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

Archive for October, 2013

Teaching On A Holiday

Today was the first time this year that we’ve had school on a major holiday. The students were fairly antsy most of the day in anticipation of our first classroom party. The gloomy weather this morning did not help the situation, either. It started raining yesterday and, with few breaks, continued on throughout the day.

To help the c;lass make it through the day, I made sure they knew exactly what we would be doing all day long. Of course, this is something I try to do as a matter of course, but I have found that holidays are especially important days to set clear expectations for everyone.

Despite have a school-wide costume parade and classroom parties at the end of the day, we had a very busy morning and early afternoon. We started with our regular journal writing and then went down the music room for our twice-weekly 30 minutes of Arts Infusion. The music teacher has been sharing Renaissance-era music and dance to complement our social studies unit on early European exploration. Then we returned to the classroom and discussed the journal topic from the morning, sharing tips for being safe tonight, especially during trick-or-treating.

The next big part of our day was our regular literacy block. I wanted the students to have a large block of time today to work on their writing, as we have started a number of assignments over the past several weeks. We reviewed the general phases of the writing process, but focused on the planning/pre-writing phase and the rough draft phase. Some students told me they were done with a writing assignment. I reminded them again of the great amount of time that should go into writing, with planning, drafting, revising, drafting further, revising again, peer-reviewing, revising and drafting yet again, and repeating the process several times until they are ready to publish.

I had everyone work on their writing for about 20 minutes, then we took a break before going into the computer lab for more research on our explorers. We only had half an hour in the computer lab, but the students did a fantastic job staying on task the entire time.  Our morning was wrapped up with a math lesson on quadrilaterals. I discovered some time ago that students really enjoy learning about geometry, which is what we are doing for the next week before we get back to arithmetic. I had the class name different types of quadrilaterals and then determine what makes them unique and what makes them similar.

Following lunch, which had an indoor recess, we met in our math groups for review of multi-step word problems and two-digit by two-digit multiplication. This went on until it was time to go to music. And then it was finally time for our holiday celebration! There was a costume parade (outdoors because the rain broke for just enough time!) and then we had our classroom parties. Some classes have a lot of games and activities planned. Fourth graders tend to prefer to just socialise and enjoy copious amounts of sugary treats. (We had so many cupcakes that some parents took them to other rooms to share!)

After all this, the day was finally done. We pushed through and made it through and, I hope, had a lot of learning going on. It is far too easy for holidays to turn into fairly unproductive days, but with clear objectives, a set timetable, and goal to accomplish work before we could play, we had a day that went very, very well!

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Aha! Moments

As a teacher, I often have personal “Aha!” moments when I suddenly realise the perfect way to get a point across to all of my students. I also have “Aha!” moments when I suddenly get an insight as to why a particular student is behaving in a certain way. And I get “Aha!” moments when I read something that I am learning about and it just suddenly makes sense.

I also try to get my students to recognise their own “Aha!” moments. I encourage them to think about what they are learning and how it connects to what they already know. Sometimes they share these moments with me but most of the time they do not. I don’t think it is because they don’t think to share them; I think it is just that they forget the moment happened, even if they don’t forget the learning that took place.

Today I got to witness first-hand a student’s personal “Aha!” moment. We are doing a social studies unit on early European explorers and, as a culminating activity, each student is writing a page for a class alphabet book. It took some playing with names to get them all to work and I had to cheat with the letter X (we are just doing X is for eXplorers), but we have 25 explorers and 24 students. (I am going to write the page for Y and my student teacher is going to write the page for X.) To help them with this project, I had the class generate a list of questions they might want to answer and then put them together in a very, very, very simple graphic organizer. We will be using the computer lab three times this week and three times next week to work on this project.

One of my students is learning about John Cabot and was trying to figure out why his birthday only listed a year. He was visiting different websites when all of a sudden he called out, “Aha! That’s why!!!!” I went over to see what he was talking about and he showed me a paragraph that told him that nobody knows John Cabot’s exact birthday because his birth certificate was lost at sea.

It was just a brief moment in the middle of a very, very, very busy day, but it was wonderful to witness. I think I am going to do a quick lesson on “Aha!” moments tomorrow and ask the students to start recording them. Maybe I’ll even use them to update my bulletin board. (It still has our “Choose Kind” assignment on there but it is time for a change.) I think they will enjoy being able to share what they are learning with everyone who walks by the room, and it will be a great way to show that they are learning things that they personally find worthwhile.


Triple-Dipping Math

We typically have two sessions of math each day. The first is right after lunch and involves targeted practice with groups composed of students from both fourth grade classrooms. I have one group, my student teacher works with another one (under my supervision), and the other fourth grade teacher works with two smaller groups. The second time we have math is right after our fine arts/library block (called “Specials” in many other schools). This is a whole-class lesson for my entire class and usually follows the sequence of the Houghton-Mifflin Math Expressions series we use.

