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

Archive for October, 2012


Today is Hallowe’en (or Halloween for those who don’t like the use of the apostrophe). So, of course, all the students were super excited for our annual Hallowe’en Parade and class parties.

However, I made sure my students knew that the celebrations didn’t start until two in the afternoon, which means we had a solid day ahead of us before we’d have our party. I am a cruel teacher, I know.

We did social studies, with the students selecting the European explorers they are going to focus on for the second independent research projects. Then the students used our collection of books from the library on the explorers to start learning more about their explorers.

After drama class, we did our last lesson on our mini-unit on geometry. The focus of the lesson was finding area and perimeter of irregular shapes. We discussed how our knowledge of squares, rectangles, and parallelograms can be used for find the area and perimeter of irregular shapes by dividing them into known polygons. We did several examples together as a class before the students worked with partners to complete the in-class activities.

Following lunch we read more from A Wrinkle in Time and then we cleaned up the room and read silently for about twenty minutes before finally getting ready for our costume parade. Some of the students had costumes that they could put on in the classroom; others needed to go change in the restroom. We had a wide assortment of costumes this year, some traditional, some modern, some geeky, some quirky. I layered on my various geek fandoms by wearing a hoodie with a brown jacket like Dr. Leonard Hofstadter), my T.A.R.D.I.S. shirt that I got last year, my Don’t Panic towel that one of my best friends gave me when I graduated high school, and my Harry Potter wand from a Hallowe’en party I attended five years ago. Students asked me who I was supposed to be and I explained that I wasn’t a who, I was a what: a geek. (At least one person told me that I couldn’t consider that a costume, since that it what I am. However, I told students that I was what I am.)

We had several parents come to help with the party, where we had snacks, treats, drinks, and games. Then we cleaned up at the end of the day and then the students were off for home! Now my wife and I are sitting at home watching shows and wondering if any kids will come by our house.

Happy Hallowe’en everyone!

Talking Politics

Sometime on Saturday night I started feeling a little queasy. By Sunday morning I was full-blown sick. I wasn’t sure what I had, but I was definitely sick. I thought it might have been something that’d blow over quickly but by Sunday afternoon I was feeling worse, so I made the decision to call in for a substitute for Monday. Then I wrote up my plans and got them sent to my principal, since I wasn’t able to get to the school to have them waiting on my desk. I started to feel better on Monday morning and was back to normal by Monday evening, so I was ready to get back to school after being away from my students for four days.

I was glad to be back today, and I was glad my students were glad! We didn’t waste much time getting back to work today, tackling social studies, working in the computer lab, figuring out how to find the area of a parallelogram, and then working on literacy. At the end of the day, I was working with one of my reading groups as they read a series of news articles about young people participating in mock elections. I expected some conversation about voting, including the inevitable questions about who I would be voting for in the upcoming election. (I declined to answer, citing, among many other reasons, my role as a Judge of the Election for Champaign County, and I choose to keep my vote private at school. This is similar to my general policy to keep my personal religious beliefs private while at work.)

What I didn’t expect were some of the well-thought questions about the American political system. Even better was that the six students in the reading group were talking to each other, asking and answering questions of each other rather than directing all of their questions to me. They did ask me a few questions, but they weren’t about specific candidates or which specific issues I supported. Rather, they were questions about the political system in general. For example, they wanted to know why there is so much debate about raising taxes, cutting taxes, and decreasing spending. This led us to discuss how governments create budgets, control revenue for taxes, and borrow money to pay for a variety of programs. They also discussed how many political ads that they see that focus on the negative about other candidates and their surprise at how few ads said anything positive about the candidate running.

It was a fun conversation that had everyone in my group engaged and focused on the topic at hand. Of course, the topic was not something I had initially planned on covering, but that is often the way things when teaching: some of the greatest lessons are the ones that aren’t planned, but instead arise directly out of students’ interest in their growing awareness of the world around them. I let them guide their own discussion, as they are a reading group, with me there as facilitator to help move things along. I don’t know that this will happen with each reading group as I meet with them this week, but I love knowing that my students are capable of examining the world around them, asking questions, and then working them out!

Citizenship Test

My class reads a short story each week from our Houghton-Mifflin Reading series. The first several stories we read were part of a unit on journeys. Our second unit has been on American stories. The story we read this week was A Very Important Day by Maggie Rugg Herold. The story is about several different families in New York City going through their morning routines for a very important day that turns out to be the day they were gaining their United States citizenship. To support this story, I worked with each of my four reading groups as they read a short informational text on becoming citizens. One of the questions at the end of the text asked the students to think about possible questions that a petitioner could be asked by an examiner about United States history. I loved the quality and diversity of their questions! I wrote them down and was looking forward to sharing them this week but I accidentally left them at school. I’ll update this again tomorrow to share them. At present, I’ll let it suffice that some of the questions covered topics relating to several wars, the details of early European settlement, and the various men and women involved in our federal government!

