Independent Common Core Math Curriculum Reviews

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 graphic

Click on thumbnail to go to site

I’m pleased to report that an independent non-profit organization,, is reviewing new Common Core math curricula. I sometimes get asked about my opinion about the different options, but it’s hard to respond when there are so many new materials that I haven’t seen, and I am only one person. While the reviews don’t address every curriculum, they do address many of the available Common Core options. If your district is considering adopting a curriculum, please consider the detailed reports here.

They also have a graphic that shows the alignment in a visual format. Click the thumbnail to view it.

To toot my own horn a bit, Eureka Math (also available on, of which I was on the second and fifth grade writing teams, is getting the highest praise of any of the curricula reviewed so far here, especially at the elementary level. I am no longer connected with the company, or any curriculum company, for that matter, so you can believe me when I say that I joined the teams because of the quality of their approach, pedagogy, and curriculum team excellence. While there are still kinks to work out, I think the curriculum is top quality.

In case you are interested in professional development, I do offer that to schools and other groups. Please feel free to contact me to inquire.

Let’s Write a Comic!

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

Would you like a fun summer writing project to do with your child? Why not create a comic?comic

Comics and graphic novels are legitimate forms of art and writing, and for visual people, they can be more accessible or relatable. And they require thought and good design to be interesting.

This spring, a girl I’ve been tutoring in writing for years made one with my help. First, we wrote the storyboard. Then we laid it out in ComicBook!, an iPad app, with dialogue embedded in bubbles we would edit later to fit the photos. Finally, we took the photos to fit the storyline, editing them with effects to make them look like a comic book.

Not only was the student completely engaged every step of the way, but her younger brother was almost addicted to the process. If we didn’t produce a page that week, he pestered her all week until our next session.

We completed the comic in our last session of the summer, and her parents agreed to let me post it here for your enjoyment. Please leave a comment if you would like to know more about the process, or if you create one of your own!

View or download The Danger of Being Bored! here (PDF, ~9 MB).

Why Learning Should Be Fun

Monday, December 24th, 2012

Or, Why Baby Animals Have It Better Than Schoolchildren


UPDATE: Pediatricians say not to cut recess! “In order to learn well, children need a period of concentrated academic activity followed by a break that allows them to process information…”

Back in the mid-2000s, when I was a newly-minted teacher launching my career, I interviewed at a number of different schools. One school – where they had us take a test and write an essay in response to a question – was a near miss: the teachers and other hiring team members loved me, but then I interviewed with the principal, who brought up my essay. The essay question had been about how I would approach teaching math. I had written that I would use fun, engaging activities to teach the students through different approaches.

The principal – who was one of the most tense, anxious people I have ever met – proceeded to lecture me about how learning should not be “fun,” and that is everything wrong with education these days. She objected to the point of view expressed in my essay, in spite of the fact that it was based in cutting-edge research about teaching math.

Needless to say, I did not get the job.

Fast forward to this holiday season, when I am an independent teacher, tutor and consultant. Here is the text of one of the notes from a second-grade student:

“Thank you for being my math tuter i am very glad i started again… every seshion i have more fun and every seshion i learn more and more.”

Are learning and fun incompatible? According to this student, no way!

kitten hiding

Last summer, I reluctantly adopted a kitten, Abby. She was a tiny feral thing, crying and crying on the street for her mama. I captured her, brought her home, cleaned her up, vetted her, and tried my darndest to find her a new home. With the abundance of unwanted kittens this year, though, I had no luck.

She shook up my calm, settled home and older pets. And she shows me how much learning happens through play.

Abby will play with absolutely anything new that comes into the house. If I put something on a table or counter, she knocks it off to see what it does. If it’s mobile, she’ll chase it around the floor. If she can fit in it, she will play hide-and-seek-and-attack. If it smells good, she’ll try to eat it.

Why does she do this? She’s developing the skills and abilities she would need as a predator. And what makes it so miraculous is that she has a great time doing it. Her joy is contagious and makes people want to play with her. She has even won the reluctant affection of my cat-aggressive dog.

Watch any baby animal, and you will see the same kind of thing. This is why we love to be around them, and why they are guaranteed Youtube hits.

This is the incredible grace of youth: in learning what we need to survive, every species plays and discovers. Learning is hard work, but it’s fun!

I could list dozens of scholarly articles talking about why play is important to learning, and the different types of learning through play that children need. If you need that sort of thing, here is a place to start (check page five). But the point here is, what are we doing to our children when we structure play right out of their day and make them sit in desks or on the floor, except for maybe 20 minutes of recess?

Does this mean we should throw out all the workbooks? No way. My students love their workbooks. But that’s because the books are not stressful – they are chances to practice what the students have just learned. They are well designed, and if the students doesn’t understand the concept well enough to complete the homework, I tell them to wait so I can help them. Also, workbooks are not the only tools for learning. We use toys, games, iPad apps, manipulatives, and more. The more learning feels like play, the more fun it is, and the more it happens naturally.


And this is a reason I started using National Novel Writing Month in the classroom. When writing starts out as a joyride, it’s a lot more tolerable to slog through those term papers later on.

When we suck the joy out of learning, we are going against everything the planet and all of nature tells us about what works for real learning. Yes, we need to teach students to survive in the real world – but not by turning them into institutionalized drones.

And not by driving the inspired, fun teachers in favor of real learning to seek other careers.

