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

Archive for September, 2014

Classroom Jobs

After six weeks of school, I finally decided it was time to start making classroom job assignments. I started using formal assignments last year and found it was a great way to build students’ sense of ownership and responsibility in the classroom. Most of the jobs I am having students do this year are the same as last year’s, but I did make a few changes.

The jobs I have this year are:

  • Book Collectors – One student from each row is responsible for distributing textbooks as needed, retrieving them when done, and making sure our classroom library is organised.
  • Pencil Sharpener – One student will sharpen all of the pencils in the unsharpened pencil container each afternoon. While doing so, this student will get to sit in my chair at my desk.
  • Messenger – One student will be sent to deliver the attendance/lunch count folder, run messages, and ask other teachers to come and assist as directed. (The PA system doesn’t work very reliably in my classroom, so sending a messenger is usually the easiest way to contact someone else in the building without calling or texting.)
  • Door Holder – This student holds the door for the class whenever we are leaving the room or entering another room in the building.
  • Line Leader – This is the student who leads the class as we walk from place to place. All students are expected to walk with eyes forward, hands by their sides, and voices off. The Line Leader is the only student expected to turn around when stopped to watch for my silent signals to proceed or wait.
  • Postmaster – One student will distribute mail to students’ mailboxes at the end of the day, making sure that all homework assignments and flyers are in the correct places.
  • Equipment Manager – This student is tasked with collecting equipment from the PE closet when needed and bringing the class kickball and basketball outside during recess.
  • Substitute Helper – This student may be called upon at any time to fill in for another student who is absent, with another teacher, or simply not willing to do his/her duties. The Substitute Helper also assists the Equipment Manager as needed.

I have had the jobs chart up all year, but today was the first time that assignments were posted. All of the students quickly noticed and were eager to see what their jobs were, even if they didn’t know the details. Half of the class has assignments this week; the other half will have assignments next week. Assignments are mostly randomized, so all students must be aware of the responsibilities of all jobs. I’m looking forward to this practice empowering students to take responsibility, feel that they have an impact on the classroom, and understand that they can help others in simple but meaningful ways!

Substitute Teachers

I am a part of a number of different committees and inquiry groups that take me away from my classroom from time to time. Most of these absences are for half a day, either the morning or the afternoon. There will be several that will be full-day absences, but fortunately not too many. I also have about half an hour or so once a week that I meet with members of our support staff to collaborate on services for students who need it. Because of this, my students will be getting used to seeing substitute teachers in the classroom from time to time.

In an effort to promote consistency in my students’ lives, I try to have the same couple of substitutes in my room. Now, obviously, I can’t always get what I want, but I try and I am usually able to get the veteran retired teachers who spent almost more time in the classroom than I have being alive. There is the added benefit that they are teachers that my students have seen in the building regularly for as long as they have gone to school.

Today was my first extended absence for professional work. While I was away for the morning, I left my students in the very capable hands of one of these subs. While I was away, i did not have to worry about what was happening in the room. While I was working on examining our district’s writing curriculum and discussing possible strategies for improvement, my students did their typical morning work: PE, Book Exchange, writing, science, and literacy.

I got back early and saw my class sitting on the carpet, listening a the sub read an adaptation of The Magic Flute to them. (This was in preparation for a trip to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts next week to watch a stage production of the Mozart opera based on this story.)

After she finished reading, I took over and asked the class to review their day. For each part of the day, each student rated how the class did on a scale of one to five with one meaning everyone was off task and a five being everyone doing exactly what was expected. For each four or five, the students received one pebble in our incentive jar. The morning had five parts, so the class could earn up to five pebbles. However, when they receive all five, the pebbles are doubled, but when there is a substitute and they earn all five, they are tripled! The class had, in the words of the sub, an exceptional day, and so they earned all of their pebbles! What a wonderful way to end our week!

Taking Responsibility

One of the core expectations in my classroom, and throughout my school district, is that of being responsible. Responsibility looks different depending on the setting, but it is a core character trait that we deeply believe in fostering in each of our students. In my classroom, I have a sign that signifies some of the elements of responsibility as doing your own work, following directions, asking for help, and accepting consequences.

It is this last one that I am particularly pondering today. Near the start of the year, I told the students about the first independent research project they would have for the year. They would each select a fish (or mussel) found in the Great Lakes and learn some basic information based on questions they asked. I emphasised that they could select any medium they desired to share what they had learned: report, poster, video, etc. They were given the assignment sheet three weeks ago and we took time in the classroom or in the computer lab  nearly every day to work on it. Students were also told that they could work on the projects at home, but they did not have to do so if they used their time in class wisely. This project was brought up on a daily basis for the past three weeks. Reports were due today.

