Set Up Your Best Classroom Yet: Part 2

Yesterday as part of my blog series, Set Up Your Best Classroom Yet, I gave you a sneak peek into my second grade classroom with a focus on my guided reading area. I use the district prescribed curricula along with our reading, writing, and math strategy animals to help my students learn, apply, and transfer critical strategies across settings. My classroom décor centers around Hazel Hoot, an adorable green screech owl, and her special strategy friends. See how I integrate the Problem-Solving Pond along with our hands-on tools to support and enhance the required Saxon math curricula.

Astute Hoot Math Intervention Kit_RGB

Special Spaces

Problem Solving Pond

In our sequel, Hazel Meets the Math Strategy Friends, Hazel swoops down to catch her dinner at the local pond when she grabs Upton, an enchanted fish. Upton oversees Problem-Solving Pond and promises to introduce Hazel to his animal friends, all who teach a special problem-solving strategy. Using these strategies and Upton’s guidance, Hazel blossoms into an accomplished mathematician who is able to tackle problems with ease.

Math book_CU

In order to recreate the Problem-Solving Pond, I covered a bulletin board with fadeless blue water paper and added green tulle and silk pond stems to border the pond. Upton’s Solving Word Problems Poster and Strategies Banners are prominent features of Problem-Solving Pond; I reference them throughout each lesson. I printed our Problem-Solving Pond Bulletin Board Set added Velcro to the back of each strategy animal allowing me to detach to use during lessons.

Bulletin board setpondI found this stuffed animal on Ebay that looks just like Upton and hung it with fishing wire and a plastic hook. During guided practice, I toss Upton to students and he helps us complete the problem-solving steps. Students LOVE solving problems with him!

Problem-Solving Pond Upton with studentI also found inexpensive jars at Hobby Lobby to hold our hands-on tools such as Max’s Counters, Brian’s Slide and Learns, and Fiona’s Fact-Fluency Pencils and added these adorable labels.

Hands-on toolsDuring center time, students solve their Saxon story problems using the strategy animals and our Problem-Solving Journals. They also use our hands-on tools such as Problem-Solving Mats, Brian’s Slide and Learns and Fiona’s Fact-Fluency Flashcards to reinforce learned strategies and concepts.

Math Journal_CUMath Mats_CU

Students enjoy using the Astute Hoot rug to discuss their journal samples. They stand on the strategy animal that they used to solve the story problem and then discuss the strategies, process, and thinking they used.

breaking_badger_matRead tomorrow’s blog to see my Writing in the Wild West classroom space and accompanying hands-on tools.



Strengthen Mathematical Understanding in 4 Easy Steps

Mathematical understanding means that students understand the story problem and follow the problem-solving steps. Understanding story problems can be very challenging because it requires multi-step, higher-level thinking processes. Students are required to process several pieces of information before starting any mathematical operations. If students do not understand the problem, they will solve it incorrectly, even if they have a strong repertoire of strategies.  Strengthen your students’ mathematical understanding with these 4 easy steps:

1. Scaffold instruction: Mathematical understanding includes many steps: identify question; identify key information; get rid of erroneous information; determine the operation; solve using an appropriate, efficient strategy. Since mathematical understanding involves so many steps, teachers should teach each step explicitly and introduce the next step after proficiency is demonstrated. This allows the teacher to isolate individual steps first and then gradually integrate the steps together.

2. Incorporate multi-sensory activities: Allow students to act out the problem and use manipulatives to help students build understanding. In my classroom, students use Upton Understanding Fish to help them complete the problem-solving steps. I purchased a inexpensive, yellow Webkinz fish from Ebay to use as our classroom Upton.

Reading with Upton

During direct instruction, I model each of the problem-solving steps, thinking aloud as I go. I hold Upton right beside me and will often talk to him during my think-alouds. The students think it is funny, but it keeps them engaged. During guided practice, I toss Upton to different students, asking them to help me complete one of the problem-solving steps. Students also take turns using Upton to assist during independent problem-solving time.

Reading with Upton 2

The stuffed Upton fish has become a pivotal piece of my problem-solving instruction because it helps kids feel safe to take risks and discuss problem-solving steps. In fact, a few of my students have even asked their parents for their own Upton as a birthday or Christmas gift.

