Saturday, 29 April 2017

Head Agents First Message For The Term

Greetings from Head Agent

Tips and Tricks Heading Into Term 2

I know that there are many agencies launching for real this term.  I thought I would put together some tips from my Term 1 experience.

1) Take it slow, spend time building up belief in agency.

2)When first starting in agency proper, make planning simple, aim to follow the sequence, but don't overplan.  Put more emphasis on the drama of agency.  Take time for children to learn their agent numbers and to develop their 'character.'  Make a big deal of the fact that they are held in such high regard by Head Agent and have been selected because they are experts in their field.  This elevation to expert will be a real change in mindset for some and is one of the most empowering things of a Mantle of the Expert approach.

3)Take time to set up the narrative and ritual of moving into agency, this will be the same each day and helps children to move into agency.  For example in our class we will say "and so Room One stood up, and checked into agency"  They will then push the buzzer and come into the class as agents...whatever you do, make it the same ritual every day. The addition of our agent chant has been a great one this year.

4)Ensure Head Agent has a strong role in agency.  He is the main 'client' within this mantle and plays an important role in helping children believe in their role.  He gives our role and the maths a real authenticity.  Head agent may be in your company via voki, however he does not have to be, he can come in as a still image like a photo, or in the form of an email or letter.

5)The problem solving process will be difficult to start with.  Be prepared to scaffold children a lot.  Set easier problems if needed.  Start with just one strategy, to start with we just started with drawing the problem.  Encourage them to have a go by themselves on their own first, then to share with the others.  If you have an able agent, encourage them to solve it in different ways.  Spend time setting up the talk moves...this is hard to start with, we start by focusing in on, I think the answer is...and this is how I solved it....then we work on encouraging children to say whether they agree or disagree.  Later on you can begin to let Cowgirl Calculation (or whomever is leading this) begin to develop further talk moves as appropriate.

6)When introducing a new gadget, make a big deal about it....for example when children are delivered their i-pads there may be a note from Head Agent that goes with it.

7)Don't introduce everything at once....gauge how agents are ready.  We still have not got our tool boxes because our agents are not quite up to being able to select an appropriate tool for problem solving when given too much to choose on.  Currently our agents just have a bag of counters and their i-pad (whiteboard) We will make a big deal about tool boxes when they are finally delivered.

8)Take time to develop a villain....I spend at least a week on one villain and having the map this year has been a fantastic addition to agency.  Use the villain to develop maths language.  You will find children begin to recognise these villains quite quickly based on the problems the clients encounter.

9)When you start, plan day to day...have a week planned, but change it if needed based on what the agents did that day and how they responded.  Don't prepared to just go with it...if something is going well, just keep going and leave some of the other things you had planned.  Just use your gut.

10)Focus in on visual based maths for professional development.  I have made a bit of a starter resource here based on what I do.  These are crucial for developing number sense and will allow children to develop independence quite quickly.

11)Make a few professor videos if you have time focusing in on some of the professional development you want to run.  Allowing him to lead it in this way will allow you freedom to rove and support agents rather than having to lead it.

12) As much as possible use elevated language.  You are a lead agent who has been recognised for your leadership abilities...while you are 'equal' in agency, you are certainly an expert in your field.

13) Be prepared.  I use my secret file box a lot.  I print my plan out and put in in my secret files folder, sometimes this sits on my lap.  I put any files I will need that week in a manila folder in the box so they are easily accessed.  I put the puppets that will make an appearance on that day in the box.  Before a puppet appears I will ask the agents to shut their eyes and count backwards from ten.  This is our ritual for a character appearing.  The agents have actually made up sounds to go with the villains....when we have worked out the villain for the day I will say "can you hear that?" They will then start making the sound they have made up for them....swishing sound for the shark, laugh for the witch, galloping hooves for the Knight.

14) Most importantly....this will feel strange for a while....don't worry about it....give yourself time to adjust.  Children will notice the difference straight away and will start to really engage in this playful approach.  If a session doesn't go quite the way you wanted it, don't worry, just as you would with any other maths sessions, reflect on it and move on.  Remember this is new to the children too, while you know what you want it to look like, it will take time to get there.  Agency for me has evolved over time, and it will for you.  Make agency your own and go for it, it will be worth it!


Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Professor Leads A Lesson On Writing Numbers

The agents love it when the professor or the other characters appear over the screen.  I am by no means an expert video please as this as just an example of what I do.  Not great sound quality unfortunately.

The Professor's role in agency is to lead professional development.  This professional development can be knowledge this one, or it can focus on strategies for solving problems.  

His job is varied according to what we need at that time.  

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Why Developing Number Sense Is Crucial

Developing number sense is the first step for children to feeling comfortable with math and everyday calculation, and also the path to developing a fondness for numbers and a flexibility when working with them.   When children learn the names of numbers, what composes them, what they mean, how to use them, and how to apply them to real-world referents, it makes the children feel comfortable and confident and both eager and able to engage with math.

Having number sense allows children to have flexibility with numbers.  It allows them a confidence when working with numbers and a capability to make well judged estimates.

I have based the Number Agents approach on this awareness and understanding.  I believe it is crucial that the 'professional development' presented to the agents takes the form of activities that allow children to do this.  I have developed some key elements within my programme that have a visual component, these work exceptionally well for children when building an awareness of numbers and in their development of the five components of number sense listed in the article below.  My basic pack that explains how I do this and what activities I use can be found here.   Once again I am a big believer in using everyday items and having dice, dominoes, popsicle sticks and tens frames along with regular and irregular subitizing cards on hand are a must in my agency.  

Another key way Agency develops number sense is through discussion.  A lot of what we do centres around modelling and development of strategies and the ability to discuss and explain them.  Cowgirl calculation has been a god send here.  The children love listening to her explain things and are always keen to share how they solved a problem.  The talk moves (also referred to as math talk) has been a brilliant addition to the way I teach maths and absolutely crucial for children when crystallising and consolidating their ideas. 

Cowgirl Calculation - Our Agent Talk Moves expert

The professor also helps out greatly on this front.  He is great at discussing new ideas and presenting new knowledge or exploring and extending on knowledge.  The agents are much more engaged with the professor in puppet form and love working with him.  

