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

Archive for August, 2013

Read, Write, Think!

Each year I find myself writing about the same topic, and each year I find myself giving the same reason: I want parents who are new to my room to know about the things we are doing in my classroom. In addition to the typical core content that I teach each day, I have a couple of weekly things that we do to help make the year in general more fun.

One of the big things is what I call “Read, Write, Think!” This is not to be confused with, which is a website run by the National Council of Teachers of English. I did use the NCTE’s site as an inspiration for this activity, because I absolutely love how it captures the goal. The more general description used by teachers for this is “preferred activity time.” What it consists of is deceptively simple, but so very important.

Students are given about half an hour to engage in activities that help develop cognitive abilities. These include things like Reading to yourself or with a partner, Writing by yourself or with a partner, or engaging in cognitive games that make you Think, such as strategy games like chess or Connect 4, number games like Farkle or Monopoly, or word games like Scrabble. Read, Write, Think! Let’s my students practice problem solving, conflict resolution, creative thinking, and positive social skills all at once. And it is a way to celebrate a week of hard work!

My students love being able to participate in these activities. They know that they are only for Fridays and days when we have indoor recess due to rain or excessive cold, so it is something that they can look forward to. Today I introduced the activity and showed the students where the games are stored. During the 30 minutes they had for Read, Write, Think! I saw students playing Guess Who?, Battleship, Monopoly, chess, checkers, Chinese checkers, working on puzzles and brain-teasers, and playing Connect 4. I even joined in a couple of games of Connect 4. (I won both times.)

It was a fantastic way to wrap up a fantastic week of learning! Now I am looking forward to a three-day weekend and the Arthur (Illinois) Cheese Festival this weekend!

Go Foods, Slow Foods, and Whoa Foods

My students and I had an interesting conversation this morning about food and physical fitness. As part of our building’s new Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) program, we are placing a larger emphasis on not just physical activity but also on healthy lifestyles in general. This has always been a component of our physical education/health curriculum, but CATCH will provide us with the resources we need to make it truly meaningful to our students.

The conversation about food focused on the three basic categories we can put food into: Go Foods, Slow Foods, and Whoa Foods. Several of the students had already heard these terms from parents or from their participation with the FitKids program offered by the University of Illinois. I really like these categories because they emphasise that there is no such thing as “good” food and “bad” food, but rather food that should be eaten in higher quantities and food that should be eaten in lower quantities. The basic standard to follow is this: Eat more Go Foods than Slow Foods and more Slow Foods than Whoa Foods. Pretty simple, right?

So what do these different categories actually mean? Go Foods are things like lean meat, poultry, and fish that have been grilled or baked, not fried. Things like fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, whole grains, and high fiber foods. Slow foods are things like fried chicken, 2% milk, white bread or pasta made from refined flour, tacos, French toast, or pancakes. Whoa Foods are things like cake, cookies, ice cream, meat with high fat content, and canned fruits in heavy syrup.

To provide examples of these, I showed the student three different kinds of snacks I had in my desk: Fruit and grain cereal bars (a Go Food), chewy granola bars with chocolate chips (a Slow Food), and Swiss cake rolls (a Whoa Food). We discussed what made all of these foods different and what we could learn by looking at the packages. We wrapped up our conversation by talking about the types of foods students will be encouraged to bring to school for birthday treats. Instead of full-size cupcakes with lots of frosting, we would like students to bring fresh fruit, muffins, small cupcakes, cookies, or other foods that are Go Foods or Slow Foods. We will have Whoa Foods at our class parties, but only with plenty of Go Foods and Slow Foods, as well.

I really like the overall approach that this program presents. The students understand what the categories mean and are becoming more aware of the food that they eat at home and at school. There is a lot more to the CATCH program, of course, but this was a great way to get us started!

Reading Buddies, Take Three!

When I first started working at Wiley, I teamed up with one of the other new teachers, who was with a second grade class, for buddy reading. This involved my fourth graders going down to the second grade classroom and paired up to listen to their young buddies read aloud. There is a large amount of research that shows that buddy reading is incredibly beneficial to students as it helps them improve their oral reading fluency.

Last year the other teacher moved to first grade and we continued to partner with her class. Because she had a rather small class, we actually partnered with two of the three first grade classes. It was quite successful. Unfortunately, due to enrollment changes, our building lost one of the first grade classrooms, so the second teacher got a building transfer, but the other teacher and I decided to partner up again this year.

