Resources mentioned in this episode:

Number Talks by Sherry Parrish

Graham Fletcher’s progression videos

SDE summer conference

Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) book

Pam Harris website and books

Build Math Minds PD site for doing math trainings at your school

Welcome fellow Recovering Traditionalist to episode 12. Today we are all getting some inspiration and information from Lisa Kuo.

Christina: Lisa mentions lots of resources in this episode. I’ve linked them all on the show notes page at so you don’t have to keep notes. Just head on over to the show notes and you’ll find all the links to everything that she mentions. I am super excited to introduce and talk with Lisa Kuo. So Lisa, tell us a little bit about your background in education and then lead into what you do now.

Lisa: All right. Um, I have been in education for about 12 years. I started off in the lower grades and I taught all the grades from kindergarten through fifth grade. And then about two and a half years ago, I started thinking about math specifically and did some individual research and started following a couple, um, individuals on the internet and Christina of course, and went some to some conferences and I started doing number talks in my classroom and then it just took off from there. And the next year I was volunteering during my lunch breaks to do number talks in other classes, other teachers’ classrooms. And then short, uh, last year I was approached to become the math specialist at our school. It was a position that we never had before. So, um, I do that and I also run camps, math camps every month at our school, so I’ve kind of come a long way.

Christina: Wow. So a math specialist can mean lots of different things in different areas. So what, what’s kind of, um, give us a little insight into the typical things you do as a math specialist.

Lisa: Okay. Um, I start off each day and I kind of break my day into three different sections. The first part of my day in the morning I spend working with whole classes. So, um, I have a class, I called the math lab and I sign up. Usually I do about a six week session with each grade level at our school. And so let’s say I just finished my second grade session and I worked with all the different classrooms. They typically prefer to come into the math lab, but there’s many times that they will go into their classrooms and I’ll do activities or lead number talks, different things depending on what the teachers looking for at that, at that time in there, um, year. And then I go through them all in the morning. And then my middle section, I have a group of fourth and fifth graders who I carefully selected as students who I thought that I could either they were just barely proficient last year or that they were below proficient and I thought I could really make an impact on them and get them to proficient.

Lisa: So I have become their math teacher and I work with a Combo class. It’s fourth and fifth grade, about just under 20 kids. And I work with them everyday, five days a week. And then in the afternoons I work, um, on intervention. So I work with small groups of kids, a group from each of the different lower grades. I work with actually kindergarten, first, second and third grade group. And we play number games and a little bit of number talks and talk strategies and things like that. So that’s basically how it works. And then like I mentioned, I run school camps once a month. And with the camp, what we do is, um, I actually ran seven session, seven or eight sessions last months, each session. They’re not grade specific. Um, but they, they, they focus on what I consider the major standards at each grade level.

Lisa: So beginning of the year we did place value and and a lot, we did early number sense for the lower grades, the primary grades, and then we were doing place value for the upper grades and the kids were put together. Some of the first graders were with second graders. Um, I have a very intensive group of first graders who we kind of had to go back and work on kindergarten standards were, so they were in their own camp and then we just progress as each month goes by. We move on to another concept of place value. We covered over two months. Um, we worked with the computations, we went into fractions, fractions. We actually cover two for fourth grade. We covered two sessions in fifth grade. I covered it for three sessions. So I do that. That’s pretty much it.

Christina: And those camps are during the day?

Lisa: Yeah, the students are identified by their teachers. I give them typically two or three students that they can send to camp and they try to vary them, um, based on what the needs are in the classroom. And those kids will come to me. And I have, we also have district coaches who will support the camps. So there’s two teachers in every classroom where we do it, I call them sessions. And um, so the teachers will give me the names, we get permission from the parents making sure that they understand what we’re doing. And the kids come for about three hours. We do them on what we call minimum days. It’s a staff development day where the kids go home early in, the staff meets afterwards. Um, and so the kids will come for the entire day. We call it camp to make it something that they look forward to it and they truly love coming. They see it as a special opportunity and they’re excited. They always come to me as it, when the next math camp. Um, and then we of course finish it off with some sort of a camp treat. So some smores, or sometimes candy or cookies, things like that. Something at the end that they walk away with it they’re really excited about.

Christina: That’s awesome. Yeah. So one of the things we I like to chat about and hear about is one of the ways that we grow as teachers is through professional development. And so throughout your course of being in education, what is some professional development that you’ve had around mathematics, that’s had an impact in what you’re doing now?

Lisa: Um, well there’s been many different things that have had a big impact on me. I’d say when I first started this journey with math, it was, um, Sherry Parrish’s, Number Talks book. I started using that and just trying out the number talks. And as I was doing it, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just trying with my students. And as we started doing it and I started seeing the children’s reactions, I was just shocked and I couldn’t believe it. Um, and so that Kinda got me started. And then I got onto the internet and I was looking at, I think Graham Fletchy, he had some progression. Graham Fletcher, Uh, and I was watching those videos and that just personally taught me so much that I started using that. Um, and it actually those, a lot of those are what guide me with my camps. So I, I watched that.

