How Principals Can Relieve Anxiety Around Common Core Implementation

We hear a lot about the anxiety caused by the Common Core, much of it focused on how to support teachers in implementing the new standards.

This issue is particularly salient for principals, as they are the ones responsible for observing classrooms and debriefing lessons with teachers. The reality, though, is that it’s nearly impossible for principals to have expertise in all the standards.

On March 5th, we hosted a conversation with Skip Fennell, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and Joan Tellish, Mathematics Support Teacher with the Howard County Public School System and adjunct professor at Towson University, to discuss the challenges principals face when it comes to teacher observation and the Common Core, the pros and cons of various strategies they currently employ, and ideas for what can be possible in the years ahead.

Watch the conversation here:

Here are some highlights

(3:07) Why it is challenging for principals to do observation and feedback in the age of the Common Core.

(10:30) What principals can do to effectively address this challenge.

Skip starts by sharing the Look For tools that outlines what principals should be looking for while on classroom walk throughs. Skip and Joan explain how “The Standards of Mathematical Practice are written almost as observable behaviors”; this tool helps principals make sense of observed student disposition, teacher actions promoting these dispositions and more.

Click this image to download the Look For slides

Download the Look For slides by clicking above image

(19:45) How to adjust the dynamic from principals being perceived as the “expert” to principals and teachers having a conversation about the content and how to make it accessible to students.

Since we ran out of time to answer all the questions from our audience, Skip and Joan kindly agreed to share their thoughts on a few more, below:

1. What is the best plan for addressing parental anxiety around the CCSS?  How can we help them understand without being fearful or becoming negative about the shift to CCSS?

Joan: Host a CCSS Parent Night. Do an overall intro and then break into grade level teams and have the teachers address strategies and content. Give them resources such as LearnZillion and other websites.

Skip: I think schools and school districts must have sessions for parents.  This, to me, should be more than the sort “fun math night” where people play games, etc.  Those are nice, but it’s time for serious business here. I would see (and have seen) teachers presenting lesson snapshots of the critical topics (using the critical areas at each grade level) that children would encounter per grade level – particularly showing how representations are used to help develop and deepen understanding.  I am also seeing math leaders use Pencasts and LearnZillion activities as sort of a ‘flipped classroom’ opportunity for parents, followed up by at-the-school Q and A.  Hope this, as a start, helps.  NOTING that such opportunities (thos above) are not one and done!

2. What advice can you give to principals who do not have content specialists in their buildings or even in their districts?

Joan: Reach out to “leaders” in their building. Have them do a book study or lesson studies.

Skip: Well, certainly online visits to LearnZillion, the Progressions (this site for serious PD opportunities for teachers) and Illustrative Math sites (this site for classroom tasks and so much more) are a start in terms of having principals connect to the important mathematics within the CCSS (as well as the Practices).

Editor’s note: Skip wrote a book with Tim Kanold, Diane Briars that may be of interest entitled: What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Mathematics (2011).

3. What is the difference between a Common Core Classroom and the classroom that we are moving away from?

Joan: My answer is that it is all about good teaching practices. The content is different and students have more time to engage in rich tasks to develop the understanding. Taking the time to have deep discussions and students working in groups. What I do not like to see are worksheets and students who are not engaged!

Skip: Easy! This is about fewer standards done deeply and well, with a genuine push for understanding important mathematical concepts and developing proficiency in such ideas and related skills. Understanding is not an option, it’s an expectation AND it’s about time! (I am now into full rant form…)

4. What strategies do you believe will best support content development, especially for elementary teachers, who may not understand the content well enough to move into a more conceptual model?

Skip: Teachers MUST understand the mathematics they are responsible for teaching AND more.  Professional development needs to be content-focused leading to pedagogy with the Practices serving as that pedagogical window.  I don’t think there are specific strategies here other than exposing teachers to the developmental trajectories, which help guide both teaching and learning of critical mathematics topics.

