You should know that!

I was listening to episode #14 of Making Math Moments that Matter. This episode’s guest was Sunil Singh. One, I know I’m super behind on episodes and two, I’m very excited to order Sunil’s book Math Recess.  This post has nothing to do with Sunil, although I’m sure another post will be needed after I read his book.

Either Kyle or Jon (I was using the elliptical so I didn’t back it up to make a note) said they used to tell students “you should know that from previous years.” He went on to say they usually didn’t remember it. I think we can all relate. I know I’ve said that before, or at least thought it. I agree with Kyle and Jon that we shouldn’t use that phrase.

This brought up a thought from my lesson during the last few days, and I think it might be a better way to handle these situations. We introduce the radian circle in Geometry. We don’t assess over it, but we derive it, talking about the components we’ve learned throughout the year. My students always ask WHY are we doing this if it’s not part of our curriculum. I explain to my students about brain research and I tell them about how connections are made in the brain when you encounter new material. While they may not remember everything about the radian circle in the future, the next time they see it, the information they are exposed to can connect to the pathways we have created. Every time we encounter this topic, we strengthen the pathway.

Instead of saying, “you should know this from previous years,” we could say, you have already created pathways in your brain from previous years. Let’s talk about this again and strengthen those pathways. This verbiage empowers students to access previous information without making them feel stupid because they can’t remember it.


Bullied to Bully

This isn’t a story about technology. It’s also a long post, but if you stick with me until the end, maybe it will help you see a few of your students in a different light.

I was visiting with my son a few nights ago about social interactions. I decided to share a story with him. It’s not a story I’m proud of, but it explained a point I was making. After sharing the story with him, I realized that maybe others would benefit from the story too.

When I was in elementary school I was the youngest in my class and the smallest child by far. I was also considered gifted. Now, I’m not certain how that label was given to me, but in reflection, I did learn faster and thought differently than others in my class. I am from a small community and my class probably had a total of 15 students. Some years we combined grades in one classroom. When you have that few children in a classroom, a gifted student sometimes sticks out like a sore thumb. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, without other children, so I interacted with other students more like an adult would. We also didn’t have a lot of money.

So to summarize, I was the small, smart, poor, articulate kid who was an easy target for most students. I was bullied a lot! When I say bullied, I don’t just mean verbally, because that did happen often, but also physically. Once in elementary school, a group of boys took me by the arms and threw me into a concrete wall. I ended up in the emergency room with a concussion. I couldn’t even tell you why it happened. Another time, a student threw a pencil at my head and the lead broke off. I still have the mark under my skin. Another time a student put pins in clay and made clay balls. He would throw them under my seat (and others, he bullied indiscriminately) when I was in the act of sitting down so I would sit on pins. The event that changed everything for me though, happened during my 8th grade year (our school was K-8).

Our teacher left us alone in the room often. One day I had said or done something to upset some boys in my class. I don’t remember what I said or did, but I had angered these boys. When the teacher left the room, 4 boys held me down and set my hair on fire with a lighter. Thankfully only about an inch was singed off, but the event was terrifying for me. To make matter worse, the teacher tried to support these boys instead of me. He would bring up the event often and make fun of me. On the day of our elementary graduation, that teacher made some snarky comment to me about the incident. I decided, at that exact moment, that I would never be bullied again.

Since our building was K-8, we chose which high school to attend. I walked into that high school with a chip on my shoulder and determination. I became the bully! I chose weak people to make fun of because it took the spotlight off of me. I stood up to people, sometimes for good, but sometimes for show. By my sophomore year, people were afraid of me and many didn’t like me. I had a small group of friends, whom I protected with my words as well. I was not bullied in high school. That was my goal. I was also not a nice person in high school. I made others feel like I had felt. That last part wasn’t a conscious outcome; I didn’t set out to hurt others. My goal was to protect myself.

I don’t hold ill feelings against those who bullied me. That hurt has long passed. I hope, for those that I bullied, the hurt has also passed. What I did realize through my experience is that many who bully are trying to protect themselves. What they are doing is wrong, but they need help! Punishment empowers them, builds their image of a badass. I decided in college to be a better person and I was. I found a balance between being stepped on and being a horrible person.

