Resources mentioned in this episode:

ST Math

Graham Fletcher’s Krispy Kreme 3 Act Task

Stephanie Plum books

High-yield Routines for Grades K-8

Teaching Student Centered Mathematics PreK-2 or 3rd-5th

Welcome fellow recovering traditionalist to Episode 94. Today, we are getting inspiration to make small teacher moves, with Vicky Tilson.

Welcome to Build Math Minds the podcast, where fidelity to your students is greater than fidelity to your textbook. I’m your host, Christina Tondevold, the recovering traditionalist and Founder, where my mission is to change the way we teach elementary math to our kiddos. Are you ready to start building math minds and not just creating calculators? Let’s get started.

Today is a different kind of episode.  You get to listen in on a conversation I had with Vicki Tilson.  Vicki has gone through my online courses so I wanted her to share about some of the changes they have made at her school and how it’s impacted student learning of math.  One of the things you will hear her mention is the impact of small teacher moves.  She says “the learning of math isn’t about the curriculum, it’s about the teacher moves.”

There is a lot more great information Vicki shares and lots of resources as well. Also, if you are interested in taking one of my online courses registration is now open through May 13. Go to to get enrolled in a course.

Okay, here’s my conversation with Vicki.

Christina – Ok Vicki, Thank you so much for joining me for this podcast. I would like to just start off with having you tell us a little bit about where you are right now in education and kind of a little bit about your journey. What is, what have you taught? What are you doing now? Just give us some background info about you.

Vicki – Okay. First of all, thank you for asking me to be part of this podcast. My educational career has been, long. And I started out fresh out of college teaching 4th grade in a small town in Iowa. And I was there for a few years and in that time, got married and had my first child. And at that point I said, “I want to be a full-time mom, not a full-time teacher.” I didn’t feel like I could do both well. 

Vicki – So I ended up resigning from my position, at which time the principal came and said “Would you work half-time?” And so I, of course I would do that because then I could be a half-time teacher and a full-time mom, which we all know that means a full-time teacher and a full-time mom. But, it made it a little more workable for me. I did that and I was a reading specialist for a while. We then moved and I was a reading specialist, halftime in another district. We ended up moving again. At that point I said, I just need to be a mom. 

Vicki – So for quite a few years, actually, I have not taught almost as long as I have taught. And I came back into the education world when my kids were a little bit older, and started in as a reading specialist again. Then was offered the opportunity for a full-time 2nd grade position, which I took. And after a few years then we started doing instructional coaching in the state of Iowa. It was kind of a pilot program to see how this would work. And I decided I wanted to give that a shot. So, I have been an instructional coach for, seven years. And in the building that I taught. So I have those relationships already created with most of the teachers. When I started, anyway. 

Vicki – Now I do have that relationship with new teachers that have come in and just absolutely love what I do. I say, every day is a challenge. Every day is something new just like it is if you’re a teacher. So that pretty much is my, path. I’ve had some great passions, one of which was reading, and one is math. And so that is, my math passion has really been more of late as I have discovered how fragile my mathematics understanding was throughout the years as I was teaching. I’d really like to go back and apologize to all the parents. And I think there’s a saying, and I’m not sure if you are the person that said this, that, you know, if you can’t apologize for the way you taught five years ago, you’re maybe not changing. You’re not growing and learning. And, so to all those parents, I’m sorry for all the things I did do and didn’t do. I like to think I made up for it with love for their children. But there are times that I know. I now know better, so I would therefore do better.

Christina – Yes, thank you Maya Angelou for that one, right? “As we know better, we do better.” And the saying about if we can’t “If we aren’t embarrassed of our past teaching,” that I believe came from Robert Kaplinsky. I stole that from him, but I use it all the time because I’m the same way. I think back to the students that I once had, and I feel so bad for the way that I taught them but I was doing the best that I knew at the time. And I thought I was serving them well and helping them learn in the best way possible. 

