Category Archives: Kindergarten

Asking Better Questions

I am sure we have all seen it at one time or another – those math questions that make us cringe, furrow our brow, or just plain confuse us because we can’t figure out what is even being asked. Sadly, these questions are in math programs more often than they should be and even though they may completely suck, they do give us, as educators, the opportunity to have conversations about ways we could adapt them to better learn what students truly know. These conversations happen all of the time on Twitter and I really appreciate talking through why the questions are so bad because it pushes me to have a more critical lens of the questions I ask students. Through all of these conversations, I try to lead my thinking with three questions:

  • What is the purpose of the question?
  • What does the question tell students about the math?
  • What would I learn about student thinking if they answered correctly? Incorrectly?

Andrew posted this question from a math program the other day on Twitter….

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I tried to answer my three questions…

  • What is the purpose of the question? I am not sure. Are they defining “name” as an expression? Are they defining “name” as the word? What is considered a correct answer here?
  • What does the question tell students about the math? Math is about trying to interpret what a question is asking and/or trick me because “name” could mean many things and depending on what it means, some of these answers look right. 
  • What would I learn about student thinking if they answered correctly? Incorrectly? Correctly? I am not sure I even know what that is because I don’t know what “name” means in this case. Is it a particular way the program has defined it?

On Twitter, this is the conversation that ensued, including this picture from, what I assume to be, the same math program:
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When a program gives problems like this, we not only miss out on learning what students know because they get lost trying to navigate the wording, but we also miss out on all of the great things we may not learn about their thinking. For example, even if they got the problem correct, what else might they know that we never heard?

The great thing is, when problems like this are in our math program, we don’t have to give them to students as is. We have control of the problems we put in front of students and can adapt them in ways that can be SO much better. These adaptations can open up what we learn about student thinking and change the way students view mathematics.

For example, if I want to know what students know about 12, I would just ask them. I would have them write in their journal for a few minutes individually so I had a picture of what each student knew and then would share as a class to give them the opportunity to ask one another questions.

After I saw those the problem posted on Twitter, I emailed the 2nd grade teachers in my building and asked them to give their students the following prompt:

Tell me everything you know about 12. 

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Ms. Thompson’s Class

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Mrs. Leach’s Class


Mrs. Levin’s Class

Look at all of the things we miss out on when we give worksheets from math programs like the one Andrew posted. I do believe having a program helps with coherence, but also believe it is up to us to use good professional judgement when we give worksheets like that to students. While it doesn’t help us learn much about their thinking it also sends a sad message of what learning mathematics is.

I encourage and appreciate conversations around problems like the one Andrew posted. I think, wonder, and reflect a lot about these problems. To me, adapting them is fun…I mean who doesn’t want to make learning experiences better for students?

Looking for more like this? I did this similar lesson with a Kindergarten teacher a few years ago. Every time I learn so much and they are so excited to share what they know!

My Beginnings With Cuisenaire Rods

I have never been more intrigued with using Cuisenaire rods in the classroom until I started reading Simon’s blog! I admit, I have read and watched his work from afar…not knowing really where to start with them and was afraid to just jump into another teacher’s classroom and say, “Hey let me try out something!” when I really didn’t know what that something may be. However, after Kassia reached out to Simon on Twitter asking how to get started with Cuisenaire rods and Simon wrote a great blog response, I was inspired to just jump right in!

I am a bit of an over-planner, so not having a really focused goal for a math lesson makes me a bit anxious. I am fairly certain I could anticipate what 4th and 5th graders would notice and wonder about the Cuisenaire rods because of my experience in that grade band, however I wanted to see what the younger students would do, so I ventured into a Kindergarten and 3rd grade classroom with a really loose plan.

Kindergarten (45 minutes)

Warm-up: Let’s notice and wonder!

  1. Dump out the bags of Cuisenaire rods in the middle of each table of 4 students.
  2. Tell them not to touch them for the first round.
  3. Ask what they notice and wonder and collect responses.

Things they noticed:

  • White ones looked like ice cubes.
  • Orange ones are rectangles.
  • End of blue one is a diamond (another student said rhombus)
  • Different colors (green, white, orange..)
  • They can build things (which is why we did no touching the first round:)
  • Orange is the longest.
  • They are different sizes.
  • We can sort them by colors.
  • We can sort them by size.

