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

Archive for November, 2011

Overheard in the Classroom II

Today was a busy day, with the students working hard on our awesome Top Secret Project that, to anyone who has read this will know, isn’t all that “top secret” since I told you all yesterday what it was. But we haven’t announced to the school what we are doing, and the principal doesn’t know yet, which led several in the class to ask if the project was okay. I assured them it was, but exhorted them to refrain from telling her about it.

It was also a fairly typical day.

Until the very end, when I overheard something in the classroom that completely bewildered me.

Picture this in your mind:

A fourth grade boy, 9 or 10 years old, it sitting at his desk when suddenly you hear him say, in a sweet, almost tender voice, “Oh, are you okay? Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe!” You then look at him and see him cradling something to his chest, rocking it back and forth as you would a child.

And you realise that he is holding a piece of paper with a picture he drew.

My response was to stop, stare, look confused, and then finally just say, “Wh… wh… what on earth was that?!” He looked at me, then looked around and noticed that half the class had heard him. All of a sudden he started laughing, and everyone else started laughing with him. Including me.

Nobody was laughing at him, though. We were all laughing because it was just a funny thing to hear and see. Then we kept laughing because, you know, laughter is contagious. And I realised something today: we need more laughter in our room. Unfortunately, you can’t force laughter, and you can’t try to be funny. It just has to happen. I hope it does.


Starting a New Top Secret Project

Today we started a new project, which I have, on a whim, decided to brand as “top secret” although it isn’t secret at all and, by the time you finish reading this, you, too, will know about it. But hey, it is fun to use “top secret” to label a project that we are doing in the class. The entire project is the culmination of our social studies research project on European explorers. The idea is being drawn from another teacher within the district who shared it with us at a Literacy Across Content Areas inquiry group meeting two months ago.

The project started with the students getting on the computers in the lab and brainstorming as much information about the early explorers as they could. I was happy to see that they moved away from the ThinkQuest site I had directed them to initially and began searching out other sites. They generated lists of key words and phrases, including names, locations, and dates. After generating the lists, the students put them aside and went on to other work.

In the afternoon, we had a class discussion about text features, focusing on what they are and examples of them. The class then broke off into small groups of three or four and spent about twenty minutes examining the text features of a variety of alphabet books I have in the classroom. They were told to list the features and prepare to share them with the class. Some of the features that the groups identified were:

  • cover
  • title page
  • individual letters of the alphabet on each page
  • key words or phrases that start with a specific letter
  • short paragraphs to describe the key word or phrase
  • illustrations
  • glossary/index

Having laid the foundation, I announced our top secret project to the class: each student will select one letter of the alphabet, and will then write an entry for our own alphabet book, featuring the European explorers. We are going to work on this project tomorrow morning and hopefully finish before the end of the week. I think I’ll also steal an idea from yet another teacher and scan each of the completed pages and turn them into a video, with students narrating their pages. We’ll see if we have time for that before the end of the semester, which is rushing toward us like a freight train!


Pebbles and Brain Teasers

Several weeks ago, I introduced a classroom management incentive program in my room. It consists of taking small glass pebbles and dropping them inside a vase. The class earns pebbles by meeting our five classroom expectations. They get one pebble for each expectation, with a possible sixth if our restroom & drink break is done in three minutes or less. When we first started doing this, I only awarded pebbles at the end of the day. But I switched to doing them twice a day based on a suggestion made during a recent new teacher mentoring program “chatshop” that was held by the district. I also got a smaller vase so that the students could see the results of their positive behaviour more rapidly. The prize for filling the vase was an extra 30-minute Read, Write, Think period.

Last Wednesday, we filled the small vase for the first time. Because it was filled at the end of the week, we did not get to have our extra RWT until this afternoon. However, even a four-day weekend filled with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, pie, pie, and more pie did not make my students forget that they had earned this reward. So it was that this afternoon we had our first bonus RWT. I finally have several students interested in writing a blog post during Read, Write, Think, which is why we have this entry for today:

Today with the other 4th grade class, the other teacher discussed with us what will be happening over the next few weeks of school. We all actually learned something new, or new for most of us: 4th graders have a science test as part of the ISAT in March.

It was not too chaotic or hectic today, and we did earn our extra Read,Write, Think time. Mr. Valencic got some cool, new puzzles. They are metal and some students have referred to them as “brain teasers.”

Right now we are in the process of more Read, Write, Think, and it’s anything but tranquil. We’re about to go to a Coyote College assembly. The main point of these assemblies is usually respect, responsiblity, and safe learning. Many kids learn from these assemblies. They truly teach us alot. [Note: Link added by Mr. Valencic, who has resisted the urge to make too many editorial changes by including said link.]

Today we (the kids) will be getting more spelling. The words won’t be to hard if we study, so remember to do those spelling packets! The words might be a bit difficult, but they contribute to giving us a challenge.

Today in math we worked on more division, simple but hard at the same time problems. One example: 20÷5= ? .

