I have been re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” this week and have found myself looking at it through a much different lens than I did the first time.  Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time during the last three years immersed in the curriculum review and adoption world but numerous points Gladwell makes throughout the book stood out to me in regard to education.

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The quote above really hit me head on.  Lots of people after observation in my classroom comment on the “looseness” and flexibility of the lessons we do each day.  They aren’t wrong necessarily, I do pride myself on letting the kids take the math and the topic of the day where they need it to go but that is far from random.  It takes a tremendous amount of planning, anticipation, and extra prep to prepare for this degree of spontaneity so that I can ensure I am ready for wherever the kids may take the math that day…it isn’t just me standing up saying “alright y’all what should we do today” or hopping on a website 5 minutes before class starts to find something that looks fun.

The best curriculums allow for this spontaneity for teachers.  I think that is one of the reasons that I have liked the Open Up Resources authored by Illustrative Math curriculum because they created much of the structure needed to make sure the content was covered but left room for me as a teacher to allow for spontaneity in the classroom. When the kids needed more time on one activity or if I wanted to change something they planned as a partner activity to a gallery walk fast when I knew my kids had to get out of their seats before they lost their mind.  They did the work to ensure my spontaneity wasn’t random so I could focus on what makes teaching great.

We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips ...but what I have sensed is an enormous amount of frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from reading Blink again is something I have had a gut feeling about for a long time…teachers have too much data.  Hear me out on this, I agree data is important but Gladwell’s thoughts on data slicing being just as accurate as vast quantities of data really resonated with me.  Teachers are asked to keep enormous amounts of data on every kid that steps in their doorway and then make informed decisions based on that data for each and every child; but what if all that data is, as Gladwell argues, less accurate than a quick slice from teachers as trained professionals.  I frequently learn more from a 5 second conversation with a child than looking at pages and pages of information containing state testing, district testing, norm referenced testing, and a variety of other numerical data pieces.

My daughter is a prime example.  She is a struggling reader.  Data will tell you that she can only read level E books and that is what the data will decide she needs to read.  A quick conversation with her will let you know that those books don’t interest her and take her confidence away by making her feel dumb.  Instead, we talked to her and decided to let her read more advanced books with some help on the hard words with the expectation that she would read all the words on her level and attempt the words that are not.  She has grown more in the two weeks since we started that than she had a month prior reading level E books.  Knowing her was much more valuable than the data.

There are a ton of companies right now selling their products as the end all be all in education because of how they can differentiate practice for kids, provide live data, and differentiated instruction all without needing teacher input.  That’s crazy to me in many ways but reading Blink further reminding me just how far fetched this idea is.  A teacher’s blink decisions based on slices of their interactions with  students are more valuable and accurate than any online text book company can ever promise to be.  Good teaching, curriculums that help teachers be spontaneous not random, and teacher driven data… those things will always matter.


Holding Back

The world we could have is so much richer than the world we have settled for.

As teachers we are told frequently to make sure we don’t “teach to the middle”, meaning we have to make sure we help catch up our struggling learners while still pushing our gifted learners to continue to move beyond what they already know.  This balancing act in the classroom isn’t easily achieved but yet is the expectation for all teachers.  I personally have spent hours figuring out how to differentiate activities and structure my lessons so that every student can learn and improve each day…it’s what good teachers do.  My questions today is this, how do we professionally differentiate for teachers?

This question has stayed on my mind a lot lately.  I wonder how districts are supporting their struggling teachers while still elevating their master teachers to higher levels.  How are districts differentiating professional development, evaluations, and professional duties in order to recognize their most successful teachers and improve the teachers that need them most help?  So far, the answer I have some up with is that most aren’t doing this at all.  I fear that in many districts we are actually doing to teachers exactly what we are told not to do students…teach to the middle.  I believe strongly that we hold our best teachers back while providing ineffective supports for struggling teachers in hopes that in the end things will all even out.  No one, not teachers or students, benefits from this model.

I have heard of many districts in the past year adopting curriculums due to ease of use for their struggling teachers.  Comments like, “_________ just won’t be able to use that curriculum” or “it’s what’s best for our teachers who need help” seem to be the norm in many districts and I can’t help but think that isn’t acceptable.  A curriculum whether good or bad won’t fix a struggling teacher and while a good curriculum can make a strong teacher even better a bad one severely limits their effectiveness.

A bad teacher with a bad curriculum is still a bad teacher but a good teacher with a bad curriclum has their effectiveness and impact severley limited.

