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

Archive for September, 2013

Great Lakes Fish Inquiry

As many of you know by now, I had the most amazing opportunity this summer to spend a week aboard an EPA research vessel on Lake Ontario with fourteen other teachers to learn all about the ecology and history of the Great Lakes. Throughout the week, I not only learned about the lakes but also how to teach about them in the coming years. I made a commitment to integrate Great Lakes Literacy into my curriculum and spent a great deal of time finding where it would be most appropriate.

I always start the year with a science unit with an inquiry project. The past two years saw students learning about any animal of their choosing. This year I decided to narrow the scope to fish in the Great Lakes. (Well, plus one shellfish because I just couldn’t leave out the zebra mussel!) As with past inquiry projects, the students came up with their own list of questions, using the lake sturgeon as the prompt. I simply asked them what they wanted to know. Some of the questions listed were related to physical characteristics (appearance, size, life cycle), habitat, and eating habits. I then informed students that they could present their information in any way they chose: report, poster, PowerPoint presentation, story, song, poem, 3-D model, diorama, etc. Most students chose to make posters, a few did PowerPoints, and we’ve had a couple of written reports.

The students had three weeks to work on this research project. We used the computer lab once a week for 30 minutes, we used our classroom iPads a few times to research the ecosystem of the Great Lakes, and I gave students time to work on their projects as needed, using books we got from our school library. Of course, many students chose to do their research at home, using Internet resources and books from the Urbana Free Library. Reports were submitted on Friday and we began presentations that morning.

We continued with the presentations today, this time with two special guests in our room: Robin Goettel, education director for the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, and Anjanette Riley, the i-I SG science writer. As students shared what they learned about their fish, our guests took pictures, asked questions, and made notes. In the next couple of weeks, there will be a blog post shared by the Sea Grant reporting on what my students have done. I am excited for the publicity we will receive, even if it is just local!

Our ecology unit will be wrapping up this week, and we will also be starting our first social studies unit on Pre-Columbian civilisations and European exploration, but we will continue to learn about the Great Lakes throughout the year.

[NOTE: I will be taking pictures of the posters that have been made so I can share them. I will get these uploaded to this post tomorrow. I am sure the students would love to receive feedback on their research!]



I won’t always use themed posts for my blog like some teachers do, but I like to give credit where credit is due, and that means I need to acknowledge that today’s post is inspired by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater over at The Poem Farm.

The City of Urbana is holding a special writing contest for school-age children as part of its 180th birthday celebration. Students are invited to write limericks about Urbana and submit them for judging. There will be awards for different age categories. I wanted to make sure my students had an opportunity to participate, but this meant I needed to make sure they knew what a limerick was!


Enter my father-in-law, Dr. Reger, who has been a visitor to my classroom a couple of times in the past. I asked him how he felt about his limerick-writing skills and he informed me that he is a licensed limericist. (I actually looked it up to make sure that such a thing really existed. It does. At least, the limericist part does. Not so sure about the licensure.)

I did some pre-teaching on poetry and limericks today as a warm-up, and then Dr. Reger came in and spent about 35 minutes with my class, teaching them the rhythm and order of limericks, sharing the history, and then giving students the opportunity to try their hands at writing their own. A few brave souls wanted to read their limericks aloud and I made a video so that we could better share them with our adoring fans.

Not too shabby for less than an hour of prep work! We are going to look more at poetry in the coming weeks, including reading Sharon Creech’s wonderful novel-in-verse, Love That Dog, and poems by authors like Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein. My hope is that at least some of my students will identify this particular form of expression as something they find aesthetically pleasing and interesting to both consume and produce.

Happy Poetry Friday!

Book Review: Wonder

Last year I read a book that I immediately fell in love with and determined I would read to my class every year for as long as I have a class to read it to. I will admit to having a bias in favour of it ahead of time because my teacher friends online had been raving about it non-stop for months. I first read it last year and then read it to my class as our very last read aloud. Several of my students commented that they absolutely loved the story and that I just had to read it to my next class at the very start of the next year.

