Posts filed under 'Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives'

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: The Power of Book Study Groups

In our series focusing on effective PD initiatives, Holly Holland revisits a wildly successful online book study group that attracted over 700 educators from around the world. One teacher in Oregon was trying to get her colleagues to engage students in Number Talks and the book study group gave her ideas and efforts a boost.

Making Number Talks Matter
By Holly Holland

making-number-talks-matterLike many educators, Marcia Trujillo often feels professionally isolated. Varied schedules and interests make it tough to connect with colleagues who want to deepen their knowledge of particular math topics she cares about. As a math coach for three elementary schools in the South Lane School District in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Trujillo has encouraged teachers to engage students in Number Talks—short, daily routines during which they solve problems in their heads, with no paper and pencil, and explain their reasoning.

“The teachers whom I work with are busy, and time is always an issue,” she said. “When someone like myself goes in and tries to help teachers learn something new, it’s difficult because teachers often don’t have time to think, to plan, to try something new. Inevitably, I begin to second-guess myself: ‘Is this a practice that will positively impact student achievement and teacher knowledge over time?’”

Then, last summer, Trujillo saw on Twitter that teachers were participating in an online book study of Making Number Talks Matter (Stenhouse, 2015), Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker’s new resource for educators serving grades 4–10. Within a few weeks, Trujillo was collaborating with about 700 educators from fifteen countries who were reading the same book for professional study. Over several months they reviewed chapters together, wrote blog posts, shared and watched classroom videos, and conversed about commonly asked questions using social media platforms, including Facebook and the Teaching Channel. The experience proved transformative for Trujillo, who has used the skills from her personalized professional development to support other teachers in her district.

The interactive book study “takes me out of my isolated world and surrounds me with other people who love math or either are coaching other teachers in best practices or trying to learn something new,” she said. “Being able to read the book with other people, write about it, and also watch the videos helps me feel confident that I’m on the right track, and that the practice is worth teachers’ valuable time to learn about and to implement in their rooms.”

Such stories also inspire Crystal Morey and Kristin Gray, the two math teachers who started the collaborative book study of Making Number Talks Matter. Both are Teaching Channel Laureates who met last summer and discovered their mutual love of Number Talks. Morey, a middle school math teacher in Enumclaw, Washington, had worked with Ruth Parker for three summers through a state grant that supports professional development for teacher leaders. Gray, a K–5 math specialist in Lewes, Delaware, had presented on Number Talks at education conferences and built up a large following on social media. They decided to reach out to colleagues to see who might be interested in exploring the book together. The Teaching Channel agreed to host the free exchange—the first of its kind.

“I knew a lot of people would be interested, but as far as spreading internationally, I had no idea,” Gray said. “So many components about this make it unique. In book studies in the past, when you are in your school it’s always limited to what your colleagues have to say, what their experiences are, and what is the culture of your own building. This opens it up to so many different grade ranges and different school populations. You see the professional work as bigger than your school. It’s amazing to me to have the same focus point and so many people around the world using it but with different experiences than mine.”

Gray and Morey developed a study guide for the book. Gray also posted weekly questions about the book chapters to guide discussions and distributed a digital newsletter to recap what had happened during the week, along with related resources. Some teachers worked quickly through the chapters whereas others took a more leisurely pace, in both cases personalizing their learning. Through an online platform called Teaching Channel Teams, the collaborative enabled teachers who were working at the same pace and on similar topics to align. All of the participants could communicate through discussion boards and blogs and were able to upload videos, which could be annotated.

In addition, Morey interviewed Parker about the book and posted their insightful conversations. Morey also videotaped herself using Number Talks strategies with students and asked Parker to critique her work so that others could learn from it. After she posted the videos on the Teaching Channel site, other teachers began videotaping their own classroom exchanges and sharing them.

“They’re taking pictures of their Number Talks boards and posting them. Some started blogging for the first time because of this—they’re super excited,” Gray said. “I think it says a lot about Number Talks and how incredibly valuable it is to hear students converse about math. It just feels like a cultural shift in how we listen to our students and dive into their thinking.”

Gray and Morey said Making Number Talks Matter is such a rich resource because it reaches across the trajectory of mathematical operations and then extends them. Although the book targets grades 4–10, teachers below and above that span have found ways to adapt the strategies.

“The book allowed me to understand the operations even more,” Morey said. “It was a learning tool for me mathematically. It also allowed me to understand how to open up instruction and provide opportunities for flexibility in thought.”

Morey and Gray stress that Number Talks are not about teachers’ direct instruction but rather about their students’ mathematical thinking. Instead of trying to please the teacher by simply uttering the “right” answer, for example, Number Talks are designed to help students move beyond memorization, express their understanding as well as their confusion, and use a variety of problem-solving strategies so they can become flexible mathematical thinkers.

