Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Math Myths: Debunking Misconceptions


“Many people believe math is innate,” says Nicole Joseph, assistant professor of mathematics education. “They believe math is reserved for an elite group of students, and either you can do it or you can’t. People will say they are not a ‘math person,’ when they would never talk that way about not being able to read.”
Joseph spent 12 years in Seattle as a math teacher and an instructional coach to teachers. She says the myth that not everyone can learn math reflects society’s tendency to value learners who appear naturally adept at memorizing formulas and calculating quickly and accurately to the exclusion of others.
“Every student is capable of doing mathematics,” Joseph says. “But not every student learns the same way, and teachers have to put aside any preconceived notions and figure out how each student learns best.”
Fourth-grade teacher Julia Crownover has always been enthusiastic about math.
“Math is truly for everyone. Teachers just need to find creative ways to reach students,” she says. She uses traditional tools like worksheets and flash cards, but she also reaches out to students in ways that speak to them.
“Some students need a visual or tactile representation, some may thrive with the competition and challenge of a game, and some may benefit with putting math into real-life situations,” she says.

Julia Crownover of Nashville is currently teaching at the International School of Ulm, in Neu-Ulm Germany. She formerly taught fourth grade at Eakin Elementary.
A Nashville native and avid Vanderbilt basketball fan, Crownover often uses sports to teach math concepts.
“I know a lot about the Vanderbilt players and the team,” she says. “When studying the concept of ‘mean,’ I will use a player’s shot record to teach students how to calculate a player’s average percentage points in a game.
“Often I see students who are overwhelmed by math or think it is too hard. But when a teacher really engages them and sparks their interest, every student can excel in math.”
Rogers Hall’s research confirms the effectiveness of using real-life scenarios.
“Since children learn almost continuously, there are many opportunities for getting interested in, learning and making things that involve mathematics,” says Hall, professor and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning. “For example, if a student maintains her own bicycle, that might be an opportunity to talk about rational number concepts such as ratio and proportion.
“Other students may engage in crafts like knitting or weaving, which draw heavily on mathematics. Increasingly, teachers’ knowledge of how to teach math includes an understanding of how to use out-of-school experiences to support classroom teaching and learning.”


For generations, teachers and parents have taught math in the same way they learned it, through memorization—facilitated by an abundance of flash cards and worksheets. Certainly, memorization is one component of math learning. But it’s not the whole story, says Bethany Rittle-Johnson, professor of psychology and human development.
“When students learn math primarily through memorization, they miss out on developing critical thinking skills that are vital to being successful in math later on,” she says. “Students need to have the ability to memorize a formula, but they also need the understanding of the concept behind it.”
For example, Rittle-Johnson explains that many students fail to understand the function of a very common symbol, the equals sign.
“Many textbooks don’t clearly define what the equals sign actually means,” she says. “Because of that, students adopt shortcuts such as adding all of the numbers together as soon as they see the symbol, rather than understanding what it really means, which is to have the same value at either side of the equation. It’s important to understand that before you move on to more complex math concepts.”
Rittle-Johnson is developing and testing an innovative toolkit for algebra teachers in a Massachusetts school district. Comparison and Explanation of Multiple Strategies gives students more than one strategy for solving a problem. Having more solving options helps students decide which one works best for them and to better understand how and why the strategies work.
“When students are stuck with only one way of solving, they are only memorizing and not developing critical thinking skills,” Rittle-Johnson said. “We are finding that students are having improved outcomes in fraction learning as a result of this new approach.”


Math isn’t always thought of as fun. But Lisa Fazio disagrees. She is studying how children can learn math through play, or more specifically a mobile app she designed and tested. Fazio says the first signs of frustration over math often appear when fractions are introduced in the lower grades.
“Kids develop this really strong understanding of whole numbers, and then we teach them fractions, and it blows up everything they have learned about how numbers behave, ” says Fazio, professor of psychology and human development.
She has spent the last several years developing and testing a computer game for fourth- and fifth-graders called “Catch the Monster With Fractions.” In the game, players are given prompts to find a particular fraction on a number line. When they click in the correct location, a cartoon monster pops up, along with text that says, “You got me!” If they guess wrong, the monster pops up and says, “You missed!”
Fazio’s findings show that the students who played the game significantly improved their understanding of fractions compared to those who didn’t.
“They said they didn’t want to stop playing it because it didn’t feel like homework,” she says. “It was just fun.”
Melissa Gresalfi, associate professor of mathematics education, and Ilana Horn professor of teaching and learning, are also strong proponents of learning math through play. Last fall they earned a National Science Foundation grant to study a math-themed playground at the Minnesota State Fair called “Math On-A-Stick.”
Children were invited to engage in a variety of math-based activities and games, including folding paper hexaflexagons, creating symmetry and patterns with stones, tiles and blocks; and connecting tessellating tiles shaped like lizards and turtles. Participants wore Go-Pro video helmets so the researchers could see how they interacted with the games and for how long. Ultimately, the researchers will turn the data into play-based curricula math teachers can use in the classroom.
“Every day doesn’t have to be a playground,” Horn says, “but throughout the school year, kids do need spaces to have positive experiences while learning mathematical problem-solving. Kids have libraries to fall in love with literature,” she says. “Where do they have to fall in love with math?”


