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


Illinois Animal Expo!

I have done an inquiry unit for science for four years now. The first year I did it, the students all picked their own animal and worked in small groups to learn about the habitats, life cycle, food web, appearance, and adaptations of animals, which tied to our fourth grade Illinois learning standards for science. The second year was after I participated in the Lake Guardian workshop on Lake Ontario and I chose to focus on fish from the Great Lakes region because I had made a commitment with the workshop to integrate Great Lakes literacy into my curriculum. As Illinois has shifted to the Next Generation Science Standards, I have wrapped the inquiry unit around the standard that students would be able to “construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.” The other fourth grade teacher did an expo in her room last year on animals from Illinois, so we decided to merge our inquiry units and do a shared Illinois Animal Expo this year. Read the rest of this page »

Teaching, Reteaching, and Reteaching Again

Conventional wisdom tells us that someone needs to do something for 21 consecutive days in order for it to become a habit. However, that conventional wisdom is based on rather faulty anecdotal evidence, and so a team of researchers, Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts and Jane Wardle, set out to find a more definitive answer to the amount of time it takes something to become habit forming.

Their results, to use the vernacular of modern click-baiting links, will surprise you: they found that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to make any given action a habit!

What does this have to do with me, my students, and fourth grade?

From the very start of the year, we start working on establish routines in the classroom. I teach them, the students practice them, I reteach them, they practice them again. We put them into place and we use them consistently throughout the day, all day, every day, every week, every month.

But it takes time for those routines to become habits. We know that young children take longer to learn skills and have the things they are told move from their short-term to their long-term memory. And so I find myself telling my students the same things over and over and over again, although I try to find different ways to say it and different ways to model it.

Some days I feel like I have told them something a hundred times, maybe even a thousand times or more. And the reality is that I probably have. The reality is also that they need to hear it a hundred times, or ever a thousand times. They are learning new habits.

This is also why I feel it is so important for their to be consistency across grade levels. If students hear similar messages in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and third grade, it is more likely that they will quickly respond to signals and expectations when they reach my room as fourth graders. While the research referenced above says that there is not much difference if someone misses a day or two when trying to form a new habit, the reality for my students is that they are only in school for less than a quarter of the day, less than half of a year. So it is to be expected that it will take them much longer to form those habits.

And that means that I need to teach, then reteach, the reteach again. That’s what teaching is all about. And so we will continue to revisit our routines, continue to practice, rehearse, implement, and use them again and again and again.

Super Blood Moons, Lunar Eclipse, and Proving the Teacher Wrong

Every now and then I make outlandish claims to students just to see if they are really paying attention to what I am saying. And sometimes those outlandish claims turn into really fun quick projects for my class.

Today provided one of those opportunities.

Each Monday morning in our class meeting, the students get a chance to share what they did over the weekend. The vast majority of my class mentioned staying up to see the super blood moon and the lunar eclipse that happened last night. After every student shared, I told them what I did: took a nap on Saturday afternoon, watched the new Cinderella movie that evening, and orchestrated the lunar eclipse on Sunday evening.

One student said, “Wow, that’s awesome. Mr. Valencic!”

The rest of the class said, “Wait… what?! You didn’t cause the lunar eclipse!”

I said, “Oh, really? Okay, you have ten minutes to prove me wrong. You’ve got your Chromebooks and our science books. Go for it!”

Image not even close to be to scale.(Image not even close to being to scale.)

For the next ten minutes, nearly every student in my class was reading articles about lunar eclipses and learning more about what causes a blood moon and a super moon. Then they shared with each other what they learned. There were discussions about the rotation of the earth and the orbit of the moon and the earth’s orbit around the sun (one student said something about the sun orbiting the earth but his classmate’s quickly corrected him). And they all convincingly proved that I didn’t actually cause the eclipse.

I did get to take a nice long nap on Saturday afternoon, though, and I really did watch the new Cinderella movie that evening.

