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

Archive for May, 2012

Portraiture Photography Workshop

I had the opportunity to attend a summer workshop this morning. It was a put on by my building’s awesome art teacher and one of the district social workers, who is a licensed art therapist. The focus of the workshop was on engaging students with portraiture photography. It was pretty interesting and gave me some great ideas for ways I can take advantage of our fine arts teachers’ infusion time, which is time they can come into the classroom and help with integrated lessons.

The best part of the workshop, of course, was playing around with costumes and taking portrait photographs. We were put into two teams of four, with each team member given a task: model, photographer, lighting assistant, or costume assistant. Every 5-10 minutes we rotated tasks, so everyone got a chance to do everything.

I was the first to model, and my costume was a metal army helmet from World War I or II (I don’t know which, or even if there was a difference), a black face mask (think Zorro or the Man in Black), and an adhesive mustache that curled up at the ends (think of any stereotypical villain from any cartoon from the 60s, 70s, or 80s). The lighting selected was an orange tint. I think the results were quite fabulous. After loading the pictures onto computers, we got to play around with editing them using iPhoto (which, because our district uses Apple computers, is standard on every computer in the district). Here are some of the highlights:

The first pose, I simply crossed my arms and looked vaguely towards the camera. Not wearing my glasses, I actually had no idea where I was looking. Also, the mask was a bit high, so my eyes are cut off. Again, no glasses means a nearly-blind Mr. Valencic.

This is a three-quarter view shot. You can see both of my eyes (even better since the mask was adjusted!), and one of my ears. I love that my hair is sticking out from under the metal helmet!

This was my first profile shot, and I really liked how it turned out! So, of course, I had to play around with the editing features on iPhoto. The results, below, are what I came up with. By the way, I had never used iPhoto before, and I am certainly not a visual artist. But a friend who does portrait photography said she liked it, so I guess there’s that!

I definitely want to use this strategy in my classroom next year! My goal will be to have students take pictures and then write a story using the pictures to guide them. Because they will be the subjects of the photos, they can write either a fictional narrative or a personal experience. Of course, I’d have them use different costumes to help move the story along!


Summer Reading of a Different Sort

Today I spent most of my morning and part of the afternoon finishing work on cleaning up my classroom. But last night I started thinking about summer reading, not for me, but for my readers. Obviously, you have a lot of things you’ll be doing, but I hope you will take time to read over the summer, and not just books.

I love blogs. That’s why I chose to start blogging in the first place! I don’t know if you’ve ever looked, but I have a huge list of blogs on my sidebar that I enjoy reading on a regular basis. Several of them are just fun and/or interesting blogs, like Cakewrecks, The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation “Marks”, Hyperbole and a Half, and EPBOT. But there are also a lot of others that are teachers’ blogs. I love reading what my colleagues around the nation are up to and what they are teaching. So here’s my summer reading challenge for you:

Explore the other blogs then come back and tell me what you think. Also, feel free to recommend blogs to me! I currently have 92 blogs that I try to keep up with, but I always have room for more! (Most of them are friends’ and family members’ blogs that get updated once a month or less.) Let the summer reading begin!


Veni Vidi Vici

Veni. August 17, 2011.  We came.

Vidi. For the next 280 days, we saw. We weren’t together every day, but we were still a group working together toward a common goal, even when we were apart. 280 days between August 17 and today. That is the equivalent of 9 months and 6 days. It can also be thought of as 40 weeks, 6,720 hours, 403, 200 minutes, or 24, 192, 000 seconds. (Thank you, timeanddate.com!) Of course, there were only 179 days of student attendance days (if my records are accurate). There were days that dragged and days that went by so quickly I could hardly believe it was the weekend. There were days of great success and days of not-so-great success. There were times that, quite honestly, we fell flat on our faces. But that happens in life, and we did what the greats do each time they fall: we got up and kept on going. We never gave up, we never surrendered. We faced our fears, we honed our strengths, we overcame our weaknesses. And we worked. Goodness, how we worked!

I told my students on the first day of school that I was going to make them worker harder, think longer, and stretch their minds further than they ever had before. I think this was an accurate summary of the year. We explored the depths of the oceans, we delved into the meaning of literacy, we pondered the great questions of life. While we were doing those things, we also had fun. We played quiz games, we challenged one another in epic battles of Connect Four, Chess, and Uno. We kicked back and relaxed as we read our books. We had a great time finding pictures on Storybird to inspire great tales of epic journeys. We discussed community engagement and how to make the world a better place. We comforted our classmates when they were confronted with the realities of mortality and we cheered for each other when we won writing contests, math competitions, Battle of the Books, soccer matches, and kickball. We got upset when others did not give their best, but we encouraged and bolstered rather than discourage and put down. We were, and are, a community of learners and a fourth grade family.

Vici. Today was our last day together as a fourth grade family. We won the race. We persevered and we did the hardest thing anybody ever has to do: we raced against ourselves and we won. We conquered.We are better than we were at the start. All of us have learned. We will go forward armed with knowledge and wisdom. In three months, I will see the boys and girls of room 31 as fifth graders. They will be in new classrooms, have new teachers, but they will still be my first fourth grade class. I will teach fourth grade again. I’ll have new students, too. We will come, we will see, we will conquer. We will learn and grow and then move on, never forgetting. But no class will ever be my first class again. Each class is special, each class is unique. Each class will learn to take ownership of their lives, their identity. What I do next year will be different from what I did this year.