Brian Bushart, curriculum coordinator for elementary mathematics in the Round Rock Independent School District in Texas, liked the book so much that he decided to share it with a cohort of about thirty local educators, including K–5 teachers, instructional coaches, and interventionists. They started by meeting for two days last July and then scheduled nine more after-school sessions throughout the school year. To deepen their study, participants joined the Teaching Channel collaborative and participated in a Google Hangouts chat with Gray. Bushart also asked them to reflect on their experiences through blog posts and to share a related lesson. The goal was to have each of the participants reach out to at least one other colleague at his or her school, spreading the influence of Number Talks. So far, more than 150 educators in the district have participated in some component of the book study, including the online collaboration and related workshops.

The book was very practical, grounded, and approachable, Bushart said, and “turned out to be exactly what they wanted.” In addition, the Teaching Channel videos enabled teachers to see colleagues “trying out the things we were talking about. It was so current: ‘Hey, I just did this on Tuesday.’ It felt like they were in the book study with us. It wasn’t canned or stale.”

Gray and Morey hope to repeat the interactive book study in the coming year. They have collected all of the Twitter hashtags and blogs and responses to tell the story of their collaborative work.

“It’s exciting to me to see so many people being open and sharing, whether it’s perfect or not,” Gray said. “That’s so brave. I think it shows we all learn better together.”

3 comments February 15th, 2016

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Perfect Pairs

We continue our series on effective PD initiatives with a case study from Pasadena, California, where teachers used Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 to thoughtfully integrate science and literacy lessons in their classrooms.

By Holly Holland

Perfect PairsThe Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards encourage a balance of informational and literary texts in K–5 classrooms and expect teachers to help develop students’ literacy skills through learning science. However, many elementary teachers are more comfortable with fiction than nonfiction resources and often lack extensive background in science.

As both the library coordinator and scientist-in-residence at Jackson STEM Dual Language Magnet Academy in Pasadena, California, Mavonwe Banerdt knew she was in a unique position to help teachers thoughtfully integrate science and literacy lessons. When district elementary literacy specialist Alyson Beecher suggested that they focus professional development on Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Books to Teach Life Science, K–2 (Stenhouse, 2014), Banerdt said it took about five minutes to determine that the book was “perfect for what I wanted to do.” Authors Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley “go into each standard and what it’s trying to accomplish,” Banerdt said. “They talk about how, over a period of time, teachers can use fiction and nonfiction, how pairing fiction and nonfiction [with science] is great because you can reach the kids who are into each. But I feel the book has an additional bonus in that it presents a bridge from the ideas in the classroom to the real world around us.”

Perfect Pairs starts each lesson with a Wonder Statement, which is designed to address an NGSS Performance Expectation, and follows with a Learning Goal, which details the knowledge students should gain from the lesson. Matching appropriate fiction and nonfiction books to the science concepts enables students to investigate and reflect using experiments and engaging activities, as well as Wonder Journals, Science Dialogues, and Science Circles.

During the 2014–15 school year, Banerdt and Beecher began modeling demonstration lessons from the book for teachers in kindergarten through second grade. They chose three of the lessons for each grade level, trying to match the focus of the lesson to what Jackson’s STEM teacher had planned for weekly science pullout labs. Because about 80 percent of Jackson’s dual-language instruction is in Spanish and the Perfect Pairs lessons were in English, Banerdt and Beecher provided additional vocabulary study and made sure to include both oral and written language activities and extensions. For example, to help English language learners with limited vocabulary, they made color-coded cards that the children could use to match the correct words for animal parts to corresponding pictures. They also found a short video and played quick games to help students who had never visited a beach understand how hermit crabs move.

“We knew the authors had great lessons, but we had to make adaptations to our situation and students,” Beecher said. “Part of it was helping teachers think differently about how they use a book and integrate stories into the classroom curriculum, that it can be really tied into your goals. Then looking at science standards and how they can use stories, writing, collages, and physical activities to help reinforce those concepts.”

Beecher and Banerdt had only one class period, not the full week of classes the authors intended to develop each lesson. So the regular classroom teachers helped to prepare students by reading aloud one of the paired books prior to the demonstration lessons. For a second-grade lesson about how wind, water, and animals disperse seeds, teachers read Miss Maple’s Seeds by Eliza Wheeler and Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith. They also used discussions, dramatizations, art, and writing to deepen students’ understanding of the science and reading concepts.

“There are a number of great ideas in the book and one was to print out examples of burrs,” Beecher wrote in one of her blog posts about the sessions at “This was especially important for our students who are English language learners. Since we were unsure how familiar they were with the concept of burrs getting stuck on their socks and shoes, the visual examples helped. The students loved looking at pieces of Velcro and learning that it was invented by Georges de Mestral, who was inspired after a walk through the woods.”

Because they had to shorten the Perfect Pairs lessons, Beecher and Banerdt weren’t sure if the students would retain crucial information. They were thrilled when the school’s STEM teacher reported that students were so well prepared for science lab sessions that they could move more quickly through the content. For example, first graders who had engaged in a lesson about how an animal’s body parts help it to survive could richly contribute to the conversation about that topic.

