Adventures in Student Collaboration

Those of us who teach middle school know. When we put students in groups and expect them to collaborate with their peers they will often:

  • complain they don’t like someone in their group and refuse to work with them
  • talk entirely off task about movies and sporting events and gossip
  • constantly rely on you for help as often as they can get your attention
  • be afraid to admit they need help from a peer (cuz who wants to do that when you’re 13?)
  • do whatever the student they deem “smart” says and ride on their coattails but not really learn anything

It can be a frustrating experience so I’ve been working on this for years now. Yes years! Recently I thought I’d made a lot of progress but I find I am still missing those kids who fall into the last 2 groups. Yes, I have normalized mistakes. Yes, I have done team building and collaboration games that have nothing to do with math. Yes, I have preached growth mindset. In fact I’ve done this so much that I have had students quietly complain to me that they really do want to learn but when they ask for help they are only given the answer but not a thorough explanation. Ok, that is progress. But I still need to fix it. This year I even tried grading solely on the Standards for Math Practices but that only helped for about a month.

So for the past month I’ve been trying a few strategies I learned from the California Math Council – South Conference from David Foster at the Silicon Valley Math Initiative and from Ellen Crews at Vista Innovation and Design Academy and so far they are working fabulously!

So first, watch this video of students working on perimeter with Algebra tiles but stop it where it says “Later” and come back here before watching the rest:

At the “Later”? Ok – I know what you’re thinking…Ana still doesn’t really understand the work. But watch what happens next…go ahead back to the video.

Amazing, right? So I tried it. Here’s what I did:

  1. Front loaded the lesson with vocabulary only – and an essential question
  2. Gave the students an investigation they could productively struggle with and asked them to raise their hands to “clear” their work with me before they could move on (I haven’t developed a stamp sheet yet like the teacher in the video but I plan to).
  3. Made myself as unavailable as possible and tried to be busy taking attendance, passing back papers, talking with students who’d been absent, etc
  4. When groups were ready I glanced over their work and then asked 1-4 of the students to explain their work and how they got their answers. This changed daily – some days I’d just ask my “Anas” – other days everyone would get a question. At every group I had to say “I’ll be back” at least once. If I noticed any glaring misunderstandings I asked more clarifying questions.
  5. To light a fire under some groups, I kept them in a few minutes into nutrition until they’d “cleared” their work.

The Results:

  1. It was rough the first 2 times: At least 2-3 groups in each class stayed in to finish their explaining. I sweated. They weren’t happy. Some kids objected about not getting to move on. They didn’t want to explain it again. I preached the deeper understanding they would gain.
  2. By the 3rd class groups got on task more quickly. They talked more. They asked questions. They got out of their seats to talk more animatedly with each other. They asked each other if they understood. They stopped looking for me until they were ready.
  3. When I came over to clear them, they rooted for each other (I heard “You got this!” and “You can do this!”) and when they were “cleared” they all said “Yes!” (there were even some high fives). They were excited and happy. They were a team.
  4. I heard a lot of “ooooohhh!”s and “ah ha” moments. Students saw that other students were “smart” or had insight the other kids didn’t. It worked!

And then I switched groups…and it was slightly like starting over again BUT there was a much more positive atmosphere. One student even said, “Don’t worry. This is the first time we’ve worked together. We’ll get it.”

Next Steps:

  1. Develop a stamp sheet that will then become part of their grade so groups can work at their own pace and use Friday as a catch up day or math game day if all groups are done.
  2. Assign more group roles, specifically a “communicator” who I can give hints to as they are needed – and who (perhaps) can visit other groups when theirs is stuck (I already have a supply person, and team leader – I may need a time keeper as well).
  3. Finish reading the book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom by Elizabeth Cohen
  4. Find ways to tie in more technology – perhaps using Classflow for some reporting out instead of wipe boards.
  5. Look into “Participation Quizzes”

If you try any of this please let me know how it goes! Or if you’ve done something similar I would love more tips. Or if you have ideas for a good stamp sheet, please send it.

