I usually had files already prepared from prior years so this was faster than building something in Canvas for a quick-check.

GOOGLE: Sheets, Jamboard: I spent much time creating collaborative student spaces with great back grounds and drag and drop matching cards and the like in the fall. This is what I used before I discovered Kami. I thought the Google Sheets and Jamboards were great, but they were much harder to manage than the combination of Desmos and Kami and really didn’t serve any better purpose. Issues arose when students would not access Google through their school Google account so I had to constantly remove access restrictions to accommodate that or spend the period serving in a tech support role. Though Google Sheets and Jamboards were pretty and I loved them, they didn’t stick around long in my classroom lineup of tech tools. I will likely use them when they serve the purpose in professional development sessions I create for teachers, but I do not see using Google with students next year.

ProblemAttic: I meant to use this resource more, but I forgot about it. The prior year I figured out how to create a quiz in Problemattic and import the questions to Canvas. It was awesome! I did not take the time to relearn how to do that this year. I am confident it will make its way back into my lineup this coming year.

There are several apps I thought I would use this year, but did not and I didn’t miss them. It’s not that they aren’t good; I just needed to streamline to survive. My students needed fewer options as well. Life was overwhelming enough already.

Nearpod: After what the district did to my kids the first month of school with all those carefully crafted lessons that my students didn’t complete or appreciate, I had a mutiny on my hands when I even mentioned the word “Nearpod.” It was a shame to waste that resource, but my students were not fans. That was not the hill I was willing to die on.

EdPuzzel; Flipgrid; Kahoot; Geogegbra; Padlet; DeltaMath: None of these made the cut this year. Well, Deltamath did show up a couple of times early on, but my kids said that’s all they did in 7th grade, so I wasn’t going to force that on them, even though it is an outstanding resource. Too many different student interfaces and kids get frustrated. The math is lost while figuring out yet another application. I decided last spring, enough was enough and I tried to use as few math resources as I could this year while still setting up an engaging and productive math experience for my learners.

Each year I have a wonderful group of eager learners to work with and this crazy year was no exception. Implementing my classes as outlined above contributed my Math 2 students averaging 81/100 on the county exam while the county average was 44/100.  4 of my 61 Math 2 students failed the exam and 3/4ths of those failures can be traced to attendance issues among other obstacles that could not be overcome by these students.  In my Math 1 course 20% of the 59 students I taught exceeded state projections. About the 20% did not meet minimum state standards for the course, which meant 80% of my students were proficient. These results are low compared to a normal year, but I am confident results would have been better had we been full-time, face-to-face all year. My students are good souls who worked hard in spite of the challenges present due to the pandemic.

If I were you, would stop right here. The rest of this post is for my own documentation, but you are welcome to continue reading.

2020-21 behind the scenes:

I don’t even know where to start, but I survived and will return this fall to thrive as a better educator and as a better human.

The year was going to be missing some key players in my support system due to the retirements of a couple of my very best school chums, Jim and Lydia. I also lost my ELA partner, Meagan, when she decided to use another of her skills and teach Spanish instead of remaining in 8th grade language arts. Grateful she was still at my school though. I was also without my 7th grade math partner, Jeff, as he was succumbing to an aggressive cancer that was discovered over winter break 2019/20 and killed him the first week of school in August 2020.

School began in mid-August and settled into a rhythm in mid-September. That didn’t last. By October rumors started flying that staff members were changing classrooms. Nearly every single teacher moved. I had been in my room over 10 years and I had to move with little notice and less understanding for the move’s purpose. Before students came back live during 2nd semester, 20+ classrooms had to be moved again. I was spared that move, but that drama cost a new administration any and all credibility they were trying to build with staff.

If you are keeping track, I lost 4 friends and my room so far and the leaves hadn’t yet fallen from the trees. January finally came. My dear sweet mother, who had been cursed with Alzheimer’s disease for the past 10 or more years, began her decline in physical health by no longer eating. I was able to sneak up to Ohio and see Mom in mid-January and teach from my dad’s dining room table for a couple days. February 2nd during Core 3, my dad called to let me know Mom had just passed. Expected, but still hard. And final. A whirlwind trip through Ohio on our way to Minnesota in sub-zero temperatures for a lovely service and burial and I was headed back south.