Lisa: And then, um, of course you, Christina, I’ve I follow you’ve constantly, I watch your videos. I went to your conference, you had a workshop that I went to on number sense a couple of years ago. Um, and then also I went to a conference, I think it was SDE, Staff Development Education, and I took the math section of that conference and learn so much there. I love that. So those were kind of the big ones. I read, um, that children’s mathematics cognitively guided instruction book recently and I’m hoping to go to a workshop on that. And that’s kind of my new focus. I’ve been working on that for the last couple of months. So this summer I want to do more of that.

Christina: Oh, you, you just mentioned a lot of my favorites and I was typing, taking notes because we will link to all of that in the show notes for this episode. Um, the SDE summer conference, that’s a big conference that happens in Las Vegas and at the time when this will probably be released, I will be actually presenting. So we’ll, we’ll make sure that we link all of those conferences, the Graham Fletcher videos, the number talks books, the CGI books. Those are all wonderful ways to get professional development. Like I love that you mentioned books because so often we think we need to to go somewhere and get training at a workshop or a conference. And so much of it can come from the reading of books. So I’m really glad you said that

Lisa: it’s, it’s actually interesting because I don’t tend to read books a lot just in general, but since I started reading these math books, I enjoy them so much. I actually read another one by… Her name was Pam something. Um, but she does this website called mathisfigureoutable.

Christina: Oh yeah, Pam Harris.

Lisa: Pam Harris. Yes. And I’ve really enjoyed her and I watched all her videos also. So she’s another, another one that I really liked and I sit down in the summer and I just go through a bunch of books. I love them,

Christina: you know, the reading of books sometimes gone away with all the other things that we have available at our fingertips, but I’m still a lover of books, so I love that piece. Um, so tell me a little bit about what the teaching of math was like before you got professional development and you started reading.

Lisa: Um, before I went through all of this, I was following the textbook, so I would start with one lesson, try to get through one lesson per day. Um, you know, if, if I could, I would cover two lessons in a day. Um, I knew that there were certain lessons the kids couldn’t get, so then I’d be like doubling up trying to get to those. Um, there were things that I would be teaching that I didn’t understand how it worked. So I’d be just kind of like, I mean, it wasn’t at the time that I was thinking about it, but the reality was I was sort of crossing my fingers hoping the kids were getting it because I knew I wasn’t explaining it in a way that made sense. You know, a good example would be, you know, trying to divide fractions. You know, you do this, you turn it over your reciprocal model.

Lisa: It doesn’t make any sense at all. But I would just explain it to them and hope they got it. Some of them got it, some of them didn’t. It was sort of Osmosis. Um, hopefully it was Osmosis. And then after I started doing the number talks and I started trying to teach out of making sense, it, it just, I don’t have to go lesson by lesson. And in fact I don’t go lesson by lesson anymore. Now I teach conceptually. So when I started a section, let’s say I start my, I still follow the book, I use the book for the homework and things like that. But when I start a topic, I’ll introduce it with a number talk and we’ll be doing, let’s say we’re talking about fraction division, um, I’ll put it up on the board, we’ll have a conversation, not looking at the book at all.

Lisa: And we’ll say, well, you know, let’s say you have 3/4 divided by 1/4. How many fourths can you put into 3/4? I draw the picture. Um, and we talk about it not in any sort of sense of you multiply this times this at more of how many can you see, draw the picture, how many fourths would fit in there. Um, so that’s, that’s the thing that’s changed a lot is I teach conceptually, I teach visually. Um, I asked the kids to do things that make sense and I never will teach procedure procedurally again. Um, whenever I get to those places where the kids are kind of not getting it, I have to fight myself, that urge to try to teach them the shortcut and I don’t do it. I’ve gotten to us like, no, I know better. Um, and I’m actually cheating them to the opportunity yet to understand it if I quickly go through and teach them the algorithm.

Christina: So, so wait a second, say that again because that was very powerful. You’re cheating them.

Lisa: I’m cheating. I do. I have come to believe that if I try to teach them tricks and things that um, they can do quickly without thinking about what they’re doing, I’m cheating them of the opportunity to make sense and understand it themselves. So even if you look at multiplication facts, if I teach them tricks to memorize your multiplication facts, I cheated them with the opportunity to learn, let’s say nine times four. If I teach them that you can use 10 times four and subtract four, that makes so much more sense than trying to teach them to the different tricks that they do on their fingers that they don’t understand.

Christina: Yes, it’s so powerful. And you were talking about the division of fractions and I cringe. It’s like giving me goosebumps a little bit that I distinctly remember this with my sixth grade Kiddos. I taught them K, C F and we related it to KFC. And how you use this little, you know, acronym of KCF of Keep,Change,Flip because always, you know, and I just think, oh my gosh, you know, I was, I was teaching this trick, I got them to the end result of being able to do the procedure, but there was no understanding whatsoever. And the hardest part was because I didn’t understand it.