1 Year Ago

Ok…we’re going back 3 years ago for just a moment. Like any good teacher I had the capacity to say “no” surgically removed when I got my credential and, as such, was coerced (read “volunteered”) to be part of our district’s Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) through an RGK grant. On the ILT I was trained to facilitate “Learning Walk” and “Lesson Link” (now called “Lesson Study”) – and then was instructed to run 2 of each over 2 years. I was shy, nervous, I wanted to just be left alone to teach in my classroom. I could not facilitate the amazing teachers at my school… but in the end I LOVED it and I LOVED Lesson Study!

So now onto a year ago. High on my success and enjoyment of being an instructional leader, I applied for California Teacher’s Association’s Teacher Leadership Cohort (CTA’s TLC), hoping to continue work in instruction and professional development (PD). I was accepted! And that’s where this AMAZING journey began – in Burlingame, CA in July 2013.

CTA’s TLC was funded through a National Education Association (NEA) grant. I wanted to continue to improve instruction in our schools – especially around the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). My project idea was new since our lesson study would cross schools in the district (where our RGK training was to implement this solely by school). So this became my project. You can read all about it below. It was a success! And one of my cross-school collaborators and I have been asked to present it for our district at our convocation in August.

Meanwhile at CTA TLC, we continued to meet in our regions throughout the school year. I was continually inspired by our fantastic cohort members and CTA’s Instruction and Professional Development Department (IPD). Here I thought all along that unions were only for politics and bargaining! I was never a “joiner” and never wanted to be political…but CTA has an IPD department, which I could get behind. And they run some amazing PD’s! I strongly encourage checking them out!

So in the meantime, unable to say no, I actually presented at quite a few on these conferences (remember I’m shy). And it was a blast! I got to travel, meet amazing educators, sit in on fantastic presentations, and inspire others! And so why not apply to be an NEA’s Greater Public School Network Facilitator?

Yes, I got that gig too (see previous post). I was officially a joiner! In the meantime I joined committees at our school district around the CCSS (and bargaining CCSS money) and got more involved with my local union. But, really, this last week at NEA’s RA (Representation Assembly) really takes the cake!

NEA logo

I got to go to Denver, Colorado to NEA’s RA as an “Empowered Educator” – (along with CTA TLC’s Danesa Menge)

Empowered Educator

This meant I got to participate in the “Raise Your Hand” events even though I wasn’t an elected delegate. It was a day of panels, speeches, collaboration, learning and inspiration. Lots of inspiration! We were called to raise our hands and raise our voices for Great Public Schools, Equal Opportunity, Social Justice and Student Success! And if I wasn’t empowered when I arrived, I was certainly an Empowered Educator when I left!

We also had some great training from NEA’s GPS Network and worked at the Expo to help sign up new members for NEA’s GPSNetwork – a place where all educators and stakeholders can connect, collaborate, share and learn.Un Conference


Meanwhile, my husband, an artist, stayed home and held down the fort with the kids. He also created this amazing visual that expresses the voice we all have within: (credit


On my final day in Denver I got to attend NEA RA’s opening ceremonies where Mr. Obama even sent a video message. It was amazing! Music and dancing and confetti and beach balls and love and inspiration with about 9,000 educators from all over the country….Confetti

Me and Gaby

With my fellow CTA TLC member, Gabriela Orozco-Gonzalez who runs a great PD at and is a CTA Delegate and GPS Network’s Natalie McCutchen.

My takeaways from this week are that educators are held to a different standard. We are expected to be kind, collaborative, creative, intelligent, dedicated, hard-working, and compassionate human beings who are champions of social justice, equal opportunity and student success. And we are!

AND that if we are in education, we are political – there’s no separating it! So mark my word, I am now a joiner who will continue to use my voice to stand up for Great Public Schools and Student Success in all ways that being a mother of four will allow!

And our unions? FAR MORE than bargaining and politics – they are behind us to help us grow to be the best educators we can be! HUGE shout out to CTA and NEA for making me see the light as a mid-career educator. I have grown immensely this year! Thank you!

Great quotes from this week:

“When we begin to build the capacity of our teachers, we build the capacity of our students.” – teacher Daniella Robles

You have the power to push passions, to help healing, to hand out hope, to empower inspiration.” – Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year

“Proceed until apprehended.” –  NEA President Dennis Van Roekel


So no, we didn’t have a chance to bask in this lovely rooftop pool in Denver, CO


But we did build a strong team of nation-wide educators who are here to facilitate groups for all stakeholders in education on the GPS Network so I hope you will join us! All funded by the NEA and here to help us be better educators and leaders!

