Beginnings are important.    A good beginning draws you in – into the story or movie, into the friendship or relationship, into the learning or work.   They make you want more.   A bad beginning isn’t irrecoverable, it just takes a whole lot of work to overcome it, to push past it.

Each year as I “begin” with a new set of families, I try to make sure that we have a good beginning.   The first step with most of them is the “Welcome” letter that goes home.

  • In my letter, I start with the idea that we are a team.   I always try to remember that at the heart of the matter, we all want what’s best for the student.   We might have different perspectives and we might have different ideas of what is best, but behind it all we want the same thing.   We just have to work together to figure out how to get there.
  • I move on to talk about what I believe about math.   I want families to know that it  is about thinking, seeing patterns and relationships, making connections, and solving problems.
  • Next, I address the “business” of my class.I want families to understand that kids are still figuring things out when they are in the middle of a unit.   Hence, homework is all about effort not about being perfect so I grade it accordingly.   I want them to understand that collaboration is a big part of what we do so discussing thinking and homework with friends and family is encouraged.   I want them to know that I see  a big difference between collaboration and copying.   Hence, I want them to understand the consequences for crossing that particular line.   I want families to understand that my class is a place where we work and learn – that things that detract from that don’t have a place there.
  • Finally, I let families know that I.want to hear from them.     I tell them how to reach me and I ask them to complete a form telling me whatever they want me to know about their student.

Here is my ParentLetter2016.doc.   I think there is a new teacher out there who was looking for these (but I can’t remember who it is).


Zoom – Promoting Clarity in Communication

Roughly fifty percent of my time as an engineer was spent on communication in one form or another.   Writing documents, engaging in meetings, and giving presentations are an inherent part of the job.   In order to succeed, one has to be able to communicate well.   The same is true in my classroom.


Since experience is a better teacher than telling, I let me students experience the value of communication during the first week of school.    I use the wordless picture book Zoom.   This book shows a series of pictures, each of which zooms out a little bit from the previous page:   you start with the comb of a rooster,  then you see the rooster, then you see some children looking out a window at the rooster, and so on.


I have removed the binding from the book so that the pages are separate.    The pages are such that the front side has a picture and the back side is black.    I laminated the pages to protect them a little bit.

The Activity

Each student is given  a page from the book and told not to show the picture to anyone.   Students are then told that the pages form a book and they must put the book back together in the correct order.   However, they may not show their picture to anyone.   They must figure out the order simply by talking about what they see on their page and by listening to what others say.   When they think they are done, they lay the pages (picture side down) on the floor side by side in order.    When all the pages are on the floor, they reveal their picture and step back to see how they did.

The Debrief

The final stage of the activity is to discuss the activity.    Why did some of the pictures end up in the correct order while others did not?    What worked?    What didn’t?    What was essential for success?   How does that relate to communication in general?


Students learn the importance of detail and clarity in communication.

I learn a lot about my students.   I get to see who the leaders in the group are and to see their leadership style.    I get to see who has great ideas but needs to find a voice.   I get to see who the followers are.   I get to see who the questioners are.    I also get to hear how students think and how they communicate.

Teaching Interdependence

In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence.
                                                                            Henry Van Dyke


Independence and interdependence seem to be at the center of life in middle school.   Kids are figuring out who they are and how to grow up (sometimes much too fast).   They are often all to ready to declare independence when it comes to “rights” or “privileges”.   Oftentimes, they struggle with the responsibility part of the equation, though.

As a middle school teacher, I can’t wait for them to figure all of this out before they get to the recognition that we are all interdependent.   Because so much of my class is built around student interaction, I want students to recognize their interdependence from the statr.    To make sure that happens, I give them the opportunity to discover it during the first week.   I give them a somewhat challenging task to accomplish as a group and then I give each group member a limitation that makes the task even more challenging.   The limitations ensure that the task can only be accomplished if they work together.

The Task

A group of four students are given a set of five envelopes.  Each student gets one envelope and the fifth envelop belongs to the “table”.   Working together, the group must build five equal-sized squares using the pieces found in the envelopes.  No group member may ask another group member for a piece.   (Members may give a piece to another member).


The task is taken from A Handbook of Structured Experiences for Human Relations Training.    You can download the files for the square pieces here

The Limitations.  

I want students to experience the need for interdependence and to recognize that each person has strengths and weaknesses.   Each member of the group is given a role that he or she must play as they complete the task.


