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

Archive for February, 2014

Understanding Wasted Time

As a classroom teacher, one of my biggest pet peeves is wasted time. This is different from down time (when take a break to reenergise) or transition time (when we are going from one task to another and haven’t yet learned the impossible art of moving seamlessly from one to the other without any pause). Wasted time is what happens when I have to pause a lesson because students are talking and not paying attention. Wasted time is what happens when a student or a group of students leave the room and everyone else stops what they are doing to worry about them, instead. I value every minute I have with my students and I would hope that they value every minute they have, too.

But the reality is that some time is going to be wasted. Maybe it is because I don’t give the students a break when they need it and they lose focus. Maybe it is because there is too much stimulation or too many distractions. And maybe it is just because my students are 9- and 10-year-olds who are still learning self-regulation. So I try to take wasted time and turn it into teachable moments. To guide the students through an understanding of how time was wasted, why it was wasted, and how they can better manage themselves so that it will not happen again. (Or at least, not happen as much!)

Today I decided to use our morning meeting to better understand how quickly wasted time can multiply and how that can impact learning time. I started by asking the class to make an estimate as to how much time is lost in the classroom each day due to things like students talking, moving around, distracting others, etc. The estimates ranged from anywhere to five minutes to an hour. I have not actually measured it this year, so I am not sure, but the average estimate from my students’ perception was about 30 minutes a day. (I would guess it is actually much, much lower, but I wanted to honour their perceptions.) Then we did some calculations:

  • If the students wasted 30 minutes a day for 165 days, they would log 4,950 minutes in a school year.
  • 4,950 minutes is equal to 82.5 hours
  • Since we spend roughly 7 hours a day in school, those 82.5 hours are approximately 12 days of school.
  • A student who reads 100 words per minute could read 495,000 words during this time. (They grade level target is between 120 and 160 words per minute, though.)
  • The average middle grade book contains something close to 35,000 words. That means those 495,000 words are close to 14 complete books that could be reading in just one year. (Of course, the flip side of this is that if students read just 30 minutes a day while in school, they should be able to read at least 14 grade-level chapter books by the end of the year. That’s  certainly something to think about when setting goals for the future!)

After doing these computations with the students (they did the multiplication and division with limited support from me), they all agreed that wasted time is definitely a big issue that really matters. Even with ISAT testing all of next week, I am going to start keeping track of the time so that my students can better understand what they are using their time for and how they can better manage themselves. We will also set goals for decreasing wasted time between now and the end of the year. I admire my students’ ability to think critically about themselves, identify weaknesses, and come up with strategies to fix problems. It will be interesting to see what happens from this day on!

Other Uses for T-Charts

For the past two weeks, the fourth graders in my classroom have been learning how to use T-charts for organising and explaining their mathematical thinking. When we first started, they had a difficult time slowing down and really thinking about not just what they were doing but why they were doing it. But now that we’ve been doing them for several days, they are much more comfortable using this particular tool.

One of the (extremely justified) worries teachers have whenever they introduce a new tool or model a particular way of doing something is that the students will convince themselves that that is the only way to use it or do it. I see this happening all the time. When the students begin an independent project and I show an exemplar from a past year, such as a poster, at least 80% of the class will do a poster, even when I provide a list of other options. But that’s just the nature of modeling. We spend so much time teaching young children to “do as I’m doing” that we forget that we need to then teach them to think outside the presented model and consider alternative uses. So we need teach them other ways to do it and then give them ample time to practice that, too.

So today I decided it was time to expand our use of the T-charts. While they are an invaluable tool for organising and explaining the steps of a mathematical problem, there are other ways to use this simple organiser. One way I shared today was for taking notes while reading. It doesn’t matter whether the text is fiction or nonfiction, the principle is the same: on the left side, you list what you read (using just a few words); on the right side, you list why it is important to the narrative or the concept.

The students used our social studies history text to get started. There is a section in the book that lists 12 key events leading up to the Revolutionary War, with 1-2 short paragraphs summarising what happened. So, armed with a blank paper and a pencil, they set out to use a T-chart to take notes. While I was introducing this, one student made the comment that she thought T-charts were only for math. Once I explained the other uses, though, she and others in the class agreed that it would be a useful way to take notes. We will use these some more tomorrow to explore using T-charts with other texts as well.

