The self-discipline to wait, watch, coach (revised)

My small extended family, there are just 10 of us, blazed through 12 dozen homemade cookies in three afternoons. Home for the holiday, my mother, my daughter, and I bake for pleasure, to help the house smell good, and to pass on important family traditions.  The cookie baking extravaganza has now extended into day 4. The demand for more cookies might be triggered by the smell of chocolate, peanut butter, and sugar wafting throughout the house, back porch, and driveway. Or, it could be gluttony. It’s a holiday; calories don’t count, right?

In her new red and green pjs, AS wakes up raring to go.  Jumping up and down in the kitchen in her new polka dot apron, she asks “How many cookies will we bake today, Mama? How many? How many?”

I hold back a sigh and try not to drop my head; I am tired. I have turkey, dressing, ham, and several casseroles to prepare to carry on our traditions, and I am experiencing cookie overload. I muster my best smile and say, “We need to bake at least 4 dozen cookies. Uncle Jack is coming today, and you know how much he loves your cookies.”

It is our 4th day of cookie baking. Once again, by popular request, we were making Reese’s peanut butter cup cookies.  We make peanut butter cookie dough, roll it into balls, and cook them in mini muffin pans.  As they come out of the oven, we press mini Reese’s peanut butter cups into the center of the cookies.  Delicious.

It is day 4 of this algorithmic work.  The learner is still excited, curious, and engaged.  Am I? Do I feel the same engagement, or am I bored and ready to move on?

For the first 2 dozen, I make the batter, and three generations work together in concert to roll the cookies into balls. The tins come out of the oven holding peanut butter goodness just waiting to receive the Reese’s peanut butter cup candies.  Together, my mother, AS, and I press the candy into the cookies as they come out of the oven. I can still picture my grandmother’s hands doing this work with my mother and me.

Apprenticeship as learning is so important.

I am struck by the lessons my sweet 6-year old, AS, is teaching me about learning with my students. How often do our students watch us do the work to solve the problem or answer the question and pitch in at the last step?   

Baking the second 2 dozen is a very different story.  Thanks to my mother, AS her very own measuring spoons, spatula, and mini muffin pan that bakes 1 dozen muffins.  Empowered now that she has her own pan, she takes charge. It would have been so much faster for me to roll the cookies.  But, no…her pan; her cookies. Her mantra: “I can do it myself!”

So, I watch, wait, and coach.  I try not to cringe. I hold my comments so that I do not undermine her independence and confidence. Too small, the balls will be difficult to press candy into after baking in the oven.  Too big and they will blob out on the pan during baking. Patiently, I ask, “I wonder, honey, if the peanut butter cup will fit into that ball once baked. What do you think?” She fixes most of these problems with a little coaching from me.

Isn’t this happening in our classrooms?  It is so much faster and more efficient for the teacher to present the material.  We can get so much more done in the short amount of time we have. But, how much does the learner “get done” or learn?  When efficiency trumps learning, does anyone really have success? How do we encourage “I can do it myself!”? How do we find the self-discipline to watch, wait, and coach?

As she demands more independence, her confidence grows.  Can you believe that she would alter my recipe for the first 2 dozen cookies?  As our second dozen bakes, I press the peanut butter cups into my cookies. Miss I-Can-Do-It-Myself decides that Hershey kisses will be just as good or better.  With no prompting (or permission) she creates a new (to her) cookie. She has Hershey Kisses, and she wants to use them.

Worth repeating: “As she demands more independence, her confidence grows.” When we intervene too soon, are we stripping learners of their confidence and independence? Are we promoting productive struggle? Do we let them grapple enough?  

Does it really matter which method a learner uses to solve a problem or answer a question?  Isn’t it okay if they use the distributive property or an area model to multiply? Does it really matter which method is used to find the solution to a system of equations?  Shouldn’t they first find success? Don’t we want our learners to understand more than one way? Is our way always the best way?

Is AS pleased with herself and her creativity?  You bet. Are her cookies just as good as the original recipe?  Sure! How can you go wrong combining chocolate and peanut butter?

We must applaud the process that learners use to solve a problem or respond to a question.  We must praise them when they try something different. We must promote and encourage risk-taking, creativity, and problem-solving.

We must find the self-discipline to be patient while learning is in progress, to watch, wait, and coach.  We must embrace and promote the “I can do it myself!” attitude.

We must.


The self-discipline to wait, watch, coach was originally published on Dec 26, 2010.  This revision is inspired by what we are learning in Embolden Your Inner Writer.

I am grateful for the thoughtful, challenging, advancing feedback from Marsha Harris, Amanda Thomas, Kate Burton, Becky Holden, Cathrine Halliburton, and Lauren Kinnard.