Some of the students had reports ready to share. Others did not. A few had approached me earlier this week and asked for an extension while they were trying to finish up the last details of their projects. Anyone who asked for help, by way of asking for an extension, was granted it. Those who did not ask for one and did not complete their projects are still responsible for completing them, though. I do not reduce points on a project for being turned in late, because the due date has nothing to do with the content. Turning in assignments on time is an item that appears on the district’s report cards, of course, but the reports are about what students have learned about the ecology of the Great Lakes, specifically how different animals have adapted to live there.

I was pleased that my students accepted the consequences of having late assignments. They understand that they are still responsible for the work and that they will still need to turn them in. Some may find themselves working over the upcoming three-day weekend (no school for students on Friday because of a district inservice day), and others will have to use time in the computer lab for continued research instead of other preferred activities.

Will one late assignment be the end of the world? Of course not. These students are children, after all. But I have repeatedly focused on my belief that my job is not just to get my students through fourth grade. My job is to help them develop the skills and habits necessary for lifelong learning. That is why I believe it is important for students to complete assignments on time. It is important to accept consequences for actions. By doing so, I hope that my students will all be one step closer to becoming independent thinkers, learners, and doers.

The Impact of Music

I taught a brief health lesson this morning on how music and other external stimuli can impact how we are feeling. It was really interesting to observe how easily recogniseable the effects really are!

I started with asking the students to take a moment to take a mental note of their physical state: what their bodies were doing, what their heart rates were like, and how they were feeling in general. Then I asked them to listen to a song and think about what their bodies did in response. While the song was playing, I had all the lights on to make the room as bright as possible. The song was Sandstorm by Darude. For those who aren’t familiar, it is a non-lyric piece of techno music with very fast beats. While it played, several students danced in their chairs, moving to the beat, and getting excited. When it was done, they took note of their heart rates and commented that their hearts were beating much faster.

Then I turned off a set of lights and played another instrumental piece, this one from the British television series Doctor Who.

The results were quite dramatic! The students quickly calmed down, rested their heads, relaxed their muscles, breathed deeply, and seemed to enjoy the brief respite from so much stimulation all the time. When it was done, I asked the same questions. They shared that they felt much calmer and their hearts were not racing.

I explained that different kinds of music affect us in different ways. Fast music is good when we want to get pumped up; slow music is good for when we want to relax. And being able to recognise which we want to do is part of good health!


After last Friday’s discussion about the negative energy in our classroom and our plan to focus on the positive, I was curious to see how things would unfold today. Would the students remember our conversation and make an effort to try to be more positive and more focused on what is going right, or would they fall back into old habits?

The day started pretty well and I used our morning meeting time to remind students of our goal to focus on positivity. I appreciated the willingness of the students to adopt this new focus. Old habits die hard and it is going to take a long time for this to become a new norm for our classroom, but I have already seen a small change.

Students who used to give up easily and declare something too hard were willing to ask for help and try it. Once they got a little bit of help, they were willing to do the rest on their own. Students who used to constantly focus on what everyone else was doing were more focused on their own efforts and doing what they needed to do. Students who would deflect redirection and try to blame others were willing to accept consequences and move on.

To help everyone, including myself, stay more positive, I wore my new bright yellow shirt today. I was surprised by how many students commented on it. My class apparently pays a lot more attention to my wardrobe than I thought! I think I stayed more positive, my students stayed more positive, and the class as a whole was much more focused and relaxed throughout the day! My hope is for this new culture of positivity to grow and impact students, teachers, and families.

Feeding the Energy

We talk about energy in a lot of different ways. There is the scientific notion of energy as power used to carry out motion. There is also energy that describes how we are carrying out our own lives. There is also the energy we get from others that impacts our moods. (This energy is also given to others as we impact them.) Ideally, this energy is positive and builds us up, making us all feel a lot happier. But sometimes the energy is negative, and it makes us, and others, feel frustrated and upset.

The thing is, sometimes we can get so used to the negative that it starts to be what we feed on. It starts to be what we start to think of as positive because we honestly don’t know the difference. And then we don’t only come to expect negative to come to us, we start to believe that negative is all we should produce, too.

