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

Archive for April, 2013

Lewis and Clark

I love social studies. This may come as a surprise to some, since most of what I seem to talk about is literacy and mathematics, but, honestly, social studies is a wonderful content area that easily lends itself to both literacy and mathematics, so it kind of makes sense why I love it so much.

Unfortunately, the push toward more rigorous standards in literacy and mathematics has meant that, from time to time, social studies takes a back seat to these other areas. So we don’t spend nearly as much time exploring the what and, more importantly the why, of history as I would like. But we still do some of it.

Our United States history curriculum covers the pre-Columbus period up to, but not including, the Civil War. As a team, we have decided to focus our study on three distinct time periods: European exploration, colonialism, and westward expansion. To this end, I invited one of my student teacher observers, Ms. W, to prepare a lesson about the expedition of Lewis and Clark through the Louisiana Purchase. She decided to make it an Internet-based activity, with the students going to a website she put together to find important dates, places, and other information to put in a timeline.

The lesson went very well! The students eagerly watched videos and read about the Corps of Discovery and worked together to complete the timeline. They also had wonderful conversations with one another about the things they were learning. (One of the things that everyone seems to get a kick out of is that prairie dogs were given their name during this expedition!) I felt like this lesson did a great job of encapsulating the concepts that we expect our students to know and it did a fantastic job of integrating literacy into the content area!

Sadly, today was Ms. W’s last day with my class. The students were very disappointed when she had to go, and she expressed her disappointment that she couldn’t stay longer. Alas, exams and projects are looming large for the students at the University of Illinois! We all wish her all the best as she continues on her journey toward teacher certification and beyond!

Explicit and Implicit Details

Time is flying by and we are quickly counting down the days left of school. I’m not counting down in a way that is looking forward to the end of the year, though. Instead, I am counting down as a way to emphasise that we have very little time remaining to meet all of our learning targets for the year!

One of the skills that my students still need to master by the end of the year is reading a text closely and finding explicit and implicit details. To help them with this, I had one of my student teacher observers, Ms. G, teach a lesson today for this purpose. She did a fantastic job!

She started with a review of expectations and then she did a brief overview of explicit details (the ones that are right there in the text0 and implicit details (the ones that you know through background knowledge). Then she had the students divide into groups of four and write a newspaper article about “Mr. Valencic’s Art Museum.” She gave each group a copy of a painting that they had to describe, using implicit and explicit details, to persuade people to come to the museum. I loved how this lesson integrated reading, writing, visual teaching strategies, and social skills all in one!

At the end, the groups were given the opportunity to share what they had written. One group had Edvard Munch’s The Scream and said that it looked kind of like me. (I am still keeping my head shaved until the end of the year.) Another group discussed the work of Vincent van Gogh and shared why people should go to a museum to see his works.

All in all, the lesson went very well and I think my students were better prepared to identify explicit and implicit details from a text. I will be teaching some follow-up lessons on these skills over the next few weeks, most likely drawing from the Top Secret Project that the fourth graders undertook last year.

Class Dojo

Our building was recently the beneficiary of our school district’s technology upgrade rollout program. Basically, there was a certain amount of money set aside, by the district, to upgrade the resources we as teachers have available. We are an “Apple District” which means that we primarily use Apple machines in our schools. For the past two years, I have had to work with an ancient, decrepit eMac that could barely run a web browser and took forever to load any software. With the upgrades, I now have a MacBook Pro and four iPads. I have been exploring all of the many educational and educator apps available through the iPad App Store, and have been very excited about some of the resources I now have available.

Of course, I am not going to let students use the iPads until I have some protective cases for them. We have bulk-ordered these as a building, but I don’t know if we will get them in before the end of the year. (We have, after all, just four more weeks of school remaining!) I have let a small group work with an iPad until my close supervision a couple of times, but once I have the cases, I’ll be able to divide the class into four groups so that everyone can work with them. I am really, truly excited about the ways I will be able to integrate technology in the classroom in just a short while!