Things they wondered:

  • What do they feel like?
  • What can we make with them?

Activity 1: Let’s Sort!

  1. Tell the students to sort them by size or color. (they quickly realized it was the same thing)
  2. Discuss their sort/organization and check out how other tables sorted.

I was surprised to see not many sorted them into piles because that is normally how they sort things. I am wondering if the incremental size difference between each rods made them do more of a progression of size than sort into piles? Some groups worked together while others like making their own set with one of each color (and size) and keep making more of those!

Activity 2: Let’s Make an Orange!

Since a lot of students kept mentioning that the orange was the longest, I decided to see if they could build some trains (as Simon calls them) that made an orange.

My time was running out, but it left my mind reeling of where I wanted to go next! My inclination is to ask them if they could assign numbers to some of the rods or if they could build some trains the same length as the different colors? I would love to hear which piece is their favorite piece because a lot of them found the smallest cube really helpful when building the orange.

3rd Grade (60 minutes)

Warm-up: Let’s notice and wonder!

Things they noticed:

  • Groups were the same color and length.
  • Blue and white is the same length as the orange rod.
  • Kind of like adding.
  • White is 1 cm.
  • Go up by one white cube every time.
  • Odd + even numbers
  • 2 yellows + anything will be bigger than 0.
  • 1 white + 1 green = 1 magenta

Things they wondered:

  • Is red 1 inch?
  • How long are the rods altogether? (Prediction of 26 or 27 in wide)
  • Is orange 4 1/2 or 5 inches?
  • Why doesn’t it keep going to bigger than orange?

Activity 1: Let’s build some equivalents!

I found 3rd graders love to stand them up more than Kindergarteners:)

Activity 2: Let’s assign some values!

After they built a bunch, I asked them to assign a value to each color that made sense to them…this was by far my favorite part – probably because it was getting more into my comfort zone!


Again, time was running out, but next steps I am thinking…

  • What patterns and relationships do you see in the table?
  • What columns have something in common? Which ones don’t have anything in common? Why?
  • What if I told you orange was 1? What are the others?
  • What if orange was 2? What happens then?

Thank you so much Simon for all of inspiration and Kassia for the push into the classroom with these! Reflecting, I was much more structured than Simon and Kassia, but I look forward to a bit more play with these as the year goes on! I look forward to so much more play with the Cuisenaire rods and continuing Cuisenaire Around Ahe World!

Literature & Algebraic Reasoning

I read the book One is a Snail, Ten is a Crab to two Kindergarten classes this week. If you have not read the book, Marilyn Burns does a great post about it here. After reading aloud, making predictions and doing a notice/wonder, I placed 10 tiles in the middle of our circle in an arrangement like this:

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I asked the students who could be standing on the beach and they quickly guessed a dog, two people and two snails. I asked if they could give me an equation for the feet they see and they said 4 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 1 = 10. I asked if anyone had a different equation and they switched the order of the numbers, but agreed there was still 10. I did a few more arrangements before sending them back to their groups to investigate with the tiles. The directions were for one student to put out the arrangement, the groupmates guess who was standing on the beach, and write an equation for what they see. Their equations were all so different but the ways they were composing and decomposing the tiles to make new arrangements was really interesting!

We brought them back to the carpet and asked what they noticed about all of their equations. They said they all ended in 10 and equaled 10, so I asked if that meant we could write the equations so they were equal to each other? I asked two groups to share one of their equations and I put them equal to one another on the board. I asked if that was true? How could be we prove it? Their first answer was like, duh, they both equaled 10 so yes. I asked if they could combine or break apart any of the numbers like they did with their tiles to prove it. One student talked about combing the 1’s circled in the picture below.


They had to leave for lunch so I left them with an equation to talk about when they got back!

This lesson was such an amazing way of allowing students the space to think about equality and the meaning of the equal sign. It took one student talking about the ways he combined the numbers to open up the conversation and possibilities for future equations. I would love to see what the students could do if I wrote one equation on the board and asked students to write all of the different ways they could fill in the other side of the equal sign.