This is something we talked about as a class today. There has been a lot of negative energy in the room this year. Those who read my blog regularly know that I try to focus on the positives, but I also want to be honest. While we have had some amazingly wonderful things happen, I have been disheartened by all of the negative energy. As I’ve talked to other teachers, I’ve come to realise that this negativity has been hovering over my class like a dark raincloud for years. Even though each day is a fresh new start, my young students have a hard time understanding that and allowing each other to start over. They are used to the negative, they feed on the negative, and they do it because I think many of them honestly don’t know the difference.

So I decided today to focus on changing the message, changing the energy. We had a blow-up in the classroom after lunch during our read aloud. It doesn’t matter what happened, it doesn’t matter why it happened; what matters is it did happen. Some students had to leave the room to reset with another teacher. While they were gone, I felt it important to apologise for it happening. I know that my students don’t come to school expecting to have things blow up; they come to school expecting to learn. It is my job to provide an environment where that can happen. It is also my job to provide an environment where everyone feels safe.

The best way for this environment to exist is to focus on the positives. I asked my class to try an experiment. I told them that it would only work if each and every single one of them committed completely to trying it. The experiment is deceptively simple: stop feeding the negative energy. When a student blurts out an answer, we ignore it. When a student calls another student a name, we ignore it. When a student starts kicking their desk and insisting they need help, we ignore it. Those are negative behaviours and not the kind we want to reinforce. (Of course, I, as the teacher, am responsible for redirecting and reestablishing the correct, desired behavior. When I say “we” I am speaking of the class as a whole.) But when a student raises a hand and asks for help, we thank them and we provide help. When a student does the right thing, we praise it. The goal is to change the focus from the negative to the positive. It is all about changing what we’ve been doing.

We had an opportunity to try it out this afternoon. The students were reading silently at their seats while a few were finishing a writing assignment. One student started loudly complaining that it was too hard. Nobody responded. After several minutes of this, the same student raised a hand and when I came over, said, “Mr. Valencic, this is hard; I need help.” I calmly responded, “I understand; can you ask me for help instead?” After a pause, the student said, “Mr. Valencic, will you please help me?” I said, “Yes, of course! Thank you so much for asking!” I helped the student with the assignment and then, when it was done, I heard this observation: “Oh, I get how to do this! That was actually pretty easy!”

The whole room changed during this half hour. Instead of feeling tense, stressed, and anxious, the students were relaxed, calm, and focused. They ignored the negative energy but quickly acknowledged the positive.

Are things going to miraculously change over the weekend so that the negativity is gone? Honestly, I doubt it. We are still learning. Did we get a glimpse of the change we want to see? Absolutely we did. I’m going to take the weekend to recharge and refocus. I am planning on starting Monday fresh, with a new attitude and a new focus on the positive. After all, if I’m gonna make a change, I’ve gotta start with me!

The Day the Crayons Quit

Continuing my effort to incorporate more picture books into my instructional practices this year, I shared a new book with my students that I discovered at Barnes & Noble one evening and immediately decided to read. Yes, I judged the book by its cover. Yes, I am glad I did! At first I wasn’t sure about using it for my class, but once I read it, I knew I could use it for a writing prompt and for an examination of writer’s craft.

The book was The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. It is a delightful story about a boy named Duncan whose crayons all revolted one day. Fortunately, each one wrote a letter explaining exactly why they were upset with him. Well, except Green Crayon. Green is perfectly content to be used how and as often as he is. He’s just upset because Yellow Crayon and Orange Crayon are feuding over which one is the true colour of the sun.


Before reading the story, I asked my class to think about what items they have in their desks that never get used. Then I asked them to think about the items they use all the time. I didn’t want them to discuss it, though, until after we’d read the book. As I read aloud, I showed the illustrations, read the letters from the crayons, and then showed the illustrations again. It was wonderful seeing reactions as the students realised what was being told with the pictures: Red is angry about being used on all the holidays, Blue is sad because he is used way too much, Gray wants to be used for small things like pebbles and baby penguins instead of elephants, hippos, and rhinos, and White wants to be used as more than filler and for pictures of a white cat in a snow storm.

After I finished reading, I gave the students their writing task: write a letter to themselves from the perspective of the item used the least and the item used the most. After we edit them and publish, we are going to share the original book with our learning buddies and then share our own letters with them. (By the way, Miss C doesn’t know about this plan yet.) For the next hour, I had all of my students thinking, writing, giggling, and sharing as they wrote their first drafts during our Writers’ Workshop time.