By late February classes were running 70 minutes 5 days a week, where they had been 40 minutes per class, 4 days a week. That was a big adjustment physically, but certainly improved our ability to cover more of the curriculum. The 40 minute plan was predicated on the assumption that high stakes end-of-year testing would be waived by the state this year. That turned out to be a faulty assumption. We dug in deeper and finished as many of the standards as possible. By spring break, two-thirds of the students were in the building. Because at home learners needed to come into the building to test, schedules changed once again as testing season began. It ran from mid-May through the last day of school in the first week of June.

As if all of this were not enough, I decided to complete my Maintenance of Certification (MOC) for my National Board designation this year. I began the process and I attended multiple webinars that explained the submission requirements. Then I procrastinated and did not think about it until mid-February when I paid my fee. Then I procrastinated some more by not meticulously reading and outlining and making a plan using the printed MOC instructions. Every time I tried, I fell asleep. I was exhausted. In the mean time, I received emails informing MOC candidates that the deadline for submission had been extended. This happened multiple times. I also saw I had the option to defer my MOC submission until the 2021-22 school year and not have to pay the fee again. Mid-May I finally accept the fact that I would indeed have to defer, as I had no time to plan adequately nor did I have sufficient teaching days left. I was at peace. There was one problem though. I forgot to go to the NB site and inform them of my decision to defer. By the time I read where to go do that, the deadline had passed to defer, so I had a choice. I could submit nothing or submit the best application I could create between June 5th and June 25th. I was out the application fee either way, so I went for it. I submitted my MOC application with more than a day to spare.

All through May, I went to physical therapy to remedy a pain in my left hip and groin that plagued me for the better part of the past three years. June 12th I am finally permitted to see an orthopedist who declares that I need to total hip replacement as my ball and socket are now bone on bone. Surgery was scheduled for Friday, July 2nd. That gave me June 25th to July 1st to get a couple summer projects completed while I could still drive and go up and down stairs independently.

Tuesday after surgery, I was at physical therapy discussing some of my experiences at the surgical center and I start crying. No idea where that came from. The therapist assured me that it was totally understandable. Surgery and recovery take their toll. I got myself together and did what I came there to do – complete strength evaluations and receive exercise assignments. I now have a routine that I can execute to regain strength in my left leg and hip so I will be in shape when school begins August 23rd.

This spring and summer more retirements and resignations continue to peck away at my group of school confidants. I am going to do my best this year, but remain in my lane. That may be part of my theme for the year – stay in my lane.

Perfectly Timed Lesson and Distance Learning Vaughn_trapped Style

Mathematics Vision Project is the curriculum I am using and we began the last Module for Math 2 this week. The first lesson set the stage for some meaningful LIVE online conversation with learners. The lesson is titled “TB or Not TB” and uses, as you might guess, tuberculosis testing results for the basis of studying the meaning of conditional probabilities. I launched the lesson and students naturally  substituted Covid19 testing for TB as we thought about the context. We had the discussion of what it means to have a false positive or a false negative. We talked about which was more dangerous. Students were more invested because they could relate to the lesson’s context. They indeed met the goal of developing an understanding of the situation presented.

So, you may be wondering how exactly I pull-off live discussions in the middle of May, 2020 with 40-some 8th graders. Well here is some of what I have finally landed on after many failed experiments and inefficiencies.

