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

Archive for August, 2012

I’m Alive

Whoops, I forgot to post yesterday! Yes, I am alive! My surgery went well, and I have been spending the past few days lying on the couch watching Doctor Who or in bed reading Fablehaven Book 2: Rise of the Evening Star while letting my body take it easy and recover from the surgery. I have three lovely scars across my belly now. And no, students in my class, I am not going to lift up my shirt to show them to you, so don’t even ask. Oh, and I didn’t get any pictures, so I won’t get to show anyone what my insides look like!

I’ve heard that my class is doing well with the substitute teacher. (I finally broke down and begged my colleagues on Facebook to let me know!) Someone told me that I need to just relax and not worry. I responded that I wouldn’t be a very good teacher if I didn’t worry about my students!

Keep safe this weekend! I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again on Tuesday!

Preparing for a Sub

For the past week, I have been talking to my class about what would be happening tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday of this week. I wanted my class to be prepared so it wouldn’t be a shock when they arrived at school in the morning. You see, I have a minor outpatient surgery scheduled for tomorrow, so I am taking the rest of the week off for recovery.

My class has been really awesome about the whole thing. They wanted to know what the surgery was for and I have explained that I have a damaged blood vessel that needs to be repaired. (There is more to it, but that is all I am comfortable sharing within a school setting. If you really want to know more, you are welcome to email me and I may share more details. It isn’t anything bad, mind you. It just isn’t something I want to share with children who are roughly nine years old.)

Of course, I quickly learned that just telling students what a surgical procedure is for isn’t enough. These are, after all, incredibly inquisitive children who are just now learning that there is a big wide world out there, as well as an incredibly fascinating world within the human body. So I shared how the doctor will be making a small incision, or cut, near my belly button where he will insert a tool called a laparascope which lets him see inside my abdomen. Then he’ll make another small incision to insert the tools to find and repair the damaged blood vessel. They all thought this was really cool and asked if I could bring in pictures. I told them that I will see.

But more importantly than the surgery itself, in terms of my class, has been preparing the students for their first experience as a class with a substitute teacher. Sure, they’ve had subs before. After all, nearly every teacher has a day or two each year, at least, that they are gone. But this is the first time these students, comprising this specific class, will have a substitute teacher, and it is going to be for three full days.

Last year, the students’ first experience with a sub was when I had to leave for a family emergency. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had time to prepare the class for having a sub, so I definitely wanted to make sure they were prepared this time around! (I did, by the by, prepare my class for having a sub the first time I had a planned absence last year.) The day started with the students writing in their journals about how they felt about having a substitute teacher. Some of them expressed excitement and happiness because they know the sub and know what kind of teacher she is. Others expressed concern and worry because they also knew the sub and what kind of teacher she is. I took time to explain that all of them had matured over the summer and I have been letting the sub know how awesome they are, so they need to be willing to see what she will be like when they are following expectations. (Apparently, there were problems with students not following expectations last year, which is why some of them were worried that they would get in trouble again.) I also emphasised that the special ed teacher who works in our room each morning will still be there each morning, so it isn’t as if things are going to be totally different; it will just be that I am gone for the three days.

We talked about expectations throughout the day, and I kept returning to the point that I wanted the students to go into the rest of this week expecting things to go well and showing their substitute teacher that they know and understand the expectations in our building. Also, I use a small vase that I fill with pebbles when the students receive compliments in the hallways from other teachers, and they can get double pebbles when I am gone. So they students are excited about earning a lot of pebbles this week!

After school I spent a few hours making sure everything was ready for the next three days. I made sure that materials were out and labeled, that the room was organised, and that everything was as ready as it can be. I really want to spend this time off focusing on recovering from surgery, but I have a hunch that there is going to be a part of me that will want to call the school to see how my class is doing. Maybe I can convince some of my colleagues who are friends with me on Facebook to drop a note each day…

Anyway, I don’t expect to be updating tomorrow, due to the timing of my surgery and the effects of anesthesia wearing off and all that, but I will try to make a quick post on Thursday just to let everyone know that I am okay. And to all of the students, parents, and teachers who have wished a speedy recovery, I just want to say thanks. You guys (and gals) are all awesome!

The Start of a Regular Schedule

After a week of practicing expectations, rehearsing procedures, modeling behavior, establishing routines, and building community, we got started with our regular schedule today. Each of the students has a copy of the schedule in their C.O.Y.O.T.E. binders, and I was pleased to see some of them referring to it from time to time as we got going.

Our day started with journal writing and a social/emotional learning lesson on developing empathy, particularly in terms of acknowledging different feelings and different attitudes.

After P.E. (another day of dodgeball–one more to go before we move on to a physical fitness routine next week), the students went to fine arts with the art teacher.