UPDATE: Here are the questions my students came up with on their own. How would you do on their Citizenship Test of United States History?

  • How many states are there?
  • Who was the first United States President?
  • When did the United States become independent from Great Britain?
  • How did the United States become independent from Great Britain?
  • Who is the current President?
  • How many original colonies were there?
  • How big is the United States?
  • In which war did the United States fight itself?
  • When did Christopher Columbus discover America?
  • When was World War II?
  • When was the Korean War?
  • Who is the current Vice President?
  • Who is the current First Lady?
  • Who was the first United States citizen?
  • Who was the first person to discover America?
  • Who was the second President?
  • When did the first European settlers come to America?
  • What was the name of at least one ship that was sunk at Pearl Harbor?
  • Who was the fourteenth President?
  • Who made the Statue of Liberty?
  • When was the White House built?

Feel free to leave a comment to tell how you did!

The Book Fair Is Coming

My school has a very active Parent Teacher Association (PTA) of which I am finally a member. (The only reason I did not join last year was that no one ever suggested I should!) In addition to providing excellent supports for teachers during class parties, conferences, Teacher Appreciation Week, and other events, the PTA works with Scholastic to put on two book fairs each year.

The Scholastic Book Fair is always a huge event. The students love having the opportunity to purchase books for themselves and for their classrooms. Our first book fair will be next Thursday and Friday during Parent-Teacher Conferences. To get the students prepped, each student was invited to write a book review for any book they wanted. These reviews will be posted during the fair. The class with the highest percentage of reviews won a prize. (My class didn’t win.) In addition, one student who wrote a review from each class was randomly selected to receive a free book, and every class that participated is also receiving a book, all courtesy of our awesome PTA.

My class was able to go to the book fair preview this morning and we browsed the many books that were available. I was happy to see that there is a new School of Fear book out. My classroom has the first two, so it’d be great to get the next in the series. They also have The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee, which is the third book in the insanely popular Origami Yoda series. One book I was hoping to see but didn’t was Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which is getting a lot of buzz among nerdy teachers around the Internet. It may be available during the actual book fair (not all of the titles were brought out for the preview) or through the Online Book Fair, but I’m not sure yet.

Either way, I am glad that my students are excited about the book fair! Not only will many of them be getting their own books to read and love, but many parents also let them pick out books to donate to our classroom library. I’m hoping we’ll be able to fill up my bookshelves soon!

Special Guests

I have long been a proponent of inviting members of the community to visit the classroom to share with students their different areas of expertise. Sometimes I am able to do this through my own efforts at contacting people. Other times I am contacted by an outside group asking if I would be interested in a classroom visit. Usually these visits are spread out over the course of the year and become rare events. However, if the past week is any indicator, my students are going to see a lot of special guests throughout the year!

It started when I was discussing decomposers with my students last week and one of the girls in my class told me that her dad studies bacteria at the University of Illinois. I inquired further and learned that he is a plant virologist. I asked her if she thought her dad would be interested in visiting the students to talk about his work as it relates to decomposers and she said he might. So I emailed him and we arranged a day and time for him to visit.

He prepared a simple PowerPoint presentation and brought along a video to share with the class. The PowerPoint worked fine but, sadly, the video would not play on the interactive whiteboard we had in the library. Fortunately, he had it on his iPad and was able to share it with the class that way.

This was on Wednesday. The following Friday, we had two more special visitors to our class. This visit was the direct result of me getting lost while trying to get to Clinton Lake, which is about 30 miles north of Champaign. My wife and I had been following our GPS. Instead of taking us to the lake, it took us to the Clinton Nuclear Power Station and a sign that said, “This is not an entrance to Clinton Lake.” I thought it’d be a great idea if I could get someone from the power station to visit my class when we started studying electricity and energy this year.

As it turned out, a friend of my from high school works for the company that runs the power station and he was able to put me in contact with the educational outreach people at the station. They told me about a special program they offer in October and asked if I’d be interested. While it is still a few months before our electricity unit, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity and we arranged a date for their visit. (They will visit again in January to share more about how nuclear energy works.)

The students were a captive audience. They asked some excellent questions about nuclear energy and showed that they were really listening to what was being shared with them. One student wanted to know where energy, itself, comes from. I loved the deep thinking that my fourth graders were doing!

Today we had four special guests work with our class! The first were two women from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. They came to share a drug prevention program tailored to fourth and fifth grade students called Tar Wars. They asked the students to think about what they believed about youth and adult tobacco use and then shared some of the statistics. The students then worked in groups to identify myths about tobacco use and shared them with the class. [Edit: Finally got a picture to share!]

