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

Archive for June, 2014

Moveable Feast Technology Conference

I have had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the Moveable Feast education technology conference in Bloomington, Illinois, this week. The Feast got its name from an Ernest Hemingway quote:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

The idea here is that teachers who are trained to use educational technology well will have access to that training throughout their lives and will be able to integrate technology wherever they go. My interest in attending the conference this year was two-fold: one, I am the instructional technology cadre member for my school, so I am responsible for training other teachers in using the digital technology resources we have in the building and two, my school district is one of the 35 Race to the Top districts in Illinois and there was going to be special training for RttT teachers to learn about new online resources that the state is developing.

On Monday and Wednesday of the Feast, I attended training for the RttT schools. I learned about the Illinois Shared Learning Environment (ISLE), which is being developed to be an aggregator of the many assessment tools schools use to track student growth and progress, on Monday. This software is still in development but it has a lot of potential to make it easier for teachers to find student data and plan for differentiated instruction for students, either individually or in groups. True, great teachers are differentiating already; ISLE is intended to streamline the process and help teachers use their time more effectively. On Wednesday, I was introduced to the Thinkgate platform which serves to guide teachers in creating learning maps based on student assessment data. I am looking forward to having a way to easily track all of the skills that students are expected to learn throughout the year and to know how well my students are doing in achieving mastery while saving me time.

Tuesday and Thursday were both days for me to attend a wide variety of workshops throughout the day. I focused on learning about tools that I can use in my classroom. With my five Nook HD+ tablets and four iPads, I am in a unique position to integrate technology throughout the day. While many schools and districts have a 1:1 program that puts tablets in the hands of every student, I am content to have a 3:1 ratio. Some of the resources I learned about and look forward to using are:

  • Edmodo – A way to  communicate with students and parents online in a safe, secure environment, Edmodo creates an Internet platform for posting questions, polls, quizzes, communicating as a class, and networking with other teachers. I can have students work on different badges or just let them talk to one another about assignments. One thought for Edmodo is to use it for students to give short-answer responses to questions to check comprehension or to respond to exit slip queries.
  • Keyword Challenge – Students almost always struggle with knowing how to perform Internet search queries. The Keyword Challenge guides students in learning what are keywords, what are intermediate words, what are words with little effect on the query, and what are words that search engines completely ignore.
  • Big6 – The Big6 is not software; it is a research framework. Fourth graders are expected to conduct short, independent research projects throughout the year. The Big6 is a systematic approach to research that focuses on Task Definition, Information-Seeking Strategies, Location and Access, Use of Information, Synthesis, and Evaluation.
  • S.O.S for Information Literacy – A free resource for thousands of lesson plans to guide student inquiry, S.O.S. for Information Literacy helps teachers guide students in processing information to increase understanding. One of the strengths that I discovered was that many of the lessons do not require specific texts, but rather give suggestions for how to ask meaningful questions with any text.
  • instaGrok – One of the great challenges that students face is knowing where to start with their research. I consider my role to be one of guiding them to asking the right questions, rather than giving them the questions in the first place. Students are much more engaged with assignments and tasks when they are doing things of high interest to them. I may pick the topics, but I want my students to know how to ask. Using instaGrok, they will be able to select a specific topic and view a concept map that will lead them to relevant information, websites, videos, and other web-based resources.
  • Kahoot! – I love games! We use games in my classroom, I play games at home and with friends, and I play games online. Kahoot! is a free site to create interactive quizzes that students can answer using computers, tablets, and other mobile devices. Similar to restaurant trivia games, Kahoot! has thousands of trivia games that I can use, along with an easy interface for creating my own. I am looking forward to using Kahoot! to quickly check students’ prior knowledge, to take brain breaks, to review material, and to seek out input from students in real time. I will also be using Kahoot! with family and friends!
  • LiveBinders – Not all of the workshops I attended were for student sites. LiveBinders is a tool for storing information, websites, images, videos, and other content online. There are a lot of ways that they can be used. Teachers can upload lesson plans, schools can have handbooks and policies shared, or you can have a LiveBinder to bookmark a collection of websites for a specific unit. One of the ways I am hoping to use them, though, is to create digital ePortfolios for each of my students. I can easily upload copies of work and store online. Parents can be given an access code to their child’s binder and be able to view work samples. LiveBinders are not gradebooks but they are a great way to organise!
  • Digedu – Similar to some of the other resources available for lesson plans and digital activities, Digedu was created by teachers for teachers to maximise the use of mobile technology in the classroom. Teachers can create lessons that integrate video, audio, images, and text and have students respond to multiple choice, short answer, or essay questions. Digedu will score responses immediately and give teachers real-time access to reports. Teachers can monitor what students are doing, control the mobile platform, and communicate with students via secure chats. Additionally, the software can communicate with Skyward, which is the student management system we use in our district, allowing assignments to be shared with our online gradebooks.
  • Blendspace – As digital mobile technology grows in the classroom, so does the need for teachers to effectively use these tools. Blendspace is a resource for creating multimedia lessons for students, incorporating video, images, and text. Teachers can import content from YouTube, open ed resource sites, general websites, Gooru (see below), Google Drive, Dropbox, Flickr, Educreations, even bookmarks. There is an option for teachers to create quizzes but, unlike other resources, it is limited to multiple choice only. However, there is a comments section on each Blendspace lesson that teachers can use to get short responses from students. For example, if I were to post a lesson on the Revolutionary War with a video that explains that major events leading up to it, I could leave a comment asking students to share something they learned from the video.
  • Gooru – One of the workshops I had hoped to attend earlier in the week was on another digital lesson planning site, Gooru. Fortunately, the presenter for Gooru was also the presenter for Blendspace and he graciously allowed me to ask questions and walked me through the tutorial and setting up a classroom account. Gooru is, in many ways, similar to Blendspace. The biggest difference is that content from Gooru must come from Gooru itself. The benefit of this is that content is teacher-created and teacher-vetted. I can be sure that the material I will get via Gooru will be appropriate for the classroom. With Blendspace, all sorts of content can be imported, so teachers must be even more careful with verifying the relevance and appropriateness of the materials be added.
  • Educreations – Speaking of Educreations, this is an easy-to-use tool for teachers to create original content for tablets or computers. There were not any actual workshops offered on using Educreations, but I took time to lean about them while I was learning about Blendspace and Gooru. Educreations allow teachers to turn their tablets into interactive whiteboards. I can record audio while demonstrating work or showing images. Students can create content and it is stored privately, with access granted only to teachers and those with a code.  It is actually quite similar to another app I have, Ask3, but with more functionality. I include this in the list of things I learned about this week as a reference for other who may be looking for digital technology tools for the classroom.

