Episode #88 How To Start The School Year Off Right From A Distance

Aug 3, 2020 | Podcast | 4 comments


Kyle and Jon share their insights on what was working and what needed improvement from their emergency remote teaching time before summer and provide suggestions on how you can start this coming school year off on the right foot. 

Stick around and you’ll hear how to set the stage to inspire curiosity throughout the school year; how to build trust with your students so you can create an inclusive classroom culture; and, activities that are essential for the first day of class.

You’ll Learn

  • How to set the stage to inspire curiosity throughout the school year; 
  • How to build trust with your students so you can create an inclusive classroom culture; 
  • Activities that are essential for the first day of class. 
  • How to engage your students in your schooling format [face-to-face, remote, blended].
Start your school year off right by downloading the guide that you can save and print to share with colleagues during your next staff meeting, professional learning community meeting or just for your own reference!


Download a PDF version | Listen, read, export in our reader


Jon Orr: In this episode, we share our insights on what was working and what needed improvement from our emergency remote teaching time before summer. In this episode, we provide suggestions on how you can start this coming school year off on the right foot.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, that’s right Math Moment Makers, stick around and you’ll hear how to set the stage to inspire curiosity throughout the school year, how to build trust with your students so you can create an inclusive classroom culture online, and activities that are essential for the first day of class, regardless of whether you’re back face-to-face, whether you’re in a blended model coming up or if you are, unfortunately in a fully online system.

Jon Orr: All right, let’s hit it.

Kyle Pearce: Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. I’m Kyle Pearce from tapintoteenminds.com.

Jon Orr: And I’m John Orr from mrorr-isageek.com. We are two math teachers who together-

Kyle Pearce: With you the community of math moment makers worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark curiosity-

Jon Orr: Fuel sense-making-

Kyle Pearce: And ignite your teacher moves.

Jon Orr: All right. All right, let’s get ready for this super packed resource rich episode. But before we do that, we want to say thank you to all of you math moment makers around the globe who have taken the time to share feedback and leaving us reviews on your podcast platforms and especially Apple Podcasts.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, that’s right, John, we are thrilled with each and every rating and review received. It really does fill our heart. This week, we are saying a special thanks to Reggie 2017, who gave us a five star rating and review that said-

Jon Orr: “I just needed to hear it. I have always felt this approach to teaching math would reach more kids, but then I would hit the pitfalls and give up. I won’t give up this time.”

Kyle Pearce: Yes, I love it. I love it. So well said, it’s like being able to crystallize or actually put into action what your thinking, and hopefully, and it sounds like for Reggie, it’s working out to help by listening to all the great guests on the podcast, and all of the math mentoring moment episode. So, thank you, Reggie 2017 for taking time out of your day to just pause, like right now, just hit that pause button, scroll down, hit that rating and review area, and right now we are at over 250 from around the globe and over 100 reviews.

Jon Orr: If you haven’t taken a moment to give us that honest rating and review, we would certainly appreciate it. It definitely helps other educators find the show and therefore, you are helping other educators and therefore, students.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, that’s absolutely right, John. Before we get going, we want to take a moment to help you with your vertical non-permanent surfaces classrooms. If you’ve been listening to the podcast for some time now, I bet that you’ve heard us raving about the vertical non-permanent surfaces that we use in our classrooms. I’m sure you’ve heard the Peter Liljedahl episode, who is sort of the king of the Vertical Non-permanent surfaces, because we want to get kids up and actively fueling sense-making.

Kyle Pearce: While regular old chalk or whiteboards definitely do the trick, don’t go ditching those. Oftentimes, though, there just isn’t enough around the classroom. That unfortunately makes it difficult when we’re trying to accommodate all of our learners.

Jon Orr: Well, that’s where our good friends, Toby and Frank from Wipebook come in, and they have developed a super cool and very portable flip chart pack. Great for filling the vertical, non-permanent surface void in your classroom or wherever you’re facilitating. They’ve actually improved the product. They’ve got two nice products right now, is the original flip chart pack, but they’ve got a super duper durable one that’s going to last for a very long time. Check that out.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, absolutely. One of the coolest parts is that the gentlemen from Wipebook are actually from Ottawa, Ontario. That always fills our heart when we can help support another Canadian crew of awesome educators. We’re even using these at conferences and workshops. If you’ve been a part of anything live with us, you would notice them as scattered around the room. We post them up on any flat surface to get our teacher participants up and actively fueling their sense-making, and now, you can too.

Kyle Pearce: Wipebook is an official Make Math Moments partner. Which means you can grab a flip chart pack for 30% off by visiting wipebook.com/moments.

Jon Orr: That’s wipebook.com/moments. If you are an administrator or looking for your district to grab a whole bunch of flip chart packs, and you’re looking for some bulk pricing, you can head over to wipebook.com/momentsbulk for up to 40% off as well.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome stuff, John. Definitely check that out, and thanks again to our friends from Wipebook. Now, let’s dive into this mega packed episode on starting the school year off right from a distance. Hey, john, how’s it going? It is that time of year where we’re actually off right now as we’re recording this. How are you doing right now on your summer vacation?

Jon Orr: Summer is just always fantastic. Summer in Ontario is camping, it’s beaches, it;s water, it’s doing all those things that we love and we’re still doing them even though we’re social distancing right now, but summer is awesome, and we’re getting ready… The time you’re listening to this is in August, and it’s that teachers’ time where it’s like… I read this last year, Kyle, that August is like the longest Sunday night ever. It’s like you’re just thinking about the new school year and some of you are actually getting ready to teach in August, whereas we’re not going to be teaching till September-

Kyle Pearce: I was going to say, that’s July for some people. July is the longest Sunday ever depending on where you are.

Jon Orr: Yeah, it’s on your brain like what am I going to do the first week or what’s the next class going to look like? You’re just thinking about it. It’s sometimes hard to enjoy that August or that last little bit of summer. This episode, we’re actually want to run another, how to Start the school year off episode. We had an episode back in Episode 36, which is actually, Kyle, our most listened to episode, our most downloaded episode of all time of all of our 88 episodes.

