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.