“A big myth in mathematics is that it is an individual experience, not a social one,” says Luis Leyva, assistant professor of mathematics education. “In reality, building a social experience surrounding math can help propel students to learn and succeed in ways they wouldn’t on their own.”
Leyva has studied math experiences of underrepresented undergraduate students pursuing STEM majors and careers. He has found that math comprehension and a sense of belongingness in STEM improved greatly when they worked on assignments in groups rather than alone. Their learning was enhanced by the strong bonds they developed with the other students and teachers.
“Adding a social aspect to math is valuable because it validates the gendered and cultural identities each student brings to the class and allows teachers and classmates to engage with math while honoring and learning from each other’s differences,” Leyva says. “I would argue that to support students in math, particularly in marginalized communities, we need to not just think about the academic component, but the social component required to be successful.”
Nicole Joseph’s research supports the idea that students can benefit from learning math in a more social setting. Her research finds that black middle school girls prefer to collaborate on problems and work in groups and have better outcomes as a result. “If their process, or ‘way of knowing’ is not valued in the classroom, they feel that somehow the problem lies with them, not the teaching,” she says.
Joseph says that her math trajectory was built on collaboration. “I worked hard and I wanted to keep making those good grades in college, so I reached out to fellow students,” she said. “I went up to other students I didn’t know—mostly white students—and asked to study together. It was fun, and we all did better as a result.”


Preschoolers are taught counting and recognizing numbers but often are thought to be too young to be exposed to more complex mathematical concepts.
Rittle-Johnson has conducted much research on the effects of introducing mathematical concepts to 3- and 4-year-olds. She has found that they are capable of engaging in pattern abstraction—identifying a pattern of colors or shapes and replicating that pattern with different colors or shapes. When they engage in patterning activities, their brains begin to build a foundation for later mathematical proficiency, she says.
“Pattern abstraction teaches the child to look for regularity, repetition and rules, which are critical components of mathematical reasoning,” Rittle-Johnson explains. “As they progress to more complicated patterning activities, their mathematical foundation continues to grow.”
She explains that early exposure to math concepts is not only positive, it’s necessary for a child’s later mathematical understanding.
“Numbers are important to learn in preschool, but that’s not where their math learning should end,” Rittle-Johnson said.
Encouraging problem-solving using math scenarios, such as how to distribute blocks evenly among classmates, is another way for preschoolers to begin understanding math concepts they’ll use later on.
“Young children are tremendously interested in learning about the world around them, and that world includes things that can be counted—but also shapes, patterns, and things that are measured,” says Dale Farran, Antonio M. and Anita S. Gotto Professor of Teaching and Learning. “It turns out that the broader a child’s math knowledge is, the more school success he or she has in the future. Early math skills are related to higher achievement not just in math but in literacy as well through at least the fifth grade.”
Farran is part of a consortium of researchers awarded a $5 million grant by the Heising-Simons Foundation to identify more effective teaching practices and promote math learning during the preschool years. One of her areas of study is an examination of the correlation between early mathematical learning and preschool executive function—the ability to pay attention, control impulses and manage behavior.
When preschoolers engage in early math learning, executive function skills tend to coexist, although researchers don’t yet know why.
“We are designing and testing a variety of mathematical activities to help understand this phenomenon,” Farran said. “It will be exciting to see how math competencies and executive function intersect and can be enhanced through high-quality early childhood education.”


Math has a reputation for being a male endeavor. According to a Stanford University study, boys have outperformed girls in math on the SAT for the past 40 years. On the other hand, the study goes on to say that girls are more likely to graduate at the top of their high-school class, go on to college and earn post-graduate degrees. Are these kinds of comparisons useful?
Not necessarily, according to Luis Leyva. The trouble with comparing outcomes based on sex is that it doesn’t paint a representative portrait of the gendered variation of mathematics achievement and participation within compared groups of individuals, he says. Much of how individuals behave, what they believe about themselves, and how they respond to math and the world around them is colored by the social construct of gender, not anatomy, he says.
In a forthcoming article in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Leyva discusses how the “myth of male superiority” in mathematics assessments has motivated researchers to take a closer look at differential mathematics outcomes and experiences in relation to gender and its intersections with other social identities.

