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

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Book Reviews: Matilda

[NOTE: This is an expansion of a review I recently wrote on Goodreads.]

Despite being a fourth grade teacher and a deeply devoted bibliophile, up until a few days ago, I had only read a grand total of two books by Roald Dahl: The Enormous Crocodile and The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. (The first is a story that has long been a favourite and I hope to eventually track down a copy for my home library. I honestly don’t even know how I ended up reading the second, but it has always stayed with me as a fascinating tale of someone doing something bizarre without even realising it is happening.) I personally own a very respectable collection of Roald Dahl stories, but I have not read any of them. In fact, I don’t actually own either of the two that I have actually read!

So, at the start of the school year, I decided it was time I read more Dahl and I realised I really only had one choice: Matilda.

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This is one of those stories that seemingly everyone knows, either because they’ve read the book, had it read to them, or they have seen the movie. (I myself have seen the movie at least a dozen times.) But reading it is most definitely a different experience. The relationships between Matilda and her parents and between Matilda and Miss Honey is much more important than the movie makes them.

This was a great read and a wonderful way to start the year with a magical story to engage my students (and myself!) in reading! It is always interesting to see how students respond when I read aloud exactly what is written. (Yes, Roald Dahl has a character refer to a child with a mild profanity and when I read it out loud, my class was shocked! But there were also smiles and looks of sharing a secret that we now had: their teacher was willing to read books that weren’t full of bland language that nobody in real life uses. I credit my blogging friend Katherine Sokolowski for teaching me this trick.)

There were plenty of “teachable moments” in Matilda, also, such as using rich descriptive language, different kinds of sentences, and focusing on small moments throughout writing. But there was also the opportunity to teach my students to do something that Mr. Dahl doesn’t do: use a variety of dialogue tags. In Matilda, nearly every character except Miss Trunchbull simply “says” things. She said this. She said that. He said that thing. He said something else. There are very few emotions in the dialogue. So I challenged my students to find better ways of describing how a character was speaking than just saying “said.”

But more than those, reading aloud is a way for us to enjoy a story together and strengthen our community. We work together, we play together, and we read together. I’ll be pulling out my Roald Dahl collection in my classroom so students can go deeper into his world of magic and mystery. And who knows? Maybe I’ll read some of them, too!

Trust the Students

Long-time readers of this blog know that I worked as a substitute teacher for three years before I started my full-time teaching career at Wiley, where I am now in my sixth year. Whenever anyone asks me about my experiences as a substitute, I tell them that I loved it and, if it were a possibility, that is, a job with all of the salary and benefits, I would do the job full-time. There is something thrilling about going into a new classroom every day or visiting the same classroom over the course of the year and taking on the challenge of providing quality instruction.

I will always treasure this email from a high school teacher sent on April 1, 2011, regarding an assignment I took the day before:

Thank you for covering my classes yesterday.
I must thank you for your very detailed sub notes and your willingness to follow my directions and work with the students to make sure those tasks were accomplished.  I greatly appreciate everything you did to help me and the students (and I KNOW they can be difficult).  Of the three days I was gone, yesterday went the best, and that was due to you.  I would love to have you sub for me again in the future!

I proceeded to sub for this teacher several times over the rest of the year, including once more than week because her young child had the stomach flu. I later learned that, not only had I followed her directions that day and made sure the assigned tasks were completed, but I also had helped the students complete the tasks for the previous two days before I came.

Of  course, I absolutely love my job as a full-time classroom teacher, also. (There are times I wish I had two or three of me just so I could do all of the teaching jobs I wish I could do!) But because of my previous experience as a substitute, I find myself holding substitutes in my own room to a very high standard:

  • If a substitute does not leave me any notes about what happened, I will probably not accept them in my room again.
  • If the substitute clearly ignored my detailed lesson plans, I am going to complain to my principal and request that they not be allowed to sub for me again.
  • If the substitute engages in power struggles with my students, I am probably going to find a new person to fill in for me when I have to leave. The substitute is an adult; the students are children. There is no reason to engage in a power struggle with them.
  • If the substitute does not treat my students with respect, I know that the students will have a hard time respecting them, and so I will find someone else.

