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

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Children at Play

I wrote this post in my head yesterday but didn’t realise until late at night that I didn’t actually write it and post. Does that ever happen to you? It is kind of like thinking you sent someone an email or a text message, only to find out days later that you didn’t and now they are mad at you and you are only just figuring out why.

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I am a firm believer in the value of play, and not just for children. Playing, for all groups at all ages, is such an important way for us to build relationships, confirm social norms, and interact with diverse groups of people. I think this is one of the reasons that I love tabletop gaming so much. Some of my best friends are people who I met because of gaming!

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I love seeing my students at play. It fascinates me how they create rules for games that are made up on the spot or modify existing rules on the fly to make sure that everyone can participate. One of the most common games I see students play outside is called Spider Monkey and, even though I’ve watched it played on a nearly daily basis for over five years, I am still convinced that the students simply make up the rules as they go. (Each time I tell students this, they insist that I am wrong; I keep hoping someone will write The Comprehensive Guide to Playing Spider Monkey for me.)

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I also find it interesting that some games will involve a large number of students and others will be just two. Boys and girls will play in separate groups at times, but other times they will freely mix with one another. Some students will float from game to game while others will pick one and become an expert on just that.

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It is nice to take a break from reading and writing and mathing and inquiring and remember that learning to people is important, too.

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Temperature Checks

One of the things that I am trying to do more consistently this year is having my class do quick “temperature checks” throughout the day. All I do is ask the students to let me know how they are doing by giving a thumbs-up (going well), thumb-to-the-side (I’m having some trouble), or thumbs-down (I’m totally lost).

The temperature check is used when we are working our way through a new concept or skill as well as when the students are doing independent work. I am amazed at how simple it is and how readily my students will indicate how they are doing.

I have especially appreciated being able to use the temperature check to see if students are able to monitor what they are doing during independent work times while I am meeting with small groups. After checking in during the different stations we have during reading workshop, my students are able to self-correct any undesired behaviours, refocusing on what they are supposed to be doing.

My goal for the week is to use this simple strategy more regularly throughout the day and especially while I am working with groups. My hope is that this will help increase independent stamina and also help my students be more aware of what they are doing throughout the day. How well it works over time is yet to be seen, but I am hopeful!

Oh, By The Way…

I was absent from my classroom this morning. It was a planned absence to meet with members of a district committee. I have tried to warn my students ahead of time when I know I will be gone and make sure that we have reviewed expectations for when there is a substitute teacher.

I forgot to do that this time.

Oops.

I also forgot to make a post on Class Dojo to let the parents who are connected know that I would be absent so they could help their children mentally prepare for the slight change of plans during the morning.

Also oops.

Amazingly, my unannounced absence did not result in mass panic or chaos in my classroom. In fact, my substitute gave me a fairly decent report. He shared that a few students had a rough start to the morning but they quickly corrected their behaviour and had a good morning. It probably helped that Tuesdays and Thursdays are the days the students have P.E. in the morning, followed immediately by Fine Arts (currently music). That means that the students aren’t really in the classroom until 9:30 am, which left just two hours of the morning.

So, what did my students do in class while I was gone? They practiced multiplication of multi-digit whole numbers by a single-digit number, they had a morning recess. and they had a class discussion about force, motion, emphasising pushing, pulling, gravity, and friction. In other words, a very typical Tuesday.

All in all, I’m glad that my “Oh, by the way, I’m going to be gone tomorrow” conversation that I forgot to have with students turned out to be not such a big deal. I have three more half-day absences with this same teacher substituting for me, so I am hopeful that each subsequent absence will be even better!

One Step at a Time

For the past several months, I have been working my way through a fascinating book called Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Dr. Eric Jensen. The focus in the book is on understanding how neurobiology can and should inform our decisions as teachers. Instead of discussing cognitive psychology and theory, the author explains the actual biology of how the brain works (at least, to the best of our understanding) and how these physical aspects impact learning and should impact teaching.

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One of the more interesting points that I recently read was about the processes that affect memory. Specifically, the author shared that

[c]apacity limitations should also be an important consideration… For a 5- to 12-year-old, the limit is normally one or two bits of data. But as a practical matter, many students have poor short-term memory because of conditions such as attention deficit disorder, learning delays, and auditory-processing deficits, and it’s better to stick to one piece of information for all students. In a classroom, directions just one at a time…

I spent a lot of time considering this over the Thanksgiving Break. How often do I give my students several steps to follow and then get frustrated when they don’t follow all of them? One example is our end-of-day routines. I have spent most of the year instructing students to do the following:

  1. Quietly get mail
  2. Quietly put mail in COYOTE Binders
  3. Get backpacks without talking in the hallway
  4. Put binders in backpacks at desks
  5. Move to carpet and sit quietly

Some would think that this would be easy to do, but thinking about what Dr. Jensen wrote made me realise that one of the reasons we have had so much chaos at the end of the day has simply been that I have been giving too many pieces of information at a time. So today I resolved to try a new tactic. Instead of telling the students all of the steps. we did them one at a time.

