Team Mason: Excellence in Action

Team Mason articles shine a spotlight on students, teachers, programs, and projects in all buildings and grades in the district. Team Mason articles are written by Dr. Janet Alleman, instructional consultant for Mason Public Schools. 

Dr. Alleman is Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University and has worked with Mason Public Schools since 2012 as an instructional consultant. Team Mason articles are a snapshot of her observations and experiences in classrooms and buildings throughout the district. 

In Jake Ward’s earth science class, students were challenged to “discover” the topography of an area without being able to view it. Now, how exciting is that? Admittedly, for some this might have felt a bit scary because they couldn’t simply Google it – and for others who have a fear of being wrong, it could be stressful.

However, Jake’s ability to create a classroom community that is emotionally safe, that possesses a growth mindset atmosphere and is highly engaging is remarkable. Daily, he establishes high expectations, that he ensures are achievable, then enacts the ignite, chunk, chew, review/reflect instructional model that supports students as they unpack the content.

Students engaged in a warmup, the learning target was introduced, and Jake set the stage for a two-day investigation that would simulate how astronomers collect data on the surface of planets without being able to see through thick cloud covers. He handed out lab kits including chopsticks which served as measuring devices with one centimeter increments, boxes with 90 small holes arranged in a grid pattern on the lid of the box, and modeling clay. In pairs, their

task was to build a landscape out of clay that would fit in the box. Jake explained certain things that needed to be incorporated into their landscapes including gradual slopes, steep slopes, landing zones and more.

The next day, pairs of students exchanged boxes and, without opening them, tried to figure out what the landscape was like, locate the various features, including the landing spaces, and create topographical maps using the elevation data they were collecting in a systematic manner (holes were labeled A-1 along the top and I-10 along the side) with complementary contour lines.

Throughout the two-day inquiry lesson, Jake provided ‘chunks’ of information followed by pairs processing the content and applying it to various steps of the learning experience. He circulated around the classroom serving as a ‘consultant,’ larding in challenging probes, and of course adding those subtle motivating comments such as ‘what if,’ ‘I wonder,’ ‘have you considered,’ etc.

Fast forward to the moment the pairs had their own boxes and the topographical maps returned. The room was filled with energy and suspense. How accurate were their peers? Where did they go astray in their calculations? Thoughtful conversation abounded as reckoning was realized.

Time simply evaporated! As Jake checked the clock, he realized he needed to pull the session together and ask his students to reflect on what they had learned. He masterfully asked for everybody’s attention and for students to write in their journals at least two key things they had learned. This was followed by a short reflective discussion teasing out key observations and generating new questions.

While it should come as no surprise that it wouldn’t be ‘cool’ to admit it was a compelling learning experience and one ‘I’ really liked, their verbal reflections, body language, and facial expressions were convincing to the observer that Googling isn’t the end all, and while it’s a terrific tool, rest assured that in Ward’s class it’s on the back burner and critical and analytical thinking remain the priority!

P.S. Our amazing MPS’ Foundation provided the dollars for the kits – and by the way, can you imagine Jake’s prep time?

- Dr. Janet Alleman, Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University, MPS Instructional Consultant


When was the last time you witnessed 24 second graders all smiles as they eagerly gathered their learning materials and were peacefully rushing to the rug for a math talk? This event was simply magical!

“What is a learning talk anyway?”

While its label might sound like a time waster, it is a planned learning opportunity that has students sitting together as a class, taking turns showing each other multiple strategies for solving the same problem, and questioning each other

about the accuracy of their solutions and the efficiency of the strategies they used. Make NO mistake, it takes careful planning on the part of the teacher – and one who listens to every word of the conversation to get a view into the depth of understanding students have and any misconceptions that need to be addressed in later lessons.

Nicole Carlson, second grade teacher at Alaiedon, truly believes math talks help her ability to assess student progress, improve student math proficiency, and serve as a powerful equity strategy that affords her second graders to see themselves as valued math thinkers.

During a math talk, instead of modeling and assigning several practice examples, students are given one problem and a generous amount of time to solve it – and the class members are encouraged to use as many strategies as they can. Requiring at least two strategies builds independence in verifying their own solutions and jump starts student ideas for further conversations. Nicole leverages the power of think, pair, share affording students the opportunity to think on their own, take turns exchanging strategies and observations, and share with the entire class.

Time evaporated as students moved in and out of the circle on the rug to converse with partners – with volunteers going to the SmartBoard to share and show. During one defining moment, when a brand-new challenge was provided by the teacher, all but one student calculated the same answer. Would you believe the one student held out – and to the shock of everyone, he was right! Words can’t express the empowered look on his face as he shared his thinking, the strategy he used, and where he thought others might have gone wrong.