If a substitute does not do any of those things–that is, if he or she leaves a note with what happened, followed my plans, worked with my students, and treated them with respect, that person will move to the top of my list as a preferred substitute.

When I think of this list, I think the last one is actually the most important. I don’t expect my students to like the substitute teacher. I don’t expect the substitute teacher to like the students. (I don’t expect that of my relationship with my students, either.) But I do expect them to respect one another. I expect my substitutes to trust the students to do what is right.

We have classroom expectations and school-wide expectations. These are things that we believe the students will do, not rules to tell them what they should not do. I expect my students to be safe, respectful, and responsible. I expect them to help others, which includes substitute teachers. And I expect the substitute teachers to be safe, respectful, and responsible and to not only help my students, but also ask them for their help.

I know there are students who try to take advantage of substitute teachers. I know that such students are in my own classroom. But they are the minority. The whole class should not be punished because of a few who are trying to take advantage of a situation. And, honestly, most of the time? The things students are trying to “get away with” are so insignificant that I would direct the substitute’s attention to bullet point three: don’t engage in power struggles!

I have regular times each week I have to leave my classroom, and I have a few times in the coming months that I will be gone for personal or professional reasons. So I know I need to spend more time teaching my students how to keep working and moving forward when I am gone. But I also need to teach my substitutes to trust my students.

They know what they are supposed to do. Let them do it.

Return of the Chromebooks

It has been a long three weeks or so without Chromebooks in our classroom. There was an issue with the district’s cache servers shortly after school started that resulted in all devices having to be shut off and put away until they could resolve the issue. Today was the first day we were able to access the devices and wow, what a difference it made!

When I first got my cart of Chromebooks, I signed an agreement that I would infuse technology into my classroom practices and instruction. I spent the past two years or so researching websites and online learning tools, trying them out with my students, studying best practices of technology integration, and generally designing my classroom around the use of Chromebooks throughout the day.

Some people have expressed shock that my students access their devices first thing in the morning and keep them out until the end of the day. They are not on them all day, of course, but they are nearby and used much more than they are not.

During our mathing workshop, students use their Chromebooks to access sites such as Zearn, Front Row, Prodigy, and XtraMath to support and supplement their learning and help them improve on skills. The devices are accessed for fluency practice and for independent work while I am with small groups.

During our inquiry workshop, the Chromebooks become the principle tool for researching a variety of topics, keeping notes, and demonstrating learning through multimedia presentations. The students also use their devices to communicate with one another using shared documents in Google Drive.

During our writing workshop, students take their early drafts and type them into Google Docs, then use the available tools to edit, revise, and format as they prepare for publication. They also use the Chromebooks to research ideas and find better ways to express ideas.

During our reading workshop, the Chromebooks are used as students access eBooks through Storia, read articles on Wonderopolis and Newsela, continue writing that they started during writing workshop, and engage in creative writing through Storybird. They also record reading through sites like Whooo’s Reading.

On top of all that, we use our devices for online quizzes through Google Forms, Google Classroom, and Kahoot! Students take brain and body breaks with sites like GoNoodle and find ways to focus with music accessed through Google Play. (We have access to the full suite of Google Apps for Education.) They review and discuss digital citizenship through the Common Sense Media Digital Passport and share projects with one another, with students in other classes, and with their families.

Like I said, I have a technology-infused classroom. So we were all very excited when we were given the green light to start using our devices again! I can hardly wait to see what my students do with their devices tomorrow!

Clever Solutions

I try to give my students a lot of freedom and choice in my classroom. I am not a Montesorrian, and I certainly have restrictions on what they can and cannot do, but, even with that in mind, I let them make a lot of decisions for themselves. This goes from selecting partners and small groups to picking books to read independently to deciding what to do for homework each evening.

I also allow my students to find the best place to work in our small classroom. Some choose to stay at desks, others prefer the carpet, yet others like to lean against the wall or the heating units. When working, several students have found that noise-cancelling headphones really help them focus. (I used to have a full classroom set of 30 that I picked up for a very low price at Harbor Freight a few years ago, but now I am down to about 15 or 20.)

