Parallel Parking Math

Posted: 23rd October 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Yesterday two colleagues, Jared Bennett and Gerry Smith, shared an interesting video. It’s worth the 45 seconds it will take to watch.

Math Video

Now, I am a pretty vocal proponent for the need for meaningful math in our classrooms. The phrase “Hey, let’s use the textbook to create a good math lesson” rarely, if ever, crosses my lips. Students should have the opportunity to develop their understanding of numbers and mathematical concepts in ways that really make sense to them. Encouragingly, in the last several years we have made some changes to how we teach math to get closer to this. There has been greater use of manipulatives, encouragement of non algorithmic solutions, demonstrating understanding in multiple ways. But is it enough?

Coincidentally, today I also received my youngest daughter’s EQAO results (Ontario’s standardized testing)from last spring. If you haven’t seen the parent communication from EQAO before, it not only provides results but also explains how parents can support their child. One point under mathematics struck me as an interesting one. It reads: “Let your child know that you think mathematics is important”.

That suggestion was intended for parents, but I would think it is equally important to educators as well. The makers of that nifty new math app clearly don’t think math is important enough to learn. I guess it has me wondering how important is it to educators if your main method of teaching math is the assigning of textbook-like tasks?

It made me think of when I learned to drive. I practiced parallel parking many, many times and crossed my fingers when I got to that part of my test. In the years since that day, I can probably count on one hand how often I have actually parallel parked. I cringe at the thought of having to do it. I only practiced enough to pass. Parallel parking is hard and just not important to me.

How many of our students say math is hard and just not that important to them? How many of those same students practice enough to pass the test and then promptly leave all that learning behind? How many parents and teachers perpetuate that idea by providing tasks that just help them pass the test?

I don’t want our students to be parallel parking mathematicians. Encouraging parents to stress the importance of math is a great suggestion from EQAO, but the educators providing those students with the tools to approach mathematics should be developing some better strategies too.

With that in mind, here are some of the strategies I think are our responsibility.

1. Real World Math Opportunities. I know, I know, this one is highly debated by people. But here’s the thing. Parallel parking isn’t important to me because I don’t use it. Those textbook questions rarely convince me that it is something important enough to learn. Real world…and I mean REAL life applications, not a phoney word problem encouraging me to calculate at what point Train A will pass Train B, give students a glimpse into how much math permeates their world. Even more importantly, I think real examples show students how math is often more complex and multi-faceted than textbook examples would have us believe. If we know student ability to persist in task is important to success, those real world examples also give students those opportunity to persevere.

2. Making it Interesting. Full disclosure. I cringe when people tell me that they are creating a board game for math. I’m not against board games per say, but I am when this is the main example of real world that we can come up with. Having said that, I do agree that Games, not just board games, can encourage enthusiasm in students. If the game is making math interesting AND is actually making it more meaningful then I promise not to cringe so much. But don’t just stop at games, there are other ways to make math interesting to them, including incorporating personally relevant context, linking to other learning, and letting students help create the learning to be done.

3. Make Math a Thinking Sport. Apparently this post is becoming a bit of a confessional for me, so here goes. Something else that makes me cringe is the phrase “Use pictures, numbers & words to show your answer”. When this mantra becomes a checklist that students use to fill a page with little thought about how each of those elements add to the reader’s understanding of the learner’s thinking then we haven’t set students up for very rich learning. It becomes the primary equivalent of a mysterious algorithm that you just plug in the numbers and hope for the best. Instead, I think our students will be better math students if we teach them that math is about thinking and understanding first, and finding the right answer a distant second. Teach students how to question, challenge, explain, explain in another way, compare and reflect. Devote major portions of learning time to these processes and good answers will follow.

There are other great strategies to make our students better mathematicians. What are some of your must haves in a math program to avoid the curse of “parallel parking unlearning”?

Mixing It Up

Posted: 14th October 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Today was a great morning. I got to sit down with some of the educators in our school and talk about our students and their needs and the educators in the building and their needs. I was initially worried because a few of our groupings of educators were a bit of a mish mash, due to scheduling quirks. What would a grade 1 teacher have to relate to a grade 8 teacher? How could an arts teacher relate to a teacher who wanted to talk literacy?

As usually happens when I worry too much, it turned out there was nothing to worry about. Those uneven pairings elicited the best conversations. The surprise (and relief) educators felt about discovering commonalities in their students was fascinating.

