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


Shedd Aquarium and the Lake Guardian

Some readers may recall that I had the unique opportunity to participate in a summer workshop about the EPA’s R/V Lake Guardian on Lake Ontario three years ago. Part of this workshop included a commitment from me to include Great Lakes literacy in my teaching. I have done so and continue to be amazed at the depth of knowledge my students gain as they learn about the role of the Great Lakes in our lives and in the health of our world.

Several weeks ago I received an email from the Community Outreach Specialist with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant who helped organize the workshop. She informed a group of us that the Lake Guardian would be docking at Chicago’s Navy Pier for a week at the end of May and wanted to know if anyone would be interested in taking their students on a guided tour. I asked my principal what she thought about it and she agreed that it would be an awesome opportunity if we could find a way to cover the travel expenses. After several emails back and forth, funding was secured and we were able to schedule a trip to Chicago for Thursday, May 19 (yesterday). In addition to touring the ship, we were able to arrange a visit to the John G. Shedd Aquarium. (Side note: despite being a lifelong resident of Illinois, I had never before visited the Shedd!) The last task was to secure chaperones.

I had initially planned on nine adults to accompany my class, in addition to myself. Parental interest was so high, however, that I was able to secure extra tickets. We ended up with sixteen adults in all! This allowed for very small groups of students, much more freedom for students to explore the Shedd, and the hands-down quietest bus ride I have ever experienced in all my years of teaching.
Our trip started bright and early yesterday at 7:20 am. We arrived at the Shedd around 10:00 am and, after waiting for what seemed like for-eh-ver, we were able to enter the Aquarium. Students scattered with their chaperones and watched and heard and learned about marine animals until it was time to leave for lunch on Chicago’s Navy Pier. (After a visit to the Shedd’s gift shop, of course.) I was so incredibly happy that the weather cooperated! 65° F and breezy right along Lake Michigan with plenty of sunshine provided the perfect outdoor eating venue!

Following lunch, half of the class went with me to tour the Lake Guardian while the other half of the class went with their chaperones to explore Navy Pier, visiting the Crystal Gardens and enjoying the sunshine and warm air. The groups switched after about 45 minutes, except I stayed with the students on the ship so I could continue sharing my own personal experiences of working with the scientists and crew. After a group photo outside the ship, we loaded the bus and started the long ride home.

Most students are so exhausted by the end of a long field trip that they fall asleep on the bus. Not my class! They were even more excited on the way home than they were on the way up! We made it back safely, though, with the same 24 fourth graders, 1 kindergartener, and 16 adults we had when we left.

Thanks to everyone for a wonderful trip! It was a fantastic way to cap a year that has been full of inquiry, learning, growth, and trying out new things as we took healthy risks and tried to do things better than we had done in the past.

[NOTE: I have many pictures from the trip and will be uploading them and adding to this post over the weekend. Thank you for understanding.]

Walk and Talk, Take Two

Nearly a year and a half ago, I read about a literacy strategy on one of the many education-focused blogs and newsletters I follow. The strategy is called “Walk and Talk” and it consists of doing just that: having students walk and talk about literacy. Now that we are getting down to the last few days of school, Miss C and I decided to use this strategy with our learning buddies today.

We were a little uncertain how well it would work with kindergarteners and fourth graders, but if there is nothing else we have learned from our five years of buddying our classes together, it has been that our students will rise to the occasion whenever we give them the opportunity!

Armed with a book, a clipboard, a pencil, and a graphic organiser, the buddies started at the beginning of the loop around the front of the building and wrote a brief synopsis of the beginning of their selected text. Then they walked about halfway, talking as they went, before stopping to write about the middle. They then continued their way, still talking, until they got to the end, at which point they, of course, wrote about the end of the story.






It was a simple task but one that had multiple benefits:

  • Students were able to talk to one another about literature
  • Students were able to demonstrate an understanding that a story has a beginning, middle, and end
  • Students were able to move freely, getting some physical activity in instead of sitting in one place
  • Students were able to enjoy the warm weather

If that’s not a successful activity, I’m not sure what is!