This is what it looked like:

I told the class that we were going to go through the process one step at a time and explained the neurobiology of it. This made them more willing to try it out. First I had the students get their mail one row at a time without talking. (I direct them to do it without talking because it always takes much longer if students are talking to one another.) Once everyone had their mail, they took out their binders and put their mail in the correct folders. Then they got their backpacks and returned to the room, once again doing this one row at a time without talking. The final step was to move to the carpet and wait for further instructions.

The difference was amazing! It took more time than I would like, but it was controlled and focused and safe. The focus now will be to continue to doing this one step at a time but doing it faster. The goal is for the students to do all five steps in five minutes or less. I know they can do it; now my students need to believe it!

Giving Thanks

I feel like I have had a lot of posts this year that have hinted at frustration with my job, with my students, and with the slow progress we have been making in establishing a strong classroom community. While I don’t want to diminish those feelings, which I believe are perfectly valid and understandable, I also don’t want the casual reader of this blog to think that I am one of those teachers who blogs simply to vent.

Because I’m not and I don’t.

As a matter of fact, my blogging has become a way for me to proclaim, loudly and publicly, that I love my job and I love my students even though I am frustrated as can be with some of the things that are happening and, perhaps more importantly, not happening. I am very grateful for the opportunity I have had for the past five and a half years to do what I do. This is, after all, the job I dreamed of having since I was in fourth grade. It is still my dream job even if, yes, I am hoping to eventually move from classroom leadership to building leadership as I transition from classroom teacher to building principal.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love my job because, again, I really, really, really do. Anyone who has ever talked to me in person knows that there are some topics that will get me going for hours on end and what I do every single day as a teacher is one of those topics. (Other topics include books, tabletop gaming, and British television.)

As the last hour or so of the annual Thanksgiving Day observance in the United States approaches, I wanted to express gratitude for the teachers, principal, staff, parents, and students who have made my job at Wiley Elementary School the wonderful experience it has been. In keeping with my blogging norms, I will not name them by name, but know this:

  • My principal is wonderful; she cares, she supports, she encourages, she directs, she leads.
  • My fourth grade partner this year (number five in six years) has been wonderful! We are learning together as we navigate a new math curriculum and as we change and adapt to the needs of our students.
  • The fifth grade team makes me proud to say that I taught roughly half of their students. These two wonderful women (plus the long-term substitute who is covering maternity leave for one of them) are passionate about challenging their students, holding them to high standards of leadership, and preparing them for the oh-so-scary world of middle school.
  • The third grade team does a great job of teaching and guiding, preparing their students for my classroom while maintaining wonderful relationships with them after they move to my room.
  • The second grade teachers are a powerhouse of experience and they never make me feel weak or inferior when I come in to ask for help or advice, nor do they shy away from asking a much newer teacher (me) for technology assistance.
  • The first grade teachers are delightfully wacky and quirky but they know how important their work is and they make sure their students are learning and growing every single day.
  • The kindergarten teachers started at Wiley the same year I did, although one has gone from second grade to first grade to kindergarten. They are two of my closest friends at work and their passion for early childhood education amazes me.
  • Our office secretaries are so patient with students, with families, and with teachers! I cannot imagine Wiley without them, although I still miss our previous office manager/secretary who retired this year.
  • Our new custodian (who started this year after our previous custodian also retired and promptly moved to Florida), is great with students, smiling and talking to them but making sure they know that they had better not make a mess in the bathrooms!
  • Our special education teachers are an amazing team that works hard to make sure we are meeting the needs of our students with special needs. The teacher who works directly with my students has been especially supportive of helping me find ways to increase the sense of community in my room.
  • Our two reading interventionists are another powerhouse team that have worked together for more years than I can say, yet they are continually learning and improving in what they do.
  • Our other specialists, such as our speech and language pathologist, our social worker, and our school psychologist, are always on the go and yet they are always ready to provide advice, counsel, or just to listen if I need to talk.
  • Our fine arts teachers are amazing individuals who share their passion for music, for visual arts, and the performing arts in a way that makes each student know that the arts are just as important as academic subjects.
  • Our new PE teacher has been a huge blessing to our building! Not only do our students receive a higher quality level of physical education than when teachers were doing it on our own, but he also works with us to identify ways we can improve play during recess. (And I am able to collaborate with my grade level partner twice a week every week now!)
  • The other professionals who pop in and out of our building throughout the week are no less important. Whether they are working with students with specialised needs or teaching band and strings or providing instructional coaching, I see them and I appreciate them.

If not for these amazing women and men, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. They inspire me every single day and I hope that I am a positive influence on them and their students, as well. So on this day of giving thanks, to my wonderful colleagues, while I know it isn’t nearly enough, I say thank you. You really are the best colleagues I could hope for!

