Learning is Hard


One dark evening a man was on his hands and knees under a street light looking through the grass.
A pedestrian asked what he was looking for.
“The keys to my car.” replied the man.
Having some time and feeling helpful, the pedestrian joined the man in his search.
After a while, with no success, the pedestrian asked: “Where were you when you lost your keys?”
“Over there by my car.” the man gestured.
The pedestrian was puzzled. “Why are you looking for them here?”
The man without keys explained: “The light’s better!”

Why is it in education that we continually look for answers in the wrong place?

We give homework, tests, and assignments then grade students on their work.  When they don’t measure up to our expectations we encourage them to develop better habits and we talk to parents, then we move on to the next unit.  We decide the trouble lies somewhere in the work ethic of the student, the lack of support from home, or the general difficulty the student has “doing school”.

We shine the light on their ability to follow our rules and search for remedies that will allow the student to get “back on track”, neglecting the complexity that is human life.  Rather than meaningfully understanding the needs of students and responding to them, we focus on the limited time we have with students in class and expect them to figure out what they need to improve on their own.  

We seldom look for ways to deeply understand and connect with students and the ways in which they learn.  Once they are beyond the door of our classroom, it’s on them to do the learning, and if they can’t handle it, it’s their own fault.  Why is this the case?

Learning is hard.

True learning is hard and messy and takes a lot of time.  Honestly, thinking about a hypothetical classroom in which my most struggling students receive A’s gives me a panic attack because of the chaos, coordination, and deep focus it would take for me to help them find success.  The same can be true about searching for keys in the dark: it can seem impossible, but if that’s where you need to focus your attention, it appears to be a waste looking anywhere else.

I’m not arguing that it is the job of the teacher to do everything for students.  I’m simply arguing that giving them a C on a paper with comments is not enough for a student to do better on the next paper.  Earning a D on a math test and saying “you need to study harder next time” doesn’t help a student prepare for the next test.

I don’t have an answer to this dilemma, but I think it is important to admit just how difficult learning actually is and take one step toward embracing the messiness that is teaching.  It is time to stop looking at test scores and expecting students will change on their own.  It is time to stop looking under the street light and expecting we will find our keys.


Choosing Whichever Comes Last


We’ve all heard the commercial.  Buy a new vehicle and get some kind of 10 year/ 100,000 mile warranty.  When I was younger, I remember being curious about how it can be both 10 years and 100,000 miles under warranty only to find out that the warranty is covered until whichever happens first.  This makes sense for a business model, but I find this idea of “whichever comes first” creeps into our daily decision making and causes many of us to stop short of our true potential.

These thoughts came to me during a run.  I was out for a quick run and I told myself I was going to run for three songs then turn back around.  As the third song ended, I looked ahead and saw a side road about a quarter mile ahead.  I had the option to reach my goal of running for three songs or to push on for just a bit more.  I chose the latter.

The first issue many people face in reaching their potential is not setting a goal.  It is very unlikely to grow or even feel accomplished if you don’t have a goal in mind.  The second issue is that often people are satisfied with reaching their goal and, once they reach it, stay stagnant.

When given the option of 10 years or 100,000 miles I challenge you to choose whichever comes last.  Run to the next street, then one hill more, then finish that song.  Get your degree, get the job that you’ve dreamed of, but don’t ever stop striving for the next step.  You are bound to fail or come up short sometimes, but its the only way you know you gave it your all.  Learn from it, and get after it again.  Goals are great motivators, but they are just the beginning.  Greatness in school, in work, in relationships, and in life happen when you’re given two options and you choose whichever comes last and whichever takes the most work, reflecting on your journey and constantly preparing for the next challenge.

A Simple Switch Creates Curiosity


How often have you heard this in a meeting with your department, a parent, or even in your own head:

“Kids are too dependent on calculators!  They can’t do anything in their head any more!

There are countless examples of 17 year old kids not being able to complete simple arithmetic which is distressing, but it is not the argument I am here to make.

Instead, I am concerned the fear of calculator dependence is negatively affecting the way teachers design lessons, structure discussion, and assess their students.  When that fear is in the forefront of our minds, we ask students to put the calculators away.  “We need to understand how to do this by hand before we use the calculators”, you might say.  I ask WHY?