5. How do I get my teachers to trust the student led instruction to ensure mastery of content?

Skip: I don’t think it’s student led instruction!  Teacher are in charge, they plan and present AND engage students in DOING the math (which is probably what is meant by the ‘student led’ phrase above). As students are involved they will experience EVERYDAY in EVERY lesson the ‘habits of mind’ that are the Practices.  They will solve problems, they will discuss solutions, they will use tools, etc.  But wait – this implies teachers know the content and content expectations, it implies they “get” the interface between content standards which may drive a lesson and the Practices evident within a lesson, etc.  That’s what must happen – some states, districts have been doing this now for 3 years others are just beginning.  For some, teaching “this way” has been what they have done FOREVER.  For others, new stuff, more demanding, etc.  OUR collective challenge is knowing such needs and addressing them.

6. Joan mentioned the practices book. What is it?

Joan: Putting the Practices Into Action. Implementing the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, K-8. by O’Connell and SanGiovanni (2013)  (Heinemann)

Skip: This book explains each Practice and gives examples

7. Also, would love to know what Joan’s talking tools mean… that looks great!

Joan: This year my school is focusing on “Rich Discussions” – Last year, I facilitated a Book Study for some teachers using Classroom Discussions – Math Solutions – last year. This year we integrated it throughout the entire school and I led 5 Staff Meetings on the “Talk Tools” – It is all based on Academically Productive Talk – but being intentional. The Talk Moves are Turn and Talk, Restate, Revoice, Agree/Disagree, Say More, and Explain. We put each “move” on a cut out of a tool and every classroom has a set. The ‘tools” are wonderful to incorporate the “Practices” such as Reasoning Abstractly and Quantitatively, Construct viable arguments…, Attend to precision. They really encourage the WHY and HOW and allow students to explain their thinking. We expect to see this is all classes including Related Arts. Our belief is that is you “Talk It, you remember it!” It is all about student engagement!

8. Skip – How frequently do you feel a math coach should try and meet with administration to talk about progress in the building?

Joan: My administrators and the Reading Support Teacher and I meet once a week for 1 – 2 hours. I feel fortunate that my administration is very supportive and the door is always open.

Skip: This is important to me!  When specialists are most effective it’s because there is ongoing communication and collaboration with other building leaders –  Principal/Assistant Principal, etc.  So, I would urge weekly meetings.  I would also urge the kind of collaborative work around teacher walk-throughs and observations that Joan suggested.  AND, I would suggest a daily check in – maybe it’s coffee time, maybe it’s just a couple of minutes…REALLY important.  I have horror stories going the ‘other direction’ which has fostered my passion for this important mathematics link.  Joan and her work with her Principal is a great example!

9. More on Look Fors

Skip: As noted on the webinar these tools came about because of a simple principal request and has sort of blow up (partly linked, though unintentionally) because of the teacher evaluation issue being discussed by seemingly everyone. The sources presented during the webinar should help those interested get started in the use of the Look For’s.  Happy to address more specifics on this at another time.

Like what you’ve seen, check out these other useful resources:

The secret to amazing Professional Development: The 3 P’s

When people ask me for the secret to great professional development, I share our 3 Ps.

Funnily enough, we discovered these 3 P’s by accident. In the summer of 2011, thanks to a Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant, we brought 20 teachers from around the country together to work on the first batch of LearnZillion lessons.  For two days we sat in a cramped room with math books, computers, and treats, working on lessons. At the end of the two days, several of the teachers said that it had been “the best professional development” of their career.

A year later it happened again.  This time we brought 123 teachers to Atlanta and called the event TeachFest.  On the second night, after a full day of working on lessons, we gave everyone an option.  They could go out on the town, watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on a large screen, or continue working on lessons in the basement.  At 11pm, half the teachers were still working in the basement.  Again, the feedback at the end of the event was, “this was the best professional development.”

It was a revelation that our content creation process was, in fact, the key to incredible professional growth, satisfaction and impact.  And when we analyzed why that was, it boiled down to 3 Ps: product, process, and people.

1. Product

DT quote 3 v2

The experience is focused on developing a final producta lesson.  The product is practical, meaningful, and challenging to create.  The teachers know they are going to use the lessons, and that other teachers and students are going to use them too.

Lesson on a computer

Most professional development focuses on professional development.  We have come to believe that professional development is most powerful when focused on creating something useful; professional development is the by-product of creating a product.

2.  Process

Focusing on a final product isn’t enough.  Teachers have to be set up for success.  There needs to be a roadmap that provides them with the guidance and resources they need to accomplish the goal – from initial research, to outlines, to drafting.  At TeachFest, we didn’t say, here’s a block of time to plan, go for it.  We thought through every step of the process and asked ourselves, “what does the teacher need to be successful now.  What about now?  What about now?”  And then we equipped them with those things.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 4.22.32 PM

Here, for example, is an overview of our TeachFest roadmap:

LearnZillion Process

LearnZillion lesson creation process

3.  People

The final P stands for people.  The 20 teachers at that initial convening helped each other out.  

DT quote 1

When one of them had a question about their lesson, they would talk it through with a colleague or a coach.  They had opportunities to get feedback and then make revisions to their work based on that feedback.  This happened in person and then continued on-line over the summer as teachers worked on their lessons.  As a result, most of the experience looked like this…

Teacher Collaboration

Dream Team teachers collaborating at TeachFest

…as opposed to looking like an expert standing in front of a large group of people.

Put them together and what have you got…

McDonald’s talks about its “secret sauce.”  When it comes to professional development we believe the sauce shouldn’t be secret.  Just remember the 3 Ps.  Put them together and you create amazing lessons, build the capacity of teachers, and have a lot of fun.

DT quote 4

Dream Team 2013 group shot

National LearnZillion 2013 Dream Team

Delaware Names 34 Teachers to the Delaware Dream Team

We’re excited to announce that the 34 members of Delaware’s inaugural Dream Team have been announced!

(To recap – Delaware selected LearnZillion to lead the state’s professional development offering over several other much larger and more traditional companies last fall.)

Details of Delaware’s Press Release below – Stay tuned for news from Delaware’s TeachFest, to be held January 9-11, 2014.

For immediate release


Contact Alison May (302) 735-4000


Thirty-four teachers from across the state will join the Delaware Dream Team, helping to develop high-quality Common Core formative assessment items that will be shared with teachers throughout Delaware.

Members will collaborate in small groups with fellow teachers and Common Core coaches from across the country to create resources, receive feedback and learn together. They will share their professional development experience with colleagues to further broaden their impact.

“The 2014 Delaware Dream Team is both an opportunity to recognize some of the state’s most accomplished teachers and a challenge to those individuals to continue to grow, to make collaboration an integral part of their practice and to create high-quality materials that will help teachers and students across our state — and around the country — be successful,” Secretary of Education Mark Murphy said.

The team will convene January 9 to 11 for Delaware’s TeachFest, a unique celebration of great teaching and an intensive, structured working session. Following TeachFest, the Delaware Dream Team members will return to their 31 elementary, middle and high schools to continue working with peers and content coaches in online professional learning communities. During this process, the Dream Team members will translate their proven teaching methods and classroom expertise into formative assessment tools and resources for use by teachers in Delaware, and around the country, through a free Common Core resource library.

The Delaware Department of Education is partnering with LearnZillion on this project. This summer, LearnZillion worked with 200 teachers from 42 states to create more than 10,000 high-quality, Common Core resources in math and English language arts. They are featured on the LearnZillion website.

“We couldn’t be more excited about working with Delaware,” said LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf. “[Delaware leaders] really understand that teachers are the most important factor in student learning, and that the traditional model of ‘sit n’ get’ professional development doesn’t work. They are choosing to do what all the research on talent development recommends – namely, to support professional growth by providing deep practice of do-able, bite-sized tasks. We’re so energized to help make that happen.”

Members of the 2014 Delaware Dream Team, who each will receive a $500 stipend, were selected through a competitive application process evaluating both their understanding of the Common Core State Standards and their desire to “scale their impact” beyond the walls of their own classrooms. The teachers themselves represent a wide spectrum of grade bands, with 22 from English language arts and 12 from mathematics disciplines.

Members of the 2014 Delaware Dream Team

Members of the 2014 Delaware Dream Team


9 Ways to Use LearnZillion with Students

We’ve built LearnZillion’s free resources to support teachers, students, and parents. To that end, here are the nine most popular ways LearnZIllion is already being used to drive student learning and maximize positive student outcomes.

Learn about the most popular ways to use LearnZillion with Students

Learn about the most popular ways to use LearnZillion with Students

Before class you can…

1) Review prerequisite knowledge

Use a Quick Code to jump start your introduction to new concepts or standards by assigning videos that address your lesson’s foundational knowledge and skills before students arrive for class. This not only helps to reactivate prior knowledge, but also preemptively addresses lingering learning gaps from previous grades or units.

Quick Code on a LearnZillion lesson page

Quick Code on a LearnZillion lesson page

2) Pre-teach concepts on an individualized basis

Rather than assign the next day’s lesson to the entire class, you can assign “pre-work” to certain students to ensure they have a leg up on tricky concepts. For those students with concept or skill-gaps, pre-teaching can help to increase student engagement and understanding of your lesson the next day. Plus, this “pre-work” can build student confidence (suddenly, they’re already familiar with what you’re teaching), and seed “peer experts” or helpers within your room.

3) Flip the classroom

Maximize the amount of time your students have for exploration, discussion, and project-based learning by front-loading your direct instruction. Select the LearnZillion lesson or lessons that address the key instructional concepts, assign them to your students, and center the next day’s plan around a meaningful problem, discussion topic, task, or project. Spend the first few minutes of class clarifying any questions students still have after watching the video, then dive into your higher-order activity.

It may take a while for students (and you!) to transition to this new routine, so you’ll want to provide them with plenty of modeling and empower them to come prepared to ask questions.

You may want to use LearnZillion’s notes template (which can be found on each lesson page) to promote strong study habits, focus, and accountability.

During class you can…

4) Drive whole group instruction

Switch-up your direct instruction with a LearnZillion video. As you play the video for the class, strategically pause or re-watch the video at key moments in order to check for understanding, solicit student reactions, and allow students the chance to solve problems before seeing the answer modeled.

Lesson videos do more than provide a change of pace for you, as a third grade teacher at Hyde Addison School in Washington, DC recently told us, “My students found it more engaging hearing someone else’s voice.”

Additionally, the videos enable dynamic visuals — such as the volume of melting ice pictured in this lesson — that can strongly articulate the concept and further engage students.

5) Focus small group work or centers

Turbocharge centers or small group instruction by anchoring student work with a relevant lesson video. Whether the goal is direct instruction, group review, practice, or extension, you can use quick codes to set a targeted group agenda and focus student work. For each Common Core math standard, we also have a library of practice problems that students can tackle independently online, or collaborate to complete via a paper handout.

6) Coordinate with colleagues 

Use LearnZillion to create a consistent and rigorous instructional environment for your students throughout your building. Find the LearnZillion lessons that support your instructional goals for the week, and share the relevant quick codes with other colleagues who work with your students. This way, you can ensure that regardless of whether they’re going to a pull-out class, physical education, art, recess, or an RTI block, your students will be getting con sistent reinforcement, support, and messaging from all of the adults around them.

After class you can… 

7) Differentiate your instruction

Respond to data from your formative assessments by creating customized playlists for the students or small groups in your class. After you’ve analyzed your formative data and identified learning gaps or areas that need additional reinforcement, use LearnZillion’s Common Core Navigator to find the target standard, and then narrow the list by finding the lesson objective that fit your students’ needs. Once you’ve assigned a custom playlist, students can log into their LearnZillion account to watch videos at home, during computer lab, centers, or study hall.

8) Support homework

Assign videos to provide your students with clear and conceptual scaffolds to help them tackle homework assignments or independent projects. Use these videos to clarify the key concepts or provide background knowledge or review to support your assignment.

