Towards a safe learning community: Activities to start the school year.

By Cecilia Villabona

May 28, 2013

Usually at this time of year teachers and administrators start reflecting on how the year has gone and revising plans for the next year to improve or change as needed. One of the things that I considered very important was the classroom community, since it affects our daily activities in so many important ways.

At the start of the school year it feels like being in an airplane flight for a transatlantic trip: a small enclosed space with a bunch of strangers.  For the flight, it does not matter much whether or not you relate to someone or have a conversation with anyone. For the classroom, however, it needs to build into a safe environment to wonder, ask questions, make mistakes and be helped to gain new understandings, celebrate learning together, and more.

How do teachers do that? If you are a new teacher you may get a lot of advise, even if you are a veteran or more experienced teacher you may look for new ways each year, and sometimes out of necessity, because children are changing so much in today’s world.

I will share with you some of my first week of school activities, which worked well for me most of the time.  They are offered as food for thought, or guidelines to develop your own, or for you to try as offered if you so desire.

Let me first share with you what I consider important objectives for spending about one week doing these activities, which are not yet covering the curriculum or the Standards:


  • Learning student’s names, especially those in need of attention, the potential difficulties in the class.
  • Asserting my place in the class as the leader in charge.
  • Getting to know my student’s as learners and individuals (without giving them a test)
  • Modeling for my students how to ask productive question from me when they have problems.  I am not able to help the student who tells me “ I don’t understand”, but if a student says: “I don’t understand how those two fraction are equal” then I know where the problem is.
  • Coaching them to do effective think-pair-share and group work.
  • Modeling class discussion taking turns and showing respect.
  • Giving students opportunities for divergent thinking, out of the box, not guided by mathematical algorithm or rules, yet important and needed in true problem solving.
  • Showing them that they are all able to participate in their learning, regardless of how much math they remember from last year.


Does this list seem like it contains some important objectives to create an emotional and intellectual foundation for learning?

Thanks for visiting.  Day 1 coming soon.


What students need the mostly

Are you frustrated sometimes by the fact that your students seem disengaged and not interested in the lesson?  Do you often wonder about what else you can do to get them involved and to participate?
As a responsible teacher, you know the material, read the standards, prepare lessons, keep your eyes on the high stakes test, correct homework, keep accurate records, try to deliver your lessons in a fun and dynamic way and make a constant effort to get to know your students.  It sure seems like a lot, and indeed it is, given that you most likely teach five lessons and see a large number of students each day.
For how many of your students doing what it is asked of them in school is easy and comes naturally?   Robert Redford was quoted in an interview with AARP magazine talking about school days: “It was hard to sit and listen to somebody talk.  I wanted to be out, educated by experience and adventure, and I didn’t know how to express that”.  You might not want to share this with your students in an effort to get them more involved with school and learning; I am sharing this with you as a way to get us to think together about our student’s needs.
Most likely your students have become accustomed to using several technologies on a daily basis like cell phones and computers, and they are comfortable with managing several things at the time, for example: texting a friend and talking to another while listening to their I-pod music.  This state of affairs in their daily life might make it more difficult for them to “just sit and listen to somebody talk” to use Redford’s words about his world, a few years back.
But where does this leave us? Can we run schools having students get all their lessons from a computer or a cell phone? Should we? Or is it still valuable to create a learning community in our classroom and have students learn to discuss, share, criticize and draw conclusions, while they interact with each other? I believe it is.
Learning is social, and while students construct their own learning starting from what they know, they have also the ability to learn from one another, and to learn social skills under the guidance and direction of a caring teacher.  So I will say that in my opinion one of the things that students need mostly from us is that we care.  That is the first C of community.  Maybe this goes without saying it, because if you are teacher you care about students.  However, it is important to think about it and to acknowledge that it is of value for our students, as well as to find appropriate ways to express it. I will explore this topic at another time.
In a true community, people feel a connection to each other. Think of your family, or your church, perhaps the two most basic community experiences.  If we want to create a learning community in our classroom, we must foster connection between our pupils, we are learning together, from one another because when I have a question for the class and a student answers it, the others listen and might then have other questions, which when asked, can be answered by anyone in the class, not only the teacher.  Students need to feel welcome to participate in this dialogue, with a common understanding that we are all seeking answers, making conjectures, and analyzing results.  We as teachers are also learning during this process, maybe not the answers to the actual questions, but how our students think, what interests them, and much more.  Connected thus gives us the second C in Community.
Now let me ask you, why are you a teacher?  Why do people go to work as doctors and secretaries and bus drivers, besides the fact that we all have bills to pay?    I believe it is because we need to contribute.  Students need to feel that by their efforts, they contribute to the collective process of constructing knowledge.  They need to be celebrated for their accomplishments, congratulated for their success, told they are doing a good job, encouraged to move on to more contributions.  Contributing is the third C of community.
You do not have to agree with my ideas, you are welcome to comment and contribute your own.  This is meant as food for thought, a starting point for discussion, to create our own community, share our own thoughts and learn from each other.
In my next blog I will share some of the ways I have used to build community in the classroom, maybe some of these will also work for you.  Do you have some to share? I would like to hear from you.
Thanks for being here and welcome to paths to math pilot program!

