Welcome fellow Recovering Traditionalists to Episode 8. Get ready to be inspired and informed from Jeni Veale, a sixth grade teacher who has made some major changes in her teaching over 30 years of being a teacher.

Before you jump into the interview with Jeni, I want to let you know that Jeni mentioned a lot of great resources in this episode. All of them are linked at the show notes, which is buildmathminds.com/8. One resource she does mention is Graham Fletcher’s Foundation of Fractions course. We only open that course registration once a year for a short period of time and we’re getting ready to do that. Graham is doing a free training before registration opens up. A link to that free training on Demystifying The Fraction Rules We Teach, can be found at the show notes. And again that is buildmathminds.com/8. Now on to our interview.

Christina: All right, well I am excited to welcome onto the podcast, Jeni Veale. So Jeni, welcome. How are you?

Jeni: Oh, thank you. I’m very well thank you. Spring Day out here in Sacramento.

Christina: I wish! That’s all I can say when, when this actually gets posted it who knows what time of year it will be. But I am ready for winter to be over right now and we’re recording this so I’m a little jealous. You have some spring weather. Yeah. So to start off with, Jeni, can you tell the audience kind of, um, what your role is right now in school and kind of if it has changed along the way. Tell us a little bit about you, your history in education, I guess.

Jeni: Okay. So I’m in my 30th year of teaching and I’ve always been a classroom teacher. I’ve been in elementary schools mostly. Most of my time has been spent in fifth grade and third grade. I’ve done a little bit of computer resource and a little bit of P.E. Resource, but I have really kind of landed many years in fifth grade. Although this year I’m teaching sixth grade. So I’ve always just wanted to be in the classroom working with students and I’m fortunate to have been able to do that.

Christina: Awesome. So in, in your many years of teaching, uh, we get lots of profiles of professional development. Hopefully your district has done lots of professional development. Right? So one of the things that I am asking each, each participant or each interviewee in this podcast is kind of what sticks out of professional development throughout your years that has made an impact?

Jeni: Well, I think what’s interesting when you’ve been an educator for three decades now, so much has changed just on how to access professional development. One of the very first professional developments I went to see Marcy Cook at some conference probably back in the early 90s and I just remember really latching onto her materials. And, you know, I always feel like you can judge how good something is based on if you continue to do it year after year because there’s lots of things I’ve done for a couple of years and it was kind of gone by the wayside. But I mean, to this day I still have Marcy Cook tiles as, um, an activity that I do in my classroom and consider it a big part of my teaching.

But it really wasn’t until the last 10 years that you could access all of this online information. So, which I think is both kind of helpful, but then also an extra challenge because you really have to kind of figure out, uh, how to filter it because there’s so much, I mean, you’re right in my inbox every morning has multiple different things that I can do in an when you’re, I’m a general ed teacher, so it’s not just math. I also have all of the other disciplines that I’m teaching. So I think that that’s been, um, a really a big challenge, but also so exciting because I have learned so much about math and I’ve always enjoyed math. I mean, I’ve loved teaching math, but I really think it’s been in the last, well really four or five years that I’ve really been able to focus in on some of these.

Um, maybe they’re not even newer strategies, but things that I’ve just learned about, um, you know, that through, through professional development, one of the questions I always like to ask is what was your teaching like before you got professional development? Yeah, well that’s the thing. And, and like we were just talking the other day about, um, you know, with the new standards and all the multiple ways, and I said, you know what, I love to do the area model for a multiplication of large numbers, like as myself. Like that’s kind of like my “go-to”, but I didn’t know of that. I mean, until four or five years ago I did. I’d never seen it before. So, so not only did, I mean, like most of us who are older, most of us who are teachers, you know, we were taught in a very traditional way, uh, just being taught formulas and algorithms.

And then that’s kind of what we taught because that’s how we learned it. And they’re just, you know, I mean like, so to me, Marcy Cook though, she is someone who that’s that kind of problem solving and, and I often have a hard time getting the other teachers to kind of even look at her materials sometimes because I think it just looks like, well, it’s just a bunch of tiles there, but it’s like if you really dig in, right, there’s because you have multiple solutions and they have to fit in a certain way. Um, so I think that kind of engagement, it’s always been there, but it’s not until the last few years that you can use that type of really deep thinking in math with all the different strategies we’re now utilizing to teach.

Christina: So what do you say has been kind of the biggest shift in your teaching?

Jeni: Okay. Without a doubt. I think, um, so the first thing that I think that I really latched onto somewhere along the line and you know, getting some probably from professional development in my own district, uh, Graham Fletcher’s videos, uh, his progression videos. Really. Oh yeah. I started watching those. And I think what’s, you know, what’s so challenging is curriculum is one thing, but then the real life is, is that so many of our students come in, um, just not knowing foundational work. And so teaching fifth grade, and I swear the most painful part of teaching fifth grade for me has been fractions because the students just don’t have any comprehension at all. And here we’re supposed to be in a teaching, adding, subtracting with like and unlike denominators and it’s just, and then the stress is there to like, you just need to start teaching them the algorithms because, um, you’re behind already, right.