One of the apps that I have started using was recommended by another teacher in the building, who has been using an iPad for quite some time. The app is for a website called Class Dojo. What is Class Dojo? I’m glad you asked! Here’s a delightful video that gives a good overview:

What I like most about this app is that it isn’t an “assertive discipline” program. It isn’t created to punish students for misbehaving, nor is it designed to reward students for following classroom expectations. Instead, it is created as a tool to help student monitor their own behaviour. I am able to easily see which students are staying on task and which students need some extra support. I was really pleased with the results! I had one student who started the morning off a bit rough, but after I showed him his Class Dojo report, he said, “But Mr. Valencic, can I have a second chance to improve?” I said, “Well, of course! We still have several hours of the day left. You show me you can stay on task and work hard and your overall score will show that!” By the end of the day, he had made huge gains and was more focused than he has been in a long time.

Another thing I like about Class Dojo is that parents are able to access their students’ individual reports online, too. Every parent was sent an access code today along with my weekly class newsletter, which explained what Class Dojo is all about. Parents can check in and see how their students are doing and provide support and encouragement as needed!

Yet another thing I like about this program is that my students have completely “bought into” it! Throughout the day, students would ask for an update on how they were doing. Whenever they saw me reach for my iPad, they knew that I was going to be marking for positives and negatives and they reminded each other of this before I had to say anything. Some students wanted to know if the points they earned would translate into anything. I told them that they would not; the points are simply to create a quick analysis of behaviour. While I have many prize systems in my classroom (a RESPECT board and a weekly drawing of APPAWS tickets being among them), I don’t want Class Dojo to become a competition or a prize system. I really want it to simply be a tool that will help me help my students help themselves as they work toward being more independent!

Science Experiments

One of the science units of study we have this year in fourth grade covers the basic principles of force and motion. We have been reading in our science textbook and watching video presentations to learn about these principles, but I wanted to give my students the opportunity to conduct experiments to demonstrate some of these principles.



If you somehow came to today’s blog post because you were looking for information about Jane Austen’s classic novel, Persuasion, I apologise. You won’t find anything here about it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even read that particular Austen novel. I’m pretty certain my Austen reading has been limited to Pride and PrejudiceSense and Sensibility, and Emma.

What you will read about it how my students showed me they could effectively argue for a specific thing they wanted to accomplish. It all started several months ago, when we brainstormed a list of ways we can celebrate filling our large pebble jar. (We have a small jar that we’d filled once before. Once it is full, all of the pebbles go in the large jar and when the large jar gets filled, we have a big celebration.) Then I heard about a wonderful way some colleagues of mine at another school had their students demonstrate persuasive writing. (I heard about it yesterday afternoon during my last Literacy Across Content Areas Inquiry Group meeting of the year.) The teachers at the other school had allowed students to select a way they could have a classroom celebration. Then the students made posters to show their arguments, and finally they shared them with the class as one of the teachers made a video recording of it.

Of course, those students were in second grade, but I liked the idea and wanted to do something similar with my class. And today we just happened to fill the small jar for the second time, which means we’ve filled the large jar for the first time. So we went over the list we’d come up with earlier and decided on three possible ways to celebrate:

  • Movie & Treats Party
  • Picnic at a Local Park
  • Extended Read, Write, Think!

I had the students show, by a raise of hands, which option they liked. It turns out that nobody thought the extended Read, Write, Think! time was the best idea, so we took that from the list. I had all the students who wanted a picnic at the park to gather in one part of the room and all the students who wanted the movie and treats party to gather somewhere else. The movie group was pretty big, so I decided to divide them into two groups.

I then had the students come up with three reasons why they felt we should celebrate using their idea. After coming up with their reasons, they wrote them on large sheets of lined chart paper and shared them with the class. As they shared, I recorded their arguments. I told the class that this would allow me to have a record of both the students sharing and the students listening.

Here are the three videos:




The class decided that we should definitely do a movie and treats party this Friday. I have reached out to our Head Room Parent who is going to see if she can help coordinate this (short notice, I know, but I like to have immediate consequences for both negative and positive behaviour!) And who knows? Maybe we’ll still go to one of the parks at the end of the year, too!

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

One of the most amazing resources we have in our community is the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois campus. My students were able to go to a few performances at the Krannert Center last year, but we haven’t had as many opportunities to go to the Krannert Center this year, but we’ve been fortunate to have guests from the Center come to Wiley.

A few weeks before we started ISAT testing, I was chatting with the engagement director from Krannert and mentioned that the fourth grade was interested in a part-day field trip to Krannert to maybe see a show or something. He brought it up with me a few times over the past couple of months, but we never planned anything out specifically. (more…)

Fractions, Fractions, Fractions

My students are working on their last major arithmetic unit for the year: fractions and decimals. We started last week with identifying fractions and being able to represent them using visual models. We also explored simplifying fractions and find equivalent fractions, which has led us to also explore finding greatest common factors and least common multiples.