The remainder of our morning was spent working on math, during which we started our first unit on number sense and place value. Each student has been given a whiteboard and eraser to keep in his or her desk for math. We started our math by discussing what numbers actually represent. The students gave a variety of answers and then we focused the responses to understand that numbers are usually used to represent labels, counting, measures, and positions. After going over several examples as a class, the students were given a practice sheet to complete. We did the first six together and then the students did the remaining problems on their own. We reviewed the answers right before lunch, and then the boys and girls put the practice sheet in their C.O.Y.O.T.E. binders to keep at home.

Our time after lunch was filled with our literacy block. I read more of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and then we broke out our reading anthology for the first time to start our first unit on journeys. I asked the class to think about journeys and what makes something a journey. They shared that a journey is exciting and unique, which is why a routine trip the grocery store wouldn’t be a journey, but your first trip the grocery store would be! Then we read along with an audio recording of the story Akiak by Robert Blake. I divided the class into four groups and they worked on a set of questions reviewing details from the story and getting students to think about what they had read.

Instead of going outside for recess this afternoon, the class had the opportunity to practice walking silently in the halls. Before we started walking in the halls, we talked about the hallway expectations and then I shared with them my pebble jar that we will use to keep track of compliments the students get in the halls. Just today they earned four pebbles in the morning and six pebbles in the afternoon!

The day was wrapped up with an independent silent read and then the students got their mail (including their first math homework assignment!), packed their bags, and the day was over! I feel like the first day of our regular schedule went well! Here’s to hoping day two goes just as well!

C.O.Y.O.T.E. Binders

Today, being Friday, marked the end of the first full week of school!

This week has been, overall, fantastic! The students were almost always focused on the tasks put before them, most of which involved establishing expectations and routines. There are definitely areas for improvement and we will keep working on them throughout the year. We got a lot of the administrative tasks of the class set up, such as putting together the C.O.Y.O.T.E. homework binders and our math binders.

The C.O.Y.O.T.E. binders are an idea first cobbled together by one of our 2nd grade teachers. The acronym stands for Carefully Organising Your Own Things Every day. (Our building mascot is the coyote, which is why she chose that word in the first place.) The binder contains information about our school, especially the homework policy that was created by teachers and parents last year. We included a teacher-parent communication log and a “Today’s Topics” sheet that the students will use each day to record some of the events of the day. (No student in my class will ever be able to say that they don’t remember what they did in school each day!)

There is a folder for students to keep track of homework that needs to be returned and papers that need to be kept at home after being seen by parents/guardians. The back section of the binder contains our district’s “I Can” statements for progress report items for math and English/language arts, character trait vocabulary terms, and several sheets of lined notebook paper. Some students also have a zipper pencil pouch with at least two sharpened pencils. (I would encourage every student to get one, but I also want to be sensitive to individual family budgets.) I love the C.O.Y.O.T.E. binder concept and think it will really help students keep their papers organised. I have emphasised that each student is responsible for bringing his or her own binder to and from school each day!

Today was the first day the students used their binders, as I sent home a letter of introduction to parents, the first PTA newsletter, and a Box Tops for Education worksheet for families to use as desired. The students’ mail was put into their folders in the binders, and every binder was placed in a backpack, so every parent should receive the mail that was sent home!

And now that the first week is over, I am looking forward to the weekend!


One of the great secrets of teaching is knowing when to offer incentives for positive behaviour and when to simply wait for students to make the right choices for the right reasons. My class has spent the week focusing on expectations and they have done a phenomenal job with following them when they have been with me.

However, there are typically two times during the day that the students are not under my direct supervision: fine arts (or library on Tuesdays) and lunch. After reviewing the expectations all week, I felt like today was a day to offer an incentive for improving behaviour. Such incentives are referred to as “boosters” among teachers.

The first booster I offered the class was for meeting expectations in fine arts. I explained that I knew that they were capable of showing the art teacher that they could listen to directions and work under her direction, but they needed to know they could do it. We have P.E. on Mondays and Thursdays, which means we will not typically have recess in the morning on those days. (Officially, I have not planned for a morning recess anyway, but because we are still transitioning back into the school week and the weather has been so awesome, I want my kids to have as much time outside as I can give them.) The booster, therefore was simple: a great report from the art teacher would result in a fifteen minute bonus recess immediately after.

When I went to pick up the class, I heard the art teacher saying things like “excellent,” “great job,” and “much better.” She told me that it seemed like an entirely different class was with her today. I was incredibly pleased with the result and was glad to have offered the booster.

The second booster was related to lining up at the end of lunch recess. The two fourth grade classes have one lunch supervisor who is responsible for getting them ready to enter the building. Both classes have struggled with lining up quickly and quietly and entering the building in a quiet manner. I’ve practiced this with my students, but they were still struggling. So I offered a second incentive: if they followed the supervisor’s directions and were waiting quietly in line when I came to pick them up, I would give them ten minutes of free-choice activities in the classroom. I have a collection of games, such as chess, checkers, Connect Four, and other such games that encourage thinking, and I usually only allow these games to be used on Friday afternoons. But I offered this time as an incentive for showing that they could follow the lunch expectations.

