The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 30 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

Listen to the audio version of this podcast.


Gonzalez: This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 30 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, I talk with a teacher about the system she uses in her class for self-paced learning.

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Gonzalez: I think every teacher wants to differentiate instruction. We all know each of our students is at a different place. But trying to figure out exactly how to meet each of their needs is pretty dang hard. If it was easy then everyone would already be doing it and they’d be doing it well. When I was in the classroom, I did my best. But I never really received any training on differentiated instruction. I’ve actually learned a lot more about it since I’ve left the classroom and the impression I get is that there are still plenty of teachers who just don’t quite know how to do it. Even if they’ve heard strategies, they don’t necessarily know how to manage the whole thing.

So about a month ago I went to a TeachMeet, and I was really excited to see that one of the sessions was going to be on self-paced learning. So I went and the teacher, Natalie McCutchen, showed us what she does in her classroom. And I was really impressed by how simple the system was. And there were a few key things that she said in the session that really, really stood out to me. One was that not all of her students are doing self-paced learning all of the time. It’s almost like a privilege that they have to earn and they can lose it. So that was a big light bulb for me because I think a lot of teachers like the idea of students learning at their own pace, but can’t figure out how to manage the whole thing. And if it’s something that you allow your more mature students to do, students who can handle it and who will do the work, and then the other kids work with you in a more traditional way. I don’t know, it’s the first time I ever heard of someone doing it that way and it really made a lot of sense.

Now something to keep in mind when you listen is that she is a math teacher. But I don’t want you to stop listening if you are not a math teacher because I don’t think this process only applies to math. I think it could be adapted to any subject area. I think it’s very easy to do it in math, but I really think it could be adapted to any other subject area. So in the blog post that I’m going to write to go along with this, I am going to show some of the documents that she uses to organize this. But I’m also going to try to work through how I think teachers in other subjects could use the same system. So if you want to see a little bit more of that thinking, go to and click on episode 30 and that will take you to the full blog post that is associated with this interview.

Before I play the interview, I want to thank everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. I know that it’s an interruption in your day and we’re all really busy. So it just means a lot that you would take the time to support me in that way. Leaving a positive review makes the show more visible to other listeners and it helps me reach a lot more people, so thank you. If you’re enjoying the podcast and you haven’t left a review yet, I would love it if you would. Okay, on with the show. Here’s my interview with Natalie McCutchen about self-paced learning.

Gonzalez: I have with me today Natalie McCutchen. She is a seventh grade math teacher in Kentucky, as am I. I’m not a math teacher, but I’m in Kentucky. And here is the reason I have Natalie on. She and I both attended a TeachMeet a couple of weeks ago, which is—for anybody who’s not aware of that—it’s basically like an EdCamp. And she gave a presentation on self-paced learning. And so I just popped in, but it was a real popular session. You got way more people than I did in my session. I had six people and I knew three of them personally. It was pitiful. But a lot of people were interested in your topic. And so, it was just on how she does [buzz] self-paced learning in her class. So I wanted to have her on so she could explain to– [buzz, laughing] That’s okay. You know what, this podcast, this episode is going to have occasional buzzing. That’s cool. That’s just reality.

McCutchen: I’m sorry!

Gonzalez: Okay, so hi Natalie.

McCutchen: Hi, glad to be here. Sorry this is like—Facebook alerts, text messages—you know, the life of a teacher; you’re never really unplugged. So this is the reality, sorry.

Gonzalez: That’s okay. So if you could just start walking us through how you do—You basically have your students, or some of them—and we’re going to get to that piece of it—you have some of your kids basically work at their own pace during math.

McCutchen: Correct.

Gonzalez: And this is—I think if you said, if I understood this right—you’re only doing this with one group or is it two kids, two classes right now?

McCutchen: So one class, my pre-algebra class, they are my higher level math class, they pretty much do it exclusively. So every student does it. I pay more attention or attend to some of those students more than others. But my math classes, it’s a select few students. So my pre-algebra everyone does it. My math classes it’s around five to ten students.

Gonzalez: Okay so let’s start, let’s start by talking about that pre-algebra class then. Talk about how you actually came to the point that you started doing self-paced with them.