Ebony McGee works with students to develop their cultural and mathematical identities. (Vanderbilt)
“Achievement is shaped by external influences, including social contexts and individual experiences,” Leyva says. “Much of the work on gender in mathematics education doesn’t address issues of intersectionality—how other dimensions of social identity like race or ethnicity, class and sexuality intersect with gender to shape varying forms of experience. If it did, that would allow for more nuanced understandings of mathematics achievement and participation.”
As math students progress to high school, college and careers in STEM, fewer and fewer females and students of color are present. Ebony McGee, a former engineer, has experienced this firsthand. “I was often one of the only black individuals in my workplace and one of only a few women,” she says. “Often we were treated like we were less capable than our peers. I hope that one day that myth will fade out, as people begin to see diversity as an asset, not a liability.”
McGee, assistant professor of education, diversity and STEM education, serves as a mentor to students in underrepresented groups who are pursuing careers in STEM. She believes the common narrative about math careers is too limited.
“Math is often positioned as a means to make America the next superpower, but that message doesn’t resonate with students—women and other groups—who are good at math but also want to provide stability for their communities and their families,” McGee says. “There is so much more that math can do. Math knowledge can play a strong role in social justice, in terms of providing ways to understand structural inequities in our society. We need to change the way that math is marketed so that math careers will appeal to a broader range of students.”
Taken from Vanderbilt Peabody Reflector, Winter 2017 Edition, Vanderbilt Peabody College, February, 2017

Friday, February 10, 2017

As a Public Educator, I Began to Panic

I was inspired by Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, Superintendent of the Fall Creek School District, to make 100 positive phone calls to parents, celebrating the 100th day of the school year. I put together a Google Form, gathered information from staff, locked myself in my office, and started on my journey.  The process took about five hours, calling parents from all grade levels, backgrounds, and abilities.  The script of a typical (and they weren’t all typical) phone conversation went like this:

“Hello, is this Jan, Connor’s Mother?”
“Yes it is.”
“Hi, this is Steve Vessey, Superintendent of Beaver Dam Schools.”
“I’m calling to tell you how awesome we think Connor is.”
“Oh...I was really nervous, wasn’t sure why you would call me.”
“I’m reaching out today to tell you what a great job Connor is doing in first grade at South Elementary.  Connor is working hard in math, taking on whatever challenge Mrs. Smith gives him.  In fact, Connor completed this month’s Rocket Math Challenge yesterday and is just doing great work.  Mrs. Smith also told me how well Connor gets along with his peers and how he often helps other students if they are struggling with a math problem.  What a wonderful young man, you must be very proud of him.”
“Yes we are.  I’m still surprised you’re calling me.”
“When you see Connor tonight, tell him we think he’s pretty awesome.  Give him a hug and tell him we’re pretty proud of him.”
“I will definitely do that.”
“My only reason for contacting you today is to share in Connor’s success.  Kids like Connor make our schools better and will ultimately make our world a better place for everyone.”
“Wow.  Thanks.”
“Have a great rest of the day, thank you.”

The 100 phone calls took an average of three minutes each.  Half of the phone calls resulted in me leaving a message similar to the script above, and about half were short conversations.  The task was uplifting, inspiring,  and was the most rewarding five hours of work I had experienced in quite some time.  Several conversations caused me to spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on my own practices and beliefs.

Four different parents with whom I spoke told me that I was the first person to ever call them to simply tell them how awesome their son or daughter was.  As a public educator, I began to panic.  I would like to think these parents are an aberration.  But I don’t think they are.  As a public educator, this stopped me in my tracks.  I found myself looking in the mirror and  asking myself, Superintendent of Beaver Dam Schools, why I have not been calling families to tell them how awesome their kids are.  It’s unacceptable.  What impact could I have on students, their academic careers, their confidence, their self-esteem, if I spent more time telling our students how proud I am of the job they are doing?  What would the impact be on academic achievement in the school district?  What would the impact be on the public perception of the school district or even public education at large?  I found myself reflecting on some of the toughest classes I had when I was a teacher.  How would my experience have been different? What about the experiences of the students in the class? Would their achievement have changed if I spent three minutes a day making a positive phone call? 180 phone calls a year?  I know the answer.  

I find myself wondering about the perception of public education.  As an educator, I am quick to defend the institution.  I’ve spent hours lobbying legislators to help change some of the negative rhetoric about our public schools.  I’ve written guest columns in newspapers, kept a blog, updated my Twitter account, and treaded water in the Facebook world: all in an effort “To tell our story.”  But I haven’t taken the time to simply tell parents how wonderful their kids are. It’s unacceptable.  At the end of the 100 calls, I found myself looking in the mirror, reminding myself to be the change I want to see in the world.  I reminded myself to stop complaining about the variables I can’t control; to take personal responsibility for telling parents how hard their students work; to spend more time telling the stories of the 95% of kids who do everything right; and to stop blaming others for the challenges I have.