#KSULit2018: Mathematizing Read Alouds

At the 27th Annual KSU Conference on Literature for Children and Young Adults where the theme was Reimagining the Role of Children’s and Young Adult Literature, I presented the following 50-minute session on Tuesday, March 20, 2018.

Mathematizing Read Alouds

How might we deepen our understanding of numeracy using children’s literature? What if we mathematize our read-aloud books to use them in math as well as literacy? We invite you to notice and note, listen and learn, and learn by doing while we share ways to deepen understanding of numeracy and literacy.

Let’s debunk the myth that mathematicians do all work in their heads.  Mathematicians notice, wonder, note, identify patterns, ask questions, revise thinking, and share ideas.  Mathematicians show their thinking with details so that a reader understands without having to ask questions.

What if we pause during read-alouds to give learners a chance to analyze text features, to notice and wonder, to ask and answer questions in context?

How might we inspire and teach learners to make their thinking visible so that a reader understands?

Here’s my sketch note of the plan:

Here are more of the picture books highlighted in this session:

And, a list by approximate grade levels:

Early Learners, Pre-K, and Kindergarten

Kindergarten and 1st Grade

2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade

4th, 5th, 6th Grade

#T3IC: Using technology alongside #SlowMath to promote productive struggle

At the 2018 International T³ Conference in San Antonio, Jennifer Wilson (@jwilson828) and I presented the following two hour power session.

Using technology alongside #SlowMath
to promote productive struggle

How might we shift classroom culture so that productive struggle is part of the norm? What if this same culture defines and embraces mistakes as opportunities to learn? One of the Mathematics Teaching Practices from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ (NCTM) “Principles to Actions” is to support productive struggle in learning mathematics. We want all learners to make sense of tasks and persevere in solving them. The tasks we select and facilitate must offer opportunities for each learner to develop connections and deepen their conceptual understanding.

Join us to learn more about #SlowMath opportunities that encourage students to persevere through challenging tasks instead of allowing their struggle become destructive. This session will address:

  • How might we provide #SlowMath opportunities for all students to notice and question?
  • How do activities that provide for visualization and conceptual development of mathematics help students think deeply about mathematical ideas and relationships?

Here’s the agenda:

8:30 Introductions
8:40 Intent and Purpose

  • Principles to Actions
  • #SlowMath
  • Norms (SMPs)
8:45 3-2-1 Bridge Visible Thinking Routine
8:50 Using Structure to Solve a Task – Circle-Square Task

9:55 3-2-1 Bridge Visible Thinking Routine

  • 2 questions around Productive Struggle (share one with partner and listen to one of partner)
10:00 Construct a Viable Argument to make your thinking visible:
Does (x+1)²=x²+1?

10:25 3-2-1 Bridge Visible Thinking Routine

  • In the chat, 1 analogy/metaphor/simile for Productive Struggle
10:30 Close

Here’s my sketch note of our plan:

Dave Johnston (@Johnston_MSMath) recorded his thinking and learning and shared it with us via Twitter.

And, a little more feedback from Twitter:

Cross posted on The Slow Math Movement

#SlowMath: looking for structure and noticing regularity in repeated reasoning #T3IC

At the 2018 International T³ Conference in San Antonio, Jennifer Wilson (@jwilson828) and I presented the following 90 minute
session.

#SlowMath: looking for structure
and noticing regularity in repeated reasoning

How do we provide opportunities for students to learn to use structure and repeated reasoning? What expressions, equations and diagrams require making what isn’t pictured visible? Let’s engage in tasks where making use of structure and repeated reasoning can provide an advantage and think about how to provide that same opportunity for students.

Here’s my sketch note of our plan:

Dave Johnston (@Johnston_MSMath) recorded his thinking and learning and shared it with us via Twitter.

Cross posted on The Slow Math Movement

#T3IC Leading Learners to Level Up: Deepening Understanding of Mathematical Practices

At the 2018 International T³ Conference in San Antonio, Jennifer Wilson (@jwilson828) and I presented the following 90-minute session. 

Leading Learners to Level Up:
Deepening Understanding of Mathematical Practices

We say: Persevere! Express regularity in repeated reasoning! Be precise! Show your work!… But what if I can’t yet? How might we make our thinking visible to empower our young learners to become self-correcting, self-reliant and independent? How do we coach – what strategies do we use – to help learners to embrace the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice? At the end of this session, participants should be able to say I can provide my learners leveled support on the Standards for Mathematical Practice on their journey towards mathematical proficiency. I can make my thinking visible to motivate learners to ask high quality questions. I can focus on the art of questioning and formative assessment tools to lead learners to level up.