In four years, I will see my students from the 2011-2012 school year graduate middle school and move on to high school. In eight years, I will see them finish their public education careers and move on to colleges, universities, and trade schools. I hope we will continue to keep in contact with one another. There is a passage from Educating Esmé: Diary Of A Teacher’s First Year that I have shared more than once, but I feel it bears repeating, albeit in a slightly modified manner:

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 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! As I watch [my students], 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: [Twenty-six] children. [Twenty-six] chances. [Twenty-six] futures, our futures…. Everything they become, I also become.

It has been a good year. Actually, scratch that. It has been a great year! And now that it is over, it is time to take a break, relax, reflect, and then get back to work! I have an exciting summer planned, with lots of professional development opportunities and time to plan out the coming year. I won’t be posting every day, but I will be posting from time to time, so come back and see what’s new! If you don’t want to come back every day, follow me on Twitter (@alextvalencic) or subscribe to the blog. In addition to writing about what I am learning, I’ll be keeping a record of the books I will be reading this summer, both professional and just-for-fun books. (Of course, I think it is fun to read professional books…)

Finally, a few thank-yous:

To my principal: Thank you for interviewing me, hiring me, coaching me, and letting me learn and grow! And thank you for the books to read!
To my colleagues: Thank you for the support, the encouragement, the collaboration, the suggestions, and the willingness to listen to me blather on about geeky things. (This is especially true for my fellow Whovians and Browncoats!)
To my family and friends: Thank you for pushing me to keep pursuing my dream and thank you for asking me what it is I do and why I do it.
To the family and friends of my students: Thank you for trusting me with your children this year. Thank you for allowing me to spend seven hours a day, five days a week with your young scholars. And thank you for supporting me in my decisions and encouraging your boys and girls to listen to and trust me!
And last, but certainly not least, to my first class: Thank you for learning with me. Thank you for coming to school each day, ready to learn, and eager to work. Thank you for putting up with my geekiness, my lame jokes, my steadfast refusal to spell words or tell you what something means, and for showing the ability to learn how you learn so that you can learn without me telling you what to learn. Truly, you came, you saw, you conquered. You won the race and you earned the gold medals because you got up each time you fell!

The year is over, but the adventures in teaching fourth have just begun! Enjoy the summer! Read a book, play in the dirt, stare at the clouds!


Using Our Voices for Good

Today was my first last full day of school for my first class. It was not quite the emotional roller coaster of a day that I thought it would be, actually. In fact, it was a lot like many other days, albeit minus the direct instruction on core content. There was instruction, but I don’t think any of my students would have recognised it as such. It was subtle instruction, but it was there.

The students went to the library this morning and then we got together with our book buddies one last time so the boys and girls could exchange photo gifts they had made. The second grade teacher I’ve been collaborating with took photos of all the buddies, got them printed, and brought them in for the students to decorate for their buddies. It was fun to watch what my class did and watch them get together with their young friends one last time.

I had my class do one final silent read or write in class. While they read, I organised the room, figured out how many books I had and how many were missing, and allowed a variety of students to help with some small tasks throughout the classroom. And I made plans for what our last hour as a class would look like. But that’s for tomorrow.

After silent reading for about 30 minutes, the students began the process of cleaning out their desks, returning my books and supplies, and packing up their things. I wanted them to be done before lunch so that we could get the activity/celebration I had planned for the afternoon. It took a little bit longer than planned, but everyone got everything cleaned up and packed up before lunch.

Our afternoon was spent thinking about the ways we use our voices. I introduced the activity by asking my students to stretch their minds all the way back to the beginning of the year, when we started working on our fourth grade collaborative unit on Dr. Seuss. (If you haven’t heard about this, you can read about it here, here, and here. I specifically asked them if they could remember what I had said were my top three favourite Dr. Seuss stories. Some of the students in the class weren’t even with us at the beginning of the year, but that didn’t stop them from making guesses based on what they knew about me! It took the class a few tries, but they were able to figure them out: Oh, the Places You’ll GoThe Lorax, and Horton Hears a Who. I then asked them to think about what they remembered from the stories about the main ideas and the implicit details to see if they could determine what those three stories have in common. Someone in the class suggested it is that all three stories were about making a difference.

Indeed they are! I told my students that, if they remember nothing else from fourth grade, I want them to remember that every single person has a voice, and that voice can be used for good or bad. That they can choose to use their voices to make the world a better place or not. That they can make a difference in the world now, today, and every day. I pointed out that there are quite a few people in the world who say that young people cannot make a difference, but I don’t believe. Each person has a voice, and that voice has power. And a person’s a person, no matter how small.

With that, we started our afternoon activity. We watched Horton Hears a Who. This took us through the remainder of the afternoon. The students enjoyed it, and I hope that they remember the lesson of the story. It is a lesson that we have been teaching all year, and it is a lesson that will continue throughout their lives. I truly believe that young people can accomplish great things if only they put their minds to it. To quote a line from a considerably different story, if we “teach every child to raise his voice then then, my brothers, then, will justice be demanded by ten million righteous men!” Our voices are heard; what are we using them for?


