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



Sometimes you get into a pattern of doing things and it seems to be working well so you keep doing it. Other times you get into a pattern of doing things and it starts off all right but then goes astray little by little until you look around and realise that you aren’t anywhere close to where you want to be.

I once heard a story about an airline pilot who set a course for a lengthy flight that was off by just one degree. For some flights, such a minute error wouldn’t make a significant difference, but for long flights, an error of just one degree can result in the plane being hundreds of miles off course. In this particular story, by the time the error was recognised, it was too late, ending in a tragedy.

Now, I’m saying that the minor errors in an elementary classroom are going to lead to tragedies if left alone, but I am thinking about how easy it is to get in a rut and not recognise the minor errors until it may feel like it is too late to go back and fix them. For example, teachers often set a voice level expectation in the classroom as we help our students learn how to modulate their volume based on different settings. If everyone is meant to be reading independently, we may tell the students that they should be at a voice level zero, which is silent. This isn’t because we don’t want talking, but simply because talking while others are reading is distracting. On the other hand, a student who is giving a presentation to the entire class may be told to use a level four voice, which is a presenting voice that can be heard by everyone.

If I tell students that they should be at a level zero and then ignore the quiet talking, what I am actually communicating to them is that a level zero is actually a whisper or quiet conversation. If this goes on for too long, then eventually we don’t even have a baseline for what a level zero actually is. Fortunately, we can recalibrate. We can pause whatever academic instructional topic we are on and adjust voice levels to where they need to be.

We have been doing some recalibrating in my classroom over the past few weeks to fix some errors with how we do our reading workshop time. Tomorrow morning we will do some recalibrating with voice levels, too, so that students can more effectively work while respecting the rights of others to work without distractions. After all, the classroom is a community and a community is a group of people who help one another!


A Wonder-ful Afternoon

Today is Valentine’s Day but, breaking with tradition in order to make room for a new tradition, the fourth grade classes in my building decided against having Valentine’s Day parties this afternoon. Instead, our classes are going to have an end-of-the-third-semester celebration in March planned around the NCAA basketball tournament that starts right about the same time as our Spring Break. (For those who are wondering, we will have more details about it sent home either tomorrow or on Tuesday when we get back from the long weekend.)

Now, just because we weren’t doing a party, I still wanted to do something wonder-ful for my class today. You see, it just so happens that the movie adaptation of the book “Wonder” came out on video yesterday and I was able to secure a copy of it last night! So we spent the afternoon watching the movie.

The students moved desks out of the way, laid blankets on the floor, and watched the movie. About halfway through we had some light snacks. At the end of the movie, we talked about how it compared to the book. There were some parts that were very similar and other parts that deviated in weird ways. For example, they referred to Auggie’s Halloween costume as “Ghost Face” instead of “Bleeding Scream” and the students watched “The Wizard of Oz” at the nature retreat instead of “The Sound of Music.” I don’t know if those changes were due to copyright issues or something else. Of course, there were also parts of the book that were omitted completely, likely just for the sake of time. (The movie is just shy of two hours.)

Now, I know that movies and books are different media for telling a story and therefore we should expect them to be identical, even if they are based on the same story. In fact, I am a very vocal advocate of recongnising this distinction! However, it is hard when you have read a book several times and you have some favourite parts that get changed in the movie, like Mr. Tushman’s speech at the very end.

All of that being said, I really liked this movie. It tells a fantastic story, the acting is great, and my students were completely engaged in it for the entire time! It was definitely a wonder-ful way to spend our afternoon!

Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Several years ago, one of my students purchased a book for me to keep in my classroom library. It was a popular new release and I was happy to have it in my room. Many of my students read it that year but, for whatever reason, it never made it to my To Be Read pile.

Sometime in the past year, this book adapted to a made-for-TV movie featured on Nickelodeon. Around the same time, Time for Kids had a special supplement all about this book and movie. As a result, my students were very excited to realise it was sitting right there on one of my bookshelves in my classroom. That meant, of course, that I would finally read this book that had spent so much time waiting to be read by me.

The book was Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein.