Student Growth Objectives

As a result of new legislation regarding education and teacher evaluation in Illinois, our building, along with our entire district and, hopefully, most of the state, has been working on establishing Student Growth Objectives that are used to guide instruction and give teachers a focus on at least one area of assessment throughout the year. There is a lot of “teacherese” built into this legislation, which is, of course, also mixed with “legalese,” making the overall goal difficult for non-teachers and non-politicians to unpack. In fact, they are difficult for teachers to unpack only because the language is new and unfamiliar, even within our profession.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time delving into the nitty-gritty of Student Growth Objectives (also known as SGOs, because we don’t have enough acronyms in our profession yet), but if you are interested there are some blogs that I personally recommend, especially Dr. Rich Voltz’s Ed Leadership Thoughts, which I found through my mum, who is a long-time school board member in Washington, Illinois, where I grew up. What I do want to acknowledge is the amazing growth my students have already made this year on the objective my fourth grade partner and I selected.

We looked over all of our learning standards and talked about the crucial skills that the fifth grade teachers have said the students must have in order to be ready for the next year. In the process of these conversations, we realised that many of our math standards tie into each other and the one skill that will tie directly to nearly all of the others in mutli-digit multiplication, specifically learning the two-digit by two-digit vertical algorithm (that is, the traditional way to multiply two two-digit numbers that almost all of us learned when we were in school).

In order to measure growth, we had to know where the students were at the start, so we developed a simple ten-problem quiz using a tool from and gave the quiz to all of our students. Of the 48 students we had at the time, only one student knew how to solve problems like these, and that student scored a 70%. Keep in mind that we had not done any teaching of this skill yet. The initial quiz was to determine where they were. Then we started teaching the unit, sometimes working with our own classes, sometimes by mixing the classes up into differentiated groups. There was a lot of teaching, practicing, teaching more, practicing more, and quick quizzes and assessments along the way to let us know what we still needed to do and who still needed more specialised help.

By the end of the first semester we had spent weeks on this skill (while teaching a lot of other things, too, of course) and decided it was time for a mid-year assessment. There was considerable growth, with about a third of the students scoring 80% or better and another third very close to the target. Time continued on, we continued to teach this skill along with other topics, and we continued to assess as we went along.

I gave my class another ten-question quiz today, much like the one we used at the beginning of the year, and was thrilled beyond words to see the noticeable growth in my students! I still have some who are struggling to master the algorithm, but many, many, many more not only know it, but can use it accurately and consistently! With slightly more than a quarter of the year left to go, I am feeling very confident about this skill. I don’t know that I will use the same growth objective next year due to some logistical problems, but I do feel more comfortable with setting growth objectives for each student and using these as a guide to improve my teaching practice.

The French and Indian War

Today we got to discuss one of my favourite parts of our unit on early American history: the French and Indian War. I feel like this is an armed conflict that is often overlooked as a major contributing factor to the American Revolutionary War. During the shipboard and shoreline workshop aboard the EPA’s R/V Lake Guardian on Lake Ontario this past summer, I learned more about the history of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Seaway, including the crucial role it played in the Revolutionary War. It was a fascinating study and I was excited to implement what I had learned into my classroom instruction.

We are going to spend just two days on this part of our unit, so I spent most of today’s portion laying the background and outcomes of the war. The students examined maps of North America and the way the land had been divided up by the French and English. (The claims of the Spanish, Portuguese, and Russians were noted but not particularly important to the topic at hand.) Then we discussed one of the most common reasons for war: living space. The English colonists were packed in on the eastern seaboard and were interested in moving west, over the Appalachian Mountains, and into territory that had been claimed by the French. We also noted that while the English claims were considerably smaller than the French claims, the English had a much stronger presence along the sea ports, which were incredibly important for shipping and transportation.

After going over the major reasons of the French and Indian War, we wrapped up today’s lesson with a discussion of some of the outcomes: English soldiers stationed in America who needed food, shelter, and clothing; the high cost of the war and the need for King George III to recover the costs; the subsequent series of taxes and policies put in place to handle these outcomes; the decision to forbid English colonists to move west of the Appalachian Mountains; and, of course, the lack of representation in the English parliament.

Having established a background of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War), we will look at some of the major conflicts tomorrow, especially those that took place along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Seaway. Then we will move on to the actual American Revolutionary War and the establishment of a new nation. My goal is for us to complete this unit before Spring Break. I’m pretty certain we will be able to do so without any problem, even with upcoming week of ISAT testing.

Reading Closely and Writing Extensively

We are getting down to the wire before ISAT week is upon us! Just four more days of school, a regular two-day weekend, and then we are starting! As I told my class this morning, we are definitely doing prep work for the test, but not in the traditional way. I am not giving my students practice tests, we aren’t honing our bubble sheet skills, and we aren’t stopping the regular sequence of classroom instruction to get ready for the exams. Instead, we are using this time to practice skills that are part of our learning targets anyway but will be helpful on the ISATs.

Today we started our week-long exploration of extended writing based on close reading of texts. We recently finished our fourth thematic unit in our reading series, and one of the wrap-up activities ties directly into this practice of reading closely and writing extensively. Before working independently, though, I reviewed some of the key concepts of these skills with the whole class.

