Going International!

I’m excited to join the British Columbia Association of Math Teachers for their conference today, October 21, 2016! And I’m honored to present a session tackling improving student collaboration title “How are you smart in math?” This post will serve as a home for the slide deck we used to guide our time, and a few additional links and resources!

Session Description

How do we move from the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality of student collaboration to a place where student groups genuinely work together to create shared knowledge? One key lies in the way we view our students and how they view each other. During this session, we’ll build our vocabulary about the vital math abilities that are so powerful for students as they investigate and grapple with tough problems so we can dramatically shrink the deficit-based thinking of students and teachers alike.

Session-related Resources

Please feel free to comment here or to reach out via twitter @ReadySetBrette if you have additional questions or would like a thought partner about reducing status to improve collaboration.

“What if students aren’t ready?”


We’ve all seen this before on Facebook and laughed internally. But one practice in our classrooms proves we aren’t so far beyond this as we’d like to think. It’s happened to all of us – You have a great idea for an engaging and authentic problem about similarity! Or about writing equations! Or…[fill in the blank]!

There’s just one problem. You know that your students have arrived in your classroom without all of the prior knowledge hoped for at their current grade level. A student gives you a blank look when you ask about scale factor or about how to solve a proportion. Or a student can’t articulate what a variable represents. Or…[fill in the blank]. Sound familiar? We’re left lamenting, “What if my students aren’t ready?.”

My admission:

We have all experienced this in some form or another. It is daunting to present students with a problem at grade level when you know that for many (or even most) students you can’t draw on the appropriate prior knowledge. Our natural instinct is to pause, review what should be prior knowledge, and then re-engage in the work at grade level.

My ask:

I ask that you present your great problem ideas to all of your students and allow them to identify and ask for the learning they need. Our most successful math teachers in the New Tech Network fight the natural instinct to front-load needed skills, and instead present the problem at grade level to all students first. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I ask you also try to fight your natural urge as well.

The “why”:

Students who arrive lacking basic skills do not show up this way because they have never been taught those skills. Quite the contrary, they likely have been formally taught those skills at least twice and perhaps had some remediation on top of that. Even with potentially three passes at these skills, they didn’t ‘stick’. They didn’t make enough sense to students for them to be able to call upon that knowledge when necessary in your course. And in all reality, a fourth pass at practicing that skill in the same way likely won’t be successful either. You must strategically change the way you teach that skill, and provide context for why that skill matters, to change a student’s understanding of that skill. Change the teaching/learning method to change the learning/understanding result.

Students who arrive in your classroom also are likely lacking a mathematical mindset, or even the mindset that they can be successful in a math class. The importance of a student’s mindset about his/her ability to learn a skill overwhelmingly outweighs current knowledge of the actual skill itself. If a student doesn’t believe she can learn, you’re sunk before you’ve even begun. But a student who is willing to engage in the great problem you want to do, and who believes it is worthwhile and is smart to ask questions? Yes, foster that! If you present your students with challenging problems, and with the scaffolding to support them, you are sending the not-so-subtle message that you believe your kids are ready for real mathematics. Please let your students see the real and beautiful and connected math we so appreciate. If you let your students engage, coach them how to engage, and support them as they struggle, the results might be surprising to you. And they’ll certainly be rewarding.


Fostering True Math Learning

Some introductory brainstorming:

(One clarification first: When I use the words “our” or “we”, I mean “us” as math educators. Now the prompts!)

  1. What limitations from our own math learning are we bringing to our planning and the math experiences we provide our students?
  1. How can we model the skills and mindsets of a savvy problem solver for our students, and how can we model the learning of new skills and mindsets that we as adults don’t yet have ourselves?

