John Staley, PhD, It's a Story, Not a Checklist!

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


There’s something magical about getting lost in a great story. Whether you’re reading a book, watching a movie or listening to a friend, stories impart meaning and capture our imagination. Dr. John Staley thinks a lot about stories. On this episode of Rounding Up, we’ll talk with John about the ways he thinks that the concept of story can impact our approach to the content we teach and the practices we engage in to support our students.

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Dr. John Staley is currently in his 27th year with Baltimore County Public Schools where he had the opportunity to teach middle and high school mathematics, serve as the coordinator of secondary mathematics and director of mathematics PreK-12.  He currently works on special projects which involve supporting building administrators and their leadership teams and coordinating the work of our system improvement teams to improve student achievement by “raising the bar, closing gaps, and preparing every student for the future.”

Throughout his career of more than 30 years, he taught in schools in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland at the secondary and post-secondary levels. In addition, he has presented at state, national, and international conferences; served on many committees and tasks forces; facilitated workshops and professional development sessions on a variety of topics; received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics and Science; and served as President for NCSM, the mathematics education leadership organization (2015 – 2017), and chair of the U.S. National Commission on Mathematics Instruction (2018 – 2020).


Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics: Grades K–12: 14 Teaching Practices for Enhancing Learning

The Impact of Identity and K–8 Mathematics: Rethinking Equity-Based Practices 

Humanizing Disability in Mathematics Education: Forging New Paths 

Motivated: Designing Mathematics Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In


Mike Wallus: There's something magical about getting lost in a great story. Whether you're reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a friend, stories impart meaning, and they capture our imagination. Dr. John Staley thinks a lot about stories. On this episode of Rounding Up, we'll talk with John about the ways that he thinks that the concept of story can impact our approach to the content we teach and the practices we engage in to support our students. 

Well, John, welcome to the podcast. We're really excited to talk with you today. 

John Staley: I'm glad to be here. Thank you for the invitation, and thank you for having me. 

Mike: So when we spoke earlier this year, you were sharing a story with me that I think really sets up the whole interview. And it was the story of how you and your kids had engaged with the themes and the ideas that lived in the Harry Potter universe. And I'm wondering if you could just start by sharing that story again, this time with the audience. 

John: OK. When I was preparing to present for a set of students over at Towson University and talking to them about the importance of teaching and it being a story. So the story of Harry Potter really began for me with our family—my wife, Karen, and our three children—back in ’97 when the first book came out. Our son Jonathan was nine at that time and being a reader and us being a reading family, we came together. He would read some, myself and my wife would read some, and our daughter Alexis was five, our daughter Mariah was three. So we began reading Harry Potter. And so that

really began our journey into Harry Potter. Then when the movies came out, of course we went to see the movies and watch some of those on TV, and then sometimes we listened to the audio books. And then as our children grew, because Harry Potter took, what, 10 years to develop the actual book series itself, he's 19 now, finally reading the final book. By then our three-year-old has picked them up and she's begun reading them and we're reading. So we're through the cycle of reading with them. 

But what they actually did with Harry Potter, when you think about it, is really branch it out from just books to more than books. And that right there had me thinking. I was going in to talk to teachers about the importance of the story in the mathematics classroom and what you do there. So that's how Harry Potter came into the math world for me, [chuckles] I guess you can say. 

Mike: There's a ton about this that I think is going to become clear as we talk a little bit more. 

One of the things that really struck me was how this experience shaped your thinking about the ways that educators can understand their role when it comes to math content and also instructional practice and then creating equitable systems and structures. I'm wondering if we can start with the way that you think this experience can inform an educator's understanding for content. So in this case, the concepts and ideas in mathematics. Can you talk about that, John? 

John: Yeah, let's really talk about the idea of what happens in a math classroom being a story. The teaching and learning of mathematics is a story that, what we want to do is connect lesson to lesson and chapter to chapter and year to year.

