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

Archive for November, 2014


We have a new music teacher in our building. She and I have done some collaborating on classroom management strategies and using boosters to keep my class on track with following expectations. Through a series of semi-coincidences, it turns out that her husband and I are both playing trumpet in a holiday orchestra this year. So when she invited him to come to her music classes today to share the trumpet with the students, she invited me to visit during my students’ scheduled time.

I started playing the trumpet when I was 10 years old, way back in the fifth grade. I started playing for two reasons:

  1. Two of my oldest brothers had played the trumpet and so my family had ready access to one. (Two other brothers were percussionists and my other older brother played the saxophone.)
  2. My best friend was going to play trumpet, too, because his grandfather was a trumpet player.

And those are really the only reasons why I started playing. Of my five older brothers, only the oldest, who played trumpet, and the younger of the percussionists kept playing through high school. As far as I know, though, none of my brothers continued with their instruments beyond that, unlike me. I started in fifth grade and continued all the way through my junior year of college. I had to stop then because my class schedule and student teaching prevented me from playing in university concert bands. Then I was invited to join a community wind ensemble at Parkland College by two good buddies of mine. I performed with the Parkland Wind Ensemble for several years but had to quit after getting hired at Wiley and simply not being able to devote the time needed to rehearsals. However, I was able to join a summer community band through the St. Joseph (Illinois) Community Arts Resources program. So I have found a way to continue playing the trumpet.

It was fun sharing some of my skills with the students in my class. While the guest performer is a far better trumpet player than me (he is studying trumpet performance at the university), I consider myself to be a competent ensemble performer. I was able to demonstrate for the class the effect different mutes have on the sound of a trumpet and the difference in sound between a traditional Bb trumpet and an orchestral C trumpet. The music teacher’s husband also brought in his piccolo trumpet, which he calls the baby of the trumpet family. He talked to the students about valves, mouthpieces, timbre, and embouchure (although I don’t think he actually used that last term).

Thanks to our music teacher for inviting me to be a part of her class today! It was a nice way to wrap up our short two-day week. I hope all of my fellow American readers have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!


Wear Out

I was gone last Friday attending a conference in Chicago. When I got back this morning, I read through the notes my substitute teacher left for me and saw that the students had played a game in P.E. called Wear Out. She made an observation that the students loved the game. I had actually never heard of it before and so my interest was quite piqued!

I asked my class to tell me about the game so that we could play this morning. It involves the students dividing into two teams on opposite ends of the gym. On the signal, one student from each team races around the gym. As soon as they make it to their base, the next student in line races. The goal is for everyone on your team to make it around first. It is a simple game and the name says exactly what the purpose is: wear out the students as they run, run, and run some more!

The students wanted to compete boys against girls, which they did twice. Then I had them select their own teams of half boys and half girls. They competed two more times. Then I recombined the mixed teams and allowed them to race two more times. After six races, they were quite thoroughly exhausted!

I’m always in favour of learning about new games and activities to use for P.E. We have a lot of resources available in our school and our district, but I am grateful to the retired teachers who share their expertise with me and my students, too!

It Takes a Village

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was still in middle school, I remember hearing about a book that the current First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wrote. It was called It Takes a Village. I’ve never read the book. I’ve never read the counter-arguments or criticisms of it. All I’ve ever encountered was the title. (I just requested it through the public library and am hoping to read it soon.) The title, though, has resonated with me over the years.

Before leaving for the conference in Chicago I am attending this weekend, I had the opportunity to visit two different classrooms in my district. The first was a classroom for children who are learning English as a second language. The second was at the Urbana Early Childhood School. Both visits were so I could do brief observations as a part of my graduate school coursework. As I left the schools, I was struck with the realisation of the truthfulness to the title of Mrs. Clinton’s book. It really does take a village to raise a child. Parents and immediately family are the primary caregivers, typically, but they are not the only ones teaching and helping children grow. Teachers also play a key role. So do their peers and their classmates.

