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Welcome fellow recovering traditionalist to Episode 41. Today we are going to learn how to Help Students Learn to Love Math, from Build Math Minds member and 1st grade teacher Kelly Sickle.

Christina: Kelly is a Build Math Minds member and as you will see in this episode, the training she has gotten inside of BMM are just a small part of the professional development she has done. Kelly mentions a video about the C-R-A model. I’ll link to that video that’s inside the membership site, but I’ll also link to a free video that’s on my vlog, for those of you who aren’t members. And if you’re interested in becoming a member of Build Math Minds, I’ll post a link to the wait list page. We only open registration once a year to the general public, but occasionally we will open it up to people who are on the waitlist. 

Christina: Now here’s my interview with Kelly. Well thank you for joining us on this episode today. I am happy to be bringing on Kelly Sickle. Welcome Kelly.

Kelly: Thank you, hello.

Christina: Hey. So I like to start off with learning a little bit about your journey in education. What roles have you had and where are you now?

Kelly: Well, I actually graduated with my degree in 1992, but didn’t start teaching right away because I got married and had a child. And then along the way too, I would take a year off here and there after having a child so I could stay home with them.

Kelly: So this is my 20th year teaching, and I have two other degrees. I have a master’s degree in curriculum development. And just recently I got my elementary mathematical specialist degree. So it’s been very exciting.

Christina: Very cool. And what do you teach now?

Kelly: I teach 1st grade. A long time ago I taught Kindergarten and I have taught preschool and 2nd grade. But I’ve been at 1st grade for 10 years.

Christina: It’s so amazing on these, because the next question I’d like to ask is having you talk about professional development that you’ve had. And we will range for people who’ve had not much to now we’ve got someone who has two master’s degrees. And one in mathematics. So tell me a little bit about what you’ve learned along the way and what has been memorable professional development that’s really changed your teaching.

Kelly: Well, this whole math journey has been phenomenal. About, I don’t know, eight years ago I was asked to be on the math curriculum design team here in our district, and we were changing to a new curriculum and a new resource. And so they asked me to sit on there. And I thought I knew a lot, so I joined. I didn’t know anything.

Kelly: And then I took a summer professional development with the Missouri Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and they gave me a flyer about a new degree that they were offering. And I looked at it and said, oh yeah, that would be kind of neat, and I put it away. And I come to school to start teaching and the thing falls out in front of me. And I said, oh, there’s that thing again.

Kelly: And then about a year later, they asked me to go to the Greg Tang conference in Kansas City over the summer. And at the same time, that flyer fell out of my folder again. And I’m like, okay, this is a message. And that totally changed everything. Like when I went to Greg Tang and I started my classes, I just … You know, math was okay for me, but now that’s my whole life. If I could teach math all day, that’s what I would do.

Christina: And isn’t that amazing, because at 1st grade you’re teaching everything.

Kelly: Yes.

Christina: Yeah. You have put such a focus on math. It sounds like you kind of fell into it, but it also sounds like you are loving it.

Kelly: Oh my gosh, I love it. And my kids love it. Like they don’t necessarily come into my room saying they like it or not, but now we do a star of the week and everybody says their favorite subject is math. They talk about math all day long. I just had parent teacher conferences and their parents are like, I can’t believe my kid likes math. But it’s just our way of living in this classroom. And it is so much fun. Math shows up in every subject at different times. So I just love the journey and the kids love the journey.

Kelly: My goal is to help teachers love their journey as well because most teachers don’t care one way or the other about math. And so I’ve tried to help on the 1st grade curriculum design team. I’ve done some professional development talks with our people here in the district and I just really enjoy putting all those things together.

Christina: So I’m going to skip one of the questions and jump straight in because I really want to know how has your teaching changed? So the fact that all of your kids love math. This is especially all too often, and I’m a math person. I love math. But my own personal kids have started to not like math, which kills me, right? But I’m not their teacher.

Kelly: I know, I know.

Christina: And I try to show them all of these fun ways that mathematics is so beautiful. So what are you doing in your class? How has the teaching of mathematics changed for you now you have a classroom full of mathematics lovers?

Kelly: Well, first of all I have to say that my son does not like math and he does want me to stop bothering him about it. So I feel your pain there. But I really can’t pinpoint one thing. But we start our day off with math. Their morning work is some math, whether they’re rolling dice and adding or whether we’re listening to CD. I have a CD from Ken Sutton, and he calls out numbers and they add it on their paper. We just try to make it a lot of hands on and a lot of fun activities.

Kelly: So the way that I break down … I have a 90 minute block for math and I will not give that up. If we have a field trip or if we have an assembly, I will make my math fit into whatever schedule that we have. I will not give it up.

Kelly: So like today we’re doing measurement and I had kids go to rotations. I do that about twice a week. And the kids, four or five kids came back to my table and they got to measure belts for the stuffed animals. And then we talked about who had the longest and who had the shortest. There’s very little worksheets involved. It’s so hands on. And they find math throughout the building. And their parents are like, I can’t believe they’re talking. They find math everywhere they go.

