Throwing out the lesson plan

Yesterday I was at a curriculum meeting. My Algebra students reviewed the formula for finding the slope of a line when given two points. In my 9th period class, I have one student who likes to try to trick me with logic puzzles. Today he had the diagram below drawn on the board when I got to class. He pointed out that the bottom 5.5 feet of the boat was under water and asked me how many feet of the boat would be under water if the water level rose by 2 feet. He was trying to trick me into saying 7.5, but I didn’t fall for it.

I said to the class, “Ok now I have a puzzle for you.” I drew two boxes on the boat and explained that they were very heavy and caused the boat to sink down to 5.5 feet underwater. I explained that when I add a third box, the boat will be 6 feet under water. “How far under is the boat when there are no boxes on board??” I was surprised by how quickly student started calling out, “Easy – 4.5 feet!” I also noted that these were the higher achieving students in the class.

I currently have my students seated homogeneously, with the higher achieving students sitting in the back of the room. I checked in quickly with them to see how they felt about yesterday’s lesson and they said they felt good. I gave them an online practice assignment to do during this class period. My plan was to review the homework assignment with the lower achieving students. I threw those plans out the window and told them to gather around the whiteboard. At first they didn’t want to stand, but I think it mattered. I said “No paper, no pencils. Just calculators in your hands.”

I drew something like this on the board and asked them to see if they could figure out the weight of each bar. 

I asked them not to answer out loud. I asked if the bars could be 5 pounds each.

Sheldon: “No.”
Me: “Why not?”
Sheldon: “That would be too heavy.”
Me: “Maybe they’re bricks.”
Sheldon: “Ok but then the bag on the left would be 20 pounds without counting the weight of the bag.”
Me: “Good point. Ok then I’m ready to hear your ideas. Who knows the weight of each bar?”


Me: “Ryan, you seemed like you had an answer earlier but now you’re not volunteering. Did you change your mind?”
Ryan: “Yeah, I was going to say that they would be 0.75 pounds each because I did 3 pounds divided by 4 bars for the one on the left, but then I saw that it wouldn’t work because the one on the right would only add up to 4.5 pounds.”

Me: Very impressed with Ryan’s thinking. Remained calm. “Yeah good point – because you didn’t consider the weight of the bag.”
Students: “Ohhhh…..”

Mason: “I don’t know. Aren’t they one pound each? Because like, you add two bars and it weighs two pounds more”.
Ryan: “I was thinking that but then the one on the left would weigh more than four pounds so that doesn’t work.”
Me: “Oops! That’s my bad. Good idea though Mason!”

We did two more problems like this before class was over. One of them with this group of students but the last one with the whole class. I felt really good about how the students were thinking rather than following a memorized procedure. I loved how they articulated their ideas without prefacing every statement with “I think this is wrong, but…” I liked that everyone was talking about slope/rate of change but no one was using those words or any formulas. I’m feeling really encouraged (for the moment) and now need to figure out how to keep this going tomorrow.

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Algebra 1 Differentiation

It’s against the rules but… rather than use a “Day in the Life” format for this post, I’ve decided to focus on the work that I’ve done recently in my Algebra class.

A few weeks ago, our Supervisor of Secondary Instruction called a meeting of all high-school Algebra teachers in our district (there are five of us) to talk about the many unique issues involved with teaching this Keystone tested course at the high-school level. We had a productive conversation but I want to mention two things from our meeting that have really stuck with me. The first is that when we break students into small groups for instruction, it is not about separating three behavior issues into three different parts of the room. It has to be about moving students into homogeneous learning groups so that those who are ready to move forward can do that, while others take more time with the material. This is something I already knew but the reminder came at a good time for me and I reexamined my groupings as a result.

The other piece of the discussion that has stuck with me is a quick few sentences exchanged about the scope of the curriculum. I have often been torn between rushing through all of the concepts in the curriculum guide to expose students to as much as possible OR going slowly and thoroughly over the basic ideas of Algebra to ensure that students have a strong foundation. My fear is that the latter option leaves them with gaps in their prerequisite knowledge when they move forward. During our conversation last week, our Instructional Supervisor suggested that I might allow my lower achieving group to continue practicing the foundational skills while students who have demonstrated mastery of those skills move ahead to see more of the curriculum. Here’s how I immediately applied that idea…

We have moved on to our study of solving equations. This is what I consider to be the most important unit of study in Algebra 1. Students who aren’t able to solve equations this year will likely fail algebra. Students have seen this material in their pre-Algebra classes, but this is where the wide range of student achievement present in Algebra class really presents itself. We have students who look at “x + 5 = 12” and shut down immediately. We have others who have completely mastered this topic before they get to Algebra class, and most are somewhere in between.

