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!
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!
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!
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
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
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
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.
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!