We will revisit The Day the Crayons Quit later in the year to think about writer’s craft, voice, and style. But for the next week or so, we will work on revising and editing the letters so that we can publish and share them with others.

Constitution Day

Today was Constitution Day. Being a Wednesday, it was also Learning Buddies day. So, of course, Miss C and I decided that a great buddy learning activity would be to discuss the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America with our students. Both of us discussed the Preamble and the Constitution in our separate classes earlier in the day before bringing them together in the afternoon. In my room, we talked about the role of the Constitution as providing a foundation to all of the laws in our nation. There was also a short discussion of the Bill of Rights.

When my class joined our first grade buddies, Miss C read We the People, a picture book with the text of the Preamble, to all of the students two times. The first time, she read it slowly and discussed what the lines of the Preamble meant in child-friendly language. Then she read it again faster so that students could capture the tone of the Preamble when read fluently. I really enjoyed this book. The illustrations are fun and engaging and the text, while straight from the Preamble, is printed in such a way to make it accessible to all students.


After reading the text, we watched the Schoolhouse Rock clip of the Preamble. Each set of buddies had a copy of the lyrics to read along with the video. As with We the Kids, we watched the video twice. Several students started singing along, which I thought was great because it helps them remember the words.

We ended our buddy learning by having all the students use words and/or pictures to express why the Preamble is important to them. As students worked, we walked around and monitored students conversations. Several students wrote about the idea of ensuring domestic tranquility. Others wrote about providing for the common defense. A few students wrote about the notion securing the blessings of liberty for themselves and others. We were very impressed with the work the students produced. Some of the samples will be posted on our learning buddies bulletin board. Our goal is to make sure that every student has some work publicly shared by the end of the year, rather than try to put everything on it all the time.


While I was attending The Feast, a technology conference held in Bloomington, Illinois, this summer, I learned about a lot of neat web- and mobile-based learning tools. I’ve been making an effort to use them in my classroom this year and see how well they work at a fourth grade level. (Many of the resources were presented by high school teachers, so I was interested to know if they could be utilised at the lower levels.) I gave a brief overview of all of them on a post this summer, but as I introduce specific sites to my class, I will be writing up blog posts about them.

One thing I want to point out is that I am receiving absolutely no remuneration for this. In fact, that the companies who have developed these tools probably don’t even know that I exist, let alone my blog. I will be sharing the posts with them via Twitter, but I don’t expect any specific notice. (Of course, if they do share my post with others, I won’t be upset. I am very proud of the work my fourth graders accomplish and hope that more people will read my blog to celebrate their successes!) I say this because I don’t want anyone to think that I was asked to write this post or that I am being paid to do so. I am writing the post because it was something I did with my class and it worked well. That is all.

The tool I introduced today is a study aid called InstaGrok. There is a paid subscription version of it that has helpful features such as the ability to create assignments, a teacher dashboard, and specialised customer support. However, I have only used the free version so far and it has been satisfactory. That isn’t to say that I am opposed to the paid account, though; only that I am quite pleased with what can be done with the free version.

So, what can InstaGrok do for you? Let me share their overview video, first:

By using InstaGrok, students are able to find relevant information that supports their learning. The journal feature lets them record what they have shared and the quiz feature tests their knowledge. Students can email their journals to me, which gives me quick and ready access to the evidence of their learning. It isn’t a perfect too, of course; there are limitations to anything, but I love the ease of use and the way it provides students with key definitions, websites, videos, images, and more.

We tried it out today with the iPads and Nook tablets in my classroom. I don’t have enough devices for everyone to have their own (yet), but students were able to work in groups of three to learn more about animal adaptations. This goes along with our science unit on the ecology of the Great Lakes and the students’ research projects on different Great Lakes species. We will be using InstaGrok more in the future as students become more familiar with the ways they can use this tool. It was great seeing students engaged in learning and research, exploring the features, and discussing concepts with one another. It is definitely a tool that I would encourage all teachers to put in their collection to help foster digital literacy and research skills!

Why We Read

I had an interesting conversation with my students this morning. We were finally starting to break into our basal reader series and I wanted students to think about why we focus so much on reading. More to the point, why do we read? I have heard of adults who proudly state that they have never read an entire book since high school. It makes me sad. So I wanted to know why my students read now. My hope is that if they reflect on it now, they will develop life-long reading habits.

So I asked, “Why do you read?” Then I wrote the question on the board and asked the students to share reasons. As they shared, I wrote them down around the initial question. I was thrilled by the responses!

“We read now because we need to become better readers. As we grow up, we are going to be reading everything! Street signs, recipes, job descriptions. We always have to read!”

“We read because we are interested in the topic.”

“We read because we want to learn more about something.”

“We read so that we can understand people whose experiences are different from our own.”

“We read about the things we want to do as grown ups.”

“I like to read catalogs so I can learn more about things I want to buy.”

“We read so that we can expand our vocabulary.”

“We read because it is fun!”

“We read so we can learn how to do something better.”

There are a lot of reasons to read. I am glad that my students recognise so many of them. None of them said that they read because they have to. None of them said that they don’t read. None of them said that they don’t like to read. Those who responded received positive affirmations from their classmates. With all of the challenges that we have, I feel confident that I have a classroom of readers and I am excited about the books we will get to share, the lessons we will learn from them, and the connections we will make with authors and illustrators.

You may be wondering why I read. I read for all of these reasons and more. I read because I can’t help it! So, why do you read? Please share your reasons in the comments so I can pass them on to my students!

Another Short Research Project

I felt really good about the short project we did earlier this week, so I decided to have the students do another one today. We are still learning about ecology, plants, animals, and habitats, and the focus for today was on what happens when the balance of these things gets disturbed. Specifically, we were exploring the effects of pollution on ecosystems.

Much as I did earlier this week, I gave the students three basic questions to consider:

  • What is pollution?
    • Air?
    • Soil?
    • Water?
  • Why is it harmful?
  • What is a possible solution?

The students divided into groups of three and selected a type of pollution to research. Each group had a tablet, a Science textbook, and their own prior knowledge. They were initially given 30 minutes to learn about the topic and find answers to the questions, but the short project turned into a much longer one and we ended up spending almost an hour and a half working on it! After conducting their initial research, the groups were given a large sheet of poster paper and had to transfer their findings onto it. We ran out of time today, but they will share their findings with their classmates on Monday and then the posters were be displayed in the hallway.

In the process of doing this project, I learned some important things about my students:

  • They have amazing ideas! A group of boys conceived a wind-powered automobile, bombs that will clean the air, and special power plants that will remove pollutants from the atmosphere and use them as fuel to provide energy. A group of girls conceived a pump system that will pull polluted water out of a lake and, much like a dialysis machine, return clean water.
  • Once my class gets focused on a task, that will work at it all day if they are given permission to do so. Some of them may delay getting started, but once that engine is on, they will keep going forever!
  • I need to set clearer expectations for how to work effectively in a group. Some of the students have had plenty of experience working together, but there are many who struggle, especially if their group members are not their best friends. While it is nice to be friends with the people you work with (it is something I very much appreciate about my own colleagues!), it is important to recognise that we don’t always get to work with our best friends, but we can still treat our work partners with respect.

I enjoyed working with my class as they pursued their research today. I hope that they will transfer what they have learned to their independent research assignments, which are due on the 24th of this month. Now that our benchmark testing is, for the most part, finished, I am looking forward to spending more time in the computer lab researching and more time in the classroom using the tablets for a wide variety of reasons!

Building Confidence In Ourselves

I taught my students about function tables today. It was interesting, actually, because they were just a part of the math lesson that is part of our first unit on the fundamental concepts of multiplication. The students’ homework assignments have included function tables several times, but today was the first official lesson.

Because these are fourth graders, the tables were pretty basic: one desk has four legs. If I have 5 desks, how many legs? (Answer: 20.) If I have 20 desks, how many legs? (40). If I have d desks, how many legs? The simple equation is l = 4 * d; we can also determine the number of desks by knowing the legs: d = l / 4. After just one example, most of the students were ready to complete the tables on their own and then solve word problems, too.

It was a simple assignment, but it resulted in one of the best things I can hear in a classroom: “Hey, I can do this! This is easy!”

It is what I love about the math series I use. It starts small and builds up bit by bit. Sometimes it can seem like it is moving too slowly, but it allows my students to build confidence in their own abilities. They realise that they can do things that once seemed daunting. Yes, we are going to spend at least a month of school reviewing multiplication facts and multiplying two digit numbers by a single digit. Yes, some of them can do this already. But even they will accept the challenge of doing it faster, improving their fluency and monitoring their accuracy.

