Musings and Strategies From the Teachers Next Door

Our STEM Story


​Watch and see how STEM renewed our passion for teaching. 

Silver chain in circle with an outstanding golden link - 3d render

You’re a teacher.  It’s summer.  What are you doing?  If you’re like me, as you clean all the parts of your house you neglected during the school year, you find yourself reflecting  and thinking about what’s next.

WHAT IS next in education?  There are problems.  We see it.  We are frustrated.  Most see their voice as too small to matter, but I think our voice is where the solution lies.

Sure, I’ve got my list of things that need to be at the top of education reform, and the crazy thing is, it’s not curriculum.

We the teachers are a collective army of people that care enough about the future of our world to give up our dreams of wealth in order to give our lives for the education of others. So let me ask you, if we are willing to invest ourselves in such an admirable way, why are we settling and waiting for others to jump in and rescue us.  Nothing will change until we look long and hard to see how we have contributed to the problem and how we hold the answers to the future.

I am in no way slamming teachers.  I have the utmost respect for each and every one of you.  You are creators, innovators, encouragers, cheerleaders….did that just describe you? What about this one… You are tired, negative, frustrated?  I’m learning that they way we choose to speak about what we do, creates our experiences.

So let’s start here.  What if, for the rest of your summer, you spoke about teaching, every single day, as if it were THE BEST JOB EVER.  If you did that for 30 days, without fail, then your brain would actually change the way it thinks and the way you associate with your job.  You would become creative, innovative, passionate, encouraging people.  Imagine how your class would change.  Imagine how your school would change.  Imagine the collective force we would become.  Who’s with me?

More to come on reforming education, but let’s start with ourselves.





We’re Baaacckkk!

Keep Calm Back

       Sometimes the best ideas are SO not what they are cracked up to be. We decided about 10 months ago to switch to our own domain to make it easier to manage and easier for everyone to keep up with us.

     That was just not the case. In fact, what it DID do, is it encouraged us (discouraged, really) to stop blogging. We really haven’t published a lot of posts because we felt uninspired.

I don’t know about April, but I have had one of those years that you can either complain about. (And unfortunately, I have…) OR you can embrace the challenges and determine to learn from them (which I eventually decided to do). So, this has been my great learning year.  All of you teachers out there who think that you are the only one who struggles to teach, keep up with the day to day tasks of teaching, balance life on top of that, with extra curricular activities, oh yeah, and families…believe us, you can take comfort knowing that you are not alone.

So, to those who try to keep up with us, we are sorry for letting you down. We truly didn’t mean to leave you in the dust; it’s just that we actually got lost in the dust and had to engineer a way out of it. And we did. After all, how could we continue to promote STEM if we couldn’t engineer a way to reach learners who came to us drastically below grade level in every subject. Not just a small group of students, but the entire grade level. Is everything perfect now? Are kids suddenly reading on grade level? Have they aced math this year? No. To all of that. No. But what I CAN say is that they have made tremendous progress, and we can definitely celebrate that!

Subscribe to our blog as we will share the resources, ideas, and strategies that eventually helped us to emerge from the dust, brush ourselves off, and gain the courage to face our fans again. We hope it will help you as much as it has helped us!




Keep Up With Us!

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The Struggle is Good

If you haven’t yet discovered the Open Middle site, may I introduce you.  Welcome to the world of challenging, thought provoking problems.  Dan Meyer introduced this concept, creating problems that have a definite beginning and end, but have an “open middle” that creates the space for students to solve problems multiple ways.  The open middle is what I love about math, why math is so much more than learning a set strategy.  It allows for understanding based on how you think and how you understand numbers.  I have seen kids come up with strategies that I would have never thought of…oh, how I love those conversations.  For that reason, this site is a gift.

This past week, I used a fraction problem with my 3rd graders.  Here is it: (source:  Open Middle)

fraction_number_line from openmiddle

Students were asked to place 3/4 on this number line.

While I anticipated my students to be a little stumped by the fact that 3/3 would not be at the end of the line, I had no idea the level of difficulty this would pose.  I wish I had recorded all the great discussion that ensued.

They justified their position, even tried to form a coup and overthrow me, when I challenged them placing 3/3 at the end of the line.  Guiding students through questioning is an art that I am practicing daily and there were moments that I wanted to just break down and “teach.”  But then it happened….my favorite sound in the world…”Ohhh, I see it.”  First there was one, one brave soul that walked over to the dark side and placed 3/3 on the number line correctly.  She even grabbed a ruler, measured the distance from 0 to 1/3, and proceed to place 2/3 and 3/3 exactly in the right place.  As soon as she began to measure, the kids got so excited as they SAW it.