“That was the defining moment when the school really bought in. Once they see it in action, they want to be part of it,” Beecher said. “We’ve definitely showed people this [high-level instruction] is possible and how exciting it can be.”

In addition, because scheduled parent visits to Jackson coincided with the demonstration lessons, many prospective families got to see the impact of the Perfect Pairs instructional approach. School and district administrators also observed some classes and later shared the ideas with other schools. Beecher invited faculty at other schools to see demonstration lessons at Jackson, and several have asked her to work with their staff during the coming school year.

Banerdt also discussed the professional development initiative at Jackson with elementary librarians throughout the Pasadena school district. One librarian obtained a grant to purchase copies of Perfect Pairs for every teacher in her school. Now Banerdt and Beecher are eagerly awaiting the grades 3–5 edition of Perfect Pairs that Stewart and Chesley are currently writing.

Stewart said she has been pleasantly surprised by the way librarians around the country have responded to the book. Recognizing that many elementary schools have limited classroom time for science instruction, they have seized the chance to help teachers integrate children’s literature with science concepts.

“I think one reason the librarian community has sort of embraced it is because they trust my reputation,” said Stewart, the author of more than 180 books about science. “I think it’s showing that Perfect Pairs has an appeal beyond the audience [of classroom teachers] it was intended for.”

Banerdt agreed. She bought additional copies of Perfect Pairs to share with Jackson’s staff, and plans to use funds from a STEM grant to buy many of the fiction and nonfiction resources the authors recommend pairing with science texts. She encouraged other educators to be open-minded about the careful choices Stewart and Chesley have made. For example, she said she initially thought some of the recommended poems were too sophisticated for second graders but saw in practice that the selections were just right. By contrast, Swimmy by Leo Lionni seemed too simple for first graders, yet it proved a perfect match for a lesson about how animals protect themselves. Banerdt said she considered the alternate fiction and nonfiction sources that the authors included with each lesson but ended up believing that the primary pairings were best.

“I just thought it was a remarkable book, how accessible it is for any teacher,” Banerdt said. “It has so many ideas and is so well researched. In California, lots of teachers are struggling with how to work with the Common Core and NGSS, and that piece is laid out crystal clear.”

2 comments August 6th, 2015

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

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Brophy Elementary School

Our series of case studies about effective PD initiatives using Stenhouse books continues today with a visit to Brophy Elementary School in Framingham, Mass. Stenhouse editor Holly Holland shares how teachers there used strategies found in the book Academic Conversations to improve their students’ oral language skills in ways that reach beyond the school walls.

Two years ago, when the data team at Brophy Elementary School in Framingham, Massachusetts, began searching for ways to improve students’ oral language skills, some members suggested a great resource—Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings (Stenhouse, 2011). Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s book identifies five core communication skills to help students hold productive academic conversations across the content areas: elaborating and clarifying, supporting ideas with evidence, building on and/or challenging ideas, paraphrasing, and synthesizing.

“It’s really a rich approach, making sure students have complex language skills at all levels,” says Sara Hamerla, English language learner (ELL) coach for eight elementary schools in Framingham.

In recent years the percentage of students with limited English proficiency has accelerated at Brophy. Today, more than 60 percent of students are non-native speakers.

Although ELL students needed the most support with oral language, Brophy’s data team realized that strengthening classroom discourse could help all children. By having focused academic conversations, students expand their vocabulary knowledge, learn how to transfer skills from one subject to another, and develop stamina for reading and writing.

“Oral language is a cornerstone on which we build our literacy and learning throughout life. Unfortunately, oral language is rarely taught in depth after third grade,” Zwiers and Crawford write in Academic Conversations. “In many classrooms, talking activities are used in limited ways, often just to check learning of facts and procedures rather than to teach or deepen understandings.”

By practicing strategies such as think-pair-share and answering with memorized sentence stems, students can learn to ask insightful questions, negotiate meaning, and critically evaluate evidence. They can also learn to keep track of what they are hearing, describe a speaker’s points in their own words, and elaborate on ideas.

“Take a look at a typical standards list and highlight the verbs that ask students to do something,” the authors suggest. “You might see terms such as evaluate, distinguish, outline, summarizes, analyze, and hypothesize. Most of these are actually thinking skills that are often best developed in conversation. Moreover, some of these skills need to be developed in conversation, and if we remove this avenue, we weaken students’ chances for academic success.”

Active Listening

With the needs of their students in mind, the Brophy data team members read Academic Conversations and then decided to introduce the recommended skills to the faculty over time so they could get familiar with the approach without feeling overwhelmed. Brophy principal Frank Rothwell encouraged implementation of the Academic Conversations strategies as a schoolwide initiative.

In addition to the recommended skills, the Brophy team introduced another oral language skill—active listening—because they realized that many students did not know how to participate in both ends of a conversation.