Taking it slow at the start lets them build confidence so that when I introduce two-digit by two-digit multiplication, they recognise that they already know how to do it; they just have to learn a new application. The information is there in their heads and thus the knowledge because accessible. We are going to start using more digital technology to support differentiated learning soon. Students will use resources like XtraMath and Front Row to practice where they most need the help. But we are also going to work together as a class to support one another, build confidence in ourselves, and know that we really can do whatever is thrown our way. And who knows? Maybe one of my students will be the person to solve a supposedly impossible problem in theoretical physics and receive the Nobel Prize as a result. (If that happens, I hope they will remember their fourth grade teacher and at least give me a shout-out at the award ceremony!) Is that a big dream? It sure is! But it all has to start somewhere; why not in fourth grade?

Skype Chats

One of my good teacher friends and former coworkers has been increasing her use of technology in the classroom over the past few years. She and I often discuss resources, strategies, and projects that let us reimagine our roles as educators.

One of the resources she and I have both wanted to use more often has been Skype. I was able to use it last year to bring a favourite author into the classroom. I’ve also used it to let students chat with experts and visit other classrooms. Because my friend’s students are in first grade and will be doing an author Skype chat soon, she wanted to know if I’d be willing to do a practice chat with her class this afternoon.

Since I want my students to learn how to Skype, too, I readily agreed. We set a time and I had my student rearrange the room so that we could do the chat. Of course, the computer I was using wasn’t connecting properly and the projector was acting up, but I was able to connect our classrooms using my iPad. The visit was only about 10 minutes, but it was fun reconnecting and even better was when my students realised that this teacher used to be their teacher!

I love incorporating technology in the classroom. I hope to move us from substitution and augmentation to modification and redefinition as more resources are made available and easier to use!

Short Research Projects

I love research! I love picking a topic, deciding what I want to know about it, and then finding the answers. I love being able to check reliable websites, up-to-date books, and talking to experts to learn more about something. I also love when people come to me with their questions because I have somehow become the expert on the topic (or I am just really good at looking things up).

And so I also love having my students do research. Some of the projects they do will take several weeks. We use time in school to research but I encourage them to research at home or at the public library. Projects like these often align to our science or social studies units and usually happen about once per quarter. This quarter students are researching fish from the Great Lakes region, similar to the project that last year’s students did. But there are shorter projects that they can do, too. Sometimes these will be a couple of days. Sometimes they are just a few minutes.

Today my students did one such short research project. Each had a copy of a booklet about invasive aquatic weeds that have afflicted the Great Lakes region and other waterways in our nation. These booklets were generously donated by our friends at the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. There were five specific plants that were discussed, so I divided the class into small groups, with each group assigned to quickly research their plant. In addition to the booklet from the Sea Grant, I gave each group a tablet so that they could conduct online research. Then I gave them three questions to answer:

  • What is your plant?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Why is it harmful?

The groups had about 30 minutes to research and then they shared their findings with the class. When groups were presenting, the other students were expected to listen attentively so that they could ask questions at the end. Presentations took about 15 minutes, so at the end of 45 minutes, my students had some basic knowledge about hydrilla, water hyacinth, Eurasian watermilifoil, purple loosestrife, and giant salvinia. I was very pleased with both the quality of research conducted in such a short time and the presentations. All of the groups were able to answer the questions and the students listened asked good follow-ups, such as wondering how the plants “trap” boats and what ways do ecologists control the spread of these weeds.

We will be working on the bigger research projects more next week when ThinkLink testing in the computer lab is done, but I know that there are many students who are already researching their assigned fish at home. I hope we will be able to get some folks from the Sea Grant to come back this year and listen to some of the presentations!

The Pebble Jar Returns

I’ve blogged about my classroom pebble jar before but, since I still don’t have my computer back, it is hard to link to them, so if you really want to know, just search my blog.

I decided to do something different with the jar this year. We have about ten distinct sections to our day: journal/morning work, PE/health, science/social studies, computer lab/writers’ workshop, daily CAFE, lunch, read aloud, fine arts/library, math, and today’s topics. At the end do each morning g, we will review how we’ve done with our areas. Students rate themselves on a scale of one to give, with five being great, four is good, three is okay, two is poor, and one is crazy. If the majority of the class gives a rating of four or five, I add a pebble to the jar. The process repeats in the afternoon.

The jar holds 168 pebbles, so we could fill it in a little over three weeks. Or it could take much longer. It will all depend on how the different parts of the day go. While I have veto power, my general inclination will be to accept the students’ ratings. And once a pebble goes in, it can’t come out. Once the jar is full, there will be a whole class celebration.

