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


Student Guest Post 2: Open House

This is the second student guest post of the year. Once again, I share it with no editing or revisions

everyone go to the open house yesterday on Thursday it we had ice cream and pizza and it was nice so we had so much fun yesterday no one color in some hair at open house. And Mr. Valencic is a cool Teacher

we love him with all our hearts we do things that are really much.

The class dojo it some thing we loves much we love ever one.

One thing I am coming to love about the student posts already is how they make references to things that happened in the classroom that others may not be aware of. These posts allow my students to share their own inside jokes, even if they don’t realise that that is what they are.

Have a wonderful, safe Labor Day weekend! If you happen to be in Arthur, Illinois, for the Cheese Festival, on Saturday, be sure to find me and say hello! I’ll be hanging out near the cheese tent, of course!

Unplanned Teachable Moments

Teachers are expected to plan out their lessons. In teacher preparation programs, you spend vast quantities of time learning how to design lesson plans that are aligned to state standards with clear student-centric objectives. Lesson plans should be built around enduring understandings and essential questions. We agonize over what we want to say and what the students might and points that might need clarification. And yet no matter how well we plan, students always manage to ask the unanticipated question, make the unusual connection, or throw us for a curve.

Some teachers get frustrated when this happens and tell the students that such questions or remarks aren’t appropriate. I remember a time my baby sister was in a class and the teacher made some comment about how you could achieve anything if you just set your mind to it. She asked, at the age of fourteen, what would happen if you were born without arms but dreamed of being an concert pianist. Rather than take advantage of the outlier question and discuss ways that people have overcome adversity, the teacher said to her, “Stop wasting my time with such stupid questions or you can just not come back.” When I heard about this, I was furious! The quickest way to stifle a young person’s innate curiosity is to devalue their questions and cut them down. Fortunately, my sister knew this and was able to continue to learn and grow. She just learned to never ask questions of that particular teachers. Seven years later and it still makes me angry to just think about it.

Other teachers know that the curveballs are just another way that learning happens. The cliché advice to expect the unexpected is what makes teaching such a worthwhile and valuable pursuit. Being prepared to go on a side trip to explore students’ questions and challenge our assumptions is how we learn and grow together. And when a teacher doesn’t have an answer, teacher and student begin to learn together. It is always a wonderful experience. And even though I half-jokingly tell my students that I know everything, I always follow that statement with the observation that the reason I know everything isn’t because I have every fact filed away in my mind but because I know how to find answers and that is what I want my students to learn how to do that, too.

Today I experienced one of these unplanned teachable moments. We were doing a Number Talk that involved adding two multidigit numbers. One of the strategies a student shared was something like this:

7,761 + 4,123 =

(7,000 + 4,000) + (700 + 100) + (60 + 20) + (1 + 3) =

11,000 + 800 + 80 + 4 =


I noted that this student’s strategy took advantage of expanded notation to group numbers by their place value. Several students raised their hands and one of them asked what expanded notation was. I realised that I had an assumption in my observation that was demonstrably false: not all of my students knew what expanded notation was. This turned into a minilesson for the whole class on place value. After I finished teaching about place value and expanded notation, I had the students work independently on Front Row on the Numbers and Base Ten domain so that they could get differentiated practice on this skill.

And yet my lesson plan said that we would review strategies for solving addition and subtraction problems, including open number lines and the standard vertical algorithms, and that students would use mental math strategies to evaluate the reasonableness of their answer. Did I expect to teach place value and expanded notation? No. Did I ignore the students who didn’t understand the concept or needed clarification? Of course not! Did the students who already got it feel like I was wasting their time? Nope. Why? Because I included them as peer teachers and had them help others as we worked through the concept.

All moments in the classroom should be teachable moments. Most of them will probably be planned. But when the unplanned ones happen, I hope that all teachers will take advantage of the opportunity and be willing to acknowledge that a student who asks a question is asking a question worth exploring and answering.


