Back-to-School Moves That Pay off All Year

picture of students in classroom

September 2023

It is the last class of a hot day in May. The room smells of teenagers who had PE today. Students are working on a problem, a lab, or a project. You circulate, checking in with kids — encouraging them, laughing with them, reminding them of a strategy they have learned. There is a hum in the room as kids share their thinking with each other and celebrate as they achieve their goals. And you realize that the reason that a class like this happens is the many days and months of purposeful actions that you put in, starting on day 1.  


We are fortunate colleagues, collaborating to solve challenges. Through our collective middle school teaching experience, we have learned (the hard the way) that:

  • Students thrive when they believe you care. 
  • Students excel when they are willing to work hard. 

Here, we offer insights and advice that have helped us engage our 6th-grade classes, capturing hearts before minds. 

Continually consider student belonging.

Our identity as teachers is making spaces and experiences where kids say, “I belong here. I can be successful here. My teacher cares about me.”

As we plan our first week of school, we prioritize opportunities for students to share information about themselves with us and their classmates. We listen and make notes. We notice who wants to take over a team and who is okay with letting that happen. We notice who brings out the best in others. We engineer opportunities to switch power dynamics to bring out more voices, more possible solutions, and more strategies. 

In math, Jocelyn uses the Chapter 1 lessons to establish team roles and classroom community. This requires her to continually ask herself, “How were my students empowered to make sense of and solve today’s challenges? Did I provide opportunities for students to bring their authentic selves into the classroom? How did I show them that I care about them and want them to learn?

Jen thinks about creating science experiences that allow all students to access the material and feel successful. Students should be challenged, but not before students see themselves as people who can do science and are part of the classroom community. When they recognize that what they bring to the (lab) table is valued and important, the motivation to do their best thinking will follow.   

Use content to build classroom culture, but prioritize the culture you want.

Our classroom culture is inseparable from the tasks we choose and how we have students engage in them. A great scientific question, broken into steps to investigate it, is not scientific inquiry. Two weeks of great icebreakers and team builders, followed by a month of worksheets, is not a collaborative classroom. 

We use our content to build our culture. We prioritize rich tasks that require the thinking habits we will use all year: collaboration, investigation, rough-draft thinking, and revision. We teach into the importance of these habits — making sure that students understand that the process IS the product. We love the idea of positive interdependence, that my contributions benefit you, and your contributions benefit me. In Chapter 1, the tile patterns and other tasks start conversations that build classroom culture. Students get to know how their teammates think and approach problems. This is also a time to learn what background knowledge students bring to this school year. Students will re-activate last year’s knowledge and skills. They might learn a new concept in Chapter 1, but our primary goal is to establish relationships that will support students through challenging content. For the first few weeks of school, success is not checking off a standard. Success is being a learner. 

Get to know individual students but also the class personality.

The relationships we form with some students will be what sustains us through the inevitable challenges the school year will hold. We also know we have A LOT of students. We get to know the class’s personality while we are getting to know the individual students. Thinking about the distinct personalities of each class period makes us better at teaching the individuals in any one of the classes. 

Getting to know the individuals in our classes takes time and patience. One of the most powerful ways to do this is also the simplest: spending a few minutes chatting with individuals and teams at the start and end of each class period. Low-stake conversations about topics that everyone can participate in work best. Let students know you listen and remember what they say.  

Think carefully about your own relationship with struggle

For the first part of her career, Jocelyn thought supporting students meant giving great explanations and lots of tips. She really did not want her students to struggle. She wanted to save the day and help them the moment it got tough. Later, she learned that she was actually reinforcing passivity, and her students were capable of so much more than what she was letting them do. A learning experience is memorable when students have the opportunity to persevere. The struggle on the journey to understanding is just as important as performing a skill. Once Jocelyn learned this, she shifted to setting up challenges that required perseverance, without teetering into frustration.

How much do you want your students to struggle? What would you want that struggle to look like, sound like, and feel like? What will you do to make struggle feel like productive, hard work, rather than frustration? It is worth discussing this with students, co-teachers, paraprofessionals, and parents.  