  • We meet LIVE two days a week, for those learners who are able to. I usually get 35 to 45 participants from a course of 52 students. That’s 2 brink and mortar style classes, but I run a combined virtual session.
  • We review the lesson assigned the prior day and preview the next lesson.
  • Students ask clarifying questions, offer options and make conjectures on open mic or in the chat window.
  • For online LIVE lessons, I take a district created PowerPoint and dump it down to a pdf. (Pardon my lack of technical jargon. I am a technosaurous trying to survive in the 21st century.) I import that pdf and share it with my class by way of a shared screen through Big Blue Button  which we access through Conferences in Canvas. I, as well as students, can write in real-time on the “slides”. The writing stays with the slides when I forward them which is handy if we need to revisit. (Note to self – go back after class and record those screens of the lesson that are marked up for students who were not there.)
  • I make clear the purpose/goal of each lesson and make certain through discussions that we hit the main points of the lesson. Students have their workbooks that mimic the slides so we are all literally on the same page. Students take notes and write down questions to ponder. I have them circle words and we go through new notations, for example, in this lesson, conditional probability…the probability that A occurs given B has already happened: P(A|B). This detail of instruction is NOT in the workbook because the workbook is NOT a textbook. A teacher is needed to execute this curriculum. Students also ask questions of me and of one another.
  • After the LIVE session, I post a scan of my completed lesson workbook pages to Canvas. To do this, I use a set of RocketBook Beacons that I attached to a small whiteboard. I point my phone at them and they shoot themselves to where ever I desire, usually my school email, but I am experimenting with other options. (I started by using my RocketBook pages and balancing my workbook while displaying the medallion at the bottom of the page, but Beacons are faster and create clearer images for me. I am not using them as they were designed, but it works for me.
    2020-05-20 rocketbook beacon setup with wb
    Here is the result:   8-1-1.
  • Another thing I use to work with my learners online is a pdf of chosen problems from Problem Attic. I format and download a set of questions I harvest and choose to display one question per page, extra large, simple font to a pdf. If we want to quiz ourselves, I import that pdf and share the screen as I did with the lesson pages. We use the polling options available through Big Blue Button if I choose multiple choice questions. I can also have students type answers into the chat window, but wait to press enter until I count down so they do not steal the opportunity for others to learn. We also write on the shared screen and talk about the questions. I then post this set of practice problems along with an answer key to Canvas after the LIVE session for all to access.
  • We finish in an hour. So that’s one hour twice a week LIVE. Since April 12th : we finished one module, including quizzes and a test, that we started before March 13 – the day the world changed; we completed an entirely new module and quizzed twice and tested on it; now we are into the final module which we will finish including testing by June 5th. It cis everything that I have motivated learners and for that I am grateful. I have measured results. Students who attend and participate in the LIVE sessions perform better on assessments.

So, this may look and even feel successful at times. I assure you, it is far from optimal. I miss the smells and the noises and the looks of elation as well as confusion. I miss sitting close to kids and watching them think through concepts. I miss being able to see individual student work so I can sequence it for sharing with the class. I miss seeing my students’ smiles when I say, “White Boards—GO!” as they run to their favorite #VNPS in the room. I do love that my kids are driven learners. They have worked and they have been exposed and the large majority of them have really tried.

What we have here is a failure to communicate….

A failure to communicate? No. We have a failure to read directions, right? NO. We have a failure to teach learners how to read directions. And follow them. I have failed my kids. I created a monster that can neither read nor follow directions for themselves. I did this because it was faster to spoon feed and answer questions that could easily be answered from READING THE DIRECTIONS. Oh my dear ELA and reading teachers, I have failed you too. I am so ashamed. I am sorry. I will do better. I am paying the price and learning the lesson.


I am guilty of not teaching how to read and follow direction and if your students aren’t harvesting the fruits of your tiring hours, you’re guilty too. It’s my fault. It’s all of our faults.

So, how am I going to fix this going forward? If I were rich, I would plant money in secret places that require my students to read and follow directions to find. But I’m not. But maybe I could hide other treasures? Would that be illegal given physical distancing? Encouraging notes hidden in the park? Or, better yet – or at least socially responsible – crazy videos of the math teacher that you get via clues left in the assignments. By golly. I’m going to try that!!!  Or some version. I need to give them something to talk about. They deserve a reward. We all deserve to have fun.

Let’s get this online revolution or at least a resolution to get learners to read directions going! Join me!!

Side note… Oh dearest blog, I am so, so, so sorry I have neglected you. You help me think. You help me come up with amazing ideas. My sour take on classroom management this year has led me to neglect you as I feared spreading negative energy. Please forgive me. I’m back. Time to get my kids back too!

Love, sbv



At long last…something to say

Time to blog. In the midst of a year where I felt like I little productive to add to the education community, I am now in a position to do so.

I just got off a Zoom chat with my niece who teaches in China. Here is some valuable information from our conversation.

Glimpse into our future first:

  • Temperature checks are the norm. They happen as you enter a grocery store, your apartment complex and your school building. This is still occurring three months into the situation in China.
  • After two months of isolation, they are now seeing people moving about the community, though most wear masks of some sort.
  • They never had the shortages we are experiencing. Call it what you will.
  • They have been told multiple times that the school will reopen, only to have it delayed week after week.
  • Plan no more than a week ahead.