Learning Buddies v5.0

It started as a project between two new teachers who had been hired a very short time before school started. He brought his fourth graders to her second grade room. It continued as an effort to enhance literacy skills as he brought his fourth graders to her first graders. (Another first grade class was also involved.) Year three saw a continuation of fourth graders reading with first graders and then a happy mistake happened. A wonderful parent was updating a bulletin board and switched two of the root words on the caption, changing it from “Reading Buddies Help Us Learn!” to “Learning Buddies Help Us Read!” And so it was that year four saw his fourth graders visiting her first graders to do projects in social studies, science, math, and, yes, still literacy.

And then came year five. Both of them are now considered veteran teachers with four years of experience and tenure status. He is still teaching fourth graders, many of whom were in her class that second year. She is now teaching kindergarten. Many things will stay the same, but many things will need to change. The duration of projects, the length of visits, the expected level of independence for the students as they work together. But they will persevere, as will their students. They will cooperate, as will their students. They will show respect and compassion, as will their students. They will demonstrate integrity, as will their students. They will take their responsibility as teachers and learning partners seriously, just as their students will take their responsibility as students and learning buddies seriously.

And they will have a lot of fun, too.

Like today, when Miss C read Where the Wild Things Are and the students joined in with Max’s terrible roars as they showed their terrible claws.

Like today, when Mister V put on a Princess Sofia the First crown and wore it in the classroom and as they walked down the hall.

Yes, learning buddies is serious business, but it is also fun and exciting and so incredibly inspiring. I cannot wait for the day a fourth grader coaches a kindergartener through her first independent reading experience. When a kindergartener tells his mom all about his fourth grade buddy who helped him write a complete sentence. When our fifty students come together and learn about national holidays and celebrations and community.

Because that’s what learning buddies is all about really.


It is going to be a good year for our learning buddies and I have a hunch our entire community is going to be better because of it.

The Homework Menu

For the past four years, I have struggled with homework in my classroom. (And if Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes is any indicator, I’m not the only one! Click the image for many more related comics.)

Not assigning it; that has always been easy: give 25 students a copy of a math assignment and tell them it is due the next day. And not grading it; homework is practice, so it doesn’t need an actual grade. I just check it for completion, give it a star, and return it to the students.

No, the struggle has been more of an existential one: why? Why give homework? The students who need the extra practice tend to be the ones least likely to do it. The students who don’t need the practice tend to be the ones who do it, anyway. So why am I doing it? To communicate with parents? Surely there is a better way for me to do that!

There is only one kind of homework that has been an exception to this: reading. I tell my students on the very first day of school that they will have reading homework every single night. That assignment is to read for at least 25 minutes independently. Sure, I still have students who struggle with reading and will try to avoid doing it because it is a difficult task, but most of them are willing to read at home and most of their parents are willing to support this.

But for the other traditional math homework assignments? I wasn’t buying into it and my students and their families weren’t buying into it either. Then I started paying attention to what other teachers were saying and what other families were saying. And then I decided to look into the research. (Did you know that there are people who have dedicated their lives to researching the value and effect of homework?) Here are some things I learned in my research:

  • While there is generally a correlation between homework completion and student achievement, that correlation is much greater in grades 7-12 than it is in grades K-6
  • Homework is often a source of tension between schools and homes
  • The most effective homework provides students with differentiated choices

(Most of these points have been drawn from Cooper, Robinson, and Patall’s 2006 meta-analysis of homework research from 1987-2003 published in Review of Educational Research, Spring 2006, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 1–62.)

So over the summer I began to reimagine homework in my classroom. I began to ask myself what I would like to see if I had children who were in school. I talked to friends whose children have struggled with homework and those whose children have not. I read what other teachers were doing. I thought about what would work well for me. And then I began to draft some ideas. I shared these with others, got more input, and revised and edited. What I came up with what a concept I am calling the Homework Menu.

When I go to a restaurant, I sit down at the table and find my utensils already there. If there isn’t a menu on the table, the server hands it me. Usually, though, there is already a menu there and the first thing I am brought is a glass of water. If the server doesn’t bring a glass of water, he or she asks me what I would like to drink before anything else. Then I am given time to peruse the menu before ordering. I don’t take one of everything, nor do I always get the same thing. (As much as I love bacon cheeseburgers, sometimes I am really in a mood for a chicken wrap or a pasta dish!)

