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

Archive for May, 2014

JetToy Races Come to Town

Well, I guess it would be more accurate to say “JetToy races came to the primary hallway by way of my fourth graders” but let’s be honest: the title of this post is much catchier!

After a week of constructing and testing, it was time for my students to race their JetToy cars. We decided to have two different competitions. The first would be to see which car could go the greatest distance, the second to see which car was the fastest. To race the cars, we needed a long space. I had initially thought of using the gym, but the primary classes were eating lunch, so that was out. My classroom is too small, and our hallway is too busy with students and teachers coming and going. But the primary hall is fairly empty during their lunch, so I brought my class down there to race. After all the kindergarten, first, and second grade classes were through, the students blew up the balloons and set the cars on the starting line.


For the distance challenge, the students had to decide how large to inflate their balloons and then decide the best way to aim and release them. I stood at the end of the hall to take a video. Some cars made it much further than we expected, others didn’t move at all, and some cars started straight then skewed off to the side.

For the speed challenge, I set a finish line of fifteen feet. The JetToy cars had to be able to cross the finish line in order to be considered for the fastest car. Once again, teams were allowed to inflate the balloons as large as they wanted. It was interesting to see what some of the teams did when they realised their cars hadn’t traveled very far the first time; some of the balloons were inflated so large they exploded! Unfortunately for that team, they were able to compete in the speed challenge because we didn’t have spare balloons.

Even though there was disappointment when cars didn’t go as far or as fast, all of the groups had a lot of fun constructing and testing the JetToys this week! After some discussion about who would be taking cars home, I pointed out that the supplies are all made of easily-obtained materials, and several students indicated an interest in making their own over the summer.


Intermediate Informance Assembly

The music/dance/drama teacher for the intermediate classes this year has done some amazing work with Wiley’s third, fourth, and fifth graders. The students have been working hard throughout the year. This last quarter has been their dance block. In addition to meeting with them during their regular fine arts time, she has been taking the fourth grade classes to work on dances and songs related to our social studies units throughout the year.

Today, though, the intermediate classes were putting on what she called an “informance,” or an informational dance to show what they have learned. Earlier in the day, she asked if we could bring our two fourth grade classes together to practice their dances for the afternoon. After running through their performances a couple of time, my fourth grade partner and I decided to utilise our time in the gym for some more practice so the classes could work at syncing up with each other. I think the extra practice really helped! It also let us, as their teachers, see who was paying attention in fine arts classes!

The assembly started with the third grade classes each doing a dance. It was really cool watching how the classes have come together to learn these dances. The fifth graders also did two dances, one inspired by traditional African dance and one from their upcoming musical. But as much fun as those were, my interest was, of course, on the middle performances of the fourth graders!


Debating Punctuation

For the past month or so, I have been having my fourth graders make corrections to the morning message each day. I write the journal prompt on the board and make a lot of spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation errors. The students have enjoyed making corrections to my writing and I have enjoyed seeing confirmation that they can identify and correct these simple mistakes.

During today’s corrections, I noticed my class doing something they have not done before: they were debating how and where to place a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence! Here is what I had on the board:

right in you’re journale what you can bo to make tobay awesum

After a number of corrections, the sentence had been corrected to this:

Write in your journal what you can do to make today awesome

Then the debate began: what punctuation mark belonged at the end of the sentence? Was it a period because the sentence started with a command or was it a question mark because there was the word “what” in the middle that indicates a question or should there be a comma between the first part (“Write in your journal”) and the second part (“what you can do to make today awesome”)? This debate went on for five minutes. Any time a student looked to me to settle the dispute, I told them that I wanted them to figure it out, make a decision, and then I would let them know.

While the answer should be obvious (that the sentence was a command and should be ended with a period), I loved seeing the evidence that they were thinking critically about the message on the board and were trying to determine the best way to finish correcting the message on the board. It was a simple thing, but it provided the evidence that I am always looking for that students are learning, thinking, and applying!

Just So You Know, I Still Care

After today there are just six days left of school. Of those six days, at least one of them will include a half-day of fun and games as a school-wide celebration of the end of the year. Another afternoon will be the fifth grade musical and recognition. Another afternoon will be an assembly for third and fourth grade to show off some dances they have been working on. If it rains tomorrow afternoon, our kickball game will be delayed, and that will take up another afternoon. So time is really running short.

At this time of year, there are a lot of students who start to mentally check-out. This is a normal part of group dynamics, actually. There are teachers, too, who start to do this. The year is ending, they’ve done about all they can do, and it is time to start wrapping up and saying goodbye. Again, a perfectly normal part of life. We’ve spent all year together and now it is almost time to pack up, clean up, and move on.

But only almost.

