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

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Safety First

I have lots of responsibilities as a teacher, far more than “simply” teaching students. However, my number one responsibility is making sure my students are safe. I explain this to them on the first day of school and I repeat it often throughout the year. If my students are not safe, or do not feel safe, they are not going to care about what I am trying to teach them or what I expect them to learn. I take this responsibility very seriously and am often most nervous when we go to places where I cannot keep my eye on every single one of them, such as field trips and recesses. I spend most of my time in those situations scanning to watch out for everyone and listening for any signs of distress.

I was reminded of this responsibility this afternoon. Being a Wednesday, the students at Urbana Middle School were released early, and many of them walk to Wiley to pick up younger brothers and/or sisters. Parents also arrive at school shortly before our last bell in order to pick up their children. At the same time, our fourth graders are going outside for a recess toward the end of the day. (Our schedules being such that we are unable to do a recess earlier but we believe very strongly that the students should have as many opportunities to get outside and play as possible.)

Most parents gather around the big tree outside the front of the building to wait for their children. Others wait near their cars or on the sidewalk. A few of the middle school students, though, were coming onto the playground. I approached them and reminded them that the day was not yet over for our students and, in order for us to ensure the safety of our students, we asked them to wait by the tree or on the sidewalk. It isn’t that we don’t trust siblings or parents or expect anything untoward to happen. It is simply that we are responsible for our students until 3:00 pm and a caregiver picks them up, and having others on the playground with the students makes it more difficult for us to supervise.

I am grateful to the many parents and other caregivers who are respectful of me and my colleagues. We always welcome volunteers in our classrooms and elsewhere. We love when members of the community want to give of their time and talents to support our students. But we need to remember that the students’ safety comes first. Always. Which means we may have to sometimes ask someone to give us a little space and respect boundaries.

Revisiting the Basal

Basal readers get a lot of grief in education circles these days. Prepackaged curriculum that claim to meet all of the many complex requirements of teaching, with teacher’s editions that have all the answers and worksheets for everything, all meant to make teaching easier, more straightforward, and user-friendly.

Of course, anyone who has spent just one day in a classroom knows that the basal text rarely works that way. Students don’t respond the way the book says they should, their answers are so far off-base that the teacher finds himself wondering if they were even in the same room, let alone the same story, and the diverse needs of students are rarely met with the handful of worksheets that claim to be differentiated but, in reality, usually aren’t; at least, not well.

However, there is a balance to be found. There is a way that a basal reader can be used in the classroom as a way to establish baselines with students but not take over instruction. My first year teaching at Wiley, I relied on the basal heavily, mostly because I honestly didn’t know what else to do. (I still did guided reading, groups, too, but I definitely used the pre-packaged curriculum a lot.) Over the past few years, I’ve used it less and less. I don’t think I used it with my entire class once last year. This year I’ve decided to revisit this teaching tool.

My goal is to use the shorter selections as the foundation of my whole-class lessons in literacy before switching over to guided texts with smaller groups. I am also going to use the comprehension questions at the end of selections to give students more opportunities to put thinking into practice. In addition to the reading selections, I am going to use the spelling/vocabulary features with my students. I am not convinced that the spelling features are the greatest thing out there, but I am willing to try using them again in an effort to support my students’ ability to expand their vocabularies and apply understanding of parts of words and speech.

We are going to dive into our first story from the text next week. We started today with the spelling, looking at words with long a (such as gray and pain), long e (like sweet or chief), short a (like pass or scratch), and short e (such as send or smell). While this link provides far more words than the 25-word list found in the book series, it is a useful reference for seeing the kind of words that students may encounter. Unfortunately, the document is for every single selection in the basal reader, instead of being a separate document for each story.

I am hoping that I can find the right balance between using the basal reader provided by my district and using the other resources for guided literacy and specific supports for students as I get to know them better throughout the year.

