Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Fernwood Elementary Teachers Talk Intentionally About Math

In our latest installment of Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives, two teachers at Fernwood Elementary School volunteer their time and talent to facilitate a teacher book study of Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions. The result: the entire school benefits. Stenhouse editor Holly Holland talked with the teachers and principal involved.

Fernwood Elementary Teachers Talk Intentionally About Math

Teachers are accustomed to having school and district leaders determine the scope and format of their professional development. Rarely do they initiate, plan, and lead their own on-the-job training.

That’s why Fernwood Elementary School assistant principal JoAnn Todd was surprised and pleased last spring when two teachers asked if they could organize a faculty book study focusing on Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions (Stenhouse, 2014).

“It was kind of a grassroots movement,” which turned out to be a wonderful way to spread good instructional practices, said Todd, who now serves as principal of another school in the Northshore School District, near Seattle. “Having it be from the ground up, versus from the district or principal, gives it more legs, that genuine excitement.”

The book study also enabled her to develop the leadership skills of the two young teachers who proposed it. Kindergarten teacher Shelley Heathman and sixth- grade teacher Emily Schenck worked with Todd to organize and facilitate a series of ninety-minute sessions held every three or four weeks. Todd helped the teachers learn effective structures of professional book studies as well as strategies for managing time and coaching colleagues. Before each session the organizers shared their plans, and Todd offered feedback and work-arounds for possible problems.

Because Fernwood couldn’t compensate teachers for their time, they had to meet voluntarily after school hours. Nevertheless, eight other teachers agreed to participate with Heathman and Schenck.

“It was like-minded people from across grade levels coming together and being able to learn together,” Schenck said. “We also internalized it more because it was something we were having fun doing together. Instead of a passive recipient [of professional development], you are an active learner, which is what we want our kids to be.”

Having Productive Math Discussions

Schenck had taken a University of Washington course with Allison Hintz, coauthor of Intentional Talk with Elham Kazemi, and suggested using the book for a deeper exploration of how to guide classroom conversations about math. Intentional Talk features a range of methods for guiding classroom conversations about math—from open strategy sharing to targeted discussions—such as asking students to compare and connect and define and clarify.

“Open strategy sharing is typically the first way to get mathematical discussions going in classrooms,” the authors write. “It’s like having a good, basic recipe for a soup from which you can make all kinds of variations. Open strategy sharing allows you to nurture the norms needed for a productive math-talk community. And you can use this discussion structure to model how students should talk with one another” (17).
An open strategy sharing discussion typically begins by highlighting a problem that has multiple solutions and using instructional talk moves such as repeating (“Can you repeat what she said in your own words?”) and reasoning (“Why does that make sense?”) to help students verbalize their understanding.

The book also features lesson-planning templates for mathematical discussions. For example, the template for troubleshooting and revising discussions asks teachers to consider the following:
• What is the confusion or misunderstanding we will discuss or revise?
• What is the insight I’d like students to understand?
• What are the problem context, diagrams, or questions that might be useful to use during the discussion?

Schenck said one of the “immediate takeaways” she gleaned from the book was the reminder to focus students’ conversation on the learning objective of the day and to give them multiple ways to talk about it. When teaching students how to add and subtract negative numbers, for example, she realized that she often shared shortcuts but did not always explain them at the conceptual level. So, instead of only sharing that the quickest way to subtract negative numbers is to add them, she started putting up problems and asking students whether they were true or false. Through peer conversations they learned how to analyze, defend, and build on their knowledge of mathematical processes.

“To be able to talk about problems with peers and hear what they are thinking is so powerful,” Schenck said. “They’re not only learning math on a conceptual level but also good communication skills.

“When you are a teacher, you can always say, ‘This is the rule,’ and they will believe it, but to get them to say it validates their thinking.”

Classroom Observations and Videotaping

As part of the collegial book study, Heathman and Schenck wanted to videotape some lessons so teachers could see how the Intentional Talk strategies played out in different classrooms and at different grade levels. They offered to do the first sharing so teachers who felt vulnerable could get comfortable observing and reflecting as a group.

“Our conversations were more about what students were doing, not what we were doing as teachers,” Heathman said. “I think the biggest aha moments were that students are capable of amazing things. If we can give them the proper environment, which is a safe place to work together, they can take it away and enhance each other. Good teachers are just facilitators—that’s something the book helped us realize. Students are more than capable of enhancing their own learning just by having accountable talk with each other.”