We talk about how good mixing up groups can be for students. If I am a poor little tugboat in September and I’m still a little tugboat in June with the same 5 friends, I am likely to have some collaboration fatigue. But put me with different people – sometimes with obvious commonalities to me, but not always – and I’m going to have to work harder to be a good collaborator. I think I’ll also be less likely to be bored, or more likely to be engaged.

Too often, I think, we ask educators to collaborate based on obvious commonalities. Sit in your grade teams…departments…with the people you always work with… I’ve done that too, (um, a lot). It’s neat and easy to organize. But it’s maybe not the best for challenging the status quo, or pushing the thinking and practice of the participants.

Today I accidentally mixed up the groups and loved the outcome. I think it’s time to intentionally shake up PLNs some of the time to push our learning and collaborating potential. It may not always be comfortable, but maybe when we are comfortable we don’t know what else we are missing.

Step Away From the Lite Brite Pattern

Posted: 6th October 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

September is a funny time in a school. It is filled with fresh ideas and excited learners. However, it is also filled with ambivalence and tears, impossible problems and what I lovingly refer to as “start up glitches”. (The educators and learners in our school faced more than their share of start up glitches this year…lovingly may be a bit of an emotional overstatement.). It is an exhausting month and I must say, I’m glad it is over. One reason is because October usually brings a little more calm, less ambivalence and more manageable problems. Another reason is because you finally have time to reflect and consider those fresh ideas that people hit you with in their post-vacation excitement.

One such idea I have been pondering for the last few weeks (between glitches, of course) came from our director, John Malloy. While speaking about HWDSB’s new visioning document Transforming Learning Everywhere, he asked us to consider if we had created space in our schools for adaptive learning to occur.

Have we – educators – created space in our classrooms, our lessons, our use of materials/resources/programs, that allow our students to be adaptive learners? Have we – school leaders – created space in our allocation of resources, meaningful PD opportunities, and our support of collaborative learning to develop educators who feel comfortable and safe to encourage adaptive learners?

Now that I had the opportunity to reflect on these ideas, I let my mind wander. I needed to find a connection to help me make these lofty thoughts more manageable for my concrete brain. So my wandering led me to Lite Brite.

Does anyone remember Lite Brite? I loved my Lite Brite. It was a monitor-sized screen (like, old fashioned deep monitors, not those flimsy flat screen numbers) powered by a single light bulb and a plastic mesh screen. To accompany the screen, you also got pages of thin black paper with drawings on them and loads of little coloured plastic pegs. The play of it was to put a pattern over the screen and follow the numbers to use the right coloured pegs in the right holes to create a precise picture that glowed in the dark. But depending on how many coloured pegs you had (ie how many your mother had not yet vacuumed up) you sometimes had to make some colour substitutions. I always got frustrated by this. It never looked right. I would end up ripping off the paper and just used whatever coloured pegs I had to make my own pictures. While I always wanted to start with the pattern, using my own imagination and creativity was inevitably more satisfying.

So, here’s the problem I see. I think educators sometimes get stuck. We try to change one or two little pegs…I’ll use an iPad instead of paper and markers, I’ll sit students in groups instead of in rows…but they stick out in the big picture if they aren’t meaningful to the overall purpose. We need to build our experiences with our students from scratch and not rely on an outdated pattern because the pegs we now have to build our picture are different than what we started with.

In times past, a goal of education was to create students who learned everything we had to teach them. Now we want students to learn skills we don’t know, using tools we are unfamiliar with, to prepare for a world that they will function in better than us. I think we’ll find more and more of our traditional patterns will leave us unsatisfied, but to fit in just a few easy changes probably won’t help us either.

Creating adaptive learners will mean ensuring educators are also adaptive.

What I need to reflect on some more is how you help educators and learners be successful while rethinking the whole pattern. I’m beginning to think that the “everywhere” in “Transforming Learning Everywhere” means as much about the variety of learners who will experience transformative change as it does about the number of places in which change occurs.

I’m only in week one of reflective post-September. I will hopefully come up with better ways to explain my thinking than the Lite Brite. In the meantime, how do you break away from the pattern? What do you use to rethink the pegs you use?

Gone Fishing

Posted: 7th September 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

When I was a kid, we spent lots of time in Florida. A favourite family activity was fishing off the pier. Opposed to harming animals for sport, I insisted on not only releasing any fish the family caught (my family agreed to this one), but I also had a staunch aversion to harming the worms we used for bait (I was on my own with this one). As a result, I spent most of my fishing time letting my worms “breathe” until my Dad got sick of this and took me to Albertson’s to buy the most hideous purple plastic worms you could buy. I have yet to find any pictures of me actually catching a fish. Go figure.