Today was the first day we met as reading buddies. I had initially expected to do some community building with our first grade buddies, but they were all set to read right away, and so we paired them up and they got started!







I’m looking forward to another year of buddy reading!

Group Work

We did something new in my class this afternoon. After reviewing strategies for checking answers in addition and subtraction for reasonableness, I allowed the students to work either independently or in small groups.

This was our first time with group work for math and I was very pleased with how well everyone was working and keeping focused on the assigned task. A few students chose to work on their own, but most took advantage of the opportunity to work with partners. As students worked, I walked around the roommate, monitoring progress and taking a few pictures. I did have to remind some students that they shouldn’t look at my camera when I am capturing their work.










The students also got to get to know our new student teacher better. She will be with us every Tuesday and Wednesday. I will be turning over a lot of the teaching responsibilities to her as the semester progresses, under my guidance and direction, of course! It will be exciting to watch her improve in her teaching practice!

Getting Started with Curriculum Materials

Today was a getting-started kind of day. After spending a week of community building, expectation setting, rule making, and procedure practicing, it was time to get started with our material. We will continue to do all of the things listed above throughout the year, of course, but while doing so we also need to move on to the next major challenge, which is establishing routines of academic success.

After our time in the gym for P.E. where we played four-corner dodgeball, we returned to our classroom where the students took a brief “brain break” while I passed out our Houghton-Mifflin Reading books. The first story from the basal reader for the year is Akiak, which is a story about a lead-dog for an Iditarod race team. As the students read on their own, I played a recording of the story (and confirmed that I am able to control my iTunes library on my computer via my iPad, which I thought was pretty cool). After reading, we talked about making inferences and then the students had their first written response assignment. I reminded the students to restate the question as a sentence, provide supporting evidence, and give a conclusion. Everyone was working, which was rather wonderful!

Later in the day, we broke out our Houghton-Mifflin Math books for the first time. I am taking this second week of school to review some fundamentals, such as addition and subtraction of greater numbers. I have a weekly meeting each Monday afternoon, so the sub who will also be one of my regular “go-to” subs introduced the afternoon’s assignment and got my class started. After returning from my meeting, I monitored the students as they finished. As soon as everyone was done and had handed in their work, we did two more benchmark assessments for math, known as the M-COMP (math computation) and M-CAP (math concepts and applications). And then the day was done!

First Assembly Of The Year

Today we had our first assembly, or what we call a Coyote College (the coyote being the mascot of Wiley Elementary School), of the year. My class did a great job coming in quietly and taking their seats and staying quiet throughout the assembly. We watched a video about our school-wide expectations, met our school robot, Big Red, and then had our Duct Tape Divas introduce the theme for our school this year.

The theme is taken from a new song by Sara Bareilles.

Our theme is “I want to see you be brave!” This theme fits in very, very well with the theme I have for my classroom, which is to Choose Kind. Kindness is a sign of bravery, especially when you are being kind to someone who isn’t being shown kindness by others. We are going to be reading several books that tie into the joint themes of braveness and kindness.

Oh, and in case you want to know, here are the lyrics to our theme song:

You can be amazing
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up
Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
When they settle ‘neath your skin
Kept on the inside and no sunlight
Sometimes a shadow wins
But I wonder what would happen if youSay what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be braveWith what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

I just wanna see you
I just wanna see you
I just wanna see you
I wanna see you be brave

I just wanna see you
I just wanna see you
I just wanna see you
I wanna see you be brave

Everybody’s been there,
Everybody’s been stared down by the enemy
Fallen for the fear
And done some disappearing,
Bow down to the mighty
Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

With what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

And since your history of silence
Won’t do you any good,
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

With what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

I just wanna see you
I just wanna see you
I just wanna see you
I wanna see you be brave

I just wanna see you
I just wanna see you
I just wanna see you
See you be brave

And lastly, welcome to all of the new parents who have found my blog! I will be using this to post daily updates, usually before 3:30 pm. (Today I had a cub scout pack meeting I had to prepare for so I didn’t get a chance to get my post done earlier.) I hope that each of the parents in my room will encourage their children to be brave and to choose kind!


Baseline Assessments

The baselines on a baseball diamond or a softball field or a kickball area all serve similar purposes: they let us know where the expectations lie and whether or not something quite literally crosses a line. Baseline assessments in classrooms serve a similar purpose. If I am going to teach my twenty-three students this year in a way that is both relevant and meaningful, I have to know what they already know. It would be silly to teach a lesson on place value to a class that already knows place value.