After a few days of practice, I give the students a short (5 question/10 point) quiz to see where they are on the spectrum. I call this a “check-up”. In the past, I have used the quiz results to find out who is struggling with solving equations but have not felt that I could do much with that information aside from recommend that they seek help outside of class. After this quiz, we move onto some more challenging and concepts: solving literal equations and solving absolute value equations. Without an understanding of solving one-step, two-step and multi-step equations, students are unlikely to be successful with these last two lessons of the unit. This year, I separated the quizzes into two piles as I graded: students who have demonstrated that they understand the basic concepts involved with solving equations versus those who seem to be simply recalling or copying procedures without an understanding of why those steps are needed. I found a handful of students in each class who made alarming procedural errors on their assessments. I put together packets of one-step, two-step and multi-step equations for these students and had my coteachers pull them aside to work in a small group for the next four class days while the majority of students moved ahead to solving absolute value equations.

I split the remaining students in each class into two groups based on their quizzes.

GROUP A: Those students who had very few errors or no errors at all were assigned to watch a short video about solving absolute value equations and then try some problems on their own.

GROUP B: Students who demonstrated that they understood the main idea but still needed some guidance to avoid common mistakes worked with me to learn about solving absolute value equations. I was able to go slowly through the process and discuss important decision points with this group.

The next day, GROUP B was able to work on some independent practice while I worked with the students from GROUP A. I walked around with my small white-board in hand to watch each student solve one equation. I was able to quickly answer the few questions that arose and address misconceptions.

Yesterday, the whole class completed a practice activity similar to the one described in my last blog post where students moved around the room solving problems at various stations. The students who had been pulled out by my coteachers participated as well since I had mixed in some linear equations for review. Those students completed only the linear equation cards.

Today, while the rest of class began their study of literal equations, the students in each group who performed poorly on their equations quiz tried again. Each student showed improvement. The photos below of one student’s “before” and “after” quizzes shed light on how valuable this week was for him.

I know that there is a lot more that I can do, but my initial goal is to continue this type of differentiation in some form at the end of each unit.


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#DITL September 20th

525am: Alarm clock. My morning routine requires no thought. Towel hangs next to the shower, clothes are laid out in the spare bedroom, lunch is packed in the fridge.

645am: I’ve just arrived at school and my first order of business is to find the Chrome Cart that I’ve reserved for the morning. I have a cart in my classroom with 15 Chromebooks, but this morning I’m giving an online quiz and want my whole class to take it at the same time.

710am: Key Club board meeting. I am the coadvisor for the service club. We have more than 100 members and there are 5 student officers on our board. The board meets every Tuesday morning before school to discuss upcoming events. The students run this meeting and I am mostly present for support. Today they are focused on planning for the student activities fair and our first general body meeting, which takes place next week.

830am: Geometry class takes a 15 question quiz using our class Schoology site. What I like about online quizzes – Students see the correct answers and their scores immediately after submitting the quiz. We know that feedback is more meaningful the faster it comes. Different versions of the quiz are automatically created to reduce cheating. Instead of spending my time grading quizzes, I can spend time looking through results and making meaning from the data. Schoology gives an item analysis that’s easy to read. What I don’t like about online quizzes – I don’t get to see as much of the student thought process since they do their scratch work on a separate paper and only enter their response in the computer. For this reason, I use online quizzing selectively. Today’s questions were mostly true/false. For some students, this format creates a little anxiety but we practice on the computer quite a bit to try to combat this. After the quiz, we talk about angles for about 15 minutes. It feels rushed and I will have to review this tomorrow.

829am: I have back-to-back prep periods today, which I love. I put the computers back in the cart, go to the bathroom, erase the whiteboard, eat a snack, enter attendance, make an appointment for car service and then look at the quiz data for a little while. The overall average is a bit lower than I would have liked. One student has an especially low score but he hadn’t completed any of his homework this week. I will have to talk with him tomorrow about his progress so far and I consider contacting his parents, too. I know there is a fire drill coming. Before the drill, I print and cut a scavenger hunt activity that I want to do with my precalculus class today.