Todd said she witnessed tremendous growth among the participating teachers. Seeing effective practices in action made all the teachers more aware of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, when intermediate grades teachers heard the rich conceptual conversations students in the primary grades were having about math, they realized that their older students could do more than they had previously asked them to do.

To demonstrate her commitment to the professional learning process, Todd volunteered to teach a lesson from Intentional Talk and videotape it for the study group to analyze. She also showed the teachers how the reflective work they were doing tied in with the state’s teacher evaluation system.

“Criteria two is about using questioning and discussion techniques” with students, she said. “I was pointing out, ‘Hey, guys, what you’re talking about is actually reaching proficient and distinguished levels on the state evaluation.’ It was validating to them. It made their work in the book study completely relevant.”

Extending the Lessons Learned

Schenck and Heathman said they hope to do another collegial book study in the future, perhaps with a more concrete plan for ensuring that the best practices spread throughout the school. Teachers believe the study was a valuable addition to their ongoing professional learning.
“It takes passion and eagerness to have an organic experience such as this book study,” Heathman said. “It was a very positive experience, and Intentional Talk was very accessible and manageable.”

Add comment April 22nd, 2015

The buzz of math

We just got back from the annual NCTM conference in Boston where we got to meet many of you — our readers and our authors. We had a lot going on this year with a busy booth, several of our authors giving presentations, as well as ShadowCon, where a group of passionate math teachers issued calls to action to their colleagues and to the next generation of teachers. We’ll be following up with them in the next couple of weeks and months, but until then here are some tweets that represent some of the excitement, learning, and enthusiasm of this year’s NCTM. (You have to click on some of the images to see the full text and image in the tweet!)

Add comment April 20th, 2015

Building a Culture of Trust and Respect: One Police Officer and One Child at a Time

Assistant Principal Krista Venza and Officer Wayne

Assistant Principal Krista Venza and Officer Wayne Moreland

Today’s guest post comes from Krista Venza, assistant principal at a Pennsylvania middle school, and Wayne Moreland, a police officer. The two of them paired up to create the “Hello My Friend Project,” aimed at inspiring students — and teachers — to respect each other, to create a sense of community in their schools, and to reach outside of their schools to help those in need. You can find out more about the project on their website or their Facebook page.

Building a Culture of Trust and Respect: One Police Officer and One Child at a Time

By Wayne S.  Moreland, Police Officer and Krista M. Venza, Assistant Principal

When something negative is reported in the news, people tend to use generalizations such as, “All teachers . . .,” “All lawyers . . .,” “All police officers . . .,” and so on. Although there are some people in every field who can give the whole profession a bad name, most people are good and work very hard at their jobs. If we wait until a tragedy monopolizes the news and creates a culture of mistrust, we will miss the chance to build bridges between two institutions that share a vital role in every community: guiding children to become responsible and educated citizens.

As school and police leaders, we may seem an unlikely pair to join forces, but we realized we had a common desire to change perceptions and create a culture of trust and respect between schools and law enforcement. Wayne is a township police officer with eighteen years of experience in law enforcement, including the motorcycle patrol and training coordinator and team leader for a county SWAT team. Krista has eighteen years of experience in education as a special education teacher, instructional support facilitator, and school administrator.

Krista enrolled in a local citizen police academy, which helps the public learn about policing, Pennsylvania criminal law, and connections to the community. One of the key insights she gained was how quickly police officers must use their training, experience, and judgment to make decisions that can have lasting impacts on lives. The parallels to teaching are clear. Although educators do not normally have to make life-or-death decisions, they do need to react quickly and effectively to a number of different situations throughout the day that impact students’ lives.

Meanwhile, Wayne was searching for a way to show children a different side of law enforcement. He recalled an incident when he had volunteered to read to a local third-grade class. After the teacher introduced him, he was startled when a child walked up to him and asked if he was going to kill her. Wayne immediately knelt down beside the girl, placed his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Honey, I am here to read a book to you and your classmates. The police are here to help you, not hurt you.” But the moment stung.

