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

Archive for October, 2010

Tacos and Motivation

As I posted on Twitter last night, and mentioned yesterday, parent-teacher conferences are continuing today in the Champaign schools. I am hoping that my colleagues are having several (if not all) of the parents of their students coming in, so that these oh-so-important conferences can take place. My fear is that tradition will hold, though, and the parents who come in will be the ones who already meet with the teachers regularly, and the parents who really need to be there are going to be the ones who never show. But such are the challenges of public education.
In the meantime, I need something else to blog about, so as to not waste the time of my devoted readers. So I put out an open call yesterday for topics, and I was given two responses: tacos and what led me to become a teacher. I tried to touch on this latter topic with my very first blog entry here, but it is possible that it was missed. Furthermore,  I think that I can expand on the question of what led me to teach. And, in a very odd way, I am going to connect it to why I like tacos.

I first began to entertain the notion of being a teacher near the end of my 4th grade year. This was the year that I was in a combined 4/5th grade class, taught by Ms. Kathy McNamara. Ours was an experimental classroom funded by the Christa McAuliffe foundation. (At least, that is what I always thought it was called. I am now not so certain that such an organisation exists, and it is possible that it was actually a grant through the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framington University, but honestly, I am not sure. I do know for certain that Christa’s educational goals and vision were a major contributing factor to the development of our classroom, known as the Classroom of Tomorrow.) Regardless of the source of the establishment of the COT classroom, as we called it, Ms. Mac was an amazing teacher. She focused on project-based learning, experential learning, peer-teaching, group work, and differentiated instruction in a way that I had never experienced before. Of all these activities, the peer-teaching was the most important. I learned that I enjoyed teaching, and I was good at it. From that day onward, I took every opportunity to teach that I could, whether it was formal or informal. I became a teacher. Now I am a professional educator, as well.

So, I am sure that at least one of you is asking, “Okay, cool, but what does that have to do with tacos?” I’m glad you asked. And if you didn’t, well, I’m going to tell you, anyway. I like tacos. They are delicious, they are nutritious (or, at least, they can be, if made well), and they satisfy several different needs at once. If I could, I would probably eat tacos every day. My wife and I have recently started making tacos at home, and we are always glad that we do. If we had more money, I am positive that we would have tacos more often. Tacos are the everymeal. If you want meat, you can have meat. If you want hot and spicy, you can have it. If you want veggies, you’ve got it! Cheese? Plenty! Crunchy one day, soft the next? No problem! Tacos are so variable that they can always give you something new, something exciting. Want to know what corned beef and ketchup tastes like on a soft flour tortilla? Go ahead a try it! (Note: It is the most disgusting thing you will ever put in your mouth. I know. But that is another story for another day.)

When it comes to vocations, education is the taco of the professional fields. It is satisfying, it is healthy, and it meets several different needs at once. In addition to just being good at teaching, I want to know everything. I know that I won’t know everything at once, and I probably won’t ever know everything there is to know, but I want to know as much as I possibly can. I can’t be satisfied with just knowing some things, or a little bit about everything, or even a lot about one thing. I know that there are people who are satisfied with this, and I am glad that there are. If everyone in the world were like me, this would be a very dull place indeed. But I want to know everything about everything. And so I chose to become a professional educator. It is the only field in which I can be paid to learn and to live vicariously through my clients (in this case, my students). One of my heroes of education is a woman named Esmé Raji Codell. I love the concluding paragraph of her autobiographical work, “Educating Esmé: Diary Of A Teacher’s First Year”. In it she makes this keen observation about teachers:

People snicker, “Those who can’t do, teach.” But, oh, how right they are. I could never, ever do all I dream of doing. I could never, ever be an opera star, a baseball umpire, an earth scientist, an astronaut, a great lover, a great liar, a trapeze artist, a dancer, a baker, a buddha, or a thousand other aspirations I have had, while having only been given one thin ticket in this lottery of life! In the recessional [of her students who have graduated], as I watch them, mine, the ones I loved, I overflow with the joyous greed of a rich man counting coins… I experience a teacher’s great euphoria, the knowledge like a drug that will keep me: Thirty-one children. Thirty-one chances. Thirty-one futures, our futures…. Everything they become, I also become.