Better?… Best?…Different?

Place and date:  Unimportant

Activity: Lunch break

It took me by surprise that a curator spoke about gardener X by saying:
“He is the best”…
It also took me some time to understand why this bothered me.

A little background is needed here so we understand each other.  I am an educator, no longer spending all my daily hours in the classrooms as I did for 30 years.  I spend some of my free time now as a volunteer in a botanical garden.  In the garden as in the classroom, there are different needs and displays of strength and beauty.  Some plants need care at the start of the dormant season others preferred to be cut in spring, yet they all do their own thing when they bloom.

Children have different individual needs, but if we provide the right conditions they all come into their beauty, they all are able to learn.  I hope we can agree on the following points:

  • All children can learn.
  • Community affects learning.
  • Learning is personal.

Recently education is under scrutiny in the US, we compare our student’s performance in international tests to other nations, we ponder about the advantages of private, public or charter education, we discuss teacher quality and preparation, and so on.  Mostly we worry about testing: standardized, high stakes test control our educational endeavors: how to make them and who should, when to administer them, how to prepare the students for it, who should mark them, what to test.

In the process we forget the different needs of our students, the fact that learning is a process, and it is personal.  We pressure students to master a concept when they are not ready, we label them according to their test scores: level 1, 2, 3 or 4.

Children learn better in a relaxed environment, collectively guided by a skilled professional, using good materials to keep interest, provide challenges and support them in a productive struggle. Concept development is a very important part of learning and it is a personal process arrived at by exploration and reflection, trial and error.  Testing is not a teaching tool for student’s it is only useful if the data we collect informs our practice.

The plants in the garden do not grow because I measure them, no gardener is “the best”, they are different, just like children and plants.

To Use or Not To Use Technology?

Modern technologies have changed the way students learn and what we can use to teach them. Gone are the days of paper and pencil, a chalkboard in front of the room and rows of desks.  This is not to say that we are not able to use some of these at times, but as children have been changing with the advent of screens all around them and the use of touch-technology, we are less able to keep their attention and reach them with only those tools.

This change is only beginning to happen and due to the changing needs we see publishing companies reinventing themselves by making textbooks available on line and multiple teaching Apps appearing in the market.  Unfortunately, turning pages in a screen does not make a book more interesting, and playing a multiplication game only helps students with one small part of the curriculum.

At the same time as educators we ask ourselves whether or not to use one App or adopt a certain textbook.  In the fast changing world of today we also need the time to discern and compare all these options. It is also true that our own knowledge and personal relationship to technology affects the decisions we make regarding many of these issues.  In addition money, is a constraint as school districts ponder with decreasing budgets.

One of the realities of today’s fast changing technological world is that our own children and the ones we teach are natives of the 21st century, somewhat more comfortable and capable to understand these innovations.  I recall babysitting my favorite 2 years old two years ago and realizing that she could not speak much, but knew that pictures of her were taken with a cell phone and was able to prompt me to take one of her and even pose for it.

Accepting that our students are technology natives may seem the same as allowing them to be learning alone from a device that we find somewhat intimidating.  Let me elaborate here. Most 2 year olds today will touch the screen of an I-pad in the right way to make things happen, but if I do not guide them to the App where they are looking at animals and listening to their call, for example, they may end up mesmerized just by the control they have of the screen and look at any other file not necessarily educational.

I think the key word here is “control” and I will use it now.  A teacher overwhelmed by the lack of control s/he has of the class, may long for a computer lab where each child will interact with a screen and be involved.  In the same way, a mother (or a father?) overwhelmed by their daily chores 30 years ago may have used the TV as a way to control tired children.  Now that I used the word, I will go on: the factory approach of all children in desks, learning the same concept all at once, was an easy way to control 25 to 30 children together in the same room with only one adult.

