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

Archive for June, 2013

Summer Reading IV: Smart But Scattered

One of the books that has been on my To Read pile for over two years now is Smart But Scattered by  Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. The focus of the book is on teaching children to develop executive skills to

  • get organized
  • resist impulses
  • stay focused
  • use time wisely
  • plan ahead
  • follow through on tasks
  • learn from mistakes
  • control emotions
  • solve problems
  • be resourceful

It is a bit of a hefty academic work, with over 300 pages. However, there is a large section of the book that contains sample forms, worksheets, and charts that parents and teachers can use to help children track their executive skills. The book is laid out in a fairly logical order, explaining what executive skills are (the ability to execute, or carry out, an action), how to identify strengths and weaknesses in yourself and then in your child/student, and then it wraps up with practical tips for each of the skills listed above.

This was a book that I skimmed rather than read word-for-word. Many of the concepts are things that have been discussed at great length in a variety of professional settings that I’ve found myself in over the past two years. It was a good review of why executive skills are so critical to students’ success, and an excellent reminder that, as a teacher, I need to do all I can to teach these skills before I hold my students accountable for applying them!

Summer Reading III: Hattie Big Sky

I follow a lot of teachers and authors on Twitter, especially those who work with young people in one way or another. I also follow a lot of education researchers, policymakers, and other commentators. As a result, my Twitter feed is usually full of tweets about different books and the authors who wrote them.

This is how I came to learn about Ms. Kirby Larson and her excellent young adult historical fiction series about a girl named Hattie Inez Brooks. The first book in the series, Hattie Big Sky, follows Hattie’s story as an orphan who has always been Hattie Here-and-There, going from family member to family member, without a home of her own. Her current guardian, Aunt Ivy, decides to send Hattie to work in a boarding house as a housekeeper, but then a letter comes from Montana. In the letter,  Hattie learns that her uncle Chester has left her his homestead claim. Hattie jumps on the opportunity to have a home of her own and heads off to Montana. The story was inspired by Kirby Larson’s grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who did indeed live on a homestead in Montana. But because there were no first-hand accounts of her experiences, Ms. Larson used other historical documents to provide the foundation of her story.

While in Montana, she meets wonderful neighbours, makes fast friends with some of the other quirky “honyockers” nearby, and also struggles with the issues relating to the United States’ involvement in World War I. A large portion of the story is told by way of letters that Hattie writes to her high school chum Charlie, who is fighting the war in Europe as an airplane mechanic. Hattie also comes face-to-face with the realities of prejudice and fear as she confronts the way her German neighbour, Karl Mueller, is treated by members of the community. This story will keep you captivated until the very end. The characters are all very well-written. Some of them make you want to hug them, others make you want to yell at them for their poor choices. All of them feel like real people.

One of the more interesting revelations in this story, at least to me, was that sauer kraut was actually renamed liberty cabbage because people wouldn’t by foods with German names. This struck very close to my memories of French fries being renamed freedom fries after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. (Ms. Larson actually makes this same connection in her author’s note at the end.)

The story was inspired by Kirby Larson’s grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who did indeed live on a homestead in Montana. But because there were no first-hand accounts of her experiences, Ms. Larson used other historical documents to provide the foundation of her story.

I read Hattie Big Sky by listening to it as an audiobook that I downloaded through the Champaign Public Library. This was my first experience with an audiobook, and I must say that I quite enjoyed it. While I wasn’t able to curl up in bed and read at the end of the day until I fell asleep, I was able to read during my bicycle commutes to and from work-related events, while cleaning the house, and while doing other things online. I recently received a wonderful gift from Ms. Larson: a audiobook copy of the second installment in this series, Hattie Ever After.


I am looking forward to reading more of Hattie’s adventures!

Summer Reading II: Guided Math in Action

About two months ago, I learned about an online group,, that invites teachers to read professional texts and write reviews. In exchange for my review, I would be allowed to keep the book. As an avowed bibliophile, I immediately jumped on the opportunity! The first book I selected for review was Guided Math in Action: Building Each Student’s Mathematical Proficiency with Small-Group Instruction by Dr. Nicki Newton. I had been speaking with my Title I resource teacher near the end of the year about using small-group settings for math instruction and was very pleased to find Dr. Newton’s book the perfect resource for helping us get started! What follows is the review that I have submitted to MiddleWeb. The final review may go through an editing process, though.

For years, teachers have known that guided reading in small-group settings is the best way to help student’s improve their literacy skills. Dr. Nicki Newton began her career as a literacy and social studies specialist and then began exploring ways to better engage students in building their math proficiency. In her new book, Guided Math in Action: Building Each Student’s Mathematical Proficiency with Small-Group Instruction, Dr. Newton provides an outline of what it means to be mathematically proficient, how to divide students into guided math groups, and tips and strategies for keeping the rest of the classroom engaged in meaningful mathematical tasks while the teacher is working with groups.