3. Use discussion questions and prompts:Students are more successful at solving math problems when they monitor and reflect upon their thinking and problem-solving steps as they work through problems. We often assume that students know how to thoroughly discuss their mathematical thinking and problem-solving steps, but like an other concept or skill, this must be taught in depth. Teachers must model the self-questioning process and provide multiple opportunities and support for students to practice it until they can use the questioning strategies independently.

I use Upton’s self-reflection questions and peer discussion prompts to facilitate mathematical discussion. I introduce one prompt or question at a time and add additional prompts in subsequent lessons.

MathProblemSolvingSelfReflectionandPeerDiscussionQuestions.pdf-6 (2)

During lunch (before our problem-solving time), I leave the new prompt or question right by Upton as if he is presenting it to the class. When I pick the kids up for lunch, I tell them that Upton left us something and they get so excited to read his new question or prompt.

4. Provide anchor charts: Post the problem-solving steps in a prominent place in classroom. I add a visual cue for each step to promote understanding. As you teach problem-solving, refer to these posted steps and encourage students to do so when solving independently as well.

Upton anchor chart

Download our Upton Understanding Fish problem-solving unit and accompanying self-reflection and peer discussion questions and prompts to help build mathematical understanding in your classroom.



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.


Emmy Equating Earthworm Is Here!

Emmy Equating Earthworm here.
I help you write a variety of equations without any fear.
Horizontally or vertically, it doesn’t matter the direction,
I will help you solve each one to numerical perfection.



Emmy Equating Earthworm  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. Emmy’s unit is perfect for general education, special education, RTI and math intervention. Read more about Emmy’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

WHAT is an equation? Students write an equation, or number sentence to solve a story problem or show their work after using another method (e.g., drawing a picture, using manipulatives, making a table, etc.).  Solving equations is the very beginning of being able to do algebra. The basic idea behind solving equations is to be able to find the missing number.  Students can use a variety of strategies to solve equations, including traditional algorithms. Traditional algorithms involve repeating a series of steps over and over as in carrying in addition and borrowing in regrouping.

Emmy Equating Earthworm

WHY are equations important? Traditional algorithms have been the core of many elementary mathematics programs for years as educators focused on quick, precise calculations and paper-pencil drill. Math instruction has drastically changed the last few years with the implementation of Common Core State Standards and the heavy emphasis on science and math instruction. Students are now required to solve real-world math problems using a variety of strategies while explaining thinking and justifying solutions.

Traditional algorithms, or equations, are still acceptable to use as secondary strategies to double-check work and to summarize the mathematics behind the problem-solving process.

Emmy Equating Earthworm3

HOW do I teach equations? The first major step is to teach students how to find a missing number. This means that students need to be familiar with their basic facts first. Practice a variety of ways to find the missing number using many different equations.  Next, teach addition and subtraction without regrouping; once proficiency is demonstrated, introduce regrouping.

WHEN should I introduce equations? Basic equations and number sentences should be introduced when you begin teaching the problem solving process.  This is also an ideal strategy for proficient mathematicians who have a strong number sense foundation, fluency with basic facts, and are able to quickly conceptualize a problem and use a traditional algorithm to solve.  It is most effective to introduce traditional algorithms after students are able to regroup numbers using place value manipulatives. It is critical that students understand and can articulate the regrouping process before using a traditional algorithm.

Helpful hints:

Model writing equations and number sentences. Regularly model using think-alouds to demonstrate how equations are used as part of the problem-solving process.  Be explicit in your models to show students how equations can also be used to check their work after using a different strategy to solve the problem.

Provide place value and equation building practice.  Students need a strong place value foundation to use traditional algorithms effectively.  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.  Incorporate equation building activities into weekly center rotations as well.

Equation games

Equation building

Use visual support.  Use the following Subtraction Poem to reinforce regrouping.  Place value and regrouping posters are also helpful tools to post while students are using the traditional algorithm method.


Subtraction poem 2(emmy)




Say Hello to Hailey Hopping Hare

I’m Hailey the Hopping Hare, I’m the skip-counting master.
This is a skill that helps to count things faster;
Learn to count up or down by a number other than one.
Quick like a bunny, you soon will be done.
Keep in mind that skip counting is repeated addition.
Moving swiftly through problems is my main mission.

