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


Feeding the Energy

We talk about energy in a lot of different ways. There is the scientific notion of energy as power used to carry out motion. There is also energy that describes how we are carrying out our own lives. There is also the energy we get from others that impacts our moods. (This energy is also given to others as we impact them.) Ideally, this energy is positive and builds us up, making us all feel a lot happier. But sometimes the energy is negative, and it makes us, and others, feel frustrated and upset.

The thing is, sometimes we can get so used to the negative that it starts to be what we feed on. It starts to be what we start to think of as positive because we honestly don’t know the difference. And then we don’t only come to expect negative to come to us, we start to believe that negative is all we should produce, too.

This is something we talked about as a class today. There has been a lot of negative energy in the room this year. Those who read my blog regularly know that I try to focus on the positives, but I also want to be honest. While we have had some amazingly wonderful things happen, I have been disheartened by all of the negative energy. As I’ve talked to other teachers, I’ve come to realise that this negativity has been hovering over my class like a dark raincloud for years. Even though each day is a fresh new start, my young students have a hard time understanding that and allowing each other to start over. They are used to the negative, they feed on the negative, and they do it because I think many of them honestly don’t know the difference.

So I decided today to focus on changing the message, changing the energy. We had a blow-up in the classroom after lunch during our read aloud. It doesn’t matter what happened, it doesn’t matter why it happened; what matters is it did happen. Some students had to leave the room to reset with another teacher. While they were gone, I felt it important to apologise for it happening. I know that my students don’t come to school expecting to have things blow up; they come to school expecting to learn. It is my job to provide an environment where that can happen. It is also my job to provide an environment where everyone feels safe.

The best way for this environment to exist is to focus on the positives. I asked my class to try an experiment. I told them that it would only work if each and every single one of them committed completely to trying it. The experiment is deceptively simple: stop feeding the negative energy. When a student blurts out an answer, we ignore it. When a student calls another student a name, we ignore it. When a student starts kicking their desk and insisting they need help, we ignore it. Those are negative behaviours and not the kind we want to reinforce. (Of course, I, as the teacher, am responsible for redirecting and reestablishing the correct, desired behavior. When I say “we” I am speaking of the class as a whole.) But when a student raises a hand and asks for help, we thank them and we provide help. When a student does the right thing, we praise it. The goal is to change the focus from the negative to the positive. It is all about changing what we’ve been doing.

We had an opportunity to try it out this afternoon. The students were reading silently at their seats while a few were finishing a writing assignment. One student started loudly complaining that it was too hard. Nobody responded. After several minutes of this, the same student raised a hand and when I came over, said, “Mr. Valencic, this is hard; I need help.” I calmly responded, “I understand; can you ask me for help instead?” After a pause, the student said, “Mr. Valencic, will you please help me?” I said, “Yes, of course! Thank you so much for asking!” I helped the student with the assignment and then, when it was done, I heard this observation: “Oh, I get how to do this! That was actually pretty easy!”

The whole room changed during this half hour. Instead of feeling tense, stressed, and anxious, the students were relaxed, calm, and focused. They ignored the negative energy but quickly acknowledged the positive.

Are things going to miraculously change over the weekend so that the negativity is gone? Honestly, I doubt it. We are still learning. Did we get a glimpse of the change we want to see? Absolutely we did. I’m going to take the weekend to recharge and refocus. I am planning on starting Monday fresh, with a new attitude and a new focus on the positive. After all, if I’m gonna make a change, I’ve gotta start with me!

The Day the Crayons Quit

Continuing my effort to incorporate more picture books into my instructional practices this year, I shared a new book with my students that I discovered at Barnes & Noble one evening and immediately decided to read. Yes, I judged the book by its cover. Yes, I am glad I did! At first I wasn’t sure about using it for my class, but once I read it, I knew I could use it for a writing prompt and for an examination of writer’s craft.

The book was The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. It is a delightful story about a boy named Duncan whose crayons all revolted one day. Fortunately, each one wrote a letter explaining exactly why they were upset with him. Well, except Green Crayon. Green is perfectly content to be used how and as often as he is. He’s just upset because Yellow Crayon and Orange Crayon are feuding over which one is the true colour of the sun.


Before reading the story, I asked my class to think about what items they have in their desks that never get used. Then I asked them to think about the items they use all the time. I didn’t want them to discuss it, though, until after we’d read the book. As I read aloud, I showed the illustrations, read the letters from the crayons, and then showed the illustrations again. It was wonderful seeing reactions as the students realised what was being told with the pictures: Red is angry about being used on all the holidays, Blue is sad because he is used way too much, Gray wants to be used for small things like pebbles and baby penguins instead of elephants, hippos, and rhinos, and White wants to be used as more than filler and for pictures of a white cat in a snow storm.