GPS Group

Brandy Bixler, Kelly Bouteiller, Barbara Ransom, Sara Bill, Patricia Gramer Roach, Ramona Brown, Troy Rivera, Greg Hobbs

And while you’re at it you can check out my cute kiddos in my GPS stop motion “ad”:

…and in the best Union News EVER! NEA elected three women of color to lead it:

President: Lily Eskelsen Garcia (who started in education as a cafeteria worker)

Vice President: Becky Pringle (amazing inspirational speaker for raising our voice)

Secretary-Treasurer: Princess Moss


Congratulations to all of us!

Next week I head to Sacramento to meet the new members of CTA’s TLC #2! I can’t wait!


Collaboration Continues on a National Level

I was fortunate to be chosen to facilitate a group for the National Education Association’s (NEA) new website – the Greater Public Schools Network.  The plan is for this to be the Nation’s largest Learning Community!IMG_20140425_034635

The NEA’s purpose is  to bring educators and stakeholders together through this site to:

“Collaborate, advocate, and organize to improve public education by leading a student-centered Association agenda.

The Great Public Schools site has many components:

1. Collaborate on professional issues

2. Search for resources to enhance lessons plans and share ideas

3. Read educational blogs and up-to-date educational news

4. Share your opinions through a feature called Today’s Poll

5. Explore Practical Tools provided by NEA and other partners

6. Join events of interest that are announced via the GPS Network, i.e., webinars, podcasts, etc.”

I spent a long weekend training in Washington DC at NEA Headquarters just 4 blocks from the White House:

IMG_20140425_154519 IMG_20140425_155713 IMG_20140425_170426 IMG_20140425_170439 IMG_20140425_192236I also got to meet and work with some amazing and enthusiastic educators from across the country – as well as some of NEA’s staff. It was an inspiring, yet tiring, weekend.NEA GPS Network Facilitators Training with staffWe did get a chance to do a little sight seeing too…White HouseI look forward to our second training and networking this summer in Denver, Colorado at NEA’s Representative Assembly (RA) where I will also get to participate in NEA’s Empowered Educator Day! Can’t wait to reconnect with this amazing group!

And if you’d like to join my group, anyone interested in education is welcome (parents, grandparents, etc…) I’m facilitating the CCSS Math 8th Grade group.


Common Core Seminar – Oxnard/CTA

Yes! Even near the end of the year, 200+ dedicated educators are working on a beautiful Saturday to better themselves and their schools.


I was happy to attend a technology session with Danesa Menge where I learned about a lot of new apps to engage students and encourage them in CCSS.

CCS 2Afterward, I led a session on Lesson Study. What a fantastic group! Some really great questions and discussion going on as to how we can work collaboratively in our schools to improve our instruction. Here’s a photo of my group watching a clip from The Teaching Channel called “My Favorite No.” It is one of the strategies we can use to encourage and normalize mistakes – because we learn SO much from them.

CCS 3Some of my participants wanted the link to my Prezi presentation so here it is here:

And then it was lunch! A beautiful spread poolside. That’s the thing about CTA’s conferences: great educators, great presentation, and great food! And so low cost! Check out those desserts!


Finally I attended George Cheung’s presentation on building a technological ecosystem. After having an iPad and “Reflector” in my classroom for over a year NOW I finally can see how I can use it! I am also taking steps toward flipping my classroom so I’ve got a lot of great ideas from Danesa and George to try out.


If you want more info on attending or presenting at these conferences – visit CTA’s Conference website! 

Math Practice Wordle

Here’s my Wordle from the CCSS 8 Mathematical Practices (feel free to steal!):


I love using Wordle and so do the students. Just add text and it will generate different designs, colors, etc. (or you can customize it too).

The bigger words are more frequent in the text. Classroom applications are vast.

Save it, print it, link it, share it!


Share yours?

How can you use it in the classroom?