But today we had to triple-dip our math. We finished up our first math arithmetic unit last Friday and had planned on taking our unit post-test on Monday. Alas, the building copy machine had other plans. I wasn’t able to get copies made in the morning and then when I finally got the copier to work for me in the afternoon I found that the machine had printed them too darkly and the answers (that are on the master copies but are not intended to show up when copied) were visible. By then we were out of time to do the test so we had to do it this morning, instead.

So our Tuesday was a very math-centric day. Multiplication unit test in the morning, multi-step word problems after lunch, and geometry at the end of the day! It was busy, but my students continued to demonstrate a fantastic level of perseverance and stick-to-it-ive-ness! We won’t have intense days like this very often, fortunately. Tomorrow should feel much easier by comparison, though!


Special Guest Post

Over the summer I had the opportunity to interact with many different teachers and authors via social media, blogs, and conferences. One of the authors I struck up a conversation with was Ms. Kirby Larson, author of a number of middle grade historical fiction novels. In the process of this conversation and as a result of a guest post she wrote for the Nerdy Book Club blog, I volunteered to write a guest post for her professional blog about building a meaningful classroom library, which has been a topic of serious contemplation for me over the past several months.

Ms. Larson had initially hoped to have ten teachers respond to her request for guest bloggers, with the idea that she would feature one a month throughout the school year. Instead she had over twenty responses! Every Tuesday and Thursday on her blog, you can find these posts by teachers from all over the country. The topics are as widely diverse and varied as you would expect from such a wide group of educators!

I was asked to write a post that was between 300 and 500 words (with wiggle room). My first draft was almost 800 words, so I did a number of rewrites and got it down to about 700 words. This was still too long, so I continued to edit and rewrite until I finally got it down to a little over 500 words. My final draft was my eighth revision! (I shared this with my students when I taught a review lesson on the writing process!)

I sent in my post and waited for her response. Last night I finally got word that she would be publishing the post today! Ms. Larson also expressed that she was moved by my efforts to build a classroom library that would afford my students a wide variety of reading choices!

The post went live this morning! I am so excited to be a part of Kriby Larson’s “From the Office of the Future of Reading” series! Please take time to go visit Kirby’s blog and read not just my post, but all of the guest posts, and Wednesday wisdom!

And in case you can’t find the link, you can either click or copy and paste this into your browser:  http://kirbyslane.blogspot.com/2013/10/from-office-of-future-of-reading_29.html


The Jazzman Cometh

Well, actually, I suppose the title of this blog post should have been “The Jazzman Cameth” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it… As I have said many times before, I am proud to consider myself a geek of all things. I have a particular fondness for books and movies, but I also love science fiction in general, British television, anything to do with Scouting, the theater stage, and music.

I started playing the trumpet when I was in fifth grade, due largely to the fact that two of my older brothers played it and my best friend was starting trumpet as well. From that time onward, for the next eight years or so, I performed with concert bands, marching bands, pep bands, mixed brass ensembles, symphonic bands, and, getting to the point of this post, jazz ensembles. During my freshman year of high school, I was in the Varsity Jazz Ensemble. My sophomore year I put down my trumpet and picked up the sound board (figuratively speaking). For the next three years I was the Chief Sound Engineer of the Washington Community High School Varsity Jazz Ensemble. (In all seriousness, my role was to make sure the microphones were set up correctly and to help the girl who played the electric bass keyboard get her equipment together.) When I was a senior in high school I joined the newly-formed Junior Varsity Jazz Ensemble just because I could and I wanted to play jazz music again.

I continued to stay active with instrumental ensembles while in college and then joined the Parkland Wind Ensemble during my last semester at the University of Illinois. Due to scheduling conflicts I eventually had to drop out of the Wind Ensemble and am currently in the middle of my longest break from being in an ensemble of any sort in over ten years. (There were two years that I did not perform with any groups while I lived in California.)

All of this is just a long way to say that among my many passions is music. So I was really excited to learn that we were going to have a special assembly this afternoon featuring a local jazz ensemble. The students really enjoyed the music and I loved hearing songs that I have actually performed, like Basin Street Blues and It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. Following the assembly, the students finished up a project we had started in the morning and I let them listen to some instrumental jazz music. I know that our fine arts teachers are working with community resources to bring other special guests to the building. I can’t wait to see who we have visit next!

(Sorry the post is up so late. We had some guests over for dinner so I didn’t get a chance to get it up earlier.)


Book Review: Walk Two Moons

I finally read Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. It has been on my bookshelves at home and at school for several years, but I had just never gotten around to read it. (I also own Sharon Creech’s book The Wanderer and I have not read that yet, either.) In fact, I have quite an impressive collection of Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor books. Not as extensive as some folks, but pretty decent for someone who has only been actively acquiring them for four years!

