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


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?

When Science Experiments Fail

I’ve mentioned before that I find it incredibly important for students to learn how to fail. Mistakes, errors, accidents, failures, mishaps, and so on are simply a part of life. It isn’t the falling down that is problematic; it is not getting up again afterwards. I believe strongly in teaching my students how to get up again, dust themselves off, and carry on, learning from the mistakes. This has application in social development, but it also has very real application in the academic realms of mathematics, literacy, history, and, of course, science.

Each year my students set up a science experiment in the classroom to go along with our unit on weather and the water cycle. We take a plastic Zip-Loc bag and place a small cup with some water inside it and hang them from the window. As the sun shines on the glass it heats the water, causing it to evaporate. The vapor then condenses on the side of the bag and precipitates down to the bottom where it pools outside the cup. Some years I have used food colouring in this process so that students can see that the dye is not actually water and therefore doesn’t travel with the water molecules.

I didn’t do that this year. I also decided to use test tubes instead of cups. They had been hanging on the windows for over a week when I noticed something: nothing seemed to be happening.

Each day I would come in and examine the 25 experiments set up on our windows. And each day I would notice that the water was still in the test tubes and that nothing seemed to be occurring. This was, of course, quite problematic, as it seemed as if my entire experiment had failed, despite having been done with great success two years in a row. But I had changed one of the variables and I knew that that must be the problem.

So I started looking more closely throughout the day and finally figured out what was happening: The water in the test tubes was evaporating, but instead of condensing outside the tubes and on the bags, it was condensing inside the test tubes! This meant that the water was just cycling within a very small space and was therefore difficult to detect. The reason was obvious: we didn’t have enough water in the tubes.

I came by the building on Saturday, after the Battle of the Books competition, and decided to try out my hypothesis. I increased the water level in my experiment and reset it so I could check it on Monday. It turns out my theory was correct! So I increased the water level in all of the arrays and resealed the bags. In just two days, we started to see progress! There were clouds of water forming on the outside of the bags and some droplets were beginning to drip down to the bottom.

I learned from the failed experiment and tried something new. This time it worked. I shared the results with the class and had them make further predictions about what would happen by next week. We also discussed what we saw happening and what evidence we had that evaporation, condensation, and precipitation were occurring. It was a great lesson that brought to life many of the concepts of the water cycle we have been learning. I am hoping that there will be even more dramatic effects to observe next week!


We are learning about the water cycle, weather systems, and climate in science. While most weather is fairly benign, fourth graders are almost always more interested in the severe ones: hurricanes, blizzards, and, of course, tornadoes.

Living in Illinois, tornadoes are a fact of life. There are an average of 64 tornadoes in Illinois each year, usually occurring between March and May. Yet most of these tornadoes are barely noticed by our residents. Some occur high in the atmosphere, some are brief, but some are much more severe. In 1917, there was a tornado in Mattoon, just south of us, that resulted in over 100 fatalities. In 1925, there was a tri-state tornado that killed 695 people. These were two of the worst tornadoes in our nation’s history.

Last year Illinois saw a huge number of tornadoes in the month of November, which is very, very, very uncommon for our part of the nation. The November 17 outbreak hit especially close to home for me. I grew up in the city of Washington, where my parents and many of my friends still live. On that day, an EF-4 tornado with winds of 190 mph tore through my hometown, causing millions of dollars in damages, but only causing two fatalities. My family was fine and while some of my friends had property damage, none had their lives and livelihoods completely destroyed. How is it that a tornado nearly a hundred years ago killed so many and a tornado last year, far more severe in strength, killed so few? I am sure that there will be many who debate the answer to this question, but I am confident that at least one aspect is preparation.

I am an Eagle Scout and a currently volunteer as the Cubmaster of a local Cub Scout pack. As Scouts, we are all about preparation. So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that I transfer these skills into all aspects of my life. I know how valuable it is to be prepared for any event. And thus I am very pleased when the Urbana Fire Marshall comes by our building with his safety house simulator every few months to help our students prepare for the worst. Today he came to talk about tornado safety.

Before going to the simulator, he and two of his colleagues spoke with the students about creating a disaster preparedness kit with water (one gallon per person per day), food (non-perishables like canned goods and individually-wrapped protein bars), first-aid kits, flashlights (with extra batteries), portable radios, and even simple card games to provide a way to pass the time. Then we went to the simulator where we practiced getting to a safe space in the house (basement or room in the middle of the ground floor, preferably without windows and/or pipes) and following the directions of meteorologists and parents.

Do things like this help? What about our monthly severe weather drills that we do in our school when the sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of the month? Rather than getting the answer from me, I will defer to this six-year-old from my hometown:

Tornadoes and other severe weather are interesting to study. Students are fascinated by them. Teachers are fascinated by them. But it is important to realise that they are very much something to take seriously when they happen. I am grateful to my own teachers, parents, and older brothers who showed me how to be safe during storms. I hope that my students will take this in and pass it on, too.


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