The emotional safety that permeates throughout this classroom made the learning experience all okay and Nicole skillfully used the moment to serve as foreshadowing for what they’d all be working on during the next session. She assured her students that they simply hadn’t learned it YET!

Providing lots of time for talking about, and showing, math strategies may sound impossible given teachers’ limited teaching time, the payoff, however, can be great! It affords students the opportunity to be exposed to multiple ways to approach the same problem and hear various explanations as they listen, watch, and talk to each other, see patterns, and make connections. For Nicole’s class, math talks provide ONE strategy in her repertoire for math instruction and a venue for celebrating their accomplishments.

- Dr. Janet Alleman, Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University, MPS Instructional Consultant


You can’t attribute it to climate change and yet it’s mighty impactful for our students! It is Mason teachers launching innovative ideas – and in this case on the first day back from winter break!

On January 3, a 27-year veteran science teacher and an 8-year colleague were trying something brand new after careful study and collaboration using the powerful lesson study model. They were confident enough to ask their principal Lance Delbridge, teacher coach Melissa Netzel, and me to observe their students in action and provide feedback.

One of Kathy Omillian and Jimmy Joyce’s goals this trimester has been to develop a new anchoring phenomenon for their nuclear chemistry unit using a cloud chamber. (This new high-tech chemistry equipment was gifted to the department by the Mason Public Schools Foundation!) The cloud chamber provides students a visual representation for deriving the phenomenon of nuclear chemistry.

Kathy set the stage for the lesson by explaining she’d been a little under the weather during break and because she’d been mostly at home due to the weather she wondered if it had to do with something she’d been encountering regularly. She showed the objects she speculated could possibly be the culprits – and then pulled

out the Geiger counters. Students’ faces lit up – and they were ‘into it,’ as now, they were given the challenge of figuring out which object was giving off the most radiation and whether or not it fell into the danger zone.

Objects they were given to test included Kathy’s cellphone, a Diet Coke (she explained she sips a lot of these as ‘pick me ups’), her computer, a bag of bones (interestingly enough, she’s been doing a lot with them as she preps for her anthropology class), her smoke detector, and a teacup - a memento from her grandmother. (She admits to sipping a lot of tea, especially when she’s home for long periods.)

Students launched their data gathering and group conversations. As we listened in on the groups, it was apparent they were drawing on their prior knowledge. The cloud chamber was a stunning addition, giving students the unique ability to observe the small particles due to the dense fog created by vaporized isopropyl alcohol. Task variety including observing, talking, listening, drawing, and writing – even a gallery wall revealing teams’ calculations and illustrations, made from a seemingly shorter class session.

As observers, visibly seeing the power of launching something new – and the value of collective thinking as a part of the classroom community was exciting. It served as a terrific example of learning being socially mediated – a Deweyian big idea of 100 years ago that to this day cannot be refuted. While Kathy and Jimmy, along with the observer, learned a lot from this new enhancement to nuclear science, the bell signally class ending was hardly checking a box. Much had been accomplished with this FIRST, but more was to come.

If only I had a transcript to share from the two-hour debrief, I could easily convince you that teaching is a scholarly activity! Questions, analyses, insights, suggested tweaks, and enhancements to the lesson were all a part of the deep conversation – further evidence that Growing Season exists at Mason High School – even in winter!

- Dr. Janet Alleman, Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University, MPS Instructional Consultant

With tax season on people’s minds, return on your investment is undoubtedly part of many conversations. Some may be asking, “how are late start Wednesdays paying off for our Mason students?”

During the late start Wednesdays, Mason teachers work together in Professional Learning Communities (PLC) using the dedicated time to collaborate and focus on increasing student achievement.

Recently, Mason Middle School allocated its after school faculty meeting to showcase three teacher teams’ successes as the result of the PLC process being implemented during those early morning meetings. During the PLCs, teaching teams focus on four key questions:

  • What is it we want our students to know and be able to do?
  • How will we know if each student has learned it?
  • How will we respond when some students do not learn it?
  • How will we extend the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency?

Teams discuss the quantitative (formative assessments, unit tests,.) and qualitative data (absences, changes in home situations, traumatic events,.) and together adjust their teaching and learning practices.

During the faculty meeting, the teams shared with their peers materials and strategies they are using in an effort to better meet the needs of our students. Be assured, there is evidence that our PLC time is paying dividends for our children and youth. While it is a ‘work in progress,’ you are getting a good return on your investment! We thank our community for its support!

The following teacher teams presented during the meeting:

  • Tiffany Henfling and Audrey Waters
  • Carrie Mulanix and Erica Francis
  • Carla Richards, Dawn Matthews, Kayla Nguyen, and Jen Buskirk
  • Katie Konkel and Liz Stark
  • Laura Lewis and Cindy McCormick