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


Recognising Limitations

I hate when I am forced to come to terms with my own human limitations. I am the kind of person who always hopes I can find a way to do everything I plan on doing, even if there are simply not enough hours in the day to do them. I stretch myself thin, I sneak in brief moments to tackle different tasks, and I strive to find a way to make it all work.

But sometimes I have to take a step back and acknowledge that I can’t do it all. I can’t be everywhere and do everything that I wish I could do. I have to prioritise and perform goal-setting triage to cut out the parts that aren’t necessary.

It is especially frustrating when I find myself doing that in the classroom. There is just so much I want to do and do well! I read lots and lots and lots of books, I make mental lists of all of the best practices, I go to workshops and listen to TED talks and converse with colleagues and say to myself, “Yes! I am going to do it all! Because that is what’s best for my students! If it is a best practice, I will find a way to do it!”

Unfortunately, many best practices rely on unlimited resources or environmental factors I can’t control. It is a best practice to keep a group limited to 8-12 individuals, as that is when they are most effective; I have 22 students. It is a best practice to conference with students individually to provide instant feedback, to use small-group instruction on targeted skills, to group students by specific needs and not by broader categories. I only have about seven or so hours in the school day to do all of that, and at some point I have to have time to teach everyone, to allow for independent practice, to allow students to inquire and to explore, and to let them play.

Oh, how important it is to let students play! It is through play that they learn how to interact with others in pro-social ways that allow them to be part of a larger community. It is through play that we learn to problem solve, to think critically, to explore, to imagine, to cooperate, to challenge, to help, to grow.

So what am I supposed to do when I realise I can’t do it all, when I come face-to-face with my imperfect limitations? I have to tell myself that it is okay. Good practices, while not best, are better than no practices. Which means that I have to be okay with not doing scheduled guided math groups right now because we are all learning Eureka Math together. I have to be okay with not doing everything I hoped to do every single day as long as I am doing things that are meaningful and valuable. I have to ask myself, “Are my students learning? Are they growing?” If the answer is yes, then I need to be okay with that.

Here’s to not beating myself up for not being able to do it all!

Weekend Writing

It has been a long-time goal of mine to help my students write more authentically. Authentic writing, for me, is writing that is real–not realistic, nor based on reality, but real as in from the heart and mind of the author. Authentic writing is something you mean and something you intend. This can be challenging when you are being told what to write and when to write, but I believe it is possible. To borrow a phrase from a book that I read this summer, I want my students to write pieces that they want to write and that the audience wants to read.

I was expressing this goal to my district’s elementary literacy coach and she had some ideas. Students often tell us they have nothing to write about or they don’t know what to write about. Her strategy for helping them overcome this writer’s block is to do something she calls “weekend writing.” I have no idea if this was an original idea she developed, if it was something she adapted, or if it is a strategy she lifted directly from another teacher, but I had never heard of it before and was excited to try it out with my class, as it seems to get at the heart of authentic writing.

After discussing and planning, we arranged for her to visit my class today to introduce the topic. She showed the students the graphic organizer for weekend writing and modeled how she would fill it out. I assisted in the process. After the organizer was completed, she and I had a conversation about what was written. This is a key component of the writing process that often gets overlooked. If students can talk to each other about what they did or what they think, they can write about it!

Once we had modeled it for the students, we gave them the graphic organizers and set them on the task of jotting down some ideas about what they did over the weekend, writing things like who they were with, what they did inside, what they did outside, what they ate, and where they went. As she told one student who said he had nothing to write, “Everyone was with someone and ate something over the weekend!” He realised this was true and immediately wrote far more than he had in previous weeks!

Students then turned to their elbow partners to discuss one single thing they recorded. As they talked, their partner asked probing questions such as “why did you do that?” or “what did you think about it?” Then students were given just five minutes to start writing. Instead of claiming they had nothing to write, each student was able to write something about their weekend that was important to them.

