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

Archive for December, 2013

Looking Forward to 2014

I spend a lot of time on this blog reflecting on my teaching and what happens in and around my classroom. That makes sense, since this is, primarily, a blog about what happens in and around my classroom. But I also spend a lot of time off the blog reflecting on my personal expectations for Adventures in Teaching Fourth. I don’t write about this nearly as much, but today I will make an exception because a) it is December 31, b) I just reviewed my official WordPress Annual Report and c) it is early in the morning and my herbal tea is still steeping, so I don’t have much else to do right now.

I suppose that before I get into what I expect of this blog, I should review my stated purpose for blogging. This can be found in my blogging manifesto (which I have recently reviewed and updated for the fourth time), borrowed and adapted from an online colleague’s blog, that can be found in the upper right-hand corner of the page. I won’t copy it all here, but the section on my rights and responsibilities is particularly relevant to this topic:

As an educator who chooses to blog, I have the following rights:

  • I have the right to use my blog to reflect on my teaching journey, honestly and openly.
  • I have the right to collaborate with educators from all over the world.
  • I have the right to wonder what is best practice, debate education policies/practices/teaching styles, and question what is not working within our system in general and my classroom specifically.
  • I have the right to use my blog to process a difficult day, as long as I stay within the limits of the responsibilities listed below.

As an education blogger, I have the following responsibilities:

  • I will never forget the purpose for why I’m blogging.
  • I will always write about my students in such a manner that if parents found this blog they would know that I respect every aspect of their child’s learning.
  • I will always write about my co-workers, including all members of the faculty and staff of the buildings in which I work, in a way that reflects their strengths.
  • I will not write anything that will prevent anyone, especially myself and my colleagues, from doing his or her job.

By acknowledging these rights and responsibilities, I will be better able to:

  • Communicate with educators, parents, and others from all over the world
  • Become more reflective in my teaching
  • Improve my teaching practices to best benefit my students
  • Find the silver linings inside the most frustrating of days
  • Keep a sense of humor, which, in turn, allows me to be a stronger teacher who comes back to work day after day inspired, energized, and ready for a challenge.

To summarise all of those bullet points, my purpose in blogging about teaching is to reflect on what I am doing in a way that is positive, productive, and helpful. I often use an acronym to help my students quickly reflect before they say or do anything. I thought I’d shared this before, but I can’t find it, so I am guessing I never did. It is fairly simple: THINK! Ask yourself the following questions:


Likewise as a teacher, I need to THINK before I post anything online, especially if it is about students, parents, colleagues, or administrators! What this means in practice is that if there is a part of my day that is frustrating, I can still write about it, but I can do so in a way that will help us process what worked well, what didn’t, and what we can do better the next day.

I also use my blog as another way to communicate with parents, teachers, and members of the community. I include my URL on every newsletter I send home, it is linked by my name on my school’s website, and links are shared publicly through a variety of social networking services, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Tumblr. (And yes, that is just another of the many reasons that I will NEVER use the name of a student on my blog and I will ONLY use the name of colleagues or other adults with explicit permission.)

So, getting back to that original question, what do I expect for Adventures of Teaching Fourth in 2014?


I’m not really sure.

I know I want to continue what I have been doing: blog each day I am with students to share at least one highlight of the day. Think about what I am doing and why I am doing it. Invite others to read and share these posts. Keep track of the books I have been reading, particularly those that relate to my work, regardless of genre.

I also know what I would love to see happen: more comments. I know that I have on average 40 unique visitors to my blog each day, but I have no idea who these people are or why they are coming. I would be delighted to see more parents visiting and leaving brief comments, anonymous or not, to let me know they are reading and discussing with their children; for teachers, administrators, and other interested parties to share their thoughts; for suggestions on what I can do better in teaching and/or on topics to write about in the future. But I also have to be completely honest here: if I did not have a single visitor to my blog, I would continue to write. I am doing this primarily for me, to keep track of what I am doing. I share it with others because it is a medium I enjoy using and believe that others enjoy, as well.

The coming year is going to be a great one! Thank you, one and all, for being a part of my journey. I look forward to continuing to reflect on my own adventures!

