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


Classroom Celebration

At the start of the year, we started filling our jar with pebbles. Each pebble represented a compliment that the class had received from another adult in the building, including teachers, staff, and our principal. It took a long time, but we finally filled the jar for the first time this year, and so the class had a celebration this afternoon.

I let them vote on what they wanted to do and they decided that their celebration would be wearing their pajamas to school and watching a movie in the afternoon. (The only limitation placed on the celebration was that it couldn’t be against school rules, such as bringing personal electronic devices, and it could cost anyone money.)

After a morning of working on math, social studies, writing, and dance, I finished our latest read-aloud selection (The Walls of Cartagena by Julia Durango) and gave the students four options for our movie: Matilda, Bee Movie, Jumanji, or The Lorax. (Three of the choices based on books that many of the students know.) They eventually voted on Jumanji, and so we turned off the lights, pulled down the shades, and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon watching a delightful movie based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg. Then it was time to clean up and head home for the weekend!

We are going to start filling the pebble jar again on Monday. Instead of filling it for compliments, though, we are going to fill it for meeting expectations in the classroom each morning and afternoon. We have nine total expectations in the classroom:

  • Be Safe
    • Keep hands, feet, and other objects to yourself
    • Walk with a purpose
    • Give others space
  • Be Respectful
    • Listen to the speaker
    • Use kind words
    • Ask for help
  • Be Responsible
    • Help others and work together
    • Use appropriate volume
    • Do your own work

The students can earn one pebble for meeting each expectation, for a total possibility of eighteen pebbles a day. As an added incentive, if they meet all nine expectations in the morning, the pebbles are doubled, and the same for the afternoon, which means they could ultimately receive thirty-six pebbles in just one day! After explaining all of this, I will ask the students to set a goal for when they would like to fill the pebble jar again. I am hoping that this will help them stay focused on positive behaviours in the classroom.

How do you encourage others to meet expectations?

Learning Without Devices

My classroom is a 21st century technology-enhanced learning environment. That is something I am very proud of and work hard to accomplish each day. There are some teachers who allow modern technologies to take over in the room and others who are downright fearful of them. I would like to think that I have found a balance of using devices to enhance learning in ways that could not be done without the devices while also making sure that learning is student-centered and student-driven.

Sometimes, however, I have to scale back on the use of devices so my students can develop better work habits. I noticed the other day that far too many of my students were getting off-task during our Daily CAFE, primarily because I am working with small groups during that time so there is nobody monitoring what they are doing on their devices. (They are supposed to be engaged in a variety of literacy-based activities, such as reading, writing, and researching different topics.) Because there has been side widespread misuse of the devices in the afternoon, I have decreed that the devices will be put away before lunch. Students will have to earn the right to use them during literacy by showing that they can follow directions and engage in independent tasks for an extended period of time.

There was some grumbling about this, but the class by and large understood and accepted the consequences. Those who had been doing what they were supposed to do will continue to do so and quickly earn the privilege again. Those who have not will hopefully adjust their behaviour accordingly.

I discovered today, however, an interesting unexpected consequence of this. I was working with one of my reading groups and gave them a task to create a dictionary of terms of their own choosing. We discussed the components necessary: terms listed in alphabetical order, definitions, illustrations/diagrams as appropriate, etc.

Then one of the students asked a question: “How are we supposed to find the definitions if we aren’t allowed to use our Chromebooks?”

My response was initially silence. I looked at her and waited. She asked it again. I continued to just look at her. Her group members also stared, but at me. They were all wondering how they could complete this task without using their devices during literacy. I finally answered, “How do you think you can find the definitions without using your Chromebook?” (Yes, one of my favourite ways to respond to a student’s question is to repeat it back.) One of the students hesitantly suggested using her computer at home. Another said he could do research in the morning.

I asked them how they completed tasks like this before Chromebooks. After all, they first started using them at the start of their third grade year, which means they went through roughly 80% of their lives without having Chromebooks. Their eyes lit up as they excitedly talked to each other about using dictionaries in the classroom, looking up examples in their books, or creating definitions from their own knowledge of words.

It didn’t occur to me that being in a classroom so rich in modern technology would lead my students to forgetting how to learn without their devices. I am glad that this will give them a chance to revisit some of the other learning tools they have at their disposal!

How do you create a balance between enhanced technologies and other resources?

Funeral for a Friend

We went to a funeral for a friend in my classroom today.

Actually, we didn’t go to a funeral; we actually held a funeral.