Fun and Run Day

My school is a PBIS school. I am sure I have mentioned this on more occasions than I care to count. PBIS is not just a behaviour-management system, although that is a big component of it. It is a life-management system, and it is one that goes far beyond the walls of the school or the boundaries of the school property. PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, for those who are unfamiliar with the acronym) is a way of living in which we focus on the positive and use positive means to overcome weaknesses. This is why, among many, many, many other reasons, it bothers me when people start talking about eye-for-eye retribution. That isn’t positive. It is just revenge, and, despite the poetic license many choose to take, revenge is a dish best served never.

But I digresss from my original topic.

As a PBIS school, we believe in celebrations. Celebrations in the classroom, within grade levels, and as an entire school community. If we could, I am sure we would expand our celebrations to the entire school neighbourhood, welcoming friends and family from around the area. But we do the best with what we can. Today was the biggest celebration of the year: the annual Wiley Fun and Run Day!

The students spent the morning participating in outdoor carnival type activities, getting snow cones, running relays, playing ring toss games, and doing other such fun activities that let them run around and have fun (hence the name). Of course, it was also cloudy and 64ºF, which meant many of the students initially complained of the cold, but they quickly got over it as they started moving around and playing the games.

After lunch, we had what is probably the most highly-anticipated event of the year (even more anticipated than the walk-a-thon or the 5th grade musical): the teachers versus students kickball game! And, of course, I was part of the teachers’ team. Each of the intermediate classes had voted for two students (one boy and one girl) to be a part of the students’ team. The students put up a good fight, but the teachers prevailed in the end, winning by, I believe, four points. Sadly, I was not able to contribute to any of those points. I only made it to the first base once, getting out the other four times. (I almost made it to the base another time, but I didn’t manage to slide to first quite in time, although I did entertain everyone by sliding, rolling, and flipping on the ground.) The one time I did make it the bases, I wasn’t able to make it to home because one of the teachers after me got out. However, it was all in good fun and everyone enjoyed the match.

The day ended with several teachers getting dunked in a dunk tank that had been rented specifically for this purpose. Students had been given opportunities to earn votes for the teacher of their choice to be in the tank. The teacher with the highest number of votes was in the tank, and the teacher with the second-highest number of votes got to be the one to throw the balls at the target. I had volunteered to be one of the teachers eligible to win, but did not get nearly as many votes as the others. So I didn’t expect to be anywhere near the dunk tank this afternoon.

The teacher with the highest votes was in the tank and actually almost fell in at the first throw, even though the other teacher did not hit the target. After three misses, the one in the tank started to look pretty relaxed. The teacher throwing missed again, then he quickly grabbed a ball and lobbed it straight at the target when she wasn’t looking. The results were hilarious, and everyone had a good time cheering on the teacher who had been such a good sport about it!

Of course, we couldn’t let the money for the tank go to waste, so some other teachers were cheered onto joining in the dunking fun. One by one, the teachers who had volunteered to participate were called in. Several teachers took the seat while their classroom aides took to throwing balls at the target. If the aides didn’t hit the target, someone usually ran up and just pushed the trigger, sending teachers plummeting into the water. I tried to hide in the background, but the students weren’t going to have any of that! I made sure my wallet, keys, and glasses were safe, peeled off my shoes and socks, and sat on the seat over a pool of freezing cold water. (Remember, the air temperature was 64ºF!) The water was as cold as I expected, but there were plenty of thick towels with which to dry off. As I dried off, I happened to glance at my feet, and then started laughing. My wife paints my toenails, and my nails today happened to be bright pink with purple stripes. Several students noticed, and it became quite the stir. I had to explain to my class that nearly all of my brothers and I let our wives paint our toenails. It is just a Valencic family thing we do. (I was also wearing my new Doctor Who shirt today, so my students saw a side of me that they’ve never seen before.)

I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for my clothes to dry off. My hair and shirt dried quickly. Unfortunately, denim doesn’t dry quick as quickly but I wasn’t too uncomfortable. Besides, it was worth it to be a part of a celebration for the students at my school successfully completing the year! If someone shares the pictures or videos that were taken, I’ll post them on here. I understand there are some pretty good ones out there!


First We Work, Then We Play

One of the common mantras heard in my classroom is this: first we work, then we play. Sometimes I put it in the singular second-person using you instead of we. I have said it more times than I can count, especially this week.

The most common thing I’ve said all this week has been, “Boys and girls, we are going to work through the end of the week. After Friday, we will have time to play and celebrate. And we’ll have fun during the week. But we’re going to do a lot of work, too. Just stick with me through Friday afternoon.”

We spent the first part of the morning working with protractors. The students were experimenting with making angles and measuring them. They worked with partners and took turns. Then we did a quick assessment. The boys and girls did a great job working together, although a few had a hard time maintaining their focus.

We finished the morning with our last silent read of the year. (Well, maybe. I can’t imagine not having class read on Monday and Tuesday next week, especially after I just bought a bunch of new books for the room!) If there is one thing my class has done exceptionally well this year, it has been reading. I love to read, and I have shared that love of reading with my class.

After our silent read, it was time for lunch, and then we wrapped up the day with a fourth grade celebration to conclude our Fourth Grade Red Fish Society.

It was a good way to end the week and to end direct instruction in core content areas for the year. The last two days and an hour will be for closing activities that go along with the PBIS framework for community building and social-emotional learning.


We Haz Jazz!