A New Year & A New Plan

Hello, friends, family, colleagues, parents, administrators, and random people of the Internet! It has been a while! School has now been in session for three days and my ambitious goal to start blogging each day has clearly already hit a roadblock. I have opened up WordPress each day and I have meant to write, but then one issue or another came up and before I knew it, I had to run off to get home in order to make it to one engagement or another.

Ah, the life of a teacher.

As it is, it is now after 6 pm on a Monday, I am still at school, but I am determined to start this week off right! We’ve had an exciting three days of establishing classroom expectations, getting used to routines, and jumping into some new curricular materials. (If you haven’t heard of Eureka Math yet, go check it out–it is going to be the main tool we use when teaching math now.)

So, it is a new year. What else is new? I only have 21 students (so far) which is definitely the smallest class I have had since I started working here at Wiley. I just acquired a bunch of new tabletop style games for my classroom (more on this at a later date) thanks to generous donors on DonorsChoose. And I have changed the format of my classroom to focus on a workshop model throughout the day. Instead of “social studies” or “science” I now have a daily “Inquiry Workshop.” Instead of “math” it is “Mathing Workshop” (because math is a verb; it is something we do.) I still have a Writing Workshop but literacy, which I used to call my “Daily CAFE” is now going to be a “Reading Workshop.” I am super excited to see how using the workshop model throughout the day will increase student engagement and ownership!

Oh, and, of course, we now have elementary physical education teachers in Urbana! I was a part of the exploratory committee that recommended adding them and was so thrilled when the Board of Education approved hiring PE teachers at all of our elementary schools! Not only will our students get better PE instruction from specialists in the area, but the classroom teachers will have time to meet together and collaborate throughout the week! Huzzah!

It is going to be a great year! And now that I am done with graduate school (yes, I am now Mr. Valencic, Master of Education), I should have more time to blog, to read, and to play tabletop games. (Have I mentioned that I am an avid tabletop gamer and I plan on integrating this passion into my classroom?) But don’t worry, techy friends; I am also passionate about educational technology and that will also be a key component of my classroom instruction. Remember, I am a geek of all things!

What are you most excited about for this school year?

CGTI – The Community Action Team

This is the second in a series of blog posts that will be showing up over the next several days related to my recent experiences at the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute held at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois on July 17-21. (In the past, I have written about the Teen Institute on my personal blog. This year I have decided to share my reflections on this blog instead.) For those who are not aware, CGTI is a week-long leadership camp for middle and high school students that focuses on developing leadership skills, taking healthy risks, learning about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (ATODs), and working in action teams to bring about positive change in the community. Instead of breaking down the posts day by day, I have decided to reflect topically. Today I want to reflect on the heart and soul of the Teen Institute: Community Action Teams.

Read the rest of this page »

CGTI 2016 – General Sessions

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will be showing up over the next several days related to my recent experiences at the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute held at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois on July 17-21. (In the past, I have written about the Teen Institute on my personal blog. This year I have decided to share my reflections on this blog instead.) For those who are not aware, CGTI is a week-long leadership camp for middle and high school students that focuses on developing leadership skills, taking healthy risks, learning about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (ATODs), and working in action teams to bring about positive change in the community. Instead of breaking down the posts day by day, I have decided to reflect topically. Today I want to reflect on the general sessions held each day. Read the rest of this page »

Book Review: The Journey Is Everything

About two months ago, I received a flyer in the mail from an education publishing company that came to me as a byproduct of my membership in the National Council of Teachers of English. The flyer was about a new book coming out in May called The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them by Katherine Bomer.

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The title alone captured my interest. Having a father-in-law who is a college English professor who wants posted a satirical video of himself tearing up papers and crying out “Crap! Garbage! Terrible!” while grading student essays and having a brother who is also a college English professor who has engaged me in countless discussions of the horrors of the five-paragraph essay/theme, I wanted to know what Ms. Bomer had to say about this topic. Fortunately for me, the publisher provided a link to their website where I could read an excerpt from the introduction. A table of contents and five pages later, and I knew that this was a book I would want to read.

