Scaling Meaningful Discourse – Recap

Our workshop at this year’s System Thinking Institute focused on how to increase the adoption of meaningful discourse within math lessons. As we noted in our last post, recognizing that a practice is effective is not enough. If we want to see widespread and sustainable adoption, the practice must be part of a larger solution that solves a real problem for teachers.

To understand how we might do that, we teamed up with Danielle Robinson, the Math Interventionist from Brown Street Academy.  Danielle lead the group through an exploration of their hopes and fears around introducing meaningful discourse into the classroom.  In the afternoon, we used that to guide a discussion of the factors that drive the decisions teachers make as they plan their lessons.

After the first day’s session ended, we sifted through everything we heard to construct a profile, written from a teacher’s perspective, that summarizes how they think about meaningful discourse, and what that means for their planning.  Day 2 began with a discussion of this profile. You can view the complete profile here.

Moving Towards a Solution

With our profile in hand, Danielle led us through a look at factors that drive or hinder quality math discourse in the classroom.  That set the stage for us to identify four key problems teachers face as they seek to introduce discourse or Number Talks in their classrooms:

  • Number talks are new to me and I’m not comfortable trying them out on my students
  • I don’t know how I will assess how my students are doing when I use a number talk as part of a lesson
  • I worry about being to reach all students in my class
  • I don’t have the resources (tools, time, support) to do number talks well/get good at doing so quickly

Using a version of the Lean Startup Canvas we’ve adapted for looking at programs within schools, we had the group sketch out what a solution might look like.  You can see the canvas we put together here.

The approach we arrived at equips classroom teachers with tools, resources, and support to drive quality discourse in a way that allows it to take root, and commit to seeing that it does.  Here’s what that looks like:


  • Set of common terms/behaviours to be used by teachers working on meaningful discourse
  • List of sentence starters teachers can use to guide students
  • Quick Checklist for Number Talk lessons, that identifies strategies students might use in the exercise as well common misunderstandings. The checklist should provide an easy way for the teacher to make note of the strategies and/or misunderstandings of individual students. It should also indicate how the lesson relates to standards (MTAP?)
  • Best practice anchor charts for Number Talks
  • Use Reflection Journals to have students reflect on their own learning/approaches
  • List of ideas for math challenges teachers can use to check understanding


  • In-building math specialist who is available for in-classroom modeling of meaningful discourse and ongoing support/mentoring as teachers develop their skills in leading math discourse.
  • In-building cohort of teachers working to integrate meaningful discourse into their lessons, and support each other in doing so.
  • Cross school network of teachers working to expand the use meaningful discourse in their schools.
  • Peer-based professional development that respects the voice of teachers.
  • Schedule changes that would allow teachers to observe/provide feedback to each other.


  • Overt support from building leadership for teachers who elect to integrate meaningful discourse into their math lessons.
  • Permission from district administration for teachers to deviate from the pacing guide based on their students’ needs.

Next Steps

We treat everything on the canvas as a hypothesis to be tested.  The key assumption to validate first is that the problems we identified are issues for teachers beyond those in our session. There is no point investing time and money in a solution if we aren’t focused on the right problem.

We had a number of Danielle’s colleagues from Brown Street in our session, but as a first step, we’ll look to review the list of problems we came up with to confirm that these are important to a wider group of teachers at her school.  Assuming these teachers see the same set of issues, the group identified a series of actions we could take both before the end of this school year as well as over the summer to lay the groundwork for a strong start in the fall.

  • Converting a CAB to a number talk
  • (continue to) Provide intervention to students that need extra instruction
  • Practice Number Talk procedures
  • Establish a common language for Number Talks (“turn and talk” vs “shoulder partners”)
  • Create prototypes for tools– sentence stems, anchor charts, checklist

We’ll review were we landed at the next meeting of our Middle School Math workgroup. We don’t want to lose momentum coming out of the workshop, so we’ll continue to work with Milwaukee Succeeds and Danielle and her colleagues from Brown Street Academy to move this forward.

Systems Thinking Institute: Scaling Meaningful Discourse (aka Collab Lab 18)

The Waters Foundation has been working with teachers and administration at MPS to leverage systems thinking tools.  The Systems Thinking Institute returns to Milwaukee in March, and we are delighted to again be partner in that effort.

As part of the Institute we’ll lead a two-day workshop on crafting and scaling a solution once the factors that influence current practice are understood. Our focus for this effort comes out of our Middle School Math project with Milwaukee Succeeds– we’ll review and refine our system model of factors that drive performance, use systems thinking tools to understand what blocks wider adoption of these practices, and chart a path forward.  We’ll have an excellent partner in the room for this workshop, Danielle Robinson, from Brown Street Academy, a math interventionist who is well versed in both effective practices and systems thinking.

Details and registration info are here:  http://watersfoundation.org/systems-thinking-institute-2

Collab Lab 7 Recap and Notes

Using Systems Thinking tools to explore driving engagement

Iceberg diagram
Adapted by Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation www.watersfoundation.org from Innovation Associates, Inc.

As a prelude to the Systems Thinking Institute coming up in March, Sheri Marlin from the Waters Foundation and Ellen Grasely and Betsy Markwardt from Humboldt Park K8 School helped facilitate and captured notes from our breakout groups in iceberg diagrams. The key idea behind systems thinking and this tool in particular, is that:

  1. outcomes are driven by behavior
  2. behavior is driven by the structure of the system within which individuals operate
  3. that structure, in turn, is driven by our mental model of how things should work.

To drive a systemic change in outcomes then, one needs to change the mental model we operate from.

In our discussions, we walked through each of these layers from the perspective of both how the current system works and what we’d like to see it move to.  We wrapped up each discussion with the question “How will you move forward?”