One of the worst-kept secrets at Wiley Elementary School is our fine arts program. Everyone in the community seems to know about it, and the amazing things that happen with our students and the fine arts teachers. Whether it is the Week at the Museum with the Krannert Art Museum, special trips to the Krannert Center for Performing Arts to see Tales of the Pacific Rim or the Spirit of Uganda, special in-school musical celebrations for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, beginning band and strings concerts, visits from the middle school band, strings, and choirs, or visiting professional musicians, or just the day-to-day fine arts experiences the students have with visual arts, dance, drama, and music, our students are immersed in the arts and we are proud of it.

Each year, the fine arts teachers work together with the students to present a musical at the end of the year. If I understand correctly, this used to involve all of the intermediate grades, but it has been changed to just the fifth grade fairly recently. But even though it doesn’t directly affect the students in my class, it is something that we hear about, learn about, and have looked forward to for several weeks. I have had a rather minor role in this, too. I helped out after school with making sure the set was straight and ready, donated cardboard boxes that were piling up in one of my closets to be used for said set, and supervised the fifth grade boys as they got ready for the performance of the musical this afternoon.

The fine arts program this year has put a fairly big emphasis on jazz music and how it has impacted American culture throughout the years. So it is no surprise that the musical this year was also about jazz. The show, We Haz Jazz, is an elementary-level musical presentation that takes the audience through the history of jazz music, starting with the music of African slaves in the south and moving up to the time of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Thelonious Monk.

My students had been asking me about the musical all day and were very excited as we entered the darkened gymnasium and took their seats as jazz played softly in the background. The fifth graders, most of whom I don’t really know, did a great job. The fine arts teachers did an amazing job teaching the music, the dances, and creating the set. This was an awesome way to cap our penultimate day of straight instruction! Tomorrow is the last day of instruction, and then we will spend Monday and Tuesday celebrating our accomplishments, sharing our successes, reflecting on the year, and closing our time together as a class before we come back on Wednesday for an hour. And then we are done! Crazy!


Plowing Through Math

At the beginning of the year, I started working on some fairly fundamental concepts in mathematics with my students, especially place-value and basic operations. As the year has progressed, I have had mixed feelings about the amount of time spent on those fundamentals. On the one hand, they are incredibly important, and I don’t think anyone can do very well with math if they don’t have mastery of the fundamentals. But on the other hand, I probably could have used more spiraling and scaffolding in the teaching of the fundamentals in order to introduce other concepts earlier on in the year.

That being said, I am fairly satisfied with how the year has gone with math instruction. We may not have gotten as much depth as I would have preferred, but I also avoided the tendency to provide instruction that was a mile wide and an inch deep. Each year is an opportunity for growth and improvement. I hope that I will always be satisfied with the results but still desirous of more progress. The year I find myself teaching the exact same thing the exact same way is the year that I hope someone will yell at me for getting in a rut and help me get out!

With just a few days remaining of instructional time, I have been working with my students to plow through several overlapping math concepts and skills. I saved geometry for last this year, mostly because that’s how it was organised in the book and in the units that I acquired from my predecessor. My students have demonstrated fairly good mastery of the concepts already, so it has allowed us to cover a lot of material in a very short period of time. We’ve focused on the traits of geometric figures, such as lines, line segments, rays, angles, as well as concepts such as perpendicularity and parallelism with lines. I brought my class outside earlier this week so they could go on a fifteen-minute polygon hunt, and then we came in and recorded our results. It turned out that the majority of polygons we use are rectangles, and we theorised that this is because the rectangle provides the most efficient use of space (even if round doors are cooler).

In addition to geometry, we’ve also worked on measurement, which included the students selecting ten random items in their desks, measuring them to the nearest half-inch, and recording their results on a line plot. Then I recorded all of their results on a massive line plot that I made on the whiteboard:

(If you look closely, you’ll notice that I clearly made the line for the plot too high, which is why some of the plots turn to the right when I reached the top of the whiteboard. This was also a point of discussion with the class about starting your line at the bottom of the page and not the middle. Of course, I did it higher on the board for the convenience of increased visibility. I’ll probably just use the overhead projector next time.

Oh, and you’ll probably also notice that I have an awful habit of angling upwards as I write to the right on the board. I’ve tried to correct this all year, but it always seems to happen.)

It turned out that the majority of the items in the students’ desks were between 4- and 8-inches long, most likely because they were all items made for children and designed to go inside desks. The students predicted that if they were to measure items found outdoors, they would be much larger. Perhaps we’ll do this on Friday if time permits.

It has been an interesting experience to plow through a lot of math content this week. I don’t feel like I am cutting any of my students short, mind you. We are moving at the pace we are because the students are demonstrating mastery and, with just a few days remaining, they are having a harder time staying focused on any given task for a long time. They are children, after all, and there is only so much we can demand of them. Come to think of it, I imagine a lot of adults feel the same way as they approach the end of a project, task, job or, for teachers, the end of the school year!


A Visit from the Urbana Free Library

One of the indicators that the end of the year is nearly upon us is the arrival of the children’s librarians from the Urbana Free Library. They come to the school each year to announce the library’s summer reading program. I honestly have no idea if summer reading programs at public libraries are a universal practice or just something that happens around central Illinois, but I love them and hope that they do get offered everywhere.