After much discussion, we decided to supplement the work of the DARE program, in which police officers teach school students good decision-making skills, by creating a middle school program called PEACE Crew. The letters in PEACE represent the following:

P – Practicing self-control through

E – Exercise, discussion, and reflection of

A – Attitude and

C – Choices while always valuing

E – Each other

The after-school program is voluntary, and attendance fluctuates between five and twenty students each week. The structured sessions include focus and meditation activities, discussion of current topics, personal reflection, viewing of inspirational video clips, and physical exercise. Students are guided through a meditation session to help them to clear their minds and let go of any issues that may be distracting them. Topics discussed include bullying, friendship/relationship issues, academics, social media, and family dynamics. Students spend time writing about something that made them smile, something that made them upset, and something they learned that day. They then share these with the group. We model and practice active listening, showing empathy for others, and providing appropriate feedback during this time. We also feed them; usually we order a few pizzas and eat while we watch TED Talks, Kid President YouTube videos, and other video clips featuring inspirational people. The session is wrapped up by engaging in physical activity such as running sprints, stretching, working out in the weight room, or playing organized games.

The biggest surprise we’ve observed is that, when others see the positive interactions taking place within our crew, they are inspired and want to get involved. One of our mathematics teachers, who is also the high school football coach, volunteered to share a video clip of an NFL coach’s motivational speech to his players and then spoke frankly with students, encouraging them to be people with integrity who can be counted on. We have faculty members lined up to lead students in yoga and Zumba workouts, and we plan to invite other administrators, faculty members, and members of the community—such as business owners, judges, and police officers—to be guest speakers.

Another great outcome is how quickly we’ve gotten to know the students on a personal level. They have become comfortable talking openly with us and approaching us when they need support or someone to listen. Being available to them and making connections is so important when teaching them about trust and respect. As teen advocate Josh Shipp says, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.”

The students have expressed interest in spending time volunteering at a nursing home, cooking a meal for their teachers, holding a coat drive, and helping clean the school. They have plans to become ambassadors of good in our school and encourage others to become responsible, caring individuals.

Their first outreach activity is holding a food drive to benefit our local food bank. Crew members will go to each homeroom and speak to their peers about the food drive and the competition they’ve developed to encourage participation. This will be the first opportunity for many of our members to try out a leadership role where their peers are looking to them for information and instruction. They are taking this new role very seriously, and we are providing them time to work together to decide what they will say and to practice delivering this message before having to do it for real. We are excited to help them see this project through and for them to experience something they planned successfully come to fruition.

These students have ideas about how to reach out to others in need, how to stop bullying, and how to simply be kind to one another, but some of them continue to say and do things that test our patience and question our will to continue giving of ourselves and our time. Still, we do continue—it takes a lot more than just creating a club and asking kids to show up to effect real change. Expectations and skills need to be strategically taught, especially those having to do with becoming a contributing member of a community that values a partnership between its citizens and law enforcement. These skills need to be modeled by everyone the students interact with, and the students need to be given the opportunity to practice the skills in a safe, supportive atmosphere.

How can we help make that happen? It simply comes down to caring and doing it. Lots of people have good ideas and good intentions; we’ve decided to jump in with two feet and all our hearts to make a difference. Our group is special because we are giving students opportunities they may not otherwise have, and people want to be a part of it. It is human nature to internalize what we experience, hear about, and read about, and to make it our personal reality. Our hope is that this program bridges the divide and that our reality becomes a culture of trust and respect among individuals, the community, and law enforcement.

This is all about people deciding to step up and create opportunities to make connections so our students—and, we hope, the entire community—know that someone cares about them and believes in them. In life, the stars don’t always align, and we don’t always hit every green light. It’s up to individuals to choose to make things happen, so why not an unlikely pair like a police officer and an assistant principal? Who’s with us?

