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

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It Takes a Village

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was still in middle school, I remember hearing about a book that the current First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wrote. It was called It Takes a Village. I’ve never read the book. I’ve never read the counter-arguments or criticisms of it. All I’ve ever encountered was the title. (I just requested it through the public library and am hoping to read it soon.) The title, though, has resonated with me over the years.

Before leaving for the conference in Chicago I am attending this weekend, I had the opportunity to visit two different classrooms in my district. The first was a classroom for children who are learning English as a second language. The second was at the Urbana Early Childhood School. Both visits were so I could do brief observations as a part of my graduate school coursework. As I left the schools, I was struck with the realisation of the truthfulness to the title of Mrs. Clinton’s book. It really does take a village to raise a child. Parents and immediately family are the primary caregivers, typically, but they are not the only ones teaching and helping children grow. Teachers also play a key role. So do their peers and their classmates.

This was especially clear to me as I was visiting UECS. The principal gave me a tour of the building and I learned that the school is divided into three “villages” with four classes each. I have no idea if the idea of calling the groups of classrooms “villages” is tied to this proverb or not, but it is certainly appropriate! As we walked through UECS, I was struck by the sense of community and friendliness that permeates the very walls! Even as we were just walking past one of the rooms, a young girl saw the principal and rushed over just to say hi before getting back to the class activity! (The principal, ever the teacher, coached the girl on waving hello instead of leaving her class to greet someone.)

I spent about 20 minutes inside one of the classrooms and was amazed at the wonderful things I saw going on. Students spend most of their time in the early childhood program learning through play. There are centers in each room that the principal requires but each teacher sets them up differently. I sat near the house center and watched as boys and girls played at being parents using baby dolls. One girl turned to a boy and said, “Don’t you hear these babies crying? Why do you always leave to go to the office each day and leave me home with these crying babies?!” to which he responded, “I have to go to the office; how else am I going to pay the bills?!” Keep in mind, children at UECS are between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, and yet they have such sophisticated language skills! Later, the girl played at growing frustrated with a baby and talked about spanking her. The teacher came over and, in a calm and wonderfully patient way, coached the students on more appropriate methods for expressing frustration.

I could have stayed in the classrooms I was visiting all day, but, alas, I had to leave so that I could finish packing before leaving for our weekend trop. But I want to return to my original theme. It really does take a village. Anyone and everyone who is around children knows that the things they say and do matter and make a lasting impressions. While my wife and I have no children of our own, we are still very much involved in teaching young people to become decent, honest people. We are a part of the village. I’m very grateful to those who let me visit today so that I could witness first-hand the awesome things that are happening within my school district. While I am attending this conference as a guest of Washington District 52, I am very proud to tell others that I am a teacher in Urbana!

Planning for an Absence

Because of the various district task forces I am a part of, as well as a professional inquiry group, I have quite a few planned absences for this year. Most of them are for just half days scattered throughout the year, but there are some planned absences that will be for an entire day. Two of these absences I have each year are both in November. The first one already came: Election Day. As a Judge of the Election for Champaign County, I can plan on being gone on the first Tuesday of November every year.

The other absence will be tomorrow. My mother in on the school board in my hometown and gets to attend the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. (Also known as the Triple I Conference because JACIASBIASAIASBO doesn’t really lend itself to easy pronunciation.) As a schoolb board member, she is allowed to invite guests to attend the conference with her. My wife and I went with her last year and had a wonderful time. I learned about amazing resources available to our schools and met some really impressive school leaders and researchers. So when we were invited to attend again this year, we gladly accepted!

Knowing for such a long time that I would be gone tomorrow, I have been helping my students plan for my absence. They know who my substitute teacher will be, they know what they will be working on, and they know what the expectations will be. (We reviewed the expectations this morning and reinforced that our classroom expectations are the same whether I am here or not!) We’ve also been talking about consequences for following expectations and consequences for not following them.

This last part has been an interesting conversation because we often associate “consequences” with “punishment” instead of “the result of an action or choice.” The consequences of doing what you are supposed to do is you get to continue to do things that you find pleasant, enjoyable, or worthwhile. In a classroom setting, you get to continue learning, participating, being with your peers, and receiving positive attention from classmates, teachers, and parents. The consequences of making poor decisions are a removal of privileges, having to do things that are less desirable, being separated from peers, and gaining negative attention.

While I am traveling to Chicago and spending the weekend learning about school leaders, technology integration, family engagement, and new tools and resources, I am confident that my students will be doing what they are supposed to be doing so that they can receive the positive consequences of doing the right thing!