And so you just want to jump and then, you know, but you know, that’s not right. So anyway, so, uh, seeing Graham’s progression videos and then I kind of just latched on to a lot of his things. Then I took your class, or the Build Math Minds class, Graham’s class, last year was the first one I took. And I just, you know, and again, we were talking today at lunch about all of the different amounts of information that are out there, but for me his just explaining, and you’ve done this too in your number sense, you know, looking at a fraction from the unit fraction point of view and that we need to just be counting those fractions, you know, one 1/3, two 1/3, three 1/3. So like that’s just the one thing that’s never left me since I took his class.

And so I, I’m just incorporating that constantly because again, I’m trying to really kind of back fill for a lot of students who don’t have the conceptual foundation of fractions when we’re doing some pretty complicated procedures, you know, in sixth grade. So. So I think, and then I no longer have a labeled fraction tiles in my classroom. I just used the blank ones. And you know, it’s funny, I did a professional development a few weeks ago and my former principal was in it. She’s gone back to teaching and I made a comment about how I’ve transferred over and I’m thinking, I’m sure she’s thinking like, wait, I bought you class sets of labeled fraction tiles about seven years ago and now you don’t use them at all. And um, but I think that again, trying to get to a very concrete understanding, uh, and where you can’t live there when you’re in fifth and sixth grade, it’s very easy to do like class starters, you know, where you’re just showing some different patterns with the, the fraction bars and having students compare and contrast them. It’s just a way the kind of, and again, because some students are still struggling with accessing it, you know, sometimes their comparison is comparing by colors are comparing by size. And so anyway, so those are the things that I think that I just have really, um, give me a way to focus when I’m approaching fractions. Um, now when I’m teaching.

Christina: Yeah. Those progressions are so helpful because you, I mean, we all know at any grade level you’ve got kids that come in at various understandings of the topic that we need to cover. Right? Um, so understanding that progression so that you can tell where those kids are and how can we get them to that end product that we need them to be at. And so, especially with fractions, like, um, my own personal understanding of fractions was very limited because all I was taught was the operations, you know, just here algorithms of how to add, subtract, multiply and divide with fractions. I didn’t have that understanding of what a fraction was and then be able to use that to make sense of those algorithms. So it is really helpful to have all of those pieces. And one of the questions I like to ask is like a specific story about how your change in teaching has impacted student learning. So one of the things that I, I’m going to ask you to tell us a very specific one. Sometimes I leave this open, but you kind of brought it up of the switching from the labeled fraction bars to blank fraction bars. And for people who don’t know, the label fraction bars are the ones that say things like 1/2, like this bar is 1/2, this bar’s the 1/4, but then the blank fraction bars don’t have any of those labels on them. They’re just bars. So how, how has that made a difference for kids learning?

Jeni: Right. Well, I think for me, because what it brings back to students is that all fractions have to be based on what the one whole is. So when we’re using the unlabeled fraction bars, I set the one, the one is always a different tile. Some days it’s the pink, which is traditionally the 1/2. But I’ll say, okay, today the pink is one whole and I’ll mark it on usually on the overhead projector. And then I say, now I want you to take out the blue tiles and I want you to, uh, determined what the unit fraction is with the pink one being one whole. So, so they’re just not looking at a number of bar, a number. They really have to figure out how many equal parts to divide up what I have determined to be that one whole. And so it makes them rethink.

Um, it just makes them realize it’s just not, again, looking at a couple of numbers and knowing that you do something to those numbers, right? They have to identify the fraction at the very organic level at the basic level. And so then the other thing that’s really nice as I think we also kind of start dividing. We do a lot of work in fractions and we do a lot of work in whole numbers, but you know, we need to have them practicing very regularly, very quickly, fractions greater than one whole. So then when you use the unlabeled tiles with smaller increments, right? It’s super easy for a student sitting at his or her desk to then count fractions greater than one cause if your smallest tile, if that makes sense. If you’re small tile is one, then you can use a lot of tiles and pretty soon you know, you’re at 15 one-thirds and then that gives you five wholes.

So, uh, you know, a quick story kind of just about, and I don’t know, you know, how much children really change, but we, I was talking, I had a paraeducator for a few years in, in fifth grade. And my frustration, I felt like with students not even understanding how to find one half of anything, like they just didn’t get it. And it was just like, I was like, I can’t believe this. How do, how do they not having not ever, you know, divided a cookie, had their parents tell them to do this. And then my paraeducator said, but you know, children don’t really share things anymore. Everyone has their own package of little cookies or their own package of crackers. I thought like, wow, like is that because it’s, to me something that to me is so fundamental, right, is what is one half of anything.

But I mean really many children struggle with that as a concept. And so it does feel different to me than when I was a child and my sister and I, and we’d always, you know, if you’d had something you had to cut in half, one person cut it in half and the other person got to pick first because they assumed you’re one half wasn’t going to be exactly equal. So they were going to pick first and they could get slightly bigger, you know, so. So I just, I really a believer that, you know, I can’t go wrong by going back to these very concrete manipulatives with which to have children looking at, you know, fractions as a part of a whole.

