Friday, 15 December 2017

Strategies to ensure everyone can participate

This is my last blog post of the year.  My last day of school is the 20th, so my brain has not quite signed off yet.  Before I take a break for the holidays I wanted to do a blog post that specifically addresses a question I often get....

How do you ensure all children can participate and are learning?

Firstly, let me start by saying that this was my burning question when I started maths PLD.  With the change to mixed ability groups and a problem solving focus I genuinely questioned how this process could be effective for those children that seemingly sit on the fringes and don't seem to be getting involved.

As I had already started using Number Agents, I simply moulded what I was currently doing around this new idea of teaching that I was being presented with.  I can tell you though that I entirely expected to discard these strategies once our PLD was over and go back to how I had always done things.

However as time went by I began to see the benefits, I began to see the progress and slowly come to realise that everyone was engaging at their own level,without me foisting on them knowledge that they were not ready for, just because I thought the should be.

So back to the question, how do I ensure all children can participate and are learning?

1)Mixed ability groups when problem solving.  I teach whole class through agency, or rather the professor does, but when it comes to problem solving, I use mixed ability.  Initially children do find this difficult, and it is important to give this time.  With certain scaffolds they do all begin to engage and share as they are able to.  Firstly when presented with the problem, we talk about it out loud, what is it asking us to do?  Children then have a go at solving this independently, but for those who struggle with this, we teach them two ways of working to start with, drawing the problem, or using materials.  These two ways of working help them to engage at a level appropriate to them.  When they have had a chance individually, they share as a group.  This can be difficult as you will always have your dominant ones, but the idea is to teach them how to explain their thinking through the talk moves.  They learn to challenge each other when they do not agree, and show each other the strategies that they have used.  It sometimes is hard to sit back at this stage, but they truly learn a lot from each other.  We are lucky enough to have two of us, so we do also roam and scaffold at this time.  I like to video certain strategies and use our apple tv to reflect on them.

2)Visual activities, or high ceiling/low floor problems.  I invented the three headed dragon this year to present problems that were a little more hands on and visual.  These problems saw children engage at their own level and they could all participate.  These problems were also a great opportunity to incorporate strand learning.

3) Dot talks and visual images.  These have been incredible for building number sense.  I have noticed an absolute change in understanding since we started concentrating on these regularly.

4) Agent talk moves.  This was an area I had huge doubt about when I started, but it turns out this is an area where I have had the most success.  Basically it is about creating a common language for sharing and questioning.  I teach children to say I think..because .  I agree... I disagree.... I would like to challenge you on that.  I like to video children explaining strategies and these are a great tool for reflection later.

5)Building mathematical language. One of the biggest hurdles for children that struggle is their mathematical language  In the classroom we often do not have a common language and this prevents children from accessing maths.  Establishing a common language through our villains and our secret files really helps.  Taking things slowly and ensuring everyone understands what is being asked of them is key.

6)Grouping and doubling.  These are skills that come later when you are working on numeracy stages, but I have found it very useful to introduce these concepts early on as it gives children a good solid strategy to fall back on.  We focused on doubling and halving...of course clearly ensuring children knew what was going on by using materials etc.  We also focused on dot talks and visual images that helped children to see things in groups, this led them nicely to the need to skip count and understand the purpose for this.  This worked so well I will introduce a grouping villain.

7)Slow down in the beginning.  Really spend time on the problem solving and ensure children understand the process, don't be in a hurry.

8) Repetition, come back to similar scenarios and problems in different ways again and again.  Come back to problems or visual images more than once, let them span several sessions if necessary.  Children will build on their understandings in this way.

9) My discovery this year is that children will develop knowledge as and where it is needed.  We do not need to be explicitly delivering this, the more authentic the problems and activities we are using, the more likely it is that the knowledge will just develop.  This seems simplistic, but I have found this to be very true.

My teachers pay teachers store includes many of the resources I have talked about in my posts this year.

I hope that my blog posts have been helpful this year.  I am no expert, I am certainly not a maths guru, but I have made discoveries that I like to share with others.  My passion is teaching and learning.

