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


Random Quotations from Room 31

“Wow! Adding and subtracting mixed numbers is actually fun when you know what you’re doing!” (Said at the end of our guided math group when she finally understood the process of regrouping fractions, turning improper fractions into mixed numbers, and reducing to simplest form.)

“Hey, Mr. Valencic, do you know what stevia is?” (Asked in the middle of a reading test that had absolutely nothing to do with stevia. At. All.)

“I’ve only read the first Harry Potter series. I haven’t read the second one.” (Said when we were discussing Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Star Wars. She got her main characters mixed up.)

“You’ve never seen Star Wars?!” “Well, I think I’ve seen about five minutes of the first one?” (Said during the same conversation as above.)

“I read books on my own!” “Oh, really? Name the last complex book you read.” “I just finished The Hobbit.” “You read that for class. Name the last complex book you read for fun.” “Double Fudge. Wait, no, that’s not complex. Um… I don’t know!” (Also said during the same conversation as above.)

Welcome to fourth grade at the end of the year, my friends. What random quotations have your heard recently?

Letting Students Decide

I’ve found myself pondering the concept of student ownership a lot over the past year or so. The research is pretty solid on this: when you allow students to make decisions that impact their own learning, when you seek not just for buy-in but actual ownership, they respond more positively. Instead of just having them stop fighting against you, they are working with you toward a common goal.

Some things I have done to increase ownership have included letting students determine our classroom expectations, giving them freedom to select research groups or math partners, encouraging them to select their own books for independent reading, letting them decide the subject matter for their essays, and asking their input on small decisions such as whether to do recess before music or after.

But I’ve always maintained my “teacher control” on some things: guided math groups, guided reading groups, the general schedule of the day, the type of math homework I send home, the book I choose to read aloud to the class, which class we are partnering with for learning buddies.

Then there is another thing that I have always given myself 75% of the control over: the seating arrangement in my actually-a-little-bit-too-small-for-what-we-need classroom. I have allowed students to pick their group members and I have let them choose whom they would sit with, but I’ve been the one to decide how the desks are arranged, whether it was a series of rows facing the front of the room or groups of four or six desks that are facing the side walls of the classroom.

Today I did something that bordered on downright crazy: I let the students decide the furniture arrangement. And their seating arrangement.

Here’s how it happened: We had finished building our balloon-powered JetToy cars and today was the competition. We couldn’t use the hallways or the gym this year, so I had the students push all of the desks out of the way to clear space in the middle of the room. After seeing which car could go the furthest and which car could go the fastest, I gave the students five minutes to arrange the room. I told them that they couldn’t move my bookshelves, my desk, or my back table, but the rest of the space was theirs to do as they saw fit. Then I started the timer and watched and listened to the chaos. Without any one student taking the lead, the class worked as a team of 26 students and they arranged their desks in a way that they felt made sense.


They were pleased with their work and excited to try it out. I looked at it and simply said, “Huh. I never thought about doing it this way. Interesting.”

One long row of nine desks at the back, a small column of three desks with a fourth making an L, a row of five meeting a column of four making another L, and a row of five in the middle. There are five entry points total that let me circulate the room as I monitor students and answer questions.

What surprised me most was that I didn’t have any small groups of best friends move their desks away from everyone else and form their own island of two or three. Even though many students chose to sit near their friends, they are in a big group and oriented in such a way that they can see the front of the room when necessary.

I think this is something I am going to do more often. I like letting students decide because I have found that they really do respond well to the empowerment that comes from being agents of their own lives.

How do you let go and let students decide?

So Much Going On

Wow. I know I have decreased my blogging frequency this year, but I just realised that it has been over two weeks since I last updated and that is pretty bad, even for me.


It has been a really busy two weeks. In addition to everything we have had going on in my classroom, I am in the final weeks of my master’s degree program (graduation is on May 14!) and I have been spending a lot of time after school working on collecting artifacts from my internship, writing reflections, and doing a massive online training module that is required for my principal’s endorsement. (Speaking of which, I am 99% certain I’ve mentioned this at least once in the past two years, but my master’s degree is going to be in educational administration and I will be receiving my principal’s endorsement so that I can one day move from the self-contained classroom to the principal’s office. I am not sure when that is actually going to happen, though.)