So I decided this afternoon to administer a baseline assessment for mathematics. I found one that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards and is a review of the concepts that my students should know before coming into my class. Now, of course, the reality of the situation is that my students come in with their own unique experiences, individual understandings, and separate abilities. So the baseline assessment tells me both what they already know and what they may need some extra practice on.

We use several different diagnostic tools in our school and in our district. There is no one test I give that is a make-it-or-break-it kind of test. Even the state testing at the end of the year, which is currently a one-time test, is not used as a diagnostic tool for my instruction. I rely on quizzes and examinations that have been written by our curriculum publisher, by the teachers within the district, and by national organizations that provide what are called “nationally normed” assessments. (Test scores are compared across the nation so that we can see how students do across a broad spectrum of settings.

I find such assessments wonderfully useful and the data terribly interesting. But I am data geek, so maybe I am a minority in my profession. I know some teachers who complain having to “teach to the test.” To them I say, “To what else could you possibly be testing?!”

I make a point of telling all of my students that these assessments are strictly for the purpose of letting me know what I need to teach them. I use artifacts and other evidences of learning for progress reports. Framing the work in this way seems to help alleviate a lot of test anxiety, which in turn means that many students will perform better, giving me a clearer picture of where we are at this year.

Day Two – Routines, Routines, Routines

Today was just the second day of school. As a result, I decided to spend more time working on routines with my class. As mentioned yesterday, my students identified six fundamental routines for our classroom: lining up, making lunch choices, getting chairs, reading the Morning Message, sharpening pencils, and going to lunch. I want my class to know these routines so that the rest of the day can run smoothly.

To help facilitate this, I allowed them to select their own groups of three or four and then each of the six groups selected one of the routines to make a poster for our walls. We worked on them most of the morning, and I think the students did a wonderful job. But, more importantly, it is their work on the walls, not mine!

IMG_0189 (2)

IMG_0189 (4)

IMG_0189 (5)

IMG_0189 (3)


IMG_0189 (1)

The other big event for today was our school-wide Expectations Boot Camp. Just as Boot Camp in the military involves intensive training and review of practices and procedures, our Wiley Boot Camp is all about making sure that every student has been taught the expectations for our school and can help keep everyone accountable for meeting (and exceeding) expectations. We did three of the four stations today: Office, Lunchroom & Assemblies, and Playground. Everyone did a fantastic job of listening to the directions and learning the expectations for these areas. Tomorrow afternoon we will do our last area, which is Hallways & Restrooms.

The one other thing we did today was some baseline testing. I wanted to know how well my students know the multiplication facts 0-9, so I gave them a 100-question test that covers all the facts and allowed them to work on it for as long as they needed. In a few weeks we will do this again as a timed test. Our Title I reading teacher also came in to administer a quick assessment for DIBELS called the DAZE. This is a three-minute test that measures how well students can select the right word from a list of three so that a sentence makes sense.

And then our day was done! Another awesome day in room 31!

Welcome Back, Class!

Today was the first day of school here at Wiley Elementary  in Urbana. (It was also the first day at all the other elementary schools in the district). My day started bright and early at 5:30 am so I could get to school by 7:30 and doing final preparations. After a summer of professional development workshops and conferences, planning for the new year, studying the Common Core State Standards and familiarising myself with the Next Generation Science Standards, collaborating with my new teaching partner (formerly a kindergarten teacher, she was moved up to fourth grade after some unexpected changes in the building), and lots and lots and lots of organising, the day was ready to start!

I met my class outside by the flagpole, as did all of the other teachers. Then our principal made a few brief remarks, the fifth grade students led us in a recital of the Wiley Promise and the Pledge of Allegiance, and we headed into the building to get to work!

I had my students complete a reading interesting survey and a general interest survey that I will use to help me as I form guided reading groups. We talked about expectations for our class (Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible, and Have Fun), came up with a few rules for our room (listen to the teacher, do your homework, use inside voices, choose kind, and follow directions), and we went over some of our common routines, such as lining up, making lunch choices, getting a chair in the morning, sharpening pencils, and lining up for lunch.

A big chunk of the morning was spent putting our C.O.Y.O.T.E. binders together. The Title I reading teacher who will be working with my class came in to help move the process along. When the binders were complete, I brought the class over to the carpet for a brief discussion about caring for our classroom library and then I read two stories aloud: When I Grow Up and My New Teacher and Me both Al Yankovic.

