Math Strategies for English Language Learners

In Massachusetts, all core subject area teachers and administrators of English Language Learners, must receive a Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) Endorsement from the state. One way for educators to receive this endorsement is by taking a RETELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners) course. One of the main goals of the course is to provide teachers with a repertoire of methods and strategies they can use to help students practice the four domains for learning language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

These are a few of my favorite strategies I learned from the course:

Reading Strategy: Partner Reading for Comprehension
Partner Reading

This strategy made the problems more manageable because students were able to have valuable discussions regarding the content before actually solving the problem. Since Partner #2 had to comment and respond to Partner #1’s questions, they had to pay close attention to what was being read. Most of the partners were able to choose the most important pieces from each word problem based on what Partner #1 had commented on during part two of the reading strategy. Giving my ELLs the opportunity to read aloud with a mainstream student allowed them to practice their expressions and ask for explanations. The strategy helps support both partners as they learn from each other’s observations and questions regarding the text. The students were able to determine what phrases were necessary for successful completion of the problem, and those that were not needed.

Writing Strategy #1: Cut and Grow
The Cut-n-Grow strategy provided students with an opportunity to see exemplar/non-exemplar student work samples and focus on improving their own open response questions. First, students looked at a student work sample that received a score of 2 on a standardized open response question. They cut the question apart and wrote additional explanations to turn the score into a 4. Then, students repeated the process for an open response question they had previously solved, to improve upon their own writing.

Cut and Grow

Many of my ELLs tend to leave open response questions blank on exams, so it’s important that we explicitly practice answering these questions. The strategy gave students a second chance at improving their work, and they responded very well to this strategy. The physical act of cutting and pasting pieces of the response, and then adding their revised sentences, really helped show students how to edit and model good writing.

This strategy can work with any writing sample the students produce in class, such as journal entries, AP open response answers, exit tickets, etc.

Writing Strategy #2: Write Around
Students should be divided into groups of 3 or 4. Each student starts with a blank sheet of paper and writes one sentence of a word problem. Then, the student passes the paper to the right. After reading what is written, students continue to add sentences until a word problem is created (approx 4 sentences). Each team will choose one problem to write on a large whiteboard or paper to show the rest of the class during a gallery walk. The gallery walk gives students the chance to make observations regarding other students’ work. Students can then choose one or more of the problems to solve. Teachers can scaffold this activity by providing students a list of must-haves for each word problem. For example, students might have to include the following in a quadratics word problem: a setting, the type of object being thrown/launched/dropped, height at which object starts, and the speed or distance the object travels. Each student would take turns providing one of these details.

My biggest takeaway from this course is that we all need to explicitly teach strategies for reading, writing, speaking, and listening in our disciplines. We cannot sit back and “let the English teacher handle it.” English Language Learners are trying to learn a new language at the same time we are expecting them to learn our content. It’s our responsibility to provide opportunities in our lessons to support both goals.

Solving Equations – Add It Up

I wanted a quick and fun way to assess students’ abilities to solve equations during the first week of school, so I made this “Solving Equations – Add It Up” powerpoint. Each group of four students will have one large whiteboard on their desks (purchased from Home Depot – panel board that is cut up). Each student will solve the problem in his/her quadrant, then the students will add all their solutions together to get one final number which they will write in the middle of the board. I will only look at that final number and tell a group whether they are right or wrong. If a group is wrong, they will have to look at each other’s work and figure out where the error has been made. During the activity I will walk around and monitor student’s progress, keeping notes on my clipboard for future reference.

If a group does not have 4 students, I will ask the student who finished his/her problem first, to also solve the 4th problem. If you do not have large whiteboards, you can still have students do this activity. Students can solve their problem on an individual mini white board or sheet of paper, and then combine their answers onto one sheet in the middle of the table.

