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

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Meeting Our New Student Teacher

My students got to meet our new student teacher for the semester today! Ms. Schultz, who has given me permission to use her name in the blog, visited my classroom for the first time last year, where were talked about some of the goals for this year and I was able to introduce her to some of the teachers in the building. After a busy summer, she came in this morning ready to get to know my class and integrate herself into the classroom!

She started the day supporting me with my morning supervision assignment, where I greet students as they exit cars and join other students near the building. Then she came in and watched as the students got settled, made lunch choices, and started working on their journal assignments. During our morning meeting, I asked her to introduce herself to the class. Surprisingly, several students had not even noticed she was there! After sharing where she grew up and what she is doing at the University of Illinois, she made an effort to get to know the class.

Throughout the day, Ms. Schultz watched what we were doing in the room, learned students’ names, and assisted in different classroom activities. Even though today was her first day and she is mostly going to observe the next two weeks, she even helped students with their math work this afternoon!

I’m excited to have a student teacher working with my class every Tuesday and Wednesday for the first semester. It is always wonderful to have another adult in the room and it is great having a student teacher who helps me constantly reflect on my professional practices and think about what I am doing and why I am doing it!

Launching the Daily CAFE

Anyone who has been reading my blog for more than a year may recall past posts about the Daily Five and CAFE. I have been working on implementing these literacy instruction frameworks over the past several years, but one big change this school year is that the entire building has adopted the Daily Five framework. Additionally, our reading interventionist teachers will be spending a part of each morning in the different classrooms, assisting with reading groups, whole class instruction, and mini-lessons. With today being the first Monday of the school year and still fairly early on, all things considered, I decided it was time to start launching the Daily CAFE in my room.

I had all of the students come to the carpet and we took some time to discuss the components of the CAFE: Comprehension, Accuracy, Fluency, and Expanding Vocabulary. Each day, students will be expected to engage in independent tasks that will help them develop these fundamental literacy skills. The tasks are known as the Daily Five: Read to Self, Read to Someone, Listen to Reading, Write, and Word Work. In my classroom, we tend to compress these down to three tasks: Read to Self, Read to Someone, and Writing. Students will do Word Work as a part of their writing instead of as an entirely separate component, and they will listen to reading every day during our after-lunch read alouds.

After discussion the components and reviewing expectations, we started with one of the independent tasks: Read to Self. I had the students share what they should be doing during this time (stay in one spot, read quietly, give other people space, focus on actually reading) and what I should be doing during this time (work with small groups, conference with individual students). Then I modeled some ways that students could choose to read, showing good examples and what we like to call non-examples. For the good examples, I did exactly what expected: I chose a book, I found a spot to read, I stayed where I was, and I read to myself without distracting others. For the non-examples, I did things like holding the book upside-down, falling asleep, staring at the wall while holding the book open, flipping through the pages and, with the permission of a student helper, leaning up against another person or reclining against him, reading his book and getting in his way.

All of the students agreed that the good examples were much more desirable. Then I gave them just five minutes to read to themselves so they could see what it looked like, sounded like, and felt like. Tomorrow we will review these expectations and work on building our stamina. The goal is for students to be able to read to themselves for anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes without needing redirection from a teacher or even a classmate. Then I and the reading interventionist can do our jobs of conferencing and working with small groups. Before reading tomorrow, I will have some students model examples and non-examples (making sure that they always show an example last) so that everyone can remember what they should be doing. We will spend quite a bit of time building these routines before introducing other components so that students can ultimately do any of the independent tasks on their own without any interference. Then we will have our Daily CAFE fully implemented and literacy instruction will be able to just take off this year!

Defining Letters, Words, Sentences, and Paragraphs

I asked my students an interesting series of questions today:

  1. What are letters and punctuation marks?
  2. What is a word?
  3. What is a sentence?
  4. What is a paragraph?

These may not seem like interesting questions; after all, students start learning about the letters of the alphabet when they are in kindergarten or even in pre-school! They learn sight words in first and second grade, along with punctuation, writing sentences, and writing paragraphs. These are fundamental skills in writing, and they all know how to do that!