When I was a kid, I always participated in the reading program; at least, for as long as I can remember I did. I don’t remember Mrs. Walker, our children’s librarian, coming to the school to announce the program, though. It seemed like it was just a given that we would be signing up and participating as soon as it was offered. But then, my best friend and I spent a lot of time at the library throughout the year anyway. The library was roughly halfway between my house and his, so it was a convenient place to me. And, of course, we couldn’t meet at the library without going in, finding books, playing games, watching movies (old filmstrip movies that were old adaptations of classic books, usually), and just hanging out with Mrs. Walker. We even helped her tidy up the library from time to time.

I distinctly remember the last year we were allowed to participate in the summer reading program. Most students dropped out after elementary school, but we were allowed to participate in middle school, too. And even though we knew we were going to be reading anyway, we wanted to participate so we could get the free donuts from Ron’s Donuts & Bakery, which just happened to be down the street from my best friend’s house. At the end of eighth grade, we were told that we could participate one last time. Because it was the last year, we wanted to make it special.

Instead of setting a reading goal of 25 or 50 books, which is what most of the big kids did, we decided to go all out and set a reading goal of 100 books. The librarian had set a rule that children reading chapter books could count every sixty pages as a book, which means my best friend and I each had to read approximately 6,000 pages. Easy as a pie!

When librarians came to our school, I made sure to tell my students about this story as further evidence of my passion for reading. I would love for each of my students to participate in the library reading program. As I reflect on how this year has gone, I can think of a lot of things I would have done differently, but there is one thing I think I have done very well: I have passed on my love of reading to my students. Not all of them want to read as often and as long as I want them to, but far more of them want to read than don’t. This is a signal that I’ve done something right this year. I just hope that this love for reading continues onward!


The Countdown Begins

It’s the final countdown! Monday down, four more days to go! I keep trying my best to keep my students pumped up and working hard each day until we get to the end. Although the last day of school is actually a week from Wednesday, the last day of full instruction is this coming Friday. Then we have the weekend, during which I need to get report cards finished, before the Wiley Fun and Run Day on Monday, closing activities in the classroom on Tuesday, and then the final day that the students come for an hour or so to pick up report cards. The fifth grade musical is on Thursday, and the Urbana Free Library is coming tomorrow morning, so, by my count, my class started the week with roughly 25 hours of instructional time before they are done for the year. (That number may be more, but I figured that 25 is an easy-to-work-with number.)

Why am I so concerned with the amount of time remaining? Am I counting down the days until I am done? No, not hardly! I am using these numbers as a constant reminder to my class that we are not yet done; we need to keep on working until we get to the end. I have continued to use the metaphor of a marathon, since so many of us so recently participated, either by running, walking, or watching, and it is something that everyone in the class can understand. We are so close to the end, but we can’t stop running until we get to the end of the race.

This reminds me of the ending of Cool Runnings. The Jamaican bobsled team’s sled broke just when they were within sight of their goal. Instead of giving up, though, the team knew they had to finish the race. And finish they did.

Likewise, I want my class to make it all the way to the end. I don’t want any of them to sell themselves short by not reaching their goal of doing the very best they can every day until the end. We will have plenty of time to celebrate next week. This week, we continue to work. To do our best and to never, ever give up on our goals! I don’t think that everyone in the class fully appreciates this idea, but there are far more who do than don’t, and it is my job to help every single student learn how to reach his or her highest potential.

The countdown has begun, the ending is in sight, but we’ve got to finish the race! Let’s do this!


Teacher Appreciation Week

This week was Teacher Appreciation Week. Throughout the week, the PTA provided special treats, such as breakfast on Monday morning, chair massages during lunch on Wednesday (which I missed out on due to my last inquiry group meeting), lunch on Thursday, and some delicious cookies today.

Of course, the members of the PTA weren’t the only ones showing appreciation for the teachers. Several students brought cards and letters. Others brought gifts in the form of flowering plants. As a result, I now have a veritable menagerie on my desk!

I’m out of town for the weekend, and don’t have my computer with me, so I’m writing this on my phone. Huzzah for technology! I’ll post a better picture of my plants when I get back home.

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[UPDATE: I looked at my blog post on a regular computer and realised that this picture is actually pretty decent. In case you can’t tell, the gifts I received from my students included two potted flowering plants, two sets of flowers that were freshly cut from home gardens, a piece of chocolate cake, two apple-shaped sticky note pads, a daily calendar shaped like an old-fashioned school with the days on apple-shaped pieces and the months and dates on blocks. I also got a couple of nice cards and letters.]


Yamming It Up

For the past several weeks, our building has been participating in a program that promotes healthy eating among students, especially eating fresh fruits and vegetables. I will openly admit that I was not super thrilled with the program at the beginning, mostly because the framing of why we were doing it was not clear to me or to many of the other teachers I had talked to. But I still enjoyed being able to serve the fresh fruits and veggies twice a week and listen as my students discussed their reactions.

So far, I think their favourites have been foods they’ve had before, especially the carrots. Many enjoyed the first exotic fruit we had, the Ugli fruit. Today we had the first fresh food that nearly everyone in my class absolutely hated: raw yams.

When they first saw them, they were excited to try them. After all, we live in America, and kids all over the country have had sweet potatoes or yams at Thanksgiving. Of course, then the vegetable is cooked and served with brown sugar, butter, and marshmallows. (At least according to some recipes.) But they were willing to gamely try the snack that I assured them was healthy and good for them.