A Field Trip to Italy

Last week I chaperoned the greatest field trip I can ever expect to go on… to Italy. Along with 3 colleagues, we flew 23 students to Rome for a 7 day Italian adventure. Each of the students takes Latin in school, and were far more qualified than myself to visit each of the historic sites. I’ve traveled abroad many times before, but there is something about sharing this experience with my students that makes this trip one of the best I have ever taken. It would have been impossible for our group to not become a family on this journey, as we spent numerous hours on a bus, exploring the streets of Rome, and bonding over our love/hate for various tour guides we encountered. I watched students who had never spoken to each other at school become close friends and take selfie after selfie together. I watched eight students wake up early each morning to go for a sunrise run or participate in a mini spartan workout. I watched students who have never been away from their parents for more than a night, flourish and make choices on their own. I watched our male students become protectors of the entire group as we walked the city streets.

I often found myself at the back of the group, feeling protective of our students, and wanting to make sure they were all in front of me and visible. It is during some of these times that I found myself happiest on the trip. Different students would find their way to the back of the line, some because they were tired and lagging a bit, or some because they couldn’t wait to tell me about something they just saw. I learned so much about my students and their lives during these conversations, and was able to share so much more of myself than I usually do in the classroom. There’s something special about sharing moments when you’re drenched with sweat, you’ve already walked four miles, and you’re on your third gelato of the day.

It was truly the adventure of a lifetime and I’m so grateful I was given the opportunity to chaperone. It is my hope, that some of the friendships formed will continue during the school year, and I know, that the memories of this trip is something we will all share forever. Here is a snapshot of some of the things we saw/did (minus student pictures for privacy):

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum



Mozzarella Bar

Mozzarella Bar

St. Peter's Square and Basilica

St. Peter’s Square and Basilica



Lunch in Naples - Zeppole, Bruschetta, Crocchetta, Mozzarella Fritta, Pizza Margherita, and Foccacia with Nutella

Lunch in Naples – Zeppole, Bruschetta, Crocchetta, Mozzarella Fritta, Pizza Margherita, and Foccacia with Nutella

Early Morning Run

Early Morning Run

Blue Waters of Capri

Blue Waters of Capri



Mt. Vesuvius

Mt. Vesuvius

View of Sorrento

View of Sorrento

Tiberius' Grotto - Sperlonga

Tiberius’ Grotto – Sperlonga

Edcamp Boston 2014

Yesterday I attended my second Edcamp Boston unconference and it was just as great as the first! This year, a supervisor from my district joined me, and I really enjoyed having someone there to chat with about how the sessions we attended could impact our school. It was a day of information overload and I will be going through my notes carefully to unpack the goods.

Session 1: “Model Your Classroom as a Startup” led by Jeremy Angoff – @MyTakeOnIt
We took collaborative notes during the session and they can be found here. Of all the qualities of progressive classrooms we listed, my favorites were student voice and collaboration. We must give students options when possible, and provide them with explicit opportunities to collaborate with peers on tasks. My biggest takeaway from the session was individual reflection of what we’re already doing in the classroom at my school. For our interdisciplinary STEM projects, we give students a budget, and another team has students look for investors if they run out of money. We also invite community/business members to our student exhibitions so they can share ideas and receive feedback from individuals practicing in the field. An interesting TED talk shared in the session is “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. Check it out.

Session 2: “My Teachers are Tech Disabled (A HS student perspective)” led by a HS student and moderated by @karenjan
A student shared with the crowd how using an iPad in the classroom helps him overcome several disabilities, while discussing the difficulties he has had with his school over this use of technology. Three of the main tools he uses are:

Session 3: “Building grit and resiliency; Social emotional learning; beyond bandaids” led by Steve Guditus (@sguditus) and Tracy Sockalosky (@tsocko)
I walked in late to this great conversation about how we can build grit and resiliency in our students. A few notes of mine, followed by the board at the end of the session:

  • We need to shift the focus back to the quality of a student’s work and the process they used rather than saying “What grade did you get?”
  • We need to model making mistakes and perseverance for our kids
  • The standards based grading chat on Wednesday nights has changed to standards based LEARNING chat
  • “If a question can be answered on google, it’s not a good question.”
  • At Malden High School (shared by @abbeydick), each month there is a “Grit” Lunch where teachers nominate students who are kicking butt and they get to eat with

Grit Pic

Session 4: “Google Docs in the Elementary Classroom” led by Rayna Freedman (@rlfreedm)
Even though I teach high school, I was hoping to learn a few tidbits that would be useful as our school begins to implement a 1:1 program and gives all students Google accounts. Here are some takeaways:

  • Use a google form for students to submit assignments. This makes the collection process fast and stores all the assignment links in one spreadsheet for easy access
  • Use Google Gooru for training resources – the staff at my school is going to find this extremely helpful!
  • Use QR codes and the Google URL code shortener to make it easier for students to access documents quickly
  • Goobric allows you to add a rubric to Google Drive resources and then send it directly to students for instant feedback!

Session 5: “Passion Beyond the Insanity” led by Steve Guditus (@sguditus) and Tracy Sockalosky (@tsocko)
With partners and then as a whole group, we discussed “What is passion? What are you passionate about? How can we bring passion to our schools and students?” See notes here, or just look at this awesome compilation by Steve:
Passion Pic

The session itself was my favorite of the day because I love when you can just feel the energy in a room, and everyone in this room was radiating passion.

Session 6: “Math Teachers Unite!” led by Me and Rik Rowe (@WHSRowe)
Going into Edcamp, I had no intention of leading a session, but Rik convinced me to throw a session onto the board, and I’m so glad I did. About 12 teachers came out to the last session to talk math. Session notes here. We talked about Desmos, Estimation 180, Dan Meyer’s Three Act Tasks, and Would You Rather. I love sharing these awesome resources with other teachers who haven’t come across them yet. Unfortunately the projector wasn’t working in the room we were in, so we couldn’t play around with them together. We talked about the PARCC pilot tests that some of our students have taken, and how challenging the implementation has been so far.

I brought up the Standards for Mathematical Practice and how I know I need to implement them more explicitly. We can have students write more in math class if they write about how they used the standards for a particular task (this also helps teachers in MA who are taking the RETELL course for English Language Learners). It was really nice to chat with other math teachers in the state and share what we’re doing in our classrooms.

My favorite idea from the session was “Tic-Tac-Toe” from Rik. Create a 9 box grid and input anything you want – equations, graphs, tables, stories. Then, have students connect a row horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, by connecting the information in the boxes. They have to defend their choices and explain how the topics in each box are related.

Smackdown! Session:
Individuals jumped up to share online resources in one minute or less. I talked about Desmos again because everyone needs to know about it! Full list of apps shared here. The one I am downloading ASAP is “OneTab” It’s a Google Chrome extension that lets you turn all open browser tabs into: ONE tab. It save space, and you can actually email a set of tabs to share with someone else. Super cool and I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this before.

Overall, it was a great time and I felt so inspired listening to such passionate educators talk all day. Thank you to all the Edcamp Boston Organizers! @dancallahan @tsocko @KarenJan @ldelia @sguditus @lizbdavis

Favorited Tweets #1

Not sure about you, but I’m pretty glad March is over. Nothing terribly awful happened, but I, and most of my school, seemed to be in a funk. Our normal schedule was changed constantly due to MCAS tests and class scheduling meetings for next year, and we didn’t have a regular day of classes for most of the month. Everything just seemed to be harder than it should have been. Therefore, I wasn’t really tweeting, and definitely not blogging. When I lurk on Twitter, I favorite tweets and then immediately forget about them. I decided it would be worth it to see what hidden gems I have recently favorited. Here are a few standouts:

1) Graphtv: The site provides you with a graph of the ratings for your favorite tv shows based on episode ratings from IMDB. I think my students would love this site because they can choose any show that is interesting to them. This would be perfect during our Linear unit in Algebra 1, so I’ll have to wait until next October/November to put it to good use.