We talked about the fact that nobody ever remembers every single detail from every single story they read, so it is important to read and then reread. We talked about marking important details related to the question while reading the first time and then skimming the text to find supporting details when reading a second or even third time. We focused on how important it is to write down or otherwise note the key details that related to the question.

Then I shared strategies for organising one’s thoughts. I pointed out that while I could give them printed graphic organisers now, I want them to think about ways they can make their own organisers on blank paper, whether Venn diagrams or T-charts or concept maps or just lists. And we also discussed how we can tie our own ideas and understanding to our responses as long as we can find evidence from the text to support them.

After reviewing all of the things we have talked about all year about writing in response to reading, it was time for the students to try it on their own. I gave them a full 45 minutes to review the stories, find evidence for their argument, plan, and write their responses. I gave notices of time as they worked and was really glad to see so many students pacing themselves appropriately. Some finished earlier than others, of course, but all took the writing task seriously. As papers were turned in, I looked over them and saw that most understood the task, some started but didn’t quite complete, and only a few need some more specific guidance on writing extensively on a topic. And though ISATs are less than a week away, we still have plenty of time before the end of the year to master this type of writing!

Applying Problem Solving Skills

I’ve been writing about the different problem solving skills that my students have been learning in math most of this week. But today I have been thinking about a different kind of problem solving: social problems. My students are young children, still learning how to navigate this crazy world of ours. Many have gone to school with each other for several years, but others have only been a part of this peer group for a few months. Regardless of the length of time they have been together, though, they are still learning how to interact with one another appropriately. As their teacher, it is my responsibility to teach them not just the “three r’s” of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, and not just those things along with science, social studies, and health, but also how to interact.

One of their biggest challenges is learning how to respond to problems of different degrees of severity. Our building uses a tool with the students called “Stop, Walk, Talk, Fix It” that helps with many of the problems they encounter on a daily basis. The goal is for all of the children in our school to this method a s positive, healthy way to avoid serious conflicts through self-empowerment. But sometimes a student will come to me with a problem that, from my perspective and experience is not really that big of a deal.

For example, imagine two students are sitting at their desk. One student is loosely holding a piece of paper. Another, thinking it is for them, takes it and uses it. The first student comes to me to report that the second took his paper from him. I immediately investigate and call the other student over. It turns out that the second thought the first was handing her the paper. Whether or not this was actually the case is, for the purpose of this example, immaterial. The only piece of information that are relevant are what  was said, what was done, and how it was perceived by whom.

In reality, this event is very much in the category of Not a Big Deal. The first student can easily get a new piece of paper. But I have many students who come to me with this kind of problem. Rather than solving it for them, though, first I guide them through the steps to figure out what kind of problem it is. Then I guide them through steps to resolve it in a way that is safe, fair, and acceptable to all parties. My hope is that my students will learn how to accept the things that are Not a Big Deal and focus their energy on changing Big Deal issues. It is an ongoing process, but I think we are getting closer to this goal!

[NOTE: Apologies for the lateness of this post! With a bajillion things to do after school today, I didn’t get home until very late!]

It’s Okay To Be Wrong

Continuing on the theme of mathematical thinking this week, I was reflecting upon an thought I had pondered a few weeks ago. (Yes, I realise that there is a lot of reference to thinking in that previous sentence. I do that. A lot.) I have been trying to figure out how to help my students learn how to successfully fail so that their mistakes become stepping stones to improvement instead of stumbling blocks that hinder them. I think we are making progress in this, although even the process has had its own ups and downs.

Teaching my students different ways to express their mathematical thinking led us to an interesting conversation today. I have repeatedly expressed that I want them to write down everything they are thinking as they are working through a problem so that I can see their thought processes. As we worked through a problem today, I asked students to tell me how they would solve it and why they would do the things they did. The first step a student suggested turned out to be incorrect. Instead of erasing everything and starting again, as another student suggested, I just noted that a step was incorrect and continued to record what was said to me. Later I had to cross something out as a student realised that what she had said was not really what she meant. We ended up filling the entire whiteboard easel with the various attempts at solving the problem before finally reaching a solution that met all of the parameters given.


Before setting the class free to work on their own, I asked them if the work shown was acceptable, even with the mistakes. They agreed that it was. I repeated what I have been saying throughout the year: It is absolutely okay to make a mistake and fix it later! It is absolutely okay to record all of your attempts at solving a problem! Doing so shows me that they are thinking about the problem, not just solving it. Problem solving, on its own, is simply not enough for our 21st century learning. It must be combined with critical thinking. And we are getting better at it!