Tomorrow we will revisit weekend writing and explore how we can use these brief ideas, or “small moments,” as Writing Workshop guru Lucy Calkins calls them, to develop longer passages of authentic writing. I am hopeful that this writing will then transfer to students’ other writing as they think about ways to capture brief ideas and expand on them.

Oh, and the highlight of my weekend? Making a perfect batch of pumpkin French toast on Saturday morning! (Friends and family who are connected with me on social media have seen this picture already. It is too fantastic to not share. Click on the image for a link to the recipe!)


Field Trip: Black Violin

I love data. Really, I do. I find it incredibly valuable to look at data and interpret the story of what the numbers and facts represent. Data tell us so much about what a student is doing at a specific time, what is happening in a room or a school, and how students, teachers, administrators, and families are operating as a system. I love digging in deep and sifting through the massive amounts of collected data to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

A big component of data these days comes from standardised testing. There are many who thumb their noses at such assessments, rightfully arguing that not all students learn the same way or at the same rate, therefore testing them all the same way does not accurately tell us the whole picture. And I agree, especially with that last part: standardised tests should never be used to determine the whole picture. However, they do give us useful data about part of the picture and we can use that part of the picture to understand how some of the other components are working. Data drives instructional decisions and help us know what we need to do to help our students be successful.

But there are some things in a school setting that can’t be measured by hard data. There are some things that simply cannot be adequately measured, categorised, and tagged. I got a brief glimpse of this today as I went with my class, along with the other fourth grade class and both fifth grade classes, to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to see and listen to a performance of by Black Violin. This performance was a part of the Krannert Center’s amazing Youth Series, which allows young people the opportunity to watch fantastic performances in a world-class facility for a very low cost. Black Violin, for those who have never heard of them, here’s a video that provides a great explanation of what they do:

For about an hour, our students got to listen to a performance that energised and excited them. I saw students standing up, clapping, singing along, cheering, and full of a pure joy that will never be captured by a standardised test.img_4929

And that’s okay. In fact, that is more than okay. It is wonderful! The thing I love most about taking my students to Youth Series performances is that I am able to see a completely different side to my students than I will never get to see in the classroom. The message that Kev and Wil shared is that we should be willing to break out of our boxes, defy stereotypes, and do the unexpected. Watching these two guys on the stage with their violins, playing a synthesis of classical music and hip-hop, is all about breaking stereotypes!


Thank you, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Black Violin, for making it possible!

Book Reviews: Matilda

[NOTE: This is an expansion of a review I recently wrote on Goodreads.]

Despite being a fourth grade teacher and a deeply devoted bibliophile, up until a few days ago, I had only read a grand total of two books by Roald Dahl: The Enormous Crocodile and The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. (The first is a story that has long been a favourite and I hope to eventually track down a copy for my home library. I honestly don’t even know how I ended up reading the second, but it has always stayed with me as a fascinating tale of someone doing something bizarre without even realising it is happening.) I personally own a very respectable collection of Roald Dahl stories, but I have not read any of them. In fact, I don’t actually own either of the two that I have actually read!

So, at the start of the school year, I decided it was time I read more Dahl and I realised I really only had one choice: Matilda.


This is one of those stories that seemingly everyone knows, either because they’ve read the book, had it read to them, or they have seen the movie. (I myself have seen the movie at least a dozen times.) But reading it is most definitely a different experience. The relationships between Matilda and her parents and between Matilda and Miss Honey is much more important than the movie makes them.

This was a great read and a wonderful way to start the year with a magical story to engage my students (and myself!) in reading! It is always interesting to see how students respond when I read aloud exactly what is written. (Yes, Roald Dahl has a character refer to a child with a mild profanity and when I read it out loud, my class was shocked! But there were also smiles and looks of sharing a secret that we now had: their teacher was willing to read books that weren’t full of bland language that nobody in real life uses. I credit my blogging friend Katherine Sokolowski for teaching me this trick.)

