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

Archive for October, 2011


Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that the standard spelling these days is Halloween. I like the old-timey feel  of spelling it with the apostrophe. This is also very much related to why I prefer to use endings like -our, -ise, and -tre.

Anyway, today is Hallowe’en. Our school has a parade and then classroom parties in the afternoon each year. Nearly all of the students in my class had costumes and those who didn’t acquired some from the store of costumes that are hidden away in the building. I broke out my high school graduation regalia, complete with mortar board, tassel, and gold honours cords, and walked around with the class. I don’t think the other intermediate teachers dressed up, but most of the primary teachers did. One teacher was a box of crayons, another was a frog on a lily pad, and another one was dressed as The Cat in the Hat. Not the Cat in the Hat, mind you, but the book itself.

My students had a wide variety of costumes: werewolf, witch, dark faerie, Greek goddess, Duct Tape (TM) monster, vampire, knight, hobo, Rapunzel-as-a-corpse, Venom (from Spiderman), and other such characters appeared. One of my favourite costumes, though, was from a student in another class: a homemade Dalek costume, complete with flashing lights. All of the students in the building lined up and paraded around the sidewalk surrounding the building before heading into their separate classrooms for parties.

Our class party was just lots of treats (cupcakes, cookies, brownies, apple slices, and string cheese) and letting the kids sit around and talk. I had It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! but the students seemed content to just eat their snacks and chat with each and their parents. In the course of the party, I overheard one of the funniest conversations I’ve heard in the room this year:

Student 1: Mr. Valencic is chomping down on a cookie.
Student 2: Really? I thought adults were too old for cookies.
Mr. Valencic: Wait… you mean you’ve never seen an adult eating a cookie before?
Student 2: I’ve seen adults eat cupcakes before, but never cookies.
Mr. Valencic: Um… okay…

After this conversation, I told the second student’s father and he just looked really puzzled. The entire discussion reminded me of the time a couple of weeks ago when a student expressed shock upon learning that I drink soda. It would seem that children really are incredibly aware of the world around them. Events like these result in what is known as “anchoring and adjusting” in cognitive psychology. Individuals have to find something that they understand, like an adult eating cupcakes, and adjust their understanding to include cookies. Upon further reflection, though, I’m not sure why this was so surprising, seeing as we had cookies in the class for someone’s birthday just last week!

The day was fun, the students enjoyed dressing up, and they enjoyed seeing me dressed up, as well! The parents who came to help out did a great job providing treats and helping out! I know we didn’t do much, but what we did was fun!

Happy Hallowe’en, everyone!


Parent-Teacher Conferences Part II

Today was the second day of Parent-Teacher Conferences. Officially only scheduled to go from eight to noon, I was at school from about 7:45 am until 6:00 pm, due to the fact that my wife takes the car to work and she had to stay a little late today.

Fortunately, I had plenty to do to keep myself occupied while waiting. Also, I was able to schedule a late conference with a parent who worked into the early afternoon. So it worked out really well! While waiting for my wife to finish work, I did a lot of reading (finally finished Debt of Honor, leaving me with just three more books in the Jack Ryan universe before I’ll finally be done), and I did some organising of the classroom. I meant to sort out all of my nonfiction books, but I was busy doing other tasks. They can wait, I’m sure.

Now that I am all done with conferences (well, essentially… still have a half-dozen parents to try to meet with), I can relax this weekend. I have a brother getting married tomorrow, and then I have a band concert on Sunday. The concert is at Wesley United Methodist Church on Green Street in Urbana from 4 to 6 pm, for those interested in coming. I told my students I would give them five extra credit points on their social studies research project if they came with their parents and had me sign a copy of the program. It’ll be interesting to see how many, if any, come!

Anyway, I’m off to catch Game 7 of the World Series! Go Cards!

Parent-Teacher Conferences Part I

Today was a bit of a scary day for me. Well, okay, not really scary; more of a “holy cow I have no idea what I am really supposed to do” kind of day. Actually, not even the whole day, just the end of it.

You see, Parent-Teacher Conferences began this evening. And even though I am in my fifth year of professional teaching–one year as a student teacher (which totally counts, even if I wasn’t being paid), three years as a substitute teacher, and now my first year as a full-time teacher–I have somehow managed to never be present at Parent-Teacher Conferences. Until today.

I had most of my students’ parents sign up for conferences, so I knew that I would at least have parents coming in. I had the first quarter report cards, projects we’ve worked on and projects currently underway, but, really, what to actually do at a conference was a mystery to me.