The Professor

I am also working on using more open ended problems in agency and would love to get to the point of using numberless word problems this term.  Agent eyes works really well here with children really building on their ability to notice and discuss.  I love the site Have You Got Maths Eyes it is fabulous.  I have also developed my own basic pack here of photos.  Basically the more open the picture is , the more discussion is provoked.  It is also a great way to combine strand and number.  My pack is here.  I find I am constantly seeing images that would make a great visual starter to our discussions.

The whole essence of agency is about bringing an authenticity and purpose to maths, for children to develop number sense there needs to be a purpose for them to do so...Number Agents gives them that purpose in a fun and engaging manner.  I also find that during self-directed play based sessions children are more likely to discuss and share what they are doing on a deeper level and seem to notice much more.  

My goal this year is to continue to build on ways to foster this growth in number sense as I see this as absolutely crucial in developing confident mathematicians. The work of Jo Boaler is a great place to start if you have not done a lot of exploring in this area.

This article can be found here:

Understanding Number Sense
Understanding Number Sense—
It’s Importance and Research-Based Teaching That Improve It
What Is Number Sense?
Number sense essentially refers to a student’s “fluidity and flexibility with numbers,” (Gersten & Chard, 2001).  He/She has sense of what numbers mean, understands their relationship to one another, is able to perform mental math, understands symbolic representations, and can use those numbers in real world situations.  In her book, About Teaching Mathematics, Marilyn Burns describes students with a strong number sense in the following way: “[They] can think and reason flexibly with numbers, use numbers to solve problems, spot unreasonable answers, understand how numbers can be taken apart and put together in different wayssee connections among operations, figure mentally, and make reasonable estimates.”
The National Council of Teachers in 1989 identified the following five components that characterize number sense:
  • Number meaning
  • Number relationships
  • Number magnitude (In mathematicsmagnitude is the size of a mathematical object, a property by which the object can be compared as larger or smaller than other objects of the same kind. More formally, an object's magnitude is an ordering (or ranking) of the class of objects to which it belongs.)
  • Operations involving numbers and referents for number  (“Referents” are things in the real world that children and adults understand through numbers. When you see you three dogs, and know that you’re looking at more than two dogs and less than four, and also that if two more dogs join the group there are now five, you’re employing referents (the dogs) for the numbers.)
  • Referents for numbers and quantities
Why Is Number Sense Important?Number sense is important because it encourages students to think flexibly and promotes confidence with numbers—they “make friends with numbers” as Carlyle and Mercado charmingly refer to it in their book Teaching Preschool and Kindergarten Math. Students come to understand that numbers are meaningful and outcomes are sensible and expected (Burns, 2007).  Conversely, students who lack
a strong number sense have trouble developing the foundation needed for even simple arithmetic much less more complex math.
In a recent study of 180 seventh-graders conducted by the University of Missouri, researchers found that, “those who lagged behind their peers in a test of core math skills needed to function as adults were the same kids who had the least number sense or fluency way back when they started first grade.”  (Neergaard, 2013) This is particularly sobering when one considers that 1 in 5 U.S. adults lacks the math competency of a middle school student—leaving them unqualified for most jobs.
Teaching Strategies to Build Students’ Number SenseWe know from a wide body of research that number sense develops gradually and over time resulting from an exploration of numbers, visualizing numbers in a variety of contexts, and relating to numbers in different ways. About Teaching Mathematics. A K-8 Resource, 3rd Edition, Marilyn Burns (2007) highlights the following key, research-based teaching strategies to build numbers sense:
  • Model different methods for computing:When a teacher publicly records a number of different approaches to solving a problem–solicited from the class or by introducing her own—it exposes students to strategies that they may not have considered.  As Marilyn Burns explains, “When children think that there is one right way to compute, they focus on learning and applying it, rather than thinking about what makes sense for the numbers at hand.”
  • Ask students regularly to calculate mentally:
    Mental math encourages students to build on their knowledge about numbers and numerical relationships. When they cannot rely on memorized procedures or hold large quantities in their heads, students are forced to think more flexibly and efficiently, and to consider alternate problem solving strategies. (Parrish, 2010)
  • Have class discussions about strategies for computing:
    Classroom discussions about strategies help students to crystalize their own thinking while providing them the opportunity to critically evaluate their classmates’ approaches. In guiding the the discussion, be sure to track ideas on the board to help students make connections between mathematical thinking and symbolic representation (Conklin & Sheffield, 2012).  As noted in Classroom Discussions:  Using Math Talk to Help Students Learn, the goal is “not to increase the amount of talk but the amount of high quality talk.”
  • Make estimation an integral part of computing.
    Most of the math that we do every day—deciding when to leave for school, how much paint to buy, what type of tip to leave in a restaurant, which line to get in at the grocery store relies not only on mental math but estimations.  However traditional textbook rounding exercises don’t provide the necessary context for students to understand estimating or build number sense.  To do that, estimation must be embedded in problem situations.
  • Question students about how they reason numerically.
    Asking students about their reasoning—both when they make mistakes AND when they arrive at the correct answer—communicates to them that you value their ideas, that math is about reasoning, and, most importantly, that math should make sense to them.  Exploring reasoning is also extremely important for the teacher as a formative assessment tool.  It helps her understand each student’s strengths and weaknesses, content knowledge, reasoning strategies and misconceptions.
  • Pose numerical problems that have more than one possible answer:Problems with multiple answers provide plenty of opportunities for students to reason numerically.  It’s a chance to explore numbers and reasoning perhaps more creatively than if there was “one right answer.”
“Just as our understanding of phonemic awareness has revolutionized the teaching of beginning reading, the influence of number sense on early math development and more complex mathematical thinking carries implications for instruction.”
(Gersten & Chard, 2001)

Friday, 21 April 2017

Finally...a strand based villain

I can't wait to get back into agency.  So far the children have met the Knight Adder, Subtraction Shark and the Wacky Witch of Change Unknown.  Still to come are the Doubling Dinosaur, Captain Fraction and Sum Snake.

I get so much of a thrill when we introduce a new villain.  Then once they have all been introduced we can really watch children's awareness of what is happening to the client correlate to what villain it might be.  It is fantastic watching their maths talk grow along with their number sense.  