McCutchen: Okay so how I got on this whole idea is that two years ago, I looked into working in the flipped classroom where you make videos of your instruction and the students typically watch those outside of class so when they come to class they’re able to work collaboratively on ideas or activities with their classmates. So you just use your class time for more of the work and less for the instruction.

So about two years ago I decided to work on that but I still used it for—my students still watched the videos in class—and it was during that time that I realized that some kids just naturally moved through the content faster. When they had the videos, when they could watch the videos and then work the problems on their own, they moved faster.

And with my pre-algebra class specifically, when I first made the videos I made one 15-20-minute clip with all of my examples in there. Well I use Khan Academy as well and what I realized when I watched Khan Academy was that they used one video for each video clip. So I started making each video clip have just one example. And so I would tell the kids in my pre-algebra class is maybe there’s five videos that you can watch today, you watch as many as you need. If you watch two videos and you understand it, then you move onto the practice problems. And if you need all five, you use all five. And what I started noticing was that I had some kids who just needed one or two videos of examples and they moved onto the practice and they got it right. And they just took off from there.

So about two years ago, kind of experimenting with that whole process, I had about five or six students that were a, you know, chapter or two ahead of the other students all the time. And so it got me thinking that maybe I should create a system where this is, you know, just the norm and how things naturally flow. Because if kids had more of an opportunity to work ahead, they probably would. But some kids just felt more comfortable with me teaching them because they were more used to that. But for some kids who could move faster and get it right, this was perfect for them.

And so this year I decided I was going to create basically chapter guides with every one of my chapters that had everything front-loaded in the very beginning of my chapter. That way if a kid wanted to move ahead they could. If kids were going to be absent, maybe out for a sporting event, what have you, they would have the information in front of them. So it kind of combines the flipped part of that with the videos, but also front-loading all of the content.

And so the idea behind it is that at the very beginning of a chapter, the students have everything they need to complete the chapter and to get it done. And they could almost do it independently of me. So for those students who are very independent thinkers and are really great with math, they’re highly motivated and they just want to plow through that content, they have everything they need from me to do it without actually needing me.

Gonzalez: So let me make sure I’ve got it so far. Okay what you have right now is you have it all set up so that when a student sort of begins a chapter, they sort of—First, where is all of this kept? Is this on Google Drive where you have it all?

McCutchen: Yes, it’s a Google Doc and our class, our district is a Google Apps for Education district, so teachers and students all have access to all the Google tools. So we actually have Google Classroom. So I put everything on Google Classroom. The students are able to get their own copy. So as they work through each learning target, they’re able to check off if they have it done, how well they did, their mastery level. And they have their own copy so they can access that through Google Classroom and also their Google Drive.

Gonzalez: Okay, so this, would you say that this—Every math standard, is it, or every chapter of the book? Every chapter has its own folder or something like that?

McCutchen: Right. Essentially, yes.

Gonzalez: And so they go to it and what they see is—It’s all videos, correct? All the content they need is delivered on video or is there some sort of written material too?

McCutchen: Well a little bit of both. So it starts out with the cluster and the standards that they’re learning because I want to make sure the kids understand this is coming from our Common Core standards. And then I’ve broken down the standards into learning targets. So everything is driven around the targets. And I fit the chapter of our book to go with the target. So it’s a little different. So say if I start with chapter 2, I do lesson 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 in order and you finish with the test. The way this is set up is a little different because it’s all based off the learning targets.So I just look within the chapters and pull different lessons, different pages, different examples based on the targets as opposed to—Like these are jumping all over the place in the book. But it’s centered around targets as opposed to a lesson in the book. So it is based on the chapters because the chapters are very similar content. But it might jump around the chapter based on the learning targets that the kids are learning that day or that moment or that lesson.

Gonzalez: Okay I remember from your presentation that—Is it that there’s a pretest that they can take, at the beginning of that chapter to see if they already know how to do everything?

McCutchen: Exactly. So this—

Gonzalez: Does everyone take that no matter what?

