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

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Classroom Jobs

After six weeks of school, I finally decided it was time to start making classroom job assignments. I started using formal assignments last year and found it was a great way to build students’ sense of ownership and responsibility in the classroom. Most of the jobs I am having students do this year are the same as last year’s, but I did make a few changes.

The jobs I have this year are:

  • Book Collectors – One student from each row is responsible for distributing textbooks as needed, retrieving them when done, and making sure our classroom library is organised.
  • Pencil Sharpener – One student will sharpen all of the pencils in the unsharpened pencil container each afternoon. While doing so, this student will get to sit in my chair at my desk.
  • Messenger – One student will be sent to deliver the attendance/lunch count folder, run messages, and ask other teachers to come and assist as directed. (The PA system doesn’t work very reliably in my classroom, so sending a messenger is usually the easiest way to contact someone else in the building without calling or texting.)
  • Door Holder – This student holds the door for the class whenever we are leaving the room or entering another room in the building.
  • Line Leader – This is the student who leads the class as we walk from place to place. All students are expected to walk with eyes forward, hands by their sides, and voices off. The Line Leader is the only student expected to turn around when stopped to watch for my silent signals to proceed or wait.
  • Postmaster – One student will distribute mail to students’ mailboxes at the end of the day, making sure that all homework assignments and flyers are in the correct places.
  • Equipment Manager – This student is tasked with collecting equipment from the PE closet when needed and bringing the class kickball and basketball outside during recess.
  • Substitute Helper – This student may be called upon at any time to fill in for another student who is absent, with another teacher, or simply not willing to do his/her duties. The Substitute Helper also assists the Equipment Manager as needed.

I have had the jobs chart up all year, but today was the first time that assignments were posted. All of the students quickly noticed and were eager to see what their jobs were, even if they didn’t know the details. Half of the class has assignments this week; the other half will have assignments next week. Assignments are mostly randomized, so all students must be aware of the responsibilities of all jobs. I’m looking forward to this practice empowering students to take responsibility, feel that they have an impact on the classroom, and understand that they can help others in simple but meaningful ways!

Substitute Teachers

I am a part of a number of different committees and inquiry groups that take me away from my classroom from time to time. Most of these absences are for half a day, either the morning or the afternoon. There will be several that will be full-day absences, but fortunately not too many. I also have about half an hour or so once a week that I meet with members of our support staff to collaborate on services for students who need it. Because of this, my students will be getting used to seeing substitute teachers in the classroom from time to time.

In an effort to promote consistency in my students’ lives, I try to have the same couple of substitutes in my room. Now, obviously, I can’t always get what I want, but I try and I am usually able to get the veteran retired teachers who spent almost more time in the classroom than I have being alive. There is the added benefit that they are teachers that my students have seen in the building regularly for as long as they have gone to school.

Today was my first extended absence for professional work. While I was away for the morning, I left my students in the very capable hands of one of these subs. While I was away, i did not have to worry about what was happening in the room. While I was working on examining our district’s writing curriculum and discussing possible strategies for improvement, my students did their typical morning work: PE, Book Exchange, writing, science, and literacy.

I got back early and saw my class sitting on the carpet, listening a the sub read an adaptation of The Magic Flute to them. (This was in preparation for a trip to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts next week to watch a stage production of the Mozart opera based on this story.)

After she finished reading, I took over and asked the class to review their day. For each part of the day, each student rated how the class did on a scale of one to five with one meaning everyone was off task and a five being everyone doing exactly what was expected. For each four or five, the students received one pebble in our incentive jar. The morning had five parts, so the class could earn up to five pebbles. However, when they receive all five, the pebbles are doubled, but when there is a substitute and they earn all five, they are tripled! The class had, in the words of the sub, an exceptional day, and so they earned all of their pebbles! What a wonderful way to end our week!

Taking Responsibility

One of the core expectations in my classroom, and throughout my school district, is that of being responsible. Responsibility looks different depending on the setting, but it is a core character trait that we deeply believe in fostering in each of our students. In my classroom, I have a sign that signifies some of the elements of responsibility as doing your own work, following directions, asking for help, and accepting consequences.

It is this last one that I am particularly pondering today. Near the start of the year, I told the students about the first independent research project they would have for the year. They would each select a fish (or mussel) found in the Great Lakes and learn some basic information based on questions they asked. I emphasised that they could select any medium they desired to share what they had learned: report, poster, video, etc. They were given the assignment sheet three weeks ago and we took time in the classroom or in the computer lab  nearly every day to work on it. Students were also told that they could work on the projects at home, but they did not have to do so if they used their time in class wisely. This project was brought up on a daily basis for the past three weeks. Reports were due today.

