What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program (Mountain Math/Language)

I used to love Mountain Math and Mountain Language.  The spiral review. The simplicity of swapping laminated cards each week. The security of knowing my students were practicing concepts that could show up at the end of year tests.

ML in my classroom

During Independent Study time, students would grab a fresh answer sheet and try their hand at weekly examples of 20 grammar concepts (ie, parts of speech, dictionary guide words, spelling corrections, syllables), and about 22 math concepts.

However, the summer after my second year of teaching, I began to doubt. Was it worth the sizable chunk of time spent every week? Did it help struggling students to improve? Did it help not-struggling students to grow? Were there better ways to help them with retention? Most importantly, what was the big-picture program design more about: students becoming better readers, writers, and mathematicians, or standardized test drill?

As a fifth grade team, we reflected, and came to realize that while it did have some merits, the program was an opportunity cost for better things. We scrapped it cold turkey and worked together toward more purpose, more thoughtfulness, more curative effort, and more reflection.

What Changed in Language Arts


I was already committed by that point to wrap-ups for most lessons, but I became even more acutely aware of their necessity. Wrap-ups became a golden time for connection-making and conclusion-recording.  I began to be more mindful in helping my students highlight specific concepts that occurred naturally in our lessons.

Bulletin boards:

With the extra space, I got a second large bulletin board installed on my wall, and designated one for reading workshop and one for writing workshop. As we shared our connections and defined new concepts (especially during wrap-ups), we would record and display them on our bulletin board throughout each unit.  Not only did this serve as a helpful visual reminder as we built upon unit concepts, but the connections to grammar ideas became more organic–which resulted in greater student ownership and retention.
my literacy bulletin boards

Independent Study Shift:

Our school’s practice of dedicating about an hour of independent language arts study time underwent a gradual transformation over the next few years as we worked to identify better ways for students to practice language arts while teachers met with small reading groups.  Eventually, we realized that students could learn how to prioritize that time themselves, if only we gave them the tools to do so.  And so we adopted the Daily Five, which helped us lay out a better structure in teaching students to make purposeful choices for how they spend their time.  Choices included read to self, read with someone, word work, work on writing, and listen to reading. I loved the shift in the mentality even more than the shift in the program selection.

Mini, teacher-designed Grammar Practice:

We started to design and select our own mini-grammar practices wherever we noticed students could use extra practice. When I went on extended parental leave, this was still an imperfect process, but I was excited about the direction and potential for growth.

What Changed in Math

Because we did not rely as heavily on the Mountain Math program, things did not shift quite as dramatically in that subject. Our most tangible change was implementing mini formative assessment quizzes. This involved creating small, two to four question quizzes each day based on the previous day’s study, often throwing in one bonus review question.  As a result, we became more deeply and continually aware of the class’ understanding, and became better equipped to course-correct as needed.

What Changed in Me

In the end, this was a story about shifting ownership–both for my students and for me.  I became more aware my students’ needs because I did not just rely on a program to “cover” concepts. I became more confident in my students’ abilities to choose what mattered most for their own learning–especially as I searched out meaningful tools to help them learn how. The bar was definitely raised for us all, but I have found it to be one of the most worthwhile changes in my teaching career so far.

If you’re interested in other ways to challenge the status quo, check out our post, “What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order.” 

Featured Image: Domiriel

Icebreakers: A Learning Moment & Follow-Up

Have you ever read something that challenged your teaching approach? I hope so! And it’s an important enough type of learning moment–one we hope students will embrace, and one we should welcome ourselves–that I wanted to share what my latest experience with this looked like.

Last week, I published a post with some of my favorite icebreaker games.  I’d played and enjoyed each of those games myself before with students and other adults, and had almost always found them to be positive, bonding experiences (most recently on a COPE course with about 30 other adults last month).

But then today, Pernille Ripp, a teacher and blogger whose work I have followed and admired, published “3 Non-Ice Breaker Things to Do the First Week of School.”  I loved her ideas, like having students pick picture books to express themselves or drawing lines to show common interests. But as I read, I realized her low-key, calm activities stood quite in contrast with my loud, crazy, and silly ones.  And so the self-reflection began:

  • Should beginning of year games be more quiet and reflective?
  • Have my games been embarrassing for my students?
  • How can I better help my students settle into their new environment the first week of school?

To be honest, the questions were not comfortable.  There were moments when I even wanted to just delete the email notification with the blog post and move on.

But as I persevered in pondering these and other questions, I noticed something. Though I’ve never met her in person, based on what I’ve come to know of her through her work, Pernille’s suggestions seemed to me to reflect her personality–the quiet, the reflection, the picture books. 🙂 On the other hand, I noticed that I could see myself reflected in my ideas; some of my favorite moments while teaching fifth grade were playing capture-the-flag at recess or trying silly role-play activities. And I came to an important conclusion:

The best way to break the ice with students is to be ourselves.