Descriptive Writing Exercise

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012


As National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) approaches, many people gear up for an enormous leap into creative writing. November has been one of my favorite months of the year for this reason, now for almost a decade, as my tenth year of participating in this program approaches.

One of the areas young (and other) writers struggle with is descriptive writing. Now that so many young people spend a huge proportion of their time in front of screens, I think the other senses get neglected, and a corresponding decrease in the ability to express sensation in words comes with that. For that or whatever other reason, I end up needing to do this exercise with each of my writing students at some point.

First the student and I go outside and sit somewhere comfortable, and we both close our eyes. Then we go through these questions:

  • What do you hear?
  • What do you smell?
  • What do you feel?
  • What do you taste? (inhaling a big breath)
  • Finally, opening our eyes again, What do you see?

For each of these steps, both of us describe our experiences and sensations. We might walk around a little when describing what we see, or pick up a dry leaf to feel it. It’s not a cut-and-dry series of steps, but rather a fluid experience that changes based on the student.

Next, we jot down what we experienced. Some students go straight into poetry or prose; others do better by writing a list of sensations, then later weaving them into a descriptive writing.

Every time I’ve done this, I’ve seen an improvement in the level of detail and description in the student’s writing. It also creates a concrete experience for the student to draw upon when they heard that they should “use all five senses” when describing a scene they are writing.

Story Board Game

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012


Nearly all writers have experienced writer’s block. There are many ways to overcome it, including by using a variety of prompts. I have used Rory’s Story Cubes, which the students and I love, writing kits, and more.
Rory's Story Cubes
Today an idea came to me to make a board game with writing prompts. My students have had fun and have written good stories while playing it. Please feel free to download the game and use it as you please. You may even find a way to use it in conjunction with the story cubes. Enjoy!

Update July 2012: There are now Rory’s Story Cubes – Action available! These are also great, and they work well together with the original story cubes. In fact, the first ones can be thought of as nouns, and the others as verbs. My students find inspiration in mixing them together. Since the ink they are printed with is different on each, it’s easy to sort them when the children are done using them.
Rory's Action Cubes

"Fight at Bed": Fourth Grade Guest Blogger

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011


While I work on a lengthy blog post with a book review, here is a poem from one of my young writing students. His name is Peter (Engish name), and he is a fourth grade non-native English speaker. He and his brother were born in South Korea and lived for two years in Japan before moving to the US a few years ago. They meet with me once a week for math and English tutoring. Peter has a great sense of humor, and I am honored that he let me publish his poem here.

Fight at Bed

I fight at bed.

polar bears

I fight at bed with my brother.
He puts his foot on my chin.
I wake up and hit his leg.
When I wake up his foot is on my chin again.
I hit him again.
I get very mad.
I get very very mad.

Writing How-To Essays & Site Updates

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011



One of my pursuits this summer, when I wasn’t as active on this blog, was writing step-by-step articles on Projects included everything from a camp shower enclosure to a 35-cent book weight.

This type of writing, the how-to essay, is great for students to practice order words (first, next, then, finally), as well as to understand how to organize their work so it makes sense. See an example of a second-grade student’s how-to essay here.

Musical Proofreading: A Different Approach to Teaching Punctuation

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011


This post was originally published on the Patch on August 5, 2011.


I was recently working with a young student who had a hard time figuring out when to add commas or periods in his writing. I had given him a worksheet made from a paragraph I wrote and from which I removed proper capitalization and end punctuation. All he had to do was rewrite the paragraph with correct periods and capitals.

Even though this sounds simple, he had a hard time determining where a period should go. Instead, he sometimes added a comma instead or skipped a period entirely.

After trying several approaches to help him, a new thought occurred to me. “Listen to the music of the words,” I said. I compared punctuation to rests in musical notation, with which he has some experience. “Commas are like short rests, and periods are like long rests.”

I then hummed the paragraph without the words for him once, and then again while pointing to the words I was humming so he could follow along. He said it was almost like he could hear me saying the sentences. I said, “Yes, the music and rhythm of language help give it meaning.” To show some contrast, I read the same paragraph in an absolute monotone with no pauses for punctuation whatsoever. “Much more boring, isn’t it?” I said, and he agreed.

With this new tool under his belt, my student was able to successfully detect when to add periods in the rest of the paragraph. He continues to use this tool months later.

I have taught this method to other struggling students, and it’s helped them, too. A search for similar methods didn’t turn up anything online, so I wonder if this is a new idea. I hope this way to use “musical intelligence” adds another useful tool to other writing teachers’ tool kits!

How to Make a Leaf Purse: Second Grade Guest Blogger

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011


One of the projects I assign to my students is to write a process essay. This is an essay that gives step-by-step instructions about how to do something they know how to do. Today’s contribution comes from Christina S., a second grader whom I tutor in writing, and who invented this technique for making leaf purses. For such a young student, it turns out to be more of a process paragraph than a long essay. It is a good way to practice sequencing words and transitions.

How to Make a Leaf Purse, by Christina S.

Have you ever wanted to make a leaf purse? Well it will be little. First, get four leaves. Put them like a plus sign. Then fold the top and bottom. Now the sides. Next, get a long piece of grass and tie it. Now you can decorate however you like it. You can put stickers, glitter, sequins, paint and ribbons.

Watch the video to see the steps in graphic form.

I love creative projects! If you would like to see some of the things I have created and written process essays to describe, please see .


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: