Tag Archives: curriculum writing

A Tale of Two Districts (a.k.a. The Hour I Can’t Get Back)

Today I participated in a webinar put on by Education Week called “A Tale of Two Districts: Making Curricular Decisions for the Common Core”. You can watch the webinar yourself right now if you’d like, or you can just download the PowerPoint presentation. Here’s the description of the webinar from their web site:

Two districts on opposite sides of the country faced the same problem: They needed new common-core curricula. They solved that problem in very different ways. The Orange County, Fla., district scoured the marketplace and found sets of materials from a major publisher that it believes meets its needs. The Long Beach, Calif., disenchanted with publishers’ offerings and short on money, wrote its own materials. Join leaders from each district’s curriculum-and-instruction office as they discuss their different pathways to common-core curriculum.

I guess I was hoping for a bit more from the webinar, something that was pertinent to curricular decisions regarding the Common Core standards. However, I can’t say that anything I heard today was particularly novel or eye opening.

Let me summarize this tale for you. One district, Orange County Public Schools, decided to be more thoughtful in how they selected textbook materials. Instead of letting just any teacher help review materials, they made teachers apply to join the review committee. Candidates had to meet minimum requirements like showing growth from year to year in student tests scores. They also needed to have taught for at least 3 years.

The district made a lengthy rubric for the teachers to use as they evaluated various textbook materials. Exciting in theory, but the multi-page rubric made me think that serving on this textbook review committee would be a tad tedious for me. In the end, I’m not sure what any of this has to do with Common Core specifically, but I guess I appreciate that Common Core got them to add more rigor to their review process.

The last thing they did that stood out was put a focus on digital components. Again, I don’t see how that’s particularly a Common Core issue. Sure, the market for digital products has grown parallel to Common Core, but I don’t feel that one has necessarily driven the other.

The other district we heard from, Long Beach Unified School District, went a different route. They created their own Common Core-aligned curriculum materials. (Here is math and here is ELA.) However, the reason they did it is not as sexy or rebellious as it sounds. It turns out that in California the next adoption cycle for ELA materials isn’t until 2015, and the next cycle for math isn’t until 2016. They had the option to purchase some supplemental bridge materials, but they didn’t think that was sufficient or worth the money. Instead, they decided to create their own curriculum materials rather than wait a few years to buy them.

I’m not knocking the time and effort that it probably took to make the materials. In fact, it sounds like it was a great learning experience for them, and they feel that teacher buy-in with the materials has been high. They attribute it to the fact that the materials were made by a select group of their own teachers. I hope that that’s true and not just an anecdote from one school in the district.

It sounds like teachers in this district can choose whether they use the district-made materials, but after hearing more from the speaker, I can imagine most teachers only find this to be the illusion of choice. For each district-made unit, there are a set of goals outlined at the beginning. Regardless of which instructional materials you use, you have to teach towards those goals. The reason for this is because all teachers must use the same district-created assessment materials at the end of each unit. The speaker did mention that they have collected teacher feedback, and they are going to revise the curriculum materials. I wish she could have gone into that more. I’d love to know more about what worked, what didn’t, and how teachers felt about it.

Teacher buy-in is a tough nut to crack. Teachers are obviously over worked, so it makes sense that they can’t all make their own curriculum materials, at least not in the quantity required for an entire year’s worth of teaching. However, if the school or district administration provides ready-made curriculum materials, you don’t have to wait long to hear teachers complaining about it.

If I heard the guy from Orange County Public Schools correctly, his district employs 12,000 teachers! How in the world do you get teacher buy-in at that scale? From how he made it sound, teachers in the district are required to use the adopted curriculum. This sounds very authoritarian, but the reasoning he gave is that they have a lot of mobility in the district so they want to ensure consistency for students that change schools.

Where teachers have flexibility is with the supplemental instructional materials that they use for intervention, remediation, enrichment, etc. It sounds like they have a list of materials and teachers can pick and choose what they’d like to use.

I wonder if this district has systems in place to verify that the core curriculum materials are being taught across the district and with what kind of fidelity. I also wonder how happy teachers are in this district. Considering the number of teachers, I’m sure opinions are across the spectrum, but I would still love to know more about how successful these policies are and how they affect teacher morale and their sense of autonomy.

So in the end, the webinar did get me thinking about a few things, but I can’t say it was really worth the hour of my time. Basically I learned that districts still have to make decisions about instructional materials, just like they’ve done for forever. The only difference is that Common Core has possibly made districts more careful and thoughtful about the choices they are making. All in all, that doesn’t sound so bad.


Seeing Our Curriculum In Action, Part 4

Today I’m sharing the last set of observation notes from when I did site visits four years ago in classrooms using our digital curriculum. If you missed the previous three sets of notes, you can read them here, here, and here.

This set of notes is a bit different than the previous sets because I did more classroom hopping. I also attended a meeting that included several folks from my company and several folks from the school. I thought about skipping this set of notes altogether, but there are some interesting nuggets, so I thought I’d go ahead and share them.