Some of the students had reports ready to share. Others did not. A few had approached me earlier this week and asked for an extension while they were trying to finish up the last details of their projects. Anyone who asked for help, by way of asking for an extension, was granted it. Those who did not ask for one and did not complete their projects are still responsible for completing them, though. I do not reduce points on a project for being turned in late, because the due date has nothing to do with the content. Turning in assignments on time is an item that appears on the district’s report cards, of course, but the reports are about what students have learned about the ecology of the Great Lakes, specifically how different animals have adapted to live there.

I was pleased that my students accepted the consequences of having late assignments. They understand that they are still responsible for the work and that they will still need to turn them in. Some may find themselves working over the upcoming three-day weekend (no school for students on Friday because of a district inservice day), and others will have to use time in the computer lab for continued research instead of other preferred activities.

Will one late assignment be the end of the world? Of course not. These students are children, after all. But I have repeatedly focused on my belief that my job is not just to get my students through fourth grade. My job is to help them develop the skills and habits necessary for lifelong learning. That is why I believe it is important for students to complete assignments on time. It is important to accept consequences for actions. By doing so, I hope that my students will all be one step closer to becoming independent thinkers, learners, and doers.

The Impact of Music

I taught a brief health lesson this morning on how music and other external stimuli can impact how we are feeling. It was really interesting to observe how easily recogniseable the effects really are!

I started with asking the students to take a moment to take a mental note of their physical state: what their bodies were doing, what their heart rates were like, and how they were feeling in general. Then I asked them to listen to a song and think about what their bodies did in response. While the song was playing, I had all the lights on to make the room as bright as possible. The song was Sandstorm by Darude. For those who aren’t familiar, it is a non-lyric piece of techno music with very fast beats. While it played, several students danced in their chairs, moving to the beat, and getting excited. When it was done, they took note of their heart rates and commented that their hearts were beating much faster.

Then I turned off a set of lights and played another instrumental piece, this one from the British television series Doctor Who.

The results were quite dramatic! The students quickly calmed down, rested their heads, relaxed their muscles, breathed deeply, and seemed to enjoy the brief respite from so much stimulation all the time. When it was done, I asked the same questions. They shared that they felt much calmer and their hearts were not racing.

I explained that different kinds of music affect us in different ways. Fast music is good when we want to get pumped up; slow music is good for when we want to relax. And being able to recognise which we want to do is part of good health!

Positivity

After last Friday’s discussion about the negative energy in our classroom and our plan to focus on the positive, I was curious to see how things would unfold today. Would the students remember our conversation and make an effort to try to be more positive and more focused on what is going right, or would they fall back into old habits?

The day started pretty well and I used our morning meeting time to remind students of our goal to focus on positivity. I appreciated the willingness of the students to adopt this new focus. Old habits die hard and it is going to take a long time for this to become a new norm for our classroom, but I have already seen a small change.

Students who used to give up easily and declare something too hard were willing to ask for help and try it. Once they got a little bit of help, they were willing to do the rest on their own. Students who used to constantly focus on what everyone else was doing were more focused on their own efforts and doing what they needed to do. Students who would deflect redirection and try to blame others were willing to accept consequences and move on.

To help everyone, including myself, stay more positive, I wore my new bright yellow shirt today. I was surprised by how many students commented on it. My class apparently pays a lot more attention to my wardrobe than I thought! I think I stayed more positive, my students stayed more positive, and the class as a whole was much more focused and relaxed throughout the day! My hope is for this new culture of positivity to grow and impact students, teachers, and families.

Feeding the Energy

We talk about energy in a lot of different ways. There is the scientific notion of energy as power used to carry out motion. There is also energy that describes how we are carrying out our own lives. There is also the energy we get from others that impacts our moods. (This energy is also given to others as we impact them.) Ideally, this energy is positive and builds us up, making us all feel a lot happier. But sometimes the energy is negative, and it makes us, and others, feel frustrated and upset.

The thing is, sometimes we can get so used to the negative that it starts to be what we feed on. It starts to be what we start to think of as positive because we honestly don’t know the difference. And then we don’t only come to expect negative to come to us, we start to believe that negative is all we should produce, too.

