Push Past the Tears: Peers Teach Perseverance

Today was the final stage of our Elementary Architects Project.  Students were about to turn in their design plans for approval (and classroom money), and were feeling the pressure as the clock was winding down.  With 5 minutes to go, one student (“Corey”- I certainly don’t want to cyber embarrass anyone with their real name) came to me, tears welling up and blurted, “I don’t want to turn this in, I don’t want to be paid, and I just want to throw it in the garbage!”

I was a little taken aback, because Corey’s blueprint of his dream bedroom was beautiful!  It had all the right things, and was designed with all kinds of creativity.  Miraculously it was to scale (many third graders struggle with this a bit!) and it was a totally perfect birds eye view.

So I sat him down at my table where four other students were sitting. Corey was fighting back tears as we went through the specifications sheet.  As we named each specification the other four students at the table gave him encouragement, pointing to each item on his blueprint as I read it off.  When we got to the part where it said to calculate the area of the space, that was when he really broke down in tears.

Now I know I should never underestimate the power of anchor charts, because at that moment, one of the other boys at the table looked at him and said, “Look up on the Smartboard!” We had worked through calculating area in three ways just a few days prior, so I’ve kept this slide up every time we worked on the project.

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Then, he proceeded to help Corey figure out which way would be the best way to calculate the area of the space. The student who was helping used a calm voice, and his method was methodical.  Once Corey had the help, the tears went away and he handed me his final page with a very proud smile.

I learned today that a kind classroom community will support all learners. Students can stay calm in the face of obstacles if those around them are calm and supportive!  I think sometimes I feel like I have to be the one to help them, but their peers can be just as helpful if not more so.  As I reflected on my day today, I want to think more about how to foster that type of community so that everyone can learn to persevere together.

Inquiry Learning: YES!

A little while back I wrote about letting students discover math patterns and connections on their own.  Inquiry learning truly does help students do the majority of the learning.

Well, check out this blogger from The Research Based Classroom. I love her post this morning citing Piaget:

The Research Based Classroom

“Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.”   Piaget

Right on Brandi!

How do you all help your students discover concepts on their own?

Two Projects That Created Authentic Dialogue About Work Habits

Well I did it again! I started the first day of school with a project, this one a little different than what I have done the last few years. I like to start the first day off with a bang. I asked the students to perform a complex task where I give them minimal directions.

First Day: Boat Challenge

The Task: Build a boat that could sail across a four foot channel of water in 30 seconds or less.

They could use a variety of materials that I set out: aluminum foil, paper plates, paper bowls, cups, straws, napkins, tape (almost all of these items were leftover from classroom holiday parties last year).  They could also test their design as many times as they wanted before the “official test”.  They were given 30 minutes to build their prototype.

Once the shock of learning that I was not going to tell them how to build it wore off, we began to see some pretty exciting stuff.  They went back and forth from the supply table, many of them trying several different ideas.

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There were so many feelings/things happening in the room, frustration, anxiety, excitement, nervousness, celebration, dismay, selflessness, idea “stealing/copying”, and not all of the feelings were good feelings. I took that moment to realize that sometimes we have to use these authentic experiences to help students identify ways to get better at work habits.

As soon as all of the boats had sailed, we sat down at the carpet in front of my easel to make the first half of my anchor chart. We came up with things to put under “I can work alone”. I was delighted by their thoughts.

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This worked so well, that I thought I’d try for “I can work in a group” the next day.

Second Day: The Teddy Bear Challenge

The Task: Build a 12 inch or taller tower to hold a stuffed bear out of notecards and tape.

Each student was given a bag of materials: scissors, scotch tape, index cards, stuffed bear and a ruler. This time it was a group activity.  Again, there was a wide variety of things happening in the room. Some groups worked perfectly together, others argued over supplies, some spent time doing individual towers, others fought over whose idea was best, I was most impressed with the group that gave each other jobs. The voice level in the room got louder, and louder, and louder.  5 of the 7 groups came up with viable options that worked after 20 minutes of building.

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I realized quickly that third graders are not nearly as good at working in groups as they are working alone.

We met again at the carpet to discuss “I can work in a group.” Again, their frustrations turned into the positive on the chart paper. It was amazing to work through their negative thoughts, to turn them into goals for the next time we work in a group.

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I’ve taped the anchor charts to the wall, and plan to refer back to them often (especially in these first few weeks).  I hope that it will lead to more risk taking when working alone, as well as more peaceful group work. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Back To School Sale: Save up to 28% and Enter to Win 3 FREE Products!

Back To School Sale: Save up to 28% and Enter to Win 3 FREE Products!

I am just getting started in my TpT store, and wanted to offer a give-a-way in addition to the back to school sale at my store. To enter just follow my blog by entering your email and I will add you into the drawing. (If you already follow me, you are automatically entered!)

Find my products at my TpT store (click the photo to see my store)!

You could win:
Open Ended Math Challenge (7 problems + rubric)
Housing Market Analysis Math Project (2 week unit)
Mini Golf Course Hole Math Project (2 week unit)
Float Challenge Math Project
Elementary Architect Area Math Project (2 week unit)
Party Planning Awesomeness Math Project (1-2 week unit)

* You can “save” your win for future products as well!

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!

REAL Problem Solving at the Elementary Level

One of the things that I struggle with as an educator, is how to incorporate real problem solving in mathematics instruction.  As an adult, I don’t sit down and think about how if Johnny gave me 3 apples and Julie took 1, how many I would have left.  That type of simple math is probably useful for K-1, but not for 2nd grade and beyond. The intermediate grades are READY for multi-step, complex problems that require creativity and critical thinking.  The problems that are part of our math series are not deep, nor are they relevant to student’s lives. They don’t differentiate for gifted and talented students, and they definitely aren’t always appropriate for students with special needs.

Last year when I handed out the Problem of the Day book, supplied by our math series, I cringed a little.  Students didn’t open up these books the same way they open up a book like Harry Potter. There was no excitement, the general feeling was very “blah” in the room.  I know that there has to be a better way.

So, like any teacher, I turned to Google to solve my problems.

“elementary problem solving”

“project based problem solving”

“motivating elementary problems”

There is really not a lot out there.  There are suggested ideas and a few projects here and there, but the majority of the problems are for middle school and higher.  With the new Common Core State Standards and the up and coming Smarter Balance Assessment, I knew that what we currently have isn’t enough.

I have introduced some problems each year, and each year they get better and better.  I will keep on searching for more, as well as continue to tweak what I have.  The best place I have found ideas has been on Twitter, where someone’s language arts lesson prompts me to think of how I could do a similar project in math. Here are some of the problems I currently do, and I am slowly uploading them to share in Resources for Educators:

Book Order Analysis
The Float Challenge
Housing Market Analysis
Mini Golf Course Geometry
Wind Powered Car
Classroom Economy
The Great Air and Water Craft Extravaganza
Desert Hike
Elementary Architect
The Last Summer Picnic
Restaurant Dreams
Family Reunions
Desert Island Playlist

We’re getting there but it’s coming slowly. Join me by posting any of your ideas and products in the comments area!