Well, it may have been healthy, and it may have been good for them, but the vast majority of them did not care for raw yams. Watching them eat them and then respond to the taste and texture provided yet another moment that I wished I had a video camera in my room to capture their responses. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that my fourth graders much prefer yams when they are cooked and bathed in sugar.

I, on the other hand, quite enjoyed them. And the reactions of my students when they realised that I was not disgusted by raw yams.

Priceless.


Movies

Today was, hopefully, the last time this year that I will be gone for an extended period of time. I had my final meeting with the Literacy Across Content Areas inquiry group. I called to report the planned professional leave and requested one of my two “go-to” subs that have worked with my class on a regular basis. When I initially made sub plans, I did so with the hope that I would have one or the other.

Unfortunately, it turned out that neither was available, and the sub who was assigned was one I had not worked with in the past, nor did I know very well. So I had to change my plans somewhat.

I remember having substitute teachers as a kid. They were usually days where little work was done and most of the day was spent watching vaguely educational movies and playing outside for extended periods of time. Those days are gone, though. As those who have read this blog since it was “Adventures in Substituting” know, substitutes are expected to be teachers hired by the districts in which they work to teach when regular classroom teachers are unable to be in the room, whether for professional, personal, or sick leave. Of course, not all substitute teachers can be as awesome as I was. (No, really, I am certifiably awesome.)

Because I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect of my substitute teacher this afternoon, I reverted to the old-school stand-by: movies. But I didn’t select ones that were vaguely educational. Instead, I selected ones that were most definitely educational. I had two short science videos about electricity and magnetism, which is what we are studying for our last science unit, and another about Abraham Lincoln and New Salem, which is an important part of our fourth grade social studies standards.

When I came back to the school at the end of the day, I was pleased to see that my room was still in one piece, there were no scorch marks on the floor or walls, no students or teachers duct-taped to a chair, and there was a pile of students’ notes from each of the videos. It seems that the videos worked out, even if they weren’t my most preferred option for having a substitute teacher with my class.

(And no, I don’t ever expect to find my room on fire or people duct-taped to chairs. It is just an irrational fear that I have.)


Where the Points Don’t Matter and Everything’s Made Up

Several years ago, there was a television show called Whose Line Is It Anyway? that was started in the UK and then brought over to the States. The entire show featured improvisational comedy games. My favourite ones were the ones involving songs and/or dancing. It just always impressed me how well the comedians could improv entire musical performances as a group.

One of the noted elements of the show, at leas the US version, was when the host, Drew Carey, would greet viewers by saying, “Welcome to Whose Line Is It Anyway? where the points don’t matter and everything’s made up!”

There are times that I feel like education is like that.

Now, before you start scratching your heads and wondering what kind of craziness I’m talking about, bear with me and I’ll explain!

I believe firmly what Elbert Hubbard, American essayist and educator, once wrote: “The object of educating a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher. ” I have frequently shared this with my students over the years, but it came up recently in a classroom conversation about units of measure, of all things.

I was teaching about the standard weights used in the US customary system, and I was writing down the abbreviations as well as the full words. When I got to pounds and wrote the abbreviation as lb, I had a student raise her hand and ask why that was the abbreviation.

I loved my students’ reactions to this question: they turned to her and, almost as one, said, “Why did you ask that? You know he’s just going to tell you to look it up!” Which is, of course, very true. But then this student said, “But you’re our teacher; you’re supposed to just tell us!”

My response was thus: “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. My job is not to tell you the answer. It is to tell you how to find it on your own! My job is to help you learn how you learn so that you can learn without me telling you what to learn!” This is where the “everything’s made up” part comes to play. It isn’t that what I teach is made up or even that it is arbitrary; it isn’t. What I teach is relevant to the learning process and provides my students with a knowledge base that will allow them to participate more fully and intelligently in our society. But I am constantly reminded of something said by one of our district administrators at the beginning of the year (and I am paraphrasing here): The curriculum isn’t the objective of education; the curriculum is the vehicle that drives education, which is an objective in and of itself.” I am more concerned with my students learning how to think, analyse, evaluate, and synthesise information than I am with the information itself. (However, I am concerned about the information, too!)

As far as the points not mattering, well, they don’t. Not really. There are no grade percentages that show up on report cards, and students’ work in class, at home, and on tests are all just measures I use to determine if they have demonstrated mastery of skills and concepts. Of course, I use data to determine mastery. (The basic rule we use in our district is the 80/80 rule: 80% mastery of 80% of the content is adequate to meet a standard. This is, incidentally, closer to the way grades were given in Australia than they are in most American schools. But that’s another topic altogether!) The reason I say that the points don’t matter is simple: if a student completes an assignment, task, or assessment, and he or she does not adequately meet or exceed the standard, then I simply reteach and provide another assignment, task, or assessment. Points are not cumulative, and therefore, they really don’t matter. At least, not the way they will in later grades when points are cumulative! Also, I don’t want my young students to be so concerned about points that they start asking what the minimum number of points are necessary in order to achieve a certain benchmark score. I don’t like students setting goals based on the least amount of work. I would rather they set goals based on their own personal abilities and desire to do their very, very best each and every day.

[Note: I just checked on a fellow educator’s blog and saw his most recent post, which complements this one quite well.]


