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

Archive for November, 2013

Giving Thanks

Tomorrow is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. Many families are already traveling, trying to beat the traffic and the nasty weather that has been forecast. Others are staying near home but are preparing for family and friends to visit. As a result (and probably for a host of other reasons), several of my students were absent today. Fortunately, I had planned on today being a day heavy on review and celebrations instead of trying to teach new material.

The fourth graders finished their marathon study of Cinderella stories and, to celebrate, we brought the two classes together to watch the Walt Disney version of the story. (Then we did a quick compare-and-contrast activity afterwards and realised that Disney’s version is actually quite different from all the others that we read!)

We also did a check on the multiplication facts in math and a quick review of adding greater numbers, reading tables, and identifying quadrilaterals. The end of the day was our end-of-the-week routine of cognitive games and activities that I call Read, Write, Think! Then we cleaned up and I read more of Hattie Big Sky to the class until dismissal.

Of course, way back at the beginning of the day, the class wanted to share their Thanksgiving traditions. We learned that many of our classmates will be traveling to see extended family this weekend while many others will be staying here and hosting their family and friends. I also asked my students to think about the things they for which they are thankful, especially when it comes to school. Here is what they said:

  • I am thankful that we have a lot of books because I like to read.
  • I am thankful for SOAR. [Note: This is our independent reading time. It stands for Spread Out And Read.]
  • I am thankful for recess.
  • I am thankful that I get to learn.
  • I am thankful for learning all I can do to get into college.
  • I am thankful for math and writing.
  • I am thankful for math and that we get to learn.
  • I am thankful for math.
  • I am thankful for my teacher.
  • I am thankful for friends.
  • I am thankful for the teachers because if it was just kids it would go crazy.
  • I am thankful for lunch!
  • I am thankful that we can even go to the school and that we have all the supplies we need.
  • I am thankful for math.
  • I am thankful for the teacher.
  • I am thankful everything!

And lastly, I am thankful for the ability to learn something new every single day and for reasons to laugh with my students and colleagues!


From time to time, I learn about an educational resource that I decide to share with my students. The reasons are varied, but always have at least one thing in common: they give them an additional tool to use at school and at home to increase mastery of skills and content knowledge. When I find a resource that my class seems to really like using, I make a point of writing about it here, not because I get paid by the creators (ha!), but because I want parents and other educators to know about the things that really work.

One such resource I have recently discovered is called XtraMath. I learned about this internet-based tool several weeks ago but didn’t get around to introducing it to my class until just today. Before introducing it, I had to set up a classroom account and generated individualised PINs for each student. This took between five and ten minutes. Once it was all set up, my students simply had to go onto XtraMath (found on our school’s Destiny Catalog under “General Resources”) and enter our classroom code. Next they selected their name from a list, entered their PIN, and were ready to get started with placement tests! (In order to access our classroom account at home, students will need the classroom code; I will be including it in my letter to parents going home tomorrow afternoon. Parents may also email me for the code.) Students can also access XtraMath on our classroom iPads!

XtraMath is very easy to set up and is designed for students of all ages to build their math fluency. I was worried that it would take us a long time to get the classroom code entered but, with the help of several students who were already familiar with the site, it only took a few moments before everyone was logged on. I did not have to explain anything directly to the students to show them how to use it, either. Many figured it out on their own, although some chose to watch the introductory video. Another great feature is that I can log into my account as the teacher and monitor students’ progress. I can see which math facts they have mastered, which they are working on, and the progress of their growth. It is a wonderful tool and one that I hope my students will use at home and at school regularly!

Oh, and for those who may be wondering: XtraMath was created with the combined efforts of a computer programmer, two National Board Certified teachers, and a math professor, all from the Seattle, Washington, area.

Cinderella Stories

One of my favourite units to teach in literacy each year is our study of fantasy stories. We read a variety of different selections, culminating with Cendrillon, which is a Cinderella-type story from the island nation of Martinique. After reading this story, we always read several other Cinderella stories from around the world. This often turns into a two-week unit, usually because it tends to fall right around the time of our Thanksgiving break.

This year is no different. We read Cendrillon last week and then read several more Cinderella stories, making Venn diagrams to compare and contrast the stories, listing key details found in each story, and discussing what makes each story fantasy. One of the things that my students always seem to point out is that one way we know that Cinderella is fantasy is that Cinderella’s shoe only fits one person in the entire kingdom! Just as I have in the past, I used this observation as the foundation of a writing assignment: write an alternate ending to a Cinderella story in which the slipper fits someone else before the prince finds Cinderella!

We are continuing our study this week. I had my students break into their four reading groups and gave each group a Cinderella story to read. My two favourites were The Rough-Face Girl and Cinder Edna. We will read a few more of these stories tomorrow and then culminate with a combined fourth grade celebration on Wednesday morning. (Sorry, students: I’m not telling you what we are doing for this until then!) We will also do some more writing assignments related to the theme. I have enjoyed watching my students working together, reading stories that many of them (especially the boys!) would not have read before, and expressing opinions about the characters!


