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

Archive for September, 2012

One Million Minutes

There’s something awesome about the number one million. Maybe it is all the zeros. I mean, come on. Six zeros! 1,000,000. Maybe it is because it is such a large number. Or maybe it just because it is one of those numbers that we can think of, we can represent, we can even count (using computers), but it is still almost unreachable. If you were sit there and count out loud, saying, “1, 2, 3, …” until you reach 1,000,000, the best guess is that it would take you about 11 1/2 days without stopping. That’s a long time.

But when you have a whole lot of people working together, one million isn’t such an unreachable goal. Which is why an idea that popped into my head over the summer is now going to become a reality.

The Wiley Elementary School family in Urbana, Illinois, is going to read for 1,000,000 minutes this year. At least, that is our goal. Honestly, I think we might even reach 5,000,000. Because students, teachers, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, custodians… you name them, they are going to read. And keep track of their reading. And share their reading. And when we reach the lofty goal of one million minutes, I, Mr. Valencic, fourth grade teacher at Wiley, am going to do something I have never done before:

I’m going to shave my head.

Not just get my hair cut short. Not just buzz it. Nope, I’m going to shave it all off. Because as much as I love my curly brown and silver locks of hair, I love reading even more. And if sacrificing my hair is what it takes, then sacrifice my hair I shall.

If every student in the building reads for just 20 minutes a day outside of school (including weekends), and nobody else joins in, it will take about 4 or 5 months to reach our goal. If everyone who is a part of our Wiley family reads together, though, it will happen much, much sooner. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that the last thing we do in the building before the winter break in December is to have a school-wide celebration of reading that culminates in, as one teacher has taken to putting it, shearing me like a sheep.

And you know what? I’d be totally okay with that.

Of course, I’d also be totally okay with this taking longer. After all, I do quite like my hair. And once I go bald, I’m going to stay bald for the rest of the school year. (But don’t worry; I’m going to let my hair grow back over the summer, and my curly locks will be back before you know it!)

To help keep track of this awesome academic goal, I have started a new blog that will be updated each week on Friday. It is I will update with our total number minutes read, book reviews, reading stories, and any media attention we get. (One of our teachers will be contacting local media outlets to tell them about our goal.)

Students will receive a packet of information explaining this program in detail on Monday, but they can start reading today! Every minute of reading outside the classroom counts! Chapter books, picture books, comic books, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks–if you can read it, you can count it! So let’s start reading!

Rainy Days

One of the most distinct memories I have from grade school comes from an event that happened when I was in the third grade. I think. Despite the fact that the memory is so very distinct, I don’t actually remember what year, or even what time of year, it took place. I only remember that it was when I was at Washington Grade School, and that it was after first grade but before fourth. So either second or third grade, and I think it was third.

The memory is of spending over an hour in the school building after school let out, due to severe weather in the area. The sky was incredibly dark, the street light outside the south end of the building was shining through a misty haze, and the students and teachers were tired and ready to go home.

Fortunately, I haven’t had anything quite like that happen in my professional teaching career. But I have had my share of rainy days. After a summer of severe drought in the continental United States, it is weird to have so much rain all of a sudden. We’ve had several days at school where it has been dark and gloomy. Clouds were lowering but we haven’t had much rain. At least not during school.

I woke up yesterday morning and discovered it was raining, so I arranged for a ride to school. (For those who don’t know, my wife and I no longer have a car, so I have been biking to school nearly every day. It is almost six miles each way, but I love doing it!) The rain stopped in the early morning, so the students were still able to make it outside for lunch and afternoon recess. The storm from yesterday had mostly cleared up, but I kept my eye on the weather radar throughout the evening.

I got up this morning and saw dark storms to the south of us that didn’t look like they were going to hit us. But, after getting thoroughly soaked last Friday on my way home, I decided not to risk it and arranged for a ride again. About an hour or two after school started, it started raining. There was the typical gloom about the building outside, which turned into a gloom among students inside the building. The rain stopped around lunch, so students were able to go outside, then it started raining just as they came in. Providence smiled upon us, though, as the storm passed and my class was able to go outside in the afternoon. So far, the storms have not returned, but the weather radar is still looking ominous. We’ll see if the storms clear up by tomorrow.

I was concerned throughout the day that the rainy weather would result in students dragging throughout the day. When it is dark and dreary outside, our bodies want to go back to sleep. It makes sense. Most of us are conditioned to sleep when it is dark, after all. I definitely had a few students who were struggling to keep up today, due to the gloomy weather, but the vast majority of the boys and girls were working hard all day. We worked on their animal inquiry projects by learning about ecosystems, the students practiced writing related math sentences based on Factor Triangles, and we did some more work on responsive writing as we wrap up our first reading unit on journeys.

So despite the rainy days, we’ve made a lot of progress this week. I hope the students realise how much they’ve really done! Due to a staff development day on Friday, tomorrow is the last day of school for students, and I’ll be gone in the afternoon for a doctor’s appointment, so the week is quickly coming to a close! And just one more day until the big reveal of our amazing project we are undertaking at Wiley Elementary!