Living in the 21st century, we have technology all around us and if I want to know the answer to something I am going to google it.  If the calculator can do the problem for us, why are we wasting our time?  Maybe you argue you have to understand the process to really get what’s going on.  Okay.  My argument becomes: make a question that demands I understand the process.

I am not arguing that understanding how to complete a problem by hand is a bad thing; instead, I’m arguing it’s a great thing!  But we need to make students feel the need to understand.  We need to show that the calculator can calculate, but only humans can think, dig deep, and discover connections.  We need to design problems where the calculator can’t solve it in one step or at all so it once again becomes a tool in the learning process rather than the process itself.


To make my point, I will use the example of a lesson devoted to adding and multiplying 2×2 matrices.

Method 1

  • Give students an example of two matrices adding together, then work on the problem with them and show them how it is done.  Leave time for questions.  Then give them a few problems to try before moving on.  Pause for questions.
  • Now give students an example of two matrices multiplying together.  Don’t forget to warn them that this one is tricky!  Then, go through the process with them and take questions.  Then give them a few problems to try and walk around to help answer questions.
  • Two days later, show them how to complete it on the calculator.

Method 2

  • Show students how to add two matrices together using the calculator.  Have them figure out the pattern. Takes about 1 minute.
  • Show students how to multiply two matrices together using the calculator.  Have them figure out the pattern.  Takes very long.  Eventually after giving some hints and gentle nudging, students (maybe not all of them) figure out the pattern and share it.  Without discussing right or wrong, put up examples for students to try by hand and then check them with the calculators.


An amazing thing happens in method 2.  Students begin to view the challenge as a puzzle to figure out rather than an “enter” button to be pressed for an answer.  If you pause long enough after kids first type the multiplication into the calculator someone will ask, “why does that work?”. THAT’S LIKE NEVER ASKED!! YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY?!?  It’s a cool feeling.

Even though we allowed the students an opportunity to struggle, we have to wonder what motivation students have to remember the meaning of a topic and how to complete it by hand.  Why can’t they just go back to using their calculator?  The truth is, they can….if you design problems with simple answers. (Assume these are 2 x 2 matrices below being multiplied)

Easy With Calculator

[  1    2 ]      [ -2   4 ]
[  7   -4 ]      [  0   8 ]         =     ?

Not Easy With Calculator

[ 2     4]       [3      x]                [4      12]
[ 1     1]       [-1    6]        =       [14    9 ]


A slight change in thinking renders the calculator powerless or, at most, a guess and check monster that drags out the process.  Instead of fearing the power of a calculator, we need to make kids jealous of the power it has and push them to ask why and how it works!  If we can do that, while creating challenging questions that force students to think deeply, we won’t have to let the fear of calculators cloud our judgement.  A simple switch can lead to more curiosity, discovery, and understanding for students.

The Struggle of Letting Them Struggle


Today I was teaching an honors level class how to add and subtract rational expressions.  These are the students that have pushed themselves to take Algebra 2 over the summer to advance their potential opportunities as they become upperclassmen.  We’re talking serious students.

To begin the unit, I modeled my teaching after a Dan Meyer inspired idea and, although, not the most exciting thing, it helped students gain a little buy-in.  The previous day we had actually looked at adding fractions, discussed the similarities and differences of adding rational numbers and made significant progress.  So I thought.

We started today by checking over the homework and there were a lot of questions.  THERE SHOULD BE  A LOT OF QUESTIONS.  This is hard stuff and I was fortunate to have curious students, anxious to learn the content at a deep level and ask about their confusion.  If there aren’t any questions after the first day please don’t assume they’re good.  In fact, I could sense the frustration and kept telling them:

This is hard, but that’s why it’s better than many of the other things we look at.  It’s a chance for you to struggle and flex your creativity in solving problems.  Keep trying, keep failing, and keep asking questions.