So when you think about students’ stories, and let's start pre-K. When students start coming in pre-K and learning pre-K math, and they're engaging in the work they do in math with counting and cardinality initially, and as they grow across the years, especially in elementary, and they're getting the foundation, it's still about a story. And so how do we help the topics that we're taught, the grade level content become a story? And so that's the connection to Harry Potter for me, and that's what helped me elevate and think about Harry Potter because when you think about what Harry Potter and the whole series did, they've got the written books. So that's one mode of learning for people for engaging in Harry Potter. 

Then they went from written books to audiobooks, and then they went from audiobooks to movies. And so some of them start to overlap, right? So you got written books, you got audiobooks, you got movies—three modes of input for a learner or for an audience or for me, the individual interested in Harry Potter, that could be interested in it. And then they went to additional podcasts, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and things like that. And then they went to this one big place called Universal Studios where they have Harry Potter World. That's immersive. That I can step in; I can put on the robes; I can put the wand in my hand. I can ride on, I can taste, so my senses can really come to play because I'm interactive and engaged in this story. 

When you take that into the math classroom, how do we help that story come to life for our students? Let's talk one grade. So it feels like the content that I'm learning in a grade, especially around number, around algebraic thinking, around geometry, and around measurement and data. Those topics are connected within the grade, how they connect across the grade and how it grows. So the parallel to Harry Potter's story—there's, what, seven books there? And so you have seven books, and they start off with this little young

guy called Harry, and he's age 11. By the time the story ends, he's seven years later, 18 years old. So just think about what he has learned across the years and how what they did there at Hogwarts and the educators and all that kind of stuff has some consistency to it. Common courses across grade levels, thinking, in my mind, common sets of core ideas in math: number, algebra, thinking, geometry, measurement of data. They grow across each year. We just keep adding on. 

So think about number. You're thinking with base ten. You then think about how fractions show up as numbers, and you're thinking about operations with whole numbers, base ten, and fractions. You think about decimals and then in some cases going into, depending if you're K–8 or K–5, you might even think about how this plays into integers. But you think about how that's all connected going across and the idea of, “What's the story that I need to tell you so that you understand how math is a story that's connected?” It's not these individual little pieces that don't connect to each other, but they connect somehow in some manner and build off of each other. 

Mike: So there are a couple of things I want to pick up on here that are interesting. When you first started talking about this, one of the things that jumped out for me is this idea that there's a story, but we're not necessarily constrained to a particular medium. The story was first articulated via book, but there are all of these ways that you can engage with the story. And you talked about the immersive experience that led to a level of engagement. 

John: Mm-hmm. 

Mike: And I think that is helping me make sense of this analogy—that there's not necessarily one mode of building students’ understanding. We actually need to think about multiple modes. Am I picking up on that right?

John: That's exactly right. So what do I put in my tool kit as an educator that allows me to help tap into my students’ strengths, to help them understand the content that they need to understand that I'm presenting that day, that week, that month, that I'm helping build their learning around? And in the 

sense of thinking about the different ways Harry Potter can come at you—with movies, with audio, with video—I think about that from the math perspective. What do I need to have in my tool kit when it comes to my instructional practices, the types of routines I establish in the classroom? 

Just think about the idea of the mathematical tools you might use. How do the tools that you use play themselves out across the years? So students working with the different manipulatives that they might be using, the different mathematical tools, a tool that they use in first grade, where does that tool go in second grade, third grade, fourth grade, as they continue to work with whole numbers, especially with doing operations, with whatever the tool might be? Then what do you use with fractions? What tools do you use with decimals? We need to think about what we bring into the classroom to help our students understand the story of the mathematics that they're learning and see it as a story. Is my student in a more concrete stage? Do they need to touch it, feel it, move it around? Are they okay visually? They need to see it now, they’re at that stage. They're more representational so they can work with it in a different manner or they're more abstract. Hmm. Oh, OK. And so how do we help put all of that into the setting? And how are we prepared as classroom teachers to have the instructional practices to meet a diverse set of students that are sitting in our classrooms? 

Mike: You know, the other thing you're making me think about, John, is this idea of concepts and content as a story. And what I'm struck by is how different that is than the way I was taught to think about what I was doing in

my classroom, where it felt more like a checklist or a list of things that I was tracking. And oftentimes those things felt disconnected even within the span of a year. 

