The Life-Changing Moment of My Teaching Career

Before Spring Break, I announced to the class that there would be a big surprise when they returned. Some guessed it would be different seats, others said new name tags, but I had a much grander revelation in store. After a year of collaboration and production, all of our Really Good Stuff tools and products finally arrived and I couldn’t wait to share them with the class. Our reading and math strategy animals are an integral part of my classroom as they support and enhance the district prescribed curriculum. Students have such a connection with the animals; some even believe the animals are real so I knew they would be delighted to see the accompanying hands-on tools. I decided to host a Premiere Party to share the exciting news.

First, I added the new decoding and comprehension banners to the Reading Roost (my guided reading area) along with the problem-solving strategy banners at Problem-Solving Pond.

Reading Roost center

To enhance the surprise, I added these special reveal curtains using plastic tablecloths and a winking Hazel as a special clue.

Reveal curtains

Next, I planned special centers in which students would be able to explore all of the new hands-on products and tools.

Math ToolsFinally, I made these adorable owl cupcakes and  wrote a special note on the door as a hint to the big surprise.

Owl cupcake

Reveal sign

When the class walked in, they were silent, staring at awe at the new room arrangement, balloons and cupcakes. I announced that we were having a Premiere Party to reveal a huge surprise. I explained that Really Good Stuff, a company that produces and sells teaching products, found our strategy animals online and loved them so much, they turned them into hands-on tools. I showed them the Really Good Stuff website with all of our products and they oohed and aahed.  As I scrolled through the products, I explained that they would get to explore each one in special Astute Hoot centers and they squealed in delight.


Briana watching video

As students rotated through each Astute Hoot center, I was so moved by their excitement and enthusiasm. They were truly captivated by these new tools and demanded to know when we were going to use them “for real”. Their comments were so touching. “I’m so proud of you, Mrs. Murphy! You are amazing!” and “Mrs. Murphy, I am so lucky that you are my teacher.” My favorite was, “I know you are going to be famous so I better get your autograph.”

Rereading racoon

Reading Hazel books

Hazel Books

Modeling Mouse CountersMath mats

Problem-Solving Poster

Paco Pointer

Problem-Solving Journals

A few students even asked to write reviews and testimonials of the products. They are truly our biggest fans!

Erika Testimonial

Connor TestimonialBrody Testimonial

Briana Testimonial

Josh Testimonial

These pictures don’t fully convey the true joy of learning I saw as students explored all of the new materials. This was definitely the most monumental moment in my teaching career and one that will stay with me forever. Not only are my students getting to use these new, innovative tools to help them learn, but they witnessed that with drive, determination, and dedication, dreams do come true.

Check back each week to see these exclusive Really Good Stuff hands-on in action. Download See What The Hoot’s About, a comprehensive sample file that contains a glimpse into the magical world of Astute Hoot, guaranteed to spark enthusiasm in your classroom.


Presenting Brian Breaking Badger

Hi, I’m Brian Breaking Badger, and I love to break numbers apart.
Separating place value is considered my art!
I break numbers into ones and tens with my teeth,
Then I work with the place value underneath.
I’ll add or subtract the tens, then the ones.
Before you know it, the problem’s all done!

WHAT is breaking apart? Students use place value knowledge to decompose or break each number apart into hundreds, tens and ones.  Depending on the problem, students will either add or subtract each place value (first hundreds, then tens, and finally ones).  Students will then add or subtract all numbers to solve the problem. Read more about Brian’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

Break apart badger work sample (2)

WHY is breaking apart important?  When students use the breaking apart strategy, they are decomposing numbers by place value. This help helps strengthen mental computation, builds number sense and solidifies foundational place value skills. It also serves as an efficient method to double-check solutions as students.

HOW do I teach breaking apart? Teach breaking in isolation first so that students become familiar with the process of decomposing numbers. After proficiency is demonstrated, students can apply this strategy with story problems.