The Metric System Vs. Customary Units of Measure

My class started working on measuring last week. We talked about what we measure, how we measure, and why we measure. Everyone seems to understand the concept of measuring. In many of the nations of the world, measuring is done using the International System of Units, often known as the metric system.

I like the metric system. Actually, I love the metric system. It just makes sense! There are three basic units: gram, meter, and liter. For each of these units, relative sizes are determined by multiples of 10, with a system of prefixes that indicate the decimal fraction. There are a handful of units that, for the majority of people, will suffice for our basic day to day activities. These units are: the millimeter, centimeter, meter, and kilometer for length; the milliliter and liter for volume; and the milligram, gram, and kilogram for weight/mass. (We had a very brief discussion in our class about the differences between weight and mass, but I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself.) And yes, I know that there is also the base unit of mass is actually the kilogram, not the gram, but that was another in-depth conversation that I didn’t want to get into lest it confuse my class. And yes, I also know that there are other units of measure within SI, include seconds, amperes, moles, and candela, but fourth graders are mostly concerned about learning units of length, weight, and volume.

I have shared my love for the metric system with my students. I have shared why I prefer a system of measurement that is consistent and easy to convert from unit to unit.

Unfortunately, the United States of America is one of the nations of the world that has not fully embrace the International System of Units. And thus I am required to teach my students about the United States customary units. I know the customary units, and I know the conversion rates, but I don’t like them. They are confusing and somewhat arbitrary. For length, we have inches, feet, yards, and miles as our basic units. Weight is measured by ounces, pounds, and tons. Volume is the most ridiculous, with cups, pints, quarts, half-gallons, and gallons. (And that doesn’t even include drams, teaspoons, tablespoons, barrels, and hogsheads!)

My class has been making a valiant effort to master the basic customary units we use in our nation, and they are doing a great job, but I continually encourage them to master the metric system and try to incorporate it into their lives. I would love to see the United States abandon the customary units and adopt the international system. I doubt if it will happen in my lifetime, since we are a nation that stubbornly does things because that’s the way we do them, but I can hope!


The 2012 Wiley Walk-a-thon

Back when I was a kid, it seemed like we were always doing fundraisers at school. Bake sales, wrapping paper, cookie dough, and candy bars were constantly being advertised and we were constantly being asked to help sell these items. Most of the time, I honestly had no idea what the fundraisers were for, but not always.

Nowadays, the rules governing school fundraising are much different. I once had a conversation with my principal about these rules, and I was surprised to learn how much goes into any kind of fundraiser in the school. The complexity of the process helped explain why we do so few fundraisers throughout the year. Other than the regular Scholastic Book Fairs that help raise money for the PTA to buy more books for the building, the only other major fundraiser we have is the annual walk-a-thon held at the end of each year.

This year’s walk-a-thon was held this morning. We were quite worried it would have to be postponed due to inclement weather, but the rain held off until noon. Each class was scheduled for a time to go outside and walk laps around the the front of the building. (We have sidewalks conveniently arranged to facilitate this activity.) Students were encouraged to ask neighbours, relatives, and family friends to pledge donations for each lap the students walked. Laps were tracked on simple wristbands we gave the students before we started our block of time.

My class was scheduled for 30 minutes, but we were told we could take more time if we wished. We ended up walking for about 45 minutes. In that time, my students completed a total of 256 laps, which is equal to approximately 42 miles! I don’t know how much money was raised as a result of the walk-a-thon, but I am excited to know that my students were able to set goals for walking laps and to help raise money for our school.


Student Helpers

There are some evenings when I just don’t know what I want to write about. I set a personal goal when I started this blog to update every time I taught, and I have worked hard at holding myself to that goal. (One night, not too long ago, I had actually just gotten into bed when I realised I hadn’t updated so I got up and wrote something up. I don’t even remember which day that was.) Of course, this goal was set when I was subbing, and I had been expecting to teach maybe two or three times a week.

But then I started getting assignments three, four, and many times five times a week. And so my blog became much more frequent than I had initially expected. Then I got hired full time and so I have worked hard to make sure that I not only update each day we have school but also update with something that is generally original. I don’t want to just keep writing about the same thing every day, even though, quite honestly, most of what we do each day is the same thing!

Today was one of those “we haven’t really done anything dramatically different, and nothing exceptional seemed to have happened” kind of days. Well, actually, no, that’s not true. Every day is exceptional, even the ones that are so mundane! It is just that so much of our day is routine that it is sometimes a struggle to capture that moment of the day that I want to write about.

But no fear! One of the great things that happened today has actually been going on for a few weeks now, and then culminated after school! In preparing materials for next year, I discovered that I didn’t have a set of original resources for half of the math curriculum. I contacted some very helpful folks at our Central Office and learned that they didn’t have any extra sets. So I had to take the originals from my awesome grade-level partner, who had all of hers in sheet protectors in two thick 3-ring binders and I had to pull out all of the pages to send them to the CO for copying. (Our district purchased a copyright for all of our core materials, so it is totally legal and legit to make these copies.)

