Their Formative Assessment = Your Anchor Chart

photo (2)

One of my favorite practices that has really caught fire in education is the formative assessment.  I love it because I know that the “check” I am doing will help me figure out what to teach next, who knows the information and who needs help.  I’ve taken formative assessment a little further by allowing their handwriting, work and calculations to become our classroom anchor charts.

In this example, I introduced the students to different types of angles to prepare them for the Mini Golf Course Project.  It is one thing to be able to identify them, but a completely different skill is needed to draw them! As a morning message the following day, I asked them to draw me three types of angles: acute, right, and obtuse.  It was interesting to see who was most confident, they posted their note up immediately. Others were cautious and wanted to make sure they had it right first.  Then, there were those few who were completely baffled. On the spot I was able to guide their thinking, it took only 5 minutes as the rest of the students were getting ready for the day.  It was a neat way to slip in a quick intervention. As another review during morning meeting, we looked at how the figures were similar and different.

The best part was, these beautiful angles they drew became an anchor chart for the project! They were able to reference it during the entire project.  Their pride in seeing such a simple thing on the wall was simply priceless.


Problem Solving Boredom: Motivate Them With Real Life FUN

Problem Solving Boredom: Motivate Them with Real Life FUN

Third graders are so wonderfully and naturally creative. One day we were working through yet another problem of the day from our textbook (I could see the life from recess draining from their faces), and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I felt as though the problem was sucking the creativity right out of the room.

It was mid winter, which if you live in the northern half of the US or Canada, you know how loooonnnngg that feels. The students were restless and bored with problem solving. I needed to think of something, and of course, with student help I did.

I addressed the winter blahs right then and there. What would help us get out of this funk? We started to think of things that are fun. The first thing on the list? A party.

Of course a party would help!

That is when it clicked. Party planning is a very complex task, but requires basic math. This makes it a perfect problem for third graders to solve.

That was what started the Party Planning Awesomeness project.

First, we needed a budget. The students were so excited about the fact that we were having a party that everyone brought in a dollar. The budget was locked in at $25.

I spent a few days giving structured mini lessons (brainstorming, adding decimals, deciphering grocery store flyers) during our problem solving time. After that I turned them loose. I was floored by the thinking that happened. Here were some of the amazing things they planned:

  • They made sacrifices. One student skipped the paper plates for a few more Capri Sun pouches. “Who needs paper plates anyway? What a waste!”
  • They planned to save money on decorations by hanging student artwork in the room.
  • They wanted to play great music from their own iPods (as long as it was clean).
  • They planned great games and activities, even scheduling them down to the minute so that it didn’t go over the allotted party time.

Every student in the classroom had a plan, glued and colored up a piece of construction paper to communicate that plan…and we all voted on the best one. The best one turned into an actual party.

Giving them the chance to solve problems and think through complex life situations, all while having the motivation of a party was exactly what they needed.

And…don’t tell them, but it was fun for me, too!

Use Open Ended Math Problems to Raise Rigor in the Classroom

Use Open Ended Math Problems to Raise Rigor

This is a photo of our current math series and its Problem of the Day. This problem was solved in 10 minutes by my students. This is not rigorous enough, not complex enough, not inspiring at all, and just not good enough for my third graders.

Instead, I’ve been using Open Ended Math Problems for the last eight years about once per week. These problems require basic math, but complex thinking. They are multi-step, require more than one class period to complete, and are real world.

Here is an example, called The Museum Trip:

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 11.01.50 PM

Some ways I’ve used them:

* as a “what to do when you are done” option
* as partner activities
* whole class discussions to talk about problem solving strategies
* small group gifted and talented students have tackled them
* parent volunteers have come in and used them with groups of students who are struggling with problem solving

Open ended math challenges present so many opportunities for dialogue and engagement in the elementary classroom. If we expect students to respond to the common core and the impending assessment that comes along with it, we must practice this type of thinking.

Raising Rigor for the Smarter Balanced Assessment

In one year, our students will be taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment in place of our current state wide assessment system. You can click the logo below to find out more.


Our district participated in the pilot test of this assessment, and I was lucky to get a chance to see what we are up against. You can take that first part of the test here (there is not a performance task sample ready yet).

When I peered over the shoulders of my students, my jaw just dropped.  The rigor of this test far exceeds what I’ve been used to for the last 8 years.  There were two parts to the test that I was able to see; a multiple choice/short answer and then a performance task type of test.  The first part was kind of standard, but included a lot of dragging, clicking and typing.

The second part was what really got me.  Nothing in our textbook would ever prepare students for this!  The first section of the problem was a full page of reading that they could go back and refer to over and over.  The second section contained about 20 questions related to that reading passage that built on each other in difficulty.