As always, I have removed any identifying information that would indicate the school or teacher. Other than that, I have left my notes as they were written so you can “hear” my thoughts from four years ago. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text.

Site Visit Notes

This visit started with a meeting between some folks from our company, the instructional coaches assigned to the school, the principal, and the school’s own ELA and math coaches.

Here are a few interesting points from this meeting:

Pacing – The math coach was a little concerned about the scope and sequence for math. She didn’t understand why decimals were taught with place value. The teachers are used to teaching decimals with fractions.

I explained that decimals are related to both place value and fractions. Therefore we have lessons about decimals in both topics.

Standards – The math coach thought we were teaching content that was below grade level. I did not understand how that could be the case since our lessons were written to their state standards.

She gave the example of decimal addition. She said that we only used grid models in grade 4 and that teachers were expecting students to use the standard algorithm and line up the decimal points. I explained that the standards explicitly said to use grid models in grade 4. Then in grade 5 is when they explicitly said to use the standard algorithm. She disagreed.

Since my team happened to write these lessons, I am intimately familiar with these standards so I was able to list the standard number and what it said, almost verbatim. She looked through the printed standards in her binder, found that I was right, and said, “Well, teachers still expect to teach decimal addition using the standard algorithm.”

Lesson Structure – The math coach said the teachers were unsure of the math lesson structure where students explore first, and then the teacher teaches. She said the teachers are used to teaching first, then giving students an opportunity to practice what they learned. She said the teachers are getting used to it, but it has been a learning experience for them.

In my visits to various schools, this has been a recurring theme in my observations. It appeared many of the teachers were not familiar or skilled with teaching using the pedagogical structure of our lessons (Introduce –> Explore –> Discuss). This is an area where the instructional coaches will need to continue reinforcing with the teachers. One thing teachers didn’t seem to grasp was how quickly the introduction is supposed to be completed. The allotted time is usually 5-10 minutes, yet I saw introductions go on for 20-30 minutes in many classrooms. A side effect of this was that some teachers are skipping the “Discuss” phase where the class draws conclusions about the concepts.

I started giving some additional commentary about this, but it got so long, I decided to turn it into a blog post all its own. Check back tomorrow where I will share our typical lesson structure and then discuss how I often observed it implemented in classrooms.

Special Education – The school has students whose IEP says they are performing at a first grade level. The teachers want these students to work on the computer like the other students so they don’t stand out, but what can these students be doing?

They admitted that using their old curriculum, they would have this same problem, and they would often go to their coaches for support. The trouble is that the coaches could give them other paper-based activities to do so that on-level students wouldn’t realize the special education students were working on different activities. The coaches do not have computer-based activities readily available like they do paper-based activities.

We mentioned the availability of our interactive tools (array and area multiplication applet, fraction modeling applet, etc.). Students can work on these tools during class, though the burden is on the teacher to create activities for them to do using the tools.

After the meeting was over, we went to go do some actual observations in classrooms.

We joined the third grade teachers who were doing walk through observations of the fourth grade classrooms. The purpose was to get an idea of what their students will be doing when they move up to fourth grade next year. The guiding question was, “What can we be doing this year to prepare them?”

It was impressive to see the school embracing our curriculum so early in the school year. Normally this type of observation would be done in the spring, not in November.

The teachers were very excited about what they saw going on in the fourth grade classrooms. Several of them wanted to get their students started on typing programs right away. Others were inspired to create some lessons that would involve work on the computer or using the computer to create a product (like typing a story).

The following are a few items that stood out to me during these observations.

Projectors – I noticed the LCD projector was sitting on a student’s desk about 6 feet away from the board. This meant the projection was very small. It didn’t help that the teacher hadn’t maximized the activity window. She was showing it the size that it first appears when the activity first opens. I did not find out why she didn’t enlarge the window.

We have always designed our lessons under the assumption that the screen would be projected large enough that the entire class could see it. Some of our fonts are small already, and on a small projection they can be difficult to see from more than a few feet away.

Typing – We require a lot of typing in our lessons, and watching some students slowly type out their answer to one open response question was painful to watch. The students persevered, but I wonder if we should ramp up the amount of typing required in the lessons as the year progresses. We did not consider this beforehand so lessons may include a lot of typing as early as the first day of the year.

By the way, when I say a lot of typing, even typing one complete sentence is a lot of work for many students, especially students who are functioning below grade level. One girl took about a minute to type, “I think she did that because she would…” After all that effort, she hadn’t even gotten to the part of the sentence that is her answer!

Perhaps we can partner with a company that offers typing software that students can do for 10 minutes a day? Or it could be an optional piece they could do at home?

Screen Directions and Feedback – I noticed students not reading the screen directions and/or feedback. This may be an issue of training the students of the importance of this feedback and how to use it as they give the question a second try.

I noticed a student “cheating” where he didn’t bother to read a passage. Instead he guessed, and when he got the answer incorrect, the system highlighted the paragraph that contained the answer. Then he would read and solve the question now that the system had told him where to look in the story.

