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


Moving Beyond a First Draft

A very large focus for the fourth quarter this year is on not just writing, but writing well. For most of the year, the writing we have done has been primarily first drafts. First drafts are often full of spelling and punctuation areas and poor organisation, but the ideas are strong. I have emphasised that my primary goal for my students’ writing is to get their fantastic ideas out of their heads and onto the paper (or computer screen, if they are typing). Spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, overall organisation, word choice, and the like are all important for good writing, but they all come after the ideas have been written down.

This is a hard concept to grasp. My fourth graders want their writing to look like the writing they have seen from older students, from parents, from teachers, and from books. They want their writing to be polished, fancy, clear, neat, and as close to perfection as they can get. But that doesn’t happen at once. That happens as the result of using the writing process: of planning, drafting, editing, revising, editing, revising, editing, revising, and finally publishing. Sometimes the editing and revising stages go on for weeks, months, or even years! Sometimes it doesn’t. But students shouldn’t expect to write a first draft and have a final draft ready to publish all at once. A final draft takes time and effort.

I’ve had mixed results with having students edit their own writing earlier in the year, so this week I decided to try a new direction. Instead of trying to correct their own writing or a peer’s, I’ve had them correct mine!

“But wait!” I’m sure you’re asking “Isn’t your writing always impeccable?!” Well, I don’t want to brag, but I think I’m pretty good at stringing words and sentences together. But for this activity, I’ve decided to fill my writing on the board with all sorts of spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation errors. (And no, I do not use the same British spellings I use on my blog; I stick with Standard American English.) For example, this was yesterday’s morning message:

monday april 21 2014

good Morning?

we are goIng to due Something knew fur jurnal wriTing. Please copey this paragraph in yor jurnal then make correckshins. We will go Over Them togethur

mr velinic

After the students had written down the message and made corrections in their daily journals, I had them come up to the board one at a time to make a correction. As we got closer to the end I would point out how many errors were still remaining. By the time they finished, the message read like this:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Good morning!

We are going to do something new for journal writing. Please copy this paragraph in your journal, then make corrections. We will go over them together.

~Mr. Valencic

I was actually shocked that someone thought to put the tilde (~) by my name. I always write that, but I didn’t expect anyone to pick up on it missing! I was also very pleased that they were able to identify all of the errors on their own! I think that it helped my students to see that this was writing from their teacher and not someone their age. I also feel like this is much more authentic than many of the daily language programs out there because it is my writing for my class. It is as authentic as writing can be.

As we get into some of our more extensive writing this quarter, I will have students write, then look over their own work to find errors in spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation. Once they think they have identified them, they will turn the revised draft in to me for further examination. I have thought about having peer editing, but I am not convinced that is the best thing in the world. Even though it makes my workload lighter, I don’t want students with lower writing ability to feel like they are being judged by their classmates anymore than already happens by virtue of children being children. Then students will use dictionaries to check spelling and we will work on punctuation and capitalisation rules as a class.

My ultimate goal for all of this is for my students to move beyond writing a first draft and focus on identifying what they need to do to have a piece that is ready for publishing, whether their audience is me, their classmates, their parents, or someone else. I am excited about the activities we are going to do and the assistance we will have from our fine arts teachers to support writing in the classroom! The next few weeks are going to fly by!

Short Research Projects

As we now enter the final weeks of school, I have been building more and more group projects into my classroom. In collaboration with my fourth grade teaching partner and our building’s instructional coach, I’ve planned a unit of study on Westward Expansion that is going to include group research projects. We have also been working on improving our Internet research skills.

Today I wanted to get my students to recognise that research doesn’t always have to be a long, intensive project. Most of the research we do on the Internet these days is short. We are usually looking for a quick answer to a quick question. Of course, these quick questions often lead us to follow-up questions. I love when one question leads to another which leads to another and all of a sudden I find that what I thought would be a three to five minute query turns into an hour-long search that is exposing me to all sorts of concepts and ideas I didn’t even know existed! (Uh oh! I think I just admitted that I don’t actually know everything!)

I wanted today’s research project today to relate to our science unit on weather and the water cycle. I started by asking the students to think about different weather events, like dense fog. Some of the events they listed were rain, snow, hail, tornadoes, hurricanes, dust devils, water spouts, flash floods, and thunder and lightning. I gave the students fifteen minutes to form groups of three and research one of the listed events. They were allowed to use the tablets and search Internet sites. Many remembered the strategy from last week and added “fourth grade” to their searches.

They were all amazed at how much information they could find in just fifteen minutes! After the allotted time was up, I had each group share what they had learned. Then the other students were able to ask questions. We ended the short research projects by thinking of other questions we still had about our topics. Each group came up with something they still wanted to know about their topics.