Intruder Drills

There are a lot of emergency drills we practice in schools: fire drills, tornado drills, severe weather drills, earthquake drills. These are all natural disaster that can happen at a moment’s notice. We hope that they don’t, but we plan for the worst so we will know what to do in case nature’s fury comes toward our school.

But then there are the drills we practice that aren’t hazardous weather. They are the drills that we have to practice because our society has an illness and nobody has quite yet figured out a cure. I have no intention of using this space as a forum for discussing the politics of this issue, though; rather, I want parents and members of the community to know that we do take this just as seriously as we take the possibility of fires or severe weather.

I am referring, of course, to dangerous intruders. I still remember the morning I opened up my bundle of newspapers (this was before the 24-hour news cycle came to dominate our lives) and read about the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. It wasn’t the first such case but, unfortunately, that seemed to be the beginning of the illness that has spread. Why is it that there are people out there who want to hurt children? I don’t know. What I do know is that the safety of my young students will always be my number one priority.

We are at that time of year when Illinois schools are mandated by the state to run intruder drills in their buildings. We won’t know when or how, but we do know that at some point the police will come to the school, while students are present, to test to see if we as teachers know the protocols to keep our children safe. For my fourth graders, this means that I need to make sure that they, too, know what to do.

That is why I took some time this afternoon to review the procedure with my class. Even though we have talked about it before, I wanted to make absolutely certain they knew what to do and why to do it. I’m not going to go into the details here, but I want to assure anyone who may be reading that my students do indeed know how to quickly, safely, respond to an intruder alert in our classroom.

I pray that we will never experience a real-life intruder alert; I hope that the only alert my students encounter is the one that the police practice with us. I also pray that we never experience a tornado hitting our school, an earthquake rocking our foundations, or a fire destroying our libraries. But I want my students to be just as prepared for dangerous situations as they are for following a recipe at home when they are fixing dinner or determining their proper way to cite an author in a research paper.

Long gone are the days when school was just about reading, writing, and arithmetic. We need to prepare our students to know how to handle whatever situation life throws at them, even if it is the unthinkable. Because, sadly, the unthinkable is all too possible these days.

Teacher Appreciation Week

Last Tuesday was National Teacher Appreciation Day but my school celebrates the entire week. Our lovely PTA provided some great treats, including chair massages, a tasty breakfast one day and a delightful lunch another day. I had students who brought small tokens of appreciation, ranging from handmade cards to several bars of dark chocolate (no milk chocolate because they know that I can’t shouldn’t have dairy products.

All week long I ruminated on the teachers in my own life that I owe a debt of gratitude. In years past, I have written about some of these teachers. (See here and here.) This year I wanted to publicly (sort of) say thank you to the teachers in my own building. I thought about writing a paragraph about each of the amazing women and men who work in my building, but that would push the limits of what even I am able to write in the brief time I have to reflect here, and I also don’t want to leave anyone out on accident.

So I hope that those who see this will accept this blanket statement of gratitude as my belated gift for them. From my first day at Wiley to today, I have felt only supported and encouraged by my colleagues. Whether it is partnering up with other teachers to do crazy projects or offering to shave my head if the students could log over 1,000,000 minutes of reading, to putting up with my constant discussions about educational technology to letting me pop into their rooms to observe or just say hello, I have been incredibly blessed to work in a school that embodies the culture of collaboration, collegiality, and cooperation. Thank you, one and all, for your support, your patience, and your professionalism.

I remember when we were interviewing candidates for our new principal and several would ask us why Wiley. They wanted to know what made us special. One of my colleagues, who spoke for all of us, said it is just one word: family.

Wiley Elementary School is so much more than jus a school. It is more than just a community. It is more than a place for me to work as an education. It is all of these things, yes, but more than those, it is a family. Sometimes we fight, sometimes we disagree, but that’s what families do. We don’t always hug it out like the end of a Full House episode, but we do forgive one another.

Thank you, Wiley staff, for being a part of my family!

Random Quotations from Room 31

“Wow! Adding and subtracting mixed numbers is actually fun when you know what you’re doing!” (Said at the end of our guided math group when she finally understood the process of regrouping fractions, turning improper fractions into mixed numbers, and reducing to simplest form.)