As a teacher, I want tacos every day. And as a professional educator, I can have them, through the lives of my students. As a substitute teacher, I am richly blessed to not have 15, 20, or 30 students, but hundreds of students. Knowing that my brief encounters with them may have a lasting impact on their lives, in the same way that that one brief year with Ms. Mac changed the course of my life forever, is what motivates me to teach. It is what helps me wake up in the cold, early hours of the morning and head off to school each day. If and when I get a job as a full-time self-contained general education classroom instructor, I will continue to be motivated by this desire to do everything in the world, to know everything in the world, not just through my own efforts, but also through the efforts of my students. Maybe I’ll celebrate the end of each year with a taco party, too.

New Site Design!

Today was a half-day in the Champaign school district–at least for students. Teachers had parent-teacher conferences all afternoon, evening, and they have them all day tomorrow. And even though I am officially on the sub lists for two other districts and almost on the list for a third, I didn’t have any work for today. So I decided to do something else.

For those who are visiting the site (hopefully everyone reading this), I’m sure you’ll have noticed the changes. I asked my wonderfully talented wife to design a banner for the blog, and she did more than that–she designed a banner, a background, and she found a new design for the layout. We are still working out some of the kinks in the new design, though, and I am hoping for some input from you, my oh-so-amazingly awesome readers who mainly lurk around as you read of my adventures.

So here are the questions:
What’s working well with the new design?
What’s not working? That is, what still needs to be changed?
What web browser and operating system are you using?

Please be specific in your comments! We really want this to be a blog with not just good content, but good design! While I can’t promise that Gretch will implement all of your suggestions, I know that she will greatly appreciate the feedback!

Problem-Based Learning

Today I was a fourth grade teacher at Robeson Elementary. I was subbing for a teacher who has used me several times in the past, and also has written one of my professional letters of reference. I was curious to see how her class would be this year, because last year’s class was awful, and I don’t say that lightly. She herself would often comment on how they were her worst class ever, and most days in her room were simply a struggle to prevent arson, defenestration, and worse.

Fortunately, this year’s class is totally different. While there were a couple of boys who were quite a challenge, I found most of the class to be quite delightful, which meant that I could really teach, rather than simply referee fights and hope that nobody would draw blood during the day. (Incidentally, two students today needed band-aids for different bumps they got, but neither was because somebody caused them injury.) The main focus of my teaching today was math, which is one of the few subjects I have found I love teaching, despite the fact that, throughout my own public education, I detested math. Oddly so, I imagine, since I was actually quite good at math–despite what my wife will say. (In her defense, I am terrible at doing mental math. In my defense, I am terrible at doing mental math, but I don’t think anybody needs to be particularly adept at mentally adding up long lists of numbers!)

The math lesson today focused on understanding the relationship between base-1o place values. One may initially think that this is an easy concept to teach. It is easy to tell students what the place values are. It is much more difficult to get them to understand why they are that way. A current trend in education, and particularly in mathematics, is problem-based learning. The quick summary of this pedagogical style is that it is better for students to discover concepts on their own, rather than be told them. While I believe this is true in many fields, I do not believe it is true in mathematics. A recent discussion with a friend of mine who is earning a PhD in applied mathematics and secondary education actually affirms this notion. It turns out that research has indicated that problem-based learning in math is not more effective that lecture-based learning and, in fact, it may be less effective. Which means that what we are doing may not be for the best.

Luckily for me and my students, I do not believe in problem-based only learning. I believe in briefly presenting an idea, then allowing students to further develop their understanding through problem-based learning. Sometimes this is done by giving them relevant problems and seeing if they can correctly solve them. And sometimes it is done by presenting a scenario and asking the students to explain what is wrong. I used the latter method this morning, and it worked quite well. This is a (not very good) illustration of what I presented to the students:

Place Value Illustration

By way of explanation, the symbols are representations of base-10 blocks. From left to right, we have the large cube (that was 1 whole unit), the flat (1/10th), the long (1/100th), and the cube (1/1000th). For those who are not aware, base-10 blocks don’t have any block larger than the large cube. So the question posed was two parts: one, what’s wrong? and two, how do we fix this? The students quickly identified that there cannot be two digits in one place value column. Their solutions for how to fix it were quite creative. Eventually, they decided that they needed to come up with a symbol to represent a long bar consisting of ten large cubes. They decided to do this by taking the large cube symbol and using a long rectangle instead of a square. It would still have the inverted L-shape in the top right corner to indicate the large cube concept.