I wrote a bit two days ago about using the Do It Again teaching strategy with my class. Then I wrote yesterday about the pedagogical framework of gradually releasing responsibility. Although not planned in advance, today’s topic is about another fundamental teaching practice: reteaching.

Reteaching is exactly what it sounds like: it is going over material that has already been taught, approaching it from different angles. Of course, reteaching is not teaching the same thing the exact same way. The reason teachers have to reteach material is because, for whatever reason, the students didn’t quite get it the first time and need to try something new. Reteaching can be used in any instructional setting at any time.

I used this strategy today after looking over last night’s math homework. The assignment was related to multi-step word problems, which probably rank as some of the most difficult problems students in elementary grades have to work through. These problems involved addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and even fractions. Even though we have been looking at different word problems all week, I had already anticipated that my students would have trouble and so I planned on reteaching strategies for solving these kind of problems.

We reviewed a variety of mathematical problem solving strategies: guess and check, write a number sentence, make a chart, and draw a picture. For each problem, I guided the students through the steps for solving them and taught them how to use a highlighter to identify important information. It seemed that most of the class was starting to get the concepts today, but I reassured them all that we would be looking at these kind of problems all year long!

Gradual Release of Responsibility

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of gradual release of responsibility. It is a method of teaching that has been promoted within teaching circles for nearly my entire life, if not longer. The idea is simple yet profound: At the beginning of instruction, the main responsibility for learning in on the teacher: planning lessons, teaching strategies, modeling what to do and how to do it, redirecting. This is very teacher-centric and, to be quite honest, very exhausting for teachers. But as students grow in skills, knowledge, and understanding, and as they develop independent work habits, the teacher turns over the responsibility of learning to the students: allowing them to suggest areas of inquiry, finding connections and linking concepts across learning, self-regulating, and explaining their thinking processes. This is very student-centric and allows for more dynamic learning.

Using this method is not easy, though. Teachers must be constantly aware of what their students have done, what they are doing, and what they will be able to do in the future. The teacher must scaffold instruction around individual students, differentiating as needed, either for students who are struggling and need additional support or for students who are quickly advancing and need more challenging tasks. And while the model is presented as a linear process, the reality is that students may be able to do a task independently one day and then go back and provided more focused instruction on the same topic the next day.

I have had a student teacher doing her early field experience in my classroom this semester. She is with us all day every Tuesday and Wednesday through the second week of December. When she first came, I did a lot of modeling and explaining and modeling and explaining again. This is to be expected. As the semester has progressed, I have turned over more and more responsibility to her, but always supervising, guiding, observing, and helping as needed. The culminating activity for the early field experience is a two-day full takeover of classroom duties. We planned together last week but from the start of the day to the end, for two days, she is the one in charge in the classroom. It has been an interesting experience for me to have to sit in the background and allow her to use the skills and concepts of her university coursework and combine them with what she has seen and done in our classroom.

Yesterday was the first day of this takeover. We had an intruder drill in the building in the morning and I think it really threw a lot of students off for the whole day. It was just something so very different from what they are used to. Combining this with the fact that I was committed to not interceding except in extreme cases, and I saw a day in which many of my students pushed against the limits that we have set in the classroom. My student teacher did a wonderful job of maintaining her professionalism, redirecting students as needed, and praising those students who were on task and working throughout the day.

After discussing the day and offering suggestions for today, she tried some new strategies, led the class is a discussion about what they could do better today, and sought input from students to find ways to improvement behaviour. The day went much, much, much better! Particularly during the math lesson, which was looking at interpreting mixed-operation word problems, the class was alert, attentive, respectful, and participatory! I feel like today ties in very well with my post yesterday about stopping, resetting, and doing something again. Each day is a new day with new opportunities for learning. I am proud of my student teacher for learning, growing, and expanding her skills as an educator and I am proud of my class for realising that they really can do it right, even if they made mistakes in the past!

Stop, Reset, Do It Again

Parents are often very familiar with the feeling that they have been saying the same thing over and over again to their children. There is a perfectly good reason for this feeling: it is absolutely true! Conventional wisdom used to say that a child needs to hear something 7 to 10 times before they really understand what they have been told. Newer cognitive science, though, reveals that this number is generally true for adults but for children the number is closer to 40-50 times!

Teachers, likewise, find themselves constantly saying the same things over and over again. Sometimes I will try to change up the phrase but keep the general direction the same. Other times I will just keep using the same phrase until students start to fill in the blanks for me. (It is always delightful when this happens! I’m always thrilled to know that the students really are listening to me. It is equally delightful when a parent tells me that their child quoted me during evening conversations!)

