As a third-grade math and language arts teacher in Michigan, I’m always on the lookout for innovative Common Core-aligned resources that will help my students to excel, particularly in the areas of problem solving, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension.  I recently found an excellent program, Mentoring Minds, which does all of that.  Mentoring Minds consists of a blend of online and print resources in the areas of reading, math, and vocabulary which are designed to enable a teacher to track student progress in real time, allowing for responsive instruction that can adapt immediately to students’ needs.

Make It Stick

In the midst of an era of education filled with reforms which are based primarily on money and polarized politics, Make It Stick is a welcome relief.  This new release builds on the work of others (Dweck, Kahneman, etc.) to delineate a clear, scientific approach to making teaching and learning more effective than ever before. 

Make-it-stickThe practices it supports — such as interspersing the retrieval of information over a period of time, forcing students to try to answer a problem before teaching it to them, using mnemonics — are all free to implement, and they work no matter whether you’re teaching to the Common Core or not, for any age level, and in any setting.

I highly recommend this book to all K-12 teachers and administrators.

Resource: Food Fights, Puzzles, and Hideouts

As my home state of Michigan sifts through its political gridlock toward full acceptance of the Common Core State Standards, it’s clear that math instruction in Michigan needs to make a major shift.  We are moving from a very low-level standardized math assessment (the MEAP test) to one that will be much more focused on having students apply their knowledge in complex situations (the Smarter Balanced test).  I personally am scrambling for fun new Common Core-aligned games, simulations, and real-world problems for my third graders.

Enter the book Food Fights, Puzzles, and Hideouts: Mixing in Math.  This 77-page book is jam-packed with a variety of Common Core-aligned games, activities, and problems for elementary students.  Whether you’re looking for activities for a math center or looking to find whole-class games to stimulate mathematical thought in your elementary students, this book is for you.

For folks in other states who made the switch to Common Core a while back, what other valuable Common Core math resources have you been using?

Resource: Scratch 2.0

Interested in getting upper elementary or middle-school students excited about computer programming?  Start by showing them this video about coding being “a superpower!”  This is a great introductory hook.

Next, have your students create accounts on Scratch over at  Scratch is a kid-friendly, accessible way to introduce students to the basics of coding.  By allowing students to use an easy, color-coded system of blocks to do many of the things most commonly done in computer programming, students can begin to think like programmers without needing to actually learn an entire programming language.  Last week, Scratch released a new version (Scratch 2.0) that allows students to work with Scratch online without needing to download anything, making Scratch more accessible than ever.


Math Facts Made Simple

I love the new intro video over at!  If you missed my previous post about it, is designed to replace paper/pencil timed tests and to motivate students to have fun while learning their basic math facts.  It features 25 different varieties of timed tests to choose from, it automatically tracks students’ scores and their progress on each of those tests over time, and it even has a fun trophy case the students can try to fill as they make progress in learning their basic facts.  It is extremely cost-effective as well: at just over $1 per student per year, it costs less than copying paper/pencil timed tests throughout the year.  For anyone with any computer access whatsoever, it’s time to say goodbye to paper/pencil timed tests.

Check out the video here:

MathFacts from Katie VanderPloeg on Vimeo.

Practicing Math Facts Online

This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, where I talked about my four-month journey creating

As a third grade 1:1 teacher (meaning that I have a class set of computers available for use whenever needed), I believe that technology can do amazing things in the classroom.  Math, however, might be the one subject most capable of being dramatically improved by technology.

Looking at the ways most teachers currently have students practice their math facts, let’s be honest: they’re usually not all that fun.  Flash cards and worksheets are every child’s nightmare.  Online practice sites like are also boring and force students to march forward in a lockstep fashion (xtramath’s introductory video for students, shockingly, even talks openly about how their site won’t really be all that fun after a while).  Game sites like,, and are a bit more fun, but they often don’t use student time very effectively (more time can often be spent playing the game than solving actual math problems), and they never track student progress over time.

The math site for kids that does the best job providing trackable, specific data is, but that site doesn’t focus much of its attention on the basic facts; once you’ve worked on them once (and beaten that level), there’s no incentive on that site to continue to work on the facts to get better.

As a result, many teachers still rely on the old fashioned paper/pencil timed test.

This is a niche that I believe can better be filled by technology.  The basic math facts — with their clear right answers — can be easily and instantly graded online.  Student progress can be tracked over time, and differentiated testing options can be more easily provided by a computer than by a teacher frantically passing out a variety of papers.  Technology can allow students to receive virtual awards and be honored for both their effort and their progress.  Technology can also allow students to practice their facts both at home and at school, with a teacher able to easily view all of their students’ work at a glance.

This is my goal behind creating to let technology take care of what it’s good at (such as automatically checking right/wrong answers and tracking that data over time), thus freeing teachers up to do what they do best (such as conferencing with students, leading class discussions, and analyzing student writing).

So please consider yourself invited: join today and let technology take care of tracking your students’ math fact progress for you, so that you can be free to truly teach.

I’m Done Giving Paper/Pencil Timed Tests

After 14 years of teaching, I have finally found the solution to one of the biggest annoyances of my third grade math classroom: paper/pencil basic math fact timed tests.  Before I describe the solution, though, here’s what has annoyed me in the past about these tests.

  • They take too much class time.  Although the timed test that I usually give lasts just 5 minutes, the transition to/from the test makes it take more like 8 minutes out of my 50-minute class period.  On top of that, if I want students to check their own tests right away to see their results, a simple 5-minute timed test has now turned into at least a 15-minute event.  I can’t afford that much class time very often.  However, if I choose to grade the tests myself, not only do the students not see their results right away, but…
  • They take too much time to grade: I teach math to about 75 students each year.  Grading 75 timed tests is not my idea of an evening well spent.
  • They’re difficult to differentiate:  If I really want to meet students’ learning needs, I need to be giving them a wide variety of tests.  When some students are ready for multiplication facts up through the twelves, other students are still working on just the zeroes through fives… and others are still back on addition!  But if I do give students a wide array of different tests, having students grade their own tests becomes virtually impossible, and I’m left grading and tracking a wide assortment of timed tests that evening.
  • They eat up my copying budget and waste paper:  If I want my 75 students to take even 1 timed test per week, that’s 75 x 36 = 2,700 copies I need to make during the school year.  (Give two or more timed tests per week and the numbers really get insane.)  That’s a huge chunk of copying costs that I’d love to eliminate.
  • It’s tough to make the tests fun: Among other things, I’ve tried calculating a class average, setting a lofty class-wide goal, and having the students work as a team to improve that average and conquer their multiplication facts.  We’ve celebrated our successes with pizza parties and ice cream, and yet still, paper/pencil timed tests aren’t something most students find all that appealing.

With all this in mind, I’ve spent the last four months developing an online solution to this problem, where students could take a wide variety of easily-differentiated, instantly-graded timed tests.  I wanted students’ scores to be automatically tracked over time and easily viewed by both the student and the teacher.  I also wanted students to receive fun virtual awards celebrating their progress along the way to help make the process as fun and motivating as possible.

Mission accomplished.  This past week, went live.  I designed that site specifically to include everything I had wanted: 25 different timed test options for easy differentiation, a virtual trophy case celebrating students’ achievements, and a results area that automatically tracks and displays students’ math fact performance over time.

I’ll never give another paper/pencil timed test again.

If you teach a math class where students are learning their basic facts, I invite you to visit to see if you too might find it a vast improvement over the traditional timed test.