Jon Orr: We want to run another one on how to start the school year off right. But we know that it’s going to look very different for all of us and actually very different for many of us in different ways. We want to take this episode to talk about how to start the school year off, right, but how can we adjust that and do this remotely?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, absolutely. We also want to make sure that folks who are listening, we do have people from, who would have thought, all over the world listening. We do have some friends that are actually smack dab in the middle of their school year, but I’m hoping that they’re going to be able to pull some learning out of this, because in different parts of the world, people are in different phases of this COVID emergency that we’ve been dealing with over these past handful of months now, what would be four months now.

Kyle Pearce: Some people are back fully face-to-face, some people are in different scenarios. Here in Ontario, if we’re talking about our scenario, our minister of education, as we’re recording this has basically said, it’s going to be one of three general scenarios, although school districts are going to have the full authority, I suppose, or the full autonomy, to be able to choose what’s best in their context, in their communities. We’ve got the possibility of a fully online model now more and more in Ontario as the curve has flattened or at least stayed consistent, and we’re not receiving a huge number of increases in cases, the fully online model seems less likely.

Kyle Pearce: To us, it seems like it’s probably going to be either one of these other two possibilities. One being a blended model, the one that pops into most people’s minds here is this idea of maybe doing half your students on one day face-to-face and then the other half are engaging in some sort of online learning, and the other half attending the next day, of course. That’s going to be a crazy scenario if that were to happen, but it is definitely a possibility.

Kyle Pearce: Then I guess, the third and maybe the most coveted of the three would be going back to a place of this face-to-face, something that we’re more familiar with, like a normal scenario in our mind, I’m sure with social distancing rules and effect and maybe masks and things along those lines. We’ve got these three scenarios here. Today, I think we’re going to hone in probably somewhere in the middle. Talking a lot about blended, and what it might look like even for those areas where maybe a fully online scenario is taking place.

Kyle Pearce: We’re hoping that even long after this is gone and behind us, that maybe some of the things we’re talking about might be helpful, as some teachers actually teach fully online. We have some fully online schools and we have some educators who do reach out to us about how they can teach most effectively in that environment. Hopefully, that will help them as well with this episode.

Kyle Pearce: We’re pretty excited to get into it, talk about some of the ways that we might be able to support our students in this uncertain time that we’re in right now, and really try to overcome some of the hurdles. Now, we’re not going to completely remove them, these hurdles are here and they are firmly in place.

Jon Orr: And they’re large.

Kyle Pearce: And they are large, but we are hoping that we can at least do our best given the circumstances. That’s one of the big key takeaways we’re hoping for, John. Why don’t you summarize what we’ve just said there for our intentionality, and what we hope people will take away here?

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Lots of big challenges coming our way for sure. But in this particular episode, we’re looking to address a couple of things. If you’ve joined us for any of our live webinars in the past two, we always like to start those with, here’s what we should tackle in this time to keep us honest. By the end, we should get into these things, this episode.

Jon Orr: What we want to do is to help you get your thinking about what the beginning of the school year is going to look like for you, and your students. So important, like we said, just a few moments ago that we’ve got the longest Sunday night ahead of us while we think about that. That’s one thing is how is it going to look for us? How are we going to get students engaged right out of the gate, so they stick around?

Jon Orr: I know that many of you, like me, had a lot of drop off in engagement as those four months of the last part of the school year went on. Students started to, in my high school classes, drop off, and how can we keep them sticking around? That’s what we want to help you with here today. Also, how can we still spark curiosity and fuel sense-making despite these hurdles that we’re going to address that we do have coming up with our children in education? We want to make sure that we’re still doing these great lessons that we have been used to doing. How can we get their curiosity? How can we just stop avoiding going back to just a show and tell or I do you do, we do kind of model of lessons the way I was taught in my high school career?

Jon Orr: We want to help you with those three big things. Plus, you’re going to get some activities and suggestions along the way.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, you’re absolutely right there, John. Something too for people who are listening, we’re going to be talking about this, obviously, through a podcast. This is really to serve as something for you to think on, to reflect on. Keeping in mind that we are going to be doing a webinar, live webinar in the coming weeks. So, definitely check out makemathmoments.com/webinar. Again, makemathmoments.com/webinar, to check out the dates and to get yourself signed up.

Kyle Pearce: Once you’re signed up there as well, something to keep in mind is that if you can’t attend the live webinar, although attending live, synchronously, just like with our students is always the best opportunity, but we will be providing it as a replay afterwards. So, definitely check that out. We’re really going to be piggybacking off of that episode, like John said at the beginning of this episode, he said, Episode 36, how to start the school year off right. We’re really going to be looking to try to build on that.

Kyle Pearce: If you haven’t listened, definitely head back there to Episode 36, and also, make sure you get your hands on that downloadable guide that’s there. In that episode, you’ll note that we had three big ideas on how we can do this. The three big ideas were this idea of building community and trust and support with our students. That was one of the big pieces and something that, let’s be honest, this is going to be the most difficult to build as we try to start off a new school year without necessarily being able to be face-to-face with students every single day.

Kyle Pearce: Again, if you’re lucky enough where you are face-to-face, and hopefully in your community, it’s the right choice. It’s a healthy and safe choice to be face-to-face, because of course health comes first here. But if that’s the case, then awesome, it’s so great that you get to build that trust in that community. But if you’re in a blended, or what I call blended or worse model, meaning you’d have less face-to-face, or maybe no face-to-face time, that could be a challenge.

Kyle Pearce: The other thing we’re hoping that we can do, and this is no matter what, whether you’re online or not, we want to inspire curiosity. How are we going to get kids leaning in? Obviously listening to the podcast, this being Episode 88, we’ve had over a year of podcast episodes come out. If you’ve been listening with us, you know John and I are all about inspiring curiosity, and that was back when we were face-to-face. We want kids leaning in, that job gets increasingly more difficult as we have less and less face-to-face time with our students.

Kyle Pearce: Then we’re going to be talking and diving into this idea of painting a picture with our students. Again, going to be extremely important as we enter into this new school year, where it may not look like it did one year ago before the whole COVID thing. We’re really excited to start unpacking this, talking about these challenges. We’re not going to sugarcoat it, we’re not going to say, everything’s going to be great, because I really don’t think we want to set ourselves up with that expectation. We want to do the best with what we have, and that’s what we’re going to try to help support you do as we try to engage in those same moves as we go along.