Some context and elaboration:

In a recent visit to Cincinnati, Ohio to work with math teachers in the Winton Woods City School District, I pushed the room to take a step back. As a coach for the New Tech Network, it is common practice to push teachers, leaders, schools, and fellow coaches to articulate their purpose, to borrow from Simon Sinek and ask folks to state their “why”. In this case, we brainstormed how each of us might complete the following sentence:

“Math learning, true math learning, is essential because…”

One key phrase kept bubbling up in our sharing was that true math learning fosters and develops savvy problem solvers. So we pushed into what being a savvy problem solver really means and what indicators we might look for.

problem solver

While this is a great ideal, we all know that putting this ideal into practice is difficult. On my trip home from Cincinnati, I re-stumbled across a 2014 New York Times Magazine article titled “Why Do Americans Stinks at Math?” in which Elizabeth Green investigates why math education in the United States historically struggles to achieve this desired true math learning despite repeated, national initiatives (think: “new math” of the 1960s and the challenges of CCSS implementation now to name a few). Green interviews professor Magdalene Lampert who challenges us to assess our role in this struggle. While many of us, me included, were highly successful math students in school – so successful in fact that we became math teachers – Lampert notes that our math learning is likely the product of a traditional math classroom. I admit this line of thought brings up an uncomfortable sense of vulnerability for me. I think to myself: “Is she really saying that I am somehow ‘less than’ in my understanding of mathematics. This can’t be. I am a math teacher and a math coach after all, right?” I could get defensive. I could get defiant. I could foster learning environments that are comfortable for me because they are familiar. Instead, I take her words as a caution and as a nudge. A caution because I must admit that I may not have personally experienced what I try to foster in math classrooms now. And a nudge to be honest about where I can grow and improve.

Some closing brainstorming:

As you head into another school year and now will some additional context, I’ll again pose two questions for further brainstorming:

  1. What limitations from our own math learning are we bringing to our planning and the math experiences we provide our students?
  1. How can we model the skills and mindsets of a savvy problem solver for our students, and how can we model the learning of new mindsets and skills that we as adults don’t yet have ourselves?

Go ahead! Teach to the Test!

Teaching to the test. The four words that seems to simultaneously bring a sense of security to teachers and make them shudder at the same time. It’s a tempting option: prepare students for a standardized test by having them practice each piece of content that could be tested in the format it will be tested, primarily multiple choice. This should prepare students. This should improve test scores. This should keep teacher jobs secure. Repeatedly exposing students to content and test format should work, right?

Sadly we all know given both personal experience and national-level data that this doesn’t work. I would posit however that students do poorly on tests not because they haven’t been exposed to all of the content (or test format), but because they have only just been exposed to the content. The content has been covered, not learned. For example, picture the following two scenarios occurring while you proctor a test come May.

Scenario 1: A student sees content she is unsure of on the test, she doesn’t know how to start investigating the problem, anxiety spikes, and the question is skipped.

Scenario 2: A student sees content she is unsure of, she pauses, re-reads the instructions, tries a few things she feels like might help lead her to the answer, and ultimately works backwards from the answer choices thinking about which might be the most reasonable option given the context.

In the first scenario, the student is likely armed with a vast, breadth of surface-level content knowledge. In the second, the same student is likely armed with admittedly a smaller subset of content knowledge, as well as persistence, initiative, estimation, bravery, attention to givens, confidence, willingness to restart, and ingenuity. The difference is that one classroom experience is focused on covering content, and one classroom experience is focused on how to approach content. One classroom fosters problem knowers while the other fosters problems solvers.

So go ahead and teach to the test! But first make one critical shift in your test preparation mantra. Heading into testing season, I encourage you to actively shift your mindset from, students will do well if they know the content –> students will do well if they know how to approach the content.

When sports and education collide…

How would you define culture? Had you asked me this some time ago, I likely would’ve responded with something somewhat generic, or maybe I would have given some examples. At best, I would have said “trust, respect, and responsibility”, for those NTNers out there. That’s what I would’ve said. But then this happened…

Let me back up to say that I have a few passions in my life, two of which include sports (March Madness is a real illness for me and fall weekends are football-centric) and, of course, progressing and improving (math) education. And on occasion, these two passions collide in an awesome way.