But I did know what to do to prepare. First, my students had a fairly typical last day of the week routine. We had P.E. in the morning, did some silent reading, had a math test, cleaned desks and tidied the room, went to lunch, read more of Over Sea, Under Stone, and had our weekly Read, Write, Think! activities. As part of the tidying the room, I had half a dozen students work under the direction of a parent volunteer to organise all of the fiction chapter books we have in the room. During the previous quarter, the books that had been so meticulously organised had been moved, removed, and replaced so many times that they were just a huge mess. I couldn’t find the books I wanted when I wanted them, and students were just grabbing books at random.

Now they are all organised again and ready for new selections to be put into the mix. I straightened the rest of the books (large picture books, nonfiction, poetry, etc) and will try to actually sort them all out tomorrow when I have down-time between conferences. So I had that taken care of. I also displayed the class science reports/posters so that parents could see what was done. My grade level partner had some students bring in several of the Dr. Seuss books so that we could have those on display again, and I made sure that the room was neat and cleared of clutter.

But I still didn’t really know what to expect from conferences. Fortunately, I’ve developed the talent for thinking quickly on my feet, and I not only survived, I had several very positive, productive conferences with my students’ parents. We discussed academic and social performance, class policies, curriculum, projects, concerns and strengths, and how much my students seem to really like having me as their teacher. (Always nice to know!)

Nothing was a huge surprise to me, except perhaps how many parents do read my blog (thanks again, by the way!) and how very little some of my most active, talkative students tell their parents when they get home. Yet another reason that this blog is useful: parents can use what I am writing as talking points. I think I may take advantage of this and start posting daily questions related to what we’ve done each day. I also learned that the fact that I wear a tie to work each day is a Pretty Big Deal. I suppose I should clarify that I don’t actually wear a different tie each day, at least, I haven’t. Maybe I’ll do what Kevin Lambert did at Mix 94.5 WLRW in Champaign and wear a different tie each day until I’ve made it through all of them. I’ll tell the class on Monday and have them keep track. Should be fun.

Anyway, round one of Parent-Teacher Conferences was awesome, the PTA provided an excellent dinner (and I don’t even like soup), and now I am very ready for bed and then doing round two tomorrow! Cheerio!

Field Trip

Today we had our very first field trip (or excursion, for those who prefer the term) of the year. We, along with the rest of the school (with the exception of Kindergarten) went to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to watch a show called Tales of the Pacific Rim. In preparation for this, my grade level partner and I have been teaching our classes about the nations of the Pacific Rim, discussing their cultures and stories, mostly by reading from a wide selection of books on the topic.

The students were pretty excited, and we worked hard at establishing a high level of expectation. I don’t think a day went by during the previous two weeks that she or I didn’t remind our young charges that they had to show that they could handle going on a field trip by showing that they could be respectful, responsible, and safe in the classroom. I am pleased that they stepped up and showed that they could do it.

After returning to school, we talked about what the students most enjoyed about the performance and also the parts that surprised them or left them with questions. The favourite part was almost unanimously Brenda Wong’s telling of the story of Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), focusing on the mischief he caused in the Heavenly Kingdom (scroll down through the Wikipedia page to find a good synopsis). Several students were surprised to see just one actor on stage, so we talked a bit about the difference between watching a storyteller and watching a full stage production.

The rest of the day passed quickly, with the students getting back, going to lunch (about half an hour later than usual), and then doing our read aloud and some silent reading while I worked with a couple of students on the math assessment we did yesterday. And then they went to fine arts, we had our daily class meeting, and that was that!

It was a good day with great student behaviour at the Krannert Center. I am hoping we will have opportunities to return again, as well as to go on other field trips throughout the year. The students definitely showed that they can handle themselves outside the school!

Industrial Ear Muffs

For all but roughly six months of my entire life, my mother has worked at the plant in Morton, Illinois, that processes and cans Libby’s Pumpkin. (As an aside, I find it very distressing that the official web page for this product does not show up on the first page of Google when searching for “Libby’s Pumpkin” but it does when searching for “Nestle Pumpkin.) When Mum first started working there, it was actually Libby’s Pumpkin. Then Carnation bought out Libby’s and then Nestle USA bought out Carnation. This is also why many Carnation products (like their sweetened condensed milk) now carries the Nestle logo, in case you were wondering. However, Mum has always just worked at the pumpkin plant, generally referred to as a factory in our family.

As a result of this career, there were items in my home that we always found commonplace that, apparently, weren’t common in most kids’ homes. Things like bump caps (different from hard hats), hair nets (more of a gauzy material than an actual net, though), ear plugs and, of course, industrial ear muffs. These items would accumulate around the house as any one of my parents eight children would spirit them off for various reasons and Mum would just get new ones. We always thought they were cool, especially the ear muffs.

Flash-forward to a couple of weeks ago. A parent, in an effort to help alleviate the oftentimes excessive noise levels in the room, offered to bring in some ear muffs for the students to use. It seems that many other teachers have used these in the past (or are still using them) and it has been successful. I am never one to turn down a suggestion to do something that will most likely help in a huge way, so I gladly accepted. Just a few days ago, these ear muffs made their way into the classroom. I unpacked them and put them in a box, not quite sure how I would introduce them to the class.