Jon Orr: Yeah, and so Kyle, why we are bringing this up, these three big ideas, building community, inspiring curiosity and painting a picture, are three things that we always think about when we start our school years off. Because when I was in school, and I taught this way, listeners of this podcast know that I taught a very standard traditional way of me being in front of the class doing all the talking for many number of years. The way I used to start my classes, and if you listen back to Episode 36, you’re going to get the hang of this, of what I used to do is I think a lot of us did and still do is that we just go through the rules on day one, and we just go through what the syllabus is going to look like, here’s the topics, here’s how you’re going to get assessed and marked, and here’s what you can expect on a weekly basis.

Jon Orr: It’s like a lot of upfront knowledge. If you think about math lessons, that’s the same as pre-loading all the content and the skills of like, here’s what you’re going to do. Then you’re like, oh, then we have to apply it. Whereas, what we want to do now is it’s so important to start the school year off right, because when we start with rules and procedures and the syllabus, you’re not welcoming your students in, you’re not showing them what you want to value.

Jon Orr: I guess if that’s what you want to value in math class, you’re probably not listening to this podcast. If you’re listening to this podcast, it’s because you want to value voice, you want to inspire curiosity, you want to build on the beauty of mathematics, you want sense-making in your students, and you’re looking to do that. We’re saying, skip the rules, we’re just saying skip the syllabus. That stuff is going to be embedded as you do stuff anyway.

Jon Orr: These three big things are all about changing the way you would do the first week, or even maybe the first two weeks, definitely on the first day. If we jump in here, Kyle to building community and trust and support, which is about changing beliefs about math, what can we do here right out of the gate? Keeping in mind that we’re going to build that, because we did talk about this in Episode 36, with some activities right out of the gate on what you can be doing to build this, but how can we do this also remotely, Kyle?

Kyle Pearce: I think John, you highlighted so many important points. A word that pops in my mind as you were speaking, saying like, we’re not going to just give students all these rules and these procedures. Just like in math class, we say avoid the rush to the algorithm. Avoid the rush to the procedure. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t want you walking away thinking like, oh, wow, if I go into John or Kyle’s classroom, there’s going to be no rules, there’s going to be chaos. Because that’s not what we’re saying at all. But we want it to emerge, just like we want strategies and models, and eventually, student generated algorithms and procedures to emerge in our classroom.

Kyle Pearce: What better way to do that than starting out right out of the gate, to build in what it’s going to be like in our classroom, and essentially, to emerge some of those rules and procedures. Coming in with a huge list of things might be difficult, but something we could even do right away, is having a synchronous lesson together. This is going to be something we’re going to dive into a little bit more as well. But we’re going to really encourage you to try to do as much, if you were in an online environment, to do as much synchronously as you can right out of the gate so that students feel and they see what’s emerging about our class. Is that our classes going to be about community, despite how far apart we are.

Kyle Pearce: Think of how important that is for students right now to feel a sense of community, to build that trust, to build support from their peers and their teacher. That’s going to be really, really important. We want to build that routine so that they can see, okay, this is how it’s going to be.

Kyle Pearce: Now, John, you and I have talked about this a million times. Number one challenge is going to be, what about access and equity? John, what are your thoughts on this? Because I know, you and I, we’re thinking about those kids in our class. For some of you, it’s like a large group of kids in your class, where it’s like, I know this is going to be a hard thing for them, or maybe you’re in a different context where you’re saying, “Well, actually, there’s only a couple of students that have this issue of either accessing technology or maybe just not having the support at home in order to engage online.” What are your thoughts on that, and how do we handle this? Because I think it puts us as educators in a really tough spot because we want all of our students to be successful.

Jon Orr: There’s definitely a lot of challenges here when we’re working either remotely or this is a blended model. If we think about those challenges that we’re going to experience when students have access to technology or not. First of all, if we’re in a blended model, you’re going to see those students on some sort of schedule. This is the hard part of recording this in August, when we don’t even know what our structure is going to look like, Kyle, but everywhere is going to be different. That’s the thing that we do want to point out here is that what we talk about as suggestions we give could look totally different for you.

Jon Orr: But if we’re in some sort of blended model, which is what we’re predicting here in Ontario, because our minister has said that they don’t want class sizes are bigger than 15, our class sizes are bigger than 15. So, what does that look like and what can we do in this blended model as I guess, again, what I said is what we’re predicting is when you’re seeing your kids face-to-face, you can do those same activities that we referenced in Episode 36, which we’re going to bring up again here, you can bring in the math is like to open up the gates to get kids to voice and value their voice. You can play the game of Nim, which is what I’ve done on the last first few days, which gets kids interacting at their whiteboards and sharing strategies of where this mystery strategy is going to come from in the game.

Jon Orr: If you’re not sure about that game, Google it or check out Episode 36 is where we talk about it. But there’s also big challenges here, Kyle, especially if we’re going to then move to the remote system, it was what we were all experiencing at the end of the year about who has access to a computer, who doesn’t? Obviously, if you do not have access, your students do not have access to a device, then the online activities on your off days are going to be a challenge. We can’t really help that part of your dynamic.

Jon Orr: But if they are, we got to be very conscious about who can do the activities and who’s not going to be able to do the activities. I constantly think about my students, the drop off happens so much, because now all of a sudden, my middle school and high school students are babysitters, or childcare providers, or they’re working for their families, and they’re just spending time… Like me, I’m working all day, and so are they. We’re asking them to like, hey, why can’t you join me for a synchronous lesson?

Jon Orr: We want this synchronous lesson to happen, because we know it’s going to help build that community that we want so that our kids can feel like that class is a place that they can come to just like when we do this live, but we have to accept the reality that some of those kids aren’t going to be able to meet that time. That’s a huge issue, and it’s because, we want society to go back to work, but we also need people who have younger kids also need to provide some sort of care. Whether they’re in school half day, or every other day, those other days, they’re going to have daycare somewhere. Our middle school and high school students are going to be those first crack at their siblings. Like, “Well, I don’t need to pay for daycare if my 14 year old daughter or son can stay home and watch my younger kids.”

