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

Latest

The Story of the American Revolution

I love teaching. I love everything about teaching. I love everything I get to teach. This passionate love for what I do and how I do it transfers to just about everything in my classroom. It also explains why nearly every new unit or topic is introduced to my students as “one of my favourite things.”

All this week, I have been teaching yes, one of my favourite topics of American history: the American Revolutionary War. I do this through a series of narrative discussions with my students. I decided to call it “Story Time with Mr. Valencic” even though it isn’t just me telling the story.

vally_frg

We actually started two weeks ago by having students reading articles on the Front Row Social Studies series about the events leading up to the war, including the French and Indian War, the Stamp Act, and the Boston Massacre. Then we moved to some of the major events of the war: the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, the Battle of Saratoga, the Battle of Yorktown, and the Articles of Confederation. These events are told through a combination of Google Slides presentations and videos. At the end of each lesson, the students compete against each other in a Kahoot! quiz to see who can get the most correct answers.

We are about halfway through the war now. I know there are so many other events we could discuss, but we are hindered by time and resources. So even though I know that there are other important events we are leaving out, I am heartened to know that my students are learning. How do I know this? Because one of my students told me on the way to lunch yesterday that she was actually learning!

Recess

Recess is a regular, time-honoured tradition in schools, although I have read disturbing reports of schools and districts eliminating recesses across the nation. As a child, recess was a break from classroom activities, an opportunity to play with friends, to swing, to slide, to run, to jump. My friends and I came up with elaborate stories we acted out while playing, starting with Star Trek stories in which we were the captains on the ships and later our own science fiction story about the USS Aerostar traveling through time in the 4th dimension. (Or was it the 7th? I’m not quite sure…) In many ways, this was our own version of live-action role-playing, although without the costumes. We connected our play to other ventures, including artwork and writing.

As a teacher, I have a somewhat different view of recess. It is still a break from classroom activities. It is still an opportunity for students to engage in play. But it is also an opportunity for them to develop pro-social skills of taking turns. Additionally, recess is a time for physical activity, to move and expend a bunch of energy.

I realised recently that my students were not doing as much of this last part as I would prefer and, as a result, many were getting “squirrelly” or “antsy” toward the end of the day. (They have a 20-minute lunch recess and a 15-minute afternoon recess each day. Our schedule doesn’t allow for a morning recess, too.) I remembered something I did all last year in the mornings (when it was nice out): having students walk or run laps around the front lawn of the school. I decided to put this into place during our afternoon recesses. Before students have free choice for play, they have to do one, two, or three laps.

The early results have been fantastic! The students are getting my physical activity, they are doing sustained, moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise, and they are able to focus more during mathing workshop. (Keep in mind, we also do a lot of moving around in the classroom, but it isn’t the same as sustained aerobic exercise!) With the increased focus at the end of the day, we have been able to conclude our core instructional activities for the day, leaving time for my students to once again have free choice at the very end of of the day.

What do you do for recesses?

Order Out of Chaos

I have a full-time student teacher from Eastern Illinois University, Mr. G, who began his full take-over of my classroom today. This is the first full-time student teacher I have hosted in my classroom in my five and a half years at Wiley. (I have hosted university students doing early field experience and student teachers who have been here for three days a week, all from the University of Illinois.)

One of the key aspects of full-time student teaching is doing a full take-over of the classroom for several consecutive weeks. After weeks of observing and co-teaching and taking over some of the instructional areas, it is now time for Mr. G to run the show. From bell to bell, he is in charge of planning instruction, teaching the whole class and small groups, directing tutors and volunteers in the classroom, managing student behaviour, holding students accountable for meeting classroom expectations, supervising recesses, taking the students to specials, etc.

It can be a daunting task. No matter how much preparation a student teacher does, no matter how smooth the transition is, when it comes to the full take-over, it can be overwhelming. An analogy I once heard is that it is like trying to hold two dozen rubber duckies underwater in a whirlpool while the jets are running at full power.

rubber_duck_sea_by_whispering_hills

Out of this chaotic experience comes order. Sometimes the order happens by the end of the day, sometimes it comes after several days, but the order does come. The students adapt to the teaching styles of a new teacher, the new teacher adapts to the many different responsibilities that he or she has to attend to over the course of the day, and class becomes stronger as a result.

In the meantime, there are going to be rough times. There are going to be students pushing against the boundaries, students who want to know what Mr. G’s limits are, students who want to know if he is actually going to hold them accountable for learning. But there will also be bright moments. There are going to be times when every student in the room is focused on learning, when the noise levels will drop down dramatically, and students will feel the peaceful calm that should be the norm for the classroom. Parents, you can help by talking to your student about classroom expectations, about the role of a student teacher, and of the need to help contribute to a positive, safe learning environment.

 

A Good Day for a Bad Hair Cut

Many friends, family, and regular readers of this blog (all fifteen or so of you) know that, about four and a half years ago, I challenged the Wiley students and community to read 1,000,000 minutes in a single school year. It was an ambitious goal but, with everyone working together, we not only achieved our goal, we exceeded it by 247,277 minutes! The incentive for this goal? I agreed to let my hair grow all year long and then let one of our teachers shave off all of my hair during a whole-school assembly. Read the rest of this page »

Tweaking the Approach to Guided Reading

Right before Winter Break, my fourth grade partner and I spent a day looking at student literacy data and talking about ways we could better meet the needs of our four dozen or so students. One thing we realised was that we could more effectively and efficiently serve them by changing the way we grouped students for guided reading. Instead of each forming groups from our own classes, we put all of the data for all of our students together and made groups based on that new information. What happened was that about half of my students would be in groups with her and about half of her students would be in groups with me.

