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!

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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!