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!