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Virginia Journal of Education

Going by the Book(s)

Staff members at a Fairfax elementary school create their own professional development reading plan.

by Valerie D. Johnson

Gone are the days of lecturing for 60 minutes, assigning endless pages of textbook practice, one homework assignment for an entire class, rote memorization, and teachers working in isolation using the same lesson plans year after year. Twenty-first-century teachers must create learning communities that stay current with research and what works in the classroom, design tasks that are rigorous and tiered, teach students how to become thinkers and problem-solvers, design and use open-ended tasks and hands-on learning experiences, and continue to be lifelong learners who reflect on their own teaching and learning.

With that in mind, our school staff has designed a high-quality, customized professional development plan to help our teachers and staff improve teaching and learning of mathematics. Our plan is now in its third year.

We built the plan around eight books, resources that are helping to transform our classrooms into environments where you’ll hear rich conversations, see students and teachers problem-solving to develop deeper understandings, and know research-based instructional strategies are in use because you’ll feel the enthusiasm that comes with the realization that learning is important—and fun.

You and your colleagues can build capacity and improve instruction with the same eight professional resources we’re using. Check them out:

Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success (How We Can Learn To Fulfill Our Potential)
Why are children so eager to learn during their early years and enter school with a passion for learning and thirst for knowledge? How do they come to feel like math, science and writing are too difficult by the time they get to upper elementary school? What makes students in high school feel like they aren’t talented and they won't achieve the goals and dreams they set in elementary school?

Are some students not capable of excelling in all subjects and, if so, should we lower the “educational bar” for them? Or do we set the bar high and expect every student to achieve (even if they need support) because failure is not an option? What attitudes, ideas and beliefs shape your classroom? What do you communicate (verbally and nonverbally) to your students about education, learning, ability, achievement and intelligence?  Do you approach each day/school year with a fixed mindset or growth mindset? 
This powerful book is based on years of research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck and is written to help educators reflect on student achievement and success. You’ll learn about the two different mindsets (fixed and growth), the truth about ability and achievement, mindsets of leaders and champions, where mindsets come from, and messages about success and failure. You’ll also get information on how to change and grow your mindset to help boost student motivation and grades.

Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3-6:  Teaching Comprehension, Genre and Content Literacy
How can you support all the readers and writers in your classroom? One possibility is through the Reading and Writing Workshop spelled out in this book. You can scaffold students with a balanced literacy program that will help them become better readers, writers, speakers, poets and test-takers. The authors of Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3-6 give teachers a framework for more effectively teaching upper elementary students. You’ll learn how to set up, structure and manage your literacy block with varying levels of support as students take part in authentic reading and writing experiences.

You’ll also find a comprehensive reading book list of over 1,000 books and a 500-plus high-frequency words list. Sample daily schedules, rubrics, lessons and ideas to organize your classroom environment are included.  In addition, information and graphic organizers are provided for running records, assessments, student observations, teacher self-assessment for guided reading, student work samples, writer’s notebooks and additional professional resources.  Suggestions are also provided for working with struggling readers and writers.

Elementary and Middle School Mathematics:  Teaching Developmentally
This is a great “go-to” resource for unpacking math concepts, learning new research-based instructional strategies, building content knowledge, selecting guided math and independent learning experiences, and designing tiered lessons and assessment tools. It can also be used as a springboard to plan staff development, lead math talks during collaborative planning time or to help structure and plan your math workshop, and offers information on understanding how children learn, how to promote enduring understanding and assessment for/of learning.

We know that highly qualified teachers have a major impact on student achievement, and this book, which uses a constructivist approach, is often used as a required resource for college and adult learners. It can help teachers and support staff develop a deeper understanding of math and how children learn it. There are also references to NCTM’s Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, a sample lesson, videos of John Van de Walle presenting his ideas to teachers, reflection questions, recommended books and articles for additional reading, literature connections, math content connections and information about online resources. This book could change the way you teach math! 

Good Questions for Math Teaching:  Why Ask Them and What to Ask K-6
This book serves as a catalyst for helping to take classroom talk from low level questions and yes or no answers to open ended, HOT (higher order thinking) questions using academic language and content vocabulary.

Teachers are able to both question up and question down in order to help students become thinkers and problem solvers. Educators learn what questions are good questions, how to redesign questions, and how to turn closed questions into open, or “good,” questions.  This book is filled with examples of money, fractions, decimals, place value, operations, measurement, geometry and probability, along with good/open questions and practical ideas for use in the classroom. 

Good Questions:  Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction
This resource gives you two strategies to help students access state standards and become confident and competent mathematicians. Teachers will learn to differentiate learning experiences with parallel tasks and scaffold learners by using open questions. Parallel tasks allow for a variety of approaches and meaningful responses (not just “one right answer” or strategy) at many different learning levels (struggling students are successful and advanced students are challenged) while learning the same objective. The open questions help teachers facilitate effective discussion so all students make connections and have a deep understanding of the content.