But I have to admit, I didn't find myself thinking a lot about what was happening to grade levels beyond mine or really thinking about how what I was doing around building kindergartners’ understanding of the structure of number or ten-ness. 

John: Mm-hmm. 

Mike: How that was going to play out in, say, fifth grade or high school or what have you. You're really causing me to think how different it is to think about this work we're doing as story rather than a discrete set of things that are kind of within a grade level. 

John: When you say that, it also gets me thinking of how we quite often see our content as being this mile-wide set of content that we have to teach for a grade level. And what I would offer in the space is that when you think about the big ideas of what you really need to teach this year, let's just work with number. Number base ten, or, if you're in the upper elementary, number base ten and fractions. If you think about the big ideas that you want students to walk away with that year, those big ideas continue to cycle around, and those are the ones that you're going to spend a chunk of your time on. Those are the ones you're going to keep bringing back. Those are the ones you're going to keep exposing students to in multiple ways to have them make sense of what they're doing. 

And the key part of all of that is the understanding, the importance of the vertical nature as to what is it I want all of my students sitting in my

classroom to know and be able to do, have confidence in, have their sense of agency. Like, “Man, I can show you. I can do it, I can do it.” What do we want them to walk away with that year? So that idea of the vertical nature of it, and understanding your learning progressions, and understanding how number grows for students across the years is important. Why do I build student understanding with a number line early? So that when we get the fractions, they can see fractions as numbers. So later on when we get the decimals, they can see decimals as numbers, and I can work with it. So the vertical nature of where the math is going, the learning progression that sits behind it, helps us tell the story so that students, when they begin and you are thinking about their prior knowledge, activate that prior knowledge and build it, but build it as part of the story. 

The story piece also helps us think about how we elevate and value our students in the classroom themselves. So that idea of seeing our students as little beings, little people, really, versus just us teaching content. When you think about the story of Harry Potter, I believe he survived across his time at Hogwarts because of relationships. Our students make it through the math journey from year to year to year to year because of relationships. And where they have strong relationships from year to year to year to year, their journey is a whole lot better. 

Mike: Let's make a small shift in our conversation and talk a little bit about this idea of instructional practice. 

John: OK. 

Mike: I'm wondering how this lived experience with your family around the Harry Potter universe, how you think that would inform the way that an educator would think about their own practice?

John: I think about it in this way. As I think about myself being in the classroom—and I taught middle school, then high school—I'm always thinking about what's in my tool kit. I think about the tools that I use and the various manipulatives, the various visual representations that I need to have at my fingertips. So part of what my question would be, and I think about it, is what are those instructional strategies that I will be using and how do I fine-tune those? What are my practices I'm using in my routines to help it feel like, “OK, I'm entering into a story”? 

Harry Potter, when you look at those books, across the books, they had some instructional routines happening, some things that happen every single year. You knew there was going to be a quidditch match. You knew they were going to have some kind of holiday type of gathering or party or something like that. You knew there was going to be some kind of competition that happened within each book that really, that competition required them to apply the knowledge and skills from their various courses that they learned. They had a set of core courses that they took, and so it wasn't like in each individual course that they really got to apply. They did in some cases, they would try it out, they’d mess up and somebody's nose would get big, ears would get big, you know, change a different color. But really, when they went into some of those competitions, that's when the collection of what they were learning from their different courses, that's when the collection of the content. So how do we think about providing space for students to show what they know in new settings, new types of problems? Especially in elementary, maybe it's science application type problems, maybe they're doing something with their social studies and they're learning a little bit about that.

As an educator, I'm also thinking about, “Where am I when it comes to my procedural, the conceptual development, and the ability to think through and apply the applications?” And so I say that part because I have to think about students coming in, and how do I really build this? How do I strike this balance of conceptual and procedural? When do I go conceptual? When do I go procedural? How do I value both of them? How do I elevate that? And how do I come to understand it myself? Because quite often the default becomes procedural when my confidence as a teacher is not real deep with building it conceptually. I'm not comfortable, maybe, or I don't have the set of questions that go around the lesson and everything. So I’ve got to really think through how I go about building that out. 