I love teaching this way.  Children love it and their maths ability has never been better.  It is relaxed and maths anxiety is non-existent.  Combine this with our lovely sessions of self-directed play we have a superbly relaxed room where behaviour problems are a very rarely ever an issue.

The problem solving part of agency is often the part that takes the longest to embed into agency. It can be easy to get demoralised...but please persist.   Children initially struggle with independence in this process...however once we have given them a few strategies, like fingers, materials, tally marks they seem to really get it.  That is when the magic happens, you start to see children sharing strategies you didn't even know they had.  Sharing with others their knowledge.  It is a wonderful reciprocal bubble of learning.

I am a huge believer in mixed ability groups....and whole class teaching.  I would never go back.  After being exposed to the work of Jo Boaler and doing a bit of research myself, I love teaching this way.  I suggest you do your own reading and research, don't just take it from me.

People often limit the ability of new entrant children "how an earth can they solve those problems?"  Well you know what, they don't solve it alone, we solve it together.  Within the mixed ability grouping children have the luxury of learning from others, or of extending on their own strategies and exploring multiple ways of solving it.  The villain presents the problem, they don't have a copy of the word problem  and they are not required to read it.  Basically the problems are a script for me:)   The problem is part of the brings an authenticity to the maths and is the absolute key to why children start to become such confident mathematicians.  As teachers it is up to us to scaffold and assist as much as we deem to be appropriate.  Some problems require a lot of assistance and modelling and others they can complete independently.  They strive to solve these problems because they want to defeat the villain and they want to help the client.  Just like a lovely story book based on superheroes and villains.

Is this an approach for probably not, as I say in my book you have to be willing to be a little bit crazy, you have to be prepared to let your inner child take over and you have to be prepared to use your instincts.  This process works incredibly well, but it is energy intensive, it requires a lot of thinking and reflecting and there is no step by step instructions :)

I have been giving a lot of thought to the new villain that will join our cast of characters.  As I only teach three days a week I have never really focused on using a strand area to deliver problems.  I do from time to time, but prefer to integrate strand into the problems or invitations to play.  However I do believe it is necessary for there to be a strand based villain because children need to see maths in lots of different ways.

I was keen to have a villain that represented the fact that Measurement and Geometry and Statistics were 'three' areas of maths....I realise that these integrate beautifully, but wanted a villain that represented this multiple personality :)

After a bit of thought I came up with this character.

She can change colour according to her mood :)  Her name is the Dreadful Dragon...unless I can think of a name that goes with the mathematical areas she will challenge us in.  This is still up in the air...she won't appear for a little while so I have a bit of time to sort it.

Basically just like the other villains she will set us problems but they will be related to Strand.  It is highly likely that these will be visual problems, rather than word problems.

I know there are many agencies opening this term and I am so looking forward to hearing about your adventures.  Remember once you've read the book, you can put your own twist on things...just make it work for you and your class.  As long as you combine drama, play and problem solving along with a heavy focus on visual strategies and the use of materials I know your children will love it.  Prepare to capture that inner child and you will reap the rewards with an engaged and motivated class.

And just to end, I was so stoked to get this feedback on TPT the other day.

Hi Lesley, I am a NZ teacher but I am teaching in Dubai. I needed a fresh start to how I was teaching maths to my wee ones (4-5years) and with the extremely high expectations of the school and british curriculum it was not easy. I was so grateful for finding your resources (I bought nearly everything you had available!)and once I got my head around it, couldn't wait to get started. Being the last term it has been a wonderful way to integrate everything the children have been learning throughout the year. The kids are so excited to being our sessions and I am getting more out of them than ever. It is only the second week (so our first week really of starting the actual agency after building it up over the first week). Im looking forward to getting my parents more involved as well. I used to dread teaching maths in such a structured way to my wee ones but now it's just so much more exciting! Great job and thank you!!

Thank you to this person....It made my day.

I wish everyone the absolute best in kicking off their agency...remember if you are just beginning start with drama...then the hooking in...then building belief....taking time to do this is worth it and makes this approach that much more authentic to children.  This is where Mantle of the Expert plays a huge role.

If you have purchased the book and are starting out on agency, please email me with any questions, I am only to happy to help if I can.  Have a read through my old posts on here as I have detailed my journey into agency in Term One. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

When did we standardise childhood?

When did childhood become standardised and why have we blindly followed?

I am as guilty as any of teaching in the way that I thought children learned best.  I have always considered myself to be a good teacher…but my definition of a good teacher is changing, and thankfully so am I.  I don’t in fact believe we ever stop changing, but I have certainly changed direction and thankfully the destination is a hell of a lot more appealing to me.

So often I hear arguments against play…how will they learn? how will we fit everything in? Oh but children love routine and play is unknown.  How will we know what they are learning, how will we assess it?  Oh but we have too much else to do.

We also have a system that has set parents up to believe that academic achievement and extension is of paramount importance…these parents don’t want to see their children just playing.  Play is frivolous isn't it?  Come on, they don’t go to school to play, do your job, teach them!  I don't want them to waste time playing.

To me these arguments and so many like them are an argument against childhood.  They are the arguments of the entrenched, the arguments of the indoctrinated, the arguments of those like me that thought they were doing a good job.  I feel I am qualified to say this as these were the arguments (along with many others) I have made in the past.

Over the past few years I have been on a journey of discovery.  This discovery has led me to an amazingly simple place…a place that accepts children like all mammals learn best through play.  Not play we create, not simply a choice of activities, but true self-directed magical play.  Play where children negotiate, problem solve, develop empathy and kindness, where they teach each other much more than we could teach them…where they learn.  Don’t get me wrong this is an incredibly simplistic statement that actually carries far more depth when actualised.

This journey has also led me to an interesting place, a place where I realise that I have done a disservice to those children I have taught…not because my class wasn't engaging, fun, imaginative or creative, because it has been…but because along the way I forgot I was teaching children, not mini adults.

I, like many have become a slave to this idea we can standardise childhood.  That children can and should be attaining levels of academic of achievement at a certain age and if they are not, they are failing and are not at all ‘standard.’  We then strive to make them standard.  Why?  Because we are told to, because we are led to believe that if they don’t reach a certain standard at a certain time they have failed, we have failed and that they will spend many years catching up…and may never do so.  The mere fact that at six we are supposed to give them reading recovery now sends shivers up my spine, the insinuation that because they are struggling to read that this is something they need to recover from?  I call foul on the implication that this is the best and only way to help them, or that they even need our help so early on.