We continued today with adding and subtracting fractions with like denominators. To start, though, we reviewed what we had worked on last week. I gave the students several fractions that they had to rewrite in simplest form, then I gave them pairs of numbers to find the GCF and the LCM.

I actually introduced adding and subtracting fractions with like denominators by talking about eating pizza at our Wiley Family Movie Night last Friday. I told the students about the pizzas we had that had eight slices each. I explained that I had eaten four slices of pizza and a student had eaten three slices. So how many slices did we eat all together? (Seven, obviously.) Then I said, “Okay, if I  ate 4/8 of a pizza and the student at 3/8 of a pizza, how much did we eat altogether? (7/8.) The students quickly recognized that adding and subtracting fractions results in a change in the numerator, but not the denominator. We repeated the mantra we learned last week:

When adding or subtracting fractions with like denominators, the denominator DOES NOT CHANGE.

We wrapped up the lesson with several independent practice problems. I let the students work on their own or with partners, and everyone finished in just a few minutes. Then I had them work on word problems that involved evaluating fractions that come from different-sized wholes. (For example, which is bigger, 1/2 of an extra large pizza or 1/2 of a small pizza?) This was also quickly picked up by the students.

During lunch, I was grading some of the quick quizzes we did last week and one of our fifth grade teachers saw it. She expressed gratitude that we are working on fractions, factors, and multiples, because these are all critical priority standards the students need to master in order to be prepared for fifth grade! It was a great day for math instruction! We will continue our exploration of throughout the week and then work on decimals next week.

Student-Written Posts

Last year, I permitted some of my students to use some time on Friday afternoon to write a blog post for me. This was met with a lukewarm response, so it didn’t happen as often as I would have liked. As a result, I haven’t had any students write a blog post this year. However, our building has recently received some much-needed technology updates, including a new laptop computer for me that has replaced the enormous and bulky eMac that I have had for the past two years. The laptop allows for greater mobility in the room and more diversity in what I can do with my computer.

One of the things I realised is that I can write blog posts at school before I head home, because the computer is able to keep up with the online writing process. (My old computer had a major lag whenever I was typing.) As the students got ready for our weekly Read, Write, Think! time, I asked if anyone was interested in writing a post. I had four students respond, so I brought my laptop to the back table and let them write. Below is what they produced, without any edits from me:

Today in class we did our spelling test with our 15 complicated spelling words the students picked out the spelling words.In the class today we also did more fraction’s in math and we took a fraction math quiz.The students had their picture day at 9:00 today.I also let my students type my blog post.For writing we continued our writing project on whether our school lunch is healthy or not.We are having read, write, and think celebration for finishing the week with all of our work (we do this every friday .)

I think I am going to keep this up for the last five weeks of school we have remaining. I will try to get different students to write each week so everyone can have a chance to participate.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Reading Together

A few weeks ago, an Internet colleagued posed this question on Twitter: Do you, as a teacher, read with your students?

What he meant wasn’t if we read to our students, nor was it whether they read to us. Instead, he was asking, “When your students are reading, are you reading also, or are you using the time to do “other” things?”

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. I admit that, most of the time, I am doing “other” things while my students are reading: working with a student one-on-one, grading papers, meeting with a reading group, organising materials, or answering student questions. All of these are important tasks that are hard to find time to do well, but they are, except for working one-on-one or with a group, probably things that can be done during my plan time or before/after school. What I would like to while my students are reading is to also read. I want to be able to model independent reading and to be a part of a classroom of readers. My goal is to have a time each day during which every person in the room, teachers and students, are engaged in reading. Then we will talk together about what we have read, sharing our favourite parts, encouraging others to read what we are reading, and talk about our future reading plans.

That’s the goal, at least.

Today we took a small step in that direction. After P.E. on Thursdays, we have about 25 minutes before it is time for the students to go to their fine arts class. I have chosen to use this time as an independent reading time. All of the students SOAR (Spread Out And Read) in the classroom while I have light instrumental music (usually the soundtrack of Doctor Who, in case you were wondering) playing. Usually I am doing “other” things during this reading, but today I actually took out my book and read with my students.