Jon Orr: We definitely have to consider that they are in our sphere of concern, but they’re not our sphere of influence. We can’t change that part. We don’t want to punish those kids for not coming live. But we do want to promote the live component or the video component of that second day is so important. I think we’ve got some suggestions on how we can do that, but making sure that they don’t feel like that part is a waste.

Jon Orr: Kyle, I just wanted to add one more thing before you jump in because I know that you’ve got some thoughts here, but I think I made the mistake, when we first went remotely back in March, I made the mistake of thinking that my online portion was in office hours. It was like, let’s show up, and I’ll help you one on one. This will be a way for us to get to know each other better. Although were in small group, that’d be great. But I sent that out to my students that it’s office hours. I think that gave the wrong message.

Jon Orr: I think if you’re saying it’s office hours or help session, it’s almost like homework take up sessions, I think that’s where you’re going to have kids just not show up.

Kyle Pearce: It reminds me too, imagine when you said, “Hey, if you stick around after school or at lunch, I’ll do some help, too.” You’d get a handful of students, but oftentimes, not the students you were hoping would come, because it’s easy for them to dismiss. You talked about access and equity and some of the serious issues and challenges we have like babysitting siblings, not having access to the technology, working for the family, those are big ones too.

Kyle Pearce: But then when you put it out there, I’m glad you mentioned that because when you put it out as an optional experience, then you introduce new challenges like some of the educators I was working with over in my district, they were saying things like… I had kids saying they were getting up at 1:00 PM. It’s like, that routine is so important.

Kyle Pearce: It sounds like what you were saying, John, is like if we were in a fully online model, despite the fact that we have huge access and equity issues here due to circumstance, due to maybe just a lack of routine, it could be all kinds of things, serious issues there. But again, something that is in our sphere of concern, but we personally don’t have the means to change that, to make change, like the district level does, the government does, these are things like we need them to step up in those cases. But we also want to make sure that we’re helping kids to build that routine. Because I think even for myself, I mentioned it on many episodes on the podcast, I found myself struggling to keep on my own routine, just because I didn’t have that, hey, I got to be here by this time, I got to be up and out the door, those things. I love not having that restriction. But it also made it much easier for me to cruise into the day a little differently than maybe I would have in the past.

Kyle Pearce: I love that idea. It sounded like you were almost suggesting, if it is a blended model, then maybe that’s when we step in and say, “Okay, with a blended model, I get to do a lot of these things face-to-face. Maybe I’m thinking more about when students are on their online day, we’ll call it the off day, they’re not coming into school, is there any way that I can try to provide them with things to do?” We’ll get to this a little later in the episode, but things to do, that may not require as much lenience or as much dependency on technology, where they can actually engage regardless of their tech situation at home?

Kyle Pearce: It’s sounded like those two models blended a little bit. But if you’re in a blended model, trying to think of… I think there are things we can do to influence to help students still be able to engage in the math without necessarily having to rely 100% on technology. Some big things here for us to consider, John. Where do we go? Let’s start thinking a little bit about our expectations on ourselves for things like content, because I don’t know, John, if you remember, we’ve asked our email lists many times the Math Moment Maker community, we’ve said, what’s your number one struggle and during normal, we’ll call them normal times.

Kyle Pearce: One of the biggest struggles was getting through the curriculum, the content. What’s our message from Make Math Moments about people moving forward in a blended or worse model moving into this next school year?

Jon Orr: If you listened to us before or participated in any of our professional development sessions, you know that we try not to use cover curriculum, all that often. We’ve often borrowed a phrase from our good friend Al [inaudible 00:27:59] who says that in our classes, we don’t cover curriculum, we uncover curriculum, we have activities or scenarios that bring out the learning goals that we’re trying to do.

Jon Orr: How can we do that? Like Kyle has just suggested that on a regular, when we’re normal, think of a year ago, you were thinking, how do I cover or uncover the curriculum at a good pace so that I can meet the needs of the standards of the course? I got to think about those standardized tests that are coming up, we have to make sure that we do that stuff. We do have a whole episode on how do I uncover the curriculum and not worry so much? That’s something to think about.

Jon Orr: But also, we’re in a situation where we’re not going to even be able to uncover the curriculum at the normal pace that we would have done before. Before, we were worried about doing that, and now we have to have even that time reduced, especially if we’re in the blended model or back to remote learning. If you think back from March to June, Kyle, I probably covered a third of what I needed to cover or uncover in that time. We definitely didn’t cover or uncover the standards that we needed to in that course.

Jon Orr: I think we have to realize that if we’re in a situation where it’s this emergency teaching, where it’s not eLearning, it’s not like we’re going to make the same pace, we have to realize that this is an emergency change. I think it’s okay, you have to give yourself permission, because it’s in the back of your mind going, I have to make sure I do this. But I think you have to first realize that it’s not going to be the same, in that sometimes we have to wrap our minds around that. We have to realize we’re going to cover or uncover things at a slower pace, and it’s going to happen, but you have to give yourself permission to do that.

Kyle Pearce: There you go. I’m so happy. Because giving permission, I think it’s so important, because if we are overwhelming ourselves with anxiety and stress around things that are not reasonable, it’s not realistic for us to enter into a blended or worse model where we know that there’s a lot of students in our class who are now going to not only was the regular everyday model not helpful for all students. We had access and equity issues before all of this happened, we just increase that tenfold.

Kyle Pearce: I’m looking at this and thinking, there’s an article that we came across, both John and I, was by Larry Ferlazzo, and it was through Ed Week, I think. We’ll add the link to the show notes. He was just talking about this idea of less is more. It resonated with us because when we did our Make math Moments From a Distance webinars, and now in our online course in the academy that we have about Making Math Moments From a Distance, a lot of what he said resonated with that messaging that we had.

Kyle Pearce: Something that we are going to push you to think about is to start thinking about what better time than now to shift from a gradual release of responsibility model to a problem based approach, like we promote with our three part framework. If you haven’t done this because you’ve felt overwhelmed by curriculum, the timing, all of these things that are normally stressing us, then this is a great opportunity for you to start moving towards a problem based approach, and start thinking about, all right, things aren’t going to be perfect this year. We already know that. How can we use this time and do some of our own learning?

