Crystal Clear Expectations with Student Photos

Don’t tell my principal, but at the last staff meeting I wasn’t perfectly focused on everything he said. For a few minutes I was thinking about all the stuff I had to do at work, about how I needed to mow my lawn REAL bad since it was looking like a jungle out there, and how I couldn’t wait to see my daughter.

Imagine if I was 30 years younger and had an even smaller attention span, a need to move in my seat more and unclear expectations of what I was supposed to be doing.  Maybe this doesn’t happen in your classroom with your students, but it happens in mine. And basically to every teacher I ever talk to. So let’s all just assume that this is a common problem, right?

So while we won’t eliminate this problem, we can certainly reign it in a bit. With crystal clear expectations laid out for our students, and an added bonus of posting their photos we start to see some changes.  When you’ve been on video or see yourself in a photo, do you find yourself immediately analyzing every bit of it? You’re looking at your messed up hair, you’re thinking about what you are wearing, thinking about what you are doing in the video or the photo.  So…we can do that with kids, but instead of making them look for what they AREN’T doing, we can catch them for what they SHOULD be doing.

I tried this first in a second grade classroom.  I told them that I was going to be looking for students that were on task and showing the behaviors that we all agreed upon in workshop expectations.  Then I explained that I would be getting my mobile device out to take photos of them doing these things. I told them I would use the photos to make something special. Suddenly they sat up straighter, got immediately to work, and were perfect tiny little angels. For real. Angelic.

So here is the special thing I made them:


I looked at each part of the teacher’s workshop and about what the students needed to look like to be successful. I targeted my photos to be able to show them exactly what they look like when on task.  When the expectations were crystal clear, and they were in the photos…that’s when we started to see more focused behaviors.

I believe this can be adapted to any grade level. Children love to be validated and honored for doing great work. I think that we all do in some way or another. This gives them great recognition for being on task, with the added benefit of reinforcing your math workshop expectations.


Adding Rigor to the Math Classroom

Yes, I know. The R word. Ugh. I’m only starting to hate it because it sounds like a buzz word that you hear over and over, yet it’s like some kind of mystery to classroom teachers.

When I began teaching I thought that raising the rigor in my math classroom meant using bigger numbers, more problems, or homework projects.

And the kids hated it. They didn’t feel energized or motivated in math. They felt bogged down and I pretty much sucked all the joy out of their little faces.

Nice going Ms. Smith.

Instead now I know that rigor has a different definition. It might mean solving open ended problems, finding multiple solutions, connecting math to real life situations, using visual models, and thinking deeper instead of faster. And I’ve realized that sometimes rigor can be injected in very simple ways. Take this example (used in a second grade classroom early in the year):


This is really quite a simple idea, and almost any number (or number sentence!) could be put in there to adapt it to any grade level.  Notice how open ended it is? The teacher is not telling them to use: tallies, ten frames or cubes. We started with 10 to show the routine and the process, allowing them to find more and more ways and share their thinking.  Students are given a number and need to think of how many ways to build it and show representations of it. The beauty is they begin to see the need for shortcuts in math more naturally. It doesn’t make sense to show the number 110 with 110 individual cubes, we can group them into packs (rods/sticks..whatever you call them) of 10 or 100!

The more students can use tools and visuals, the stronger their mathematical thinking will become!

“What do I do when I’m done?”

That’s the question I would dread the most during math class…

“Mrs. Smith, what do I do when I’m done?”

In the early days I didn’t have any clue what to do with students when they were finished with their work.  During Readers Workshop, they could read. What could they do when they were done with their work in math? Fact fluency games were a great option, but I wanted fact fluency instruction and game time for all students. What could I do with these early finishers that would be engaging?

Enter deep math tasks.  There are so many out there that it can be overwhelming to try to find them. But my favorite math tasks I find for free at  Here is just one example called Nine Colors that can work for just about any age.  It can be a station in your math centers, or it can be a challenge that is open for those who finish early.


This is what we call a “low floor high ceiling task”. This means that anyone can attempt it, but it’s challenging and rigorous for any student.


You can find this one and much more at!