I wrote a blog post last week about how homework is not really a black or white issue. You can’t be just for or against it; it is a balance of understanding many perspectives, potential gains and costs, and drawing a conclusion that you can live with, knowing that it isn’t exactly perfect for everyone, every time.

This week, I’ve heard and read about many educators who are reflecting on how to find the perfect balance between their ideology and the reality in their classroom. For the most part, it isn’t perfect. It requires constant reworking, reflecting and changing things up on an on-going basis. This is sometimes frustrating and usually thought- and time-consuming.

So why do we do it? Why not just take a stand, stick to it and be done with it?

As I now understand, that’s just not the way to catch a fish.

I am proud of every educator out there who is rethinking their teaching, their students’ learning experiences and even their classroom environment. September is a hard month, and you are making it harder on yourselves, but for a good cause.

Thanks to all of you who have given me warm and fuzzy feelings about our profession this week. You give teaching a good name. And if you haven’t yet spent any time reconsidering your program, how do you plan on catching your fish?

The Homework Debate

Posted: 29th August 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Once upon a time there was an eager young student so excited to start the school year. Our young hero couldn’t wait to see old friends again, meet new ones, jump into new learning topics and, yes, even get back into a schedule. The first few days were all that the student expected and all was good and right in the world. Then, as happens in all good fairy tales, darkness loomed on the outskirts of our hero’s perception. A ripple of unease made this young one begin to despair. How is it possible to overcome the tragic arrival of . . . The homework package.

You know what I mean. That bundle of photocopied black line masters intended to force our students to develop good organization and work completion habits while quickly numbing them into non-thinking, compliant creatures of habit. While I must admit that I have seen some good homework assignments in elementary school, most are not so good. They are often repetitive right/wrong, follow-the-same-pattern-from-September-to-June, time wasters that our struggling students dread and/or ignore and our high achieving students either whip through or ignore.

I was asked earlier this week what my opinion is in the great homework debate. I may have shown my hand a bit already here, (I have a horrible poker face, even in writing) but I actually hesitated before I answered. On the one hand, most of the research I have read shows that assigning the traditional black line master-type homework is at best minimally beneficial and at worst actually detrimental to student achievement in elementary school. On the other hand, I don’t want to provide a quick answer that could be construed to mean I think students should only think, read, write, and problem solve between 9 am and 3 pm, five days a week. On the other, other hand I also know that parents either beg teachers to send home daily homework for their child or stand around the arena/gym/school parking lot bemoaning how 8 year old Johnny was up until 11 last night in tears trying to finish the 40 math questions the teacher assigned.

Once I considered all of those hands, this is how I answered. Homework, I think, should mostly be about encouraging students to read and write in forms that interest and work for them. It should be about encouraging them to wonder, hypothesize, consider and problem solve about the world around them. It should also be about climbing trees, organizing bike races in the park, and having thoughtful conversations with family members. And it should be about students who eagerly continue following up independently on learning they started in school and are too excited to leave behind at 3 p.m.

I understand the problems with this kind of homework. It’s nebulous and doesn’t fit nicely on an 8 1/2 by 11 paper. Parents don’t know how to direct it, help with it, or how to use it to measure how well little Johnny is doing. It also relies on the student having educators who have supported that student to be metacognitively aware, intrinsically motivated, self confident, and passionate about learning. That is a tall order.

But at some point I think we have to consider how, if our expectations of what learning looks like at school are evolving, our expectations of what learning looks like outside the classroom might have to evolve as well.

How do we help our hero live happily ever after? I think we need to consider carefully how to add value to student learning instead of just maintaining it. We have to have conversations with parents, students, and other educators about what this could look like. We do need to consider how we can promote self regulation and the other learning skills in whatever we decide, since these are the skills that make our hero, well, heroic.

Fairy tales are often a battle of black and white, with so little grey to cloud our understanding. The homework debate still has lots of grey. How do you interpret the grey?

Let’s Move It

Posted: 13th August 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

There was an article in the Hamilton Spectator today about how students who exercise do better in school in terms of their behaviour, attention and achievement.

Next week I am fully expecting a study on how feeding children fruits and vegetables is healthier than giving them chips and candy. Really. Did we need a study to prove what every teacher (& I dare say, parent) already knows. Exercise is good for kids – physically, mentally, socially, emotionally and academically.