The other day I was finishing up in my classroom after students had left and I noticed something:

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At first I felt a moment of frustration because it appeared that several students had failed to take care of their own materials (one of our classroom expectations), but then I realised that I was completely wrong; in fact, the students had come up with an ingenious solution to a complex problem: the box of headphones is kept at the back of the room, but they didn’t want to keep getting them every day. At the same time, their desks are crowded with books and papers as it is, so they wouldn’t fit inside. Finally, desks are supposed to be cleared off at the end of each day (this happens with varying degrees of success), so they couldn’t just leave them on top. So what did the students do? They simply hung them from the support bar under the desks.

It made me wonder what other clever solutions my students come up with that I don’t immediately notice. How many solutions to a problem do they devise that I see as incorrect because it doesn’t look or sound the way I expect? How often do I mistake clever ideas for being off-task, distracted, or disrespectful?

I hope that I don’t.

But I get a feeling that I probably do.

So the next time I see something that seems off, I will ask a student first: can you tell me why you are doing this?

I’m pretty certain I’ll be just as surprised as I was when I find half a dozen or so headphones dangling underneath my desks.

Learning with Zearn

I spent several weeks over the summer learning all about Eureka Math and preparing myself as much as possible to implement it in my classroom this year. My goal was to hit the ground running and take my students with me on the wild ride of learning math in a way that is not only aligned to our standards and our curriculum but is also more rigourous and focused that what students have seen before.

One of the supplemental resources I learned about was a free website (as an instructional technology specialist, two of my favourite words!) called Zearn. I played around with Zearn a bit over the summer and set up a student account for myself to see what it would look like. I was excited to be able to partner my students with this, especially since this site was designed to mirror what students are working on in Eureka Math. (I will not be dropping any of my other online learning sites, though; I love being able to give my students wide access to multiple ways to engage with and think about math!)

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We did a test drive of Zearn as a class today. We had to use the computer lab due to our student network still being down (something our tech team has been working on for over a week now), but this did not seem to be a hindrance. The students were able to easily access their accounts and quickly figured out how to navigate the site. The best part was that the work they were doing online really supported exactly what we have been doing in class for the past several weeks!

One of the features I was most impressed by was the “Math Chat.” This features a video recording of a teacher explaining the concepts. Students then work through problems and, depending on how they do, are directly to subsequent videos that help further explain concepts. I firmly support the idea that students learn best from hearing similar messages from different voices.

I am really excited about this new resource and hope that students and families will add it to their math learning toolkits. Zearn will be a great way to supplement what I am teaching and giving students an opportunity to learn at their own rate while I am working with small groups.

[NOTE: The creators of Zearn were not contacted previous to the writing of this post, nor was I asked by them to write it. The content of this post is entirely of my own opinion and should not be considered to represent the official views or positions of my building or school district.]

Repeated Reading

Anyone who spends 5 seconds in my classroom or my home knows how important reading is to me. I remember a time when my wife and I were moving and we had friends helping us to load the moving truck. One friend, who had somehow managed to carry nearly all of the boxes with books, commented, after the twentieth box, “Why do you have so many books? Don’t you know what a library is?” To which I quickly responded, “What do you think I keep in those twenty boxes?!”

My classroom is equally full of books. I read. A lot. There are books piled up by my nightstand, there is always at least one book in my bag, and I have dozens of books in my Amazon wish list that is constantly being updated, for both me and for my classroom. With all of the books I own (nearly 2,000), one may think that I never have time to read a book more than once. One would be wrong.

True, I have books that I have only read once. (I also have books I haven’t read. Yet.) But I also have many books that I have read several times. Some are childhood favourites, like the entire five-book Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. I’ve read that series at least a dozen times in the past 23 years since I first read it in fourth grade. Others are picture books I’ve found recently and read again and again with students, nephews, nieces, friends’ children, and just for myself. There are also professional books that I return to again and again to remind myself of the reasons I do the things I do and to keep myself focused on what’s important.

Just as I read some selections repeatedly, I often expect my students to do the same. Too often, they read a book or a story or a selection once and then think they are “done.” (That word, incidentally, is a “bad” word in my classroom. We are “finished for now” or “ready for something else” but we are never “done.”)