The group member with the “See No Evil” card, must complete the task while blindfolded.   The group member with the “Speak No Evil” card must complete the task without speaking.  The group member with the “Look Ma, No Hands” card must complete the task without using his or her hands.   The group member with the “Mean Girls” card does not appear to have a limitation.   However, he or she must take on a “mean girls” persona, using only put downs in his or her communication.

The Ground rules

Groups may begin working on the task when I say “go”.   Oh, one more thing.   The task is a race.   The group to complete the task first is the winner.

The Debrief

After a team has won, everyone looks to see how they did it.   Then we talk about what happened.   I usually begin by talking to the winning team about their process.   What did they do that helped?   Then I ask other groups what they found helpful.   It becomes really clear that they had to work together, to fill in the gaps for each other, in order to succeed.  From there, we talk about what didn’t work.   At this point, the impact of the negative talk always comes out.  We wrap up the activity by talking about the implications for our work as a community.    We document this in a circle map on “Good group work”.   (I explain circle maps here. )


Getting to Know Students – A Survey on Mathematics Affect

It’s  perfectly normal to encounter people who will very readily tell you that they “can’t do math”.   They say it almost as a badge of honor.   I think, though, that they are really saying something else.

My question is, what are they really saying?     I’m afraid of math (or of failure)?     Math is hard (I don’t want to work that hard)?   I had a bad experience in a math class (name your reason)?   Someone told me I’m not good at math?   Someone told me I’m stupid?

As I am getting to know my students during the first week of class, one of the things that I want to know is how they feel about math.   So I ask them.   I also ask them some other questions that might help me get to the why behind those feelings.   I use the survey shown in the photo.  It is taken in part from a survey in the NCTM Assessment book and in part from a survey that a friend gave to her students.   You can download the survey by clicking on the text below the photo.


  Math Survey

Getting To Know You, Getting To Know All About You

I ask big things of my students every single day.   I ask them to think deeply.  I ask them to stretch themselves in ways they have never done before.  I ask them to take intellectual risks and to make mistakes and be OK with that.   That is a lot to ask of an 11 year old.    If they are going to trust me enough to do what I ask, they have to believe deep down in their being that I really care about them.  Individually, not just collectively.   That means I need to get to know each of them pretty well, pretty fast.

I want to know them in a lot of different ways.   I want to know what they know.   I want to know who they are.   I want to know how they feel about math.   I want to know how they work with other kids.   I want to know how organized they are.   I want to know what kind of work ethic they have.   I want to know all about them.

On the first day of school, sixth graders are completely overwhelmed.   It is all that they can do to find their way to six different classes in a new school.   They are thrown together with kids from a bunch of different elementary schools so they don’t know about three quarters of the kids in the room.  They are managing a locker and a backpack for the first time in their lives.   Most of them are so nervous about using the locker (will they be able to get the lock open,   will they have time to go to their locker during passing period, will they remember all the right stuff for their class) that they carry their entire lives around with them in their backpacks.   They walk around, bowed over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame from the weight of the foty pounds of stuff they are carrying.

To begin the process of getting to know them and to have them get to know one another, I have them make portfolios that will be used to collect major assignments for the course of the year.   The portfolio is nothing more than a large piece of construction paper folded to form a file folder.   On the front of the portfolio, students create a circle map about themselves.


A circle map is a graphic organizer that is used to define something in context.   The inner circle is the topic being defined, the space between the inner circle and the outer circle defines the topic.   The space between the outer circle and the rectangle is the frame of reference for the definition.   Students at our school use circle maps for academic purposes in all of their classes.   This is an easy way to teach them how to make one while also getting to know them.


After I show students the basics of a circle map, I make one about myself as way of introduction.   I try to put things in my circle map that tell them a little bit about me and to which they might relate.   I am somewhat intentional in including things that were challenges in my circle map.  I want them to see that everyone faces challenges and that the important thing is not the challenge, but how one responds to the challenge.

As students begin to make their own circle maps, it is a chance for them to share things about themselves in a creative way.   As they work in their table groups, they talk about what they are including and they begin to get to know one another.   When they turn in the finished circle map the next day (I let them finish them at home so they can add photos if they want), I have a concrete artifact to which I can refer to help me get to know the whole person and not just the kid sitting in my math class.   It also gives me glimpses into their family culture and value system that help me to better understand them.