My Mission on My Mind-Goals 2016

Time for a new year to begin. Lucky for me I have actually spent the WHOLE summer preparing this time.  Not by reading the latest books on practice or attending lots of PD but by studying The Teacher, and how He did it.  My biggest takeaway was simple: He stayed mission-minded.  I’ve decided to take all that learning and turn it into a much longer reflection than I know I have room for here.  Perhaps a book, you know, when I retire and have time to write one 🙂 wait for my best seller…

In staying mission-minded I realized I needed to voice my mission, to put it on paper, and it is this: to make an eternal difference.  This is my only goal as I begin this year.  I want my actions to always reflect my mission, always show that I’m thinking about the impact of my words, thoughts,and actions on the student, parent, or teacher I am interacting with. It is my strong belief that when you keep your mind focused on what matters, the rest falls into place.  

I had the privilege of hearing Ron Clark Academy’s Kim Bearden speak this summer, and she reminded us that our actions not only affect our students but their future children, their spouses, the people they will employ and work with….our circle of influence is much bigger than we think about.  Every single interaction matters

I will look for small ways to make a big difference and make connections that make an eternal difference, using each moment to teach lessons that last longer than this year, and I will leave the people I interact with feeling loved and appreciated.  A loved person loves people.  A cared for person cares for people.  And an appreciated person appreciates people.  If I do my job right, that lasts long after 3:00.  

My goal for this year is to stay mission-minded.  My classroom will be a happy, more connected place where kids and families feel loved and accepted.  And I bet my kids will pick up some math and science along the way, too! 


New Learning for an Old Chore

To me, having students correct tests ranks right up there with making students take them in the first place…something that I know is necessary, but I just don’t like it!  I didn’t like testing as a kid, and I sure don’t as an adult.  Then to have to be retaught the information and given the same test (or type of test with different questions) back and have to take it again, well, it sure doesn’t do wonders for the self-esteem.  So I did a little research (a.k.a trolling Twitter) on what imaginative and forward-thinking teachers do with the feedback-loop we call retesting of big tests like the district benchmarks and other heavy hitters.  What I found was an amazing protocol my kids LOVED!  Here it is.



Step one: Make your corrections.  You have to do this part on your own, but this step is so important.  If you do not bring your own thinking to the discussion, what are you adding?   By asking them to all make their own corrections (after purposeful reteaching!), I was asking them to bring what they thought was the correct answer to the next step.  This prevented relying on whomever made the highest score to simply impart this wisdom to the group! On a side note, I did not chose to group my kids by their scores, and I don’t know that I will for a while.  They were in new table groups, and I wanted this to be a team building exercise as well.

Step two: Discuss it with your group.   This is where it got good.  Really good.  I mean I love that accountable math talk, they are good at it, and it was just flying around in here.  “But I really thought it was 821.”  “That’s right if you add, but look right here at this word…” “Did you know we needed to convert right here? That one almost got me, too!” “I didn’t use any strategies, but you did. No wonder you got it.”  “Will you show me what you did?” WOW! They were challenging each other’s thinking and really diving deep.  I just love to hear kids disagree over a math problem, respectfully of course, but that discourse when they both are convinced they are right, is just amazing to hear.  There was a lot of that thinking going on.  That is not happening when a kid is sweating out a correction at home or during tutoring!

Step three: Regrade your test. I let them do this.  Instant gratification when they just went from a 40 to a 97.  Woo-hoo!

Step four: What new learning did we gain from this? 5 minute quick write I also added to this question, “Was this worth our time?” This reflection was powerful.  Sometimes during our quick-writes there are wandering eyes (“I’m thinking!”) and chewed on pencils, but most kids were enthusiastically recording thoughts quickly about the process. After the 5 minutes, of COURSE they had to share with me!

“My partner really rechecked his work.  He was good at it and I wasn’t.  His grade was better!  I learned I have enough time, I should recheck.”