We have to be careful that our ways of supporting students after they get a question wrong aren’t so helpful that students learn to guess the first time in order to get the hint/help that’s going to steer them to the correct answer.

Differentiation – In the class I observed the students were all working at their own pace. It was great to see that the teacher had set the students up to work so they could work where they needed to be. This freed up the teacher and paraprofessional so they could pull a small group and/or work alongside students who were having trouble.

Planning – I have noticed throughout my site visits that the teachers do not appear to be planning beforehand very much for their lessons. By planning I mean they haven’t gone through the core of the lesson to familiarize themselves with the flow of the content.

At this school I watched a teacher go through a Language Arts skill lesson. The lesson was teaching the four steps to figuring out the meaning of a word using context clues. There were four activities in a row, one activity for each step. However, he did the entire explanation of all the steps in the first activity, so he got frustrated when he went through the other activities because it kept repeating the steps he’d already stated. He thought it was a problem with the lesson being redundant, but really it was a matter of him not being familiar enough with the lesson before he taught it.

Despite any problems the school is having, overall the atmosphere is very positive and the staff seems very eager to make this work.

End Observation

Since we were doing our observations with the third grade teachers, I had to hop from class to class a bit too frequently. I never had the chance to observe a full lesson at this school. However, I did learn a few important lessons so it wasn’t a waste of time at all.

For me the most interesting thing was going back into schools in the role of a curriculum developer instead of in the role of a teacher. It gave me a much different perspective. As a teacher, I was always most knowledgeable about my classroom and my students, but not necessarily the goings on in anyone else’s classroom.

During these site visits, I had the opportunity to see a wide variety of schools, campus climates, classroom layouts, and teaching styles. As you’ve no doubt surmised, I wasn’t always very happy with what I saw, but I am appreciative of the experience. I learned a lot and I was able to share it with the rest of my team which helped tremendously as we continued writing lessons.


Seeing Our Curriculum in Action, Part 3

The past couple of days, I have been sharing observation notes I made during site visits to classrooms four years ago. (See here and here.) These were classrooms using the digital curriculum I helped write.

The reason I’ve been sharing these observations is to help illustrate the greater impact teachers often have on student learning than the curriculum materials they use.

So far I have shared two classroom examples where the lessons did not go very well. Today I’m going to share two more site visit summaries, but these are much more positive. (Yay!) By the way, I know I said I wouldn’t be sharing the positive story until tomorrow. I lied.

Lesson Observation

In the first observation, I observed another 5th grade class working on one of our geometry lessons. In the second observation, I observed a 4th grade class working on a lesson about compatible numbers for addition.

As always, I have removed any identifying information that would indicate the school or teacher. Other than that, I have left my notes as they were written so you can “hear” my thoughts from four years ago. These particular notes had some cringe-worthy moments for me. I made sure to comment on them in the here and now. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text.

Observation 1

This classroom had a similar layout to the first classroom I visited, but with a little more room to walk around. It was still difficult to get to some of the students who were on the inside of the rows.

The layout I’m referring to is the one from yesterday’s post. Yesterday’s observation and the two from today all occurred at the same school.

The class had started this lesson the day before. The teacher started today with a review of what they learned yesterday which was the names of the polygons and the number of sides each polygon has. The students had written the words and definitions in their Math journal the day before. This school embraces the Math journal concept. Hooray!

During this review I saw students playing with their computers. Several students were using the zoom feature to zoom really close in on their screen so all you could see was a small corner of a picture. Other students were visiting music web sites and playing songs through their headphones.

One lesson I would take from this is that the instructional coaches should probably talk together about all of the good classroom routines they are seeing and share those with their teachers. Some teachers had great structure in their classroom and some didn’t. We need to ensure teachers are learning ways to manage the computers so students are able to pay attention and use their computers the way they are supposed to.

I really don’t like that I said, “…the way they are supposed to.” It sounds very authoritarian. But, since I’m not editing these notes I have to live with how I sounded back then. Ah, to be able to go back and choose my words again.

The goal for today was to practice what the students did yesterday. Unfortunately, the teacher unlocked other activities before the Independent Learning activity, so it was confusing to the students. They had to go to the end of their train and then when they finished the Independent Learning, then they could go back to the beginning of their train.

Basically students saw activities listed in the order the teacher unlocked them. In this case the activity she wanted the students to go to first happened to be at the end of their “train”, or list, of activities which is kind of confusing for the students.

This teacher told me she was very happy with the geometry unit. She said it was giving students experiences they couldn’t have otherwise. She gave the example of teaching students how to use a protractor. Without the computer, she said she would have to go almost student by student to help them learn how to use the protractor correctly, but with the computer providing feedback she was free to go to the students who were having the most trouble. I think it’s topics like this and measurement where teachers see the value of T2K the most. Topics like multiplication and subtraction the teachers are comfortable teaching because it’s just algorithms, but with more hands-on topics the added value of the computer is much more evident.

