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


Adapting an Ingenious Strategy to Encourage Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is an important social/emotional learning skill that is increasing in its popularity as far as things to be discussed and taught in our schools. Self-regulation is the idea that students can and should learn how to make good decisions for themselves, rather than have those decisions made for them. In my classroom, it is manifest in my belief that my students should be able to recognise their own feelings and emotions and use appropriate strategies to respond to them in a safe, positive, healthy way. Self-regulation also means that my students are able to make choices that will help them grow academically.

There was a time when it was believed that teachers and caregivers needed to direct everything a child did. It was believed that children were incapable or regulating themselves and therefore needed someone older and wiser to make all of the decisions for them. When these decisions were made and the children inevitably pushed back, demanding to know why, the default response was “because I’m the adult and I said so.”

But the times, they are a-changin’.

It is now understood that children are quite capable of self-regulation, but they need to be taught how to do that. That is a big part of my job. Instead of just dumping data into their heads and believing that they will magically absorb and apply information, it is my responsibility to guide them toward understand and empower them to make choices that will help them learn how to learn on their own.

As I once told my very first class of fourth graders four years ago, my job is to help them learn how they learn so that they can learn without me telling them what to learn.

Which leads me to something I tried out today.

There have been far too many afternoons when my class has rushed out of the room in a whirlwind of papers and chairs and backpacks and binders and our evening custodian has had to bear the brunt of the responsibility of cleaning up after them. I have been trying to get this changed throughout the year, using different strategies and different approaches. (After all, regardless of who said it, I do agree that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.) While browsing Pinterest for completely unrelated reasons, I came across this post some time ago.

Now, my students were getting “grounded” but I did need them to decided the best way to get our classroom ready for learning. So I took this idea and adapted it to my own needs:

The objective is simple: in order to use his or her Chromebook during our independent work time in the morning, the student must earn 100 points. There are activities ranging from picking up five objects on the floor (worth ten points) to writing an opinion essay on a topic of their choosing (50 points). Once the student has done enough activities to earn at least 100 points, he or she brings their sheet to me, we both sign it, and they get to use their Chromebook.

My plan was to launch this today. There were a few hiccups along the way, though.

First, I discovered that our wireless network was down, so I wasn’t able to share the score sheet electronically. Second, I wasn’t able to send the sheet to the copy machine, so I had to save it to a flash drive and try to print it that way. Then I remembered that the copy machine won’t print .doc files, only .pdf files and by this time I had to get to my morning supervision assignment.

So I put the document up on the Promethean ActivPanel and watched as the students came in, read the assignment, and responded. Some were shocked that they had to pick what to do. Others got to work right away. Quite a few came to me wanting to know what they were supposed to do.

But all of them earned their 100 points or more. Some organized the bookshelves and game cabinet. Most cleaned their desks. A few chose to read independently for 15 minutes, do a cursive handwriting practice sheet, and a math worksheet. Many picked up trash and pencils found on the floor.

And then we hit the other snag:

The district wireless network was still out of commission.


As students came to me to excitedly share that they had earned 100 points, I had to reveal that the network was done. Then something wonderfully unexpected happened: instead of whining or complaining or getting upset, they simply found other things to do, whether it was helping a classmate clean her desk or doing another math worksheet or just reading silently for another 15 minutes.

I must say, the whole process went remarkably well. And as long as the network is working tomorrow morning, they will get to do it all over again!

Book Review: Out Of My Mind

I acquire a lot of new books each year. I try to keep up with them. I want to read all of those books, but I don’t always get around to it. As I acquire more books, my “To Be Read” list grows longer and longer. Like many bibliophile teachers who are lifelong members of the Nerdy Book Club (even if they don’t know they are members), I have tumbling stacks of books in my classroom, in my office at home, and by my nightstand that are all waiting for me to read them.


One of the books that I have had in my classroom for three years now is Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Students in my class read this book for the Battle of the Books one year, but I didn’t read it. I had a reading group read it last year, but I didn’t actually read it. (I trusted the advice of several former students to have a group read the book together.) So I realised that the best way to force me to read the book would be to select it as a read aloud for this year.