Group 1

Current Situation

Desired Results

How will you move forward?

Long term

  • Start your own school
  • Redo licensure
  • Only hire pros (interesting people), pay them $$$, train them to teach

Medium Term

  • Invest in professional learning: Articulate, spend time $, 3 years of focus
  • Develop testing
  • Common planning time

Group 2

Current Situation

Desired Results

How will you move forward?

  • Reflect on how you react to an engaged classroom vs an unengaged classroom
  • Pay attention to school culture – everyone
  • Ask kids what would make this fun for you, excite you
  • Build personal relationships
  • Help to change your mental model, parents’ mental model, kids’ mental model of “school”
  • Teachers learn to reflect and take the time to restore (remove yourself)
  • Autonomy, purpose, mastery

Group 3

Current Situation

Desired Results

How will you move forward?

  • Rubric Scoring
  • Stories
  • Find allies — kids in particular
  • Build from grass roots
  • Relationships are key
  • Ask for solutions as part of homework
  • Root solutions in research
  • Training for parents — table talk questions so parents– promotes to meaningful discussions of what their kids are actually working on

Collab Lab 7: Systems Thinking/Driving Engagement

A discussion focused on driving engagement facilitated with the use of some Systems Thinking tools

In the simplest terms, systems thinking is a way of seeing the world in motion, recognizing that the big picture is rarely static but almost always a web of factors that interact to create patterns and change over time. It’s a catalyst for learning and leadership in the classroom, the boardroom or around the kitchen table. The true value of systems thinking, however, lies not just in deeper understanding but also in what we can do with that clarity. During February’s Collab Lab we will use some of the visual tools of systems thinking as we engage in a discussion around driving engagement in school. We will surface our assumptions, consider patterns and trends, and attempt to find leverage in the structures of the system.

We’re thrilled to have Sheri Marlin, Chief Learning Officer for the Waters Foundation join us to facilitate the workshop portion of the evening. Sheri and the Waters Foundation have been working with teachers and administration at MPS to introduce systems thinking to both staff and students. At the end of March, The Waters Foundation will host a three day Systems Thinking Institute in Milwaukee.


5:30 – 6:00 Grab something to eat and drink, say hello
6:00 – 8:30 Let’s learn from each other
Food and beverage will be provided. There is no charge for participation but space is limited!

The Collab Lab will be held in the innovation space at Ward 4. Space provided courtesy of The Commons.

Featured Participants

Sheri Marlin – Chief Learning Officer, Waters Foundation
Sheri Marlin writes, speaks and collaborates with others to apply systems thinking in real-world contexts. She has taught preschool through graduate school and has worked as a building principal and district curriculum specialist. Sheri finds tremendous satisfaction in facilitating teams of people as they develop shared vision and achieve desired results. By providing resources and sparking curiosity, Sheri keeps learning at the center of everything she does. She believes that when people understand and apply the tools and habits of systems thinking, they are more likely to engage in meaningful, life-long learning and innovation. Sheri is co-author of the Habit-forming Guide to Becoming a Systems Thinker.

Beth Fetterley Heller – Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Urban Ecology Center

Beth has dedicated the past 17 of her 24 years in education to the growth of urban environmental education programs in Milwaukee. She directs education and activities of the Urban Ecology Center’s 3 branches and 2 state-of-the-art green buildings that provide more that 150,000 learning opportunities for people of all ages each year.  Programs include the Neighborhood Environmental Education Project for 63 urban schools, a job training program for high school students, and an inter-generational research program where adults and children participate undergraduate and graduate field research projects led by over 20 colleges, universities and institutions.  Beth has her undergraduate degree in biology and education, an MBA from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and is a fellow of the Academy for Systems Change.

Betsy Markwardt – Middle School Teacher, Humboldt Park K-8 School

After 20 years as an accountant, Betsy Markwardt shifted gears. For the past 17 years she has been a middle school teacher, and loving it, with Milwaukee Public Schools. Betsy has a Masters in Curriculum design and finds that Systems Thinking has made learning and teaching more of an inquiry of the subject at hand. She is gratified to see middle school students truly grappling over an issue as Systems Thinking guides her students to look deeper.

Ellen Grasley – 1st Grade Teacher, Humboldt Park K-8 School

Ellen Grasley is an early childhood educator with 30+ years at Milwaukee Public Schools.  She has her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from UW Milwaukee and has used Systems Thinking tools with her students for the past several years.

Marissa Jablonski – Associate Researcher & Lecturer for UWM’s Masters of Sustainable Peacebuilding; Mentor & Advisor Engineers Without Borders
Dr. Marissa Jablonski is a development engineer and educator who works with communities wrestling with complex concerns. She strives to help people gain access to education to meet their needs. Marissa collaborates and cooperates with transdisciplinary groups worldwide and excels in communicating across boundaries.

Marissa is a mentor to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, advising on the design and implementation of water distribution projects in Guatemala. She also serves as International Coordinator of a Guatemalan-led and run NGO that builds infrastructure to meet indigenous communities’ needs.

Marissa is a faculty member of the Master’s of Sustainable Peacebuilding program at UWM, where she develops and institutes courses focused on community engagement in international development. Marissa is an advocate for minorities and women in STEM fields, and served as program coordinator for UWM’s NSF FORTE program from 2009-2015. During that time, she designed an internationally recognized project that continues to engage with informal dye industries in rural India to affordably clean their wastewater. This work earned her a PhD in Civil/Environmental Engineering from UWM in 2015. Marissa is rooted in the urban Milwaukee community and serves as a natural sciences instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

2023-24 Collab Labs

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