However, there are times when it simply isn’t enough to repeat yourself. Sometimes you have to take more drastic measures. For me, I have found that one of the most successful strategies is to say, “Stop. Reset. Do it again.” I do this in a calm, clear voice. At the start of the year I will have to explain what this means:

  1. Stop – Whatever you are doing, whether you are on task or not, just stop everything.
  2. Reset – Start back at the beginning. This may mean putting everything away; it may mean sitting quietly for a minute. It may mean returning to seats and waiting for directions.
  3. Do it again – This simply means that the students should perform the task again, with the caveat that they do it again the right way.

This simple process gives the students opportunities to see themselves being successful. So many times, I hear them say that they can’t do it. But when I have them stop, reset, and do it again (the right way), they realise that they can do it and do it well. I really like how well this strategy works for helping the entire class. I wish I could claim it as my own but I can’t. I have adapted it from a strategy suggested by Doug Lemov in his book Teach Like a Champion. I have been using this since I started teaching and can attest that it really does work in nearly every single situation!

What Do You See?

I learned about an interesting teaching method a few years ago from the Engagement Director at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. (He also does a lot of coordination with the Education Coordinator with the Krannert Art Museum.) The method is called Visual Teaching Strategies. (I have mentioned this from time to time over the years but have yet to do a detailed blog post about it. I will one of these days, but not yet.) One of the core elements of Visual Teaching Strategies (VTS) is for students to answer the question, “What do you see going on here?”

I have used this method this year during our social & emotional learning lessons, which always include an enlarged photograph showing a particular situation that students will confront. I ask the class to share what they see going on in the picture before we discuss it as a group. Sometimes I will have students share with a partner before sharing out with the class so that more of them get an opportunity to share.

Another way I have used VTS in my room has been much more individualised. Taking advantage of the iPad that I use for a variety of teaching activities, I will occasionally take a picture of what I see students doing. If a student is off-task, I will show them the picture in a one-on-one setting, usually back by my desk, and will ask what is going on in the picture. The student will quickly identify what he/she sees and will honestly acknowledge areas for improvement. I always end the brief conference by saying, “Can you fix it? Show me!” Then I delete the photo and allow the student student to carry on with his/her task.

Other times I will ask the students to close their eyes and picture what the classroom should look like at a given moment. I’ll prompt the visualisation with questions like, “What should the students be doing?” or “What should we see on the floors?” or “How should our desks look?” After everyone has had a few minutes to reflect, I direct them to open their eyes, look around the room, and correct what needs to be fixed.

I find these strategies are most useful in redirecting students because, many times, my students don’t even realise they are off-task! So when I try to redirect them they don’t understand what I am asking. But if I show them first, they can see it, understand it, and correct it on their own. It was a great way to empower students to be accountable for their actions and to be aware of their environment. One of my goals for each of my students is for them to learn how to better self-regulate themselves; to be aware of what they are doing, to monitor behaviour, and to correct errors before they become a hindrance to learning. Asking them to ask themselves what they see is a wonderful way to do this!

Formal Observations

I had my second formal observation by my principal this afternoon. It was originally planned for yesterday, but if there is one thing I have learned about being a principal, it is that things change all the time and both they and their teachers have to learn to just roll with it!

Every time I have an observation I tell my students in advance and let them know that she is not just coming to see what I am doing, but also to see what my students are doing. I try to do everything I can to make the lesson as natural and routine as I can. Even while acknowledging the observer effect in physics, I really want my principal to see what normally happens in my classroom.

I have tried to do this in every job I have had. When I worked in dining services at the university and our bosses would come through to observe, I always continued to do what I was doing normally. My rationale was simple: if I was doing something wrong, I wanted someone to tell me. If I was doing something wrong and I knew it and knew I’d have to change my behaviour if I was being observed, then I should just stop doing that in the first place! And if I am doing what I am supposed to but do more just to try to make good impression, I am not being true to who I am.

So it is with teaching. If I am doing something wrong, I trust my principal to let me know how I can improve. If my students do something wrong, I don’t ignore them and let them continue making those mistakes; I explain to them what the problem is and why I think they should change their behaviour. Of course, I also acknowledge that it is completely the decision of the students’ whether or not they take my advice. (That being said, I have a fantastic relationship with my entire class and am very glad that they tend to trust me to know what I am talking about!)

The lesson today was a continuation of our addition and subtraction mental math strategies, focusing on “number talks” to guide the students in articulating their mathematical thinking. It went really well and, even though we have just barely started doing these, I have seen growth in just the past couple of days! I am looking forward to seeing where my students take this from here!

Why I Read The Books I Recommend To Students

Alternatively titled, “Why I Read The Books My Students Recommend To Me.”

Of the nineteen books that I have read since the start of summer, twelve of them have been in the category of children’s literature or young adult fiction. Additionally, four more have been professional texts that have helped me improve my practice as an educator. Which means that just under 16% of the books that I have read in the past six months have been fiction written for an adult audience.

Sometimes I get asked why I read so many books written for young people. My short answer is that I am a fourth grade teacher and I want to keep up with the books my students are reading.