“When we read together, we saw the error we made.  Next time, I’ll just read the problem twice like we did.”

“When we worked together and talked one person talked about one strategy that another person didn’t think of. That made us know we were a good team.”

“This was worth our time because we learned about our mistakes not just fixed them and moved away from them like on to the next thing in our books.”

“This helped me know about the strengths and weaknesses of my new partners. Now I will know better how to help them with the projects we are doing this six weeks.”

And it went on and on…the kids LOVED it.  I heard myself in their voices with strategies I had been teaching them, but learning this in their own way from their peers was so much more powerful and meaningful to them!  A few even asked, “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”  They understand me as a reflective teacher and know I take what they say to heart.  I told them thanks for making me better and making this so much fun.

“You can totally do this next year, Mrs. Stringer.  The other kids will love it and will learn so much!”  Oh, I think that is some pretty good feedback!

P.S. I really wish I knew who to give credit to for this idea.  It seems it was one of the brilliant high school teachers I follow, but I have no clue. If it was you, thanks 🙂



In 1986, I was 10 years old. I sat in a classroom as my heroes took off in the space shuttle Challenger.  My world turned upside down as my teacher quietly cried and turned off the television about 80 seconds after launch.  I sat waiting for her to tell us what to do next.  My heart was broken, but it was time to go to art. 
Two weeks later, my mom lost her three year battle to breast cancer. That day I got dressed and went to school. My dad tried to convince me to stay home, but I needed to go. My heart was broken, but it was time for math.

You see, at my house, there were family members sleeping in every room, even the kitchen floor, as we waited for visiting hours each day. After school, I went to the hospital and saw my strong mom in a bed.  Some of my school days were spent sitting with my mom while she got her chemo, helping with my younger sister, or cheering up my dad or grandmother. At my house it was more than a 10 year old could handle. 

But at school…it was time for math. Then art. Then reading. And I knew what would happen when. And I knew what would happen if.  And my teacher knew what was happening at my house and understood me. She made a place for me where routines and rituals kept me safe. When everything else was crazy, she made it clear for me, just by doing what we, as educators do every day.  That schedule on the wall was what I needed when I never knew when we’d get to dinner. Those clear expectations (and kind discipline!) were just what I needed when emotions ran high all around me at home.  The simple kind words may have been shrugged off then in typical pre-teen fashion, as many middle grade teachers may think, but they landed right in my heart where they were so needed. 

We take such things for granted without the realization that we are creating such an important safe home for our students.  This is not only crafted with our words and actions but also with the environment we create in the normalcy of our structures and routines–the schedule, the rotation of who organizes the library, the way they put up their math journals.  It all matters. Trust me.  Don’t minimalize what you do…you are creating someone’s safe place. 

Making a Math Class Kids Will Love, Part 2: Goal Setting (and Collaboration)

I finally did it! I unlocked the magic behind SMART goals. And, hey, it only took me, like, a school year and a little more 🙂 We started goal setting as a school-wide focus a couple of years ago, and I just couldn’t figure it out with my 4th graders (see my post about that struggle).  I tried. I read. I read lots. I tried something else.  I collaborated. But nothing seemed to stick.

Enter my brilliant friends, Monica Maynor and Shayla Johnston, who (somewhere between the two of them) came up with an easy to follow progress monitoring sheet perfect for the kids to use and reflect upon themselves. Monica had the idea of having the students record their pre-test scores on a bar graph on the front of the page. Later, we take the exact test as a post-assessment, and the kids mark this test right beside it.  They are then able to see in bold colors or pencil scratches the gains they made during the module.  We teach through the use of Learning Targets and on this sheet there is a spot for each lesson and a short reflection on why they met or did not meet the day’s target. Perfect, right? All that was missing was some goal setting in the little box that remained.

So we discussed our goals. With the momentum of our newly organized goal setting sheet, I knew exactly where to go…

“I want to be a better mathematician.” Me, too! But…how will you do that or decide that you are?