Instead of moving on, I asked them if they would prefer to practice this a little more; they said yes.  I started by giving them a more simple problem.  Then, I increased the level of difficulty, and finally, gave them this harder problem:

__5__  +         4         –      2  
x(x+2)         -x – 2             5x

The students were able to handle the first two problems fairly well with asking only a few questions.  The final question pushed many of them outside of their comfort zone.  I let the students begin on their own, then as they began to ask questions I went in to help clarify some confusion.  But….it was rough.  I’m talking seriously rough.  Like, why would you do that, how can you even think that after the other things we looked at rough.

What I found myself doing as they asked me questions was becoming overwhelmed.  Student after student asked me questions, and I was having the most difficult time thinking about how to steer them in the right direction without showing them exactly how to do it.  At one point, I told a student:

Just hang on for a minute; I’m going to go through it with the class in a little bit.

It was at this point I realized the struggle of letting kids struggle.  Learning is messy, but when we have a quality problem of difficulty and students ambitious enough to struggle through it, we must ask ourselves whether we are ambitious enough to help them through the struggle rather than re-gain control and show them how it is done step-by-step.

As teachers, we need ways to encourage kids to take risks, while demonstrating that it is okay to do so.  We need to allow kids to make mistakes and fail, but we cannot be there to catch them as soon as it gets a little difficult.  Instead, we need to foster a classroom where creativity is encouraged and wrong answers are explored and shared.  In that moment, I wonder how the learning in my classroom would have changed if I grabbed three students’ notebooks, threw them under the document camera and, as a class, we discussed the math (wrong or right) that the student displayed.

I, like many other teachers, get caught up on the right answer rather than the process of getting there.  Because of this, I get frustrated when students are nowhere near the correct answer.  Instead, we need to embrace the messy process and the learning that is held within.  Maybe the student that struggled and got a problem wrong three times actually ends up learning and understanding the process at a deeper level than the student that got it right on the first attempt.

I ask you to be careful next time you get frustrated because no one in your class is finding the right answer.  Use the opportunity to talk about mistakes and continue to give them chances to flex their creativity and make mistakes.  It’s a struggle.

Using Snapchat in Math – Applying Similar Triangles


Did you see their face swap?  Did you post it to your story?

Snapchat seems to be the only thing students (and a growing number of adults) worry about most of the day.  Kids are constantly finding creative ways to make funny pictures and send them to friends.  Adults are constantly posting how great their vacation or night on the town is going.  Being the tech-curious person I am, I decided to develop a different way to use it in a math classroom.  Check it out.


Lesson: Applying Similar Triangles

Course: Honors Geometry with mostly freshman and a handful of sophomores

Lesson Objective: Determine the height of the school building using only a ruler and Snapchat.

Standard: ACT CCRS (G 603); CCSS (G.SRT.B.5)

Previous Knowledge: By the time I taught this lesson, we had discussed congruent figures and had discussed that corresponding sides of similar triangles have the same scale factor.  We had also discussed the congruence and similarity theorems.  Students had worked out problems and we more or less comfortable with problems like those below.

SnapChat Pre-lesson

Lesson: Ideally, I wanted to take the students outside to measure the height of the building, but it did not work out for whatever reason.  I ended up giving the students the assignment as an extra credit opportunity and asked them to find the height of their house or some other object that was at least two stories tall.  I handed out the following, then did my best to explain to students what I wanted them to do.  I also created this template for students to organize their thoughts and upload a picture of them in action.

SnapChat Lesson

Results: Here are a few examples of student work.

Sample 1:

SnapChat 1I really liked this student’s work.  They seemed to understand the idea well.  I discussed with them to remember that he started a little below the ground (standing in the street).  Also, note this assignment may encourage to stand in the road for a pose.  Probably not the best…

Student’s Reflection:The only thing that can be improved is maybe try it in class too.”

Sample 2:  

SnapChat 2This student may have understood the general premise, but missed the importance of precision (at least in the drawing).

Student’s Reflection:We probably did it wrong. I thought it was kinda a cool project of how you can find the height of an object outside just by using snapchat and math. What can be improved for next time is showing an example of this project.”

Sample 3:

SnapChat 3We had covered many of those “if John has a 6ft shadow and the tree has a 15ft shadow…” problems and this student – along with others – believed they needed to use shadows to solve the problem.  Unlucky for them, they chose to do the project at sun-down.  Whoops.