But the long answer is much more than that. I read these books so that I can make recommendations to my students. I read these books so that I know what young people are reading and can make connections between these stories, my students’ lives, and the material we are studying in class. I read these books so that when I pick a book off a shelf and hand it to a student, saying, “This is a really good book; I think you’d enjoy it” my students will know that they can trust my opinion. I read these books so that when a young person comes up to me and says, “You know, Mr. Valencic, I remember reading a book a few years ago about these two boys who go swimming together and one of them drowns. I don’t remember the name and I don’t know the author, but it was a really good book and I would love to read it again!” I can walk over to my shelf, pull On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer, hand it to the student, and see the biggest smile you’ll ever see on anyone’s face.

I read the books that I recommend to my students so that I can recommend them! Additionally, I read the books my students suggest to me! Sometimes it may take several months, or even a year or longer, to get to it, but I will read these books. I love that I have a classroom of readers that each year becomes a part of a larger community of readers throughout our school district. I love visiting the middle school and having a former student approach me for the sole purpose of sharing what they are reading. I love bumping into students and parents at the store and having them show me a book they just got. I love when several students in my class all end up reading the same book at the same time and excitedly share this with me.


That is why I read the books I recommend to students and why I read the books they recommend to me.

Also, children’s literature is, despite what some New York Times columnists think, quality literature that is worth reading for the lessons they teach of love, friendship, compassion, courage, perseverance, adventure, mystery, learning, teaching, integrity, respect, responsibility, and a host of other character traits that will make our young people great.

Operational Fluency

I have briefly made reference to the concept of operational fluency in the past. It is the idea that students need to know more than just basic facts and standard algorithms in order to truly understand any given operation in mathematics. For example, students need to know addition facts from zero through twenty, the inverse relationships in subtraction, the multiplication facts from zero through twelve, and their inverse relationships through division. They need to know the standard algorithms for operations so that they can add, subtract, multiply, and divide with ease.

But they also need to know what is actually going on when performing an operation. That means understanding different change situations, such as an unknown starting quantity, unknown addition or subtraction, and unknown final quantity. Operational fluency means that students can recognise multiplicative or additive comparisons, equal-shares, and what a remainder represents.

We only have two items on our progress reports that relate to operational fluency. One is that students will use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems and assess the reasonableness of answers. The other is to use place value and properties of operations to perform multi-digit arithmetic. However, these concepts are fundamental to everything else we will do in math this year, which is why we spend so much time working with the four operations and developing fluency. Our first arithmetic unit focused on the properties of multiplication. We have just started our second unit, which will explore addition and subtraction properties. My goal is for students to understand that these basic operations are foundational to mathematics in general. I fully expect this unit to move quickly and I hope that students will use what we are learning throughout this unit as we move on to concepts beyond basic operations, especially adding and subtractions fractions and mixed numbers later in the year.

Classroom Jobs

Well, it took me over two years, but I finally got around to coming up with formal classroom jobs in my room! Up until this point, I have generally asked for volunteers or just randomly assigned a student (or group of students) to do a given task. I had been determined to get classroom jobs started this year and, after tossing around several ideas, I came up with a final list that would work well for our class. Posting our classroom jobs has also given me a use for one of the wall charts I’ve been hanging onto for some time, as well as a way to cover up the last remaining portion of my non-useable whiteboard!


(Job assignments will be identified with clothespins that have students names written on them.)


I introduced the jobs chart today but told the students that I would not be assigning jobs yet. First, I wanted to use an idea I picked up from a teacher at one of the conferences I attended this summer. (I honestly can’t remember who suggested it or which conference it was, though.) The idea is simple: before giving students jobs, they have to apply and convince me that I should hire them! (As a former small business owner, this idea appeals to me on multiple levels.) I looked around online and found a resource here that led me to this free download from TeachersPayTeachers, which is one of my favourite sources for teacher-developed, teacher-tested materials for all grades.

I explained the job application process to the class this morning and told asked them to start thinking about which jobs they would like to have and why they would be qualified to do them. We will be taking time tomorrow morning to fill our job applications and then I will make the first assignments. Jobs will changed once a week. I am excited to start this new project with my students and see how they do with taking more responsibility for our room!

Book Review: Managing the Madness

Some of you may recall a few months ago I wrote a book review for MiddleWeb, an online resource for middle grade teachers. After reviewing Guided Math in Action, I signed up to review another book, this time selecting one that was related to classroom management. After finishing the book I wrote a review for MiddleWeb and waited to hear if the review would be posted. I just received word last week that it was! Here’s the review I wrote about Managing the Madness: A Practical Guide to Middle Grades Classrooms:

Every now and then, I find a book written by a teacher, for teachers, that is full of such wonderful wisdom and advice that I wonder how I ever managed to teach a class without using the strategies recommended.

Jack C. Berckemeyer has written one of those books.