Add comment April 14th, 2015

See you at NCSM and NCTM

We are heading down to Boston this weekend for NCSM and then NCTM. We hope to see you at our booth at both conferences!
Here are the details about author signings and sessions at each event:


(Stenhouse booth #103)

Author signings:
Chris Moynihan, 10:00 a.m. Tuesday
Elham Kazemi, 11:30 a.m. Tuesday
Cathy Humphreys & Ruth Parker, 3:30 p.m. Tuesday

Author sessions:
Ruth Parker, 2:45-3:45 Monday: “Enacting the CCSS: Preparing a Next Generation of Mathematics Teacher Leaders”
Elham Kazemi, 3:00-3:45 Monday: Hot Topics Conversation Café: “Developing a School-wide Learning and Coaching Culture” (Table 3)
Elham Kazemi, 10:00-11:00 Tuesday: “Developing a School-Wide Culture of Collective Risk Taking and Learning: It’s Not Easy But Why It’s Worth It”
Cathy Humphreys, 2:15-3:15 Tuesday: “High School Number Talks as Agents of Change in Classroom Culture”
Chris Moynihan, 2:15-3:15 Wednesday: “Reflecting the Light of Learning Through the Mathematical Practices: Finding the GOLD within the MPs”

(Stenhouse booth #721)

Author signings:
Chris Moynihan, Noon Thursday
Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, 12:30 p.m., Friday
Elham Kazemi & Allison Hintz, 2:00 p.m., Friday
Anne Collins and Linda Dacey, 4:15 p.m., Friday
Ruth Parker, 11:00 a.m. Saturday

Author Sessions:
Linda Dacey, 8:00-9:00 Thursday: “Sing; Move; Dramatize; Create Stories, Visuals, and Poems: Learn Math”
Elham Kazemi, Kassia Omohundro Wedekind & Allison Hintz, 1:00-2:15 Thursday: “Counting Matters: Why We Should Pay More Attention to Counting”*
Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, 2:00-3:00 Thursday: “Pulling Together to Promote Innovative Practices: A K-College Partnership”*
Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, 11:00-12:00 Friday: Transforming Intervention: Moving from Skills Remediation to Rich Problem Solving”
Elham Kazemi & Allison Hintz, 12:30-1:30 Friday: “Transforming Practice: Organizing Schools for Meaningful Teacher and Leader Learning”
Anne Collins, 2:45-4:00 Friday: “Modeling Concepts Across the Domains”
Ruth Parker, 9:30-10:30 Saturday: “Bringing the Standards for Mathematical Practice to Life in Classrooms”
Allison Hintz, 11:00-12:00 Saturday: “Mathematizing Children’s Books”

Add comment April 11th, 2015

What we talked about with Kelly Gallagher

We covered a lot of ground during our hour-long chat with Kelly Gallagher. We talked about his new book, In the Best Interest of Students, as well as the effects of the Common Core State Standards on the teaching of reading and writing. Here are a few memorable Tweets from the chat, as well as the fuller archived version.

Add comment April 9th, 2015

LIVE Twitter chat with Kelly Gallagher

kellygallagherWe are getting our hashtags ready for our live chat with Kelly Gallagher this Wednesday, April 8, at 7 p.m. EST. Kelly’s most recent book is In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom. In his new book, Kelly notes that there are real strengths in the Common Core standards, and there are significant weaknesses as well. He takes the long view, reminding us that standards come and go but what remains constant is the need to stay true to what we know works in the teaching of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

You can preview the first chapter of his book online now and you can use code TWEET to receive 20% off and free shipping!

During the chat, we’ll try to cover as much as we can leave some time for your questions. Here is what we are planning on asking Kelly:

  1. Can you tell us a little bit about why you wrote this book and what your hopes are for the book.
  2. What benefits do you see in the current standards?​ And what are some of the weaknesses?
  3. What are some of the problems with the way close reading is taught?
  4. Why is recreational reading important?
  5. How can teachers deal with administrators who are not acting in the best interest of students?
  6. What future do you see for CCSS and what do you think is next?

What questions do you have for Kelly? Whittle it down to 140 characters and come join us Wednesday night! Follow #bestinterest during the chat and make sure to follow @stenhousepub as well for this chat and for other exciting events and news.

Add comment April 6th, 2015

Now Online: Common Core Sense

common-core-senseDo you find it challenging to translate the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice from the Common Core State Standards into the classroom?

Christine Moynihan, author of Math Sense, has worked with teachers across the country to help them make sense of the Mathematical Practices and tap into their power. She shares a practical framework for incorporating the Practices into daily instruction in her new book, Common Core Sense.

For each Mathematical Practice, Chris defines the main purpose, describes what students often do and say as they use the practice, and recommends questions that teachers can ask and steps they can take to make the practice a powerful part of their math classroom.

