10 Greatest Things of 2014!

I know that we are three weeks into 2015 but I was recently challenged by a great friend and colleague Brian Aspinall  about reflecting on the 10 best things of 2014.  I loved that in his blog and in many others that they mention how great it is to share their success and how it also is amazing to be reminded of all the positives that have happened.

I think that it is very easy as people to get bogged down with the negatives in your life that we loose site of all the great things that have happened. If you have not done so I highly recommend that you take up this challenge and share with the world what success you have had.  That being said without further discussion here are my 10 greatest things of 2014, hope that I can do this.

1) My son was born, July 7, 2014:  This has been the signal most important thing that happened in 2014. It has been amazing to see him grow and see the interaction between my daughter and him. When all is wrong with my day all it takes is a smile from both of them when I enter the door to make you think about what is really important in the world.

2) I finished my Masters’ of Education: Yet another amazing achievement in my life. It took some time but four years well worth it. If you have not done so I really recommend that you do, and go the thesis route not the course. The course route can be quicker but the learning in your own research is amazing. At times I wanted to throw it out the door but it has also allowed me to be a better educator.

3) Presented at the Ontario, GAFE Summit: Being pushed by my other great friend Rolland Chidiac into presenting at this conference was a blessing in disguise. I was already using GAFE in the classroom without knowing it but after going to this conference my eyes were blown open.  GAFE goes well beyond the bells and whistles of amazing tech, it has sound pedagogical learning and enhances student success.   Because of this I started my own admin for my school and implemented it fully into the classroom. I was also able to network with truly amazing educators: Julie Millan, Michelle Cordym, and Scott Mohanan.

From these connection I have been able to meet other amazing educators like Sharon Moskovitz.

4) Met amazing educators: This was also the year that I continued to build amazing relationships with amazing people. These educators have become great friends and colleagues. I will list some but there are so many:

1) Matthew Oldridge
2) Helen Chapman
3) Brian Aspinall
4) Shivonne Lewis-Young
5) Aviva Dunsiger

There have been so many more and just want to say thank-you to all who I have talked to. It has been an amazing journey.

5) Year of presentations: Wow, this year has been filled with amazing opportunities to share and learn from wonderful people. I was able to present at the NFO leadership conference, Bit14, OAME14, GAFE summit, TDSB google Camp and was invited to Waterloo for a numbers talk presentation.

6) TLLP project:  For those not familiar with the TLLP it stands for teaching leadership and learning program. It is a government funded project that gives leadership to teachers to run their own PD. Last year my project was chosen and it was amazing. Not only that but from it came an opportunity of a life time. Ann Lieberman, who is the head researcher and professor at Standford University, asked me and my great friend Michelle Cordym (mentioned above) to go to China with her. Truly a blessing.

7) Started working with amazing group of educators in Peel on our first Google Camp: Now I know this camp is happening in 2015 but it all started in 2014. I am lucky to work in a board full of amazing people and educators. We are not the largest board in Ontario but pretty close and it is full of diverse thinkers and people but that is what makes it special. Peel is an amazing place to work. This group is no different. It has been an amazing journey planning this conference. And a lot of learning too.

8) I maintained my goal of two blog posts a month (except July and December but I was on break)
Now I know this may not seem like a big accomplishment but blogging has been a major goal of mine. I am not the best writer in the world. It is very hard for me to communicate in writing and get my ideas clearly on paper. It often takes me many revisions and even then it still is laden with mistakes. But it is also a lot of fun and very therapeutic.  Maintaining this goal was a big accomplishment for me and one that I stuck with.

9)  My Daughter Started Kindergarten: During my first year of teaching I was told that my teaching would change when I had kids. I didn’t believe them and you know what it didn’t; however, it did change when my daughter went to school this year.  I have included this in my accomplishments because it made me a better teacher. For the first time in my career I realized what it was like to be on the other side of the table. I was that parent who wanted to ask, “how are they doing?” and it made me realize the power that a great parent relationship has to a child’s success.

10) I continue to work with amazing people everyday: I am truly blessed with the school that I am at. We started the journey at Ray Lawson two years ago, built the school from the ground up (not literally but educationally). It has been an amazing journey to be on and one that is so well worth the ride. It has made me a better teacher, a better person and a better leader.