How does this apply to homework?

Well, the first thing my students need are the tools to complete the tasks. This may be access to an online learning site or a book to bring home or a project assignment sheet to work on. It may be a math reference sheet or a set of manipulatives they can use at home. I want to make sure that they have the right utensils.

Then my students need a drink. What is the one thing that they are expected to do every day? What is the thing that should just be a natural reflex? What should be habitual? Reading! A minimum of 25 minutes each day. What can they read? Oh, the list is endless, but it includes trade paperbacks, informational texts, websites, newspapers, graphic novels, comic books, magazines, subtitles on television shows or movies… I could go on and on. There are so many different things they can read! The most important thing is to read every single day.

Once they have read (or planned their reading), they need to pick something that they want to work on that they know will help them. Maybe it is something they love doing, such as math on Front Row, Prodigy, or XtraMath. Maybe they want to check out Khan Academy. Maybe they love doing worksheets and have asked for one. Or maybe they have a story they are writing or an ongoing research project they’d like to work on at home. Then again, maybe my student has a 60-minute soccer practice after school and that is a worthy activity that encourages team work, cooperation, problem solving, and physical activity. Another student may have piano lessons. The fine arts are an important part of a student’s learning. Instead of me telling every student that they must do the same thing as everyone else, I am giving them choices. (And yes, if I notice that a particular student needs to spend some extra time on a very particular skill or concept, then I will strongly suggest to that student and his/her parents that that be the homework focus.)

The overall goal here is for my students to be empowered to make decisions that will help them improve their own learning. I want their time working away from school to be worthwhile and valuable. I want parents to know what we are doing and know how they can support their student’s learning. I want to keep the lines of communication open and the tension between the school and the home nonexistent.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 5.57.52 PM

I am excited about this Homework Menu idea. I hope my students are excited about it, too. (And yes, just as a server at a restaurant writes down your order, I am going to expect my students to record what they have done and have a parent sign off on it. That is the oh-so-necessary accountability piece.)

If anyone is interested, linked below is a PDF of the Homework Menu. Feel free to contact me if you would like an editable word document! (I worked with my wife, a brilliantly talented graphic designer who helped create the layout and theme for this blog, to pattern the Homework Menu after a a restaurant menu.)


[NOTE: This is in no way intended to be a condemnation of any teacher who chooses to use more traditional means of assigning homework. Every teacher has to do what works best for him or her to help his or her students achieve their own personal greatness. The Homework Menu is my experiment to see what I can do to do my job better, not to tell other teachers what they ought to be doing.]

Student Guest Post: A Week in Review

As promised yesterday, I have decided to bring back my practice of inviting students to write guest posts for me on Fridays during our Read, Write, Think! time. I gave a very brief description of what the students could do, then asked if I had any brave individuals willing to write a post for us. (I will allow up to four students to collaborate on a post.) Recognising that this was the first time they had ever done anything like this and acknowledging that I have not modeled for the class how to write a blog post, what follows is the first student guest post of the year, exactly as written:

we did are science  project  about fishes    then  we did physical education   walking for 15 minutes.

Okay, so I definitely need to work with my class on adding more substance to their writing! I am actually going to use this post as a jumping point for writing on Monday. We will work collaboratively to correct spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, and spacing. Then we will add more content. The goal will be to turn this run-on sentence into two full paragraphs.

Still, not bad for a first attempt at writing a blog! Thank you to the two boys who took a risk and volunteered to go first!

Happy weekend, everyone! And happy National Bow Tie Day! (Sorry, Dr. Owen, for not wearing orange; I guess I need to find an orange bow tie!)

Photo on 8-28-15 at 3.56 PM

Readers Theatre

(I know, I know, I haven’t updated all week. The first full week of school has been super busy but, on top of that, I’ve had my mother-in-law’s third degree black belt testing and graduation–she passed!–and my wife hasn’t been feeling well so I’ve been taking care of her plus I started my graduate classes this week. So I’ve had to prioritise what I do and, at least for this week, writing a blog post has not been as important as family and classes. I will make an effort to post more regularly in the coming weeks. I am also going to resurrect an old practice and allow my students to write a blog post each Friday during Rad, Write, Think!, which is what I call our weekly preferred activity time. All of which is really neither here nor there in terms of the purpose of this actual post.)