DEVOLSON 2016

Teaching is a hard business. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, the thin-skinned, the unmotivated, or the inflexible. I have many days that I go home completely, thoroughly, unashamedly exhausted, physically, mentally, emotionally. There are days that I wonder if I did any good, if I made a difference, if any of it matters.

But then I talk to someone, maybe a friend or a family member, maybe a complete stranger, and I am reminded that yes, I am doing good, I am making a difference, and what I am doing every day does matter. Whether it is that boy whose fourth grade teacher awakened a sense of purpose and passion or a girl who was brought from the brink of despair by an English teacher who found the right book at the right moment or the young man who was taught how to beat a drum and find a community in the marching band, teachers are making a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of children every single day.

Yet we still have tough times. We push through, we find our center, we recharge, we regroup, and we carry on. As so many have said in so many different settings, “This, too, shall pass.”

Today I reflect on the near completion of that time of year that a teacher blogger colleague I admire yet have never met refers to, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as DEVOLSON: the Dark, Evil Void of Late September, October, and November.

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(I apologise to We Are Teachers and Love, Teach for snatching the image from their website; the last time I tried linking it, the link vanished and the image disappeared with it.)

I know that November isn’t quite over (we actually have a handful of days after Thanksgiving Break), but as far as I am concerned, today is the end of the longest 11-week period of the year. Tomorrow is going to be fun. It is going to be great. We are going to have fun and we are going to do great things. Why? Because I said so. I’m not going to let the upcoming five-day weekend of gorging myself on way too much pie, pumpkin, turkey, pie, more pie, and a little bit more pie get ruined by anything. Tomorrow is my day and it is our day.

The nonsense that happened today (having to call parents during the middle of a writing lesson, having to send students out of the room, having to deal with flying glue stick caps and pencils, and a host of other things) are done and over. Tomorrow is a brand new day with no mistakes and I am determined to see it end that way!

What are some of the things we are going to do to make the day before Thanksgiving Break an awesome one? I’m glad you asked! Here’s a sampler:

  • Make picture frames with our learning buddies to celebrate the work we’ve already done this year
  • Write thank you letters to one another for being a part of our classroom community (thank you, Love, Teach, for the idea!)
  • Break out our tabletop games for a chunk of time in the morning to unplug and reconnect with one another
  • Enjoy the crisp autumn air before it is quickly replaced with air that hurts
  • Watch videos of Kid President encouraging us to be more awesome

DEVOLSON 2016 is done and gone; how do you celebrate the end of the DEVOLSON?

I Voted

There have been so many things on my mind over the past several weeks, but I have been ridiculously busy and so this once-daily blog has become an occasional blog. I keep hoping I will get back into the swing of writing each day, but then something comes up and gets in the way (usually my need to eat and/or sleep).

Many of you know that I am a Champaign County Election Judge. This is a very fancy title for the people who spend all day at the polling places on election days, checking in voters, distributing ballots, answering questions about assigned precincts, directing voters to the tabulator after they marked their ballots, and processing grace-period voters who are able to register and vote in their precinct on election day.

This past Tuesday was the quadrennial General Election for the United States and, among many other things, voters headed out to the polls to select their choice for President of the United States of America. I was assigned to my own precinct this year, which means I got to be the first voter in line and the first person at the Savoy Recreation Center to cast a ballot. We processed 971 other voters during the course of the 13 hours the polls were open and it was a very busy day, from the time polls opened at 6:00 am until they closed at 7:00 pm.

Every time I return to school after an election, students ask me who I voted for. A colleague of mine shared on social media that his response to students is always, “I voted for you.” I was thinking about this on Tuesday and wrote something that I suppose could be deemed a poem. (My father-in-law is dancing a happy jig right now.) It is not polished at all, but I wanted to share it anyway.

I Voted

I voted today.
I voted for you
I voted for me
I voted for him
I voted for her
I voted for them
I voted for us.

I voted for today
I voted for tomorrow
I voted for the present
I voted for the future.

I voted for truth
I voted for justice
I voted for freedom
I voted for mercy
I voted for compassion
I voted for kindness.

I voted for all who can
I voted for all who cannot
I voted for those who will
I voted for those who will not.

I voted for the old
Who have walked a long way
I voted for the young
Whose journeys have just begun.

I voted for the lame, the halt, the withered
I voted for the tired, the weary, the poor
I voted for the yearning masses
Struggling to be free.

I voted for the hearty, the hale, the bold
I voted for the healthy, the strong, the wealthy
I voted for the eager millions
Enjoying freedom’s light.

I voted to make a difference
I voted to change the world
I voted to shape our lives.
I voted for the belief
That things can be better.
I voted for the belief
That what always has been
Doesn’t always have to be.

I voted.