I will start posting again next year as I prepare for my new agency, just as I did this year, I will blog as I go, so you can follow my agency journey.  This may be useful to you if you are planning on setting up a new agency.

Friday, 8 December 2017

An open letter to me, the teacher of seven years ago...

Dear me of seven years ago,

Firstly, before I cause you offense, let me start by saying, you are a brilliant teacher, fun, caring and creative.  The children in your class are lucky to have you and are achieving remarkable results.

But what if I told you that what you are doing could be even better?
What if I told you that by doing this you would be happier and your children would beyond happy, happy is not really the right word, they will be content, secure, confident and open to new ideas?  What if I told you that by listening to me, your whole view of success for children would change, your whole definition of learning would change?

If I told you this, would you change what you are doing right now?

I'm not completely sure you are ready to listen to me, I mean why would you, there isn't a problem to solve, you run a safe, happy classroom and a safe happy school, children leave your school often working far beyond where they need to be academically, surely there is not a reason to change.

But just before you dismiss this letter, I ask you one thing, have you noticed anxiety on the rise?  Have you noticed a growing change in mental health...I know you have, so please read on.

 I am going to offer my advice even if you don't want it right now,  bet you are happy to read that hasn't changed.  In fact, I am happy to say that is part of my character that has truly developed....yes sorry, I have turned into quite the oversharer.

So let me leap right in, sit back, grab a coffee (hey might be a good idea to start laying off on that if you can) and be prepared to be challenged, confronted and probably, knowing you as well as I do, initially quite miffed.

I want you to think about maths first, you teach it well don't you?  So here is where I am going to get confronting, because actually, no you don't.  I'll let that statement settle for a moment, because I can already sense your blood boiling.

The way you teach maths currently is narrow, you see maths as subject rather than the language it truly is.  Maths is beautiful and needs to be taught in an authentic way.  Stop with the over developing of knowledge, thinking that this knowledge will help them later with their strategies.  Children are developing this knowledge, yes, but they have no idea of how to apply it.

At the moment you are showing them far too often that in maths there is always one answer.  This could not be any further from the truth.  You need to be allowing knowledge to be a necessity and to develop through authentic situations.

Open your mind to problem solving, open your mind to visual images, open your mind to math talk.  Look for the maths in the world around you, it is everywhere.

What is that I hear you say?  Your children won't be able to do that?  Maths talk is beyond them? Well I am happy to confirm that if you stick with it, they will be able to do it, and better than that, the maths language and understanding that will develop will blow your mind and really make a difference to those you see as 'struggling' right now.

 While I am on a roll, can I tell you to stop breaking maths down into narrow steps like somehow they develop their knowledge sequentially and in isolation....going over and over one part of the knowledge is not going to assist them to see where it fits.  They will see where it all fits if you present it to them visually and in creative ways and particularly allow them time to see it, over and over again in many different ways.

Stop teaching them in levelled groups, they learn so much from each other.
Stop using worksheets, they learn nothing from these.
Start using games that challenge them to develop number sense and while this may be a little threatening for now..,.perhaps you could consider whole class teaching?

Stop, just stop using that task board...if they need something to do while you are busy, let them play!

This one you might like...stop over the time you save in planning, work on your own professional understandings, I recommend you read up on number sense.  I really recommend the work of Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck, take time to read their books, allow the messages time to sink in...these two are very important to the teacher you will become.

This will seem very confronting to you, but stop segregating strand and number, maths is maths and children need to see how this all fits.
Spending three weeks on geometry, then three weeks on measurement is about as far away from real application of maths as it can get.
Start looking for maths in their play (yep I know you don't do that a lot yet, but that is the next part of this letter.)

Lastly on this point, but certainly not least...some children will never image by default....don't hold them back, for goodness sake let them use their fingers and give them time....stop implying through what they do that to be right, they need to be fast, this is damaging.  Oh and for goodness sake stop saying that you are not a maths person!!!  It is ok that you still use your fingers too!