Here’s my favorite show, Homeland:
Homeland Graphtv

2) 3-Act Handout: This is definitely going to be handy when doing one of Dan Meyer’s Three Act Lessons, wish I had come across this form a long time ago!

3) Math Munch writes about 2048: My students and I are obsessed with the game 2048. We challenge each other to games during homeroom in the morning, and I just knew they would love to hear more about the game. Students who have already beaten 2048 were psyched to find new versions to play.

4) Why Am I Teaching This?: @Approx_normal started this site as a way for teachers to connect regarding those frustrating topics we teach but sometimes aren’t sure why. I hope educators keep contributing to it because it has the potential to be extremely valuable.

5) Robert Kaplinsky’s Problem Based Search Engine: The search engine allows you to quickly find awesome problem-based lessons and is a must to have bookmarked for all math teachers.

Junior Pinning Ceremony

The Boston University School of Education Junior Pinning Ceremony is my favorite tradition of my alma mater. Tonight, undergraduate juniors will stand amongst their peers and affirm their call to teach by reciting the Educator’s Affirmation:

BU SED Educator's Affirmation

While many educators make the decision to enter the field after pursuing other careers, these students have already made the commitment to the education profession. It’s beautiful to watch the students make this commitment together, knowing that many of them are standing next to their best friends and future colleagues. I have been asked to attend tonight’s ceremony to represent the alumni community by distributing the pins to each junior as they walk across the stage. I cannot wait to attend, meet this class of aspiring educators, and be inspired by the night’s speakers.

Each year, one student is selected to address the class and I was honored to have been selected as the student speaker my junior year. In honor of tonight’s event, I thought I would post the speech I gave on February 22, 2008. Full text below.

I have wanted to be a teacher for my entire life. Well, almost. For about one month during kindergarten I really wanted to be a hairdresser. Then my mom told me if I were a hairdresser I would have to stand all day, and that ended that. It turns out that teachers spend most of the day standing too. However, if we, as future educators, must stand all day to teach, to reach, to encourage, to love, and to inspire young minds, then that is a cause I am willing to stand for.

The Dean Emeritus of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman, passionately stated, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The world is suffering from a severe shortage of qualified teachers. Politicians and world leaders tell us that everyday. But more importantly than just needing teachers, we need passionate individuals who are ready to care about their students and change the way they think about education.

That is why we are all here today. Somewhere along the road we decided that we want to be one of those individuals. For some, it may have been a gradual decision, determined after years of careful deliberation. For me, it was one day in kindergarten. With my pigtails bouncing and Spottie Dottie backpack, I knew I was destined to stand in front of a classroom one day. It does not matter how you came to sit here though, what matters is that our Junior class is united by the School of Education, and a dream to inspire.

Throughout the years, my childhood plan never wavered. My desire to teach has only grown stronger with each new teacher I have encountered. In first grade, I wanted to be a first grade teacher, second grade, a second grade teacher, third grade, a third grade teacher and, you get the idea. Finally, upon entering high school, I knew I had found my niche. I loved the academic subjects, the atmosphere, the community, the extracurricular activities, the athletics, and especially, the students. At the time, they were my peers, but I looked ahead and saw myself at the whiteboard fervently singing a song about the quadratic formula and debating proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem with them. I’m a math nerd, what can I say.

Regardless of what age group we have chosen, whether it is early childhood, elementary, or secondary, we each share a common goal: to be the best teacher we can possibly be. And we chose the Boston University School of Education to be our guide. This school is not just a teacher preparation program. SED is a welcoming community of supporting peers and professors who want to see us and our future students succeed. We share laughter on the bus rides during our Introduction to Education class, and relief upon completion of our first lesson plan. We listen to each other’s triumphs and experiences in the classroom and use them as ways to grow. My fellow students in the School of Education have become my best friends, my confidantes. We could not get through this journey alone, nor would we want to. The collaborations, class discussions, and stories we share about teaching, strategies, and learning opportunities are held more closely to the heart coming from those we care about, an education that not only a textbook could provide.