Managing the Madness truly is a practical guide to middle grades classrooms that I would recommend to everyone. While it is focused on middle schools, the strategies contained within easily transfer to working with students of any age. As I read, I found myself highlighting sections, taking pictures and posting them online, and thinking, “Oh my goodness! I am going to use this idea tomorrow!”

Managing the Madness A Practical Guide valencic

After providing a simple overview of his teaching career, Berckemeyer shares ideas he has used in his middle grades classrooms. He packs a lot into the 150 pages of this timeless book.

From classroom management to group work to hallways to detentions to homework, he guides the reader through common situations and offers advice on how to help students develop the skills they need to be successful and, in the process, helps the teachers develop the patience, concern, and empathy needed to reach these students.

While it is great to read that this book is well worth the read, I have always believed in the old adage that the proof is in the pudding. Here are just some of Jack Berckemeyer’s suggestions for working with middle grades students.

On classroom management:
“Classroom management is about trial and error; it comes through practice, patience, teamwork, flexibility, quality mentoring, willingness to seek help when needed, and a huge dose of humor… There is no one solution or strategy for every classroom management problem that will occur. Try new ideas, take time to listen to your students, trust your instincts, and most important—have some fun along the way.”

On keeping students engaged:
“Dry erase boards can be a teacher’s best friend. Place one under every students desk. When you ask a question, students can write their answers on the dry erase board; if they do not know the answer, they can draw a question mark. When they are done, ask them to use both hands to hold the boards up in the air as high as they can reach. This forces to them to stretch and sit up straight. In addition to engaging academically. They are physically active in a positive way.”

On working in groups:
“…You need to realize that when young adolescents are in a group, they will socialize. It is part of who they are; they crave interaction with their peers. Their need to laugh, debate, and argue in groups helps build social skills and social norms—a critical part of their development.”

On identifying with students:
“Getting a class back on track might mean breaking out into a current pop song. If you can’t sing, that’s even better. Pay attention to the newest movies and television shows. Make references that support what you might be teaching with a movie line or television catchphrase… Discard the “READ” poster with yesterday’s celebrities that young adolescents do not know. Be honest—some of the posters in your room cause you to wonder if the featured celebrity is still alive. Some classics, of course, are worth keeping such as the inflatable T-Rex or the life-sized cutout of you dressed in that unique spirit day outfit…”

On managing work:
“At the beginning of class, give students only half of the worksheet; later give them the other half. This strategy counters the tendency of students to look at the time in a class period and the number of questions and feel. ‘I will never finish this time.’ For some students that list of twenty questions is overwhelming, and they shut down before they even start… [Another strategy is to] start class by saying, ‘We have a million things to do today.’ Write on the board a list of 10 items that students need to complete by the end of the day. And don’t worry about overwhelming them. Here is the important part: of the list of 10 items, only 5 are real.”

There is so much more in this book that I just don’t have room to share! Whether your middle grade students are still at an elementary school or getting ready to enter high school, the strategies within this book really do work! Don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just make sure you laugh with your class when you do! Your students will love you for it.

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

How on earth have I managed to not write a review of the 2013 Newbery Medal recipient?! I started reading The One and Only Ivan over the summer, and finished it when I bought nearly two dozen new books for my classroom about a month ago. In fact, it was the very first book I read of the collection and, since I had already read most of it over the summer, I finished it in a very short period of time.

Although this blog is primarily a place for me to reflect on my day-to-day teaching, I am also using it to keep track of all the books I have read. So for those of you who happened to pop in today (or saw a link on Facebook or Twitter), you get a bonus-bonus post today!

Katherine Applegate’s story is a tender one about Ivan, the mighty silverback gorilla, Stella and Ruby, African elephants, and Bob, an old stray dog who hangs around the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where Ivan has lived in solitary captivity for many, many years. It was inspired by real events, and although the story itself is fictitious, the lessons learned and taught are true and important. Through Ivan we learn lessons of honesty, integrity, friendship, compassion, perseverance, respect, love, and trust.

The story is written in the first-person perspective of Ivan with flashbacks to his childhood mixed in with the present-day challenges he faces. Some of the chapters are just a few words long, while others are several pages. From beginning to end, the reader is captivated by Ms. Applegate’s story, which is, in many ways, the story of all creatures, both human and animal, that are trapped by circumstances often outside their own control. Despite the many great odds Ivan faces, he is able to overcome as he reminds himself that a promise is a promise.

Many of my students have already read this book, so I doubt it will make it into my classroom read-aloud list this year, but I will certainly be encouraging students to read it on their own and plan on reading it to an entire class in the years to come.

Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk

Have you ever noticed that parents have a way of sometimes spinning outlandish tales to explain otherwise mundane things? I know my father certainly does. There is an art to parental storytelling that includes pacing, sequence, hyperbole, and commentary. And, knowing that the storytelling probably is just a story, it seems that children absolutely delight in it!