Christina – It’s funny, almost every person that I’ve got to chat with in these podcast interviews has said something similar. Like we are we’re. We want to go back and reteach our past students. Now that we know this stuff we are embarrassed. Because it’s, hard to, to once we learn something new it is hopeful for the future to come, right? You get excited and you’re hopeful about everything that now you can do different. But then there is that feeling of, oh man. What I could have done with this information earlier. That’s a hard.

Vicki – Or even with my own children, how I could have done. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Christina – Right. That’s right. So, through “Build Math Minds” you’ve taken both the Flexibility Formula for K-2, and the one that’s 3-5, right? You’ve done them both.

Vicki – I’ve done both of the courses. And I’ve also done a Number Sense 101, 201, and fraction course, twice.

Christina – You’ve been around a long time here, Vicki.

Vicki – I actually, this I’ve done in the last three years. – Oh, wow. – The last three years. I have been a constant student of yours and Graham Fletcher’s and anyone else that I can get my hands on. And I credit that to my principal. She is an amazing woman who has brought wonderful opportunities to our school. 

Vicki – When she came in, the very first year she was here, we had a student in 5th grade that we were really concerned about math achievement. She was really struggling. And our system is set up that we have PreK-5 in our building. And then 6-8 goes to the middle school. And this little peanut was kinda the reason that we kinda started embarking on this journey. And 5th grade, we’re considering putting her in a special ed program. And, as my principal said, “This should not be happening.” You know, this shouldn’t be what’s happening. We, have kind of let her down in our system because of what we didn’t know. I mean, well-meaning of course. Always well-meaning. We have wonderful teachers and there’s always that drive to do the best by your students. 

Vicki – But we just thought, there must be something missing. And so that’s when we kind of started looking further into you know, we’ve got to be checking out this Number Sense business, and once again, once we started down this journey, it became very clear that we have to do better. And so that really started the journey and then, came the opportunities for the courses. That’s when I jumped on board and she jumped on board and now we have a staff that’s pretty well moving down the road. We’re all in different places. We are not experts. I mean, I’m talking to the experts. So we are not experts.

Christina – I don’t even consider myself an expert, Vicki, we’re always learning.

Vicki – We are, and that that’s exactly where we’re at. And we are all in different places in our journey which even makes it more special that we can learn from one another.

Christina – So what do you feel like? So let’s chat about that here for a moment. You’re, an instructional coach, so you’re not in the classroom teaching right now, because one of the questions that I like to ask is kind of what’s what was your teaching like before, and then how has it changed? But, you made this comment about you were seeing this as a whole in your school. 

Christina – So what were the things that you guys were trying and doing when you would see kids struggling, before you guys started down this path? Like that story about the kiddo that was, you know, thinking we need to put her into special ed. What had you tried before? And then, can you explain kind of what you guys have started doing instead that has made a difference?

Vicki – Well, when we discovered this, we are trying more procedural just strictly procedural understanding for this student. We pulled in any program that we could to kind of look to see, is this kind of the magic ticket? Is this the magic ticket? And there just wasn’t one. The, you know, it just came down to there wasn’t. And then that started our learning down Number Sense. The principal that I spoke of, also had worked with, I don’t know if you’re familiar with ST Math. I assume you are. She had been using that or it had been used at the school prior. And so that’s kinda how that she started talking to me about it a little bit more is, you know, maybe we need to really be looking at how to make math more visual for our students. And that is another piece of our journey to get where we are today. So we have ST Math available to all of our students that they work on it most, a little bit every day. 

Vicki – Our interventions have, for our striving mathematicians has come from your Fluency Through Flexibility in our younger kids and also the 3-5 assessment. I end up doing some of those for teachers. Sometimes they want to do it themselves because I’m not a an interventionist or, but I will help out, you know, to do that and then help them plan. Now, where do we go from here? And so we’re much more strategic about what we’re doing for interventions for our students to help them develop a greater capacity for Number Sense, and to see math visually. 

Christina –  So, and that’s something you’re doing for intervention when kids are there. And have you seen a change in the general teaching of mathematics as a whole as well?

Vicki – Absolutely. That’s just like just a little small piece. That was our intervention piece in the classroom. Yes, there are huge changes that are, that have happened. And again, everybody’s on this whole different line of how much they’re diving in. 