Working Together, Learning to Fail

Working together in collaborative groups is such an important skill for not just my students, but, really, everyone everywhere. Humans are social creatures; we simply have to learn to work with other people, whether they are friends, family, or complete strangers. Over the past fifteen years, I have spent a lot of time learning about group dynamics, positive leadership, and ways to promote collaboration. It should be no surprise, then, that I have also spent a lot of time learning how to teach these skills to my students.

love collaborative groups in the classroom. I use them in literacy, in math, in social studies, in physical education, and in science. Almost all of the work we do in science, actually, is done in groups. Typically, I allow students pick their groups, but today I wanted to see what would happen if I assigned the groups randomly. I expected that the students would find themselves working with peers that they have not worked with as much in the past.

I also wanted to give the students a challenging task for their groups. I had several do-it-yourself kits in my electricity and magnetism tubs that I wanted them to figure out how to build. One kit was an FM radio, one was an electric motor, one was a solar array, and one was a collection of wires and switches that could be used for different circuits. I handed out the kits with the directions and told the students that they had to work with their groups to try to build whatever their kit was.

Something interesting happened in the process: the groups failed. All of them. Spectacularly.

The FM radio wouldn’t work, the motor wouldn’t start, the solar array wouldn’t stay in place, and the closed circuit didn’t do anything.

Needless to say, all of the students were very frustrated. They had the parts, they had the directions, they tried to follow them, but nothing worked the way they had expected.

To be honest, I had actually hoped this would be the case. My students have all had positive experiences with success. They know what it is like to set a a goal and complete it without problems. They know how to work with a group to accomplish a task. But I don’t think as many of them have learned what to do when something doesn’t work out. And I realised something: as important as it is to learn how to do something right, it is also important to learn how to cope with failure.

I am reminded of a comment that a friend of mine made when discussing his research in theoretical physics. Back when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland was being built to try to prove whether or not the Higgs Boson existed, I learned that while the physics community would have been excited to prove the existence of a theoretical particle, there were many who were hoping that the experiment would not work. Why? Because it would mean that the researchers would have to start back at the beginning to try find another possible solution. Failure is not the end. It is just an opportunity to start over and try something new!

We are done with the first semester now. We have accomplished so much since August, but we still have a long way to go. As I look over my students assessments and work samples, I am reminded of this conversation with my friend. There are some things that we have learned, mastered, and moved on to the next level of complexity. There are other things that we have tried to learn but still need to work on. Rather than focusing on the failure, though, I will spend the next two weeks during the winter break thinking about new ways to approach the concepts and skills that we haven’t mastered yet.

Enjoy the winter break! I won’t be updating every day, but please check back from time to time for any announcements, book reviews, and special posts!

Reading Buddy Celebration

Today was the last Wednesday of the semester, which means it was the last time that my students got together with their first grade reading buddies. The first grade teacher and I decided to make today a celebration and wanted the students to create something together. She found a simple wood block photo holder from Oriental Trading and I took pictures of all the buddies.

We brought the classes together about fifteen minutes earlier than usual and gave them their photo holders. Then we passed out stickers, crayons, and markers and let the students decorate their wood blocks. They worked on decorating for about 40 minutes and then we let them read together for about twenty minutes.

The wood blocks turned out really well! The students loved using the stickers to decorate and my fourth graders did an amazing job helping their first grade friends! I finally have photographs of all of the reading buddies and will be getting them printed this evening. Tomorrow we will hand out pictures and the students will be able to take them home with their photo holders or keep them at school.

Come January, we will continue working together. The first graders have definitely benefited from reading with their fourth grade friends. Their oral reading fluency has improved dramatically, their confidence in interacting with texts has gotten stronger. Additionally, my students have learned patience, leadership, and friendship, in addition to improving their own reading skills. I am really happy about how well things have gone this year and cannot wait until January to pick it up again!

Football and Math

I’m not a particularly athletic guy. I ride my bike whenever I can, but, due to factors like having no depth perception and possibly exercise-induced asthma (or something very similar to it), I don’t do many other things that are sports-related. However, I’ve generally had an interest in sports, although it has definitely ebbed and flowed over the years. Right now, for example, my greatest interest is in championships games/series and college basketball. I also keep my eye on college football. I also really enjoy keeping up with sports that aren’t as popular in the United States, like rugby and soccer.

And yet somehow I managed to use football (American football, that is) concepts to teach a geometry lesson today.

Shocking, right?

Don’t worry; I was probably just as surprised! I don’t think any of my students were, though, possibly because they don’t actually realise that I don’t play sports.

I am sure you are wondering how I came about using football to teach geometry today, anyway. It wasn’t actually planned. I was teaching the students about the different methods of classifying triangles: by the angles (acute, right, or obtuse) and by the sides (scalene, isosceles, and equilateral). We had gone over the classification of angles yesterday, so it was an easy transition from angles to triangles. Classification by sides was a little more difficult, especially because the words are rather unusual.