Student Reflection: “It was nice to apply the concepts learned in class to real life situations. The most difficult part was trying to find where the shadow actually started and ended. Also, it was a challenge to get the whole picture in one entire frame. Next time, it would be better if we could do this kind of activity in school so that we can verify if we are doing it correctly.”


My Reflections

I really enjoyed the work that I got back from students.  I am curious if this was only a successful application because it was an extra credit assignment for honors students.  Most likely, it would need to be modeled or carefully explained if it was expected for all students of varying abilities to find success with it.

A question I have is whether the lesson could have been more or less effective with less specific direction.  I am a big fan of 3 Act lessons which leads students to ask the questions and determine what information is necessary to solve a problem.  Rather than giving them problems similar to the situation beforehand, could we somehow introduce the situation and have them draw the conclusions by themselves?  Even if we covered similar triangles deeply before the activity, maybe we could let students struggle with how the task could be completed with just Snapchat and a ruler.

Please let me know if you read this and have any suggestions!  I’d love to build it into an even more meaningful lesson for others to use.

p.s. What if snapchat somehow came up with an educational aspect of its application?  That’d be the bees knees.

Not Tech-Savvy? Be Tech-Curious.


The year was 2006.  I was voted most tech-savvy among my friends on Myspace.  To that point in my life, I had mastered the portable CD player and creating a Green Bay Packers themed MySpace page.  I borrowed cell phones to call people and used Ask Jeeves past the point a person probably should have.  I don’t think “tech-savvy” was the correct phrase to describe me.

Fast forward six years to December 2012, my first year of teaching, when I purchased my first smart phone.  A co-worker and I both had new smart phones and we were excited to try these “apps” we heard so much about.  “You should check out this app called Snapchat.  All the kids are using it and it’s kind of fun!”.  Sure enough, it’s awesome, and over the past two years I have developed a lesson for students to learn about similar triangles through the use of Snapchat.

Somewhere around the same time, I began using this thing called Twitter.  You may have heard of it.  My college roommate’s pet tortoise had an account and tweeted about eating lettuce, and my friends used it to share tidbits of our 2012 roadtrip.  Little did I know four short years later I would be using it nearly every day to connect, share, and discover innovative ideas centered around education.  Something happened in the years from 2012 to 2016, and it was great.

I share these stories to show that I really started out on the other end of the “tech-savvy” spectrum.  I grew up with a computer, yes, but compared to my peers, I always seemed to lag a few years behind.  Although I would say I was not very tech-savvy when I entered teaching, I would argue that I quickly became “tech-curious“.  This has led to amazing growth for me as an educator and as a leader.

Being “tech-curious” is an old way of thinking wrapped with a 21st look.  Being tech-curious means that you are realistic about the world in which we live and are determined to find the best ways for students to learn and for peers to improve.

Long before the modern era of iPads, Chromebooks, Smartboards, and apps the best teachers still understood their students.  They understood pop-culture, they understood the most popular styles, and they understood the pulse of each generation; they understood what made their students tick.  Today is no different.  A teacher today understands that smart phones and other technology are part of our students’ lives, and it is our job to find a way meaningful way to bring it into our curriculum, pedagogy, and reflective practices.

I believe being tech-curious is important because using technology effectively offers students more opportunities to collaborate, publish their work, and personalize their learning.  If you are a new teacher or experienced, tech-savvy or not, you have the opportunity to say “YES!” to being tech-curious.”  The change is not instantaneous but curiosity begins to drive who you are as an educator, and you will constantly find yourself tweaking, refining, and asking “is there a better way?”.

Once again, I am labeled one of the “tech-savvy” teachers at my school.  This surely has more value than my 2006 Myspace page, yet I still don’t really feel I have earned the title.  “Savvy” really makes it sound like I have a clue what I’m doing.  Perhaps a title more fitting would be “Likely to try new technology tools, probably screw up, share successes and failures and then annoy people with reminders to tweet their work as well”.

Kind of long winded…perhaps I’ll just go with the title – tech-curious.