I think this is what makes Neil Gaiman’s latest contribution to children’s literature so very wonderful. Fortunately, the Milk is the story of a boy, his sister, and their father, home together for a few days while their mother is on a business trip. The father is known for being a little scatter-brained, so the mother makes sure she leaves him very, very, very detailed instructions. One morning the children wake up to discover there is no milk for their cereal and their father decides to go to the corner market to get some.

He is gone for ages and ages and ages. When he returns, the children ask what took so long. And then begins a classic parental story of adventure and heroism. Abducted by space aliens, kidnapped by pirates, and saved by a super-intelligent time-traveling dinosaur, father outwits worshipers of Splod, escapes from wumpires, and saves the world from being remodeled by snot-like creatures from space. Throughout, father manages to, fortunately, hold onto the milk and keep it safe.

The children tell him that they don’t believe a word of his tale, but the end makes you wonder: was it actually true?

Accompanying Mr. Gaiman’s masterful storytelling are delightful illustrations by Scottie Young. Fortunately, the Milk is likely to become a personal favourite that I read to my students, other children, and myself year after year after year. Not only is the story fantastic, the writer’s craft that Neil Gaiman uses will allow this short story to serve as a mentor text for organisation, word choice, voice, and so many other traits of quality writing!

Book Review: Because Of Mr. Terupt

Last year for our community’s “Battle of the Books” competition, several of my students read a story called Because Of Mr. Terupt. Every single student who read it insisted that I read it because, according to them, I am Mr. Terupt. I accepted the compliment without fully understanding it, but because I had a huge pile of books to get through, I never got around to it until yesterday.

I finished it this morning.

It has been a very long time since I have stayed up way later than I should to read a book. It has been a long time since I have woken up far earlier than I should after staying up so late to finish a book. In fact, I don’t even remember the last time I did before just now. Because Of Mr. Terupt is just one of those books. It is told in the voices of seven different fifth grade students who are in a classroom with a teacher who is young, new, and full of crazy ideas. Time to learn estimation? Do it by figuring out approximately how many blades of grass are in a soccer field! Need to learn how plants grow? Plant your own seeds and take care of them, feeding them whatever you want! A student is being mean to others? Wait for the others to realise the strength in numbers. You want your students to learn compassion? Read them Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars and collaborate with the self-contained special needs class in the building.

As I read this wonderful story, I thought about what I do in the classroom and I thought about why my students feel that I am just like Mr. Terupt. And then I thought about the teachers win my own life who had the same kind of impact on me when I was younger. In somewhat chronological order, then:

  • Ms. McNamara, my fourth grade teacher. She is the reason I am a fourth grade teacher today. She helped me awaken my potential, discover my talents, and realise that I really could accomplish anything I set my heart on. She let my best friends and I work together in collaborative groups (provided we actually worked), she taught us to explore the world around us and to take risks.
  • Sister Quinn, my Sunday School teacher for more years than I can count. I don’t remember a single specific lesson she taught us over the years, but I do remember knowing that she sincerely cared about each and every one of us.
  • Mr. Bell, my eighth grade science teacher. He was a kooky guy, he was a weirdo, he was a geek, and he was my teacher. He was also my Scholastic Bowl coach and let me and one of my best friends come back to visit from time to time and take on the entire middle school team, just for fun.
  • Mr. Madsen, my freshman English teacher. He walked around with a yard stick that he’d used as a pointer for over 25 years. He taught us to love Shakespeare, to appreciate a variety of literature, and to have fun. He taught us that if we ever needed to use the bathroom in an emergency it would be better for us to just go rather than coming up to ask him and having an accident. (I have the same policy with my students.) And he taught us to avoid words like “stuff” and “thing” when describing different situations.
  • Mr. Tallman, my high school band director. He was crazy. He was passionate. He would sweat like crazy during rehearsals. He laughed, he joked, he sang, he danced. He was also my Scholastic Bowl coach. And he assisted the choir director, often taking us boys to work on our parts. He challenged us to tackle incredibly difficult music and guided us in overcoming obstacles.
  • Mr. Hershberger, my high school… you know, I never had him in a class, but he was still a teacher for me. He was the drama department director and taught me everything I know about set construction and using a follow spot (also known as a spot light). He and I worked closely together on every play and every musical for four years. He mentored me and taught me how to mentor others. He allowed me to make mistakes and then taught me how to correct them.
  • Mr. Brunner, my high school calculus teacher. I never would have thought “advanced mathematics” and “fun” would be used in the same sentence to describe a class, but that is the only way I can describe AP Honors Calculus with Mr. Brunner. It was the most challenging class of my life. I struggled to understand the concepts, I spent hours with my friends on the weekends working on complex mathematical problems, but we came to class, we learned together, and we had fun! It is because of Mr. Brunner that I have a shirt that proudly proclaims my love for the Greek letter theta.
  • Mom and Dad, my mother and father. They have taught me throughout my entire life, through their counsel, their advice, their examples. When I messed up, they patiently helped me understand what I had done wrong and why it was wrong. When I succeeded, they joined in the celebrations. They came to nearly every performance, every competition, every event that was important. They pushed me to solve my own problems but have always made sure that I know that they are there to help whenever I need it.