CTA’s Good Teaching Conference South 2014 – Anaheim

I got the chance to attend and present at CTA’s Good Teaching Conference South this weekend in Anaheim. So while my spouse and the girls enjoyed some Disney adventures, I presented about our lesson study and with the Teacher Leadership Cohort. I believe the attendance at the conference was around 700 (originally planned for 400). But I think with the Pre-GTC Common Core focus, teachers and schools were ready to learn all they could about CCSS.

My first session went well with a nice group of about 36. My second session was standing room only! They added about 20 chairs and closed the session. A little overwhelming, but still a good crowd. Thanks to my Principal and our Secondary Math Coordinator I had some good resources to share. Also thanks to Gabriela Orozco Gonzalez, Norma Sanchez, and Monica Cooper for the friendly faces and support in my big session (they had to con their way in!) I had a fabulous facilitator from CDE too.

GTC Pic 2

That’s me with the crowd

GTC Pic 1

John Hattie activity








It was a great experience  presenting and I also learned a lot in the sessions I attended. I would recommend any of CTA’s conferences –  great speakers! And it was a nice way to rejuvenate and refocus at this time of year (when spring fever is in full bloom). If you are interested in viewing my Prezi you can find it here

And if you want to apply for CTA’s Teacher Leadership Cohort apply here (apply by March 24, 2014) – it is an AMAZING experience.

Math Practice 3: Higher Level Questions and the Mistake Game

After a bit of frustration with Math Pratice 3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, a colleague sent me this link to “The Mistake Game”. So I thought I’d try it to see if it helps students critique the reasoning of others. All students want to be smart and making a mistake is scary!

But first I wanted to teach higher level questioning skills. So I started by showing them this graphic of Depth of Knowledge:

DOKThen we brainstormed questions they’ve been asked on tests or assignments in any of their classes that relate to different depths of knowledge.

Then we played a couple games: 20 questions and The Great Brain. Really this only takes about 10 minutes max so it is worth the time.

20 Questions:

  • One student is a secret celebrity
  • The rest of the class asks questions that have a “yes” or “no” answer – but only 20 – to try to figure out who the celebrity is.

The Great Brain:

  • Three students are one entity known as The Great Brain who can answer any question you could possibly ever want to know like “Why is the sky blue?”
  • The students answer in order, one word at a time, which turns out to be funny, full of gibberish and a lot of fun.
  • Make sure to preface that the questions are “school appropriate.”

So, as a recap, the 20 Question questions are “low level” depth of knowledge – not a lot of thought needed to answer them, not much brain activity, just recall. The Great Brain questions are only fun if they are “higher level” and require more than one word answer. They mostly start with “How…”, “Why…”, and “Explain….” The Great Brain questions are the ones we are going to use in the mistake game.

We played the mistake game and I offered some extra credit for the students who could ask higher level questions. They did great! It took a little time and was a little scary – but very worthwhile.

Test corrections became Mistake game #2 and was awesome! First, the students asked to “do that mistake thing again because it was fun.” So after our unit test, we played again.

I handed back their tests and assigned 1 problem per group to present – and to pick a mistake that someone in their group made on the test. Instead of students hiding their tests from each other, they actually brought them out, picked apart their work together and shared their mistakes. I found myself walking around the room saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good mistake! Quite a few people made the same one.” A good mistake!

Best.Test.Corrections.Ever! No one had to stay after class and ask for extra help. They got it. They asked great questions. Everyone was happy with their mistakes.

Time to put Math Practice 3 into practice (outside of the mistake game): a partner test.

I hoped they would start to critique each other after this game while they worked on this one real world problem. As I walked around, I heard them critiquing each other and not just accepting the other students’ ideas. Were they just showing off for me when I was in hearing range? Did I need my teacher team to come and observe? Well, fortunately the school district Principals decided to walk through our classes that day – and suddenly in walked 8 outside observers! Yay! (really who says “Yay” when a bunch of administrators suddenly descend on your classroom?) But yay! The observers were able to confirm that yes, indeed, the students were actually explaining well and asking questions! Yay for math practice 3!

Now to keep it going….for a short review next week I will have students in groups choose a small object from their backpack and create 2 low level and 2 high level questions.

AND now in class, I won’t accept anything other than a high level question – no more “I don’t get it” for my students!