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

Archive for December, 2012

2012 in Review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 7,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 13 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.


Halfway There!

Today was the end of the second quarter, which means we are officially halfway through the year! Just as I didn’t let the day before the winter break be a day of wasted time, I didn’t want today to be a complete waste, either. We had a classroom party in the afternoon, but that wasn’t going to stop us from working all morning!

We started the morning with P.E., where the students wanted to play dodgeball and, since it was the end of the semester, I allowed them. The teams were randomly assigned, but several students complained that they were not balanced, anyway. (This is why I usually don’t have the students play dodgeball.) Right after that, we went down to the Primary hallway to join our first grade reading buddies for one last buddy reading session before the break. The students (three classes, nearly 50 students in all) did a great job! Nearly everyone was focused on reading together instead of talking to their neighbours.

After music, we finished up our morning with a U.S. geography test on all fifty states. We have spent the past three weeks learning about the different regions, so I was expecting to see an improvement in my students’ knowledge of which states are located where. More than anything, though, I wanted them to know where our own state, Illinois, is! Following the test, we watched the last 20 minutes of Horton Hears a Who and then cleaned up the room and got ready for lunch.

The afternoon passed quickly. We did some independent silent reading before the classroom party began. I was so happy that my students take independent silent reading seriously. There are always a few who take a little while to get going but once they do, they are focused and on task!

Then it was finally time for the holiday party! Students and parents had been dropping off treats and snacks throughout the day, and then a handful of parents came in to help out with the celebration. Some of the younger classes in the building have a lot of activities and games planned for their holiday parties; not in my room. My students just want to eat snacks and treats and have time to chat in the classroom. Some of the students decided to do an impromptu sing-along, too.

And then the day was done! The first semester has been a great one! I’m looking forward to taking the next two weeks to recharge and prepare for the second half of the year! Happy holidays!

The Day Before the End

Today was the day before the last day of the semester. Winter Break officially starts at 3 pm on Thursday afternoon for students. (I have a teacher record day on Friday and have to report to work for a brief meeting and then will spend the day working with my fabulous fourth grade teaching partner to coordinate schedules, as much as possible, for next semester.) The day before the end of a semester always seems to be more difficult than the actual last day.

Students are tired and ready for a break. Teachers are tired and ready for a break. When it is the Winter Break, the weather is finally starting to get winter-y and that seems to bring people down. People all over are getting sick and coughing their germs all over everyone and everything. It is incredible difficult to find the motivation to push on through to the end.

But push on through to the end we do and will! I think this is a habit I picked up from my high school calculus teacher. I remember him admonishing us to take advantage of every moment we had to study and learn, all in preparation for the almighty Calculus AP test we would be taking at the end of the year. We watched films like Stand and Deliver to motivate us, we came together as a class and had study sessions on Friday nights, and we always had work to do over long breaks to keep our minds active and focused on the task at hand: learning.

I want my students to do the same thing. There will be plenty of time to celebrate the end of the first half of the year tomorrow when we actually reach the end of the first half of the year. But today was not the end. Today was the penultimate day, and I made sure we kept on working.

We started the day wrapping up our social studies unit on United States geography. After giving a pre-test on the fifty states, having the students label the states on a blank outline map, we spent the next two weeks learning about the four major regions of the nation: the Midwest (where we live), the Northeast (where we will be studying in our next major social studies unit), the South (the coastal states of which we will also be studying in our next unit), and, last of all, the West, which we focused on today. For each region, the students were given a blank outline map that they had to complete and then they had to find at least five interesting facts about each region. They are going to take a post-test tomorrow. My hope is that they will be able to correctly identify most, if not all, of the fifty states this time around.

I also did some pre-assessing for our big multiplication unit that we are starting in January. Since I plan on revising the scope and sequence of our curriculum for the rest of the year, I wanted to get a feel for where we need to start. Many of the students can multiply greater numbers by a one-digit number, but fewer knew how to multiply by two-digit numbers. This was to be expected, but I wanted to confirm it.

The afternoon was spent following our regular literacy block, as I read some more of Anne of Green Gables to my class, guided them in a writing prompt expressing their opinions of different works of art, and then worked with a guided reading group while the rest of the class did silent reading. We wrapped up our day by celebrating a birthday and then cleaned up the room.

I feel like today was incredibly productive, which was my goal. We probably could have had less wasted time, but it could have been a lot worse, too. I once heard someone say that the best indicator of a good day at school is when the teacher and students go home completely exhausted. Based on this standard, today was definitely a great day!