Life in the School of Education is a constant reminder that “We can do this!” We can create interdisciplinary units connecting the sciences and humanities. We can manage a classroom and discipline appropriately. We can implement the curriculum frameworks and individualized education plans. We can educate and find a way into the hearts and minds of our students. Last semester I tutored one student at The English High School who informed me that he does not believe teachers when they tell him they believe in him. What does it take to believe? How can you show students that you truly care about them? It is a topic we have covered numerous times throughout the past two and a half years. Believing starts with respecting, moves toward building relationships, and arrives at a mutual understanding that one is at the blackboard because one wants to be there. We set high standards for our students, know that we will do everything we can to help them, and expect both parties to come through for each other. Passionately teaching what you love and showing your students that you care about them as learners, will make them into believers.

Tonight, as we affirm our decision to become teachers, we believe we can be successful at educating and changing the lives of our students, making this the right place for us to be. One day in the near future, we will stand up in front of a classroom with 50 gazing eyes and 25 wondering hearts, eagerly waiting to see what lesson is in store for the day. In that moment, do you come alive? Excitement is contagious. Passion is unmistakable. Doing what you love makes all the difference in the world. Thank goodness we love teaching.”

Learning Targets and Success Criteria

I haven’t written a blog post since November and feel like I’ve been in a funk. I feel like I haven’t had anything to say or contribute, and the longer I stay away from posting, the harder I feel it is to get back into it. But this weekend, registration for Twitter Math Camp opened for individuals who have attended in the past (it will open for everyone else on 2/22!), and this was just the kick I needed to write again…

After winter break, our district had a half day of professional development, where each school heard a presentation from the principal on “Learning Targets and Success Criteria.” We were encouraged to read this chapter from “Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom” before the presentation. The presentation was followed by department break-out sessions to discuss the topic in more depth.

Our district leadership has requested that all teachers post and share with students the “Learning Targets” and “Success Criteria” for each day’s lesson. They may be posted on a white board for the entire class, or teachers can choose to project them sometime during the lesson. The key is that they are discussed with students and referred to throughout the lesson. “Learning Targets” are basically the same thing as objectives. “Success Criteria” provide the student with strategies for assessing their work. The goal is for students to be able to explain WHAT they are learning and HOW they know if they are being successful or not. The target does not have to change every day. In my Algebra 2 example below, I planned to keep that target up for two weeks while students learned how to solve quadratic equations by factoring, using the quadratic formula, and completing the square.

I have mixed feelings about this, as do many teachers at my school. Many feel that this is just another initiative that will disappear in a few years. And that it’s an awful lot of work to write each day. Myself, I really struggled with the language of the targets vs. the criteria.
Target & Critera 1

I originally posted mine as “I can…” followed by “I will…” But I saw other teachers posting it the reverse way: “I will be able to…” followed by “If I can…” and the wording really bothered me. If I have to do this every day, I need to be able to work with it. One of my colleagues suggested that I write ALL statements starting with “I can…” and this now really makes a lot of sense to me.
Target & Criteria 2

The target is the big picture; what can students do at the end of the lesson? The success criteria is the target broken down into manageable chunks so that students can see where they are in the process. It makes sense that both of these are written as “I can” lists for students to mentally (or physically because I hand out a target list at the beginning of each unit) check off.

So, we’ll see how this goes. Not sure if I’ll notice any changes in students’ understanding based on this required change, but it will definitely be a constant presence in my lesson planning now. If you have any experience with writing learning targets and/or success criteria, I’d love to hear from you!