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

Archive for October, 2014

Parent-Teacher Conferences

Twice a year I get to sit down with all of the parents in my class one at a time to talk about their students’ academic, social, and emotional growth.

Right now it occurs to me that the phrase “parents in my class” makes sense to me as an educator, but I’m not sure if it makes sense to others. The parents aren’t “in” my class, their children are. However, I firmly believe that my students’ parents and I are part of a team, working together to help the children “achieve personal greatness” (a phrase in the Urbana School District’s mission statement) and therefore, while they are not actually in the room, they are still a part of the class.

Anyway, parent-teacher conferences. They give me a chance to sit down with parents and talk to them about their children but, more importantly, it gives them a chance to talk to me about their children. I am with these 22 21 children for roughly seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year (minus holidays and breaks). The parents are with them the rest of the time (or they have trusted childcare providers with them). So these conferences help me gain insights into my students’ lives that I may not gain otherwise.

I also get to find out about the things students say about me at home. I learned that several students are using XtraMath, FrontRow, and Typing Web to practice skills at home. I discovered that I have a student who is a struggling reader who takes my suggestions for books to heart and when the local library doesn’t have them, submits requests, knowing the titles and authors’ names. I found out that a student who has, on several occasions, told me very angrily that she hates me, hates my classroom, and hates our school actually loves coming to school every day. I discovered that many students respond to parents’ attempts to help them with work with, “Well, that’s not the way Mr. Valencic taught us!” or they will just bring up at the dinner table something that starts with, “Hey, did you know [fill in the blank]? Mr. Valencic told us about it today!”

The school district did something different with conferences this year. Instead of doing Thursday evening and Friday morning, we had them changed to Tuesday evening and Thursday evening. Adding to the mix is the fact that I have late-night classes on Mondays and Wednesdays. So right now I am thoroughly exhausted. I have put in a lot of hours this week and I still have one more day to go. (There is not school tomorrow, but I have a staff development day and will be presenting to my fourth grade colleagues about my efforts to integrate Chromebooks into my instruction.) However, I am grateful for the opportunity and grateful to all of the parents who took fifteen minutes out of their schedules (plus travel time) to stop by, visit, and talk. I always feel like things are just a little bit smoother in the classroom after conferences. I feel like my students and I are finally able to hit our stride and start moving forward at a better pace. So even though I am worn and drained, I am glad to have had these conferences. The things I learn and the things I am able to share with parents who are looking for ways to support their child’s learning make it all worthwhile!


Despite the fact that I have 222 people who “follow” my blog through WordPress and despite the fact that I share my blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Google +, I only get about 25-35 visits a day on my blog. But even though I don’t think I have a lot of real regular readers and even though I don’t get hundreds of visits each day, I still write every day there is school (except on those occasions when I get home and collapse in my bed at the end of a day and completely forget about blogging). I blog first to give me an opportunity to reflect, second for parents to read about what we do in our classroom, and third because I like to share what I do with the world on the off-chance that someone will notice and share it with others. (To this day, the single busiest day I had on my blog was November 11, 2013, when Neil Gaiman (!!!) retweeted my review of one of his books.) I write reviews of books I have read with my class because I think it is worth letting authors know that students are reading and enjoying their stories. I will try to tag an author on Twitter so he or she knows I wrote a review, but I’ve never had one actually ask me in advance to do so. (However, if an author were to send me an advanced reader copy of a story and ask me to read it with my class and then write a blog post, I would probably do it.)

We finished reading a book as a class today. It was a book I had never read before, but I had read two of the authors’ previous works, shared them with my class, and had amazing results. The first book I read had initially been the only book by the author I was going to read, but my class was so desperate to know the rest of the story when they learned there was a sequel that I read it, too. Then they asked me to reach out to the author so they could share their thoughts and we ended up having a really cool Skype chat with her just before she left for a trip to Italy.

The author, as those elusive regular readers may recall, is Ms. Kirby Larson, author of Newbery-honor book Hattie Big Sky, and its sequel, Hattie Ever After. Kirby, as I find myself calling her after chatting on Twitter, over email, and guest blogging for her last year, writes a lot of historical fiction. I learned about two other books she wrote and decided that I had to share at least one of them with my class this year. But I also wanted to share Hattie with them. So I let my class decide: Duke or Hattie Big Sky. I read summaries of both and they voted to read Duke.

I had never read it before. I didn’t really know more than my students did. But I knew it was historical fiction, that it took place during World War II, it was about a boy about the same age as my students who had made the decision to loan his beloved pet dog Duke to the United States military through the Dogs for Defense program, and all the things that happened during that time. As we read through the story, we talked about the characters, the time period, the relationships, and my students made connections to other books we’ve read aloud. Several observed that Mitch Mitchell is a lot like Julian Albans from Wonder and they theorised that there have always been and always will be those kids who are determined to make others’ lives miserable. We also reflected on the ways we respond to frustration, anger, sadness, and grief. I’ll admit: I didn’t think I would discover all of those things in this story. I expected I’d enjoy it and I hoped my class would like it, but I don’t think I expected to have a story that would connect fourth grade students in 2014 to a sixth grader in 1944. But my students realised something pretty neat: with all the way things have changed in the past decades, there are still a lot of ways that the lives of children today are very similar to the lives of children seventy years ago!