A scalene triangle has no equal sides. There is no other word we use in English that has a similar or related meaning, so there’s no easy way to make a connection between scalene and unequal sides. (If you know a strategy that works, please, please, please share it with me!)

An isosceles triangle has two equal sides. This one is also difficult to equate to its meaning because we don’t use very many words that start with iso- in our language. (There are quite a few, actually, but they tend to be technical words.) Iso- is a Greek affix that means equal-sceles comes to us from Greek as well, and it is a word that we may think we recognise: skelos, which means leg. (You may be thinking this is the root for the word skeleton, but, alas, that is not correct. But if it helps to make the connection, I support that!) But since we don’t use these Greek words often in our language, we are again stuck with find our own memory trick.

The third type of triangle, an equilateral triangle, is actually much easier for us to decode. The prefix equi- means equal and we use it in a wide variety of words. The second part of the word, -lateral is a word that we have seen in our class when learning about quadrilaterals, but some of the students were having trouble remembering what it means. And this is where the football reference came to the rescue.

Several of the boys in my  class play football. One of the boys is actually the son of the Urbana Junior Football League coach. I have a miniature football in my classroom so I brought it out and asked if anyone knew what a lateral pass was in football. Some had heard the term but weren’t sure of the actual meaning. So I had one of my football players demonstrate it with me. We showed the difference between a forward pass and a lateral pass and I asked again: what do you do when you execute a lateral pass? Several students realised it was simply throwing the ball to the side instead of forward. I asked, “So if the lateral pass is a pass to the side, what does lateral mean?” Then the lights went on and almost everyone called out the answer: lateral means side! That means that an equilateral triangle is a closed figure with three equal sides!

Using football to teach geometry today reminded me of this scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus when Mr. Holland, the music teacher, has to explain to his principal why he is using rock and roll music in the classroom:

Principal Jacobs: “Mr. Holland, I do not want to interfere in the curriculum of any teacher. But next week, I have a meeting with the school board. And there are people in this community who believe that rock and roll is a message sent from the devil himself. Now when that issue comes up, what can I tell them?”

Mr. Holland: “Mrs. Jacobs, you tell them that I am teaching music, and that I will use anything from Beethoven to Billie Holiday to rock and roll, if I think it’ll help me teach a student to love music.”

Likewise for me. I will use whatever it takes to help students find the connective tissue between what they are learning and what they already know!

Finding the Main Idea

Determining the main idea of a text is one of those crucial skills related to reading comprehension that we learn in fourth grade. It is a topic we have touched on throughout the year, but today I wanted to make a major focus on this, using explicit and implicit details as the foundation.

This is not anything new to my fourth grade classroom, but it was something new for us this year. (For example, you can read what I’ve done in the past here, here, and here.) As I have done in the past, I used one of my all-time favourite authors as the basis for our discussion: Dr. Seuss. His stories are wonderfully simple on the surface but have deeper meanings that make them valuable for children and adults alike.

To start the lesson, I introduced the key words and asked the students if they knew what they meant. A few had an idea of what it meant for something to be explicit, such as it being “right there” or “very clear.” I gave an example of a parent giving explicit directions to take out the trash or make the room. Implicit was a little more difficult for them to articulate. So I gave another example from home: a student gets home and her mom asks her to “keep an eye” on her little sister. What does that mean? One student said, “It means to watch her.” To which I responded, “Okay, so you are watching your sister as she climbs up on the roof and jumps off into the snow with an umbrella, thinking she can fly. You did what your mom asked, right?” I was immediately corrected and told that you have to make sure that your sister is being safe. I asked how they knew that. When someone else explained that it is known because you understand what your parents mean, I pointed out that this is an example of drawing inferences by using implicit details. The class then articulated that implicit details are the ones that you understand from context without being told directly.

This was a literacy lesson, though, so I then tied it to the book we are using for our read aloud: Hattie Big Sky. I askec for examples of explicit details from the story. Some of the ones students gave were the name of the main characters (Hattie Inez Brooks, Perilee Mueller, Rooster Jim, Traft Martin, etc) and key details from the plot (Hattie inherited her uncle’s Montana homestead claim, she writes letters to her friend Charlie who is serving in the army in France, Hattie owes $220 for fencing supplies that her uncle bought on credit). Then we tried to tease out some of the implicit details: Hattie’s relationship with Charlie seems to be more than just friends, Hattie’s thoughts on the value of friends and loved ones over everything, etc.