To these men and women, my heartfelt thanks and gratitude. They have all helped me become the man I am today and the teacher I am today. I hope that I will always make them proud.

Book Review: The Mighty Miss Malone

I know that not everyone loves reading for pleasure but, honestly, I can’t imagine not doing so! Even when I was in college and swamped with assignments that took up much of my time, I still read for pleasure as often as I always have. Which is probably why I also feel like there is something magical about learning important life lessons through stories. Literature allows me to break away from the world around me and experience another time, another place, another life, and then return, having been greatly improved by the experience.

When I think about authors who teach these lessons so well, I think of many, but I have recently come to really, really, really enjoy the books written by Christopher Paul Curtis. I haven’t read all of them, but every selection I’ve read has been a fantastically well-written tale that captures the beauty of persevering in the face of great trial and struggle. The first book by Mr. Curtis that I read was Bud, Not Buddy which was recommended by several teacher friends online last year. I heard that he had, ten years later, finally written a sort-of sequel to the story, although it is more like a companion novel. This book is The Mighty Miss Malone and brings us back to the time of the Great Depression. It focuses on the struggles of African-American families, as most of Mr. Curtis’s books do, but the lessons apply to everyone. It is especially interesting to read now when so many people in America of all ethnicities are hurting from the poor economic situation. Even as we are told that things are improving, there are many who have not yet seen these improvements, especially in my community. Reading about Deza Malone and her family’s struggles to make ends meet, to provide for themselves, and to find independence without losing each other reminds us of the struggles that our friends and neighbours are experiencing right now.

Usually when I read a book, there is some brief passage that feels like it captures the entire story. A quote that I can reference that allows me to explain why you should read this book for yourself. The Mighty Miss Malone does not have such a passage, at least not in the actual story. There is something in the author’s afterword, though, that I feel does explain it. It is his own reason for writing this story. Who better to ask than the author himself?

What I want The Mighty Miss Malone to do is, first, to provide an enjoyable read. Second, as with all of my books, I want this to be a springboard for young people to ask questions and do more research on some of the themes the book explores, in this case the Great Depression and poverty in general. And third, I hope that Deza can serve as a voice for the estimated fifteen million American children who are poor, who go to bed hungry and whose parents struggle to make a dignified living to feed and care for them.

If for no other reason, I hope that students and families will read this story to remind themselves that they are not alone, but also that they are not without hope.

The Best-Laid Schemes

When it comes to poetry, I am becoming more and more a fan of the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns. I once heard someone recite a poem by him in the Scottish accent that was contemporary to the author. It was fantastically wonderful! I admit that I am not well-versed in all of his works, but there is one poem, that is probably one of his most famous, that always captures my attention: To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough. The stanza near the end is especially dear to me:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

I am reading a book by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Mighty Miss Malone, and the line about things going “aft agley” is a common theme. The main character of the story, Deza Malone, often wonders what it means for things to go “aft agley.” By the end of the story, though, she figures it out.

I see things go aft agley quite often as a teacher. Despite all of my best-laid schemes, things have a way of going completely askew without me really getting a chance to right them in advance. Today is just one example. I had planned on giving my students a math test this afternoon, as we have finished our mini-unit in geometry on quadrilaterals. I made copies of the exam early, had everything ready, made sure we had plenty of time, passed them out, and got my class started on the simple 10-question exam that we had reviewed for.

And then someone pointed out that the answers were visible on the paper.

You see, teachers’ editions of assessment materials have the answers printed on the page, often in light blue or pink, so that they don’t get copied by the machine. Unless, of course, the machine is super-sensitive and picks up everything. Which, apparently, our photocopier does. Well, I couldn’t just leave my class to make new copies, and I didn’t have a back-up plan for the period of time for the test, and I also didn’t want to just waste the time we had. So I asked my students to treat it as a practice test, do it on their own, and then use the faintly-printed answers to check their work.

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley!

It all worked out in the end and we will be able to move onward, ever onward next week, but, you know, that is one of the secrets to teaching: you have to just go with the flow, adjust as needed, and always remember that tomorrow is another day!

UIUC REACT Chemistry Program

I know I’ve mentioned before that I really, really, really love inviting special guests to visit my classroom. We haven’t had a large number of guests yet this year (although we have had a goodly number), but I think we’ve averaged special guests about once every three weeks or so. (This is totally a rough estimate, by the way!) Some of our guests have been invited directly by me (such as my father-in-law and my friends from the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant), and others contacted me asking if I’d be interested in a visit (such as the U of I Wildlife Society). We have also had guests who have come in to present to the entire school, like Fireman Phil and the local jazz combo.

