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 high school, middle school, resources

Problem Solving with Struggling Learners

I teach a class called Geometry Concepts, geared primarily toward high school sophomores who struggle with math. Much of the time, there is the ever present pressure of meeting the standards, teaching them formulas, and practicing properties that truly don’t mean much to these kids.

I have been thinking a lot about what I can do to best serve these struggling learners, and it led me to the name of the class: “Geometry Concepts“. I feel like my job with these kids is to help the build on the concepts, the bigger ideas that are much more transferable to their lives. I don’t just teach quadrilaterals, I use quadrilaterals to teach “classification,” the same ideas they use in science and English.  I don’t just teach parallel lines, I teach them about driving and all of the lines used (they are getting there licenses this year).

Anyway, we spent the last two days finding areas of polygons and we did some really nice problems where they had to find the area of a lame triangle with a base of 12 and a height of 7. Very applicable, I know. Even though we have been practicing these formulas, I feel like they needed a different approach to area. So for a Friday, I scrapped the quiz and instead gave them one task: find the area of the carpet in the room.

This immediately took my class from bored note-taking to genuine curiosity. I had a prime opportunity to build some real problem solving skills with kids who don’t like to be challenged. We discussed how we could approach the problem, how to make a diagram of the room, and how to account for the cabinets, furnace, and other non-carpeted areas. Then they spent class measuring, recording, and calculating.

My initial concern was that we weren’t practicing the formulas; they were just finding a bunch of rectangles. But this was the most engaged I have ever seen these kids. These were the hardest rectangles these kids had ever seen in their lives and they went with it. They did some genuine problem solving. Today, my struggling math students got a real feel for what area is and how to find it without looking at a piece of paper.

The other perk? All it took was a bucket of tape measures and 30 seconds of prep time.

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. 🙂

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

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

Adventures into creating a flipped classroom and the lessons I learned.

I know that flip classrooms are not a new concept, but it’s still a booming idea in education. It is an idea to try when you are ready to push your class beyond lectures and notes. I haven’t made it very far yet, but I have learned a lot from my experience so far. Some of these lessons were learned along the way and others were prompt by a lot of reading, questioning, and research into flipped classrooms. Just a quick background on my class setting: urban public middle school, accelerated algebra students in 6th-8th grade (we allow mix grade classes like in high school), 47 minute classes.

Lesson 1: The videos can’t just be the recorded version of the class lectures.

In a normal class lecture, gestures, facial expressions, and student interactions are a large portion of learning. Those aspects of learning are taken away and must be made up for by your teaching experience. You must anticipate student questions more so than in the classroom and try to answer them on the video as you teach. Gestures, like pointing, need to be seen via a mouse pointer or some sort of animation. Students still need the visual and dynamic learning because videos can become very static learning.

Lesson 2: Teach them how to watch the videos and what they should be doing while watching the videos.

The idea of teaching students how to watch and do during the video didn’t occur to me until I saw a presentation on flipped classrooms. I thought that they would just watch the videos and take the notes on there, but I am so thankful that I showed them how to watch the videos. First, I walked them through how to find the video link (which was on my class website space that my school provides for me). I had been using my website already to post answer keys, notes, and Khan Academy videos, but most students weren’t using my website and didn’t know how to get to my website. Secondly, I gave them advice on how to watch it and where to pause. You need to give them permission to pause and rewatch the video because they think that they must watch it all the way through.

Lesson 3: Tell them why you decided to flip the class.

My students like yours are probably ok with the normal notes and class lectures. I had to convince them that it was a good alternative to class notes and lectures because it helps everyone learn at their pace. I had to explain that the videos contain the more basic notes so that we can tackle more challenging work together instead of having them do it by themselves. It also gives them a chance to do homework in class.

Lesson 4: Provide time in class for those who forget to watch the video or don’t have a way to watch the video at home.

i teach 47 minute classes, so I don’t have a lot of time to play with. After the daily warm problems, I give students 15-20 minutes to watch the video either on their own device and headphones or via my projector. I put one student in charge of pausing and replaying the video for those watching it on the projector. If students already watched the video at home, they spend the time doing homework. I circulate the room helping students with homework. At this point, about half of the students are still not watching the videos at home, but I feel that students are still getting used to the idea of watching and taking notes at home.

Lesson 5: Create a calendar or a plan


I typically print out a unit sheet for the students that contain the standards, homework due dates, and test date. For the first 3 videos, I had confused my students on when to watch which video because my instructions were not clear. For the latest 3 videos, I made a to-do calendar, telling the kids exactly which video to watch on which night. Students were less confused and were able to watch the videos in a more timely manner. You do not have to create a calendar or sheet like I do, but organization is important. Creating a calendar for yourself is important because it keeps you from confusing students and yourself. Flipping a class takes time and being prepared. It’s hard to “wing” a video like you would on an in-class lecture because the video is not like a normal class lecture.