I made a point of differentiating between the plot, which uses explicit details (characters, setting, what happens first, second, third) and main idea, which uses implicit details to express the author’s message (sometimes called the lesson or moral of the story). We finally got to Dr. Seuss and discussed the plot and main idea of well-known stories such as How the Grinch Stole ChristmasHorton Hears a Who, and The Lorax. After doing all this, the students got together in their reading groups and worked on writing summaries and identifying the main idea of their respective books: The Watsons Go To Birmingham–1963Heaven, One Crazy Summer, and The Hundred Penny Box.

I feel that most of the students have quickly grasped these concepts. We will more on them more throughout the week and then build on these concepts throughout the year. We will also look at the difference between the main idea of a work of fiction compared to the main idea of a nonfiction text. (There are, of course, similarities, too.) All things considered, I feel like today was an excellent start to what will be a common theme in my classroom!

Fourth Grade Drama

I will be the first to tell you that, as a general rule, I just don’t care for drama in fourth grade. But then I would have to clarify what I mean by that. After all, there is good drama and there is bad drama. I like good drama. It is the bad drama, the peer conflicts that permeate nearly every intermediate classroom in the world, that I dislike. This, unfortunately, is the type of behaviour that is being described when someone talks about “drama” within a school setting.

But there is a good kind of drama. It is the drama that I got to watch this afternoon. As part of our district’s fine arts program, my students are able to participate in six-week rotations in visual arts, music, dance, and, of course, drama. Our intermediate music teacher, who I’ve talked about before, is also our intermediate dance teacher and our intermediate drama teacher. So my students get to spend quite a large amount of time each year with her!

During the past several weeks, the students have been in the drama rotation. Working with their drama teacher, they have been learning about plays, reading and selecting scripts, and acting out those plays. Admittedly, with just six weeks, these are definitely not highly-polished stage productions with elaborate sets, costumes, and props. In fact, there were not sets, costumes, props, or even a stage. (At least, not a traditional stage.) But they were able to act out their plays in the drama room.

To make it more interesting, it was decided that my class would perform their plays for the other fourth grade class and vice versa. This meant that nearly our entire afternoon today was spent in drama. It was really fun watching the dozen or so plays that the fourth graders learned and performed this quarter! They all did a great job, both as actors and as audience members. And, of course, a huge thank you to our amazing music/dance/drama teacher for making it all possible!

A Cappella

Fourth graders have an amazingly wide variety of interests. This is one of the reasons that I absolutely love teaching this grade level. Not only are they interested in just about everything in the world (as am I), they are willing to share these interests with anyone and everyone at any given moment!

About a month ago or so, some of the fourth grade girls in the two classes started sharing songs that they had written and/or learned with me and the other fourth grade teacher. They usually did this during recess, breaking out into song without much warning. My fourth grade partner, being the wonderfully intuitive person that she is, started finding YouTube videos of a cappella groups and sharing them with her class. She mentioned this to me, and then we both mentioned it to our music teacher.

That was all it took to get the ball rolling on another fantastic arts infusion project. The University of Illinois has a number of award-winning a cappella groups. The music teacher reached out to them and asked if they would be willing to do a performance for our fourth graders. One of the groups said they could do so, but they asked for payment that was quite simply outside our school’s budget. Another group, though, offered to do so at a discounted price. Then we learned about a grant opportunity through an arts-in-the-schools benefactor from New York. An application was made and she agreed to fund the visit!

Over the past two weeks, the fourth graders have been learning about a cappella music during our arts infusion time. They have also been preparing for this visit, thinking about questions they could ask the performers and how a cappella would differ from the music they hear on the radio or other places.

The University of Illinois Rip Chords, an all-female a cappella group, came this afternoon and performed for all of the intermediate grades. The first piece they did was our school’s theme song for the year: Brave by Sara Bareilles.

After singing a variety of other songs, including You Make My Dreams Come True by Hall & Oates and Signed, Sealed, Delivered by Stevie Wonder, the Rip Chords took questions from the students. I was so happy that the fourth graders’ questions were meaningful and relevant to the type of music they were listening to! After several questions, the Rip Chords closed with a signature number, their cover of Yesterday by The Beatles.

It was a great way to end the day! A huge thank you to our music teacher, to our benefactor from New York, and our fourth grade students who shared their interests and got us all thinking about this unique musical style!