Book Review: 33 Minutes … Until Morgan Sturtz Kicks My Butt

I have been fortunate enough to be able to attend the Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington, Illinois, each May for the past three years. In the process I have met awesome young people who write fantastic stories and also have been able to network with professional published authors from our state. Through this conference, I have been able to introduce my students to wonderful new books. I have also, from time to time, struck up professional friendships with these writers.

I decided this year to use several of the books I have received at the conference for read-alouds with my class. One of the first books I selected was a work of fiction by Todd Hasak-Lowy called 33 Minutes … Until Morgan Sturtz Kicks My Butt. One reason I picked this book, other than it being such a great story, was that it was inspired, in a way, by Mr. Hasak-Lowy’s own experiences in middle school. When I do my realistic fiction narrative writing unit with my class, one of the suggestions is for students to select personal experiences and use them as the “seed” for their stories. During the Young Authors Conference this past May, I mentioned this to Mr. Hasak-Lowy and he thought it would be a wonderful connection and offered to do a Skype chat or something similar with my class to share his writing process.

We started reading 33 Minutes during the second week of school. It has been an interesting experience, because the narrative style is very different from what my students are used to. Instead of being a fairly linear tale, it jumps back and forth between the present and the past. Instead of numbered chapters, each section is separated with a timestamp. All throughout, students get a picture of what other students may think about middle school: the challenges of finding where you fit in, dealing with teachers who are either excessively strict, excessively passive, or excessively passionate about geeky matters, and, of course, the end of lifelong friendships.

I wasn’t sure how well my class was accepting the story, but we finished it today and the majority of the class felt it was a great story! At least one student went to the local library and acquired a copy so he could reread the entire book. (He actually passed us and finished the book a day earlier than we did!)

Now that we are done, I will be contacting Mr. Hasak-Lowy to see if he is still willing and able to chat with my students via Skype. I understand how busy authors often are, though, but I know that my students would be thrilled to chat with a “real” author!

Student Guest Post 4: Why We Love Mr. Valencic

This is the fourth guest post written by students. I have a feeling that these particular students were trying to flatter me. I appreciate the compliments, even if it is a bit difficult to follow.

Mr. Valencic  is nice and sweet.   And he love us no matter what. on Thursday  Mr.Valencic  had to o to a meeting and we had a sub for when we were in 3rd grade  and he is so nice and we were doing math. And he was so cool  Because he let a kid  teach because he was talking to his friends and he was so nice that what he does in 3rd grade. Now we are in mr .V class and he  is coolest because he is a movie star and he came 1st place and he is a nice teacher because he is a  movie star forever. And he is a super hero of teaching. and he the loves kids and teachers.

As always, I did not make any changes to what they wrote. I think what I am going to start doing is having the class edit the post for mechanics (not style) on the following Monday.

Have a wonderful weekend!

New Front Row Lesson Plans

I have been using Front Row in my class for differentiated math instruction for my students since last year. It has worked really well and has helped me keep students engaged in improving their math skills at their current instructional levels. The Front Row team recently developed multi-day math lessons for all grade levels that cover a variety of Common Core math standards.

As the instructional technology specialist for my building, I’ve been able to keep in close communication with the Front Row team and got to preview some of these lesson units in advance. One of the units for fourth grade focuses on students’ ability to read and write multi-digit whole numbers using their understanding place value. The unit is spread out over the course of three days and centers around a fictional series of elections for mayor, governor, and president.

My student teacher and I planned on her beginning to lead Number Talks in our room this week, and the Front Row unit provided a perfect framework for doing this. Constitution Day (September 17) also happens to be this week, so it was a perfect combination of opportunities and needs that led us to decide to use this unit this week with my class.

We did the first lesson today and it went really well. My student teacher started the lesson with a Number Talk that involved using mental math strategies to multiply a two-digit number by a one-digit number, then we transitioned over to me for the remainder of the lesson. The students worked in their desk clusters of six to analyze election results from absentee ballots and polling places to determine who won the mayoral race. Then they shared their strategies with the whole class. One group discovered that they had only counted the absentee ballots and forgot about the votes collected on the day of the election. The great part was that the students were using the respectful transition phrases we encouraged, such as “I disagree with ____ because ____” or “Another way to think about how ____ solved the problem is _____.”