Now for school issues:

  • Many parents at first were concerned that education was not really taking place online, but most have now come to grips with the reality of the situation and see and support remote learning for their children. Expect resistance and pushback from parents at first. It might not be as bad in the states since parents will have the benefit of seeing how the rest of the world is coping with education already.
  • Keeping regular school hours is important. Even if you teach the same course multiple times during the day, combining classes does not work because students will be attending other classes. To avoid coordination issues, you must see your classes at your regularly scheduled times online.
  • See your classes face to face via Zoom or some other such medium at least once a week if not daily. Students need that. The learning must be real. Seeing faces makes it more real.
  • Some parents may opt their children out of this learning platform. That is administration’s issue to deal with. Report it, but spend your time with the students who are signed in to learn. Be there for them rather than chasing students you cannot catch. It’s the same group you were have trouble reaching in the regular classroom.
  • There will be pleasant surprises. Some students who were tuned out at school now have a parent supervisor making certain they attend to their schooling. It will be so nice to have them being part of the learning process.
  • Set up assignments no more than a week at a time. Some students will go ahead and it will be impossible for you to keep ahead, current and play catch up all at the same time.
  • If students do not begin when the classes begin, it will be nearly impossible for them to catch up. Make certain the start times are sent out loud and clear!
  • With all that said, stay positive and flexible. Embrace the learning you are doing and celebrate the initiative your learners are taking.
  • Students who did not take action during class will not likely take action under these new circumstances. Teach those who are there to learn.
  • Begin with as much structure as you can and maintain that structure. Try not to make changes along the way if you can help it.
  • Teaching a course at the same time as teaching a learning platform is nearly impossible. Get the platform in place first. That should be easy for my students as their science and language arts teachers have done such a good job running their classes through Canvas for the past couple years. I hope you are similarly situated. If you are not in that position, get the platform set first so students know how to communicate and retrieve information.
  • Thought you weren’t a technology teacher? Think again.
  • Day by day changes will happen. Week by week changes will happen. My niece has seen reopening dates announced, reschedule and then cancelled. They play it week by week, but they have a routine and classes are in session. We can and will do likewise.

Now, with all that said, be safe. Love yourself.

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling overwhelmed and a bit depressed. I think this is probably normal — whatever that means these days. What I do know for certain is that we need one another. I can’t high-five you or give you a hug (not that I’m big on that under normal circumstances) or shake your hand, but please know, I want to help you and I want to help my learners. Be safe. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Live, love, math — in that order!!


Getting Real—the Five Practices

Sitting in a MVP (Mathematics Vision Project) Integrated Math 1 professional development (PD) class early this week, minding my own business, probably checking Twitter for any knowledge nuggets or notifications leading to that dopamine rush, when I hear a teacher proclaim her recommitment to popsicle sticks as a means to improve participation in her class come fall. I winced. I remember being praised by my principal for having a cup of popsicle sticks on my desk and the nod of approval he gave me when I used this revolutionary technique to call randomly on unsuspecting students.  About this time each summer I started eating popsicles with abandon hoping to have enough sticks saved by the end of August. Oh my goodness. How far we’ve come!

kari pops
Kari Vaughn, now FCAS; former princess popsicle eater

A dominant theme from PD a couple summers ago was the practice of acting intentionally in instruction and planning and assessment and in each and every teacher move except in calling on students. We were still rolling the roulette wheel hoping fate would carry us the rest of the way. We were upping participation, but not steering the learning ship in any particular direction.  At the close of many a class, we found ourselves on education’s version of Gilligan’s Island, floundering hopelessly for a solution to the wreck that just occurred in class. It never occurred to me there was a better way because fate served me well, much of the time. But not every time and my luck ran out.

How many times have you been burned by a student who boldly states the exact misconception you were saying to dispel; or a student who confidently states something totally and completely wrong? Having no idea what a student is going to say is a rookie mistake. What keeps sticking with me is a scene from L.A. Law  (1986-1994) where Corbin Bernsen, starring as divorce attorney Arnie Becker, has a woman, claiming abuse, on the witness stand. He pushes her to the breaking point about why she did not seek help from a neighbor on a particular occasion when she had been locked out of her house. She explains that she could not seek help from a neighbor because she was naked.  At that point, his whole case fell apart right before him. He was reminded that a divorce lawyer never asks a question to which he or she does not already know the answer. And so it is two decades into the 21stcentury in the mathematics classroom.