Vicki – But the one thing that I think we did right is, we looked at this as the understanding of Number Sense and the bringing us into our building is not about our curriculum as much as it is about small teacher moves, and how you listen more to children, how you ask probing questions, how you guide, the use of number routines is really one of our small steps is helping teachers. You know, if you had nothing else to do, what could you do? 

Vicki – So we’ve been, we have been looking at the high yield routine book and using some of those routines to help us. As far as our staff as a whole, a number of people have taken your courses. And they are also of the mind that once you see this, once you hear, you can’t unhear, you can’t unsee. You start to notice things within your students and they’re making adaptations to the curriculum in small ways, to make math be more visual for them and kind of working through that CRA progression to help them in their mathematical journey. So it has changed how we look at things here.

Christina – I loved, I wrote this down. And this may end up being the title of the podcast but, something around this, but you said it and I want to come back to it because I think it is so powerful is that, it’s doesn’t have to be this big sweeping change that gets made. You said it’s small teacher moves. And each teacher is deciding what their kind of small teacher move is, because they’re all on this different spectrum of what they’re feeling comfortable with trying out. And I think that that is a big takeaway that I want people to get from that little piece that you said there, because it’s so powerful that you don’t have to change everything. Just finding small ways to make math more visual, to include Number Sense. And if you can, I know we’ve kind of talked pre time here but, can you tell one of the stories that you had about how these changes have impacted the student learning?

VIcki – Yes. Trying to decide which, I want to share with you. I think we’ll go… One thing that I guess maybe the the before and the after. I was in a 5th grade wing, and working with two of the teachers there.  And one of the things that we did is we did a little pre-test to see what fraction knowledge our students had. And in this case, I was in the room when they were doing the assessment, the pre-assessment, and one little guy. Well, he’s not little he’s taller than I am. But he was in tears because he was so much into, what is the right answer. I want to know the steps to do this. I’m frustrated. And he was in tears and he was begging with me just to help him to know how to do it. Like tell me how I can show 5/6. Tell me how in a length model, I can show 5/6. And it was a really long process to get him, first of all, to kinda calm down and to understand what the purpose was for the activity that we were doing which was to assess and figure out where what’s our next teacher move, by what the kids know. And so that was kinda that one end that made me think, “Oh, wow. We have some work, some more work to do here.” 

Vicki – This was kinda before the teacher was on board with making math much more visual. Then I go next door to the next room on a different day. And, we were doing the same activity. But I was helping the kids to understand that the reason we’re wanting to look into this is to, how can we make it so they could see fractions. They can see math. And I likened it to or kinda related it to, in reading, we always talk about making pictures of what we’re reading, and make pictures in your mind as you’re reading. And, I wanted them to be able to see math the same way that they were seeing their reading. beCause we have a school of amazing readers and let’s get there with seeing math. And so I was describing this to a classroom. 

Vicki – A few days later, three little guys came up. We were working on an activity with fractions/area models. And he, or the three little guys came up and one of them spoke and they said, “We finally get it. We finally get what you’re saying about seeing math, and how it just makes things so much easier for them.” So now we have kids, we were solving, oh, a week or so ago, the three-act task of the Krispy Kreme donuts. If you’ve seen that large, that large box, it looks, you know heavenly wonderful to eat. But how many donuts are there? And the stamina, the perseverance, the grit, the ability these students had to take the information that they could see and help move them into what’s going to make sense. And that, really was kind of eye-opening to me as they would come up with numbers in the 10 and 20,000 donuts. And, oh wait. That doesn’t make sense. And so they would scale it back. 

Vicki – I mean, they were just putting every little piece of energy but there was not one child that became frustrated. They just kept working. Because of what they could see, what they knew they were capable of. That no math problem situation was too hard for them. That was really fun to see, that they now have this visual of math. They’re not following a procedure. They’re not working just with numbers. They’re working with the pictures in their head to help them solve their math.