Thank you for reading my top 10 things of 2014. Thank you Brian for challenging me to think and reflect.  It is truly amazing to keep the positives going in our life. If I mentioned you above I for sure want to hear your success and I challenge all of you reading this to do the same. Here is to 2015!! Keep the positives going!

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A Year in Review

As another year comes to an end I cannot help but use this time to reflect on the learning that happened. It was a very exciting year, with lots of activity and meeting amazing educators.

Educators who have Impacted my Learning

I want to start this blog post with a big Thank-you to some great friends and educator. This year I have met some incredible people and educators who have pushed my thinking. Without these relationships I don’t think I would have has the success that I have had. If you are not following these individuals you need to:

Matthew Oldridge: big thank you for all of the math learning, questions, posts and great conversations.

Brian Aspinall: Thank you for all of the help with computer programing and pushing my thinking in education. Truly an star in our field.

Rolland Chidiac : Thank you for always pushing my thinking and helping me grow in as an educator. Also for being an amazing friend and colleague.

Michelle Cordy: Thank you for your friendship, your jokes and your expertise. You are an amazing educator, leader and friend. Look forward to the journey ahead.

Scott Monahan: Thank you for always answering my questions. You are always there for any help.

Helen Chapman: Thank you for being an amazing educator. You are an inspiration for all.

Julie Millan: Thank you for being a leader and pushing my learning. Also for your help with GAFE and your encouragement to continue it in our board.

Shivonne Lewis-Young : You truly are an amazing educator. Thank you for your leadership in blogging and your expertise in Genius hour.

Neil Lyons: Thank you for pushing my thinking and help with GAFE. It has been great to connect with you and look forward to the learning journey ahead.

Sharon Moskoitz: Thank you for the amazing connection this year. It has been a blast working with you.

Aviva Dunsiger: Thank you for always pushing my thinking with your comments and your posts.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank these educators for there help and expertise. All of you continue to push my thinking with your amazing questions, your expertise and your friendship. Without you I would not be where I am today. Thank you for your help, whenever I ask.

Biggest Aha Moment:

This actually happened pretty recently. As I have blogged before my daughter started kindergarten this year and it has opened my eyes to a whole different look into education. Before this moment I don’t know if I truly understood how important the relationship between parents and teachers is. I mean I know that in order to have true success with student growth you need to have a partnership but it was always during various reporting times or if the student struggled.

When my daughter went to school, for the first time I was in the dark. I couldn’t help but think about how many times I left parents in the dark or made them have the feeling that they didn’t know what was happening.   Newsletters are amazing and so is little notes in the agenda but is that enough. How else can we open the doors to our parents so that they are truly a partner in students learning?

Because of this feeling I decided to do a couple of things:

1) Regularly tweet what is happening in the day.
2) Storify my daily tweets with questions and suggested activities for parents at home
3) Have students write a monthly newsletter telling parents their goals, next steps and success
4) Regular celebration of learning: This happens once a term. Parents come and see students portfolios, solve some problems with the students and share in their successes

I know that these may seem like a lot of extra things for us as teachers to do but to be honest it has really simplified the classroom. Students are taking more pride in their work because they have an audience, parents ( at least in my opinion) enjoy the communication, and there are a lot less questions being asked about my program because parents are always in the loop.

Greatest Impact on my Teaching: 

This year I had two impacts on my teaching. The first was I learned about the wonderful world of Google. Before this I knew what google was, I mean I used it for my own personal use but for education I never even knew what impact it could have. In April I attended the Ontario GAFE Summit in Kitchener and I had my mind blown away. I was truly in awe at all of the possibilities of GAFE (Google for apps for education) in the classroom. I came back from that summit and told my principal about it, signed our school up for a education domain and the rest is history. This school year, my whole classroom has been on GAFE accounts. We use it for assignments, editing, researching, presenting, math and homework. All of my assignments are online where students and parents have access to it. Students also have online portfolios and are in charge of updating this website. If you are not using google I highly suggest that you try some of the amazing apps and learning that comes with GAFE (oh did I mention that it is free).