You see, even with the half-days that are going to take away time from the classroom, and even with the swift approach of the year, we aren’t actually there yet. Every year, right about this time, I start to think about my all-time favourite Olympic marathon runner. He isn’t the guy who set records and dominated the field for years. I don’t even know if such a a guy exists. In fact, he’s not even the guy who won once, and the only record he probably set was for the worst Olympic marathon time. Maybe. I’ve never really checked. And, in fact, he was an Olympic  athlete long before I was even born. But I still love his story.

John Stephen Akwhari was Tanzania’s representative in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic marathon. During the race, he had gotten injured and lagged behind the other runners. This is his story:

For some reason, that story has always resonated with me and I think about it during this time of year. Even though we are so very close to the end, we aren’t actually there, and so I remind myself that just as Mr. Akwhari was not sent 5,000 miles to start a marathon, I was not given these 24 students to start the year. I was given them to finish. And that’s exactly what I am going to do. So even though some of them may have checked out and decided the year is done, I am going to keep on pushing them to push themselves to make it to the year. Because I still care, and that’s enough for me.

Changing the Narrative on Lunch

One of the books I was expected to read while working on my bachelor’s degree and my elementary teaching certification was The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong. I found the book incredibly helpful with lots of practical advice and real-to-life scenarios intended to help me on that very first first day of school. There were a host of other books I had to read and while they all had different focuses and different purposes, there was one piece of advice to novice teachers that i came across again and again: stay out of the teachers’ lounge! Supposedly, the teachers’ lounge is a den of negativity, hate, backbiting, complaining, and the source of all bad morale.

Then I did my student teaching and learned something very important: the teachers’ lounges at Garden Hills Elementary in Champaign and Clara Peterson Elementary in Paxton were wonderful places for me to talk to other teachers and learn about what they were doing in their rooms and what their classes were like. After graduation, I started working as a substitute teacher in Champaign and worked in nearly all but one of the elementary schools, all three middles schools, and both high schools at least once. After two years I started subbing in Mahomet, where I worked in both elementary schools, the junior high, and the high school. I also subbed for two days at Leal Elementary in Urbana. Over the course of those three years, I ate in the teachers’ lounge almost every single day and discovered something shocking:

The books were wrong!

In the course of three and a half years, I ate lunch is dozens of teachers’ lounges in four different cities. And not once did I witness a teachers’ lounge like I had read about in The First Days of School and various other professional texts. Then I started following several teachers’ blogs and I found this same narrative being played out. No matter the author, I was told that the teachers’ lounge is the native home of the worst of the worst and I need to stay as far away as possible. The weirdest thing, to me, is that these books and these blogs are written by teachers I admire, I respect, and I consider virtual mentors. I don’t understand how they can be so right about so much but so very wrong about this.

And then I realised something: we need to change the narrative. Teachers have been trash-talking the lounge for so long that they’ve stopped going there and they’ve missed out on what has happened. I think the lounge used to be all the horrible things people say it is. But teaching is dynamic and our profession is constantly changing. One of those changes has been what takes place in the teachers’ lounge.

You see, I cannot accept the notion that the teachers in Champaign, Mahomet, Paxton, and Urbana have all figured out some secret that nobody else in the country, perhaps the entire world, has figured out. I refuse to believe that the teachers I shared lunch with for three and a half years in four communities are the only teachers out of the millions in our nation that can eat lunch without being negative, angry, and bitter. I have to believe that others have figured out what I have learned:

The teachers’ lounge is the place I go to recharge. It is the place I go to discuss my job with professionals who love their work, love their students, and love what they are doing. It is where I go to talk to the third grade teachers and the fifth grade teachers and the Title I reading intervention specialists and the school’s instructional coach and the librarian and the volunteer coordinator and the fine arts teachers and the social worker and the school psychologist and learn about the amazing things going on in their rooms. It is the place that I go to check up on a former student and celebrate with her teacher the huge growth she has made. It is the place I go to hear about the students I will have next year and start making plans to establish the necessary relationships with these children so that their fourth grade year can be as fantastic as possible. It is the place I go to discuss education policy, district initiatives, building goals, politics, movies, television shows, books, bike rides, exercise programs, babies, spouses, personal celebrations, and shared struggles.

In short, the teachers’ lounge is where I go to spend thirty minutes of my day interacting with colleagues who help me become a better teacher and a better person. You know who I don’t see in the lounge? The complainers, the whiners, the never-good-enough-for-them-ers, the negative nancys, the debbie downers, and the horrible harrys. In short, all those people that I was told spent every free moment of every day sucking the energy out of their colleagues are nowhere to be seen in the teachers’ lounges I have frequented.

Maybe it really is awful everywhere else except where I have gone. Maybe I really have been just that lucky. Or maybe it is time to change the narrative and start pointing out all the good things that can happen in the teachers’ lounges all over the nation. And maybe it is time that those who have had positive experiences eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge stand up and speak out in behalf of themselves and their colleagues. If you are a teacher and you are reading this, I would love to know your personal experiences with the teachers’ lounge. Please feel free to share them in the comments section!