Dr. Newton defines mathematical proficiency as having conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and mathematical confidence. She asserts that guided math groups allow teachers to “meet the students where they are” and tap into their multiple intelligences. Each chapter and section of the book brings the topics back to mathematical proficiency. Additionally, there are three to five reflection questions posed at the end of each chapter to help teachers think of ways to apply the suggestions made.

After introducing the conceptual framework for guided math and mathematical proficiency, Dr. Newton provides a step-by-step guide to setting up a Math Workshop, patterned after Writers’ Workshop and Readers’ Workshop. She suggests that the Math Workshop have the following schedule, regardless of grade level: calendar or other repeatable activities (10 minutes), problem of the day (10 minutes), whole-class mini-lesson (10 minutes), math centers/guided math groups (three 15-minute rotations), strategy practice (10 minutes), and journal writing (10 minutes). The goal is for students to spend the largest portion of their workshop time in either a guided setting or engaged in independent activities.

When it comes to teaching with small groups, whether in math, reading, or writing, the ever-present question for every teacher is, quite simply, “What do the other students do when I am working with a small group?” Dr. Newton suggests that, as with everything done in the classroom, the key is to have meaningful activities that students will want to do. This may require some extra preparation, but she asserts that the pay-off is worth it! Students should also be given ample opportunities to practice working independently or with partners while the teacher observes and corrects as needed. After students have established strong work habits, the teacher should slowly introduce small-group instruction by meeting with just one group at a time. As students build up their math stamina, they will be better prepared to work independently for the majority of the Math Workshop time.

With a collection of reproducible blackline masters at the back, access to electronic documents online, and a host of examples, samples, and real-world connections, Guided Math in Action provides a strong foundation for any teacher interested in using the workshop model in his or her math instruction. Dr. Newton writes in an easy, engaging manner that invites teachers to take what she has tried and apply it in whatever manner works best for the teacher.

Summer Reading I: Pretties

When I started my teaching blog, I came up with a personal tradition of using the summer to write reviews of the books that I read during the break from working with students. (I refuse to say it is a complete break, because I just finished a week of professional development, which came on the heels of a two-week STEM enrichment camp. I do get about two weeks off, but I am going to be spending most of that time packing and cleaning my house. It is going to be a busy summer, that’s for sure!)

Anyway, the first book I have finished reading this summer is Pretties by Scott Westerfeld. This is the second book in his Uglies series, which is a dystopian novel centered around a society in which every person receives complete cosmetic surgery at the age of 16 to make them “pretty.” The dark side of this practice is that the doctors  performing the operations also give the people brain lesions that make them docile and kind of dimwitted.

The protagonist of the story, Tally Youngblood, starts the series wanting to become “pretty” but changes her mind after she learns of the lesions. Then she volunteers to go back to the city to have the surgery so that she can test an experimental cure concocted by a former doctor who fled the city to hide in the wilderness.

The series is great for teens and older, but there is some content, most notably frequent consumption of alcoholic beverages, that I think would be inappropriate for students in the elementary grades to read. I won’t be able to finish the series (there are two more books) until after I move this summer, because my wife accidentally packed them up when we were boxing up our library. That being said, I have enjoyed the Uglies series so far and look forward to finishing the story at the end of summer.

In the meantime, I plan on finishing Hattie Big Sky (listening to the audiobook), Guided Math in Action (a book I am going to be reviewing for Middleweb), and a short stack of other professional books. I’ll probably also tackle some adult fiction, such as American Gods by Neil Gaiman, if I have time.

Dreamkeepers Revisited

About two years ago, I wrote a personal review of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings’ groundbreaking book, “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Students.” In my review, I was critical of some of her language regarding students of colour, but I was also impressed with the suggestions for implementing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is not a method of teaching. It is not something you can find in a book and then just do. Rather, it is a philosophical framework that says, among many other things:

  • Teachers presume that all students have the capability to learn
  • Teachers clearly outline what it means to be academically successful
  • Teachers know the content, the learners, and how to teach them
  • Teachers support critical consciousness of the curriculum
  • Teachers understand their students’ cultures
  • Teachers take responsibility for learning about these cultures
  • Teachers use students’ cultures as the basis for learning
  • Teachers plan and implement academic experiences that connect to a larger context
  • Teachers know the larger socio-political context of the school and community
  • Teachers believe that success has direct consequences for life
  • Teachers have an investment in promoting the public good

I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Ladson-Billings yesterday morning during her keynote address at the University of Illinois’ 2013 Chancellor’s Academy. This is a five-day professional development workshop for teachers in Champaign and Urbana. The focus of the Chancellor’s Academy this year is on Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. I was excited, because I have wanted to learn more about this framework so that I can better use it in my own teaching.