McCutchen: Yes, yes, everybody takes it. In my mind, this crazy teacher mind that I have, I have this perfect classroom in my mind. So ideally my classroom would be flipped learning where students can access instruction, or me giving instruction, on demand, which fits perfectly with our society, right? They can just access anything they want on demand. Instead of waiting for me to come help them, they can just click on a video and bam, whatever they need is at their fingertips. That’s also coupled with Assessment for Learning. So standards based grading. So everything is broken down to a target. You’re trying to master this content, not just get points or get a grade, but truly understand the content at a different level. And then all of this is housed in Google Classroom, or for teachers who aren’t on Google Classroom in any online platform, because there’s a plethora of online platforms. So the last two years I’ve been working on some of those pieces in isolation, some of them together, and this year was when I wanted to bring it all together.

So my idea was I start each unit with a pretest, because I want to know what do my students know, what do they understand because there’s always some kids who think they don’t know things, but they actually do know them. And there’s always kids who think “Oh I know how to do this.” but they really don’t. So I need evidence. I tell my kids I need evidence of what you can and can’t do. If you prove to me you know how to do it, then you get to move on. Because if you completed this pretest correctly without me, without help, without any instruction, you truly know what you’re doing. And we might do a little more in-depth work. We might go a little bit deeper. We might work on applying that content. But as far as me teaching you how to do it, you don’t need that because you already understand that. So students start with the pretest and that helps me determine what they already understand before any instruction takes place.

And then, that’s where the chapter guide comes in. So the chapter guide has all the specific learning targets. It has a spot where the pretest question correlates with each target. So my students know, okay, if I got number one right, that relates to that target so I’m done with all that work essentially before the chapter begins because I mastered that on my pretest. Also with each target there is the lesson. So that’s where the students explore the content, work examples, and that’s where the videos come in. So every example that students have to work through in the lesson, I have a video that goes along with it. So that way they can get their instruction. They can get the help they need. They can get affirmation that they’re doing it correctly without needing me specifically. They have it on the videos. Then there’s also practice that I include because some kids need additional practice. So even though they watch the videos, even though I may help them some one on one, some of them need that additional practice. So that’s built in, as well as a small assessment for each learning target.

The small assessment helps me make sure that the students truly know what they’re doing because I work with middle school students, so I know some of them even though I say “Don’t just copy from the videos into your book. Make sure you understand it.” Some of them will just copy from the videos into their book because our students have been trained to just get stuff done. The mindset of “Do it and do it well” is not as important as just do it for the sake of being done. And so the assessment is where they prove to me I did my lessons, I maybe did practice if I needed it and now I truly know what I’m doing. And so with the lesson part, and the practice they can work together in groups. They check their own work. They check their own answers to see if they’re correct on the lesson and practice part. With the assessment, it’s individual and I check that. And so that’s where the checks and balances of this whole system comes into play because before they get too far– You know at the end of each learning target which typically takes about a day, there is a measure to see do you understand or do you not. If they do they just simply move onto the next topic. If they don’t then they can do more practice or they may watch the videos again or they may come to me to get help.

Gonzalez: Okay and that—What you’re describing, that takes places in the course of one class period, generally?

McCutchen: Typically. Now some kids are faster so for some kids, you know, for instance some kids might look through the examples real quick, maybe take ten, fifteen minutes on the examples. They look through the examples real quick, they get it right. They do the assessment, they get it right. So maybe in thirty minutes they’re done. But for most kids I tell them “You’re looking at about a target per day. So if you’re getting a target a day done, then you’re pretty much on track and you’re going to keep pace with where I need you to be.”

Gonzalez: Okay, so if you have a student who completes a target in say fifteen or twenty minutes, or tests out of it or skips over it, basically just assuming that they work faster than you would expect, do they move on to the next target during that class period?

McCutchen: They sure do.

Gonzalez: Okay so do you have some kids who aren’t even in that chapter anymore? They’ve moved several chapters ahead?

McCutchen: Yes, yes. So right now, I have—The majority of my class is in chapter three, about midway through chapter three. So I have maybe five to ten midway through chapter three. I probably have about ten or so in chapter four. Five or six in chapter five. And then maybe three or four in chapter six.

Gonzalez: Wow, that—That’s fantastic.

