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

Archive for April, 2012

Fire Drills

A few months ago, my students experienced their first fire drills while I was away at a conference. There had been an electrical short in some wires in the building, which set off the alarms. I heard from my students that the alarms went off a couple of times that day, and so they quickly became accustomed to the, well, drill.

During our morning math block today, which is during the primary classrooms’ lunch time. When I first heard the alarms, I wasn’t quite sure what they were, because it was just a low buzzing sound. Then I realised it was a fire alarm and my students quickly got up, lined up at the door, and then walked down the hall and out the building to the sidewalk where they know they are supposed to go and wait.

After a few minutes, we were able to enter the building and return to work.

Or so we thought.

Less than five minutes after we re-entered the building, the fire alarm went off again. Some of my students were less than amenable to the repeat alarm, but they still followed the routine: quickly lined up, exited the building, and lined up along the sidewalk to wait for the all-clear sign.

The double fire drill off-set plans for the morning and the afternoon, including our regular lunch time. Fortunately, the students were able to get their full lunch break, including the recess period. Before going to lunch, I led the students in a discussion on the importance of responding to any kind of disaster drill. The one point I really wanted to drive home was that it is critical that we all treat every alarm as if it is the “real” thing. Just because we don’t see or smell smoke is no indication that there is not a fire.

For the first fire drill of the year (at least for me), I think that my class (and every class in the building) did a great job!

Fourth Grade Red Fish Society

Earlier this week, my awesome grade-level partner and I decided, somewhat on a whim, and mostly through her doing, to start something new with our fourth grade classes to try to help propel them into a higher level of social and emotional learning, thinking, and behaving. We have struggled throughout year with helping our students really just learn how to get along in social settings. Not just within the classroom but within the grade level and even within the building. After a particularly trying period of time, we both felt we needed to do something to help our students realise they needed to get over their differences and start working together.

In addition, we wanted a way to recognise the awesome contributions that so many in the classes have been making to this end. After all, it is rarely a majority, or even a large plurality, of students who cause most of the unwanted drama. (For those long-time readers with excellent recall, I actually reflected on this nearly a year and a half ago when placing student behaviour on a bell curve.) The majority of students are those who want to be at school so that they can learn, grow, and become better at what they want to do.

With less than a month left of school, we felt it was time to make a change and, as Michael Jackson so wonderfully put it, if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.

So first I made a change within myself. I’m probably going to slip up, because I’m not perfect, but I am going to make a conscious effort to change how I approach what my students do in my classroom. I am going to acknowledge those who are doing what they are supposed to do, and do it in a way that is more than just saying thank you and pointing out what they are doing. I need to be able to reward them for their efforts.

But we also needed the fourth grade students to also take a look at themselves and decide to make a change. It all started with Swimmy, the little fish who taught his friends, who were all little red fish, how to work together and overcome obstacles. After reading the story, we led the class in a brief discussion about how they are stronger when they work together and we wrote down their ideas. Then we asked them to think about what they could do to make this change. After another brief discussion, this is what they came up with:

  • I will encourage others and never give up on my fourth grade family.
  • I will listen to others and value what they have to say and what they can do.
  • I will put aside differences and be a friend to all.

Finally, we told the class that we would be giving them the opportunity to track their behaviour each day and then, at the end of each week, those students who have been living up to this simple creed would be invited to participate in a celebration with one of us while the other students would be invited to do work with the other teacher. The successful students would be a part of the Fourth Grade Red Fish Society. We have a bulletin board outside my classroom with the Red Fish Society creed, the story of Swimmy, a copy of the students’ behaviour chart, and a large red fish made of small red circles with each fourth grade student’s name written on one. (In the story, Swimmy is a little black fish who leads the way so, of course, my awesome grade-level partner and I are the eye of the fish.)

We started this project on Tuesday, and set a goal for the students. The celebration was to be able to participate in an extended afternoon recess. I am glad to report that every student in the fourth grade was able to participate in our very first Red Fish Society celebration. Of course, next week we will be upping the stakes for participating in the celebration, but I think that this is going to be a wonderful way to propel everyone upward and onward toward the end of the year.

Bridge to Terabithia

If I have done nothing else this year, I hope to have at least passed on my passion for reading to my students. I love to read and I love to share what I read and what I have read with those in my class. Throughout the year, I have read a variety of books aloud to my class. Most of the time,  I have given them the option to either read along with me or to work quietly on other tasks as I read. As we got to the end of the year, I changed the options to read along with me or just listen to the story.