Lisa: That’s right. I, I think that’s what I’ve experienced too is I didn’t understand it when I started. Um, I mean just focusing again on fractions when I started looking at it and realizing I didn’t have to do that, flip it over, multiply thing that I could actually look at it and know the answer. I was so excited about it. I was like going to my husband, he has to listen to all of this and the car and I was telling him, do you know this? He’s like, no. And he’s like trying to flip it over and his head and when I explained it to him, he actually got excited and he went and started to talk kind of talking to his friends about it at work the next day. So it’s funny how I think, even if you’re not a math teacher or you’re not, a math enthusiasts, I really have always enjoyed math.

Lisa: It’s just so enlightening when you start to say, oh my gosh, this makes sense. Yeah. And, and yeah, and the other thing that I’d like to say here is that my students always, I had a conversation with them the other day and they were like, explain like I had one girl say, oh, I last year, I didn’t like math. I wasn’t any good at it. this year it all Makes Sense. And I hear that from the students organically all the time that it makes sense now. So the, and I have my kids who now are in middle school and come back and they’ll, they’ll explain to me the difference that, that when I, when they learn from me that I taught out of sense and they recognize that themselves. So that kind of gives me a lot of encouragement

Christina: that does, that does. And it gives me goosebumps. Good. The good kind of goosebumps, you know? Right. Um, okay. So to wrap things up, I always like to end with for teachers who are listening in wanting to start making that change into more sense making in mathematics. What’s one thing that you would encourage them to try to start with? Anything like that?

Lisa: Hmm. I found the number talks was a great place to start. It requires a little bit of, um, work on your part up front. You have to understand the different types of strategies that you anticipate that the kids are going to use. Um, but by doing those and going up on the board and, and trying to put up on the board, but the students are saying your personal growth, will just take off. Um, and as you like, I try to write everything on the boards that the student is saying as they’re saying it. And sometimes they don’t. They’re not clear on what it is they’re doing. And I’ll, you know, I’ll try to draw it. But by going through that, you grow, you can’t help but grow. Um, and also trying to make sure that you allow the student to lead the conversation as much as possible.

Christina: It’s so, it’s so hard.

Lisa: Yes. Yeah, it’s really hard. And a, I’m going, occasionally you’ll have a student who’s, you know, you can tell they’re kind of just going off and all of the steer him a little bit trying to get them back on track. Um, but for the most part, sometimes there’ll be doing something and I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, you know, I’ll be like, I’m not sure you know how to write this. I’ll try my best. And then they shock me with some sort of amazing thought I had never thought of. And so I get excited, they get excited. Um, I’ve had lots of people come in and observe me. And the one thing I would also say is you can’t be afraid to make a mistake. There’s so many times even, you know, when other teachers are in the room watching where it will be up there doing something and it’s just going crazy, you know, the kid, whatever the kids are saying, I’m writing on the board and we’re going off on a tangent, but by the end there’s so much learning that took place. And like sometimes if I write something wrong on the board, the kids will be all over it. They’ll be excited and talking about, so my mistakes excite them because they can find them. So I think being fearless is really important too. When you’re learning something and you’re doing especially number talks in front of the kids in, in front of anyone else who’s watching.

Christina: Yup. That’s a great place to start. I think that number talks are, are a great entry point into learning how your kids are thinking and then, and then using that to kind of base your next decisions off of like what aren’t they understanding and then how can we address that in our lessons. Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, thank you very much Lisa, for helping to inspire people to make a change in their teaching. Um, and, and in encouraging people to build more sense making into mathematics because it’s such an important piece.

Lisa: Yup. Thank you for having me.

Christina: Yeah.

Christina: A reminder to head on over to to get all the links to the resources Lisa mentioned. I’d specifically love to see you at the SDE national conference this year. I’ll be there presenting for a full day.

Christina: And one thing I didn’t mention is remember I said we do the camps. Um, and and as a professional development day, the second half of the day. Yes. So after the camp, the second half of the day I lead staff development. And so I actually, that’s why I became a member of your, of the Build Math Minds. Yeah. Yeah. So I became a member of that and during that time I will show your videos and we have conversations, we talk about lots of different things, but

Christina: if you’d like to be able to use videos inside of the Build Math Minds PD site to do trainings at your school, head on over to It’s not open most of the time, but we are getting ready to open up registration. So get on the waitlist so you can be notified as soon as it opens. So you can use the videos just like Lisa does with the teachers at her school.

This episode is brought to you by the Build Math Minds Professional Development site. It’s an online site full of PD videos designed specifically for elementary teachers to help you build your math mind so you can build the math minds of your students. If you are interested in getting in depth math PD at your fingertips become a member of Build Math Minds. Just go to Depending upon when you’re listening to this, enrollment might be open or you can join the wait list and get notified when it opens again.

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As you start off the school year, I want you to keep in mind what is really important as we're trying to teach mathematics to our students.