At this point, I thought it was smooth sailing.  Next came the true task of placing 3/4, so the first thing they wanted to do was place 1/2.  Perfect.  I loved how they were using benchmark fractions, and I was sure that their misconceptions were suddenly gone.  Well….here is how is actually went down.1:2

The black line is where one student placed 1/2 and the red is where another tried to emphasize and defend that 1/2 would indeed be placed there.  I used all the skills I learned in my acting class and asked them to talk about what they knew was true.  The told me that 3/3 was the same as one whole.  We discussed and discussed.  Finally, they did come to realize where 1/2 should be and eventually 3/4, but not without a clear struggle.  These are not kids I teach everyday, but they are bright students with a wonderful teacher.  I don’t know if it was because they have only looked at fraction number lines with ending points of 0 and 1, but this experience reiterated the importance of exposing students to problems in multiple ways.  If they cannot transfer the information they learned from one type of problem to the next, then their understanding is basic and needs to be developed so much further.  I’m reading everything I can get my hands on…I want to be the best teacher I can be…I want to challenge, push, equip and help students make  a rich web of connections.

Feel free to pass on any wisdom you have.  It takes a village…

Burn, Baby, Burn!!!

Photo on 3-24-15 at 2.47 PM

Have a look at this gem we were given as a resource. What do you notice? So many things to say, we thought we would let it speak for itself.












Decimals move? That’s a bit confusing…


Really? At least two sides of an isosceles triangle are the same length?





I was unaware that angles, lines, rays, and segments were part of the 5th grade curriculum…hmmm…






There are so many things that we noticed. We would love to hear what you think!




What does it mean to be a teacher?  It’s not a trick question, give me 10 educators and I will show you 10 different answers.  For some, it’s showing – even involving students in a step by step process to convey an idea or strategy.  And some are that simple, like the alphabet.

I struggle with this concept.  Teaching….Thinking.  What is the difference?  If I teach my students in such a way, that they know the correct answers have I been successful?  Test scores may say yes.  Parents my say yes.  But have they been taught, are they provided with the skills that will make them successful in an unpredictable world where they can add value to their environment, to their workplace? Or I have a created an adult that is satisfied to simply do that they are told and the paycheck will follow.  The problem is, the rules have changed.  And we are failing, I will say it again, FAILING our students.

Is it possible, that our careers could be spent teaching our hearts out, showing students, guiding students, watching students work hard to achieve wonderful grades only to see them grow up and have an average job…an average life.

Let’s face it.  As teachers, we are tired.  There are many viral articles floating around from teachers who are ready to throw in the towel because all the work of educating students has fallen on their shoulders.  I know it’s hard.  And the difficulty increases exponentially when copiers don’t work, the internet is down, the printer is out of ink, and the funds are low.

Will you allow me to encourage you?  These are growing pains.  Pains from a pregnancy months past the due date. It feels like education cannot be fixed.  It feels like the task is beyond our reach.  It feels like we are unequipped, that the shift is requiring more than we can do.  It feels like a battle.  It IS!

The struggle is real.  We have been teaching at a Depth of Knowledge level 1 for so many years.  We have taken comfort and even felt successful when our students could regurgitate things back to us.  And that is a fine model for creating factory workers and yes men and women that will dutifully take what is decided for them, even if they don’t like it.  Is that want you would want for your own children?  Is that what you want for yourself?

I was working with a student this week.  We were analyzing poetry and having a discussion, when he asks, “Do I have to do a constructed response?  I hate those.  I mean what’s the point.  Just to pass a test.”  Seriously folks, what?  He had been taught that it is about a test.  Yes, the teacher is nervous about the upcoming test, but I just want to SCREAM….stop telling students it’s about a test.  It’s about life, it’s about thinking.  Yes, Common Core is challenging.  Yes, the test matters.  But it matters because it’s trying to make sure we teach children to think, not regurgitate information.  Parents don’t like it because they don’t understand and feel powerless to help.  Shoot, some teachers don’t like it because they don’t understand and feel powerless to help.  There it is, the elephant in the room.  Some of us are not equipped for the challenge at hand.  We need to be students, we need to continue learning.  Teachers, we need to start acting like the professionals we want to be considered.  Change your focus, problem solve.  Take time to recharge, and by all means, don’t get bogged down by the negativity of your peers.

Get over the angry parent that doesn’t understand and don’t take it personally.  Keep your eye on the goal.  The goal is to create thinkers, problem solvers, innovators.  Do you understand the importance of the task set before you?  You are educating the future.  It’s not too late.

STEM from Stories!

April and I are so excited to bring together our love of all things STEM with fiction literature! Toward the end of last year, we went searching for lessons or ideas that bridged fiction with STEM. It was really hard to find! In fact, we didn’t find much. It was disheartening to think that problems with which fictional characters are faced would be irrelevant to the children who were engaged in reading the story. If it was irrelevant, why would children begin to think of how such a problem could be solved?

So we began a mission….piquing students’ curiosity about problems with which their favorite characters were faced. When students become curious, they become expert problem solvers. When students own the problem, or can relate to it, they have “bought in” to finding a solution. The very first experience I had with this process was back when we read The Wishing Spell and constructed a map as a means to help the main characters make their way through a foreign land. We found that not only did the students become engaged in creating and engineering a map, they began to comprehend the text! They not only had mapped their way through the Land of Stories, but they mapped their way through the book. They were curious about new words, new concepts, and began to use evidence from the text without even being prompted. You see, when you care about something or someone (fictional or real), you begin to know them and they become a part of your conversation.

This was a HUGE discovery for us! We didn’t have to ask the questions! They asked their own! (If we’re being honest, they were better at posing questions). So April and I have spent most of our free time finding books that will help students of all ages become better problem solvers; from the very young to the very old. Lessons can be adapted to most any age. In many ways, we connect these lessons with the technique with which we teach math. Use the tools that are available to create solutions to what sometimes may be very complex problems.

For the next 24 hours, you can download our Design Brief for The Wishing Spell.  It’s our gift to you.

It’s GAME time!

What better way to celebrate a weekend and family than to engage in a friendly battle of Wits and Wagers. Have you played it? It is a completely awesome game that challenges players to estimate answers to different questions. Then, after everyone has made an estimate, you have a chance to place your bets on the estimate that seems closest to the answer. The thing that I love about this game (aside from the absolute awesomeness of everyone putting into practice their powers of number sense) is that everyone is on equal ground. Talk about a low entry point. That makes it perfect for the whole family! Even if the youngest family member is 5. Or 6 in my case. And as in my case, those young ones can win! Big time! I love the togetherness that games within families create and I love them even more when we sharpen our math skills while we have fun.

So that night of family fun and this post by GFletchy got me really thinking about the mathematical value of games. I love that Graham went into a classroom and literally turned the teaching upside down! I don’t teach lower grades, so I don’t have one of those 0-99 charts, but if I did, you can bet that I would turn it upside down come Monday. Milton Bradley, I bet, was onto this technique. Take a look at the game boards:chutes-and-ladders-1 orenstein_Candyland-1980s

Even Candy Land, though it has no numbers, kids start counting from the bottom. They win when they reach the top. They make gains as they move towards the top. Maybe it’s time to break these goodies out in class!

Kudos to Graham for giving this a try! I see the look and use of the 0-99 chart doing a 180!

But what are the KEYWORDS?




My team collab teacher was absent the other day. In her place was an older man whom I had never met. He was quite friendly and immediately introduced himself and was very quick to ensure that I understood that he was a retired teacher. Had been a teacher for 30 years and that he was there to help. Awesome! I was truly excited to have such a seasoned educator come in and contribute to the class.

At the time of the initial meeting, the students were in rotation (their specials classes). As they returned and entered the classroom, they fell right into their bell work. On this particular day, there was a story problem dealing with decimals that they needed to work through. They have been instructed on the procedure for these questions, so all of them are very familiar with the overly repeated chant of, “We make sense of problems and persevere in solving them!”

After some time of the students having been busily engaged the entire time, knowing that they are never finished and there is always another way to solve a problem, we began to discuss our solutions. This is the part of class that I love because we listen to one another, we are able to ask questions of one another or comment on work that we really like. It is our practice time of SMP #3 (construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others).

As we are discussing, the well seasoned substitute cuts in and asks, “But what are the KEYWORDS that told you to solve the problem that way?”


All eyes were on me. Pleading with me to bail them out. Questioning why we were looking for keywords. Asking why we don’t have those words posted? SCREAMING to me…KEYWORDS?! You never taught us KEYWORDS!!!

I just smiled. And restated his question in more familiar terms, which of course redirected them to explain how they made sense of the problem.

I am certain the substitute was aggravated that I wouldn’t just make it simple for them and teach them the keywords to look for. Well….I will never again teach keywords. I did in the past, and it didn’t take long to realize that keywords get confusing.  Keywords, as well as “rules”, often have expiration dates.

Here is a great article that lists 13 of these rules.  Interestingly enough,  keywords made the list…  number 2, actually.

What rules should be added to the list?

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