Kyle Pearce: I would argue that through what we’ve gone through with COVID, it’s a silver lining that we’ve had is, I’m going to bet that every educator out there is better with edtech tools than they were five months ago, before all of this happened. There was some teachers saying like, “I have no idea how YouTube works.” Now, I bet you almost every educator knows how to upload a video to some sort of streaming service.

Kyle Pearce: Looking at this scenario as a growth opportunity for us as educators, and doing the darn best we can for kids is something that I think we can really set as a goal for ourselves to push ourselves. I’m going to argue that a problem based approach to teaching mathematics is going to open the doors for so many more students, so that regardless of the model that we’re using, you’re going to be helping more of your students, and you might even be able to uncover more of the curriculum than you could have otherwise if we focused in on this gradual release approach, where it’s me doing something and then we’re going to do it together and then you’re going to repeat it a billion times. We want to make it about conceptually building a long mathematical trajectory. So that students are moving along from where they are, and they’re all moving at the pace that makes sense for them based on where they are.

Kyle Pearce: For us, that’s huge. John, you mentioned the game of Nim as a way that we can start building that community in that first week. What’s another activity that we had shared in that original episode back in, I think it was what, Episode 38, I think you said?

Jon Orr: 36.

Kyle Pearce: 36, Episode 36. What was another one, and what might it look like, how would it change, if let’s say you were in a fully online model? If it’s a blended model, I’m going to argue you’ll probably do it live with the students, and you get to build like we did back then. But what if you were in a fully online model, what might it look like? What’s the activity? Where did it come from, and then now, how’s it going to change for you if we go fully online coming in September?

Jon Orr: It’s important to note too, is that we’re not changing any of the actual activities that we recommended in Episode 36, we’re going to suggest ways that you can do this online because I think they’re great activities, and I think they can still work. The goal here of this activity is to build community. We got some activities that we’re going to share a little later on that helps you paint a picture of what your class could look like, what you value and also we’re going to share a couple of activities about how to inspire curiosity. But this particular activity is great for building community and trust.

Jon Orr: I think that’s the important part, right? Your students have to come to class and trust you whether they’re doing this online or the blended model, you still have to earn that trust or gain that trust of those students so that they can then share ideas as we go.

Jon Orr: The activity that we used in Episode 36, and I still do, and I got from Sara VanderWerff, which is name tent, and it’s about normally you’d have a kid create a name tag, and they put it on their desk, so you can see it. But then the name tent was inside, you now can section the days off of the week. The kid would write something specific about that day, or what do you want them to know? You can ask prompts in there and have them fill them out, and then they hand them in, and you get to read them and respond to them.

Jon Orr: Sara’s got a link, and we’ll put that in the show notes too, about how to do that, and what’s the benefit of that. I think that’s going to help build trust in your class, is if you have the students write to you on a regular basis, you create that one on one relationship, which is what we need to do, especially if you’re fully remotely. How are you going to get to know your kids, if you haven’t even seen them in the class, and especially if you’re going to do this every other day or twice a week, or how that looks for you, we still need to get to know them. It’s going to take you longer if you’re not seeing them every day.

Jon Orr: A name tent is something that can be not just day one, it can span more than one day. What that could look like for you is it could be easily as a Google Doc that’s shared between the two of you. That’s one way that a kid will write in it, you could write back. Another way is that they could make a flip grid and you can make a board and flip grids. We’ve used that in our webinars before, and they could be messaging you and you could see them. That’s the nice thing about Flipgrid is it’s video based and then you can write one back.

Jon Orr: That’s that exactly the same name tent, but it’s like a back and forth dialogue. This is another one is you could have their name tent to be the green screen background of their video if you’re doing a live video with your students in small groups, or even in the big class, is they can make their picture, their design of what it looks like. There could be their name in the background, and they could be drawing a picture of a prompt that you suggest for either that day or for the week.

Jon Orr: It could be something like, draw me a picture of what you think math class could look like. Or draw me a picture of what you thought math class was. Then you can see that. You can do another activity in that same thing that’s linked to the name tent, which is what I’ve used in the name tent, which is complete the phrase math is like? Kids can write down a comparison of what they think math is like. Then it’s like math is like a [inaudible 00:36:34] and then they have to explain why.

Jon Orr: You could have them do that in their name tent. Also, it could be written on their background of the green screen. It’s a funny thing that they do, but you get to see inside of where they’re coming from math and their math experiences. That’s so important to build that trust and open up the gates, so you know your kids.

Jon Orr: A name tent is a great suggestion that you can do. Any dynamic that you find yourself in to help build that trust. But there’s lots of things you can do. We’re not saying that that’s the only thing you can do. There’s so many. If you’ve got a great suggestion, hit us up in the Facebook group, our online Facebook group or on Twitter. If you’re listening to this right now, you can just be like, “Hey, John and Kyle, this is another great first week activity to build trust.”

Jon Orr: I think that’s one we can do. We’re going to move on right, Kyle? Because we have two big other things to talk about here about inspiring sparking curiosity the first week, and also how to paint a picture of what to value in class? We want to make sure kids know what we value in our classrooms, especially on that first day and first week. That wraps up the first big thing which was about how to build community and trust.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. I love it, and definitely do, like John said, add to the comments at the show notes page. This one’s Episode 88. That’d be makemathmoments.com/episode88 so you know that John and I are all about inspiring curiosity. Now, given the circumstances, if we’re in a blended or worse model where you’re in a fully online environment, trying to get kids to lean in will be so important. It was hard in a face-to-face environment, it’s going to be extremely hard as you know, already, to ensure that we get them in early, and we keep them with us.

Kyle Pearce: As we start shifting from these community building activities, we always have to keep in mind, it’s not like, all right, week one, we’re going to build trust and community and then flip the switch week two into let’s get back into regular, old, watch me do a bunch of problems, and now you do a bunch of problems. We want to keep that curiosity going, we want kids thinking to themselves, wow, it’s a bummer that I missed that synchronous session. We want them to want to be there, and we can modify for those who can’t.