McCutchen: Yes and so it’s very—And so it’s very much organized chaos, because they’re all over the place. And so there’s still a system, but they’re still manage all that. And with my pre-algebra students, these students are more independent than most, but they’re still used to having a teacher there. So some of them still need me to just check them off. Or they still need me to say “Yes, you’re okay. Yes, you’re right.” And so it takes a little while for me to wean because they just think they have to check in with me. Am I right? And I’m like “Well, did you check yourself?” Yeah. “Did you get them all right?” Yeah. “Okay, just move on.” So it’s funny how they’re—It’s still ingrained in them, check with the teacher, make sure you’re right. Check with the teacher. But yeah, they just keep moving.

And one thing, the crazy thing is I always think of ways I can make it better, even while I’m doing it. So one thing I want to do next year is, because I thought about the fact that especially my pre-algebra students, there have literally been some students who take the Chapter 1 pretest and get every single question right the first time around. There are some kids who took the Chapter 2 pretest and got every single question right the second time around. For the Chapter 3 pretest they took it and missed three problems. But because they got the rest of them right, they were able to go back and make corrections and they immediately got the rest of them right, which is amazing.

But then my thought as a teacher is, okay now have them go deeper. So yes, don’t make them do all the instruction, all the examples, but let’s give them other type of problems that are going to make them apply the content, really dive deeper into it. So I’ve been doing that as a whole class. So we’ll just stop once very couple of weeks and we’ll do like an extended response type question or a more in-depth lesson. And so we’ll just bring everybody back together. So it’s essentially review for the kids who’ve already moved on and it’s just good solid practice for the kids who are still in that current chapter. But one thing I want to do next year is just automatically have those activities built in so if a kid gets everything right on the pretest, well then they’re going to spend a couple of days doing those more in-depth activities because I still want them to learn more and do more and understand more even if they already have a good understanding. So that’s where my mind is going next: Okay, for the students who master it, how can I take them deeper? Because I always want my kids to be better when they leave me then when I receive them. So that’s kind of my next steps.

Gonzalez: Yeah. So you’re working on some almost sort of advanced activities that they can do that you can build into each of these chapters now.

McCutchen: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

Gonzalez: Okay. Do you have your own record keeping system so that you sort of have an idea of where everybody is at a given time?

McCutchen: Yes, I do, but I’m still trying to find ways to make that more seamless. But the one thing I do use is—On the chapter guide, there is a section. So students get levels of mastery in my classroom. That’s kind of where the standards based grading part comes in. And so they get a level one, two, three or four. One means they still need more help. So basically I may need to reteach them. They may need to rewatch the videos, do more practice. Level two means “almost there.” So they know some of the content but definitely more practice is needed. Level three—simple mistake—which basically means small computational errors, maybe just small little things here or there that they can correct. And then of course level four is they have it, they can move on.

And so on their chapter guide, they get their own copy in Google Classroom. And so as they complete each target, they stick their level in their on the chapter guide. So I can access those chapter guides at all time and I can see them. But I still have to go to my computer and pull them up. So what I’ve been thinking about doing– Like in the past I’ve used just a homework chart that you get from the parent teacher store. And that’s how I’d keep track of their assignments. So I’m thinking of getting some of those and laminating them. And especially for the kids who are right with me on my curriculum map. So for instance we’re on chapter three, the kiddos who are on chapter three, keeping track of their progress every single day and almost giving them a goal each day of what to meet. I’ve been doing that for a select few students who need my encouragement to kind of help keep them going and keep them focused. But essentially saying “Okay make sure on your chart you’re starting at target four today. You should be done with target four before you leave today. Or you know tomorrow when you come in you should be putting a sticker on target four because you’re done with that.” And I think that would be a really good visual for me, as well as the students, to see “Oh man, I’m behind them. We got started together on Friday. They got two stickers and I don’t have it yet.” I think that would—it’s very simple and it’s almost silly a little bit for seventh graders, but you know it worked when we used to do a homework chart because they wanted those stickers on the chart.

Gonzalez: Yep.

McCutchen: So I’ve been thinking about doing that because they keep the chapter guide in—We have like a data notebook. It’s a composition notebook. So we glue all their items in there. So they have that with them on their desk every day. So I’m able to go by and say “Okay, what have you done? Where are you today?” At the end of class “How much did you get done?” It’s also electronic. But I think that would provide a quick visual so that they are able to compare themselves and their work and their effort to everyone else. And sometimes, especially for my pre-algebra kids, that’s a great motivating factor.

