Achieving Depth

It has been a few weeks since I last wrote and spring has ignited a new beginning within me to express some of the thoughts lingering in my brain about education. I feel as if my mind and body are slowly creeping out of winter hibernation and figured that it was about time I expressed my thinking.

visible-learning-for-literacy-John-Hattie-Fisher-Frey-squareI am currently reading Visible Learning for Literacy by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie and have been captivated by the third chapter called Deep Literacy Learning.  I am always wondering how to achieve the slowing down and depth in learning and this chapter got me thinking:

  • How do we know if we are surface level teaching versus deep level teaching ?
  • Do our students demonstrate at least a year’s worth of learning during the ten months that they are with us? If not, why? Yikes! Deep question!
  • How do we get our students into “the pit of not knowing” and make this type of learning fun and powerful?
  • How did we get to a place where we put more weight on “covering the curriculum” instead of achieving depth?
  • How do we consistently make metacognition an integral part of our classroom and engage our students in thinking about their thinking?

Can you believe that “the ability to think more metacognitively begins around age 3 and develops into adulthood“? I was blown away by this.  We need to plan for metacognitive thinking within our classrooms at any age because to gain depth in learning our students must be able to think about and reflect on their learning. So what will we do differently and/or how can we incorporate metacognitive thinking in our day to day?

One thing mentioned, that is easy to implement, is how we speak to our students. A suggestion from Visible Learning for Literacy is to say “What are you learning?” rather than “What are you doing?” Or ask them “tell me what you understand so far?” I believe that if we take the time to listen, really listen, we will know if the students are gaining depth in understanding. Ask good questions and figure out what they do and don’t understand. Let your students do the talking and thinking.

Ultimately, we need to know and understand our students to understand if depth is being achieved. In the resource, they speak of strategies that have the biggest impact on student learning and what I appreciate is thinking about these strategies because they are the ones that I have been working really hard to achieve: classroom discussion, feedback, formative evaluation to name a few. Do you know which strategies are working to improve student achievement in your classroom? I encourage you to take some time and reflect on this to evaluate your programming. Ask yourself “is what we are doing working?” If it isn’t, “am I willing to change, or will I always do what I have done?”

I don’t have all the answers to the challenges we face in teaching, but I am thinking about my thinking and constantly asking myself questions and engaging in conversation with other educators.

“If you turn too quickly to the next set o’ facts, without giving students sufficient time and tools to go deeper, they will quickly learn that surface learning is what you value, and in turn, surface learning is all that you will get.”

Visit the following link to watch the webinar on the resources Visible Learning for Literacy.

Yours in learning,





The Power of Mathematic Manipulatives

Before I get into the mathematics thinking, I would like to say that these last two blog posts are about two lovely educators who were open to new learning experiences, were risk takers in their profession and by collaborating expressed a vulnerability in their own learning.  It’s not easy to have someone come into your space and I thank you both for welcoming me! When you are as lucky as I am to work with educators who open up to a collaborative experience, wholeheartedly, the learning and growth as professionals and the growth that you see in your students is exponential.

Now back to the math.

Within a 3/4 class, the educator and I followed the same principle of choosing the big ideas from Big Ideas from Dr. Small: Creating a Comfort Zone for Teaching Mathematics and then aligned this thinking with the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum. Our focus for this classroom was patterning with Small’s big ideas:

  • Patterns represent identified regularities. There is always an element of repetition.
  • The mathematics structure of a pattern can be represented in a variety of ways.

A few goals the educator outlined in our pre-conference was to increase the mathematics talk among her students and to move towards more hands on learning. To do this, we made a huge effort to incorporate mathematics manipulatives in as many lessons as possible and to decrease the amount of time we spoke.

We used a three-part math lesson approach with a IMG_2097.JPGMinds On to get the students thinking and to activate some prior knowledge before sending them off to the Action portion of the lesson. In the Action section, we tended to have problems or tasks to determine their current understanding and then leverage our observations/documentation/exit cards to push their thinking from the previous day. From there we identified misconceptions and addressed these in the Consolidation portion of the three-part math lesson.  IMG_1985There were also moments where explicit teaching had to occur; we needed to solidify concepts.

Like most classrooms, the students could create simple patterns, but what we found was that they had trouble visualizing or identifying patterns that were not presented in a simplistic way. We “played” with manipulatives for a very long time – identifying the parts that repeat and moved to identifying and creating more challenging patterns.

