As we get closer and closer to the last day of school, I am finding that it is not always easy to motivate my students to keep working hard every single day. Most of them want to get work done, but when it is 80 degrees out, it is really hard to focus. I’ve found this is true even in the morning when it is still cool outside. I have to be honest: I’d rather be outside, too, but there are more important things to do.
My students have been working on mastering the fundamental concepts associated with fractions for the past few weeks. One of these concepts involves adding and subtracting fractions with like denominators. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we have been repeating this mantra nearly every day:
When adding or subtracting fractions with like denominators, the denominator DOES NOT CHANGE!
I was talking to a retired teacher today who frequently subs in our building and I mentioned that I still had several students who were adding or subtracting the denominators, despite our oft-repeated mantra. She suggested an interesting way for motivating students to solve the problems the right way: give them a test ad tell them that if they change the denominators, they will get a homework sheet full of practice problems and then take another test the next. If necessary, repeat this process every day until the very last day of school. (This is, incidentally, a strategy that one of the first grade teachers has started using with her students.)
I had already planned on testing the students on this critical skill today, so before they started, I wrote the mantra on the board and then told them my plan. I then passed out the assessment and watched as the students got started!
It worked! Everyone followed the rule of adding or subtracting the numerators and leaving the denominators as they are. I was very pleased and now I am more hopeful that we will be able to wrap up fractions this week and get started with decimals next week!
We don’t have very many half-days of school these days. When I was younger, it seemed like it happened on a regular basis. As a district, we have monthly staff inservice meetings that go all day for the elementary grades, but the middle school has half-days. But at the grade schools? We just don’t do them that often.
Today, though, was a half-day. The students arrived at 8:10, classes started at 8:15, and then they were dismissed at 12:45, which was an hour after lunch for the primary grades and fifteen minutes after lunch for the intermediate grades. Despite having a much shorter day, we had a very busy day!
We started the day reviewing our week’s spelling/vocabulary words (all with suffixes -ful, -ness, and/or -less. Then we had our weekly spelling test. As soon as the spelling test was done, it was time for our monthly Coyote College assembly. The “Duct Tape Divas” shared a video about the upcoming students-vs-teachers kickball game at the end of the month, and the second grade classes did a fantastic dance that they learned with our music/dance/drama teacher.
Following the assembly, the students took a math test on equivalent fractions and comparing fractions. We have been working on these skills for a couple of weeks now, and I am glad that the class as a whole is making progress. After the test, we watched a science video about weather and climate, and then I read a few sections of Wonder until lunch. Unfortunately, we had to leave off at one of the saddest parts of the entire story, which is when the Pullmans’ dog, Daisy, dies.I felt really bad stopping at that point, but it was time for lunch.
The day ended with the students gathering their mail, cleaning up the room, and getting their things. At least, the day ended for the students. I, along with the other staff in the building, had an afternoon of inservice training on the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching. I’ve been learning about the Danielson Framework for about a year now, but it was nice to sit down with my colleagues and discuss the domains and share ideas about what they look like in practice.
It was a wonderful day with quite a bit of work done by both students and teachers! Have a wonderful weekend!
We have officially started our final science unit of the year! There will not be any independent research projects to go along with this unit, though, as the time to do them is simply gone. With just three full weeks of school remaining, plus the half-day tomorrow and the one-hour on the 28th, time is just flying by! For our final science unit, we are going to be conducting experiments, watching videos, and reading informational texts. We will also be going outside to make observations.
Our final science unit is on global weather, climate, and the water cycle. To kick things off, I asked the students to tell me some of the things they already know about weather and the water cycle. Some of the things that were shared included:
- Clouds are formed by water vapor condensing in the air
- Rain occurs when clouds get too heavy
- The weather can be unpredictable
- It is possible to predict some weather
- Severe weather can cause injury and death
- Different times of the year have different weather patterns
Then I asked the class to think about questions they have about weather and the water cycle. At first, the questions were all fairly simple:
- How often does lightning strike each year?
- How much annual rainfall do we have in Illinois?
- How many tornados do we have each year?
I prompted the students to use higher-order thinking, but assured them that these were good questions, but I wanted them to think of great questions. After that, some of the questions were deeper:
- Why does weather occur?
- Why does lightning strike?