I shouldn’t have worried.

My students, as interested as they are in everything new and shiny (hey, I like shiny new things, too!) immediately caught sight of the box and started asking if they could use the ear muffs during silent reading. I’ll admit that I found this slightly odd, since silent reading is, by its very nature, already silent, but hey, if they thought they’d help, I wasn’t about to stop them! I doled out the eight pairs as randomly as I could and the class got started.

While we have been very successful in building up our silent reading stamina (I’ve mentioned before that the students once read for 35 minutes with just a few breaks), this seemed to be one of our best days. Not only was everyone silent for the duration of the reading (just 15 minutes), but I was also able to pull a small group to the back table to do a quick math check on place value without a single interruption.

However, there has been one downside to the use of these industrial ear muffs in the classroom: everyone wants to wear them. We only have eight pairs at present. However, at $3 a piece, I am seriously contemplating going out and getting a bunch more, or maybe seeking out either a donation or a micro-grant or something of the sort to get them. If external noise cancellation is all it takes to help my young charges focus and work independently, it is worth the investment. Besides, these are industrial ear muffs. I expect them to last a very, very long time!


Math Review

For the past several days, the students in my class have been undergoing a massive review of the math concepts we covered during the first quarter of the year. (I can still hardly believe we are already in the second quarter!) One of the things I have noticed as we have done this is that it is really easy to tell which students are self-motivated to improve and which students will simply float along doing the minimum.

My goal, of course, is for each student to be self-motivated. But the reality of the situation is that I am working with children who are nine- and ten-years-old. They are still learning how to learn and learning how they learn. So it is my job to help them along the way. And that is I find myself stepping back, reviewing what we’ve done, and seeing who it is who needs a little extra push to really give their best.

Of course, to really know who needs the extra push, I have to take the time to work with students either one-on-one or in small groups. While doing that, I also have to make sure that the students who are not meeting with me in conferences have something worthwhile to work on. The “worthwhile” part of that is the hard one. Years ago, it was not at all uncommon for teachers to hand out photocopies (“ditto sheets” were what they were called when I was a kid) to give students something to do to keep them busy. But I don’t want my students to just be kept busy; I want them to do something meaningful.

So while I am working with students in small groups, or working with them in one-on-one conferences, the rest of the class is expected to be silently working at their seats on review. Some days are better than others when it comes to following these expectations but, over all, I think that most of my students are learning how to work independently. Once we’ve firmly established working independently in an acceptable way, we can move on to working in small groups. While there were most definitely be days full of frustration, there will also be days full of excitement at our successes. And each day will be a new day to learn and improve.

And to think, all of this because of a simple desire to finish some math review. Have I mentioned how much I love my job?

Friday Friday

A few days ago, I was discussing with my class the various ways we would be engaging in authentic writing experiences. We talked about the pen pals they will have with my mother-in-law’s fifth grade students in Champaign, which many are excited about. I also mentioned how I was thinking of having one or two students write a blog update once a week during our Read Write Think activities on Friday afternoon.

First I had to set the ground rules: No names (except mine), and I wanted it to be positive. Also, I reminded them that I have absolute editorial authority, but I would try to keep the writing as authentically theirs as I could. What follows is the update written for today by two of the girls in my class:

Today in Mr. Valencic’s class, at lunch recess, we had an extremely bad problem. A loose dog, chased kids on the playground. There was one student in particular that got hurt badly! He got bitten on the face. It was scary and quite sad. But that wasn’t the only thing that happened today!

We also had so much fun in The Thinks You Think project. We were split into small groups of four or five. What we did was find explicit and implicit details in books that we got assigned to. It was really fun and awesome. We also had a fun period of Read, Write, Think. There are some enjoying chess, some playing bingo, Battleship, Guess Who?, Connect 4, and origami. I hope the rest of Friday will be wonderful!

There was a letter sent home to parents to explain what happened during lunch recess, and the teachers will be doing some major follow-up teaching with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades to help better model how to respond to an emergency, particularly when there is a loose animal on the playground during lunch recess. We are very fortunate that none of the injuries were serious!

The students really did do an amazing job finding explicit and implicit details and discussing the differences between summaries and main ideas. The principal even came in and observed, then told me and my grade-level partner how impressed she was with how well the lesson went.

I can hardly believe the first quarter ended a week ago! I just finished report cards and am now preparing for parent-teacher conferences next Thursday and Friday. However, I am really looking forward to taking a break this weekend! My baby sister is coming down to attend the Illinois Marching Band Championships. It is looking to be a great follow-up to a great day!