What Mr. Rogers and Breakdancing Can Teach Us About Risk-Taking Teachers

You remember Mr. Rogers right? Watch him here trying breakdancing with Jermaine.

Mr. Rogers gets it. Look how he ‘s willing to look potentially silly to show his audience something new. Something different. A different experience and to share a story. He knew the value of not worrying about what others might think of him while being curious and exploring amazing experiences. He definitely stepped out of his comfort zone!!  — “Like there’s a wave going the whole way through your body” — That’s gold!

As math teachers we get comfortable and complacent with our audience and that sometimes makes us reluctant to try something new. Maybe we’re afraid that the class will be unruly, the day would be wasted, not as much learning will happen, We’ll lose our authority?

But like Mr. Rogers, we too should try something new if it means that our audience may experience something amazing or a different way of seeing the same old thing or getting another “a-ha” moment. We want to inspire learning so students can continue to inspire themselves into the future. That may take us to step out of our comfort zone and we will need to try a little break dancing.

Try a little breakdancing this week.

What new things have you tried these last few weeks? Let me know below in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear about it.

Building Resilient & Determined Math Students

Are you frustrated with how easily some of your students just give up while doing a math problem? You know that if they just stick with it that they will learn but they just want to be hand-held through math class every day. In the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the hidden power of character  Paul Tough argues that students succeed not because of intelligence but because of how much stick-to-it-ness, grit, and Determination they have.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. – Albert Einstein.

Tough says that you can build perseverance in children by playing chess. From the book, “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.” Playing chess over and over builds up a chess player’s level of determination. They have to take risks and learn from those risks in order to succeed. If we want our math students to build up resilience and determination then we also have to push them take risks and learn from the outcome of those risks.

In math class we can build up resilience, grit and stick-to-it-ness if we put students in experiences where they have to persevere through a tough situation. But think of their whole math class experience up to this point. It’s likely that a student would  never have had the opportunity to try to solve a problem before we math teachers show them the examples and how to solve it the math teacher way. Our students need experience persevering through tough situations like the chess player.

Imagine the first time you play chess and your opponent takes your bishop early in the game. You might think the game is pretty much over. Why go on? Or think of the young basketball player who has the right footing for a layup. They definitely weren’t a pro at that the first few times. But over time in each situation players overcome that resistance and persevere. They learn to be successful.

But in math class we assume math students should be good problem solvers and have grit in our math classes immediately. We say “our students give up too quickly” but when did we ever give them time to build those perseverance skills up? When did we teach them how to persevere? We are the ones that have to give them experiences to build that skill up.

3 Tips to Prevent the “Give Up Moments” and Create resilient Problem Solvers

1. Routinely have students solve unfamiliar problems through a supportive productive struggle process.

Use the Hero’s Journey to structure your math class and create productive struggle moments daily for your students. As an example, if I didn’t push my students to solve these problems routinely on their own to start our lesson then they would not only miss gaining the experience to persevere 

but I the teacher would also miss gaining valuable information about what my students know or don’t know. Problem solving must be a regular part of learning not just a once a unit or end of unit thing.

2. Create an environment where risk taking is low stakes.

In order for students to take risks and learn how to persevere the stakes for failure have to be low. It has to be painless to make mistakes. How are we doing this in our math classes? One easy-to-implement technique to make risk-taking low stakes is to bring dry-erase boards into your classroom. The no-permanence of the boards makes risk taking easy and it’s one of my favourite things. Students can attempt strategies quickly and wipe away quickly if needed. You can read more about the research behind non-permanent surfaces from Peter Liljedahl.

3. Show students that you value perseverance:

Create an assessment routine that promotes growth instead grades. Students quickly learn what you value. If we’re saying to them daily that we value the process of their learning over the final answer then how to we prove it to them? Your actions speak loudly. Give your students room to show that they have persevered while solving problems. Learn how you can implement an assessment routine that promotes growth and resilience by watching Conall’s Assessment story:

Read more about promoting growth in your assessment here.

Disclaimer: This transformation won’t happen over night. You yourself have to be resilient and determined. It’s possible that you might not see that change even this semester. But by allowing students to productively struggle through problems, giving them a low stakes risk taking environment and proving to them you value persistence WILL build their resilience and determination in the long term. We also must have a stick-to-it-ness to build great thinkers!

Shiny New Things

Should I use Google Classroom?

How will I start spiralling?

How will that affect my grading routines?

iPads in my math class? —  let’s do that!

How will you implement that instructional strategy for your PLC/ or AEAC group?


“It’s tempting to seek” all of those shiny activities, lesson plans, assessment changes, apps and devices, new routines, all at once. You won’t be able to do everything all of the time and especially right away. Plus, that’s not how your students’ put your time together in their memory.

