Skip to content

Collaborative learning with Canvas discussions

April 25, 2015

This year I’ve been using the Canvas learning management system primarily as a work flow tool–because that’s what it is–primarily. It’s heavy on teacher productivity. Post, turn in, provide feedback, and electronically grade assignments. Create pages for resources or a week-at-a-glance. Build modules to deliver content. But what are the students doing?

For me the best feature Canvas has to offer is the discussion forum. It’s a place where student learning is visible. It’s a place where students learn from others and contribute to the learning of others.

To launch our 7th grade unit on percent I posted a discussion prompt using Robert Kaplinsky‘s Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon task from the 101Questions site.

BBB questions

I probably shouldn’t have led the students by saying, “Here are my questions, what are yours?” but I was impressed with their questions. Here are a few:


The students not only had to post two questions, they also had to respond to one other student. What impressed me more was how the online discussion minimized student status, gave all students a voice, and allowed them to contribute.


The following day students explored the answers to their questions with Kaplinsky’s Act 2. But my point is how the on-line discussion facilitated collaborative learning.

Here’s another example. Students shared their solutions to a small task, gave feedback, and later revised their work. Some posted as a narrative while others uploaded their work.

Percent rectangle

percent shade2

I plan to add more discussion forums in the future. Overuse can kill a good thing, but a well placed discussion is gold.

Partnering with parents, keeping them informed, Canvas

February 14, 2015

Since we returned from winter break I’ve been making a concerted effort to reach out to parents. Why the awakening? I had been so focused on implementing interventions (grade level lunch crew for students who don’t turn in assignments across multiple subjects, pulling students into math lab, etc.) that parents were left out of the loop. It came to a head when a parent never knew her child had been in lunch crew at the request of multiple teachers more than 10 times in one quarter.

I want to blame our RtI program for taking my eye off the ball. I wanted to hear, “Let’s bring in the parents when this isn’t working.” RtI has many shortcomings, but it’s my responsibility to communicate to parents. I didn’t. I should have called or emailed instead of relying on my online grade book.

Partnering with parents, keeping them informed
Two weeks ago I had a twenty minute phone call with a parent. She revealed intense frustration. Frustrated with the teachers; frustrated with her child; frustrated with herself. To repair the relationship I started contacting Mom daily, informing her if an assignment wasn’t turned in, if her child skipped lunch crew, and an occasional success when her child did turn in an assignment. The phone call and email communication have been replaced with notations in the assignment notebook. An assignment contract is now in place. Time will tell if this intervention will work, but at least the parent has been formally informed.

On Friday I contacted a few parents about their student’s eligibility for sports. One parent was quite frustrated because their child chooses to show them only what he wants to them to see. With most assignments on the iPad Mom is looking for transparency. The timing could not have been better.

Earlier in the week I sent an email notifying parents that our learning management system, Canvas, is now accessible to parents. Instructions on how to create an account were included in the email. So far four parents have created an account.

This post ends happily for me because this is the transparency the parent is looking for. My Canvas course is structured using pages. Each page provides an overview of the week, with links to in class practice, assignments, etc.

canvas week

When the parent creates the account he/she will also be able to see the feedback I’ve given to the student. For example, here’s a student who is not balancing equations with the one-step process.

student work

Textbook page in Word; pdf created for students to load into Notability.

I provide feedback.

student work feedback

Several days pass. The parent hasn’t created a Canvas account but must have talked to the student about correcting the work. The student resubmits.

student work2

I provide this feedback.

student work feedback2

Canvas is not the be all end all, but the transparency it offers does help keep parents informed.

5 Practices: applying lessons learned from chapter 2

January 24, 2015

5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions

Chapter 2: Setting goals and selecting tasks

If I want my seventh graders to have a meaningful mathematical discussion I have to raise the level of thinking in the learning target. But it’s not over yet. I also need to select an appropriate task to support the learning goal.

As I wrote last week, I’m really enamored with this number puzzle.

Choose any number. Add the number that is 1 more than your original number. Add 11. Divide by 2. Subtract your original number. What is your answer?  Do the puzzle again for other numbers. Why do you get the answers that you get? Will this always work?

This puzzle fits nicely with our 7th grade expressions and equations unit and has the potential to be an anchor problem. Let’s look at how I can modify the learning target to raise the level of thinking and mathematical discussion.

Original target: Students will translate verbal phrases into an expression or equation.

