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


Seeking Expert Assistance

Way back in my first year of teaching, my students were working on writing an alphabet book about European exploration and one of the students was tasked to write a page for the letter O. She decided to write about the oceans. This led to an unplanned inquiry process in my classroom that I wrote about here and then followed-up with it here.

Jump ahead to this year. I decided to once again do an alphabet book for my class, but instead of having a variety of terms, I wanted it to focus on specific people. Yesterday we reviewed the narrative of early European exploration and, as mentioned, I used today to go over the geography of the world’s continents and oceans.

I didn’t even think about it, honestly, but the exact same question came up. That shouldn’t be surprising, since I still have the same map of the world at the front of the room and the same globe of the world sitting on my bookshelves. I thought we could resolve the question more easily by checking on Google Earth.


Instead of identifying just four oceans, like my globe does, or identifying five oceans, like my map does, Google Earth had six oceans: Arctic, Indian, North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, and South Atlantic. So I asked my students to form an opinion and state their reasons.

Many of them had at least one reason for why they felt there should be four, five, or six identifiable oceans, but they couldn’t articulate why. They tried looking up information online and just got more confused. So I decided to do what I had done four years ago when this question last came up: I taught my students how to seek expert assistance.

Using the Letter Generator from, the students wrote business letters to Dr. John M. Toole, Senior Scientist, Physical Oceanography, at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. They told him what they had been learning about, what they thought about the oceans, and asked him for his professional opinion. I wrote a cover letter explaining what we were doing and will be mailing the letters off over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

I felt very fortunate that Dr. Toole replied to my class last year. I have not contacted him in advance to tell him about this project, so I have no idea what kind of response we will get this time, but I am very hopeful that he will once again graciously answer my students’ questions.

I love it when I have the opportunity to grab a “teachable moment” and turn it into a project that engages my students in meaningful inquiry and development of important skills!

Teaching Through Narrative

For the past several weeks, my students have been engaged in a variety of guided inquiry projects on topics related to European exploration. They learned about pre-Columbian civilisations, they learned about specific explorers, and they delved into questions about why the Europeans were exploring the world in the first place.

I wanted to use today to wrap up this part of our unit and did so through a teaching practice that I haven’t used much of this year: narrative.

Pulling up Google Earth on my Promethean Board and pulling down my map of the world in my classroom, I told the story of European discovery, exploration, and trade. I emphasised that “discovery” is used to describe them learning about something that they did not know about before, not finding something that no one had ever found before. (The Europeans did not find uninhabited lands as they explored their world, they founds lands and peoples that Europeans did not know about before.) I shared how people before the 19th Century didn’t have refrigeration as we think of it today, instead relying on salt, smoke, and ice to preserve foods. I had the students think about what happens to food when it is left out for too long and how it tastes. We discussed the difference between something “going bad” because it tastes “nasty” and things becoming dangerous to eat because they have toxins within them. I asked the students if they knew why the Europeans were so excited about the spices from the Far East and they realised that the spices made it possible to eat food that otherwise would have made them sick because of the taste. (My teacher’s aide, who is from India, shared that her family did not have a refrigerator when she was growing up; instead, they simply bought all of their food fresh each day.)

I then moved into the narrative of trade routes being blocked by Arab traders or taxes that made it too costly and the novel idea of finding a sea route to Asia. We talked about Marco Polo and his journeys and his book that captured everyone’s attention. We talked about Christopher Columbus and many of the myths told about him (no, boys and girls, people in the 1400s did not think the world was flat). We talked about how other explorers took to the seas and sought out other routes, going around Africa, going around South America, and looking for a Northwest Passage that didn’t exist. We talked about the Vikings coming to a small, lush island and calling it “Ice Land” after they found a large, barren island that they named “Green Land” so that people would go to the less desirable land, and how the Vikings came to “Vinland,” were beaten by the indigenous peoples, and ran away, vowing to not talk about their defeat lest it tarnish their reputations as Mighty Fearsome Warriors.

I closed the narrative by asking the students why the Europeans flocked to what they thought of the “New World.” They examined the map and realised that Portugal, Spain, France, and England are all really small compared to North and South America. They recognised that the Western Hemisphere had more land but that there were also already people there. We talked about the sad death of nearly 90% of the indigenous populations.

Telling this story with pictures and questions helped my students put together all of the bits and pieces they have learned over the past several weeks. Tomorrow we will take a break from the history of it all and spend some time discussing geography. It isn’t enough for my students to know when things happened, who was involved, and why it happened; they also need to know where it happened and where those places are in relation to the rest of the world!

Illinois JAC – Day Two

Today was the second day of the Illinois Joint Annual Conference. There were so many panel discussions, carousel discussions, and learning labs, in addition to the second general session and the exhibition hall, that I found myself wishing, more than once, that Hermione Granger’s time-turner really existed so that I could have gone to everything!

Alas, I only had so many hours in the day, so I had to pick and choose what to do with my time and also make sure that I remembered to do important things like eating. (As it was, after eating an apple at 7:30 in the morning and an oatmeal raisin cookie around 8:45, I didn’t eat again until nearly 1 pm. Oops.)