We started the year with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Then I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler followed by Over Sea, Under Stone. This was followed by Holes and, most recently, Bridge to Terabithia. (I hope I have those in the right order; I think I do.) As we have read, we have talked about the stories, made predictions, and shared connections to the text. I have also paused in reading to help my students decode the meaning of unusual or unfamiliar words and phrases.

For Bridge to Terabithia, though, I did things a little differently. For one, I had everyone in the class read along with me. I did this for many reasons, but the main reason was simply that I love this book, I first read it in fourth grade, and I wanted every student in my class to have had the opportunity to read it. Another reason was simply that I wanted everyone paying attention to the story and I knew they would if they didn’t have any other books or projects to distract them.

Several of my students have seen the 2007 movie adaption of this story, and a few others had read it, so I didn’t ask for predictions about what would come next as we read. I did ask the boys and girls to think about personal connections to the text. I emphasised throughout the reading that Terabithia is a happy story, and I wanted them to think about why that was. We talked a lot about our relationships with siblings, especially younger siblings, or the younger siblings of friends. We talked about Jesse Aarons (the main character of the story) and his younger sister May Belle, who idolises her big brother and struggles with his friendship with Leslie Burke (the other main character of the story). The students were very involved in the read of the book, and so we read through almost an entire chapter every day. I think this also marked the quickest completion of a story we have had since the beginning of the year, seeing as it took about two weeks total from start to finish.

So why do I think that Bridge to Terabithia is a happy story? If you’ve never read it, I would recommend stopping here and reading the story before finishing, because I’m going to give away the ending.


Reading Assessments

The end of the year is quickly coming. I feel like a broken record as I type that, and I feel even more like a broken record as I tell my class about this multiple times a day. I don’t make this statement as a celebration or as a means of anticipation, but rather as a reminder of how much we have to do and how little time we have to get it done.

One of the things we have started as we approach the end of the year are reading assessments. Many districts, ours included, use the DRA, or the Developmental Reading Assessment, to monitor and assess students reading levels. The DRA is an incredibly useful, but also incredibly detailed, diagnostic tool. Students in the primary grades all complete the DRA, but we have decided to do something new this year for the intermediate grades.

Instead of using the DRA for everyone, we are going to use a couple of quick assessments and then use the DRA for more detailed information as needed.

We started yesterday with the first of these assessments, known as the San Diego Quick Assessment of Reading Ability. I was able to listen to each student read aloud for a minute or two and get a rough idea of where they are at in the reading levels. Using this information, I will know what resources to use for a more detailed, but still quick, assessment for reading.

While I am doing these assessments, my students are working independently on a variety of tasks, including reading, writing, and specific math skills. The goal is to finish these assessments in just a couple of days. The information I am able to collect as a result of these assessments in useful for me as we approach the end of the year and useful for the teachers my students will have in fifth grade as they plan for the coming year.

Family Science Night

One of the many wonderful things about my school is the tradition of holding family nights four times a year. The first family night was Math Night, Reading Night, Arts Night, and, this evening, Science Night. I have been talking up Family Science Night for the past couple of weeks, have had a poster about it in the room, and there have been announcements about it each morning for the past few days.

Due to a new project we are doing in the fourth grade (more about this on Friday), we didn’t do any direct math instruction today. So I didn’t have any reason to send math homework with the students, and, besides, I really wanted as many as could to come to Science Night. I told them that this would be their homework assignment but, of course, if they had other obligations, that was okay.

I saw about a dozen or so of the fourth graders at the school this evening, along with all of the students from the other grades. There were a few stations set up that they could visit: the animal menagerie, featuring a variety of pets that two of the teachers brought in; a presentation by the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum on nanotechnology; a seed germinating and planting station where students could decorate a flower pot and plant a variety of seeds and also receive a clear resealable bag with a wet paper towel and seeds so they can see the process of germination; and a show put on by the University of Illinois Physics Van.

All of the stations were a hit, of course, but I think that the Physics Van got the best audience responses. After all, they had two girls from the U of I Physics Department showing kids how to make a hoverboard with a leaf blower, how to pull a tablecloth out from under a table setting, and how to blow stuff up with liquid nitrogen:


Family Science Night also included our last Scholastic Book Fair. In addition to being able to buy books for themselves and for their teachers (something that students of mine have done at least once at each book fair), teachers were able to buy several books using credits the school earned from previous book fairs. I was able to get a nice collection of new books, most of which were suggested by my students who were there this evening. The PTA also asked teachers to make suggestions for sets of books to get for their classrooms/grade level, which was really awesome.