Right after the Tar Wars presentation, we left to see Fireman Phil from the Urbana Fire Department. He visits the school a few times each year to teach students in grades K through 5 about fire and storm safety. We went with Fireman Phil to the Smoke House to learn about what to do in the case of a fire. He also shared what he, as a firefighter, is responsible for doing. The students listened closely and appeared to take his message very seriously.

We will have two more days with the women from CUPHD this week. I’m not sure when we will have special guests visit our class, but I already have several ideas in the works! I love inviting members of the community to share with the students and I love that the boys and girls in my class can hear from professionals what they really do! I look forward to continuing this community outreach in our classroom!

Making Connections

I love it when my students suddenly make connections between different areas of study in our classroom! The sequence of events in which these connections today took place caught me completely off guard, too!

It started with our Second Step lesson this morning. We were discussing ways to resolve conflicts. I had the students brainstorm ideas how they could solve problems without fighting or creating drama. Some of the ideas they suggested were walking away, doing something else, talking with an adult, and trying to work together. As we talked about these suggestions, we discussed five basic steps that anyone should follow when trying to solve a problem:

  1. Ask, what is the problem?
  2. Ask, what are some possible solutions?
  3. Ask, is the solution: safe? fair? will it work?
  4.  Try a solution!
  5. Ask, did it work?

When I brought up step three, I used as an example those who try to solve problems through violence. I asked if that happens, and many students tried to say it doesn’t. (Unfortunately, they were giving me the answer they thought I wanted to hear, which was not at all what I wanted!) So I asked the students to raise their hands if they have ever seen anyone get in a fight. Everyone raised their hands. I pointed out that that is exactly what happens when someone tries to solve a problem through violence.

I shared with the entire class some advice I gave to a group of students a couple of weeks ago who were dealing with another student creating conflict during recess. I told them that they need to take charge of the situation by walking away and telling the person causing problems, “You have no power over me! I am in charge of my life!” Walking away is not a sign of cowardice; it is a sign of empowerment.

Later in the day, I was reading from A Wrinkle in Time. There is a scene in the story where Charles Wallace has turned himself over to the Prime Coordinator. In an effort to break him free, Calvin tackles him to the ground, but to no avail. Shortly after, Meg suggests that Calvin tries talking to Charles Wallace instead, because he has the gift of communication. As I got to this point, one of my students raised his hand and observed that that was exactly what we had talked about this morning! This led to a brief conversation in the room about how many stories, movies, and TV shows depict people trying to solve problems through violence instead of communicating, but it is often communication that works best.

Like I said, I love when my students make connections! Especially when they are connections to things we have studied or discussed earlier!

The End of the First Quarter

Today was the last day of the first quarter. It is amazing that so much time has passed already! While it doesn’t always seem like it, my class has accomplished a great deal over the past several weeks.

We have established classroom routines and procedures that more than 80% of the class follow every day. (This is actually to be expected, incidentally.) The students have mastered making lunch choices, turning in homework, lining up, sharpening pencils at the appropriate time, working independently when class assignments are completed, taking assessments without talking to other students, stacking chairs, and using C.O.Y.O.T.E. binders each day.

The class has made a lot of progress in math. They have learned place value to the hundred millions and beyond, developed strategies for rounding to a variety of different places, mastered the different models of multiplication, such as arrays, area, equal groups, and comparisons, and have begun working on identifying factors, multiples, prime factors, and properties of arithmetic.

Our science work has focused on independent research, during which the boys and girls learned about ecosystems, habitats, characteristics of animals, scientific names, food webs, the roles of living things in the ecosystem, predator-prey relationships, adaptations, and life cycles.

We have done an average of 30 minutes of independent reading every day, for a total of at least 34,830 minutes of reading in the classroom. We have read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing as a class and have begun reading A Wrinkle in Time. We have also read several short stories about journeys, including AkiakGrandfather’s Journey, Finding the Titanic, an excerpt from By the Shores of Silver Lake, an excerpt from Chester Cricket’s Pigeon Ride, and The Parcel Post Kid. We’ve started reading a variety of American stories, such as Tomas and the Library Lady, Tanya’s Reunion, and Boss of the Plains. In the process, the boys and girls have written dozens of well-formed, well-thought extended responses that helped them think about what they read and make connections to their own lives.

As part of our health and fitness curriculum, the class has learned social skills such as empathy, tolerance, and crisis resolution. They have learned strategies for control their impulses. They have begun developing an understanding of kinesiology and human development. They have learned how to play fair and be honest. The students have discovered a talent for working with younger children while reading with them and setting a positive example for the students in the primary hallway.

All of this, and that doesn’t even cover what they’ve done in art, dance, drama, and library! And we are only eight weeks into the year! There is still much to be done, of course, and we have a lot of time to accomplish it, but I am amazed at how much they have already done! I can’t wait to see what the second quarter brings!