Hey maybe you might even give some time to think about how you could come up with a completely different approach that will bring maths to life for these children?  I know you've got the creativity to make this happen....and when you do, don't forget to share it with others.

Ok, I know, I know, you are ready to virtually trash this letter and delete it permanently, but just take a few deep breaths, this letter is about to get even better and probably for you, even more confronting.

So, in terms of the children, have you noticed how much some of them struggle to sit still, how they are reluctant to write, and seem a little like robots completing your reading responses according to your set criteria?
Have you noticed that all their pictures look the same?
Have you noticed those poor children with limited fine motor skills, struggling away with their writing.
 Have you noticed how the struggle to take risks and hate to be wrong?
Have you noticed yourself rewarding children for complying with specific sets of behaviours?
Have you thought about how it feels for those that do not receive that big sticker on their work?  Have you thought about how much time you waste marking their writing?
Have you thought about how it makes them feel when you put your pen marks on their work?
Have you thought about how they feel when they have done they best and you correct it?
Have you thought about how many of the children seem to have difficulty getting started with learning?
Have you noticed that children struggle to use their initiative and wait for you to tell them what to do?
Have you noticed all those children with the urge to spin and roll and asked yourself why you redirect their behaviour?

I see a few of my questions have hit a nerve and caused you to pause.  Good.  I want you to confront what you are doing head on and ask why.

Go find out about the work of Nathan Wallis, think about the brains you are developing, and how this works in with what you should be doing.   Visit an ECE, watch the children learning, why does this learning look so different from what is happening in your classroom?

Just for a few days, let them play, yeah yeah I hear you say it.  No I don't mean choosing time, I mean play.
No direction from you, open the door, let them outside, watch them change before your very eyes over the week, over two weeks, over a month.
Look for the play in the learning, take photos of it, talk about it with them.
Listen to their interests.

 I challenge you to do this, sit down and reflect on what they have been doing, what you are noticing.  Start weaving self-directed play into every day and see how it slowly takes over so naturally.

Stop directing them, start relaxing, let them be children.  Don't keep them on the mat, forcing learning down their throat for lengths of time, let them go and watch them actively seek out their learning.

Trust me, it will be truly beautiful to watch them follow their urges.

While I am at it, and just before I sign off...I know you are exploring increasing devices in the room...don't.   Get rid of them, it will destroy their social skills.  In fact consider getting rid of all devices in the first few years, they simply don't need them.

Right if you have got this far, well done.  I write this letter out of absolute love of what I am doing now, and a deep regret that I didn't reach this place earlier, perhaps you can help me with that.

Kind regards,

The you of seven years from now xxoo

PS - I know National Standards are the bane of your life at the moment, and they will continue to be, but eventually they will be gone.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The power of the imagined

Anyone that has been reading my blog posts knows that I am a massive fan of Mantle of the Expert.  Website here for those interested in finding out more.

The thing I love about Mantle as it is play, drama and inquiry all rolled into one.  Our school have been using this approach for a while now and have had brilliant results. If you are looking to transform inquiry, this might be the answer for you.

Today Room One were part of four worlds in one...did it phase them....not one bit. 

First we were posed as party planners.  All I did to get them into this world was use the words "Is it ok if we imagine that we are a party planning company?"  The children of course say yes and off we went.  Straight into the drama and play of being the company approached to plan a party for the Number Agents.  Our company had various divisions and the children self-directed this process.  Some running workshops on creating paper cut outs, others teaching children to blow up balloons.  They were all completely engaged and the excitement and engagement was palpable. 

Once the room was all set up, we moved out of this company, simply by standing up, turning around once and sitting down.  I said to them that once they sat down they were part of a cleaning company.  A job came through to our i-pads, and we were given the job of cleaning up the party planners mess.

Once this was all over, children got changed into their 'flash clothes' and turned into Number Agents, who enjoyed getting their awards, presents, dancing and most importantly of course, food and drink.