Lesson 6: Find a place to host your videos

I had stored my videos on my Google drive and just shared the link with my students, but as we discovered, this didn’t work well for students who wanted to watch it on their phones/iPods. Youtube was not a viable solution because probably like your school, Youtube is blocked. I found that Teachertube was my best option because it’s free, not blocked, and exposed students to a website that had educational value. Teachertube is a little slow on the school wi-fi, but it’s been a great host.

I have created 6 videos so far and about 2/3 of my students like the flipped classroom concept. They feel that it fits their learning better. it has given me more time to teach concepts and help students gain a deeper understanding because we are able to spend more time on the more complicated problems.

I know that I will continue on this adventure and continue to learn more about creating a more successful flipped classroom. It’s been a lot of forefront work, but I do think that it has been worth it. I feel that I’m catching more students and losing students at the same time, but right now, it’s a good decision for my students. As we hit more complicated and newer mathematical concepts, it may possibly change how my flipped classroom looks and sounds like.

If you have flipped your classroom, comment on this blog with advice and lessons you have learned. if you have not flipped your classroom yet and want to, comment with questions and wonderings you have.

Posted in beginner teachers

Winter break – Actually take a break! You deserve it.

Who is more ready for winter break, us or the students? Their crazy and extra hyper behavior might tell us that they need a break. In reality, students might be more anxious about break. For many, school is a normal routine and the change makes them a little wacky. They will miss their friends and will be ready to return sooner than expected. Home may not be the best environment for some and so break means leaving a safe place. I know some of my students have fabulous vacations plans, but they all eventually complain about being home with their families. No matter where students go, we know that they love and hate break.

I know I’m ready for break. With one more week to go for me, (sorry to those who have to return to teaching the following week), I am happily looking forward to a few things that do not involve planning, teaching, or kids.

1) I’m looking forward to some rest. I don’t know about you, but sleep has been hard to come by these days. I sleep, but rest doesn’t seem to happen.

2) TV time. I know it sounds silly, but I look forward to some mindless TV shows. My brain needs a break, maybe not the whole time, but it needs to relax.

3) Family. I live about 3 miles from my mom and siblings, and do not see them often because of teaching and going to school graduate school. I am excited to have time to spend with them and excited to be part of my family again.

4) Friends. My friends know that they do not see me unless it’s a Friday or Saturday. So for many, it means that I finally join them for Tuesday dinner or Thursday drinks.

5) Time for myself. Most importantly, I get to spend time on me. I purchased a home about a year ago, and I feel like I have hardly lived in it. Walls are still bare and sounds of the house are still foreign to me. Spending time at home and being at home are so different. Winter break is a great time for me to get reacquainted with my home.

I hope that you have things to look forward to this break. I know that I will spend planning and coming up with ideas for my class, but you certainly will find me doing a lot more than just work. Don’t work too hard and plan for no work. I know that we want to be the best for our students, but we also need to be the best for ourselves.

Take care and rest this break.

Posted in beginner teachers, elementary school, 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.

April, 2009

Recently, I have had several of you ask me about the algebra requirement for 8th grade.  If you are going to the MCTM Spring Conference in Duluth next week, you will have a wonderful opportunity to learn lots more about what 8th grade algebra is and how to help your students be successful learning it.  I just downgraded the program for the conference from the MCTM website at and found all sorts of wonderful workshops and sessions.

If you are like me and can’t attend the conference because of your broken ankle, there is information available for you, too, on the MCTM website.  At you will find a link to the 2007 MN Mathematics Standards, as well as a link to FAQs about them.  MCTM’s Algebra Task Force has done a wonderful presentation explaining the new algebra standard and you can download their presentation.  In case you missed the Matt Mentor article about 8th grade algebra, you can find it on the same webpage.

If you are headed to Duluth, don’t forget about the MCTM CONNECT session on Thursday evening, April 30 from 7 – 9 PM.  Meet with other new teachers, education students, experienced teachers, and MCTM CONNECT committee members.  Have a fun time having dinner, and learning about the conference and how to make the most of your conference experience.  You’ll also be in line for lots of give-aways and great door prizes while meeting and networking.  It is not too late to sign up for the connect session.  You can RSVP to me letting me know your name, level of licensure and school district (if teaching.)

Have fun in Duluth everyone.  I look forward to joining you next year.

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.

May, 2009

Wouldn’t it be nice to have some resources to send home with your students to help them over the summer?  There are a number of website that have activities, ideas, puzzles and brain teasers that your students might enjoy working.

The first is a site for girls,  Brain Cake provides resources, activities and helps for parents and teachers to encourage their girls’ interests in science and math.

There is something for everyone at  If you like any kind of puzzle or brain teaser, this will keep you and your students busy all summer.

The Science Museum of MN is one of the sponsors of where you will find a A to Z listing of activities, topics and ideas.

If you’ve been wanting nets for paper polyhedra, as one of the virtual mentees asked me about earlier this year, you’ll find more than you’ll ever need at

For those of you who are graduating and moving on, good luck in your job searches.  Remember if you wish to remain on the Virtual Mentee list, please send me your new email address.

I’ll be back in the fall.  Have a great, restful and relaxing summer so you can return to your classroom (or start in your new classroom) excited and eager for the new year next Sept.