This was trying at times because, quite often, we wanted to move forward in the learning and teach the next concept for patterns. But we didn’t. We stayed strong and stuck with where the students were. After, what seemed to be a long time, we then introduced the use of a table to record the term number and number of objects to make the identification of patterns easier.

As students worked with manipulatives, it was easy to see student talk increasing because the students were doing the work and collaborating with partners. The hands on learning made the educators goals achievable.

I can recall, from my past teaching experiences, how I spent so little time with manipulatives at the intermediate level. I made assumptions that my students could identify the patterns, create the patterns and then extend the patterns because I told them how to do it. This strand was “easy”.  I could polish it off in two weeks, just in time for reporting. If I only knew then, what I know now: depth vs. width, slow down, stay with it until they truly understand it.


I also wish I had known how critical manipulatives are to the learning and this experience taught me was that by having students use manipulatives on a daily basis, with purpose, we could make student gains in conceptual understanding.

If you aren’t using manipulatives, you really should consider it. Throw out the idea that they are chaotic or messy and embrace the idea that they are tools to enhance the learning. If you are planning purposefully and being transparent with your students about why we use the mathematics manipulatives, there should be next to no engagement issues. 

Yours in learning,


Measuring in the Primary Years

Over a five week period, an educator and I embarked on figuring out how to teach students an understanding of the linear measurement concepts in the primary years. We began the journey by spending a half day isolating the big ideas from Marian Smalls text Big Ideas From Dr. Small K-3: Creating a Comfort Zone for Teaching Mathematics:

  • A measurement is a comparison of the size of one object with the size of another.
  • The same object can be described by using different measurements.
  • Knowledge of the size of benchmarks assists in measuring.

We then aligned these big ideas with specific expectations from the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum and then planned an overview of how the unit would unfold. By narrowing the focus on a few big ideas and specific curriculum expectations we were hoping to simplify assessment and have a better grasp on what the students know and don’t know and then teach to the gaps in their understanding.

IMG_2012.JPGThis journey we took taught me how crucial it is to determine what mathematics concepts needs to be understood first, spend time with that idea until the students “get it” and then layer in the next specific expectation or understandings that make sense sequentially. How we teach matters.

So the first thing we tackled was to have the students measure objects using non-standard units. They had manipulatives such as paper clips, cubes and they also used their hands.  Through various tasks, the students let us know that they didn’t quite grasp how to use the non-standard unit properly. We had to slow the thinking down and have demonstrations or tasks that would allow the students to understand that there cannot be gaps between each unit and that keeping our unit straight was key.

While watching the lessons on non-standard IMG_2018.JPGunits unfold, it made me truly think about how we take a lot of things for granted as educators or make assumptions that our students will simply know how to use a tool to measure because we told them how. We need to make time for students to practice and uncover the curriculum expectations at the right pace and the right time.

After a number of lessons, we had a formative assessment to see if the students understood how to measure using a non-standard unit. For those that were still struggling, we gave attention to the next day to solidify and improve their understanding – it’s essentially the guided group for mathematics!

From this point forward, we then introduced a variety of other concepts such as the standard unit, estimation, and using benchmarks. There isn’t time to go over all of the brilliance that transpired in this primary classroom and how the above concepts were developed. Nor do I want you to have to spend hours reading a measurement novel, but I will share how lovely it was to hear students say that the bigger unit of measurement the less you need!

I share this experience and want to list what I learned:

  • slow the learning down
  • do not assume anything
  • by being focused on a few big ideas, we actually did cover the curriculum
  • formative assessment is awesome
  • confident that the students had a solid understanding of measurement concepts.

Yours in mathematics,




Let’s Talk Math

Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 10.43.40 AM.pngIt’s hard not to think of mathematics today in Ontario classrooms when, as of September 2016, the Ontario Ministry of Education has dedicated $60 million to a Renewed Math Strategy (@RMSontario ). I can remember during the first part of my career the focus on literacy and how it took a long decade to implement and see achievement among our students. I say this because I think it is important that we remember the time and dedication it will take to make and see improvements in mathematics. This is no easy feat and will require some drastic changes to our teaching practices and ideas around math. By no means will we see improvements after ten months and we should also prepare to see a possible dip as changes are occurring. It, quite possibly, could take a long decade to design and plan for effective mathematics within our classrooms.

There is a lot of pressure on educators, and rightly so. Numeracy skills are an integral part of our lives as adults so we must have numerate students. What I want to say is that with this pressure you must decide what to work on within your mathematics program and stick with it. Slow down in the learning to really understand what your students know and don’t know. You can’t do it all in ten months so choose a focus and get good at facilitating it!