Now, at long last, the Five Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematical Discussions by Smith and Stein, affectionately referred to as “the five practices’’ is gaining traction and getting real.  When we, as teachers, invite a student to share insights with the class, we already know what they are going to say. It’s still organic, it’s just that we are sorting and selecting student insights in a planned way. And when I say we, I assume every teacher is now doing this or at least striving to take steps toward orchestrating classroom discussions in such a way. Just when I think that, I over hear the popsicle stick comment and I know, the work here is just starting.  I know I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the training and experiences I have had using Open Up Resources 6-8 Math authored by Illustrative Mathematics.

At HIVE19 in Atlanta, Brooke Powers (@LBrookePowers) introduced us (Martin Joyce (@martinsean), Morgan Stipe (@mrsstipemath) and Jen Arberg (@JenArberg) to a video that we then showed during our Five Practices 6-8 breakout groups in session 3 in the Community Track. This video created by and starring Dr. K. Childs, set the stage nicely as we dug into a lesson specifically on the five practices. I am sharing it further by linking it here. I hope this makes an appearance in your back to school training sessions. I also hope this practice extends to other content areas because good practice is good practice.

I threw my line out and I got a nibble…subtitle: MVP may help me improve my Math 2 instruction next year

I am the first to admit, I am no expert on curriculum. I taught 8thgrade math for 10 years with no curriculum. I taught algebra 1 for 8 with no curriculum including my very first year in the classroom. Also, I taught Geometry for a couple years without any curriculum. Algebra 2 (the best ever!!!) I was without, but I did have access to a textbook, so maybe not truly without, it was just not aligned. Then there was Math 2, 1 and Math 8 under Common Core for several years with zero curriculum. I had to have the difference between standards and curriculum explained to me because I had no clue what curriculum actually was because I had never seen such. Standards are not curriculum. Resources are not curriculum. When you spend 20 hours preparing for 12 hours of class, you do not have a curriculum. Having multiple preps without any curriculum is nearly impossible. I did that the first year I taught geometry. I had Math 8 as well as algebra 1 that year. Once school was out, I went to bed and didn’t wake up until I heard fireworks on the fourth of July. I didn’t know there was a different/better way.

Finally, in late August of 2017, my school was asked to pilot the Open Up Resources 6-8 Math Curriculum authored by the geniuses at Illustrative Mathematics. I was amazed…and pissed. Why had I been put through 10 years of hell having to do everything myself via trial and error as I cobbled together resources to teach the standards for my classes. I knew I had found the silver bullet that educators have been looking for, or at least, I was much closer to it than ever before.

After using the Open Up Resources 6-8 Math curriculum for almost two years coupled with hearing noise about the Mathematics Vision Project (MVP) partnering with Open Up Resources to deliver a high school curriculum, it dawned on me that there had to be some Math 2 stuff hanging in a cloud somewhere so I went hunting. I knew I had limited time after spring break to cover the probability unit for Math 2. I found Module 9 for Math 2 from MVP. I looked it over. Checked it for alignment. Worked through the lessons then checked again for alignment. I decided to give it a try. I like it and here’s why.

Though I had no detailed how-to guide or training on how to actually implement this curriculum, I could see it was designed around a learning cycle that made sense. The first thing that made sense is that, unlike me, the authors of the curriculum realize that students actually come into the course with prior knowledge. Students are immediately held accountable for that knowledge. As students are working on the “ready” portion of their independent work, they are actually expected to go out and reacquire concepts on their own if they don’t recall them. I had spent weeks in the past reteaching prerequisite concepts rather than holding students accountable for regaining any lost knowledge themselves. With the MVP module, if students struggled, we spent a little time, but not a significant amount. I would then throw in a drill and kill exercise from my stash to make sure student understandings were solid a day later. We kept moving.

The next thing that sold me was the problem-based learning approach. It was clear that the five practices were part of the design from the page and a half alignment/teacher support page per lesson included in my find. It was also clear that discovery learning and collaboration were part of the process and those are my jam!