As I often do, I spent a night in a hotel room recently prepping for a site visit the following day. With ESPN on in the background, I typed away on my laptop. Longtime SportsCenter host Steven van Pelt caught my attention with a story about this year’s 3rd NBA draft pick who got into some legal trouble. This young man almost immediately responded with a tweet of atonement.

While I can almost recite the commentary about young, entitled athletes that I expected to follow, that’s not where this sports journalist was headed. Instead, he asked viewers who else might be responsible for this behavior. And he brought up this player’s NBA team and (here it is!) the team culture that might subtly or even overtly condone negative behavior.

What’s more, the definition of culture used in this story was the following:

Culture (n): conditions suitable for growth

What if this definition was our guiding question framing culture conversations in education?

As you think about the various cultures at play at your school or in your classroom, what conditions are suitable for your growth or your students’ growth? And what conditions aren’t suitable for growth? We hope that students enter our classrooms each day with the intention to be fully dedicated to their peers and to learning. But we know intentions are often best laid, and then not followed. So how do we bolster the conditions for growth so as to support our students to achieve their intentions, and for us to learn and grow with colleagues?

I can’t say I have an answer to those questions. But as one of my passions collides with another, I’ve at least found my new answer to the question, “How would you define culture?”

GMD Conversation: Reducing Status to Improve Collaboration

I’m excited to chat with the Global Math Department on January 12th, 2016 about reducing status issues in math classrooms in an effort to improve collaboration. This post will serve as a home for the slide deck we used to guide our time, and a few additional links and resources!


Presentation Description

Collaboration is a powerful tool to help students build knowledge together and deepen their understanding of math practice and content standards. But this collaboration is not innate for many students who enter our classrooms. Collaboration must be explicitly and purposefully taught, scaffolded, and reinforced. Not only that, but we must be aware of and strategically combat status issues in our classrooms that stand in the way of equitable student learning. Let’s chat practical ideas about norms, task design, and assessment strategies that will position all of our students to grow as math learners together!


Resources from and for the presentation

  • A prior blog post of mine titled “No one of us alone is as smart as all of us together”

Please feel free to comment here or to reach out via twitter @ReadySetBrette if you have additional questions or would like a thought partner about reducing status to improve collaboration.

Caution: the Narrow-Minded Misstep

This week I am putting final touches on plans for an upcoming convening that is pulling together dedicated core content teachers to grapple with improving literacy in their classrooms. My preparatory work demanded that I dig into real examples of true disciplinary literacy in social studies, language arts, science, and math. The convening is separated into two groups: humanities one day and math/science the next, and this separation jogged my memory about an ‘incident’, a very telling conversation, I had last spring.

While talking to coaching colleagues in May, I casually made a sweeping statement about English/Language Arts (ELA) classrooms and, in listing key things that I thought to be taught in this course, grammar was near the top of my list. My idea of a focus on learning punctuation and essay structure was lovingly but literally scoffed at. The incredibly thoughtful and invested humanities’ minds at my table instead made it clear that they wanted students to write not to critique grammar, but to expose, discuss and critique ideas. Grammar and essay structure, they continued, are only important as they aid in better communication of these ideas.

In other words, I made the exact assumptions that I fight against every day. I literally cringed at myself.

As a former math teacher and a current math coach, I pretty consistently experience the moment of telling a hair stylist or rental car agent or family member that I’m a math educator only to receive grimaces relating their own poor math experiences.These facial expressions are inevitably followed up by an explanation of the very narrow view of mathematics being referenced. It becomes clear that the math experienced in these remembered classrooms is not the math I try to expose to students. Like ELA classrooms where structure in and organization of writing is important, similar math structures are not the primary driver of a math classroom either. Whether talking about grammar, essay structure, procedural fluency, or mathematical notation, students develop this type of skill set only in service of being able to better communicate the complex ideas of the content. There is no doubt that these are skills that we must help our students develop, but we must continually remind ourselves, our students, and our communities that they are not the end game. These skills are simply an aid to grapple with and express ideas about deep content connections.

So often, as I’m sure I will next week during the convening, I hear a reference to being either a ‘math person’ or an ‘English person’, but perhaps we’re more similar than we let on…