924: Fire drill. The second of the year. It was supposed to be yesterday but it was raining. This works out better for me since it falls on a prep and I don’t lose any instructional time.

1006am: Geometry class again. Same as the first.

1053am: Lunch time! I take a few minutes to clean up the classroom, look over quiz data and hang the problems for the precalculus scavenger hunt before I go down to the faculty room to eat.

1145am: Precalculus class. We talk about the properties of logarithms and then try the scavenger hunt. Each student solves a problem and then looks for the answer on a different page. Everyone can start at a different point, so that is nice. When they find the answer, the next problem is attached to it. At the end, they put the problem letters in order to write the answer to the following question… “Why do lumberjacks make such good music?”

I have been struggling to get this class to give me feedback and ask questions. During the activity about 50% of the students came up to me to ask for help with one problem or another. I think it helped to break the ice and took some pressure off since they weren’t asking in front of the whole class. At the end of class, we took a few minutes to debrief and they agreed that this was a nice change. I promised to incorporate more movement and opportunity for one-on-one questions.

1233pm: Three algebra 1 classes in a row. It’s the same lesson three times but each class does have its own personality. Today we were practicing with proportions and percentages. Half the class worked on an (online) IXL assignment. The other half played a game of “I have… Who has…” with me. About halfway through class, we switched so that everyone got a chance to do each activity.

305pm: After hall duty, I rush out to beat the several dozen school buses out of the parking lot and head to my hair appointment. I am supposed to be at a homecoming float-building meeting but my hairdresser has been on maternity leave so it’s been a while since I had a haircut. My coadvisor agreed to sit in for me at the homecoming meeting. I even have time to stop for my free iced-coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way since the Eagles won last night.

430pm: I pick up Chance from dog daycare and head home for a quick dinner. A friend stops by to put a tree stand in the woods behind our house – the weather is cooling down and hunting season is right around the corner. He helps me socialize Chance a little bit since she barks uncontrollably at strangers. I’m really appreciative of his willingness to let her bark at him until she settles down.

7pm: This is the last night of dog obedience class with Chance. It was supposed to be last Thursday but that was our open house at the high school. She is tired and sleeps on the floor for most of the class. When it is her turn to take the graduation test, she performs perfectly! I’m a proud dog momma.

830pm: Big Bang Theory. Adult beverage. Blog post.


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Algebra Snapshot

Before I go to bed, I want to quickly share a photo that I snapped during Algebra class today (and I’m going to brag a little because I might not get another chance). I tweeted this photo this afternoon but I have a lot more to say about it than 140 characters. I’m feeling proud of what I see after just one week of school.


The boy in the red shirt saw me take my phone out of the cabinet and prepare to take a picture. Other than him, the students were engaged in their work and didn’t notice that I was taking their picture. I think this can only happen in a “student centered” class. When you look through the photo, you see all heads tilted downward. The students are looking at their work! I could have given them a worksheet on classifying real numbers and they would have had the opportunity for just as much practice, but I wonder if all eyes would have been on a worksheet. Turning this into an activity where they physically move the numbered coins into the appropriate basket somehow makes it more engaging for them.

One girl is standing up. This photo was taken during 9th period. It makes me anxious when students wander around the classroom but I know that at the end of a school day, kids need to move! They sit, sit, sit all day long. I really want to have a classroom environment where students can move around and remain engaged. If you need to stand up – stand up. No one in the room is distracted by her because they are focused on their work. Could she have stood up if everyone was doing a worksheet? Would she have?

Behind the girl who is standing, my amazing para-professional is working to benchmark one of our students for his IEP goals. This can happen right in the middle of our class without any special attention being drawn to it since all students are working where they need to be. I love our special ed department and the way they work with our students.

On the far side of the room you see some students are working on the computer. This is a class where students can move at their own pace (to a certain extent). The students on the computer are those who finished the sorting activity last week and have moved on to independent practice.

You can’t see it but there is noise in this classroom. The students are talking to one another. Some are talking about what happened at lunch today – I recognize and admit that. Many are talking about which basket their coin belongs in. This is a class where conversation is encouraged. When students ask us questions, we answer with a question: “What did your group think when you asked them?”

I felt good about class when I looked at this picture after school. I saw some things that I might not have seen otherwise. Taking a quick snapshot now and then might be a good reflection tool. Give it a try!