I made a  few minor editorial changes to the above, mostly related to spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation, but the content is entirely the product of two students with the occasional input of a third. The students in the class really like the brain teaser puzzles I have. There are three wooden block puzzles we’ve had since the beginning of the year and now four metal ones. Of the seven puzzles, three remain unsolved by any of my students: one wooden puzzle and two metal ones. I am hoping that each puzzle will be solved by the class by the end of the year! If they are all solved sooner, I will almost certainly acquire a few more. They are great activities for students to work on when they complete their in-class assignments. I also have a Rubik’s cube, several crossword puzzles, a three-dimensional apple jigsaw puzzle, and a surprisingly difficult nine-piece jigsaw puzzle. I need to get the students to start working on the apple puzzle. I am sure that if they work on it a bit each day it, too, will be solved eventually!


Thanksgiving Fever

The following is a post written by two students in my class. This is the second in my currently-sporadic series of having students write a brief post at the end of the week. Theoretically, this will become a weekly series. The rules are simple: No names except for my own, nothing negative, and I have complete editorial power. However, I have limited the changes to major syntactic and grammatical conventions, as needed.

Here it is:

Today is the the last school  day before Thanksgiving, and I believe we’re all looking forward to it. But I must say, I was surprised that we, being the dramatic class we are, didn’t express our excitement, although I am sure we all have some good plans.

I was quite excited myself, and I will admit I spent  more time today looking at the clock than I ever have before. We spent most of the morning in the other fourth grade teacher’s class doing the Thinks You Think. The other fourth grade classroom looked as if Christmas were tomorrow, not Thanksgiving! When we got back, we silent read for fifteen minutes. Shortly after that, we learned about division, then lunch.

Currently it is close to the end of the day, and I can barely contain my excitement!

Written by two of Mr. Valencic’s awesome students!

The division work we did this morning focused on an introduction to why we cannot divide by zero. I used models on the board and actual students before transitioning to number sentences, but I know we will still have to spend some more time on the concept before the students fully understand. For the time being, though, I will be happy if they simply take my word for it!

So crazy to think that there are just fourteen more days of class in session before the Winter Break! Where, oh where, has the time gone?! We are going to have some pretty awesome integrated units as we move forward toward the break, and I hope the students continue to maintain focus and strive to give their very best each day leading up and including December 15.

I want to take a break from updating this weekend, so let me just say in closing that I am truly grateful for the 27 students who give me a reason to come to work each day! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoy the weekend! I will be spending time with family and friends, and I hope that each and every one of you have time to do the same thing!


Math Test

You know you’ve written a lot of blog posts when you find yourself searching your blog to make sure you haven’t written on a particular topic yet, or, at least, not the way you are planning on writing it. I have definitely reached that point. If my records are accurate (and I have no reason to doubt them), then this is post number 250. While not a particularly significant number one way or another, it seems amazing to me that I have written so many posts and I have done so consistently! Consistency and stamina in writing are two of the big topics that are brought up with elementary students quite often. Of course, writing on a computer and writing on a piece of paper are not always the same thing, but it is still important to write!

Sadly, writing is not something that I feel we do enough of in my class. We spend a lot of time on reading and a lot of time on math, with social studies and science mixed in. We do writing when joining the other fourth graders, but it is often in short bursts rather than long, thought-out compositions. (That being said, we will probably be changing that aspect of our integrated literacy unit sooner than later. Students be warned!)

Today was a social studies and math day. We spent the morning in the computer lab wrapping up our research projects and doing some small group work on learning more about some of the early European explorers. The lab time was split up, with library in the middle. After finishing in the lab, the students were given time to independently read, which they did for a full thirty minutes!

The remainder of the morning was focused on an introduction to division with remainders. The students did work in small groups using blocks to divide number into even groups and determine what, if any, the remainder was. Then they worked in pairs and created problems for each other to complete.

The afternoon was focused on a math test. Several students started the year with some fairly deep anxiety when it comes to tests. This is in no way unusual. Many adults feel the same way–just ask an adult how he or she feels when their boss is coming in to evaluate their work! I have found the most successful way to help students cope with the potential anxiety is be reframing what a test is for. (I know that I have talked about this before.

Rather than stress the idea of a test being a measure of what the students know, I tell them that it is a measure for me to know what I need to teach. Then the test becomes not so much an evaluation of their knowledge and whether or not they get it as it is an evaluation of how well I have taught them a certain set of skills or information.

I think that this works well with my students. I have not had nearly the degree of testing anxiety in my room as I have seen in other classrooms in the past. And my students tend to do really well. At least, those who have been doing their homework and keeping up with their classwork have been! And, since report cards don’t include letter grades, percentages, or anything like that, then tests really are just a diagnostic tool for me to see what my students know, what they have learned, and what they still need to learn. Sure, I could just look at the tests, give them a score based on the number of correct answers out of the total number of questions, and use those numbers to report student progress, but, honestly, a number like +20/25 isn’t nearly as meaningful as the information that my students need additional practice in dividing with remainders and doing multiplication in several steps. And yes, the latter does make my job a little bit more complex, but, again, it is my job and you know what? I love it!


History Teacher By Day, CIA Agent By Night!

