Posted in beginner teachers, organization, resources

How to start the school year

My principal just emailed us reminding all of us that there are 4 weeks before we see our students. You can take it as there are 4 more weeks of summer or only 4 weeks of summer left. August is when I put my teacher hat back on and I do start to think of what to do and what to say before that first day with students. I usually have things I need to relook at from summer workshops; then I make this GIANT list of what needs to be accomplished.

  1. How do I introduce myself?
  2. What are my rules and expectations this year?
  3. What difficult math problems do I want to introduce to show that productive struggle is meaningful?
  4. How do I cultivate a sense of community and teamwork?
  5. How do I get to know my students and build relations with them?
  6. What books do I need to finish reading so that I feel prepared to teach?
  7. Do I need to make any posters?
  8. What did I learn this summer that I must incorporate right away?
  9. When do I want to introduce Math Talk?
  10. How do I want to organize my lesson plans this year..electronic or paper?
  11. How do I use my Twitter and blog resources to help me be the most effective teacher?

The list goes on. If you are a first year teacher, you probably don’t really know what you need to do since you don’t have curriculum or tried-true first week lessons. But don’t worry. There are many people who have done the first week of school routine so many times that they blog and tweet about it. To name a few.

My Week 1 Math Posts By Sara VanDerWerf  (Check her blog for other bloggers to read.)

Which comes first in the fall? Norms or tasks? By Tracy Zager

#MTBoS (Math Teacher Blog-o-Sphere)

And like all first year teachers, I am starting in a new building this fall and teaching a new course – Pre-Algebra (I taught it one year, 4 years ago.). I don’t know the norms of the school or my team. I don’t know the teaching sequence of Pre-Algebra. So this is my second list of things I need to accomplish.

  1. Does the school provide me with basic supplies like scissors, markers, and tape?
  2. How do I get the school to provide me with supplies or do I need to supply what’s not already there?
  3. Who do I go to for behavior and academic support for my students?
  4. How do I work with an already established team?
  5. What can I change in the sequence of teaching without undoing what my team has already done?
  6. How do I navigate teaching in multiple classrooms?
  7. How do I teach 85 minute math classes?
  8. How does the school address student test scores?

There are so many things to think about and sort out as a first year teacher, and it can all be overwhelming. Seek support. Seek out your team if you have one. Seek out the Twitter math teacher world. Seek out your friends from your cohort. Seek out your advisors and mentor teachers. You are not alone, trust me. Just ask any second year teacher, and they will say that it’s something you can survive and be good at.

Here is to you and your first year! And of course, congratulations to second year, third year, and newly tenure teachers!


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


With summer just around the corner (or for some of you already here), I’m very excited to spend time on things that I didn’t have time for. Sleep. Friends. Family. TV. Yard Work…not as excited for it. House Projects. Vacation. Reading.

Summer is such an important part of the year for teachers. It’s time for us to rejuvenate and take time to take care of ourselves. Non-teachers may give us a hard time for not “working” all summer, but we know that it’s not what it seems. We may not have to report to anyone or clock in anywhere (unless you teach summer school or a summer program), but we are still teachers. If you are anything like me, you have your summer professional development lined up between everything else that you are doing during the summer. Along with summer professional development, you and I are catching up on latest instructional strategies and best practices through books and conversation we have with our colleagues. Summer may be here, but we don’t stop thinking about our students, our colleagues, and our work.

If you are looking for ways to refresh your teaching and professional self, here are some things I’m looking forward to.

In-Person Professional Development:

Sara Vanderwerf – Minneapolis, MN June 20, 21, 27, 28 – She is offering 4, possibly more, math professional development sessions on her time for a small fee (giftcards, cash…). This is as good as it gets if you couldn’t make it to Duluth for the spring conference.

Teachers of Color Coalition – St. Paul, MN August 9-11, 2017 – The Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota unites individuals, organizations and communities concerned about the lack of racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity in the teaching force.


This is Not a Test. – Jose Vilson

The Mathematical Mindset – Jo Boaler

The Problem With Math is English. – Concepcion Molina

Building Powerful Numeracy for Middle and High School Students – Pam Weber Harris

Matherpiece – Greg Tang

*Most of these authors also have professional development all over the country.*

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


I’m always looking for a different way to quickly access student knowledge on an individual basis as many of you are. There are many websites and Apps that do just that, but I haven’t been 100% happy with any of them. I problem I usually have with most of what I find are that it’s hard to type math or use math symbols. If your students are anything like mine, they don’t know how to use equation editors (well if at all) on Microsoft Word, Google Docs or any other word document software. Then there Apps or websites like Socrative, Polleverywhere, and Google forms that don’t do justice. We can see the live results, but students are limited to showing just the answer, trying to type their work, or picking from choices, which none of these show their thinking very well it at all. I also don’t want to pay to use a website because I don’t have the means nor does my school have the means to pay for an expensive limited time website/program. As far as Apps are concerned, I know that there are great ones out there (Doceri, Baiboard, Nearpod, Classflow…), but if your school/district is like mine, all Apps must be approved and preloaded somewhere else for students to download. The approval and push out time take too long especially for an App that I want to use the immediately. Then I kept asking myself what alternative do I have?

I’m not trying to put a negative light on those programs, websites or Apps or my district, but I have had a hard time with trying to incorporate them in a genuine way that promotes student learning. Then a few pre-serivce teachers told me about a new website called I was skeptical because it sounded like all the other websites and Apps I had used before, but I was so happy it proved me wrong. The website did much of what I had always hoped for.


  • free for anyone to use
  • teachers need to create an account, but students don’t have to (Federal Laws prevent students 12 and under from creating any sort of log-in, email required account without parent permission.)
  • all students need is the quickcode from the assignment you created to access it
  • types of questions you can create – multiple choice, show your work (where students can write with their finger/stylus on the screen), short answer, true/false
  • add content like image, text block, YouTube videos, Word documents
  • see all student work at once and see live results as they work
  • easy to use on an iPad


  • students can’t save and come back to their work unless they sign in
  • using the student canvas, it’s not intuitive on how to erase work
  • doesn’t have latex or equation editor
  • can’t print the assignment for students if they don’t have a device

The list of cons have not deterred me from using the website over and over again. Students seem to like it, too. Using the website is like being able to work with all my students at once and addressing the students with most need because I see their mistake soon after they make it. The immediate and direct feedback has been very powerful and the most powerful aspect of this website.

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. 🙂

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, resources

Throw-Back “Virtual Mentor”

The “Virtual Mentor” 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 “Grants and Scholarships” or to “MCTM Foundation” 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 “focus on the most important aspect of teaching, my students.”

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.