- Will cloud formation ever stop, or is it an ongoing process that will go forever?
- How does the water cycle work?
There were other questions, as well, and after we listed all of them, I had the students write them down on a piece of paper that they will keep in their science folders. As we go through this unit, I hope we will be able to get to all of these questions. More importantly, though, I hope that my students will think of more questions as we get started.
After all, questioning is at the very heart of science. It is when we start to question not just what and how many but why and how that inquiry occurs and learning takes place!
We started our last major arithmetic unit for the year this week: fractions and decimals. We actually started yesterday, with a lesson on fraction chains, such as 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 = 3/4. The idea of this lesson was for the students to recognise that the denominator in a fraction does not change as we add the numerators. To emphasise this, I wrote the following on the board and then had the entire class to say it aloud together:
When adding or subtracting fractions with like denominators, the denominator DOES NOT CHANGE.
If their homework is any indicator, I think they got it, which made me very, very, very happy! Today we moved on to the next step of working with fractions: determining the pairs that make a whole. For example 1/5 + 4/5 = 5/5 = 1 or 2/5 + 3/5 = 5/5 =1. The lesson itself went very quickly and I wanted my class to have extra practice figuring out the missing pairs. To do this, I broke out my trusty 12-sided dice. I rolled the numbers to generate a fraction, such as 1/2, 4/9, 11/12, 3/7, etc. I made sure that the numerator was also less than the denominator. After doing a few together as a class, we played Around the World with Fractions.
The game is simple: two students stand up, I roll the dice, give them the fraction, and they compete to be the first one to give the missing pair to make a whole. We were able to go around the room very quickly. One student actually made it all the way “around the world” which is a rare event in my classroom of 26 fourth graders!
It was a very simple game, but the students wanted to play again at the end of the day and then my students who are participating in our extended learning program wanted to play then, too! (We didn’t, though, because we already had other things on the agenda for the 90 minutes we work together after school.) We will continue to use the 12-sided dice to practice fractions, using them to generate equivalent fractions, to add fractions with like denominators, and even to convert improper fractions into mixed numbers. The options are not-quite-but-almost endless!
I have a confession to make: I’ve only read two books by Judy Blume: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,which I read for the first time when I read it to my class last year and the second time when I read it to my class this year, and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, which I read when I was probably 12 or 13 years old. (I remember my dad being really upset with me about reading the book because it has some scenes he didn’t think were appropriate. Not surprisingly, many adults have reacted to Judy Blume’s books in the exact same way for just about the exact same reasons. However, I enjoyed the book and may go back and read it again soon.)
As a result of my lack of Judy Blume-ization (even though I own a large portion of them at home and at school), I never knew until last week that she is the person who first introduced the concept of DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) in her book Ramona Quimby, Age 8. DEAR has become a national movement of sorts, with teachers all over having their students use it as their cue for independent reading. While I’ve found the acronym a little silly, it is definitely better than SSR (officially “Silent, Sustained Reading” but my friends and brothers said it actually meant “Sit down, Shut up, and Read”).
My students read independently every day, but as I mentioned yesterday, our room often feels cramped and many students have a hard time focusing on reading because they are getting bumped by neighbours, distracted by slight noises, or fall to the temptation to talk to their friends, thinking I won’t notice. (Note to my students who may be reading: I always know when you are talking; most of the time I hope you’ll stop before I have to say something about it.) We went outside to read yesterday, and it seemed the class really enjoyed it.
So I decided to try it again this afternoon. As we went outside, I told the students to spread out and read. As I called it out, I suddenly realised that I have a perfect acronym for this that goes right along with what I want them to do: SOAR! Spread Out And Read. I like it better than DEAR.
As long as the weather permits, we are going to SOAR outside every day for the rest of the year. And when the weather isn’t complying, we’ll SOAR inside. We have six bean bag chairs, a huge carpet, and lots of floor space. I am hoping to get a couple more bean bag chairs, too, and maybe some other fun reading chairs for the room. But, honestly, I am hoping to SOAR outside as much as possible!
I have my students divided into four guided reading groups, which were randomly named Embassy, Papaya, Chameleon, and Sapphire. These groups meet with me at least once a week to work on specific reading strategies and discuss their understanding of the books they are reading as a group.
For most of the year, my reading groups have followed a fairly traditional paradigm. Each student was given a specific role, such as the Discussion Director, Summarizer, Connector, Illustrator, and Word Detective. These roles were rotated weekly, with the idea that each student would get the opportunity to fill each role.
After my meeting with the Literacy Across Content Areas inquiry group on Tuesday afternoon, I decided to try something different with reading groups. Instead of assigning roles, I have decided that each student is simply going to be responsible for joining in a true book discussion. Everyone has a copy of the book their group is reading and they will meet once a week to discuss the book.
My goal for this is for the students to engage one another with the text. To talk about what they have read, what they thought about what they have read, and to talk about how what they have read changed what they think about what they read! It won’t be easy, but I have full confidence in my students’ ability to read independently and then discuss books as a group. I am excited to see where things go from here with our reading groups!
Fourth graders tend to be rather chatty. I’m okay with this, usually. There are times when I need my students to stay quiet and listen to directions, and there are many times when I will indicate that work is to be done silently but, honestly, I don’t mind a whispered conversation or two with a neighbour, especially if that conversation is related to the work at hand.
Of course, sometimes the talking gets out of hand. Someone starts talking above a whisper, and then someone else does, and then it seems like I suddenly have all 26 of my students talking loudly instead of working quietly. As the week draws to a close, I feel like many of them are struggling to hold on. Spring Break is just so close!!! But they are persevering and we will make it to the end of the week, I am confident.
One of the more challenging times for all of my students to stay on task is when I am meeting with a reading group at my back table. I have tried to establish positive expectations for what students should be doing while I am with a group. The are typically engaged in independent, silent reading or writing. My class knows that they are not to interrupt me while I am meeting with a group unless it is an emergency involving blood, vomit, fire, or near-death. (None of these emergencies ever arise, and so most of the students know to wait until I am done meeting with my group before asking a question.)
Last week, I read this blog post from my Nerdy Book Club Internet friend, Mr. Colby Sharp, who teaches
third fourth grade in another school district. I’ve never met Mr. Sharp, but we’ve talked online via Twitter and email a few times and we are fellow book nerds/geeks. (My speech at the beginning of the year about my passion for reading is something I picked up from Mr. Sharp, who shared this video a year ago.) I especially appreciated this portion of his post:
Things are far from perfect in my little classroom at the end of the hall. We have a long ways to go and probably not enough days to get there. I wish everyone was reading above grade level, heck, I wish they were all reading at grade level. Although we have our issues and we are not perfect, today was perfect.
Today I had a moment like Mr. Sharp’s day a week ago. While I was meeting with my group that just finished reading Johnny Tremain, I looked around and I saw, for the briefest of moments, everyone in the room doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Some students were reading, some students were writing, but all students were focused and on task. Nobody was chatting with a neighbour or finding an excuse to get up and wander around the classroom or trying to use the bathroom or get a drink. They were all just engaging with literature. It was just a moment, but it gave me a glimpse of what is possible. Just like Mr. Sharp, I am grateful to have a classroom of readers. Some are reluctant because they haven’t found The Book For Them yet, some are over-achievers with a pile of books on their desk and more at home. But all of them are readers, and every now and then they all remember it at the same time. We are going to keep working at it, and we are going to keep reading and writing. Our ultimate goal is to have forty-five minutes of uninterrupted reading in the room. And you know? We’re going to get there. Knowing that is what makes it all worthwhile. Achieving the end goal is fantastic, but the journey along the way is absolutely wonderful.
I think my students have finally gotten used to the idea that I know a lot of people who work in a lot of really awesome professions that relate to our curricula, and I like to invite these experts to share their work and ideas with the class. We have had guests share their interests in biology, nuclear energy, Native American flutes, martial arts, and music. We have also had special assemblies provided to the entire school, such as visits from some of the performing groups from the high school.
Today we welcomed another special guest. While most of our guests have been from the Champaign-Urbana community, this guest came to us all the way from Alaska! When I told my class this, their interests were instantly piqued. When I told them that part of her job when she lived in Canada was to blow things up, everyone was hooked.