What do I want to you take away from this? Look at the bully. Why are they hurting others? Consequences need to happen for poor actions, but until you know the root of the problem, the bully won’t stop. There are truly cruel and broken people out there who hurt for the pleasure of it. But, I’m convinced that many of our bullies are hurt people protecting themselves and they need someone to help them.

Google EI, ramblings

My year with #GoogleEI

I can’t believe that a year has passed. It seems like yesterday when I was sitting at my computer, waiting to see if I had been selected. I was more than excited when I was selected and the fast and furious adventure began.


What a wonderful group of educators you are surrounded by in the Innovator program. I am amazed at our ideas and desire to make education better. If you follow the #GoogleEI hashtag on Twitter you will see the amazing group of people I have been honored to join.

Copy of Copy of #TOR16 logo.png

I miss my #TOR16 group and wish we could see each other more! I hear other cohorts talk about their group members and now I completely understand the awe and respect they have for each other. This group is amazing!


My innovator project started as an idea to use Google Expeditions in the math classroom. With encouragement from my coaches, it morphed into an online repository of activities to Make Math Not Suck. The name, logo, and website design have gone through many iterations but I am so happy with the results. I love when other teachers send me a message telling me that the projects or questioning activities I’ve shared have helped them. This is what #GoogleEI is all about. Sharing your ideas with the world to make the world a better place. I’ve had the opportunity to share this information at Google Summits, conferences, and with schools. #GoogleEI opens so many doors so you can share more. I want to give a huge shout-out to Shaelynn Farnsworth, my amazing mentor. She has encouraged and challenged me and helped make my project better. I hope I can measure up to her when I become a mentor.

Make Math Not Suck Logo (4) (1)

So… this is the end of my first year as a Google Innovator. I can’t say thank you enough for the experience, the opportunity, the challenge, the collaboration, the support, and most of all the family. I look forward to representing the #GoogleEI group with new ideas.

To my #TOR16 family… I wish we were all closer.  Our academy time together was amazing, and I love running into cohort members at different events.  I love to see everyone’s accomplishments and look forward to seeing how we continue to make education better.


If you are considering applying to be a Google for Education Innovator, GO FOR IT! This has been one of the best decisions of my life!

ISTE17, ramblings, sketchnotes

Reflection from #ISTE17

ISTE17 logo

I was so lucky to attend ISTE again this year. I had even more to look forward to than last year because I knew what to expect. The keynotes were amazing. I was able to sketchnote 2 of them. So powerful and inspiring. Jeb Abumrad was funny and gave us tips about finding our voice and using the Gut Churn feeling to accomplish what we set out to do. Jennie Mageira (a fellow Google Innovator) inspired us to change the story that we tell and embrace who we are and what we have to offer.



Is was able to see 2 of the 3 ignite sessions. These might be my favorite part. I didn’t have my iPad to sketch the first one but the second one I was ready. It was amazing! My friend Tara Martin presented on #booksnaps and she rocked it and my Google Innovator coach Sylvia Duckwork presented #sketchnotes. Sylvia is ALWAYS amazing! Christine Pinto presented on #GAFE4Littles, another amazing person to follow on Twitter.


I also attended some very interesting sessions. I loved the poster sessions and learned more about Minecraft EDU and visited with another educator that also uses Comics in her classroom. I especially like the sessions that present more than one idea, like Matt Miller and Kasey Bell’s Google Classroom session. My favorite had to be Alice Keeler and Jo Boaler (who joined us via video chat). They both have amazing ideas and to have them share together was more than you could ask for.


The “unscheduled” sessions are also amazing. Tara Martin and Tisha Richmond held a #booksnaps session. I sat in and helped teach people how to use Snapchat to create them. My favorite was Wanda Terrel’s 7:45 AM session about Sketchnotes. I loved being with other educators who sketchnote and I learned a few tricks with Procreate that I didn’t know before. I got to sit by Marie-Andre, a friend and Google Innovator from my cohort. So much fun!