Around the same time, I bumped into my district’s director of professional development and started talking about book studies and PD offerings for the coming year. I told her about this book and suggested that, building on my district’s recent work on improving writing instruction (I happen to be on the writing committee), this might be a great addition. The tricky part, however, was that the book had just been published, and I was uneasy about suggesting a book study on a book nobody had read. (After all, what if the book turned out to be awful and the introduction was just a ploy to get unwitting teachers to buy another book with a pretty cover?) No problem, she told me. She would order a copy for me so I could read it over the summer.

Have I mentioned recently how much I love my school district and the willingness of district leaders to encourage teachers to take leadership in providing worthwhile professional development?

The book came in my mailbox a few weeks later and was put near the top of my To Be Read pile. When I was later emailed to submit a formal request to lead the PD session in the fall, I realised I needed to bump the book to the top of the pile. I started reading it about two or three weeks ago and finished today. I would have finished sooner but I found I needed to be able to highlight and annotate as I read, so I couldn’t read while eating and before going to sleep.

Oh, by the way: I hate highlighting books. And I hate writing in the margins. I have rejected copies of highly-desired books simply because they have a note in the margin here and there. My copy of this book? Highlighted and annotated on nearly every page.

There is no way I can give justice to this entire book in a single blog post. There is also no way that I can select one or two quotes to capture the essence of the argument Ms. Bomer makes. However, I will say this: The five-paragraph essay is arguably the worst formula ever conceived for teaching students how to write. (It is an artificial structure and the product isn’t even really an essay.) Essay writing should be a journey for the author who is writing to think and discovering meaning in text and in the world. If we are serious about wanting to teach students how to express their thoughts, we need to stop trying to force those thoughts to conform to a rigid introduction/thesis/support/conclusion structure. Think about this: when is the last time you read something in that format that moved you to think, to consider, to change, to act? I know my answer: never.

Instead of relying on this old-but-terrible formula, essay writing needs to be open to exposing the soul of the writer. To quote Ms. Bomer who was referencing another researcher, “essays feel like gritos to me: soulful, aching cries in the wilderness of surprise, joy, anger, grief, freedom, and celebration. I want children to be able to put their particularly cries, their gritos, into the world and for the world to read them and respond. Why would we deny our students the ability to be soulful and beautiful?”

Why, indeed.

Book Review: The Sixty-Eight Rooms

When I first started teaching at Wiley, I heard about an off-campus learning experience that our fifth graders got to do called KAM-WAM. This was an opportunity for the students to spend a week at the Krannert Art Museum, learning about art and history and literature and movement and light and so many other things. As part of this project, most of the students would be reading the book Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, Some of the students would read a similar book by Marianne Malone called The Sixty-Eight Rooms. This latter book floated in the background of my mind for several years until last year when I met the author at the Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington. Hearing her talk about the book and some of the processes involved in writing it piqued my interest and I purchased a copy (which I also got autographed, of course).

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As with so many other books, this went on my To Be Read pile by my bed but then stayed there for months as new books went on top and other obligations got in the way. I finally read it this summer and quite thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the first in a series of books that incorporate a theme of magic in modern days along with interesting art history.

What I found most intriguing in this story was the incorporation of the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have only been to the Art Institute once in my entire life but now I very much want to go again so I can visit the exhibit and share in the wonder of the miniature rooms that Mrs. James Ward Thorne created to represent, on a scale of one inch to one foot, everyday life from Europe and America.

The characters from this story are equally compelling and I found myself wanting to cheer when they solved a problem, hug them when challenges were overcome, and laugh when they shared secret jokes that, as a reader, I was in on.

If I ever have the opportunity to bring a class to the Art Institute of Chicago, I will make sure that they have read this book first and come to the exhibit prepared to question, to wonder, and to observe. And if I am unable to bring my students to the Art Institute, I would find a way to bring the Art Institute to them!

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