This is the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Melody Brooks, with cerebral palsy that has rendered her unable to talk, walk, or even move much more than her thumbs. She is also brilliant. She has nearly perfect recall, but has no way to communicate it with others. Because of her medical condition, she is diagnosed by a developmental psychologist as being severely retarded (his words). Melody’s mother, fortunately, knows better and refuses to accept the doctor’s diagnosis. Instead, she enrolls her daughter in the local elementary school.

For the next several years, Melody spends her days at school in a self-contained special education room, being bored to tears with the same lessons day after day, year after year. Then Spaulding Street Elementary School starts an inclusion program, bringing students in the special education room into general education classroom settings. Then a miracle happens: Melody learns about augmentative alternative communication devices, such as those used by Dr. Stephen Hawking. She is able to work with her teachers, her parents, and her doctors to put in an application to get a device that would let her talk to others for the first time in her life.

Then she waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And then the day arrives. And everything changes.

I love this book. It is nearly 300 pages long, yet I was able to read the entire book to my class in just a few weeks. My students begged for me to read more. Several borrowed copies from my classroom and from the library. At least one bought it at a book fair. We didn’t have many deep conversations as we read. I didn’t pause to have discussions. I just wanted them to experience the story with me. And they did.

The best thing about Out Of My Mind is that the main character is never someone you feel pity for. She is smart. She is determined. She is amazing. And even when she kicks and screams when she can’t communicate in any other way, you still just want to cheer for her and yell at those who treat her poorly because of her physical disability. This book also makes you think deeply about the assumptions you make about those who are different. I am going to have my students write letters to their pen pals tomorrow to tell them about this book and what they thought and whether or not they would recommend it to others. I know I certainly will!

Hello, Again

I haven’t updated my blog since April 25 (nearly three weeks) because I just haven’t felt like I had anything to blog about. This is the result of exhaustion from late nights finishing graduate school assignments, district collective bargaining agreement negotiations, End-Of-Year PARCC testing, and personal angst about my classroom.

I was getting ready to write a new post this evening and discovered that I had 96 views on May 6. This shocked me, because my busiest day was November 11, 2013, when Neil Gaiman tweeted my post about his delightful children’s book, Fortunately, The Milk. So I looked at the stats closer and saw that I only had 7 unique visitors. So somebody came to my blog and spent a long time reading. A lot. Because I have a free account, I have no way of tracking down this individual but just in case you decided to start following my blog in the hopes that I would start posting again: Thank you, random stranger, for spending your day reading my random musings. I hope you got something good out of it. And I promise I will be updating more regularly over the next couple of weeks. I’ll even try to update over the summer, too.

Stay tuned for a new post later tonight!

Book Review: The Second Guard

At the 2014 Illinois Young Authors Conference, I had the privilege to volunteer as an author escort and got to meet the wonderful and talented Illinois-born author Julia Durango. I learned about two of her published books, The Walls of CartagenaSea of the Dead, and a third book that she was co-authoring with her friend from Ohio, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. These two authors decided to publish their story under a pseudonym, J.D. Vaughn. I was able to acquire copies of Ms. Durango’s two books and got them signed. Alas, they have sat on my “To Be Read” pile for nearly a year. (I was going to read The Walls of Cartagena to my class when we did our European exploration unit, but didn’t get a chance.)

Although The Second Guard was officially released just a couple of weeks ago, I was able to get an early copy. As a result, I now proudly own more books autographed by her than by any other author. I was finishing another book at the time and then had to do some reading for my graduate classes, so it took me a couple of weeks to finally crack open this book.


I started reading it on Sunday, April 19. I read the first 265 pages in three days. I finished reading it this morning. It is a longer book (432 pages), but it reads quickly because the story is engaging and well-written. (Don’t trust the negative reviews on Goodreads; those people seem to expect every single book they read to be 100% original with no similarities to any other book ever published in the history of stories.)

So what is The Second Guard?