I started my day with a visit with my wife, who is at this conference with me, to the IASB book store and saw several books that I want to add to my professional collection, such as Todd Whitaker’s “Shifting the Monkey” and Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators.” I also found a series of picture books by “Star Wars: Jedi Academy” series author Jeffrey Brown that I want for my personal library. Then we stopped by the Educational Environments Exhibit Hall to see some amazing examples of brilliant school design (including the Award of Distinction-winning Urbana Early Childhood Center).

For the couple of hours we wandered through the Exhibition Hall, talking to vendors about issues such as educational technology, creative learning resources, data management systems, innovative security tools, and modular carpeting. A I was particularly impressed with BoardShare, which has developed a cost-effective tool that allows you to turn any flat surface into an interactive board, and Scribfolio, which takes simple abstract figures and allows students to create pictures that tell a story. We attended a learning laboratory presentation about health and wellness that included ideas for utilising wearable technology, such as Humana’s 100-Day Dash. (I am now brainstorming ways we can use pedometers to develop a similar challenge for my school community.)

The morning ended with a panel session presented by Reyna Hernandez, the Illinois State Board of Education’s Assistant Superintendent of English Language Learning and Early Childhood. She spoke about the ISBE Family Engagement Framework and shared some wonderful research on best practices for engaging families across all areas in a way that would promote longterm sustainability. One of my favourite statements came near the end of her presentation when she told us that while buy-in is good, it is even better for parents and members of the community to feel ownership for school initiatives. How do we make this possible? By involving them in all aspects of the decision-making processes.

After a late lunch, I attended another panel session with my mother on student-led conferences and left eager to use them for parent-teacher conferences in the Spring. The concept is simple: instead of teachers meeting with parents to tell them how their students are doing, parents and teachers meet with the students so that they, the students, can explain why they are doing it! The session was presented by teachers and administrators from Belleville, Illinois, and I was very impressed with the planning that went into place before this conference model was implemented.

Day two of JAC 2015 was definitely an incredibly busy, very full day, but I have so many awesome ideas that I can hardly wait to bring back to my school and district!

Illinois JAC 2015 – Day One

Today was the first time this academic year that I was gone for the entire day. I am actually surprised that I made it all the way to the middle/end of November without an absence, but I guess that many of the district committees and task forces and professional groups I have been a part of for four years have stopped having meetings that lasted either an entire day or a half day.

To prepare my students for my absence, I told them that it was going to be happening all this week then we spent about half an hour yesterday discussing the students’ responsibilities when a substitute teacher is there, as well as the substitute teacher’s responsibilities. I shared with students what the day should be like for them, going over the schedule and making sure they knew what I expected of them. And, of course, I left detailed plans for my substitute, since I still remember well the terror I experienced when I worked as a substitute and walked into a classroom where there were no plans left for me. (Sorry, Urbana teachers; I don’t remember the name of the teacher I was subbing for that day.)

It is now almost 10 pm on Friday night and I didn’t get any phone calls, text messages, or emails about my class, so I am hoping that it means that my students made it through the day without duct-taping the substitute to the wall or setting the room on fire.

So, what took me away from my classroom today? It was the first day of the 83rd Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the the Illinois Association of School Business Officers (often called the Triple I Conference or the Illinois Joint Annual Conference, abbreviated on Twitter as ILjac15 because JACIASBIASAIASBO2015 is a over the top). This was my third year attending as a guest of Washington Grade School District 52, where my mother is in her 15th year on the school board. (Of course, since I am in an educational administration program, my hope is that one day I will attend as a member of the IASA and/or as a representative of my own school district!)

Due to traffic and other delays, I wasn’t able to make it to some of the early panel sessions held today, but I did get to hear the first general session speaker, DeDe Murcer Moffett, who spoke passionately about the need to have people in your life who help you snap out of it when you start wallowing in doubt or regret, push you forward, and encourage you to succeed. She calls these people your snappers and pushers and it got me wondering who my snappers and pushers are. I thought about my amazing colleagues in my building and my district and the support that we offer each other. I thought about the fantastic teachers I had in my own educational career and the equally fantastic teachers that I have the privilege of working with in my building and my district. Then I thought about whether or not I am a snapper and a pusher in my role in my school as a teacher, a technology specialist, a union representative, and a member of the building leadership team. I’d like to think that I am.

It was a great way to kick off a conference that I look forward to attending each year! (I also ran into my district deputy superintendent and got to chat a few minutes about the awesome recognition that the district received for the Urbana Early Childhood Center. And somehow managed to forget to introduce my wife. Oops. Sorry!) I’m definitely looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on family and community engagement, technology, wellness, and student-led conferences!

Engaged Writers

I’ve been piloting the Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study writing workshop program with my class this year. This series has been around for a long time but has recently changed. For each grade level, she outlines four specific writing units that cover informative, narrative, and opinion writing. My fourth graders learn how to write realistic fiction, persuasive essays, literary persuasive essays, and historical essays. We have been working on persuasive essays for the past two weeks now.