Being Proactive with Struggling Students


There has been a growing number of people who have been sharing their “why I teach moment” on twitter.  Maybe you’ve seen them.  I know that I made of one those a while back too, but not remembering what I said before, I would currently say I teach because I enjoy the opportunity it gives me to learn and grow as a human being while allowing me to help others do the same.  It really comes down to helping others improve and be the best they can be.

Personally, I think I nailed the answer to that question.  Yet, in the thick of a day to day struggle “helping others improve” really looks like emails home, silent prayers, and a consistent struggle of getting another human to do ANYTHING productive.  Like seriously, you don’t need to face swap in my class.

Struggle is something that is inevitable in teaching and, when you stop to think about it, is an important part of helping others.  As a teacher, I preach the importance of struggle to my students; using positive strategies to overcome challenges is how I expect them to improve.  Although stressful to the everyday life of a teacher, the struggling students are the ones that push us to be great!

I realized after my first few years of teaching that working with struggling students was something I needed to improve.  With no time to waste, I decided to reach out to my struggling students, but more importantly, their parents.

Before the school year began, I looked up the historical grades of my incoming students.

An easy enough idea but something that was never provided to me at the start of the school year.  Because of this, I knew which students had struggled in previous years before I even met them.  This was good because I knew who may be my struggling learners, but potentially dangerous because now I had preconceived notions of these students as possibly lazy or dangerously unskilled.

I decided to email the parents of any student with a C-, D, or F and set up a conference during the first few weeks of school.

Some of you may be thinking – these are the students with uninvolved parents. Will they even show up?  The answer is YES!  Okay, the majority of emails sent do go unanswered, but when parents of a handful respond, you are given a great opportunity to meet them, get to know more about your students, and set clear expectations from the beginning.

From the meetings, I can tell you that parents are thrilled to see a teacher take the time to really know their son/ daughter from the beginning of the year.  Students, on the other hand, are often aloof because they don’t know if you’re someone that is out to get them or someone who really cares.  Despite a student that appears to be annoyed that a teacher has brought their parent into the mix before the school year even started, you will find as the year progresses you won them over day one.  Showing that you’re more than a teacher that simply goes through the motions to teach students, you win major brownie points.

I try to keep the meeting short – about 20 to 30 minutes.  Here are a few questions/ topics that I like to discuss:

To student (if present):

-tell me about one of your strengths, it doesn’t need to be in school
-why do you say that is a strength?
-how did you get good at it?
-tell me about one of your weaknesses, again it doesn’t need to be in school
-why do you think that is a weakness of yours?
-what do I need to do as a teacher to help you have a successful year?

To parent:

-tell me about your child (parents can run and run with this one, but it all helps paint a picture)
-what have you found your child struggles with in school?
-what strategies do you use at home to help him/ her with learning?

I usually end with a quick mini-lesson on growth mindset and the importance of using the growth mindset language at home and at school.  

Teaming up with the parents won’t mean the year will be perfect, but it does give you a more well-rounded view of the student and sets a positive tone for the start of the year.  I have found success by adding this to my teaching arsenal and hope it could work for you too!

My Journey With Growth Mindset



If you’re like me, you enjoy teaching, and you enjoy finding cool new ways to help kids learn. Specifically, I teach math.  Learning math can be a struggle.  I know that teaching it is!

In my experience teaching, I have tried new tricks, I have tried to make math more engaging, and in my student teaching days I even rapped about it (probably something I should bring back).  With all of these attempts I still found that my students that “cared” worked hard and found success, and those that “didn’t care” struggled to learn or be engaged at any time.

Along comes growth mindset – a new idea.  I like new ideas.  I burn through more of them than the average person, but I find triumph in trying something that most people haven’t – even if the idea crashes and burns.  And trust me, they’ve burned.

I began my experience learning about growth mindset in a free online course I took through Stanford one summer, How to Learn Math.  In the course they presented math as the meaningful connection of ideas and conjectures, and it emphasized the importance of students modeling and sharing their experiences with these ideas.  Most importantly, it emphasized the importance of failure and the importance of making (and sharing) mistakes.