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Today was the first time we tried this idea of repeated readings. The students silently read Allen Say’s masterful story, Grandfather’s Journey, yesterday in small groups as an adult read it aloud. (I had a student teacher and a university tutor in my classroom at the same time, which made it really easy to divide up into groups!) Today they read it again, still in groups, but this time without an adult reading to them. As they read, they were given a question to consider to focus their reading. Tomorrow they will read it again, still in groups, with a different question to consider.

There are several reasons I encourage repeated readings. First, it helps develop fluency. Second, reading with different purposes allows students to see how they can use the same text to support different claims. Third, repeated readings improve comprehension. Yes, some students may feel that they already know the story because they have read it once and therefore feel they shouldn’t have to read again. They are missing the point. Reading is not about getting to the end of the story. Reading is about reading. It is about the story and how the reader interacts with it. To use an oft-used adage, reading is a journey.

And the journey is everything.

Vertical Number Lines

My school district has adopted a new math series, called Eureka Math, to support our elementary curriculum. I have mentioned this in passing a few times, but I thought now would be as good a time as any to write more specifically about what this is (and what it is not).

Eureka Math started out a few years ago as EngageNY. It was started with a grant and was a cooperative process intended to align math materials taught in the classroom with the Common Core State Standards. (Illinois has adopted these standards but is also adopting new social studies and science standards, which is why you will sometimes see them referred to as the New Illinois Learning Standards, instead.) A not-for-profit organisation, Great Minds, was formed to take over EngageNY and develop it further, which they did under the name of Eureka Math. It has been built from the ground up by teachers and for teachers.

What Eureka Math is not is a prescriptive curriculum intended to force teachers to read a script with the vain hope that students will respond exactly as expected. There are sample dialogues included in each lesson to give an idea of how a class discussion might go, but anyone who has spent 30 seconds in an elementary classroom knows that students rarely follow the script, especially when they don’t even know it exists!

Even though I have only been teaching with Eureka Math for a couple of weeks, and even though we just finished Lesson 8 today, I am already very impressed with what I have seen. The first few lessons were very challenging, as students were asked to do more with and think more deeply about numbers than they were used to. One of the most common words to describe the “new” math standards is rigour, and boy howdy is this rigourous math! (I put “new” in quotation marks because, honestly, the math hasn’t changed; what has changed is how we think about it and how we expect students to think about it.) Coming off of a textbook series that had third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, and sometimes even sixth grade work all wrapped into one, it is relieving to have a set of materials that is focused on just fourth grade standards!

One challenge is that Eureka Math is designed to be cumulative. Students build on their knowledge from year to year. Of course, this is the first year for any of us in our building (except for those students’ whose teachers field tested parts of Eureka Math last year), so my fourth graders are coming into it with no prior experience. That just means that I have to pre-teach some concepts and spend more time explaining ideas, words, phrases, and tools that, in four or five years, will be completely familiar to them.

Which finally brings me to the actual topic of this post. (Hey, only four hundred words or so to get to it!) One of the tools we have been using for rounding multi-digit whole numbers is called a vertical number line. It is exactly what it sounds like: a number line that is oriented top to bottom instead of left to right. In case you are a person like me who does not visualise things, here is an actual picture:

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Because we are using the vertical number line to round, the students first identify the endpoints, then they find the midpoint. For example, if you were to round 4,105 to the nearest thousand, this is what your vertical number line would look like:

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The bottom endpoint is 4,000, the top endpoint is 5,000, and the midpoint is 4,500. The students then write the original number (4,105) on the number line. A quick glance shows that, because 4,105 is less than the midpoint (4,500), it is closer to 4,000 than 5,000, therefore 4,105 rounded to the nearest thousand is 4,000.

Simple. Clear. Brilliant.

I am sure that other people have used vertical number lines before, but I had honestly never seen nor heard of them before this. It makes so much sense, though! We talk about rounding up and rounding down. Now students can actually see how to do it.

The challenge for tomorrow is to try to round without using the vertical number line. But, honestly, if my students need to quickly jot down a vertical line with arrows, mark the endpoints and midpoints, and then label the original number in order to determine how to round, I am 100% okay with that! The one thing I have always emphasised in my classroom when it comes to math is this: if the tool you are using allows you to quickly and accurately find the answer, then it is an efficient tool for you to use!