It was wonderful. As I surveyed the room, I saw all of my students reading books that they have selected. The levels, genres, and themes were as diverse as my group of twenty-six students. In fact, I don’t think anyone was reading the same book! But all were reading. And the best part? All were reading. I didn’t have to get up and redirect students, I didn’t have to call out any students for distracting others or getting off task. And I got to read my book (Uglies by Scott Westerfield, which I am alternating with Greg Michie’s Holler If You Hear Me). I hope to read with my students more as the year approaches its end. And maybe next year I will be able to set this as something we do early on.

Around the World with Fractions

We started our last major arithmetic unit for the year this week: fractions and decimals. We actually started yesterday, with a lesson on fraction chains, such as 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 = 3/4. The idea of this lesson was for the students to recognise that the denominator in a fraction does not change as we add the numerators. To emphasise this, I wrote the following on the board and then had the entire class to say it aloud together:

When adding or subtracting fractions with like denominators, the denominator DOES NOT CHANGE.

If their homework is any indicator, I think they got it, which made me very, very, very happy! Today we moved on to the next step of working with fractions: determining the pairs that make a whole. For example 1/5 + 4/5 = 5/5 = 1 or 2/5 + 3/5 = 5/5 =1. The lesson itself went very quickly and I wanted my class to have extra practice figuring out the missing pairs. To do this, I broke out my trusty 12-sided dice. I rolled the numbers to generate a fraction, such as 1/2, 4/9, 11/12, 3/7, etc. I made sure that the numerator was also less than the denominator. After doing a few together as a class, we played Around the World with Fractions.

The game is simple: two students stand up, I roll the dice, give them the fraction, and they compete to be the first one to give the missing pair to make a whole. We were able to go around the room very quickly. One student actually made it all the way “around the world” which is a rare event in my classroom of 26 fourth graders!

It was a very simple game, but the students wanted to play again at the end of the day and then my students who are participating in our extended learning program wanted to play then, too! (We didn’t, though, because we already had other things on the agenda for the 90 minutes we work together after school.) We will continue to use the 12-sided dice to practice fractions, using them to generate equivalent fractions, to add fractions with like denominators, and even to convert improper fractions into mixed numbers. The options are not-quite-but-almost endless!

Teaching Genetics

I have been reading the book Wonder to my class. It is a fantastic story, and my students are really enjoying it. For those who may not know, Wonder is the story of August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who was born with a severe facial deformity known as mandibulofacial dysostosis. The story focuses on August’s first year in school and how his classmates respond to him. It is written in multiple voices, with each narrator being selected from the children of the story.

Today we were reading the portion that tells the story from August’s older sister’s point of view. Olivia (Via, as she is called at home), is very protective of her brother but she is also trapped in the desire to be known as someone more than “August’s sister.” As we read, there was a section that focused on the genetics of Auggie’s deformities. I was reading aloud, but I realised that many of the students probably didn’t know what the words I was saying even looked like, let alone what they meant. So as I read, I also wrote on the whiteboard and, in the process, found myself introducing very basic genetics to my fourth graders!

We were discussing words like genechromosomedominant traitsrecessive traits, and mandibulofacial dysostosis. We also talked about Punnett squares and how genetic traits, such as straight or curly hair, eye colour, attached of unattached earlobes, or whether or not a person can curl his or her tongue, are passed on. And the great thing about it all was that I had everyone engaged in the conversation! I explained that what we were talking about was really high school and even college-level biology, but because it was in the story, I wanted them to have an idea about what these words meant.

I love when we have these impromptu lessons that aren’t specifically a part of our prescribed curriculum! It is one of the things I love most about teaching fourth grade: when I allow students to ask questions, we may go way off topic, but we are learning. Together.

And that’s just awesome.

Multi-Digit Arithmetic

One of the core math standards that fourth graders are expected to demonstrate mastery of is performing multi-digit arithmetic using the four basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). While we have been working on multi-digit arithmetic all year, we are getting down to the wire and that means it is time to kick the end-of-year assessments into high gear.

I am a very strong believer in the counsel that education guru Harry K. Wong offers: teachers should eagerly beg, borrow, and steal from one another, especially when it comes to assessment materials! Unfortunately, I was not able to find any good assessments that use all four operations.

