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

Archive for December, 2014

A Celebration of Writing

For two months, my students have been immersed in writing. We used the Writers’ Workshop format designed by Lucy Calkins and focused on writing realistic fiction. Before we started, I had my students do a writing sample for me. Some wrote a paragraph, some wrote a single sentence, most wrote something in between. Then we started working on developing stories, identifying seed ideas, picking topics that we already know about from personal experience, sketching pictures, outlining story arcs, developing characters, “turning on the lights,” and writing so that the reader can “jump into the character’s skin.” Then student had time to just write. Every day, for 30-45 minutes. They wrote, I conferenced. They wrote, I conferenced. Repeat.

Today we celebrated our writing. After two months of work, the students shared the stories with one another. I divided them into groups and let them read to each other. One read, the others listened. They took turns. They shared. They applauded. They celebrated. We celebrated.

I am so impressed with the quality of writing that my students have produced! From a few scattered sentences to well-developed narratives, they have shown me what they are capable of! More importantly, they have realised what they themselves can do! So many started to unit telling me that they hated writing, that they didn’t want anything to do with it, that it was boring, and that they had nothing to write about. Now they know better. Everyone has ideas. Everyone can write those ideas and create something that nobody else has ever made before. That’s some pretty powerful stuff there!

A huge shout-out to our expert from the University of Illinois Center for Education in Small Urban Communities, Mrs. DeHart! She helped us get started, offered support throughout, and came back today for our celebration! This celebration was such a wonderful way to end our quarter and the first semester! I already have so many ideas for where to take this next, with writing and researching and sharing and publishing and oh so many other things!



Guest Blogging

It is a surreal experience to have someone else ask you to contribute to their blog. It is still surreal when all they do is ask for people willing to contribute and you send an email or a tweet and you get an affirmative response.

My guest blogging experience started with the Nerdy Book Club in June 2012. (I’ve only written one guest post there; I should see about doing another soon.) The following summer, author Kirby Larson had written a guest post and asked for teachers willing to be a part of a writing project with her. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity, and thus struck up the most unexpected (for me) teacher-author relationships. I wrote a post for Kirby and, as a token of appreciation for being one of the first to reply, received a copy of her Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky. It humbles me, as a relatively inexperienced teacher at an obscure school in a small urban community in the middle of cornfields, to have an award-winning author talk to me, share with me, and be a part of my classroom.

Today marks the second time I have been a guest on Kirby’s blog. She asked several teachers to play a game: she would give a list of questions, and we would answer. The responses have been going up every Tuesday since the start of the school year. I’m not going to steal Kirby’s site traffic by posting the questions, or my answers here. If you want to see them, you’ll have to click the link and visit her blog! I am going to steal her idea, though. Starting this Saturday, I am going to feature responses from my students to questions about reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies, physical education, fine arts, and recess. I have 23 students in my class. Student Saturday posts will go up each Saturday starting this week and continuing on through just about the end of the year. This is going to be my first serious attempt at student guest blogging. I hope it’ll be fun! I will continue to follow my rule of not using any student names on my blog, though, but this will hopefully give a sneak peek (not a sneak peak) into the thoughts of my students.

Task Analysis

Task analysis is an important process to do as a teacher, but it can be incredibly time-consuming. The concept behind task analysis is to have students go through a very specific process and watch what they are doing in order to better identify strengths and weaknesses. I use task analyses quite often, but I don’t write about them very much. In fact, I think I’ve only blogged about task analysis once before, and that was in 2012, toward the end of my first year teaching at Wiley.

We are swiftly approaching the end of the second quarter and the start of our two-week winter break. We are also swiftly approaching the end of our math unit on multiplication, specifically the multiplication of a multi-digit whole number by a single-digit whole number and multiplying two two-digit whole numbers. The students have been learning a variety of strategies, such as open arrays and partial quotients, and we have been connecting these strategies to the standard vertical algorithm (SVA) that has been used and taught for generations. For parents who have been asking, here is a quick video showing how to solve the same problem using the SVA, an open array, and partial products:


Today I decided to use a task analysis to see how well my students understand the SVA. I gave them a two-digit by two-digit multiplication problem and then watched as they solved it one by one. I was specifically looking to see if they knew the basic multiplication facts, the process of multiplying by a number in the ones’ place, carrying, multiplying by a number in the tens’ place, and adding the partial products together.

What I found was very telling. Some of my students have mastered the SVA. Some understand how to use it when multiplying by a single digit but they aren’t sure how to integrate the tens. Some students use alternate strategies that work for them, which I think is fantastic! And some students know the algorithm but they don’t quite have all of the multiplication facts committed to memory, leading to computational errors.

Having conducted the task analysis, the next step is to use the information to guide instruction for the next couple of days. I will be working with small groups to provide specific support as we wrap up this unit and prepare for the break. And yes, we will continue to work on multiplication throughout the year. This unit is just one period of intense focus on this important math skill.

About Those “What Gifts NOT to Give” Articles You’ve Probably Seen

Well, that may be just about the longest blog post title I’ve written on this blog. Maybe not. I haven’t actually gone back to look at all of them to see. Oh well. I digress before I even start.