I realize through training with Open Up Resources and Illustrative Mathematics that I had to “launch” each lesson by laying down groundwork and making expectations clear up-front. I also circulate and prompt students who are stuck during the task of the day with instructional moves. What do you notice? What do you already know? What are you actually being asked? Can you use a different display to make the data more clear to you? The key is that the students are prompted to take action rather than waiting me or the rest of the class out.

I also like that the classroom projects/tasks are complex enough that students need to talk through what they are about and what learners are really being asked to do. The synergistic learning experience that students have is by design, not by accident. Students genuinely need one another more and me less.

Once students are mostly through with the problem or task, I choose students to present, always looking for varying approaches and insights. Because I am still learning to implement the five practices, I don’t always make the best choices and sometimes I revert to old habits of cold-calling that I get burned by, but we carry on. My students support my learning as much as I do theirs. It’s a wonderful relationship. I am very open with them about the fact that I am trying something new and they are very forgiving when I need a do-over and we rewind and try again.

My students have been frustrated for years about not having a curriculum—almost as much as their parents have been. They crave structure and who could blame them? What I want is quality structure. I’ve only tried this one module from MVP. I’ve not tried any other curriculums other than plucking lesson ideas from various places over the years with no sort of cohesive plan. So far, I see that the MVP curriculum adds both efficiency as well as depth to the learning that goes on in my classroom. Next year, I plan to experiment with MVP for Math 2 as my district launches MVP only for Math 1. I guess I am pre-piloting for Math 2 on my own. Since I am on my own, I can make adjustments as I go. I do wish I had access to some of the for-fee resources such as assessments and training, but I draw the line at having to pay for that sort of thing myself. I may attend the district MVP Math 1 summer training just to get a better understanding of the design.




Wish me luck as I venture onward. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears!!

Rising Out of #teacherfunk

I think quite a lot about professional development. Whether I’m preparing to give or receive, I want it to be worthwhile.

A while back I was deciding whether or not to give the PAEMST a third shot. Yes.  That’s right. My third shot. The first year I submitted, I was a finalist for the state of North Carolina. My lesson was terrible and my write up wasn’t much better. But there I was, a finalist. Two years later, I apply again. My score is double the score from the year I was a finalist, but it wasn’t in the cards. And oddly enough, I was totally ok with that. See, the growth I achieved during and after each of these processes has been the most growth I have ever made as a teacher. It is no less and no more than the personal growth I went through when I did my National Boards. (Note to the world—the most significant professional development a teacher can get is personal professional development through structured reflection. It should be recognized and recorded as such.)

So why am I applying again? I had to. Early this calendar year, I found myself in a terrible funk as a teacher. I had no confidence and my students sensed that and seized on it. That just made each day worse. I had to shake what was happening to me and in my classroom. I thought about when I was at my best and what made me my best and it all came back to serious, structured, self-reflection. Reflection on my foibles as well as my fabulousness. I knew I had to resubmit for PAEMST, so, on March 1st, I self-nominated. I am doing this for my self and for my students. They deserve my best and I was not at my best before I made this decision. I was an over burdened teacher who felt compelled to beat herself up over data. Data points that truly represent neither me nor my students. Data points that are valid in hindsight, but at the moment made me feel like a failure. I am now on a natural high that is propelling me forward as well as my learners.

For me data is emotional before it is informative. That is something every administrator needs to know about me, and probably about most other teachers. I take my job very seriously. Data is merely one dimension that defines me as well as my learners. We are so much more than one stinking data point. I could go on a whole diatribe about grades and end of grade scores and whatnot, but I won’t. People that don’t understand will not suddenly change their position on my rant.

If you are like me and need a structure to help you reflect and give yourself a significant career boost, then do some structured, self-refection. Use the National Board prompts or the PAEMST dimension prompts. It is so worth it for you and your students. While you’re at it, you might as well apply, right?


Simplifying radicals? Who needs it?