The ideas are illustrated with lessons spanning grades K-5, accompanied by classroom vignettes, student work samples, and teacher observations.

Common Core Sense is an essential guide to the Mathematical Practices for all K-5 teachers. You can now preview the entire book online!

Add comment April 2nd, 2015

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Stenhouse

On this last day of March, we are excited to look forward to April and National Poetry Month. We are doing something fun this year — a Twitter poetry contest!

We have asked poet and author Shirley McPhillips to serve as judge for our contest and she enlisted her poet friend Drew Myron to help out. So, if you feel inspired, head over to Twitter and write a poem with 140 characters or less. Leave space for the hashtag #stenpoems so that Shirley can find and read your words. At the end of the month, we will pick one winner and three honorable mentions who will receive signed copies of Shirley’s latest book, Poem Central. The poems will also be published right here, on the Stenhouse blog. (If you are not on Twitter, you can send your poems to with the subject line Twitter poem, or you can also leave your poems in the comments section of this blog post.)

Now, what is a Twitter poem? Shirley wrote this great post about Twitter poems — a great read before you begin to write your own. If you are a teacher, encourage your students to give it a try as well! And if you are a teacher who wants to incorporate more poetry into your classroom, here is a FREE download of poetry resources from trusted Stenhouse authors.

Up for the Count: Twitter Poems
Shirley McPhillips

Shirley McPhillips

Shirley McPhillips

I have made this (letter) longer than usual because I have not had the leisure of making it shorter. Blaise Pascal, 1657

Seems like short is the new long. That’s the fun of a Twitter poem. It’s expected to be short. 140 characters or fewer (including the title, if it has one). We may ramble in the beginning, getting lists and lines down quickly. But then reality sets in. How to write something short that has the qualities of a good poem. Now that may take some leisure.

The 140-character limit has spawned waves of creativity as folks test their ability to do more with less. There’s the twaiku movement and Twitterature, a book containing major works of literature boiled down into a bouillon cube. And lest we think this is an activity for the obsessed techno-masses, four major prize-winning poets, two of them former laureates, published Twitter poems in the New York Times one year: Billy Collins, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Alexander and Robert Pinsky.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) sometimes sponsors a National Poetry Contest on Twitter. That’s where I met two Twitter poem contest finalists: Leslie Kenna and Liesl Dineen. Their stories about coming into the world of Twitter verse instruct and inspire.

Leslie’s “Short” Story

Leslie grew up in a New York City neighborhood that has an elevated train (the el) running through it. “For years,” she writes, “everything—eating, shopping, reading, sleeping, dental appointments, etc., was done to the beat of passing trains. I think all that shaking got into my bones.” Here is her Twitter poem:


In a waiting room under the el

each time a door closes

the collection of mysteries and tragedies

rattles and sways.

poem-centralLeslie was strategic in her approach to writing “Bound.” A daydreamer and lover of words, she sat down in a comfy chair, stared out the window and remembered her relationship with books when she was a library-card-carrying New Yorker. After all, she would be submitting to a library contest. She would write about reading on the subway. Standing up. Sitting down. All jammed in, touching shoulders. An escape, making the commute go faster.

Once she had a topic in mind, she wrote down every word that came to mind—even repeating a few—looked over the list and circled words that jumped off the page for her…passengers, carry, one inch, bound, commute, straphangers, immobile, gripping, book, still room, sentence, subway, novel, plot, gripping, Delay, air oxygen, freeing nourishing filling feeding raising relaxing, excursions, expansive, colors ideas novelties trips chartreuse, amaranthine, ideas, thoughts, reach, nourish, deep within She played around, rearranging words.

Then came crafting. “Staring up at the ceiling, reciting words over and over in my head, swapping verbs out, stepping back to gauge the effect.” Neglecting the poem for a while, “returning to it with fresh eyes and ears.” Reading it aloud for rhythm and sound. She also kept in mind that the NYPL was judging on originality, creativity and artistic qualities.

Overall, Leslie finds Twitter poems less intimidating than other forms. “No large blank sheet of paper staring at you.” Since it’s a new form, “you don’t have to be versed in 15th Century Twitter poetry to be taken seriously. You can put it out there.” If people like it, they let you know. Right away. “You can keep trying without feeling bad because no one sends you rejection letters. People can access your poems from a smart phone or computer and even contact you long after you write them.”