Turning Things Over

I love hosting student teachers in my classroom. They challenge me to continually think deeply about what I am doing, how I am doing it, and why I am making the choices I make. They also bring fresh ideas to the classroom that I love trying out. I also really enjoy being able to serve as a mentor as they are preparing to do full-time student teaching. Some of my student teachers pass through and then I don’t hear from them again. Others keep in touch. (My student teacher from last fall, Ms. Shapiro, got hired over the summer and is teaching fourth grade in Schaumburg!)

My student teacher this semester, Ms. Schultz, has been with us every Tuesday and Wednesday. She has taken on many responsibilities over the past several weeks, including some of the more mundane teacher tasks such as attendance and lunch cart to some of the very important instructional responsibilities of guided reading, math instruction, and our daily read aloud.

This week, however, was her trial by fire! Every student teacher in the fall is expected to take over all of the teaching responsibilities for two days. We decided to have her do her full take-over this week so that she wouldn’t have to do it after our extended Thanksgiving holiday break.

Even though she was doing all of the teaching, I was still in the classroom for the vast majority of the time. It was hard for me to sit back and not intervene when I noticed students off-task, but I soon realised that she totally had things under control. She was quick to redirect students and get them back on task and they were, for the most part, quick to respond. Many of the students were definitely challenging her authority yesterday but today they were much, much more responsive as they accepted that I was deferring responsibility to her. Any time someone came to me with a question, I directed their inquiries to Ms. Schultz first.

We still have several weeks left of the semester, and so Ms. Schultz will continue to be with our class each Tuesday and Wednesday. As we move toward the end, there will be less modeling and less just turning things over and much more co-teaching and co-planning. And that’s the other thing I love about having student teachers: serving as a mentor and helping them go from being observers who are usually trepidatious about being in a formal teaching assignment for the first time to being an active, eager part of a teaching team!

Body Safety

Every so often, our school has representatives from a coalition of the Urbana Fire Department, the Urbana Police Deapartment, the American Red Cross, and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District visit to talk to the students about different risks that students are exposed to during their day-to-day lives. Some of these include fire safety, gun safety, severe weather, and potentially hazardous liquids. Because of recent legislation in Illinois, our district has joined with the schools in Champaign to provide a body safety presentation, too. Members of the coalition visited each classroom yesterday and today to talk to the students about this very important safety topic.

They started by talking about “stranger danger” and the reminder that students shouldn’t engage in conversations with people they don’t know, especially when they are alone or with friends. Each student should have a list of safe adults that they can go to when they need help. They practiced saying “NO!” in a strong, loud, confident voice and were reminded that whenever they feel unsafe or uncomfortable they should say NO! and RUN AWAY to a safe place. The presenters shared strategies for getting away from a person who is trying to hurt them, including hitting them in a sensitive place.

There was a reminder that these strategies for staying safe are not meant to be used as games or jokes. They also shouldn’t be used when a student in mad at a teacher for telling them to stop doing something that is not safe, respectful, or responsible. Throughout the presentation, our school social worker was present to help monitor students and be aware of possible triggers.

The entire presentation was perfectly geared for my students and taught important skills and concepts without making anyone feel uncomfortable! I am very grateful to those in this student health and safety coalition for putting together these presentations and giving my students the tools and knowledge they need to keep themselves safe from danger.

On-Task Behaviour

Sorry for the lateness of this post. Monday evenings continue to be a challenge for me to get a blog post written because we have staff meetings after school lets out and then I have a short period of time to get ready for my graduate course in the evening.

As I’ve been continuing to explore ways to utilise the Chromebooks in my classroom, I’ve discovered a lot of incredibly useful websites that facilitate meaningful independent practice for students while I am working with small groups or conferencing one-on-one with students. I’ve written about several of these tools and resources in the past few months. I’ve discovered a couple of new tools, but I’m not ready to review any of them quite yet.

One side benefit of these tools I’ve recently discovered is the ability to more efficiently track my students’ on-task behaviour. In the past, I have had to leave a small group or plan for breaks between conferences to monitor students. Now, however, I can keep an eye on what they are doing simply by checking the websites they are working on. Although we have many different tools to use in my room, I tend to assign students to work on specific sites at specific times. Then I can go onto my teacher dashboard and see what they have been doing. Being able to monitor students’ behaviour is not just something that lets me know if they are on-task or not, though; it also lets me see what they are working on so I can provide more meaningful interventions, either for reteaching or for enrichment.

There is software that exists that will let me monitor students’ online activity in real time, but since it costs several hundred dollars and I am teacher with a very limited budget, I’ll have to rely on the monitoring tools I have at my disposal. And, of course, I still get up and walk around the room to see what students are up to. And if I notice that someone is doing something they aren’t supposed to be doing, I can pull it up on their history and take a screen capture for future reference or for further instruction on the proper use of our technology tools.

(On a completely unrelated note, this was my 800th post!)

