How’s Your Math Mindset?

Are you one of those folks who is “bad” at math? And are you convinced there’s no way, ever, that will change? Read on, my friends!

Today’s post is a guest contribution by Dedra Downing. Dedra and I connected through the Innovative Teaching Academy, and I’m happy to welcome her to the blog! You can see her bio below her post. Enjoy!

How’s Your Math Mindset?

By Dedra Downing


I had the opportunity a few years ago to hear Jo Boaler speak at a District Presentation. At the time the district was learning more about math talks, and looking at how we teach math. Since that time I have changed some of my practices to include more math talks, eliminate timed tests, and approach math problems with students demonstrating multiple ways of thinking.

This summer I had an opportunity to read Jo Boaler’s new book,  Mathematical Mindsets, Unleashing Students; Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching, as well as take the Mathematical Mindset On-line course through youcubed at Stanford University. I am really finding the book and coursework challenging how I think about math teaching. Teaching math the old way of straight calculation is just not assisting my young students to be true problem solvers. Students who are quick to calculate stand out in our classrooms but math isn’t about being fast. I am more concerned about inspiring students to face challenges, persevere, work collaboratively, and find multiple ways to solve problems. I think one of the most inspiring things I read in Jo Boaler’s book was . . .

“I am a strong supporter of teachers, and I know that the No Child Left Behind era stripped the professionalism and enthusiasm of many teachers as they were forced (and I choose that word carefully) to use teaching methods that they knew to be unhelpful. An important part of my work with teachers now is to help them regain their sense of professionalism”  Jo Boaler

I appreciated this statement as well as her resources, books, and online coursework.

The on-line course had a wonderful interview with Carol Dweck, a pioneering researcher from Stanford on Growth Mindset. They talked about the research that especially shows a fixed mindset around mathematics and how many parents and teachers can send messages to students that perpetuate the feeling that math is a gift you either have or don’t have.  The online course can be done slowly with many videos and time to give and get feedback from peers.

The book has been wonderful, filled with research and examples. It talks about the struggle of mistakes and the fact that your brain will recognize a mistake even if you are not aware. The brain shows more activity and more synapses.  She talks about math tasks that meet learners at all levels eliminating the need to track students. She guides teachers to look at assessments and feedback carefully. She has made math seem beautiful and filled with possibilities of adventure and discovery.  The youcube webpage also has activities available to teachers to use and her ongoing research that she continues to do in the area of teaching math.

But don’t just take my word for it . . . listen to Jo Boaler in this Ted Talk

Dee DownDedra Downing is a 24 year veteran teacher in California. She has taught primary grades. She has a Bachelors in Child Development and Masters in Educational Administration. She enjoys playing her harp, crocheting, and creating lessons that inspire her students to grow.


The 8 most useful innovation tools for your elementary classroom — #1 and #2: The Reading and Writing Strategies Books

As my 4th grade team and I moved into the final quarter of last year, we realized we were REALLY tired of teaching writing the way we had been. WE came up with a genre, taught lessons that helped kids understand what that genre encapsulated, then let them choose their topics. Most of the time. Sometimes, we chose the umbrella topic (famous Americans prior to 1800, a personal story, a story that had to involve fantasy elements) and let them go from there. It was how we’d taught writing for years, and it just wasn’t getting it done for us anymore.

Or the students. Every time we’d say, “We’ll be starting a new writing piece today,” kids would groan. Not the best moments in a former journalist’s life, having 9- and 10-year-olds actively express their disgruntlement at writing.

Enter the Strategies books. We had seen The Reading Strategies Book earlier in the year, and expressed our undying appreciation that someone had written a book that wasn’t a curriculum, but a well-thought out collection of mini lessons a person could use anytime, anywhere, with almost anyone. For example, in The Reading Strategies Book, you’ll find lessons on vocabulary (“Say It Out Loud”), themes and ideas (“Compare Lessons Across Books in a Series”), and text features (“Cracking Open Headings”). All of the lessons in Jennifer Serravallo’s books are ONE PAGE. Already, a huge weight is off of your shoulders; you don’t have to read the entire chapter to get to the good stuff! On that one page, you’ll find the strategy, language you can use and/or adapt for your lesson, prompts to get kids engaged, and an anchor chart you are welcome to copy and hang in your own classroom.

When we heard there was a Writing Strategies Book, we had to have it. And it informed that fourth quarter of our teaching. Instead of telling kids in what genre they had to write, we brainstormed what kids COULD write. With the kids! Topics and methods of presentation were discussed. We created a Personal writing proposal sheet that had to be filled out, and made sure everyone knew how much time they had left to write their masterpieces. Our expectations were laid out from the beginning: you must write at least one piece, you must follow the writing process, you must fill out a proposal sheet and be approved for every piece you write, and you must confer with teachers and students. A few kids were given more direct instructions (our sped kids, and those who wrote about the same topic all year long), but otherwise, we gave complete freedom of choice.