Joey remembers tossing Paper balls while striving for the best rate.

Mandeep loved playing 20 questions on Friday’s.

Sally remembers that small class size on the last snow day and getting that extra help.

Kaleb remembers, the way you say “… and Bob’s your uncle!”

Those are the memories that get linked with new math learning. Those are the ways we show our humanity.

Go on and pick one thing from those new shiny things to focus on and make meaningful this semester, But ALWAYS choose to be human. Those are the interactions that will make the difference in learning for each kid.

Using the problem based lessons found here are a great way to show students you are human while working on some math.

Instant Pot, Lego Kits, and Teaching Together

Trying to cook with my new Instant Pot it brought up some thinking I wanted to share:

Join me over on Facebook or on Twitter or in the comments below to connect. We can do this better together.

Course Outlines:

Transcript of the Video:

So I consider myself a pretty good cook. After years of cooking for my family I feel like I can look in the fridge and whip up a pretty good stir fry or any other dish from scratch. So then I got this instant pot for Christmas….. And I felt like all my cooking instincts went out the window. I pretty much know how a frying pan works and my experience helps me determine how much time to cook the vegetables for so they’re not too mushy in the stir fry or I know how long to cook chicken in the oven so it’s not too dry, but this instant pot was a mystery. I had never used pressure cooker before…..I felt lost…Right now every time I cook with it I have to follow those mom blog recipes on Pinterest. Or the step by step recipes that come with it. I have no experience with how the timing works. I could cook dinners….but have no real understanding of how I did it!

It reminds me of the time I taught Accounting a couple of years ago. Here I am a math teacher with a bunch of pedagogical strategies on how to teach math that I love using….. Like I was with cooking I felt I was a pretty confident math teacher.  I wanted to teach that accounting class like I taught my math classes (great thinking happening, great discussions, kids struggle through concepts and we chat strategies; all the great stuff I know make kids better learners….but I felt that I couldn’t do that in the accounting class. I just didn’t know the content. I didn’t know the curriculum! I needed help and the only thing I felt like I could do was follow the step by step instructions in the teacher resource guide of the textbook. And there I was teaching accounting with not really knowing accounting…all because I was blindly following the steps.

It was so clear to me right then that Knowing the curriculum matters so much if we want to get creative with our course content quickly. It took me 8 years as a traditional math teacher before I felt I was comfortable enough to start playing around with different pedagogical strategies and deviating from the way the textbook ordered its units. Think about Lego too! If you want to just build lego go for it and try things out, build a masterpiece. Master lego builders spent a lot of time learning how the pieces fit together, And they did that by creating! Lego provides step by step kits so we can all build masterpieces but do we really know how to build that Death Star? Or Lego Friends dream house? I felt like I was just good at following instructions.

When we start our math lessons off with “today we will learn about the Pythagorean theorem” and then write this thing on the board and go through examples we are just giving kids the Lego Step-by-step guide, or the instant pot recipe book. And I now have to wonder, “Are they like me with the instant pot?” It looks like they know what they are talking about but do they really understand? I have to dig deeper, I have to get more info.And I believe teaching through problem solving is one of the best ways to get that information from our students.

Letting students work through problems through their own strategies shows me so much thinking. It’s then that we can consolidate as a group to share each others strategies or I can present new ones if needed. It’s a journey! And it’ll take time for our students to become great thinkers.

Like our students we too are learning through problem solving. We’re problem solving right now how best to teach our students. We’re learning by doing. And sometimes it takes a guide to show a strategy or a different way of doing things for us to go “aha!! Then our minds change. It’ll take time for us to become better. As a beginning teacher I thought I needed a plan to follow so that I could become comfortable with the curriculum. I thought I needed a plan to follow when I started teaching accounting for the first time. What I really needed was more people to talk to so that I could become comfortable with the curriculum and classroom management, and schedules, and assessment, and learning styles, and more and more. My first plan was the textbook and my first people were my math department.

Now there are many plans we can start with, many plans we can learn from and adapt as we grow. But let’s not follow those plans blindly like I followed the accounting teacher resource guide or how absent mindlessly I follow the instant pot recipes. Let’s interact with the creators of those lesson guides, let’s figure out what works best in our classrooms for our students.

You can download my course plans if you want a starting place. But then let’s not let that interaction stop there. Let’s continue the conversation. Let’s adapt those plans together.  Join me over on Facebook or on Twitter or in the comments below to connect. We can do this better together.

By the way I joined a facebook group to learn how to cook with the instant pot…so that soon I’ll be able to create my own dinners with it.

Course Outlines: