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

Archive for November, 2012

Persuasive Writing

Since the start of school, my students have done a lot of writing in my class. Most of that writing has been in response to the texts that I have read, sometimes for the purpose of demonstrating comprehension, sometimes for making connections, and sometimes for expressing opinions. I am implementing more opinion-piece writing in my class now, and today we started the next phase: persuasive writing.

I gave the students a fairly simple writing prompt to pre-assess their persuasive writing skills. I decided to do this without giving any direct instruction on how to write a persuasion piece so that I could best understand what they already know about this particular style of writing. This was the writing prompt:

Each year, our district examines the classes and activities that are currently offered and decides if there are new programs that should be made available. Think of a class or activity you feel our school should have a write a letter to our principal to persuade her to accept your idea.

I have the students 30 minutes to think, plan, and write their letters. Some were done in five minutes or less and were encouraged to add more details. Others took the entire time. I haven’t had a chance to review all of the letters yet, but I was pleased to see that many took the assignment very seriously. Several wanted to know if our principal would actually read these letters. (I will give them to her and let her decide if she has the time to read them or not!) Others wanted to know if these suggested programs would actually be implemented. I told them that I can’t guarantee it, but I did have a student last year write a persuasive letter regarding the return of our building’s chess club and his arguments were strong enough that we are looking into it for after ISAT testing this year.

We will be doing more work with persuasive writing next week, including learning how to use Inspiration 8 to outline the essays and organise ideas while working with a doctoral candidate who is going to be using my class and a fifth grade class as part of her research.

On a completely different note, I just wanted to make a quick announcement that our building has officially crossed the 125,000-minute mark for our reading! We still have a long way to go, though, so we need everyone–students, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbours,  everyone–to log their minutes! My hair is getting longer by the day!

My Greatest Wish

I try to take a balanced approach to literacy instruction in my classroom, so some days the students read stories from our basal reader, other days they read from leveled books, and still yet other days they read from chapter books that have been assigned to reading groups. We also do a variety of writing activities, although our biggest focus so far this year has been writing in response to a read text.

This week we read an excerpt from the story My Name Is Maria Isabel. My students really enjoyed this story, and several asked if they could check out the book from our library. After looking in the library and not seeing it, I mentioned something about it to our amazing librarian, who immediately said, “Oh, we have that! It is in the lit library in the back with other large sets. I don’t have a copy out here, though.” (Fun aside: I tell my students that, as a generalist educator, I know everything, but if I ever have a question, I ask the librarian, because librarians know more than everything!)

Near the end of Maria Isabel’s story, she writes a brief essay about her greatest wish, which is for her teacher to call her by her full name, Maria Isabel Salvator Lopez, instead of Mary Lopez, which is what the teacher had been calling her most of the year. (Other aside: I make sure that all of the students let me know at the beginning of the year what they want to be called, because I believe names are incredibly important. My first name is Alexander, but it would drive me crazy if people called me that all day; I have always been Alex.)

Today I wanted my students to start writing opinion pieces, and realised that building off Maria Isabel’s story would be a great way to do it. So I asked the students to write a brief essay on their own greatest wishes. They had to describe what their wish was, why they wanted it, and then draw a picture to go along with it. My original intention was to post them on one of our bulletin boards. However, some of the students’ responses were so very personal that I don’t think it would be fair to them to share their wishes along with their names.

That being said, I wanted to share some of them here. Out of respect for my students’ privacy, I am not going to include any details that would identify them, and I will only share their topic sentences. (I’ve also corrected spelling.)

My greatest wish is:

  • for my dog to meet a girl dog and have puppies.
  • to be a great inventor and invent time travel.
  • to live with my grandparents.
  • to meet Justin Bieber.
  • to have unlimited money and to be a veterinarian.
  • for a time machine.
  • to have a Dodge Viper SRT.
  • that my mom and dad would get back together.
  • for a toy poodle.
  • to drive a police car.
  • to have the Force.
  • to have a billion googol dollars.
  • to live with my dad.
  • to be a famous singer.
  • that my best friend will move back here.
  • to be a WWE superstar.
  • to have a BB gun.
  • is getting a big mansion and money.
  • to be able to see my best friend.