So I ask, what would the impact be if everyone in the Beaver Dam School District made five, three minute phone calls each week to tell parents how fabulous their kids are?  What would the impact be in our state if all public educators were to do the same? Just as Dr. Sanfelippo challenged me, I challenge you to make 100 phone calls before April 1, telling parents how amazing their kids are.   You won’t regret it.  You will be inspired by the experience.  You have the time.  You will inspire children.  You will help parents sleep better at night.  You will smile more.  We will all be the change we want to see in the world.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Working on Wellness

A little over a year ago, members of the Beaver Dam Unified School District expressed a desire to find ways to enhance the overall wellness of the staff.  A district Key Performance Objective (KPO) grew from this idea, and for the past year, a committee of certified staff, administrators, support staff, and board members have been researching and implementing strategies to improve employee wellness.  

The committee began its work by researching healthy living and reading the book Blue Zones:  Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, by Dan Buettner. In the book, he describes the keys to longevity as the following: lifestyle, diet, outlook, and stress-coping practices.  Leaning on this information, the Wellness Committee developed and implemented a staff-wellness program focusing on strategies in the following three key areas:  workspaces/environment, public relations/communication, and community resources.

Staff were introduced to the Wellness Program by committee members at the beginning of the school year.  A Wellness webpage is currently available on the district website to communicate initiatives and share information.  Staff is encouraged to take walking breaks, use stand-up desks, rearrange workspaces, collaborate with colleagues, and increase healthy options in vending and break-rooms. Walking routes at each district building are mapped.  The committee continues to reach out to community resources in order to offer health screenings and informational sessions on topics such as financial wellness and mindfulness.  Reflecting on the  importance of implementing wellness strategies Sarah McClanathan, Lincoln teacher,  notes, “being healthy isn't a fad or trend; it's a lifestyle.”

As interest has grown, individual buildings have also created their own wellness committees.  These groups implement strategies such as fitness classes, walking groups, healthy lunch days, and scheduled-social activities. A district-wide walking challenge was recently launched encouraging teams to “walk” to Florida. Fitness classes are open to all staff and are held at the high school each week.  Concurrently, the middle school implemented a “positivity wall” and redecorated the staff workroom.  Washington School staff fill a fruit infused water cooler daily for staff,  and Prairie View school staff get together to exercise after school.  

When asked about the impact of the wellness programs, Katie Schwartz, BDMS teacher, stated: “Our building wellness challenges have offered staff opportunities to participate in positive and engaging dialogue and activities that are not normally part of our daily routines. It's a refreshing change as we are focusing on being well in multiple ways, while supporting and challenging each other to be better each and every day. Wellness has the ability to transcend to our personal and professional lives. This makes the whole community stronger!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Transforming Learning Space

Through our discussions with staff, students and parents about transforming our learning space at Beaver Dam High School, I received the article below.  The author presents 20 questions educators should ask when designing learning space.  I propose the 20 questions are appropriate for anyone that organizes a classroom, media center, breakout space or other student learning area.  Steven Weber, Superintendent in Fayetteville, Arkansas is the author.  The article was originally published on ASCD's professional networking community for educators website at www.edge.ascd.org in December, 2016.

Transforming Learning Space:  20 Questions Educators Should Ask

All students deserve a learning space, not a classroom. As teachers and administrators continue to transform learning spaces, they could learn a lot about classroom design by visiting a playground, children’s museum, or public library. When you observe students on a playground, you will see collaboration, communication, critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, citizenship, innovation, and community. We need more academic playgrounds. If teachers and administrators took time to reflect on the importance of design, purpose, and space, they may find that the old structure is a barrier to student achievement.
20 Questions To Ask About Learning Space:  
1.  Does the current space support the learning goals?
2.  How does the space encourage collaboration and communication skills?
3.  Where can students brainstorm and develop their own ideas?
4.  How does the lighting impact teaching and learning?
5.  Does the learning space influence student voice and student choice?
6.  Is the space age appropriate?
7.  Do students have multiple seating options?
8.  Are the walls used for “Learning Walls” or simply posters from college and pro sports teams?
9.  How will students interact with technology in the learning space?
10. Can students work in isolation or are they required to work in a group at every seating arrangement?
11. Does the learning space provide students with opportunities to contribute?
12. Does the learning space encourage compliance over student contribution?
13. Does the space take into account the varied abilities or all students?
14. Is the space designed so students can brainstorm and write on the floor, walls, and/or desks?
15. Does the space encourage student innovation?
16. Does the space tap into students’ natural curiosity and imagination?
17. Is there a sound system to enhance student learning and opportunities to connect with multimedia?
18. Does the space encourage formative/ongoing assessment?
19. Is the space designed for project based learning?
20. Have you asked the students what the learning space would look like if they were the architect(s)?
Once you design a space that meets the students' needs and preferences, you may be surprised at the change in student performance. When you are blogging or reading the news at home, do you put your feet up in a chair? Do you drink a cup of coffee and sit on the back porch? We do our best thinking when we are relaxed. Students can collaborate, communicate, create, and think critically in inspiring learning spaces.
Too often, teachers and administrators see a trendy classroom on Pinterest. The goal should be to design learning spaces that meet the needs of today’s learners, not to purchase bright colored bean bags, neon colored paint, rocking chairs, and lava lamps. Learning space is often overlooked in education. When teacher teams begin to ask these questions, they will reflect on the learning goals and ways to support student understanding, rather than transforming a traditional classroom into a trendy classroom.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Edcamp Beaver Dam