100 Hungry Ants: Math and Literature

This week the Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers planned with Erin, the reading specialist, and I for an activity around a children’s book. This planning was a continuation of our previous meeting about mathematizing. We jumped right into our planning by sharing books everyone brought, discussing the mathematical and language arts ideas that could arise in each. I made a list of the books the teachers shared here.

We chose  the book One Hundred Hungry Ants and planned the activity for a Kindergarten class. We decided the teacher would read the story and do a notice/wonder the day before the activity. We thought doing two consecutive readings may cause some students to lose focus and we would lose their attention. Based on Allison Hintz’s advice, we wanted the students to listen and enjoy the story for the first read-through. Here is an example from one classroom:

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So many great problem and solutions, cause and effects, illustration and mathematical ideas were noticed by the students.

The following day, the teacher revisited the things students noticed and focused the students’ attention on all of the noticings about the ants. She told the students she was going to read the story one more time but this time she wanted them to focus on what was happening with the ants throughout the story. We had decided to give each student a clipboard and blank sheet of paper to record their thoughts.

We noticed a few great things during this time..

  • Some students like to write a lot!
  • After trying to draw the first 100 ants, students came up with other clear ways to show their thinking. I love the relative size of each of the lines in these!
  • A lot of students had unique ways of recording with numbers. Here is one that especially jumped out at me because of the blanks:

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Students shared their recordings at the end of the reading and it was great to hear so many students say they started the story by trying to draw all of the ants, but changed to something faster because 10o was a lot!

After sharing, we asked students, “What could have happened if they had 12 or 24 ants?” We put out manipulatives and let them go! So much great stuff!

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Next time I do this activity, I would like to see them choose their own number of ants.

Just as I was telling Erin that I could see this book being used in upper elementary grades when looking at generalizations about multiplication, I found some great posts by Marilyn Burns on this book for upper elementary and middle school:

Excited to do this in a 1st grade classroom today!

Mathematizing Learning Lab

Each month, teachers choose their Learning Lab content focus for our work together. Most months, 1/2 of the grade level teachers choose to have a Math Learning Lab while the other 1/2 work with Erin, the reading specialist in an ELA Learning Lab. This month, however, we decided to mesh our ELA and Math Labs to do some mathematizing around children’s literature in Kindergarten and 1st grade! This idea was inspired by a session at NCTM last year, led by Allison Hintz, that left me thinking more about how we use read-alouds in our classrooms and the lenses by which students listen as we read.

In The Reading Teacher, Hintz and Smith describe mathematizing as, “…a process of inquiring about, organizing, and constructing meaning with a mathematical lens (Fosnot & Dolk, 2001). By mathematizing books commonly available in classroom collections and reading them aloud, teachers provide students with opportunities to explore ideas, discuss mathematical concepts, and make connections to their own lives.” Hintz, A. & Smith, T. (2013). Mathematizing Read Alouds in Three Easy Steps. The Reading Teacher, 67(2), 103-108.

Erin and I have literally been talking about this idea all year long based on Allison’s work. We discussed the ways we typically see read-alouds used, such as having a focus on a particular text structure or as a counting book in math.

As Erin was reading Kylene Beers & Robert Probst’s book, Reading Nonfiction she pointed me to a piece of the book on disciplinary literacy which automatically had me thinking about mathematizing.

Beers refers to McConachie’s book Content Matters (2010), in which she defines disciplinary literacy as, “the use of reading, reasoning, investigating, speaking, and writing required to learn and form complex content knowledge appropriate to a particular discipline.” (p.15) She continues to say, “…disciplinary literacy “emphasizes the unique tools that experts in a discipline use to engage in that discipline” (Shanahan and Shanahan 2012, p.8).

As I read this section of the book, my question became this…(almost rhetorical for me at this point)

Does a student’s lens by which they listen and/or read differ based on the content area class they are sitting in? 

For example, when reading or listening to a story in Language Arts class, do students hear or look for the mathematical ideas that may emerge based on the storyline of the book or illustrations on the page? or Do students think about a storyline of a problem in math class or are they simply reading through the lens of “how am I solving this?” because they are sitting in math class?