I scoffed at home schooling friends…I was perplexed by the concept of un-schooling.  Yes I am quite opinionated.  To be honest these things confused me, they went against the ‘standardised’ environment I was used to.  My class was a happy place, children loved school…I was doing a good job wasn't I?  My school still embraced fun, children were talked to, they had voice…why would these people choose not to send their child to school.  They were the ones in the wrong…weren’t they?

I have since discovered that children don’t need me to lead them into learning.  They are wired to learn through play.  Through play they develop cognitive and social skills that allow them to be well rounded resilient human beings.  The type of human beings we need in this world.  The sad reality is that the growing level of mental health issues in our country, the upsurge in conditions that require medication can all be linked back to a lack of play.  What government would continue to pursue and push such a system, why would you want that for our children?

In fact children don't need me to lead them, but they still need me to be there, to be part of the play, to sit alongside, to coach if needed…to just spend time getting to know them and offering them the learning they need when they need it.  I am still important in the process, I can still lead the play at times in the day, if I want to…and I do, I lead it into the wonderfully imaginative world I call Number Agents.  I lead them through drama and puppets, I lead them into a magical world of superheroes and villains…and in turn they lead me, it is this lovely reciprocal bubble of awesomeness that I call learning. 

This journey has come to an interesting place for me.  As a teaching Principal I am still very aware that my staff and I have to comply with the certain things expected of us.  We have to report on standards that mean nothing, we have to use these horrible labels with parents like ‘below’ yuck!  We have to test in order to be able to make accurate judgements…or do we?  Or are we just passively accepting that we do?

This year I am all about discovering even more creative ways I can work within a very flawed system without harming ‘my’ children.  I call them 'my' children, because for the six years they are in my care, they deserve me to hold them to that degree of importance.

I believe that Finland has it nailed and that while our government slowly (if ever) makes its way to listen to those that actually understand children, I can work on bringing  a lot of Finland to my school.  I can advocate for play.  We can continue to embrace play-based learning.  We can embrace disobedient thinkers through Mantle of the Expert and drama.  We can and have gotten rid of most ‘tests.’  We can use the absolute bare minimum of ‘standard’ or ‘formal’ assessments to gain enough evidence to back what we already know about our children.  Does this mean we wont be ‘assessing’ children.  Of course not…but do they really need to know we are doing it.  Is it possible that these assessments can just become a natural part of what happens, that they don’t pose a threat, that they do not create anxiety.  Maybe I can tweak our reports and rather than using below as we are required to do,  I can say ‘not quite there yet.’  It just seems so at odds for me to be embracing a new freedom in teaching and learning, to embrace growth mindset teaching etc and then use such arbitrary, cold statements.  I think that it is entirely possible that we can work within the system and create our own little piece of Finland, where the most important thing is that children are happy.

The question however, is why should we have to, why should we have to work within this flawed system when we have the most amazing curriculum?  

Join me on this journey.  Be disobedient.  Be brave for the sake of our children, so that they can truly develop self-awareness and be well rounded human beings that will make a positive impact on our world and in turn will allow their children the very basic right of free play.

Below are three videos I consider a must watch!

Monday, 17 April 2017

Number Agents - Why, What is it, What isn't it?


Number agents came about following my discovery of Mantle of the Expert.  Through Mantle of the Expert I found a whole new way of engaging and motivating children and particularly those children that were not engaged through traditional ways of teaching inquiry.

My maths teaching had become stagnant.  I felt like I was just going through the motions.  I planned well, used group specific teaching, tried to incorporate maths games and materials where possible...but felt bored.  I felt like the 'children' were missing from my teaching.  Maths teaching was something I was doing 'to' them.  I also noticed that children's oral language was really lacking.  They struggled to share understandings and lacked the words for what they wanted to say.

The potential for Mantle to transform my maths teaching was not lost on me...I also saw the way children responded to programmes like Number Jacks, Dora the Explorer and Little Einsteins.  My lightbulb moment came when I suddenly thought "What if children could be posed as the hero in their own story?"  "What if I could design a programme that could do this for them."

And so Number Agents was born.  Children responded instantly to this imagined world.  To begin with villains were simply represented as static images...children didn't care, they loved it.  I noticed their engagement and love of maths lift straight away.  I also began to love teaching maths again.  Best of all I didn't have to change what I was teaching, just how I was teaching and how it was delivered.

Adding in current and up to date maths PLD Number Agents became an approach that allowed me to teach maths effectively, but also give an imagined authenticity to what we were doing that inspired children to want to participate.  Through my discoveries and explorations into play-based learning Number Agents began to sit beautifully alongside and complement my programme.

In Number Agents we are is like each day is a chapter in our with the addition of puppets in the role of villains and helpers a new dimension has been added...we are characters in a powerful story and just like any story it has a beginning, middle, and end with lots of tension and resolution throughout.  A good old hero vs villains story :)

What it is?

Number Agents is an approach to teaching maths in a junior room.  I see huge potential for it to be used further into the middle and perhaps senior school with tweaks along the way.

Number Agents is dramatic, it is playful, it is a way of delivering maths.  It casts the children in leading roles.

Number Agents is a philosophy, a philosophy that embraces how children learn best, it embraces the huge role imagination and emotional connection plays in how children learn and what they remember.  It puts children at the centre of their own storybook.  It gives an authentic reason for children to learn maths and improve on their knowledge and strategy each day.

Best of all it has a huge oral language component.  Discussion, maths talk, elevated language, questioning, noticing and sharing all play a huge role in agency.    Number Agents has lifted the level of oral language of children in our class.

What it isn't

Number Agents is not a programme.  It does not prescribe how you teach maths.  Number Agents is an approach that allows you to deliver maths in a different way.  There are no expensive resources to go along with this approach.  You can modify it to suit your needs...your agency does not need to look exactly like mine.  As long as the philosophy and integrity of this approach is embraced, Number Agents can look however you like.

