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

Archive for February, 2013


Words are important. It is incredibly difficult to communicate without them. It is possible, yes, but it is much, much easier to communicate when you have command of language and understand the words. There is a lot of debate over the way we interpret those words. Do words have inherent meaning? Is the meaning determined by usage? Should we teach vocabulary in a descriptivist or prescriptivist way? These conversations and debates don’t come up often in a fourth grade classroom, but I think about them when I think about my students’ own use of vocabulary.

One of the many things I love about teaching fourth grade, one of the great adventures, is seeing my students learn how to navigate the world around them. My students this year have a great interest in words. When I use a word they don’t know, someone will inevitably make their way to the dictionary to find the word and the definition. (Of course, my students will also try to determine what the word means from context.)

Last week, as I was walking past the other fourth grade teacher’s classroom, I noticed her room was a hive of activity. I walked in a saw a list of words on the overhead. I don’t recall all of the words, but some of them were Vietnam, astrophysical, willy nilly, cornucopia, statue, and liberty. As I looked around, I saw that the students were practicing the words, quizzing each other, looking them up, and drawing pictures. I asked a student what the words had in common and learned that they were the vocabulary words for the week. I was curious to know how those words managed to make it onto the list and I asked my grade-level partner about it and learned that the students’ selected the words on their own.

It works like this: On the first day of the week, each student finds a partner and picks a word that they want on the vocabulary list for the week. And that’s it! The students practice the words during the rest of the week, and then take a vocabulary quiz on the last day of the week. The students love it! They take complete ownership of the words, they are extremely engaged, and they love that they get to choose the words!

I decided to introduce this to my class today, and it went over extremely well. At first there was surprise: “Wait… Mr. Valencic, are you telling us that we get to pick the words?! Really?!” Yep! They got together, picked their words, and wrote them on the white board. Here’s a sampling of some of the words they came up with:

  • floccinaucinihilipilification
  • labyrinth
  • integrity
  • objective
  • chaotic
  • singer
  • discombobulated
  • liberty
  • battle
  • electricity
  • evacuation
  • evaporation
  • monkey
  • Zoroastrianism

I love the variation they came up with! I also love that I can tell what we words I have used that students have picked up on and the words that they have decided they want to learn more about. I am interested to see how this experiment of student-guided learning goes!

EDIT: I have added the three words I had left off from the list. Also, a reassurance: I still teach vocabulary, phonetics, and grammar. Allowing students to pick their vocabulary list for the week simply gives them ownership of using the skills that I am teaching!


Teacher Interview

I have two student teacher observers working with me and my students this semester. As part of their university coursework, they had to conduct an interview with me. While part of the interview will be done in person, there was a segment that was written and I thought I’d share the questions and my responses here. Feel free to ask further questions or seek out clarification!

How long have you been teaching? How long in this school? Where else?

I have been teaching professionally for five years. I worked for three years as a substitute teacher in Champaign and Mahomet before starting in Urbana in 2011. This is my second year at Wiley.

Why did you select teaching as a career? 

I was inspired to entering the teaching professional when I was in the fourth grade. I had a spectacular teacher that year who gave me and my classmates opportunities to learn through peer-teaching. As I grew older, I sought out further teaching experiences and continued to move toward education as a career.

Why are you teaching at this particular grade level?

I have wanted to teach fourth grade since I decided to enter the profession in fourth grade. However, I applied for jobs throughout Illinois for any teaching position between grades 2 and 5 (all self-contained). I am teaching fourth grade now because this was the position for which I was hired (and I am very glad to be living my childhood dream).

What preparation or training did you have? 

My formal training was done through the University of Illinois Elementary Education program. I have also had training through volunteer positions with the Illinois Teen Institute (now the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute), Operation Snowball, Inc., and through my church community as a Sunday School teacher and a volunteer lay minister. After graduating, I continued my preparation as a substitute teacher. I still receive training through the many professional development opportunities offered through my school district.

What do you like most about teaching? Like least about teaching?

My favourite thing about teaching is seeing students finally grasp a difficult concept. There is something like an actual light that appears in their eyes when they finally “get” it. I love when students share with me the independent learning they have done outside of the classroom.