I may not be editing my text from these site visits, but I can’t let that slip by. I, personally, do not see computation as “just algorithms”. I was referring to teachers who already feel comfortable teaching these computation skills because they see them as “just algorithms”. Whether they are right or wrong for doing that, this observation is about how those teachers would likely see greater benefit from our digital curriculum materials when they teach other topics like geometry and measurement.

During this class, I visited with many students as they worked. Most seemed to be staying on task working through the various practice activities.

The teacher had the real-time monitoring running so when one student was missing many questions, the teacher saw and went over to work with that student. (Unfortunately the monitoring was showing on the projector so every student could see who was having trouble. I don’t think the teacher intended for that to happen. It was a bit embarrassing for that student.)

As I listened to the students, I saw that many did not know what the word adjacent meant. Several had used the dictionary button to look it up, but unfortunately the definition it provided was not useful for a 5th grade student. I was still happy to see that the students had been resourceful! Maybe one day we can link to a more child-friendly dictionary.

Our company’s first attempt at a dictionary was linking to some dictionary web site, but it was the standard version. It was not geared towards math or elementary-age students.

Observation 2

This was a collaborative team teaching (CTT) class taught by one regular teacher and one special education teacher. One of the teachers in the room loves Time To Know, while the other teacher wishes it would go away.

This teacher is very behind schedule. This lesson should have been taught long ago.

This was my FAVORITE teacher to watch. She is the perfect example of what Time To Know is meant to do. The teacher taught just like she normally would, she just happened to have the computer as a tool as she did her job. It was amazing!

The thing about this is that I think she already is a good teacher; she just has a new tool to assist her. Other teachers I saw where the lesson did not go as smoothly were probably not great teachers to begin with.

The bluntness of the last sentence makes me cringe. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been critical of the teachers I observed, I clearly have, but it’s because what I saw this particular teacher do is what I would expect most teachers to do. She shouldn’t be the exception, and that’s what she felt like.

Again, the lines of responsibility are blurred. Obviously it’s not our job to produce good teachers, but it’s clear that our lessons are designed to be used by skilled teachers. It’s not just about knowing the math. This teacher also had great questioning skills, routines, and knowledge of how kids think. Teachers who are not particularly skilled are at a disadvantage, even more so when they don’t prepare for the lessons ahead of time. While making teachers better at their job may not be our responsibility, I think anything we can do in this area will go a long way towards the success of our implementation and our resulting reputation.

Not to mention that students deserve teachers as good as her!

The teacher started the lesson by asking the students what the word “compatible” means. She told a little story about how she and her husband are compatible. Then she gave students two examples: 6 +4 and 6+7 and she asked which expression had compatible numbers.

After discussing the meaning of compatible, she called the students to the carpet in front of the Smart board to watch the opening movie. She did a great thing here. She told the students, “We’re about to watch a short movie. Even though it’s fun and entertaining, we have math in our brains now. We just got done talking about compatible numbers. Listen for the math in the movie.” It was great!

Halfway through the movie she paused it and said, “What does being at a restaurant have to do with numbers and math?” The students responded that they would have to add up prices which can be hard if there are a lot.

She also asked the students, “What does it mean when it says two consecutive numbers? Does consecutive mean the same thing as compatible?”

After a student answered the question she said, “So Molly told her answer, Jake can you tell it again in your own words?”

“Those of you who have a Math journal, write your answer in your journal. If you don’t have your journal, I want you to look at the numbers on the board and find two more numbers that are easy to add together.”

Unfortunately this is when the lesson ran into technical problems. The teacher tried writing on the Smart board, but the text only appeared on her laptop screen. I tried helping until tech support arrived, but I wasn’t able to do anything. The tech support tried helping but couldn’t fix it either. This pretty much ruined the momentum of the lesson. I was so sad because she had been doing such a phenomenal job! Other teachers need to see this teacher. If we videotape anyone, I hope we can get a video of her in action. She was incredible!

This really is one of the sad points of having a digital curriculum – technical issues. They can seriously derail a lesson. This is an issue beyond my skill set seeing as I don’t code our software, but I do understand how negatively technical issues can impact learning. Thankfully, while I’ve been writing and revising math lessons the past four years, our programmers have been making technical improvements.

End Lesson

So to go back to something I said in the second observation:

She is the perfect example of what Time To Know is meant to do. The teacher taught just like she normally would, she just happened to have the computer as a tool as she did her job.

This really was our philosophy. The curriculum and digital tools were intended to blend into the classroom, assisting the teacher without taking over for her. As you’ve seen if you’ve been following my last few posts, this philosophy had some serious issues when it met reality. The teacher has so much impact on whether the lessons are facilitated successfully or not.

I think this is the crux of the issue I’ve been writing about the past couple of days. Regardless of what materials you put in the hands of a skilled teacher, she has what it takes to make it work and often make it look effortless. Rereading today’s observation, I was surprised to see the “me” from four years ago rattling off similar success factors to the ones I listed on the first day of this series:

It’s not just about knowing the math. This teacher also had great questioning skills, routines, and knowledge of how kids think.