edCamp BD logo 2 PNG.png
Where can you spend a Saturday morning sharing ideas about a variety of education-related topics with educators across twelve different school districts and 14 different grade levels? At Edcamp! Last Saturday, Beaver Dam Unified School District hosted the second annual Edcamp Beaver Dam. In short, Edcamp is an unconference designed specifically for educators. It is a free sponsor-based professional development and learning opportunity where attendees create the agenda. Then they become note-takers and facilitators of the individual sessions. Edcamp prides itself in participant choice, therefore people are free to leave sessions at will to attend another without hurting anyone’s ego!

This year, more than 50 educators attended the Edcamp held at the Beaver Dam Middle School. At the start of Edcamp, attendees met to post suggestions for topics of interest for the day. Edcamp Beaver Dam used the Padlet Application to record suggestions. Next, the topics were sorted into categories for session assignments. This year’s schedule offered 28 different opportunities during four 50-minute sessions. The topics ranged from mental health, to G Suite (formerly Google Apps for Education), to student engagement and motivation, to mindfulness, reading strategies, and the growth mindset. After four engaging sessions, all attendees regrouped for the closing comments. Finally, the day concluded with a sponsor-based raffle. Attendees won prizes to be used in their classrooms. It was an amazing morning of collaboration and learning.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Wilson Elementary School Earns National Recognition

A third school in the Beaver Dam Unified School District has been honored this week as a National Blue Ribbon School of Distinction.  The United States Department of Education announced today that Wilson Elementary School has been chosen as a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School.  Wilson joins both South Beaver Dam and Lincoln Elementary schools as National Blue Ribbon Schools of Distinction.  
The award recognizes Wilson School students for their overall academic excellence.  The United States Department of Education will recognize only 329 public and private schools in the country this year.  This is not an award in which a school merely submits an application; the schools are chosen by the Department of Education based on the student academic performance on state assessments.  The award affirms the hard work of Beaver Dam students, families, and the world-class staff who comprise the Wilson School learning community and the Beaver Dam Unified School District as a whole.  The National Blue Ribbon School flag gracing a school’s building is widely recognized as a symbol of exemplary teaching and learning.
All school academic recognitions are a reflection of the exemplary school system that is thriving in Beaver Dam.  When we celebrate the successes of Wilson School students, we celebrate the hard work and success of all students, families, and employees who make up our learning community in the Beaver Dam Unified School District.  We will continue to work vigorously to guide students and empower futures while leading the way in student growth and academic achievement.   It is another great day to live, work, and learn in Beaver Dam!

U.S. Department of Education, National Blue Ribbon Schools announcement:

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Building Relationship From the Beginning

The article below was written by Rick Wormeli and appeared in September's issue of EdLeadership.  The citation for the article is at the end.  Enjoy!

What to Do in Week One?

In the school district where I taught for many years, school always began on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Our middle school teaching team, which served 185 students, competed every year to see who could learn every student's name by Friday. Most years, I won.
While students worked in my class, I used memory techniques to review their names. After school, I studied pictures of them. I asked students to switch their seats each day, sometimes even in the middle of class, and then I identified each one of them anew. I practiced naming them as they entered my room and in the cafeteria during lunch. I dared students to try to trick me into associating them with an incorrect name; I bungled a few, and there were a lot of laughs. But by the end of the fourth day of school, I knew all 185 students' names.

It was the first leg of the year's journey in relationship building. Parents wrote notes and e-mails marveling that I knew their child so well so quickly and predicting that this was going to be a great school year for their child. Of course, I didn't really know their children yet. But all of us feel honored when others whom we respect think our names are worth remembering. In that simple act, we make a connection.
It's like the Na'vi expression of deep respect in the movie Avatar: "I see you." When we affirm to each student, "Yes, you exist; I accept all that you are, and I value time in your company," it opens the door to the successful teaching-learning dynamic so important to academic success.
For many of us, the daily connections we make with colleagues and students have become routine. But these connections can make all the difference for our students. That moment at the end of lunch with 13-year-old Owen, in which the two of us wondered how Doctor Who could travel back and forth through time and space in his TARDIS without causing time paradoxes, may have been the first time Owen had a conversation with an adult who accepted him as an equal partner in the discussion. It was fresh and exciting for Owen, and his limbic system and autonomic nervous system surged with well-being. Now he wants more connections like this. And the more such positive connections he makes, the more personally and academically resilient he'll be.