We finished reading Duke today and my class wanted to know if we would start reading the companion story, Dash. (A companion story in that it is also about a child and her dog and it takes place during WWII.) Alas, we have other stories I want to share this year. But I encouraged them to borrow my copy, to read it independently or with friends, and to see if the local library has copies that they can borrow.

And who knows. Maybe I’ll insert another book in my reading list and introduce my class to a good friend of mine, a spunky, independent girl from Ames, Iowa, who sets out to do the impossible when she moves to Vida, Montana, to prove up her deceased scoundrel of an uncle’s homestead claim. (I have a feeling my class might be more interested in Miss Hattie’s story now that they know the author’s style better and have become fans. All of my students have Duke and Dash dog tags that they wear daily and/or use a bookmarks, in addition to the actual bookmarks that Kirby sent us over the summer!) And who knows. Maybe I’ll be able to sweet-talk my author friend into chatting with my class again. (But if she can’t, we will all understand!)

Guided Math Groups

About a year and a half ago, I stumbled upon a great resource for teachers called MiddleWeb, which, among many other things, provides teacher reviews of educational resource books. I signed up to review some books during the summer of 2014 and found some great ideas and resources that I’ve tried using in my classroom. One of these, which I wrote about that summer, was the idea of Guided Math groups, which are organised much the same way as Guided Reading groups are. I read the book that Dr. Nicki Newton wrote on the subject, wrote a review, and toyed with different ways of implementing the strategies during the following year. I don’t know how successful I was, but I at least tried to incorporate some of the ideas into my instruction.

With the arrival of our Chromebooks as an amazing instructional tool, I realised that I had a fantastic way of incorporating Guided Math this year! I am not able to set up a Math Workshop as Dr. Newton suggests, but I am still incorporating some of her ideas. Our math period goes for one hour. For the first 15 minutes, we have a whole-class lesson that introduces a math concept for the day. For the next 45 minutes, the students go through a rotation of working independently on the Chromebooks (mostly with FrontRow but we are also going to start using XtraMath again each day) and meeting with me in a small group.

I have three small groups set up. These are going to be flexible groups that are organised based on whatever major unit we are working on at the time. Some students may work in the same group more than once but they shouldn’t expect to be in the same group throughout the year. I will work with each group for 15 minutes. They will spend the other 30 minutes on independent, differentiated practice online.

We started using this framework this week. I am still working on tweaking it, but I think it is going to make our math instructional time much more effective. I’m excited to be able to implement some of Dr. Newton’s strategies and will be referring to the book she wrote again for ideas and suggestions over the next weeks and months!

Basketball Drills

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had my students doing different things with basketball over the past couple of weeks. I’m not really sure why I decided to do it, actually. I don’t play basketball, although I’ve joined a pick-up game here and there. (Due to my lack of depth perception that is a result of being blind in one eye, I’m not particularly good and throwing an object through another object that is a great distance away.) I also played basketball with some buddies in high school during gym class, although I preferred just walking laps around the gym and talking with my best friend.

Anyway, I have somehow managed to find myself trying to teach my class some basics of basketball. Because even though I’m not particularly good at it, I understand some of the mechanics and I have enough students who want to play that I figure they may as well learn how to play right. Fortunately, we have a great resource in our building for helping with this: our speech and language pathologist, who is a former high school and college basketball star. She did some basketball training with fifth graders last year and I asked her if she’d be willing to help out with my fourth graders this year.

She agreed and came in this morning to help out. Something you may notice: she’s got quite the baby bump going on, but that doesn’t stop her! She stepped in, took charge, and got my students learning how to complete step passes, bounce passes, overhead passes, and right-side lay-ups!





It was fantastic! (And, until she explained and taught these, I honestly had no idea what they were.) She modeled each of these for the class before having them do them, but it was quite a shock to many of the students to see this pregnant lady run down the court and complete a lay-up as if it was nothing!



She graciously helped the students, coaching and coaxing, encouraging and supporting, all while helping them learn better control. We don’t have school next Friday (a staff development day on Hallowe’en), but I think she’s going to try to help us a few more times on Fridays, if her schedule will allow it.

I’m very grateful to have access to such remarkably talented people in my building, and I am even more grateful to those who are able to find a spare moment or two to step and and help out. (And yes, I try to do the same with the talents I have, such as troubleshooting technical issues and supporting teachers and students with instructional technology!) Thanks, Mrs. Clark!

Bus Evacuation

I have several students in my class who ride the bus to school, but the majority of them are either car riders or they simply walk home, due to the close proximity of the school to their homes. As a result, I have many students who don’t ride school buses all that much. We are only able to go on one or two field trips a year, depending on the distance and time, so some of my students are only on a school bus once every few months.