9) Engage and empower parents

Increase parent involvement and engagement by providing a window into the standards and concepts you and your students are tackling in the classroom. By sharing the lesson quick codes for your current classwork or unit of study, you’ll not only provide your parent community with transparency around the Common Core Standards and your expectations, but also empower them with a useful tool to support learning at home.

So there you have it: the nine most popular ways to use LearnZillion with students.

Let us know how you’re using LearnZillion – we’d love to feature your success stories and share your tips with the rest of the LearnZillion community!

Bottlenecks and Bright Spots: Our Founding Story

About the Author: Eric Westendorf, co-founder and CEO of, first published this article on October 16, 2012.

In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” the Heath brothers recommend a strategy called “Bright Spotting.” Instead of analyzing all the reasons why something isn’t working; find examples where something is working, shine a bright light on it, and build from there. That’s what we’re working on at LearnZillion.

“Even as an adult, I’d never understood what was going on with division by fractions. In three minutes, Andrea fixed that problem for me.”

The idea for LearnZillion emerged from work I was doing with a group of teachers as principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. I was blessed with a very talented group of teachers. One of those teachers was Andrea Smith, an eight years veteran whose test results indicated that her students were making tremendous gains year after year. Andrea was not what you would expect. Movies like “Stand and Deliver” suggest that such teachers are like mini-rock stars; their relentless charisma captivates students and pulls them into their orbit. Andrea was anti-charismatic. She shied away from some of the teaching techniques that other teachers used to create high energy and engagement, like chants or claps.

Andrea’s outstanding quality was clarity. She had figured out ways to describe and show math concepts that turned something complicated into something simple. For example, what does it mean to divide a number by a fraction? Even as an adult, I’d never understood what was going on with division by fractions. In three minutes, Andrea fixed that problem for me. I happened to sit in on that lesson.

Divide whole numbers by unit fractions  using visual models

At the same time that I was observing teachers like Andrea, I was struggling with a problem at E.L. Haynes. We had become very adept at using data to understand our student’s strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, the better the teachers got at analyzing data, the more anxious they became. This surprised me. Our test scores were rising and we were getting better and better at understanding where our students stood. What was going on?

In today’s climate of teacher accountability, it’s easy to assume that the pressures our teachers face are all external. Test scores and evaluations weigh on them. What I came to realize was that the internal pressure was even more powerful. The teachers at E.L. Haynes wanted to do right by their students. They had chosen the teaching profession and chosen to work countless hours outside of the normal school day because they believed every student deserved to get the highest quality education; they believed that every student had a right to have his/her needs met.

The better they got at analyzing the data, the more they understood something heartbreaking. In spite of their talent and hard work, they couldn’t sufficiently meet the needs of all twenty -five students. There wasn’t enough time. They were a bottleneck.

When you watch an amazing teacher like Andrea Smith teach a lesson like dividing by fractions, it’s easy to think whimsically, “I wish I could bottle this.” When the bottleneck problem emerged at Haynes, I began to take this aspiration seriously. What if we captured Andrea’s clarity in a simple way and made it accessible to all teachers and students? What if we put those lessons on a platform that made it easy for teachers to assign them to students (like a playlist) and then check for understanding? And what if we invited other teachers to include their clearest lessons so that teachers had a tool for understanding and teaching every new Common Core standard? Could we get the bottle without the bottleneck?

Thanks to funding through the Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, this is exactly what we are working on at LearnZillion. At a time when it’s common to bemoan the state of our schools, we’re going with the Heath brother’s advice. We are “bright spotting” great teaching. We believe that a tool made by and for teachers has the power to break the bottleneck and help teachers meet the needs of all their students. If you’re not convinced, just ask yourself, “do I really understand what it means to divide by a fraction?” Then watch this link:

The 3 Cs I Learned at LearnZillion TeachFest 2013

Andrea Lemon is a middle school English language arts teacher from Belmont, West Virginia, and member of the 2013 LearnZillion Dream Team.  This article was first posted May 21, 2013.

