Not a Creature Was Stirring

Early Thursday morning, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up donuts.     This was the day that I was hosting my annual Donuts with a Developer event.   Each year, I teach my students how to create a video game.   I teach them the basics of coding in bits of time before breaks in October, November, and December.   Then, before launching the “code a video game” project, I invite a technical professional who actually creates video games to talk to my students about the process of creating a video game.   We usually do  the event first thing in the morning, so it has become Donuts with a Developer.

After I loaded the seven dozen donuts into boxes, I headed to school.   As I drove the block to school, I looked at the star-filled sky and listened to the news.   The story was about the fifth anniversary of Sandy Hook.     My heart felt a little heavier, as it always does when I am reminded of that day five years ago.

A few hours later, my classroom filled with students as they settled down to hear our guest speaker.   I was feeling particularly pleased because this year I had been lucky enough to find a woman to talk to them about coding video games.    I try really hard to expose my girls to women who work in STEM and this felt a bit like a coup.

About ten minutes into the presentation, the principal came over the loudspeaker and said that we were going into a lockdown.   I launched into action.  I grabbed my keys and raced out to lock the exterior door and then back into my room to lock the classroom and do all of the things that are part of our lockdown protocol.     I knew this was not a drill.  We had a drill less than two weeks ago.   This was definitely not a drill.   Best case scenario it was something happening in the neighborhood.   Worst case scenario was a place I wasn’t going to go unless I had to do so.

As I looked around the room, the students had done exactly what they were supposed to do.    Most of them seemed to think it was a drill.  As busy as I was with the necessary tasks,  I found myself glancing at the windows to double check that you couldn’t see into the room at the edges of the blinds.   I had already checked but my eyes were drawn back there anyway.   All of my senses seemed to be heightened.   I listened carefully to each sound I heard, trying to discern what it was, thinking hard about what I might need to do.

As time wore on and the usual sequence of events did not transpire, it began to dawn on a few of the students that this might not be a drill.    In some students, I could see a slight shift in posture or in expression.   Others showed the tension in other ways.

One student passed gas and several of them started to laugh.   While this is a normal reaction for a student of this age, it wasn’t a normal reaction for the two girls who were laughing.  Neither one of them would ordinarily do this.   I looked across at them and gave them the teacher look and pressed my finger to my lips.   They put hands over their mouths, but continued to laugh.   I tiptoed over to them and whispered that they needed to be quiet right now.   It took another minute or two before it dawned on me how out of character the behavior was.  They were laughing  because of their tension about what was happening.

A few minutes later, another student looked at me and said, “this isn’t a drill, is it?”   I looked at her and silently mouthed “it’s going to be OK”.

I hated seeing the tension mount in my students.   I walked silently over to the bin where I have a bunch of stuffed elephants.    (We usually use the elephants when we take tests and on birthdays.   Elephants never forget so the students put them on their heads or their desks when they take a test.   On birthdays, we dump the bin full of stuffed elephants on them to wish them another year of wisdom.)   I started passing out stuffed elephants.   I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I thought having a stuffed elephant to hold just might help some of them cope with the way they were feeling.    When the elephants ran out, I started handing out stress balls.    (I have more than enough elephants for a normal class, but there were many more kids than a normal class.)     When the stress balls ran out, I started handing out books to read.    The elephants and stress balls and books weren’t part of our protocol.    I felt like my students needed something, though.   Elephants, stress balls, books, a hand lightly touching a head, and a silent “it’s going to be OK”  were all I could give them in those moments of silence.

I won’t go into the details about the reasons for the lockdown, but it did eventually end and everyone was fine.  It was a tough day.   It wasn’t my first real lockdown and probably won’t be my last.     This one was particularly hard, though.

This month’s blogging challenge was to put a phone in my pocket and then listen to the things I said to my students and reflect upon them.   The most important words I said this month were said silently during that lockdown.


An ongoing quest to give my girls a voice

Not long ago, I wrote about an unexpected inequity I observed in one of my classes.   The girls were in effect silenced during a Quiz/Quiz/Trade activity because the boys repeatedly chose to quiz/trade with other boys.   At the time, I pointed out to the students what I saw.   I told the boys that I expected a change.   I told the girls to be a little less well-behaved and to push in if they needed to do so.

While I haven’t done another Quiz/Quiz/Trade activity in the ensuing days, I have been watching to see how the boys and girls are interacting.    What I have observed does not make me happy.   At each table group where girls are present, the groups have a 50:50 male to female ratio.    At one of the table groups, the girls talk to each other and include one of the boys.   The other boy works at a slower pace and may join the conversation at the end.   At another table group, the boys talk to each other.   One of the girls is ready to talk but sits waiting to be invited into the conversation.   That generally does not happen so she waits for the other girl to finish so that they can discuss the problem together.   This happens when the constraints of the discussion are loose (discuss the problem with your table group) and when they are tight (use Kagan’s Numbered Heads Together Cooperative Learning Structure).   Girls voices are being heard largely by other girls except when I draw them out during a whole class discussion.