“The idea is that we wanted to explicitly teach students how to be active listeners instead of just passive recipients of information,” says Judy Flynn, a Brophy teacher who works with English language learners. “For example, they could show they were listening by nodding their heads or making eye contact or saying ‘Hmm’ or ‘Oh, really?’ It seems silly at first, but we take for granted that students know how to do this.”

Brophy’s data team also modified the order of the core conversational skills to better align with students’ developmental paths. They started by modeling good academic conversations, explaining why they are important, and using anchor charts to identify important concepts such as staying on topic and taking turns talking and listening. Then they moved on to active listening, paraphrasing/retelling, elaborating, supporting ideas with examples, and finally synthesizing.

“It has changed our teaching dramatically,” Flynn says. “Instead of being teacher directed, we have switched to being student directed. The teacher is responsible for creating a rich prompt, and then the students do all the work. They’re having a conversation with each other, back and forth, challenging each other, building on what each other has said, using evidence from the text they’re working on or have connected to prior learning. The likelihood that a classroom will be silent is very small. You would absolutely see either pairs or trios of students having a dialogue about the topic.”

Flynn and Hamerla developed sample lesson plans to guide teachers and a conversational analysis protocol to help them listen to the language their students are producing. Teachers use the protocol to plan interventions and subsequent lessons, depending on students’ needs. Many have also accepted Hamerla’s offer to plan lessons together and coteach until they gain confidence in the procedures.

After a successful first year using Academic Conversations at Brophy, Flynn and Hamerla decided to share the techniques with teachers throughout the school district. They developed a two-credit graduate course through Framingham State University, with Academic Conversations as the “cornerstone.” Hosting the course after school hours at Brophy, they have attracted teachers from a wide range of disciplines.

“It was very exciting because not only were teachers from the core academic areas interested, but we also had a PE teacher, a school social worker, and an art teacher participating in the first course,” Hamerla says. “We found it was really pertinent across all areas. The PE teacher was so excited because with the new emphasis on the Common Core State Standards, we all need to be on board and even specialist teachers are contributing to literacy learning. This is a way they can be involved. It’s been really exciting to see how those academic conversations have been applied in different settings.”

Analyzing the Discourse

Last school year, Hamerla obtained consent from parents to research the progress of students at Brophy. She videotaped their classroom conversations once a month and then transcribed and analyzed them. She says she noted big improvements in the quality of their dialogues. For example, students were better able to use “cohesion devices,” which are transitions that link ideas in academic discourse. Common cohesion devices in school include likewise to compare, conversely to contrast, consequently to express cause and effect, and furthermore to add ideas and evidence. Zwiers and Crawford suggest many ways to help students practice cohesion devices, such as a pro-con activity in which one partner assumes the role of the “director” who names the topic and announces the “pro” or “con” side, which prompts the partner (the “speaker”) to think of related points to express.

Other observations showed Hamerla that the students’ academic conversations needed more refinement. Teachers began sharing and practicing “talk moves” to help students understand how to extend a conversation. For example, they might respond to and clarify a peer’s statement by adding “So what you’re saying is . . . ” or “Something else that goes along with this is . . . ”

“At the beginning of my study I noticed that students were unable to synthesize their conversations,” Hamerla says. “At the end they would just stop talking and be like, ‘We’re done.’ We taught them to synthesize and complete the conversation with a conclusion and some sort of agreement: ‘So in conclusion, we both believe. . . ,’ or, ‘Based on our conversation we can decide that . . . ’ It was the sentence starters we provided that really taught them to take this to the next level.”

Students have become so proficient at using the skills that they frequently ask to use them throughout the school day—for example, by holding academic conversations about the characters in fiction they are reading. To extend their fluency, Assistant Principal Sara Cummins introduced Topic Tuesdays. On those days, students are asked to have an academic conversation about the chosen theme with whomever they sit with at lunch. Teachers provide scaffolding for English language learners, such as providing word banks and sentence frames that the children can use and refer to during conversations.

Reaching Beyond the Classroom

To help families understand the changes happening in their children’s classrooms, Brophy’s teacher leaders have hosted meetings with the parent-teacher organization and with parents of bilingual students. Staff members also send home examples of sentence starters that parents can use to extend conversations and encourage their children to elaborate. If a child offers a limited response to the standard question, “How was school today?” the parent could say, “I’d like you to add on to that because your teacher told me you were working on . . . ” Or if someone in the family makes a statement, parents could ask another child to expand on it by saying, “I agree/disagree because . . . ,” or, “An example of this is . . . ”

“Parents are really excited and are thankful for concrete strategies they can do at home,” Flynn says.

Hamerla, Flynn, and their colleagues have continued to refine their adaptation of Academic Conversations every year. This past school year they conducted a schoolwide survey of teachers to measure reported changes in teaching and learning. The data team members also conducted a learning walkthrough where they moved in and out of classrooms and asked students to articulate their thinking and reasoning using multiple means of expression.

Teachers have reported good progress in students’ oral language skills, particularly for those who have been practicing the Academic Conversations techniques for two years. But they also mention the need for more instructional coaching to help them know how to continue refining students’ skills.