There were plenty of “teachable moments” in Matilda, also, such as using rich descriptive language, different kinds of sentences, and focusing on small moments throughout writing. But there was also the opportunity to teach my students to do something that Mr. Dahl doesn’t do: use a variety of dialogue tags. In Matilda, nearly every character except Miss Trunchbull simply “says” things. She said this. She said that. He said that thing. He said something else. There are very few emotions in the dialogue. So I challenged my students to find better ways of describing how a character was speaking than just saying “said.”

But more than those, reading aloud is a way for us to enjoy a story together and strengthen our community. We work together, we play together, and we read together. I’ll be pulling out my Roald Dahl collection in my classroom so students can go deeper into his world of magic and mystery. And who knows? Maybe I’ll read some of them, too!

Trust the Students

Long-time readers of this blog know that I worked as a substitute teacher for three years before I started my full-time teaching career at Wiley, where I am now in my sixth year. Whenever anyone asks me about my experiences as a substitute, I tell them that I loved it and, if it were a possibility, that is, a job with all of the salary and benefits, I would do the job full-time. There is something thrilling about going into a new classroom every day or visiting the same classroom over the course of the year and taking on the challenge of providing quality instruction.

I will always treasure this email from a high school teacher sent on April 1, 2011, regarding an assignment I took the day before:

Thank you for covering my classes yesterday.
I must thank you for your very detailed sub notes and your willingness to follow my directions and work with the students to make sure those tasks were accomplished.  I greatly appreciate everything you did to help me and the students (and I KNOW they can be difficult).  Of the three days I was gone, yesterday went the best, and that was due to you.  I would love to have you sub for me again in the future!

I proceeded to sub for this teacher several times over the rest of the year, including once more than week because her young child had the stomach flu. I later learned that, not only had I followed her directions that day and made sure the assigned tasks were completed, but I also had helped the students complete the tasks for the previous two days before I came.

Of  course, I absolutely love my job as a full-time classroom teacher, also. (There are times I wish I had two or three of me just so I could do all of the teaching jobs I wish I could do!) But because of my previous experience as a substitute, I find myself holding substitutes in my own room to a very high standard:

  • If a substitute does not leave me any notes about what happened, I will probably not accept them in my room again.
  • If the substitute clearly ignored my detailed lesson plans, I am going to complain to my principal and request that they not be allowed to sub for me again.
  • If the substitute engages in power struggles with my students, I am probably going to find a new person to fill in for me when I have to leave. The substitute is an adult; the students are children. There is no reason to engage in a power struggle with them.
  • If the substitute does not treat my students with respect, I know that the students will have a hard time respecting them, and so I will find someone else.

If a substitute does not do any of those things–that is, if he or she leaves a note with what happened, followed my plans, worked with my students, and treated them with respect, that person will move to the top of my list as a preferred substitute.

When I think of this list, I think the last one is actually the most important. I don’t expect my students to like the substitute teacher. I don’t expect the substitute teacher to like the students. (I don’t expect that of my relationship with my students, either.) But I do expect them to respect one another. I expect my substitutes to trust the students to do what is right.

We have classroom expectations and school-wide expectations. These are things that we believe the students will do, not rules to tell them what they should not do. I expect my students to be safe, respectful, and responsible. I expect them to help others, which includes substitute teachers. And I expect the substitute teachers to be safe, respectful, and responsible and to not only help my students, but also ask them for their help.

I know there are students who try to take advantage of substitute teachers. I know that such students are in my own classroom. But they are the minority. The whole class should not be punished because of a few who are trying to take advantage of a situation. And, honestly, most of the time? The things students are trying to “get away with” are so insignificant that I would direct the substitute’s attention to bullet point three: don’t engage in power struggles!

I have regular times each week I have to leave my classroom, and I have a few times in the coming months that I will be gone for personal or professional reasons. So I know I need to spend more time teaching my students how to keep working and moving forward when I am gone. But I also need to teach my substitutes to trust my students.