Liesl’s “Short” Story

One year Liesl and her husband splurged and bought lovely matching plates but never got around to matching silverware. Pondering the “mismatchedness” of things, she wondered about their future. As she thought about some serious life issues, the sorrow started to flow in. At that moment her husband came booming inside with the dogs, and the kitchen was suddenly full of noise and “this new, mismatched crazy, beautifully rhythmic, full life. John, the dogs, our family and my favorite spoon stirring in the cream of life.”

Our mismatched spoons

stir in the cream

in staccato beats to match

the clickety-clack of dogs in the kitchen.

As Liesl worked on this Twitter poem, “The mismatched spoons,” became “Our mismatched spoons.” Her ear caught the sound of the dogs and that came next. “The spoons weren’t sure what they were doing for a while.” She actually started with milk. She uses almond milk but this wouldn’t do. She was telling a story of chaos and fullness, so cream had to be there. “That word carries so much in our collective. The other words arranged themselves once that fell into place.”

Liesl takes herself to sites that nudge her to practice writing short. There she hones her skill of cutting and rearranging. Recently she worked on a #sixwordstory prompt from @WriterlyTweets. Someone meets a clown. She started with, “The girl fearlessly reached out for his nose,” the idea she wanted. Not short enough, and too dull. She changed “the girl” to “she.” “Fearlessly she reached” took her halfway to six words. Three words left to tell a story. Ah, action. She would beep his nose. A fearless girl might do that! The final six-word story: “Fearlessly she reached, beeping his nose.”

Some Tips From Writers of the Short Form

From our conversations online, Leslie, Liesl and I share some suggestions for you as you write your Twitter poems.

  • A Twitter poem is a little poem with a big thought. Like any poem, it is about one thing or theme. Stick to it. A small moment, a simple action, a sound, can carry a big story.
  • Ideas, lines, images, words, stories, come at us all the time. On the subway train, in the shower, on the treadmill, places inconvenient to writing them down at that moment. Keep a list someplace where you can revisit them and choose one when the time is right.
  • To be generative, to practice paring things down, create opportunities for yourself to write and/or submit lots of short poems. 5-word poems, 10-word poems. Write a Twitter-like poem every day. The more you write the better you get. Try:; #sixwordstory, prompts from @WriterlyTweets.
  • When brainstorming your topic, be generative. Words beget words.
  • Use words that capture an action and tell more of the story: “whispered” instead of “said;” “cream” instead of “milk” (as in Liesl’s poem).
  • Stay in the present tense to create immediacy and sometimes eliminate characters: stirs instead of stirred.
  • When trying to tighten or shorten the poem find one word to do the work of two or three. Instead of “the girl,” use “she.” Strip your lines of small words you don’t need: and, that, was, the.
  • Make your line endings (breaks) strong by using strong nouns and verbs.
  • Say your poems out loud. Hear them the way readers will, not just the way they sound inside your own head. When something snags or doesn’t sound “right,” change it.
  • Step away from your draft for a while. Come back to it with fresh eyes and ears. You might be surprised or enchanted. A “just right” word might slip into place. A glitch might relax.
  • With the right words in the right place, readers can fill in the “story.” Read this by Erel Pilo. Is there anyone who can’t imagine the story?


Eleven cupcakes.

Twelve toddlers

  • The title counts toward the 140 character limit. Decide if you need one. Leslie’s is integral to her poem. Liesl wants more characters in the body of her poem.

After the NYPL retweeted one of Leslie’s poems she was contacted by a beloved author with congratulatory messages. The beginning of a rich conversation. Months later, the author tweeted her the link to a poetry contest run by NASA. “Writing,” Leslie says, “doesn’t have to be a solitary affair. I can connect with people. Directly! In real time.”

“The real challenge,” Liesl says, “was going public with my voice.” Since then she’s started a blog and writes whole months of poems-a-day. “Entering contests is a great way to grow!”


12 comments March 31st, 2015

In The Schoolyard: Spring is the Perfect Time to Encourage Observation

We continue our series on outdoor education with another post from Herb Broda. Now that true spring weather is surely just around the corner, he gives us some ideas on how to encourage students to be more observant of nature around them.