Making Reading More Accessible

We do a lot of reading in fourth grade.

I mean, a lot of reading. All day, every day, in every subject, we are reading.

As a result, I am constantly trying to find ways to make reading more accessible for all of my students. I love reading, I love sharing reading, but I know that I have some students who don’t love it quite as much as I do, and I am constantly thinking about what I can do to help them change their thoughts on the subject.

One of the things that is on my mind is helping students break the barrier of their own preconceived notions of what reading is and what it is not. This is something we, as a staff in my building, have tried to emphasise as part of our million minutes of reading goal. Reading isn’t just looking at and understanding words on a page. Reading isn’t just something you do with books or magazines or even newspapers. Reading doesn’t even actually involve words. There are a multitude of wordless picture books on the market, and all of them offer opportunities to read without text.

Reading can also be done through audiobooks. I don’t think you can count watching a movie or a television show as reading, but I do think that listening to someone else read counts. It is this thought that has been particularly weighing on my mind over the past couple of weeks. There are several students in fourth grade who have excellent comprehension skills but, for various and sundry reasons that I don’t care to get into here, they struggle with reading a text on a page. And it isn’t just at my grade level that we see this.

One of the suggestions that has come up in conversations with other teachers has been investing in a Nook or a Kindle to use in the classroom. (A teacher friend in California has been using Kindles in his high school classrooms with a great deal of success.) There is, of course, also the option of investing in an iPad, but those are considerable more expensive and do more than I am thinking about. (An iPad for my use in the classroom would be awesome. But for making reading more accessible, I’d rather stick with an eReader.)

In the meantime, I have a few portable CD players in my classroom and I am in the process of acquiring headphones for each student (thank you, dollar stores!) so I can get books on CD for students to listen to as they read the text. In the end, my biggest goal is simply to get my students to read more and to enjoy reading more. It is a lofty goal, I know, but I firmly believe that a person who can read, and read well, can do anything!

More on Triangles

After grading the assessment on triangles I gave last week, I realised I needed to spend a little more time on the classification of these three-sided, three-pointed figures. At the same time, I don’t want to spend too much time on this concept. Ultimately, it comes down to a desire to balance the Illinois Learning Standards, which we are currently under, the Common Core State Standards, which will be officially adopted at the start of the 2013-2014 school year, all while also trying to be cognizant of what is on the progress report for the current year.

As it is, the Illinois Learning Standards have this to say about triangles: By late elementary, students will be able to “identify, draw, and label lines, line segments, rays, parallel lines, intersecting lines, perpendicular lines, acute angles, obtuse angles, right angles, and acute, obtuse, right, scalene, isosceles, and equilateral triangles.”

The Common Core State Standards, on the other hand, have this to say: Fourth grade students will be able to “classify two-dimensional figures based on the presence or absence of parallel or perpendicular lines, or the presence or absence of angles of a specified size. Recognize right triangles as a category, and identify right triangles.”

And finally, our current fourth grade report card says this: “Draw and identify lines and angles, and classify shapes by properties of their lines and angles.”

Triangles are not specifically listed in the single geometry standard we have on our progress report, but the idea of “classify[ing] shapes by properties” definitely includes identifying triangles as acute, obtuse, right, scalene, isosceles, or equilateral. I have enough students who still struggle with classifying triangles that I wanted to give them some more instruction on the matter, not just to have them reach the standards we currently have, but also so they are prepared for next year, where they will be expected to classify two-dimensional shapes by specific traits.

All of this goes through my mind as I develop my math lessons, plan for instruction, review student work, and adjust my plans accordingly. And all of this was why I decided to spend one more day on triangles with my students. We looked at several different triangles as a class and then I gave a quick assessment so I could gauge if there had been progress made. Having determined that a satisfactory number of students have made progress toward this standard, we are going to move on to other math review tomorrow. What we do Wednesday will be largely determined by what the students do tomorrow, and what we do Thursday will be determined by the work completed on Wednesday. And then we will be on our Winter Break! Just three more days!

Proud To Be Me Day

I’ve written about my “Free To Be Just Me” bulletin board a few times already this year, but we did something special today that definitely warrants sharing.

It all started three years ago with a story that took the geek world by storm. A little girl near Chicago, by the name of Katie Goldman, was in first grade and was super excited to bring her new Star Wars-themed water bottle to school. Her parents had raised her on the Star Wars saga and she was a proud sci-fi geek.

