Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school, organization, resources

What’s with the posters?

It’s the second week of teaching for me and I’m feeling exhausted and confident. I know my students names and have lesson plans all ready to go. I even decorated my room for the second year in a row now. ūüôā

As a secondary math teacher, I’m notorious for having blank walls. I have never really bought or made posters because I figured my students would make them as the year goes by. I didn’t even put up my classroom expectations/rules. I always assumed that since I verbalized what I expected, it was enough. But being a middle school teacher has changed that in me. Middle schoolers have such a hard time recalling or following instructions even when written. Now, I have a posters that I put up. They are colorful and have great messages. I even laminated them, making them a more permanent part of my teaching resources. My classroom looks great and not so empty. Then I made the assumption that my students would read them while they were in my room. But I was so wrong. My students don’t notice them or care about them. In the past whenever I pointed out my poster, my students would be shocked that I had a poster that showed them what I meant.

Last year, my coworker and I made a commitment to actually use them and point them out. She was the one who told me about an article (sorry I don’t know the reference) she read about the importance of actually talking about the poster. Why put up a poster and not talk about it? I didn’t realize that by not talking about them, I wasn’t telling my students why those ideas and messages were important to me and to being a mathematician.

As part of my commitment, I introduced the GROUPS poster after doing the 100 Numbers activity that @saravanderf used in her classroom ( Through the activity, I was able to show students how the acronym came into play. They understood it better and saw what GROUP looked like. I had taken¬†pictures of their group work, and they didn’t even notice because they were so engrossed in the activity. Even that along helped illustrate group work for students.

With different activities that I do with my students will come the introduction of each poster. I do a lot of Math Talk ( and inquiry activities/discourse, which lend themselves well to the Math Talk and STRONG Mathematicians posters. My students take Cornell Notes, which in itself needs some explanations because it’s such a specific way to take notes. Then I always like to give my students the chance to say “I don’t know” without saying “I don’t know”.

Next time you walk into a classroom, whether it be yours or not, ask yourself about the purpose of what you see hanging on the walls or from the ceilings. Everything in our classrooms have a purpose whether you talk about them or not.

Much of my poster inspirations have come from Pinterest.

Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school

Why teach middle school?

Why I choose to be a middle school math teacher.

In my third year as a middle school teacher, I have days that beg me to question why I ever chose to become a middle school teacher. Grades in middle school do not matter, so grades are not any sort of incentive to do well. Middle school student brains are in a major developing phase, so they are constantly unable to control their voices or actions. They are more reactive than reflective.¬†They still need me to be “mom” at times, which is a role I do not play well. They are still learning major school-life lessons like remembering to put their names on homework, learning how to work a locker¬†lock, and listening, writing, and thinking at the same time.

I have a lot of nostalgic feelings about teaching high school students because of middle school students. I miss the conversations I had with high school students. I miss Algebra 2 and Geometry. I miss the 2pm end time. I miss being the teacher they turn to for a life talk. I miss watching students grow up from being young naive teenagers to young adults with whole futures ahead of them. All that nostalgia does go away though because like every memory, we always remember the good of the past and compare it to the negative of the present.

During the dark cold days of winter, I needed to remind myself of why I stuck around with being a middle school teacher. Being a high school teacher laid the grounds for me, but being a middle school teacher has changed me for the better.

Before, I never understood why middle school math was so difficult to learn or teach. After my first year as a middle school teacher, I took back every negative thought I had about middle school math. Teaching algebra came naturally, but teaching pre-algebra and math 6 have never felt so foreign. I frequently felt like an inadequate teacher. Trying to explain the logic behind dividing fractions or why the denominator changes with ratio addition but not with fraction addition still do not come as naturally as teaching how to factor a polynomial. To make up for my inexperience and natural inability for teaching middle school concepts, I read about math and teaching math. I surrounded myself with people and books, which supported my growth as a teacher. I could not be more appreciative of middle school math teachers. I feel like a better math teacher because of this middle school experience.