Yes, It Is That Important

Although we can build positive relationships throughout the school year, the first weeks are crucial. They set the tone and conditions for the year ahead, creating a more effective teaching and learning enterprise for everyone. James Comer, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University, often declares, "No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship." This connection is especially powerful for students who struggle. As Rabbi Harold Kushner said in an interview with Educational Leadership,
Often I will read about someone from the most unpromising circumstances—inner-city ghetto, drug family, single-parent home, abandoned by father, abandoned by both parents sometimes—and the child will have grown up to be a star athlete, a successful politician, or a doctor. The reporter will ask, "How did you get to be who you are?" And the answer will always begin with the same four words: "There was this teacher." (Scherer, 1998, p. 22)
For all humans—and especially teens and young teens—whatever enters our brains as we learn activates emotional responses, even before we process it cognitively. Even if teachers deliver curriculum content with an inert, unemotional lens, our students' internal monologue takes it to an emotional level—"This is so tight/wrong/bad/cool/radical/wild/dope/stupid/GOAT (Greatest of All Time)!"
Research by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang demonstrates that students need to feel a meaningful emotional connection to the material to learn. In an interview, she asserted,
People think of emotion as getting in the way of cognition, but it doesn't. Emotion steers our thinking; it's the rudder that directs our mind and organizes what we need to do. (Sparks, 2016)
Positive teacher-student relationships build on this connection to promote learning. An extensive research base shows that
improving students' relationships with teachers has important, positive and long-lasting implications for both students' academic and social development. (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2016)
In sum, students' learning is markedly influenced by their connectedness with the adults in charge, classmates, and the larger community. How can we take advantage of this dynamic to support learning, especially in the first weeks of school?

Make Sure Students Feel Safe

The most urgent questions students ask as they begin a new school year are, Am I safe? and, Do I belong? Once students feel sure these needs are met, they'll dive into learning. We can't take successful communication of these assurances for granted, though. We have to prove them to students every day. What can teachers do?
First, let's laugh at our own mistakes, and model what it looks like to acknowledge our blunders publicly and handle them constructively. Let's not ridicule students' questions ("Why can't we see latitude/longitude lines from the air?" "Seriously, Mr. Wormeli, did we land on the moon?" "Why are women always naked in Renaissance paintings?"). Let's remove all sarcasm from our comments, realizing that the sting of even a small, tossed-away remark can leave a lasting scar.

Let's not assume that students understand the idioms and references we use; let's accept instead that we have to make the implicit explicit: "When I refer to syntax or describe sentences as being parallel, I'm referring to the repetition among the phrases used to improve flow and clarity for the reader. Here, let's line up these three sentences to see how they're parallel."
And let's not take students' inappropriate comments or reactions to our teaching personally. Instead, let's respond with concern: "That doesn't sound like you, Matthew. What's really going on?"
We can withhold judgment when giving descriptive feedback. Instead of writing, "This is incoherent—rewrite!" in the margin of the student's paper, we might write, "I see you've included five arguments in this paragraph, but I don't see how they're connected. Can you suggest a way to make your point more clearly?" Instead of, "Excellent math work!" we might write, "You isolated the variable to one side of the equation sign. What does that enable you to do now?" Instead of pronouncing a grade on a small project immediately, we might ask students to write a letter analyzing how their effort does or does not match the exemplar provided, and if it doesn't match, what they'd need to change to achieve a full match between the two—then give them time to make those changes.
Judgment on the quality of work distances students from us; it creates the need to save face, and it seems adversarial. In contrast, thoughtful, specific feedback positions us as a personal advocate. Students are willing to connect with an advocate.
In class discussions, students will offer something incorrect from time to time. We need to correct the statements without rejecting the students and stalling their participation. Here are some suggestions for responding in a way that respects a student's dignity.
Affirm risk-taking. "You know, Carl, that answer is actually incorrect, but thank you for taking the chance and getting it out there as something for the rest of us to consider. That's what scholars do!"
Ask the student to explain more about his thinking. When students explain further, they often discover their errors. If we identify the errors for them, it raises defensive walls and causes embarrassment.
Be empathetic to their thinking. We can tell a student that we used to think this way (even if we didn't), but we changed our mind when we read the information at the bottom of page 89 (the page intended for last night's reading that this student failed to do). "Let's see whether reading that section changes your thinking, too."
Change the current reality. Sophia needs a win today. So after she responds to a question with the incorrect answer, we respond with, "That's the answer to the question I was about to ask," even if it wasn't. It is now, though, and we go on to ask it so that Sophia can offer her answer again and experience being correct.
If a student indicates that she doesn't know the answer to our question, we can ask, "Pretend that youdid know the answer—what words would come out of your mouth?" A teacher in Naples, Maine, taught me this, and, gosh, it works. Students answer every time, and most often, they're good answers. The student didn't trust herself, so I had to provide her with a different reality.
Affirm the portions that are correct and invite focus on the incorrect portions. "Your claims are based on the author's perspective, Leila. Thank you for making that so important. I'm having trouble, however, finding the specific evidence you're using to make the claims. Can you help me find it?"
One last note about trust: We can never forget that we are under scrutiny. Students notice how we interact with their classmates and our colleagues. If we're curt, insincere, unfair, indifferent, or less than supportive with others, they'll assume that we might be that way with them, despite any previous positive experiences.
Students detest duplicity in their teachers. The first few weeks should provide consistent proof of personal authenticity. So the words we use with parents are the same ones we use with students. We follow up on our promises. We don't use sarcasm with our colleagues if we don't allow it in the classroom (the same goes with chewing gum). We are sad at sad moments and happy at happy moments. We don't always embrace students' cultural likes and dislikes just to be more accepted by them. We share our unique interests—a favorite sport or book; how much we liked Legos as a child; our dream of going into space someday; our fondness for summer camp, bike touring, and pecan pie; and a little about our families and our deep commitments to them. In short, we're our real selves.