Kyle Pearce: We can record sessions, we can try to arrange small group opportunities and different things for those students, but we want them to feel like if there’s a way I can be a part of this activity, I want to be there. For us, we tend to start… Because we’re in the middle school, the middle year’s range, when we’re in the classroom teaching, proportion tasks are amazing. Starting with something, obviously, with friendlier numbers early on, and then changing those numbers as we move through the school year, upping it can be really, really helpful.

Kyle Pearce: If you’re curious about how you can spark more curiosity with proportional reasoning tasks, make sure you head to makemathmoments.com/tasks. We have many there for you to check out. Academy members have access to the full teacher guide. So, check that out if you’re interested, you’ll see an opportunity there for you to dive in and be able to access those for free.

Kyle Pearce: Check that out. But then also just thinking about how do we keep that curiosity going, but with intentionality? As John said earlier, if we know we’re not going to be able to get through as much of that uncovering of content as we would like in these models, these blended or worse models, how are we going to connect that curiosity to fueling sense-making? Again, it can’t be a switch. It can’t be like, let’s do this fun activity at the beginning, and then we’re going to go and do the boring stuff. We have to find ways that we can spark curiosity into fueling sense-making.

Kyle Pearce: We’re going to be doing a whole episode that’s going to unpack some of those ideas. We have, like we said earlier, some webinars coming up. Check out makemathmoments.com/webinar, get yourself signed up. But we’re also going to do a podcast episode in probably two or three episodes from now. We’re going to have that episode coming out, and we’re going to take you through the three part framework to talk about what that looks like and sounds like in an online environment.

Kyle Pearce: But for us, again, it’s like thinking really hard, spending a lot of time on how you’re going to get and pique that curiosity. John, what about at home? If we’re doing this live, anyone who’s done any of the work with us, or any past PD sessions that we’ve done, they would know, okay, a three part framework super helpful to do this. What might that look like though if you’re at home? What should students do if you’re in a blended model, let’s say and they’re with you for a day. I’m picturing we do a problem based lesson together. What might we do at home to help students stay engaged, and not make it just about hey, fill out this worksheet, and we’ll see you tomorrow.

Jon Orr: That’s what has me worried the most, I think, is how do we not lose the engagement that you’re doing in class in a blended model? Is that we’ve done this great activity, we had great dialogue going, we got discussion, we’re building our community, but then you’re going to go home that day, or maybe the rest of the week, depending on what it looks like for you in your dynamic, but I’m really worried for teachers on what that second day or off days look like.

Jon Orr: I don’t want my students leaving there going like, “Okay, now I just got a day break. I got a break, and I’m going to come back and do work there.” I don’t want it to be like, I think a lot of teachers are going to resort to, it’s like, you know what, if it’s every other day, or if it’s two days on, two days off, then what I’ll do is I’ll do a whole bunch of mini lessons. I’ll teach, teach, teach, teach, teach, and then I’ll give the same amount of homework. But they got two days to do it, or they got a day to do that homework. It’s like, they’re just going to cut their days in half, and do lessons to fill that time knowing that they’ll just do practice work.

Jon Orr: That’s what worries me, because you know that half your class might do that work, depending on the class that you’re teaching, and half might come back not done or maybe it’s a combination or a mix of all that. But when you’re doing that you’re not sparking curiosity and, Kyle, you’re not feeling sense-making, you’re just resorting back to that method that I learned in and taught for a number of years.

Jon Orr: What could it look like? I think what you suggested is if we could one of these problem based tasks from our website or from lots of people’s website. Even if you went to makemathmoments.com/find and search for a topic, you’re going to get some great lessons there that are all problem based. Your next day or the day that they’re going to be at home for, it could be a couple of different things. It could be a set of purposeful practice problems that are around that idea.

Jon Orr: It’s not just a worksheet, it’s more about practicing the ideas that you had, but on a more purposeful scale. If you’re doing a measurement unit, you could be extending your tasks that you did to covering different shapes and drawing different shapes. It could be purposeful practice, that’s one way to do that. Another thing that you could be doing at home is it could be more of the consolidations stage, or the connecting stage. Something that we forgot for a number of years when we were teaching with problem based was we thought hey, let’s engage, engage, engage. But I think where we missed the mark sometimes is how the learning, the big learning goals connected to all the other goals that we’re working on in the course. Where did that lesson fit in to the grand scheme of the big things that we want to understand?

Jon Orr: Making that clear, especially if you’re going to do problem based to start and have kids explore strategies, it’s that connect stage. If you’re referring to Peg Smith’s and Mary Kay Stein’s five practices for orchestrating productive mathematical discussions book, it’s that connect stage of, we got to make sure we connect that learning to prior learning and then future learning.

Jon Orr: You could be assigning a set of activities or flexion prompts to students to say like, what did you learn here? How did this fit in with what we’ve learned in the past, and what you still want to know more about? It could be a series of reflections that kids are doing at home during that time.

Jon Orr: Another thing, Kyle that I think we can definitely fit into those times is because that idea of we’re not uncovering all the curriculum that we’re going to need to cover. If we’re already there, saying we can’t cover everything, and you know that kids are going to drop off on that work at home, why don’t we make that work at home more engaging in a sense of let’s explore some of the concepts that we generally not being able to explore, just to keep the engagement level up.

Jon Orr: I’m imagining early in the year, right off the bat, we assigned at home activities that explore the beauty of mathematics, like bring art into mathematics. If you’re in high school, assign some Desmos marble slides to your students, or a Desmos art project that they can create art from. You can bring in beauty of mathematics… If you read Francis Su’s book Humanizing Mathematics and you read Sunil Singh’s book on Math Recess and some of his other books, you’re going to get some great ideas on how you connect, say non-school math to beauty of mathematics.

Jon Orr: I think if we can do some of that in these off days, they will connect those students to mathematics more, they’ll also have a better understanding of why we do what we do. Then what you could do is if you do a lot of that early, you can start weaning them off. Once they’re already into, like, oh, my off day, I have to do this. On my off day, I have to do this. I really enjoyed that because it was not a typical school mathematics. Then later on, you can be like a little bit of that and a little bit of other stuff. It’s like, they’re already used to doing stuff on their off day. I don’t even actually like saying off day, because it’s still an on day.

