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

Archive for April, 2014

How Do You Know?

I’m a geek. This should be apparent to everyone who has met me, seen me, spoken to me, or read something I’ve written for just five minutes. I love being a geek. I love knowing that I am passionate about the things I love and I love the things I am passionate about! I love sharing this passion with others, especially my students! I also love helping my students figure out what causes them to get their geek on! I like to consider myself a geek-of-all-things because I love too many things to limit myself to just one!

Of the many things I love, I have to include Disney movies. Even with all of the issues they have with stereotypes and gender roles and things like that, I still love curling up on the couch to watch a good cheesy musical story in which good triumphs over evil. While observing my students work today, a thought came to me: how do I know they are engaged? Then a song popped into my head, not because of its direct relation, but just because of the question, “How do you know?”

Now, obviously, this is a cheesy love song from a cheesy movie, but the question itself is valid: what evidence do we have of anything and more importantly, what evidence do others have?

I often tell my students that it isn’t enough for them to know something; they have to be able to show me how they know it so that I can know that they know! But that means that I have to be able to do the same. So the question comes again, how do I know?

Here are some things I realised today:

  • I know when I see eyes on me when I am speaking, demonstrating, or reading
  • I know when I hear students talking about the topic and not Pokemon, Minecraft, recess, or whatever recent drama has cropped up among fourth graders
  • I know when they are asking questions of me, of my student teachers, of tutors, of other teachers, and each other
  • I know when they are asking if they can use a tablet or go to the library to look up more information
  • I know if their bodies are leaning forward, their eyes are wide, and they are responding, especially to a story
  • I know when they are talking to their family and friends at home
  • I know when these same family and friends come to me and say, “The other day, this student said that such-and-such was true and they know it because you told them!”
  • I know when students show their work and I can see the process they used to solve a problem, whether it is mathematical and involves computation or it is a question about a text or a scientific concept or a part of history and I can see evidence of their thinking

There are lots of ways I know. Yes, assessments also let me know, but only when it comes to skill mastery and concept acquisition. When it comes to engagement, those assessments don’t help me nearly as well as the things I listed above. I am sure there are others ways I know, too, just as I am sure that other teachers could list other ways that they know. And it is the knowing that brings me back day after day after day, seeing the students engaged and learning despite everything else around them!


Peer Teaching

Throughout the year, we have established a fairly regular rhythm in my classroom. While different content areas necessitate different approaches, there are certain key elements that show up throughout the days, the the weeks, and even the months. Today I was thinking about what I specifically do as I teach math and noticed something pretty cool in the process.

I use pre-tests to check what the students already know. Occasionally I will have a student who does very well on this early assessment and I make an effort to provide him or her with enrichment work that helps them improve their understand, increase their skills, or provide alternative approaches to solving problems. For most of the class, though, the pre-test lets me know what targeted areas need to be focused on during the unit of study.

When I teach new material, I start with guiding the class through problems and then allow them to work independently. Math homework is intended to provide additional practice that is long enough after my direct instruction that students can build their confidence in their own understanding. It also gives parents an insight into what we are working on.

As the students’ understanding and capacity improves, I provide less guided practice and more opportunities for students to work independently. A common request among students is to be allowed to work together. I know some teachers who are adamantly opposed to any kind of partner- or group-work, but I have a much different approach. I promote heartily, but only on the condition that work is happening, consistently and accurately. When a group of students get off-task, they have to return to their seats and work on their own. Knowing this serves as a strong incentive for them to make sure they are all staying on-task.

How the groups are formed vary from day to day. There are times when I let students pick their own groups, and they are fairly consistent in their selections. These become informal groupings that I can use for differentiated instruction as they often choose classmates who are performing at about the same level. There are other times that I will assign students to work in groups that I have organised. Today I did something that was a combination of the two and it worked out much better than I had even expected!

We have been working on learning all about fractions and this week has focused multiplying fractions by a whole number. Today was our second day reviewing this concept, but I noticed right away that about half the class had the basic concept down and half were still struggling with it. I wanted the students to work in groups of three, but I wanted to take advantage of the different levels of understanding. So I had the students who felt they got it to raise their hands and those who still needed more help to partner up with them. I actually ended up having the students work in groups of three to better facilitate the activity.

Each student had a 12-sided die. All three would roll their dice and use the three numbers to form a problem, such as 11 x 4/7. Then they would work together to solve the problem, first as improper fraction and then as a mixed number. They had about 20 minutes to work on this activity, with the goal of doing as many problems as they could. I had one of my America Reads/America Counts tutors with me, so I had one group of students working with him as I monitored the rest of the class. In doing so, I noticed what I had not seen before: peer teaching.