Examples of more than 250 parallel tasks and open questions are organized by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics math strands (number and operations, geometry, measurement, algebra, and data analysis and probability). Templates are also included for creating additional tasks and questions.

Number Talks:  Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies
This book is helpful in building your students’ knowledge about numbers and their capacity to calculate mentally. You’ll learn how to facilitate short number talks (5-15 minutes) that build mental math and computation abilities. You‘ll be amazed at how students are able to solve problems accurately (using efficient strategies), think about numbers flexibly (composing and decomposing numbers), and communicate effectively using math language—oral and written (symbols, multiple representations etc.).

In the accompanying video clips, the teacher doesn’t teach specific strategies, but chooses problems and numbers that focus on and emphasize specific mathematical concepts, strategies and ideas to think about numbers and number relationships flexibly. Your students can learn through invented strategies, solving leveled problems and questions that scaffold learning during class discussion. While using different strategies, students record their thinking and mathematical processes. Through classroom conversations, using a six-step format, students will improve their problem-solving, thinking and communication skills with daily number talks.

Minds on Mathematics: Using Math Workshop to Develop Deep Understanding in Grades 4-8
Are you ready to make a paradigm shift? Minds on Mathematics will show you how to transform your classroom from a 60-minute stand-and-deliver math block to a math workshop.  You’ll learn how to set up various workshop structures, ways to optimize student practice time (whole and small groups), and how to create content-rich learning experiences that allow students to use thinking strategies and learn math concepts with enduring understanding.

This book will set you up for success with chapters explaining the different components of The Math Workshop (opening, focus lesson, student practice and closing/reflection), planning template, informational charts, sources for “good” problems and excerpts from classrooms to help you see a math workshop in action.

Our school used the “First 20 Days of Math” to set up routines and expectations modeled after Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3-6, mentioned earlier.

Math Work Stations:  Independent Learning You Can Count On, K-2
This resource has a “how-to” guide” for setting up, organizing and implementing engaging learning experiences through games, hands-on activities, literature, problem-solving, estimation stations etc. You’ll learn how to help students make the most of their independent practice time, and you’ll see Math Workshop in action through lots of colorful photos, anchor charts, math talk cards, I Can Lists and various classroom scenarios.

Math Work Stations (as defined by Debbie Diller) are not traditional Math Learning Centers. Math Work Stations are areas within the classroom where students work with a partner and use instructional materials from previous lessons to explore and expand their mathematical thinking. They provide a time for children to practice problem-solving while reasoning, representing, communicating and making connections among mathematical topics. All the while, the teacher observes and interacts with individuals or meets with small groups for differentiated math instruction.

How Our Program Worked
In the first year of our professional development plan, we designed and used HOT (higher order thinking) questions using two of the books mentioned earlier, Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction and Good Questions for Math Teaching: Why Ask Them and What to Ask K-6.  We also found questions in district-approved resources (i.e. enVisions online textbook, Investigations, Groundworks etc.) to help increase the rigor in our classrooms.  Questions were used in the classroom (during the focus lesson, guided practice and independent practice) as Entrance/Exit Tickets, open-ended guided practice, independent practice learning experiences, homework assignments and for review during the summer.  We analyzed student work samples during CT (collaborative team) meetings to see if the questions were making a difference in student achievement on quarterly benchmark tests and common assessments. 

In the second year, we redesigned our lesson plans and common assessments to make them more rigorous. We planned rigorous lessons to ensure that our in-class instruction mirrored the difficulty of our learning tasks and assessments. We used Elementary and Middle School Mathematics:  Teaching Developmentally to help build our staff’s background knowledge during common planning time and school-wide professional development. We’ll continue to assess the rigor of instruction through student work samples, classroom conversations and teacher observations.

During the summer, teachers participated in optional training sponsored by Fairfax County Public Schools where they can learn more about the Math Workshop, Number Talks, Building a System of Tens, and the NCTM Process Goals (reasoning and problem-solving, connections, representation and communication).  All teachers and staff members read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and are participating in a Teachers as Readers discussion group this fall.
Now, in year three, we’ll continue to strengthen our Reading/Writing Workshop and begin implementation of the Math Workshop in all classrooms. A Minds on Mathematics :  Using Math Workshop to Develop Deep Understanding in Grades 4-8 course will be offered at our school (for teachers in grades K-6), using the book as a resource. Our school-wide focus will be to continue to strengthen Tier I/core instruction. Our staff development will center around setting up the classroom environment (for Math Workshop); planning/designing focus lessons and implementing student practice (guided and independent) effectively in the classroom during the math block. We will also use the following resources: Minds on Mathematics: Using Math Workshop to Develop Deep Understanding in Grades 4-8, Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies, and Math Work Stations: Independent Learning You Can Count On, K-2 to help us achieve this goal.
In future years, our plan will be determined by the information we collect from classroom observations, student work samples, teacher surveys and reflections on our school improvement plan, as well as student common assessment data and high-stakes testing results.

Johnson, a member of the Fairfax Education Association, teaches at Woodley Hills Elementary School.






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