Our guest, Ms. Climer, is actually a native of the community, having grown up in Champaign. She attended the University of Illinois and got a degree in environmental engineering, wih an emphasis on hydrology. She and I were discussing my students’ science curriculum and when I mentioned that one of our units explores the different ways we generate electricity, particularly using renewable and non-renewable resources, she reminded me that she works for BP America.
Ms. Climer came in this afternoon and took questions from the students. They wanted to know what she does and how she does it. Then she talked about oil exploration and how oil is extracted from the ground and used. It was really fun to see the students’ amazement when they realised how many products they use every day use oil byproducts! I also loved the quality of questions many of the students asked; they were really showing that they were paying attention and using their own prior knowledge to further their understanding of what oil is and how it is used.
Before leaving, Ms. Climer gave all of the students a gift from her company: a ruler with a calculator built into it. She will be back tomorrow and Thursday to talk about other energy resources, such as wood, coal, natural gas, wind, water, and solar. This is going to be a great way to wrap up the third quarter before Spring Break!
There is a term that gets thrown around in schools a lot, especially in the elementary grades. It is “language arts.” I’ve often wondered how such a term came into existence, because, really, when we talk about “language arts” or “English/language arts” what we are actually talking about is grammar, although, technically, I suppose language arts includes all the aspects of both spoken and written language. My students have done a lot of work in literacy this year. As I have made it very clear from the very first day of school, I believe in literacy. I believe in reading, sharing what we reading, thinking about what we read, writing about what we read, reading what we write, and sharing what we’ve written. For most of the year, our literacy work has concentrated on reading selections and then writing in response to them. We have had a few open-writing activities from time to time, but the focus has primarily been on understanding how to write reflectively on what has been read.
Today we started something new, though. I want to use the last quarter (and a week) of school to really emphasise writing as a craft and an art-form. I know that my students can respond to what they have read. I know that they can talk (boy howdy, can they talk!!!!), but I want them to learn how to express themselves in writing, as well. We are going to do a lot of writers’ workshop activities in the room. Crafting stories, fleshing out the details, writing, proofreading, editing, revising, rewriting, proofreading again, editing again, and rewriting again. No piece of writing is ever truly complete, but we can reach a point where we can say, “Yes, I am satisfied with the quality of this writing and wish to share it with all who wish to read it!” (Of course, sometimes we write for ourselves, with no desire to share it with others. And that is okay, too.)
To kick off our writers’ workshop in Room 31, I wanted to get my class started on some of the basics of the English language: parts of speech. Now, my friends who study linguistics by profession may shudder at the definitions we use for some of the parts of speech, but I am working with young children and I want them to have a working knowledge of the words so that they can use them in their writing. I gave all of my students a pre-assessment on the parts of speech that had two sections. Section one have several lists of words that the students had to identify as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, or interjections. The second section contained a short paragraph with selected words underlined. The students had to group the words according to the aforementioned categories. So first they had a group of words and they had to give a category name, then they were given a category name and had to create the group. We will spend some time each day this week focusing on a specific part of speech while also starting some writing activities.
This is not going to be quick process, and I expect that there will be some in the class who will complain because it is hard (to which I will respond that it is a challenge and it is supposed to be because they are in fourth grade and fourth grade is challenging!), and others will tell me that they don’t want to do it (to which I will remind them that asking what they want to do is not something I do), but I think most will enjoy the opportunity to develop their writing skills and come to understand language use as an art. And if that is why we call it “language arts,” well, I can definitely live with that!
Words are important. It is incredibly difficult to communicate without them. It is possible, yes, but it is much, much easier to communicate when you have command of language and understand the words. There is a lot of debate over the way we interpret those words. Do words have inherent meaning? Is the meaning determined by usage? Should we teach vocabulary in a descriptivist or prescriptivist way? These conversations and debates don’t come up often in a fourth grade classroom, but I think about them when I think about my students’ own use of vocabulary.
One of the many things I love about teaching fourth grade, one of the great adventures, is seeing my students learn how to navigate the world around them. My students this year have a great interest in words. When I use a word they don’t know, someone will inevitably make their way to the dictionary to find the word and the definition. (Of course, my students will also try to determine what the word means from context.)