This was a perfect example of merging lecture-based instruction (I explained that they were working with base-10 place values, and led a brief discussion about what the place values are), and problem-based learning, in which the students “discovered” a way of representing the concept of the ten (a numeric value that is all sorts of messed up when trying to understand base-systems and numerals and zero). So, all in all, my day as  fourth grade teacher went quite well!

New Adventures Coming Soon!

Today I voluntarily took the day off to accomplish some urgent tasks. You see, earlier this year, I realised that only substituting in the Champaign schools was not going to quite cover all the bills. In addition, I’ve felt like I’ve been stagnating in my approach to subbing, because I am in the same schools teaching the same curriculum and working with the same group of kids. Of course, as a full-time teacher, I will be working in one school with just one group of kids, but, if and when that happens, I will have a whole new world of adventurations before me. In the meantime, I needed a way to a) earn more money, b) break out of my comfort zone, and c) gain more experience. So I approached three other school districts about working as a substitute teacher.

It turns out the process is more complicated than one would initially think. There are dozens of pieces of paperwork to complete, health exams, TB tests, immunisations, BBP trainings, fingerprinting, mandated reporter acknowledgements, and direct deposit authorisations to issue. Today was the culmination of this project.

In the morning, I drove out to Rantoul, where the relevant Regional Office of Education is headquartered, and spoke with a very nice woman about fingerprinting. It turned out that the Regional Office already had my fingerprints on file, so all I had to do was let her know which districts I was applying to, and she would fax the information over. So that wasn’t too bad. It could have been done on the phone, but I didn’t know the prints were on file, and she didn’t think to ask. Fortunately, while I was in Rantoul, I decided to skip on over to the Rantoul City School’s Superintendent’s Office and turn in all the paperwork for their district. Having accomplished that, I had successfully added myself to another substitute teacher registry.

Later this afternoon, I drove across town to Urbana, where I attended a fascinating seminar on Blood-Borne Pathogens, which informed me that I shouldn’t touch other people’s blood and, in the off-chance I do, I should clean it off, wash my hands, and tell my supervisor. Oh, and I should assume that everyone in the world is carrying Hepatitis B and HIV. Really, not a bad idea when it comes to coming in contact with other folks blood. I also learned that every school has an Automated Electronic Defibrilator but, since I am not trained in its use, I should never ever touch it. Just know where it is. I am thinking of getting trained, since, according to the nurse, all you have to know is how to turn it on.

Having done all that, I turned in my substitute teacher application with Urbana School District 116, and I am mailing the application for Mahomet-Seymour Community School District 137 this afternoon. When all is said and done, I will be registered as a substitute teacher in four districts: the three mentioned today, and Champaign Unit 4, which has been the source of all my substituting adventures thus far. I’m not sure how long it will take to start getting calls from these other districts, but I am definitely excited to be working more frequently!

How It All Works

Today was, like most of the Mondays in October, a day in which I did not have a teaching assignment. I have no idea why this has been the case, but I did make good use of my day off. You see, this weekend was the 25th anniversary of the release of “Back to the Future” and so, of course, I spent the day watching the entire series. In addition to remembering how amazingly awesome the trilogy is, I managed to succeed in getting my wife to upgrade her opinion of the series from “terrible” to “okay” and if that isn’t a success, I don’t know what is!

Now, due to the fact that this blog is dedicated to substituting, it would be a shame for me to leave my post at that. Fortunately, my friend Hannah gave me the idea for what I can write about. She wanted to know how I go about actually receiving assignments to substitute teach, and I realised that I should take time to explain the process.

The first thing you need to know is that in the Champaign school district, all substitute teachers are hired on an as-needed basis. There are some districts that actually have full-time substitute teachers, and I wish Champaign was one of them, but, alas, ’tis not so. Instead, I have work when I am needed. When I first started working as a sub, I learned about assignments through phone calls, either between 5 and 10 pm or after 5 am in the morning. This made the entire process quite difficult, and is probably a reason why I didn’t have many assignments last year.