Where are there gaps in your learning within the mathematics curriculum? For me, I am still trying to build my content knowledge, which means I am really trying to collaborate with my colleagues to understand the Mathematics Curriculum. What do my students need to learn? What did they learn in the previous grade? What will the learn in the following grade? If I don’t understand how the maths works and the variety of strategies for the working with these concepts, how will I teach my students? No longer are the days of following the textbooks from front to back because, quite often, there are concepts in those textbooks that are not in our curriculum!

Over the next week, my plan is to share two fantastic learning experiences I have had with three different educators within the mathematics world. The excitement we had as educators and with our students was memorable and by sharing with you, I am hoping to show that the learning is slow and requires collaboration and time. If you didn’t catch my blog about practice within mathematics, you can read it here Practice, Practice and More Practice.

Yours in learning,


P.S. Make sure you check out all the great hashtags on Twitter for thinking and learning around mathematics! (#ldsbmathleads #ldsb #ontmathed #elemmathchat  #RMSOntario #mathchat)

Finding That “Right” Book

My world recently became connected to, which is run by @mariamartella. If you check out their website (and you should!), this company is the official wholesaler for The Forest of Reading– a program run by the Ontario Library Association. Tinlids also allows you to search by themes and categories; making finding the right book much easier!

I listened to Maria Martella give fabulous books talks on approximately 40 book titles and I came away with a wonderful selection of picture books, non fiction texts and novels. Just hearing her speak of each book made me want to find a comfortable chair and snuggle in with a pile of books to read for a whole week!TINLIDS.PNG

This got me thinking about independent reading,again. I cannot express how crucial our job is as educators to connect students to great books. @mariamartella had two quotes that continue to resonate:

“Do not make assumptions about your students” when it comes to what they want or need to read.

“We need to see ourselves or each other in the literature” that we read.

As educators, we need to put a great deal of effort into finding the right book, at the right time for our students. What is going on in their world that can be enhanced by a good book?

I can remember a grade 8 student of mine who was “not into reading” and I had made it my mission to find the right book for him. I will not lie, it took a long while, but when I put I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier in his hands on a Thursday, he came back on Monday wanting to know what he should read next. His reading was not about comprehension or fluency; he had it all. This student just needed to connect to a world of books that he did not know existed and Cormier gave that to him. From that book forward, I now had the problem of finding books every week for this student and what a great problem to have.

It can be frustrating trying to find the right book or finding the resources to be able to build a classroom library, but I ask this, if we don’t hook them onto reading, who will? You may spend months trying to hook a student to reading, but when you do, the inspiration and motivation of accomplishing this is priceless.

No matter what subject we teach, or grade, it is our job to open the world of books to our students! Remember to check out the #ldsb #myreadinglife for possible suggestions.

On a final note, I am excited to read The Wild Robot by Peter Brown because I heard from @mariamartella that “robots are the new vampire” and I need to see what that is all about!

Yours in reading,


200 Words a Day

As a challenge for myself, for the past few weeks, I have been attempting to write 200 words per day. I wanted to try something new, but also to gain a better understanding of the writing process by writing. It is tough to think about and create a writing program for your students when you, yourself, are not engaging in the practice. As the old adage says, “practice what you preach.”

Through this adventure in writing, I have found that I am now, more often then not, paying closer attention to the written word. As I read a variety of texts, I will catch myself contemplating the use of a certain punctuation. I will catch myself re-reading a sentence or paragraph because of its magical flow.

I ask myself questions about how I could recreate and use this structure in my own work?How can I use a comma in my writing the way the author used it here? It is also expanding my vocabulary.

It’s exciting that, in my very late 30s, I can dig deeper than I ever have in my educational life and finally have a connection with reading and writing that I so craved in my teens and 20s. You are never too old to learn. You are never too old to write!

If we want to improve our teaching, one simply way is to find more time in our life to read and write just as our students do.

Yours in writing,


This is Exciting! Bill! Bill! Bill!

Bill Nye Saves The World is a new show airing on Netflix. Here’s how they describe it: Bill Nye – science guy, educator, mechanical engineer, and curator of curiosity – returns with a new show. Each episode of Bill Nye Saves the World tackles a specific topic or concept through lively panel discussions, wide-ranging correspondent…

via Video: New Bill Nye Show Begins In April — Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…