In the course, I was introduced to Carol Dweck and her work with growth mindset.  I was intrigued by her research, and the following year, I began to use the language in my classroom.  I embraced the mistakes that students made and tried my best to use language that would help foster a growth mindset.  Half way through the year I started to question whether this new idea was all it was cracked up to be.  I found myself saying, “Is anyone even listening?”  I still had those go-getters that were finding success, and I still had those strugglers having difficulty.  Perhaps this was yet another crash and burn, which is pretty standard in room 253.

And then, this happened.

A student sketch of me talking growth mindset.

A student sketch of me talking growth mindset.

It was not uncommon for student to make sketches of me.  In fact, I recall one class period where a student drew normal Ulrich, skinny faced Ulrich, fat faced Ulrich, monkey Ulrich, and even Ulrich as a banana.  I know, I’m inspirational.

What was different about this was what the student quoted me saying.  When this student decided to draw a picture of me, rather than saying something mathy, I was encouraging students to work hard and stretch their brains.  I got one of those warm fuzzy feelings.  They’re listening!  This growth mindset thing actually gets through those ears!  On a side note, this class also liked to yell “SHAME!” every time I made a mistake on an answer key or in the notes and that also appeared in the drawing. We’re working on that…


To start this school year, I decided to focus on developing growth mindset in my students early and never let them forget it.  We worked more as a group and I emphasized the importance of collaboration and using each other to find mistakes.  As the year progressed I found myself saying a lot of the same lines to encourage students to change their mindset.  Here are a few:

Worse case scenario you get it wrong and learn something”
         – I use this when students are reluctant to share their work.

That is the PERFECT wrong answer.  Thank you.
         – I think it is important to be as excited about incorrect answers as the correct one.

“Awesome!  Guys, let’s check out this mistake.”
         – I like finding mistakes and then sharing it with the class.  It goes a long way to make people comfortable with making mistakes.  As an added bonus, learning occurs!

“How are you supposed to stretch your brain if everything is easy?”
-This is a good response when students are complaining that something is too difficult.

“I made it difficult so that you can actually learn something”
        -Even the brightest students with a fixed mindset can be annoyed by challenges.  As teachers we want to push students and this phrase I’ve use a lot with honors students.

Growth Mindset In Action
im so sick of school

Let me tell you about a recent situation I encountered.  I have an honors geometry student that is just the best.  She works hard, asks questions, comes in outside of class when extra help is needed, and truly cares about understanding math.  You might even say she has a growth mindset, and yet, last week math class made her utter, “I’m so sick of school”.

What did it take?  She earned a B- on a test with a few essential skills also incomplete.  She worked really hard to prepare for the test and still came up with less than she hoped.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard the phrase, and I know it won’t be the last.  What would be your response?

“Keep working hard!  You’ll do better next time!”

“Earning a B- is not bad!  That’s still a really good grade!”

“You get an A for effort in my book.”

The problem I have with each of these approaches is that it brushes off the learning that actually occurred.  This student worked really hard and, yes, she came up short, but why not focus on what she did learn?  Here was my approach as soon as she said, “I’m so sick of school”.

lets find your mistakes

Response #1: Let’s find your mistakes.

I took the time to look over her test with her.  What we found was that she was very skilled in visualization and breaking down shapes into more manageable pieces.  She was persistent in solving difficult problems and took many approaches in order to find the solution.

On the contrary, her struggles were very small.  She forgot to use pi in a few problems and read too quickly, misreading the numbers given.  Her struggles and stressful B- assessment came down to a few silly errors.

Response #2: Look at all you learned.  You didn’t know how to do any of this two weeks ago!

Taking the time to point out all of the concepts she understood took 90 seconds out of my day, but did a world to show this student that her hard work did, in fact, pay off.


Recently I read an article shared by a colleague, and it rewired the way I think about growth mindset.

 “It seems the growth mindset has run amok. Kids are being offered empty praise for just trying. Effort itself has become praise-worthy without the goal it was meant to unleash: learning.”