There was a time I thought radicals should be simplified. A factor of a radicand should never be a perfect square. To do otherwise was just sloppy math—so I thought. Now, I think differently. You should consider it too.

image square roots

Making the square root of 40 look like 2 on the square root of 10 serves no real purpose in the mathematics of real life. You can readily estimate the square root of 45, but trying to do that with three square root 5 is a much more complicated task, and for what? If I am going to the fabric store and I am asked how much ribbon I want, I better not say, “4 root 2” and expect to get the correct amount. At the hardware store, I am far better reasoning that the square root of 32 feet would be a bit less than 6 feet, and a bit more than 5 and one-half feet and just say 2 yards. The lumber department does not want to hear this nonsense about radicals and square roots.  They want to cut my lumber and send me to the register to check out so they can help the next person also get a reasonable amount of lumber.

real square roots
Photograph by question_ev3rything on reddit

Now, I know, one needs to simplify radicals to combine radicals via addition, such as the square root of 27 plus the square root of 12, but seriously. This is not reality. This is a contrived problem that I have never seen come up in real life. Ever. And I sew and measure and do real life things with math—at home. It does not come up.  It’s clever, like a party trick, but not terribly useful.

I do make certain my Math 2 students can “simplify radials,” but just for the “man.” Not for real life. I used to “ding” my students (take off 1 point just to be mildly irritating to get them to conform to convention) for not simplifying radicals. I am totally rethinking that.

Reality says leave radicals as they are so they are easy to estimate to be useful and to check for reasonableness. Done.

Skirt and shirt made out of fabric that has root vegetables that are in the shapes of rectangular prisms.
Last spring’s project…square roots…get it?


Here I Stand

I’ve heard it. I’ve said it. I’ve lived it. The equations section of Unit 4 of 8thgrade Open Up Resources 6-8 Math curriculum is a beast. It ramps up so quickly with little to no practice and students are lost. They are frustrated and giving up. So are teachers. So was I, until I got my head around it. Sheer conjecture, but this is my take on the whole thing.

This curriculum is designed for 8thgraders. All 8thgraders. We have three distinct levels of math classes in 8thgrade at my school. The Open Up curriculum is only being used for students who are currently at, barely at or below grade level. There is a narrow group of learners using this wide-ranging 8thgrade curriculum. Most of these learners have never truly been asked to perform work that is on-grade-level. This is the first time. They are lost and struggling and giving up.

We are taking a curriculum intended for acceleration, remediation and everything in between and using it exclusively for corrective and remedial instruction with enough access for on grade-level students to make progress. We are working hard to deliver the curriculum with fidelity. Our students are being challenged with grade-level material for, perhaps, the first time. They, in all likelihood, will not get it all. That’s ok. For many, this is their first exposure to grade-level material. Maybe they’ll get it the next time. We need to focus on the fact that students finally have access to grade-level material. We, as teachers, need to be careful not to let our well-intentioned actions take that away from them. When we take the opportunity for students to solve equations containing distribution and fractions and negative numbers and variables on both side and exchange it for 6thgrade-level equations, we are cheating our students.

And there I am, taking work that is at grade-level and breaking it down into bits and pieces that my students can understand and taking it off grade-level. I’m reading to them rather than having them read the problems themselves. I’m giving in. I’m using a curriculum designed to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners with a group of learners who, for the most part, don’t want to be there. I have got to do better so my students have a chance to do better. I’ve started giving out Life Savers to students for getting a good start on activities. Hopefully, only I catch the connection there.

Students do not know how to put in the sustained work required to do the learning that needs to be done to get on grade-level. They do not know how to reach longer-term goals on their own.  Rather than getting frustrated with the students and the curriculum, we as teachers, need to rise to the challenge and be the bridge that finally gets these students access to grade level work. Yes. It will take multiple years, but I would rather be the start of their access to grade-level work rather than the continuation of subpar standards.

There is so much immediate gratification in the lives of students that gets in the way of the time it takes to do the work required to reach longer-term goals.  None of these students fell behind in the last year or two. Fact is they were never caught up to start with. This is just the first time they have ever even had the chance to see and do work that is on grade-level. They are 13 and 14. Yes, they are going to struggle. Yes, we are going to struggle right along with them.  We owe it to them to finally challenge them with what they deserve. All students deserve access to grade level content. Period. Taking Martin Luther out of context, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

martin luther at luther college

Tracking is the start of all this below grade-level activity. We say we want all students to succeed, but how can they? There is no way to “jump the track” they are assigned to if they do not have a crack at the actual expectations of the grade. At-grade-level progress needs to be accessed and assessed for all learners. Watering down standards and short-changing learners who have historically struggled will never get them where they should be. Please honor our students by honoring their access to grade-level material. It is probable that many may not get it, but some will. Chances are, the ones that don’t get it weren’t going to get the watered-down version either. At grade level material gives all students a chance to meet and exceed expectations. Expect great things from yourself and your students.