Gonzalez: So okay, so let’s assume that I am one of the students in your pre-algebra class because we’re going to talk in a minute about what’s going on in your regular math class. That’s even more interesting. But if I’m—Let’s say I’m sort of right middle of the road, I’m not one of the kids that’s flying straight ahead. So when I come into the room every day, I get that data notebook out, right? Is that the first thing? I sort of go to my most recent page and what I’m going to be doing that day is I’m going to be figuring out what target I need to work on that day. I’ll be watching a couple of videos, doing some of the practice, right? You said you’ve got the pre-test, the practice and then the content delivered on videos. And then there’s a post assessment?

McCutchen: Well each target has like a small, little assessment. And then of course at the end, at the end of the chapter they take the post assessment.

Gonzalez: Okay so they can, they take that sort of mini assessment for each standard to decide if they’re done with it or not.

McCutchen: Right and whether they can move on, correct.

Gonzalez: Now how do they actually take that? Is that an electronic test, a paper test? How do they know when they got the answers correct?

McCutchen: Well, it’s a little bit of both. So at the end of each class– So if I had one to one in my classroom, it would be all electronic. But because I share a chromebook lab with three other teachers, I always have hard copies just in case. So some kids—We have BYOD, bring your own device. So some kids just access it on their tablets or they get a chromebook if they’re available. And there’s some kids like the paper copy. It just kind of depends on the student. But basically they just work through the assessments. If they turn that assessment sheet in at the end of each class, and then I’ll check it at night. And then when they come back into class, I’ll give it back to them. And essentially if they get a four, they move on automatically. They understand it. If they get a three I’ll say “Okay, try to figure out what you did wrong. Just bring it to me.”

Sometimes it’s something they can just talk through it with me because it’s very small. If they get a two, I usually touch base with them, maybe have them go back and watch a video.Then they have to go back and do some more practice. Then if they got ones on any of the assessments, sometimes they prefer for me to kind of walk them through some of the examples. Or sometimes they just go back and watch the examples and do the practice and go through it that way. So they pretty much—Some kids may turn in two assessments per class period, depending on how hard they worked. Some kids may turn in one. Some kids, maybe they didn’t get to an assessment that day. So it just kind of depends on how the kids work, how fast they go. But what I tell the kids first is I really prefer them to work together on the lesson because– Especially with my pre-algebra students because they are such good math thinkers that they understand and can talk math. I want them to work together. So I typically say “Why don’t ya’ll work together?” You know, two or three in a group seeing if you can figure it out on your own using the video. Or if you get started and you want to make sure you’re right, pause it, keep going.

Because I really want them to be—Because I feel like if they can figure it out on their own, even with a few bumps here and there, they’re going to remember it more than if they just heard me talk about it and explain it. So you know some kids they work really well together, so they just get together. They put their heads together and they just kind of fight through it and figure it out and they “ooh yeah, we’re right.” Some kids get a good start, get stuck, take a look back at the videos and keep going. Some kids, “Nah, I don’t get this,” and they start out watching the videos, watch the first example and then keep going on the rest. And I really like how that’s set up because I can meet the needs of each kid without having to do a lot of extra work for each kid. And I always tell them that at the beginning. “Use the videos to your best advantage.” You know if you feel more comfortable watching one and then not using the rest, do it that way. If you feel comfortable getting started and then using the videos to kind of check you to make sure you’re right, do that. If you want to do everything in the lesson and then go back to the videos, you know use it that way.

Gonzalez: You can’t see me because my camera’s off, but I’m—literally I’m just sitting here shaking my head at how much differentiation you’re doing. Literally I’m thinking you’re differentiating content, process, product, not product but like you’re letting them make so many choices which is just so—It’s neat because your attitude toward it is just kind of casual about it. Just whatever they need to do. And it’s good because you’re teaching them how to teach themselves which is just—In terms of if they want to work alone,how much of the video do they want to see, which videos, you know, do they want to rewind it and watch it again…

McCutchen: Right, but I will say this. It is very hard for some students because they have been so used to—I mean and this is not a knock on anybody, I mean I grew up this way, I’m still fine. But they’re used to sitting and getting. But even though there’s some kids who don’t need that method, they’re just more comfortable with that method. So I see some kids take off with this and they just flourish and they just love it because they’re able to go through it and their own pace the way they want to. Then I have other kids who almost just sit and do nothing because they’re waiting on me. And I’m not—

Gonzalez: So how do you handle that? What do you do with those kids?