In January, I received an email from my state’s department of education listserv with the subject line: Summer Job Opportunity. Like many teachers, especially those of us raising families, I opened the email with an interest in earning a little extra money this summer. Little did I know that what I would receive from LearnZillion would be worth more money than any job I’d ever had. What I received was a personal and professional journey:
From the moment I clicked “apply here,” my professional understanding of how to teach literacy skills began to grow. I’m over half-way through a doctoral program in reading and literacy, so my mind is already pretty full of theories and best practices, but the application process to become a LearnZillion Dream Team member gave me the opportunity and the guidance to turn all that research into a product students and teachers could use to enhance their learning. It was a process that forced me to dig deep into the Common Core and into my own literacy practices. The emphasis on metacognition in the application process alone made me a better teacher for my students. I created, revised, sought feedback from colleagues, revised again, and finally, in late February, submitted three lesson plans and one PowerPoint lesson – grateful simply for the growth I had already attained – not really imagining that in a nationwide competition my application would be worthy of selection.

In late March, I got another email. I made it! I’d been selected – one of 200 out of 3,000+ applicants! My heart soared. My pulse raced! I was ecstatic to say the least. I clicked the link to accept the invitation and in doing so, saw something that I’d overlooked in my initial haste to earn a little cash this summer. Being a member of the Dream Team meant attending a conference called TeachFest – in San Francisco. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. I felt ill. I almost backed out. I’d never flown. I’d never even been in an airport, and this trip would mean a transcontinental flight. I’d also never been to a big city by myself. I didn’t know anyone else who was going. I was paralyzed by self-doubt. I didn’t think I could overcome so many firsts and fears.

My husband, always my biggest supporter, looked at me that evening and said, “If you don’t go, you’ll regret it for the rest of your career.” It sounds dramatic, like a line from a movie, but he was right. I clicked “accept” and a couple of days later, I got a call from Posie Wilkinson at LearnZillion. She called just to welcome me to the team, and the warmth and enthusiasm in her voice made me feel so accepted that I knew I’d made the right decision. A month later, after receiving endless amounts of encouragement from my fellow Dream team members on Facebook, I found my COURAGE and stepped on that first, very tiny plane, navigated a second airport alone, and then stepped on a much larger plane to California. I learned that it’s okay to be afraid as long as you keep moving forward. At the SFO airport shuttle dock, I saw a woman wearing a LearnZillion t-shirt, jumped on the shuttle right behind her, and instantly struck up a conversation with five perfect strangers also headed to TeachFest and my Dream Team experience began.

Once at TeachFest, I looked around at the other Dream Team members, listened to their stories, and thought to myself, “Maybe my application was chosen by mistake. Maybe I’m not good enough for this.” I was filled with self-doubt until LearnZillion co-founder, Eric Westendorf, stepped on the stage beaming with energy and shared that the Dream Team only had a 6% acceptance rate. I realized that I had been selected to an elite task force and my CONFIDENCE began to bud. Next, entered Liz Striebel coaching me through my Lesson Set Outline with praise followed by a little push to go farther, do more, be more. My confidence exploded.

Most important though, in that four day crash course known as TeachFest, I learned the value of COLLABORATION. Digging into the Common Core Standards and uncovering how to teach with text-dependent questions and close reading is no easy feat. Without the professional development provided by the LearnZillion staff, and the encouragement and feedback of all of the other Dream Team members, I couldn’t have come this far so fast.

Now, back in my small school in West Virginia, I have the right tools to make a big difference. As I work with my school’s Literacy Leadership Team, I have the Courage and Confidence to provide support for my colleagues as they learn and grow in the Common Core and to push our school forward toward a brighter future for our students, our community, and, should the road get bumpy along the way, I know that I have amazing educators all across the country that I can reach out to for a little Collaboration. TeachFest 2013 gave me the tools to find solutions, make a difference, SCALE MY IMPACT! I never would have dreamt that something so simple as the click of a mouse would open so many doors, or lead me on such an incredible journey. Thank you LearnZillion for having faith in me and helping me find faith in myself.