CoffeeEDU with Alice at 6 A.M. (yes, you have to be dedicated to go to that one, but it’s worth it) was fun as usual. I met some great educators and got to share my passion for learning.

It was also like a family reunion for my #DitchBook family and my #GoogleEI #TOR16 family. I was able to visit with both groups extensively and meet some other Google Innovators from my state and around the world. It’s alaways hard to leave like minded educators once you are in there presence.


Google Family

Since we were in San Antonio we visited the Alamo and took a boat through the canals. But nothing compares to the energy, knowledge, and collaboration that happens inside that convention center.

Until Chicago next year – So long ISTE17

Google EI, ramblings

Google for Education Innovator #TOR16

I was chosen as a Google Innovator. I’m still in shock, super excited, and a little crazy getting plane tickets, hotel & expediting a passport (don’t let those suckers expire!)


I shared my vision video in a previous post. I’m so excited to be working on a project that will make math suck less (I was more eloquent in my project proposal!) I hope Twitter and blog readers are ready because I plan to take you along for the ride.

I’ll be in Toronto Oct 5-7 to meet our cohort. I can’t wait to collaborate with this amazing group of educators!

I need to give a huge shout out to some folks:

  • my husband Jason (@jasontolen), who encourages me to go after my dreams and supports me every step of the journey.
  • Matt Miller (@jmattmiller) who read my whole application and gave me wonderful feedback.
  • Alice Keeler (@alicekeeler) who told me to scrap my first idea and go with my true passion. She was right, the first draft was crap!
  • Shaelynn Farnsworth (@sfarnsworth) who told me this summer that my ideas were good enough and cheered me on along the way.
  • My Algebra 1 team at school who listens to my crazy enthusiasm for Twitter PLNs, project ideas, and edu-heroes & always tries my new ideas.

I just had visions of the Academy Awards: “I’d like to thank the Academy…”

To say I’m excited would be a gross misrepresentation of my enthusiasm level. I can’t believe I get to do this and I know I will come out on the other end a better teacher.


Rethinking Failure

While at ISTE I sat in on a math mindset session. Kyle Pace (@kylepace) talked about using the motto WTF in his classroom. Now I teach high school, and I know WTF means something very different to my students than to Kyle’s. In his school it means Willing To Fail (your mind was in the same gutter with my students wasn’t it?) This is a phrase I’ve found myself adopting even though I’m still not comfortable with it.

See, failure has always had a negative connotation. Failure means that you’ve, well, FAILED. We don’t want our students to fail, we want them to succeed. In a recent Twitter chat, Brian Rozinsky (@brianrozinsky) challenged me on my thoughts about failure and sent me a link to this article by Alfie Kohn. Here is an excerpt from his article.

Thanks to its adjective, “productive failure” magically becomes a good thing by definition. (See also: “healthy competition.”) But the question is how likely it is that failure will be productive. And the answer is: Not very. The benefits of screwing up are wildly overrated. What’s most reliably associated with successful outcomes, it turns out, are prior experiences with success, not with failure. While there are exceptions, the most likely consequence of having failed at something is that children will come to see themselves as lacking competence.

While I don’t agree with all of what he says, what stuck with me was the idea that failure could be damaging, could frustrate students and make them want to quit. I’VE SEEN THIS. A student fails first semester so they quit trying second semester. A student has been a failure at math for 4 years and now they hate math and no longer feel they have the ability, nor do they have the desire to try.

So if “failure” is not what we want want to say, then maybe we just need to phrase it differently. Let’s look at the Michael Jordan failure quote:


Before all of the talk about failing forward, productive failure, WTF, I would have read this poster and called it PERSEVERANCE.


CONTINUED effort. I don’t think we should be focusing on failure. We should change our motto from WTF to the BIG P {keep your mind out of the gutter :-)}. When you think of perseverance, you think of success. It describes the journey to get there, which may have included some setbacks along the way a.k.a. failure.