McCutchen: At first I was just like “Hey, get to work.” You know I would encourage them. Then I realized they really want—I have one boy in particular I’m thinking about. You know he wasn’t really off task. He wasn’t talking to other people. He wasn’t you know just cutting up for the sake of cutting up. He just almost didn’t know what to do and how to get started. And so what I started doing with him was, I would just get him started myself. Because he had the videos but he still just wanted that one on one interaction. He still just craved it. And so I would just start off with him and spend like five, ten minutes talking to him about it, introducing it to him, maybe pointing out a few things. And then he would just keep going on his own and I would check back with him. I’d say “Okay once you get this one done, come back and let me see you. Then once he got through that first problem or two he felt confident that he knew what he was doing. Then I would say “Okay you just keep going. And then once you get done just get the answers and check yourself and make sure you’re right.” So there’s some. Now there’s others that I have to do that with because they would just sit and play all day if I didn’t say “Hey how are you doing?”

So it’s very—It’s been a very unique experience watching how different students react to having that freedom, but also having a lot more accountability. I think that’s what a lot of students– I don’t think they really get how much I’m really putting into their hands because I’m saying “Oh I expect you to have this and this done.” But how you get there, you kind of get to choose that path. For some kids it’s amazing and great because once you let them go they’re off. For other kids, they’re not mature enough yet to handle that or they’re just not ready for you to let them go to handle it. And so you still have—You know I still have those kids I have to sit down with and teach, you know, like normal. Sometimes, you know, mid-chapter I may bring a few of them together and kind of just touch base with them to make sure they’re okay. But then there’s others that I literally—They don’t need me. You know and I’ll check every now—Yep, we’re good. We’re great. We’ll let you know. So it’s kind of, it really is neat in a sense because they are independent thinkers and workers, and that’s what you want them to be.

Gonzalez: Right. So I have a question about the practices because that’s what they do between deciding what they do for the standard and actually taking the assessment for the standard. Do they have answer keys to the practice? Do they have access to the answers to the practice?

McCutchen: Yes, yes. So initially they only do the practice if they think they need it. So what happens is they do the lessons. They check their self on those questions to make sure they’re right. If they feel like they understand it and they feel like they’re okay, they move automatically on to the assessment for that target.

Gonzalez: Okay.

McCutchen: But if they don’t get a three or a four on the assessment, they have to go back and do the practice. So I stress to them, you know you need to do as much as you need. I don’t want you to do any more, but I also don’t want you to do any less. So if you know you had to watch most of the videos before you were able to get those answers right for the lesson, you might want to do a couple of the practice, just to make sure you understand it. You know if you worked together in a group, but you still struggled to kind of pick up on and understand it, you might want to do the practice. Because if you move onto the assessment and you’re not fully ready, you’re just going to have to go back and do the practice anyway. So I have some of those kids who just naturally—I’m like, “Why are you doing the practice? I thought you understood it.” “Well, I just want to make sure because I’d rather do it now than later.” “Oh, okay.” Then I have some kids, I’m like do you think you need the practice? No, probably not. I’m like, okay. Then they have to go back and do it. So.

But you know, once again, they’re taking that ownership. And I tell them, “You know better than I what you really know and understand.” I have a really good idea. So I could probably tell you 99.9% of the time what you need and it’ll be accurate. But you know if you fully understand it or not and you know if you’re just mimicking what you’ve seen somebody else do or mimicking what you’ve seen in the video. You’ve got to make sure you understand it. So the practice is there if they need it. But honestly some kids never do the practice. And then some kids do a lot of it. But it’s also there for a review. So like at the end, you know they can go back and take that for review if they want to before they take the post assessment. It’s just there for extra, just in case.

Gonzalez: Yeah. Now okay, the videos. You created some of them yourself and then you use some from Khan Academy, correct?