With the end of school year in sight, I have learned a few more things. The students themselves have really inspired me. Weeks ago, one of the most behaviorally difficult students came up to me and held me by the shoulders, telling me how much he actually joins math now. Another student, who was so scared to meet me during open house because I was her math teacher, told me that she loves math and couldn‚Äôt believe how much she didn‚Äôt enjoy it before. And of course, I got that letter that every teacher dreams of getting. The letter that tells you how much you have touched their lives and that they wouldn’t be where they are without you. These students remind me that I have a huge impact on them even if they are not quite ready to harness the impact teachers have on them. Lastly, I get to be the teacher who preps them for the ‚Äúscary‚ÄĚ world of high school.

Even though I never thought I would be middle school math teacher, I would not trade these last three years for three years as a high school teacher. The experiences and knowledge I have gained has made me the teacher I have always wanted to be. I may never feel confident teaching middle school concepts, but I know I will get better every year that I teach. Students may overwhelm me with their lack of control, but I know I am reaching them. I know they appreciate me and want to be their best when given the opportunity.

Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school, resources

Throw-Back “Virtual Mentor”

The ‚ÄúVirtual Mentor‚ÄĚ is a long running newsletter series written Ann Sweeney, a Mathematics Professor at St. Catherine University. ¬†A full archive can be found here.

March, 2014

Happy March! Although it is traditionally Minnesota’s snowiest month, I’m buoyed because I know that April is coming. Besides spring, I always look forward to April because it is Mathematics Awareness Month (MAM). Each April the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) sponsors MAM. The JPBM is a collaborative effort of the American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematics Association of American and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. They started MAM to increase the public’s understanding and appreciation for math. It actually started as Mathematics Awareness Week in 1986.

Every year the JPBM picks a theme, designs a cool poster, offers suggestions on activities, and has a list of resources. This year’s theme is Mathematics, Magic and Mystery. The theme comes from the title of a 1956 book by Martin Gardner. Each day during the month an activity will be made available that matches one of the images on the poster. Since the activities, videos, etc. aren’t available until April, I don’t know what they will be. Based on activities that have been featured in the past, they will probably be suitable for high school and college students and excellent interesting ones.

That certainly doesn’t mean that our K – 8 students shouldn’t participate. You can easily have a set of puzzles, poems, interesting problems, games, etc. that you give to your students, one each day during April. You can award the Math Awareness Crown to the students who solve the most correctly, with small prizes for those who get each day’s answer correct.

Enjoy MAM and use it to have fun with your students while they and their parents become more aware of and appreciative of math.

Posted in beginner teachers, middle school, resources

Scholarship for you!

When anyone becomes a teacher, they know they are also a student for life. In the last few years as a middle school math teacher, I always found myself in a situation that required me to do some reading or learning about what I’m teaching and how I am suppose to teach. Teaching middle school math has not come as easily as Algebra has, but I know that by educating myself more, middle school math doesn’t have to be so intimidating.

I journeyed through my Masters courses while as a middle school math teacher, and I couldn’t be more happy about how it coincided. I learned at night while applying it during the day. I felt more confident and definitely more competent. A big part of my learning was taking more math or math related classes. I knew that if I had more knowledge, more higher level knowledge, I would feel more comfortable teaching it. Knowing more than what the teacher’s manual says is critical in secondary math.

In sponsorship of my education, the MCTM (Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics) Foundation granted me a scholarship. The Arnie Culter Scholarship helped me get the education I sought after. MCTM showed me that what I value in myself as a teacher is something they value and something they want to support. Below you can find the information on how to apply for the scholarship. It is a journey worth going after especially when someone else is there to support you in becoming a better teacher.

The Cutler Scholarships are given semi-annually to MCTM members who teach mathematics in middle school and who submit applications by either the March 31 or October 31 deadlines. ¬†More information on the Cutler Scholarship and application materials are available at (go to ‚ÄúGrants and Scholarships‚ÄĚ or to ‚ÄúMCTM Foundation‚ÄĚ links on the homepage).

The current awardee is Suzanne Horne, a 6th grade teacher, math coach and ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) coordinator at St. Paul Humboldt. She has been awarded a $1200 Arnie Cutler Scholarship for Middle School Teachers.  Suzanne has taken a course in statistics which helped her explore new ways of helping students and also to better analyze student data to better focus on student needs.

In a school setting where most students cannot afford graphing calculators, Suzanne found new ways to engage her students with data, formulas, and graphing using Excel.  She was able to revisit how students learn content such as standard deviations, chi, chi squared and p-values by employing new teaching strategies.