Champaign instituted a new system this year, though, which has been quite awesome. All substitute assignments are placed through a third-party online service called Aesop, that uses Frontline Placement Services. Any time, any day, I can log on to the site and see what jobs are available in my district. Most of the time, I get this message: “All qualifying Jobs are currently filled. However, please review this web site periodically for new Jobs listings.” Eventually, though, something will show up. It will tell me the school, teacher, date, and time of the assignment, and I am given the option to accept it or reject it. As soon as I accept the assignment, I receive an email that confirms the information. It is also kept on my personal home page on the Aesop site.

This is also why I sometimes receive an assignment at midnight. Teachers are notorious about not wanting to miss work. So if they get sick, they will wait until the last possible moment to decide that they simply can’t go in to work, and they post the absence online. Fortunately, I wake up periodically throughout the night, so I always check for new assignments if I don’t have for the following day.

There are other things, too, such as non-work days, substitute ratings (visible only to other teachers, not subs), and preferred sub lists, but those are just bonus features. The basic process is log on, search for jobs, accept a job, log off, repeat. And that’s how it all works.


Today is Saturday, which means, obviously, I hope, that I haven’t done any teaching today. But I wanted to make a quick post because I have had a note sitting on my desk for a few weeks that I wanted to share.

Several weeks ago, I was teaching in a 5th grade classroom during the students’ independent reading period. Years and years ago, this time was referred to as Silent Sustained Reading, or SSR. My brother Adam always joked that it was really the Sit down, Shut up, and Read period. There may have been quite a bit of truth to this. Now it is often just independent reading, and, as a teacher, I usually find myself reminding students that independent reading is also silent reading. And, as they are required to read for an extended period of time (usually 30 minutes), it is also sustained reading. So, really, it is still the same thing.

While the 5th graders were reading, I walked around the room to see what everyone was reading. I was somewhat surprised to discover that roughly 70% of the class members were reading any one of the many volumes of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. I read the first volume and, I admit, they are fun to read. I was just surprised to see so many of the students reading, essentially, the same thing.

What really struck me was the following week, as I was teaching 6th grade reading, and the class was doing independent reading in the library. Just a year older, these students were reading a vast array of literature. Some of the titles that I jotted down in my note were “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “Diamond Willow” by Helen Frost. Other students were reading sports anthologies, magazines, and nature books. I am still working on figuring out why there was such a difference in diversity between the two classes. I have looked in on other 5th grade classes and found that, by and large, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is hugely popular across the district. Yet students a year older have such wide variety in reading interests. Is this a common phenomenon, or am I just reading too much into it? I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a definitive answer.

Make a Joyful Noise!

Today I was a grade school music teacher at Carrie Busey Elementary School. I have subbed for this teacher in the past, and her classes are always a lot of fun, and always very well-behaved. There is something fun about helping young people learn how to make a joyful noise through the power of music. It is also quite inspiring to see them figure out rhythms on their own.

Of course, as a substitute, I don’t really teach music the way their music teacher. She never knows in advance who will be teaching for her, and what his or her qualifications are, so the plans for the day usually involve reading stories about music or watching music-themed videos. However, there is still quite a bit of teaching that can be done while watching movies, provided, of course, the movies are well-planned.

With my 5th and 4th grade classes, we watched “Stomp Out Loud”, which features some of the greatest hits of Stomp, an amazing percussion ensemble. My 1st grade and kindergarten classes watching a puppet show featuring the “Carnival of Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens. Both were excellent videos showing the use of music, and fit in quite well with what the classes have been studying in their music class.

My favourite part of the day, though, was the move I showed to the 3rd and 2nd graders. We watched “Animusic”–an amazing audiovisual experience. For those who are not familiar, I recommend this sample:

I love the combination of sound and video animation that this group has created. And, in terms of teaching, it was so awesome watching the students identifying all of the intricate parts of the music and seeing how it all fit together. They have been learning about rhythms, so they were all trying their best to beat the rhythm as the video played. It was pretty great. It was also great that, being familiar with all of these videos, I was able to know what to watch for and what to point out.

Today was definitely a great day as a substitute. I worked with many different students, had to enter a realm that I am not totally comfortable (I typically teach in the traditional classroom, so subbing for a “specials” teacher is always a new experience), and I was able to have a great time. Definitely a great end to the week!