Jon Orr: But I think that we can wean them off so that it’s kind of like they’re already used to that routine of doing stuff. I would say, on those days where you’re not… You can do a lot of great things still and keep the learning going, and especially that engagement.

Kyle Pearce: I think you’ve brought us nicely into this next and final piece of a puzzle, which is again, painting a picture. What we’re talking about there is what we value in the math learning. I love this piece. For example, I constantly try to weigh out the possibilities. What are the likely scenarios? For example, what I’ll hear from a lot of Math Moment Makers out there that they’ll come with a challenge. They might say something like, okay, over the past three months, we were doing remote learning, and only a third of my class was actually engaging.

Kyle Pearce: When I use that, and I think about it, and then you share something like, hey, well, maybe this is an opportunity for us to try problem based lessons, if I haven’t yet, or maybe dive into some of that great work by Sunil Singh, or Francis Su or there’s other people out there like James Tanton has some amazing things on round the beauty of math, but still does a lot of fueling of sense-making. These are things that you can provide to students.

Kyle Pearce: The question I would now say is, okay, if you were only getting a third of your class engaging, imagine if maybe trying some of these math related ideas. Again, we’re not just doing fun things for the fun of it, they are to really get students to see and value mathematics, value the beauty and that wonderment in mathematics. Imagine if maybe that engagement stays high? It stays high, and because they’re motivated, because they’re enjoying what they’re doing, maybe it’ll be easier for me to address some of those curriculum expectations that I was so worried about covering. “Now”, I’m using the air quotes, now, we’re uncovering it. We’re trying to get students essentially turned on to math, so that they want to do the learning and they want to stay curious and they want to dive in.

Kyle Pearce: I look at this and it makes me really think about something I’m doing myself is trying to think about reflecting on what do I value in math class? Not only just about how we approach math class, but then thinking about the concepts that are most important. What are the concepts that I think are really, really worth us diving deeply into. In all the past years, I was just cruising through as much as I could, skimming that surface where only some students were actually able to grasp and dive deep on. Maybe this is a great opportunity for us to pause, reflect and go, all right, if I can’t get through this huge list here, what areas are the ones that I really want to hone in on and I really want students to, again, not memorize, but to actually experience and actually completely understand?

Kyle Pearce: I’m going to argue that if students have a deep understanding, they walk away from this experience and they have a deep understanding of the less content ideas or areas. I’m going to argue that, that will probably be more beneficial for them moving forward, because if they become good problem solvers and resilient problem solvers, and they believe in themselves that they can think mathematically, I feel like no matter what comes their way down the road, they’re going to be more ready and more prepared to address that, at that time, versus just trying to memorize as much stuff as we possibly could and skim the surface over top.

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative). For sure. We’re thinking about painting a picture of what we value. Everyone has a different set of values for their classroom, but I think for us, and for me, in particular, I’m going to point out just three things, and two of them we have some suggestions for that. But third, I’m still stuck on how we can do this appropriately in a remote learning or a blended learning model. But instead of going right into a syllabus and rules, why we say you should be painting a picture of showing your kids what you value is because if you do that right away, then you’re going to build that community and trust even more. This reinforces the first point.

Jon Orr: But one of the things that we value in our class is voice, student voice and how can we get our students to voice and realize that their voice counts. In some of my lessons early in my career, I was the voice and that was it, and they were just the doers or the practicers. But I want my students to show that their voice matters. You can do that with, number two that we talked about, inspiring curiosity with problem based tasks and getting them to voice their ideas and suggestions and strategies there.

Jon Orr: But you can get them to voice their ideas and create their own uniqueness with activities to start class like we’ve often referenced which one doesn’t belong or Estimation 180, or would you rather math? All great suggestions on how to do that in your classroom to start class off, but you can still do this remotely, synchronously or asynchronously. You can use braining camps resources to get kids to use their number line and their manipulatives. We’ve often reference them.

Jon Orr: You can be using these activities, even if you’re remotely to show that voice off. Either if it’s in the chat or on a document, we want to make sure that they know that their voice matters. I think that’s an important part that you need to show your students, paint them a picture that it doesn’t matter, and you value it. I think you’ve got to show that you value it. You can’t just say, hey, we value this and then not do anything about it.

Jon Orr: That’s one of the things that we want to show their value. The other one is uniqueness. I want to show that my student’s uniqueness is important, who they are is important. I think we’ve been talking about that all the way through this episode, in the sense that we want to build trust, but we also want to show that their identity matters in our class, who they are. Their creativity and how they design their strategies matters.

Jon Orr: I try to show that right from day one is that I’m going to take your suggestions and your strategies over the teacher’s strategy. Then we’ll talk about what that looks like and which one can be improved upon and not. There’s uniqueness is important one to include in values.

Jon Orr: Then the last one is the one, Kyle, I’m still struggling with, which is collaboration. In my face-to-face class, we did a lot of collaborating. Two, three kids at a whiteboard standing up working through problems. Now, they’re telling us that you have to keep six feet apart, even if we’re in class. How am I going to get my kids to work on whiteboards in partners or groups of three when we have to stay apart, or if we have to wear masks, that’s fine. But if we have to stay apart, that’s going to be an issue.

Jon Orr: I’m imagining these jail cells that my students have to stay in, in their desk area. I’ve seen pictures of these, and you have too, where you have to stay in this area. There’s a taped off area. Don’t come in this area. I realized that, that may happen, but it’s not going to be do as [inaudible 00:53:42] for building collaboration on our classrooms.

Jon Orr: Collaborating apart is tough for me to imagine, and that’s one I’m still struggling with. On day one, we would build skyscrapers, which we’ll put a link for in there, because kids can get in there and show, let’s talk about this strategy and they’re moving things around with manipulatives to build these puzzles. But I can’t do that if we have to stay six feet apart.

Jon Orr: That’s what I’m struggling with. I know that everyone might be struggling with that, especially if you’re in class, but have to say apart. Even if you’re a remote, it’s a struggle to figure how do I get kids to interact together? I’ve heard often people say, “We have done breakout groups in Zoom and other Google Meets,” but it still seems to be logistical struggle, for sure. It’s not ideal.