I was again pleased to see my class lined up by the door waiting for me. Our principal was outside with them and told me that they had done a wonderful job following the directions they were given. I gave my class the free-choice activity time as promised and made sure to tell them how impressed I was with their behaviour today. I also reinforced that I know that they can do it, and now they know that they can, too.

The key to using boosters is using them in moderation. I’m not sure when I’ll use them again, but I think I will start using the mystery student a couple of times next week. I really am very impressed with my class this year and hope that they will continue to hold themselves to a high standard of excellence each and every day!

Rolling with the Punches

Some days it seems like everything is going exactly how you want. Everything works and everything goes right.

Other days, there are small hiccups that force you to adapt and change plans.

Today was one of those days.

It actually started with a request I made of our evening custodian yesterday. I noticed that my whiteboard was in desperate need of cleaning and asked if he could clean it off for me. He cheerfully agreed to do so, even though he knew it’d take a few extra minutes of his day. I came in this morning and was happy to see my whiteboard actually white for the first time in months.

I wrote the date, as usual, and then my morning message to the class, with directions for the students to write in their journals. This is going to be a daily writing activity, and so far it has gone well. (Yeah, I know, we’ve only been in school for three days, and I’ve only had them do journal writing for two of them, but hey, every day counts!)

Later in the morning we were getting ready for a new activity and I went to erase the morning message.

It didn’t erase.

I thought maybe it was my eraser, so I tried with my other erasers. All five of them. No such luck.

Apparently the whiteboard has been slowly dying and the process of actually cleaning it for the first time in months finished it off. My whiteboard no longer erases, and the cleaners that are made especially for removing dry-erase markers only result in creating a big grey smudge.


But that’s why we roll with the punches; adjust and move on. Which is what we did today. I wasn’t able to use the whiteboard for writing directions and reminders for what we were doing today, but the class did a great job following along without them. Don’t worry, though; I have a temporary whiteboard I will be able to use tomorrow and my principal is going to find out if I have a chalkboard behind my now-ruined whiteboard.

Even without a whiteboard, the students still were able to work on their classroom procedure posters, do independent silent reading, and do a pretest for math on operations and number sense. Tomorrow we will wrap up our focus on expectations and procedures and get started on some of the more traditional academics. Of course, we will always be working on expectations and procedures, but they will become a part of the background instead of the main focus of the day.

Expectations and Procedures

Almost a year ago from today, I wrote about establishing rules of procedure for my new class. The focus was on establishing expectations and identifying routines for the classroom. Throughout the year, I worked on different strategies to help my class be successful in meeting expectations and following routines. Some days we had great success in this, while other days were huge struggles. But we worked together, we learned, and we survived.

This year I wanted to apply what I had learned over the past year, what I had read in professional books, journals, and magazines, and what I had discussed in workshops and conferences. I wanted the year to start off with a bang so that we would have a high standard of excellence to live up to.

If today was any indicator, the bar has been set about as high as can be!

We set our classroom expectations yesterday. Using our PBIS foundation of being safe, responsible, and respectful, the students decided our expectations should include being kind, keeping hands, feet, and other objects to ourselves, telling the truth, paying attention, treating others the way we would like to be treated, and working together. (Sadly, there is no expectation related to defenestration or conflagration this year, but I am sure it will come up in conversation, anyway.)

With the expectations for the classroom set, we began practicing expectations for other parts of the building, especially in the hallways, restrooms, and coming in from recess. Last year I learned about a teacher strategies called “do it again.” The strategy is simple: if we expect excellent from our students, we need to give them opportunities to practice and do it again until they can do it right. (As an aside, Effectiveness Training says we should not use words like “right” or “wrong” because those assign labels to behaviour. I respectfully disagree with values-neutral language and believe that students benefit from knowing that there are behaviours that our society believes are correct and others that are incorrect.) I really feel that modeling the expectations, rehearsing them, modeling them again, and giving the class ample opportunities to demonstrate mastery has been a key to their success in exceeding expectations.

As a result of our practice, the boys and girls were totally prepared for out Boot Camp review of building-wide expectations. The fourth grade is partnered with a member of the building support staff–in this case our school social worker–who took them around the building to talk about expectations in the hallways, in the restrooms, in the lunchroom, during assemblies, and on the playground. They nailed them, and in a most definitely non-ironic way! My students know the expectations and they showed that they could go above and beyond when it comes to meeting them.

For the benefit of the parents, friends, and family members who are (hopefully) reading this blog now, I’d like to share  an email that our social worker sent to the principal to brag on my class:

I did boot camp with Valencic’s room this afternoon and he and they rocked!  The class had strong routines, followed them easily.  Really well done!

I have told my class several times each day that they are awesome and that I expect them to set the standard for awesome in our building. I have already seen that they have it within them to be great, and I am going to remind them of this every day. After all, they are awesome!