Resources mentioned in this episode:

Number Sense 101 for PreK-2nd grade teachers

Number Sense 201 for 3rd-5th grade teachers

Welcome, fellow recovering traditionalists, to episode 32. Today we get to hear from co-teachers in a 3rd grade classroom who discovered that they have permission to teach a curriculum they were mandated to use while also meeting the needs of the students that they have

Christina: Before we get into today’s episode, I just want to remind you that I’m doing things a bit differently these last few episodes. Instead of sharing insights from a book or article, I’m focusing on having you hear from real teachers out there who have made big changes in how they teach mathematics.

Christina: In this episode, I get to chat with Jess Hempel and Christine Farrel. They work in a district that had a mandated curriculum that had some great parts to it, but also some bad parts. Listen in as they talk about how they work together to figure out how to find a balance between what was mandated and what they saw that their students really needed.

Christina: Jessica mentions how my Number Sense course gave her permission to do what she knew was right for her students. If you want to get that permission, I totally did that in air quotes, as well, then come join me in my Number Sense courses. It’s not that you really need that permission. What the courses show is the research behind how kids develop mathematical understandings and how number sense is really the root of it all. If you’d like to learn that information, along with getting resources to use in your classroom to help build number sense, the courses are now open for the 2019 registration, and you can get all the info at Registration is only open for a short time, so depending upon when you listen to this, registration might be closed. If so, you can join the wait list for next year. 

Christina: Here’s my interview with Jess and Christine.

Christina: Well, for this episode, you guys, I am so excited because I am joined by two partner teachers. We have two special guests today. We have Jess Hempel and Christine Farrel. Welcome you guys.

Jess: Hey, thanks.

Christine: Hi, thank you.

Christina: So the first thing I like to start off with is to have you guys tell us a little bit about your journey in education. Where did you start off and what are you guys doing now?

Jess: Oh my goodness, I’ll start. So I’m Jessica, and I am the special education teacher in the room. And I actually just started working with Christine about a year and a half ago. So before that, I was in a day treatment center for about 12 years, working in a 611 with children with emotional and behavioral disturbances, mostly some kids that were on the spectrum. Lots of different things I got to see there. So now I’m here in public school. It’s quite a change, and I get to be with my work wife, Christine.

Christine: Yes.

Christina: So, Christine, tell us about your journey, and then I want to hear more about how you guys work together.

Christine: Okay. So I have worked here at our school for 12 years. I’ve been a 3rd grade teacher for six years. For many of those years, I have had an integrated classroom and have had consultant special ed teachers. And two years ago, the district came to me and said that we were going to hire another special ed teacher and that they wanted me to co-teach with this person. So I really in a lot of ways got … Well, I got to sit in on the interview and Jessica, I could tell right away her and I were going to work really, really well together, and it really has been a dream.

Christine: So with us co-teaching together, we really plan everything together. We really just try to meet the needs of our kids, like their personal needs. And it’s just been great, and that’s where that led us into … Jessica wanted to lead in math, and that was really great because that’s always been an area where I really, really struggled to meet the needs of all of the kids in an integrated classroom. And so that’s where Jess found a lot of your work and really loved a lot of your work and so did I. And so we just kind of ran with it.

Christina: Nice. So you guys come from very different backgrounds and being an elementary ed, I want to focus a little bit on the math side because, as elementary teachers, we’re supposed to be masters of everything, every subject.

Christine: Yes.

Christina: And so along the lines of math, I find it always interesting to kind of hear about what professional development you’ve been able to have as a teacher. What kind of stuff have you had the opportunity to be a part of, whether it’s been in district, and I know Jess has done some stuff through me, but just kind of like to hear what opportunities you guys have had to grow your understanding of mathematics.

Christine: Okay. So I can speak about our district, specifically math. So we’re in New York state, and New York state, when Common Core first came out, they came out with not only a math curriculum, but it was all right there for us right online. And we were basically mandated to teach that. So we didn’t not get a lot of professional development at all. I would say most of it was just learning from one another, talking to one another and just trying to figure it out.

Christine: We were always able to go to local professional developments that were offered. But I’m really not sure whether it was helpful or not because it didn’t help us teach what we were mandated to teach but at the same time address the needs that we really had, the specific needs that we had.

Christine: So, yeah, and that’s really led a lot of us to kind of seek out help on our own because I think number sense, we all knew that number sense was one of the issues. The curriculum we were given was very heavy in strategies, strategies, strategies, strategies for kids solving problems. We all knew in our guts and as experienced teachers that it was too much. It was a little over the top. Not that there wasn’t good things in the curriculum because there really was. It was just very heavy in strategies and not so much in that number sense. And that was a missing piece.

Christina: Yes. And so … Oh go ahead Jess. Were you about to …

Jess: I was just going to say that, because I was at a day treatment center, and it is a school. For people who don’t know what is a day treatment center, it really is a school, but because we focus on so much special education, there was so much work around social/emotional needs and autism, and I feel like the curriculum always came last. And so I feel like any instructional things were always at the end.