Academic Conversations has been a portal” to greater language development, one teacher says. “Young students in first and second grade have developed listening and speaking skills faster because they were explicitly taught. We need constant coaching to maintain our stamina as teachers and perpetuate this amazing lifelong learning approach!”

“My students very much enjoy academic conversations but still have difficulty with some of the more advanced skills,” says a kindergarten teacher. “Some of them are still struggling with just social conversations. So we will get there . . . just not quite yet.”

Hamerla and Flynn say they are most eager to see how well the children carry their skills to middle school, high school, and beyond.

“I can’t wait to hear what they do when they interview for jobs in the future,” Flynn says. “Our students are being trained as great conversationalists who can share their thinking and contribute to the dialogue.”

4 comments October 9th, 2014

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Teachers Get Fit with Number Sense Routines

We continue our Profiles in Effective PD series with a visit to Kearney, Nebraska, where teachers are in the middle of a three-year plan to implement the techniques discussed in Jessica Shumway’s recent book, Number Sense Routines. Stenhouse editor Holly Holland recently talked to instructional learning coach Julie Everett and shares how teachers in kindergarten and first grade are helping their students improve their number sense.

Teachers Get Fit with Number Sense Routines

By Holly Holland

Instructional learning coach Julie Everett analyzed math assessment data over several years in the five elementary schools where she works in Kearney, Nebraska, and kept noticing a persistent problem: number sense was lacking. Many students did not have basic understanding of the relationships among numbers. They did not know how to think or talk about numbers or use number sense reasoning strategies to solve problems. Without those foundational skills, Everett believed students would likely struggle in higher-level math classes.

She discussed her concerns with colleagues, and then in Spring 2013, Everett discovered Jessica Shumway, author of Number Sense Routines: Building Numerical Literacy Every Day in Grades K–3 (Stenhouse, 2011). Everett heard Shumway present at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference and knew she had found a valuable colleague and resource.

“I was highly impressed with her background knowledge and the research base she had done,” Everett said. “I had several conversations with her, and discussed how we might involve her in consulting with the district. Our curriculum and instruction team believed that we needed to be doing something more systemic and systematic with math and literacy and improving instruction with our teachers.’”

Over the next few months, they developed a three-year plan to help all elementary teachers in the school district learn the techniques that Shumway shares in her book and in her new DVD, Go Figure! Number Sense Routines that Build Mathematical Understanding (Stenhouse, 2014). Their plan started with a book study involving the kindergarten and first grade teachers, expanded to include Skype sessions with Shumway, and finally led to on-site visits where Shumway modeled routines and cotaught small- and whole-group lessons with the faculty.

In addition to reading the book, the Kearney teachers also had to write a personal reflection every month, sharing what they had learned from Shumway’s book and what they were doing differently in their classrooms as a result. Everett believes the requirement made teachers more accountable for synthesizing information and focusing on results.

“It’s just been a really cool experience,” Everett said. “At first, I have to say, our K–1 teachers were overwhelmed by the work that was expected: ‘We have to read every month? What is this all about? We don’t have time for that.’ There was grumbling at first.” But after Shumway showed the strategies in application and helped teachers take risks and raise their expectations, Everett said, “I would have to say that 80-90 percent of our K–1 teachers have now said, ‘Wow, this has totally transformed my thinking about math. I had no idea number sense was so critical.’”

The Importance of Number Sense

As Shumway relates in her book, teaching number sense is not only critical, it’s also complex. “There are many layers to it, and it is rooted within all strands of mathematics,” she writes. “Number sense facilitates problem solving, reasoning, and discussing mathematical ideas.” Students with strong number sense can visualize quantities and perform mental math, understand the relative magnitude of amounts, make comparisons among quantities, and determine the reasonableness of an answer, among other skills. “Embedded in these characteristics of number sense are big mathematical ideas; strategies that utilize number sense; skills, models, and tools for using number sense; and language for explaining number sense ideas and strategies.”

Just as athletes stretch their muscles before every game and musicians play scales to keep their technique in tune, mathematical thinkers and problem solvers can benefit from daily warm-up exercises. Shumway has developed a series of routines designed to help young students internalize and deepen their facility with numbers.

Shumway also shows teachers how to move students through what she calls the Early Number Sense Learning Trajectory, starting with subitizing, understanding magnitude, and counting and progressing to hierarchical inclusion, part/whole relationships, compensation, and unitizing. The goal is to develop children’s flexibility and fluency with math. Shumway says these methods involve teaching the meaning of numbers, rather than procedures and memorization, so that students are able to decompose numbers, visualize them and apply them in the future.

“Think about it in terms of reading,” she writes. “It is cumbersome and inefficient to sound out every letter in a word. When children begin to recognize and use chunks of letters within a word or read sight words, they become more fluent readers. This frees up their cognitive energy for more challenging words. It is the same in mathematics. Seeing groups and thinking about amounts in terms of groups leads students to become more fluent and numerically literate. Their cognitive energy can then be spent on more challenging problem solving.”