As @Trianglemancsd so succinctly put it, it comes down to one thing:




Seeing Our Curriculum In Action, Part 2

Yesterday I started talking about the greater impact teacher’s have on student learning than any curriculum they happen to be using. To help make my point, I started sharing site visit notes I took four years ago while visiting different schools using our digital curriculum.

Rather than have a long lead in like I did yesterday, today I’m just going to get right to my notes. As before, I have removed any identifying information that would indicate the school or teacher. Other than that, I’ve left my notes as they were written so you can “hear” my thoughts from four years ago. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text.

Lesson Observation

In this observation I was observing a 5th grade class using a 5th grade lesson about attributes of parallelograms. This lesson and the ones around it were about attributes of various quadrilaterals.

I can copy this next bit almost verbatim from yesterdays’ post: As you’ll see, the lesson does not go smoothly, partly because of issues with the lesson, but also because of issues with the classroom layout, the teacher’s pacing, and the teacher’s content knowledge.

Class Begins

This classroom has 27 students, and almost no room to move. The room is full of desks with very little room for walking around. Here is a rough layout of the desks. The students on the left side of the room were actually farther away from the board than it appears in this picture. They did not have a great viewing angle of the Smart board.

Classroom Layout

I’ll add that the room is much more cramped than it might appear in this picture. If you sat in the interior of one of those three prongs of desks coming out of the right side of the classroom, you had very little room to walk between your classmates in the same row and the desks of the next row.

This tight configuration has several implications. The teacher would have a very difficult time walking around to observe students working or to help them as they are working. Unfortunately, I only observed the introduction of this lesson, so I didn’t get to witness how she handles this situation.

The introduction (Engage) of our lessons is a teacher-led component. After this activity she would have theoretically moved to an activity where students worked on their own or in pairs. I did not get to see this, but based on the classroom layout, I was really curious how it would work in this classroom.

She actually spent the entire time up at the front by the Smart board. She has a very small area up in front of the Smart board in which to walk, if she wanted to.

It would be very hard to have students work in small groups in this classroom. The best she can probably hope for is having students work in pairs because the students are sitting next to each other.

What does this mean for lesson writing and our assumptions about classrooms? Should we provide alternate directions if a teacher can’t physically get her students into groups? What other classroom scenarios are we not considering when we plan our lessons and activities?

Since the teacher can’t get around much in this classroom, the instructional coach should probably stress using the real-time monitoring feature so she can at least see on her dashboard who is having trouble. Maybe that student can bring his/her computer to the teacher or she could make the effort to try and squeeze in to visit with the student.

One of the things that I really liked about our curriculum was that we provided the teachers instructional coaches who visited once or twice a week to help them learn how to use the curriculum effectively. It put the instructional coaches in an interesting position because ultimately they worked for Time To Know, but they also bonded with their teachers and became very loyal to them.


This was the only lesson component I got to see. She spent about 30+ minutes on the first three screens of the Engage, though the entire activity should have only lasted 10 minutes. I don’t believe she prepared ahead of time to teach this lesson today.

A consistent observation I’ve made when observing in classrooms is that the teachers take too long on the introductions. Perhaps the instructional coaches need to model for them how quickly the introductions should be.

You probably don’t know much about our lesson structure. I know I go into a little more detail in the next set of observation notes, so just sit tight until then and hopefully you’ll get a clearer picture.

The teacher had two student helpers pass out the headphones while she started the lesson.

Students were asked to keep their laptop screens at a 45 degree angle while the class went through the introduction. I saw several students playing internet games by sitting very low in their seats so they could still see their screens.

The students LOVED the song at the beginning of the lesson. They convinced the teacher to play it again. Some students even tried singing along the second time through.

It’s worth noting that this classroom also has sound issues in addition to space issues. The teacher had the windows open and periodically airplanes would fly overhead making it difficult to hear anything. At one point the teacher had a student close the classroom door, but another visitor in the room reminded her that the principal forbids the teachers from closing their classroom doors. This meant she couldn’t block any noise coming in from the hallway, which was also quite loud at times.

The Smart board makes the DTP even more interactive. The teacher was able to click things on screen with her Smart board pen and she could use the pen as an electronic marker to write on the screen. Note: You cannot use dry erase markers on most Smart boards. You must use the electronic marker feature if you want to “write” on the board.

The big drawback to this is that whenever the teacher moves to the next screen, anything she has written on the screen is erased. This is problematic because sometimes we have planned screens so the class writes something on one screen, and on the next few screens what they have written stays on the board while the questions or surrounding text changes.

We must learn more about Smart board functionality and what it means for designing teacher-led screens. We have to be able to design screens so they can be used with Smart boards and with regular white boards.

Students had their Math journals out and available during the lesson. The teacher would tell the students to add new vocabulary words to their journals. For example, in this lesson she told them to write “congruent” and “adjacent” in their journals.

Despite adding the words to their journals, the teacher did not go over their definitions. It was crucial for students to know what “adjacent” meant in order to succeed with this lesson. The teacher said, “Oh, adjacent, that’s a vocabulary word isn’t it? You probably should have learned it last year, so I’m not going to tell you the meaning.” I had to bite my tongue because I could tell the students really wanted to know what the word meant.