WHAT is hopping? Students use place value and number sense to add or subtract numbers. Students first start with the bigger number in the problem; this number is the starting point for hopping. Then they decompose or break apart the second number by place value (into 10’s and 1’s). Depending on the problem, students will either add or subtract, hopping first by 10’s and then by 1’s. Students label numbers above hops to help ensure solution is correct.  Read more about Hailey’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

Hopping example 2

WHY is hopping important?  When students use the hopping strategy, they are essentially skip-counting by 10’s and 1’s. This helps strengthen mental computation, builds number sense and solidifies foundational place value skills. It also serves as an efficient method for students to double-check solutions. Furthermore, hopping can easily be extended to larger numbers and multi-step problems because it tracks mathematical thinking and steps taken to complete problem.

HOW do I teach hopping? Teach hopping in isolation first so that students become familiar with the process of identifying larger number and decomposing smaller number by place value.  Use patterned, pre-labeled or open number lines until students can proficiently count and track hops (see examples). After proficiency is demonstrated, introduce an open number line where students determine the starting point then draw and label hops without support.

Hopping Lines 5s


Hopping Lines 10s


Open number line

WHEN should I use hopping? 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 hopping strategy after students become proficient with the counting strategy. When larger numbers are used, students quickly realize that counting becomes inefficient and laborious. Hopping allows students to employ counting skills they are comfortable with, but increases rigor and mathematical practice.

Helpful hints:

Supply models and provide kinesthetic practice.  Select appropriate number lines according to students’ individual needs. Some students will easily grasp hopping and will be able to use the open number line while others will need the patterned number line to see and count the 10’s and 1’s. Make a large patterned number line for kinesthetic learners and have them physically hop the numbers. Students will not only love this activity, the multi-modal approach reinforces learning.

Kinesthetic number line 2

Make Hailey pointers. Cut out and laminate Hailey patterns and use a hot glue gun to adhere to craft sticks. Students can use a Hailey pointer to hop the numbers in each problem.

Hailey puppet

Practice skip-counting. Some students struggle with skip counting and could benefit from repeated practice. Chanting by 100’s, 10’s and 1’s while walking in line, calendar time, even clean-up time all serve as great practice opportunities. Be sure to vary starting points so to ensure that students aren’t just counting by multiples of 100’s, 10’s or 5’s. (For example start at 57 and count by 10’s, then switch and count by 1’s.)

Be flexible with students’ hopping methods.  Remember, the whole point of teaching strategies is to help students become fluid, flexible thinkers with deep conceptual understanding. While Hailey teaches students to start with bigger number and hop by 10’s and then 1’s, do not insist that students need to only hop this way. It is imperative to allow them to experiment and try multiple methods in order to find the most meaningful and efficient hopping method for themselves. Some hop to the nearest multiple of 10 and then continue hopping by 10’s, while others hop by all of the 10’s in one hop. Accept all methods if students solve problem correctly, explain method and apply across settings.

different ways to hop


Introducing Daphne Drawing Dragonfly

Hi, I’m Daphne the Drawing Dragonfly.
Draw a mathematical picture to give my strategy a try.
Read the problem and draw what’s going on;
Then write a number sentence for what you have drawn. 

Daphne Drawing Dragonfly 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. Daphne’s unit is perfect for general education, special education, RTI and math intervention. Read more about Daphne’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

WHAT is drawing? Students make a visual representation of the story problem such as a picture, bar model, tens frame or array.

Jake bar model

WHY is drawing important? When students use the drawing strategy, they are making a concrete representation, strengthening understanding of the mathematical concepts.  Effective math classrooms include frequent use of pictorial representations to help students process and visualize mathematical concepts learned.

HOW do I teach drawing?Teach students to create neat, organized drawings with labels and numbers. Students will need to be taught the bar model and arrays, but it is best to let students create the pictorial representation that they see and works for them.

WHEN should I use drawing? This strategy is ideal for presenting a new mathematical operation.  Most teachers use this strategy with K-2 mathematicians, but this is also beneficial for older students as it works especially well with money, fractions, ratios and percentages. Drawing is a great way to double-check solutions because the visual representation increases understanding of the problem.

Helpful hints:

  • Create drawing guidelines. As a class, decide important components to include in a mathematical drawing. Possible components include:
    • Simple drawings
    • Appropriate spacing
    • Neat labels (words or numbers)
    • Easy to read

Guidelines for math pictures

  • Encourage students to use a variety of pictorial representations.  Often students will get in a “strategy rut”, relying on one strategy for many different kinds of story problems. While drawing is an effective strategy for most problems, the type of pictorial representation used depends on the type of story problem.

Types of Pictorial Representations2_Page_1


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