The Urgency of Understanding Math

For many elementary teachers, Shumway has instant credibility. In addition to having worked as an elementary teacher and math coach, she acknowledges having had weak preparation and understanding of how to teach math. A history major in college and a “social studies guru” when she began teaching, Shumway had to deepen her own knowledge of mathematical thinking along with her students.

“She is clear to say, “I am not a mathematician and I always felt that I was poor in math and that it was because of a lack of number sense. And what’s why I have an urgency to make sure that teachers understand the very important piece of number sense and why that leads to success for kids,’” Everett says. “Teachers could relate: ‘Oh, this is me,’ or ‘that’s how I feel.’”

As part of their book study of Number Sense Routines, Kearney’s kindergarten and first-grade teachers had to choose three students to follow in a case study through the school year. They set goals for all the students, tracked their progress in math, and shared the information and consulted with their colleagues each month. If a student achieved the goals set for him or her before the end of the year, the teachers selected other students to follow.

“It was fun to hear teachers talking about those kids,” Everett says. “They would ask, ‘How is Karl doing?’ It became very personal. We had never had those conversations before. The sharing piece is just so enlightening and refreshing. It becomes a problem-solving event, as well as a celebration of moving kids along their learning continuum.”

Teachers also taught demonstration lessons, with Shumway observing and deconstructing the vocabulary they were using with students and the questions they were asking. They observed and taught with teachers in other schools.

“I feel it’s important to talk to other teachers outside your building. It gives you more perspective,” says Marissa Schleiger-Kruse, who just finished her first year teaching first grade at Buffalo Hills Elementary in Kearney. “I feel that everyone, new or old, has benefited so much from Jessica Shumway and her Number Sense studies.”

Schleiger-Kruse says she incorporated many of the practices in Number Sense Routines, including one called Count Around the Circle, which helps students understand the pattern the teacher is describing, such as counting by twos or fives or counting backwards.

“I’ve done those every day, and it helps students learn their counting routines,” she says. “Eventually some of my higher learners, I know that it will help them with multiplication because it’s really skip counting. If we practice that daily, they get that.”

The consistent practice benefited every student, Schleiger says. By the end of first grade, her school district expects students to be able to count by twos to fifty and count by fives and tens to one-hundred.

“All of my students have mastered that, and all it takes is five or ten minutes a day,” she says. “We may start at 200 and count backward by fives or tens. They love it; it’s never boring to them. They are always trying to figure out what I’m going to start with.”

Central Elementary School first-grade teacher Tara Abdallah says she and her colleagues appreciated the practical strategies and tools Shumway shared that they could immediately use in their classrooms. One of her favorites is Dot Cards, which resemble domino tiles or dice and help students practice skip counting and recognize groupings and multiples that they can later form into equations. The visual aids help students learn to subitize, but they also let teachers continually assess how students are thinking about amounts.

Kearney teachers adapted some of the strategies in Number Sense Routines for other purposes and for subjects other than math. For example, Abdallah tweaked Shumway’s Count Around the Circle strategy to help students learn to count money, and her coteacher adapted it for guided reading. Instead of using numbers, she substituted the alphabet and phonetic sounds so students could become more fluent when reading.

“There’s some amazing stuff in this book that’s so hands-on and freeing,” Abdallah says.  “I cannot wait until next school year. I’m going to implement so much from the book!”

During the 2014-15 school year, Kearney’s second- and third-grade teams will begin the training cycle with Number Sense Routines, and the following year teachers in fourth and fifth grades will get involved. Everett says she hopes that teachers will keep the momentum going in future years, coaching their colleagues and planning collaboratively so that they can eliminate instructional gaps from one grade level to the next.

“Teachers are sharing way more than they ever have in our staff development,” she says. “This is powerful. I am super proud of the work our teachers are doing.”


Add comment September 22nd, 2014

Sustaining Engagement: One School’s Attempt to Develop Lifelong Readers

We last checked in with Matt Renwick, an elementary school principal in Wisconsin, just as school was wrapping up in June. Now that school is about to start again, Matt talks about how his school sustains the reading program he and his staff launched in an effort to create lifelong readers.

As I was getting myself a cup of coffee in the staff lounge this spring, I noticed these posted on the wall:



Staff members had taken their favorite recommendations from a book-a-day calendar and taped them to the wall. Inscribed on many of the sheets were short comments about the title, which briefly explained why they liked it and why you should read it.

While I waited for the Keurig machine to finish brewing, several questions popped in my head. Who started this? Why is it sustaining itself? Where will this lead? These inquiries led to more questions about how it relates to our school in general. How do we get all of our K-5 students to this place, where they see responding to reading as something enjoyable? Is this an idea our learners would naturally come up with as a way to connect with others? In other words, how do we transition our students from formalized literacy instruction to lifelong reading?