The article challenges the average proponent of growth mindset, forcing them to rethink the way in which growth mindset manifests itself in the language, curriculum, and assessments of their class.  After reading it, I boiled implementing growth mindset into these four questions:

1. What specific language do you use to encourage growth mindset?
-Do you value mistakes?
-Do you value struggle over speed?
-Share your growth mindset language with the hashtag #growthlanguage

2. How do we model the process for students?
-If we ask students to embrace mistake and overcome struggles we should probably being doing it too.  What does that look like in your classroom?

3. How do we create a system that allows for a growth mindset?
    -How can we value mistakes and struggle if we don’t give students a chance to fix them and learn form them?
-Telling kids they can succeed but not giving them the support or tools to get there is something we probably do but need to change.

4. How can you demonstrate to students they are learning and growing?
    – Think about the student that says, “I hate school.”  How can you show them that all of the work they are doing is paying off?  I’m not talking about the gradebook or even pre-test/ post test.  How can we connect their struggles and effort to their success, however small it may be?


These are the questions I hope to answer moving forward.  Being mindful of them and working toward progress is where I’m at now.  I’m sure crashing and burning is still in my future, and, yes, I still will have some students that care and some that don’t, but I’ve noticed an overall change in my kids.  They’re growing; they’re working hard and persisting through struggles more than they did at the start of the year.  I’ll count that as a win.

Starting the School Year with Struggle and Collaboration



You know that feeling – the summer is quickly winding down; the peaceful time with family and friends is replaced with the anxiety and uneasiness of a new school year.  Perhaps you’re not worrying because you have a routine; you have a go-to plan that has worked for years. Perhaps you do not worry because the start of the school year is as simple as assigning seats, a quick welcome, and going over the syllabus.

Being the fourth year of my teaching career, I have not really developed any tried and true methods, and I am not a big fan of imposing rules and expectations on the kids right off the bat.  Instead, my planning stemmed from something Dan Meyer said to me when I asked him how to get a group of kids so engaged and thinking critically:

The way your students think and talk about math on the first day of school doesn’t imply they will need to think and talk about it the same way in April or May.

Just like the growth mindset for individuals, a classroom and a group of students as an entity can be developed over time.  Recognizing the ideal class will never be handed to me on the first day of school I decided to ask the question – how do I help students take the first step?

ACTIVITY ONE –  How do I get students to collaborate about math in a meaningful way?

  1. Make sure you have students sitting in groups.  If you want students to collaborate you need a environment conducive to doing so.


2. Hand out a piece of paper to each student and tell them:

Today we are going to practice being artists!  How many of you feel like you are decent artists?” (take a show of hands)

How many of you feel like you’re definitely not artists?” (again a show of hands)

I need you to get out a pencil.  In a second I am going to put up the picture that I need you to draw” (don’t start with the picture on the screen because their reaction is hilarious when you show them).

You will spend three minutes drawing an image to the best of your ability.  It does not need to be perfect, but I want you to do your very best

This is a perfect activity for the first day because they will still do almost anything you ask!  Mostly they’re confused why we are drawing in math class.


3. Throw this image on your screen and tell them “Ready, go!”

  • Here’s a link to the larger image: Train Pictrain
  • There most likely will be an uproar because many of the students are having a panic attack.  Just remind them “I won’t let you fail.  I  just want you to do your best”


4. Give students students about a minute to draw, circling the room saying “I’m seeing some awesome works!  Keep it up!”  After a minute tell the kids to put down their pencils.I want you to grab your paper with your left hand [pause and demonstrate it for the kids] and pass it to the person on your left.  You should now have a new image in front of you.  I want you to keep going where the last person left off. Go!”

  • An interesting thing happens at this point.  The students have met their first struggle of the year.  They are forced to deal with someone else’s work – maybe good, maybe bad.  Either way, they are forced to look at a situation in sometimes a very different way than they approached it.  Doesn’t this sound exactly like what we want from students in a classroom?
  • After the initial struggle of trying to figure out someone else’s drawing you see students…collaborating!  They are asking the person before them how they started or sometimes what they were looking at.  One student grabbed their partner’s paper and started drawing but after a few seconds the partner reached over and rotated the paper 180 degrees saying “you should probably look at it this way”.  


5. Repeat this process giving students 45 – 60 seconds to draw before switching again.

  • I had groups of four so I gave students about 60 seconds, then 45, 45, and 45.  Not only do you end up with collaboration; students are able to flex their creativity as well!