So I did what any good teacher does: I made my own. I am going to be saving it as a pdf and posting it online later so that other teachers can find it. In the meantime, if you are interested, shoot me an email and I’ll send you what I made!

My multi-digit arithmetic assessment was simple but complete: five problems for each of the four basic operations, for a total of twenty problems. I gave the students 45 minutes to work, which was plenty of time for the vast majority of the class. (A few still needed more time, and I took advantage of our America Reads/America Counts tutors to let them finish after lunch.

As students turned in their assessments, I began checking the work. I was very happy to see that nearly everyone has mastery of addition and subtraction, most have mastery of multiplication, and many have mastery of division. I was able to group the quizzes in such a way that I can work with my students in targeted small group settings over the next few days. While there is much that needs to be taught to the entire class in order to help them all reach the same standards, differentiation is so key to successful education! I’m glad that I was able to put this simple assessment together. It gave me a great snapshot of my students’ progress so I have a better idea of what I need to teach over the last six full weeks of school!

Last Exit to Springfield

Today was a fantastic, amazing, wonderful, little-bit-chilly, little-bit-windy, little-bit-rainy, awesome, incredible day for the fourth graders at Wiley Elementary School!

Why was this day so fabulous? Because I, along with four other teachers and five wonderful room mothers, took 47 of our 50 students on an all-day field trip to Springfield, Illinois. The purpose of the trip was to expand students understanding of Illinois history (both natural and geopolitical) and to allow them to visit places they may not normally have the opportunity to visit.

Our day started at 7:30 am, when the students arrived at school half an hour earlier than usual and gathered in the gym to prepare for our trip. By 7:45, we were all ready and headed to the  bus. Then we hit the road for the two-hour trip to Springfield! (more…)

Ghanaian Visitors

Our school is incredibly fortunate to have some great community partners. One of those partners is the Krannert Art Museum and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. As a result of this partnership, the students at Wiley have been able to participate in things such as the fifth grade’s Krannert Art Museum: Week at the Museum (KAM:WAM), free concerts at the KCPA, and special assemblies held at the school.

Today we had one of these special assemblies. It was a visit from the Rhythms and Dances of Africa” troupe from Ghana with guests from the University of Illinois, which is another of our great community partners. The troupe gave an hour-long presentation of drumming, dancing, and music.

The students absolutely loved the performance! Their favourite part, though, was the man who did some incredible stunts, such as multiple hands-free back-flips, standing on his head, juggling hats, and spinning three large washbasins at the same time using his hands and a stick that he held in his mouth.

The students also loved the drumming, the singing, the music, and the dancing, of course. It was exciting to see this group and a great opportunity for the boys and girls to expand their cultural understanding. Several students noted that the Ghanaian performers today were  very similar to the Ugandan performers they saw at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts last year.

This special assembly was a fantastic way to wrap up our day! The fourth graders are going on an all-day field trip tomorrow to Springfield, and then there is an elementary inservice meeting on Friday, so the week is almost done already!

Reading 1,247,277 Minutes in 193 Days

[NOTE: This entry has been cross-posted on the official million minutes blog.]

193 days ago, we, as the Wiley Elementary School community, set a lofty reading goal for the academic year: 1,000,000 minutes!

193 days ago, people said we were crazy. That it couldn’t be done. That it simple wouldn’t happen, because the goal was too lofty, too challenging.

193 days ago, we thumbed our noses at the naysayers and said, “You know what? You’re wrong. We can do it and we will do it!”

193 days ago, we decided that when we reached this goal, we would celebrate by doing something crazy: shaving Mr. Valencic’s head.

193 days ago, Mr. Valencic made a commitment to not cut his hair until we reached the goal. There were days when he started wavering, but he held strong. Of course, by the start of last week, I’d started pulling it back in a ponytail because there was nothing else I could do with it.


193 days ago, we started reading and logging our minutes. Today, 193 days after we started, we not only met our goal, we exceeded it!

1,247,277 minutes!

One million, two hundred forty-seven thousand, two hundred seventy-seven!


That is equivalent to 20,787.95 hours. 866.165 days. 123.738 weeks. 28.4578 months. 2.37148 years.

That’s a lot of reading!

And so today, we celebrated. We read as an entire school for fifteen minutes and then gathered in the gym for the Big Event. After some joking around, the teacher shaving my head got down to work. An hour later, the deed was done.



Mr. Valencic is as bald as can be! (Well, okay, there’s some very, very tiny stubble remaining, but he is going to try to keep it bald for the rest of the year.)

Thanks to everyone who helped out! Parents, teachers, members of the community, and especially the students! Now that we’ve met our goal, I’m not going to track our minutes, but I hope that everyone will continue to read every day! And tell me about what you’re reading! I plan on sharing some “reading stories” over the next seven weeks we have left of school!

Letting Students SOAR

I have a confession to make: I’ve only read two books by Judy BlumeTales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,which I read for the first time when I read it to my class last year and the second time when I read it to my class this year, and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, which I read when I was probably 12 or 13 years old. (I remember my dad being really upset with me about reading the book because it has some scenes he didn’t think were appropriate. Not surprisingly, many adults have reacted to Judy Blume’s books in the exact same way for just about the exact same reasons. However, I enjoyed the book and may go back and read it again soon.)

As a result of my lack of Judy Blume-ization (even though I own a large portion of them at home and at school), I never knew until last week that she is the person who first introduced the concept of DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) in her book Ramona Quimby, Age 8. DEAR has become a national movement of sorts, with teachers all over having their students use it as their cue for independent reading. While I’ve found the acronym a little silly, it is definitely better than SSR (officially “Silent, Sustained Reading” but my friends and brothers said it actually meant “Sit down, Shut up, and Read”).

My students read independently every day, but as I mentioned yesterday, our room often feels cramped and many students have a hard time focusing on reading because they are getting bumped by neighbours, distracted by slight noises, or fall to the temptation to talk to their friends, thinking I won’t notice. (Note to my students who may be reading: I always know when you are talking; most of the time I hope you’ll stop before I have to say something about it.) We went outside to read yesterday, and it seemed the class really enjoyed it.

So I decided to try it again this afternoon. As we went outside, I told the students to spread out and read. As I called it out, I suddenly realised that I have a perfect acronym for this that goes right along with what I want them to do: SOAR! Spread Out And Read. I like it better than DEAR.



As long as the weather permits, we are going to SOAR outside every day for the rest of the year. And when the weather isn’t complying, we’ll SOAR inside. We have six bean bag chairs, a huge carpet, and lots of floor space. I am hoping to get a couple more bean bag chairs, too, and maybe some other fun reading chairs for the room. But, honestly, I am hoping to SOAR outside as much as possible!

Reading in the Sunshine

My classroom is small and dark. Even though we have a large bank of windows along one wall, the trees outside block the direct sunlight and allow only limited amounts of light to filter through, except in the early morning when the sun is still low enough to beam beneath the trees.

With twenty-six students, the room feels really cramped nearly every day, but we tend to deal with it because we don’t have any other option.


We went outside for recess this afternoon, and it was ridiculously nice outside. The temperature was in the upper-50s (Fahrenheit, of course), the sun was shining brightly, and there was a pleasant breeze. After an overly-long winter that has still left small patches of snow on the ground, it was nice to finally be able to go outside and enjoy the Spring weather!

While talking to one of the third grade teachers, we were thinking of reasons to stay outside longer, and not just as an extended recess. He decided to try to have the students explore fractions by grouping and regrouping while outside. I decided to do something I’ve never done before in my professional career, but I remember doing a few times while in college:

I decided we were going to do our independent reading outside.

I asked several of the students what they thought of the idea, and they were all very enthusiastic. So I had my class line up, then we went in, got our books, and came back out. It took a few minutes for everyone to get settled, but once they did, all of my students were actively reading, sharing, and discussing. I made sure all of the conversations were related to reading, and was glad to see everyone doing just that!

Some of my students decided to read with a partner:





A few got together in a group of three:


One student decided to read on his own:

But most of the students got together in small groups:






We were only outside to read for about fifteen minutes, but I think we are going to try it more often. The students really seemed to enjoy reading while outside, getting fresh air, natural light, and plenty of space! And if there is just one thing I want my class to learn to enjoy this year, it is reading!

Choose Kind

For over a year, I have been following as teacher friends and colleagues online have raved about a new book by first-time author R. J. Palacio. The book is called Wonder. It is written in the voices of several different children, including the main character, August “Auggie” Pullman.

