Family Math Night – Gr. 6

This year our school hosted a family math night on the theme “Math Is Everywhere”.  These are words that teachers say all of the time.  The intention with the St. Gregory math  night was to make those words come to life.  We focused on HOW to see the math that is everywhere.

My grade 6 class is in the middle of learning about Data Management, specifically how to, “read, describe, and interpret data, and explain relationships between sets of data.”

We started by looking at the data that defines the different parts of our city.  My friend, Jamie Louis, connected us with some amazing resources made available through the City of Toronto:

Students identified some key information on each of the Ward Profiles, and crunched these numbers to find the mean and median from each set of data.  We compared those values to the mean and median values for the whole city too.

When that was all finished the class took some time to reflect on how blessed they are to live and go to school in their Ward.  Check out these examples!!

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Family Math Night – Gr. 5

This year our school hosted a family math night on the theme “Math Is Everywhere”.  These are words that teachers say all of the time.  The intention with the St. Gregory math  night was to make those words come to life.  We focused on HOW to see the math that is everywhere.

My grade 5 class is in the middle of learning about 3D Geometry, specifically how to, “identify and classify two-dimensional shapes by side and angle properties, and compare and sort three-dimensional figures.”

We started by looking for examples of 3D geometry around the world.  We drew a lot, then we thought about our drawings:

Collage 1Collage 2

Students had to apply their knowledge of 3D shapes and start thinking about how those shapes (and their elements) make up the world around them.

To quote a parent “Killing 2 birds with 1 stone….Math AND learning about the world out there.  Nice!”  

She nailed it.  Not only does this kind of learning expose the complexity of shapes, but it also gives students lenses with which to wonder and discuss “the world”.

A Big Thank You To Sunil Singh

*On Thursday November 23rd, 2017, my students and I had the opportunity to host Sunil Singh for a day full of math, creative exploration, and sheer joy.  What follows is an extended thank you and attempt to articulate how profoundly our day together has impacted my learning.

Dear Sunil,

In September, I stumbled across an excerpt from Pi Of Life on social media.  I had been thinking of ways to put more joy into mathematics for a while, but finding meaningful PD on the topic of joyful learning was (and is) very hard…especially in math.

While reading Pi Of Life, I tweeted and blogged out my thoughts (here and here):


Often, you responded.


The day that I got a message from you asking if you could come to my class, a huge smile took over my face.  Last night, that very same smile was still on my face as I went to bed.

Here are a few scattered thoughts and bits of learning that really stuck out:

Place Value Charts

I’m never going to look at a place value chart the same way.  This chart has always been a cool visual for me, but, after yesterday’s lessons, I’m beginning to see how powerful this chart is as a tool for learning.  It makes difficult concepts like division come alive.  

Simple Problems That Lead to Complex Thinking

Starting the day by asking “when might 4 – 1 not equal 3?” hooked the room right away.  The question was a true puzzle.  It was a real problem.  So often we work hard to craft problems that elicit a particular kind of thinking, but all those problems really do is make kids “work”.  Working and thinking are not always the same thing.  

Teaching Honestly

This was perhaps my favourite side conversation of the day.  You told me how “kids can spot the difference” between honest teaching and curriculum delivery.  Honest teaching requires an educator to make a connection with his/her students and subject matter.  It requires teachers to infuse meaning into learning.  While this was not a new idea, it mattered more to me when you said it yesterday.  As I watched you excitedly jump, cheer, and question kids, all I could think about was how contagious your love of mathematics was in our little classroom.  The work was interesting, but your love of/for the work made it matter.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.


…and here are some more voices expressing their thanks 🙂


Heavy On Feedback, Light On Marks

In my teaching I try to stick to an assessment/evaluation mantra:

Heavy on feedback, light on marks.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, even the best evaluation is a little flawed.  In the elementary grades we’re really lucky to have an evaluation process that is based on grades and not numbers.  This kind of evaluation offers up a range, instead of an exact numeric grade, and  it’s connected to the most recent and consistent results possible.  In that range we, teachers, get to say “some days you’re like this, other days you’re like that, but overall, you’re kinda in this zone”.

Second, feedback (the good kind) pushes learning forward.  It’s invitation to grow.  “Try to add more of this.”  “What if you did a little less of that?”  “Consider this alternative approach.”

Third, feedback humanizes learning.  Evaluation, while an efficient manner of reporting to others, kind of dehumanizes and judges learning. Someone saying “let’s make this better” is a whole lot different than someone saying “you’re 72% right.”

So what does this kind of feedback look like in class?

My grade fives have been learning to write biographies.  Their learning cycle has looked like this:

1. Students read 2 biographies, and identified some elements that they thought might be important.


Students wrote a biography based on a timeline of Viola Desmond.

We added to our list of elements that might be important.  


Based on those elements, we interviewed a teacher at our school, Mme Bahsous. 

Students wrote a free write biography based on the answers to their interview questions.

They combined free writes to write a more formal biography of Mme Bahsous.

They gave each other feedback.  They also discussed which feedback was the most helpful and the least helpful.