We looked at our schedules, bumped some things around, and found a way to both have our main literacy block at the same time. We started this shortly after the second semester resumed and have been meeting at least twice a week to discuss progress, strengths, weaknesses, and any changes we need to make.

Initially, I was meeting with all five of my new groups every day. Then I tried meeting with four groups each day by alternating days with two of the groups. Last week, as we looked at data further, I decided to tweak the schedule a little bit more so that I only meet with three groups on any given day. This has had the benefit of letting me a) give more time to students when I meet with them in their small groups and b) give them more time to work on independent tasks. With this newly tweaked schedule, my students now go to three of four possible twenty-minute stations: Teacher Time (only three of my five groups each day), Read to Self (every group), Writing (every group), and Front Row (two of the three groups, namely, the two not meeting with me for Teacher Time).

Yes, all of my groups are named after somewhat random and/or obscure trees.

At the same time, we decided to use an article series on the newly released Front Row Social Studies page as the foundation of our guided reading texts. Each article is published at multiple grade levels so we can differentiate as needed for our diverse groups of learners. For each article, students read it online, complete a brief comprehension quiz, and have a written response. I would like to say that the students are blowing me away with both their excellent understanding of the texts and with their detailed analyses of what they have read, but that would not be true.

What I am learning, instead, is that many of them are struggling with connecting what they have read and what they know with the questions being given to them. I am also learning that they are not writing very detailed responses. In fact, several students are only writing one or two sentences, while others have copied the entire article and pasted it into their response.

Fortunately, I am able to take this information and use it in my instruction! My student teacher is starting to take over more and more of the teaching responsibilities in the classroom, which means that I can work with more students on specific, targeted skills. I am hopeful that this will result in improved output from students, not because of a test or any arbitrary, artificial metric, but because being able to communicate clearly and effectively with others is an important life skill that I want all of my students to develop!

Workshop Presentations – Part II

[NOTE: This is the second of two blog posts about workshop presentations I recently gave.]

Ever since I started working at Wiley Elementary School and participated in the New Teacher Mentoring and Induction program, I have received regular email updates from the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative. I attended the annual conference my first year at Wiley, then I attended a Beginning Teacher Conference the summer after that year. The following summer I attended the Beginning Teacher Conference again. I have found these conferences to be incredibly useful and believe I am a better teacher for having participated in them.

logosmall

Earlier this year, I received an email seeking requests for workshop proposals for the the 11th Annual Induction and Mentoring Conference to be held in Champaign. One of the event organisers happens to also be one of the organisers for EdCamp CU, the “unconference” that I have helped organise for the past year. She asked me if I would be willing to put in a proposal for the conference based on two of the critical areas they were going to focus on: Teachers as Learners and Teachers as Influencers. I wrote a proposal for each and submitted them.

To my surprise, both proposals were accepted, and so it was that today I spent the day at the iHotel and Conference Center in Champaign, networking with teachers, administrators, and professional development coordinators. In addition to presenting two workshops, I got to attend the EdChats (mini general session presentations), and got to help two early career teachers from a nearby district make plans for how they can create an induction and mentoring program in their schools.

The first session I presented was on the cross-grade collaboration process I have done with Miss C for the past six years. It started as Reading Buddies but has morphed into Learning Buddies. I only had four participants, but they seemed excited about the ways that could increase collaboration in their schools and find teachers to partner with to create vertical learning opportunities for their students.

The second session I gave also only had four participants. This one was on using social media to influence the school environment for good. I shared my belief that it is more important for teachers to have a positive social media presence than to have no presence at all. (Many teachers, especially early career teachers, are told to hide their identities online and avoid any networking with students, parents, or colleagues. I take a different approach, although, in general, I avoid adding parents to my personal Facebook network until after their students have left my classroom for good.) I showed how I use Twitter to connect with educators and researchers and how I use hashtags to track important topics. The teachers present shared how they use social media and gave others resources for how to get started.

The INTC Conference was a long, busy day, but it was so worth it! I was able to connect with great teachers, share ways that my school district has helped me become a teacher leader, and even got to connect with a friend from the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute who is now a teacher in the nearby district mentioned above.

Tomorrow I return to the classroom after a long absence. I hope I will be able to use what I learned on Friday and today to make a difference in my students’ lives.

Workshop Presentations – Part I

[NOTE: This is the first of two blog posts about workshop presentations that I recently gave.]

Last Friday I had the opportunity to present a workshop to two groups of teachers during my district’s Winter Institute. My workshop focused on Hapara Dashboard, the web-based software that we use to monitor students on their Chromebooks. (Oddly enough, I have apparently never written about this software, despite the fact that it has been in use in my building for over a year. Oops.)
hapara

Hapara Dashboard allows me to see what students are doing on their Chromebooks in real time by showing me what tabs they have open at any given time. I can also view and save screenshots of their active screens. Through Highlights, I can send links to every device in my classroom and I can limit students’ browsing to specific sites. I can view their Google Drive folders and can create documents that are sent to each individual student and automatically populated in a folder that I have specified. I can send students messages to remind them of tasks or call them to my back table without saying anything. Through Workspace, I can create assignments with stated goals, resources, evidence, and rubrics. I can grade assignments and return them for further editing or return them with a final grade, making it so students cannot alter them further.

My presentation was to showcase all of these features and ask teachers if they would be interested in using this software if it was made available. Every single teacher who came to my sessions told me that they were definitely interested and wanted to know why we didn’t already have this software in place. (Short answer: it is expensive.) Still, the response was overwhelmingly positive and many teachers felt that using Hapara Dashboard would greatly increase productivity in the classroom and make the devices more effective.

I am hopeful that this will be something that will happen soon!