Christina – Right. And I think that, sometimes teachers and even parents, I know like sometimes I’ve heard from friends because I don’t mind it. But when the kids come home and their homework we’ll have kids draw a model of a problem. And, I will get texts from friends saying, “I do my why, are we doing this? How do I help my kid draw this model?” And they get frustrated because it just seems like this extra step. And a pointless step.  But I love your description of it. It is so much tied to making sense of the mathematics. 

Christina – Just like when we are reading. If you read a book. Think about your favorite book, right? And I, think I’ve put a meme out there about, I don’t know if anybody else reads Janet Evanovich’s books, but “Stephanie Plum.” And there’s a very specific character in there, Ranger, and you are creating this picture of the characters in the book. And when I had heard that that series was going to be made into a movie, instantly, I thought, Dwayne Johnson The Rock needs to be Ranger. Like, that was who that’s the image I had created like that’s the actor that should be that. Listen. And they did not cast him, they cast somebody else. And you are like, what? That is not what I saw in my mind, right? 

Christina – Right. – Like you, can’t, you can’t imagine reading a book and not creating those pictures as you’re reading. And yet in mathematics, we expect people to operate and do the mathematics without ever creating this visual image to go along with it. And it is such a piece that is lacking in the way that we were ever taught mathematics. And, so as parents and all of us, even some of us old school teachers, I like to call us recovering traditionalist instead of old teachers. But it’s hard for us to realize the power in that model drawing. It’s not just an extra step to make our kids do. It’s helping them build connections to fully understand what they’re doing, just like we want them to do in reading. That’s it is such a big piece. So, I love that.

Vicki – Yeah, I actually, I thought about you yesterday because we have, you know, part of our journey along the way is we have a group that meets on Mondays.  Every other Monday. And the focus is totally Number Sense and student centered mathematics. And so last night as we’re meeting, one of the teachers said that in her classroom, she was describing the concept of what they were going to do or the activity they were going to do. And her kids are like, “Hey, bring it on. We can do this.” I mean, they are so confident because they know the strategies, the tools that they have to help them be successful, to be able to see this math is, just incredible what our students are doing. 

Vicki – And every day there are multiple teachers that are that will stop me in the hallways and saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re not going to believe what happened today. You know, today, I,” and then we’ll have a story and, you know, like one teacher came up and said, she was doing a How Do You Know routine. She said, “How do you know that 1/3 is less than 1/2?” And the very first child said, “Well, I made a picture of two pies in my head. And I cut one into 1/3s and one into halves. It was very easy.” Another student, and I think another student said, “I know,” and this is without having much fraction introduction. Except for a few activities and a few number routines and this person said, “I know because 1/3 is 1/6 less than a 1/2.” – That was coming from a 3rd grader.

Vicki – Yeah, and so it’s just like they’re making these pictures in their mind. And I think that’s huge. And now if the teacher had just started into their lesson without having these opportunities to get to see what kids are picturing, and let them talk, they’re teaching each other. That’s what is so cool is they are teaching each other. But the instructor, the teacher, has the tools that they need to be able to ask the right questions and to help clear, you know, have kids clarify, attend to precision when they’re talking. I mean, there’s just, there just so many good things happening. You just need to come here and visit us.

Christina – I know. Been a while since I’ve been to Iowa. – Yeah. – So to wrap things up here, you, I want to, I know we had kinda talked about some of the questions beforehand, but I’m going to change it just slightly here. Because that focus of what you said about the small teacher moves. And,you being an instructional coach have seen teachers on this whole spectrum of getting to change their teaching. And you’ve got some who dive way in, some who are just dipping their toes in. But what do you think are, is maybe the most effective place to start? Because you’ve probably seen people start in all these different areas of trying different things. So if somebody wanted to get started, where would you suggest that they try? Like when you get new teachers coming in, I guess what’s what’s the most effective thing to get going in making these small teacher moves?

Vicki – Okay. Besides taking your course, which of course would be the first thing. I think people, teachers need to understand why. Why this is important. And maybe what Number Sense is and what it is not, and what it looks like in a classroom. Like we can, you know, cite examples of times where you could just tell that the student did not have a very solid understanding of Number Sense. Whether it’s a number line or, you know, do you just name it, you can see examples. 