Mike: That is interesting, John, because I think you put your finger on something. I know there have been points in time during my career when I was teaching even young children where we'd get to a particular idea or concept, and my perception was, “Something's going on here and the kids aren't getting it.” But what you're causing me to think is often in those moments, the thing that had changed is that I didn't have a depth of understanding of what I was trying to do. Not to say that I didn't understand the concept myself or the mathematics, but I didn't have the right questions to draw out the big ideas, or I didn't have a sense of, “How might students initially think about this and how might their thinking progress over time?” 

So you're making me think about this idea that if I'm having that moment where I'm feeling frustrated, kids aren't understanding, it might be a point in time where I need to think to myself, “OK, where am I in this? How much of this is me wanting to think back and say, what are the big ideas that I'm trying to accomplish? What are the questions that I might need to ask?” And those might be things that I can discover through reflection or trying to make

more sense of the mathematics or the concept. But it also might be an opportunity for me to say, “What do my colleagues know? Are there ways that my colleagues are thinking about this that I can draw on rather than feeling like I'm on an island by myself?” 

John: You just said the key point there. I would encourage you to get connected to someone somehow. As you go through this journey together, there are other teachers out there that are walking through what they're walking through, teaching the grade level content. And that's when you are able to talk deeply about math. 

Mike: The other thing you're making me think about is that you're suggesting that educators just step back from whether kids are succeeding or partially succeeding or struggling with a task and really step back and saying, like, “OK, what's the larger set of mathematics that we're trying to build here? What are the big ideas?” And then analyzing what's happening through that lens rather than trying to think about, “How do I get kids to success on this particular thing?” Does that make sense? Tell me more about what you're thinking. 

John: So when I think about that one little thing, I have to step back and ask myself the question, “How and where does that one thing fit in the whole story of the unit?" The whole story of the grade level. And when I say the grade level, I'm thinking about those big ideas that sit into the big content domains, the big idea number. How does this one thing fit into that content domain? 

Mike: That was lovely. And it really does help me have a clearer picture of the way in which concepts and ideas mirror the structures of stories in that, like,

there are threads and connections that I can draw on from my previous experience to understand what's happening now. You're starting to go there. 

So let's just talk about where you see parallels to equitable systems and structures in the experience that you had with Harry Potter when you were in that world with your family. 

John: First, let's think about this idea of grouping structures. And so when you think about the idea of groups and the way groups are used within the classroom, and you think about the equitable nature of homogeneous, heterogeneous, random groupings, truly really thinking about that collectively. And I say collectively in this sense, when you think about the parallel to the Harry Potter story, they had a grouping structure in place. They had a random sorting. Now who knows how random it was sometimes, right? But they had a random sorting the minute the students stepped into the school. And they got put into one of the four houses. But even though they had that random sorting then, and they had the houses structured, those groups, those students still had opportunities as they did a variety of things—other than the quidditch tournaments and some other tournaments—they had the opportunity where as a collection of students coming from the various houses, if they didn't come together, they might not have survived that challenge, that competition, whatever it was. So the idea of grouping and grouping structures and how we as educators need to think about, “What is it really doing for our students when we put them in fixed groups? And how is that not of a benefit to our students? And how can we really go about using the more random grouping?” 

One of the books that I'm reading is Building Thinking Classrooms [in Mathematics: Grades K–12: 14 Teaching Practices for Enhancing Learning].

And so I'm reading Peter [Liljedahl]'s book and I'm thinking through it in the chapter when he talks about grouping. I think I read that chapter and highlighted and tapped every single page in it multiple times because it really made me think about what's really happening for our students when we think about grouping. So one structure and one part to think about is, “What's happening when we think we're doing our grouping that's not really getting students engaged in the lesson, keeping them engaged, and benefiting them from learning?” 

Another part, and I don't know if this is a part of equitable systems and structures or just when I think about equity work: One of the courses that they had to take at Hogwarts was about the history of wizarding. I bring that up in this space because they learned about the history of what went on with wizards and what went on with people. And to me, in my mindset, that's setting up and showing the importance of us sharing the history and bringing the history of our students—their culture, their backgrounds, in some cases their lived experiences—into the classroom. So that's us connecting with our students' culture and being culturally responsive and bringing that into the classroom. So as far as an equitable structure, the question I would ask you to think about is, “Do my students see themselves in my mathematics classroom?” 