As an avid bibliophile, tabletop gamer, and former library loiterer, this book seemed to have all of the pieces to make perfect story for me and, I hoped, for my class. We were not disappointed! Wacky adventures, clever clues, visual puzzles, book trivia, appealing characters, and great pacing made this a fantastic story to read aloud and share with one another!

I will admit that there were some plot elements that I wish had been developed a little bit deeper, such as all of the characters’ back stories, all in all, I found this book to be well worth the read and would absolutely recommend it to others! I’ve also since realised that this is the first in a series so now I am going to have to track down copies of those, too!

Of course, I also find myself wondering if the author would have time to do a Skype chat with my class. Hm… maybe I will look into that. I think my students would love talking to him about what he wrote, why he wrote it, and how he did it!

In the meantime, we are off to another reading adventure, going from present-day libraries in Alexandriaville, Ohio, to the midst of the Great Depression in Gary, Indiana.

What are you reading right now?

Limits with Limitless Possibilities

I am a big fan of setting limits, of establishing boundaries, or making parameters known. These are things that make like slightly more predictable, comfortable, and safe. I’ve blogged before about the benefits of setting limits in the classroom and how that relates to classroom management. What I am writing about today, though, is something different. I am writing about the limitations that actually lead to limitless possibilities.

It has been a long-standing tradition in my classroom that students get 30-45 minutes each week on Friday to engage in an activity that I call “Read, Write, Think!” While I have blogged about this before, too, the gist of it is that, during this time, students have several options: the can read independently, with a partner, or in a group; they can write independently, with a partner, or in a group; or they can think by  drawing, playing cognitive games with others, solving puzzles, or doing math. This is a time when Chromebooks are closed and students are selecting what they will do.

There are definite limits to this activity. It is not free choice, which is something that they may have done in the primary grades. It is not indoor recess, which they have had lots of during the cold months of winter. It is a time for students to select from a menu of options a task that they want to engage in. Some may wish to do something from each category. Others pick on option and stay with it.

What is interesting about these limits is how limitless the possibilities are. There are three categories with ten sub-categories. But I have hundreds, if not thousands, of books in my classroom. Student writing can be anything at all. I have dozens of cognitive games and puzzles. There are likely an infinite number of math problems or challenges that students could tackle. And so the limitations still have limitless possibilties.

It is easy to look at the limits and bemoan what cannot be done. Far too often, I hear students say, “But I don’t want to do that!” My goal is to help them see the limits and as a way of focusing on what they can do, though. I definitely have limitations on what I can do in my life, but within those limitations? The possibilities are endless!

Learning Through Play

I am a big fan of learning through play. It is one of the main reasons I started my after-school tabletop gaming club. But I try to incorporate meaningful play into the classroom, as well. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I keep trying. I think students learn more effectively and retain concepts and skills longer when they developed them through a play-based structure.

Maybe this is why websites like Prodigy are so popular among students. They are practicing and developing math skills in order to level up wizards and fight off monsters. I have some students who would play Prodigy all day long if they could.

Of course, while students play Prodigy using their Chromebooks, they don’t actually play anything on their Chromebooks. I have made very clear from the start that the Chromebooks are a learning tool, not a toy, and that while there are games that can be played using them, we don’t play on them. Fortunately, most of my students readily grasped this nuanced idea and know better than to ask if they can “play” on their devices. (This is also why they know they aren’t permitted to use Chromebooks during indoor recesses, which are very much a time for them to actually play.)

But there are other ways for students to learn through playing. Today while preparing for my math lesson on determining factors of whole numbers, I realised the lesson itself was pretty dry and I needed something more engaging, more fun. So I grabbed my giant bag of base 10 cubes and a box of Ziploc sandwich baggies and got to work. I made a dozen sets of bags that just had handfuls of cubes of differing amounts tossed in them. I told the students that they were going to work with partners help me make a math game. Included with each bag was a blank half-sheet of paper folded in half. On the outside, students were to record the number of cubes. On the top half of the inside, they were to draw and label as many arrays as they could using their cubes. On the bottom half of the inside, they had to list all of the factors and determine if the number was prime or composite.