Last week, as I was walking past the other fourth grade teacher’s classroom, I noticed her room was a hive of activity. I walked in a saw a list of words on the overhead. I don’t recall all of the words, but some of them were Vietnam, astrophysical, willy nilly, cornucopia, statue, and liberty. As I looked around, I saw that the students were practicing the words, quizzing each other, looking them up, and drawing pictures. I asked a student what the words had in common and learned that they were the vocabulary words for the week. I was curious to know how those words managed to make it onto the list and I asked my grade-level partner about it and learned that the students’ selected the words on their own.
It works like this: On the first day of the week, each student finds a partner and picks a word that they want on the vocabulary list for the week. And that’s it! The students practice the words during the rest of the week, and then take a vocabulary quiz on the last day of the week. The students love it! They take complete ownership of the words, they are extremely engaged, and they love that they get to choose the words!
I decided to introduce this to my class today, and it went over extremely well. At first there was surprise: “Wait… Mr. Valencic, are you telling us that we get to pick the words?! Really?!” Yep! They got together, picked their words, and wrote them on the white board. Here’s a sampling of some of the words they came up with:
I love the variation they came up with! I also love that I can tell what we words I have used that students have picked up on and the words that they have decided they want to learn more about. I am interested to see how this experiment of student-guided learning goes!
EDIT: I have added the three words I had left off from the list. Also, a reassurance: I still teach vocabulary, phonetics, and grammar. Allowing students to pick their vocabulary list for the week simply gives them ownership of using the skills that I am teaching!
I have two student teacher observers working with me and my students this semester. As part of their university coursework, they had to conduct an interview with me. While part of the interview will be done in person, there was a segment that was written and I thought I’d share the questions and my responses here. Feel free to ask further questions or seek out clarification!
How long have you been teaching? How long in this school? Where else?
I have been teaching professionally for five years. I worked for three years as a substitute teacher in Champaign and Mahomet before starting in Urbana in 2011. This is my second year at Wiley.
Why did you select teaching as a career?
I was inspired to entering the teaching professional when I was in the fourth grade. I had a spectacular teacher that year who gave me and my classmates opportunities to learn through peer-teaching. As I grew older, I sought out further teaching experiences and continued to move toward education as a career.
Why are you teaching at this particular grade level?
I have wanted to teach fourth grade since I decided to enter the profession in fourth grade. However, I applied for jobs throughout Illinois for any teaching position between grades 2 and 5 (all self-contained). I am teaching fourth grade now because this was the position for which I was hired (and I am very glad to be living my childhood dream).
What preparation or training did you have?
My formal training was done through the University of Illinois Elementary Education program. I have also had training through volunteer positions with the Illinois Teen Institute (now the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute), Operation Snowball, Inc., and through my church community as a Sunday School teacher and a volunteer lay minister. After graduating, I continued my preparation as a substitute teacher. I still receive training through the many professional development opportunities offered through my school district.
What do you like most about teaching? Like least about teaching?
My favourite thing about teaching is seeing students finally grasp a difficult concept. There is something like an actual light that appears in their eyes when they finally “get” it. I love when students share with me the independent learning they have done outside of the classroom.
My least favourite thing about teaching is when I realise that something I attempted to teach went completely through one ear and out the other. I hate the realisation that I failed in my objective, but I love being able to approach the problem from a different angle and then see my students finally get it!
What kinds of responsibilities do you have in addition to actual classroom instruction?
I have student supervision once a week in the morning. I am responsible for attending staff meetings in the building once a week, grade-level meetings with other fourth grade teachers across the district once a month, and participating in partner-meetings and collaboration once a week.
What are some important things to know/be able to do in order to be an effective teacher?
Flexibility. You are going to make plans and they are going to get thrown out the window within a few minutes when a student asks a question that sends the class a completely different question. Effective teachers recognise meaningful questions from students and allow these questions to guide instruction. Realise that there are very few black-and-white issues when you are teaching. There is almost always a murky grey area that you will need to navigate as you figure out what happened, why it happened, and what you should do about it. Fake it ’til you make it! Smile a lot and laugh, especially at your own expense. Let your students know that you are a human and that you have a life outside of the classroom, and invite them to share their own non-school experiences. Build a community of learners before you teach your first core curriculum lesson.
What are your beliefs/practices related to classroom management?
