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

Explaining How To Do Something

My awesome fourth grade partner and I met with our amazing instructional coach a few days ago to make a plan for the end of the year. We have some great projects planned and ways to tie literacy across content areas in a way that we hope our students will both enjoy and find meaningful.

One of the things we decided to tackle was a combination writing and speaking project. Fourth graders are expected to be able to write explanatory texts, use linking words in their writing, identify key details given by a speaker, and to demonstrate a command of the English language in writing and speaking. A memory from my own childhood sparked a discussion that brought out a shared experience: trying to explain to someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Now some of you may have tried this before and know what kind of absurd hilarity ensues. Others are probably thinking, “Are you kidding? The only thing easier to make than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a cheese sandwich!” That’s what I used to think, way back in the day before my sixth grade science teacher taught us that clear, concise steps are important. In the process of following the directions my class gave her, she ended up with peanut butter and jelly all over her hands, clothes, table, plate, and, yes, the bread she was using for the sandwich.

The lesson we learned has stuck with me all these years: explaining how to do something seems easy but can be very, very difficult indeed! The other two teachers had had similar experiences. We decided to forego the sandwich catastrophe model, but decided that writing “how to” essays would be a great way to start this project. Each student would select something they enjoyed doing and work on writing an essay that would explain what it is, why it is enjoyable, and how to do it.

The second component of the project is the speaking part. Students will prepare a brief (probably close to 5 minutes) presentation to demonstrate how to do the task they selected. I have a plan for modeling such a speech with my class, but they won’t get to see it until Monday. We will take time on Monday and Tuesday to prepare the speeches and then presentations will be on Wednesday. (There is no school next Thursday for an elementary inservice meeting and no school on Friday for our district’s Spring Holiday.)

On my way to work yesterday, I had a sudden flash of another memory from school, this time from fourth grade: it was a memory of doing my own “how to” writing. We were assigned the task of writing a book to explain how to do not just something, but something perfectly. This was prompted by a story that we read as a class: Be a Perfect Person In Just Three Days by Stephen Manes. My best friend and I worked together to write a book called How To Be a Perfect Diver (despite the fact that neither one of us had ever done any diving before). As an aside, our teacher enjoyed our book (which included a section on how to knock somebody off the diving board if they are taking too long) so much that we gifted it to her. (I am guessing it has disappeared since then, but I may ask her if she still has it.) Anyway, I rushed to the library as soon as I got to school and was amazed to find that Be a Perfect Person In Just Three Days was on our shelves! I checked it out and am reading one chapter each day to the class. Today’s chapter taught us that a perfect-person-in-training should wear a stalk of broccoli around their neck on a string.

I am really excited to see how this reading, writing, and speaking project comes together! It is a short one, with just six days of work, but I think we are going to learn a lot from each other! And, parents, don’t be surprised if your child insists on wearing broccoli to school tomorrow! After all, what fourth grader doesn’t wish to be a perfect person?


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