We don’t want students putting the word failure in their vocabulary because we never want them to fail, we want them to persevere. That’s why I use Carol Dweck’s “Not yet” in my class. I show my students the video and we talk about what it means. I want them to see how they can be successful, how they can overcome obstacles, how they can persevere and learn, not fail.

So maybe it is just semantics (does anyone else always think of Lethal Weapon every time they say that word? “I’m up for some antics”-Martin Riggs). Maybe Kyle’s WTF really means willing to take risks and failing forward really means perseverance. Or maybe it’s just the educational door revolving.

perseverance (2).png

The conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t want to discuss failure in my classroom. I want to discuss perseverance and success because this is what students should experience. Our class motto for this year will be the BIG P!

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 12.01.07 AM



Google Level 2 Certification

One of the items on my summer check list was to complete my Google Level 2 Certification. After many frozen windows and a loss of over 30 minutes of testing time and a higher amount of stress than I wanted:


this happened! Woohoo.

ISTE is this weekend and I hope to post about what I learn and who I meet face to face (Matt Miller here I come!) Instagram is usually my personal account, but you can follow me there to see most recent pics. new-instagram-vector-logo

I still have quite a list for summer and only the month of July left. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

ramblings, Uncategorized

That’s a Wrap

That's all folks

Students left my building yesterday for summer. I have last day teacher stuff today then I leave for summer too. This is the first time in 16 years that I haven’t taught summer school, so this summer will look a little different for me. I read a tweet last night (couldn’t find it today of course to give credit) that said start planning for August in May. That’s my goal. I’m putting my list of things to accomplish on this blog to hold myself accountable. We’ll see how well I did come August.

  • Start planning more conceptual/hands-on lessons
  • Find and make some 3-Act math lesson
  • Have practice choices so students always have a choice (thanks @alicekeeler)
  • Make #hyperdocs to support my flipped classroom
  • rethink HOW I do flipped classroom
  • Create more digital #BreakoutEDU to introduce or support learning concepts.
  • Coordinate our #SJSDEdWeek
  • Present at #elevateEDU
  • Meet with some schools to help the utilize tech FOR learning
  • attend #iste2106 (WOOT!)
  • Finish reading: The Classroom Chef
  • Reread: Teach Like A Pirate, Ditch That Textbook, Drive, The Innovator’s Mindset, Fair Isn’t Always Equal
  • Read: On Your Mark, Learn Like A Pirate, Hacking Assessment
  • Enjoy my kids
  • Make a few quilts
  • Paint my bathroom

Wow, that’s a long list. Everything (except for the last 3) on that list stems from my reflection over this year and how I can improve learning for students.


  • Standards Based Learning was a huge success. Student’s mindset towards learning improved SO much, we had more success than ever before (and our students still came to us way below grade level). And as a side note – state scores did go up.
  • I continued the student data tracking and reflection piece and saw student ownership of their learning increase significantly.
  • I increased the amount of activities for students, some tech some not, and saw engagement increase.
  • I stopped giving homework and started allowing students to practice when they needed and how much they needed. Students started asking for more than I would ever have given them.
  • We convinced admin to allow us to continue working on semester 1 standards through semester 2 and had an additional 20 students pass.

Growth Mindset

I call this year a success and look forward to 2016-2017!

Difficulties Doing Something Right


Thinking & Learning

How do we get students to think, to focus on learning, to seek out learning, to want to learn?  This is a conversation that my husband, a secondary principal, and I had on our 4-hour car ride this weekend.  We are both learners.  We love to learn new information and seek out people to learn from.  I don’t see this in most of my students.

In the scavenger hunt activity that I posted, students needed to look at images and decide which one would answer the question.

student: Mrs. Tolen, how do I know what it’s asking?

Me: What are you clues?

Student: Can’t you just tell me?

Me: Yes, but I’m not going to.

Student: But that’s you job.

Me: No, my job is to teach you to learn. Tell me one thing that might give you an idea about what this is asking.

Student: UGH!