IMG_4215Although change always occurs in nature, the shift from winter to spring is for me one of the greatest shows on earth! From a curricular standpoint, this amazing spectacle of renewal provides a great backdrop for teaching the critical skill of careful observation. The process skill of observation is integral to most content areas, including literacy, science, mathematics, the social sciences and the arts.

Now is a great time to think about how the dramatic change of seasons can be woven into your literacy curriculum. For example, observing the shift from winter to spring can be incorporated into many writing genres. Descriptive and expository writing are the most obvious, but journals and poetry are easily fueled by the changes seen in nature. Even narrative and persuasive writing can be sparked by close observation of changes outside.

Teachers repeatedly mention that a primary goal of outdoor learning is to make children more observant. Improved observation skills transfer outside of the classroom also. One teacher shared how a student burst into his classroom and said, “I saw tracks on my way to school today!” Although the child had probably passed tracks dozens of times before, a lesson about tracks on the schoolyard had made this child more alert even when he wasn’t in school.

Careful observation of seasonal changes is a great introduction to the study of phenology, which Webster defines as “periodic biological phenomena that are correlated with climatic conditions.” Observing changes and the conditions that surround transitions fosters strong observation skills, and also emphasizes the interconnectedness of the natural world. The USA National Phenology Network has an excellent website that includes resources and activities for fostering observation skills through the lens of phenology. I encourage you to take a look at their material.

With the low cost of digital cameras, students can use their observations to create scrapbooks, posters and phenology wheels with pictures that they have taken. By observing a small area closely over time students become amazingly adept at detecting even slight changes. Excitement erupted at one Pennsylvania school when students saw a tiny patch of grass emerge as the winter snow began to melt. In a world dominated by computer imagery and electronic beeps, how refreshing to have students thrilled to see a few blades of grass emerging from under the snow!

In Wisconsin, Georgia Gόmez-Ibáñez helps her students become better observers of nature by creating a “phenology wheel” with her students. Each year she has the students pick a spot where they stand and take a picture each month and arrange the pictures in a circle. She also has another wheel that is divided by month and students keep track of what they notice as seasons change. To guide the observations, she has a checklist that identifies characteristic changes that can be easily spotted in each season, such as certain plants and animals that are evident at various times.

If it’s still snowy in your area, go outside to look for “track stories” after a fresh snowfall. It’s great fun and encourages careful observation, attention to detail and speculation. Tracks after a snowfall can show evidence of animal homes, feeding patterns, and even signs of predator-prey interaction. Wisconsin teacher Matt Tiller takes advantage of the “thaw” that usually occurs in snowy areas, and has students look for the mazes of little tunnels that are uncovered when snow melts in an open field. Matt calls it looking for mouse condominiums. This great sign-of-life activity is based upon a description found in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.

Take advantage of the enthusiasm that is sure to erupt as we emerge from a long winter and begin to see the reassuring signs of spring. Getting students to observe nature closely will never be easier or more rewarding!

Add comment March 27th, 2015

Now Online: Making Number Talks Matter

making-number-talks-matterCathy and Ruth have developed incredible knowledge of the best ways to teach Number Talks with students of all grade levels. That knowledge is packed into this highly readable book.
—Jo Boaler, from the Foreword to Making Number Talks Matter

Believing that mathematics is mostly about using procedures correctly, many students have learned to focus on getting the right answer, whether or not the process makes sense to them. As a result, they disengage and lose confidence in their reasoning.

In Making Number Talks Matter, veteran math educators Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker show you how to help students take back the authority of their own reasoning through this 15‑minute daily routine. With skillful facilitation, your students will reason mentally with numbers, develop a strong sense of the meaning of quantities and operations, and gain proficiency with mathematical practices.

Teachers who are new to Number Talks will find a solid introduction, guiding principles, and tips on how to set up the routine. And teachers of all experience levels will learn new ways to extend and enhance their practice, with multiple strategies for each of the arithmetic operations; sample problems; examples of discussions and how to record student thinking; and ideas for increasingly challenging problems—including fractions, decimals, and integers.

As your students come to know that they have mathematical ideas worth listening to, as they learn to defend their ways of knowing with sound mathematical arguments, and as they learn the value of listening to one another and building on the ideas of their peers, their view of mathematics will be transformed.

Preview the full text of Making Number Talks Matter online!

Add comment March 23rd, 2015

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