Walk Two Moons was the 1995 Newbery Medal winner. It tells the story of Salmananca Tree Hiddle (also known as Sal) and her journey across the country with her grandparents. Sal and her father recently moved from Bybanks, Kentucky, to a small town in Indiana. Sal’s mother, after the heartbreaking loss of a child, experienced some severe depression and decided to go to Lewistown, Idaho, to get away for a while and figure out who she was and what she wanted. Sal and her grandparents are traveling to Lewistown, hoping to get there in time for her mother’s birthday.

As they travel, Sal tells her grandparents about her friend Phoebe and a strange tale of lunatics, secret messages, suspected murderers, friends with bizarre families, and a boy in her class who clumsily tries to express his feelings for her. As Sal tells the story, we also read about her journey with her grandparents, following the same route her mother took when she left. They stop in Illinois (which Sal’s grandfather pronounces “Illi-no-way”), a river in Iowa, the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and Yellowstone Park in Wyoming before they finally get to Idaho and discover the truth about Sal’s mother.

I will admit, it took me a while to get going with this book. There are some stories that capture me from the very first page. Other stories take a few chapters. I don’t know how far I was into this story before I realised I was hooked, though. It kind of snuck up on me. All I know is that one day I felt it was almost a chore to read and the next day I could hardly put it down! Throughout the story, there are mysterious messages left at Phoebe’s house with obscure phrases like Before you judge a man, walk two moons in his moccasins or Everyone has his own agenda. The final chapters had me reading late into the night and then getting up early this morning so I could finish.

One of my favourite sections was near the very end. After thinking about life, death, pain, sorrow, and other “bad” things in the world, and how we come up with elaborate explanations to make exceptions for behaviour that make us doubt others, the author gave us this gem:

It seems to me that we can’t explain all the truly awful things in the world like war and murder and brain tumors, and we can’t fix these things, so we look at the frightening things that are closer to us and we magnify them until they burst open. Inside is something that can manage, something that isn’t as awful as it had at first seemed. It is a relief to discover that although there might be axe murders and kidnappers in the world, most people seem a lot like us: sometimes afraid and sometimes brave, sometimes cruel and sometimes kind.

To be honest, Walk Two Moons probably won’t become a personal favourite. I don’t think it is a book I will select as a read aloud for my class and I am not even sure I would use it with a reading group. But if I had a student who was struggling with some of the same struggles that Sal has, I would absolutely recommend it. And if you are interested in knowing how children cope with death and loss and feelings of abandonment, this story does a great job expressing it.


The Writing Process

We do a lot of writing in fourth grade. However, I realised today that I was missing a very important component of my writing instruction. Up to this point, most of our writing has been quick first-draft responses to questions related to reading or other queries. We haven’t done as much with essays, narratives, or other writing.

Now that we are in the second quarter, I plan on increasing both the frequency and the quantity of writing in my classroom. Students have writing folders where they can track their works in progress and their completed projects. We have done a number of first drafts, but we need to get started on revising, editing, and rewriting. I had already planned on doing this. What I didn’t realise until today was that many of my students either didn’t know or simply forget about the actual writing process.

The students were working on writing essays about an invention they would create if they had unlimited time, money, and resources. (We read several short stories this week about inventions like the Stetson-style hat, ear muffs, and elevators.) I gave the class 30 minutes to start writing and then, after a fifteen-minute recess, another 15-20 minutes to continue writing. One student came up to me after about fifteen minutes, showed me a piece of paper with a picture and a few illustrations and said, “Okay, Mr. Valencic, I’m all done!” I looked at it and said, “No, I’m sorry, you’re not. This is a good start, but you should add a lot more information. Remember, writing isn’t a one-time-and-you’re-done process.” Her response: “Really? I thought it was!”

So I paused the whole class and went over the key elements of the writing process:

  • Planinning
  • Drafting
  • Revising/Editing
  • Rewriting
  • Publishing

I also pointed out that the drafting, revising/editing, and rewriting elements are often repeated many, many times. I used my own writing as an example. If I am writing for someone else, such as a guest blog post, I usually end up writing anywhere from three to six drafts or even more! (My own blog posts often have fewer drafts because I am able to write as much or as little as I wish without any worries.)

Starting next week and going on throughout the rest of the year, we will continue to work on improving our writing and building up the stamina to write for long periods of time. We have pretty good reading stamina and strong math stamina. Now we just need to add this next element. We’ve got plenty of time, to be sure, but I want my students to feel like they are doing their best every single time!

On a completely unrelated note, just a reminder that there is no school tomorrow because it is our district’s elementary inservice day! Have a fantastic weekend!