Willing to Learn

It’s exhausting to do this day after day.  I had hoped by 3rd quarter that students would start taking an initiative.  Standards based grading has helped them identify what they need help with and they’ll tell me what they need help with but they still just want me to tell them how to do it.  I’ve talked to them about brain based research, about how THEY need to process the information to learn it.  They want the path of least resistance.

Star Wars
via starwarsintheclassroom.com

We’ve created this issue.  Start here stop there, do this then that, create this and here’s my example to copy…  Students who are most successful (based solely on grades) are the ones who can regurgitate information quickly, copy a project precisely, and complete assignments the first time even if they didn’t completely understand.  When you ask these students to use this information in a new situation, create something unique, or to explore something they may never have seen before, this is when true intelligence rises to the top.

Standardized Minds

This is what employers want.  They want thinkers, not drones, they want new ideas and innovation. I don’t know the easy button answer to my first question:How do we get students to think, to focus on learning, to seek out learning, to want to learn? I know we need to change what we are doing with students. We need to get rid of standardized testing, GPA, class rank and anything else that focuses on a grade and not on learning. We need to create a culture where students want to learn, where their first response is to think about a solution, and simply copying what someone else has done is just not good enough.    We need to keep asking questions and stop always giving answers.

I’m going to end with Einstein – a great thinker who impacted our world. He didn’t consider himself intelligent but he did consider himself a learner.



literate but not in math

Our focus in education for quite awhile now has been on literacy in reading.  It was a need, a need that we have and continue to address.  So before I begin this monologue, please hear me say we need to support reading.  It’s important.

So is math! A student also needs to be literate and fluent with math. Yet we don’t support math like we do reading.  We don’t provide interventions for math like we do reading. We pass students to the next grade even though they are not proficient in the skills and competencies for the grade they are leaving.  They can read so they pass.

We are harming students.  It’s negligence on our part as educators. What happens to a student who doesn’t master their multiplication tables in the 3rd grade? They struggle with long division in 4th, but they pass.  That lack of success (because we don’t want to say failure) compounds year after year, making a student believe they are stupid, that math is hard, that they can’t learn math.  But at that point in their education it’s ok if they can’t learn math, they haven’t had to so far.  They can pass to the next grade and the next and be grossly deficient in math skills.  Then they arrive at high school, where grades matter and courses must be passed to graduate.  This is how they come to me.

via http://project-collage.com/2015/08/15/what-about-the-other-kids/

The expectation when they arrive in my classroom is for them to learn Algebra 1. Seems simple enough.  Our curriculum is good, it’s aligned to our state standards, it’s vertically aligned with other grade levels. Oh, but students haven’t had to learn this wonderfully aligned curriculum. They passed from grade to grade because they could read.  Here is the task we’ve actually been given.

Algebra 1 hole

We are supposed to bring students out of a learning hole that is 3 or 4 years deep and help them climb the tree to learn Algebra IN ONE YEAR.  They haven’t had to learn math for a long time and now they have to learn multiple years of math to be successful. I use data and standards based learning.  I can show that my students are making progress.  Sometimes I only take them to the top hole and we sit in the grass. Yes, that means they don’t pass Algebra 1 the first time, but they learned.

So the argument I’m getting is, if they’ve learned why don’t they pass?  My answer: because they didn’t learn Algebra 1.  We never made it to the tree, we only sat in the grass and we celebrated that success. If we pass these students, we are as negligent as those before use.  We are perpetuating the problem.  If they pass to Geometry and Algebra II, they will be right back down in the hole we were trying to pull them out of.

People keep asking me what the solution is and I keep giving it.  WE NEED MATH RTI IN ELEMENTARY AND MIDDLE SCHOOL.  We need to make sure these students get the support they need to be successful EVERY YEAR, not wait until Algebra I and hope I arrange a miracle that drags them from the bottom of the pit to the top of the tree with the snap of my fingers.

Help our students, support our students, show them they CAN learn math from the beginning. I want them to be successful too but you are sending me an impossible task and setting our students up for FAILURE, and not the kind you can learn from.

I’m climbing off my soap box for now, but even from the ground I will continue to advocate for RTI in math.  It’s time our focus is on literacy in more than just reading.