But my question wasn’t, “How do you write or create these?” It was, “What are these?” Here is what we determined today:

A letter is a character used to represent a sound or, in some cases, multiple sounds. Some sounds, though, require multiple letters. Similarly, punctuation marks are single characters that are used in writing to express the tone of a sentence or a word.

A word is a collection of letters that create a specific series of sounds that represent a specific concept. While the Oxford English Dictionary currently lists over 250,000 words, there are many words that are not found in that dictionary. Specific scientific, medical, or technical terms may not be listed. Derivations of words may not be counted. Do words with multiple meanings deserve to be considered separate words? According to the definition my students came up with, I would argue the answer is yes. The editors of the OED even recognise this dilemma. We even discussed how easy it is to make up new words. For example, in every yearbook I signed last year, I wrote the same message: “Have a fantabulasticaliciously awesomesauce summer!” Even though two of those were completely made up words, everyone knows what the sentence means because they recognise the bits and pieces of other familiar words, such as fantabulous, fantastic, and delicious.

A sentence is several words put together with subject and a predicate that focus on one unified topic. Sentences start with capital letters, end with a punctuation mark, and often have other punctuation marks, such as commas or semicolons, in the middle. The subject, which tells us who or what is doing something, does not have to be at the start of a sentence, although it often is. The predicate, which always follows the subject, tells us what is being done. Sentences do not have to be long. For example, “I am.” On the other hand, having several words with a single topic do not necessarily make that collection of words a sentence. For example, “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun” is a just a list of words.

A paragraph is several sentences all joined by a common theme. Most paragraphs will have at least three sentences, but this is not required. This was the focus of our writing for today. Building on our writing task from Wednesday, the class began writing a paragraph about themselves. Specifically, they were given the assignment to write one paragraph to answer this question: “What has been the best day of your life?” (Some students wanted to know if they could write about a future or made-up event and I gave them permission to do so.) I reminded them that they should not focus on mechanics or conventions at this stage of the writing process because they were still focusing on getting ideas out of their heads and onto their papers. Some students started their paragraphs by brainstorming a list of ideas. Others were ready to start a first draft. Some wrote one or two sentences. Others wrote several. All were writing in their writing journals and all were thinking about the topic at hand. We will continue to work on these paragraphs in the coming week, with ultimate goal of typing them and sharing them on a hallway bulletin board.

Speaking Clearly

I spent the majority of my public education life learning how to speak clearly. Some people know, although most probably do not, that I received speech therapy from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade. I was even offered speech therapy services in high school, but after much discussion with my previous therapist and my parents, we decided to decline. I had a rather severe speech impediment in kindergarten, noted by my inability to clearly pronounce several consonant sounds, includes L, R, S, Z. (I think there were some others, but I don’t remember them off the top of my head). After many years, I learned to pronounce most of them without difficulty but, honestly, I still struggle with R-controlled vowel sounds. (I have often said that if I had my way, I would completely eliminate any words with such vowels. Alas.)

I will be forever grateful to my kind and patient speech therapist, Mrs. Vicki White. Without her, I do not think I would have learned to speak clearly and I do not know if I would have had the confidence to pursue a degree in education and seek out a job that requires me to spend all day talking in front of large groups. I am still very self-conscious when it comes to hearing my recorded voice and I often worry that my speech is not as clear as I imagine, but since I have never had students, parents, or colleagues ask me to repeat something because they couldn’t understand me, I hope that my speech impediment is relatively unnoticed. Because of this, I am very cognizant of the struggles my students may have and will often seek out our school’s speech and language pathologist for advice. I have found that parents and students are more willing to consider services when they know that I received services myself and can share my experiences with them.

