I have been reading the book Wonder to my class. It is a fantastic story, and my students are really enjoying it. For those who may not know, Wonder is the story of August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who was born with a severe facial deformity known as mandibulofacial dysostosis. The story focuses on August’s first year in school and how his classmates respond to him. It is written in multiple voices, with each narrator being selected from the children of the story.
Today we were reading the portion that tells the story from August’s older sister’s point of view. Olivia (Via, as she is called at home), is very protective of her brother but she is also trapped in the desire to be known as someone more than “August’s sister.” As we read, there was a section that focused on the genetics of Auggie’s deformities. I was reading aloud, but I realised that many of the students probably didn’t know what the words I was saying even looked like, let alone what they meant. So as I read, I also wrote on the whiteboard and, in the process, found myself introducing very basic genetics to my fourth graders!
We were discussing words like gene, chromosome, dominant traits, recessive traits, and mandibulofacial dysostosis. We also talked about Punnett squares and how genetic traits, such as straight or curly hair, eye colour, attached of unattached earlobes, or whether or not a person can curl his or her tongue, are passed on. And the great thing about it all was that I had everyone engaged in the conversation! I explained that what we were talking about was really high school and even college-level biology, but because it was in the story, I wanted them to have an idea about what these words meant.
I love when we have these impromptu lessons that aren’t specifically a part of our prescribed curriculum! It is one of the things I love most about teaching fourth grade: when I allow students to ask questions, we may go way off topic, but we are learning. Together.
And that’s just awesome.
I have a fairly large network of professional colleagues through the Internet that I chat with on a regular basis. A topic of conversation recently has focused on how teachers teach reading. Two of these educators have especially gotten me thinking a lot about how I do reading in my classroom. The first, Donalyn Miller, is a fairly well-known personality in the world of teaching reading. (She has a book, called The Book Whisperer that is required reading in many education courses. I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon!) The other is Katherine Sokolowski, who happens to teach fairly close to me. She recently wrote a blog post about AR (accelerated reading programs), Lexile scores (a number used to determine the level and quality of book a student “should” be reading, and reading programs in general.
Both of these educators expressed the same sentiment, which I have shared with other teachers. This is how Ms. Miller describes her reading program:
1. Read a book. 2. Share it with another reader. 3. Chat about it. 4. Repeat 1-3. That’s MY reading program.
Here’s the (slightly more detailed) description of Ms. Sokolowski’s reading program:
So what is my reading program? Books, kids, and a teacher who reads. Pretty simple, but effective. No need for expensive programs. No need for comprehension tests that only test a surface level of comprehension. No need for a leveled book. Just read.
Now, the thing is, I do use leveled readers in my class. They are short selections that are easier for students to read so that they can focus on specific reading strategy, such as predict, clarify, re-reading, and making inferences. I also have my students work in reading groups where they read a leveled text that uses Lexile scores to guide their instruction. The goal if the leveled reading is for students to develop their skills and to engage in discussions about different texts.
I also use our basal reading anthology to introduce different stories each week. Most of the stories in the anthology are the complete text of a selection, but there are a handful that are only excerpts. I use the basal reader for the same reason as the leveled texts: I want to teach a specific reading strategy that my students can apply to their own reading.
But the main focus on my reading instruction is on reading. I firmly agree with both Ms. Miller and Ms. Sokolowski that the best way to teach reading is to have students read. In fourth grade, we have a goal of building our reading stamina to a point where the students can read for 45 minutes without interruption every day. There are some teachers who have argued that this time should be longer, but the reality is there are only so many hours in the day to teach and I have a lot more to teach than just reading. But my students do a lot of reading in my classroom. Whenever they finish a task, they are encouraged to take out a book and read silently. When we come in from another activity, such as fine arts, library, P.E., or recess, and there is some administrative task that needs to be done, my students know that they should read silently while they wait for instruction. And when we are doing our literacy block in the afternoon, the students read and write about their reading. After all, the best way to teach students to read is to let them read!
For parents who ask, “What can I do to help?” I have a few suggestions:
- Make sure your child has a place to read at home. It doesn’t matter if it is a bedroom, a chair in the living room, or just a quiet corner somewhere. Just so they have a place to read.
- Ask your child what he or she is reading. Ask questions. Who is the main character? What is the problem in the story? What do you think will happen next?
- Let your child see you reading. Part of our Million Minutes Challenge is to get family and friends to join with students in reading. Another part is to expand what we think of as “reading”: books, newspapers, magazines, websites, audiobooks, graphic novels, etc. They all count.