In the land of Tequende, there are three major guilds: the Sun Guild, the Moon Guild, and Earth Guild. Members of the Sun Guild worship the Sun God Intiq and are traders, merchants, and manufacturers; Moon Guilders worship the Moon Goddess Elia and are scholars, artists, and diplomats; and the Earth Guilders, worshipers of Mother Earth Machué, are the farmers, miners, and loggers. Each family in the realm is affiliated with one of these guilds. The first-born children are trained up to follow in their family’s profession. The second-born of each family either trains to serve for four years in the Second Guard, the most formidable military in the Nigh World, or they work as indentured servants for six years.

Talimendra Sanchez of the Magda River Traders is a child of the Sun Guild. Upon traveling to the Second Guard’s fortress and training center, the Alcazar, she meets Zarif Baz Hasan, a Moon Guilder of the Araby Scribes, and Chey Maconde of the Earth Guild’s Batenza Farmers. The unlikely trio swiftly form a tight bond of friendship that challenges the Guild divisions that exist in their society. As they undergo their training, they discover clues of a conspiracy that could destroy the peace and tranquility of their land and overthrow the system of government that has seen Tequende ruled by 22 consecutive queens who devote their lives to serving the people. (The Queens of Tequende do not marry or have children. Instead, they serve until they are 50 years old and then a niece, who was raised as Queen-in-Waiting since she was 16 years old, will reign.)

There is much to be loved about this story, including the development of the friendship among the three main characters, the roles of secondary characters, and the lessons the reader can learn when thinking about one’s own experiences. But I also love that the narrator is unreliable; the storyteller, who focuses on Talimendra (or Tali, as she is called by family and friends), doesn’t know everything. So when there are twists and turns in the narrative, they are just as much a surprise to the reader as they are to the storyteller!

The Second Guard is the first in a series of books. I don’t know how many stories Ms. Durango and Ms. Zimmer plan on writing, but I know that there are enough loose ends in this first story to leave the door open for at least a trilogy.


Writing Something Worth Reading

Continuing on my quest to improve the opinion writing in my classroom, I used some time this afternoon to discuss boring writing.

You’ve all seen it: the words on on the page (or the screen), they are accurate, they tell what the author intended, and they are to the point. But they are also so incredibly dull!

I gave my students an example:

I like tacos. They are yummy. They are easy to make. They are nutritious.

Just like yesterday, I asked my students to rate my writing on a scale of one to five, with one being “well, at least you wrote something. even if it doesn’t make the least bit of sense!” and five being “ohmygoodnessthisisthemostamazingwritingIhaveeverseen! IamsoexcitedthatIcan’tevenstopforpausesbetweenmywords!” At first I had students who said that my paragraph should receive a one. When questioned further, though, they changed their minds and said it deserved at least a two or even a three. Here were their reasons:

  • The author’s position was clear.
  • The author provided three solid reasons to support his argument.
  • The author used proper conventions, such as spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation.

But at the same time, my students all looked at that paragraph and knew it could be better. So I asked them to help me out. I gave them the topic sentence, then they came up with the rest.

I have lived across the United States, I have visited Canada, and I have even lived in Australia. Of all the many different kinds of food I have eaten, tacos are still among my favourites! One reason I love tacos is that their juiciness is so yummy! Another reason I love tacos is because they are so easy to make. Finally, tacos are incredibly nutritious, with all of the food groups wrapped in one delicious package.

The students all agreed that this was a much more effective introduction. Just as we were finishing this, Miss C happened to stop by. We asked her to read our introduction and tell us what she thought. I think her response perfectly captured the kind of feedback we all want from our readers. She said, “Wow! I think I’m going to go get some tacos before I finish reading this!”

I left my paragraph up on the board so my students could refer to it as they worked on their own powerful introductions. I am sure that some used the same words I did, but that’s okay. That is why I had them help me write it. I want them to use my words and make them their own, adding their voices to the writing.

Tomorrow we will begin tackling the body paragraphs, focusing on using evidence and reason to support our arguments.

But first, I am going to make tacos for dinner tonight.

Learning to Opine

My students have a lot of deeply held beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad, preferred and not preferred. They are developing their sense of collective and individual justice and fairness. They frequently share these opinions with me, with other teachers, with parents, and with peers.

However, they don’t always make the strongest arguments.