WHEN should I use breaking apart? This is an ideal strategy for developing mathematicians who have a solid place value and number sense foundation. It is most effective to introduce the breaking apart strategy after students are proficient with the hopping strategy since hopping requires place value identification and decomposition skills.

Helpful Hints:

Provide place value and expanded notation practice. Students need a strong place value foundation to decompose or break apart numbers.  Provide regular practice through center games and kinesthetic activities. Simple games such as “Race to 100” where students roll dice and add numbers using place value manipulatives are engaging and effective.  This game is the perfect addition to weekly math centers.


Race to 100


Place value practice

Act out the problem.  Increase students’ understanding of the mathematical context by acting out the story problem.  Students also love to show their badger fangs when they break apart the numbers.

Jake with Brian Break Apart Badger teeth (2)

Presenting Tallying Toad

Hello, I’m Tallying Toad.
I get you started on the problem-solving road.
A tally mark is a straight line to show one;
Group tallies into five is how it’s done.
First make four tallies, nice and straight;
Then make a diagonal fifth tally and you’re doing great!

Todd Tallying Toad is our newest animal in our Problem-Solving Pond: A Common Core Math Strategy Unit. The Problem-Solving Pond  was created to help teachers overcome Common Core math challenges and employ problem-solving strategies with confidence and fidelity.  Read more about Todd’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.
WHAT is tallying? Students use tally marks to show the numbers represented in the story problem.


WHY is tallying important? When students use the tally strategy, they learn to count and notate groups of 5, strengthening number sense in the process. Tallying is an easy, quick way to double-check solutions for kindergarten and first-grade students.

Ella working

HOW do I teach tallying? Teach tallies in isolation first so that students become proficient making neat, organized tally marks. After proficiency is demonstrated, introduce tallying as a problem-solving strategy and teach students to apply within a mathematical context.

Tally example

WHEN should I use tallying? This is an ideal strategy for beginning mathematicians who are learning to count and record numbers. Tallying is a great way to represent smaller numbers in story problems. Students get comfortable with tallies and will try to apply to larger numbers, making some teachers cringe. Refrain from discouraging use of tallies for larger numbers; students must independently develop understanding that tallying is not an efficient, effective strategy for story problems with larger numbers.

Helpful hints:

• Supply models and provide kinesthetic practice. Beginning mathematicians often lack dexterous fine motor skills, which can impede formation of neat, straight tally marks. Provide craft sticks, Wikki Sticks or pipe-cleaners (cut in half) and have students make a model of the tallies before drawing them on paper. Allow students to practice kinesthetically in salt or Jell-o trays or trace on bumpy paper. Students can also practice making tallies with Play-Doh.

tally mark craft sticks Include visual support. As beginning mathematicians start to use tally strategy, they need visual support to ensure that tally marks are straight neatly organized into groups of 5.


• Practice counting by 5’s. Some students struggle with skip counting and could benefit from repeated practice. Chanting 5’s while walking in line, calendar time, even clean-up time all serve as opportunities for fun skip counting practice.

Counting by 5 hands

Why? The Simple, Yet Essential Question

As teachers, we are programmed to listen for the correct answer and are appeased when we hear it, assuming that students understand and are ready to move on. However, this is a serious misconception as students are missing out on a vital opportunity to explain and justify their thinking.  Asking “Why?” provides critical insight to student understanding as students give the following responses:

  • A strong explanation that describes process to class
  • An inaccurate explanation that shows a student’s misunderstanding or inability to justify an answer

Besides assessing understanding, asking “Why?” provides students with opportunities to:

  • Notice mistake(s) and self-correct the answer
  • Reveal mistake(s) or misunderstanding shared by the class
  • Take risks and build confidence
  • Strengthen communication skills
  • Give alternate explanations
  • Summarize explanations given by other students

Including this simple question has major consequences: it promotes a language-rich classroom; supports inquiry-based instruction; and builds classroom community.

Asking good follow-up questions can open the door “why-d” to learning.

Download our FREE Essential Questions & Prompts, a sneak peek at our upcoming Common Core Problem Solving Unit.

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