I’m fairly certain that you are still nodding your head and agreeing with me so far. But the article got me thinking about what we consider good exercise. Right now seems to be sign up season. Chequebooks out, parents – (seriously – I only have a chequebook anymore for my kids’ activities). We need to co-ordinate. Swimming lessons, hockey, basketball. There are only 7 days in a week and school eats up a big chunk of 5 of them. When there are multiple kids with multiple schedules, and sometimes in widespread locations, that co-ordination requires more precision than time tabling a school of 900. I speak from experience. Time tabling the school was WAY easier than figuring out how to get all my kids to where they need to go.

So why do we do it? Most of us understand that we are not raising a future Olympian. Yet we still devote so much of our time, money and a fair bit of our sanity to ensure our darlings get to the gym/pool/arena/studio on a regular basis. Why? The same reason we make them drink their milk, wash their hands, and go to bed at a decent hour. It is good for them.


How good is it if our children are so scheduled they only know how to engage in physical activity with a coach standing over them? Or how good is it if all of those activities that we diligently take them to from the time they are 3 years old are out grown by them at 13 and now they don’t know how else to be active? How fair is it if some parents have the time and means to put their kids in physical activities but others don’t?

We talk about the work we do in schools to help make our students critical thinkers to ensure they have the skills to be lifelong learners. We encourage learning beyond the textbook to truly applicable life skills. The parent may choose to take their child to a tutor that does drill and kill activities to “teach” their child, but that won’t stop us from teaching them the skills we value in learners.

It shouldn’t be any different with physical literacy skills. Sports have their place. For some kids. At some times. But physical literacy in schools should be about educators teaching students how to develop life long habits to support their physical well being and understanding of self. I am thrilled that here in Ontario we have a Physical Education curriculum that places more value on teaching skills and self awareness over specific sports. We also have a provincial requirement that all students must be physically active during instructional time for at least 20 minutes per day. I’m thrilled that educators here are supported by resources like OPHEA (Ontario Physical and Health Education Association) and amazing learning opportunities like our own local Ontario Physical Literacy Conference ( to foster this mindset of life long involvement in physical activity. Phys Ed teachers are some of the most passionate educators I know, but they also shouldn’t be the ones solely responsible for teaching our students physical literacy skills.

As we head into the fall, I want to reflect on a few questions. Maybe you might join me in them.

How are my students learning physical literacy skills?
How well do they know what their bodies can do, how to goal set to make them better, and how to learn and apply new physical skills?
What opportunities do my students have to explore activities outside of gym class?
What do we have to do to hook that student who declares he/she hates Phys Ed?
And how do you convince the “star athlete” that being physical literate means more than a being able to shoot a beautiful lay up?

I want my kids – my own home grown ones and the ones in my care at school – to be physically literate because of all those reasons mentioned in the article in the paper today. It is good for them as students. But I also want them to have those skills because once they leave school I want them to have happy, healthy lives and these skills can certainly aid in that.

A Lesson from Baseball

Posted: 30th July 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I was watching a baseball game on TV the other night – a totally NON school related activity, right? Some non thinking, summer time relaxation, right? Yeah, not so much.

The announcer was talking about a new player and how the manager had put a lot of trust in this young guy (ok, for the record, all of the players are now “young guys” to me…how did I get so old???). This player had evidently been trying to please his new manager. An obvious desire for someone who finally made it to the big leagues and didn’t want to be sent back down to the minors. And then, something pretty cool happened. The manager sent the player a signal while at bat. Basically, the manager indicated that he had confidence in the player and trusted him to make a great play. Go for it. Show us what you’ve got.

Of course, in true baseball form, the young player made a great hit and helped his team offensively in a way he hadn’t previously. And the announcer said something that really stuck with me. He said that when a manager shows that kind of confidence in a player, that player will work so hard to show he is worthy of that.

Huh. Baseball is not so different from teaching, is it? I’m no baseball player but that kind of confidence a leader can show in an employee is pretty impressive. As an administrator, I want to be able to, yes, provide guidance, instruction and structure for the other educators in the building. But more than that, I want to be able to encourage educators by saying “I trust you. Give it a try and show us what you’ve got”.
The teachers in our school do amazing things every day for our students. I do trust them to do great things, but maybe I need to let them know that they DO inspire my confidence more often.

A new school year will start in a month. I’m looking forward to learning from the baseball manager and make sure the educators know that I have such confidence in them. They are going to hit it out of the park.