Mathematizing gets at just this. To think about this more together, Erin and I decided to jump right into the children’s book  The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins. Erin talked about the ideas she had for using this in an ELA class, I talking through the mathematical ideas that could emerge in math class, and then we began planning for our K/1 Learning Lab where we wanted teachers to think more about this idea with us! We were so fortunate to have the opportunity to chat through some of our thoughts and questions with Allison the day before we were meeting with the teachers. (She is just so wonderful;)

The first part of our Learning Lab rolled out like this…

We opened with this talking point on the board:

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” 

Everyone had a couple of minutes to think about whether they agreed, disagreed, or were unsure about the statement. As with all Talking Points activities, each teacher shared as the rest of us simply listened without commenting. The range of thoughts on this was so interesting. Some teachers based it on a particular content focus, some on personal connections, while I thought there is a slight difference between the words “look” and “see.”

After the Talking Point, Erin read The Doorbell Rang to the teachers and we asked them to discuss what the story was about with a partner. This was something Allison brought up that Erin and I had not thought about in our planning. I don’t remember her exact wording here, but the loose translation was, “Read for enjoyment. We want students to read for the simple joy of reading.” While Erin and I were so focused on the activity of exploring the text through a Math or ELA lens, we realized that the teachers first just needed to enjoy the story without a purpose.

For the second reading of the book, we gave each partner a specific lens. This time, one person was listening with an ELA lens while, the other, a Math lens. We asked them to jot down notes about what ideas could emerge through these lenses with their classes. You may want to go back and watch the video again to try this out for yourself before reading ahead!

Here are some of their responses:

Together we shared these ideas and discussed how the ELA and Math lenses impacted one another. A question we asked, inspired by Allison, was “Could a student attend to the math ideas without having a deep understanding of the story?”

Many questions came up:

  • Could we focus on text structures and the math in the same lesson?
  • Could we start with an activity before reading the book, like a probable passage?
  • Would an open notice/wonder after the first reading allow the lens to emerge from the students? Do they then choose their own focus or do we focus on one?
  • How could focusing on the problem and solution get at both the ELA and Math in the book?
  • How could we use the pictures to think about other problems that arise in the book?
  • How do we work the materials part of it? Do manipulatives and white boards work for K/1 while a story is being read or is it too much distraction?
  • What follow-up activities, maybe writing, could we think about after the book is read?

Unfortunately, our time together ended there. On Tuesday, we meet again and the teachers are going to bring some new books for us to plan a lesson around! So excited!

Kindergarten: Numberless Problems

Last week, the kindergarten students solved a problem about Jack and his building blocks. It went something like this:

Jack was building with blocks. He used 4 blocks to build a wall and 2 blocks to build a bridge. How many blocks did Jack use altogether?  

The teachers posed the problem without the question, did a notice/wonder, and then gave the students time to answer how many blocks altogether. We looked at this student work in our planning for their upcoming lesson.

We were curious to see what the students would do without the numbers in the problem, so we planned for a numberless story problem during last week’s Learning Lab. Three kindergarten teachers and I had a chance to be in the same room to see it in action today.

Nicole, the teacher, posed the following story to her students:

Susie is building with blocks. She used some blocks to build a wall. She used some blocks to build a bridge. 

She asked the students what they noticed/wondered and the very first notice was there were no numbers to tell us how many blocks, awesome. They did some wondering about how many blocks she used and compared this story to Jack’s building from last week.

We planned to have the students choose the number of blocks they wanted Susie to use in her building and then find how many she used altogether. Their number choices were so interesting and left me wondering when students begin to explain the usefulness of 10? I know some of them know 10 is a great number to add after the activity today, but I am wondering the questions to ask to make it clear to them because they just “know it.”

Here were some examples of their work…so much cooler than 4+2 in Jack’s problem!

Counting is Complex

There are so many interesting things to consider when counting, however having taught upper elementary and middle school, I have never taken the time to consider these complexities. After doing a Counting Collections activity in Kindergarten on Friday, I saw so many foundational ideas being constructed in simply counting a set of things. As I planned and implemented the activity with Kindergarten teachers Jenn and Michele, I felt a lot of the ideas in this post by Joe Schwartz, including the amazing comment conversations, surfacing.