After I finished reading, I gave the students their writing task: write a letter to themselves from the perspective of the item used the least and the item used the most. After we edit them and publish, we are going to share the original book with our learning buddies and then share our own letters with them. (By the way, Miss C doesn’t know about this plan yet.) For the next hour, I had all of my students thinking, writing, giggling, and sharing as they wrote their first drafts during our Writers’ Workshop time.

We will revisit The Day the Crayons Quit later in the year to think about writer’s craft, voice, and style. But for the next week or so, we will work on revising and editing the letters so that we can publish and share them with others.

Constitution Day

Today was Constitution Day. Being a Wednesday, it was also Learning Buddies day. So, of course, Miss C and I decided that a great buddy learning activity would be to discuss the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America with our students. Both of us discussed the Preamble and the Constitution in our separate classes earlier in the day before bringing them together in the afternoon. In my room, we talked about the role of the Constitution as providing a foundation to all of the laws in our nation. There was also a short discussion of the Bill of Rights.

When my class joined our first grade buddies, Miss C read We the People, a picture book with the text of the Preamble, to all of the students two times. The first time, she read it slowly and discussed what the lines of the Preamble meant in child-friendly language. Then she read it again faster so that students could capture the tone of the Preamble when read fluently. I really enjoyed this book. The illustrations are fun and engaging and the text, while straight from the Preamble, is printed in such a way to make it accessible to all students.


After reading the text, we watched the Schoolhouse Rock clip of the Preamble. Each set of buddies had a copy of the lyrics to read along with the video. As with We the Kids, we watched the video twice. Several students started singing along, which I thought was great because it helps them remember the words.

We ended our buddy learning by having all the students use words and/or pictures to express why the Preamble is important to them. As students worked, we walked around and monitored students conversations. Several students wrote about the idea of ensuring domestic tranquility. Others wrote about providing for the common defense. A few students wrote about the notion securing the blessings of liberty for themselves and others. We were very impressed with the work the students produced. Some of the samples will be posted on our learning buddies bulletin board. Our goal is to make sure that every student has some work publicly shared by the end of the year, rather than try to put everything on it all the time.


While I was attending The Feast, a technology conference held in Bloomington, Illinois, this summer, I learned about a lot of neat web- and mobile-based learning tools. I’ve been making an effort to use them in my classroom this year and see how well they work at a fourth grade level. (Many of the resources were presented by high school teachers, so I was interested to know if they could be utilised at the lower levels.) I gave a brief overview of all of them on a post this summer, but as I introduce specific sites to my class, I will be writing up blog posts about them.

One thing I want to point out is that I am receiving absolutely no remuneration for this. In fact, that the companies who have developed these tools probably don’t even know that I exist, let alone my blog. I will be sharing the posts with them via Twitter, but I don’t expect any specific notice. (Of course, if they do share my post with others, I won’t be upset. I am very proud of the work my fourth graders accomplish and hope that more people will read my blog to celebrate their successes!) I say this because I don’t want anyone to think that I was asked to write this post or that I am being paid to do so. I am writing the post because it was something I did with my class and it worked well. That is all.

The tool I introduced today is a study aid called InstaGrok. There is a paid subscription version of it that has helpful features such as the ability to create assignments, a teacher dashboard, and specialised customer support. However, I have only used the free version so far and it has been satisfactory. That isn’t to say that I am opposed to the paid account, though; only that I am quite pleased with what can be done with the free version.

So, what can InstaGrok do for you? Let me share their overview video, first:

By using InstaGrok, students are able to find relevant information that supports their learning. The journal feature lets them record what they have shared and the quiz feature tests their knowledge. Students can email their journals to me, which gives me quick and ready access to the evidence of their learning. It isn’t a perfect too, of course; there are limitations to anything, but I love the ease of use and the way it provides students with key definitions, websites, videos, images, and more.

We tried it out today with the iPads and Nook tablets in my classroom. I don’t have enough devices for everyone to have their own (yet), but students were able to work in groups of three to learn more about animal adaptations. This goes along with our science unit on the ecology of the Great Lakes and the students’ research projects on different Great Lakes species. We will be using InstaGrok more in the future as students become more familiar with the ways they can use this tool. It was great seeing students engaged in learning and research, exploring the features, and discussing concepts with one another. It is definitely a tool that I would encourage all teachers to put in their collection to help foster digital literacy and research skills!

Why We Read

I had an interesting conversation with my students this morning. We were finally starting to break into our basal reader series and I wanted students to think about why we focus so much on reading. More to the point, why do we read? I have heard of adults who proudly state that they have never read an entire book since high school. It makes me sad. So I wanted to know why my students read now. My hope is that if they reflect on it now, they will develop life-long reading habits.

So I asked, “Why do you read?” Then I wrote the question on the board and asked the students to share reasons. As they shared, I wrote them down around the initial question. I was thrilled by the responses!

“We read now because we need to become better readers. As we grow up, we are going to be reading everything! Street signs, recipes, job descriptions. We always have to read!”

“We read because we are interested in the topic.”

“We read because we want to learn more about something.”

“We read so that we can understand people whose experiences are different from our own.”

“We read about the things we want to do as grown ups.”

“I like to read catalogs so I can learn more about things I want to buy.”

“We read so that we can expand our vocabulary.”

“We read because it is fun!”

“We read so we can learn how to do something better.”

There are a lot of reasons to read. I am glad that my students recognise so many of them. None of them said that they read because they have to. None of them said that they don’t read. None of them said that they don’t like to read. Those who responded received positive affirmations from their classmates. With all of the challenges that we have, I feel confident that I have a classroom of readers and I am excited about the books we will get to share, the lessons we will learn from them, and the connections we will make with authors and illustrators.

You may be wondering why I read. I read for all of these reasons and more. I read because I can’t help it! So, why do you read? Please share your reasons in the comments so I can pass them on to my students!

Another Short Research Project

I felt really good about the short project we did earlier this week, so I decided to have the students do another one today. We are still learning about ecology, plants, animals, and habitats, and the focus for today was on what happens when the balance of these things gets disturbed. Specifically, we were exploring the effects of pollution on ecosystems.

Much as I did earlier this week, I gave the students three basic questions to consider:

  • What is pollution?
    • Air?
    • Soil?
    • Water?
  • Why is it harmful?
  • What is a possible solution?

The students divided into groups of three and selected a type of pollution to research. Each group had a tablet, a Science textbook, and their own prior knowledge. They were initially given 30 minutes to learn about the topic and find answers to the questions, but the short project turned into a much longer one and we ended up spending almost an hour and a half working on it! After conducting their initial research, the groups were given a large sheet of poster paper and had to transfer their findings onto it. We ran out of time today, but they will share their findings with their classmates on Monday and then the posters were be displayed in the hallway.

In the process of doing this project, I learned some important things about my students:

  • They have amazing ideas! A group of boys conceived a wind-powered automobile, bombs that will clean the air, and special power plants that will remove pollutants from the atmosphere and use them as fuel to provide energy. A group of girls conceived a pump system that will pull polluted water out of a lake and, much like a dialysis machine, return clean water.
  • Once my class gets focused on a task, that will work at it all day if they are given permission to do so. Some of them may delay getting started, but once that engine is on, they will keep going forever!
  • I need to set clearer expectations for how to work effectively in a group. Some of the students have had plenty of experience working together, but there are many who struggle, especially if their group members are not their best friends. While it is nice to be friends with the people you work with (it is something I very much appreciate about my own colleagues!), it is important to recognise that we don’t always get to work with our best friends, but we can still treat our work partners with respect.

I enjoyed working with my class as they pursued their research today. I hope that they will transfer what they have learned to their independent research assignments, which are due on the 24th of this month. Now that our benchmark testing is, for the most part, finished, I am looking forward to spending more time in the computer lab researching and more time in the classroom using the tablets for a wide variety of reasons!

Building Confidence In Ourselves

I taught my students about function tables today. It was interesting, actually, because they were just a part of the math lesson that is part of our first unit on the fundamental concepts of multiplication. The students’ homework assignments have included function tables several times, but today was the first official lesson.

Because these are fourth graders, the tables were pretty basic: one desk has four legs. If I have 5 desks, how many legs? (Answer: 20.) If I have 20 desks, how many legs? (40). If I have d desks, how many legs? The simple equation is l = 4 * d; we can also determine the number of desks by knowing the legs: d = l / 4. After just one example, most of the students were ready to complete the tables on their own and then solve word problems, too.

It was a simple assignment, but it resulted in one of the best things I can hear in a classroom: “Hey, I can do this! This is easy!”

It is what I love about the math series I use. It starts small and builds up bit by bit. Sometimes it can seem like it is moving too slowly, but it allows my students to build confidence in their own abilities. They realise that they can do things that once seemed daunting. Yes, we are going to spend at least a month of school reviewing multiplication facts and multiplying two digit numbers by a single digit. Yes, some of them can do this already. But even they will accept the challenge of doing it faster, improving their fluency and monitoring their accuracy.

Taking it slow at the start lets them build confidence so that when I introduce two-digit by two-digit multiplication, they recognise that they already know how to do it; they just have to learn a new application. The information is there in their heads and thus the knowledge because accessible. We are going to start using more digital technology to support differentiated learning soon. Students will use resources like XtraMath and Front Row to practice where they most need the help. But we are also going to work together as a class to support one another, build confidence in ourselves, and know that we really can do whatever is thrown our way. And who knows? Maybe one of my students will be the person to solve a supposedly impossible problem in theoretical physics and receive the Nobel Prize as a result. (If that happens, I hope they will remember their fourth grade teacher and at least give me a shout-out at the award ceremony!) Is that a big dream? It sure is! But it all has to start somewhere; why not in fourth grade?


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