Engaging Students In Mathematics Concepts

Engaging Students

As a teacher for over 10 years now, I can relate with those of you that have felt frustrated and overwhelmed when state test scores do not reflect the hard work, dedication, and gains that you see in your own classroom.  First of all, let me be the one to tell you that YOU ARE AWESOME!  Secondly, you are putting in the time.  And last, You are using your professional wisdom to make decisions that benefit your students.  I see you hugging your kids.  I see you getting down low to their level and helping them with their assignments.  I see you heading out to recess to play with the kids-even though you don’t have recess duty.  I see you having lunch with your class even though it is your lunch break, I see you working late and making copies, so your students have the things they need the next day to be successful.  I see you collaborating with colleagues after school hours to make sure what you are doing is working and is the best strategy for your kids.  You are worth your pay and so much more, teachers!

As a math coach this year, I have had the privilege to work with many teachers at two different elementary schools in my district.  This position has allowed me to observe different approaches to teaching.  My “tool box” has overflowed with new ideas and strategies that teachers use on a daily basis to engage, challenge, and equip all learners with the skills needed for the 21st century.

Another opportunity I have had this year that I am excited about is working with administrators, math coach colleagues, and district office personnel to look at math score data to make decisions on how to improve our practice.  Call me a weirdo, but I find data crunching to be fascinating, as it really is telling where there is room for improvement.  Math is an area that needs a lot of attention as our scores are down from previous years. We are in the fourth year of our current math adoption. According to the data, 4th and 5th grade at the elementary levels have taken the most hit in terms of scores dropping.  Another fascinating data point is the drops among particular population groups.  There are many opportunities for improvement, which is what makes being in education so rewarding.  To bring about change and see the data to back that up is an experience I hope to bring to a site and/or district in the future.

I have observed teachers presenting math in fun, creative ways that are teaching the students learning concepts when sometimes they don’t even realize they are learning!  A third grade teacher at one of my sites took the math curriculum outside the four walls.  She had students lining up in a straight line and throwing frisbees as far as they could.  She then had them take out their yard sticks and measure the distance.  Sure, she could have open the book and had students only do the guided practice and independent at their seats or in groups, but how much more fun and engaging was throwing a frisbee to teach addition/subtraction and measurement concepts?  Movement and math!

I also have observed teachers using budgeting projects to introduce the curriculum on decimals.  By budgeting a trip and doing the research, students have so much more background information going into the new chapter in our districts math curriculum.

These are only two of many examples I have seen from teachers in my district.  Students are more attentive to the tasks and enjoy class overall.

If you have read my first blog, PBL: A Success Story, then you know how much I love engaging students with real-world, meaningful tasks.  So the question is: What motivates learners and how are they motivated?  Well that answer depends on your philosophy of what motivates students.  Do you believe in extrinsic or intrinsic rewards, or a little of both – multifaceted motivation?


According to Vanderbilt University (2018);

Intrinsic motivators include fascination with the subject, a sense of its relevance to life and the world, a sense of accomplishment in mastering it, and a sense of calling to it.

Students who are intrinsically motivated might say things like the following.

  • “Literature interests me.”
  • “Learning math enables me to think clearly.”
  • “I feel good when I succeed in class.”

Extrinsic motivators include parental expectations, expectations of other trusted role models, earning potential of a course of study, and grades (which keep scholarships coming).

Students who are extrinsically motivated might say things like the following.

  • “I need a B- in statistics to get into business school.”
  • “If I flunk chemistry, I will lose my scholarship.”
  • “Our instructor will bring us donuts if we do well on today’s quiz.”

Teachers, what do you think?  Are your motivating factors more extrinsic or intrinsic?  If we are looking at equipping students with a love of learning for the long run, then our main focus for motivating students should be intrinsic.  We need to engage our students with real, meaningful work if we want their attention and overall success in our classes.  We can no longer be page-turning teachers.  We must thoughtfully look at our lessons/curriculum and figure out how to creatively make it come to life for our kids.  This is where the professional in each one of you comes in.  You are at the wheel of your classroom.  If you need help, let me know, or better yet ask your colleagues on campus.