This was especially clear to me as I was visiting UECS. The principal gave me a tour of the building and I learned that the school is divided into three “villages” with four classes each. I have no idea if the idea of calling the groups of classrooms “villages” is tied to this proverb or not, but it is certainly appropriate! As we walked through UECS, I was struck by the sense of community and friendliness that permeates the very walls! Even as we were just walking past one of the rooms, a young girl saw the principal and rushed over just to say hi before getting back to the class activity! (The principal, ever the teacher, coached the girl on waving hello instead of leaving her class to greet someone.)

I spent about 20 minutes inside one of the classrooms and was amazed at the wonderful things I saw going on. Students spend most of their time in the early childhood program learning through play. There are centers in each room that the principal requires but each teacher sets them up differently. I sat near the house center and watched as boys and girls played at being parents using baby dolls. One girl turned to a boy and said, “Don’t you hear these babies crying? Why do you always leave to go to the office each day and leave me home with these crying babies?!” to which he responded, “I have to go to the office; how else am I going to pay the bills?!” Keep in mind, children at UECS are between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, and yet they have such sophisticated language skills! Later, the girl played at growing frustrated with a baby and talked about spanking her. The teacher came over and, in a calm and wonderfully patient way, coached the students on more appropriate methods for expressing frustration.

I could have stayed in the classrooms I was visiting all day, but, alas, I had to leave so that I could finish packing before leaving for our weekend trip. But I want to return to my original theme. It really does take a village. Anyone and everyone who is around children knows that the things they say and do matter and make a lasting impressions. While my wife and I have no children of our own, we are still very much involved in teaching young people to become decent, honest people. We are a part of the village. I’m very grateful to those who let me visit today so that I could witness first-hand the awesome things that are happening within my school district. While I am attending this conference as a guest of Washington District 52, I am very proud to tell others that I am a teacher in Urbana!

Planning for an Absence

Because of the various district task forces I am a part of, as well as a professional inquiry group, I have quite a few planned absences for this year. Most of them are for just half days scattered throughout the year, but there are some planned absences that will be for an entire day. Two of these absences I have each year are both in November. The first one already came: Election Day. As a Judge of the Election for Champaign County, I can plan on being gone on the first Tuesday of November every year.

The other absence will be tomorrow. My mother in on the school board in my hometown and gets to attend the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. (Also known as the Triple I Conference because JACIASBIASAIASBO doesn’t really lend itself to easy pronunciation.) As a schoolb board member, she is allowed to invite guests to attend the conference with her. My wife and I went with her last year and had a wonderful time. I learned about amazing resources available to our schools and met some really impressive school leaders and researchers. So when we were invited to attend again this year, we gladly accepted!

Knowing for such a long time that I would be gone tomorrow, I have been helping my students plan for my absence. They know who my substitute teacher will be, they know what they will be working on, and they know what the expectations will be. (We reviewed the expectations this morning and reinforced that our classroom expectations are the same whether I am here or not!) We’ve also been talking about consequences for following expectations and consequences for not following them.

This last part has been an interesting conversation because we often associate “consequences” with “punishment” instead of “the result of an action or choice.” The consequences of doing what you are supposed to do is you get to continue to do things that you find pleasant, enjoyable, or worthwhile. In a classroom setting, you get to continue learning, participating, being with your peers, and receiving positive attention from classmates, teachers, and parents. The consequences of making poor decisions are a removal of privileges, having to do things that are less desirable, being separated from peers, and gaining negative attention.

While I am traveling to Chicago and spending the weekend learning about school leaders, technology integration, family engagement, and new tools and resources, I am confident that my students will be doing what they are supposed to be doing so that they can receive the positive consequences of doing the right thing!

Turning Things Over

I love hosting student teachers in my classroom. They challenge me to continually think deeply about what I am doing, how I am doing it, and why I am making the choices I make. They also bring fresh ideas to the classroom that I love trying out. I also really enjoy being able to serve as a mentor as they are preparing to do full-time student teaching. Some of my student teachers pass through and then I don’t hear from them again. Others keep in touch. (My student teacher from last fall, Ms. Shapiro, got hired over the summer and is teaching fourth grade in Schaumburg!)

My student teacher this semester, Ms. Schultz, has been with us every Tuesday and Wednesday. She has taken on many responsibilities over the past several weeks, including some of the more mundane teacher tasks such as attendance and lunch cart to some of the very important instructional responsibilities of guided reading, math instruction, and our daily read aloud.