Christina: Yeah. There’s so many things that we’ve learned concretely, the mathematics back when, when we were kids that kids don’t have those experiences with. It’s the sharing things and things like money now, money as a context for a lot. And with fractions, it’s really nice a lot of times to use that. But kids don’t have those experiences now to have real money. Everything’s done with cards and debit cards, credit cards, everything that nobody handles real money. Very. Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. There’s all of those experiences that we kind of take for granted that built our conceptual understanding that our students don’t have the opportunities to do that.

Jeni: Yeah, no, agreed. Yes. Yeah. Money is the same thing. Exactly. I walked in, I was tutoring a student during intercession. He walked in, he goes, Whoa, I don’t know how to kill him. He like, you know, I just had some bills and stuff laid out and he’s like, I have no idea what goes on. This was like, wow. So yes.

Christina: Okay. So our last question is always, um, for teachers who are listening to this and are wanting to make a change in their teaching, um, it can feel really overwhelming to think about, you know, totally switching your teaching from a really traditional style to more of a conceptual style. So instead of trying to think big picture, I want to have people take small steps. And so I’m asking everybody to kind of give like, what’s one thing that you suggest that people try in their classroom?

Jeni: Yeah. So again, I think what I, I would say for me is, you know, the lessons, often when we have our lessons, they can be pretty, it’s hard to just recreate a whole new lesson are totally change, a big lesson. But if you have, you know, if a math block starts with something very small and like, you know, so like I’ve just saying before like laying out some two different fractions and having students compare or contrast them or which one doesn’t belong website or, uh, you know, I took Dan Finkel’s, the Games, uh, mini thing you did. Mini-course on the games and so, and I’ve kind of changed some of those games too, like have fractions that, that nickels, dimes or you know, someone in the class actually said it like nickels, dimes and pennies to halves, one-fourths, and one-eighths and first one to get to seven.

Um, when rolling those dice in the dice represent the numerator, right? So, so you know, if you roll a three and you decided I’m going to do three one-halves and so they count on the number line one, one half, two and a half, three one-halves. Right. And trying to get towards seven. But I just think like things like that because students need that constant reinforcement and fraction. So even though I might be doing my typical chapter might be geometry or might be, oh I just got done with the independent and dependent variables. It’s okay to start off a maths or your math block with something that’s very fraction specific to fractions, whether it’s a game or a that Steve Wyborney, those Splats like Oh yeah, those are great, right. Just to spend a few minutes, uh, very regularly. Um, working just having them looking at fractions and thinking about fractions I think is a good way to do it.

Yes and it, sometimes in my lessons, just go back to like, you know, open up. I mean just again, cause I’m prepping for six different subjects in a day. Even though like I love math. I mean, I really, that is where I put a lot of my extra thinking. Most of my extra thinking, some days, you know, I’m, we’re really digging deep into our five paragraph essays. And so math gets a little bit of a, you know, takes a back burner. So the lesson might be laid out me in the book in a way I might not teach it, but if I can just pull something else in on the side, mmm. You know, to start it off. I think that’s a good way to end in 3-Act Math Tasks. I’ll just put there there, you know, at the end too. I also, you know, I love using the three act math tasks a couple of times, a unit, um, just to get kids really working on a big task and that they can really dig deep into. Um, so that’s, I think another really good way just to start. And I, and I kind of, I’m done really worried about like on a three act math task, which is from Graham. Well, there’s a lot of people with that is like, you know, not all the kids, you know, we have a lot of kids that don’t solve it, but it’s the process of thinking about it and working in the groups and all the discourse. I think that’s so valuable.

Christina: Absolutely, yeah, yeah, yeah. So those are two, two great things. Even though she gave you two, there are two great ones. One little one that, you know, trying to find small places every day to put some kind of, whether it’s fractions or if you’re working with younger grades, something where kids have been struggling with that. You don’t want to just forget it like every day. Be constantly working on these just for a few minutes each day and then bringing in those big rich tasks, like three act math tasks. And in the show notes of the podcast, I’ll link everything that she mentioned. She’s mentioned a lot of great resources. Um, so I’ll make sure that as we’re putting together stuff, we make links to all of those show notes. All right. So thank you Jeni very much for giving us inspiration. It’s been wonderful to hear the ways that you are bringing in some fractional understandings for those kids in upper grades because it is a place where not only our students, but often times we struggle with because we didn’t learn it that way.

Jeni: Yes, yes, definitely. Yeah. Well thank you.

Christina: Thank you Jeni.

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 buildmathminds.com/bmm. 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.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Demystifying the Fraction Rules We Teach, FREE webinar with Graham Fletcher

Marcy Cook

Graham Fletcher’s Progression Videos

Foundation of Fractions Course with Graham Fletcher

Blank Fraction Tiles from Hand2Mind

Which one doesn’t belong website

Dan Finkel’s Games Mini-Course (only members of the BMM PD site have access to this course)

Steve Wyborney’s Splat!

Graham Fletcher’s 3 Act Math Tasks

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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.