Not just one student telling another student what to do or even how to do it, but why it should be done. Step by step, students were teaching their classmates how to multiply a fraction by a whole number and their classmates were getting it! There was actual enthusiasm in the classroom as students who had been struggling finally had this concept make sense! One of my students even commented on this to me as I stopped by her group, explaining that sometimes she struggles with a concept for a while and then it is like a light turns on in her brain and it totally makes sense.

I was so thrilled by this simple success. My students were working in cooperative groups, helping each other learn, building their skills, furthering their understanding, and demonstrating mastery, all while modeling pro-social skills such as listening to others, showing empathy, working together, and asking questions when they didn’t understand. Even my students who typically shut down during math because they find it incredibly challenging were participating and engaged. It was one of those moments that I don’t see every day, but I look forward to whenever they happen. It also reminded me of one of my all-time favourite quotes about education that I share over and over again:

“The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.”  ~Elbert Hubbard

While I don’t have any students who are completely ready to set off on their own, this was a glimpse of the great potential they have. I am hoping that such cooperative learning will transfer to other aspects of our classroom environment and in my students lives. Learning to work together, and to work well together, are monumentally important skills that many adults struggle to master, but I truly believe each of my students have the capacity to acquire them!

Westward Trails

Today we started our last major United States history unit on Westward Expansion. I had been planning on starting this unit today for several weeks now, but I have to admit that I had no clue a discussion about some events over the past weekend would provide the perfect introduction to the unit!

The Illinois Marathon, which includes a 10k, 5k, half-marathon, and a children’s 1k race in addition to the marathon itself, was last Friday and Saturday. For the third year in a row, I volunteered to assist with the Youth Run and for the third year in a row I wore my Illinois Marathon Team shirt to school today. While talking about the different race events, we got to a conversation about the very first marathon, when a Greek soldier was sent to run from Marathon to Athens to deliver a message of victory before dropping dead in exhaustion. Athletes today train for months, sometimes even years, in order to compete in marathons, many trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I mentioned that I don’t run, but I do a lot of biking and walking. It currently takes me about an hour to walk 5 kilometers, or about 3 miles.

The modern marathon is 26.2 miles. I asked the students about how long it would take me to walk an entire marathon. They determined that it would be able 9 hours. I pointed out that I would probably need to stop to rest and/or eat, so walking a marathon would be a full day’s journey. To put the distance into perspective, the length of a marathon is about the same as the distance from Urbana to Tuscola to the south, Danville to the east, Paxton to the north, or Monticello to the west. One student said that his family can get from Urbana to his grandmother’s house in Minnesota in about 8 hours. I reminded him that we were talking about walking. To walk the roughly 600 miles at 20 miles per day would take nearly a month. Then another student asked how long it would take to walk to Arizona.

This was the perfect transition to our social studies unit! To direct our study, the other fourth grade teacher and I decided to do an arts infusion unit with our dance/drama/music teacher. The students are going to learn about life on the trails leading to the west. Through arts infusion, they will learn about the music and dance that was used as entertainment along the trail. In the classroom, they will learn about the people, the places, and the history. They are also going to learn how the pioneers got from St. Louis, the typical starting point, to their destinations out in the West. This is where the transition came in, since almost everyone had to walk the trails.

I rearranged seats in the classroom over the weekend and put the students into six groups of four. Each group is going to learn about one of the major routes to the West: the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the route of the Pony Express, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Each group selected one of the routes and will work as a group to create a timeline of the trek westward. Then each student will work independently to write a historical fictional narrative about a day in the life of a pioneer. These are going to be our two major writing projects for the quarter. Students will do a lot o writing, revising, editing, and rewriting of their narratives before finally publishing them.

To introduce the narrative part of the project, I read a story today by Eve Bunting called Dandelions. I learned about it through one of the many blogs I follow, Collaboration Cuties, written by two fourth grade teachers in Georgia (I think). They are an awesome resource for using Mentor Texts! In fact, I’ve referred to them before. Eve Bunting’s story was captivating, engaging, and gave a great example for the students to use to write about such an important period of time in our nation’s history! This is going to be a really fun unit that I hope the students also enjoy!