A common argument I hear in my classroom is simply, “That’s not fair!” When I ask why, the response is typically, “It just isn’t! I wanted to do that and you said no!” (There are often multiple exclamation marks in these arguments that often border on quarreling.) I often calmly and matter-of-factly reply that fairness does not always mean “the same” and there may be a reason one student is permitted to do something that another is not.

As we move into the last month of school, I’ve decided to use Lucy Calkins’s Writers Workshop framework to organise my instruction on writing opinion pieces. My main goal is simply for my students to learn how to express the ideas clearly and well. Before starting the unit, I wanted to get a baseline of their current level, so I picked a topic that I knew would bring out their passion: I told them that our principal was considering canceling the end-of-the-year kickball game and colour run and that the students had to write letters to her explain why she should or shouldn’t.

What I was looking for was a clearly stated opinion, at least three supporting statements, and a conclusion. Some students did this very well, some didn’t do it at all, and most of them did part of it.

So today we started with breaking down the writing process. The first step I decided to teach was picking a topic. This can be easy: make a list of things you care strongly about and keep it handy! Some of the topics the students brought up were video games, homework, music, movies, books, games, recess, sports, etc. The next step was outlining the essay itself. I selected a topic of personal interest and first wrote up a quick opinion piece about it:

I like tacos because they are yummy and I think you should like tacos, too, because then you will agree that they are yummy also.

I asked if this was a well-written opinion piece and asked the students to rate it on a scale of 1 to 5. Most gave it a one or a two. They pointed out that even though it was a run-on sentence, it stated my postion and gave at least one reason. But they also all agreed that my opinion wasn’t very strong.

So then I had then help me outline my piece to make it clearer. Here is what the final outline looked like:



After outlining my essay, I had each student pick a topic of their own and make their own outline. Then they could begin working on an early draft. I will share my own early draft with the class tomorrow and have them help me improve my piece until we have a strong essay that clearly explains why I like tacos.

Our Own Incredible eBook Project

Several months ago I read a blog post by Pernille Ripp, a teacher I have never met in person but have closely followed online and come to greatly admire. Ms. Ripp used to teach fourth grade but now she teaches middle school. I have frequently taken her ideas and looked for ways to apply them to my classroom. The topic of this post was about an “epic nonfiction project” using Google Slides to develop eBooks. As I read through her post, I knew I wanted to try it out with my class.

I initially thought about trying to do it with our Learning Buddies this year, but Miss C and I have already reached our max on the number of projects we can take on. So instead I decided to do what I have been doing all year: I used my class as a pilot for my idea.

I had the students form six groups of three or four and then we started talking about the Westward Expansion period of American history. We did some whole-class research on the period and identified some of the major routes used to settle the West: the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Pony Express, and the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (Technically, the last three were not routes used for settling, but they had a huge impact on our nation’s expansion westward and so I included them.) Each group selected one route to study, ensuring that every group would have at least two options. (The one left over ended up being the Pony Express.)

Over the past several weeks, the groups have been reading about their trails, learning about life in the 1800s, using their online research skills to find appropriate pictures and maps, and discovering famous people from their routes. They received training on how to use Google Slides. One group found a picture in two different books that claimed to be describing two very different situations and so they wrote an email to the Denver Public Library and asked for clarification.

After nearly six weeks of work, it is time we move on, so today was the last day for groups to work. Some of the groups had eBooks that were thoroughly researched with lots of information and pictures. Some groups struggled to find some of the most basic information. But all of the groups worked hard, stayed focused, and persevered. It shocked me when students would voluntarily work on their project together during indoor recesses and during our read aloud.

Now, I’m not going to say that this process was without frustrations and confusion, because it certainly wasn’t. There were times that students accidentally deleted all of their work and I had to show them how to revert to an earlier version. There were times when group members got upset with each other and refused to work together or would start changing what others had done. There were times that students were not working on the project when they were supposed to.

But for the most part? This has been a great learning opportunity for my students and for me. I am definitely wanting to try this project again next year. I know what I will do differently and I know what I will do the same.

And now? We have a three day weekend and then we are going to start tackling an awesome science project that I have been waiting all year to start! Have a great weekend!


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