I will ask you:

  • Just because a child is involved with a screen, is s/he learning?
  • Is the purpose of education to control the minds or to expand them?
  • As educators, should we give control of what and how to learn to our technology natives, or should we attempt to guide them?
  • How do we measure their learning now that we are accepting learning as an individual process?

Dear reader, I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic of technology use in the classroom,

  • How are you using it? Or why you are not using it?
  • Why do you think it is enhancing learning or not?
  • What are the challenges that you encounter?
  • If you are a parent, your opinion will be very helpful also

And if you can circulate this blog to other parents, teachers, student, all opinions welcome, thanks,

Cecilia Villlabona

The Teacher’s Role in Tomorrow’s Classroom

I am not a technology native, not a 21st century learner, in fact I took some time to embrace technology and become comfortable with it.  It was my job as a teacher to be able to communicate with my students, and that was my motivation to start the journey.

My introduction to computers happened over 15 years ago, and currently I celebrate my computer, the Internet, my I-phone, and more in the awareness that I am not the same person, as I ask myself at times if I have lost something important or found some greatness?

The classroom is historically a room where students and teachers meet to exchange knowledge in order to make learning happen.  Let’s ask some out-of-the-box questions:

  • Is the teacher also learning, or only the pupils?
  • Are they all learning the same things at the same time, or are there individual differences?
  • Is the learning self directed and totally individual, or is someone in charge of directing it?
  • Do all parties involved have to occupy the same physical space, or can we be away from each other, connected by a question and/or a computer?

I will share my answers with you, I the one who was first a teacher in a world without computers, the one I am today as I celebrate my electronic devices:

  • A good teacher learns constantly from the students.
  • Learning is a process and it does not happen at once to all involved.
  • Students learn as much from each other’s questions and answers as from the teacher/text/computer/app, etc.

This complexity is one of the many reasons why education is a difficult profession, yet a beautiful one for those who love the challenges and believe that children are the future.

In my opinion there is no substitute for an educated skilled teacher.  Experience is also important.  No computer app, artificial intelligent computer aided instruction program, Internet site or worksheet will educate our students.  Some of these will capture their interests and hold their attention for some time but never will replace the teacher.

I believe the most important element for learning is the teacher-student interactions, all other modern technologies to be used as tools to support this relationship.

With this idea in mind we have created Paths to Math an web-based learning environment combining advanced pedagogical methods with current mobil learning capabilities.

For a free trial visit: and use activation code: SHJGSJH

How can I teach 30 kids at once?

I love New York City! One of the things I love most about this city is the subway, which I use for my goings about in town.  This Monday I was on my way to Brooklyn in the F train when a woman came in and sat in front of me.  She was middle age, good looking, had short hair, and was wearing a very large coat.  Most striking however it was the fact that she was holding on to a child’s hand on each side. As I took a closer look I could see the girls were identical twins, beautiful and about 4 years old (sometimes I wonder if I look at this age child because there is one that I adore!) but let me not divert, there is a point I want to make here.  Both girls looked worried or sad, their eyes told me that much, and the woman kept holding their hands and speaking softly taking turns to each one from side to side, in what looked as a comforting speech. I imagine maybe they were going to school for the first time and worried about it, or had a doctor’s appointment and were afraid of the shots, so many things that can worry a 4 years old child!  I could not hear the conversation, I could only wonder, but I could clearly read the eyes.

That is when I found myself relating to this trio, first as a mother, in that she had to divide her attention evenly between two same age children, probably with very similar needs all the time.  Then as a teacher with a class full of students trying to explain the same concept to 30 of them at many different levels of readiness and understanding!  How impossible to do this in a lesson that I wrote paced and delivered while looking at eyes that showed angst, doubt, disinterest, sadness, or eyes that did not even want to look up to what was being explained.  I decided that teaching in this model was not the best to serve my students.

To reach my students I needed to speak to them for small periods of time to deliver nuggets of information and provide them with opportunities to apply and expand this knowledge through interactions with one another: group work, rewriting lessons, creating activities and preparing for everyday success became then a massive investment of time and energy. Without accounting for the fact that I still had to create tests and mark them!

In a 30 years long classroom journey I accumulated some knowledge, success stories and plenty of ideas to share. Then together with my Finnish partner we created the materials that I wish I would have had 20 years ago, except that then we were both busy creating it.

If you are looking to reach more students by providing material that can be differentiated according to students needs, rich with short films for students to study alone, interactive questions, opportunities for interdisciplinary lessons and differentiated assessment, you have to check Mathematics materials for Percents, Pre-Algebra, Algebra and Geometry for grades 7 to 10 are available to get you started on the path to save you planning time and help you to teach students and help them to succeed.