- Help your child build a personal library of books. Our school has an awesome Book Exchange program that helps them do just this. Our local libraries also often gently used books at very low cost.
My reading program isn’t perfect yet, but I am going to keep working on it, I will keep reading about it, and I will keep doing everything I can to make sure that every student who passes through my classroom knows that reading is valuable and important!
This has been a long week; a fun, exciting, productive week, to be sure, but also a very long one. Due to the way our district calendar worked out for the beginning of the year, we haven’t had a five-day week in a month. We had a district institute day, MLK Day, an elementary inservice day, and then finally this week. I think the students throughout the school got out of the habit of being in school for five days in a row, so today felt like a particularly long day.
That being said, it was also a wonderfully productive day to mark the end of a wonderfully productive week! We have been tackling multi-digit multiplication in math, poetry and drama in literacy, meeting as reading groups, exploring magnetism in science, and preparing for the ISAT tests that are coming up in just a few weeks. We started using volleyballs in P.E., learning how to bump and set the balls while passing them around in small groups. We have also met four new tutors and one of our new student teachers.
We are going to have two student teachers working with our class this semester. Since I have no desire to refer to either one of them as “the student teacher” for the next several weeks, but I also want to maintain my policy of not using names without explicit permission, I will just use abbreviations. The student teacher the class met today was Ms. G. The students were all very welcoming and respectful toward her, and she was eager to get to know the students and start to find her way around the building! She will be working with our class on Monday and Friday mornings each week. The other student teacher, Ms. W, will be coming on Tuesday mornings.
To wrap up our day, I took some time to enter our most recently-collected reading logs while the students engaged in a variety of preferred activities during our Read, Write, Think! time. I am very pleased to announce, at the end of our five-day week and the nineteenth week of the Million Minutes Challenge, that the students, teachers, family, and friends of Wiley have logged 701,550 minutes of reading! We are now more that 70% of the way to our goal!
Have a great weekend!
Several weeks ago, we announced our school’s academic excellence goal for the year: the school community, including students, faculty, staff, parents, and everyone else connected to our school, would log our independent reading and reach for the goal of logging 1,000,000 minutes before the end of the year.
I have no doubt that everyone is reading, Unfortunately, not everyone is regularly recording the minutes they read, and fewer are turning in reading logs. I’ve taken to going from classroom to classroom on a regular basis and reminding students to fill out logs and collecting any that have been turned in. A few of the teachers had already been using reading logs but were tracking pages instead of minutes. We are still working on finding a way to convert the number of pages into minutes.
All of that being said, we had an assembly today (what we call a Coyote College in our building) and we announced how many minutes we’ve read. Along with this, we unveiled the new way we will keep track of the minutes everyone has logged:
(Several students commented that my hair actually goes down behind my ears, rather than piled up in some kind of frightening B-52s-style beehive. In response, the teacher who did the hair just said, “Hey, I’m working with foam, glue, and other materials!”)
When we reach to first 100,000 minutes, a the top layer will be removed. Then we will remove layers every 300,000 minutes after that. Once a month, my tie on the poster will be updated to reflect the current minutes. When the assembly started, the total minutes logged were 27,367. Then I was given another reading log and finally got around to recording my own reading. As of today, the total minutes read and logged so far are 27,999!
Let’s keep reading so I can shave my head!
[NOTE: This has been cross-posted on the One Million Minutes blog.]
There’s something awesome about the number one million. Maybe it is all the zeros. I mean, come on. Six zeros! 1,000,000. Maybe it is because it is such a large number. Or maybe it just because it is one of those numbers that we can think of, we can represent, we can even count (using computers), but it is still almost unreachable. If you were sit there and count out loud, saying, “1, 2, 3, …” until you reach 1,000,000, the best guess is that it would take you about 11 1/2 days without stopping. That’s a long time.
But when you have a whole lot of people working together, one million isn’t such an unreachable goal. Which is why an idea that popped into my head over the summer is now going to become a reality.
The Wiley Elementary School family in Urbana, Illinois, is going to read for 1,000,000 minutes this year. At least, that is our goal. Honestly, I think we might even reach 5,000,000. Because students, teachers, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, custodians… you name them, they are going to read. And keep track of their reading. And share their reading. And when we reach the lofty goal of one million minutes, I, Mr. Valencic, fourth grade teacher at Wiley, am going to do something I have never done before:
I’m going to shave my head.
Not just get my hair cut short. Not just buzz it. Nope, I’m going to shave it all off. Because as much as I love my curly brown and silver locks of hair, I love reading even more. And if sacrificing my hair is what it takes, then sacrifice my hair I shall.