Kelly: One of the things, the hardest thing I think when I changed was when they got the wrong answer was to say, no, that’s not correct. Who’s got the right answer? I don’t say that. I say, well what did you do to get your answer? Or how did you get it? Or somebody might ask them when they’re working together, how did you figure that out? So we don’t ever say you’re wrong in an answer. We really discuss things.

Kelly: So I think the kids feel really safe, and they’re not afraid to make the mistake. They’re not afraid to talk, they’re not afraid to participate. I mean that’s huge. And I think when kids feel that way, then they’re going to want to be a part of it. So I think that’s just it. So they just want to be a part of the math that’s going on.

Christina: And it’s just an everyday thing. It’s just like ingrained in all that you do in mathematics. I can remember when I first learned of teaching mathematics in a different way, I decided, okay, Friday is going to be that day when I try to do something different. And then Friday would come and they didn’t want to do anything. They would sit there and just stare at this problem that I’d given them or whatever the task was that I thought, oh, this is going to be great fun task. And they’re just like, I don’t know how to start this, because the rest of the time I was still a very traditional teacher telling them exactly what to do.

Christina: And so it sounds like from you it’s just part of what you do. Like you probably didn’t even notice all the things that you do on a daily basis that are building this. It’s just that’s what mathematics is about all day, every day.

Kelly: Yeah. When I first started, I really just jumped in with both feet. When I heard Ban Har say do task-oriented problems and then I heard Greg Tang say let’s put the manipulatives in the pictures. And I know one of your recent blogs was on how to do all three pictorial, and the hands-on, and the numbers and the abstract altogether. And when I heard about that, I’m like, okay, that’s what I’m doing, and while it sounds really daunting, it wasn’t really. Like I said, the hardest part was to stop standing up there and talking to the kids, and let the kids talk to me and talk to each other.

Kelly: I had a student teacher and I would tell her everyday, I said, I don’t know how this is going to go, but we’re jumping right in. And we did. We jumped right in. And the number sense that the kids get when you do that just blows me away, just literally blows me away every day.

Kelly: One of the things that I do is we do our lunch count as a task. So it’s a two step task. We have 22 kids in class. How many are absent? So how many are here? So we have to figure that out. And then we need to figure out how many people are having cold lunch and then we have to figure out how many people are not having hot lunch.

Kelly: And so the other day there were 3 people absent, so we figured out there were 19 people here. And there were 7 people having cold lunch. And so this little boy, keep in mind he’s seven, he said, “We need to order 12.” I said, “How do you know that?” And he goes, “Well, because 19 is 10 and nine, and there’s a seven in the nine. So that leaves one, ten, two, which is 12.” I’m like where’s the video camera when I need it? That’s coming from a seven year old. And I’m like, that’s really like algebra.

Kelly: So people don’t realize that kids can do it. You just don’t teach them the procedure first. You get them to understand, you give them the tools so they can visually see the math, because math is supposed to be visual. But we were never taught that way, and people are so scared to jump out of their safety zone to try something that they don’t understand themselves.

Christina: I actually saw something today that was talking about what keeps us from success is safety. We feel safe and this is comfortable for us to kind of remain here. And when we get out of our comfort zone, it’s hard, but that’s where successful change can happen, is when we get out of that.

Christina: So to wrap things up, I like to leave with a little bit of advice and sometimes changing our teaching can be very overwhelming. So if there’s one thing that you could suggest that teachers who are listening should try to incorporate into their classroom, what would that be?

Kelly: I guess I would have to say don’t tell the kids that they’re wrong, but ask them how they figured out their answer. And don’t tell them how to figure it out, but let them explain their thinking, because then, while they’re explaining it, 95% of the time they figure out what they did wrong and they look at you and like, oh yeah now I get it.

Kelly: So if we stop telling them how to do something and let them figure it out in their own way, the math sticks more. So I would say to stop standing up there and telling them, no, that’s not right, try again. Or who’s got the right answer. That was my hardest thing to do. But when I stopped doing it, I put a big question on my clipboard and on my desk. I had it everywhere. My question was how did you know? And so I just started with that one question, and then ventured into others later. But that was my question. How did you know? And the kids had to explain it. And like I said, 95% of the time they figure it out before you even get to the end of the problem.

Christina: Awesome. I love that, making sure that we’re adding in that question of how did you know, anytime. And not just when they’re right. We often will ask that when we know that a kid has the right answer, because we want them to explain the correct thinking, the correct way to do it, but we need to be using that even for incorrect answers.

Kelly: Yep. That is true.

Christina: I love it. Well, thank you very much Kelly for helping to inspire everyone out there to be building math minds, and I think that that is a wonderful place to start with that.

Kelly: Thank you very much.

If you want more in depth math professional development, I’d love to have you come join me inside the Build Math Minds PD site. Enrollment opens only once a year to the public, but a little birdie told me that we might be opening up enrollment soon for people who are on the waitlist. Since you give up your time each week to spend it here with me on the podcast, I thought I’d give you the inside scoop. So head on over to to get details about the PD site and get yourself added to the waitlist.

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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.