However, we want all of the students in our school to be trained in how to safely evacuate a bus in case of an emergency. Today was our bus evacuation training day. My students boarded a bus and first learned about the safety features, such as the high foam seat backs that are designed to absorb massive shock and prevent injury to students in case the bust has to stop quickly, or the plexiglass windows that are designed to be kicked out to create an exit in the event that the regular exits and emergency exits are inaccessible. They also learned that the bus is equipped with a GPS device that lets the district’s transportation supervisor monitor where all of the buses are at all times. There is a special sensor on the bus that is activated whenever the bus is turned off that detects motion in the case of a student accidentally being left on a bus. (Our driver told us that this has happened 14 times in the past year, but not in Urbana!)

The class also learned how to safely exit a bus through the rear door, by sitting down on the edge and hopping down, then having the taller, older students help smaller, younger students get down. We were told that it only takes 2 minutes for a bus to fill with smoke and just 4 minutes before it could be engulfed in flames, so it is urgent that, in the case of an emergency, they exit the bus as quickly as possible! They also learned how to exit a bus if it stalls on railroad tracks and a train is coming. They leave from either the front or the back and run 100 yards toward the train (staying off the tracks, of course) in order to be shielded from any potential debris.

After reviewing all of the safety precautions and the procedures for exiting a bus, we practiced a front-door exit. (There were three buses providing training this morning and there wasn’t enough space to practice a rear-door exit.) I was the first off the bus and timed my class. We were able to safely evacuate and get away in just 36.7 seconds! Not bad! I feel much more comfortable about the prospect of taking the class to Springfield this spring, knowing that if there is an emergency, my students will know what to do. And a huge shout-out to Dawn, our driver, who answered every student’s question and helped them feel more comfortable about being on a bus!

Walk and Talk

One of the many newsletters, blogs, and other writings related to education that I receive is The Big Fresh newsletter, produced by Choice Literacy. This is a site that provides a vast array of tools, strategies, lessons, and advice on teaching literacy at all levels. The newsletter, which I get in my email each Saturday morning, offers a collection of resources, mostly in the form of teachers’ blog posts, about literacy instruction. About a month ago, I read a newsletter post from Brenda Power, founder of Choice Literacy, about a strategy she uses called “Walk and Talk.”

One of my favorite ways to break routine with students and colleagues in the fall has always been a “Walk and Talk.” The activity couldn’t be simpler. A brief article, issue, or idea is shared in the classroom, and then we pair up and go outside to walk and enjoy the sunshine while the partners discuss a focus question based on the reading or topic. After 20 minutes, everyone comes back to share insights and next steps.

I shared this with several of my colleagues, including Miss C, who immediately suggested we consider using it with our learning buddies. Of course, then we had several days of rainy, gloomy weather, so we had to put off trying it out. Today, though, promised to be sunny and warm (comparatively) and we decided to modify it for our needs.

We decided to have the students walk one lap around the front of the schoolyard. Both classes have been working on identifying the beginning, middle, and end of a story, so we wanted the buddies to complete a graphic organiser for this purpose. Before they started walking, they had to pick a book and write a brief summary of the beginning. Then they walked to the halfway point of the perimeter sidewalk and stopped to write a summary of the middle of the text. They finished the lap and wrote about the end of the story. While walking, they were expected to talk about the story that had been selected.

It turned out to be an excellent strategy! The students were all engaged, they got to enjoy some extra sunshine and get some physical activity in, and their organisers turned out to be written very well! I am hoping that the pleasant weather will last longer so that I can use this strategy with my class on their own, too. And maybe Miss C and I will have our buddies do it again before it starts raining and (ugh) snowing this year!


Tuvan Throat Singing

Wiley Elementary School has, over the years, developed a reputation in our community as a school that truly embraces the arts. I’m not saying that other schools in the community don’t, though. There is a wide appreciation and application of the fine arts in many of our local elementary, middle, and high schools. It is just that my school is definitely part of this group.

This may be why our school was selected as one of the stops of the Alash Ensemble’s U.S. Fall Tour. Alash Ensemble is a group of Tuvan throat singers. At this point, unless you happen to know about this particular style of musical performance and/or you know about this small republic that is a part of the Russian Federation. I will be honest when I say I had no idea who they were or what they did. And even after looking it up online, I still didn’t fully appreciate it. It took hearing them in person to really grasp how amazing this performance style is!

Tuva (also spelled Tyva) is a small republic in the southern reaches of Siberia that borders Mongolia. The people are mostly nomadic cattle herders with ethic roots tying them to Turkic, Mongol, and Samodeic peoples from near the Ural Mountains. Tuvan throat singing is a special style of vocalization that results in multiple harmonic tones caused by controlling the vocal tract. It is definitely a unique style of singing!

The ensemble today comprised just three members. They performed traditional Tuvan songs with their voices and instruments. They also allowed students to ask some questions before performing one last song that involved audience participation. The students were all thoroughly engaged and captivated by this performance! I am appreciative of all those who worked together to make it happen!