The agents were chuffed that the Professor and Cowgirl came in to celebrate with them.  If there was ever any doubt in your mind about the power of this imagined world for children, the reaction to these characters and the smiles on faces would dispel these.  They believe in this world, it is authentic for them and so in turn their mathematical understandings are deep.  They are connected to this world and I bet it will be something they remember for a long time to come.  Professor and Cowgirl were like celebrity guests and the please for photos and high fives were absolutely heart warming.

What a brilliant day we had!  What a brilliant year we have had!

This video gives you a glimpse into our day.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Another year and it just keeps getting better

Wow, I find it hard to believe that I sit here reflecting on a full year of Number Agents, almost done and dusted (other than our office party.)

This year saw some changes in agency as I approached it as a full blown Mantle and added some bells and whistles.  The world has been so much better developed this year with puppets taking the role of villains and the Professor and Cowgirl Calculation taking a hero role to assist us in our development.  It is fun to look back at this post reflecting on two weeks in and see that I was already seeing these benefits at the beginning of the year.

I was also able to use drama a whole heap more and quickly found that children became confident taking the role of clients.  More recently they took an active part in communicating with our recon agent 556.  The more they became a part of the drama, the more they connected to agency.

Another change for me, from a teaching perspective, was to throw away a large degree of the overview planning I was doing and deeply focus on Number Sense and integrating strand through the problems and particularly the character of The Three Headed Colour Changing Dragon.  This video is  an example of one of the problems.

This is my Number Sense mind here

My planning became much more mind map based like this, and I found it to be very successful.

Another huge addition to Number Agency has been dot talks and other use of visual images.   The video below shows a dot talk, it is pretty basic, but I have been working hard to develop this skill over Term 3 and 4.  The images are examples of the type that I have been using.

I have found visual images to have made a remarkable difference to children's flexibility with number and ability to see groups in different ways.  Remarkably these visual images have really benefited children in terms of being able to understand the true meaning of the digit or numeral that they write down.  Number bonds that would previously been hard are now something that comes quite naturally.  Using these images has also had a huge impact on maths language and a great spin off into oral language capacity.

The other thing that has come out of visual images is an increased capacity for children to see groups and to start to develop the concept of 'groups of.'  I had not intended to extend agents into this type of thinking, but it happened naturally.  I became easier for them to see problems in this way and in turn skip counting etc began to make much more sense to them.  It has something I have just gone with, those that are ready, have run with it, those that are not, continue to use other strategies.

This spin off into grouping has seen me begin to think about a new villain to join agency...still working on the name.

A piece of knowledge I have found to be absolutely crucial to my agents is doubling and halving.  We have used this knowledge a lot in agency and I think it has been a huge factor in their increased flexibility with number.

We use this song frequently as a warm up.

When I was first introduced to Number Talks in 2016 I thought my five year olds would find this quite hard...I was very happy to be proved wrong.  They are now able to state what they notice, if they agree, if they disagree and able to challenge each other's thinking.

These number talks (or agent talks) as we often call them have been something that have truly strengthened their understandings.  We all know that talking about our learning and it has had the same effect for our agents.

Materials have continued to play a very important part in agency, I think materials are crucial in building number sense and think that we are far too quick to take them away.

I am overwhelmed by the success of agency this year and it has fitted seamlessly into our play-based environment which has also been another area of great positivity this year.  Loads of mathematics also comes out of this play-based environment.

Children make a strong emotional connection to agency.  This connection seems to ensure they are in a great mindset to make the most of everything they are learning.  They are open and eager to learn.  Mathematics is fun, they are successful, they absolutely love it.  The feedback from parents has been humbling, children step into the world of agency, and are immersed, they talk about it at home, they share what they are doing.  Although the world is imagined, it has great importance to them.

I can not wait to start again next year and look forward to some of this years agents helping our new agents to develop their understandings.  

At the moment the villains are in prison, but we know that Head Villain is clever and has threatened to escape and once again wreak havoc for our clients....I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens.  I will once again share my journey right from the planning stage next year, for those starting out :)

I am so glad to have started this journey and this year to share it with others.   I hope that more people will try this way of delivering mathematics next year.  It truly is worth it.  I am happy to help out where I can and can be emailed at

Leslee Allen