It was love. My colleague of almost 15 years looked at me and said, “Why haven’t we ALWAYS done it this way?!?” We were excited about what the kids were choosing to do, and they were excited about being able to do it. The Writing Strategies Book was key to this entire process; without the focus of mini lessons, our kids would have had pieces done, but not improved their writing. With it (and the freedom of choice), the quality of writing improved exponentially. Examples of lessons I taught to individuals, small groups, and the entire class were “Organize in Sequence” (also a way to include transitions), “Nonfiction Leads”, and “Create Urgency”. Targeted lessons when kids needed them were much more effective than the lessons I’d been teaching whole class before.

We also discovered that our conferring was less critical and more productive. After reading this post from George Couros, I realized that this way of teaching writing would help my students grow instead of stifling them. I’m a Grammar Hammer (admittedly; I even have a t-shirt!), but I try my best in student conferences to put aside editing in favor of content. This book really helped me have a focus, and helped me FIND the focus I needed for different kids and groups.

When we finished, we had more products than we had ever imagined. Stories and list articles and persuasive essays, yes, but also internet quizzes (Which book character are you?), how-to books (How To Avoid Embarrassment Due to Flatulence), advice for annoying younger siblings, and the beginnings of an interactive slide show pitting fictional monsters against each other “Celebrity Death Match”-style. It was amazing to see the creativity expressed when there were no preplanned expectations for the end product. One of the main differences was that kids had a different audience in mind for these pieces. Instead of writing for the teacher, they were writing for specific folks in the world. Lightbulbs, big time.

From this entire experience, we have decided to run our writing workshop this way ALL YEAR. Yes, we’ll occasionally need to let kids know what they need to write. Yes, we’ll need to make sure that all kids write in all of our learning-goal-driven genres. But will kids love writing more? YES. And with authentic audiences for their pieces, this switch to kid-driven writing will create better people, better able to communicate their ideas to the wider world. And isn’t that the point of innovation?


Cleanliness is next to innovationness

clean We bit the bullet this week and hired a professional housecleaning service. Our time seems to be dwindling away now that the girls are older, and it seemed like the right time. After a few hours of “straightening”, I felt like the house looked good enough to have someone else come in and take care of the rest. Although the consensus from the smaller people was that it now looked “weird” (read: no visible signs of children living in the house, i.e. Barbies, bits of paper, and Lego everywhere), I found myself more relaxed already.

I’ll admit, I felt weird having other people take care of a job I can do myself. I know how I judge, and I’m sure there was internal judging going on with the four folks who showed up, but they had a job to do, and this wasn’t a courtroom. They did the “deep clean”, which means they looked at and tackled things we hadn’t considered since we moved in 8 years ago. I had some skepticism – could it REALLY be better than we could do, or were we just throwing in the towel because we’d gotten too far behind?

The results were more positive than negative. It was TERRIFIC to have everything done. We generally hit a few things on the weekends and let other things go, but this was everything. (My baseboards are gleaming! It’s amazing!) There were a few spots that were missed, but we were pleased with the end product. And we have no cleaning to do this weekend, which is a load off of our minds. We can actually have FUN and not worry about all the chores that need to be done!

All of this made me think about how hiring someone to clean is like trying a new tech tool, or other “innovative” product. Sure, I could do what I’ve always done and be partly satisfied, but is there someone or something else that could help make my life easier/better/more complete? There is a great possibility the answer will be yes. Will there be things I don’t like? Of course. Will I need to do some things to maintain the status quo, things I’m comfortable with and have done for years? Yes. But, overall, will my life be better because of this tool/product/experience? Absolutely.

I’ve also started to reevaluate my definition of innovation. In my mind, innovation has been that HUGE thing you do to make a HUGE change in your classroom. Going 1-to-1 was like that for me. Huge change, and therefore, innovation. But was it? Or was it just substitution? Now, I’m thinking innovation is what you do in increments, trying new programs, apps, and systems, in order to make things run more smoothly. Which means I’ve been innovating for years, and just didn’t know it. And so have you.

Below is a list of the 7 tools* I use all the time, and that I feel have helped me innovate in my classroom. The plan is to discuss each in more depth in future posts instead of extending this one further, but feel free to investigate or comment if you wish.

  1. Google Classroom  G Classroom.jpeg
  2. Google Drive  Drive.jpeg
  3. Twitter twitter.png
  4. Remind Remind.png
  5. Flipgrid Flipgrid.png
  6. Global Read Aloud GRA.jpeg
  7. The Writing Strategies Book, Writing Strategies book.jpeg and
  8. The Reading Strategies Book Reading Strategies book.jpeg

I’d appreciate hearing about anything you use that you find indispensable, as innovation is all about getting better all the time!


*I am not being compensated for advertising, I just love these!