It is not student led play.  Whilst it is playful and it does sit beautifully in my play-based class it can not be defined as student-led play.  I do not and would not ever define this approach as play-based.  It does work in my play-based room, but when we are running a session of Number Agents, while we are playing with power and casting children as experts, we are still largely leading the learning.

And it is not just Number.  Number Agent is just the name I give to it.  Strand can be taught just in the same way that number is.  The professor is equally proficient with Strand and while we have not yet got a strand based villain, there is one on the way.  A lot of my strand is explored during student led play, but more specific Strand teaching can be delivered through this approach.  Number Agents is also a company I use in my Mantles.  They beautiful thing is that children can exist in many different worlds at once.  This means Number Agents is not just about teaching maths.  There are different divisions of our company :)

Want to know more?
You can find me on facebook by searching Number Agents.  You can find me on twitter @nellaeels you can find me on instagram under Number Agents.  Or you can email me

I am happy to help anyone who has purchased the book and wants further advice along the way.

Sunday, 16 April 2017


I watched Bryan Bruce's documentary again for the second time yesterday. The one about our world class education system.  It is an accurate picture of where things were at then and are still at.  Sadly the powers at be continue to ignore intelligent arguments such as this.

This one sentence sums it up for me "we are doing well despite the system."

And then I saw this on Facebook

The very sad reality is our education system is being modelled on this very idea...that home and school are two different worlds, that school is a place of sit down, shut up and home is where we have fun.

Why oh why would anyone in any sort of power follow a system like this when our curriculum should lead us down a similar path to Finland.  In Finland there is high trust, high trust at all levels of schooling, who what a novel idea that is!  In Finland they use brain research to realise what learning should look like (play) in those first couple of years at least.  They don't test, in fact they don't have a testing culture...and low and behold their education system is held in huge regard around the world...yet despite all of this, we follow a data driven system?

I know it is possible to create and cultivate a school that embraces how children actually learn, to have a curriculum that values the arts, that above all else values innovation, individuality and creativity, that values play as important and wants to cultivate problem solvers.  That is not driven by tests, in fact has gotten rid of most....and surprisingly still manages to 'tick' all the government imposed boxes.  But it requires trust.  Trust from the community, trust from the Board of Trustees, trust from the Principal, and trust in the children.  

Our system is currently being shaped by people that know nothing about how children learn.  They have no classroom expertise.  They don't appreciate that our deepest thinkers are probably those that don't do well on tests.  In fact they fail to see past the data.  

At our school we are incredibly lucky that while as a school of course we place reading, writing and maths in an area of importance of learning, it is not the be all and end all.  We have stuck to the curriculum, we have explored and embedded approaches like Mantle of the Expert and play-based learning and teaching on Kindness.   We have continued to embrace the Arts as an important part of our curriculum.  Funnily enough we have struggled along the way particularly when National Standards started taking hold, but have held firm to who we are as a school.  We want children to develop into citizens that have empathy and the power to think for themselves.  That enter the workforce, not expecting to be told the answer, or that there will be one answer.  That are able to make a difference in this world.  That continue to embody that Kiwi can do attitude.  

I know I am not the only one that feels this way.  But I think many have got trapped in the web that is data and have yet to see the way out of that web.  They need passionate teachers to show them the way out of the web.  We need to continue to raise our voices against the current system, against the current test driven path we are travelling.  We need to be brave and keep our passion for really teaching burning.

A good teacher teaches from the heart.  They are driven by best practice.  They let children direct learning.  They take time to listen, to sit with children, to know them, they often go off the cuff, they are driven by hunches and use their instinct...they truly understand how children learn.  

A good leader understands this.  They don't expect boxes to be ticked, but they do expect hearts to be filled with a love for learning that will go far beyond school.

We all need to be disobedient against this data driven system being imposed on us, leaders, teachers, parents, Boards, children.  Be strong, raise your voices, don't conform when conformity will mean our children miss out.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Drama For Learning

For those that know me, you will be well aware that I am a massive fan of Mantle of the Expert.  Part of this approach is a drama for learning component that I have been wanting to explore further as a separate component this year rather than part of a full blown Mantle (other than Number Agents of course.)

Drama is so incredibly powerful and along with play it allows children to explore various contexts and perspectives.  You do not need to be a 'drama' teacher to use drama for learning as an approach.  Basically one idea can be explored for a short time, or expanded into a longer time.  It is all up to you.  There are loads of conventions that can be used...but not knowing these does not need to hold you back.

Children fall naturally into drama and will engage at their various comfort zone.  Invite them in and watch the magic happen.  There is no pressure on children, but the strategies used are non-threatening and I find that even the most shy children begin engaging beyond where you would expect them to.

This year I want to work on my own use and knowledge of conventions and techniques...I seem to stick within the ways of working that I know, so I really want to expand my repertoire.  This will really benefit my teaching within Mantle of the Expert.

This is a great starting point.

In order to build up my abilities and scope I plan to use picture books or current events to explore with children.  I have yet to decide if one of these may expand into a full blown Mantle (using our already established company of Number Agents, but tapping into a different division of this company)

We carried out our first drama for learning activity last week based on this book:

This book is based on this story:

In short three cows are stuck on a small piece of earth following an earthquake.

We started out by reading the story, we read it up until the moment that you see the cows stuck on the hill.

We then posed children as the cows, in groups of three.   They first created a static image of the three cows standing on the hill, attempting to show through body language how they may be feeling.

We stopped to talk about how the cows were feeling and how.

We then moved into making a soundscape.  Half of the groups had to make the noise the cows would have made and half made the sound of the earthquake.  This is like a wave of sound, starting off with one group, then two, then three and so on until all groups are making their sound.

This allowed us to really explore how it may have felt for the cows.

We then moved into making a freeze frame.  Using narration we 'acted' out how it must have been while the earthquake was going on.  Then children froze into their freeze frame.  When I tapped them on the shoulder they were able to speak about how they were feeling.

We then asked children to talk in their groups about how they planned to get down.  They acted this out and spoke about it through freeze frame.

Following this we finished reading the story.  We didn't have time to watch actual footage unfortunately but this would have been an awesome follow up.

This could easily have been expanded on...exploring the perspectives of the farmer, helicopter pilot, exploring perspectives of other people affected by the earthquake, using time to fast forward and rewind and explore what was happening before/after.  Really something like this could be explored over a week or more.