Surprisingly, not one of my students asked me what my greatest wish is. (If anyone asked, I would tell them that it is to have a reason to make a trio of pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving next year.) I am pleased that my students took this writing assignment seriously. We will do many opinion pieces in the future. This was very much an early assignment meant to help my gauge my students’ understanding of how to express an opinion in writing. I didn’t expect the depth of feeling that was included! As happens so often, my students have gone above and beyond what I expected.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, my class is awesome!


I have written about the math curriculum I am using this year before. I really like the way it provides various strategies for mastering arithmetic concepts, the way it introduces geometry throughout the year, and the way the material “spirals” to review old material while simultaneously introducing new ideas.

The curriculum started with a unit on the foundations of multiplication with a brief introduction to division. After a short geometry unit on quadrilaterals, we started another arithmetic unit on addition and subtraction. After breezing through the addition lessons, we started working on subtraction this week. I initially expected that it would move as quickly as the addition work did, but I was surprised to learn that this was not the case.

While my students grasp the concept of subtraction and know the process, they do not have the automaticity on subtracting greater numbers that I would like them to have. So we took some time today to do some extra practice. After going over some review problems, I gave the students a practice worksheet that gave them time to really work on subtracting in a variety of ways.

The goal is not just for them to be able to do the operation quickly and accurately, but also with confidence. I firmly believe that the greatest delay in performing basic arithmetic operations comes from a lack of confidence in one’s skills. I saw this most clearly by the number of students who were using their fingers to count back when subtracting. It isn’t that using one’s fingers is a bad thing, mind you. Remember, our entire number system is essentially based on the fact that we have fingers–ten of them, to be specific. But it is a much slower process than simply knowing how to subtract.

We will keep working on this, of course, and revisit the concepts throughout the year. I have confidence in my own students and know that they can master subtraction. They just need time to practice!

Jumping Rope

Over the summer, I worked with a few other teachers to organise all of the P.E. equipment we have in our building. After the pack-up and subsequent unpacking of equipment about a year and a half ago, the gym equipment got mixed up, and no one seemed to know what we had, nor how much of anything we had. In the course of this organising project, we sorted out all the jump ropes that our building acquired.

There were a lot. (Not, mind you, alot, which is something completely different.)

The reason for the incredibly large collection of jump ropes is directly related to the fact that our school used to regularly participate with the Jump Rope for Heart project through the American Heart Association. Every year, the building acquired a collection of jump ropes, and they were added to the old collection. So now we have a bunch of them.

So I decided we would start using them this week. After doing our warm-ups, I brought out the rolling jump rope rack and started demonstrating what could be done with the jump ropes. There are some that are on a long stick that can be used by a single person or by a group to jump as the rope comes around.

There were the speed ropes that are made of a thin plastic and can, as the name indicates, be used rapidly. Several students grabbed these and enjoyed seeing not only how fast they could jump rope, but also how high.

Quite a few students wanted to know where the double-dutch ropes were. I told them that we wouldn’t use those until Thursday or maybe next week. So they contented themselves with using the speed ropes and the stick ropes (I have no idea what they are actually called also known as a Twirl N Jump).

What I loved most about this activity in gym was how quickly the students started working together. All I did was demonstrate how to use the Twirl N Jump and everyone quickly found a friend or two and started engaging in activities that were meaningful to them because they chose them. I don’t anticipate spending an incredibly long period of time on our jump rope unit, but I will have the students use them for a brief while. Maybe we’ll start bring the jump ropes outside during our afternoon recess, too.

Displaying Confidence

Today was the end of our very short week in our school. We had a spelling test in the morning and did some work in math on using rounding to estimate sums of greater numbers.

But the highlight of the day was surely the end, when my mother-in-law, a fourth grade teacher in a school from a neighbouring school district, and her son, a junior in high school, came to visit my classroom. My mother-in-law is a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and her son is a second-degree black belt. (Both have received all of their training through Newberry’s Leaders for Life Martial Arts in Champaign.) Their district had no school today, and so she asked if I’d be interested in having them come to my class this afternoon to share some training in avoid peer relational aggression (what is sometimes referred to as “bullying”), self-defense, and self-confidence.