So, what has been keeping us so busy over the past two weeks? Here are a few highlights: Read the rest of this page »

Reflections on Testing

Way back in my first year of teaching here at Wiley, I found myself reflecting on the curious wording the Emergency Alert Broadcast System that used to conduct regular tests. I remember hearing the distinctive tone sound over the radio or see the test pattern and tone on the television as I was growing up, always followed by this message:

“This has been a test. This has only been a test of the Emergency Alert System. In the case of an actual emergency, you would be directed to tune in to your local news agency. Again, this has been a test.”


My students are in the midst of their annual state-mandated standardised testing cycle. Illinois, along with 17 other states, has partnered with the the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College or Careers (PARCC) to develop an end-of-the-year standardised test that sees how well students have mastered the rigorous content standards known as the Common Core State Standards.

Now, right away I know that there were two terms in that previous paragraph that set off alarm bells for my some of readers: PARCC and Common Core. It should not be a surprise to any of my regular readers (all 22 of you according to the WordPress statistics) that I am not opposed to either. I understand and see the value in broad-scope standardised assessment that can be used at a macro level (district, state, nation) to give a snapshot of student achievement. I don’t support the high-stakes component of such testing that requires every student in every class in every designated grade to take the test or see the school subjected to penalties or fines. And I don’t particularly think that the standardised assessments as we give them are the best way to assess students. (In fact, I am much more in favour of dynamic measures that get increasingly complex as students demonstrate mastery so that I know where my students are actually at instead of, as is often the case, where they are not.)

And you will never find me speaking ill of rigourous standards for learning, such as the Common Core State Standards, even if I believe that they have some flaws. Finally, let me remind you that standards do not dictate curricula and curricula do not dictate how I teach; standards tell me where my students should be, curricula provide a roadmap for getting there, but, ultimately, I am the one who makes the instructional decisions in my classroom.

So, with all of that said, I’ve noticed three typical approaches from my students as we have started this testing cycle: some students want to rush through and just be done with it. Some take every second possible to respond then check and re-check their work. Most students are somewhere in the middle. Some students want to do well because they care deeply about always doing everything well. Some honestly don’t care. Most want to do well because they know it is what their parents and teachers want.

Here’s the thing, though: it is only a test. Or, more specifically, it is only test. One of the most common themes about testing I have heard in my school district since I started working here in 2011 is that we never define any of our students by one metric, one rubric, one test, one datum. We look at all of the data. We look at all of the students’ work. We look at students as a group and we look at their individual work. The Urbana School District #116 mission statement says, in part, that we will “ensure that all learners acquire knowledge, develop skills, and build character to achieve personal greatness.” I have been told that the last two words were coined by an Urbana High School student.

“Personal greatness.”

I don’t compare my students to each other. I don’t compare them to their siblings, older or younger. I don’t compare them to other students. I don’t compare them to their parents or other family members. I only compare them to themselves. I want to see each of my students achieve personal greatness by doing better tomorrow than they did yesterday. Each day a chance for learning, for improvement, for growth.

And the tests?

They are just tests. They just let me know where they are in that one small moment. The test scores help me plan instruction, they help me know how to help my students learn. They guide and inform, but they never define.

“This has been a test. This has only been a test of the Emergency Alert System. In the case of an actual emergency, you would be directed to tune in to your local news agency. Again, this has been a test.”

KAM-BAM 2016

I’ve mentioned quite frequently the amazing resources we have in our community as a result of having both a world-class university and a top-tier community college right here in our backyards: the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Spurlock Museum, the Staerkel Planetarium, the Pollinatarium, the Arboretum, and the Krannert Art Museum, in addition to many others. Read the rest of this page »

The Sir Roger de Coverley Dance

In Urbana School District #116, we are very proud of our fine arts programming that is available for all students in all grade levels. In the elementary schools, my students are able to attend special classes for visual arts, music, drama, and dance. In addition, classroom teachers are able to arrange for arts infusion projects with the fine arts teachers, tying the classroom curriculum to the arts. I am not always able to take advantage of such infusion projects, but I was really excited to do one to go along with our social studies unit on colonial America.