Stepping out of the drama this obviously would fit incredibly well with learning around natural disasters and the role people play in the rescue.   A full blown Mantle would flow incredibly well out of this learning...this story would make an incredibly nice hook.

This was an excellent start, children were very engaged in the process and got a lot out of it.  I can not wait to continue using drama for learning next term.

If I have time I may write up some plans based on what works so others can have a go :)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Term One 2017 Where Are We Up To

So 2017 will be the first full year that we have embarked on a much more play-based class.  At the moment our day looks a lot like this:

We begin our day with play and then phonics, or phonics and then play.  It depends how the children are on that day.  Play is self-directed completely by children and they are allowed inside or outside.  At the moment a favourite mode of play is 'teachers' but the kitchen is popular as are made up ball games outside.  Of course you can't go past a good scooter or bike ride either and writing in our blank books and creating our own art from loose parts is a favourite.

Following phonics (we use a bit of a mixed approach with this) we will move back to play.  I use the children as my guide, but number agent time usually starts around 10am.  This has been a huge success so far with amazing results so far.  The math talk going on is incredible, the confidence is brimming and imaginations are firing.  Number agent time is like stepping into a story book, we play the hero and defeat a villain each day...such a lot of fun.  We use play-based time to pull out our individual readers.

Number Agents takes us to morning tea usually.  At the moment swimming puts a wedge in our time following morning tea, but we have another self-directed time after morning tea, again we use this time to catch up with our readers if needed.

After lunch we usually do a form of reading to.  Sometimes this is a large shared book, but it could equally be a favourite story to read and talk about.  Children are very familiar with our version of Daily five now and settled into a short time of practice.  We like to fit another play based session in here then a short time writing together.  The afternoon is fluid and if children are really into one particular thing, we will allow them time to do this.  We love to get out in the bush if we are able to.

We have noticed many benefits so far:

*Children enjoy school and are settled, independent, engaged and can entertain themselves in play all day 

*Children spend a lot of time reading and writing and carrying out mathematical activities during play-based time

*Growth mindset activities used early on have allowed for a brilliant mindset and we will repeat these activities in Term 2.  Puppet videos mimicking the problems new entrant children commonly have settling in have also been a winner.

*New children settle quickly and are much more likely to strike up a wide range of friendships than they used to.

*Girls work with boys and boys work with girls, there are no noticeable divisions.

*They are very visual and notice much more about their world.  Their awareness of patterns is excellent.

*When we do require them to be in a teacher directed situation they are extra focused and engaged.  We don't have the wriggly worms we used to have.

*There is not noticable difference in reading and writing levels...spending less time focused on these areas in a teacher led situation does not have a detrimental effect.  In fact I would hasten a guess that writing levels especially will be better.  More important than levels of course is that children want to read and write, the love it, they want to learn and drive it themselves a lot of the time.

*We have continued to have no devices in our thing we have ever done for social interaction.  Children don't even notice.  

*Using seesaw has been a lovely authentic way to promote and share our learning with parents.  It has also been a great way to build an appreciation and understanding of the importance of play.

*Our class is fluid, we are all a lot more relaxed and this passes onto the children.  We are able to make the most of learning situations through the play and don't sweat it if we don't get through everything we need to.

I am excited to move into Term 2, loving play-based learning and can't wait to introduce the next lot of villains to the Number Agents.

My short book the Power of Play is Available here and it summarises a bit more of what I do.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Teaching, managing and learning with the heart and mind

I have been reflecting on this concept a lot lately.  Particularly in terms of play-based learning, but also in terms of teaching in general.

We expect so much of our children.  We want them to be engaged and motivated.  We want them to be forming emotional connections.  We want them to be growing and developing a growth mindset.  We want them to develop effective social relationships, to listen to each other and have empathy.

We expect so much of our children, but do we expect these things of ourselves?

I think we should expect these things of ourselves, of course we can't be 'perfect' all of the time (and neither can our kids.) but we can strive to be all of these things, most of the time.  Because ultimately that is our job and for most of us...our passion.

That led me to thinking about conditions that allow us to do this.  I've explored the conditions that allow children to do this and believe that play-based learning and the theories and rationale behind it go a long way to supporting this.  That approaches like Mantle of the Expert allow us to truly connect and engage children in their learning.  That relationships go a long way to motivating.

 But what conditions allow us to do this?  Because ultimately if we are not allowed to manage, teach and learn in the right conditions how do we use our heart and mind to the best of our abilities.

Well  ultimately it comes down to the team around us.  Firstly from the Board, to the Principal, through other management positions to teachers and teacher aides.  If the whole culture does not support innovation, reflection, becomes difficult for all the cogs to turn together.

Let's think about my situation for a moment.  It is quite unique.  I choose to teach.  Our school has a roll of around 200, and I could be a walking principal if I wanted.  It isn't what I want.  I am a teacher, first and foremost, that is where my heart lies.  I am also a new entrant teacher.  I see on a day to day basis how children are coming into school, I see how they thrive in different situations.  I know what works and most of all I know what does not work.  I have travelled the path myself, my teaching has evolved and changed and the reason it has done this is because I am allowed to trust my gut.  My Board trusts my instincts, they allow me to try new things, they believe in me.  My team listens to me, they challenge me, they use what I have learned and try it out and develop their own way of working.  I trust their instincts and they trust mine.  It comes back to trust and respect.  If we decide to make changes to how we do things, we all take the leap...we give ourselves three years, we base our inquiries around it and we go for it!  We share, we talk, we moan, we groan, we are in it together.  The wonderful thing is that by the end of it, we have often produced a massive transformation for our children.  Mantle of the Expert is one example of this, our whole school teaches this way, not because they are prescribed to, but because throughout three years we discovered it was something awesome we could do for our learners.

Currently we are working on eliminating stress.  Backing off assessment.  Developing an emotionally robust environment for our children, both in the classroom and outside the classroom (KiVa anti-bullying programme is awesome.)  Appreciating and using student voice.  Using growth mindset ideas.  Working on kindness first.  Sounds a little non-specific, but all comes back to making everyone's experience of school as wonderful as possible.  We don't do these things because we believe our environment wasn't emotionally robust, because it was pretty darn good...but because it can always be better, we can always be better.  As an example of this, we had our first staff meeting for the year last week, we want to do all we can to lower stress for ourselves and children.