Personal Narratives

We have been doing a lot of writing in my classroom this week! The writing activities are going to continue through the end of the year! Of course, we’ve actually done quite a bit of writing throughout the entire year, but most of it has been in response to literature or notes on informational texts. The writing we have done this week, though, has focused more heavily on planning, drafting,  editing, and revising, with a goal toward eventual publication.

We wrote timelines earlier in the week as a way of organising information and focusing on sequence. I led the class in creating a timeline together to show the major events of a normal day in school. Then the students worked in small groups to make timelines for any topic of their choosing. Some of them picked other days of the week, others made timelines for athletic competitions or other performances. One group decided to make a timeline about an upcoming zombie apocalypse and one enterprising group of girls, inspired by a comment made by me in jest a week earlier, decided to do a timeline for the major events in their takeover of the entire planet. Some of these events included “infiltrating the highest levels of government in the state of Illinois” and “releasing flying monkeys at strategic intervals.” I asked where they picked up such phrases and one of them just started giggling and said she got it from her dad.

Have I mentioned recently how much fun it can be to teach fourth graders?

I decided to build on our timelines activity today by having the students write short personal narratives about a day in the life of a fourth grader. We brainstormed a list of common events on a typical Saturday and then the students had 45 minutes to write about any typical day of their life from this year. I set the minimum expectation for writing at three paragraphs, with at least one paragraph each for the beginning, middle, and end of the day. After writing an initial draft, the students had to reread to look for errors and then have either a classmate or a teacher (I had a tutor helping out this morning) read it and offer suggestions. These personal narratives were put into writing folders at the end of the morning so that the students can work on them further during the coming week.

It is always fun to read students’ personal narratives and learn more about their own lives. I am looking forward to tying the writing activities of this week into the ones we will be doing next as we start our unit on westward expansion!

Live from Behind the Scenes at the Shedd Aquarium

Well, yesterday was a first for me: From the first time I wrote a blog post about my adventures in teaching, I have consistently made at least one post each day I have taught until yesterday. I had one of those days with no spare time from the moment school started until I got home at almost 10 pm after working all day, going to a professional workshop, and attending my graduate class in the evening. So, while I don’t even know if anyone noticed or not, I apologise for missing a post.

Today was a very special day for both me and my class. For me, it marked a very concrete way in which I was able to use not just the information I gained during my summer workshop on Lake Ontario, but also some of the professional networking I made. For those who missed out, you can catch up on my R/V Lake Guardian workshop adventures here. You can also read about our adventures on the official Center for Great Lakes Literacy blog.


During the workshop, I worked with fourteen amazing educators from around the Great Lakes states, including two others from Illinois. One of them, Jen Slivka, is an early learning specialist with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. She put me in touch with Brandon Mullins, another one of the learning specialist, who contacted me about a special outreach program called Live from Behind the Scenes. This workshop gives classrooms access to some of the behind the scenes work at the Shedd Aquarium, along with opportunities to speak with some of the learning specialists and animal handlers on site. Because we were doing a pilot test of one of the workshops, we were able to participate free of charge!


Rather than bringing a class to the aquarium or bringing aquarium staff to the school, we brought them together using some of the marvels of modern technology. Armed with a computer, a webcam, Internet access, and an LCD projector, my class was able to connect with the aquarium staff from the comfort of our classroom!


The workshop lasted about 50 minutes. Students got to watch sharks being fed, learned how much food a shark eats each week and compared it to the amount of food eaten on average by humans, learned about how the aquarium staff cares for the sharks and trains them, shared ideas with staff about ways to track individual sharks, and then got to ask the experts questions! It was an awesome experience! Even though my fourth graders had to sit on the floor for almost an hour, they were all completely engaged and participating! Their questions were well-thought, they were polite and attentive, and they were enthusiastic in their expressions of gratitude for the aquarium staff taking time to visit with them.


A huge thank you to the Shedd Aquarium for creating this wonderful digital learning experience, to Jen and Brandon for helping make this happen, and for Rachel and Nayiri for being our guides!


Moving Beyond a First Draft

A very large focus for the fourth quarter this year is on not just writing, but writing well. For most of the year, the writing we have done has been primarily first drafts. First drafts are often full of spelling and punctuation areas and poor organisation, but the ideas are strong. I have emphasised that my primary goal for my students’ writing is to get their fantastic ideas out of their heads and onto the paper (or computer screen, if they are typing). Spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, overall organisation, word choice, and the like are all important for good writing, but they all come after the ideas have been written down.