Grateful for the financial support that lightened the tuition burden, Suzanne found she could better ‚Äúfocus on the most important aspect of teaching, my students.‚ÄĚ

Congratulations Suzanne!

Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school, organization, resources

Building a classroom for all.

Trying to organize myself.

I am putting myself out there and showing all of you a picture of my living room. I have a week left before I return to my classroom, and this is how I get ready. I know that last year I posted about how I organize my classroom and work life. Well, this is the start before I can be organized.

Some lessons are written and planned. First week of activities are coming together. I have attended the first of many workshops lined up for the year. But now it’s time to start planning the¬†classroom. What worked well and should be kept? What needs to be rethought and changed? I have done a lot of Pinterest and Google search on classroom ideas and have come across a few that I need to try out before students arrive. In the whist of my search, I received the summer 2015 NEA Today magazine. It has some great articles, and one in particular jumped out at me. It is the “Ten Must-Haves for New Teachers.” It may say it’s for new teachers, but the must-haves hit home for me, too. It just reminds me that I am doing some great things, and that I can incorporate some new ideas.

I’m going to summarize the must-haves for you and include my own advice on it.

  1. Student supplies center. I have two or three staplers, tape dispensers and hand pencil sharpeners, which is enough for me to have a set at my desk and extras for students. In addition to the center, I always set a stapler by the homework in-trays. I have trays of lined, blank, and graph paper, too. One of my new ideas this year is zip tie baskets to the front of students desks to hold things like extra pencils, pens, hand pencil sharpener, and markers. These are things that students need throughout the class period, and by having it close by, it eliminates the need for distracted movement.
  2. Pencils and pens. The advice in the article is to collect collateral like a cell phone for exchange of a pencil/pen. I have used the idea in the past but just didn’t always had the time to deal with the exchange. This year, I plan to tape colored duct tape on pencils and put them in the student baskets. I am hoping that students are honest and put back the pencil they use. I know that this doesn’t prevent pencils from leaving the classroom, but I hope that putting flags on and talking about supply usage expectations, I will not loose too many.
  3. A calendar for student reference. This is pretty self explanatory, but this is a great idea to help students develop a better sense of time and accountability. I used to have a weekly calendar up and the high school students I had taught at the time really appreciated it. They used to manage their time and especially to see that a test is coming up. In my current school, my students all have iPads, and I shared my Google calendar with them. The great part about the Google calendar is that they get a notice when homework is due. They also get to see if we are taking notes that day or doing an activity.
  4. Trashcans…Not one…not two..but three. I like what the writer said about “preventing students from making a big trip across the classroom..” I have two trashcans in my room, but I never thought about putting one on the other side of the room. I usually have one by my desk but to have two trashcans available for students never occurred to me. I’m definitely adopting this idea. It makes a lot of sense especially when I want to limit transition.
  5. SORTKWIK fingertip moistener. Dry fingers are inevitable when we have so much paperwork. Also, I do live in Minnesota, so dry skin is definitely inevitable in the winter months. I never thought about getting something to help me flip through or distribute paper, but this one will go into the idea box.
  6. A sanity saver. Or something like it anyway. The writer is talking about having a paper grade book and/or attendance record that fits your needs. It’s so important to have a backup because you have to report grades and attendance. Any discrepancy is on you and your records. A paper copy may save you.
  7. A homework landing point. This is a huge one! I do not like spending time in class collecting paper. I do not like students handing me things because I’m not always responsible for keeping it safe. I am usually not fully aware of what students are handing me. From my first year of teaching to now, I have always had a homework turn-in tray. Each period gets their ¬†own tray. Then right above the trays are where I hang no-name papers. This way I hope that student notice their own handing writing and that they didn’t put their name on their homework.
  8. An information center. Having a designated place to put extra school handouts, field trip forms, lunch menus, and basic school information is important. My students know where to grab an extra copy that they need. I don’t have to spend time looking for forms and menus.
  9. An absent work something. The writer loves her absent binder. She puts work in there for students who have been absent. Her binder is kept in the student center. I am glad she found a system that works. I thought I had a good system with folders in a hanging file holder, but that kind of didn’t work well for me. I just wasn’t used to the absent folders and didn’t look at it. I was used to just talk to the student once he/she returned. I am going to work harder on this one to make it habit.
  10. A variety of storage solutions.¬†Bins, drawers, trays, baskets, tubs, buckets, whatever you need to keep organize. It’s hard to stay clutter free every day, but if you can dedicate one afternoon a month to organization, you will be able to find the surface of your desk and find manipulatives whenever you need it.