Jon Orr: That’s one thing that I’m struggling with, and I think everyone would be. We’re open to suggestions there. Hey, do us another solid here, email us or send us a tweet, or post us on the Facebook group if you have any suggestions because I think people would love to hear other people’s suggestions on this too.

Kyle Pearce: That’s a struggle of collaboration as well. I’m with you on that, John. As you’re speaking, I’m in my mind picturing is like, again, can we find a silver lining? I’m going okay, is this an opportunity to push this idea of convincing, of reasoning, improving, and to get students, now that they’re from a distance, and now they have to try to articulate and convince a partner that is now six feet away, is this an opportunity for them to really push their thinking using concrete manipulatives or using visuals in order, like math models in order to describe their solution approach. Now that they’re not so close and working one on one with each other, how can we use that and try to find the silver lining?

Kyle Pearce: Again, we’d love to hear from people on what they’re doing, some ideas around that. But John, I think it’s about time that we wrap this thing up because boy, oh boy, we’re at an hour of actual content here. It’s going to be even longer with our bumpers. Let’s talk a little bit.

Kyle Pearce: First off, I’m hoping as you’re listening to this, again, we can’t through a podcast episode make this implementable tomorrow, but what we’re hoping you got is one of the key points we had is painting you a picture of maybe what could be as we move forward. How can we make the best of a tough situation? We hope that we got you thinking about the beginning of the school year and what it might look like for you and your context, and for you and your students. What might that look like and sound like? We’ve been tossing this idea around of like a blended, or maybe even fully online, are you lucky to be in a country where maybe they’ve really kept the number so low that you’re face-to-face and you’re wondering even why we’re having this conversation?

Kyle Pearce: Well, hopefully, you can take some of these ideas and still put them into practice. How are we going to get kids engaged right out of the gate? Again, if we don’t get them early, it’s going to be tough to keep them engaged, to get them to stick around. I was saying some educators throughout this COVID experience that right now, a win was to keep who you had. It was really hard to reengage a student when we were fully online doing emergency remote learning.

Kyle Pearce: Let’s try to keep as many as we possibly can out of the gate so that they do stick around, so that they do engage with us. Then finally, how do we still spark curiosity and maintain this idea of fueling sense-making despite all of these hurdles that we’re faced with? Don’t set that bar too high, where you’re saying, I’m going to do the same amount of content, we’re going to uncover the same amount of content that we always did, because I do think while that would be amazing if that were possible, what I don’t want is you losing sleep at night, feeling anxious, stressed out, feeling down on yourself, that you’re not a great educator, because you are.

Kyle Pearce: If you’re listening to this show, you clearly have a huge love for what you do and you are trying so hard. So, please, please, please give yourself the courtesy to respect the fact that you are not, although we feel it sometimes, you have to be a superhero as an educator, we cannot make this go perfectly well. We’re going to do our best to do the best we possibly can, continue learning, but just give yourself that freedom to feel that you know what, I am putting in 110%, maybe it’s 200% into this, and maybe it’s just not possible for me to uncover that huge amount of math content that I had expected of myself previously.

Kyle Pearce: If you got some value out of this episode, those three big pieces here, we’re really, really glad. We want you to consider checking out the webinar, going to makemathmoments.com/webinar, we are going to be doing a full episode or a full live webinar, I should say, synchronously with you, but you can access it asynchronously afterwards. Get yourself signed up because we are going to really unpack what this might look like, sound like from a live webinar perspective. Hopefully, we’ll see some of you in there. All right, my friends. Now, it’s time for you to pause for a moment and reflect on a big takeaway from this mini masterclass on starting up the school year from a distance. Was it an activity that resonated with you? Was it just a general idea or approach? Or maybe it was just a comment or a quote that’s sticking with you.

Jon Orr: In order to ensure you hang on to this new learning, so it doesn’t wash away like footprints in the sand, you must reflect on what you’ve learned here. An excellent way to ensure that this learning sticks is reflecting, create a plan for yourself or to take action, build it into your first day plan.

Kyle Pearce: Yes. If you think about some great ways to hold yourself accountable would be to write it down, or maybe even better, share it with someone, your partner, a colleague, go ahead and shoot them a text message or with the Math Moment Maker community by commenting on the show notes page, or tagging us on social media @MakeMathMoments, or you can dive into our free private Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K through 12.

Jon Orr: Like we mentioned at the top of the episode, we are diehards for vertical non-permanent surfaces in our classroom. If they’re your thing too, then you can get some durable and easy to use Wipebook flip charts from wipebook.com. You can head over to wipebook.com/moments and you can get a 30% off your flip chart pack.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, that’s right, vertical non-permanent surfaces are a huge thing in the Make Math Moments classroom. So, definitely check them out. If you are a district leader, or a school leader or a math consultant or coordinator, you might be ordering for your school or district and you need more than just a couple of packs. So, head over to wipebook.com/momentsbulk so that you can get up to 40% off on your bulk orders. Again, that’s wipebook.com/momentsbulk.

Jon Orr: In order to ensure you don’t miss out on new episodes as they come out each Monday morning, subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome, show notes. Links to resources for this episode and full episode transcripts which you can read online, you can have them read to you online or you can download in PDF form, head on over to makemathmoments.com/episode88. Again that’s makemathmoments.com/episode88. Well my Math Moment Maker friends, until next time, I’m Kyle Pearce-

Jon Orr: And I’m John Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us and high fives for you.


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Thanks For Listening

To help out the show:


  1. David

    Thanks for sharing this podcast. Another great first week activity to have students collaborate on newsprint is Always, Sometimes, Never math statements. Unsure how it’ll work this year with blended learning but I guess you can still do this on flipgrid/desmos but how can I incorporate this activity in partnership?

  2. Carmen Sinatra

    Great podcast! I will be registering for your follow up webinar. Looking forward to figuring out how to get students to collaborate while social distancing. One long Sunday indeed! Thanks for all of your work and inspiration!

  3. Christine M Jones

    It would be great if you could run the How to start the year webinar a little earlier. Many schools are starting Aug. 24 or sooner in our area.

    • Jon & Kyle

      Hi Christine, we would have loved to however we couldn’t fit it in our schedules until end of August. Hopefully we can still help.


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