Did the room get noisy? Yes. Did some students need some extra help? Of course. Did some students mess up their first half-sheets and need new ones? You bet! Did they show an understanding of factors and how to identify prime or composite numbers by playing with small cubes? They sure did!

Tomorrow we will move on to identifying multiples of whole numbers and then we will use Kahoot! (a game-based quiz platform) to review factors and multiples before wrapping up this topic and having a formal quiz on it early next week.

How have you used gaming in your teaching?

Empowering Students

I was out of the classroom all day last Wednesday. I had a great substitute, a former Wiley teacher that many of my students know because they had her in first grade: Miss C, who has been mentioned in this blog more than once. While things were generally okay, there were still struggles and challenges while I was gone that I wished had not happened.

I was out of the classroom again this afternoon, and I had Miss C, who is now married but is known by the same name (at least for the time being), but I wanted to see if I could help the students have more success. One thing I had thought about was empowering them to make choices on their own.

I had one student who likes to work in another teacher’s room when he is feeling overwhelmed by peers around him. I gave him two passes that he could use, one during reading workshop and one during writing workshop. I reminded him who the substitute would be and encouraged him to stay in the room to help as needed but made sure he knew he could use his passes if he needed to.

Another student often gets bored in class and needs something to do to feel like he is contributing in a helpful way. So I gave him the task of putting mail in the mailboxes and in helping Miss C with technology issues if they happened again.

A third student had a math assessment he needed to complete. He knew that he would be able to use his Chromebook once the assessment was completed, and so he had an incentive to complete his work.

And so it went. Students were given specific tasks and were encouraged to do their best while I was gone. I left the room right before lunch, with students excited to help their former teacher and show their current teacher what they could do.

The report I got at the end of the day was that the students were awesome. They worked on reading, vocabulary, and writing. They helped the substitute, they cleaned the room at the end of the day, and they generally followed directions, met expectations, and showed that they knew what they were expected to do.

I have often been asked about my approach to student discipline. I am not shy about stating that my approach is one of encouraging actual discipline: self-control, self-regulation, and pro-social skills. Discipline is helping student treat others with respect and dignity and to advocate for themselves when they feel that they are not being treated with respect and dignity. Too often, teachers use “discipline” to mean “punishment.” What I heard from my friend and substitute today was that my students showed that they have the discipline to do what is expected when they are empowered to do it. They didn’t need threats of punishment or retribution; they only needed to know what to do, how to do it, and why it should be done. Knowing they can do it in the classroom, I hope they realise that they can do it anywhere!

Does it work every day? No, of course not. My students are children who are still learning. I am still learning and I am 35 years old as of last Friday. I don’t ask for perfection; I ask only for effort. I am pleased that my students responded by rising to the occasion!

The Wonder Wall

I was participating in a Twitter chat over the weekend when someone made a point I had never thought about before: the walls and halls of our school buildings are just as much a part of the learning environment as everything else; what are we doing with them?

I thought about my own classroom walls. One wall is a giant bank of windows, another has bulletin boards where I post reading strategies for comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expression, another is taken up by my Promethean Board, and the fourth is a giant mirror with a bookcase underneath it. Not much I can do with those spaces.

But I also have a bulletin board outside my classroom that has not been updated as frequently as it should be. For the past couple of months, it has had some posters the students made explaining different plane figures and geometric concepts. Bo-ring.

So today I finally took it all down, including the faded border with illustrations of apples and pencils. I told the students that this was going to become our new wonder wall. I laid out a large pile of Post-It notes and asked students to write down something they had learned or something they still wondered and then they stuck them on our classroom door. As they walked out, they would read them. There were notes about math, about listening to others, about the importance of reading, as well as questions about college and careers and driving cars. At the end of the day, I transferred the Post-It notes to the bulletin board so that passers-by can read them, too.

I may not have the students write notes every day, but we are going to do this often enough, and with lots of different sizes and colours of Post-Its, that the bulletin board will eventually be filled with the things we have learned and the things we have wondered. Once we get some more content, I will take a picture so you can check it out, too!