I believe we are at a time in our profession that we must realize that simply ignoring this problem will not make it go away.  Teacher effectiveness is a key factor to student achievement and the issue of helping struggling teachers must be addressed with the same focus and resources that we give to other important educational issues (some of which would no longer be issues if teacher effectiveness were improved!).  At the same time as a profession we must find ways to make career paths for master teachers who want to stay in the classroom but broaden their impact beyond just their four walls.  We need to create more mentorship, co-teaching, coaching, and leadership opportunities for the teachers who have proven through data to have effective instructional strategies and methods.  We can do better than teaching to the middle.

Closing the Gap

I am excited for my kids to take our yearly state assessment this year.  Don’t get me wrong, I am still stressed.  I could use two more weeks before testing to fully give the Open Up Resources IM Curriculum Units 7 and 8 a bit more time to develop conceptually with my students but I also know that my kids know what we have gotten to very well.  From proportional reasoning to solving equations they truly own the math they’ve learned this year.  Unfortunately, it takes quite a while into next school year before we get that state assessment data back so for now I get to be really excited about how my kids performed on NWEA’s MAP test this year.

If you aren’t familiar with MAP,  it is norm-referenced by grade level and my district gives it 3 times per year to monitor growth.  Typically in 7th grade a year’s growth is considered 6 points.  I started the year with kids in my collaborative class that ranged in score from a 1st grade level to an 8th grade level…no easy task to differentiate for.  Even still, I couldn’t hide my excitement as my kids begin to report their scores to me and see their excited faces when they realized they reach their goal.  I give each of my students a note on the day of MAP testing.  One side features a motivational quote and the other side has a had written note from me along with their goal for the test.  I like for them to have a frame of reference so that as they finish they don’t have to ask me if “they did good”.  Instead, they can evaluate their performance against their goal themselves.


To summarize how they did…they killed it.  Our principal challenged us to have each child grow one and half years this year and on average my class more than did that with 1.7 years of growth.  While it did make me happy that all kids grew, it made me more excited that the Open Up Resources IM curriculum helped close the achievement gap with my English Language Learners showing 2.3 years of growth while my Students with Disabilities grew an average of 2.5 years.

Average MAP GrowthYears Growth

The same kids that came into the class ranging from 1st grade level to 8th grade level ended the year with on levels that ranged from 3rd grade to high school, proving that the curriculum can both challenge advanced learners and foster their growth while still helping to catch up our most struggling students.  I knew before the MAP test that my GAP students had grown considerably just by observing their confidence level and reasoning ability but seeing the quantitative date prove the qualitative data I had observed further deepened my belief that this curriculum truly does work for all learners.  With three weeks to go before our state assessment I am more confident than ever in the work we have done in my classroom this year.  We did more than “prep” for a test.  Instead my students turned into real mathematicians that reason, struggle, and think to make sense of difficult problems rather than just rushing to “do math”.

Rising Up

Disclaimer – This post is cathartic writing for me.  Hopefully I will be back to lesson blogging this week!

And we'll rise upi, like the waveswe'll rise up in spite of the ache

The last few weeks have taken their toll on me.  The people closest to me notice the difference.  I am much less talkative, seem far away a good part of the time, and my mind is always somewhere else.  I have tried to snap myself out of it but it has been difficult to overcome.  Plain and simple this legislative session has taken its toll on me.

My fellow teachers and I have been called unimaginable things by our Governor.  We have been accused of being the reason that children get abused and try drugs.  We have seen the people that we elected to serve our communities turn their back on us and try and cut public education to its core in closed door meetings and back room deals.

I have lost friendships because people couldn’t separate their political beliefs from the need to just to do what is best for children.  I have lost respect for people who perhaps unintentionally hurt me to my core with their lack of support for public education, making arguments that much like our Governor’s made no sense.

Here is the thing you may not know about teacher’s though…we get knocked down 100 times a day and get back up.  We can be cursed by a child in one minute and the very next minute consoling that same child because of something that is going on at home.   We can walk into a school upset about what is happening to our profession and then as soon as the bell rings be “on” for another academy award deserving performance in front of our class to get them excited about learning.  We can survive 8 hours without having 30 seconds to run to the restroom and can eat our lunch in 21 minutes standing in the cafeteria while tutoring some kids, discipling others, and adjusting our lesson for the second half of the day.

Teachers have been more than knocked down over the last few weeks but now is the time they rise up yet again.  They rise up for the children who will be so very excited to see them Monday morning.  They rise up for the student teachers who haven’t given up on being a teacher and are learning so much from them about how to teach content while loving kids.  They rise up for the children at home who look up to them as role models and have learned from them how to handle adversity with grace and class.

I am not fully sure what I will do with myself now that I am not constantly monitoring legislation and watching hours of live coverage from our house and senate.   I do know that I will continue to give the 120 kids I teach as much love as I can while finishing up teaching them the content they need before 8th grade.  I know I will continue to be a voice at the state level for kids who don’t have one.  I know I will keep being vocal about my support of public education and it’s importance in our society.  I know I won’t quit rising up for kids because they deserve it.