Vicki – So first thing I think people need to understand is why it’s important. Because once you have the why, then that leads you to the next step of understanding. And I know that in your flow, your Flexibility Formula course, that understanding is that first step. And as I said to you earlier, I have become so aware of how fragile my knowledge is. And I know that teachers my build, the building I work in, have as well. In fact, one teacher, a 3rd grade teacher last night said, “The fraction unit was the bane of my existence.” She said, “I just dreaded this time of year when that would come up.” And she said, “And this year it’s become my favorite because of the small moves I’m making, and the ability to see really how deep my students are understanding fractions. How it is all making sense to them because of the small moves I’ve made to help it be more visual and for their deeper conceptual understanding.” So I would say, that’s a long way of saying understanding why is so critical. And then that moves you into those next small moves which, again, a small move would not be taking your course.

Christina – That’s a big move.

Vicki – That’s a power packed move. But I think it’s essential. It’s really been an essential piece of our journey. But it, with you, if you didn’t have that understanding the why what it is, what it isn’t, and then start with that small move of number routines. I think that, just if you start that with the understanding that it’s not a time to teach, it’s a time to listen, and let kids help teach each other. I think that’s a really big part of that. Once you see the kids start working, what’s going on in their heads to help each other to understand, I think you’re golden. You’re golden then.

Christina – That was awesome. I might just steal that last little bit. I don’t know if you caught it, but I wrote it down. I might have to make a video about that but I’m going to steal that line from you, Vicki. That number routines are not a time to teach. It’s a time to listen. And that is a small, but very impactful move that you can make is not wanting to talk as much and explain, but letting the kids do the talking. And you just listening more. And if we can make that small move then you start to see other things that you can do the next move and the next move.

Vicki – Right, exactly. – Yeah. – If you’re going to be student-centered it’s going to have, it guides your instruction. It guides what you do next. So we have, I don’t know if you’re still taping, but we have like John Van de Walle’s student-centered math books and we take that book, and we take our curriculum. Some teachers, I better say, we, I always put myself kinda we in that partnership kind of, idea. We’ve taken those two side-by-side and just what activities, what do they match? How are they working within the curriculum? And, that that’s been been huge. 

Vicki – And we’re finding out that some of these activities are really doing as well, if not better, if we’ll just listen to the kids and let the kids help each other learn. It, it’s, this has been a journey. And I thank you so much for this. Because without, if I hadn’t come across your courses with the introduction by my principal, because she’s the one that first, you know, told me your name. If that hadn’t happened, oh my gosh, I might’ve been done by now. Like I might’ve hung up my bell, my school bell. But it just keeps, it keeps me going. And our district is catching on where next year it’s our PD. That’s our PD focus. So, it’s huge.

Christina – Well, I’m honored to be a part of your math journey. This was a great conversation and lots of takeaways. You’ve mentioned a lot of things and I just want to thank you so much Vicki for taking the time to talk with me.  But more so taking the time to invest in your own learning and be able to share what you are learning and impact the teachers you work with and all the students that are coming through that school.  It is amazing.  Thank you so much for everything you do. 

Vicki – Thank you, I really appreciate it.  It is an honor and a privilege for me to work everyday with the people within my building and for the students.  We are lucky.  I am very thankful.  So thank you for having me.

Christina – You’re very welcome.  Thank you Vicki.

Christina – Thank you again Vicki.  I had such a good time talking with her and I hope she has inspired you to try some small teacher moves.  If you want to learn more about what teacher moves you can do that encourage kids to make math more visual and build their number sense which builds their flexibility with numbers, come join me inside The Flexibility Formula course.  There’s one for Kindergarten through 2nd grade educators and one for educators in 3rd-5th grade.  Go to before May 13 to get enrolled in the course.

These episodes are sponsored by the online trainings that I do for elementary educators.  Registration for The Flexibility Formula K-2 and 3rd-5th is now open for a limited time.  These courses help you understand the foundation of number sense, how number sense builds kids’ flexibility with numbers, and how that impacts their ability to become fluent in the mathematics at your grade level.  Registration is open but not for long. Go to to learn more about each course and get signed up before registration closes.


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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.