And, to be fair, it wasn’t so much for a friend as it was for a phrase that has been overused in my classroom this year.

I got the idea from a colleague within my district. Whenever she notices a word or phrase that students overuse, she has a funeral for it and then challenges students to stop using it in the classroom. I’ve loved this idea since she first told me about it three years ago, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to use it.

The phrase that we put to rest today was “I am going to tell you…” Nearly all of my students have been using this phrase in their persuasive, explanatory, and opinion writing. I have repeatedly explained that they do not need to tell me that they are going to tell me because they are obviously telling me when they tell me something! Of course, that is a bit confusing, so I tried something new to get the point across: during my minilesson for writers’ workshop, I started every single sentence with “I am going to tell you…” I nearly two dozen pairs of eyes looking at me with bewilderment as I explained what I wanted them to do by saying, “I am going to tell you that you should have an introduction that tells your audience about your subject. Then I am going to tell you that you should have at least three supporting reasons for why you want your audience to know about your topic. The next thing I am going to tell you is that you should have a paragraph that describes the materials you will need to do the thing you are explaining…”

After establishing the reality of the overuse of this entirely unnecessary phrase, we brainstormed some reasons why the students loved using it: the phrase constantly focuses on us as the writers, it has a sense of humour, it is always there for us, and we love it.

But I shared the sad news that the phrase “I am going to tell you…” died in a horrible accident and it was no longer with us. We had a funeral (I played a recording of Taps as we had a moment of silence) and then the students read through their writing to remove the offending phrase from their writing, along with its cousins, “that is why I think you should…” and “I hope you liked my essay about…”

What are words or phrases that you find are overused that you wish you could have a funeral for?

Special Days

Today was a special day, and yet it was a very typical Tuesday in my classroom: My students started the day by writing about our classroom jobs and trying to decide which one was most important (one girl, always finding a way to answer prompts by not-answering them, insisted that every job is important; she was correct), then we spent 75 minutes in our guided math block (we are working on division of whole numbers) before having an indoor recess (the wind chill had dropped from 18° to 14°) and then going to Dance. Our morning wrapped up with social studies (getting background knowledge on the Southern Colonies in America) and Writers’ Workshop (writing demonstrative essays). After lunch the students worked on their Digital Passports with Common Sense Media and then we finished our day with our Daily CAFE literacy block and a read aloud (another chapter of The Walls of Cartagena by Julia Durango).

Some might be wondering what could make such a typical day so special?

The answer is simple: I have now completed 33 trips around the Sun!

Yep, today was my birthday. I told my students yesterday that the one gift I really wanted was for everyone to promise that they would try their best every day. I didn’t get any formal promises like that this year (unlike my first year teaching, when one student made a very lovely card for me that expressed that promise), but I did get a bunch of wonderful notes and hand-made cards, including a set of cards from my students’ kindergarten learning buddies. Each card and note I received will be treasured, but I wanted to share three of them. First, two from kindergarteners who apparently notice much more about me than I would have thought since I am only in their room for about 30 minutes once a week:


I love how she captured my thick curly locks of dark hair!

I don’t know if you can read what it says in the top left corner, but I’ll leave it to you to decode what IlfYo! means.

And finally, one from a current student who has had several different challenges this year:


Getting all of these notes, as well as the wishes from students and coworkers in the halls, truly made today a special day. (The best hallway greeting had to have been a kindergartener who ran up from behind me and shouted, “Happy Thursday!”)

And finally, because I share a birthday with my favourite country/continent in the Southern Hemisphere, here’s a classic video of Slim Dusty singing a classic Australian folk song, Waltzing Matilda:

Inquiry-Based Learning with Front Row

I have been using Front Row in my classroom for the past two years to provide my students with differentiated math instruction. This year I also started using it with my guided math groups to help me plan for targeted instruction and make sure that I am giving my students the level and variety of work that they need to improve their math skills and strategic thinking. I have really enjoyed using Front Row because my students enjoy it and because it is free. (And let’s be honest: what teacher doesn’t love a high-quality resource that doesn’t cost anything?!)


This year the team at Front Row rolled out a new feature: inquiry-based lessons. These are usually three or four lessons taught over as many days that cover a specific concept and are connected through a narrative that is tied to grade-level science or social studies concepts. (I wrote about them back in September for savvy readers with great memories, but I wanted to expand on them today.) There are a few free units available for each grade level, but the entire collection is only accessible with the paid School Edition. During the month of December, though, Front Row did an inquiry-based learning focus and ran several short contests. I participated in them and one of the prizes I received was full access to the entire library for the month of January.

