Category Archives: Mindset

Wondering About Classroom Norms

I cannot count how many times classroom norms has been a topic of my conversations in the past month. From creating and facilitating professional learning to thinking about how a curriculum can offer support in this area, I find myself obsessively thinking about ways in which norms might support both students and adults in their learning.

If you asked me a year ago about the norms in my classroom, I would have felt pretty good about how the list hung proudly on my classroom wall, was collaboratively established by students, and appeared to be in place during their math activities.


However, like the majority of my teaching life, the more I learn, the more I realize how much there is still left to learn. In this particular case, it is norms in a classroom.

I think most people would agree that establishing norms is important. Norms can encourage students to work collaboratively and productively in a classroom, elicit use of the Mathematical Practices and help students see learning mathematics as more than just doing problems on a piece of paper.  But, how often do we create norms in our classroom only to complain a month or two later that students aren’t thinking about any of them when working together and we struggle with how to refocus students to keep in mind those things they said were important at the beginning of the year? I know I have been there and looking back, wonder how I could have done that better.

While I think good curriculum tasks, lesson structures, and relationships I had with students helped me a lot in encouraging students to be mindful of the norms in the classroom, I don’t think I put an equal amount of effort into maintaining norms as I did establishing them. With that, I wonder what it even looks and sounds like to maintain them?

To me, maintaining norms is about moving from a poster on a wall to a living and breathing culture in the classroom. But, what things can a teacher do to make the norms not only a list, but a part of their classroom math community?

Of course, as the journey begins on writing the IM K-5 Math curriculum, I am also wondering how a curriculum can support teachers in establishing and maintaining classroom norms in a meaningful way. Even more specifically, what could this look like in Kindergarten when we have the opportunity to influence the way students view learning mathematics?

As I think through these questions, I would love to hear how you think about norms in your math classroom. What things can we do as teachers to support students in thinking more about what it means to learn and do mathematics? How could a curriculum, especially in Kindergarten, help teachers in this process?

Being THAT Teacher

Before reading on, please know the point of my post is not testing but instead the poor administrative decisions being made in its administration. In our school and district, testing is fairly uneventful. Since Smarter Balanced, our Department of Education has done a good job lessening assessment requirements across the state and I feel the environment around testing has gotten relatively better. We now have only one testing period, instead of three, during which students spend approximately a week (of just mornings) taking the tests, with their teacher, in their homeroom.

Unfortunately, a school in another district was given the autonomy to treat testing much differently.

Current Situation

This school year, one elementary school spent 1-2 weeks of precious instructional time to give every 8, 9, and 10 year old in the school a standardized interim assessment midyear. This assessment was not mandated by state. It was completely optional, however the administration at that school was given the autonomy to make the students take it. It was the only school in that district to give this assessment.

Based on that assessment each 8, 9 and 10 year old in that school was given a score of 1, 2, 3 or 4. Little did the students know, that score defined how they were grouped from that point forward. The scores were used to group or re-group students for building mandated test preparation for one to two months before they took the spring test. As if each student associating their academic ability with a number was not bad enough, when spring testing began, every other student in the class knew that score as well because they were pulled to test by that score.

This is where the standardized test becomes quite un-standard.

Students in that school were tested in groups based on those interim scores First the 4’s, then the 3’s, then the 2’s, and I am assuming the 1’s were left for last to allow for more test prep time.

Even more interesting is how the proctors rotated mid-test. Let’s say it was the 5th  grade “3’s” turn to test. Those students left their homeroom to go test with one of the other 5th grade teachers. The rest of the students in the proctoring teacher’s homeroom, who did not get a 3, were shuffled out into the other 5th grade teachers’ classrooms. Not to worry, that teacher doesn’t have to do that everyday because another teacher from the 5th grade administered the second or third part of the test to the 3’s, and also with the 4’s, 2’s and 1’s. So, technically speaking, a teacher could administer the test three times before they administered it to the 1’s? Interesting. [This changed immediately after I brought it to the district office’s attention. Funny the grouping couldn’t change immediately, but this could.]

As with any great testing situation, it also came with the go-get’m pep talks from the administration. Sending the over-achieving 4’s into panic attacks and the test-prepping 2’s seeing their work as drills before the “big game.”

I can only assume the administration believes there is no harm being done to children administering a test in this manner or why else would they do it, right? There is no way they can think this is bad for students’ mindset and image of themselves as learners or they wouldn’t keep doing it, right? And, worse, what if the superintendent found out, investigated, and did not see enough wrong with the situation to bother changing it immediately?