McCutchen: Right. So a lot of them I just make myself because I just import a page from the textbook and it’s just me talking them through it. It’s essentially exactly what they would hear in class if I was teaching it like I normally would. It’s just on a video clip so they can access it instantly. Now I have to admit the videos are taking me awhile to get done because for my pre-algebra kids, they are moving so fast. So at the beginning of the year I never imagined them literally mastering complete pretests. Like I knew that they would get some of it right, but I really never envisioned they would take a test and get it all right. They would take a test and– And from our first– Now chapter four kind of stopped them in their tracks because that was brand new content they had never seen before so I knew that would stop them. But for some of my kids the first three chapters, they took it and it was all right. They took it, it was all right. So I’m still playing catch up a little bit. So that’s why I’m accessing some of those Khan Academy videos. Or that’s why now I may teach them a quick mini lesson, kind of show them. Then okay we’ve got it and they move on. But essentially the videos are just that page in the book on the video and I’m annotating on top of it, pointing out certain things while walking through the problems. That’s pretty much what the videos are.

Gonzalez: And is it just you—Is it a camera on you or is it a screencast of you know…

McCutchen: Essentially it’s like a screencast. So I’ve used—I started using Explain Everything when I first started using it. So with Explain Everything, they pretty much just see the page and they just hear me talking over it, yes.

Gonzalez: Right. They hear your voice. Okay, got it. Okay let’s move now to your regular math class. Because you’re doing the same thing, you’re doing with Algebra, with the pre-algebra, but there are some important differences. So the system is the same. However, you’re working with some kids one-on-one all the time.

McCutchen: Right, so in my math classes those kids don’t quite understand and get the math like my pre-algebra students do. Or better yet they just don’t have as good a math foundation. So what I’ve learned is that pre-algebra kids just really get math. So they may not understand everything I’m doing new, but because they have all that background knowledge they can easily make those connections where they understand it. Our math kids, sometimes that background knowledge and sometimes those foundations are missing. Or there’s gaps, there’s cracks and there’s holes. So they’re not able to easily see something new, think about something they’ve done before and then make that connection. And so what I do with my math kids is that it’s all based on their pre-test.

So my first chapter I lived and learned a little bit. My first chapter I gave the pre-test. So if they didn’t get anything wrong on the pre-test, I still taught them like I normally would. And they did group work and we would work through examples together. So they still got taught like I would just a normal, regular classroom. And so with any student that got any question right on the pretest, I started letting them work ahead self-paced. But then—and this was really silly at the time—but what I realized is I just naturally assumed oh they got the question right on the pretest, then those kids would just naturally be able to move through the rest of the content fine. And I’m like no, that’s not the case. They knew that question they got on the pretest right, but everything else, they still need me. My math kids aren’t as independent as pre-algebra. So where pre-algebra will naturally work their way through it, my math kids will sit there with their hands up and they will want me more and more and more. And so it was a little bit harder to manage teaching, you know fifteen kids maybe. And then having ten over here who were independent but they were still constantly wanting me. Even with the videos there, they still wanted me more.

And so what I tweaked it to a little bit is we do it target by target. So instead of me saying if you got a question right at all you get to move ahead, it’s if you got this target correct then you get to move ahead. And then that way they’re not too far ahead of us. You know target one leads into target two so they’re still– They’re taking some background knowledge that they understand. And then what started happening is that I would have some– Like one day I have everybody in the class that started off with me because nobody got that target right. But after doing a couple of examples, there were kids who just naturally picked up on it and could move faster. So what I started saying is just like I do with my pre-algebra, they had all the page numbers they were going to work in the book for target one. So the beginning of class I said “Okay guys, circle pages 210 to 214. We’re going to do those pages today. I want to work through every single one of them. You know with everybody in class. But if you think you understand it. If you think you know what you’re doing, you can move ahead of us if you want to.” And so I just have some kids who naturally will listen to the first page, maybe listen to the second page, but then the last two pages they can do it on their own. So while I’m still working through the with the rest of the class and they’re working in groups to figure it out. They have the rest of the pages done in five minutes. Then I would just go check them. They got it right. Then I would go ahead and give them the assessment. So it’s still self-paced in a sense but at a very slower pace than my pre-algebra. Because my pre-algebra’s just everybody’s doing it. You go at your own flow.

Gonzalez: Right.