The teacher did say to the instructional coach at this point, “Maybe we were supposed to do the Prior Knowledge activity before this lesson?”

The Engage activity is well-designed if the teacher prepares for it and understands the geometry well enough herself, but it was clear that this teacher did not have a strong grasp of the purpose of the lesson or the geometry.

The lesson introduction guides students to the definition of parallelogram by observing attributes of parallelograms and non-parallelograms. The teacher became frustrated that the computer was not telling the students the definition right away so she opened a math book, went to the glossary, and read the definition aloud as students had to copy it into their Math journals. She did not talk about the definition with the students so they could figure out what it meant.

Is it our responsibility to make the teacher understand the math she is teaching? If it isn’t our responsibility, whose is it? If we can’t rely on the teachers having the requisite math skills, how do we ensure they are going to succeed at teaching our lessons? If students do poorly on assessments, the teachers will blame our program. We don’t want that.

This teacher does not have very good questioning techniques. There were many missed opportunities to engage the students and discuss the new geometry concepts. All she had to do was ask, “Why did you choose that shape?” or “How does that shape relate to the definition?”

End Lesson

Actually, I have no idea if this is when the lesson actually ended. This is when I had to leave the room to go visit another classroom. Sadly, I have no idea what happened after we left.

Reading over my notes, I’m a bit embarrassed about how harsh I sound. The teacher was gracious enough to let me in to visit her class, and here I am pointing out all these things that I dislike about how she was teaching the lesson.

However, I did teach for 8 years myself, and I couldn’t help but see that there are a lot of things a “good” teacher would normally do that were not evident during this observation. Sure, it seems like she didn’t prepare ahead of time to teach this particular lesson, but if those underlying skills were there – knowledge of geometry, ability to “read” the class to see that they really did not know the meaning of ‘adjacent’, and questioning techniques to reveal students’ thinking – it shouldn’t have mattered.

And if you think that’s not fair because I already knew the lesson so of course I would know to do all of this stuff, you’d be incorrect. I don’t think I had ever even seen this lesson before coming in to do this observation. My team did not write this geometry unit. At Time To Know, we had four curriculum writing teams, and we were roughly organized by strand (Go, fractions team!) There was communication between teams, but I did not get to see every lesson before it was produced and out in the classrooms.

And lest you think all I do is complain and dislike what I see (or at least that the “me” from four years ago does those things), check back in two days. Tomorrow’s post is, sadly, recounting another lesson that did not go as well as I would have liked, but the next day I have a much more inspiring story to share.



Seeing Our Curriculum In Action, Part 1

This afternoon, @davidwees shared a link to an intriguing article in the following tweet:

Curriculum Tweet

Sadly, the article is for subscribers only, but the web site does provide a very brief summary that was enough to get me thinking today:

“What We Know

  • No evidence that different curricula give different outcomes.
  • Limited evidence that ordinary CAI improves learning.
  • Strong evidence that using effective teaching strategies can make a difference.”

With what little insight this gives me into the article as a whole, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been writing digital math curriculum for 5 years, and in that time I’ve had the privilege of visiting numerous classrooms to see our lessons in action. Based on these observations, I believe teachers have a much greater impact on student learning than any curriculum materials in their hands.

If you’ll recall, my first team and I were very passionate about how we conceptualized the lessons we wrote. We poured our hearts and souls into making them the best we could. However, our curriculum is not designed to do the job for the teacher. It has a role in delivering content for sure, but so does the teacher through a variety of factors including classroom layout, routines, questioning techniques, and instructional pacing, to name a few.

There are two caveats here. First, I make no claims that the lessons written by my team will deliver amazing results if taught well. I would like to think they do their job well, but I am clearly biased. Second, I’m not claiming, in general, that curriculum materials make no difference with regards to student learning. Given the choice between an old-school textbook or any one of a variety of other curriculums such as Investigations in Number, Data, and Space or, ahem, our curriculum, I will gladly take either of those over an old-school textbook. I might, perhaps, still be able to get good results with an old-school textbook, but the job is going to be much easier for me using instructional materials that match my beliefs about how people learn and the ways in which I engage with my students.

So thinking through all of this today reminded me that I have some pretty extensive observation notes that I took during several classroom visits four years ago. I read through them again this evening, and I think four years ago I was clearly seeing a lot of what I’ve just been talking about.

That got me thinking. Why not share my notes here? That way others can “see” what I was seeing. I also figure it helps me share more about my job like I promised in my first post during this blogging challenge. So for the next few days, I’ll be posting notes from various site visits I’ve done to see our curriculum in action.

In case you’re worried, nothing in these notes gives any identifying information about the school or the teacher. Also, I recognize that having a stranger observing in the classroom can put some teachers on edge. So I can’t generalize that what I saw in my observations is indicative of how these teachers teach normally. However, I still feel the observations are valuable, especially since I saw patterns as I observed in multiple classrooms.