This is something we talked about as a class today. There has been a lot of negative energy in the room this year. Those who read my blog regularly know that I try to focus on the positives, but I also want to be honest. While we have had some amazingly wonderful things happen, I have been disheartened by all of the negative energy. As I’ve talked to other teachers, I’ve come to realise that this negativity has been hovering over my class like a dark raincloud for years. Even though each day is a fresh new start, my young students have a hard time understanding that and allowing each other to start over. They are used to the negative, they feed on the negative, and they do it because I think many of them honestly don’t know the difference.

So I decided today to focus on changing the message, changing the energy. We had a blow-up in the classroom after lunch during our read aloud. It doesn’t matter what happened, it doesn’t matter why it happened; what matters is it did happen. Some students had to leave the room to reset with another teacher. While they were gone, I felt it important to apologise for it happening. I know that my students don’t come to school expecting to have things blow up; they come to school expecting to learn. It is my job to provide an environment where that can happen. It is also my job to provide an environment where everyone feels safe.

The best way for this environment to exist is to focus on the positives. I asked my class to try an experiment. I told them that it would only work if each and every single one of them committed completely to trying it. The experiment is deceptively simple: stop feeding the negative energy. When a student blurts out an answer, we ignore it. When a student calls another student a name, we ignore it. When a student starts kicking their desk and insisting they need help, we ignore it. Those are negative behaviours and not the kind we want to reinforce. (Of course, I, as the teacher, am responsible for redirecting and reestablishing the correct, desired behavior. When I say “we” I am speaking of the class as a whole.) But when a student raises a hand and asks for help, we thank them and we provide help. When a student does the right thing, we praise it. The goal is to change the focus from the negative to the positive. It is all about changing what we’ve been doing.

We had an opportunity to try it out this afternoon. The students were reading silently at their seats while a few were finishing a writing assignment. One student started loudly complaining that it was too hard. Nobody responded. After several minutes of this, the same student raised a hand and when I came over, said, “Mr. Valencic, this is hard; I need help.” I calmly responded, “I understand; can you ask me for help instead?” After a pause, the student said, “Mr. Valencic, will you please help me?” I said, “Yes, of course! Thank you so much for asking!” I helped the student with the assignment and then, when it was done, I heard this observation: “Oh, I get how to do this! That was actually pretty easy!”

The whole room changed during this half hour. Instead of feeling tense, stressed, and anxious, the students were relaxed, calm, and focused. They ignored the negative energy but quickly acknowledged the positive.

Are things going to miraculously change over the weekend so that the negativity is gone? Honestly, I doubt it. We are still learning. Did we get a glimpse of the change we want to see? Absolutely we did. I’m going to take the weekend to recharge and refocus. I am planning on starting Monday fresh, with a new attitude and a new focus on the positive. After all, if I’m gonna make a change, I’ve gotta start with me!

The Day the Crayons Quit

Continuing my effort to incorporate more picture books into my instructional practices this year, I shared a new book with my students that I discovered at Barnes & Noble one evening and immediately decided to read. Yes, I judged the book by its cover. Yes, I am glad I did! At first I wasn’t sure about using it for my class, but once I read it, I knew I could use it for a writing prompt and for an examination of writer’s craft.

The book was The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. It is a delightful story about a boy named Duncan whose crayons all revolted one day. Fortunately, each one wrote a letter explaining exactly why they were upset with him. Well, except Green Crayon. Green is perfectly content to be used how and as often as he is. He’s just upset because Yellow Crayon and Orange Crayon are feuding over which one is the true colour of the sun.

 

Before reading the story, I asked my class to think about what items they have in their desks that never get used. Then I asked them to think about the items they use all the time. I didn’t want them to discuss it, though, until after we’d read the book. As I read aloud, I showed the illustrations, read the letters from the crayons, and then showed the illustrations again. It was wonderful seeing reactions as the students realised what was being told with the pictures: Red is angry about being used on all the holidays, Blue is sad because he is used way too much, Gray wants to be used for small things like pebbles and baby penguins instead of elephants, hippos, and rhinos, and White wants to be used as more than filler and for pictures of a white cat in a snow storm.

After I finished reading, I gave the students their writing task: write a letter to themselves from the perspective of the item used the least and the item used the most. After we edit them and publish, we are going to share the original book with our learning buddies and then share our own letters with them. (By the way, Miss C doesn’t know about this plan yet.) For the next hour, I had all of my students thinking, writing, giggling, and sharing as they wrote their first drafts during our Writers’ Workshop time.

We will revisit The Day the Crayons Quit later in the year to think about writer’s craft, voice, and style. But for the next week or so, we will work on revising and editing the letters so that we can publish and share them with others.

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