Jess: So I did not get to go to a lot of things. And special education has come a really long way since I started, and I have always been a big believer in day one that all the kids can do it, and you just have to find that path and that way for them to get there. And so I love your stuff, and I think it has helped me more than anything else because I really do think that the results we’re seeing with the kids with special needs has been probably the biggest growth. So that’s been really amazing.

Christine: I agree.

Christina: So let’s go into that. The next question I like to ask is what was math like before? So, when you were teaching the students with special needs and trying to get across all of this math, whether it’s through the curriculum and all of that, what was the teaching of math like for you?

Jess: So this is really funny. This is one of my favorite. Christina and I, we are soul mates in so many ways, but we are also night and day. So people love to listen to us because I am a little Type A. I definitely am like, “Okay, this is the lesson I have to cover today. I’m going to get through the whole lesson.” You know what I mean? I’ve got the next lesson. I would love to tell you I’m not like that because I know that’s the wrong answer, but I would be lying because I know that I want to … I’m a little bit want to get it done, want to make sure we’re good. We’re all on the same page.

Jess: But last year, we had a tough group, and last year, I’ve never hated teaching math more because math is my favorite subject. But I had a group of kids that, man, I would just come in to Christine at the end of the day and be like, “I don’t know what to do.” And one of my favorite Christine moments, she kind of looked at me and she goes, “Well, I’m really good at teaching the high-level kids in math.” And then she goes, “That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever said. I mean, everybody’s good at teaching the high-level kids.” And it was like she saw me. You’re not just a special education teacher. Man, we’re asking a lot of you to teach these kids who can’t count to multiply and divide. And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s a little hard.”

Jess: So, yeah. So I think that that it changed so much after this class. I really do because I’m focusing so much more on the things that … It was you almost gave me permission to do what I knew was right. I’ve got to go back to counting, and I’ve got to go back to part, part, whole and those benchmark numbers all the time.

Jess: So every day we start with a count around the circle. So we’re counting every day, and it really has been kind of fun to get creative with that. So right now, we’re in our fractions unit, and I sit there, and I’m like, “What do you think we’re going to count by today?” And they’re like, “1/3” or “2/4” or whatever. And at first, that wasn’t going as well until I put the visuals with it. And now this is another thing I learned from you: always put a visual in it. Subitize those fractions, get them to see those fractions. They definitely gravitate to that. And we did it with multiplication as well and division.

Jess: They love to see the patterns, and then we just talk about the patterns. Christine and I were just saying, as the special education teacher, right now I’m leading math, and I’m looking to her sometimes for … she said for validation, and she’s right because those number talks are so good that sometimes it’s hard to cut them off, you know? And you let them go. What you think is going to be a five-minute talk, they go somewhere totally different, and it’s so great that you don’t want to stop them, but then you also have the lesson. So that’s almost the toughest part is stopping to get stuff, to get it in.

Christine: And every day there’s someone that’s disappointed because there’s something they noticed, and they didn’t get to share it. It would go on for 20, 30 minutes if we allowed it to go that long.

Jess: Absolutely.

Christine: So, yeah, it’s been great, and I think it’s really valuable. I think it’s valuable in building number sense. I think it builds their confidence a lot. So with skip counting and then with fractions, I can’t believe sometimes, because of the skip counting that we do with fractions, that they recognize that a fraction that’s more than a whole, they can tell you how many wholes it is because they start seeing the pattern.

Christina: Oh, wow.

Christine: So it’s really valuable and great.

Jess: I also just today …

Christina: Go ahead.

Jess: Oh sorry, just today. So we have kind of been singing your praises. On Friday, we had a professional development day, and I was talking a little bit about the Number Sense stuff.

Jess: So we had a 5th grade teacher come down today just to sit in class because I said, anybody who wants to come down, we do it at 1 o’clock every day. So she came down and sat here, and then we skip counted by 30s, and I started at number 7. And so we went through and just the talks that they had about like, “Oh, the ones place doesn’t change.” And I said, “Why?” They are so good at doing this now, they’re like, “Because 30 has a zero in the ones place, so we’re not going to mess with that.” “And okay, what do you notice?” “Oh, we’re skip counting by 3s in the 10s place.”

Jess: And she was just like … she loved it. And so, after school, she was like, “That was awesome.” And they’re coming up to the board, they’re showing off patterns, and we make them use that math vocabulary. “Well, no, no, don’t just show me. You have to say the ones place or in this column.” It’s just been cool.”

Christine: And we’re not just skip counting by 30. We’re skip counting by 3 10s.

Jess: Right.

Christine: We have a whole conversation as well.

Christina: Yeah. So what I’m … through that whole conversation, the thread that I kind of pulled from that was, in the beginning, you were just kind of going through the motions, doing what was next in the book, doing the checklist.

Christine: Absolutely.

Jess: Yes.

Christina: And now you feel like you’ve got that permission to slow down, find those areas where they’re weak in, especially you were seeing it in their number sense. But yet, listening to you guys talk, it doesn’t sound like that was detrimental to the kids. Sometimes we feel like, well, we’re not doing the next thing, and we’re not getting them up to that standard because we feel like we’re going down and counting. What is that building? But the discussion and the connections and the relationships that your students are building through that and through those number talks sounds amazing.