This past summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a district workshop entitled “For the Love of Literacy.” Once a week for several weeks, I gathered with elementary teachers from across grade levels throughout the district and looked closely at the tools, resources, and assessments we use when teaching our students to be literate. We explored the Continuum of Learning associated with Irene C. Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System. We delved deeply into the Daily 5 and CAFE frameworks developed by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (the “2 Sisters”). We looked into the Writing Workshop curriculum written by Lucy Calkins back in the 1980s and 1990s but recently updated to reflect the targets established by the Common Core State Standards. And we talked about literacy: what it is, why it is important, and different ways to teach it.

During this intense study of best practices in literacy instruction, I found myself thinking about what I can do to provide quality experiences for my students and their learning buddies who are in kindergarten this year. When Miss C and I first started collaborating, her students were second graders. Then she taught first grade for three years. Year five of this collaboration is seeing her with a kindergarten class now, which has forced us to shift what we do and how we do it yet again. One idea that came to me was the use of readers theatres.

I, personally, have disliked readers theatres since I was a teenager and was forced to do one for a church activity. I thought the script was bad, the story weak, and the characters boring. And I never looked back.

Until this summer.

I started thinking about what we could do, and then I learned that my students would be doing Dance & Drama during their first six-week rotation of fine arts. The fine arts teachers are always looking for ways to infuse arts into the classroom and I realised that readers theatres would be a perfect opportunity. I talked to Mrs. T about it and she was excited. We met, we planned, and we began implementing today.

She came down to our room this afternoon during our literacy block and introduced the differences between plays and readers theatres. Then we had the students divide up into groups of three, four, or five and gave each group a script to read. The students took turns with the different roles, experimenting with voice and helping each other with unusual vocabulary and new ideas. (One group of boys read a script for a retelling of Chicken Little and declared it to be inappropriate for kindergarteners because, in a shocking twist, all of the characters died!) We worked on this for about half an hour but I had the distinct impression I could have let the students keep going until the end of the day and they wouldn’t have minded in the least!

We are going to read the scripts again tomorrow and then the students will be performing for their classmates on Monday. Then we are going to select books that are of high interest to our kindergarten friends and each group will write a readers theatre script based on the story. Then they will perform for the younger students and we will record them so that Miss C can share with her class again. (I will also be posting the videos online through a private link so that we can share with families.)

I am really excited about this project and so far get the impression that my students are excited about it, too!

Jumping Right In

Apologies for not writing anything last Friday. As soon as I got done working with students for the day I was asked to set up Chromebook carts for three teachers in our building. Then I had to leave for a wedding rehearsal and dinner (my wife’s best friend got married on Saturday). By the time we got home it was late and I was exhausted and I simply collapsed in my bed. I fully expected to get a post written on Saturday but the aforementioned wedding took up the whole day, then we went to Indianapolis on Sunday. So if you are an avid reader, my sincerest apologies. I promise I was doing things that were valuable and worthwhile!

Today was our first Monday, which means it was the start of the first full week of school. After three days of setting expectations, establishing norms, and rehearsing procedures, we were ready to just jump right into things! We started the day with our traditional journal writing, followed by a morning meeting in which students got to share with one another what they did over the weekend.

Then it was time for a Big Thing: our first Major Assessment of the Year. I am planning on using a workshop model for math this year with lots of small group instruction instead of the traditional whole-class lecture format. In order to organise my students into groups, however, I need to know what they know! So I used a useful assessment tool I found a couple of years ago. It is a fourth grade baseline assessment. It starts off with a review of third grade standards, such as basic addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts, and then transitions to more and more difficult concepts, including dividing with and without remainders and adding and subtracting money. It is not an assessment of all fourth grade learning standards, however. It is simply a tool to establish where students are at. My wonderful aide, Ms.K, helped me grade all of them so that I can look over the data this evening and create my first math groups.

I’m excited to try this new format for teaching math this year and I hope that my students find it worthwhile, too!


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