What More Can I Do?

I have had a lot of thoughts on my mind over the course of the last few days with all that is going on not only in Kentucky but nationally in regards to education.  The question that keeps going through my mind however is about what more I can do.  I have often used this blog to help work through my thoughts and feelings and this time is no different although it will probably get me in trouble yet again.

In Kentucky Charter schools continue to be a hot topic and until yesterday were being funded in our state budget.  Our Governor, Matt Bevin, seems determined to bring them to our state and it seems that during his veto period this week there is a good chance the funding for them will return.  My own representatives voted to bring Charter schools to Kentucky as well.  My question it this, what more do I have to do to make you want your children in my class?

I work at least two hours each day at school in addition to my contractual hours.  That doesn’t count the two to three hours I also spend at home working after my own children go to bed finding resources, creating stations, or making games to keep kids engaged and learning daily.

I spend hundreds of dollars of my own money buying the supplies and resources needed to keep my class current and fun for the 120 kids that sit in room 406 each day.  I endure the crazy looks at the grocery store when I buy a cart full of crunchy and puffy Cheetos so we can learn about surface area.  I see people weirdly staring as I buy the store out of goldfish and food coloring so that my students can have first hand experience with populations and sampling.  I carefully mix salt water concoctions so that my students never forget the concept of ratios and proportions.

I got a Bachelor’s degree in agriculture education and then went back to become certified in math so I could make and even bigger difference.  Then, I finished a Masters in Teacher Leadership and am now looking for a doctoral program all so I can continually improve myself as both a teacher and a leader.

I double or triple my district required 24 hours of professional development yearly at my own expense and on my own my own time so that I can continue to refine my craft and improve myself for my students.

I donate more than 100 hours of free professional development to districts each year.  I offer my time, resources, and lessons free to the teachers in these districts so that I can improve math education for students across the state of Kentucky not just in my own classroom.

I push myself every day to be better, do better, and teach better so that my students continue to learn and grow.  I teach everything from advanced students to struggling learners and nearly all seem to find success within the walls of my classroom.  I never quit trying to ensure they all succeed and never stop growing.

I have held kids hands as they said goodbye to parents that passed away and cried with them as they mourned the loss of classmates.  I have sent them home with food from my own kitchen so that they wouldn’t be hungry over the holidays and had pizzas paid for and delivered to their homes when I was afraid the food had run out.

Yet, none of that seems to be enough for some of my policy makers.  They look at all my colleagues and I do and claim it isn’t good enough and that there is still need a for Charter schools in Kentucky.  They had the intent to cut public school funding while funding charter schools until my colleagues and I finally held the line in Frankfort and called for change.  However, I go to bed tonight knowing that all I do it still not good enough for our Governor and at anytime now our funding can be cut by him and funding for Charter schools reimplemented during his line item vetoes.

I want all of my legislators and our Governor that are continuing to push for Charter schools to answer one question for me tonight.  What more can I do for you to want Kentucky’s students in my classroom?  What more will it take for you to see the value in the work I do?  How can I make you see all the good I do?  I was humbled to be recognized recently on a National level as a Milken Educator and yet my own legislator can’t see that value in me.  What more can I do?


Good Teachers Matter

As I sit here at home this morning trying to explain to my own children why there is no school today I am sad in more ways than I can explain.  It is a hard time to be Kentucky school teacher.  This post isn’t about that though.  I have colleagues and fellow teachers that are 100 times better at speaking about what is happening politically here than I am.  This post is simply to remind me and hopefully others why good teachers matter.

I believe I have shared before that I am a first generation college student.  I had wonderful parents that pushed us hard and expected us to achieve great things.  Unlike many teachers I do not come from a family of educators.  I am the only teacher in my immediate family.  Recently my cousin Kendra has also become a teacher but otherwise even in my extended family I was the first.  I feel I must have been called to be a teacher because I love it so very much  but I can’t pinpoint a certain teacher or person who pushed me into the profession.  However I can pinpoint many teachers that have made a personal impression on me and constantly remind me why good teachers matter.

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Mr. Stoltzfus

Dan Stoltzfus was the agriculture teacher and FFA Advisor at Mercer County High School.  I had zero intention of taking an ag classes due to lots of stereotypes in spite of being raised on a farm.  Mr. Stolzfus visited our house many times trying to convince me to give it a try and finally my sophomore year I did.  I have always had a relatively large personality but most people don’t know that I am also painfully self conscious.  In Mr. Stoltzfus’ class we all had to stand up and say one paragraph of the FFA Creed and I was a nervous wreck.  I stood up and did my very best reciting it from memory and I will never forget Mr. Stoltzfus saying that I had a great speaking voice and should use it more often.  He more than likely doesn’t even remember this statement but it completely changed the trajectory of my life.  I began doing public speaking contests with my FFA Chapter and even winning awards for speaking.  I found my voice all because of one kind comment from a teacher.  I am able to present about my passion for teaching now on a state and sometimes even national level because one teacher took three seconds and encouraged me to use my voice.  Good teachers like Mr. Stoltzfus matter.