I was so glad to hear what Dr. Ladson-Billings had to say! She resolved many of my concerns that I shared in my initial review of her book. One of the things that she said that really struck me was this: “While African American students were the subject of my research, they were not the object of it.” The object of her research has always been a quest for the answer to this question: “How do teachers successfully reach out to students from diverse populations and help them become multicultural, in that they know and understand more than just their own cultures? This is absolutely something I believe in doing. Whether the students come from the majority or the minority, each and every single one of them come from a unique culture that is the combination of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, socioeconomics, and family structure. Yes, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings focused her research on African American students, but her purpose was to identify the best practices that apply across the board. As I continue to develop my own philosophy of education, I will definitely be implementing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy!

STEM Enrichment Camp

My school district started holding a two-week summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) enrichment camp last year. Sometime in early May, I got an email from the camp coordinator, letting all the district staff know the camp would be returning and looking to see if anyone would be interested in teaching. My principal is also the camp principal, and she encouraged me to participate.

I went to the information meeting, ate delicious cookies (always a good way to get teachers to come to a meeting), and wrote up a proposed class: Building Bridges.

My plan was for the students to read about bridges, look at bridges, watch videos about bridges, plan and design bridges, and then build bridges using different materials. I also found some really cool iPad apps. (My two favourites are the Bridge Constructor Playground and Fat Birds.)

Camp started a week ago Monday and went until Thursday. Then we had a three-day weekend and came back this week. I had two classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The students were entering third through fifth grades. I had 9 students in my first class and 11 in my second. There were two students from my class this past year who participated. I wanted the class to be an organic experience, with the students’ interests guiding what we did as we moved forward from day to day. Of course, I had a plan laid out for the two weeks, but I made lots of room for flexibility.

We started Monday with the students getting together in small groups to make posters about everything they knew about bridges. Then I had them read an information text about building bridges. They learned about three types of bridges: arch, cantilever, and suspension. They then got to go back and add to their posters. We wrapped up the first day with drawing our first bridges. I was interested to see what the students would come up with on their own. These first designs were very primitive.

On Tuesday, the students worked in small groups to build a bridge using 20 straws and masking tape. The bridge had to cross a ten-inch gap and hold a certain weight. (I used a book I was reading and my electric pencil sharpener.) There were six different bridges designed between the two classes, and all six designs were different! After planning, designing, building, and testing the bridges, I allowed the students to use the iPads we had available to use the bridge apps. They were all really excited to use the iPads and they loved the games!

Wednesday was another bridge-building challenge. The students were given 10 three-by-five index cards and some school glue as their materials. Once again, they had to cross a ten-inch span. This time, though, we did a competition to see which bridge could hold the most weight. My mother-in-law came in to help facilitate this activity, which she did with her fifth graders a few years ago. Using two cups tied together with a string, and then draping them over the bridges, we would place washers into the cups until the bridges fell. It takes a long time for glue to dry, though, so the students had most of the class time to work on their bridges then we set them aside so they could dry. Then they were able to use the iPads again until class was over.

Thursday was much different from the rest of the week. The index card bridges were still drying, and I wanted us to get out of the classroom for more than just a 30-minute physical activity period. I decided to have my classes walk down to Meadowbrook Park and follow the walking path around the park to look at some of the bridges out there. The total trip was 4.5 miles, which I got to do twice! The students were thoroughly worn out, but they had a great time at the park.

After the weekend, we reconvened on Monday and continued our bridge exploration. My morning class watched a movie about the so-called Super Bridge in Alton, Illinois, that introduced a new style of bridge: the cable-stay bridge. My afternoon class watched two episodes of Extreme Engineering to learn more about how bridges are designed. My mother-in-law came back before lunch to help test the index card bridges, and then stayed for right after lunch so my afternoon class could also test bridges.

Tuesday saw the beginning of the major culminating project for the camp: building a balsa wood bridge that could cross a twelve-inch span. The students planned, designed, then began cutting and gluing. We quickly learned that the glue made a huge mess, but it wasn’t that hard to clean up. This took up the entire class period.

On Wednesday, we finished building balsa wood bridges. We also watched another movie, this time about the construction of Japan’s Akashi-Kaikyo suspension bridge, which, at 2 1/2 miles, is the longest bridge in the world. The students also got to use the iPads again as they tried to earn all of the medals and stars on the games.

We wrapped up the camp today. The students shared what they learned, and then got together with their original groups to update their bridge posters. We watched one final video, this one about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Then we used the iPads one last time. At 3:00, family and friends were invited to come in and see what the students had done. They got to look at all of the bridges that were build over the two weeks, read the posters, and listen to their children eagerly talk about bridges.

And then we were done! I took lots of pictures this week. Rather than clog up this post with pictures, I decided to put all of them on a Google+ album. You can find them here. Please note, I have not identified any of the students or their family members in any of the pictures. Feel free to download the pictures for personal use!

This was my first time teaching an enrichment class like this, and I think it went really well. My students all learned something about bridges, learned how to solve problems, and improved the cooperative learning skills. I am hoping the camp will return next year so I can teach another STEM class!