Inquiry is NOT just for 5 Year Olds

Posted: 12th July 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

My son is heading off to university in the fall and I couldn’t be prouder. He is a smart, hard-working kid with big ambition and skills to match. But one of the things I’m most proud of is his choice of program. He does well in school, and, as a result, got into every program he applied to, but the one he chose actually matches my own teaching and learning philosophy – something I hadn’t really thought would be possible.
Earlier this week was an orientation for the program for excited students and anxious parents (it wasn’t actually billed for those specific audiences, but that’s an editorialized, general observation). The Dean got up and proudly announced that this program is unlike most others. Our children should be congratulated for getting into a program that accepts a very small portion of applicants. And we should know what our children are getting into. The secret, he shared, to success boils down to a single indicator. Parents here waited with bated breath. They NEEDED the secret because their child would be the best student this program had ever seen. They knew their child was already probably doing it. They waited.
The secret, said the Dean, was a student’s ability to do group work, collaborate and participate in inquiry. Marks and grades, on the other hand, would hold far less weight in their success.
Did I say parents were anxious? Make that horrified, angry, gobsmacked. This was not the answer they had expected or wanted to hear. Since all the students had achieved a high school average in and about 98% to get into the program, it made sense that in their experience, marks do generally carry a lot of weight and do measure success.
I smiled. This is the best news I’ve heard to come out of a university in a long time. I fully believe in the value of inquiry-based learning. Not just for kindergarten students, as our province more frequently highlights (and, in some way minimizes, by teaching the public to call it play-based learning when their preconceived notions of play can be derogatory). I have spent the last few years extolling the virtues of inquiry in our classrooms for all students (and for their educators, but that’s another story). Often push back comes from parents and educators asking: but how does inquiry prepare our students for…grade one, middle school, high school, post secondary opportunities…you name it, they ask it. Yet, here is an acclaimed university in a very auspicious program, saying inquiry is exactly what is most important for their students’ success.
I feel for those parents that the Dean spoke to. Their world just got turned upside down. But I couldn’t be happier. I now have yet one more way to convince the inquiry doubters. And perhaps, in a few years, that Dean will not see a sea full of horrified expressions when he gives his secret for success speech because parents and students will already know the benefits of learning in an inquiry-rich environment. Keep up the good work, Dean. I’m behind you all the way.image

Being Remarkable

Posted: 8th July 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

It is a few weeks into summer vacation here. Such a lovely time of year to allow educators a chance to recharge, catch up with family, friends and those honey-do lists. It has struck me this year how few educators just leave it at that for summer plans, though. Most educators I know spend at least part of their vacation reading professional resources, taking AQ courses or summer workshops, continue to think, blog, question, connect using various social mediums or dig into planning for the next school year in their classrooms or on their deck.
I’ve spent the last week working on a fall curriculum package, reading some books and getting a little much needed rest. But beyond the rest (and some fabulous deck parties) it is those things that keep me thinking like an educator that re-invigorate me. I love thinking about what I could do, change and refresh to make learning that much better for the students and educators in my care.
One of my favourite quotes is by John Green. In his book An Abundance of Katherines, he wrote: “What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”
Most of the educators I know are constantly striving for remarkable…even when the public may think it is just two months off. Thanks educators. Keep being remarkable – our students are so worth it.
What do you do to refresh and re-invigorate your teaching practice?

High Expectations and Report Cards

Posted: 18th June 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I am almost finished my first year as a school administrator and I have learned many things so far. One thing that has struck me is how challenging it is to be a leader with high expectations. It involves some stepping-up-to-the-plate modelling, courageous conversations, and a clear and steady ability to reflect on what’s the goal, where is it and how to get there. Did I mention it was challenging?
I am almost through reviewing this term’s report cards. Most teachers find them exhausting and difficult to write reports, but they are an important evidence piece for students, parents and educators. So, I want teachers to take them seriously and do them well. It means I sometimes have to offer feedback that is difficult to give. I have to decide what aspects to support an individual teacher in developing and when. (Note to self and other newbies…suggesting change or new learning in June is not always popular.) But the biggest challenge I took on was to attempt some modelling this term.
It’s June. That means I am up to my eyeballs in schedules, trip forms, parent requests, class lists, in addition to report cards. But I still decided to try. Using Growing Success as a reference, we have asked teachers at our school to personalize their report cards as much as possible. They should represent what the student specifically did, how well they did it and next steps to help them with further learning. So I wondered, is there a way that I can support personalization as well?
I decided to try. I committed to reading the reports I got to try to really see the individual student in them. To help me focus on this, I decided to write a personal comment for each student on the report. It was easy to do with some reports and more challenging with others but if we are asking teachers to know their students well and document their learning specifically, shouldn’t I be willing to try to model that as well? What do you think?