“Hey, Mr. Valencic, do you know what stevia is?” (Asked in the middle of a reading test that had absolutely nothing to do with stevia. At. All.)

“I’ve only read the first Harry Potter series. I haven’t read the second one.” (Said when we were discussing Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Star Wars. She got her main characters mixed up.)

“You’ve never seen Star Wars?!” “Well, I think I’ve seen about five minutes of the first one?” (Said during the same conversation as above.)

“I read books on my own!” “Oh, really? Name the last complex book you read.” “I just finished The Hobbit.” “You read that for class. Name the last complex book you read for fun.” “Double Fudge. Wait, no, that’s not complex. Um… I don’t know!” (Also said during the same conversation as above.)

Welcome to fourth grade at the end of the year, my friends. What random quotations have your heard recently?

Letting Students Decide

I’ve found myself pondering the concept of student ownership a lot over the past year or so. The research is pretty solid on this: when you allow students to make decisions that impact their own learning, when you seek not just for buy-in but actual ownership, they respond more positively. Instead of just having them stop fighting against you, they are working with you toward a common goal.

Some things I have done to increase ownership have included letting students determine our classroom expectations, giving them freedom to select research groups or math partners, encouraging them to select their own books for independent reading, letting them decide the subject matter for their essays, and asking their input on small decisions such as whether to do recess before music or after.

But I’ve always maintained my “teacher control” on some things: guided math groups, guided reading groups, the general schedule of the day, the type of math homework I send home, the book I choose to read aloud to the class, which class we are partnering with for learning buddies.

Then there is another thing that I have always given myself 75% of the control over: the seating arrangement in my actually-a-little-bit-too-small-for-what-we-need classroom. I have allowed students to pick their group members and I have let them choose whom they would sit with, but I’ve been the one to decide how the desks are arranged, whether it was a series of rows facing the front of the room or groups of four or six desks that are facing the side walls of the classroom.

Today I did something that bordered on downright crazy: I let the students decide the furniture arrangement. And their seating arrangement.

Here’s how it happened: We had finished building our balloon-powered JetToy cars and today was the competition. We couldn’t use the hallways or the gym this year, so I had the students push all of the desks out of the way to clear space in the middle of the room. After seeing which car could go the furthest and which car could go the fastest, I gave the students five minutes to arrange the room. I told them that they couldn’t move my bookshelves, my desk, or my back table, but the rest of the space was theirs to do as they saw fit. Then I started the timer and watched and listened to the chaos. Without any one student taking the lead, the class worked as a team of 26 students and they arranged their desks in a way that they felt made sense.


They were pleased with their work and excited to try it out. I looked at it and simply said, “Huh. I never thought about doing it this way. Interesting.”

One long row of nine desks at the back, a small column of three desks with a fourth making an L, a row of five meeting a column of four making another L, and a row of five in the middle. There are five entry points total that let me circulate the room as I monitor students and answer questions.

What surprised me most was that I didn’t have any small groups of best friends move their desks away from everyone else and form their own island of two or three. Even though many students chose to sit near their friends, they are in a big group and oriented in such a way that they can see the front of the room when necessary.

I think this is something I am going to do more often. I like letting students decide because I have found that they really do respond well to the empowerment that comes from being agents of their own lives.

How do you let go and let students decide?

So Much Going On

Wow. I know I have decreased my blogging frequency this year, but I just realised that it has been over two weeks since I last updated and that is pretty bad, even for me.


It has been a really busy two weeks. In addition to everything we have had going on in my classroom, I am in the final weeks of my master’s degree program (graduation is on May 14!) and I have been spending a lot of time after school working on collecting artifacts from my internship, writing reflections, and doing a massive online training module that is required for my principal’s endorsement. (Speaking of which, I am 99% certain I’ve mentioned this at least once in the past two years, but my master’s degree is going to be in educational administration and I will be receiving my principal’s endorsement so that I can one day move from the self-contained classroom to the principal’s office. I am not sure when that is actually going to happen, though.)

So, what has been keeping us so busy over the past two weeks? Here are a few highlights: Read the rest of this page »


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