And that’s where we’re at now.  Next they will:

1. Fix their second drafts (based on the feedback that they received), and rewrite and pass on our work to our audience (Mme Bahsous).

2. Finally, each student will go through a version of this cycle one last time, alone, to show her/his learning.

If each of these steps was evaluated, then I doubt the process would work.  Feedback, on the other hand, has pushed student learning forward.  Each piece of writing has been better.  Students have grown as writers.  

Marks shouldn’t start to appear until the lion’s share of the growth has happened.  Otherwise, we shut that learning down.

Hacking The Diamante

In my early years of teaching a colleague insisted that I “had to” teach diamante poems  in writing.  I remember her insisting that they were “easy to use.” “Kids get it.”  ”It’s an easy poetry mark.”

So I cringed and did it.  They were easy.  They offered no chance for children to think.

This was a perfect example of “doing poetry” instead of writing.


I vowed never to use them again.  

… until today.

I was thinking about empathy and the opportunities that we have at school to encourage our students to explore tensions between differing perspectives.  The diamante, when used properly, is  a wonderful tool to expose these tensions. Moreover, writing these poems encourages students to think about perspectives that might challenge their own.

So, I’m going to hack the diamante to try to make it something of value.

I’ll also use it for a writing mark 😉

Tweets like these have started to appear more frequently in my feed:


They’ve got me going back to a post that I wrote about a year ago advocating for more teachers to show kids how to lie convincingly.  The need for this kind of learning gets stronger every day.  Our kids need to be equipped with strategies and skills to help them figure out when someone is deceiving them.  They also need a safe place to practice this kind of thinking and they need safe people with whom to discuss these ideas.

Over the last two weeks my students and I have begun to wade into this complex thinking.  I’d like to share our progress so far.

Step 1: Introduce the idea with a little help from Phil Shapiro.

I wanted to see what my students already new.  What ideas were already floating around in their minds?  I showed them this clip by Phil Shapiro and asked them what they thought.

“Start with a real problem.”

“Stick close to the truth.”

“Support with maps and charts that are also close to the truth.”

And my personal favourite: “make the audience feel sad/guilty so that they won’t ask questions.”

*More here.

Step 2: Work on vocabulary.

I found that a lot of my students were able to point out things that were fishy with Phil’s video; however, they didn’t have the words to describe and explain their thoughts.  In an attempt to empower them with language, I showed them this poster.  Together, we translated the terms into language that was accessible for all of the students in class.


*pdf version.

Click here to take a look at our class definitions.

We then used these terms to describe some pretty silly examples of fake science:


Step 3: Start thinking about how we might use these tricks.

Next I shared a rule from the school’s code of conduct that I knew the students hated:

At lunch time students are expected to sit at their desks.

We brainstormed out a few ways that we might provide some alternative facts that might help to get this rule changed:


Step 4: Start writing in a safe and friendly environment.

I knew that thinking about/reading alternative facts was different than writing using alternative facts.  So I modeled the process for my class.  I created this example for my students to use when taking their first steps into writing convincing lies.  I used many of the ideas that they brainstormed in in the previous lesson.  (Yes there are some spelling mistakes.  Yes I have scratched some things out. Kids need to see our drafts and revisions too.)


Here are two of my students flexing their media literacy muscles while reading my work:

Finally I let the kids partner up and write their own version of this piece of work.  I encouraged them to borrow and remix from the sample that I had provided.

Their work is wonderful, but it’s still in draft form.  While I’m comfortable sharing my drafts, I want to honour their learning and not share their work until they give me the green light.

(I’m sure I’ll have some great examples to share soon.)

Next steps: hand this over to my students.  We will be working on at least one more shared draft.  We’ll be using this graphic organizer and new writing topics.  We’ll also be looking more and more for alternative fact stories in the news.

In the words of my friend Luke McPherson, “our students need critical media literacy skills more now than ever!”  These are not skills that they will need in the future; they are skills that they need now.


Earlier this week I read a great post from Forbes Magazine titled The Lie Of Perfection.  It’s an opinion piece.  There’s no mention of mindsets, grit or stick-to-it-ness.  Instead, it’s a simple post that exposes some dangers associated with being perfect.

“Perfection is a cruel, unreachable goal.”

“It’s a refusal to accept complexity and reality. There are no perfect mothers, bosses, workers, victims, athletes, thinkers, or leaders. There are no perfect people.”

As I read the post, I wondered about so many people in my life.  I also wondered about assessment/evaluation in our schools and how our current system perpetuates some pretty gross “cruelty” and doesn’t make space for “complexity”.

(I’m not only talking about grades; I’m talking about the judgement that’s so embedded in the way that we teach and learn in schools.  At some point, someone will judge how close to “perfect” all students (and teachers) have come.)

Maybe we ought to look to cooking as a way of learning?

If you type “perfect chicken noodle soup” into a search engine, here’s what you’ll get:


Each chef will have a different version of perfection.

Many will defend the merits of their recipes.

Some will read all of the recipes and try to sort it out for themselves.

A very small group will play with recipes and see how much better they can make their soup the next time.

I’m trying, imperfectly, to teach the last type of thinking to my students.