Be vulnerable and open about your weaknesses and what you are working on.

Adolescents are works in progress. We let them know that we, too, are unfinished and sometimes messy. Every Mansfield Middle student knows Jen cannot keep her shoes tied. They also know Jocelyn did not feel like she was good at math when she was a kid, even though she got excellent grades and looked very successful. And they very kindly, and patiently, tell her that her pencil is in her ponytail when she cannot find it. We let kids know that we are not perfect and we do not expect them to be perfect either.  

Our goal at the end of the first day is never to have passed out the books or reviewed all of the rules. Our goal is to show our students that math and science are active, interesting, and puzzling. We want them to know that we are interested in them as people and as learners. We want them to want to work hard. We want them to feel that this is going to be a really good year.

Picture of Jen O’Brien & Jocelyn Dunnack

Jen O’Brien & Jocelyn Dunnack

Jen O’Brien Mansfield, CT,
Jocelyn Dunnack, Mansfield, CT,

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Algebra Tiles Blue Icon

Algebra Tiles Session

  • Used throughout CPM middle and high school courses
  • Concrete, geometric representation of algebraic concepts.
  • Two-hour virtual session,
  •  Learn how students build their conceptual understanding of simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Solving equations using these tools.  
  • Determining perimeter,
  • Combining like terms,
  • Comparing expressions,
  • Solving equations
  • Use an area model to multiply polynomials,
  • Factor quadratics and other polynomials, and
  • Complete the square.
  • Support the transition from a concrete (manipulative) representation to an abstract model of mathematics..

Foundations for Implementation

This professional learning is designed for teachers as they begin their implementation of CPM. This series contains multiple components and is grounded in multiple active experiences delivered over the first year. This learning experience will encourage teachers to adjust their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers and leaders will gain first-hand experience with CPM with emphasis on what they will be teaching. Throughout this series educators will experience the mathematics, consider instructional practices, and learn about the classroom environment necessary for a successful implementation of CPM curriculum resources.

Page 2 of the Professional Learning Progression (PDF) describes all of the components of this learning event and the additional support available. Teachers new to a course, but have previously attended Foundations for Implementation, can choose to engage in the course Content Modules in the Professional Learning Portal rather than attending the entire series of learning events again.

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Building on Instructional Practice Series

The Building on Instructional Practice Series consists of three different events – Building on Discourse, Building on Assessment, Building on Equity – that are designed for teachers with a minimum of one year of experience teaching with CPM instructional materials and who have completed the Foundations for Implementation Series.

Building on Equity

In Building on Equity, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Essential questions include: How do I shift dependent learners into independent learners? How does my own math identity and cultural background impact my classroom? The focus of day one is equitable classroom culture. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture. The focus of day two and three is implementing equitable tasks. Participants will develop their use of the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Meaningful Mathematical Discussions and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will use an equity lens to reflect on and revise their Chapter 1 lesson plans.

Building on Assessment

In Building on Assessment, participants will apply assessment research and develop methods to provide feedback to students and inform equitable assessment decisions. On day one, participants will align assessment practices with learning progressions and the principle of mastery over time as well as write assessment items. During day two, participants will develop rubrics, explore alternate types of assessment, and plan for implementation that supports student ownership. On the third day, participants will develop strategies to monitor progress and provide evidence of proficiency with identified mathematics content and practices. Participants will develop assessment action plans that will encourage continued collaboration within their learning community.

Building on Discourse

In Building on Discourse, participants will improve their ability to facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse. This learning experience will encourage participants to adjust their instructional practices in the areas of sharing math authority, developing independent learners, and the creation of equitable classroom environments. Participants will plan for student learning by using teaching practices such as posing purposeful questioning, supporting productive struggle, and facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse. In doing so, participants learn to support students collaboratively engaged with rich tasks with all elements of the Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices incorporated through intentional and reflective planning.