August is a regular ten-year-old boy by most accounts: he rides his bike, he likes ice cream, he plays video games, he loves Star Wars. There’s just one thing that sets him apart from everyone else: he was born with a severe facial deformity. As a result of the dozens of surgeries he had to undergo, he was homeschooled until fifth grade. Then his parents decided it was time to send him to school.

Wonder tells the story of August’s first year in school: his friendships, his challenges, his worries, his hopes. And it tells the oh-so-important message that kindness is the most important virtue.

I’ve been eager to get my hands on a copy of this book, and I finally got my wish about a month ago. Our school librarian had acquired a copy and she let me be the first to check it out. After reading it on my own, I knew that I would have to read it to my class, as well. We started last week and have been reading each day. Today we got to the part in the story where Auggie’s English teacher introduced “Mr. Browne’s Precepts” to his fifth graders. The first precept is this: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

I wrote this on the board and repeated it several times, asking the students to think about it. Mr. Browne has his students discuss the precept and then write a brief essay about what it means. I am going to have my class do the same thing. I wish I had been able to get this book at the start of the year so that we could have started off with the challenge to “choose kind“.

Most of my students seem to have already grasped the importance of this message. One of them came to me this afternoon and said, “Mr. Valencic, I know why you are reading us this book. It is because a lot of kids in our class say mean things about each other, especially about how they look.” I suppose that is part of the reason. The bigger part, though, is that I want my students to realise that just because something is true, that doesn’t always mean that it needs to be said. When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Writing Paragraphs

Today was the second day of our eight-week Writers’ Workshop. We introduced the concept of Writers’ Workshop yesterday and discussed the stages of writing. Today we started actually writing.

Rather than having the students tackle a large writing assignment, such as an expository essay or a personal narrative, I decided to get my students starting with one of the fundamental components of writing: paragraphs. (We could have gone back even further to words and sentences, but we are in the fourth quarter of fourth grade, so I decided paragraphs would be a good starting point.)

We started the afternoon workshop with a brief discussion about what constitutes a paragraph. We discussed the reasons for writing a paragraph, such as describing and explaining.  Then the students read a paragraph about King Tut and we discussed the three main parts of a paragraph: the topic sentence, the body, and the closing sentence.

One of the most important aspects of Writers’ Workshop, though, isn’t talking about writing; it is actually writing. So I gave the students the bulk of our time to start writing paragraphs on their own. The goal of the writing today was to write a paragraph to describe a character from a story, which is one of our fourth grade English/Language Arts standards. We started with pre-writing, with students making words webs to identify some of the chief traits of a character. Then they worked on their rough drafts. We will work on proofreading, editing, and revising tomorrow and focus on publishing by Thursday. The students were all on task and focused throughout the afternoon, for which I was immensely grateful. It was a great afternoon for writing!

Writers’ Workshop

I have wanted to implement the Writers’ Workshop framework in my classroom for a long time, but somehow I’ve never been able to fully do it. Sure, my students write. In fact, they write every day. But we’ve never done any serious Writers’ Workshop, where we take a large block of time to pre-write, draft, proofread, edit, revise, and publish.

We were going to start our formal Writers’ Workshop last week, but things got sidetracked by a snow day and our Spring Holiday. So we started today. I am excited to see what my students will do with this time!

We kicked off our workshop with a discussion of what writing actually is. I loved the ideas my students shared: writing is expression of feels and ideas; writing is communication; writing is putting words on paper (or screen) to preserve stories; writing is recording what happened and why. Then we reviewed the writing process: pre-writing, drafting, proofreading, editing, revising, and publishing and we talked about what these steps mean. I made a point of emphasising that these are not sequential steps that go in a straight line. As we write, we go through all of the stages at different times.

We had an assembly this afternoon, so we didn’t get to start major writing today, but I had all of my students use the little time we had to write letters to their pen pals. (Their pen pals have been waiting for letters for almost two months. Whoops!)

Tomorrow we are going to start working on focused writing. The students will be given a prompt. I want them to write in response to reading, which we have been doing all year long, but I want the writing to become more meaningful. Instead of simply answering a question in response to a text, I am going to have them use what they’ve read as a springboard for their own writing.

I am envisioning our Writers’ Workshop going all the way to the end of the year. We only have about eight weeks remaining (!!!), so I expect to get a lot of writing in. On top of, and integrated throughout, all of our reading, math, science, social studies, physical education, and social & emotional learning!