These are just a few things to consider as you start to think about your classroom environment. Lesson planning and relationship building may be at the top of your to do list, but remember your room, too. Beyond you, your¬†classroom is the first thing students really see and it’s how they start to feel supported and comforted. They don’t notice that you planned great lessons or that your messed up a lesson, but feeling like they belong in your class is the first step to a great year.

Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school, organization, resources

Planning For a Sub

For the first 3 years of my teaching career, I barely missed a day. This year, however, my 2-year-old, who just started daycare, cannot seem to stay healthy. This is when I first realized: as a teacher, it is hard to be gone.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a day of as much as anyone. Unlike many professions, however, I have 180 students who rely on my presence to guide their learning. ¬†I’m sure they don’t mind too much, but I sure do.

With this post, my intention is to outline some of the struggles with having a sub and some ways to prepare for it. I in no way intend to slight substitute teachers, as they make it possible for teachers to be absent. It is not easy to be gone, and I want to help teachers make the most of it.

There are 3 main issues I have run into when I have a sub:

1. You are not always guaranteed a sub that knows your content.

In a perfect world, your sub would teach the lesson that you otherwise would have taught. They would answer questions about the previous days homework, go through all of the notes and example problems, tell students animated stories to help the content come to life, and then assist students as they work through the assigned practice problems. That is when you realized that your substitute is a retired English teacher coming to your math class.

I have only seen this actually work out 2 times: once when I had a retired math teacher from the school cover my class, and the other when I covered one class for the teacher I shared a room with. I wouldn’t bank on this happening by chance.

Even when a sub does know your content, sometimes their process does not align with how students have been learning it. It can be a good thing, but it could also confuse student.

2.¬† Things don’t always go according to plan.

Though you hope a sub would¬†accomplish everything you ask them to¬†and your students would work diligently, but the reality is that it doesn’t always happen.¬†I wanted students to finish a worksheet from the day before picking up a new challenge worksheet. The sub just give students the new worksheet right away, which they did¬†finish, before just sitting around the rest of class. By not finishing the earlier worksheet, Students missed out on two of the tougher calculator problems, and I had to spend extra time catching everyone up before the end of the trimester.

3.  It takes time to put sub plans together

I can only speak for myself, but on a typical day, I do not neatly lay out every worksheet, test, and seating chart on my front table so that it is waiting for me when I get to work. Also, when you are gone, plans often change, and you need to create a new worksheet. This prep could take several hours depending on the classes you teach and what you need to change. And then needing to do this while you are sick at 10pm? No fun at all.

So what practical advice do I have to offer? There are several things we can do to prevent our absence from feeling like a wasted day.

  • Provide answer keys. Every sub I have ever had said this was most helpful. I normally provide enough answer keys for each group to have one as they work. This helps to prevent kids from giving up.
  • Make¬†guided notes. If you want to teach a lesson, put a worked out example next to each problem you want students to try. This allows the kids to interact with the notes while giving them some guidance. Provide a full answer key for when they are really stuck.
  • Videos. If students have access to technology, make a video of the lesson for them to watch at their own pace before or while they work on practice problems.
  • Rearrange. You might need to look at your week ahead and see if there is something that you were going to later that you could do with a sub. Save that tough lesson for when you return and get kids¬†started on the¬†review early.
  • Have students teach themselves. I first taught solving by factoring when I had a sub. Students started out with easy problems (¬†5 x __ = 0) and slowly combined skills they had until they were factoring and solving quadratics. I now use this every year.
  • Be as clear as possible. If you are giving a test, give specific instructions about calculator use, note use, partners, etc. This is especially true if you have different policies for different classes.
  • Don’t be afraid to expect learning. Don’t give in to just watching a¬†movie. Give students a meaningful worksheet to practice important skills. Tomorrow, I have my juniors working on a practice ACT test. It might not be ideal, but it is more productive than nothing.
  • Assess when you return. Try to get a feel for what students actually accomplished while you were gone. Use the subs notes, ask students, give them a quick quiz, anything to help you figure out if the students accomplished what you hoped. If they didn’t, you have some catchup to do.