We didn’t do anything with Front Row our first week back after break, but we dove in last week with a unit on rounding multidigit numbers based on a fictional cross-country road trip. Working with my guided math groups, I had students use these numbers to perform multidigit arithmetic with addition and subtraction, too. This week we did a multiplication unit connected to relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. For both units, I would start the students on the lesson and then have them work in their math teams while I worked with small groups at my back table. We would come together at the end of the unit to share answers and strategies for solving.

I loved listening to my students’ conversations as they worked! They would compliment each other, encourage one another, and use phrases like, “Oh, I didn’t think about it that way!” or “This is challenging; will you help me?” or “Oh, now I get it! Thanks!” I was also able to identify specific needs of students as I worked with their groups, such as the students who are not quite grasping the concept of multiplying by multiples of ten or the students who are not lining up digits by the place values. I also discovered that some of my students are much better at interpreting word problems than others and they are able to explain the problems in such a way that their peers were able to understand the task.

Next week will be our last Front Row unit that I do while I have access to the entire library, so I am going to use a unit on division of whole numbers. It will be interesting to see how the class responds because many of the students have not actually done division in a formal sense, but the lesson is designed in a way that they will naturally thinking about dividing objects into equal groups and then later learn to decide what to do with remainders.

I wish that Front Row had some kind of intermediary offering between the free teacher edition and the paid school edition because I would love to be able to continue to access all of these features. In the meantime, though, I will be grateful for the resources I have available!

What kind of success have you had with online learning tools?

Indoor Recess

One of the realities of living in East Central Illinois is that it gets cold in the winter. Not Antarctica-in-the-winter cold. Not Alaska-in-the-winter cold, and not Siberia-in-the-winter cold, but still cold. Our district policy of staying indoors when the temperature is under 20° F means that we spend a lot of days indoors during January and February. (December, surprisingly, is usually fairly mild.)

Besides the onslaught of cabin fever that comes with the cold weather, students don’t get nearly as much physical activity when we have indoor recess as they do when they are outside. I admit that I don’t blame them. I am frequently expressing a desire to stay inside, wrapped in a blanket, sipping herbal tea, and reading a good book. (Come to think of it, I expressed this very sentiment yesterday when we had our first major snow of the season.) However, as much as I understand the desire to curl up and not move when it is cold out, the reality is that my students need the physical activity. Their bodies are designed to be on the move.

Which is why I am really glad that I finally got around to checking out the Indoor Recess Mega Mixes today from GoNoodle! Instead of spending 10-15 minutes sitting around with their eyes glued to a screen, my students were standing, dancing, high-fiving, and just plain moving. We used one of them today and I was so surprised that all of my students were participating! And then when it was time for Fine Arts, nobody complained about “missing” recess!

Of course, they still like to have time to just chat and play, but we will definitely be using the Indoor Recess Mega Mixes in the future to make sure we are getting in our much-needed physical activity when we can’t go outside because it is too cold!

How do you encourage physical activity when the weather doesn’t cooperate?

First Snow of the Season

We got snow last night. And it actually lasted through the day. In fact, there is still snow on the ground right now, which is the longest the snow has lasted this winter except for maybe one time. And even that time it was just a thin dusting and it was gone within a couple of days. So I am considering this the first snow of the season.

Unfortunately for my students, the temperature was stubbornly hanging around at just below 20° F all day long, and that is the official district-mandated cut-off for staying indoors. (Yes, there are teachers who will take their students out when it is below the cut-off; I am not one of those teachers.) All of that combined to mean that I had several students who wanted to spend more time today staring out the window looking longingly at the snow than actually doing their work.


I tried to inoculate against this first thing in the morning. After the students came to the carpet for our morning meeting, I had everyone stand up and look outside for 30 seconds. Then I had them sit back down and announced that now we all knew that everyone knew that there was snow and we would be able to get to work.

Most of my students accepted my statement and stayed focused and on task all day long. A few fought valiantly against my charge to actually work instead of daydreaming of snowball fights, forts, and hot chocolate. But I always try to focus on the positive, and so I am finding myself grateful today that the majority of my class was able to ignore the snow for the day, knowing that there would be plenty of sunshine left after 3:00 pm for them to play in the snow after they got home.

Me, I prefer to admire the snow from indoors, preferably wrapped in a warm blanket, sipping herbal tea, and reading a good book.

What do you do when the snow finally comes to stay?


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