As math coach for my district, I see the value in stepping in other classrooms to see what other amazing teachers are doing.  I wish we had the funds and the time to give all teachers the opportunity to get outside their classrooms and visit other colleagues on campus and at other sites.

Please drop in and let me know what your thoughts are on the topic of motivating students in the classroom.  What has worked best for you?

My upcoming blogs will include step-by-step plans on how you can incorporate projects and lessons that are highly engaging and motivating to students.

Until next time,



Help Wanted! Find Your Path


Let us go back in time 22 years, shall we?  1996…high school woodshop. I can still smell the wood and glue and remember an industrial building full of the latest woodworking machinery.  It was an amazing site to see for a 17-year-old boy looking at options for the future. The teacher allowed us to dream up whatever we wanted to build (as long as we paid for the materials).  I was obsessed with baseball, so naturally I made a baseball bat. Louisville has nothing on me! I also made an end table, chessboard, and a few bowls, which my mother proudly displayed all over the house.


I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life at 17, but having options to work with my hands gave me other possibilities to think about besides attending college.  Back in the day, my high school had an automotive class, woodshop, metal shop, textile work, pottery, quilting, cooking, home economics, graphic design, drafting, engineering, and more.  The kids that went to college were high achievers academically or students playing sports and wanting to extend beyond high school. Everyone else got a job or went to vocational programs to begin life.


Fast forward to today…I had the opportunity during my administration program to be apart of a Williams Act walk through at a local high school.  The goal of the Williams Act is to ensure school buildings are clean and functioning and students have access to textbooks. During the walkthrough we toured what used to be the woodshop building and the metal shop.  It was dark and there were spider webs in the corners and on the windows. It was obvious the building hadn’t been used in quite some time. The machines sat, no longer cutting and shaping for young students. I have to say my heart sank as we walked out of that building.  It was disheartening to see that woodshop and metal shop were not important enough to keep as options to equip and provide valuable skills for the next generation of skilled laborers.


Recently I had a conversation with my father-in-law about the high school woodshop building not being used.  He has worked with sheet metal in the HVAC industry for over 40+ years. He commented that it has been difficult to get apprentices at his shop.  He also mentioned that the young workers often lack work ethic and basic problem solving skills. In his line of work, everything is fast pace and often times workers have to think out of the box to solve mathematical problems on the fly.  With deadlines and machinery, workers have to work efficiently by prioritizing jobs. Unfortunately students in high schools are not being exposed to these kinds of trades, which are highly respectable jobs that make great incomes and come with good benefits.


With colleges lowering costs and giving more access to many different students, the labor forces in many trades are suffering as a result.  Just last April, npr.org published an article titled, “High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University.”  


But high school graduates have been so effectively encouraged to get a bachelor’s instead of thinking about a trade or vocational school, that high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled. This affects those students and also poses a real threat to the economy.


High school students are not getting exposed to a variety of opportunities.  Many jobs that do not require a 4 year degree pay very well. Check out what a master plumber makes or a sheet metal worker here.  So why do we push college for ALL students?  


In NPR’s article, they say that the parents are, “definitely harder to convince because there is that stigma of the six-pack-totin’ ironworker,” said Greg Christiansen, who runs the iron workers training program. Added Kairie Pierce, apprenticeship and college director for the Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO: “It sort of has this connotation of being a dirty job. ‘It’s hard work — I want something better for my son or daughter.’ ” There is a generalization from parents that college is the only avenue to better yourself and achieve the “American dream.”  

How do we convince parents, educators at the high school level, and politicians that a 4 year degree is not for everyone?  In most cases the cost of a 4 year degree hangs on you for years as you pay back student loans only to get a job that doesn’t exactly pay well.  


