Posted in elementary math, elementary science, learning, teaching

The Necessity of a Wonder Wall

Kids today…

What are they thinkin’?

Well, they are thinkin’ a lot. And often.  And I don’t know if you have really talked to one lately, but if you can stop them from talking about Fortnite, they are pretty amazing creatures.

Educators, please, please, for this reason: don’t skip out on a wonder wall.

Kids are filled with so much wonder.  So much positivity and hope.  They are fully convinced that they can change the world.  My students and I spend time on the IUCN red list, and every time we do one of my kids is ready to ship off to Madagascar to save a frog.  They would too if they could.  And I’d let them (I’d go too. Contract shmontract)

The thing is somewhere along the way this changes.  These are not kids that expect you to hand them anything, these guys want to help EVERYONE and wonder about EVERYTHING.  When we are learning together and someone asks an off-the-wall but not-to-be-funny sort of question, I have a choice.  I can acknowledge her thinking or dismiss it.  “Hmm…good question, you should look that up…” (DISMISSED!) or “That’s interesting, but we can talk about that later…” (Nope. DISMISSED!)

That’s where this comes in. Make it a part of your classroom culture.  Let them wonder.  “Ooo! Good question…put that on the wonder wall!” (That is important to me. Let’s keep it.) The student who really wants to know will write the question on a sticky note for all to see. The one who was messing around won’t.  The whole community now has interest piqued. This becomes our question. In upper grades, let a kid research and report back.  I would write some answers, stick them back up and spend a couple of minutes going over the answers.  This took maybe five minutes, but the value! Oh my goodness! And to make it, I just put the words “I wonder” on a piece of chart paper and laminated it!  Since I buy so many school supplies, I have plenty of Super Stickies for the job.  The question is still there, literally hanging out, until it is answered.  Not forgotten.

*original poster buried with                 school things*                Just like this. Well, maybe not just like this. My guy looks weird.

Kids today believe they can change the world.  They are hopeful. They want to soak up knowledge and wonder about everything.  Yes, they ask why.  Yes, they get you off topic.  Yes, some of those questions may be weird or nothing you were even talking about.  But none of those questions, or the kids, are dismissed.  If you want to create an environment of wonder and curiosity, don’t dismiss–let those questions fly (to the sticky notes).

Posted in reflection, teaching

Whale Tails and My Place in This World

“So the first time ever, I was disappointed by test scores.  Don’t get me wrong…the Loudest Class isn’t perfect.  Great test scores are not why I teach. This one hurt though.”

I found this today in my drafts from 2015.  I wonder what I was so hurt about.  And I wonder about that title.  I don’t even know what test we were doing or who was in my class. I don’t know about you but when I look back all of the years run together. I mean, I think sometimes that my son (with me last year in 5th) is in the same class as one of my old kids who is graduating next year.

I wish I could sit with myself as I typed this a few years ago and figure out why it was hurtful.  I would reach out….and slap me in the back of the head.

Look at me now, I forgot about that dumb score.  That’s not just because I am old. That kid who is graduating?  She wrote me a few months back! A real one with stamps and everything! She remembered that I was crazy and that we liked the same books.  She remembered that I came to school on a scooter when I had a broken foot and that I wouldn’t let her eat skittles because she’d be too hyper.  And she was crazy like me–she probably failed whatever test I was crying over.

Nothing mentioned about that test.

So relax.  Focus on what kids will remember. Don’t cry over spilled test scores.  And don’t give your writing weird titles.

Posted in Uncategorized

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! 

Posted in Uncategorized

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 🙂


Posted in Uncategorized


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. 

Posted in educational leadership, elementary math, teaching

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!