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

Archive for January, 2012

Coping with Loss

Today was a sad day in my classroom. Without going into many details, we learned that a member of our classroom recently suffered the loss of a parent. It came as a complete surprise to everyone. I am very grateful for the support of the principal, social worker, outreach specialist, and school psychologist, who were all on-hand to talk with students who were coping with grief. We also learned that another student had recently lost a close family member, so the grief was compounded.

Despite this tragic loss, I had the responsibility to continue to teach today. I told my class how important it was that we acknowledge the sadness, but that we needed to come together as a classroom family and support each other as we worked through the remainder of the day. The students did a great job of doing just that.

In the afternoon, our social worker came in and helped the students create sympathy cards for their classmate. The cards were very touching, very sweet, and far more sincere than what I would expect to see from an adult. I think that we, as adults, have been socialised to treat so many topics as taboo that we are unable to fully express how we feel to others. My students, on the other hand, have not yet learned to put up these walls, and they were able to express sympathy to a classmate in a very real, honest way.

As we continue to move forward, we will grow closer together as we help support one another during this difficult time. I hope that all of us, and especially our classmate, will remember the good things.

Math Groups Revisited and Revised

Shortly after the school year began, I made a decision to divide my class into two groups for math. Both groups are working on the standards for fourth grade math, but one uses the traditional Houghton-Mifflin Math series, while the other is using Houghton-Mifflin Math Expressions. The two groups worked mostly independently of each other through the first semester and most of the second, but I essentially merged them together near the end of the second, when we started focusing on multiplication.

Now that we are done with our major focus on multiplication, we have begun our work on division of whole numbers. At the end of last week, I decided to reboot the math groups, and have come up with a new strategy for how I would work with them. I began this strategy today, and I am glad to report that it seemed to have worked pretty well.

For about an hour or so before lunch, I had one group work with a tutor in the library while the other group worked with me in direct instruction. After lunch, the groups switched places, except that I didn’t have a tutor to work with one of the groups. Still, I was able to work with both groups in direct instruction and allow them to work independently at opposite times.

My goal will be to follow this pattern each day (except Friday, when we use the time after lunch for Read, Write, Think. Friday’s will be a spiral review day, which is an idea I got from my very awesome Title I partner. I am excited to see how math instruction improves as a result of this grouping and scheduling. There may be times that I vary what the groups are doing, or which students are working with me or a tutor, but the goal will be the same: ensure that every student has an opportunity for small-group instructional time and independent practice each day.


After a busy morning of researching the weather using a variety of books in our classroom, I decided to use my clothespins that have students’ names on them to randomly select students who wish to use the computers in the classroom during Read, Write, Think! this afternoon. This seemed to work rather well, as I am hoping to get a wider variety of content from students who wish to update this blog. The following is a joint-effort by two students in my class:

Today was Friday and we are in Read, Write, Think. Earlier in the morning Mr.Valencic told us that we are going to do another project, this time independent. This project will be about the thirteen colonies. Each student got to pick a colony to research.

On another note, today was mix and match day. Mr. Valencic claimed to have mix and matched something, but not many of us know what. Mix Match is about mixing the way you wear your clothes. Today I forgot it was mix match and I didn’t wear mixed clothes.

Here are some examples of what was mix matched: socks, shoes. hair, jewelry, and clashing designs for the shirt and pants. We also had a few kids wearing clothes backwards.

Today was the first sun in a long time.

For those students who may be reading and are wondering, I was wearing a brown belt with my black shoes today. That was my mix-match. The colony research project will be the first time the students have done a completely independent project in my class. We created a list of questions to be answered, which I will use for the students’ rubric. I am excited to see what kind of reports we will see!

By the by, for any parents interested in viewing students’ storybirds, please send me an email and I’ll set you up on our class account!


There’s this story of Greek legend about a dude named Narcissus who spent all of his time staring at mirrors to see his reflection. Or something like that. Today I realised that there is a certain level of narcissism inherent in my job. This is especially true on teachers’ birthdays.

I actually had a very good birthday. My students were able to watch some videos about early American settlers in the morning as part of their fun day to celebrate filling the large vase of pebbles. (Sadly, though, some students did not think that this should count; their idea of a fun day is coming to school and doing nothing of value. They have apparently not yet internalised our classroom expectation of having fun with a purpose.) We also spent the bulk of the afternoon playing Around the World with my Fourth Grade edition of BrainQuest. The fun had by all was definitely purposeful.

Some highlights of my day included: the giant tin of cookies in the teachers’ lounge that I left there for all to enjoy; the second grade class that, entirely on their own, decided to make birthday cards for me and deliver them while my class was in P.E.; and having students and teachers wish me a happy birthday as I walked the halls of my building.

Of course, the most narcissist aspect of the day came at the very end. I started with a quick review of the meaning of the parts of a multiplication problem, having the class hark back to the lesson using cheeseballs. We talked about the number of items in a group, the number of groups, and the number of items in all. I asked the students to figure out how many cheeseballs I would have in all if I had 12 cheeseballs in a cup and 23 cups. The answer was 276. I then reversed the problem: If I have 276 cheeseballs and 23 cups, how many cheeseballs will be in a cup? I then passed out the cups (we had some students who were absent today) and the class sang Happy Birthday to me. Definitely narcissistic, although I didn’t ask  for or require it. I also got a few birthday presents: several books, a bag of mixed chocolate candy bars (fun size), some truffles and other exotic candies, and the gift I told I wanted from each student: a commitment to work hard and do their personal best every day for the rest of the year and the rest of their lives. (One student actually made something for me with that written on it; there is a strong likelihood that this will be laminated and permanently saved on my desk.)