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My Schoology Site

In a comment on my last post, my cousin Beth asked about seeing my class website. Beth isn’t an educator but takes great interest in youth and teaching. For her benefit, and that of others who are not in the field, I described the LMS that our district uses: Schoology. Here are a few screenshots from my Schoology site.

This (below) is the screen that students see when they click to access our 7th period Algebra class once they have logged into Schoology. On the right hand side, there is a calendar. The calendar events have been added by their teacher. I’ve added our Unit 1 homework assignments there. In the center, I have a folder for each unit of study. Right now, students only see a Unit 1 folder, but their list of folders will grow as the year progresses. (Students don’t see the “Add Materials” button at the top of the page. Only I have the ability to add materials.)


This (below) is what students see after they click on the Unit 1 folder and I have the other unit folders set up the same way. I post a PDF copy of every class handout here. If a student needs a second copy, they can come here to print one. So they have their unit agenda and packet at the top. Next I have a folder of instructional videos. I have recorded 10 minute lessons for almost everything I teach in Algebra. Students can use this videos to preview an upcoming lesson, catch-up on notes that they missed while absent or review a lesson that we’ve already covered in class. There is also a folder for homework/answer keys. I post answer keys only after we go over them in class. IXL is an online practice tool. In the IXL folder students can link to the IXL website and practice the specific topics that we’ve covered in class. Finally, I have an unpublished quiz in the folder. When the students are ready, I will publish the quiz (during class). They take the quiz online and get their score immediately. Not all topics are conducive to this type of assessment so this doesn’t exist in every folder.


This will be my second year using Schoology. I’m not an expert but I’ve attended and led several training sessions. Overall, I’m a fan and am happy to answer questions from other users or non-users.


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First Day of School in the Life of a Teacher

This is my second #DITL post, a timeline of our most awkward day of school.

530am: Alarm clock. This is the first time I’ve ever had a good night of sleep before the first day of school. It might be a sign of age but I’m going to chalk it up to my healthier lifestyle this summer. No one I went to college with would believe that I wake up at this hour (rather than go to bed at this hour) on a daily basis.

630am: Throw the tennis ball to Chance for 20 minutes. She hasn’t been crated much this summer and she’ll be in there for a long time today. I hope she sleeps until the dog-walker comes around noon. chance

740am: Homeroom period begins. I have a 9th grade homeroom, which means they are all new to the school, but it also means that they were all here last week for orientation. I check in with a few students who had special concerns last week: one who couldn’t get his locker open, one who didn’t have an 8th period class on her schedule, one who didn’t know how to find the gym. They’re all good. Homeroom is longer than usual today so that several special announcements can be made, but teachers are not told how long it will be extended. When the bells rings at 8:09, I realize that I’ll only see my first period class for 20 minutes. Flexibility is key.

830am: My two prep periods fall back-to-back, which is nice. I have a good 90 minutes to myself and a long to-do list. Unfortunately, I’m only able to check a few items off the list at the end of prep and I’ve added several others.

1058am: I’ve taught two Geometry classes and it’s time for lunch. My classroom is empty this period. After lunch I’ll teach Precalculus and three sections of Algebra 1. It’s tempting to eat at my desk and try to work on the to-do list some more. The afternoons will be busy and this could be some good quiet time. A collegue pops his head in “going downstairs for lunch?” I decide that its important to have a little time out of the classroom each day and I head down to the lunchroom for 25 minutes. I don’t regret this.

1215pm: I talk so much on the first day of school. There is a lot to go over and the students aren’t ready to contribute too much. I try to get them talking but I find myself filling a lot of silence and working extra hard to make them comfortable. We play “Make a Million” in teams and follow it with a conversation about strategy. I got this idea from @ddmeyer on Twitter. See his tweet here. I tell the same jokes, repeat the same policies, introduce myself the same way again and again on the first day of school. In the middle of this my Fitbit vibrates on my wrist, which means I’m getting a phone call. I ignore it. Then I forget about it.

253pm: The school day is over and I head down to the main hallway to monitor the locker area and help students find their way to the buses. I actually look forward to this 10 minute hall duty. My colleagues are there too and its a nice time to quickly debrief the day or catch up on the end of a story I was hearing at lunch. When the building is empty, I slowly make my way back to the classroom and take my feet out of my shoes. Ouch. I look at my cell phone for the first time since I got up this morning. Text from Annette “[Our dog walker] set off the alarm and police were at our house. They tried to call you. No answer.”