And yet somehow I don’t actually own this book for myself or my classroom library. Yet. (Barnes & Noble is hosting an Educator Appreciation Week in October and I will be able to get some pretty awesome discounts on books. You can bet your bottom dollar that this book is going to be the top of my list to buy!) Fortunately, our school library has a copy and I was able to snatch it up before anyone else got to it this year.

Additionally, this book is a Battle of the Books selection for this year, which means that many of my students are going to be reading it again. (Awesome!)

So, what book is this that has made such an impact on me, my teaching, and my classroom? It is, of course, Wonder by R. J. Palacio. If you have somehow missed out on catching wind of this story, here’s the book trailer that was released by Random House last year:

August Pullman is a regular ten-year-old kid. He does the same things that other regular ten-year-old kids do. But there is one thing about Auggie that is different: he was born with a genetic disorder that essentially wreaked havoc on his face. Nothing is aligned, his mouth is misshapen, his ears look like cauliflower. As it says in the book, the universe was not kind to August Pullman.

The story is told in multiple voices, introducing us to August, his best friend Jack, his sister Via, his friend Summer, his sister’s friend Via, and even Via’s boyfriend Justin. We read about August attending a school for the first time in his life. He had been homeschooled through fourth grade due to the large number of surgeries he’d had to undergo as doctor’s worked to fix some of the major problems caused by his facial deformity. Throughout the story, there is one message that is repeated over and over again. It is my theme for my own classroom, which happens to go along very well with our school theme of being brave. The message is this: Choose kind.

It is a wonderfully simple message! Taken from a quote by Dr. Dwayne W. Dyer, we are told that “when given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This quote is on the bulletin board outside my classroom, along with students personal thoughts on what it means to choose kind. Another quote shared in the book is by J.M. Barrie: “Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?” And finally, one more quote that sums up what I hope each of my students will take away from this story this year and for the rest of their lives. It is known as John Wesley’s Rule:


I know that Wonder was a bit heavy for the start of the year, but I think it really set the tone for our class. My students actually cheered for Auggie at the end of the story! We will be reading a wide variety of other stories in the coming weeks and months, but I hope that each story will allow us to return to this message of kindness over and over again.

Graphic Organisers

I don’t know why it has taken so long for us to break out the graphic organisers this year, but we did it today and I could not be happier with the results! We actually used two different organisers for two very different reasons. The first was a comic strip organiser that we used with our first-grade reading buddies. The second was a persuasion map organiser that was used for a literacy assignment related to the story of a little girl who was sent by parcel post to visit her parents.

With our reading buddies, this was the very first graphic organisers that the first graders had seen all year. (I don’t know if their kindergarten teachers used any or not.) So the onus was on the fourth graders to really take the lead in completing them. I started the morning with a mini-lesson on graphic organisers and then introduced the comic strip sheet. I showed that it had six boxes and, using familiar Dr. Seuss stories like Green Eggs & Ham and The Lorax as examples, I had the students walk me through drawing a comic in six frames to tell the story. They identified key points such as starting at the beginning and going through the story until you get to the end; not including every minute detail, but focusing on the main ideas instead; using words and pictures to retell the story. Then the students had a few minutes to practice with partners.

I feel like my class was more prepared for reading buddies than they have been the past few weeks. They walked in with a purpose and, after I introduced the organiser to the first graders, they got to work, reading, writing, and drawing. Even though I had several students who were absent, we still had between 45 and 50 students working together, reading together, and talking books together. It was fantastic!

The second organiser was introduced after we read The Parcel Post Kid from our basal reader. This organiser was first introduced to me last year by one of the folks who works with the National Council of Teachers of English. She had come in to do a two-week workshop with my students on persuasive writing and shared many different organisers that the NCTE has put on their education site, (I think I’ve mentioned before that we are going to be using their resources a lot this year!) I had the students talk me through using the organiser, explaining what to put in the introduction, the main ideas, the supporting statements, and a conclusion. I pointed out that, while the organiser is set up for a five-paragraph format, they should not feel like they have to stick to that number. Persuasive writing can be done in just one paragraph or in several pages. The quantity is not what matters; it is the quality that counts!

