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

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When Technology Fails

I mentioned yesterday that my laptop died and had to be taken in for repairs or replacement. (I haven’t heard anything yet.) Today we had more technological glitches.

I had planned on using our tablets to launch reading with partners. I discovered Wonderopolis last year and have loved using it in my classroom. My students, also, have loved it.

Alas, it was not to be today. Even though I had charged all of my tablets last week and thought I had turned them off, I must not have. When I went to take them out this morning, they were all dead!

I started charging them, but they weren’t ready in time for our literacy work. So I had the students partner up and just read good ol’ books together! We reviewed expectations and then I set them free to read together. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were able to do so for fifteen minutes without any interruptions!

I’m looking forward to doing it again on Tuesday with the tablets!

Fresh Starts

I’ve been thinking about fresh starts today. We had a student switch into my classroom, helping to balance the numbers in the two fourth grade rooms. I’ve been thinking about the idea that this is a new year so all the mistakes of the past are just that: in the past. Each day is also a fresh start. So even though I may get really frustrated when some students are making the same poor choices over and over, I know that each day is a fresh start. I do not and will not allow their mistakes to cumulate. I will start each day anew.

I ask each student to do the same. Learn from the past, make each day better, and allow everyone a chance to restart.

Also, my computer died and the district tech guys had to take it in for repairs. So even my MacBook Pro is getting a fresh start!

Problem Solving

We had a pretty serious storm last night, with lots of lightning and thunder. As teachers were arriving early this morning, some of them noticed that one of the trees in the back of the building had been struck by lightning! There was a long strip of bark that had been blasted off and one of the limbs had a large crack in it. Our custodian noticed it and mentioned it to me this morning while we were working together at the student drop-off area. He also suggested I take my class to look at it in case the the district grounds personnel decide to have the tree removed.

I decided to take it one step further. I brought my class outside and had them look at the tree and figure out what the problem was. It took them a few minutes of discussion, but they eventually saw what our custodian saw: the tree had been hit by lightning and one of the limbs was broken. I then asked them to come up with a possible solution to the problem as we walked back to the classroom.

In the room, I had the students work in their groups of four to come up with a solution and write it as a letter to the custodian. Their letters had to have similar components: address the custodian, tell him what they saw, explain their solution, and thank him for his time. I also emphasised that the handwriting had to be clear so that others could read it. They worked on the letters for half an hour. As they finished, they turned them in so Ms. Schultz and I could read through them. We were very impressed with the suggestions!

Several said that he should use a chainsaw to cut the branch down. Others said that they needed to provide a support to hold the tree and the branch up so it wouldn’t fall down. One group even went so far as to suggest cutting the entire tree down and slicing the trunk into stools for students to sit on around the playground! All of the groups expressed concern about the branch falling and hitting buses or teachers’ cars.

I gave the six letters to the custodian who read them and said he would be talking to the grounds department about the need to assess the situation. I will let the class know tomorrow about his reaction so they will know that their voices can be heard and that they really can have a hand in solving problems in the classroom, in the school, in the community, and even in the nation!

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!

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