McCutchen: You’re almost independent of me. Where my math classes are still a little bit more sort of dependent on me, but there are certain kids who start to separate from the pack. And so what would happen is where it may take me, I don’t know, thirty minutes to get through all the lesson pages with my regular class, some kids will get done in twenty minutes. And then while the rest of the class is finishing up the last ten minutes of the lesson, those kids are already working on the assessment. So while the rest of the class was doing the assessment, they were already starting on target two. And so they kind of naturally worked their way ahead, but it was still very sequential. We’re going to start together, but as you understand it you can move ahead. And that way they never got too far if they were not ready for it, but if they proved they were ready for it, then they were able to get further. And what happened– And by doing it that way, they actually gained more confidence in themselves. So they started to realize okay I don’t need her as much. I may need her for one or two examples. I don’t need her for all those examples. And so it’s been a deliberate process where those kids just slowly but surely separate themselves from the pack the further we get into the chapter.

And there’s sometimes they have to come back to the pack. I’ll say “You know what, you really didn’t work that hard yesterday. I’m not even sure what you got done, I don’t see anything on here.” Well I did. No you didn’t, just come back with us today. And so it’s a very—It’s a good measure for them because they like being ahead. You know they think it’s kinda cool. Sometimes I’ll let them go out in the hallway, sit at a little table. They like that, but I stress to them you still have to work.

Gonzalez: That was the part of your presentation that I liked because I was saying to you earlier before we started the recording that I think a lot of teachers who would hear about a system like this would think you would have to do this kind of like you’re doing with the pre-algebra, where you do everybody. And you said in that presentation if it’s not working out for the kids who are on self-paced, you’re not doing that with everybody. And they can almost—They have to earn their way into it and they’ve got to earn their way to stay in it. And if it’s not working out they will come back and work with the teacher

McCutchen: Exactly, exactly.

Gonzalez: Which is, that’s really smart.

McCutchen: And what’s so—What I’ve noticed is there’s some kids who work their way out of it because of their behavior. You know they just aren’t mature enough yet to have that little bit of freedom and to not have somebody monitor them. And so I have two boys in my sixth grade class that I’m thinking about right now that are really brilliant but they just like to play. And I say “Boys, I love you and I know you can do it and you should be doing it. But you’re just going to have to come back in here with us because you’re just not producing anything out there for me.” And I mean they didn’t necessarily like it, but they couldn’t argue with the fact that they were not producing. But I told them as soon as you start producing you can go right back out there. Like I’m not going to keep you in here. I’m not mad at you. I just want you to show.

But the point is they have to know the math and be able to do it. So it’s not a “she likes me” or a “oh you know I do stuff for her.” No. It’s all Can you do the math? And if you can do it and do it well and do it faster than other people, great, you get to move on. If you can’t for this day, then you’ll just stay with me and tomorrow you can try it again. So I think the kids see it as a very fair system. It’s not oh she likes those girls. Those girls are good. She lets them go outside. No, they know the math. They understand it so they’re getting to move ahead. And then if they don’t understand it, then they’ll just come back to me and the just keep going with me like normal.

Gonzalez: That’s fantastic. I am going to get in touch with you, probably tomorrow I’ll send you an email…

McCutchen: Okay.

Gonzalez: just so that we can– Maybe you can email me a couple of those things that you showed us in the presentation. You showed us kind of like pictures of what the kids would see and maybe even like some screenshots of how you’ve got the materials laid out.

McCutchen: Okay.

Gonzalez: Just sort of what the students would see because I think people are going to hear this. They’re going to want to do it, but I think they’re probably going to want just a little bit more, maybe some visuals about how to just set it up.

McCutchen: Okay.

Gonzalez: Thank you so much for taking this time and explaining all of this and just sharing all this so that other teachers can try it.

McCutchen: No, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.Thank you.

Gonzalez: And tell me also where could teachers reach you if they have sort of direct questions. Do you want to give your Twitter handle?

McCutchen: Sure, so it’s @nmccutchen – M-C-C-U-T-C-H-E-N

Gonzalez: I will put that– I will put that information in the blog post. I’ll be in touch in the next couple of days so we can get some materials together for people too.

McCutchen: Alright that’ll be great. Thank you so much.

Gonzalez: All right, thanks a lot, Natalie.

[music playing]

Gonzalez: To see the resources mentioned in this episode, including the documents Natalie uses to keep her system organized, go to and click on episode 30. Thanks for listening and have a good day.


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