The lesson plan seemed simple: Give the students a set of things to count. Walk around, watch, listen, and ask questions. From that simple plan, our planning conversation was filled with so many questions since this group of students had never done a counting collections activity. After watching this Teaching Channel video, we began asking ourselves: What is important about the set of things when students count? What tools do we make available? How do we keep them from grabbing every tool because they can? What questions do we ask? What numbers are appropriate for each student? How will they record their thinking? What is the end idea we want students to leave thinking about? This post would be so long if I included our decisions on all of this, but I am happy to answer any questions in the comments if you are curious. Not that they were the right or wrong answers, but our decisions.

We decided to keep the sets the same object, same color to avoid students sorting by color. I think it will be an interesting conversation in the future about what matters when we are counting, but for the first time, we wanted to really see what they did with counting without distractions and how they recorded their count. We made available big cups, small cups, ten frames and plates.

These are some of the interesting things we observed students considering when counting and explaining their count…

Choice of Tool(s)

Students had to consider the size of the object and size of the set to decide on the tool they felt would best organize their set. We saw groups switch because their object did not fit in or on what they originally chose. Some groups liked the plates to stack and organize their count because the ten frames took up too much space on the table. I wish I got a picture of one group who used the yellow and blue ten frames in the picture below…they put their full tens on the blue and their ones on the yellow and were able to articulate that statement as their counting strategy.


Counted vs Not Counted

This is where the tool they chose came into play again. Some groups chose to put the uncounted objects in one cup and count by 1’s into another cup. For these groups we saw a lot of losing track of count. We anticipated this in our planning and decided to ask them if there was another way they could count to help keep track of their numbers or if there was a way to organize their objects so we could see how they counted when we walked up.IMG_1622

Another group drew a line on their first plate and said it was for ones they counted and ones they hadn’t, however as the crayons took up too much space, they moved to putting 10 on a plate.

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Do We Even Have to Count?

This group got away with not really doing any counting at all until they combined their end organization. They filled a ten frame and poured it into cups. It was interesting because in the first, smaller set they counted just before this larger one, they filled all 10 frames on their table (in the pic under Choice of Tool). As it took up too much space this time, they switched.



How We Count vs How We Record The Number Of Objects We Count

This group put 10 on each plate and started to label each plate by 10s, however on the second plate one partner wrote “20” because she was counting, 10, 20, 30..etc. Her partner corrected her and said there were not 20 on the plate. You can see the scratched out mark on the plate and hear it here.



Adjusting for Larger Sets

This group kind of blew my mind. Their second set was 225, so they decided to put ten beans in every box of the ten frame. They were then even able to articulate the fact they knew 10 groups of 10 is 100. You can listen to them here. This is my first try with YouTube, so if this doesn’t play, please let me know in the comments;)



Recording Our Counting

This was one of the areas where we were so curious to see what happened! Jenn and Michele do a ton of Number Talks and journal writing, however during the Number Talks, the teachers does the recording. We didn’t know if they would draw everything they counted or be able to record it more abstractly with equations or would they do both? We did see a mix of all of this!


When Counting and Number of Things Counted Gets Jumbled…What To Do?

We had the groups share their first set (which were all in the 50s) and one group picked up on a counting strategy and way to organize that got a bit jumbled in the end.  This group put 10 on the first plate, 20 on the second, 30 on the next, etc. It was like counting by 10s but now there were not 10 on each plate. When I asked how many were on each plate, they were able to tell me that the number they recorded way was the number of beans on each plate and when I asked how many were there altogether, they said they didn’t know. This is where they ended:


So, where would you go from here with this group? Our feeling is to pull out the ten frames and put the beans from each plate on them because the students are really great at seeing and counting by 10s in this way. Would this be an interesting thing for the whole class to explore?

So many things to think about when counting! I love to think about how these ideas of counting and combining groups keep showing up in the work I am doing in all of the other grade levels! If we could really do this more and give students space to make sense of groups and how and why they work, wouldn’t it make so much of their future math work so much more accessible? If students really understood these foundational ideas, would we need to spend the time (and money) on intervention programs in later grades that are addressing these very same things?

Counting is Complex but we can structure ways to allow students to be successful in thinking about all of these ideas!