I like this system because it breaks our long day it manageable chunks and lets the students have a tangible reward for positive behaviour. Today was our first try and it went well. The students earned six pebbles today and know they need to improve focus during the time right before lunch and right before the day ends. It will be interesting to see how tomorrow goes!

Strategies for Selecting Books to Read

For someone who has loved reading from a very early age, the idea of picking the “right” book has seemed rather foreign to me. The first book I remember reading completely on my own was Syd Hoff’s literary masterpiece, Danny and the Dinosaur, first read when I was five years old. There may have been others before it, but since neither I nor my mother can recall, we are sticking with this as the official “first” book. I don’t really even know what other books I read on my own when I was young, but I do know that from that time forward, it was a rare moment when you found me without a book within arm’s reach!

I started reading more complex books early on. Mum read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to my younger sister and I when I was still in kindergarten. I started reading books like that on my own early enough that teachers often passed over more “age-appropriate” books. I didn’t read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing until 2011, when I started teaching at Wiley and decided to use it as my first read aloud! I still have yet to read any of Jerry Spinelli’s books, although they are in my “To Be Read” (TBR) pile and one of my goals this year is to at least read Maniac Magee. I was reading novels by John Grisham by the time I was in middle school and just kept on reading.

This is a near-daily conversation in my home.

All of this to illustrate that my method of selecting books to read was to go to the bookshelf, whether in my bedroom, in the living room, at a friend’s house, at the public library, or in my classroom, and start reading. I never really thought about whether or not the book was “right.” I knew that such a concept existed for other people. After all, I had to get special signed permission from my parents to be able to get a public library card that gave me access to the “adult” section of the library (a term that simply meant the upstairs-not-children’s-library-section.) I vividly recall the time I was in sixth grade that my middle school library acquired a beautiful leatherette-bound, gilt-edged edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien but wouldn’t let my brother in eighth grade check it out because it was “too difficult.” (Even though he’d already read the entire series on his own before.)

However, since not all of my students are voracious bibliophiles like me, they need strategies to help them pick books that will be good fits for them. One such strategy that we are using throughout our school is I PICK. It has the advantage of being both easy to use and easy to remember:

Most of my students already use elements of this strategy. We talked about it today and then I gave them bookmarks that they can use. When I choose a book, I ask myself four questions: why do I want to read this? (Inform, entertain, my-teacher-is-making-me, curiosity, or a combination of these). Does the topic interest me? (Yes, no, it-doesn’t-matter-because-my-super-mean-teacher-is-making-me-read-it-anyway). Do I understand it? (Absolutely, not at all, most of it, not-really-but-my-teacher-who-really-is-mean-no-seriously-he-is-the-meanest-teacher-ever-he-keeps-making-me-figure-things-out-on-my-own-instead-of-just-telling-me-the-answer-says-I-can). Do I know most of the words? (I like the five-word rule: if the student reads the first page and doesn’t know five of the words, it might be a little too difficult for them.)

I will be sending home information about this strategy so students can share it with their parents, too. I encourage all of my students to select books from the library at school, the library in the community, and the library at home. Hopefully the I PICK strategy will help them build their personal reading CAFE skills: comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expanded vocabulary!

Open House!

We had our Wiley Elementary School Open House tonight! It was wonderful having students come in with their parents and show off the classroom! It was also great to get to place faces with the names that I have seen, either on student contact forms, in emails, or in text messages. It was also nice to place faces to the voices that I have heard on the telephone. I am grateful to all the parents who stopped in to say hello, to ask questions, and to offer to help out in the classroom.

I strive to have an open door policy for my room. Parents are always welcome to visit, to volunteer, to share their areas of expertise, or just to remind their children that they are just a phone call away. (That being said, I work really hard at not having to call parents during the day because I want my students recognise that the person in charge of them during the day at school is their teacher!) I do ask that parents call, email, or text first (I personally prefer emails because they are an easy way for me to keep track of communications) just so I can make sure that we will be in the room during the time they are planning a visit.

Ms. Schultz, my student teacher this semester, was able to come this evening as well. She wrote a brief letter of introduction for parents but also stayed around in the classroom to talk and to answer questions. We are still in the process of making plans for her time with us, but I was glad she came to help reinforce the idea that she is a teacher, too.

To prepare for the Open House, my students helped clean the room at the end of the day. My bulletin boards outside the classroom are still bare because we are working on our first hallway project, but the room was neat and tidy and ready to be presented as a positive learning environment.