Since the other visitors to our classroom had been received so well, I thought it would be a great way to wrap up the week before the Thanksgiving holiday break. When I introduced them to my class, one of my students immediately said, “You always bring your family members in!” I pointed out that this was only the second time that I have done so, as opposed to the many other guests we have had.

The presentation started off with a discussion of why some people choose to pick on others, and how most people who get picked on are perceived as being “weaker” than the others. They talked about the need to display confidence by walking straight, with shoulders back and head up. Then they talked about how important it is to ignore others who are trying to engage them in conflict. I appreciated hearing this, because it is the same message I share with my students on a daily basis and I think they benefit from hearing it from someone who doesn’t work in our building!

The first part of the presentation wrapped up with strategies for avoiding conflicts and how to tell a responsible adult when conflicts do arise. My mother-in-law offered the same steps that we use in our building: tell the person to stop, walk away, and then tell an adult if the problem persists. She added to this the importance of showing confidence when doing so.

Of course, the students wanted to learn about ways to defend themselves when there is no adult to go to. After having them all promise to never use the things she would teach them on friends or family when playing around, she showed some moves to stop a person who is grabbing your arm. Then she and her son talked about self-defense strategies that involved taking advantage of the “soft spots” on a person’s body. They stressed that these should only be used as a last resort. I trust that all of my student’s will follow the rules that they were given.

At the very end, my mother-in-law and her son demonstrated some of their martial arts skills, such as using nunchaku, some pretty awesome kicking, and the first form they have to learn for their black belts. I took a video of this last. I love how very quiet and respectful my class was the entire time! The silence seemed to be a hushed awe and what they were doing.

At the very end, I gave the students time to ask questions. Several were curious to know how long it for my mother-in-law and her son to earn their black belts. (Answer: 18 and 22 months). Others wanted to know how they can learn Tae Kwon Do. (Answer: Contact Newberry’s and remember that it does cost money.) Surprisingly, no one asked any questions of my wife, who happened to be there the entire time, although she didn’t contribute anything specifically to the presentation. She just came because


Longtime readers may recall that last year, as the result of the professional inquiry group I was participating in (and still am, for that matter), I had learned about an amazing internet-based writing resource called Storybird. Using Storybird was such a big deal for my class that I ended up writing about it twice. All of my students from last year still have their accounts with Storybird that were set up by me and I learned recently that some of them are still using it, which I think is absolutely awesome.

I have been intending on getting my students started with it again this year but have been delayed due to a wide variety of circumstances. This finally changed today when I went to use the computer lab.

After taking our weekly multiplication quiz, I gave the students a brief overview of Storybird, taught them their usernames and password, gave some basic instructions and rules, and let them get started. They have an assignment to use Storybird to write an alternate ending to the classic Cinderella tale (yes, I used this same assignment last year), but they also have the opportunity to use this for any of their own writing. Some students wanted to know if they could bring their own writing into the lab next week so they could use them on Storybird. The answer is, of course, that they absolutely can! There are two ways to use Storybird: first, use illustrations to bring out stories, and second, to bring in stories and find illustrations that help finish telling the story.

I haven’t seen as eager a response to using Storybird this year as last, as far as students logging in from home and writing stories already, but I have complete confidence that this will become another excellent resource to help my students become better, and stronger, writers!

Welcoming the New Teacher

Due to a series of unfortunate events, our building found ourselves short one fourth grade teacher a couple of weeks ago. The principal had posted an opening for an interim position to finish the year, and she spent the next several weeks scouring job applications, considering applicants, and bringing in folks for interviews. After a rigourous process, in which I was able to participate in some of the interviews, she selected someone to fill the position.

My new colleague started work today. There is much to be done, and it can be quite stressful to jump into a position mid-year, so I wanted my students to do all they could to help her feel welcome. We took time this morning to brainstorm ways we could offer our encouragement and help her feel a part of our school community. After brainstorming the ideas, we dove into our day, which included our time in the gym for physical education.

While in the gym, the new teacher happened to be crossing through during her plan period. All of my students went to her to welcome her, say hello, and let her know how glad they were to see her. She told me that she really appreciated it! It can be intimidating to come into a new building and start working with a new class, even at the beginning of the year; coming in after the year has started is even more so, but my students made sure she was immediately accepted as a part of our school and our fourth grade family!