But there are other ways we can and should speak clearly to one another. Today I took several opportunities to pause in my instruction to talk to my students about speaking clearly. More specifically, we talked about the importance of being clear about what we mean to others, clear about what we are asking, and clear about what we expect. A few examples may help illustrate:

  • When having the class line up, I will say, “Please stay in your seats until I have finished giving all of the directions. I will tell you when I want you to move. Let’s review. Please raise your hand if you can tell me what you are supposed to do when I say, ‘Ready!'” Several students raised their hands, but a few also shouted out the answer. I responded, in a calm, even voice, “I did not ask anyone to say anything yet. All I asked was for you to raise your hand if you can tell us.” Then I called on a student who explained that every student should stand up. I said, “Okay, when I say, ‘Ready!’ I want everyone to stand up. Let’s try it. Ready!” Every student stood up. A few pushed in their chairs. I said, “Oh, remember, we are only standing up. We aren’t pushing our chairs in yet. Let’s try it again. Everyone sit down! Okay, ready!” We did this a couple of times. Then we did the same thing for “Set!” (everyone then pushes in their chairs) and then I called the groups one at a time by number. We rehearsed this a couple of times until everyone was going through the routine the way we expected.
  • While sitting at the carpet, I noticed some students were talking so I asked one to move. He began to argue that he had not been doing anything wrong. Instead of engaging in an argument, I realised I need to clearly explain why I had asked him to move. I reviewed a social-emotional learning lesson from last year that pointed out that the only person we can really control is ourselves. When I ask a student to move, it isn’t because he is in trouble, but because I want him to think about what he can do to control himself so that he can stay focused and on task. It isn’t about whether or not he was talking or whether or not someone else was talking to him. It was about him learning to self-regulate and control himself. I related this to when someone does something that bothers us. We can’t make anyone do anything. But we can calmly ask the person to stop and explain that what they are doing is bothering them. That person, out of respect for the other, should stop, not because it is bad or wrong, but simply because it is respectful to stop doing something if we know it is bothering someone else. (There are going to be times when someone wants us to stop doing something because it is the right thing and they want to do the wrong thing and you setting a good example makes them feel uncomfortable. Those are not the kind of circumstances I am describing here.)
  • When finishing up in the library, the librarian always instructs the students to close their books and sit quietly. One student had not closed his book. His friend, sitting next to him, quietly reminded him to close his book. The first student got upset and, after slamming his book shut, said, in an argumentative voice, “Fine! My book is closed! Are you happy now?!” I called both boys over and had a quick conference. I asked the first student if he had heard the librarian. He said. I asked if his friend had quietly told him that he needed to close his book. He said yes. I pointed out that his friend was not trying to bossy or mean, but was rather trying to help him by explaining the directions. I observed that, 9 times out of 10, when someone says something to us about what we should be doing, they are trying to help. They aren’t trying to be mean, they aren’t trying to get us in trouble, they aren’t trying to cause a problem. They are just trying to help out. Instead of arguing, it would be better to follow the advice or suggestion. I also observed that there was a big difference between his friend quietly saying, “Hey, you are supposed to close your book now” and yelling at him or reaching over and closing the book for him.

Being clear in our directions is a skill all teachers work on. Sometimes we forget and think we were clear when we weren’t. I told my class today that I want them to respectfully call me out if I get upset with them for doing something I never told them not to do. Even if I think they should “know better,” it is not fair for me to hold them accountable for actions I never taught. My hope is that by continuing to speak clearly to my students, especially now at the start of the year, my expectations will also be clear and I won’t have to pull out my hair in frustration when something doesn’t happen the way I expected! I would also encourage other teachers and parents to try this out and home and let me know if it works!

The Best Day of My Life

Today was the first day of the new school year for my fourth graders! We spent much of the day getting to know one another, discussing plans for the year, setting expectations, going over routines, and getting settled in. In other words, a fairly typical first day of school.

I chose to use a picture book for our very first read aloud, with our first chapter book starting tomorrow. The selection I read today was a story by Patricia MacLachlan, perhaps best known for Sarah, Plain and Tall, winner of the 1986 Newbery Medal. The story today was What You Know First, a short story about a girl who has to move from her home that she knows to a place that is new and unfamiliar. In this short but touching tale, we are drawn to thinking about how we take what we know wherever we go. I tied this to how all of my students have gone from something they knew, third grade, and have moved to something completely new, fourth grade. They were great listeners and shared some wonderful insights about moving and doing new things.