One thing I learned from our activity today was that groups of six are too big for the collaborative conversations needed, so my student teacher and I looked through the exit slips the students turned in and set up groups of three, which we will introduce tomorrow. All in all, though, this lesson went over very well and I am excited to see what the students do tomorrow!

The Power of the Hat

Teachers do silly things from time to time.

I know, shocker, right?

But seriously, bear with me. In my building alone, here are some of the sillier things that have happened during the past four years and a month that I have taught at Wiley:

  • Duct Tape Divas – Several of the teachers in the Primary hall dress up in crazy costumes made primarily with duct tape when we have our Coyote Colleges (school-wide assemblies) to keep students focused on them.
  • Duct-Taping a teacher to the wall – During my first year, our school-wide incentive for positive behaviour was that we allowed the students to tape one of our teachers to the wall in the gym. Then we left her up there for a crazy long time while we finished an assembly.
  • Dunk Tank – During my second year, we had a dunk tank as the incentive for student behaviour. Teachers were placed in the tank and students took turns hurling a softball at a target so that they could soak their teachers.
  • Shaving my head (twice!) – During my third year, I grew my hair out until the students had read over 1,000,000 minutes! Then it all got shaved off. During my fourth year, I grew my hair out again so that we could encourage students to do 1,000,000 math problems. (We reached half the goal and therefore shaved off only half of my hair.)
  • Tutu Fridays – Our kindergarten teachers wear tutus on Fridays. Just because.
  • Colour Run – For two years now, our end-of-the-year celebration has been a colour run which has resulted in students and teachers getting covered in multi-coloured cornstarch.
  • Singing Songs – Lots of teachers will sing silly songs to teach routines and procedures and expectations to the students.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg! Seriously, if it is going to get the students engaged and excited, we will probably do it!

Then there are the other silly things that we do just for ourselves. Because my hair is still relatively short, I have started wearing my fedoras to school. (I can’t wear them when my hair is longer because hats mess up my Naturally Curly Hair™ (note: not actually trademarked). The first time I wore my hat was on a Friday and I decided to wear it all day long. The following Monday I decided to wear my hat only when we were going outside or when I was meeting with a small group.

That’s the silly thing. I told the students that my hat was a signal that they were not allowed to interrupt me when it was on my head unless they were bleeding, vomiting, on fire, or dying. If a student came to me while I was wearing my fedora and s/he was not experiencing one of the four previously-mentioned conditions, I would simply point to the hat, shrug, and continue what I was doing.

Photo on 9-14-15 at 5.58 PM

Here’s the crazy thing: It has worked! Even my students who were the most notorious for interrupting me have stopped trying to ask me questions when they see a fedora on my head. (One of them will even mutter to herself, “Oh, nuts, he’s wearing the hat again! I’ll just have to wait!”

Here’s another silly thing: Sometimes I take the hat off because my head is itching. When a student sees this, s/he may start to come over to ask me a question, but then I put the fedora back on and what happens? That students says, “Oh, I guess I can’t talk to him yet!”

The other crazy thing: It still works! And today I saw an additional component to my students’ responses when I was working with a small group. Instead of just sitting in his/her seat doing nothing when s/he was stuck, the student would quietly, respectfully ask a classmate for help! (This is one of our classroom expectations and I was thrilled to see it in action!)

So now that I know that my totally silly “I feel like wearing a hat today” decision has turned into a wonderful classroom management tool, I find myself wanting to get a couple more fedoras. I only have two right now and, honestly, one of them is more of a summer hat. (That’s another silly thing, I know.) But in the meantime, I will continue to keep my black pinstriped fedora here at school so I can plop it on my head whenever I am working with an individual student or a small group! Because hey: if it works, it works!



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