If every student in the building reads for just 20 minutes a day outside of school (including weekends), and nobody else joins in, it will take about 4 or 5 months to reach our goal. If everyone who is a part of our Wiley family reads together, though, it will happen much, much sooner. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that the last thing we do in the building before the winter break in December is to have a school-wide celebration of reading that culminates in, as one teacher has taken to putting it, shearing me like a sheep.
And you know what? I’d be totally okay with that.
Of course, I’d also be totally okay with this taking longer. After all, I do quite like my hair. And once I go bald, I’m going to stay bald for the rest of the school year. (But don’t worry; I’m going to let my hair grow back over the summer, and my curly locks will be back before you know it!)
To help keep track of this awesome academic goal, I have started a new blog that will be updated each week on Friday. It is http://onemillionminutes.wordpress.com. I will update with our total number minutes read, book reviews, reading stories, and any media attention we get. (One of our teachers will be contacting local media outlets to tell them about our goal.)
Students will receive a packet of information explaining this program in detail on Monday, but they can start reading today! Every minute of reading outside the classroom counts! Chapter books, picture books, comic books, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks–if you can read it, you can count it! So let’s start reading!
Class lists for the coming year have finally posted, which means I no longer need to dodge questions about whether or not a given student will be in my class or the other fourth grade class in our building. I am excited about the students I will have in my class this year!
Of course, as is my policy for blogging, none of my students will be mentioned by name, nor will any of the men and women I have the great pleasure to work with in my building.
After spending the morning and early afternoon meeting with my colleagues and discussing what we had done over the summer and plans for the coming year. We also went over some changes in procedures, such as the new lunch system that our district’s food provider, Aramark, is rolling out. It was a lot of administrative details that I find absolutely fascinating (no, really, I do), but I am sure others find them rather dull. But hey, that’s okay.
A highlight of my afternoon was seeing several of my former students as they came to the building to see whose class they would be in this year. They were excited to see me, not a few made comments about my hair (yes, I know, I need to get it trimmed and shaped tomorrow), and then they told me about what they knew about their fifth grade classes. (At this point, it was only that they will be smaller than our fourth grade class and that there will be far more girls than boys in the classes.)
I will be going into the building again tomorrow to finish up my pre-student preparations. I definitely need to get some materials put away and organised, but I will be ready when Monday comes!
Today was Teacher Record Day in the district. All teachers were expected to report for work and to participate in workshops in the buildings for a specified amount of time, but there was flexibility on what that would look like. For me, it involved being able to take my wife to work and having the car, instead of the other way around, wearing jeans and sneakers, and spending the morning and part of the afternoon meeting with my grade level partner and making some plans for the coming semester.
We also had a teacher potluck lunch, in which it was revealed that, in addition to having fabulous hair, being a sharp dresser, and excelling at teaching, I am also an amazing cook. My wife and I stayed up last night making fried boneless sweet and sour chicken, which was a huge hit at the potluck. At least one teacher suggested that I be the official caterer for the next staff meeting. If someone paid for the foodstuffs, I would totally do it, because I do enjoy cooking. Another colleague commented that, not only do I cook, but I also worked as a custodian and therefore know how to clean. This led yet another teacher to ask if I happened to do plastic surgery because, as she put it, “Any man who can cook, clean, and make me look younger would be the Perfect Man.” Nuts. Two out of three isn’t too bad, though, is it?
And now the semester is really over. I am planning on putting in some time in the classroom next week, just because I want to take advantage of the time, but I am officially on holiday break. Two weeks to sleep in, relax, and make plans for an awesome second semester! As mentioned yesterday, I probably won’t be posting every day, and since the chances of me running into any of my students or their families are extremely slim, I hope that each and every one of you have a wonderful winter holiday break, whatever you may be doing!
We are really getting down to the wire, and the students are working so hard, despite the excitement over having a two-week vacation following an afternoon of partying tomorrow! My grade level partner and I knew that we still had some rather key assessment data to collect, so we made some plans last night and implemented them this morning.
We brought our two classes together, encouraged them to keep on keeping on, and let them know that we had brief math assessment we needed them to do. She explained to the students that it should only take 15-20 minutes, and then, after everyone was done, we were going to let them celebrate the hard work they’ve done for our combined class sessions by watching the Jim Carrey version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (According to my intense research, this movie, which seems so new to me, is older than any of my students. Crazy!) This was a great motivation. We were able to have the students take the quiz and then, while they watched a movie, we graded and discussed the results so that we can start making plans for when they return in January.
Yeah, we’re just that awesome.