While my students were spending the day Saturday watching cartoons, playing video games, performing at the Festival of Trees, hanging out with family, or just sitting around the house staring at the walls, I was hanging out with about 70 other teachers from around the Champaign-Urbana area, attending a seminar/workshop for the American History Teachers Collaborative. The purpose of the AHTC is to bring teachers of American history together to learn and improve as professional educators. There are many workshops, seminars, and fact-finding missions that make up this project. (No, seriously, they do go on big trips–one year the AHTC spent a week in Boston!) The AHTC is open to K-12 educators who, yep, teach American history. And since just about anyone in K-12 education can make a connection to this content area, it is open to just about anyone in the field. Sadly, though, it does not include those who work part-time, such as substitute teachers, or those who teach beyond the K-12 spectrum, such as college professors. So one of the amazing side perks of my full-time job is that I can finally be a part of this group, after three years of seeing from outside and envying my colleagues!

This Saturday was the first opportunity I had to participate in a workshop. The workshop was entitled Spies and the Intelligence Community and featured keynote addresses by Tony & Jonna Mendez and also Dr. H. Keith Melton. The Mendezes are retired CIA officers who have actually been asked by the CIA to travel around and talk about what they did during their careers, mostly in the midst of the Cold War. Dr. Melton is an intelligence historian with an emphasis on espionage technology and tradecraft. (Think of Dr. Sweets in Bones, but make him a historian instead of a psychologist and you kind of have an idea of what Dr. Melton does.) The day was long and busy, with a keynote, two workshops, lunch, another keynote, and two more workshops.

But it was awesome! I acquired quite a bit of knowledge about how the intelligence community works, what is true and what is Hollywood fiction, and also the implications of an array of recent events, particularly the Mumbai attacks back in 2008. I also acquired several new books, which I am sure I will find a time to read eventually. Oh, and I got a nifty black t-shirt with white letters that says “History Teacher By Day, CIA Agent By Night” on the front. Now, clearly, I am not actually a CIA agent now, but it is still fun. And since three of my colleagues in my building were there, we decided that we just  had to wear the shirts to work today.

My class was, again, stunned to see me wearing something that was not my typical slacks, dress shirt, and tie. I am still greatly amused by their responses. Some froze in their tracks and stared. Some gibbered incoherently. Some just dropped their jaws. One student accused me of being an impostor and wanted to know where the “real” Mr. Valencic was. I explained why I was wearing this shirt, and then, when we joined up with the other fourth grade class, we talked about what the students did over the weekend compared to what I did. This was used as an awesome segue into exaggeration as a literary device, using And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street as an example. The students then wrote personal connections between Marco’s experiences and his desire to embellish and their own embellishments. We wrapped up with a discussion of using similes to further accent hyperbole as a literary device, with the students filling in the blanks in this statement: “The turkey was as big as ____, as burnt as ____, and as dry as ____!” It was most excellent!

The rest of the day was fairly typical for our fourth graders, but this certainly isn’t going to be a typical week, with just two more days of school before the Thanksgiving Break! Then we have two full weeks of school before the Winter Break, which means, as a parent pointed out this afternoon, that we have just 16 days of school left to this side of the year! Crazy!


Let the Wild Rumpus Begin!

It is standard practice among fourth grade classes in Illinois, and probably all of the United States, for students to be introduced to playing musical instruments by learning to play the recorder. I remember learning to play the recorder when I was in fourth grade, but I sadly remember very little, beyond having a concert at the end of the year. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a picture of me and my friend Adam, dressed in slacks, white shirts, and ties, proudly holding our trusty brown recorders before the concert. I have no idea if anyone thought to capture the concert on film, though.

Fast forward 19 years, when I am now teaching fourth grade. My students are now beginning to learn how to play the recorder. They are really excited to be playing these instruments. I stopped by the music room yesterday to see if I could capture an audio recording of their playing, but they were putting the instruments away and lining up when I arrived. So I came in the middle of music this afternoon and did it then. So even though the recording isn’t actually from Day One or learning the recorder, I think it is close enough.

I was going to share the file on here, but, apparently, I have to have a paid account to upload mp3 files from a computer. This makes me very sad, but I just don’t see a point in paying an annual fee for a blog that is primarily an outlet for me to reflect upon the positive things that happen in my classroom each day and then share those thoughts with the 30 or so people who seem to regularly read.

However, I can tell you that the audio recording is exactly what I imagine a wild rumpus would sound like. The recording device was not particularly great, so the sound is a bit mechanical, but it is clear that the performers are all beginners who are willing to play with gusto! It is quite fun walking down the hall as my students are doing their best to master this instrument. Other teachers and staff members in the building hear it and see me and just smile. For them, it is an annual event that they are used to; for me, this is my first class on their first day of their first instruments. The sounds coming from those instruments may not be the sweet melodies of a professional musician, but, you know what? It is still music, and it music being created by my kids! I wish I could share the recording with everyone; maybe I’ll figure out a way around it. For now, though, I’ll just have to be satisfied with having it stored on my computer and on my phone. Anyone who wants to hear it is welcome to stop by the classroom or catch me wherever I may be!

Have a great weekend!