Fluidity of Expert Status

In a recent post about Great Classroom Action, Dan Meyer mused about how to use the feedback features in Desmos’ Activity Builder to allow students to self-assess while not exacerbating issues of status in the classroom.  He is referring to Cathy Yenca’s post on how she uses the teacher screen during card sorts.


Let me first say that since Cathy’s 9/21/16 post, I instantly stole this idea.  I had been meaning to blog about it.  A whole post just to thank her for refining how I was teaching with Desmos Activity Builder.  I appreciate Dan’s musings as now I can post about his thoughts to.  First, I LOVED Cathy’s ideas.  She is one of my two classroom heroes.  Though we have never met and have only an occasional virtual teaching exchange, she, along with Julie Reulbach are two women who I feel most similar to as a teacher.  I see myself in them ALL THE TIME.  They are my heroes because unlike me, they are still teaching in the classroom.  Though I am now an administrator, I glean ideas from their blogs which constantly make my work stronger.  And I know, were I to return to the classroom, we’d have a whole lot more to share with one another.  And although there are tons of bloggers who influence me, they are the two who I really connect with as teachers. If you teach math, are curious about technology integration, and don’t read their blogs, please do.  You’re in for a treat.

Now, onto my thoughts on expert status.  As a middle school math teacher (which honestly wasn’t all that long ago, though I often start to feel like it was another lifetime ago), I pulled groups of students who had similar mathematical needs several times a week.  I gave exit tickets at least 3 days a week and the following day, I’d pull 1-2 groups of students.  Sometimes it was students who made a similar error. Other times it was students who got everything correct and I wanted to push their thinking on a certain concept or better understand how deeply they understood.  Sometimes it was students who got the same problem correct, but didn’t show any work and I wanted to hear from them how they approached the problem.  These groups were fluid and whomever was pulled was pulled for a specific reason which only corresponded to their work on yesterday’s exit ticket.  What amazed me, was how the membership of the groups changed from day to day.  It was never the same students pulled day after day.  Why?  Both because my criteria for how I pulled groups changed constantly based on what I wanted to know from students and because when you pull groups for a very specific reason, different kids fall into that category on different days as the reason is always changing.

However, I often received A LOT OF critique from colleagues in the math department. They said I was exacerbating status in the classroom.  Me mentioning that I was pulling groups of students with a similar error made many assume that the same struggling kids were in my group day after day and that gave them a lower status in the classroom.  While I completely understood their concerns, I knew that it was different kids every day and felt confident that I was aware of the harm of always pulling the same kids.

Cathy’s idea of having kids see this screen while they are doing a card sort in Desmos Activity Builder made so much sense to me.


Recently, while doing a card sort in a 5th grade class, I too had students strive for expert status.  But as Dan mentions, I don’t want this to create status issues and anxieties.  There were more subtle things I did while this was happening to have several pathways to “expert” besides having all your cards become green (correct).

* At one point, there was a pair of students who I could see from the screen had no cards correct. However they were very focus, having intense mathematical discussions, and showing each other their conflicting reasoning using scratch paper.  I stopped the class (thank you, “Pause Screen”) held up their scratch paper and made a very big deal about how impressed I was that they were having a “Math Fight” (my favorite kind of fighting) and that they were trying to resolve their math fight by using scratch paper to convince the other of their thinking (and yes I did mention the math practices that they were displaying).  When the class returned to work, everyone wanted scratch paper.  So now, “expert status” was defined by not only getting all green cards, but by convincing your partner with scratch paper (as students were paired up each Chromebook).

* I also am a lover of personalized stickers from Vistaprint. I have about 10 different phrases, all fun like this:fullsizerender-3

 I stole this brilliant idea many moons ago (2012) from Sam Shah.  Did you get a sticker because your group was one of the first ones to get all your cards sorted correctly?  Nope.  Since I already had a reward for those who were faster to get everything accurate, stickers (which are VERY high status) were only given to groups to I saw debating, struggling, and making sense of their misconceptions either within their pair, or by getting help from today’s ‘experts’ who were going around offering help.  And somewhere in there I stopped the class to talk about how you earned a sticker and that if you had one, you had done the hardest work of all.  Having a sticker with a positive message from me on your hand, as these girls do, becomes a very sought-after status as well.



I think having experts is fine.  However like Dan (and Cathy, I’m sure) we have to think about how to have the kids who are experts be defined in multiple ways.  Tomorrow’s ‘experts’ on a card sort should be defined in a different way.  By constantly changing your definition of ‘expert’ we open up the title as one which can be earned by different kids on different days.




5 thoughts on “Fluidity of Expert Status

  1. In reading this, I had some thoughts about something that has bothered me lately. I grew up with a father (and maybe a mother) who knew that I was exceptionally smart (testd IQ of 165), started high school at 12, graduated at a young 16 with a full semester of AP credit in two separate areas, 800 and 790 on my Achievement College boards, 760 and 745 on the two aptitude College Boards, etc. But, my parents never seems satisfied with my accomplishments and I always felt that I was performing far below where I should be because that was what I was constantly told. I worried that I was lazy and unproductive.

    Lately, now that I’m on the downward slope, I think I would be different person today if some teacher (or parent for that matter) had simply reassured me that I was simply that much smarter than the average bear and doing just fine. I did not need awards of more honors or AP classes, I did plenty of that, but I simply did not appreciate that who I was was just fine.

    That is somewhat the opposite of the “class room status” issue you were discussing, but I thought that in the right circumstances and with the right child, you might really help them avoid them a great deal of later anguish.

    • I really like what you are saying about how you felt. No matter how well we do academically (for the better or not) what matters more is how we feel. I’m a teacher and a parent of two college age girls and I think I didn’t check in with them enough about how they were feeling. I checked in, but I didn’t emphasize listening to their own inner voice as a guide. So, I’m making sure to do that now. I want them to trust themselves and listen to that inner voice. They both did well in school, which mattered, but it’s not more important than so many other character aspects and passions that sometimes get overlooked in the pursuit of academic excellence.

  2. And, great post here. I love this idea and want to incorporate it into my teaching! I understand what you mean about getting the raised eyebrow from colleagues. But, this online community of educators is really a lifeline and a fantastic resource for ideas. Thanks for sharing yours!

  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences (and your super-duper kind comments) ! I love the “fluidity” ideas you mention… Kindred spirits indeed… while I don’t have stickers (VERY clever move there) I do have a self-inking return-address label stamper (from Vistaprint, ha!) that the kids go bonkers over. It simply says, “Mrs. Yenca stamped my paper! 🙂 ” I use this stamp on occasion, and receiving a stamp on one’s paper means different things to different kids on different days. A little novelty goes a long way sometimes, especially when recognizing students’ strengths AND efforts. Thanks again for giving us a glimpse of some very fine classroom strategies!

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