Notice, this was a MATH test, not a reading test.  If you can’t read you really can’t do well on this test.  If you can’t persevere, you really can’t do well on this test. If you can’t sort through massive amounts of information, or use appropriate strategies and tools, or PERSEVERE when the going gets tough…you will not do well on this test.

In come the Standards for Mathematical Practice. If you aren’t familiar with them, you should get familiar. They are amazing, they are exactly what we’ve needed and wanted students to do since the dawn of time.

I have been thinking about some ways to prepare students. Here are some things I am thinking for the coming school year:

1.  My plan this year is to incorporate deep problem solving DAILY.  I will use mini lessons and structure to help them get started, and then get them working independently. We will do this every day for 15-20 minutes per day, I’ll even set the timer!

2.  I plan to incorporate and embed those Standards for Mathematical Practice. I will explain that they are behaviors that great mathematicians do! I created a systematic way to introduce them to students.

3.  I am going to let them struggle. Sometimes we learn best with our mistakes.  Struggling can help us do our best critical thinking.

4.  I will help them read for understanding, I may even incorporate reading math problems during Readers Workshop. We’ll talk about how math reading can be different than reading for enjoyment. I am going to use these open ended problems that are full of reading, encourage persistence, and are real world.

5.  I’ll blend in reading, writing and math content into my problems so it becomes seamless.

To prepare them for the task coming (which they very well SHOULD be able to do), we’ve all got a lot of work ahead of us! I hope we can join together and re-ignite student’s passion for projects, hands on activities and rigor.

The Float Challenge

The amount of vocabulary that is embedded in the measurement and geometry Common Core State Standards is staggering. Along with most things in math, I feel that more than ever students need to see it, use it, or touch it in the real world to connect to these words.

This occurred to me halfway through our measurement unit, as I was teaching metric units to measure mass. The day before, we had covered customary units for mass. Adding more vocabulary the next day felt like I was pushing too much information into their brain.

So I tried a little something. A Float Challenge.

I gave the students a 1′x 1′ piece of aluminum foil, and asked them to create a flotation device. This device had to float/carry the amount of mass weights (in grams) as high as they were willing to bet. The person who could successfully float the greatest mass (had to stay afloat for 5 seconds) would be the winner, but if they bet TOO high and their boat sank, they were disqualified. The mass weights that I had came in increments of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 grams. They could decide how they wanted to distribute their weight.

The bets came in slow and steady. Some students wanted to see how others would bet. Others worked on their flotation device right away. A few students went for it all, hoping their flotation device would carry 80-100 grams. Every student came to the table at some point in the design process to feel what the weights felt like in their hands. After about 15 minutes of engineering we began the floating. It seemed like every student was hanging on the edge of their seat as the flotation devices came forward. Near the end they were trying to stand on chairs to see the final two. The results as we proceeded were recorded on our easel chart.


The reflection that followed was powerful and meaningful. Many wished they had bet more weight, others expressed an interest in changing their float design. Some explained that they would have liked the opportunity to test their float ahead of time. Other students felt that they had over-thought their design, and wanted to do it all again.

By the end of the lesson, every student in the room could tell me what 1 gram felt like. A week and a half later, they could STILL tell me what 1 gram feels like, AND they are connecting it to other things in the world around them. Seeing the success of something that was so simple, and that truly took only 25-30 minutes makes me see that I need to do this more. I need to connect it more to their lives, allow them to see it, touch it, (maybe even taste it!) to make it meaningful.

You can check out my Float Challenge in the Resources for Educators section, or just click here! In it is the lesson in GANAG format (Jane Pollock’s amazing lesson planning format) and includes goal setting, the guidelines for the contest, and formative assessment at the end. Happy Floating!

The Trouble With Learning Math Facts

The benchmarks for learning math facts in the Common Core State Standards are clear:

By the end of Kindergarten know all sums and differences to 5.
By the end of First Grade know all sums and differences to 10.
By the end of Second Grade know all sums and differences to 20.
By the end of Third Grade know all products and quotients to 100.

That is a tall order!

Last spring as I sat with a student who was painfully trying to learn his x8 and x9 facts, I had a bit of an epiphany about math facts and the difficulty of learning them.

When math facts are taught using only 1 method (such as flashcards or time tests), they aren’t connected to anything in the student’s real life.  We rely on basic repetition and the ability to recall this isolated thing.  We would never do that with spelling words.

Think about word study, reading and spelling.  Words are EVERYWHERE.  They are in front of us every waking moment of the day. Our brains connect letter patterns, word clusters and we read them constantly. Where do you ever see math facts? I mean truly, where do you ever see a math fact out in public?

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 2.40.28 PM

Words are everywhere. Math facts, not so much.

I am not entirely sure what the answer is, but I think we need to recognize this so that we are more sympathetic to students when they find difficulty in learning them.  I think we need to connect them to their lives as much as possible, present them with multiple ways of learning them and give them strategies so that they can see the awesome patterns that are present in math facts.