Sadly, my notes do reveal some warts with regards to a few of our lessons back then. Thankfully our curriculum has  gone through a round or two of upgrades over the past few years, so I don’t feel as bad since I know they have been tweaked and improved over time.

Other than fixing some language mistakes, I’m leaving these notes as they were written. I don’t want to change the voice of the “me” from four years ago. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text providing a bit of commentary.

Lesson Observation

To give you some background about this first observation, I was observing a multiplication lesson in a 4th grade classroom. The topic of the lesson was introducing students to the doubling and halving multiplication strategy.

If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a simple example: Let’s say you don’t remember the product of 6 × 7. What you can do is halve one of the factors, like 6, to get the expression 3 × 7. You might have this product memorized, or you might quickly be able to count by 3s or 7s to get 21. From there you just need to double that product to find the product of 6 × 7. This is a very handy strategy, but also a very sophisticated one. In this lesson the students are meant to explore the idea of halving a multiplication expression by halving an array.

As you’ll see, the lesson does not go smoothly, partly because of issues with the lesson, but also because of issues with the teacher’s delivery.

Class Begins

Students got their computers from the laptop cart with minimal disturbances.

The iPad was just introduced a few months before this observation. At this point laptops were the primary tech device in classrooms.

The routines in this room were not as smooth as others I’ve seen, but students managed to get computers and log in without any prompting.

Warm Up

The teacher started the lesson by projecting the Knight Game on the board and having the students take turns coming up and filling in the missing blocks. The students quieted down and participated readily.

The Knight Game is basically a matching game. The students would be given a number, and they had to select different arrays containing that quantity of objects.

This game was actually in the Prior Knowledge section of the lesson. The teacher chose to play this game instead of a Bingo game that was actually the intended Warm Up activity. Considering she didn’t have a full class period to teach the lesson, I think it was a good choice to start with this game instead.

Students’ computers were open in front of them during the game. I saw classes at other schools where students lowered the screen to a 45 degree angle while the teacher was teaching. This isn’t sufficient because I saw many students accessing internet games and music even with their screens lowered. The students just sat low in their seat to see their screens. Someone on my team made a good suggestion that students lower their screens, but also turn their computers so they face away from the students.

The computers had software to prevent students from accessing external sites, but in nearly every school I visited, these elementary students broke through it in no time.

The teacher had the students come up one at a time to fill in the missing parts of the bridge. This was slow and very time-consuming.

This game could have been a great review of arrays and the meaning of multiplication, but the teacher never questioned the students about why they chose the answers they picked. A lot of good discussion and review was missed.

When she did help students, instead of asking them to think about the multiplication shown in the array, she just said, “Count the circles to help you find your answer.” The student would count 12 circles and then pick an answer that had 12 in it.

It was obvious that the teacher was not familiar with the big picture of the multiplication unit (or this lesson for that matter). Had she known, she could have used better messaging with the students throughout the lesson.


After playing the game, the teacher moved into the Engage activity. Unfortunately, this was the time that the DTP froze and she wasn’t able to load the activity she needed.

DTP stands for Digital Teaching Platform. This is the name of the software that delivers our content.

The teacher decided to wing it on the white board, while waiting for technical help. While the tech person fixed the technical problem, the teacher demonstrated how the problem 7 X 4 could be solved using the doubling strategy.

This didn’t seem effective because she had to work on a small white board that was on an easel in the corner of the room. The students were far away at their desks. It would have been better to call the students up to sit on the carpet around the easel so they could see and be more immersed in the conversation.

Once the DTP was up and running again, the teacher played the opening movie where Robin shares the doubling strategy with Andy.

I’m assuming because of the time she’d lost, the teacher chose to skip discussion of the movie. Instead she simply told the students they would practice the doubling strategy in the Explore activity.


Students opened the Explore activity and got to work. This was a disaster. The first screen in the activity has students working with the graphic organizer. It became clear in the first minute or two that the students in this class had never used the graphic organizer before.

This is a tool used in many lessons in our curriculum. The fact that it was new to these students showed me that this teacher had not used our curriculum that frequently with her students.

They were supposed to drag something from the bank, but the students had no idea what the bank was or where it was on screen.

They were also supposed to duplicate what they dragged from the bank. The students figured out the duplicate button, but many had no idea why they were duplicating. They just did it and went on answering questions.

Some students answered the questions on screen without ever interacting with the graphic organizer at all.

The teacher stopped the lesson after a few minutes. I thought she was going to demonstrate how to the use the applet. Instead she reviewed the meaning of the term double. This was important, but it did nothing to help the students succeed with the interactions they were unsure of how to do on screen.

Most students seemed to ignore the text in the questions, and instead they just solved the multiplication problems that were shown. This meant they were not engaging with the big ideas of the lesson.

I went computer to computer listening to students and helping them use the graphic organizer. When one student got to a screen that asked her to explain how she used Robin’s doubling strategy, the girl said, “I didn’t use that.”