Token Economy

As a general rule, I avoid using token economy systems for classroom management. Too often, student behaviour becomes about the rewards or prizes instead of being about the expected behaviour. However, I also know that young children need something tangible to work toward when they are trying to develop good habits and break old ones. At Wiley, we use student recognition tickets (called APPAWS tickets, which despite being written in all capital letters doesn’t, as far as I know, actually stand for anything. I think the word “APPAWS” was selected because it sounds almost like “applause” and someone decided to play on the “paw” word because we are, in fact, the Wiley Coyotes).

After much debate and consideration, I finally decided to take advantage of these tickets that students earn for demonstrating positive character traits such as respect, responsibility, and integrity by allowing students to collect then and “cash in” for small rewards. Different rewards have different values associated. For example, a student can cash in 5 tickets to get a mechanical pencil or a pencil topper or a pencil grip. But they can also collect them and wait until they’ve earned 100 to cash in for a class movie party of their choosing (within limits, of course).  In between are rewards such as having lunch in the classroom, helping out in the office, sitting at the teacher’s desk, or allowing extra recess for the entire class.

Part of the reasoning for this approach is that there will be incentives earned through the students’ work in fine arts and with the librarian. I want my class to be able to see that their positive behaviour is recongised by the other teachers who work with them throughout the week. APPAWS tickets can be given by any teacher in the building, but the fine arts teachers often use their own praise tickets and those can count toward earning rewards.

The goal of using a system like this isn’t to give the students prizes, though. It is to help them develop good habits that will serve them well in other settings. The prizes are incentives, but my hope is that they will see the positive benefits of the improved behaviour and internalise the actions. I often share that I consider integrity to be the greatest of all character traits because it is simply doing the right thing. (Some people will add that integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking but I maintain that it is enough to just do the right thing. Period.) As my students work toward earning incentives, there will be much talk in the classroom of how the positive behaviour impacts everyone in a, well, positive way! Learning will improve, interpersonal relationships will improve, and students will feel better about being in the classroom. And if I have to spend a few dollars to buy some mechanical pencils and pencil grips along the way, those are a few dollars well-spent! Read the rest of this page »

Veterans’ Day

For a multitude of reasons beyond my immediate control, students in the Urbana School District had class today. In the past, Veterans’ Day has been one of the federal holidays observed by the district with a day of no attendance. Many parents and teachers were concerned about what would happen with having class on this day.

I can only speak from my very limited experience as just one teacher in just one room in just one of the six elementary schools in the district, but I felt like it was a wonderful day!

We started the morning off by discussing what Veterans’ Day is, why we observe it, and the understanding that it is not a holiday like the Fourth of July with celebrations and parties and barbecues but more of a day of quiet observation and reflection as we think about the freedoms we enjoy in this nation and find ways to thank the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Reserves, and National Guard) to protect not just our nation but also our allies and friends in other countries. I wanted my students to understand that we are all connected to these veterans in different ways. I told them about one of my older brothers, Anton, who served as an officer in the United States Air Force in Iraq. Several students shared stories about their family members and wars they have fought in, including World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We learned that we have parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the military.

Later in the morning I had the students learn more about Veterans’ Day by researching the holiday with their Chromebooks. They explored questions such as

  • “What is Veterans’ Day?”
  • “Why do we observe it?”
  • What memorials to soldiers can be found in our community?
  • “How is it observed in other countries?”

At 11:11 am, the entire school paused for a minute of silent reflection as a guest played Taps over the PA system. This was in honour of the armistice agreement that marked the end of hostilities on the Western Front during the first World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Our entire school had a very special Veterans’ Day assembly in the afternoon. I had the privilege of leading a flag ceremony with a colour guard of students in 2nd, 3rd, and 5th grade who are actively involved in either Cub Scouts or Girl Scouts. They were invited to wear their Class A uniforms to school and I wore mine (I am the Cubmaster for Cub Scout Pack 111). Later in the program, Miss C and I, along with our student teachers, led our Learning Buddies in a recital of In Flanders Fields. The students had been practicing for two weeks and did a wonderful job! During the assembly, we recognised current and retired members of the Armed Forces who came as our honoured guests. We sang America and watched a slide show of photos of war memorials and Wiley family members who have been in the military.

After the assembly, my class had the privilege of welcoming one of the honoured guests in our classroom. He graciously answered students’ questions about life in the Army, his experiences, and his role. At the very end of the day, each student in the building received a red poppy made by war veterans in the VA hospital in Danville that were donated by the local chapter of the VFW.

I am so grateful to my colleagues who worked to make sure that this day would not become just another day of school. It was wonderful to come together as a school and to give thanks to the men and women in our lives who have served to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . .” Thank you all!

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