I know my students can handle a more robust learning target. The number puzzle can certainly support it. This is still a work in progress, but here’s my revised target:

Revised target: After translating a verbal phrase into an equation, students will discover how grouping symbols and order of operations provide clarity.

When I gave the puzzle to the students, their first inclination was to simply follow the directions. Based on their work, their equation would look something like this:


This lesson now has a much better chance for meaningful mathematical discussion by focusing on grouping symbols, order of operations and how their use provides clarity. I could begin by saying, “Take out the equals sign and question mark. Make equivalent expressions using parentheses, brackets, fraction bars, etc.” We could then have a discussion as to which equations best represent the puzzle.


As I mentioned this is still a work in progress. If you have insights, please share.

Other bloggers discussing Chapter 2 can be found at the link below.

5 Practices–establishing a purpose for reading

January 18, 2015

Middle School Math Rules blogger Sherrie Nackel is facilitating an online book study on 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions. I read the book last summer, but I honestly didn’t get much from it. It wasn’t the book’s fault. It was mine.

Enter the reading fix-up strategies…

Re-read.  I’m going to re-read this book, but as I do I will take a different approach. If I re-read it the same way I first read it, I’ll get the same results. I need to do something different.

Establish a purpose for reading. Over the summer I read the 5 Practices in a survey mode. This time my purpose is to directly apply what I’m reading to improve specific mathematical discussions taking place in the classroom.

Make connections. When I re-read Chapter One I immediately thought about a discussion my students recently had on a Number Puzzle. I want to improve that conversation.

number puzzle

There are a gazillion more discussions I want to improve, but let’s take one thing at a time.

I know I’m a bit ahead of myself; chapter two is about selecting goals and tasks. But given all of this, I want to put that Number Puzzle task under the 5 practices microscope.  It has the potential to be an outstanding anchor problem that can be revisited and discussed throughout our expressions and equations unit.

Chapter One of the 5 Practices introduces anticipating, monitoring, selecting, sequencing, and connecting. I’ll be looking at how to improve the math talk by doing a better job of anticipating responses, monitoring student responses in real time, selecting specific students’ work to advance the discussion, sequencing those selections, and connecting mathematical ideas.

I appreciate Sherrie spearheading this book study.  Be sure to click the link below to read other bloggers who are writing about the 5 Practices.

Exploring a WTF problem

January 7, 2015

We’re starting a new unit on expressions and equations and I was looking for an appropriate warm-up. I wanted something intriguing but could also double as an intro to translating verbal phrases into expressions and equations. After thumbing through this Walch resource I picked the following. Only later did I connect it to Dan Meyer’s post on WTF problems. His Problem #4 is similar to this:

Choose any number. Add the number that is 1 more than your original number. Add 11. Divide by 2. Subtract your original number. What is your answer?  Do the puzzle again for other numbers. Why do you get the answers that you get? Will this always work?




As I visited each group I asked, “Why are you always getting 6?” I heard vague responses such as, “It has to do with a pattern.” Time was running out so I set the exploration aside to return to my original objective–translating verbal phrases.

We translated the problem as:


It’s at this point where I think the exploration will become more fruitful. Right now the students are not making any generalizations with the work they’re producing. But if I have them take one of their problems and represent it similar to this, perhaps they’ll see:


I’ll be anxious to explore this warm-up more when the weather warms up. Hopefully we’ll be back in school tomorrow.

Tri-state EQuIP rubric

December 13, 2014

Every time our math committee meets we are energized by the progress we’ve made but at the same time we feel deflated because there is so much more work ahead of us. Last week we were again reminded that our math units need bolstering.

On Wedesday we once again analyzed our progress using the Tri-state EQuIP Rubric designed by Achieve. For the 7th grade rational numbers unit there are four areas we need work on:

Linking Mathematical Practices to learning opportunities and assessment items.

We hadn’t formally identified the applicable MPs to each learning sheet and activity so we went back and did that. Examining our assessments was next. My colleague and I experienced a giant YIKES on the decimals assessment because hardly any items could be linked to a MP. Since we ran out of time we need to revise those items plus look at the other assessments in the unit.


Explicit writing, speaking, and listening opportunities

We made some progress here by modifying directions on some activities. For example our subtracting integers portfolio was modified to include two peer reviews. The next time I assign this task students will create a draft of their video using Explain Everything then two students will watch, listen, and provide written feedback before creating the final video.