The major road block I can see to allowing the heart and mind to be used in classrooms is sadly management.  I hear so many horrible stories of management that is so far out of touch with what actually works that they hold onto what they believe has always worked for them.  They insist on assessment that makes no difference.  They want direct teaching and shy away from anything student led.  They are still stuck on getting everything written down and reflected on.  Learning intentions and success criteria are still drivers of learning.  In fact some still have even and odd year inquiry or good old inquiry topics that have no relevance to the children at all and should have gone out with the ark,

Sadly they don't allow teachers to go with their gut.  They are so far removed from the classroom that they are now not aware of what works.  They are not active researchers or reflectors.  They don't challenge their own thinking and are not open to change.  They hide behind the requirements of 'ERO' and yet I have never found ERO to be an issue.

I don't prescribe planning, we don't tick boxes, we don't constantly assess.  We are on a four to five year cycle as of this year, so this can not be an issue for ERO.

ERO is a comfortable excuse.

Leaders need to lead, they need to be brave, they need to be willing to be disobedient to the status quo for the benefit of our children.  They need to form a culture of trust and in fact find leadership in those that are in the classroom.

Now don't get me wrong.  There are some amazing management teams out there, but the key word I use is team.  We expect our children to be a team, but often don't hold ourselves to these same expectations.

My challenge to management everywhere is this.  If you have a member of your staff absolutely passionate about something because they are teaching with their heart and mind and want something to change, trust them, allow them to the space to discover, believe in them, give them time (at least three years.)  build a team around them, you may be pleasantly surprised at what comes out of it.

To all those teachers struggling against a system that isn't working for our children, raise your voices, be brave, be courageous, our children deserve it!

Kia Kaha - teach with your heart and mind.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Maths Anxiety - What is it and what role do we play?

I have been giving a lot of thought to this recently.  So many children and adults suffer from maths anxiety and there seems to be some quite specific reasons for this and some very easy ways we as educators can help to prevent children from developing anxiety in the first place.

Firstly we need to consider how we present maths to young children.  From a very early age maths in lots of classrooms around the world becomes just about numbers.  The thing about numbers is they are black and white...there is one way to form them, sequence them and usually one right answer.  Children learn quickly and quite incorrectly through no fault of their own that to be successful at maths they must fit into a box, they must be fast and they must be right.   They learn maths in abstract situations, numbers have no authentic meaning to them.  They are often competitive and in some schools around the world they are very very aware of what 'group' they are in.  Helping others goes out the window, it is everyone for themselves.  

Even sadder is that in many classrooms around the world very young children are required to work from books or fill in sheets  that present numbers one way and in a very abstract, inauthentic manner.  These programmes are marketed as the answer to everything.  These children are not able to read or write yet, but they are expected to work from a book or fill in a sheet...and that is supposed to help them develop maths knowledge?  Do we as teachers lack so much understanding of mathematics that we need to have children working from books?  Where has our use of visual tools gone?

Another dismaying thing is that teachers have begun to think of maths in a very linear learn this, then you learn this...etc.  There is a lack of understanding for how children learn maths and adopt maths understandings and whilst I am a big believer in ensuring knowledge is developed, some poor children are hammering away at the same concept...never to get it and never to move on until they do.  Even more dismaying is that this child is likely to have understandings further up this 'linear' approach, but the teacher will never find out because they are busy filling 'gaps.'

Children are taught from a very young age that maths is something that will be tested...and tested....and tested.  They learn they need to be fast, they are put on the spot...not given time to think and rewarded for recalling an answer at speed.  We then label these children that test well our 'good' mathematicians, when in reality all they have done is spit an answer back at me with probably complete lack of understanding and a whole lot of rote learning.

I have maths anxiety, I hated maths (note I say hated because now it is a something I love.) I never was taught to appreciate the beauty of the maths all around me, I passed tests, I rote learned, I achieved...but I avoid maths.  Maths tests made me feel physically ill.  Watching the two videos above I do understand why.  I felt dumb at school because I struggled to use the one piece of equipment we were ever presented with, cuisenaire rods....I struggled with worksheets....I worried about getting things wrong....In fact maths was such an issue for me I avoided ever speaking during maths time.  I kept my head down and pretended to be busy.  I pretended to get it.  

Sadly I recall the one time I felt successful at maths.  The teacher had asked a rather simple question...I remember the answer was zero.  We were seated in a circle, we all had to have a turn answering...there was no way to get out of it...I squirmed as others got it others over thought the answer (it was maths right, the answer couldn't be so obvious.) heart hammered in my hands went was my turn....I couldn't avoid it....I answered with the most obvious answer I could think was right.  I was eight...I remember that experience to this day.  I also remember everyone laughing because the answer was so simple, I got it.

Do you want to know something even daughter is 14 and she hates maths.  She had great experiences at primary, but sadly then we were still in our testing culture....our speed testing culture...our streaming was just enough for her to develop anxiety.  Now back in that high school testing culture she believes herself to be dumb...she hates maths....and there is very little I can do about it.  I want her to have success, I want her to see mathematics as this beautifully authentic curriculum that is woven into every fabric of our everyday life...and maybe she will fingers crossed.

I know I am sounding incredibly hard on teachers everywhere.  But you know what we need to take responsibility for the elements of our maths teaching that is creating this anxiety for children.  As a school we were not doing a great job for everyone and taking part in PLD was like a watershed moment for us.  I want us to be disobedient, I want us to be honest....I want us to move forward and stop measuring success with tests...I want us to start using our guts more often, we do know better.

If you have not read Jo Boaler's work yet I suggest you do.  It has truly transformed how I see maths. 

So what do we need to do to make a change?

Firstly and foremost we need to start seeing maths as more open ended ourselves.  We need to appreciate the interconnected nature of number and strand and the role patterns and visual tools have to play in how children 'see' maths.  We need to start implementing talk moves into our teaching.

As junior teachers we need to embrace the understandings about their world that have a mathematical context but may not be 'number' based.  We need to embrace play-based learning....allow children to interact with their world, develop understandings, ask questions, notice things, to discuss and ask questions that have many possible answers. 

We need to see ability in different ways and not assume because a child can not count to ten when they enter school that they are 'behind.'  

We can have knowledge goals without causing anxiety.

We also need to work with parents, we need to share what works, concepts like maths eyes are a great way to start mathematical discussions at home.

We also need to embrace growth mindset and start lots of learning talk around this right from day one.  We need to embrace mistakes and embrace the power of reflection.

When teaching maths we need to stop streaming...start mixed ability grouping.  We need to focus on problem solving in authentic contexts.  We need to stop testing under pressure.  We need to stop timing.  We need to teach basic facts longside visual tools to ensure a depth of number sense.  We need to stop rewarding speed and start rewarding depth of thought.  We need to focus on explaining and exploring different ways to do things.  We need to ask low floor high ceiling questions in order to scaffold and extend.  Focus on numberless problems and questions that may have more than one solution.  We need to use maths eyes and encourage children to see mathematics in the world around them...and we need to start doing this ourselves.  We need to stop running ourselves ragged having so many maths groups that we never to any of them justice, we need to stop thinking  or being told that we have to keep a scrapbook for absolutely everything and write down and reflect on every moment.

We need to stop children seeing maths as a stand alone subject.

In my class we don't do maths.  We solve problems, they just happen to be centred around mathematical concepts.

Number agents is an approach I have developed over time that encourages all of these things.  It is based on up to date maths PLD (2015/16) My children love being agents, they love solving problems, they love counting...everything they do in professional development has a purpose, it is authentic.  They are not under pressure....and hey they are already no need to be nervous eh!

I am passionate about changing the way we define maths in New Zealand.  I encourage you to be disobedient...stop worrying about test scores, stop worrying about endlessly collecting evidence, go with your gut and do what works for children!  Start being playful.

What would I love....I'd love my daughter to be an agent....I think this approach has possibilities right up the levels, mantle of the expert is like that, it is appropriate for any age and stage.  Hey what teenager wouldn't want to work in a detective agency right?

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Visual Strategies - Why are these so important?

I have written a short  resource on visual maths strategies that can be found here.

This resource discusses how I build visual tools into my maths teaching in agency.

I have been reflecting a lot lately on the way we teach maths.  It dismays me when I read about programmes touted as a one stop shop....books that children work in from five...yuck!  Resources that cost a huge amount of money and can be used in one way....eek!  Books that you follow like a transcript, that link to follow up worksheet activities ....WHY?

I apologise if this offends you and obviously this blog post is my opinion only....but I just think some have lost sight of how teaching and learning works.  They have lost sight of children and become slaves to a narrow curriculum.

Why oh why do we make the teaching of maths so hard?  Why do we overthink it?  Why do we think it is necessary to create resources to accelerate children?

There would be absolutely no need to accelerate children if we were laying strong foundations to start with.   If we took into account how children learn, if we stepped back, embraced play and playfulness and went from there.

The plain and simple reality is that maths is all around us.   It is us as educators that make maths this stand along 'subject' that very, very sadly children often detest.  Why do we do this?  Maths should not be this abstract construction that children think belongs in one place in their day.

 I think we do this because we have been indoctrinated to believe this is how it should be.  We have been led to believe that we have to plan, plan, know next steps ahead of time, to expect that all our learners will experience maths in the same way.  We have stopped trusting our gut!  Yes we should have an deep understanding of mathematics and how to best help children, but do we need to write that all down to prove we are doing it?  No we don't!  As a teaching principal I am constantly dismayed by the amount of teachers being forced into planning that has littler or no use.  We need to trust ourselves again and embrace why we took on this job in the first place...if you are anything like me, it wasn't to write copious plans and evaluations that I never use :)

Embracing the importance of visual tools is one way we can bring back our gut.  Maths is all around us, and we can help children to develop an awareness for these patterns using some basic tools that are freely available.  I have talked a little about 'maths eyes' before.  In agency we call them agent eyes.  This resource is here

I use agent eyes once a week and we talk about what we notice.  It is incredible how deeply agents begin to notice things.  Ever since I started using resources like this I have even begun to look at the world around me in different ways...if I have got my phone with me I am often found taking photos of objects I think would be awesome for agent eyes.  I will often stare out the window and see how objects can be grouped.  This is awesome when you are staring at the ceiling in a dentists office :)

I then use tools such as dice, tens frames, pattern cards, dominoes, cards, found objects to explore patterns.  As I discuss in my resource this builds foundations and awareness of what numbers actually mean.  What does it actually mean if I can count to 10, what does that mean, what does it look like?  I think to often we see children with lots of knowledge about number and class them as having abilities in maths...the reality often is that these children are great at rote learning, but have very poor number sense.  As things get harder and they are asked to problem solve and develop strategies for problems such as change unknown problems, these children struggle.

I believe that the wider approach we can take to encouraging children to really 'see' and understand number the better they will progress later on.  We want children to have a depth of understanding, not to race through the stages, only to stall later on at high school when they have a very narrow understanding of number and its link to other strands.  Surely the developing of maths understandings should not be a race?

So what am I really trying to get at with my ramblings?

I believe we need to start slowing down, to go with our gut, to allow children to really experience number, to take time discussing images like road speed signs etc, to truly help them see the link maths has in our real world.  I am very concerned by the amount of children with maths anxiety and that in all honesty comes back to us.  We have the power to prevent this anxiety.

For me that means using Number Agents as my is not a programme, I will not tell you what to do and when....yes there is knowledge to be developed, but often that comes as part and parcel of what you do daily.  Number Agents gives you freedom, like no other approach I have ever tried...It places children at the is is relevant and best of all it works insanely well in my play-based programme.  Yes I know Number Agents is not play-based learning, as I am driving it...but it fits really well.

Play-based learning only complements what I do, using loose parts and found objects in play builds visual strategies in fact I have never had five year olds that are as visually aware and competent.

You may not agree with me, and you don't have to....the great thing is we don't have to agree.  But I do ask you to reflect on how you teach maths to the children, see what they have to say, are you over planning and under delivering?  Are you being driven by a narrow curriculum?

If so, it may be time for a change :)

Be brave...our children deserve it!