They know what they are supposed to do. Let them do it.

Return of the Chromebooks

It has been a long three weeks or so without Chromebooks in our classroom. There was an issue with the district’s cache servers shortly after school started that resulted in all devices having to be shut off and put away until they could resolve the issue. Today was the first day we were able to access the devices and wow, what a difference it made!

When I first got my cart of Chromebooks, I signed an agreement that I would infuse technology into my classroom practices and instruction. I spent the past two years or so researching websites and online learning tools, trying them out with my students, studying best practices of technology integration, and generally designing my classroom around the use of Chromebooks throughout the day.

Some people have expressed shock that my students access their devices first thing in the morning and keep them out until the end of the day. They are not on them all day, of course, but they are nearby and used much more than they are not.

During our mathing workshop, students use their Chromebooks to access sites such as Zearn, Front Row, Prodigy, and XtraMath to support and supplement their learning and help them improve on skills. The devices are accessed for fluency practice and for independent work while I am with small groups.

During our inquiry workshop, the Chromebooks become the principle tool for researching a variety of topics, keeping notes, and demonstrating learning through multimedia presentations. The students also use their devices to communicate with one another using shared documents in Google Drive.

During our writing workshop, students take their early drafts and type them into Google Docs, then use the available tools to edit, revise, and format as they prepare for publication. They also use the Chromebooks to research ideas and find better ways to express ideas.

During our reading workshop, the Chromebooks are used as students access eBooks through Storia, read articles on Wonderopolis and Newsela, continue writing that they started during writing workshop, and engage in creative writing through Storybird. They also record reading through sites like Whooo’s Reading.

On top of all that, we use our devices for online quizzes through Google Forms, Google Classroom, and Kahoot! Students take brain and body breaks with sites like GoNoodle and find ways to focus with music accessed through Google Play. (We have access to the full suite of Google Apps for Education.) They review and discuss digital citizenship through the Common Sense Media Digital Passport and share projects with one another, with students in other classes, and with their families.

Like I said, I have a technology-infused classroom. So we were all very excited when we were given the green light to start using our devices again! I can hardly wait to see what my students do with their devices tomorrow!

Clever Solutions

I try to give my students a lot of freedom and choice in my classroom. I am not a Montesorrian, and I certainly have restrictions on what they can and cannot do, but, even with that in mind, I let them make a lot of decisions for themselves. This goes from selecting partners and small groups to picking books to read independently to deciding what to do for homework each evening.

I also allow my students to find the best place to work in our small classroom. Some choose to stay at desks, others prefer the carpet, yet others like to lean against the wall or the heating units. When working, several students have found that noise-cancelling headphones really help them focus. (I used to have a full classroom set of 30 that I picked up for a very low price at Harbor Freight a few years ago, but now I am down to about 15 or 20.)

The other day I was finishing up in my classroom after students had left and I noticed something:


At first I felt a moment of frustration because it appeared that several students had failed to take care of their own materials (one of our classroom expectations), but then I realised that I was completely wrong; in fact, the students had come up with an ingenious solution to a complex problem: the box of headphones is kept at the back of the room, but they didn’t want to keep getting them every day. At the same time, their desks are crowded with books and papers as it is, so they wouldn’t fit inside. Finally, desks are supposed to be cleared off at the end of each day (this happens with varying degrees of success), so they couldn’t just leave them on top. So what did the students do? They simply hung them from the support bar under the desks.

It made me wonder what other clever solutions my students come up with that I don’t immediately notice. How many solutions to a problem do they devise that I see as incorrect because it doesn’t look or sound the way I expect? How often do I mistake clever ideas for being off-task, distracted, or disrespectful?

I hope that I don’t.

But I get a feeling that I probably do.

So the next time I see something that seems off, I will ask a student first: can you tell me why you are doing this?

I’m pretty certain I’ll be just as surprised as I was when I find half a dozen or so headphones dangling underneath my desks.