This year, we attempted to answer these questions with the advent of an after school book club. We hired two advisers to facilitate an intervention that would no longer be referred to as an intervention. Although our lowest readers received special invitations, we encouraged all of our intermediate students to join us in developing this new community of readers.

Before we got the club started, the advisers and I sat down and went over some ground rules:

  • No quizzes
  • No reading requirements or logs
  • Let them read just about anything they want
  • Let them talk to each other about reading
  • Give them opportunities to share their reading lives
  • Provide just enough structure for these activities to be successful

These ideas, deriving from literacy experts such as Gay Ivey, Peter Johnston, and Donalyn Miller, seemed counter to everything we thought we knew about school. But for at least a few of our students, more of the same would not have served them well. If any one of us were asked to extend our own school day, how would we like to spend it?

The advisers, both avid readers themselves but not classroom teachers, could hardly contain their excitement. After some heavy recruiting, they got almost 20 students to initially enroll in the club. One of their first activities was for each student to bring in a favorite title, throw it in the middle of the table, pick a new one, and try to guess who originally submitted it.

This was actually a pre-assessment. Not of their reading levels, but of the level of enjoyment they experience as readers. Questions that were answered for the advisors included: Who knows who as a reader? Which genres, authors, and titles are the kids into right now? How comfortable was each student in being seen as a reader? This activity led to many more activities, such as hosting personal interviews with each other, facilitating book talks, reading aloud, and lots of independent reading.

Due to budget constraints, the book club could only meet two nights a week after school. This meant that they had to extend the day in ways that were meaningful for the students. One tool they used was Kidblog. Each student was given access to a blog in order to reflect on their reading as well as comment on others’ thinking. In addition, students were given access to eReaders that contained many titles of their choosing, all within one device. Through these activities that helped them connect with others, students could see that reading did not have to be sequestered to the literacy block.

We did not expect our students to make substantial gains from two and a half hours of extra reading practice. Our goal was to develop lifelong readers. With anything, people will engage in something over and over if they find joy, success, and recognition for their work. That is why the advisers and students culminated their time together with a readers theater performance. The play itself came from our school’s anthology series. This was okay, because the kids selected it.

After many re-readings and rehearsals, they were read to present in front of the entire school.

Someone could say that the activities these students engaged in – peer discussions, blogging, readers theater – are not interventions that have evidence for improving reading in students. But I think these people are looking at reading only through the lens of the act itself. We can quickly forget that reading is just as much an emotional endeavor as it is a cognitive one.

My own reading life didn’t begin until 3rd grade. That was the year my teacher read aloud Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. The rest, as they say, is history. It is not to suggest that I received poor instruction in my K-2 years. I just hadn’t developed an affinity for reading yet. I had the skills, but lacked the engagement.

Gay Ivey noted at the 2014 Wisconsin State Reading Association convention that readers don’t read to accumulate a required number of minutes or to fill out a reading log. They read because they love reading. The minutes and logs that we demand are a result of this engagement. In an educational world that highly values the scientific side of literacy, we need to continuously cultivate a community of connected readers and engage them in a lifelong and joyful journey of learning.

digitalstudentportfoliosMatt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary school leader in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book Digital Student Porfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Improvement will be published by Powerful Learning Press in July.





3 comments August 11th, 2014

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Fitchburg Public Schools

We continue our series about effective PD initiatives around the country with a visit to the Fitchburg Public Schools in Massachusetts and looking at how school leaders and teachers worked together to elevate the quality and the quantity of professional development in their schools.

A decade ago, when leaders of the Fitchburg Public Schools in Massachusetts realized that few teachers were regularly reading professional resources, they decided to organize a series of online book studies. They hoped the sessions would enable teachers to read and reflect on their own time and encourage them to use the materials strategically to address students’ learning gaps. The district offered to pay for the books and a small honorarium, provided that teachers responded to prompts from facilitators, participated in online discussions, and completed written reflections about how they were using recommended strategies in their classrooms.

The result? Most of the district’s 450 faculty members have completed at least one of the 160 collaborative studies, and collegiality and classroom improvements have soared.

“The level of professional discourse has really been elevated with the book studies,” says Donna Sorila, director of mathematics for the Fitchburg school district. “It’s anecdotal, but it’s palpable. You can actually hear the change in the discourse.”

Technology director Eileen Spinney says teachers now request studies of books they’ve read or heard about, in addition to using the resources identified by facilitators. With about eighty professional books already shared by faculty members, she says, “We’re starting to get that professional culture.”

Hybrid Learning

Over the years, Fitchburg leaders have refined the professional development sessions to include both online learning and face-to-face meetings that typically involve classroom observations. Often the facilitator will also ask participants to try out a lesson or project adapted from the book, videotape the instructional sequences, and then share them with colleagues so they can reflect on the experiences together., a free online service, enables participants to use web-based conferencing and share resources through an interactive platform. Facilitators post prompts and ask group members to respond to the question and to one another’s comments. Each person also turns in a journal or notebook of collected reflections at the end of the session.