Instructional supports

We have some intervention and enrichment resources but we need find more and better organize the ones we currently have. The rubric also identifies the need for a performance task for the unit. I think we inadvertently listed it in the instructional supports section.


Scoring rubrics and pre-assessment reflection plans

Formally identifying the characteristics of partial credit, high partial credit, and full credit are on the drawing board. We also need to create a pre-assessment reflection plan for students to identify their strengths and what they need to review. This also includes helping them design an action plan before they take the assessment.


Lots of work ahead.

Effective effort and the 100% factor

December 6, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about effective effort. Should I expect students to give 100 percent effective effort if I don’t give 100 percent?  These thoughts are a work in progress. Right now I’m examining effort characterized through the lens of The Skillful Teacher and the 100% factor–a term to describe how both student and teacher should each give 100 percent to their respective responsibilities.

The Skillful Teacher identifies six attributes of effective effort: time, focus, resourcefulness, strategies, use of feedback, and commitment. It’s not realistic to expect students to give 100 percent, every class period, every single day. They’re kids; but I can give them abundant opportunities to experiment with these attributes–if I’m giving 100 percent.


Student: Do I budget my time, sometimes an extended amount of time, to meet high expectations? Do I not persist because the task is challenging and requires more time than I want to give?

Teacher: When assigning a project or when I expect “more time than usual” to be spent on an assignment,  do I estimate how much time will that be? Do I share that with the students? Do I negotiate time limits? Do I provide my students sufficient time in class to begin an assignment or project? Do I budget time in class to work on large projects?

Comment: I wish I had asked myself at least one of those questions when I assigned the subtracting integers student portfolio project.


Student: Do I work with minimal distractions? Do I have a clear idea of the objective, the criteria for success, and exemplars so that I maintain focus on what the assignment is asking me to do?

Teacher: Is the objective clear; have I provided exemplars and explained the criteria for success? Do I monitor student work time by helping students prioritize and refocus their efforts on what is important? Is the work time environment conducive to learning?

Comment: I provide clear directions and criteria for success, but my 100% factor throttles down with helping students prioritize and refocus. When I had a homeroom, I created a solid work time environment, but I did not check in with each student and help prioritize their work. Some kids need that.


Student: Do I attend math lab or seek the teacher for help? Do I have a study buddy, or study group? Do I use a list of online resources, textbooks, etc?

Teacher: Am I available to students? If students are not resourceful, do I insist they attend math lab? Do I model how to use various resources and where to find them? Have I provided a list of resources that are readily available?

Comment: I have mixed results in this area. In the first quarter I identified certain students and it was mandatory they attend math lab on a particular day of the week. As we made our way into the second quarter, I didn’t keep up with it. Now that we are at mid-term, I need to pull up the throttle. On a positive note I do have to say my students can easily access the online resources I’ve posted in Canvas.


Student: What reading, writing, thinking, and reasoning strategies do I use? What study tools do I create? What graphic organizers or summarization techniques do I use?  Do I know what to do when a strategy isn’t working?

Teacher: Do I teach strategies for transfer? Am I modeling relevant mathematical practice(s) and study strategies so my students can apply them? Do I model reading fix-up strategies and explicitly teach thinking and reasoning strategies?

Comment: I can write a thousand words on how I can improve on this topic. Our school improvement plan is in its second year of implementing thinking strategies in every subject. I’m still working on embedding them in my teaching. With respect to study tools, I sometimes fall off the wagon and forget to assign a study tool such as creating a practice test. Most of my students would not think to do it because it takes time.

Use of feedback

Student: Do I apply or use feedback in order to improve my performance? How does that feedback inform me of my progress?

Teacher:  Do I give timely feedback and allow students to implement it? Do I provide student-friendly rubrics and criteria for success as a means of providing feedback? Does my feedback include other attributes of effective effort?

Comment: How do I readjust my lesson based on the feedback the students have given me? I devote a lot of time to providing feedback, both written and oral. Where I can improve is differentiating each lesson based on the feedback the students give me.


Student: Does my work ethic demonstrate a commitment to learning? Am I reflective and do I readjust my efforts to achieve my goals?

Teacher: Have I developed stamina in my students? Do I help students set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely?

Comment: My favorite question I ask myself is, “Are you interested, or are you committed?” Some days I have the stamina so I’m committed, other days I don’t have the energy, so I’m interested. I think that holds true for students as well.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 423 other followers