The most heartbreaking piece was hearing what students were saying and doing….

I am going with the other dumb kids that got a 2 to do test prep.

I am not a 3, so I am not testing today.

“I don’t need to have any more novels to read because we are test prepping in reading.”

“I didn’t test with my friend ___ because she is a 3 and I am 4.” 

“I got called in from recess after 5 minutes because I had to finish my test.” 

“Don’t opt me out because then I am bored.  At least the test is on the computer.

An 8 yr old gets sent to the nurse with what seems to be a panic attack after being given the 4’s pep talk before taking the test. Not to mention, she has a pre-existing heart condition after having heart surgery at 2 weeks old.  Upon picking her up from the nurse’s office, the parent was told by the nurse to take the child immediately to her pediatrician because she was stark white with an incredibly high heart rate. 

And these are only from three students, can you imagine if you collected them all?

After hearing this, I was thinking to myself, there is no way the superintendent would ignore my concerns of such blatant disregard for students’ well-being and emotional safety in a school when brought it to his attention.

Evidently, he can ignore these concerns, for weeks. After three weeks, he responded with a message that basically said, “We have looked into your concerns and your opinion has been considered. I will not meet with you because you do not have children in the school.”

Wait…I cannot be an advocate for children if they are not mine? Isn’t that all part of being an educator? Standing up for what is best for them? Any and All of them?  Maybe that is the problem here. They are not the administrations’ children, so why care what is happening to them? I have been teaching for 20 years, not one student has been my child, but I cared about them as if they were.

After three weeks of ignoring my requests, a family member who has children in that district requested a meeting for us. She had previously met with the building administration about this same testing situation so she was invested in this situation. Upon her request, we finally got a meeting date with the superintendent.

Before the meeting, I was still hopeful for change. That was, until we arrived for our scheduled meeting and was told by the curriculum director that the superintendent was meeting with someone else at the moment but we could go “get him if we have any questions.” Really? We waited 3-4 weeks for a meeting and he isn’t there when we explicitly requested he be there? We said we would wait and after the 10-15 minute power trip wait, he finally showed.

The parent started with the firsthand student accounts described above, accompanied by quotes from her children in regards to the teacher testing “pep talks.” It was gut-wrenching as she held back the tears that come when talking about your children. It was so disheartening and equally as infuriating to see the smirk and hear the chuckle that came from the superintendent as if to convey the “Oh, the silly things kids say” message as the parent spoke. I felt me heart actually beating out of my chest at that moment.

How could he not be infuriated by this happening in one of the elementary schools in his district? How did he not feel responsible? How could he give autonomy to a building principal who is so obviously not doing what is best for students?

After establishing the principal had not communicated any of these testing procedures to parents and told blatant untruths about other related items, the meeting continued to be about all of the great things the principal says he is doing to ensure the students do their best on the test, you know, for the student’s sake. Are we really trying to convince ourselves that the test score is not more about the school looking good than the child’s testing pride?

Then the blame game began. I was also told that the teachers in that school requested to give the interim assessment so the principal agreed. So, what, not his fault? Am I to believe he accommodates all of his teachers’ requests as willingly?

After hearing that the building administration “didn’t mean to make the students feel bad,” I couldn’t listen to one more thing. There is too much information out there to use that excuse…you didn’t mean to? Are you kidding me?

It unfortunately ended with the superintendent not being about to assure us this would not happen again next year. He said “we could expect change” but could give no specifics. That is not good enough for me since also finding out that this same issue was brought to his attention last year with no changes.

Fortunately, there are so many wonderfully caring people surrounding this principal and superintendent that I have talked to, that I DO believe these testing/grouping situations will not happen again next year.

The saddest part for me was the dismissive, “my school/district, my way” nature of this principal and superintendent. I am embarrassed for them as educators in this situation. 

As teachers, we want to empower our students. We want them to have a voice, share their thoughts and opinions, feel as if they can take control of their given circumstances and make change. However, as adults the harsh reality of what is really like to make change in education leaves us, at times, feeling powerless, like our hands are tied. Oftentimes it is because we don’t want to be THAT parent or THAT teacher, afraid of the repercussions for our children or ourselves in the workplace.

Sadly, I find myself in that place. Knowing this is wrong for students, wanting to make a change, fighting to do so, yet feeling like I am the one in the wrong because I am calling out bad practice.

This entire situation reminds me of a quote from a post by this author to school superintendents about data walls in schools, “This madness in our education has to stop. All of you run schools or districts and you have the power to put an end to this absolute insanity happening in our schools.”

It truly is insanity and this superintendent had the opportunity to make it right and he didn’t. Sad.

I truly always believed if people in education could not answer, “Why are we doing this?” with “Because its what is best for children.” then it would indicate a needed change.

Math Class Through My Students’ Eyes…

Each January, I like to ask the students to do a reflection on the first half of the year…things they liked, didn’t like, things they still want to learn, questions they have, etc…

Some students gave me a list of things they have learned by topic, others suggested that their seat be moved because they think they would work much better with their best friends, while some offered the suggestion of doing a “math project” that they work on over the course of a month or two (like their science fair project). I do like this last idea and looking into some type of ideas for this:)

I could really post all of them, because I just think my students are the coolest, most honest people I know, but for the sake of time, I chose two to reflect on tonight because I think it says a lot about what I hope students leave my class thinking about each year….

IMG_8800_2 This is exactly why I started the Class Claim wall! I SO love that this student enjoys proving why things work, and even better that she started the sentence with the word “Actually,” like it was not expected! I also think it is so awesome that she said multiplied fractions before she even realized she was multiplying fractions! It makes me feel so good about all of the planning and work for the cornbread task which launched this unit.

IMG_8804_2 - Version 2This one just made me chuckle at the subtrahend and minuend talk. That came out of a number talk one day when they were calling them the “one you’re taking away from” and the “one you are taking away” and wanted an easier, less wordy way to say it (don’t know if those words are, but stuck for this student). It did make me reflect on my work with Virginia Bastable this summer when she said (I am putting quotation marks, but this is not verbatim),  “Vocabulary should be a gift for the students in their explanations, developed out of need.”

The second part was just too funny and completely what I do to these poor kiddos all of the time! He has learned that when he has a finding or “idea,” I don’t just give him an answer, but instead send him back to think about it and see if they can figure out why that is happening. Then with another idea, the same process ensues…but at least, “it is not as hard as it seems.”

This is exactly what I want, curious students who work to explore their ideas and strategies and learn the processes of “doing math” without knowing there are procedures in place to do exactly what they are doing. I want them to see the “hard” math work they do as fun and an invaluable part of their learning.

They would probably be very surprised to find out that they make me do all of these same things before, during and after each lesson….



Week One – Talking Points & Math Mindset

Since taking Jo Boaler’s course, “How to Learn Math,” I continually think about how I can effectively gauge my student’s mindset at the beginning of the school year.  Last year, I tried a “Get to know you” form that students completed, asking questions such as: What do you feel you are really good at in math? What do you feel you struggle with in math? Do you think you can get better at those things? etc…  I didn’t feel like I got the type of insight I was looking for…partly because my questions weren’t that great and also because most students saw it as an assignment to complete and didn’t write out extremely involved answers that gave me much insight. I then took it upon myself to have inspiring growth mindset posters hanging up around the room and continually told students how mistakes help our brain grow, mistakes are good, no one is “good” or “bad” at math and all of those great things I learned! Don’t get me wrong, I love those things and will continue to do them, however it just didn’t feel like the thoughts came out organically….I felt I was trying to “teach” them how to have a growth mindset, if that makes any sense?

Now, Year Two after the course, and I have found (borrowed/stole) the BEST activity to get to know student’s mindsets at the beginning of the year, called Talking Points. I blogged about them before in my Week One planning post, but I had no idea at that point how much I would LOVE them. If you haven’t heard of them before check out @cheesemonkeySF on Twitter and her blog! She adapted this activity from Lyn Dawes’ Talking Points activity… Amazing Stuff!

For those who have never heard of them, here are her directions for how they work:



I used the following talking points because I felt it would give me insight into student mindset in regards to math and working in cooperative groups…

tp2As a class, we reviewed the process and practiced Talking Point #1 together as as a class. From there I let them go and circulated the class to hear the conversations! It was the absolute highlight of my first week! Here are some things I heard as I went around…(waiting on a few more parent permissions to post, so had to transcribe for now)

On Doing Math Quickly….

“I disagree because you could write down a random answer but not be right.”

“If it said being good at math means being able to problems quickly AND correctly, then it’d be right”

“I mean, think about it, you can do anything quickly but it might not be right or you may never learn it. So, you have to like go deep into the problem. That’s just my opinion.”

On There Is Always One Best Way To Do Math…

“I disagree because there can be more than one way to do problems.”

“I disagree because you don’t always have to stick to one way and for one person there may be one way and they think that’s the best, but for another person, could have a whole other way to do it.”

“There is not a BEST way, any way is good, but all that matters if you get the answer right.”

“There are many different ways I use to solve problems so not one way is always going to be best.”

“….just because one way is more efficient than another way doesn’t mean its the best.”

On Getting a Problem Wrong Means You Are a Failure….

“…you learn from your mistakes, so if your not make mistakes, you’re not learning anything.”

“If there was like 20 questions and you got one wrong, that doesn’t mean you just get an F, you still get an A and then maybe one day you do that same question again, and your like, “hmmm, I got it wrong last time, let’s try a different strategy and see if you get it correct.””

“One wrong answer’s not an F, unless there’s like 2 questions on the test, because even if you get it wrong you still learn from it and next time if they ask you again, you can be like, “now I know the answer.””

There is a group assessment piece that we did not have time for that day but we did do a classroom debrief so all of the groups could hear the conversations, it gave me goosebumps hearing them talk….awesome. I learned SO much about my students from this activity and it felt so organic coming from them. I didn’t feel like it was trying to “teach” them to have a growth mindset, it was coming from them! Love. Love. Love.

Here are some of their tallies….I think this data is invaluable!  I cannot wait to incorporate this routine into my math class this year!

IMG_6444 IMG_6445 IMG_6446 IMG_6447 IMG_6448 IMG_6449 IMG_6450

Happy First Week Back!




Why the Word “Smart” Makes My Stomach Turn…

I  used to love the word “smart.” To me, it had such positive connotations…Who doesn’t want to be thought of as smart? Who doesn’t want to think of their children as “smart”? Who doesn’t want their students leaving their classroom “smart”? Right? It is heard repeatedly in reference to students in parent conferences, PLC meetings and such. It felt like such a typical word, until now.

Over the past years, it is becoming one of my least favorite words. It literally starts to make my stomach turn. Since reading Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck’s works ( and and hearing Jo speak on numerous occasions, I have such a new perspective on the impact of the work “smart.”

I work very hard in my classroom to believe in the power of yet. There are no longer students who know something vs those who do not. It is now students who have learned something and those who have just not learned it…yet. (Great read on that: I am also trying very hard to take that perspective with teachers as well. I now am much more thoughtful in my conversations with not only my students but with colleagues/parents/administration and the impact of the words I use. I focus my words on the work, not the person. In my class, we are not “smart or not-smart”, we are all learners.

This belief that I have made part of my being as an educator was truly put to the test the other day. My students were presented with information on a program meant to help students with organization and study skills be more successful. Ok, not really what I believe makes students more successful, but they had to go, so I sat with them and listened. I could possibly write a dissertation on everything that was wrong with the presentation from my perspective, however the heart of the problem was the mindset of the person presenting.  If I had to hear the word “Smart” one more time in that 20 minutes, I was going to explode. And every time the word was used, it was in connection to grades and state test scores. As my stomach turned and knotted, I wanted to yank my entire class out of the room. I saw all of my work in trying to move every student from fixed to growth mindset slowly circling the drain.

It finally brought tears to my eyes (melodramatic, I know) when one little girl raised her hand and asked, “So do we have to have straight A’s to do this?” and the presenter responded with something to the effect of “the students in the program now are smart and have mostly straight A’s, but she understands if a “C happens sometimes.” So, this little girl who would have truly benefited from just some extra attention at school, but does not have straight A’s (whatever that really means) was deflated. What message was just sent by those words? Now does she think she is not “smart”? Now does she think she is not “smart enough” to get in? At that point I could not contain myself, I raised my hand and addressed the group, and the presenters.

I would love to quote my exact words, but I was so frustrated by that point, I do not even know the exact words that came out of my mouth. I truly was focusing on trying not to say anything rude to the presenters while making a point to the students. I can tell you it was something like this…I had to tell the group that their grades/test scores do not define them. That everyone in the room can learn, grow and improve in anything they persevere through. That I see them working hard, working together and learning every day and those things will be invaluable as they go through life. Smart is not something you are, so please do not leave here thinking it is.

After addressing the students, I left to address the adults in charge of this program. Hopefully, this will change from here…I guess if they are “Smart”, it will 🙂

A sincere thank you to the people in my PLN who have a growth mindset. I continue to learn from you every day and my students are so much better for it!