Unfortunately, she had some classmates who didn’t think it was right for a girl to like Star Wars. (I honestly have no idea how anyone who has ever watched a single one of the films could think this, but apparently there are people who do.) They teased Katie about it so much that she eventually told her mom, Carrie Goldman, that she wanted to start taking her pink water bottle to school, instead. Carrie, who writes a column for Chicago Now, a major blogging site for all things related to Chicago. When Carrie found out why her daughter didn’t want to use her beloved Star Wars water bottle anymore, she turned to her blog as a venue to vent her frustrations with the bullying her first grader was experiencing.

The story was picked up by a lot of people, including Jen Yates of the geek girl blog Epbot. Jen asked for the geeks of the Internet, especially those who were fellow Star Wars geek girls, to let the world know that this kind of bullying, and, really, any kind of bullying, was not acceptable. The reaction was amazing! There were over 3,000 comments of Jen’s post, which were all put together in a 552-page book for Katie!

In the process of all this, the geeks of the world decided to make a special day to celebrate their love of Star Wars, sci-fi, and all things geek. And thus Wear Star Wars/Share Star Wars Day began. People all over the world proudly wore their geeky clothing to school or work and joined in solidarity with Katie. (There was even a catchphrase that developed: May the Force be with Katie.) Then they took it one step further: they donated Star Wars toys to children’s hospitals, shelters, homes, etc. and made sure to make a note that these toys were for boys or girls.

A year later they did it all again, and Katie’s school decided it was a great idea, but they wanted it to be more inclusive, so her principal declared it Proud To Be Me Day. And the students and teachers responded in a wonderfully positive way. And Katie has been able to proudly share her love of Star Wars with all of her friends.

This year was the third annual Wear Star Wars/Share Star Wars/Proud To Be Me Day. And I finally had time to plan for it. I talked to some of my colleagues, especially the other fourth grade teacher I work with. She loved the idea. So I told my students this story and invited all of them to wear something today that showcased their geekiness. (Remember, a geek is someone who is passionate about what he or she loves and loves what he or she is passionate about, and fourth graders are nothing if not passionate!) Then I shared this with the other fourth grade class. They all agreed it would be an awesome thing to do!

So today we all showed off who we are! Some wore Star Wars clothes, some wore Doctor Who clothes (including me), some were just being silly, but everyone was there to say “I’m me and that’s okay!”

One of our teachers has a panorama feature on her camera, so we were able to get an awesome picture of our fourth graders!


Wherever you are, whatever you love, I hope that you will be able to share it with your friends, family, and coworkers. And Katie, if you see this, know that you still have lots of friends who support you!

Filling the Compliment Jar

I have a small, clear vase that I keep on my desk. It isn’t for flowers, pens, pencils, or anything like that. It is for compliments.

Well, actually, it is for small glass pebbles that represent compliments. And even though it is a vase, I refer to it as the compliment jar. For each compliment the class receives from another teacher or adult in the building, I put one of the glass pebbles in the vase. If I am gone and the compliment comes from a substitute teacher or during a time when a substitute teacher is working with them, the number of pebbles is doubled. If they happen to get a compliment from our principal, who is a very busy person, we put five pebbles in the jar.

I took the time to count them out last year and discovered that the vase holds 168 pebbles. We filled the jar for the first time this week. Which means the students in my class have received over 100 compliments this year. (They haven’t actually received 168, because many of the pebbles have come during the time they have had a substitute teacher, and they’ve received a few compliments from our principal, so we don’t know the exact number, but they’ve definitely been complimented over 100 times.)

To celebrate filling our compliment jar for the first time, the students asked if we could have a movie party this afternoon. I brought in a few movies from home and let them vote on them to decide which we would watch. The choices were A Bug’s Life or Horton Hears a Who. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the latter, which made me happy because Horton Hears a Who ranks among my top all-time favourite stories by Dr. Seuss. (Long time readers of my blog may recall that I have used Dr. Seuss stories to teach social/emotional learning lessons as well as parts of the English/Language Arts curriculum.)

In addition to watching a movie, several students chose to come to school in their pajamas. On top of this, one of our amazing Title I reading teachers made cupcakes for the class. It was a great way to celebrate a great accomplishment!

As we move forward, I am going to encourage the class to set a goal for filling the compliment jar faster than we did the first time. I would love for us to fill the jar at least once a quarter instead of once a semester. Of course, this relies on other teachers taking note of my students’ positive behaviour and remarking on it, but that usually happens, anyway!

By the way, tomorrow is Wear and Share Star Wars Day/Proud To Be Me Day! I have spoken with the students in both fourth grade classes and encouraged them to wear something tomorrow that highlights something geeky about him- or herself. More on this tomorrow!