This week, however, was her trial by fire! Every student teacher in the fall is expected to take over all of the teaching responsibilities for two days. We decided to have her do her full take-over this week so that she wouldn’t have to do it after our extended Thanksgiving holiday break.

Even though she was doing all of the teaching, I was still in the classroom for the vast majority of the time. It was hard for me to sit back and not intervene when I noticed students off-task, but I soon realised that she totally had things under control. She was quick to redirect students and get them back on task and they were, for the most part, quick to respond. Many of the students were definitely challenging her authority yesterday but today they were much, much more responsive as they accepted that I was deferring responsibility to her. Any time someone came to me with a question, I directed their inquiries to Ms. Schultz first.

We still have several weeks left of the semester, and so Ms. Schultz will continue to be with our class each Tuesday and Wednesday. As we move toward the end, there will be less modeling and less just turning things over and much more co-teaching and co-planning. And that’s the other thing I love about having student teachers: serving as a mentor and helping them go from being observers who are usually trepidatious about being in a formal teaching assignment for the first time to being an active, eager part of a teaching team!

Body Safety

Every so often, our school has representatives from a coalition of the Urbana Fire Department, the Urbana Police Deapartment, the American Red Cross, and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District visit to talk to the students about different risks that students are exposed to during their day-to-day lives. Some of these include fire safety, gun safety, severe weather, and potentially hazardous liquids. Because of recent legislation in Illinois, our district has joined with the schools in Champaign to provide a body safety presentation, too. Members of the coalition visited each classroom yesterday and today to talk to the students about this very important safety topic.

They started by talking about “stranger danger” and the reminder that students shouldn’t engage in conversations with people they don’t know, especially when they are alone or with friends. Each student should have a list of safe adults that they can go to when they need help. They practiced saying “NO!” in a strong, loud, confident voice and were reminded that whenever they feel unsafe or uncomfortable they should say NO! and RUN AWAY to a safe place. The presenters shared strategies for getting away from a person who is trying to hurt them, including hitting them in a sensitive place.

There was a reminder that these strategies for staying safe are not meant to be used as games or jokes. They also shouldn’t be used when a student in mad at a teacher for telling them to stop doing something that is not safe, respectful, or responsible. Throughout the presentation, our school social worker was present to help monitor students and be aware of possible triggers.

The entire presentation was perfectly geared for my students and taught important skills and concepts without making anyone feel uncomfortable! I am very grateful to those in this student health and safety coalition for putting together these presentations and giving my students the tools and knowledge they need to keep themselves safe from danger.

On-Task Behaviour

Sorry for the lateness of this post. Monday evenings continue to be a challenge for me to get a blog post written because we have staff meetings after school lets out and then I have a short period of time to get ready for my graduate course in the evening.

As I’ve been continuing to explore ways to utilise the Chromebooks in my classroom, I’ve discovered a lot of incredibly useful websites that facilitate meaningful independent practice for students while I am working with small groups or conferencing one-on-one with students. I’ve written about several of these tools and resources in the past few months. I’ve discovered a couple of new tools, but I’m not ready to review any of them quite yet.

One side benefit of these tools I’ve recently discovered is the ability to more efficiently track my students’ on-task behaviour. In the past, I have had to leave a small group or plan for breaks between conferences to monitor students. Now, however, I can keep an eye on what they are doing simply by checking the websites they are working on. Although we have many different tools to use in my room, I tend to assign students to work on specific sites at specific times. Then I can go onto my teacher dashboard and see what they have been doing. Being able to monitor students’ behaviour is not just something that lets me know if they are on-task or not, though; it also lets me see what they are working on so I can provide more meaningful interventions, either for reteaching or for enrichment.

There is software that exists that will let me monitor students’ online activity in real time, but since it costs several hundred dollars and I am teacher with a very limited budget, I’ll have to rely on the monitoring tools I have at my disposal. And, of course, I still get up and walk around the room to see what students are up to. And if I notice that someone is doing something they aren’t supposed to be doing, I can pull it up on their history and take a screen capture for future reference or for further instruction on the proper use of our technology tools.

(On a completely unrelated note, this was my 800th post!)