I talked with our dance teacher and she was able to find out information about a traditional colonial era dance called the Sir Roger de Coverley (sometimes spelled Coverly) dance. This is a group dance that involves six pairs (traditionally male and female partners, but can easily be done with any arrangement of pairs). We modified it slightly to better accommodate our students and to keep them more actively involved.

After practicing once a week for several weeks, we had a demonstration this morning. Parents, family, and friends were invited to attend, along with our kindergarten buddies. My students demonstrated for the dance first and did an amazing job remembering all of the steps and the turns! Then they invited the audience to join in and they taught the dance to them! Several parents took videos and pictures; alas, because I was helping to prompt the students, I was unable to do either. (Any parents who were there, please feel free to upload to Google Drive and share your videos or pictures with me or burn them onto a disc!)

As I told our audience at the end, the entire thing went about 500 times better than I could have hoped for! There was so much laughter and fun and clapping and enjoyment all around! I love being able to infuse the arts into my curriculum and hope to fit in at least one more project before the end of the year. (I already have an idea in my head to discuss with our music teacher but I haven’t talked to her about it at all yet so I don’t know if we will be able to pull it off or not!)

Thank you to everyone who came out to support my students! They were so excited to see so many people there for them and they had a wonderful time teaching what they had learned to others!

How do you connect the arts to what you are doing?


What Is Technology?

For the past two years, I have been the Instructional Technology Specialist for my school. This responsibility has been in addition to my role as a classroom teacher and is just one of many additional duties that I have taken on. I applied for, was offered, and accepted the role because I am passionate about not just using technology in the classroom, but using it well. Because of this role, I test out a lot of new things in my room that I then share with others and encourage them to try out. (Of course, some of the things I have tried out have been failures and so I just drop them completely and encourage others to not use them; I don’t blog about those, though, because I really try to keep this as positive as possible.) As the Instructional Technology Specialist, I am a member of my district’s Tech Cadre and serve on the Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments task force. I am also a Grade-Level Leader and work with other grade-level leaders in the district to identify and implement best practices in technology education at the elementary level.

When it comes to technology, one of my great peeves is when others describe technology simply in terms of 21st century digital technologies; i.e., Internet-connected devices. Computers, tablets, mobile devices, interactive boards and screens, projectors, media players, and similar things are all definitely part of the large umbrella of technology. But technology is so much more than just the devices.

Illinois recently adopted the Next Generation Science Standards as the targets for what students can and should be able to do and know at different grade levels. In addition to concepts and skills about earth science, life science, and physical science, students are also taught grade-appropriate concepts about technology and engineering. A great resource the Instructional Coaches in my district have made available is the Engineering is Elementary series. The series presents a variety of engineering tasks that correlate directly to the new science standards and also pair the activities with multicultural real-world texts and applications. Each unit starts with a fundamental question to ask students:

What is technology?

Knowing how I feel about the concept of technology, it should be no surprise that I was thrilled when my students explained that technology is “anything designed or created to make a task easier to accomplish or make the world a better place.”


That definition is exactly what I want my students to understand! To help further this idea, I had them work with their seat groups to identify an item on their desks (not a Chromebook), that was an example of technology and describe what problem it solves. Some of the items identified were glasses (they help you see better), headphones (they let you listen to music without distracting others), earmuffs (they help block out extra noise), and a ruler (it helps you accurately measure different lengths).

21st century digital devices are absolutely technology and they are definitely the first things people tend to think of when they think of technology; but technology is so much more than just the device. Technology is what you use to solve a problem. Tomorrow we will discuss what role engineers play in creating and developing technology as we learning about geotechnical engineering. In the meantime, I can rest easy know that my students recognise that technology is much more than the device that connects to the Internet.

How do you define technology?


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