It does take some work to prepare for a sub, but one could argue that the thinking that goes into preparing for a sub can help you diversify your teaching. I know that sometimes you wake up sick and have no time to prepare, but if you have some time to get things ready, put some thought into it so your students can still get something out of the day.

Posted in beginner teachers, elementary school, high school, middle school, resources

Your own professional development

Professional Development…..what does it mean to you?

We go to meetings and workshops. We attend sessions on how to do this or that. We listen to an “expert” speak. We read blogs like this. But why? For many teachers, it’s to fulfill clock hours or a demand from higher up. But for me, it’s what I relish.

Yes, I do dread some of the things we must do and some of sessions we sit in, but professional development gets my gears in motion. It pushes me to think about that kid, who has A in class, but I haven’t talked to yet that week. It pushes me to try to get to that kid who can barely multiply single digit numbers. It pushes me to think about that colleague said about how to teach slope. Professional development challenges me to do what I have not done yet or what I am striving to be better at.

Every year, I look forward to the MCTM (Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics) conference in Duluth. It’s a little cold and a little too small for this city girl, but I love the feeling of getting the chance to improve myself and to see my classroom with fresh eyes. It also gets me through the rest of the year because May can be a very long month when I have no refresh ideas. I love seeing fellow math colleagues display what they are proud of and share it with the rest of us. I love that I might possibly walk into a session where it gives me the answer I have been looking for. I love that I get to see old tricks done in a new light. MCTM is the creme of the creme when it comes to professional development for me. But until then, what do I do?

I can’t wait for the once a year professional development to inspire me. I can’t wait for it to answer the burning thoughts and questions I have now. Where do I turn? The WORLD WIDE WEB.

Twitter: It is a great wealth of knowledge full of people all over the world who are willing to share. I am not an avid¬†Tweeter (is that the word for people who Tweet?), but when I need something new, I turn there. Math celebrities like Dan Meyer @ddmeyer, Christopher Danielson @trianglemancsd, Andrew Stadel @mr_stadel, and Fawn Nguyen @fawnpnguyen, to name a few, have inspired me to use¬†photos, videos, music, technology, and the internet in my math lessons. They don’t only inspire but create practical instructional ideas and activities that are ready to use. Join and find other math teachers like you who want to inspire. Join discussions on best practices. Get advice on what to do next when students¬†already get it. Your fellow math teachers have a lot to share on Twitter, so join, even if it’s just for professional use. Follow me while you’re you are searching through Twitter. @mctmCONNECT

Blogs: There are many great ideas floating out there from actual teachers, who have tried and true tested activities. They are the ones who provide answers for when I am in need of a great slope activity or just a great problem solving activity. I have learned organizational skills and management ideas from bloggers. I read about what they like and dislike about certain websites or technology. They are my professional circle when I can’t articulate what I want but know what I need when I see it. ¬†Some of my favorites are:


Pinterest: I never thought that I would be into a site like Pinterest. I was not interested in using it because of its addictive nature. I was really wrong. I found so much on Pinterest that I had to start my own account. I have a board dedicated to math and education only. Note-taking ideas and foldables are of abundance. Creative math¬†“decor” and student made projects have transformed my classroom from a dull and empty (typical) secondary math¬†teacher’s classroom to one that is vibrant and shows off student work. I have never had all my walls and even parts of my windows covered in work from students or posters I created for students. I have a rational number line, created by students, and see the benefit it has provided my students. Pinterest is a place to find and “steal” from teachers who have awesome ideas.

I may love learning and reading about teaching on the internet, but nothing beats professional development where you can discuss and debate with fellow teachers. You may not feel the same way I do, but find a personal purpose for that professional development. As you sit there through another session, by choice or not, use the following to push yourself beyond the days or hours of professional development:

1. Use it immediately and not just file it away. Decide how you use what you just heard/learned to change your next lesson.

2. Find a colleague to share it with especially if they were not in attendance.

3. Make a new friend during the professional development if you are there with a bunch of strangers.

4. Introduce yourself to the presenter if what they said or did really hit the nail on the head.

5. If possible, walk out of the session if you know it’s not for you. There is nothing worse than to sit through a session that you don’t find useful or helpful. I know that this is not always possible, but then you just do what #1-4 said. ūüôā

How are you pushing yourself to learn from others and yourself?