I also wanted to have a writing assignment today. During the summer I became familiar with a song by American Authors that has become something of a theme song for me and many of the young adults I work with through the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute. Even though I wasn’t able to go to the Institute this year, I was still able to connect and knew that I would be using this song with my class. I thought this would go well with our story, also, since there are two ways to respond to change: fight it or embrace. In the story, the girl wanted to fight it until she realised it was an opportunity to share what she knew and to take her experiences with her as she created something new. When we have change, we can embrace it and make the best of it, or we can fight against it and harbor resentment. I choose to make the best of each change, each experience, each day.

We watched the video, which I downloaded and saved to avoid any inappropriate advertisements which, unfortunately, I can’t control if streaming, twice and then I gave the students their first writing assignment: with a partner, using words and pictures, describe the best day of your own life. It could be something real, something imagined, or something longed for. We are going to use the work today as a seed for a lengthier writing assignment that I will display on one of our hallways bulletin boards. Today was just to get used to writing again and to get the ideas started.

Some students wrote about special holidays or cherished family traditions. One wrote about adopting their family dog. (Inspired, possibly, by the lyric music video we watched.) Others chose to take a fantastic route, writing about gaining special powers, like controlling weather or fire. All of them were working during the short period of time allotted for the activity.

Today was a fantastic start of the year! There were no fights, no arguments, no overturned desks (except when I did so as a non-example of how to deal with a challenging situation), and no melt-downs. Just twenty fourth graders who were working, following directions, listening, and getting ready for the best year of their lives (at lest so far). My challenge to my students, and to myself, is to make every day the best day. I am hoping today was a foreshadow of what our year will be like!

Always On

Today was our district’s Opening Day Institute. All of the teachers, administrators, and other staff gathered together for a day of professional development. This post is not about the Opening Day Institute, though. Instead, it is about a thought that came to me on Friday evening while I was with my wife and my in-laws at the Taste of C-U, a fundraiser for the Champaign Park District.

The thought was one I have had many times before. It is simple yet profound:

As a teacher, I am always on.

What do I mean? I mean that I am always “Mr. Valencic, fourth grade teacher at Wiley Elementary School.” I am a lot of other things, too. I am a son, a brother, a husband, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, a colleague, an employee, a mentor, a leader. And I am always all of those things, too. And I am always on. I am on in that I am on the stage. People see me. People hear me. People know me. People hear what I say. And they talk about it.

Maybe not all the time, maybe not even for more than a few seconds. But it happens. I can’t control it. But I can control what they see, what they hear, or what they know. While I was with my family, I ran into a student. I have absolutely no idea who he was, what grade he was in (or is going into), or even if I know him. But he saw me walking past and shouted out, “Hey, Mr. Valencic! Hi!” I said hello and continued on my way as he continued on his. Later I walked past my superintendent, who was out with his family. While going over the vendor options as the Taste, a colleague was passing with her son, who is a former student of mine, and her other children who are in Wiley now. We greeted one another and chatted about my former student’s transition to middle school. I also saw some parents who didn’t say hi, but I am willing to bet they saw me, even if they weren’t quite sure how they knew me.

This happens a lot. Even though I currently live in a different community than my school, I still see families and fellow teachers when I am out in public. I love these moments. It is wonderful for students to see my outside of the school setting, when I am wearing casual clothing instead of my nice shirts, slacks, and ties. I love when a student grabs a parent to introduce me. (A cherish memory from my life as a substitute teacher was when a student who was very challenging in the classroom ran up to me at Walmart, hugged me, and introduced me to his dad as his substitute teacher! This from a student who had pushed against every boundary he could when I was subbing in his room.)

As I prepare for students to arrive for their first day on Wednesday, I want to keep this in mind, along with some words of wisdom shared during our Opening Day Institute. As our superintendent reminded us, the parents in our schools are sending us their very best students; it is up to me to give them my very best, all the time. And as our keynote speaker. Dr. Joe Martin shared, we don’t care about our students’ past problems; we care about their potential. How do I give my very best so that they can achieve their very best? By always being on.

Happy new school year!

Philosophy of Education, Take Two

Continuing my series of posts related to my graduate school program, I thought I’d share the philosophy statement I was asked to write for my Introduction to Administration course. This was written using a template that was provided by the course instructor but, just as I stand by everything I wrote in my philosophy statement related to the UIUC Conceptual Framework, I also stand by everything in this updated philosophy statement. Read the rest of this page »

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