This was a great way for the students to get used to actually generating questions about a single topic and then finding an answer. They also learned that finding answers online doesn’t have to take hours or days; they can find the answers in just a few minutes! It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow when we are in the computer lab and starting research on the different trails taken to settle the American West!

Demonstration Speeches

It was only  a six-day project over the course of two weeks, but we are already at the end of our explanatory writing and demonstration speech mini-unit. The other fourth grade class has been doing the same thing, so today has been a day of demonstrations in both rooms. I got to sneak in during my plan time and listen to some of the speeches given in the other room, which was a lot of fun!


Through the course of the day, I got to see demonstrations on making rainbow loom rubber band bracelets, wrestling, writing novels, making paper airplanes, baking brownies, reading the book CDB, playing Pokemon, doing backflips, and making ice cream. Those giving the speeches did a great job of explaining the steps and showing us what to do, how to do it, and why we should want to do it. Those listening were wonderful audience members, asking questions when they did not understand, making connections between the comments of others, identifying points being made by the speaker, and following the agreed upon rules for discussion. These are all standards we expect our students to master but, more importantly, they are all life skills that all people should have in order to function well in our society!


Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get through all of the speeches today, so those students who did not present today will get to do so on Monday. It has been wonderful seeing what amazing talents my students have! Even though this project was very short, I feel like it was a wonderful way to wrap up the last week before a long break. Once we get back on Monday, we start the final push to the end of the year! I can hardly believe that we are just seven and a half weeks away! We are going to be working hard each day, that’s for sure, but we also have a lot of fun projects in the works!


Internet Search Queries

My students have done three independent research projects this year. The first was on fish from the Great Lakes, the second on European explorers, and the third on one of the thirteen original American colonies. We use the Internet quite regularly in my classroom, searching for information, going to specific sites, and using online resources such as World Book Online Kids. We also visit Wonderopolis nearly every day to read nonfiction essays on fun topics like what causes thunder or lightning, why do you blink, or why a has piano eighty-eight keys.

I admit, I have never made a specific point in teaching students how to actually perform a search using a search engine. The reason for this is simple: any time we have used a computer or a tablet to do so, the students have all started searching without any specific prompting from me. But today I decided to use our computer lab to teach how to perform better search queries. I asked the students to do a search for a topic related to our science unit, such as weather, clouds, or the water cycle. I did the same on my computer, which was connected to the LCD projector in the lab.

I did a search for water cycle and discovered the first link was to a page on the US Geological Survey website. While it was an educational site, the information was far more complex than we tackle in fourth grade. Other links that showed up include course pages for college classes and links to teacher websites with lesson plans. (Using Google as a search engine in a school, you are bound to find many school-related links.)

I asked the class to think of a way to find information on our topic that would be good for fourth graders to use. Many kept using the same search query or something similar. So I made a suggestion: add just two words to the end of the query. If you are looking for information on a topic that is relevant to fourth graders, add “fourth grade” to the query. They did this, and found sites like the following:

Tracy Watanabe’s 4th Grade Earth Science – Water Cycle page Water Cycle Quiz – The Water Cycle

Others did searches on clouds and weather and used the new search term to find equally useful sites. For the next twenty minutes, all of my students were intently busy learning about weather and the water cycle. Some went back to the classroom to get paper and a pencil to take notes. Others wrote down websites so they could visit them again. Others just enjoyed learning and watching videos that helped them better understand the topics. All greatly benefited from using an appropriate search query.

This activity reminded me of an old adage: anything worth doing is worth doing well. When it comes to using the Internet and searching for information, I know that my students know how to do it. My goal is to make sure that they know how to do it well.


Teaching How to Tie a Necktie

After spending last week writing essays on how to do a particular task, we are moving on during this very short three-day week to giving oral presentations on the topic. The students used their literacy block time today to finish up their essays and have peers read them to see if there are any steps missing. Tomorrow we will work exclusively on writing the oral presentations, which will be slightly different from the essays. Then students will give the presentations on Wednesday.

To get us started on the oral presentations, I decided to model one for my class. I started by discussing my topic, which was wearing a tie. I explained that there are many ways to tie a necktie and that everyone should know how to, male or female, old or young. I shared some of the different knots I have been learning and showed how to tie some of the simpler ones, like the four-in-hand. Then I told them that I wanted each of them to learn how to tie the full Windsor knot. I pulled out a collection of my ties and passed them out to the students. Then I had them stand (because it is really difficult to tie a tie while sitting down) and took them through the process step by step. Some students got it right away. Others got confused and so I started them back at the beginning. We did this a few times until many felt confident in their new-found ability. Some students wanted me to teach them some of the more complex knots. I told them that I might teach them later, but not today.

Modeling how to do give a how-to speech for my students by giving a how-to speech (again, apologies for the word saturation), gave me a great opportunity to share a personal hobby while also showing students how to pace themselves, to be clear and concise, and how to capture an audience’s attention through an interesting hook. We will review this idea tomorrow before they start writing their speeches and practicing them with classmates. I am looking forward to the presentations on Wednesday!