This dynamic is happening in only one of my classes, but it concerns me.   I recognize that a portion of the equation is the personalities involved.   The boys in this class are more extroverted and the girls are more reserved.    I am struggling to get the girls to assert themselves and I am struggling to get the boys to see that they are excluding the girls (the are inclusive when I point it out, but I can’t point it out every single conversation).

I watched the girls on Friday during an activity involving choice.   Not surprisingly, the girls all chose the same activity.   I went over and talked to them about what I have been seeing in class.   I asked them how they would feel if we went back to single gender groups.   Their faces lit up.   That is what we will do in this particular class, at least for a while, because it appears to be what they need right now.

As I contemplate this decision, I am consumed with mixed feelings about the messages that I am sending.   I keep reminding myself that it is a long journey.

Task Initiation – An Accommodation

Some kids really struggle with executive functioning skills.   There are a lot of pieces to this particular puzzle and it can be really hard to fit all these pieces together.   This week, I decided to try to tackle one more of those pieces – getting a student to settle into class and get started.

I thought I had this issue pretty well figured out.    I have a structure to every class and stick pretty closely to the broad outlines of this structure.   Hence, kids have the same set of three of four things to do at the start of each class period.    I have the daily agenda posted on the whiteboard in the front of the class.    I verbally remind kids what they need to do when they arrive.   After redirecting a particular student ten times in the first five minutes on a regular basis, though, I decided that I have a little more work to do here.

IMG_0668Since this particular student was having so much difficulty getting settled into class each day, I decided to create a checklist for him of the things that he needs to do in the first few minutes after he arrives.   I didn’t want to stigmatize him, though, so I created a class set of the checklist.   I laminated them and then put one on each desk in the classroom.  The checklists can serve as a reminder for everyone and the student who needs the checklist doesn’t have to be any different than anyone else.

I started using the checklist yesterday.   I don’t know how well it is going to work in the long term, but it was great for yesterday.   Every one used it.   I didn’t have to redirect a single student.    A small victory, at least for one day.

A Theraband Fix

Sometimes, you just need a little help from your friends.    Fortunately, I usually recognize when I have hit that point and am lucky enough to have some incredible friends.    One of those amazing supports is the Occupational Therapist at my school.   While she works primarily with the student population in our autism program, she is a great resource when I need to figure out an accommodation for a student that will help him or her be more successful.

A few years ago, I reached out to her for suggestions on ways that I might support a student who has great cognitive abilities but who was not seeing success to match his abilities.   The primary cause for the disconnect between his ability and his performance was distractability.   He had trouble initiating tasks.   He was frequently off-task.   He frequently engaged in off-topic conversations.   He was in constant motion.   He did not  have a particular diagnosis or a 504 plan and that was not a direction his parents were inclined to pursue.

IMG_0667This is what my friend suggested.    I used a black theraband to create something that he could push on or bounce on with his feet.    This gave  him the chance to engage gross motor skills which seemed to help him focus, which in turn led to much greater academic success.

To make this, I folded the theraband in half and tied a knot.   Then, I wrapped it around the outside of the desk legs and tied it in place.      The key is to have the theraband stretched pretty taught and to have the knots pretty tight.   (It takes some real effort to get  it tight enough.)   It should also be fairly low, about 7 or 8 inches from the ground.   A black theraband works best because it is stronger.   (I am using a blue one this year because that is what was available.) The person sitting at the desk can put his or her feet on the band and push on it or the can put their feet under the band and pull on it.   In either case, he or she is engage gross motor skills that seem to help some students concentrate better.

While I don’t have enough data points to claim any statistical improvement, I can say anecdotally that it has helped considerably with students in my classes.   The students are able to maintain more focus, leading to increased academic success.   It is an accommodation I can do with minimal effort and that does not require me to deal with the distractions that always seem to come along with fidget devices.   Students like it (even those who don’t need it but sit in the desk during other periods).   I am a big fan of this simple little theraband.

An Unexpected Lesson in Inequity

It had been a week seemingly without end.  It was one of those weeks that every teacher has from time to time.  One week had bled into another which bled into another because entire weekends had been filled with work.   I was running on empty and just trying to push through the fatigue.


In the middle of a 6th grade lesson on writing expressions, I passed out some cards for a Quiz/Quiz/Trade activity to translate words into algebraic expressions.   When I planned the lesson, I decided to re-use some cards I had.   I didn’t have quite enough in a set for the the whole class,  but there was just no way to squeeze in the time to make another larger set.     No problem, I thought.   I’ll just use two sets of the cards.   Each set was a different color.   Half the class would use one color, the other half would use the other color and they would just quiz within their color group.

I watched the first round of the activity.   Everyone was successfully writing their expression.   The quizzing and trading went smoothly.  Students proceeded to find new partners as they finished their problems.   As I watched that second round, I saw a crack in my carefully constructed world.   As I watched the third round, I saw a giant chasm.

This is what happened.