330pm: After going through all of my afternoon emails and cleaning up the classroom, I head out to my car (shoes in hand). I stop at our vet on the way home to pick up some more dog food and meds. When I get home, Chance is bouncing around inside her crate. I exhausted and she’s ready to play. I change my clothes, put her in the car and take her to the local park.

7pm: I’ve been to the grocery store, watered the new trees, washed dishes, packed lunch for tomorrow, answered a few more emails and now I’m sitting down for dinner. I managed to make something healthy and I’m feeling like that’s a big accomplishment right now.

730pm: Annette comes in from work and we catch-up for a few minutes before I pull out the precalculus textbook and start going over my lesson for tomorrow. I’m a little nervous about teaching this class for the first time and I want to be sure I have everything just right. I also spend some time updating my class websites since I’m planning on showing students how to access and best utilize them tomorrow.

10pm: I’m just about ready for bed. One last email check. Why did I do that? Email from department head came in four minutes ago, “Please have your study island classes established by the end of the school day tomorrow”. I know that I only have one prep period tomorrow and that long list is still on my desk.

11pm: My study island classes are established. G’nite.




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An August Day in the Life of a Teacher

I started this blog a few years ago in an attempt to chronicle my attitudes, strategies, challenges and accomplishments as I move through my career. I also hoped to give insight to non-educators about what goes into this job, and what makes it a profession. My third goal was to start dialogue with anyone interested, about difficult decision points along the way. Since then, I’ve enjoyed reflecting in this way, but had trouble making it a priority. When I do find time to write I feel a lot of satisfaction, so this year I’m recommitting (as I have each August). I’ve joined with a group of teacher/bloggers on a “Day in the Life” project in an attempt to be more intentional about reflection and to stay accountable.

I’ll post on (or near) the 20th of each month between now and next August. The posts will take the form of a timeline through my day, whether it’s a school day, a Sunday, a vacation day or any other day. I’ll also post on several key dates throughout the year: the first day of school, a snow day, Keystone testing day, etc. The second layer is that there are about 20 other classroom teachers doing the same thing, on different days of the month. We’ll each post on our own personal blogs, but send the posts to so that you could theoretically read a new “Day in the Life” post each day.

One of my major goals this year is to become a better educator, to “level-up”, by taking care of my own physical and emotional health and being more present with my students. This will be the result of many small changes, from drinking more water to spending more time outdoors to intentional reflection like this! I’ve tried to create these habits before the start of school so that I can continue them through the more stressful parts of my year.

August 16, 2016
6am: The puppy is whining. Silently, I roll out of bed and take her outside. Put food in the bowl and go back to bed. I’m sleep-walking. I’ve developed muscle memory for scooping poop.

645am: The puppy is whining. It’s my godchild’s 18th birthday. Wow. Send her a snapchat message. Time to start my day.

9am: I’ve had a shower and a light breakfast. I discovered Greek yogurt this summer. I put “The Yoga Loft” in my GPS and head to my second beginner yoga class.

1045am: The instructor encourages us to remind ourselves of why we are here. I think about my goal for the year and start to silently repeat my 2016 mantra, “Peace is a choice”. I almost fall asleep during meditation. I pick up a schedule on my way out the door. I hope I can keep this up during the school year. Then I remember, focus on the present moment. I’m doing it now. That’s what matters.

1130am: Annette comes home for lunch between meetings today. It’s rare for us to eat lunch together, sitting down even! We talk about what needs to be done around the house this week. I text out an invitation for game-night tomorrow.

145pm: Email from the assistant principal. I will be paid with real money, instead of professional development credit, for the class I taught yesterday about our new electronic discipline referral system. Sweet! Spend much of the afternoon looking through standardized test data after a conversation with principal at school yesterday afternoon.

6pm: Make dinner… eat dinner… clean up dinner… feed dogs…

730pm: Target trip to stock our “supply closet” before September; we never find time to go to Target in September so we’ve made this an August tradition. Toilet paper, toothpaste, Swiffers, dish soap, Tide, etc.

9pm: Blanch and freeze a dozen ears of fresh corn to enjoy this winter when nothing tastes good. Water the new trees that were planted in our yard – strict watering schedule.

1030pm: Goodnight.

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