More on Responsive Writing

Last week I wrote about how I have started my students working on responsive writing. The boys and girls have been writing quite a bit already this year, and I have been impressed as I have seen the quality of writing improve dramatically over just a few weeks.

Sure, my students are writing multi-page essays. In fact, most of them aren’t even writing responses there are several paragraphs in length. But they are writing, and that is the most important thing!

Today they did something a little bit different than they done in the past few weeks. Instead of writing a response to just one story, I had them respond to the similarities between two stories they read recently. We spent time this afternoon talking about how to read and respond the the question given, and then I gave the students a major challenge: I told them they were expected to spend 30 minutes writing in response to the question I gave them. I explained that they should spend the majority of the time actually writing, but they should take time to look back at the text and look for evidence to support their answers.

Another challenge to their writing was that they students had to make a judgment call about their own thoughts about the text. Specifically, they were comparing the dangers encountered by Ruth in Finding the Titanic to Chester in Chester Cricket’s Pigeon Ride. The prompt was to think about the dangers these two characters in two very different stories encountered and decide if they should have stayed home or not.

Some of the students had a hard time maintaining the stamina to write for 30 minutes. But nearly all of the tried, and that was also important. They wrote, they read, they wrote some more, they read some more, and then they added more details to their writing. They will have many opportunities to write throughout the coming year. As they do so, they will use strategies they learned last year, such as physically cutting and pasting (or taping) their writing, and applying new strategies that we will explore throughout the year.

Physical Fitness

Every Monday and Thursday, my students have Physical Education (generally known as P.E.) in the mornings. I’ve been making an effort to make P.E. include an actual educational component, rather than simply playing games or participating in sports activities. There are a number of different models for teaching physical education, most of which I learned about in the first professional course I took way back in 2002, but the important thing for me is that teaching P.E. needs to include, well, teaching!

At the start of the year, I started P.E. with having the students discuss the rules for dodgeball and then they played it for a couple of weeks. Then we spent a couple of weeks doing different relays in P.E., including dribbling basketballs and shooting baskets.

This week I have started my class on some pre-teaching for the President’s Challenge, a national physical fitness program that I did when I was in grade school. I did some work with this program last year, but I have had more time to plan for it this year, so I am expecting my students to do very well with improving their physical fitness.

Today we focused on sit-ups and push-ups. After doing our customary five-minute warm-up, I had the students divide into pairs and take turns doing sit-ups for one minute each. After watching the way many of the students were trying to do sit-ups, I realised that I needed to properly demonstrate how to do them. Some students were lying on their backs and barely moving their heads. Others were twisting and turning in ways that didn’t really make much sense. Still others were using their arms to pull themselves up.

In order to correct the misconceptions on how to do sit-ups, I had them gather around and so I could show them the two ways they could do sit-ups:

  • Place my hands behind my neck and pull myself into a sitting position, making sure my elbows touched my knees, which were bent, or
  • Cross my arms in front of me and then pull myself into a sitting position, still making sure that my elbows touched my knees.

Both times, I had a student stood on my feet to keep them in place. I explained that this job is called spotting and is important for doing sit-ups properly. After modeling the correct ways to do sit-ups, I had the students get with their partners again and do sit-ups again. They did a much better job the second time around! Then we gathered around again and discussed the purpose of sit-ups, specifically, to work the abdominal muscles.

Before letting the students split off to do the second activity, push-ups, I made sure to model it first. A student actually served as the example of how to do push-ups, which was probably a good thing, since I have some problems with my shoulders after a workplace injury at FedEx Ground back in 2005!

One of the girls in the class asked me if she could do “girl” push-ups instead. Several girls chimed in expressing the desire to do the same. While there is much debate within the physical fitness field on the effectiveness of doing push-ups on one’s knees as opposed to the traditional method, I told the students in my class that I wanted all of them to do push-ups in the traditional way. I don’t like the idea of “girl” push-ups, because it indicates that girls are somehow weaker or less capable than boys. It is true that male and female bodies are built differently, but that doesn’t mean that the boys and girls can’t perform the same fundamental skills for improving their physical fitness! All of the girls attempted push-ups the way I instructed, and all of them were able to do them without any problems.

We’ll continue practicing some of the basic skills later this week, then we’ll start working on the President’s Challenge next Monday. Should be exciting!

Read Alouds

I am a big believer in reading aloud to students. I typically read from a chapter boon to my class every day after lunch. Continuing a tradition that started just last year, my first chapter book of the year was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. My students love the story of Peter Hatcher and his constant annoyance with the crazy shenanigans of his little brother, Farley Drexel Hatcher, better known as Fudge. (As an aside, the story never gets around to explaining his nickname.) I love sharing this book with my class. I love even more that so many find it and other books by the author to read on their own! Several asked me to read the next book in the series, but I told them that they’ll have to read them on their own.