Christine: Yeah.

Jess: Yeah, it’s great. I remember, my family has been picking on me nonstop that I’m a dork. “You are such a dork. You spent this money to take a math class by yourself for fun?” I’ve been really hearing it. But I would stop the lessons, and I would like run into my husband, and I was like, “Okay, get this. What is 18 times 5?” And he’s sitting there kind of thinking, and I’m like, “No, but listen, what’s 18 times 10?” And he’s like, “Oh, 180.” I’m like, “Divide that in half.” He’s like, “Oh, why didn’t our teachers teach us like that?” I’m like, “Right, right?” You even have my husband convinced. He’s like, “Oh my goodness, it’s so easy.” I’m like, “I know.”

Jess: So just those things, we’ve really taken away.

Christine: Yeah, and I think it’s important too to point out that these kids are still taking the same assessments that we were mandated to give them before. The assessments haven’t changed. Our units, really the bulk of our units and what we’re covering hasn’t changed. We just have this added piece that we’re … and it’s not even always related to the unit that we’re actually doing. Sometimes our count around the circle, it has to do with time. Sometimes it has to do with things that … like right now, we’re doing fractions. It’s not always involving fractions.

Jess: Right.

Christine: So, yeah, and I think it’s also made them a lot better at explaining how they got answers and explaining their thinking, even in written ways.

Christina: Yeah, absolutely. So, as we wrap this up, I like to end with you guys giving some advice to teachers who are listening, and they want to make a change in their teaching. And sometimes it just feels overwhelming. There’s so many different things that you could do to change your teaching. So I’d like you guys to just give them one thing. What is one thing that you have felt has been the most powerful thing that has changed your students’ learning?

Jess: Man, that’s so hard. I would take this class.

Christine: And I think that time that Jess takes to count around the circle and to hear every single kid, they’re all accountable at some point to say what they notice and to use the vocabulary like, “Well, in that column, in the ones place, I see this” or “In that column …” because she writes a lot of them in columns when she’s writing down what the numbers are, the time or whatever, whatever they say. And I think the vocabulary in itself is valuable.

Jess: I think just being okay with going back to the basics. I think that to take that time is going to be worth it because we really did spend a lot of time going back to things we thought that … like halving and doubling. Man, that was so big, and we spent so much time talking about halves and doubles, and I didn’t think about it until you kind of talked about it. I took for granted they would know what that meant. They did not know what that meant.

Christine: Me too.

Jess: And I’m not just talking about special ed kids.

Christine: We were shocked.

Jess: I’m like, “What is half of this number? What is double this number?” And I created lessons based off that, and we took time off of the curriculum for that. And until we went back to do fractions, and the second day of fractions, we were sitting there, and we were talking about “Well, what would 4/4 be?” “Oh, that would be1 whole.” Well, then 8/4 would be 2 wholes because that’s double it.” And I’m just like, “Are you kidding me? This is day two.”

Christine: Yeah.

Jess: All that stuff, all the basics came back in a big way to support the curriculum. So I would just say let yourself spend the time on the building blocks.

Christine: Absolutely.

Christina: Awesome. I say it all the time that we have to slow down to speed up, and that’s a prime example. It feels like we’re slowing down to go back and deal with this idea of doubling and halving that we thought that they should know, but it plays such a role in so much of the mathematics that you’re trying to get them to understand at the grade level, that when you do slow down and spend the time on that, when you get to that point, it’s so much easier and you go so much faster through that area. If you hadn’t, man, that would’ve taken so much time to help them understand.

Jess: Yeah.

Christine: Yes.

Jess: And I also just want to say, I just want to tell you one of the little girls in our class who really struggles with all parts of academics and instruction, since I started this class, she has been our top scorer. She got a 95 and a 100 on her last two math tests.

Christina: What?

Christine: Yeah, it’s unbelievable.

Jess: And the pride that she had and the pride that her parents had was crazy because it just clicked. Once we started showing her all the pictures and subitizing, really, it’s been amazing.

Christina: Wow.

Christine: And again, she got 100 on a very, very difficult Common Core assessment that we’ve been giving for years that is very difficult.

Jess: Yeah.

Christine: So it’s not like we just taught her what was on the test. We’re building her number sense and building her confidence with numbers.

Jess: Yep.

Christina: That’s amazing. Well, thank you both for everything that you do for the students there at your school. They’re blessed to have you guys as teachers, and it’s an honor to be able to talk to you guys. And I’m honored to have been a small part of helping you guys in your change in teaching. But what really happened was because you decided to make that change. So I really appreciate you guys going full-in and changing that for your students.

Jess: Thanks.

Christine: Thank you.

Christina T.:     These episodes are sponsored by the online trainings that I do for elementary educators. Each fall I open up my number sense courses. I have one for Pre-K to 2nd grade teacher’s called Number Sense 101 and one for 3rd through 5th grade teachers called Number Sense 201. These courses help you understand the foundation of number sense, how it impacts students’ ability to become fluent in mathematics and how to help your students build their number sense. Registration for the courses is now open for a limited time. Go to to learn more.

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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.