DoCha Concert

We have had a lot of field trips over the past couple of weeks! It seems like every couple of days were learned about a new opportunity for our students that would not cost them any money and would expose them to things in the community that they and their families may not have known about. I know I certainly didn’t know about some of these wonderful things! The Downtown Champaign Chamber Music ensemble (usually known as just DoCha) is one such thing.

According to their website, DoCha “is a collaborative effort among University of Illinois faculty, students, community members and friends under the artistic coordination of a world renowned violinist and UIUC School of Music Professor Stefan Milenkovich to experiment with new and fun ways to present chamber music.” Chamber music is a style of classical performance that involves a small group of musicians creating music together. As the name indicates, the idea was that they would be able to fit within a chamber, or a small room, of a palace. This is quite different from a full orchestra or symphony ensemble that takes up a very large space!

We got to take the 3rd and 4th grade students at Wiley to the DoCha performance at the Orpheum Children’s Museum this morning. The performers shared a variety of classical music pieces demonstrating the different categories, such as baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary. Between numbers, they explained the differences in the styles:

  • The baroque era is known for its elaborate, ornate buildings, paintings, clothing, and, of course, music
  • The classical era was inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans and is noted for its clean, clear imagery
  • The romantic period is not so much about what we think of romance today (lovey-dovey stuff), but rather deep, passionate emotions
  • Contemporary classical is a modern application of some of these older styles

At the end of the performance, students were invited to ask questions about the music, composition, and performance. Then they made their own musical instruments taking plastic eggs and filling them with random objects like beads, pins, keys, and rubber bands. After taping them shut, they were able to shake them and see how the different combinations of items created different sounds.

It was a very enjoyable performance overall! The DoCha 2014 Festival is going on this weekend! All events are free of charge and take place at the Orpheum. I would strongly encourage everyone to check out the festival schedule and see if there is a performance that they can attend with their families!

Explaining How To Do Something

My awesome fourth grade partner and I met with our amazing instructional coach a few days ago to make a plan for the end of the year. We have some great projects planned and ways to tie literacy across content areas in a way that we hope our students will both enjoy and find meaningful.

One of the things we decided to tackle was a combination writing and speaking project. Fourth graders are expected to be able to write explanatory texts, use linking words in their writing, identify key details given by a speaker, and to demonstrate a command of the English language in writing and speaking. A memory from my own childhood sparked a discussion that brought out a shared experience: trying to explain to someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Now some of you may have tried this before and know what kind of absurd hilarity ensues. Others are probably thinking, “Are you kidding? The only thing easier to make than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a cheese sandwich!” That’s what I used to think, way back in the day before my sixth grade science teacher taught us that clear, concise steps are important. In the process of following the directions my class gave her, she ended up with peanut butter and jelly all over her hands, clothes, table, plate, and, yes, the bread she was using for the sandwich.

The lesson we learned has stuck with me all these years: explaining how to do something seems easy but can be very, very difficult indeed! The other two teachers had had similar experiences. We decided to forego the sandwich catastrophe model, but decided that writing “how to” essays would be a great way to start this project. Each student would select something they enjoyed doing and work on writing an essay that would explain what it is, why it is enjoyable, and how to do it.

The second component of the project is the speaking part. Students will prepare a brief (probably close to 5 minutes) presentation to demonstrate how to do the task they selected. I have a plan for modeling such a speech with my class, but they won’t get to see it until Monday. We will take time on Monday and Tuesday to prepare the speeches and then presentations will be on Wednesday. (There is no school next Thursday for an elementary inservice meeting and no school on Friday for our district’s Spring Holiday.)

On my way to work yesterday, I had a sudden flash of another memory from school, this time from fourth grade: it was a memory of doing my own “how to” writing. We were assigned the task of writing a book to explain how to do not just something, but something perfectly. This was prompted by a story that we read as a class: Be a Perfect Person In Just Three Days by Stephen Manes. My best friend and I worked together to write a book called How To Be a Perfect Diver (despite the fact that neither one of us had ever done any diving before). As an aside, our teacher enjoyed our book (which included a section on how to knock somebody off the diving board if they are taking too long) so much that we gifted it to her. (I am guessing it has disappeared since then, but I may ask her if she still has it.) Anyway, I rushed to the library as soon as I got to school and was amazed to find that Be a Perfect Person In Just Three Days was on our shelves! I checked it out and am reading one chapter each day to the class. Today’s chapter taught us that a perfect-person-in-training should wear a stalk of broccoli around their neck on a string.

I am really excited to see how this reading, writing, and speaking project comes together! It is a short one, with just six days of work, but I think we are going to learn a lot from each other! And, parents, don’t be surprised if your child insists on wearing broccoli to school tomorrow! After all, what fourth grader doesn’t wish to be a perfect person?


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