After a few minutes, the teacher stopped the class and told them she was going to open up the rest of the activities for them to do including the Independent Learning, Mastering Skills, Take It Further, and the games.

As students finished the Explore activity, they moved on to the next activity. I saw that some students would start the Independent Learning, but then they would close it and move to the game instead.

This seemed to be a common problem in the schools I visited where the teachers opened up too many activities at once. Without proper classroom management routines, the students were free to jump from activity to activity, not really caring what they completed or how well they completed it.


The teacher skipped the Summarize activity altogether, preferring instead to have the students work independently through the various activities she had opened for them.

This concerned me so I offered to do the summary. The teacher agreed. I had the students stop their work and join me on the carpet so we could go through the Summarize activity of the lesson.

I’m not going to pretend that I pulled off a fantastic summary. I completely winged it, but I did make an effort to address the concerns I saw as the students were working and I tried to bring some closure to the lesson.

I did feel that the Summarize activity (and lesson as a whole) was too challenging as designed. The students saw that the halved fact was related to the original fact, but they lacked the ability to do the halving and doubling themselves by the end of the lesson. Also, when the lesson transitioned from multiplying by 6 to multiplying by 8, it jumped into the example of 8 X 7. Unfortunately when we halved this to 4 X 7, that multiplication fact was still too hard for many students to solve mentally so the usefulness of the strategy was lost on them.

I did go back and explore the lesson after this experience. I understand its goals a bit better, but it’s clear that it requires a fair amount of planning and a lot of finesse for teachers to pick up and teach it well.

I feel that more time should have been spent on how to halve a fact rather than verifying that the halved fact equaled the original fact. The verifying step was too advanced and didn’t translate into a practical mental math strategy for solving multiplication problems through doubling.

End Lesson

At this point I would normally say “Whew!” because there’s so much text, and to acknowledge those of you that made it all the way to this point in my post, but I only wrote a small chunk of the text today. The rest I just copied and pasted which is sort of like cheating, but whatever. Anyway, this wraps up my first lesson observation. I look forward to sharing another one tomorrow.


Whose Job Is It Anyway?

Is it the job of teachers to design their own curriculum?

The view of someone I worked with for several years and highly respect is that it shouldn’t be the teachers’ responsibility. In her view, teachers have enough responsibilities on their plates without tackling the writing of an entire curriculum, which is a massive and complex undertaking. They should be able to rely on expert others to do the heavy lifting of planning an entire year’s worth of curriculum. This leaves the teachers’ free to focus their efforts on planning how to adapt that curriculum to meet the needs of their particular students.

What are your gut reactions to this point of view?


Heaven, I’m in Heaven

The other day @mythagon asked me about my take on curriculum writing. I immediately thought, “Awesome! That’s one less blog post topic I have to come up with for #MTBoS30.” Not that coming up with blog post ideas has been that challenging so far, but seeing as this is only post 6 of 30, I may feel differently in a week or two.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking throughout the day of how to write about my take on curriculum writing. I think I’ll start by talking a bit generally about how I feel doing curriculum writing, but I have a feeling I might need to do some follow up posts to fully flesh out my thoughts. (Yay! More blog post ideas I can pull out of my pocket as needed.)

In general, I think curriculum writing is tons of fun. When I first started working at Time To Know, I often described my job as taking everything I did as a teacher, cutting out one small slice of the countless responsibilities I had, and then focusing on just that one slice all day, every day. That alone made it a dream job.

To put the cherry on top, my team at Time To Know loved to argue and debate about pedagogy. One thing that always bothered me as a teacher was that having a strong opinion about pedagogy (which I totally have) often resulted in hurting other people’s feelings more than it did fostering dialogue about how best to serve our students. Not so with my Time To Know team.

I remember the first unit we cracked together was about geometric transformations for 4th grade. (By the way, cracking is what we called unit planning. The goal of our initial planning was to “crack open” the topic to analyze it from different angles.) Over the course of a day and a half, we had numerous heated discussions about how to present the concepts, when to use off-computer activities vs. on-computer activities, what the ultimate goals of the unit should be, etc.

I kept thinking to myself, “I’m in heaven!” I could never have had such engaging, intense discussions with any of the teachers I worked with during my 8 years in the classroom. Well, my friends Paula and Courtney would have been up for it, but that’s about it.

If you stood outside the room listening, you would have thought that by the end of that cracking meeting my team would be ready to go its separate ways, but that wasn’t the case at all. We were all so passionate about developing these lessons that we argued and fought for what we thought was right, but we were also professional enough not to take it personally.

We understood that we were arguing so much because we all had the best interests of students in mind. Once the meeting was over, we walked out of the room, started talking about life outside of work and made dinner plans for that night. None of the tension from the meeting was carried out of the room into our personal relationships.

As a collaborative, pedagogical effort, curriculum writing is extremely satisfying to me. I’m a fairly introverted person in general. I love time to myself to decompress, and I love my husband for understanding that about me. However, there’s something about working collaboratively with a team that I click with that invigorates me so much. If I could find a team like that at a school, then I’d be in heaven yet again.