Positive, positive, positive. Expectations, not rules. Model, practice, rehearse, repeat. Reinforce positive behaviour with meaningful praise and the occasional reward, such as a small toy or a piece of candy. Never reprimand a student in anger. Take a deep breath and isolate the person from the action. Be as consistent as possible and make sure that your expectations are clear before students are asked to do anything. For example, tell students what they should do before they do it, let them do it, then talk about how well they did it and what they can do better next time.
What other advice do you have for pre-service teachers?
Ask questions! Teachers do a million things at once, and most of these things are done without actively thinking about it. Ask what and ask why. If a teacher can’t explain why he or she is doing something, it is likely that it shouldn’t be done. Take time to reflect on your own ideas and teaching practices. I have a blog that I use to reflect on the events of the day every single day I teach. Everything I share is positive. When it comes to the Internet, and especially social media, I try to follow this advice: If you wouldn’t be comfortable with your mother, your boss, or your pastor seeing it, don’t share it! However, there is much that you can share online, and you should share it, because you will find that there is a vast cadre of teachers online who are going through the same thing you are!
How do you believe NCLB has affected your classroom and instructional practices? How is RTI being implemented in your school?
NCLB has brought about rigorous standards that are ensuring that every activity in the classroom has meaning toward the core standards of learning. I make sure that everything I do can be tied to the curriculum. Testing is based on the curriculum, so while the phrase “teaching to the test” gets bandied about as some kind of evil bailiwick, the reality is that if you are teaching from the curriculum, you are teaching to the test, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you are teaching a unit that has no place in your curriculum, but you think it is fun so you do it anyway, that is unacceptable. NCLB has simply made this the standard instead of the exception.
RtI is the general framework that guides all of our instructional practices in the school. Teachers meet with grade-level partners at least once a month to discuss student data that has been collected from formative assessments and identify specific services that are needed by specific students to create the most meaningful learning environment for them. While we are not perfect in this, we are getting much better.
I have a small classroom. Well, small in comparison to the other general education classrooms in my building. I know that there are schools with smaller classrooms, but my room is still small. Especially when we have twenty-six students packed in. My class was about as big last year, although I believe we peaked at twenty-eight students from time to time.
As a result of the small-size-large-class combination, I’ve found myself frustrated by what I can do with seating arrangements in the room. There just hasn’t seemed to be much that I could do. If you’ve looked at the pictures of my students at work, you’ve probably noticed that I have typically had the students’ desks arranged in four rows of either seven or eight, with an aisle down the middle. Over the past several months, I’ve frequently moved students around in order to attempt to identify an ideal placement of my twenty-six young charges with the space given.
I decided it was time to change this yesterday afternoon. I took some measurements, looked closely, and discovered that I could arrange the desks in a new way, and it happened to be a way I’d wanted to use for quite some time. It is essentially a large, open rectangle with an entrance on one side that lets me.
This has completely changed the way the room feels! I am sure it will take a few days for everyone to get used to the new arrangement, but I like it helps all of the students track on the right thing (me) and it opens up so much space that can be used for group work and other activities!
We are very fortunate in our school to be closely associated with a wide variety of resources through the University of Illinois. Among these many resources, we are blessed to have tutors through the America Reads/America Counts program available for many of our classrooms. I get an email every semester from the Graduate Coordinator for this program asking about my interesting in receiving tutors for my classroom. I respond with my schedule every semester and an expression of interest for as many tutors as I can get!
We welcomed two new tutors in our classroom today. The first came in the morning and worked with a few of my students during our math block just before lunch. Sometimes I have students ask if they can work with a tutor, other times I direct specific students to work with him or her. The students who worked with our morning tutor this morning were able to make a lot of progress on their work with multi-digit multiplication, which made me very glad. I work with as many of my students in as many ways as possible, but I love being able to let them work with a new person who may take an approach to their explanation that is different from mine! Sometimes it just takes a fresh view to help someone get a difficult idea!
Our second new tutor came in shortly after lunch and, much to my surprise, was assigned to stay with us throughout the afternoon! Tutors are usually assigned to work in a classroom for 30-60 minutes at a time, so having one in the classroom for a full 120 minutes is fantastic! This is the first full week of school in quite some time, so I was able to have my guided reading groups meet in the most ideal way, which involves me meeting with each group at least twice this week. With a tutor in the room, I was able to have one group work with the tutor while another group worked with me.