All in all, we had a great time this evening. Oh, and my wife was able to come with me, so a few of my students have finally met her.

Understanding Fractions

Fractions are hard. They are weird, they are strange, they are silly, and they are hard. But kids gotta learn ’em, so teachers gotta teach ’em. (Personally, I’d be happy if we just did everything in metric, but, alas, I imagine even kids in Australia have to learn fractions!) Which is why I have been working on fractions with my students for the past few weeks. I had my students take a test on fractions so I could see what they knew and what I still needed to work on.

The results were less than stellar.

Like I said, fractions are hard. Of course, it doesn’t help that the test usually offered no more than three problems on a related concept, so if the students missed one, they were already below the benchmark (80%) for demonstrating competency for a particular skill/concept. So we spent more time on fractions today.

I worked with small groups throughout the morning and afternoon while the rest of the class worked independently on practice and review. They wanted to know if they could work with partners, but I told them no, because I needed to be able to work with my groups without interruptions and distractions. I am glad I did this, because I was able to help a lot of students understand different concepts with fractions, such as how to show equivalency and how to compare fractions with different denominators.

I also learned that I have some students who want to solve all of their math problems mentally and so end up making silly mistakes. I keep telling them to write it down. I know that there are some people, like one of my older brothers, who can keep track of all the numbers and operations in their heads. These people can do mental math without making silly mistakes. But they are the exception, not the rule.

I’ve also discovered that the directions to “add or subtract” are interpreted by some students to do just that: add or subtract, regardless of what the operation sign says. I had to remind everyone in the class that they could not, in fact, choose to solve a problem involving fractions that are supposed to be subtracted by drawing a vertical line through the minus sign and then adding instead. (One student sheepishly hid his face when I said this, but he was not the only one in the class to have tried this creative strategy.)

And I’ve realised that I need to have my class spend a few minutes repeating this mantra over and over and over: “Don’t add the denominators!” After having them repeat this a few dozen times, I’ll draw a picture of 1/2 + 1/2 and have them see how the answer is 2/2 or 1, not 1/4. I’ve tried to teach this by showing that the denominator is the name (denomination) of the part, and it is similar to saying I have 3 dogs or 4 apples or 2 dollars. To wit: 3 dogs plus 3 dogs equals 6 dogs; likewise, 3 tenths plus 3 tenths equals 6 tenths.

Hopefully we’ll make some progress tomorrow!

Being a Part of the Community

Community is a big deal in education these days. We talk constantly about our classroom community, our school community, our municipal community, our state community, or national community, and our global community. As a classroom teacher, I focus mostly on the classroom community. I want my students to feel like we are all part of something more than ourselves. I have invited my students to musical performances and concerts, I attend our building family nights and encourage them to attend, and I try to communicate with parents regularly.

Earlier in the year, I had a student tell me about a piano recital he had, and I expressed disappointment that I hadn’t been invited to attend. Another student told me about a track meet. Yet another student participated in a math competition. I have repeatedly expressed a desire to attend and share with these special events.

Finally, some students took me up on it. Actually, it was the father of a student, who is their soccer coach. It turns out that about a third of my class participates in the Urbana Park District soccer program. He told me about their game this morning, and sent me a list of the rest of the games they have. I promised to attend, and looked forward to being a part of the classroom community that exists outside the classroom.

It was a lot of fun to be there and to cheer on my students. They were excited to see me. A classic moment happened in middle of the third quarter when one of the boys looked over and called out, “Hello, Mr. Valencic!” During the break at the half, I walked over to the team and said hello to all of them. One of the girls, upon realising I was wearing casual clothing, said, “Mr. Valencic! You look like some kind of hip college student!” I was wearing jeans, a cotton button-down shirt with a t-shirt underneath, my vintage brown leather jacket, and a fedora. It was also fun to chat with parents on the side of the field while watching the game.

I really hope to be able to participate in more of these community events. I will try to make it to the other soccer matches and I hope students will invite me to their other extracurricular activities, such as recitals, plays, and concerts.

Oh, and my kids’ soccer team won this morning.