This is a hard concept to grasp. My fourth graders want their writing to look like the writing they have seen from older students, from parents, from teachers, and from books. They want their writing to be polished, fancy, clear, neat, and as close to perfection as they can get. But that doesn’t happen at once. That happens as the result of using the writing process: of planning, drafting, editing, revising, editing, revising, editing, revising, and finally publishing. Sometimes the editing and revising stages go on for weeks, months, or even years! Sometimes it doesn’t. But students shouldn’t expect to write a first draft and have a final draft ready to publish all at once. A final draft takes time and effort.

I’ve had mixed results with having students edit their own writing earlier in the year, so this week I decided to try a new direction. Instead of trying to correct their own writing or a peer’s, I’ve had them correct mine!

“But wait!” I’m sure you’re asking “Isn’t your writing always impeccable?!” Well, I don’t want to brag, but I think I’m pretty good at stringing words and sentences together. But for this activity, I’ve decided to fill my writing on the board with all sorts of spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation errors. (And no, I do not use the same British spellings I use on my blog; I stick with Standard American English.) For example, this was yesterday’s morning message:

monday april 21 2014

good Morning?

we are goIng to due Something knew fur jurnal wriTing. Please copey this paragraph in yor jurnal then make correckshins. We will go Over Them togethur

mr velinic

After the students had written down the message and made corrections in their daily journals, I had them come up to the board one at a time to make a correction. As we got closer to the end I would point out how many errors were still remaining. By the time they finished, the message read like this:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Good morning!

We are going to do something new for journal writing. Please copy this paragraph in your journal, then make corrections. We will go over them together.

~Mr. Valencic

I was actually shocked that someone thought to put the tilde (~) by my name. I always write that, but I didn’t expect anyone to pick up on it missing! I was also very pleased that they were able to identify all of the errors on their own! I think that it helped my students to see that this was writing from their teacher and not someone their age. I also feel like this is much more authentic than many of the daily language programs out there because it is my writing for my class. It is as authentic as writing can be.

As we get into some of our more extensive writing this quarter, I will have students write, then look over their own work to find errors in spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation. Once they think they have identified them, they will turn the revised draft in to me for further examination. I have thought about having peer editing, but I am not convinced that is the best thing in the world. Even though it makes my workload lighter, I don’t want students with lower writing ability to feel like they are being judged by their classmates anymore than already happens by virtue of children being children. Then students will use dictionaries to check spelling and we will work on punctuation and capitalisation rules as a class.

My ultimate goal for all of this is for my students to move beyond writing a first draft and focus on identifying what they need to do to have a piece that is ready for publishing, whether their audience is me, their classmates, their parents, or someone else. I am excited about the activities we are going to do and the assistance we will have from our fine arts teachers to support writing in the classroom! The next few weeks are going to fly by!

Short Research Projects

As we now enter the final weeks of school, I have been building more and more group projects into my classroom. In collaboration with my fourth grade teaching partner and our building’s instructional coach, I’ve planned a unit of study on Westward Expansion that is going to include group research projects. We have also been working on improving our Internet research skills.

Today I wanted to get my students to recognise that research doesn’t always have to be a long, intensive project. Most of the research we do on the Internet these days is short. We are usually looking for a quick answer to a quick question. Of course, these quick questions often lead us to follow-up questions. I love when one question leads to another which leads to another and all of a sudden I find that what I thought would be a three to five minute query turns into an hour-long search that is exposing me to all sorts of concepts and ideas I didn’t even know existed! (Uh oh! I think I just admitted that I don’t actually know everything!)

I wanted today’s research project today to relate to our science unit on weather and the water cycle. I started by asking the students to think about different weather events, like dense fog. Some of the events they listed were rain, snow, hail, tornadoes, hurricanes, dust devils, water spouts, flash floods, and thunder and lightning. I gave the students fifteen minutes to form groups of three and research one of the listed events. They were allowed to use the tablets and search Internet sites. Many remembered the strategy from last week and added “fourth grade” to their searches.

They were all amazed at how much information they could find in just fifteen minutes! After the allotted time was up, I had each group share what they had learned. Then the other students were able to ask questions. We ended the short research projects by thinking of other questions we still had about our topics. Each group came up with something they still wanted to know about their topics.

This was a great way for the students to get used to actually generating questions about a single topic and then finding an answer. They also learned that finding answers online doesn’t have to take hours or days; they can find the answers in just a few minutes! It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow when we are in the computer lab and starting research on the different trails taken to settle the American West!