This unit starts with the students writing simple opinion pieces. We did one together with a very basic thesis: I like ice cream. The students helped to come up with three reasons and then they had to identify at least three facts that supported each detail. This is a very basic essay outline, but it gets them started with the writing process. Then they started writing about a person who was very important to them and they had to again list at least three reasons why and provide at least three facts to support each reason.

Right about this time was when I witnessed something miraculous in my classroom of twenty-six diverse learners: all of them were engaged in writing.

Not some.

Not most.


Every. Single. Student.

To put this in context, I had a student just a few days tell me in no uncertain terms how much he hated writing and how much he hated me for making him write and how much he hated this school for letting me make him write.

And he was writing.

The entire time.

If I were the kind of person who cried (which I’m not), I would have had tears in my eyes (but I didn’t). “Surely,” I thought, “this is just a fluke.”

The next day I had all of my students engaged in writing again.

Not some.

Not most.


Every. Single. Student.

This has gone on for nearly two weeks. When I tell my class it is time for Writers’ Workshop there are some students who actually cheer. Others grab their notebooks and get writing before I even get a chance to get to our minilesson. (They don’t appreciate having to put their writing down to listen to me, either.)

Yes, some students get stuck and their pencils pause over their papers for a few minutes. but I have seen my classroom become a community of writers over the past couple of days. Their opinion pieces range from people who are important to them (moms and dads figure prominently in these essays,although at least one student wrote about her big brother and another student wrote about a classmate), to literary figures (Harry Potter is a hero to at least one girl in my class), to wrestling star John Cena (a man who drew my attention when I learned about his support of the Make-a-Wish Foundation), to Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie (my all-time favourite, if-I-could-only-eat-one-kind-of-pie-ever-again-for-the-rest-of-my-life-favourite pie).

It has been awesome seeing my students engaged in writing. They are sharing their writing with each other and sharing it with me and they are finding ways to add details, add depth, improve word choice, and clean up conventions but, more importantly, they are learning how to share the ideas that form in their minds and put them in writing.

I know there are other writing workshop models, curricula, and guides out there and I am sure that they work well, too, but I am really glad that I got to learn about the Lucy Calkins’ series and try it out this year. I love seeing my students growing as authors!

A Job for Everyone

For many years now, I have used the idea of having classroom jobs in my room as I way to help foster a sense of shared responsibility for our classroom.



At the same time, I have been pondering how I can really improve the use of time at the end of the day. As I have mentioned recently, the end of the day routines in my classroom have been somewhat chaotic this year, so I switched my P.E. and read aloud times and moved Today’s Topics into a facet of my Daily CAFE (literacy block). These changes have helped, but there has been still chaos at the end of the day or, even worse, we run out of time for our read aloud.

I was talking to my student teacher about this frustration and told her that I would be asking around and seeking ideas from others to see what they’ve done. I remarked that, during my first year of teaching, I had several students in the after-school child care program who would come into my room to stack chairs for me. However, this hasn’t been a feasible solution this year. Then I thought about making it a responsibility for my substitute helpers, who have also been tasked with passing out lunch cards each day.

And that’s when it hit me: I need more jobs.

In fact, I need a job for every student, every day.

So I Googled “classroom job ideas” and found a list from Scholastic that was pretty good but I adapted it to fit my needs and added a few roles. Then I updated my classroom job chart, so this is what it looks like now:


I have also typed up brief descriptions of the jobs that will be placed next to the chart so that students can see what they are expected to do. I am sure that there will be some bumps along the way as we get these new routines in place, but I am also sure that making sure that every student has a job to do every day will help strengthen our sense of community.

And hopefully less chaos at the end of the day.

New Schedule

I admit, I sometimes get in a rut when it comes to doing things a certain way at a certain time. I like schedules, I like consistency, and I like to keep things the way they are if they are working.

Of course, sometimes things aren’t working and I keep trying to keep them the way they are, anyway.

This is kind of silly, especially because one of my personal mantras is a quote from the movie “Australia.” After two of the main characters have discussed something they both view as a problem and one says that it should be changed, the other responds, “But that is just the way it is!” The first then makes brilliantly simply yet profound statement:

So after nearly three months of trying to find a better way to get some better control to our end of the day routines in our classroom, I realised that one of the problems has been a direct result of having P.E. scheduled from 2:15-2:45. That time just has not given us enough time to return to the classroom, get packed up, and ready to go without a lot running around and chaos.

As a result, I was finally able to look at the P.E. schedule for the building and found that another teacher recently moved her times, which opened up the spots from 1:00-1:30 on Monday and Wednesday. I checked with the various interventionists who work with my students and decided to take the spots. Moving our P.E. times allowed me move our literacy block forward half an hour and move my daily read aloud to the very end of the day. So this is what my new schedule looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 4.45.52 PM

We started working with this new schedule last Friday but we had a lot of changes in the day so today was our first time really trying to follow it. The day worked fairly well until it got to be time to pack up (Today’s Topics on the schedule). Things were still a bit chaotic and so we were not able to read more of Fablehaven. We did have a brief class discussion about it, though, and it seems like the students are willing to give it a go again. I am hopeful that this schedule will be better once we work out the kinks.

But if it doesn’t, that just means I have to do something new!



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