I believe the answer to our dilemma is tracking students for career options that best match their intellect and abilities, while keeping their interests at the forefront.  We have this stigma around the word “tracking” as a negative thing for students. Yet most countries do track to help students find a path that works for them. Tracking has been known to target certain clientele, however does it have to be taken as a negative?  With so many career choices that offer a great living with benefits, why does a 4 year degree have to be pushed so hard? Why can’t a trade or vocational school be a possible option? If a young man is happier learning the inner workings of a diesel engine, why should that be deemed as less valuable than a heart surgeon?  Both  take years of knowledge to perfect and are crucial to the ongoing productivity of our economy.


In this NY Times article, Topeka, KS High School’s Auto Mechanics teacher Dean Fairweather says, “The urgency here is that the workforce in their 50s and 60s that learned  a trade skill set are close to retirement. We need high school students to fill these gaps.” This comment reflects what the NPR article highlighted.  Who is going to fix your car in the future, empty your trash, fix your air conditioning unit, or troubleshoot your appliances?



College is a great option for those that desire that route, I’m living proof of that.  But having programs in high school to encourage vocational training is equally important and should not be a back seat.  The ultimate goal of education is to benefit the student.

What are your thoughts on higher education vs trade school?

What do you think of tracking?

Let me know and comment below.




Language Immersion: What We Can Learn From Finland


                                                                                                                                                     Source Credit:  Eyeoneducation.com

As I am taking administration courses towards my credential to become an educational leader, I  find myself constantly arriving at this question: How can we bridge the gap between students whose first language is English from those who are defined as English language learners (ELL)?

Students come to our schools with a variety of life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and languages learned at home.  Students come to us from other countries and are placed in a grade level based on their age, regardless of their understanding of English.  The problem with this approach is the student is not only having to learn the new language but also keep up with content being taught in English.  This kind of experience is very difficult, which our test scores show, as well as the number of students not graduating out of these language programs they are placed in.  By not acclimating them to classes taught in English before learning content, we do them a huge disservice and unintentionally set them up for failure.

I greatly admire Finland for not only the freedom teachers have and the respect the profession gets from the public, but also the way Finland approaches language acquisition.  According to Jessica Shepherd’s article, Immigrant Children Benefit from Finnish Educationshe says that, “…getting children whose first language is not Finnish up to the high standards of their classmates – appears to have been overlooked by the education tourists.”

So, what do they do differently that we can learn from?

Students whose primary language is not Finnish are given a teacher and an assistant teacher that work with them 25 hours a week on basic Finnish language in all subjects except sports and arts.  Shepherd (2011) states that, “It can be anything between six months and a year before they are judged to have mastered Finnish and are ready to be placed into their correct year group.”  The article goes on to say that state dollars are used specifically for students whose native language is not Finnish to have language classes before class and after class.

“Helsinki’s education department estimates that just over 11,000 pupils – almost 2% – have state-funded tuition in a mother tongue that isn’t Finnish, before or after their other classes.” Shepherd (2011)

No matter their age, students are placed into these intensive language immersion classes until they have mastered the language.  That is their only focus.  Once the language is mastered, students are then ready to learn the content at their level.

Why, you ask, are we not doing this?

Finland’s government recognizes the importance of supporting those students that need the most help.  Although we disperse money in much the same way, our education system does not have a clear vision as to how to increase the success of these individuals.  We have yet to come up with solutions that have made the kind of gains that Finland demonstrates.

“Finland, on the other hand, has had what it describes as a “positive discrimination” policy since the 1990s. It gives schools extra funds if they are situated in relatively poor areas or have a disproportionately high number of children with special needs. It tops up these funds with €1,000 (£875) a year for each child on the school’s roll who has lived in Finland for less than four years.” Shepherd (2011)

So there you have it.  What seems like an obvious way of helping our ELL populations in the states does not get the attention it deserves.  We throw a lot of money towards helping our ELLs with programs and curriculum, but none of these options addresses the real issue – you can’t expect a child to succeed academically if they can’t understand the language in which they are being instructed.  If only our policy makers and state education departments would look at other successful programs, such as Finland’s, to give our most needy students a powerful start to their educational success.

Do you have any thoughts about the article?  How does your school approach ELL education?  Thanks for your comments and/or questions!