“I want to get better (or faster) at multiplication (division/subtraction/addition).” Me, too! But…how will you do that or decide that you did?

“I want to be the best in the world at math!” Me, too! But…that’s not my only job, nor is it yours! Think that’s doable?

Time for a quick lesson on SMART goals!  We talked about SMART and ran all of the above (and a few more) through the test! They helped me with a few of my own goals such as getting into grad school and running another 5k. They loved it. We turned each of our goals into something…

Specific: We always have a number. 7/12 learning targets, increase post score by 40 points.

Measurable: Kids can see if they’ve done it or not.

Attainable: Goal is to gain, not make a 100…not everyone will. Especially if one started with an 18. Bringing that up 60 points to a 78 shows tremendous learning!

Relevant: Keeping in mind the idea: how is this important to my future success as a 4th grader? In middle and high school?  Why do I need this in the first place?

Timely: “By the end of this module…”

After we wrote, we did a “whip around” quickly sharing our goals out, helping to fix any that are missing an element of SMART, in particular the S, M, and the T.  We are on our third module, about to begin our fourth tomorrow, and we’ll follow the same procedure, checking in to make sure we have a SMART goal in this way. Many sound the same, but we are all working on the same work, so that is to be expected. Besides, save the uniqueness for the celebrations when we end the module!
My kids now understand how and why they met their goals or know they still need help. When I am ready to form small groups for tiered instruction, I use these goal setting sheets and their reflections to guide me. This, sometimes more than a post-test, tells me how well they comprehended the module.

This level of voice in their reflections is starting to come through stronger as we move into the fourth module.  I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year will bring. They’d never know to have this conversation had they not set a goal and had it to reflect upon. It only took me a year, a couple of good friends, and a lot of collaboration to figure out how to do set SMART goals that work for kids, but learning takes time, even for us big kids!

Making a Math Class Kids Will Love–Part 1: Talk

Until I was 27 I hated math.  Yes, I know I am a math teacher and a self-proclaimed “mathemagician”, but it’s totally true.  When I ask on the first day of school, “Who really loves math?”, I see 3-4 kids raise their hands (enthusiastically).  In the others I see fear, sadness, disappointment, a challenge, and I see myself.  An awesome article written by one of my favorite mathematicians attests to the fact that failing at math is different feeling like you are bad at something else. I make a promise on the first day of school. “By the time that you leave, you will LOVE math! A bold promise, and I need help.  That’s where YOU come in!”  They are baffled.

How do we change this fear of failure in the math class?  My first step is to let down the walls and share.  Nothing helps more with fear than facing it, right? Check out this TED talk by my favorite astronaut (now) on this planet.

This sharing brings a whole new set of challenges.  How do you say, “Whew, this answer is WRONG!” in a way that will empower your friend?  How do you let them know that they totally read the question incorrectly and spent 20 minutes barking up the wrong tree?  What do you do when someone tells you that your hard work, as we always say, “that you put your heart into”, is just not cutting it?  What do you do when your partner does nothing? (every group I was ever in during my school days…) How do you address it without being bossy?

Each year within the first three days, I have the kids write down all of the things they hate hearing from a partner.  When we read them aloud most kids are shocked that anyone would say those things.  But when I ask, all nod, they’ve been the one saying them.  I ask, “Why do we talk this way? Is it because we are mean?  I don’t think so…”

“I want my partner to get the answer right, too.”

“Sometimes their work makes me think of other work, and I realize that we both have the wrong answer!”

“I want to help, but sometimes I am the one who has the wrong answer. What do I even say?”

“I know some of the right things to say, but it’s not enough.”

We generate questions to ask our partners instead of tell them.  They start with “I” instead of “you” and use the word “help” a LOT.  “I am confused on this part, can you show me what you did?”  We talk about how to be the best model for our peers, what it looks like and doesn’t look like. We talk about specific, not general questions.  “This is confusing” is replaced with “I don’t understand ____, can you help?” We talk about how when you try to use strategies, you ALWAYS bring something to the discussion.  I use a problem solved last year (wrong answer) and the kids discuss what he would have brought for them to talk about.  We discuss strategies, not answers, and how focusing on the strategies focuses on the thinking rather than the answer.  We want to question and make our partners think thus building our learning community in strength and knowledge.  We are in the boat together, I tell them.  What you say matters.

And of course, we discuss part of Golden Rule…how would I want this said to me?  If you can’t think of the “right” question or way to say it, just go with your gut.  I listen for what they actually say and ask them to repeat aloud what their partner said that “helps them grow as a mathematician” (or scientist!)  I collect the language on an anchor chart so that they can reference it, and they write what they like or use in their journals.  It’s no miracle, just talking and celebrating.  Well, two things I do best 🙂

Not everything is perfect.  I had to talk to a student about making fun of another student’s work, and I simply asked him “Does this support our learning environment?” and he immediately knew. Of course they need reminders, they are humans. But this partnership is something amazing which holds the kids accountable in different ways, releasing me from having to manage group behavior and tattling all year. WE establish what WE want to happen, and only WE can get there.

No one is going to love math, or school for that matter, simply because their teacher is nice to them.  From day one, the words we use and the way we treat each other establish the culture of mistake making, challenging, and thinking deeply, all in a safe environment.  This is a team effort. My kids will love math this year.  I know this is true, but it doesn’t happen because of me.   It happens because of the way that they pull each other along and spur each other to greatness.  That conversation happens every second in a math (and science!) class that kids love!

Hoping in 2015

The year begins today…PD in action with lots of happy faces, hugs, and so much thinking that I think I need another summer break 🙂 Then our beautiful principal gives the question and 10 minutes to reflect: what hopes we have for our kids in 2015-2016?  We have all been thinking all summer about plans and analyzing data, but our hopes we have for them? Wow, that is one of my favorite words like EVER. That’s something I can really get excited about…

So what do I hope?

I hope they are as ready as I am.

I hope they are brave when I am not.

I hope they push me to learn more.

I hope they listen to each other.

I hope they feel loved.

I hope they catch my enthusiasm for learning.

I hope they have fun.

I hope they laugh a lot.

I hope they are kind.

I hope they look back at this year and remember that I made them feel like a million bucks.

Honestly, I can’t say much more than this…my hopes for myself are summed up above.  If I can do all of this for a student, I am doing all I need to do as an educator!

Surrounded by Smarties (but not the candy)

I spent the last few days in AWE of my colleagues. I have always known I was working with some very intelligent people, but to be back with them sharing what they know after they have spent their summers preparing, I just have to say I am beyond impressed. And I was reflecting a little, NOT during class, of course!
Last month we met as a leadership team to discuss our problem of practice and goals for the new school year. Our focus centered around “connected impact”. Our forward thinking Assistant Superintendent had some really good illustrations to prove the point–we really don’t need a new book, binder, or program…what we need to solve any problem, issue, or conflict is the connections we have. There is SO much experience, intelligence, and knowledge just down the hall, across the district, or in our PLNs.
“Connected” teachers know this. We reach out and ask for what we need. We share what we have without that old fear that someone probably already knows…right? But what are we doing to reach those who are not connected? Do they know they have something to lend to the community? Do they understand how much they are needed? As teacher leaders it is important that we encourage each other, “spur each other on” with this idea.

My humble friends who believe they have nothing to teach another, watch the video I show to my students each year, “Obvious to You, Amazing to Others”.  Such a perfect way to say it…you have knowledge someone needs.

Everyone has something to share and lend to the conversation. We are surrounded by smarties! It is our job to encourage others to see their influence and get connected to make an impact with other educators maybe they never knew they even had.

I am proud of my friends who presented this summer, and I can’t wait to see the influence we will all have as purposefully and personally connected educators.