When I distributed the sets of quiz/quiz/trade cards, I gave half of each table group one color card and the other half of the table group the other color card.  Based on my current seating chart, that meant half of the girls were in each group and half of the boys were in each group.   There was a tiny little wrinkle, though, that I hadn’t anticipated and that brought the whole house of cards crashing down.   My first period class is 1/3 female and 2/3 male.    The first round, as is almost always true, each student sought out a friend with the same color.   So, the boys partnered with the boys and the girls partnered with the girls.   The second round, the same thing happened.   However, this time, when the boys partnered with other boys, there weren’t enough girls.   Girls were left without a partner.   I held my breath, watching to see if the boys would notice and adjust their choices in the third round.    They didn’t.   Once again, boys partnered with boys and girls were left without a partner.

No one intended it, but my female students were not having an experience that was equal to that of their male counterparts.  There were things that I could have done differently to ensure this did not happen.   There were things that my male students could have done differently to ensure that this did not happen.   There were things that my female students could have done differently to ensure that this didn’t happen.   Unfortunately, none of us did.

Given that this happened, the best thing that I could do was to have a conversation with my students and to be very explicit about what I saw.   I began by telling my students what I saw and asking them if they noticed it.   A few of them had, but many had not.   Then, I talked to my students about what it felt like when I was in high school and was the only female in my Calculus class.   I talked about having confidence in myself and my abilities, but still feeling a little bit of an outsider.   Then, I talked about what it would have felt like if my peers had excluded me, intentionally or not.   I wondered if that was how the girls felt during our Quiz/Quiz/Trade activity.   Then, I asked  how many experiences the boys got with the activity versus how many experiences the girls got with the activity.   I pointed out that more experience usually means more success and wondered about the fairness of what happened.

Finally, I asked my male students to be more inclusive, to make sure that everyone was getting equal access to math experiences.   Then, I asked my female students to be less well-behaved.  They looked a little stunned.  One of the boys mentioned the  “well-behaved women seldom make history” bumper sticker.   I smiled and then told my girls that each and every one of them has what it takes to make history.   I told them that there had been times when I had needed to be a little assertive to have a place at the table.   I told them it is OK to be a little bit pushy if they need to be.  One of the girls commented, “It’s like when we  play soccer against the boys.”   Exactly.

Now, I will watch and see what happens next.   I will hold both my boys and my girls accountable.   Everyone has a place at our table.

Recipes From Home – An Invitation

Recently, I had an aha moment.   It really should not have been one, but it was.    I was talking to someone about different spice blends, when I realized that I could ask my students for family recipes of spice blends (or other things).    I could then take these family recipes and use them to create some different tasks/questions to practice using models for division  and for ratio tasks  (This was not the aha moment).

I brought up the idea with some of my classes.    I offered 5 points of extra credit (which is nothing since my students earn over a thousand points in a marking period).   The room was suddenly abuzz.   Can I bring a recipe for scones?   My family has a bunch of different spice recipes.   I can bring something from Croatia.   Can I bring a recipe for something besides spices but that is a family recipe?   I can bring something from Argentina.   Everyone was so excited.   My aha moment was a realization that by doing something as small as asking them for recipes that we could turn into math problems, I was giving them a little more ownership of our class.  I was welcoming their families and their cultures into our world.

Here are the task cards I have created thus far for modeling mixed number division.


Modeling Division Problems

It’s not so elementary, my dear Watson

Sometimes, I imagine myself as the offspring of Meryl Streep and Sherlock Holmes.   It’s a strange combination, but a good teacher has to be able to do a lot of different things.

It’s the Theater!

A good lesson is embedded in a larger story, it doesn’t stand alone.   It draws you in, enticing you to turn the next page, to see where the story goes.   It makes you feel something – excitement, curiosity, outrage, wonder.  It engages your mind, stretching you, making you consider things you’d never thought of before.   It leaves you asking for more.

A good lesson is also a little bit of theater.   The rise and fall of voices, the pregnant pause, the excited exclamation – they all are part of the tale.

While I can tell a reasonably good story, creating theater is not my natural bent.   I have to work at the drama that Ms Streep creates so effortlessly.

Elementary, my dear Watson

While Sherlock Holmes  found everything to be elementary, I have found the detective work necessary to figure out how my students learn to be anything but elementary.   Figuring out how my students think is hard.   Figuring out why they aren’t learning despite my best efforts is hard work.   One of the best resources I have found is Twice-Exceptional Gifted Children by Beverly A. Trail, EdD.   It is a book about twice-exceptional children, but is a great resource for any teacher trying to understand how a student thinks and the strategies that may help them to be more successful.

The book has an easy-to-use assessment that helps teachers to see discrepancies that might indicate a student is twice exceptional.   It also has a great chapter on supporting cognitive styles.   It outlines characteristics and strategies for the auditory/visual dimension, sequential/conceptual dimension, and convergent/divergent dimension.   (I have found figuring out where a student falls on the conceptual/sequential spectrum helps me a lot in teaching math.)   It also has information to help support students with executive functioning difficulties (including organizational/planning handouts), students with attention issues, and students with sensory integration challenges.  It is my go-to when I feel like I have hit a wall in terms of meeting a student’s needs.