And I say it that way versus “in the mathematics,” because some people will look at the problems in the math book and say, “Oh, I don't see them there. I don't see, oh, their names, their culture, their type of foods.” Some of those things aren’t in the written work in front of you. But what I would offer is the ability for me as the educator to use visuals in my classroom, the ability for me to connect with the families in my classroom and learn some of their stories, learn some of their backgrounds—not necessarily learn their stories, but learn

about them and bring that in to the space—that's for me to do. I don't need a textbook series that will do that for me. And as a matter of fact, I'm not sure if a textbook series can do that for you, for all the students that you have in your 

classroom or for the variety of students that you have in your classroom, when we think about their backgrounds, their culture, where they might come from. So thinking about that idea of cultural responsiveness, and really, if you think about the parallel in the Harry Potter series, the history of wizarding and the interaction, when you think about the interaction piece between wizards and what they call Muggles, right? That's the interactions between our students, learning about other students, learning about other cultures, learning about diverse voices. That's teaching students how to engage with and understand others and learn about others and come to value that others have voice also. 

Mike: I was just thinking, John, if I were to critique Hogwarts, I do wonder about the houses. Because in my head, there is a single story that the reader comes to think about anyone who is in Harry's house versus, say, like Slytherin house. 

John: Yes. 

Mike: And it flattens anyone who's in Slytherin house into bad guys, right? John: Mm-hmm. 

Mike: And so it makes me think there's that element of grouping where as an educator, I might tell a single story about a particular group, especially if that group is fixed and it doesn't change. But there's also, like, what does that do internally to the student who's in that group? What does that signal to them about their own identity? Does that make sense?

John: That does make sense. And so when you think about the idea of grouping there at Hogwarts, and you think about these four fixed groups, because they were living in these houses, and once you got in that house, I don't think anybody moved houses. Think about the impact on students. If you put them in a group and they stay in that group and they never change groups, you will have students who realize that the way you did your groups and the way you named your groups and the way they see others in other groups getting more, doing different, and things like that. That's a nice caution to say the labels we put on our groups. Our kids come to internalize them and they come to, in some cases, live up to the level of expectations that we set for “just that group.” So if you’re using fixed groups or thinking about fixed groups, really I'd offer that you really get into some of the research around groups and think, “What does it do for students?” 

And not only what does it do for students in your grade, but how does that play out for students across grades? If that student was in the group that you identified as the “low group” in grade 2, [exhales] what group did they show up in grade 3? How did that play with their mindset? Because you might not have said those words in front of students, but our students pick up on being in a fixed group and watching and seeing what their peers can do and what their peers can't do, what their group members can do and what their group can't do. As our students grow from grades 2 to 3, 4, 5, that really has an impact. There's somewhere between grade 3 and 5 where students' confidence starts to really shake. And I wonder how much of it is because of the grouping and types of grouping that is being used in the classroom that has me in a group of, “Oh, I am a strong doer [of mathematics]” or, “Oh, I'm not a good doer of mathematics.” And that, how much of that just starts to resonate with students, and they start to pick that up and carry that with

them, an unexpected consequence because we thought we were doing a good thing when we put 'em in this group. Because I can pull them together, small group them, this and that. I can target what I need to do with them in that moment. Yeah, target what you need to do in that moment, but mix them up in groups. 

Mike: Just to go back and touch on the point that you started with. Building Thinking Classrooms has a lot to say about that particular topic among others, and it's definitely a book that, for my money, has really caused me to think about a lot of the practices that I used to engage in because I believed that they were the right thing to do. It's a powerful read. For anyone who hasn't read that yet, I would absolutely recommend it. 