After a week of being bombarded by a ton of information about a wide variety of digital technologies, we had time on Friday to work and apply. All of the trainers were available in different work rooms. The rooms were organised to general categories including developing a web presence (working on blogs or class websites), classroom management systems (developing accounts with Edmodo, Schoology, etc), multimedia (YouTube, Audacity, other video and/or audio technologies), presentation tools (Google Presentations, Prezi, etc), and a general “potpourri” room for anything else. I spent most of my morning working on creating a class page on Google Sites, but since it is still under construction, it won’t be going live for a while. There were also presentations at the end of the day by teachers who wanted to share what they had been working on or had developed in the past.

The day ended with raffle drawings for several prizes, such as accessories for tablets, gift cards, DVD/Blu-Ray, games, etc. Participants entered the raffles by using “Feast Bucks” which had been handed out all week long for attending sessions, participating, arriving on time, and just being here. (I earned over one hundred Feast Bucks this week!) I got the DVD/Blu-Ray bundle of Disney’s Frozen! And with that the week ended!

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Collaborating with Primary Teachers

I have had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the University of Illinois Chancellor’s Academy this week. Also attending were my building’s instructional coach and the first grade teacher I have collaborated with since I started teaching at Wiley. The first grade teacher and I were discussing plans for collaborating in the coming year and our instructional coach brought up an interesting question: why do we see so much collaborating between intermediate and primary grade teachers, grade-level teachers, but not as much between intermediate teachers. I had a few quick answers, but I’ve been thinking about it more and wanted to give a more thorough response. Hopefully others will find it worth considering, too.

The first reason that comes to mind is the opportunity for what is known as vertical collaboration. When looking at some of the major learning standards for fourth grade and first grade, we have discovered there are a lot of parallels. While first graders are learning basic skills, fourth graders take those skills to a more advanced level. For example, both grades need to be able to identify the main idea of a story, the key details such as character, setting, and plot, and both grades have to be able to write opinion pieces and conduct short research projects. How does this translate to our collaboration? It means that fourth graders can be partnered with younger students and help them complete these kind of assignments. In so doing, the first graders learn how to do a specific skill that they need to master and the fourth graders have a chance to review foundation principles before taking them to a higher level in their own work.

Another example of this vertical collaboration is in social studies and science. Not all of our units of study overlap, but many do. For example, first graders learn about who early European explorers were; fourth graders learn why they explored. First graders learn about the 13 colonies; fourth graders learn about why they were established and why they separated from England. First graders learn about how plants and animals use external parts to survive and grow; fourth graders learn how these external parts work with internal parts to function. There are far fewer opportunities for this kind of parallelism between fourth grade and third or fifth.