Once again, I saw my class jump right into using the persuasion maps. Some students who are not always as engaged were fully immersed in reading, writing, and thinking.  They completed the organisers but, instead of turning them in, I had them place them in their newly-labeled writing folders in the Works in Progress side, since the persuasion maps are far from a completed work! We will continue to use graphic organisers throughout the year. My goal is to introduce one or two each week so that we have a wide variety to choose from by the end of the year.

(By the way, you may have noticed that I spell the word “organisers” in the British way. I picked up the habit of using British spellings for most words several years ago. I make sure to teach standard American English spellings in class, though.)

Taking Reading Responses to the Next Level

From the very beginning of the year, I have had my students produce written reflections on their reading. Usually this has related to the reading out of our basal reader, using the suggested Reading Response questions. I have worked hard to get my students familiar with the basic steps of writing a response to any question:

  1. Restate the question as a sentence to introduce the topic
  2. Explain your answer
  3. Provide evidence to support your response.

These three steps are the beginning of the CERCA process: claim, evidence, reasoning, counter argument and audience. I use the CERCA framework to guide students in writing their responses following the outline listed above. Many of the students have quickly picked up on this technique and I have been pleased to see big, juicy paragraphs being written as they reflect on what they’ve read, rather than a few short sentence fragments.

But today we added a new layer of complexity. Instead of reflecting on just one story, I asked the students to reflect on multiple stories at once. Using two of the stories we’ve read for our first basal unit on journeys, the students had to think about how Grandfather in Allen Say’s wonderful story Grandfather’s Journey and Chester from George Selden’s Chester Cricket’s Pigeon Ride (a companion story to A Cricket in Times Square), the students had to compare Grandfather’s journey and what he saw to Chester’s journey. We reviewed the framework we use for responses and then I let the class get to work.

Students got clipboards and spread out across the room, working independently to write their responses. Some asked if they could make a Venn diagram first. I was thrilled and told them that that was a fantastic idea! After creating their diagrams, they then took the information and turned it into a written paragraph. As I looked through the final products (really just rough drafts of responses), I was pleased to see that every single student had written a complete paragraph in response to the question as they thought about the text. Some students even wrote a full page with multiple paragraphs!

The next challenge will be to see if students can write responses like this without prompting from me or any other teacher or tutor in the room. I am willing to bet that they can!

Fluency Day

We are still pretty early in our Math Expressions series, having completed a total of three lessons to date. So, obviously, everything we do is still new. Today was something that was new while also being something familiar, because it is very similar to the type of math work that my students have done in the past. It is called a Fluency Day, and it is an opportunity for students to measure their ease with recalling fundamental facts in multiplication and division. (What’s funny is that I am actually pretty close to on pace with how we started last year. I wrote about our first Fluency Day on September 19.)

Fluency Days are pretty simple to do. The students had a total of 72 problems, divided into groups of 18. The first 36 problems were multiplication facts, then the last 36 problems were division. I gave the class three minutes as a warm up for the first set, then just one minute for the next three sets. (This was also a preview for the new one-minute limit for the Mr. Martini’s Classroom quizzes we do each week in the Computer Lab.) I was impressed with how many students were able to complete all of the problems within the time given but, more importantly, they were impressed with how well they did!

After going over the answers to the fluency problems, the students were given time to cut out flashcards that they will be able to keep at school or take home to continue practicing. Then they finished up the math period by practicing with one another. Again, they were able to see their growth through increased recall speed of these fundamental facts.

And that’s the goal of Fluency Days. It lets the students see the progress they are making and it helps them build confidence in their computational fluency. We will be working on comprehension, as well, in the coming weeks, but I feel like we are off to a great start!

Illustrating Multiplication

Today was the last day of school for the week, so I wanted to make sure that we did a math activity that wouldn’t necessitate math homework. As a result, I decided to build on the work we started yesterday.

I gave each group of students a large piece of post-it chart paper and had them divide them into six sections. Then I gave each group a baggie with different cubes inside. The students were given the task to come up with four different array or equal-groups models to show the total number of cubes as a multiplication problem. Then they had to write a repeated addition problem and a word problem to reflect the total.

The students worked hard, then we stopped for an assembly before returning and finishing out the day. I took pictures of each of the groups with their posts but, alas, the pictures are on my iPad which is not with me at the moment. Check back tomorrow and you should be able to see them then!