My second impact is my learning around inquiry. I want to say that I have always been teaching through inquiry and problem solving but it has been me asking questions and then letting the students explore. Now, I have students ask the questions and then go and explore their questions. Opening up the inquiry process to the students allows the students to have better control over their learning. I also have now started with bigger opened questions (e.g. what is the best celebration? Why? or how does the qualities of solid, liquids and gas affect our life?). Having these open ended questions for students guides their thinking but still leaves the learning up to them. They are the ones that design experiments, draw their own conclusions and share it with the classroom.  My role is to guide, facilitate, assess, and scaffold where needed.

Greatest Impact on my Leadership:

This year I was able to take part in the TLLP (Teaching Learning and Leadership Program). This Ontario Program was created to improve the PD (professional Development) in Ontario. The PD is proposed by teachers and run by teacher. If you have not had the opportunity to apply for this funding I highly encourage you to do so.  For a full report on my learning you can read this link.

My personal learning has been how to clarify a vision and build it within a school community. Before I started this journey I thought that a vision could be communicated easily and then, with careful planning, implemented. I learned it takes more than that.  Building connections among staff members is critical, understanding what others think, honouring their opinions, and finding how everyone can fit into the vision is all part of the process. For a school wide approach to take hold it takes strong individuals to lead but it also takes patience, guidance and understanding for it to sustain itself.  This process was not about bullying my way through people to get the project done but by understanding how to encourage all learners to see the bigger picture.  It taught me that a leader needs to have a clear vision but also an understanding heart. A leader needs to see who is on their team, where their understanding is, and how to assist them in their learning and growth.  It taught me to always see the good in people, that resistance is not always about not wanting to change but that people don’t know how and it is the job of a leader to understand where they can assist.

Working On: 

There are many things that I want to work on for next year. The first is learning more about GAFE and all of the amazing things that come with it. I also want to learn more about computer programming and implementing it in my classroom and curriculum. The final piece is finding more time for my family.

Best personal Event:

My teaching is not all that makes me. This year has also bee filled with many cool personal events. This year we welcomed my son (Micah) into the world. Having two kids defiantly changes things but it has been a joy to watch them both grow.

Overall, I cannot believe how fast the year has happened. I look forward to what next year brings and the learning that will come with it. Before I leave I challenge you to reflect on your year:

Who has been the most influential educator in your year?  
What has been your biggest AHA moment?
Greatest impact on your teaching?
Greatest impact or learning in your Leadership?
What are you still working on?
Best personal Event

Would love to see what your learning has been.  I would also like to thank all of my readers for reading my rambles and thoughts. Blogging has been another great experience this year. May next year be a great year for you.

Your Ideas Matter

Thursday was one of the most amazing PD days I have ever been too and worked at. The organizers at Bit14 did a fabulous job!

While at my workshop on Bridging the Divide: Opening the Classroom Walls, with Aviva Dunsiger a conversation was sparked about the purpose of our blogs.  As I got home last night I thought of this video: 



I love this video for many reasons. But the the main reason is the message that your ideas matter.

                   This is what Aviva and I tried to share yesterday. As educators we all have amazing ideas. We are not defined by our four walls and our learning doesn’t happen in an isolation. Keeping along with this message we all have specialties, whether we are students, teachers or parents. We all have skill sets, experiences, and point of views that are worth sharing. What ideas do you like talking about? What area is your expertise? How can I learn from you?

When I first started blogging I struggled because I didn’t think that what I had to say was anything important. I read all these amazing blog posts and was almost in shell shock; saying to myself that there is no way that I can write anything that important. Then in dawned on me why not share my thoughts anyways and the rest is history. Now I am in no way a prolific blogger like my amazing friend Aviva but I do try and share my ideas when I can.  I set a goal of two a month and for the most part get that done. 

To help my blog posts started off more about what was happening in my classroom but slowly morphed into education discussions; like this one. They are a reflection depository for me to look back on. 

Now sharing an idea takes risk. This was brought up in the conversations at the presentation. As many looked at the examples (which are in the link) they stated:

1) The comments were very professional
2) They kept questioning
3) It felt as you didn’t take comments personally
4) Its a great risk to comment

I would have to agree with all of these comments but it shouldn’t hold you back.  Blogging and tweeting has been one of the best professional decisions that I have made in my career. It has made me more of a reflective practitioner, I have been able to build connections that I never thought I would have done and it has made me a better teacher because of the comments and learning that is being done.

So how do you get that started?

1) Jump in. I over heard this at one of our break out sessions in bit. It is not the fear of failure that holds us back but that of criticism.  Don’t be afraid of that, you have no control over what others think. However, what it does allow to do is get amazing feedback from a different perspective. Today at TLLP 2014 Andy Hargreaves mentioned that we need to seek out those differing voices to make change happen. We don’t have to like the comments but it pushes our thinking.

2) Learn to engage in the learning and sharing of others. I am guilty of this I read a lot of blogs but leave very little comments. But now I try really hard to interact with as many as I can. I try hard to leave a comment that goes beyond “great job” This is hard and often I have to go back to the blog post after I have reflected before doing so. By interaction is how you build relationships and trust (which is hard to do online).

3) How is your own blog post, tweet engaging. I once ask Aviva, no one responds to my posts. She turned around and said, “Does your post lend itself to being responded to?” This is a great question.

So I will end with this final thought:

1) How are you making connections in our profession?

2) How do you go about creating dialogue to push yourself and others outside of the four walls of the classroom?

3) What ideas are you willing to share? Remember your ideas matter

I can’t wait to hear from you or read your blogs (feel free to tag me @mrsoclassroom and I will respond).

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What Have You Done to Improve Our Profession?

I am sitting here at the TLLP sharing session in Mississauga listening to Joanne Myers. Truly an amazing speaker. She asked an important question:  What have you done today to advocate for our profession?  She then told us that the best advocacy is with our parents.

This has hit home. I have mentioned this before but my daughter started school this year and it has changed my thinking as a professional.  I never thought it would but thinking like a parent has made me reflect as a practitioner.  You can see my thoughts at this blog post. So when I heard this question I had to think back to everything that has been happening in the classroom this year.

From listening to the personal stories that Joanne has been saying these small moments we can have do impact our students lives. Just to share one:

She mentioned a little boy who stood up for the a small creature in the classroom. She then went home and late at night called his dad. She found out that night his Dad woke him up and they had ice cream.  A year or so later (I think) she found out this particular students Dad had passed away. She still meets with this student and he told her the best memory of his Dad was eating ice cream that night.

Its amazing to think how that small moment had impacted the students life.  Its connections and stories like that that allows speaks for our professions.

I am not too sure if I have a story that motivating but the one that comes to mind is a story that has happened a couple of years ago. I was taking students to an outside workshop and all of a sudden I heard my name being called, “Yo Mr So!” I turned around to be greeted by three tall grade eight students. They looked at me and said you don’t remember me? I said no I do, you just weren’t six foot tall 200lbs in grade four. We had a big laugh and connected on how they have been doing. Its great to see previous students and how they remembered us even after all of these years.

We have all had that fantastic teacher that has motivated us to go beyond our capabilities. This is why when Joanne said, “What have you done to improve our profession?” It hit home.

I then received this tweet from a colleague Monica Chadha:

This is another discussion to have. As educators we have the power to change perspectives. We are the best that this profession has to offer and need to showcase that.

Teaching is an amazing profession. It has many hardships and struggles but many joyous moments.  Like parenting, I have never regretted my decision to be a teacher.

I write this post not to have any words of wisdom but a thought to have a aha moment and share some stories. It would be amazing to collect these stories of success and share them. Like Joanne said we are the face of the profession and the best advocates of change.

My questions to you:

1) What do you do in the classroom to help advocate for our profession?

2) Do you have any stories of success? 

3) What can we do to promote our profession and make it better?

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
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A Reflection on Assessment

In a couple of days I will be presenting at Bit14 with Aviva Dunsiger. Our presentation is bridging the divide: Opening our four walls. However, I digress from my blog title. The reason why I am writing this is because I was also asked to co-facilitate a discussion with Brian Aspinall on assessment in a changing 21st century learning. This is going to happen on Thursday at 10:00 in the learning commons.  It is a free forming discussion but I thought I would get the ball rolling with some of my own thoughts and more importantly questions.

First of all with our assessment document in Ontario (Growing Success) there is a big emphasis on assessment for learning, as learning and of learning; with a large focus on assessment as learning and for learning. This is a big shift for many of us teachers who before this did a lot of assessment of learning. Not to say that this isn’t important but that there has been a big shift in thinking about assessment.  This shift also aligns strangely enough with a wider acceptance on qualitative data versus quantitative data.  That observations and discussion are just as valid and important as the number that we can collect.  Which brings me to the reason for our learning commons discussion.

The discussion came about when Brian made a post about a brand new app call Photomath. Basically its an app that can do algebraic equations for you. The question that Brian raises is what are we assessing when an app can do the math for us? Should we be assessing basic skills like this?

My response to this was there needs to be a shift to not what is the answer but how do you know the answer is correct. It reminded me of the calculator debate when I was in school. I still remember this movie we had to watch in grade eight and the two children were adding up some money. One of the girls takes out a calculator and clearly gets the wrong answer but strongly argues that she is right. When asked why, she states because the calculator told me. It turns out that the calculator was running low on batteries and if you used basic common sense then you would have known the answer was wrong. The point wasn’t so much that she got it wrong but that there was faith in the answer because the technology told her so. The problem is that students then and now need to have a good conceptual understanding of the work before jumping into abstract thinking. They need to understand the process in learning.

The world has changed a lot since we were in school, heck even since I was in school (which to be fair was not that long ago). If you honestly look back and think about those school days, the information that we were given potentially would have lasted us our life time. To be fair the information our parents were taught did last them their lifetime. However, that is not so with the kids we are teaching. Technology has changed the way we use, process and understand the world around us. We live in a world were tomorrow has endless possibilities. The scary part is that I am preparing kids for a future with obsolete information and knowledge.  Which is why philosophies on assessment have drastically changed.

A couple of years ago I was giving a test to my students. I looked up and saw that my students went right to talking with their math partners, trying to solve the questions. I was about to stop them and state that this is a test I need to know what you know when I realized that I already knew what they knew. Because of teaching in a constructivist approach, I knew where they were struggling, what strategies they would answer, and how they would communicate. In fact I knew why certain students were talking and asking questions and I knew what next steps would be useful for them. This test wouldn’t tell me this, in fact it was wasting two hours of time that I could be conferencing with my students and helping them move forward.

View image on Twitter
Students collaboratively working on creating success criteria for an assignment

Now I said I knew a lot, why?  The reason is that in my teaching I am always conferencing with students, individually, and in groups. I have honest conversations with them and ask them questions to test their knowledge. Based on their responses and work samples I am able to see where fit on a continuum of learning. In fact I can confidently say that I understand my students more from this method then I do with a summative assessment like a test that I would have traditionally given. Not only that but my students move faster up that continuum because of our conferences and reflections that are done everyday versus just studying for one test to then forget about it the next day.

For me it is more important to teach my students to be curators or data, critical thinkers, problem solvers and have creative/adaptable thinking skills.  I say this because the information I am teaching them will soon be obsolete.  Now please don’t get me wrong and say that students don’t need to have basic skills or test taking abilities. Unfortunately in this school system and society they still need those test taking skills and yes students do need to learn basic skills (arithmetic, writing, reading, etc.) but the emphasis shouldn’t be on memorizing to retain for an hour but to go deeper with that thinking and be able to understand why we are using it not just knowing and forgetting.  

This brings me to my questions and ones that I hope everyone help can answer:

1) What assessment tools do you prefer and use in the classroom?

2) What skills are needed, as a teacher, to make assessment as and for learning effective for growing student achievement?

3) What do you think about the shift in assessment? Is it warranted? needed?

4) If we are moving to a more assessment as and for learning, how to we do this?

5) What is the biggest resistance to this change? How do we over come it?

I am really excited for this conversation as I think we are on the brink of exciting change in education. Would love to hear your comments and ideas about this topic, no matter what they are.

End of the year: What have I Learned?

I started the year in a brand new grade and a brand new division. Before this I taught eight years of junior, going between grade four and five positions. This year I am teaching grade two.  My first impressions were, YIKES! I mean I didn’t know if I could handle the younger grades. But here I still stand and it has been an amazing journey, with an amazing class.

Here are some things I have learned (I appologize if some may seem like duh moments):
1) primary students take longer to do work. I know this may not be shocking news but I don’t think I was quite ready for this. I mean I prepared myself and I wrote plans to reflect this but it really didn’t truly understand. Now this actually was a big blessing in disguise. It taught me the importance of going deeper and slower. Because of this my students and I worked through constructing sentences, writing paragraphs, indepth inquiry projects. Math concepts were developed at the students pace. This feeling is a lot different then junior or even intermediate where the need and rush to fit all the dense curriculum is a lot of pressure. 
2) teaching primary has allowed me to focus on inquiry and really developing a inquiry model in the classroom. As I mentions above students work at a slower pace but that doesn’t mean they cannot do wonderful things. In fact it’s a lot easie because they still have this curious engagement in all topics. Some how this is lost on their way to junior and I think we need to bring it back.  Inquiry has always been a big part of my teaching but this year I have really tried to allow the students to be a big part of the project design and questions.  I have been using provocations, students I wonder statements and trying to flip projects inside out so that we start with a question and develop our understanding through that question.  This is still a big work in progress so stay tuned.
3) even though they are young they are ready to be independent. One of the biggest pet peves of many junior teachers is that the students don’t seem to be ready to be independant. They rely on the teacher for answers, not patient with problem solving or just are not ready for success.  I was also told by some that primary they cannot do certain things because they are young or small. Well I wanted something different and have tried to push these skills in grade two in hopes that they are ready for these junior years.  Guess what they can do it.  It took a lot of work and building with students but they are so capable of doing so much.
4) I think that all grades should have a primary mindset. Now I know that this gets harder as kids get older but the inquisitive spirit of a primary child is remarkable.  It’s this spirit that we should be harnessing and using to teach our curriculum not the curriculum to teach our students. Now don’t get me wrong, curriculum is still important and it’s a great guide but that is all. We need to have more inquiry, where students are able to explore and develop understanding. By following this model I actually finished my curriculum ahead of the year and found that I had to give more challenges because the students needed it. If only all grades taught or allowed this to happen, think of the possibilities.
5) I actually like teaching primary, shhh!! I might ruin my image but it’s been a lot of fun. The kids are great, they have come so far and it truly has been a lot of fun.
From this learning I have thought of three areas to work on next year:
1) more inquiry
2) more reflections and online portfolios
3) more parent connections and celebrations
What has been the best part of your year? What learning have you done? Love to hear it.

Place Value

These last few months we have been focusing on place value. Place value is such an important beginning for any primary student in mathematics. We have started the unit with basic counting. Now this may seem too basic and you may think, “what kid doesn’t know how to count by grade two?” This may seem an obvious skill to many but it is something that many (not some) still struggle with.

 Counting goes beyond being ale to tag each object and say its corresponding number. By grade two students should be seeing groups of objects, especially twos, fives and tens, and be able to count by them efficiently and effectively. Students are still grasping with recognizing fives and tens as they count often still counting by ones till they get to five and then putting that aside. Students should start to see 5′s as 2+3 or 4+1 or even better 10′s as 9+1. 5+5, 2+8, 4+6, 7+3, without having to count.

 To help with this we have been collecting and organizing objects in our classroom. Students have been counting bins, pencils, books, etc. in order to tell me how many is in each basic. We then moved to figure out how many bundles of tens there was in each basket and if there was any patterns we noticed in the numbers. Students soon realized that the number (or numbers) to the left became the amount of groups of tens. I told them that this was because that is called the tens column in the place value system and really it is saying 1 group of 10 or 1 x 10.

 We are now trying to see how many groups of fives and tens there are in the bins. Now again, I thought to myself this should be an easier concept. Obviously if they see the fives then they will see how many tens. I also thought that since we worked on doubling so much in patterning that they would see that there was two fives in one ten. However, I was wrong again. Like many students, we are struggling to see how one group of objects can be called a 1 group but still be 5 or 10 things. Another mistake that my students are making is assuming that the ones place value tells us how many tens we have. They assume that if the left column told us the tens then the right must tell us the ones. We are currently working on this concept by looking at numbers and asking how many tens and how many fives? The follow up questions are simple: What patterns do you notice? Why does this occur? My hope is that students will see that there are two fives for every ten and if the leftovers (after making a group of ten) is greater then five it is just one more group. Example: 76: The number 76 has 7 groups of tens because there is 7 tens in 70 (10+10+10+10+10+10+10=70). We also have 15 fives because there are two fives in one ten and we have 7 tens so you double it; however, we also have 6 leftover which can make another group of five; making the total 15 fives, with one leftover. 

 To help out at home, keep practising the subutizing plates (dot plates) or counting objects in the house and looking for patterns.