My least favourite thing about teaching is when I realise that something I attempted to teach went completely through one ear and out the other. I hate the realisation that I failed in my objective, but I love being able to approach the problem from a different angle and then see my students finally get it!

What kinds of responsibilities do you have in addition to actual classroom instruction? 

I have student supervision once a week in the morning. I am responsible for attending staff meetings in the building once a week, grade-level meetings with other fourth grade teachers across the district once a month, and participating in partner-meetings and collaboration once a week.

What are some important things to know/be able to do in order to be an effective teacher?

Flexibility. You are going to make plans and they are going to get thrown out the window within a few minutes when a student asks a question that sends the class a completely different question. Effective teachers recognise meaningful questions from students and allow these questions to guide instruction. Realise that there are very few black-and-white issues when you are teaching. There is almost always a murky grey area that you will need to navigate as you figure out what happened, why it happened, and what you should do about it. Fake it ’til you make it! Smile a lot and laugh, especially at your own expense. Let your students know that you are a human and that you have a life outside of the classroom, and invite them to share their own non-school experiences. Build a community of learners before you teach your first core curriculum lesson.

What are your beliefs/practices related to classroom management?

Positive, positive, positive. Expectations, not rules. Model, practice, rehearse, repeat. Reinforce positive behaviour with meaningful praise and the occasional reward, such as a small toy or a piece of candy. Never reprimand a student in anger. Take a deep breath and isolate the person from the action. Be as consistent as possible and make sure that your expectations are clear before students are asked to do anything. For example, tell students what they should do before they do it, let them do it, then talk about how well they did it and what they can do better next time.

What other advice do you have for pre-service teachers?

Ask questions! Teachers do a million things at once, and most of these things are done without actively thinking about it. Ask what and ask why. If a teacher can’t explain why he or she is doing something, it is likely that it shouldn’t be done. Take time to reflect on your own ideas and teaching practices. I have a blog that I use to reflect on the events of the day every single day I teach. Everything I share is positive. When it comes to the Internet, and especially social media, I try to follow this advice: If you wouldn’t be comfortable with your mother, your boss, or your pastor seeing it, don’t share it! However, there is much that you can share online, and you should share it, because you will find that there is a vast cadre of teachers online who are going through the same thing you are!

How do you believe NCLB has affected your classroom and instructional practices? How is RTI being implemented in your school?

NCLB has brought about rigorous standards that are ensuring that every activity in the classroom has meaning toward the core standards of learning. I make sure that everything I do can be tied to the curriculum. Testing is based on the curriculum, so while the phrase “teaching to the test” gets bandied about as some kind of evil bailiwick, the reality is that if you are teaching from the curriculum, you are teaching to the test, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you are teaching a unit that has no place in your curriculum, but you think it is fun so you do it anyway, that is unacceptable. NCLB has simply made this the standard instead of the exception.

RtI is the general framework that guides all of our instructional practices in the school. Teachers meet with grade-level partners at least once a month to discuss student data that has been collected from formative assessments and identify specific services that are needed by specific students to create the most meaningful learning environment for them. While we are not perfect in this, we are getting much better.

The Twelve-Hour Day

Today was the first day of parent-teacher conferences. The students had a full day of school before conferences, though, which means I had a delightful twelve-hour day. And you know what? The day really was delightful!

We started the morning with P.E. where we did another day of volleyball drills. The students have actually gotten better and controlling the ball and passing it to each other, which was great. After a quiet work time in the classroom, which allowed the students to cool down after P.E., the class went to art and I got the time to finally pop into the other fourth grade teacher’s room this week, where her class was doing some really great things with spelling and vocabulary work. I haven’t done anything with spelling since the Winter Break due to the huge number of days off that have just thrown our weekly schedule for a loop, but I am going to start next week (on Tuesday since there is no school on Monday) and see how it goes. While I’ll be writing more about it on Tuesday, the short version is the students will be picking their vocabulary words each week.

After art, my students took a math test covering the multiplication concepts we’ve been focusing on over the past several weeks. I haven’t had a chance to grade them yet, but if the results of the practice test they took yesterday were any indicator, they will have done very well! We are hopefully going to start on fractions next week, which I hope will be challenging without being overly difficult. I gave the students as much time as they needed to take the test, which had about a dozen problems. Most took between 30 and 45 minutes. When they finished, I allowed to to read silently at their seats but they were not permitted to get up and move around. I want them to get used to sitting quietly at their seats so when we do ISAT testing in a couple of weeks, they will have a feel for what it is to sit quietly still for long periods of time!