We finished Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing yesterday, and I told my students I wouldn’t reveal the next book until this afternoon. I had a few ideas, but I wasn’t sure which I was going to do until I checked my Twitter feed this morning and saw a post by my Internet friends John Schu, an elementary school librarian in Naperville, Illinois, and Colby Sharp, a third grade teacher in Minnesota and co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club Blog. It was actually a partial post that John accidentally shared that Colby retweeted. It simply said, “#bookaday A Wrinkle in Time.”

I love this book. I have read it many, many times. I have an old, battered copy on my bookshelf at home and an old but not-so-worn copy on my shelf at school. As a geeky guy who came from an often misunderstood family of incredibly smart older brothers and awesome younger sisters, I felt like I could identify with Meg Murry’s struggle to find herself. Add to it the wonderfully geeky science fiction elements that include dark planets, extraterrestrial visitors to our earth, happy mediums, and theoretical mathematics and physics that was probably made up but still intriguing, and I think you can start to understand why I love this book.

Also, the author, Madeleine L’Engle, is brilliant. From the first line, the reader is captivated by the rich language that weaves a literary tapestry of wonder like few other authors ever achieve. Seriously, I think that few other first-lines in literature are as famous as this one:

It was a dark and stormy night.

Sure, Ms. L’Engle was not the first to use it. That title belongs to Edward Bulwer-Lytton who used it in 1830. And yes, it was also the first line of W. W. Jacobs’ famous story, The Monkey’s Paw. Even Snoopy used it in his novel, although that came after A Wrinkle in Time was published. But what I love so much is how well this book is written and how captivating the story is!

We just got started today, and I haven’t even made it to Mrs. Whatsit’s first appearance, but I already have several students interested in reading along with me and finding other books by Madeleine L’Engle. And really, that is my goal for reading aloud to my students: to expose them to quality literature they may not read on their own and then to get them to do their own author studies.


Today was another first for my class. Not the first birthday. No, that happened a couple of weeks ago, and then has already been repeated a few times. This first was related, though. It was the first day that treats were brought in for the express purpose of sharing and celebrating during class. You see, the first few birthdays we’ve had have been celebrated by a student bringing in a bag of treats, typically small candies, to send home. As a teacher who somewhat dreads the surge of sugar that usually accompanies birthday treats, I must admit that the take-home bag is very appealing!

However, I would never tell a student (or that student’s parents) that he or she cannot bring in treats for his or her birthday. As much as I dread the sugar rush, I have become very adept at timing the distribution of said treats near the end of the day in order to limit the immediate impact of sugary confections in the classroom. To put it another way, my bus riders are picked up at 2:50 so that they can be ready for when the buses arrive at between 2:55 and 3:00. The rest of the students are dismissed at 3:00. So I try to time treats to be distributed as close to 2:40 as I can. This allows enough time for the treats to be passed out, the students to sing to the birthday boy or girl, and then eat the treats.

Today, being the first, was not as perfectly timed as I hope to have it, so we were delayed a couple of minutes. However, cupcakes were delivered to our room over lunch, put in one of my closets for the afternoon, and passed out just before the end of the day. The boys and girls enjoyed the treats and remembered to thank the girl whose birthday we were celebrating.

There were a few cupcakes left over, and she asked me to share them with other teachers who have worked with our class. She was particularly adamant about making sure the aide who works in our room each afternoon got one. I told him about it and he explained to me that he has known her for years. I was able to share the other cupcakes with the Title I teacher who works with many students in my class, and one of the third grade teachers who happened to be walking by at the moment.

Incidentally, my dread of distributing vast quantities of sugar was mostly misplaced. My class didn’t bounce of the walls or do anything crazy after having cupcakes. So maybe I don’t have to fear them this year. Hopefully.

Fluency Day

Today was just the third day that we have worked with the Math Expressions curriculum in our room, but we have already identified yet another excellent feature of the series: fluency days. Instead of having a curriculum that moves in just one direction, the Expressions series does what is known in the education field as spiraling. We move forward, but we also circle back to concepts that have been learned in the past, whether in the current year or the year before. (Spiraling usually doesn’t go back more than a year.)

For our first fluency day, I reviewed with my students that various symbols used for basic arithmetic, such as the plus sign, the minus sign, the variety of symbols used for multiplication, and the variety of symbols used for division. We also covered the percent sign just for fun. Then the students were given 10 minutes to do 72 problems reviewing multiplication and division facts related to 2, 5, and 9. This was a good practice for the 8-minute multiplication quiz that the students will be taken on Monday to assess the multiplication facts for 0 through 10.

The last part of our fluency day was playing a game called Quotient Match. The students were given 24 cards that have a multiplication fact on one side and the related division fact on the other side. All of the cards dealt with 2, 5, or 9. After cutting out all of the cards, the students shuffled them and then worked in groups of two or three to try to match cards by the quotients. Matching was done by selecting three cards with division facts that all had the same quotient. For example, 18/2, 45/5, and 81/9. If the student correctly selected three cards with the same quotient, they got to keep them. When all of the cards had been claimed, the student with the most was the winner. Then they shuffled the cards and played again, changing who got to go first. It was a great way to practice some of the basic facts and improve fluency!