Example Train DrawingExample TrainExample Student Train 2         

6. After the activity take the time to reflect on the important lessons.

A.  Did you notice…

  •    Point out the use of collaboration to make sense of the first person’s drawing.
  •    Tell them about other observations you made while they were working.

B. Why did that happen?

  • Ask the students why they felt the need to collaborate.

C. Does it happen in life or does it happen at home?

  • Ask students to tie the drawing activity to life.  Make sure you give them time to think, and let them come up with the answers.

D. How can we use this?

  • What does this look like in a classroom?  What is the value of collaboration?



  1. Have students flip the page over and assign partners.  Students need to choose who is person A and who is person B.


2. Explain to them they will only need one pencil and one piece of paper.  Person A will be in charge of the pencil and person B will be in charge of the paper.

  • Tell the students:

Person A, your task is easy; all you are allowed to do is put the pencil to the page or lift it up.  Person B, you will be in charge of the telling them when to lift the pencil up and when to put it down.  Person B, you are also in charge of the paper.  You will be drawing an image by moving the paper below the pencil.  In a second, I am going to tell person B what you will be drawing; person A, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.

  • Like anytime you give directions, you probably want to go through these directions two more times so everyone is on the same page.  If you have the time to model it for the students, that usually helps too.


3. Tell person A to cover their eyes, then on the board write the word – CAR – then immediately erase it.  Give students 2 or 3 minutes to complete the task.

Drawing of poorly sketched car

If you’re lucky you’ll get some sweet pics that look something like this.

  • Some students struggle with the idea that they are completely in charge (person B) and some students are frustrated by not having any idea of what the end result will be (person A).  What happens though, is a cooperation between the two partners to overcome a challenge.  By keeping the image simple and fairly vague it impossible for students to fail.  Use this activity to talk with students about overcoming challenges and developing strategies.  In fact, laugh will the students about their struggles.


4. After the activity take the time to reflect on the important lessons.

A.  Did you notice…
B. Why did that happen?
C. Does it happen in life or does it happen at home?
D. How can we use this?


These activities did more to set up a positive and collaborative environment than I could have hoped.  My honors classes use each other as resources to the point where I feel like I’m not needed!  It allows me to rethink how I am utilized in the classroom and focus more time on students that need more one on one help.  My regular classes for the first time are actually talking!  I’ve always preached collaboration with little to no success, but now I have students comparing answers and going to each other for help.  By no means is it the perfect environment, but like Dan Meyer said, the students in October still have six months to get there.

These ideas are not completely my own.  Each of them were developed from the Link Crew mentality – one that encourages learning through activities, then having discussion about how the activity ties to real life.  This is the book that contained these ideas.  I encourage you to buy it if you’re looking for ways to spice up your classroom.

Rewiring the Teacher Brain for Growth Mindset


Teaching growth mindset is not as much “showing students how” as it is a “changing the way we talk about what we already do”.  If we are able to talk about learning differently, it becomes embedded in daily routines.  Here are a few subtle changes I made to my syllabus this year.

Old syllabus


Get it when you need it!!   After school!  Before school!  During class work time!  From your friends!  From me!  From other teachers!  From parents!  From older siblings!  From a tutor!  From the internet! From Khan Academy! The possibilities are endless – YOU just need to make the effort.  Just like life, math doesn’t come easy for most of us – you have to work at it!

New syllabus


Work hard and ask for help when you need it. After school or before school! During class work time! Browse the internet! The possibilities are endless – YOU just need to make the effort. Just like life, math doesn’t come easy for most of us – math is not about speed, it is about the struggle!

As you can notice, very little changed.  Instead of implying getting help is an extra part of learning (making kids feel dumb if they need to get help), I express that hard work is part of the learning process and that asking for help is the norm.  I like how the original paragraph emphasizes effort, but I tried to take it further by emphasizing that struggling is okay.  If students are content with solving problems quickly we are robbing them of real learning.

I challenge you to choose your words carefully when creating documents and especially as you are talking with students.  It is not easy at first, but soon enough it becomes a normal way to talk about learning.