John: And one last structure that I think we can speak to. I've already spoken to supports for students, but the idea of a coherent curriculum is I think an equitable structure that systems put in place that we need to put in place that you need to have in place for your students. And when I say a coherent curriculum, I'm thinking not just your one grade, but how does that grow across the grades? It's something for me, the teacher, to say, “I need to do it my way, this way…”. But it's more to say, “Here's the role I play in their pre-K to 12 journey.” Here's the chapter I'm going to read to them this year to help them get their deep understanding of whichever chapter it was, whichever book it happened to be of. 

In the case of the parallel of Harry Potter, here's the chapter I'm doing. I'm the third grade chapter, I'm the fourth grade chapter, I'm the fifth grade chapter. And the idea of that coherent curriculum allows the handoff to the next and the entry from the prior to be smoother. Many of the curriculums, when you look at them, a K–5 curriculum series will have those coherent pieces

designed in it—similar types of tools, similar types of manipulatives, similar types of question prompts, similar types of routines—and that helps students build their confidence as they grow from year to year. And so to that point, it's about this idea of really thinking about how a coherent curriculum helps support equity because you know your students are getting the benefit of a teacher who is building from their prior knowledge because they've paid attention to what came before in this curriculum series and preparing them for where they're going. And that's quite often what the power of a coherent curriculum will do. 

The parallel in the Harry Potter series, they had about five to seven core courses they had to take. I think about the development of those courses. Boom. If I think about those courses as a strand of becoming a wizard, [laughs] how did I grow from year to year to year to year in those strands that I was moving across? 

Mike: Okay, I have two thoughts. One, I fully expect that when this podcast comes out, there's going to be a large bump in whoever is tracking the sale of the Harry Potter series on Amazon or wherever it is. 

John: [laughs] 

Mike: But the other question I wanted to ask you is what are some books outside of the Harry Potter universe that you feel like you'd recommend to an educator who's wanting to think about their practice in terms of content or instructional practices or the ways that they build equitable structure? 

John: When I think about the works around equitable structure, I think about The Impact of Identity and K–8 Mathematics: Rethinking Equity-Based Practices by Julia Aguirre, Karen Mayfield-Ingram, and Danny Martin as being

one to help step back and think about how am I thinking about what I do and how it shows up in the classroom with my students. 

Another book that I just finished reading: Humanizing Disability in Mathematics Education[: Forging New Paths]. And my reason for reading it was I continue to think about what else can we do to help our students who are identified, who receive special education services? Why do we see so many of our students who sit in an inclusive environment—they're in the classroom on a regular basis; they don't have an IEP that has a math disability listed or anything along those lines—but they significantly underperform or they don't perform as well as their peers that don't receive special education services. So that's a book that got me just thinking and reading in that space. 

Another book that I'm reading now, or rereading, and I'll probably reread this one at least once a year, is Motivated[: Designing Mathematics Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In] by Ilana [Seidel] Horn. And the reason for this one is the book itself, when you read it, is written with middle schools’ case stories. Part of what this book is tackling is what happens to students as they transition into middle school. And the reason why I mentioned this, especially if you're elementary, is somewhere between third grade and fifth grade, that process of students' self-confidence decreasing their beliefs in themselves as doers of math starts to fall apart. They start to take the chips in the armor. And so this book, Motivated itself, really does not speak to this idea of intrinsic motivation. “Oh, my students are motivated.” It speaks to this idea of by the time the students get to a certain age, that upper fifth grade, sixth grade timeframe, what shifts is their K, 1, 2, 3, “I'm doing everything to please my teacher.” By [grades] 4 or 5, I'm realizing, “I need to be able to show up for my peers. I need to be able to look like I can do for my peers.” And so if I can't, I'm backing out. I'm not sharing, I'm not volunteering, I'm not “engaging.”

So that's why I bring it into this elementary space because it talks about five pieces of a motivational framework that you can really push in on, and not that you push in on all five at one time. [chuckles] But you pick one, like meaningfulness, and you push in on that one, and you really go at, “How do I make the mathematics more meaningful for my students, and what does it look like? How do I create that safe space for them?” That's what you got to think about. 

Mike: Thanks. That’s a great place to stop. John Staley, thank you so much for joining us. It's really been a pleasure. 

John: Thank you for having me. 

Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and [all] enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.