At the end of the day, we had our last school assembly of the semester. A couple of weeks ago, each student in the building was given an age-appropriate homework grid, that contained fifteen tasks that, upon completion at home, could be turned in for the opportunity to help duct tape a teacher to a wall in the gym. The tasks for the intermediate students included things like doing jumping jacks during a commercial, watching a movie with their parents, reading for pleasure for 30 minutes, and other simple tasks. I believe there were close to 100 students in the building (about a third of the student body) who completed their homework grids, and so there was no risk of the activity not working. One of my colleagues took a picture and posted it on Facebook. If I get permission, I’ll post it on here, too. But she looked kind of like this:
Except, of course, the teacher was on the wall, not the ceiling, and she didn’t have tape over her mouth. It was pretty awesome, though, and the students all loved being a part of such a crazy, fun event. Now we just have tomorrow morning and we are done for the semester!
I may post from time to time during the break, but I won’t make an effort to post every single day. I will keep track of the visitors to my blog, though, and the bizarre search engine terms that bring people here. For example, “how my colleagues with naturally curly hair and a straight unibrow (although that may just be glasses) stole christmas.” I cannot for the life of me come up with any rationale for why anyone would be searching Google, Bing, or Yahoo! for results to such an oddly specific search query. As an interesting aside, though, one of the blogs on my sidebar, EPBOT, also shows up on Google through this search term. That’s… that’s just weird!
As the year draws to an end, my colleagues and I are stretching ourselves to think of creative ways to keep our students engaged in the classroom. I find myself reminding my students several times a day that the winter break doesn’t start until after school lets out on Thursday–at least for the students; the teachers still have to work on Friday.
One of the ways we are keeping them engaged while teaching material is by providing fun activities that tie in to our lessons. Now, this isn’t to say that we don’t do fun things during the rest of the year, but it would be a lie to say that we don’t up the frequency of these activities as the semester draws to an end.
Which is why I found myself co-teaching a lesson on how one of the important ideas behind How the Grinch Stole Christmas is that Christmas, or any holiday for that matter, isn’t about the trappings and bright lights and presents, but rather it is about spending time with those we love and taking time to thank them for everything they do for us. (And yes, I realise that one can argue there are many other reasons. This is the one we chose to focus on today.) After the students wrote about this main idea and used textual support in their brief essays, we had them make a list of the people in their lives who mean a lot to them. I thought it was interesting that about 90% of the students in the room listed “Mom” on the top of their lists! Then they made simple thank-you cards to give to those people.
It was inevitable that a few of the students would make cards for their teachers. Cards, pictures, notes, and other such home-made student gifts are always a treasure. I have a file folder where I keep all of these gifts I’ve been given over the years. (Well, except for the scrapbook that my first graders in Paxton made for me; that stays on my bookshelf in my living room.) One of the cards given to me made me realise that, perhaps, I need to smile just a bit more in class. On the outside was the name of a student and a funny face picture with the word LOL and an arrow pointing to it. On the inside was this:
In addition to my dismay that this student portrayed my Naturally Curly Hair (TM) as a flat-top reminiscent of the early 1990s, I was shocked to see that my facial expression was a stern frown, accented with a straight unibrow (although that may just be my glasses). I showed this picture to my wife after telling her about it and she said that she agrees that I need to smile more. I guess I can try!
Today is Labor Day here in the United States of America. While officially a day to honor the men and women who fought for the rights of workers to collectively bargain and form unions, it has become the official end of summer, a day to have one more cook-out, one more picnic, or one more beach outing before we settle down into our non-summer routines and stop working on our tans. (more…)
Today I was a Earth Science & Biology teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time at MSHS lately, each time because I was requested either by a teacher or the administration. That’s pretty awesome–especially when taking into account the fact that I just started subbing in the district just a hair over six months ago!
Several of the students noticed that I got my hair cut and commented on how nice it looks. I am still continuing my campaign to convince students that I did not, have never, and do not now have an Afro. It is a losing battle, I am sure, but, seriously folks: curly hair does not an Afro make!
So my day went something like this:
- 1st period: Watch a 40-minute movie about the deadliest planets in the Solar System. [Spoiler: They're all deadly, except for Earth.]
- 2nd period: Attempt to watch the same movie, but spend 20 minutes getting the VHS tape cued back to the right spot. (It hadn’t been zeroed when I started, apparently.) Spend the remainder of the period watching what we could.
- 3rd period: Watch the movie again.
- 4th period: Plan/Prep/Lunch
- 5th period: Watch the movie yet again. Fourth time for me, first time for the students.
- 6th period: Biology! Students are reviewing for a quiz tomorrow. I think they are freshmen, although they are all approximately 10 feet taller than me (even the girls). Okay, maybe not that tall, but, seriously, what’s up with 14-15-year-olds being so tall???
- 7th period: Plan/Prep, I guess. There actually wasn’t anything in the plans about it.
Now, I am all for using multimedia presentations to complement lesson plans. On the other hand, I dread when they are used as supplements. There was a time in our nation’s history, not too long ago either, when the role of a substitute teacher was simply to push play on the VCR after the first bell rang, push stop before lunch, then push play and push stop again during the afternoon. Thankfully, this is generally no longer the case. I love my job as substitute teacher because it allows me to be a teacher! But days like today are hard for me; they drag on and on and on as I get ever so much more bored watching the same thing over and over and over again!
But I have to be honest: the movie was new for the students in each class. And it worked as a great introduction to the final project of the year, which is a planet study to learn more about what makes the Earth so darned special when compared to the other planets in our star system. But for me, it was dreadfully dull, and I couldn’t even get on the computer or read my book–the former because I had no access and the latter because I left it in a different classroom.
Oh well. I still got paid for today, and I still got to make some use of my teaching skills: The biology students were complaining about having to pay $1.25 for a bottle of soda from the school vending machines when the same beverage is only $0.99 at the nearby gas station. I told them it was all about supply-and-demand, and since they are providing the demand, the suppliers will charge whatever they want. I then suggested that if they convinced everyone in the school to boycott the soda machines until the prices went down, maybe they could see a change. I doubt that would happen but hey, why not start them on the path of social change now?
I’ll just file this under “Things to Avoid” in my “Things to Remember as a Full-Time Teacher” files.
Today I was a 2nd grade (gifted) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I had known about this assignment for about a week, and I had been looking forward to it quite a bit. After all, my last experience there, back in February, was one of the best days I have ever had teaching at Stratton, and probably ranks pretty high on my list of over-all awesome days. Due to the nature of how the assignments are placed online, I only know about the teachers’ absences if I am available that day. And since I have been teaching nearly every day, it is possible that there has been another sub in the room since I was last there; I don’t know. Regardless, the students were all quite happy to see me again, which always serves to boost my ego a notch or two.
The day went really well, as expected. I told the class about how impressed I had been with their dedication to reading last time, and that I was looking forward to seeing if they could do it again. This time, though, they had no interest in reading for 45 minutes. No, sir, 45 minutes was simply not enough time! They begged me to give them a full hour to read! I told them that if they were all reading for 45 minutes then I would give them the extra 15 as a reward. I love being able to reward students with time to read! They all did it. Needless to say, it was awesome. (more…)
Today is Thursday. I have one more day remaining of my days off for Spring Break, then the weekend and I am back to work on Monday. So I am taking a break today and tomorrow from blogging about anything teaching-related. I have books to read, episodes of The X-Files to watch, hair to get cut (I’m about two months overdue for a haircut now), a wife to spend time with, and an intense desire to actually take a break, be lazy, and maybe even get some more sleep than I have lately.
So I’ll be back on Monday. Feel free to come back and read through the archives and find any typos that may have snuck by editor.
Today I was an 8th grade literacy teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I have had awesome experiences again and again at Edison, but they have apparently all been with the sixth and seventh graders. I base this comment on the fact that, apparently, very few of the eighth graders knew who I was. This changed quickly as I had opportunities to share about myself as the students got to know me. I have learned that, even in a middle school, it pays to share myself with the students before I start teaching. It lets them know who I am and what they can expect from me during the day. Usually I only have to tell the first class period about this and everyone in the grade level knows.
I am super happy to report that the 8th graders at Edison (and yes, I realise that I keep switching between writing 8th and eighth) are just as awesome as the other students in the building. I don’t know everyone yet, but I certainly know the majority of them. I had six class periods in all, putting me into contact with roughly 150 students. There were only two students who displayed inappropriate behaviour during the day. I kid you not when I say that I would be thrilled if my classes always had 98% of the students demonstrate responsibility, respect, engagement, focus, and maturity. Today was definitely the best day I have ever had with middle school students in Champaign and it ranks incredibly high among the best days I have ever had as a professional educator.
Oh, and about sharing about myself? It turns out that, just like everybody else, these students were all quite enamoured by my hair. I know I need a hair cut soon, but it isn’t the volume of my hair that surprises them and captivates their young minds. It is the curliness. Two items I was given today should illustrate this quite well. They were both made by the 8th grade students in the first period of the day. I promised I would keep both in my folder with other artwork I have been given by my students.
(Click on each image to zoom in.)
So yes, today was definitely an excellent day to be teaching!