We spent the last part of the morning cleaning out desks. Before doing so, I had the class generate a list of things they should keep in their desks and emphasised that if something wasn’t on the list, it shouldn’t be in their desks. This helped them get rid of a lot of the clutter, especially the collections of paper that had somehow built up over the past month and half!

Our afternoon was fairly typical: I read another chapter of Anne of Green Gables, our music teacher came in to introduce the students to a writing competition being sponsored by the Champaign-Urbana Film Society and the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization, and then the students worked in pairs to read more of our temporary library of books on the American Revolutionary War period.

Back on Monday, I told the students that if at least 90% of them turned in their homework every day this week, they could earn an incentive on Thursday. It took a little bit of pulling to get some of them to complete the assignments, but they did it! So we ended our day with recess followed by cleaning up the room and then the students had some Read, Write, Think! time before the very end of the day. They also were given their free books that the PTA was able to purchase for them, so many chose to read instead of playing games. (This was totally fine by me!)

When all the students left, I cleaned up the rest of the room and then had parent-teacher conferences from 4:00-8:00 pm. Everyone came and nobody went over time! It was awesome! I have more conferences tomorrow morning and then the week will be over. Like I said, it was a delightful day! I’m looking forward to another round of productive conferences tomorrow!

Valentine’s Day

It is February 13, but we celebrated Valentine’s Day at our school today. The reason for this is quite simple: the calendar for the year somehow managed to put parent/teacher conferences and our semi-annual Scholastic Book Fair on February 14. We originally had classroom parties scheduled for that day as well, but several members of the PTA realised that the combination of these three events would put a great strain on our wonderful parents who volunteer to help. So the PTA proposed a simple solution: bump the parties back a day.

After a busy day of buddy reading, art, a practice math test, ISAT prep on characters, setting, plot, and theme, and reading informational texts about the American Revolutionary War, the party finally came around.


The students were able to hand out their Valentines, enjoyed snacks, and then played some holiday games. They started with a word scramble game, followed by a crossword puzzle, and wrapped up with a word search. For each activity, they were given three minutes to do as much as they could. I decided to play along, mostly to maintain my credibility as the teacher who knows everything. (Full disclosure: I don’t actually know everything.) I was able to solve all of the puzzles before anyone else, but I didn’t accept any of the prizes. Being able to solve them quickly was prize enough for me!

The time to clean up came quickly, and I was very pleased that so many students pitched in to throw out trash, put away their belongings, and getting ready to go home. This was our last holiday party of the year, and I think it was a great success! Huge thanks to all of the parents who helped, and thanks to the students who kept their excitement under control.

Sustained Reading

If there is any one thing is this world that I am most passionate about, I think it must be reading.

I really hope that isn’t a shock to anyone at this point.

I doubt it is.

Reading. It is what we do. All day every day, it is nearly impossible for a person to get through a day without reading. Yes, I know there are people who are functionally illiterate, which makes me very sad and very much desirous to find these people and teach them how to read. And yes, I know there are entire cultures that have existed (and probably still exist) where there is no written language. But for a person living in the United States in the 21st Century, reading is the most crucial skill in the world. With the ability to read, a person can go anywhere and do anything. Without it, they are severely limited in their abilities. I want my students to have the skills to conquer their fears, achieve their own personal greatness, and know all about the world while they do it.

Which is why I have them read.

A lot.

Over the past several months, my students have worked on increasing their reading stamina. We do independent reading every day, but I have had mixed results with the sustainability of it among students. I have tried to use the time to meet with reading groups, but what usually ends up happening is most of the students are reading but more than a few get easily distracted and off-task because I am with a group at the back table. Today I had everyone reading at the same time with no group meeting. The students read for thirty minutes without interruption.

It was wonderful. As I moved around the room, I saw my young scholars intently involving themselves in their stories. Some were reading fiction, some were reading informational texts. Some had chapter books, others had graphic novels. But everyone was reading.