Mrs. Powell

When my son came to Ronielle Powell’s class he was a struggling reader.  I am a math teacher to the core and have always been an avid reader so I had know idea how to help him make sense of the words on the page.  His dad worked for hours with him playing site words games and encouraging him and yet we still made little progress.  Ms. Powell changed his trajectory.  He came to her below grade level and left above grade level for reading.  Her blend of high expectations and motherly love was exactly what he needed.  I asked him this morning what made Ms. Powell such a good teacher and he said quickly that she spent so much extra time with him to help him catch up and always told him that if he worked hard he would be where his classmates were in no time.  She believed in him until he believed in himself.  Good teachers like Mrs. Powell matter.


Ms. Kipper

I have blogged before about my daughter Embry’s early life health struggles and the vision and eye problems she has a reminder of her hard start at life.  I was terrified when she went to Kindergarten that she would be picked on and struggle with dealing with other kids who asked questions about her “little eye”.  Ms. Kippler made Kindergarten magical for Embry and at the end of it Embry decided that not only did she want to be a teacher one day but that she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher and only at Wellington just like Ms. Kippler.  That is still her dream now.  Good teachers like Ms. Kippler matter.


Ms. Sienicki

I work with some amazing teachers that inspire me and push me to work harder and be better.  Perhaps no one has made me work as hard to form relationships with students as Erin Sienicki has.  Erin doesn’t just teach struggling kids she becomes a part of their lives.  She is the teacher they invite to their quinceanera, the one they share their hardest problems with, and the one that holds their hand at the funerals of their friends that lost their lives too soon.  She taught me the importance of writing notes to students past and present to let them know you care for them and believe in them long after they are no longer in your classrooms.  She volunteers at a home for runway teens in her free time and I am fairly certain she spends every extra dollar she has buying food, clothes, and supplies for her kids that need it most.  Good teachers like Ms. Sienicki matter.


I could write paragraph after paragraph about different good teachers who matter and why.  Embry wanted me to mention Mrs. Harris also who has given her confidence in herself.  Jackson said Mrs. Tremoulis helped him learn to love reading with her 40 book challenge and Mrs. Fryrear made him a stronger writer by spending lots of extra time with him.  They both say Mrs. Underwood helped them learn to read.  I could name hundreds of teachers I have had the opportunity to learn from, teach with, and be friends with that matter too.

As I sit here with my kids on this unexpected and sad day off with tears in my eyes writing this post I am thankful for all the good teachers in our lives that make a difference every day.  Good teachers matters; I hope you will all remember that in the difficult days to come.

Sum Relay Races

Disclaimer…I learned about this review method at a conference years ago and have loved incorporating it into my class.  I am 99% sure I learned about it from Pam Wilson…thank Pam!


Although I love conceptual based problems and teaching sometimes my kids need some procedural fluency practice and I hate worksheets more than most!  We needed some extra practice today on the quadratic formula so I introduced my kids to this fun relay race game that requires teamwork more than speed and wanted to share it!

Students were placed in groups of 3.  (I usually allow them to pick their own)

Each group decided which student will be A, B, and C and records it on their answer recording sheet.

Students receive a card that has 3 problems on it.  One is labeled A, one B, and one C.  Each student does their problem and records their answer on their sheet.  Once all the answers have been recorded students find the sum of their answers and record it in the last column.

Once students have the sum they run their recording sheet up to me and I check the sum only.  If it is correct they get the next problem card and if it is incorrect they go back to their seats to work together to try and find their errors and then resubmit their answer.

If a group is really struggling I will look over their answers to A,B, and C to determine where the errors are in order to better help the group narrow down their mistake.

I generally provide our team money for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place teams.  I also always have an additional activity in case there are early finishers…today it was a trail review in the hallway but no one quite got to that part!

This was our first time this year utilizing this game but the kids loved it and asked to do it more!  I actually had to make my 4th hour leave today because they were determined to finish.

Here are the Quadratic Formula Problem Cards  and Relay Race Answer Recording  Sheet that we used in class today.  I have also embedded my first Swivl video of me giving the directions and a few minutes of the kids working in their groups today.  (This class had a lot of students on a band field trip today…my class size is usually much larger!).  Let me know if you have questions or suggestions to improve!