Here’s the plan:

8:30
  1. Opening remarks
  2. Council (30 seconds each): Share your name, school and grade level(s) or course(s) with your table; How are you feeling this morning?
8:40 Make Sense of Tasks and Persevere Solving Them (SMP 1)

9:05 Look for & Make Use of Structure (SMP 7)

9:35 Look for & Express Regularity in Repeated Reasoning (SMP 8)

9:55 Goal setting: Back with my learners … Next steps

Here’s my sketch note of the plan for our session.

Dave Johnston (@Johnston_MSMath) recorded his thinking and learning and shared it with us via Twitter.

High-purpose environment. Teacher clarity. Touchpoints of praise.

I wait patiently for my turn.

Carrots. Beep. Doritos. Beep. Milk. Beep.

Donned in her green Publix smock, she makes eye contact and small talk with the customer ahead of me as she swipes items across the reader.

Hamburger. Beep. Kale. Beep. Beep. Beep.

She says, “That will be forty-two. twenty-eight” Wincing, she shook her head and said, “No, no wait! It is twenty-eight forty-two.” Smiling sheepishly, she blushes and says “Ugh! I just hate numbers.” The customer, patient and kind, concludes her business at the register and goes on about her way.

I cannot stop myself. Why can’t I stop myself from attempting to put salve on the raw wound that someone else – knowingly or unknowingly – has inflected on this poor young woman? I hear my internal voice say, “You don’t have to fix this. You really can’t fix this. You did not do this.”

I know I should stop myself. I cannot. I softly say, “So I’m a math teacher. It is easy to mix numbers up. Don’t worry.”

And then it happens… again. It breaks my heart a little more every time. Though it is not unexpected, I brace myself for what is coming.

She takes a deep breath. In a painful blurt, she replies, “I did so many posters just so I could pass.  She decided that was never going to ‘do’ math well, so she let me create bulletin boards and cut out letters in order to pass. I just hate it. Math was never my thing. Early, we knew that I could not do it, and we created workarounds so I could pass and graduate.”

So then, as always, I apologize for her terrible experience.

I am so sorry.

I am so sorry that any child is led to believe they cannot be successful at math – the language, art, and communication tool that is my love and passion.

I am so sorry that any child is led to believe they cannot be successful.

I seethe inside that any teacher would “extra credit” a child out of learning.

High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal. They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go. The surprising thing, from a scientific point of view, is how responsive we are to this pattern of signaling. (Coyle, 180 pag.)

Teachers need to determine the gap between students’ current level of performance or understanding and the expected level of mastery. (Hattie, 66 pag.)

If someone received just three or more touchpoints, or instances, of praise in a single quarter, their performance score in the next review period significantly increased. If they received four or more touchpoints of praise or recognition in a quarter, the retention rate increased to 96 percent over the next year. (Achor, Kindle Locations 1766-1768.)

How might we create more classrooms that are high-purpose environments where teacher clarity empowers learners to close gaps between what is known and what is needed?  What if we highlight what is going well to create touch points of praise to embolden learners to reach for a next level?

CULTURE: from the Latin cultus, which means care.


Achor, Shawn. Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being (Kindle Locations 1766-1768). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (Kindle Locations 2378-2380). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Hattie, John A. (Allan); Fisher, Douglas B.; Frey, Nancy; Gojak, Linda M.; Moore, Sara Delano; Mellman, William L.. Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning (Corwin Mathematics Series). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

I know something!

A motley band of brothers traveling as a pack ambled in at 7:58 for Pre-Cal. Just in time. From a distance they are handsome and well dressed in coats and ties. Up close, they are a little disheveled, like they stepped out of their clothes last night and into them again this morning.  My favorite part is the peacock-ness of their hair.  They slept hard, and it shows. It helps me remember how young they are when they look so grown up. I wonder how many of them brushed their teeth and decided not to go there.

They live together, play together, and learn together. Boarding school builds family and familiarity and deepens connectedness.  Yesterday’s test results require a preface. I prep them by explaining what I learned about them and what we need to do now.  Learning is our focus, and this moment in time tells us that we need to do more, go deeper, and practice harder. This milestone marker says that we need to back up and try again.

I made a 42!” he exclaimed with genuine jubilation. It’s what he said next that confirmed his glee.  “I know something!

“I know something!”

I am in awe of what happens next.  Every man, child, boy learner, in their coats and ties, stands and high-fives him as if he as won a gold medal, sunk the winning shot, made the field goal in the final 30 seconds.

And then, just as quickly as it started, they were all seated as he said “Bring it, Ms. Gough. What do we do now?”

Group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. We sense its presence inside successful businesses, championship teams, and thriving families, and we sense when it’s absent or toxic. (Coyle, xvii pag.)

Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do. (Coyle, xx pag.)

Live, learn, work, and serve in a community that highlights what is going well. Focus on learning. Build living relationships. Work toward shared goals.

CULTURE: from the Latin cultus, which means care.


Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Seeking brightspots and dollups of feedback about learning and growth.

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