The number of total pages was somewhere in the 500 range (I didn’t count–it may have been much more) and my students saw me working on the project one day. A few of them asked if they could help and, honestly, how could I deny students the opportunity to help? (Except when it comes to grading papers; I’ve had one girl express an interest to do so on more than one occasion, but I keep explaining that while I appreciate the offer, I can’t let her.) I showed them what to do and how to carefully remove the pages and neatly stack them. After removing all the pages, I bundled them together with a copy request and sent them off to the Printshop.

A couple of weeks later, they returned, and the first order of business was to put all of the originals back in their sheet protectors and back in the binders. A few other students helped with this project, which took several days. Then I had to tackle the hardest task of all: separating out the materials for printing for next year. Two students asked for the chance to help, so I showed them how to identify that chapter pretests, tests, and unit tests and how to put them aside. (The originals all have the answers printed on them, but mine are copies, so the answers aren’t visible.) The last task was to pull out the daily practice, problem solving, enrichment, and homework pages.

This was finally done this afternoon by a few of the students in the after school child care program. Because I am in the building until 4:30 or 5:00 waiting for my wife to pick me up, they asked for permission to help me out in my room after school each day for about 30-45 minutes. This isn’t something I get paid for, and it isn’t something they have to do. Also, they are only allowed to do it as a group after they have checked in with the ASCCP coordinators–no students in my room alone at any time! They’ve been helping out most of the year, stacking chairs, picking up trash on the floor, organising bookcases, and helping to generally tidy up the room. Today they asked if they could help with this project that has been going on for several weeks. They carefully pulled out all the pages I needed, stacked them in order, and then left at the appointed time.

As a result, I finally have all of my core materials ready for printing! Also, I was able to give several students tasks that allowed them to help out in the room and feel like they were more involved in the classroom community. All in all, a great success!


Making Changes, Part II

Yesterday I wrote about how I was planning on making some changes in my classroom. Today I wanted to give a quick follow-up on how those changes were received.

In addition to changing the book I had selected for our final read aloud, I decided to make some changes to the daily schedule, based largely on some very productive conversations that went on during a PBIS team meeting yesterday evening.

For most of the year, my class has had an afternoon recess at the very end of the day. This has been done partly as an incentive for students to work hard throughout the afternoon and then also an incentive to help them quickly get through their work routines. Unfortunately, there have always been slight issues with this schedule. For one, several students leave the room before the end of the day for reasons like Safety Patrol duty, FitKids (a local program run by the University of Illinois and directed by a good friend of mine, incidentally), and checking in with younger students they’ve been asked to assist or with mentors and other teachers. For another, the end of the day has always been hectic, with students trying to get their belongings and get to buses, rides, the After School Child Care Program, etc.

So with just two and a half weeks of school left, I figured, what the heck, let’s try something new that I’ll probably be doing more consistently next year anyway. Instead of having our afternoon recess at the end of the day as an incentive, we are going to have our afternoon recess after math and before fine arts as a break. At the end of the day, students will pack up and then have the last fifteen minutes or so of the day to work independently on silent reading, writing, or have extra help on math or other academic areas.

I told my class about this, and they all seemed very supportive of the idea, especially those who have missed most or all of recess as a result of the above mentioned reasons. Of course, today was also the day that I had a meeting at 1:15, so I had a sub come in at that time, and there was no time for her to go over what I had asked her to teach if she was going to be taking them outside for recess fifteen minutes after she arrived. So today didn’t actually work out as planned, but hey, that’s life, right? If we don’t get to the new schedule changes this week, we’ll definitely be able to start next Monday!

Oh, and everyone seemed happy that I decided to put aside Abe Lincoln Grows Up and read a new book (It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville–the Newberry Award winner from 1964). We talked a bit this morning about how we sometimes just don’t “feel” a book at the time we start to read it, and how that is okay because we may “feel” it at another date. So yeah, the changes appear to be ones that will be well-received.


Making Changes

There are roughly three weeks of school remaining, and I am doing all I can to keep my students motivated and working hard each day as we run down the final stretch.

On the one hand, I have worked hard at establishing some fairly regular routines in the classroom. The boys and girls all know what is expected when we work on literacy or on math. They also know our classroom routines for things like lining up, getting ready for lunch, and going to fine arts.

On the other hand, I am continuing to make changes to what we do and how we do it. I am constantly striving for improvement and I hope that each of the students will do the same. Today I made a change in what we do for our read aloud. Instead of reading a work of fiction, I started to reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg. The biography is highly acclaimed and I thought it would be a good way or tying in our social studies standards for learning Illinois history.

The thing is, I don’t think that this book is particularly appropriate for the age-group I teach. In elementary school, especially in the primary grades, we teach students about selecting “just right” books. As a teacher, I need to do the same when selecting books to read to my class. As I previewed the book, I thought it would be a good choice. But after reading it today, I don’t think I agree. (Yes, I am disagreeing with myself.)

So tomorrow I am going to make another change. I am going to do something I haven’t done before with my class: I am going to put down a book and select a new one that has a better fit. I still want to read a story relevant to Illinois history and Abraham Lincoln, but I need one that is more appropriate for my purposes and for my students.

Life is all about change; anytime we allow ourselves to get caught in a holding pattern, or just doing something a certain way because we’ve always done it that way, we run the risk of complacency. I never want to be complacent as a teacher, and I never want to do something just to do it. I’ll be sure to explain this to my class tomorrow as part of my explanation for why we are not going to continue to read Abe Lincoln Grows Up.

I think they’ll understand. My class is quite open to change.