Since my birthday happens to coincide with Australia Day, something that makes me very happy, I am going to leave you with this most excellent of videos:


Storybirds Part II

Yesterday I wrote about how I introduced my class to Storybird. I was surprised at the positive response, but I didn’t even begin to think the students would be as excited about it as they have been.

After writing my post last night, I started reading the storybirds that my students had been writing. I noticed that several students had written more stories throughout the evening and others were reading and commenting on them. It was really fun to see them participating in a literacy project outside of school, especially when I realised that some of them were students who are reluctant to participate in class.

When the boys and girls arrived this morning, several asked if they would have the opportunity to go into the computer lab to write more storybirds. I checked the schedule and found an opening. They were very excited to write more. I had to attend a meeting during that time, so I had a substitute teacher come and supervise them as they worked. I told each student that I expected them to write at least one story and comment on at least one classmate’s story. When I came in forty-five minutes later, I witnessed something I have never seen before: every member of my class was sitting at a computer, quietly writing.

To add to my elation, several students talked about writing more at home or going to the library to write. I have shared this with some of my colleagues and they have expressed a great deal of interest in using this in their rooms. I am definitely going to put this in the category of “Stuff That Works!”


A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend one of my monthly Literacy Across Content Areas inquiry group meetings. For those who have been playing along, you may remember me talking about this group back in November, December, and earlier this month (like I said, we meet once a month). At these meetings, I am able to share ideas with other teachers about how we are using literacy instruction in the classroom, and specifically ways we tie literacy into different content areas (math, social studies, and science, particularly). The folks from the Center for Education in Small Urban Communities (unfortunately abbreviated CESUC, which is why they usually just call it “The Center“) also share ideas with us.

One of the ideas shared at these most recent meeting was the use of to get students to write. The idea is quite innovative: teachers set up class accounts, and then set up individual accounts for each student. The students are able to browse through a vast collection of artwork that has been submitted by artists from all over. Using these images, they create their own stories. They can then publish the stories online to share with the rest of their class members (and teacher). Those within the class account can read the stories, comment on them, and “heart” the ones they like the most.

As has happened in the past, I didn’t actually present a lesson on how to use this site. Instead, I got my students logged on and they immediately began browsing, learning, and then writing without me telling them to do so! That alone is pretty awesome. I had hoped that each student would be able to complete at least one “storybird” by the end of our time in the computer lab but, alas, that did not happen. However, we did get ten stories by eight students written. I would share them here but you have to have an account with our class in order to do so. I will be inviting parents to join our class so that they can see what their children are writing, though!

One of my favourite comments from a student, upon learning what he could do on Storybird, was this one: “Hey, Mr. Valencic! This is like Facebook for kids!”

Yeah, I guess it is. They can create content and share it, but only with their friends. And it is totally safe, secure, and there is no personal information about any student anywhere. However, students can choose to make a storybird public if they so wish, and they can also have the stories downloaded to an eBook reader or printed (both for a cost, though). Another great aspect of this is that students can access Storybird from home or anywhere else with a computer and access to the Internet. (I just discovered that some have been doing this already!)

I hope to really connect the writing across content areas by having the students come up with specific stories, such as math problem stories, historical fiction, and personal narratives. And I think that some of my more reluctant writers will be more excited to write using the computers and the artwork that has been made available. I do wish the site had a spell check built into it, but we can work around that by having students switch seats and edit each others’ work, just like they would in the classroom! All in all, I think this is going to be a great addition to our classroom tools for writing, sharing, and celebrating!


Today was a day for celebrations in my classroom.

For one, we had two birthdays to celebrate: one for a girl whose birthday was today and the other for a boy whose birthday was roughly six months ago. (Because he has a summer birthday, his parents have him celebrate his half-birthday at school.) This week is going to be fairly full of birthday celebrations, as it turns out. In addition to today, we have birthdays on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Since the current tradition for classroom birthday celebrations is to bring in cupcakes or donuts, my students are going to be ingesting considerably more sugar than perhaps their parents would hope.

The other major reason for celebration was that the class finally filled our small vase with glass pebbles for the second time. The students earn pebbles for meeting class expectations throughout the morning, throughout the afternoon, for completing restroom breaks in under three minutes, and for receiving compliments from other teachers. We actually have two vases in the classroom. The small vase gets pebbles added to it each day for the above-mentioned reasons.

When that vase is full, the students earn a bonus Read, Write, Think! in the afternoon. After the small vase is full, we pour all of the pebbles into our second, larger vase. I measured out the glass pebbles specifically so that the small vase will be filled twice in order to fill the large one. So now that the large vase has been completely filled, we will have another, larger, celebration in the classroom. I have a few ideas about what this celebration will look like, but I haven’t locked on to any specific idea yet. I will make a decision tomorrow and act on it quickly (before the end of the week, for sure).

It was kind of crazy this afternoon, with donuts, Read, Write, Think!, and then cupcakes before recess. However, the students did fairly well today and I am looking forward to starting over with our glass pebbles!