Another reason for fostering this kind of collaboration is novelty. For fourth graders, they are given the opportunity to be the experts and to teach younger kids. They get to see that the younger students look up to them, literally and figuratively. They get to spend time with a teacher that some of them had three years earlier and, other than occasionally passing in the hall, don’t get many chances to see and interact with. On the other hand, they see the intermediate teachers throughout the day every day. For the first graders, they get the chance to interact with the big kids; kids who were in the intermediate hall when they, the first graders, had just started school. They get to know their friends’ older siblings and the boys and girls who serve on the Safety Patrol, participate in Battle of the Books, and play in the big end-of-the-year kickball game. They get to interact with a teacher they don’t see otherwise. It is novel and it is exciting at the start of the year. By the end of the year, there is a sense of community and trust. The younger students know that they have a support network of older students and they know that the teachers from the older grades aren’t all that scary. (Even though I may be the only one they see, children are quite adept and transferring opinions of one adult or authority figure to others in similar roles.)

The first grade teacher and I have been collaborating for three years now. We were both hired at Wiley within weeks of each other and started collaborating as a means of providing support to one another as new teachers. We had been assigned to the same mentor, as well, so our collaborative projects gave a common point of discussion with our mentor and in district-provided professional development workshops for new teachers. These projects have allowed us to get to know one another’s professional practices quite well. Looking at the long-term, we know that the work she does with her class now will benefit the students when they come to me three years later. As I work with them in first grade, it sets a foundation for what they can expect of me when they get to fourth grade. My students who had her know her expectations and know what to expect of her, too, when we come to her room. We are able to share professional experiences, discuss the application of best practices at different grade levels, and better foster a sense of community within the school. We aren’t the only intermediate-primary pairing in the school. These combinations benefit the entire school as they benefit the individual students.


Year in Review

Today was our very last day of school for the 2013-2014 school year and the end of my third year of teaching at Wiley Elementary School. Each year has had its own unique challenges and each year has had both similarities and differences in what we have done and how we have done it in the classroom. And each year ends with me realising that, despite the challenging days, despite the struggles to reach the students least willing to be reached, despite the personal goal to make sure that every student is being stretched to do his or her best, despite my own personal shortcomings, the year has been a good one. I have come to love each and every one of my students and know that as they grow older they will always be my fourth graders. I hope that they will fondly think of me as their fourth grade teacher. I have a not-so-secret hope that, just as I went back to visit my fourth grade teacher over the 20 years that she taught after I had moved on, my own fourth graders will remember me and come back to say hello, to introduce me to new books, to talk about their families, and to let me know what they are learning. I also hope that parents will forgive me for my shortcomings and know that I really do try my very best every day to help every student.

Here’s a recap of the year. This is the same recap that I sent home with report cards today, but since I know that there is a lot information that goes home with those report cards, I thought I’d share it here, too.

Science: We learned about ecosystems and habitats, especially around the Great Lakes region; weather and the water cycle; electricity and magnetism; and force and motion. The students conducted several independent research projects, attempted to build small electronic devices in the classroom and learned how to deal with the struggle of things not working properly, and constructed balloon-powered toy cars using household items.

Mathematics: We studied properties of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and learned how to use the standard algorithms to perform multi-digit arithmetic; we examined plane figures and two-dimensional shapes, learned how to find area and perimeter, and explored how to measure angles using a protractor; we learned about fractions, including how to compare and order, how to find equivalent fractions, adding and subtracting with like denominators, and multiplying by a whole number; we learned how to convert fractions to decimals and decimals to fractions; and we examined the two major systems of measurement and found different ways to graph data.

Social Studies: We started a journey through the history of how we got where we are today, starting with early European exploration, going through colonialism, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and Westward Expansion; we visited Springfield and learned about Illinois’ natural history and the visited the State Capitol and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. We read Alice McGinty’s wonderful book, Celebrating Champaign-Urbana History, and learned how our community was founded.

Literacy: We read! Oh, how we read! We read from our Houghton-Mifflin Reading textbook, we read chapter books in literature circles and guided reading groups, we read as a whole class, we read to each other, we listened to reading by our student teachers and others, we read to our first grade reading buddies, and we listened to them read to us! Many of us participated in the Battle of the Books program. We also read our own self-selected books, SOARing every day. We also wrote! We wrote in response to reading, we wrote about our own experiences, we wrote about personal hobbies and interests, we wrote to our pen pals at Robeson Elementary School in Champaign, and we wrote about short research projects.

Physical Education: We learned how to handle different sports equipment, we played games, we practiced volleyball techniques, we ran, and we trained for the big teachers vs. students kickball at the very end of the year. Four of our class members were on the student team and did very well competing against the teachers! We also participated in the Wiley Walk-a-thon at the start of the year and the Color Run at the end of the year!

It’s been a wonderful year! And while I am looking forward to a break, know that I will be spending the next few months attending workshops and conferences, reading professional journals, articles, and books, and planning for the coming year. I hope that each of my students will take time to read every day. The Urbana Free Library is once again offering their wonderful summer reading program. There are also programs available online through Scholastic and other sites. Enjoy the break and, as I told students who asked me to sign their yearbooks, have a fantabulasticaliciously awesome sauce summer!


