The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

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Walk and Talk

One of the many newsletters, blogs, and other writings related to education that I receive is The Big Fresh newsletter, produced by Choice Literacy. This is a site that provides a vast array of tools, strategies, lessons, and advice on teaching literacy at all levels. The newsletter, which I get in my email each Saturday morning, offers a collection of resources, mostly in the form of teachers’ blog posts, about literacy instruction. About a month ago, I read a newsletter post from Brenda Power, founder of Choice Literacy, about a strategy she uses called “Walk and Talk.”

One of my favorite ways to break routine with students and colleagues in the fall has always been a “Walk and Talk.” The activity couldn’t be simpler. A brief article, issue, or idea is shared in the classroom, and then we pair up and go outside to walk and enjoy the sunshine while the partners discuss a focus question based on the reading or topic. After 20 minutes, everyone comes back to share insights and next steps.

I shared this with several of my colleagues, including Miss C, who immediately suggested we consider using it with our learning buddies. Of course, then we had several days of rainy, gloomy weather, so we had to put off trying it out. Today, though, promised to be sunny and warm (comparatively) and we decided to modify it for our needs.

We decided to have the students walk one lap around the front of the schoolyard. Both classes have been working on identifying the beginning, middle, and end of a story, so we wanted the buddies to complete a graphic organiser for this purpose. Before they started walking, they had to pick a book and write a brief summary of the beginning. Then they walked to the halfway point of the perimeter sidewalk and stopped to write a summary of the middle of the text. They finished the lap and wrote about the end of the story. While walking, they were expected to talk about the story that had been selected.

It turned out to be an excellent strategy! The students were all engaged, they got to enjoy some extra sunshine and get some physical activity in, and their organisers turned out to be written very well! I am hoping that the pleasant weather will last longer so that I can use this strategy with my class on their own, too. And maybe Miss C and I will have our buddies do it again before it starts raining and (ugh) snowing this year!

 

Tuvan Throat Singing

Wiley Elementary School has, over the years, developed a reputation in our community as a school that truly embraces the arts. I’m not saying that other schools in the community don’t, though. There is a wide appreciation and application of the fine arts in many of our local elementary, middle, and high schools. It is just that my school is definitely part of this group.

This may be why our school was selected as one of the stops of the Alash Ensemble’s U.S. Fall Tour. Alash Ensemble is a group of Tuvan throat singers. At this point, unless you happen to know about this particular style of musical performance and/or you know about this small republic that is a part of the Russian Federation. I will be honest when I say I had no idea who they were or what they did. And even after looking it up online, I still didn’t fully appreciate it. It took hearing them in person to really grasp how amazing this performance style is!

Tuva (also spelled Tyva) is a small republic in the southern reaches of Siberia that borders Mongolia. The people are mostly nomadic cattle herders with ethic roots tying them to Turkic, Mongol, and Samodeic peoples from near the Ural Mountains. Tuvan throat singing is a special style of vocalization that results in multiple harmonic tones caused by controlling the vocal tract. It is definitely a unique style of singing!

The ensemble today comprised just three members. They performed traditional Tuvan songs with their voices and instruments. They also allowed students to ask some questions before performing one last song that involved audience participation. The students were all thoroughly engaged and captivated by this performance! I am appreciative of all those who worked together to make it happen!

Resetting Social Expectations

Every class, every year, has its own unique characteristics. They all have their own challenges, their own strengths, their own goals. Sure, I have goals for every class that are aligned to learning standards and goals that are based on the expectations for students at this age, but I also have goals that are very specific to each class.

One of my big goals for my class this year is for them all to develop a greater sense of empathy for others. I’ve already written about this quite a bit. Empathy is a core characteristic of those who are kind. For my class, especially, I think that each and every single one of my students has the capacity to show empathy, to think about others, and to be kind. I also think that they have had many years of struggling to do this with one another and they are not sure if they can really do it.

Not all of them. No, many of my students have an abundance of empathy, kindness, and understanding. But even this students get frustrated when they feel like the same students are doing the same thing over and over again and never changing. I want these students to feel like their efforts are worthwhile, too.

Today was the first day of the second quarter. There was an outburst in class this morning that set everyone off in the wrong direction. I’m not going to go into the details because, quite honestly, the details don’t matter. What matters is what we chose to do about it later. Once the students were able to regain their collective composure, I brought them to the carpet for a class meeting. We needed to talk about the issue and do it openly, honestly, candidly. Sometimes, I fear, we are so careful to not misspeak that we avoid addressing the actual issue. This is often referred to as “the elephant in the room.” I decided that the start of the second quarter was as good as any to address the elephant.

It is this: there are some members of the class who are easily set off by others and they don’t want to back down for fear of being labeled cowardly or weak. So instead of using healthy, positive problem solving skills, they respond to fire with fire. And that just makes the fire worse. And it burns others. So we needed to talk about strategies to solve these problems in positive ways. We talked about seating arrangements, we talked about social networks in the class, we talked about adults who can be talked to about problems, we talked about not putting a spotlight on someone when they are feeling defensive because that only makes them feel more defensive and sometimes leads them to go on the offense. We talked about trust. We talked about the right to learn and the right to be respected.

We spent a good portion of the morning on this conversation. Maybe more time than I would have wanted, but it was important. Students cannot learn in an environment where they are more worried about the next outburst than the next reading assignment, the next math problem, the next science project, the next social students inquiry. I think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We use this in different settings, but it absolutely applies to education:

Now, whether or not you fully accept Maslow’s hierarchy, I think it can be acknowledged that there are certain criteria needed before we can really successfully learn and grow together. That’s my main take-away, at least. So we have reset our social expectations. We are starting over fresh. Again. It is a new quarter and we are going to work together to make sure that every member of our class, as much as we possible can, feels like their needs are being met by their peers.

We’ve got a lot of work to do this year. But I am confident that, working together, we can do it!

Subbing for Myself

I had a substitute teacher in my classroom on Tuesday afternoon while I was attending a monthly inquiry group meeting. There were some aspects of the afternoon that did not go as well as I had hoped, and so I spent a considerable amount of time yesterday discussing with my class what they could do better in the future. I purposefully avoided getting into any details about Tuesday, though, because I wanted the class to realise that every day truly is a brand-new day with brand-new opportunities to make positive choices. So instead we talked about kindness and the impact our actions, for good or bad, have on other people. I used a story by Jacqueline Woodson, Each Kindness, to illustrate the point. Several students were familiar with this story because we used it as a building-wide read aloud last year.

Then I told the class that they would have an opportunity to practice there skills at being kind to a substitute again pretty quickly because I was going to be gone all day on Thursday (today), too. I am a member of a district task force examining effective strategies and tools for integrating technology in the classroom. As our building instructional technology specialist, it is a major focus of what I do. This has become even more important since I received my classroom set of Chromebooks and have been working with other teachers to use them in our instructional practices. I wanted the students to know I would be gone so that they could start to plan and mentally prepare themselves for having a different teacher for the day.

But then I got a message from my principal this morning letting me know that the district’s substitute teacher line had still not located a sub for me yet, so she needed me to plan on being at school after all. No problem! On my way to school, though, I had a thought: what if I subbed for myself?

Longtime readers of my blog know that I worked as a substitute teacher in Champaign for three years. During that last year, I was also a substitute in the Mahomet-Seymour school district and in Urbana (although I actually only subbed in Urbana for two days). Also during that last year, I started blogging about my adventures in substituting, which is actually how this blog came about. (I transferred all of the subbing posts to this blog, but the old blog is still active and I get the occasional visitor there still.) After I got hired, I decided to keep the blog going, although I changed the name and the focus. With all of that experience as a substitute, I got very good at stepping into a classroom with little notice and doing all I could to command attention and respect for the short time I would be with the class. I worked with students from early childhood all the way through high school. It was a wonderful experience that taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t work as a teacher in general and as a substitute in particular.

One thing I found helpful was to introduce myself to the class early in the morning. Not first thing, since they always had several other things going on (attendance, lunch count, bell work, etc). So this morning, after my class got settled and the morning announcements were done, I introduced myself to the class.

Good morning! My name is Mr. Valencic and I am your substitute teacher for today! I believe that your teacher, Mr. Valencic, told you that he would be gone today, so none of you should be surprised to see that I am here instead of him! To start off, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about myself. Like I said, my name is Mr. Valencic. I know that my name can be a bit challenging to remember, though, so if you prefer, you may call me Mr. V or just “sir.” You may not call me “hey you,” “mr. teacher dude,” “dude,” “bro,” or “you-with-the-curly-hair.” You may call me Mr. Valencic, Mr. V., or Sir. I, in turn, will do my best to use your names, but I may also call you “sir” or “ma’am” as a title of respect, just as I expect you to respect me.

I am a certified teacher employed by your school district to come in and teach when your regular teachers are gone. I am not just some guy who wandered in off the street because I woke up this morning and though, “Gee, I’d love to spend my day with a bunch of rambunctious 9- and 10-year-old children!” I am a teacher and I have been teaching for several years now. You have probably even seen me around in the halls from time to time.

I have some plans here that your teacher, Mr. Valencic, left for me. I see that he says that you should have done journal writing this morning and that we have P.E. later in this morning. I am going to do my best to follow his plans as best as I can. If he says that you are supposed to do something, then that is what he wants you to do. If he has not told me to do something then you are not going to do it. It is really that simple. However, I want to point out that, as much as I know I may look and even sound like Mr. Valencic, I am not him! So if I do something different, that’s okay! We are going to have an excellent day today! When you all go home at three o’clock, I hope that I will be able to leave your teacher a note letting him know how well everything went and telling him that I would be delighted to come back again anytime!

Now, let’s go over the classroom expectations you have here.

I then went through the expectations posted in the classroom: Be Respectful, which means to use kind words, raise your hand, listen to the speaker, and ask to borrow materials. Be Responsible, which means do your own work, follow directions, ask for help, and accept consequences. Be Safe, which is to KHFOOTY (keep hands, feet, and other objects to yourself), give others space, walk with a purpose, and use a chill pass. Throughout the morning, I referred to the sub plans that I had left and asked students to explain what they meant so that they could show that they knew the expectations for the day.

My principal was able to get a sub for me in the morning, and she arrived as we were getting started with P.E. I went over the plans with her and then took my leave. I am pretty certain that at least some of my class thought I had lost my mind. They were looking at me like they thought I was crazy! What did I mean, I wasn’t their regular teacher! Of course I was! But I think they also got the point I was trying to make: it doesn’t actually matter who the teacher in the room is; the classroom expectations, the procedures, the routines, they are still the same. Did my class have a fantabulasticaliciously #awesomesauce day while I was gone? Well, no, they still had some bumps along the way. But the day was much better than Tuesday afternoon had been. I was able to catch the sub at the end of the day when I got back to the building and we talked about what went well during the day and what wasn’t so great. I was really glad to see that she had left me detailed notes that focused on the positives, though! I think that some substitute teachers forget that the students are still children and they are still learning to navigate the world and deal with changes, especially changes that they don’t like.

And who knows… Maybe I’ll sub for myself again!

Kind Words, Kind Actions

A recurring theme in my classroom this year is going to be the importance of kind words and kind actions. Kindness, in general, is such an important thing to be able to do and be. Kindness is being able to disagree without being disagreeable. Kindness is being able to treat others with respect. Kindness is looking for the good in others and letting others see the good in you. Kindness is being considerate, to think about others and to show empathy; to stop before you react and think about how your actions will impact those around you.

We start the year reading different books about kindness, most notably Wonder by R.J. Palacio. We also watch a music video that a youth group made about kind words and how they lift others up. I made a bulletin board for my class last year that featured the kind words that my students used to describe one another. Miss C, our first grade partner, did a similar thing with her class. I also had a bulletin board that featured the kind actions. The theme for these two boards was “Words can build us up; actions lift us higher!” I decided to keep this bulletin board going this year, but updated with my class, of course!

We watched the music video I used last year and then we talked about how we can use kind words to describe one another. I gave each of the students a class list and asked them to write a word or phrase to describe each person in the room. Then I collected these, typed up the lists, and made a collection of word clouds using Tagxedo. After printing them, I coloured in the students’ names and posted them on the bulletin board outside our classroom.

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To build on this project, the students are going to make a list of the positive, kind things that have been said and done to them this week. Then, on Friday, they are going to do a write-up of what was said and how it made them feel. I will also have them think about the kind things they have said and done and think about how that made them feel, too. Positive social skills are so important to creating a healthy learning environment! No matter how awesome the tools we have are, no matter how great I may be at teaching, learning will not be as effective, as meaningful, if the classroom environment isn’t a safe, positive, healthy place where students can take risks, challenge thinking, and explore the world around them. And it all starts with choosing kindness.

Walking, Walking, Walking

At the end of last year, I had an idea: I’d like to participate in the Illinois Marathon’s 5k event. And while I’m at it, I’d like to see a group of intermediate students from Wiley do it, too. I was inspired by other teachers who had done this with their classes.

The biggest hurdle, for me, is that I don’t actually run. Way back when I was in high school, I started experiencing something my family doctor referred to as “throat spasms.” Pretty much, I would start coughing uncontrollably, my throat would close up, and I would black out. Not much fun. At first it would happen for apparently no reason at all. I could be sitting still, walking, running, biking, eating, reading, or watching a show. If I was awake, there was a chance I’d have a coughing fit. I found that drinking lots of water would help stop them, but they would still happen. Then I got to the point where they would only happen when I tried running, even if it was a very short distance. Not when I walked, no matter how far or how long, nor when I biked. Just when I was running. So I pretty much abandoned running as a mode of transporting myself from place to place.

But I’ve wanted to see if I can build up the strength to do it. I’ll take my dog for a walk and run short distances with him. Sometimes I can do an entire lap around the block. But most of the time I just walk. Lots and lots of walking. And biking. (Well, when the weather cooperates, which hasn’t been very much lately.)

I mentioned this goal to my students this year and many were excited by the idea. For P.E. in the morning, we will often go outside and walk or run laps around the sidewalk that surrounds the large front yard of the building. Because of the clothes I wear for work, I walk with my class, but several students choose to run. In the process, we’ve all gotten very good at walking long distances this year. This has been good for us, because today was the annual PTA Walk-a-thon fundraiser event!

My students had 40 minutes to walk as many laps around the front of the building as they could. I told them my goal was for each of them to walk 20 laps. (The fundraiser has recently been going toward getting interactive whiteboards in the building and I want all of us to get them sooner than later!) I also told them that they had to do 5 laps before a water break and 10 laps before they could get an Italian ice. (Alas, the official PTA rules were 2 and 4, respectively.) I also joked that if students did 50 laps they would get a car (but, when asked for more details, I admitted it would just be a picture of a car, drawn by me) and 100 laps would get them an iPhone 6 Plus (also just a picture). Fortunately for me, none of the students got quite that many, so I didn’t have to scramble to produce the joking prizes I’d suggested.

Many students did walk 9 or 10 laps. A few did 11. A few more, who arrived a few minutes later because of different reasons, only did 8. But all of them walked for the full amount of time! We also had a parent join us! My students logged a total of 196 laps! With the 5 I did and the 10 that the parent did, our class had a total of 211 laps! This is roughly 70 miles! (I told my class earlier today that each lap was about a quarter mile, but I checked the math again and I believe it is closer to a third.) This isn’t the greatest distance of any class of mine, but I also have fewer students this year than I have had before.

All in all, I was quite pleased with our performance. Whether we set a record for the school or not doesn’t even matter. What matters is that we were walking, walking, walking!

Writing with Pictures

I started field testing a Writers’ Workshop program in my classroom last week. For the first few weeks, we spend a lot of time building routines and discussing different ways to write. Later in the program we will focus on different parts of the writing process, editing, different writing styles, and publishing. But this week we are focusing on how to start writing.

We have explored different ways to brainstorm, such as making a list of topics to write about, identifying a source for story seeds, such as favourite places, people, hobbies, and memories, and using what you know to start a topic, whether it is something you have done or something you have read or seen.

A story-starter technique I shared today is one that my wife will be the first to tell you is not my strong point: using pictures. When you are trying to write a story, sometimes it can help to make a sketch or draw a picture. I wanted my students to understand that the pictures don’t have to be high quality artwork that could appear in a museum. In fact, the pictures are just for the writer to use to help generate ideas. To illustrate this I did the only thing I could do: I illustrated it. Literally.

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I asked the students if they could read my story by just looking at the pictures. I was glad to learn that they really were paying attention this morning when I told them about coming to school, because that is all my picture was. I left my house this morning and while it was cloudy, it wasn’t raining, so I was able to ride my bike. (I wore my helmet, of course!) I was happy to be able to bike at long last, but as I rode, the clouds got darker. I rode underneath some trees and when the wind blew, it sprinkled water on me. After I got to school, I went outside to do my morning car drop-off duty and it started raining, so I had to wear my bright yellow-green poncho, which didn’t make me very happy. My student teacher, on the other hand, had her umbrella and she was as happy as could be as she greeted children arriving for school! Our custodian was outside helping, too, playing a game with a student who always stops at the stop sign and waits until the custodian moves it or lets him walk by.

For the next twenty minutes, the students had the opportunity to work on their own writing, drawing pictures or sketches to tell their stories or just working on other pieces they had already started. At the end of twenty minutes, we gathered on the carpet and a few of them got to share with the class, sitting in the author’s chair (the chair I reserve for myself or other adults at my back table). I asked if anyone wanted to share and was shocked to have a student who has previously avoided writing at all costs be the first to volunteer! He came up and shared a great start of a story with the class and then selected someone else to share. Only three students got to share before we had to stop, but it was a wonderful way to end our Writers’ Workshop!

(On a completely different note, we started using our Chromebooks this afternoon, which is why there was no math homework or Today’s Topics. I wanted the students to have as much time engaging with the new learning tools as they could get!)

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