After lunch we began our first chapter-book read aloud for the year: Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I showed the students the book trailer video before reading, and I immediately found myself wishing I had done this before! Book trailers are such a wonderful way to introduce a story in a way that is much more engaging than just having a teacher talk about the book!

Then it was time for the students to go to library. Afterwards I took the class outside for a much-deserved and much-needed break before we wrapped up our day with our first independent reading (what I call SOAR because I have the students Spread Out And Read), wrote Today’s Topics, packed bags and played Around the World multiplication facts until the bell rang.

What a fantastic start to the year! I am so excited about all of the things we are going to be doing! I have a somewhat smaller class than the past two years, which definitely makes a difference! I can hardly wait to see what tomorrow has to offer!

Summer Reading VIII: Neverwhere

I finally finished reading Neverwhere! I have to say, first off, that the only other books by Neil Gaiman that I had read were Coraline and The Graveyard Book. I have been following Mr. Gaiman online via Twitter for years, and have grown to greatly admire him both as a writer and as an individual. He seems to be a truly classy gentleman and a man who is passionately passionate about life.

So, Neverwhere. It is a bizarre tale of a man from London Above (the city of London in England that we all know) who finds himself caught up in the world of London Below (an entire city that exists among the abandoned tube stations and sewers of old London). Richard Mayhew is a guy who just lives his life, plodding along, letting things happen to him. And one day he finally decides to actively do something. This something happened to be saving the life of a girl from London Below. As a result, he found himself entering her world.

What follows is a tale of friendship and love, courage and fear, betrayal and intrigue. It is a dark tale, as many of Mr. Gaiman’s tales seem to be, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel that leaves you feeling like all the struggles along the way were worth it for the change that came across the character. Definitely worth reading by older students and adults, although I would probably shy away from reading it to my students (or encouraging them to read it on their own). For younger readers, I wholeheartedly recommend Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

Now that I’ve finished book eight, I still have nine and ten to get through, but since I don’t have a copy of either at my immediate disposal, I am going to start another book by Neil Gaiman, entitled American Gods.

Summer Reading VIII, IX, and X

On my way home from my workshop on Lake Ontario, I started reading the eBook version of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel Neverwhere. It was the first adult novel that Gaiman wrote that I had loved and I absolutely loved it. Unfortunately, there is a two-week limit to eBook downloads through the library and I had had to download the book about a week before I could finally start reading it. So I am not done with it, although I have put another hold request on it.

The next eBook I started reading was The Pact by Jodi Picoult. She is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors for adults. I’ve learned that she and her daughter also wrote a YA novel that I am waiting to come in through a library request. As with the Neil Gaiman book, I ran out of time before I had to “return” the eBook (delete it from my device), and so I moved on to the next book I had waiting.

The book I am currently reading is The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I have heard so many good things about this story all year long. It won the 2013 Newbery Medal. This book is as wonderful as everyone has told me. It is well-written, engaging, and enjoyable. I am not done with it yet, but I am hoping to finish before it, also, expires.

All in all, I read seven complete books this summer and started three more. I may get one more book started before school starts, but I definitely want to finish NeverwhereThe Pact, and The One and Only Ivan. So what have you been reading this summer? Feel free to let me know in the comments and make suggestions!

INTC STEM Conference

I have done quite a few things with and through the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative. Among them are the New Teacher Mentoring program that I have recently completed, the INTC Induction and Mentoring Conference (a two-day conference), and the two-day INTC Beginning Teacher Conference. Sometime back in April or May, I received an email from the INTC announcing a new conference: the INTC STEM Conference for Beginning Teachers. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics are increasingly important content areas as we move forward in the 21st Century, and so the Collaborative decided to provide a two-day conference for new teachers interested in improving their STEM teaching practices.

I, of course, signed up as soon as registration opened and was quickly approved for participation. I had been looking forward to this conference all summer long, even as I had been going through my whirlwind of conferences and workshops. The conference was held this past Tuesday and Wednesday. It was fantastic!

I was able to attend five “hot topic” breakout sessions where I learned about using video technology in the classroom, literacy resources available on, guiding students in the C-E-R process (claims, evidence, reasoning), improving math conversations, and taking advantage of local resources for teaching STEM topics. There was also a key-note address by Dr. Lawrence Angrave, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois.

This conference was a wonderful way to wrap up an amazing summer of professional development. I have learned so much throughout the summer and cannot wait for school to start so I can share what I’ve learned with my colleagues and, more importantly, my students!

Oh, and I learned how to make my very own bouncy ball!