Know Your Students Well

We can't connect with students we don't know. To provide them with meaningful learning experiences and to construct a supportive classroom community, we need to know them.
"Selected Things to Know About Your Students" (p. 15) lists just some of the areas that can affect learning. A single teacher won't be able to gather data in all these areas, of course, so we should make information gathering a full-year process, and consider dividing it up among departments in the school and posting it to a secure, confidential profile system maintained by the guidance department. In addition, many teachers find it helpful to include the following activities in the first weeks of school.
Invite parents to comment. In 2003, Deb Bova shared a simple strategy on the MiddleWeb listserv that exploded worldwide—sending home an open-ended invitation on the first day of school that says, "In amillion words or less, tell me about your child." In my own experience and that of other teachers who have tried it, this strategy garners insights regarding students that conventional parent surveys don't often provide. Parents find the prompt engaging; many comment that they've never been asked to write something like this before.
Invite students to write—as their parents. Tell students, "Write a letter from your parent to the teacher describing you." When people write under a pseudonym, it's often freeing. We include things we might normally filter. In the years I used this activity, students made statements like, "If it's important to remember, please write it on the board or screen. Otherwise, Jerry doesn't think it's important." "Micah has Hebrew school on Sundays and Wednesdays, so he probably won't do homework on those days." "It drives Carla crazy when there's nothing creative, so don't be boring." and, "Lena finds sweat stains under teachers' armpits revolting, so please keep them dry or don't raise your arms."
Caution students when writing such letters to stick to factors that affect their classroom learning. They should not reveal anything too confidential or personal. If they want to share personal information, they should first get their parents' permission or maybe even ask the parents to share it themselves.
Offer "Best Way for Me to Learn" cards. Students fill out an index card with their name and everything they can think of that helps them learn. Using these cards over the years, I learned that students wanted me to use high-contrast colors on dry erase boards, to provide more than two examples when explaining something, to speak more slowly, to allow students to drink water or juice in class, to switch who was doing the teaching sometimes (resulting in more student-led instruction), to identify online tutorials covering the same material I was teaching, and to make sure my homework wasn't busy work "just to look like a tough teacher." I also learned that many students get frustrated with group projects. All helpful to know.
Spend time in shared efforts. One of the best ways to get to know students and build strong connections is to share time in complex or work-intensive activities. Spending a full day early in the school year hiking a mountain with students, for example, forges strong teacher-student relationships, especially as you help one another navigate narrow boulder passes at higher altitudes. Witnessing our students outside normal classroom and school contexts reveals something closer to their true selves. It's gold.

Sponsoring a student club, sport, or extracurricular activity (school newspaper, TV station, or literary magazine) or joining students in a small on-stage or behind-the-scenes role in the school musical are excellent ways to create esprit de corps. In such experiences, we recognize the value in one another and in working together. We can't help but be loyal to one another and invested in one another's success. For students—and for teachers—this is often a pleasant surprise.