Look Who’s Learning

It’s no secret I am an Open Up Resources 6-8 Math junkie. I love what the curriculum does for learners. Today, I want to expand my definition of learners. I am a teacher, but I am also a learner. I have learned more about teaching, learning and math in the past twelve months than I learned in the prior 14 years. I have Open Up Resources 6-8 Math, Illustrative Mathematics and my international PLC to thank for that.


It’s not just that I have quality material with insights spelled out for me. It’s not that my students are challenged and required to think differently than they ever have. All those things are good. And true. The fact of the matter is that this curriculum makes me a better teacher. I teach better than I ever have. I am more prepared and I have greater insights. I am a better listener. I want to hear how my students are interpreting the math. I want students to share their interpretations. As prepared as I feel each day, I seem to always see and hear and feel something new about the math my students are doing. I am learning. I am the learner and I LOVE IT. Open Up Resources 6-8 Math curriculum makes me a better teacher and learner. Every. Day.

I was starved for quality professional development ever since Common Core was rolled out. The minimal training received on Common Core was ill-conceived and not informative. I remember building fences with posts that were the supporting standards and rails that were supplemental or connecting standards. But I didn’t learn how what I was to teach was better for my students. Everything was theoretical. There was no comparison of how students were expected to learn differently or how I was expected to teach differently. I didn’t practice teaching anything. I was also not given resources with which to teach other than an outline. I learned much more about Common Core as I was teaching seeing my students make connections I had not previously considered. Because North Carolina gutted education funding on the heels of Common Core’s implementation, teachers were left to find and develop their own resources in order to teach and learn the standards. That took a while and I learned much through the school of hard-knocks. Eventually, I was seeing the connections and the wisdom of the sequencing. I was excited. Unsupported, but excited.


Then Common Core got killed in the court of public opinion. Had Common Core had extensive, quality public relations communications, I like to think the educated public would have bought into the sequencing dictated by the standards. But they didn’t. The only public communication was parents posting homework problems without a context and calling the whole thing folly. There were even teachers that ignored the adoption of the standards and taught what and as they always had. Perfect strangers would come up to me in the grocery store line and see my teacher ID and say something like, “What do you think about Common Core?” expecting me to bash it. I wouldn’t bat an eye. I just said, “ I love it. The connections that students make all throughout the standards are solid. The insights that both students and teachers are gaining are profound. I hope the state has to courage to do the right thing for our schools and ignore the ignorant neigh-saying public. Why do you ask?” I typically didn’t get a response.

I want a do-over on the release of the Common Core Standards. I would start by rolling it out to the elementary schools for three years. Move to the middle schools for a year or two and then finally get to the high schools. Changing horses in the middle of the stream and then providing little to no professional development for teachers and no quality public relations education killed Common Core. Teachers were asked to implement without understanding. Teachers don’t do that. Teachers demand and deserve to understand why. That is a sad fact that was disregarded. We are now getting a do-over, of sorts, via Open Up Resources 6-8 Math, but better. It’s the third word…RESOURCES.

I am fortunate that my district is investing in teacher professional development with the implementation of Open Up Resources 6-8 Math. It seems the phrase Common Core is now somehow forbidden by the state. What we teach are the Common Core standards, but they are simply rebranded. Clever. But the standards are better than solid and it’s working so let’s just keep that little secret to ourselves. Open Up Resources 6-8 Math and the professional development I am receiving through Illustrative Mathematics are helping me connect my teaching to the standards with better understanding and execution than ever before.


Now for the real purpose of this post. I am concerned there are teachers reluctant to change their ways regarding what they teach and how they teach it and some of these teachers are merely going through the motions as they roll out the Open Up Resources 6-8 Math curriculum. Teachers are learners too. Remember, you can’t get more out of something than you put into it. Just because something is good and nationally acclaimed doesn’t mean it will work without effort. Teaching is work. Teaching with Open Up Resources 6-8 Math is a lot of work. It is this work that is making me a better teacher and it’s hard. But my students are worth it. I am worth it. I am grateful that my district sees that we are all worth it.

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