“That is their more personal piece,” shared only with the facilitator, Sorila says. “We ask them to think about, ‘What are your strengths? What area do you want to focus on for your practice?’ Not only are they doing things collaboratively with the group, but then we’re trying to push them a little deeper with reflections in the journals.”

In addition to refining the hybrid book study model, Fitchburg’s leaders now limit each group to fifteen members to ensure greater participation and camaraderie. They’ve also begun including administrators in the sessions, which has reinforced the value of incorporating trade books into professional development. Summer book study sessions usually last about a month, whereas sessions during the school year can stretch to six or eight weeks.

The hybrid learning model has continued to give teachers flexibility in when they read and respond but has also led to more accountability and implementation of recommended practices. For example, when reading Math Work Stations: Independent Learning You Can Count On, K–2 (Stenhouse, 2011), math coaches wanted to see how teachers in the district’s four elementary schools were organizing math learning centers and developing students’ conceptual understanding and skills.

“Teachers are a little reluctant when we bring in a video camera, but when they think about having that second set of eyes or being that second set of eyes they become much more reflective,” Sorila says.

Julie Basler, math coach at South Street Elementary School, led a study of Math Work Stations last year for about twenty teachers, including those from special education and Title I departments. The school’s K–2 teachers were already incorporating strategies from Debbie Diller’s book, and Basler and principal Monica Poitras wanted to spread the practices to all classrooms. A key goal was ensuring that teachers were intentionally using math manipulatives as tools for learning, not just toys to make math seem more fun.

“I think one of the better results was greater camaraderie among the people who took this class together,” Basler says. “There was a lot more insight into how other teachers teach. Sometimes when you see what someone else is doing in the classroom it might not be exactly what you need in your own classroom, but you are able to take that idea and adapt it and grow from it.”

Teachers still talk about what they learned during their collaborative study of Math Work Stations, Basler says. “All of the comments were positive, but I remember some from the end of the session where people said, ‘Oh, I wish we had done this from the get-go because I would have set up my classroom completely different.’ They really saw the value of just about every part of the book.”

Greater Respect for Reading About Math

Paula Carr, a third-grade math teacher at Crocker Elementary School, has led about twenty book study sessions for educators throughout the Fitchburg district. She usually asks teachers to create a lesson plan based on some aspect of the book in addition to responding to online prompts and reflecting in journals. She said guiding studies of math books has been so rewarding because traditionally professional reading was thought to be the responsibility of literacy teachers. One of the most valuable book studies she conducted featured Number Sense Routines: Building Numerical Literacy Every Day in Grades K–3 (Stenhouse, 2011). Author Jessica Shumway shares how teachers can help students develop strong number sense by practicing routines, just as athletes and musicians do. For example, they can learn to make reasonable estimates, see relationships among numbers, and design number systems.

Carr says the book resonated with teachers. “Every single journal entry I have read, every dialogue I have heard, there are lots of aha moments: ‘I never thought of doing it that way. I never thought that younger kids could do that.’ Quite honestly, coming into teaching years ago, I myself didn’t realize how building strong number sense was so unbelievably important in laying a foundation for when students get older. Sometimes we move through so many topics so quickly, thinking kids have it, but this has really helped me focus on how deeply they know it and also focus on techniques that will help them really grasp the concepts.”

Carr says she now incorporates number sense practice into every class, no matter what else students are working on. For example, when considering a subtraction problem of 154 minus 27, Carr will ask students to talk about the “reasonableness” of the answer, which is one of the ways they learn to perform mental math and develop flexibility and fluidity with numbers.

In their online conversations, teachers noted many great strategies from the book, including Count Around the Circle, which asks each student to contribute a number that builds on an identified routine, such as counting by tens. Teachers also mentioned the Organic Number Line routine, which helps second- and third-grade students develop a mental linear model for fractions and decimals. The line is “organic” because students add to it throughout the school year, and it changes based on the experiences in the class.

Crocker teachers said Number Sense Routines helped them appreciate the importance of sharing visualization strategies, particularly with special education students and second language learners who may need to see number representations as well as hear them.

“My teachers taught me the standard algorithm, and I memorized it,” one teacher wrote on Nicenet. “Now I find that my number sense is growing deeper as I teach.”
Another teacher quickly replied, “I too was a standard algorithm kid! Then when my own children needed help with their math homework I was told I was not doing it right, but I only knew one way. As a teacher I find that ten frames really help the students with number sense, and I am amazed when the students can tell me the different ways they solved a math problem.”

For Paula Carr, the collegial book studies show how much teachers need and want to learn from one another. Reading and reflecting with teachers in other schools has been especially valuable, she says, offering glimpses into classrooms they might not otherwise see.

“It opens it up to everyone valuing each other’s opinions and learning from each other instead of re-creating the wheel,” she says. “You can discover people who are already doing fantastic things and get ideas from them.”

Add comment May 22nd, 2014

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