Trying to be someone we’re not is a surefire way to get everyone seized up in discomfort and mistrust. Students have an uncanny ability to sense inauthenticity. So if our back-to-school plans involve activities that we would personally loathe, but that we think we’re arbitrarily obligated to do, it’s time for some planbook revising.

My reflection also reminded me that it’s important to be mindful of all our students’ personalities and needs; we should be sure to include a variety of ways to get to know them and to gently invite them to our learning communities.  I feel certain that when I return to teaching in a few years, my first week of school will certainly benefit by taking time “for the quiet, for the reflection, for the conversation.”

Thank you for this learning experience, Pernille!

Featured image: DeathToTheStock

The Power of a Class Meeting

Class meetings are more than about discussing logistics or class management, although those are benefits, too.  It’s about creating an environment where everyone can feel comfortable to speak their minds & learn from each other!

5 Benefits

#1: Develop as Risk-Takers.

“Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller

We all develop inhibitions through the years as we become fearful of failure.  This kind of mentality, however, is absolutely stifling to any real learning.  We must find authentic ways to show students we welcome risk-taking, rather than just telling them we do.  Class meetings are a perfect way to do so!  Because of their low-pressure settings, they have the capacity to help even the shyest students to slowly build their confidence over the year.

#2: Cultivate Relationships with Students.

In the blur of lunch count, P.E., and grading, it’s easy to get caught up in the logistics of school, neglecting personal relationships.  However, most of us began teaching because of people–as it should be!  Class meetings provide an appropriate, dedicated environment for sharing personal experiences–ones of celebration, loss, anticipation, anxiety, and just plain silliness.  Such sharing renews and strengthens our most important priority: the students with whom we work.

#3: Social Skills.

Listening, turn-taking, appropriate responding, articulating ideas–these are just a few social skills developed in a class meeting environment.  As teachers, it’s easy to react to apparent deficits in these social skills during instruction time with consequences–but what students often need more is additional practice and examples of people effectively using these skills!

#4: Opportunity for Meaningful Discussions.

This benefit is best illustrated with an example from my classroom.  On my first day back at school after a week-long illness-related absence, we gathered in our circle.  Students quickly began to report that behavior was not always at its best with our substitute teachers, which led to one student volunteering the statement, “Some kids think, ‘Well, I’m not going to get anything for it, so why should I be good?’”  This led to one of our most animated and earnest conversations of the year.  As they explored and debated this question, the class eventually came up with the following thoughtful answers, among others:

  • To make others’ lives easier
  • To learn
  • To become a better person
  • To show kindness
  • To provide a good reputation for our class
#5: Democratic Decision-Making = Increased Student Ownership & Voice.

No matter how smooth your classroom management or arrangement, the fact is, issues invariably arise each year with each group of students.  From desk arrangements to concerns about homework loads, students will pick up on small details teachers overlook.  When you give them the opportunity to voice concerns and then to discuss them as a class during regular meetings, the classroom starts to truly become a shared, democratic environment instead of one run by one imperfect person.  While a class meeting should by no means be the only opportunity for student voice, it is one helpful medium!

5 Set-Up Tips

#1: Establish rules and routines first!

No matter how old your students are, it’s essential to start by discussing expectations.  To help them understand the shared nature of class meetings, make sure these are not your expectations, but what the class truly expects from one another during the meetings.  Make a shared list, have students sign it as a contract, and post it in the class meeting area for a visual reminder.  Have a couple of practice trials that emphasize the expectations, and model some of those skills by role-playing with students!

#2: Start With a “Talking Circle” with a “Talking Object.”

“Talking circles are more successful when the participants have trust with each other. Taking time to share stories, build relationships, explore values, and create guidelines for participation helps everyone feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally safe in the circle and creates a foundation for courageous acts of sharing.” (Winters, A.)

Have students start by sitting in a circle, and one-by-one, passing a “talking object” that declares that they have the floor for sharing. (My students have always loved using a Koosh ball for this purpose).

#3: Put out a Suggestions/Compliments Box.

Place this box in an accessible location to give students the opportunity to share compliments for the positive acts they notice from classmates, or for suggestions to help the classroom run more smoothly.  We recommend making and printing your slips to provide a template that includes lines for names, solutions, etc.  Remember to model to students what quality compliments and suggestions look like (which will avoid excessive “You are nice” slips, or complaints without ideas for solutions)!

#4: Establish a regular weekly meeting time.

If it matters to your students, it should matter to you!  Set aside a regular weekly time, even if it’s only 15-20 minutes.  If assemblies or field trips shift the schedule, discuss with students whether they’d like to reschedule that week to help them know it’s still a priority!

#5: Allow Flexibility.

During the Talking Circle, we suggest that you leave the sharing open-ended, rather than giving students a prompt.  We also recommend that you give them the choice to “Pass” on their turn to keep it from becoming a stressful, pressured situation.

Photo Credit:
Britt-knee (featured image)

Winters. A. https://www.heartland.edu/documents/idc/talkingCircleClassroom.pdf