I love having tutors work with my students! They bring in fresh ideas, relationships with college students, and added support that allows for a greater level of differentiation than can be done without. This is also why I am excited to have two student teachers doing early field experience with my class in the coming weeks. (I haven’t actually announced this to my students yet, so for any who are reading now: surprise!) We have a lot of work to do this semester, so I am super, super grateful to have these tutors to help us out!
Last year, that is, back in the 2011-2012 school year, my building principal became aware of the lack of fluency in fundamental math facts throughout our building. We began a school-wide initiative to emphasise these facts. For the students in the primary grades, they focused on the addition facts. In the intermediate grades, we placed emphasis on multiplication facts.
Throughout the year and then on into this year, the emphasis has continued. From the first week of school, we have been practicing these facts. Whether we are rolling 12-sided dice to generate facts, playing “around-the-world,” taking quizzes online, taking timed tests, and just practicing when there is a spare moment or two, my students have been working on mastering these 144 basic facts. (169 if we include the zeros.)
And it has all been leading up to this.
Multiplying a multi-digit whole number by another multi-digit whole number. We started with the multi-digit by one digit problems last week. Then we started in on two-digit by two-digit yesterday. Today was originally going to be a continuation of this process but, as so very often happens in teaching, the students’ own queries moved us ahead.
It started when I gave this problem: If the 26 students in our classroom each read for 45 minutes each night, how many minutes would they read in one week? First we multiplied 26 by 45 and got 1,170. Then we multiplied that by 7 and got 8,190. Someone wanted to know how many minutes they would read in a month. Each month has an average of 4.2 weeks, so we multiplied 8,190 by 4.2 and got a product of 34,398. Pretty impressive, right?
Then someone in the class wanted to know how many minutes we’d get if they each read for an hour! So I cleared the whiteboard and we started again: 26 x 60 x 7 x 4.2. Of course, we did it step by step:
26 x 60 = 1,560
1,560 x 7 = 10,920
10,920 x 4.2 = 45,864
I paused in the middle of the calculations to point out that I didn’t want them to freak out when they saw a decimal point in the problem. Then someone expressed that these problems were difficult and confusing because the numbers were so big. I put the kibosh on that right away!
I reminded the students that all we were doing was single-digit multiplication over and over and over again. And then I pointed out that we have been practicing these facts since the beginning of the year and they are all doing a great job with them!
Yes, multi-digit multiplication requires remembering where to write the products of all the single-digit problems, but beyond that, it is something they are all exceptionally skilled at doing. Once I finished pointing this out, it seemed like the entire room changed. Instead of complaining that the problems were hard, they started asking for harder problems!
After finishing our practice, I gave the class fifteen minutes to partner up and come up with as many two-digit by two-digit multiplication problems based on situations in our classroom. For example, one of my bookshelves contains 21 compartments and each compartments holds on average 16 books. By multiplying, we know that my shelf holds approximately 336 books. I was expecting the students to come up with maybe a dozen, tops. Several found at least a dozen; a few found considerably more! It was awesome, especially because they then solved the problems they had identified, giving them a sense of the usefulness of what we have been doing.
What a wonderful way to wrap up another short week in fourth grade!
Fourth grade is difficult year. There are dozens and dozens of standards for mathematics, English/language arts, social studies, science, physical education, health, social/emotional learning, and fine arts. When I contemplate all of these standards, I often think about ways I can make them more interesting and relevant to my students. I love it when I come up with an idea completely out of the blue!
That happened this morning while I was getting ready for work. One of the standards for my students states that they will be able to discuss the differences between prose, poetry, and drama. We have been reading and discussing prose all year long, will be doing a unit on poetry next week, and started a unit on drama yesterday. The idea I got this morning was simple: the best way for my students to learn about the distinctive aspects of dramatic storytelling is by creating their own dramatic stories.
I decided to utilise my reading groups this afternoon to start this process. The students are writing brief plays based on one or two scenes from the books they are reading for their groups. It took a few minutes for them to settle into the process and start working together, but once they did, they really got into the task! They were discussing characters, setting, lines, dialogue, and even assigned roles. It was awesome! I am excited to see what comes of this project. The goal is for them to finish by next Tuesday so that they can share their plays with their reading buddies in first grade. We’ll see how it goes!