JetToy Design

Several months ago I had the opportunity to participate in a professional development workshop at the John Deere facility located in the University of Illinois Research Park. It had been arranged for teachers in the Champaign but, due to my many years as a substitute in that district, the person planning it had asked me if I wanted to participate. I was glad to do so, not only because I really enjoy going to workshops that help me improve as a teacher, but also because I had been looking for an opportunity to reconnect with many of the teachers who had mentored me during those years of moving from classroom to classroom and school to school.

The workshop was called “A Word in Motion” and was presented by SAE International, an organisation dedicated to promoting advances in mobility engineering. They host a number of competitions, one of which is the JetToy Challenge. While my students are not participating in the competition, I was able to get a kit for constructing JetToys as part of my participation in this workshop and am using it with my class as we learn about force and motion.

The JetToy is a balloon-powered car made of recycled or repurposed materials. The chassis of the car (the body) is printed on recycled card stock paper. The wheels are the platforms of push-up ice cream novelty. The axle is the stick from the push-up and the hub is a straw. The entire assembly is held together with masking tape. The engine is a balloon attached to a short hose with a rubber band. (The hose is one of the few parts that is neither recycled nor repurposed.)

We are designing and building the cars one step at a time. We assembled the wheel-and-axle components yesterday, then built the chassis and attached the wheels today. The students were able to test the cars so far by rolling it across their desks or the floor to see if they would travel straight. If they didn’t, the students were able to remove the wheels and reattach them, attempting to align the car as well as possible. We will be attaching the balloon motors on Tuesday (after the long Memorial Day weekend) and start testing them out next week.

The students are working in design teams of four, which I allowed them to select. Each team has to work together on every step of the project. When the JetToy cars are all completed, we will be racing them in the gym to see which goes the fastest and which goes the furthest. Then we will wrap up our force and motion unit by examining what forces were in play as the cars were in motion and determining what variables affect which aspects of the cars’ movement.

Predictions, Inferences, and Authenticity

If there is any one thing I am more passionate about than anything else when it comes to reading, it is that everyone, children, parents, teachers, adults, everyone, needs to read more often. (And that includes me!) If there is anything else that I am almost as passionate about, it is that reading needs to be authentic. There are times that I use a short text to assess specific reading skills and other times that I will use passages that students would not select on their own to emphasise a specific writing trait or a specific comprehension skill but, by and large, I wholeheartedly believe that the reading we do needs to be authentic.

What do I mean by authentic reading?

I mean reading that is real. Reading that is done because the title, the author, the illustrator, or the story interests you. Reading that is done not because you have to do it but because you want to do it. Reading that is done with a purpose that is not just because it is required. That purpose may be for learning, understanding, entertaining, persuading, and/or thinking. I don’t think that either a writer’s purpose or a reader’s purpose has to be limited to just one thing.

The best thing is when I can use authentic reading to assess literacy. To find a story that I know will be of high interest to my students, a story that they would read on their own if given the chance, a story that they would want to talk about it after they have read it, and to be able to use that story, that text, that passage as a tool to understand where my students are at in their literary skill development, that is the best.

I was able to do that today with a story I had heard about for a couple of years, by an author I absolutely love. The story is This Is Not My Hat and the author is Jon Klassen. I first became acquainted with Mr. Klassen not through one of his actual books, but through a parody of one of his books that was based on characters from Doctor Who. The parody was called I Want Mah Roes BackBeing the Whovian I am, I loved this, but then I realised that it was based on a real book and so I hunted down a copy of I Want My Hat Back and absolutely loved everything about the story and the illustrations. Then I learned that Mr. Klassen had written another hat-themed book, This Is Not My Hat, and I finally picked up a copy earlier this week. I loved it and knew that my students would love it, too.

I also realised that it is a perfect text for making predictions and also for making inferences. The story is simple enough: a small fish has stolen a hat from a much larger fish and then goes off to hide with the grass is tall and very close together and where no one can find him. As I read it, I had the students write down what they predicted would happen in the story and then, as we got to the end, I had them write down what they thought had happened. Because the most brilliant part of the story is that the author never tells us what actually happens at the end. We can guess, we can use clues, but there are many possible reasons. After they wrote down their inferences, I had them turn them in and their share. These were some of the responses they gave:

  • The big fish ate the little fish.
  • The big fish scared the little fish and got his hat when it fell off the little fish’s head.
  • The big fish snuck up on the little fish and snatched his hat back.
  • The hat fell off in the thick grass and the big fish found it.
  • The big fish talked to the little fish and told him that the hat was his favourite and so the little fish gave it back.
  • The little fish fell asleep in the tall grass and the big fish stole his hat back.
  • The little fish realised the big fish was a lady and so he gave her back her hat.

After sharing this book with my class, I shared it with several of the other teachers in the building and talked to my fourth grade partner about how I used it. She thought it was a great idea and decided to use it the same way with her class! If you haven’t read anything by Jon Klassen, I definitely recommend him! His stories are quirky, fun, and very, very, very engaging!