Today we had some guests visiting the two fourth grade classrooms in the year. They are a part of the University of Illinois School of Chemical Sciences outreach program, called REACT Chemistry. (I don’t know if REACT stands for anything; the website is a little out of date.) We learned about the REACT program when the student who coordinates fourth grade visits contacted us and asked if we would be interested in a visit. We talked about it and agreed that any exposure we can give our students to the resources and programs available at the university are worth bringing to our classrooms!

The other fourth grade teacher and I looked at our schedules, picked a date, and asked the REACT coordinator if it would work. He agreed and arranged to have four chemistry students visit our classes for one hour each. We planned the visit for this afternoon at the end of the day. It was fantastic! The REACT students were great with our students, well-prepared, and engaging. They shared a forensic sciences module that had the students exploring a wide variety of concepts! I was pleased to see that they made sure everyone in my class wore safety goggles when working with chemicals, even though they were all perfectly safe. It was a wonderful way to end an otherwise dreary, chill, rainy day!

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New Bulletin Board

We have several bulletin boards in the hallways of our school. At the start of each year, our principal asks teachers to take ownership of a board and use it well. I have one bulletin board outside my room that is currently showcasing my students’ commitment to Choose Kind. There is another small bulletin board between my room and the restrooms that I started using last year to post announcements about different school and community events.

I decided this year that I really wanted to use a bulletin board to showcase what my students have been doing with their reading buddies in first grade. I found a board that was not being used yet and offered to claim it for the year. We meet with our reading buddies once a week and every couple of weeks we introduce a graphic organiser for the partners to do together. After collecting enough samples, I decided it was time to start designing my bulletin board.

First I hunted down pre-cut letters that would fit a description. I had a late idea to make it open enough that other teachers can contribute to the board if they are interested. I also wanted it to be simple enough to capture attention. Then I had to figure out how to display the students’ work. I had three different organisers to work with: one was a six-panel comic-style summary sheet, another was a small yellow “exit pass,” and the third was a “circle story” organiser. Instead of trying to fit all of them on the board (almost 75 samples altogether!), I chose to select a few from each category that showed the diversity of students’ ideas and the stories they have read.

All in all, it took me almost 45 minutes to get the board fully designed and put up, but I think it looks pretty good. Now to get other teachers to provide samples so we can show that it isn’t just fourth graders reading with younger students!


Nobody Wants To Be “Nice”

There are certain words that I hear students say over and over and over again that simply drive me crazy. I usually try to ignore them, chalking it up to my own weird idiosyncrasies. But one word has been popping up in my classroom all the time now that we are passing the Golden Apple Award around every day.

That word is “nice.”

And it is one of those words that drives me crazy. I know I am guilty of using it from time to time, but I try really hard not to. “Nice” is just so boring! Nobody wants to be “nice.” “Nice” is what we say about someone when we can’t think of anything else to say. “Nice” is what we say when we don’t want to say anything mean but can’t really think of anything, well, nice. It is boring. Bland. Devoid of meaning, texture, subtlety, or contemplation.

I told my class today that I wanted them to stop calling people “nice” and think of other words to use: cheerful, friendly, courteous, kind, interesting, entertaining, engaging, pleasant, awesome, thoughtful, caring, empathetic, bright, a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary world. Anything but “nice”.

I think most of them got it. It will be interesting to see if they take it to heart and start being more creative in how they describe others, though! So tell me, what words would you use to describe someone without using “nice”?

More On The Writing Process

As promised, this quarter is going to see a big focus on developing our writing skills in our classroom. While I am not particularly planning on participating in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I am glad that this push has coincided with the start of November.

We have been going over the writing process quite frequently over the past couple of weeks. Today I decided it was time to crack open one of the writing resources I have in my classroom: the Write Source textbook. It is a fantastic text that provides an overview of the writing process and the six traits of writing (content, organisation, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions), and then provides detailed explanations of each phase of the writing process. (It is tempting to refer to them as steps, but this would be a mistake because writing is not a linear process. Rather, it is kind of a wibbly-wobbly ball of timey-wimey stuff.) Another great strength of the book is that it provides great exemplars for how students develop their own writing and also has quotes from well-known authors about how they have developed their craft.

Our main focus at the start of this writing unit is improving our prewriting (planning) and early drafting. I really want my students to get into the habit of producing quality writing that is of a sufficient quantity to really get their ideas. Writing just a couple of sentences and proclaiming the work to be finished just isn’t going to cut it these days. Using the textbook, I had the students work in small groups to read an example of how one student went through the writing process. When the groups finished reading, I challenged them to use what they learned and apply it to their own writing.

We worked on these literacy tasks through most of the morning. I was pleased to see students going over writing projects they started earlier and adding details, removing unnecessary sections, clarifying ideas, and seeking input from peers. I have great hopes for the growth of my students to become world-class writers! It will take time, dedication, and perseverance, but if they set their minds to it, I am confident they will be successful!