Thanks again for everyone who was able to make it! I am looking forward to another wonderful year of teaching fourth grade at Wiley!

Learning Buddies

When I got hired to work at Wiley, I found myself partnering with another new teacher who was hired shortly after me. There were four who were hired the same summer, but three of us were hired during the two weeks before school started. It was a crazy stressful time, with lots of collaborating on the fly, but we used all of our professional skills and leaned heavily on other teachers in the building to get through that first year. I will be forever grateful for my coworkers who mentored me, guided me, counseled me, and put up with me as I was trying to figure out what on earth I was doing! (I will also be grateful to the parents who were patient and supportive. Their children are now in their last year in middle school but, from all I’ve heard, they are doing quite well!)

One way that Miss C, as I’ve decided just a few minutes ago to call her, and I partnered together was by creating reading buddies with our two classes. She was teaching second grade and I was teaching fourth. The buddies were a success and so we decided to continue to partner, even as she moved down to teaching first grade the next year. After three years, we determined that our reading buddy program was awesome and we made a bulletin board in the main hallway to showcase the students’ work.

During that year, Miss C and I both had students, two sisters, whose mother was very active in volunteering in our classrooms. One day she asked if there was anything she could do and I asked if she could put up new student work samples on our reading buddies bulletin board. The title of the board I had put up was “Reading Buddies Help Us Learn!” While updating the board, this wonderful parent volunteer took down all the words before realising that they could have stayed up. As she started laying the letters out, she couldn’t quite remember what it had said, but she did her best and came up with “Learning Buddies Help Us Read!”

This turned out to be the single greatest accident of my teaching career so far! Miss C and I looked at it and realised how much more we could do if we went from being just reading buddies to being learning buddies. A lot of the first grade and fourth grade curriculum overlap, with first graders learning the basics of a concept and the fourth graders delving deeper. We compared our science and social studies curricula and saw this most. So we decided that we would implement learning buddies for the 2014-2015 school year.

This new change required quite a bit of planning, which we were able to do during the Chancellor’s Academy we attended through the University of Illinois and through online planning sessions. I had also acquired some new books for my classroom and we decided that one of them would be perfect to start this collaborative endeavour this year.

Kathryn Otoshi is a children’s book author and illustrator who wrote the book One a few years ago. She followed it up with a sequel of sorts, called Zero. I have heard rumours that there is a third book in the series, Two, set to come out this fall.

After bring my class down to Miss C’s room, we gathered the students and I read the story aloud. Then we talked briefly about the main idea of the story, which is that everyone matters. One way that we can show others that they matter is by remembering their names. We introduced all of the students to their buddies and then gave them bookmarks made from paint colour samples and ribbon. On one side, each student wrote his or her own name; on the other side, they wrote the names of their learning buddies. Then they decorated with stickers. All twenty-two of my fourth graders were working with all twenty of Miss C’s first graders. All were cooperating, all were helping, and all were having fun.

We are going to gather every Wednesday afternoon for half an hour or so for learning buddies throughout the year. The students are going to work together on many different projects, covering the span of literacy, science, social studies, math, and even physical education concepts. I am really excited for our plans this year and cannot wait to see what the students think of next week’s project!

Multiplication Tools

Multiplication is very important. It is a life-skill that is used in ,any different settings, from food preparation to driving an automobile to performing job functions to planning for a party. Now, I know that these aren’t things a typical nine- or ten-year-old would deal with on a daily basis, but that’s part of the point: mist children don’t use these life-skills for adult things. But kids also use multiplication when playing games and doing other typical childhood activities. Some may scoff and say that they don’t use multiplication that much. That’s probably because they don’t even realize they are doing it!

Therefore, it is important to me that my students all understand not just how to multiply, but what is going on when they are performing such computations. Concepts like equal groups, equal shares, area, and array are all important to facilitate thus understanding. In order to do these things, they have to have mastered basic multiplication facts, what we used to call the “times tables”.

We do a lot of practice to foster increased understanding, build mastery, and develop fluency. One tool I use is my multiplication dice, which are just two twelves-sided dice in a cup. Another tool is the weekly online multiplication quiz found on Mr. Martini’s Classroom. A third tool is, which students use several times a week. Yet another tool is one of the most traditional of tools: the 100-item multiplication timed test. The students have 6 minutes to find the products for all the problems. Students will take this test once a month.

Although all of these tools are similar, they each serve the dual purpose of helping me know what my students need to work on and helping them gain confidence and deepen their skills.