A lot.

Sure, they were a couple of hiccoughs along the way. One student got to a particularly funny part of his book and started giggling and had a hard time stopping. This caught the attention of those near him, and they kept trying to hush him. This didn’t accomplish anything more than causing some superfluous noise in the room. I better solution would have been for the students nearby to get some ear muffs to help cancel out the distracting noise. But all in all, it was an excellent end to our day. I am going to look into adjusting my schedule, especially in terms of when I meet with reading groups, in order to allow for this block of sustained independent reading.

Nothing Special

Today was an odd day for my class. We did what we usually do, and we did it the way we usually do it. As a result, it seems like nothing special happened. At least, that is what my students told me at the end of the day when we did our “Today’s Topics.”

I think we had a lot of great things happen today.

  • The students unraveled a math situation that I had to figure out for the purpose of updating our Million Minutes Challenge log. Our school hosted a family movie night on Friday. As part of the event, there was a three-minute video made to show how to track meetings. With 123 people present, we were able to add another 369 minutes to the log and we are now past the 700,000-minute mark!
  • The class continued to do volleyball drills in P.E. I’ve had them working in small groups of four to try to keep the balls in the air by bumping and setting. We are going to start working on actually volleying the ball between teams, with the goal of having some actual volleyball games going on soon.
  • The students continued their ISAT test prep, reviewing the skills we’ve discussed over the past week as they read some short passages and answered multiple-choice questions.
  • We have made a lot of progress on two-digit by two-digit multiplication. We did more practice today and will continue tomorrow, preparing us for a practice test on Wednesday and a unit test on Thursday. The boys and girls are also moving on to more complex problems, such as three-digit by two-digit and four-digit by two-digit multiplication.
  • After reading more of Anne of Green Gables to the class, I gave the class time to finish their plays based on their Revolutionary War era books. I am going to have them share their plays in a Readers Theatre format later this week.
  • I met with one of my reading groups to discuss their play while the other students did 30 minutes of independent silent reading. I read the play aloud as the members of the group listened and made corrections along the way.
  • I introduced a new way that we will be using our “APPAWS” tickets in class to provide an incentive for students to meet expectations in the classroom. Simply put, each time someone gets a APPAWS, they can write their name on a slip of paper and put it in a container. Once a week, I will draw a name from the container and the student whose ticket is drawn will get to select an item from my prize box.

Despite all of these things we did, when I asked the class what we did today, most of them responded that we didn’t do anything special. Maybe not, but we did have a wonderfully productive day! Fortunately, I was able to guide the students toward recognising some of these events as we wrote about our topics.

The End of a Five-Day Week

This has been a long week; a fun, exciting, productive week, to be sure, but also a very long one. Due to the way our district calendar worked out for the beginning of the year, we haven’t had a five-day week in a month. We had a district institute day, MLK Day, an elementary inservice day, and then finally this week. I think the students throughout the school got out of the habit of being in school for five days in a row, so today felt like a particularly long day.

That being said, it was also a wonderfully productive day to mark the end of a wonderfully productive week! We have been tackling multi-digit multiplication in math, poetry and drama in literacy, meeting as reading groups, exploring magnetism in science, and preparing for the ISAT tests that are coming up in just a few weeks. We started using volleyballs in P.E., learning how to bump and set the balls while passing them around in small groups. We have also met four new tutors and one of our new student teachers.

We are going to have two student teachers working with our class this semester. Since I have no desire to refer to either one of them as “the student teacher” for the next several weeks, but I also want to maintain my policy of not using names without explicit permission, I will just use abbreviations. The student teacher the class met today was Ms. G. The students were all very welcoming and respectful toward her, and she was eager to get to know the students and start to find her way around the building! She will be working with our class on Monday and Friday mornings each week. The other student teacher, Ms. W, will be coming on Tuesday mornings.

To wrap up our day, I took some time to enter our most recently-collected reading logs while the students engaged in a variety of preferred activities during our Read, Write, Think! time. I am very pleased to announce, at the end of our five-day week and the nineteenth week of the Million Minutes Challenge, that the students, teachers, family, and friends of Wiley have logged 701,550 minutes of reading! We are now more that 70% of the way to our goal!

Have a great weekend!