Practice Empathy

Students feel connected to teachers whom they perceive as understanding them. To inhabit another, however, we must inhibit ourselves—subordinating our own knowledge and perspectives for a moment and embracing the other's world. This takes practice. We can begin the school year focusing on these few empathy-building steps:
  • Make home visits and observe students' roles in the family and who they are at home.
  • Sit in students' desks and see the room from their point of view, and adjust lessons and visuals accordingly.
  • Ask students to explain their thinking verbally, in writing, or as they teach a classmate. Understanding, or lack thereof, is quickly revealed in these processes.
  • Recognize our own intellectual bias. "It's so clear in my own head; why isn't it clear in Kiki's head?" we reason. "Everyone else learned it this way, so it must be something wrong with Kiki. She's not trying hard enough." Effective teachers look through the first-timer's eyes as they plan and deliver instruction. They catch misconceptions before they fester, perceive helpful connections and clarifications for students, and avoid teaching today's lessons through automated verbal memory from their years of expertise in the topic.
  • Attend to students' essential human needs. Indifference to basic health does not engender goodwill. So be attentive: Are students hydrated, well-fed, and rested? Are they moving enough to get oxygen to the brain? Do we need more lighting, fresh air, or different seats? Can everyone see the display area? Do all students have equal access to the tools this lesson requires?
  • Avoid over-generalizing about students. English language learners, for instance, vary widely in language proficiencies, educational background, need for support, creativity, and more; treating them all the same undermines teacher-student relationships and students' learning. Affirm students as the individuals they are, not the limited stereotypes invoked by our limited experience. The Thai student in 5th period is not the official spokesperson for everyone from Thailand. The student with ear buds seemingly fused into his ears may not be trying to block out the world by listening to his favorite hip-hop artists, but instead listening to thoughtful podcasts of great poetry, gaming strategies, or speeches from his religious leaders. The student with purple hair may be a happy, well-adjusted rule follower who just happens to like purple hair.

We're In This Together

Face it: We can only do our jobs as teachers if students do what we ask of them. On any day, students can refuse to participate or can even get up and walk out. In some classrooms, cooperation is tenuous at best, but in successful classrooms it's on solid ground. Teaching is done with students, not to them.
To create that mutual ethos, teachers and students employ civil discourse that honors what each group brings to the table. When disagreeing, we demonstrate that we've heard and understood the other's point of view. We don't diminish one another with derision. We assume that at any given moment in the lesson, both of us—teacher and student—are probably doing the best we can. If we wrong each other in some manner, we apologize and try to make amends.
Both of us want respect for our efforts and our individual natures; we want to be accepted and to matter to others. As teachers, we show respect by being knowledgeable in our fields and in how to teach them, by following through on our promises, and by finding ways to make curriculum content meaningful to students. To show respect to us, students do the class activities and assignments, follow our classroom rules, and make sincere efforts to learn course content without complaint.
Mutuality is not just helpful to students; it's also invigorating to teachers. We are more willing to invest in students when we feel connected to them. We get excited as we plan lessons for particular individuals, take satisfaction in responding to student work and providing helpful feedback, and enjoy students' "aha!" moments when we've really made the connection. This is why we went into teaching in the first place; it's where we find the strength to work hard all day and late into the evening and then get up the next morning and do it all over again.
Yes, student, you exist. I accept all that you are, and I value time in your company. You will commit to being the best version of your maturing self, just as I will commit to being the best version of my maturing self for you. We'll achieve our goals together. Now, I see that your name is "Ellie." Is it short for something? Tell me more. You are a person worth knowing.

Selected Things to Know About Your Students

  • Socioeconomic status
  • Family dynamics
  • Nationality
  • Student's transience rate
  • Parents' jobs
  • Home responsibilities
  • After-school work schedule
  • Previous school experiences
  • Religious affiliation
  • English language learner status
  • Technology access and proficiency
  • Personal interests (sports, music, television, movies, books, hobbies, other)
  • Physical health/maturity
  • Behavior/discipline concerns
  • Social-emotional learning strengths and challenges
  • Existence of Individualized Education Plan
  • Challenges such as Tourette syndrome, Asperger syndrome, ADHD
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Gifted/advanced learner
  • LGBT identity and transitions
  • Leadership qualities
  • Multiple intelligences
  • Myers-Briggs personality profile


Rimm-Kaufmann, S., & Sandilos, L. (2016). Improving students' relationships with teachers to provide essential supports for learning. Retrieved from American Psychological Association website
Scherer, M. (1998, December). Is school the place for spirituality? A conversation with Rabbi Harold KushnerEducational Leadership, 56(4), 18–22.
Sparks, S. D. (2016, April 26). Emotions help steer students' learning, studies find. Education Week,35(29). Retrieved from www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/04/27/emotions-help-steer-students-learning-studies-find.html
Rick Wormeli (www.rickwormeli.com) is a long-time teacher, now an education consultant. He is the author of 10 education books, including Fair Isn't Always Equal (Stenhouse, 2006) and Summarization in Any Subject (ASCD, 2005). Follow him on Twitter.