Finding Patterns

We are fortunate to have a large supply of iPads available in our building. I have four iPads and five Nook tablets in my room, but the Nooks do not have cameras on them, which only becomes an issue when I want my students to do something with pictures. This was the case today but, luckily, our first grade partner class was going to lunch when I wanted my students to use tablets, so we were able to increase our tablet count from four to nine. (It would have been ten but one of the tablets needed to be charged.)

The goal with the tablets was simple: go outside and find examples of patterns. They could be in nature or man-made. The students were able to work in groups of two or three and take pictures all around the school property. After twenty minutes we came in and talked about what we had seen. Then I showed the students numeric patterns and I asked them to try to figure out the rule.

I started with a simple one:

1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0

They easily identified the AB pattern, so I gave them another one:

2 4 6 8 10

Again, they quickly saw that the pattern was counting by twos. Then I gave a more challenging pattern:

1 4 9 16

It took a few minutes longer, but someone suggested the next number was 25, then 36, and then they recognised the pattern as square numbers. One student noticed that the numbers increased by sequential odd numbers, especially if you started the sequence with 0: 0+1=1, 1+3=4, 4+5=9, 9+7=16, 16+9=25, and so on. I thought that was a pretty cool observation. Then I gave them this one:

1 1 2 3 5 8 13

The students guessed several numbers, mostly random, then someone shouted out, “Oh! I know! It is 21!” Then I asked if anyone could name the next number and another student offered 34. A few recognised the pattern as adding the previous two numbers together. I explained that this is known as the Fibonacci sequence. The last pattern of the day was this:

2 3 5 7 11 13 17

After several minutes, a few students started offering other numbers, such as 19, 23, and 29. Then someone explained that they were all prime numbers.

It was a really fun way to wrap up an exploration of patterns in math and in the real world! And if you want to see the photos they took today, just visit the album I made here!


Because Sometimes We Don’t Need a Reason

Being a PBIS school, we are all about positive behavior interventions and supports. That means that we focus on what students are doing, we focus on how help to them do things better, and we focus on providing positive feedback. That also means that we have celebrations throughout the year when students show that they are meeting or exceeding expectations. When a student messes up (and let’s be honest, we all mess up from time to time), we try to frame the issue in a way that we can build from the positive and use input from students, teachers, families, and administrators in providing the necessary supports and interventions to bring about student success.

In the classroom, we have a lot of strategies for building on the positives. I have a RESPECT board that students can sign to enter a drawing for small prizes. We have a pebble jar that we fill for different reasons throughout the year, working toward incentives. We have small celebrations and large celebrations, all of them tied to a specific event or cause. We recently had a huge school-wide celebration in the form of a students vs. teachers kickball game and a color run. (More on these when I get all of the pictures!) So we have a lot of reasons to celebrate.

But sometimes we don’t need a reason. Sometimes we just celebrate because we can. There isn’t a specific reason. Today we had such a celebration. Our head room parent caught me during lunch and mentioned that she was bringing in ice cream for the first grade class that we have been partnering with all year and she wanted to know if I’d be interested in her bringing ice cream for my class, too. Now, you may not know this, but when it comes to ice cream, I never say no. I love ice cream, maybe even more than I love bacon and reading, and that says quite a lot! (Okay, maybe not more, but they are all at least on equal standing.) So of course I said yes!

After getting back from Dance and reading a chapter from A Single Shard (which we are going to finish before the end of school on Wednesday!), I had the students get their books or writing so that they could SOAR. Then, after they had all gotten started, our HRP came in, dropped off the ice cream, and left. I didn’t say anything to the students at first because I was looking for something for a student. But they all wanted to know what it was. I finally gathered them and explained that we had ice cream. There were three varieties: fudge swirl, strawberry swirl, and vanilla. I asked the students to group together to indicate which kind they would like and, thankfully, we had enough for everyone to get their preferred kind!

Eventually the question came up: why are we having ice cream? I asked why not and a student said, “But there has to be a reason!” I called him over and just said, quietly, “You know, sometimes there doesn’t have to be a reason.” He pondered that for a moment and decided not to look a gift horse in its mouth and cheerfully finished his ice cream. Then everyone got back to reading.

But this has left me wondering, too. As much as we focus on the positive supports, the celebrations, and tying positive outcomes to positive actions, do we make too much of a connection between the two? I am all about celebrating with my students. But I also need to make sure that we do fun things just because. After all, of the four expectations we have established in our classroom, the foundation is having fun. We only have two days left, and I’d like to say that most of the year has been fun, but I am going to make a special focus on including fun things in our last days for no reason at all.