A teacher friend of mine from Champaign shared a blog post/article this morning on Facebook. She was not sharing it because she agreed with it, though. She shared it because it upset her and she wanted to know what her other teacher friends thought. All of us have agreed: it is terrible.

Two or three times a year, someone on the Internet writes a post about giving gifts to teachers that is trying to be helpful. I try to look at them in the best possible light and I try to remember that the authors really are trying to be helpful. Unfortunately, they also always make me feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially when the author prefaces her post by saying, “I am a teacher, so I know.” The articles are not the same, but they have the same message: Don’t buy this gift or that for a teacher. She won’t really like. He won’t want to keep it. She will smile and accept it and throw it in the trash. He would rather you gave him something else.

It makes me sad.

Very, very sad.

You see, I was one of those kids who each year gave his teachers the same gift: a coffee mug with some chocolates inside and a thank you note. I was one of those kids that came from a large family (five older brothers and two younger sisters) and so many of my teachers had taught many Valencic children over the year. And I was one of those kids that came from a family that was not wealthy. In all honesty, we were somewhere between poverty and lower middle class. I don’t write that in an effort to shame my parents. I don’t write that to garner sympathy. I write it because it was the reality of my childhood, but it was a reality that I was mostly unaware of. My parents always made sure we had life’s essentials: food, shelter, clothing, love, and books. But because of our financial situation and because of the size of my family, it wasn’t feasible to provide costly gifts for all of those teachers. But my parents wanted to make sure that we knew that our teachers were important, and gifts around the holiday season were one way of doing that.

So when I see a blog post that tells parents to stop giving coffee cups, chocolates, homemade treats, lotions, soaps, ornaments, knickknacks, flowers, plants, etc. I can’t stay silent. I can’t let my lack of a voice be a passive consent to such words. So I am writing a rare weekend blog post, writing much more personally than I usually do here, and asking all parents to please, please, please, please ignore those posts. Don’t believe the person who says the teacher doesn’t appreciate the gift. Don’t buy into the notion that there are “right” and “wrong” gifts for a teacher. And please, please, please, please, please do not feel like you are obligated to purchase, make, or send a gift for your child’s teacher. Once something is an obligation, it is no longer a gift; it is tribute. And that is the last thing I want any child or parent to feel that they have to provide.

I realise I have only been teaching professionally for seven years and that I am only in my fourth year teaching full time. I realise that teachers who have taught for decades have probably been given more gifts than they have room to store them. But I talked to some of these teachers and I read their comments on my friend’s initial post on Facebook. Here is what these teachers and retired teachers had to say about gifts:

“I am truly appreciative of every single GIFT I receive. I still have the coffee cup Lawrence gave me 15 years ago and I think of his precious face every time I use it!!!”

“One of my most challenging students one year gave me a simple pin that he helped make. It said “Teachers Have Class!” The pin part broke off so I turned it into a magnet. Every time I look at it, I think about that student. It doesn’t matter that I have pins and magnets already; it matters that it came from him. He was so proud of it!”

“I put a Christmas ornament on the tree this year that is 26 years old from a student in my first class.”

A little girl in my very first class made me an apple ornament for my tree. That was back in 1978. Every year when I hang that ornament I think about her. I didn’t always keep all the gifts I received over the years (I could have opened an Avon store), but I treasure the memory and the thought behind every single one of them. Being a support staff teacher I never received as many gifts as regular classroom teachers but I never scoffed at any. The thought behind every gift always made me smile and I was always touched that students and their parents thought of me. Particularly with parents who couldn’t afford to give me gifts, the fact that they did was all the more touching.”

And the personal memory that prompted me to write this: “I have one gift that I got from a student that always makes me smile because of the presentation. He shuffled in with his head down, as was his usual method, handed me a package without looking at me, and said, “My mom made me give this to you.” It was a shirt being sold online that I had seen and shared on Facebook. I see this student now each morning as he walks to the middle school, head held high, laughing and talking with friends, and always stopping to say hello to me as I am working the car drop-off. Such a change in such a short period of time!”

So during this holiday season, as the end of the first semester quickly approaches, if you feel the need to give a gift, if you or your child saw something and thought, “Wow, I bet Mr. Valencic would love that!” and you want to give it as a gift, go ahead and do so. I will graciously and grateful accept with all sincerity. I know what such gifts truly mean and what they are truly worth.

Celebrating Others’ Victories

It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself reflecting on the small victories we have in our classroom and the ways we find to celebrate them. My students are bright, capable, caring children, but they are still learning how to navigate social relations, which often translates into petty arguments and jealousies that have to be processed and overcome. So each time that happens, we find a way to acknowledge and celebrate the positives.

Yesterday we had the opportunity to celebrate a different kind of victory: the victory of others. We have two fourth grade classes in my building. There are some years that the two classes will do projects together and other years that we run fairly independently, although the other teacher and I spend a lot of time collaborating and planning together. So far this year, we’ve done more of the latter.

Our first big science unit was on animal adaptations, exploring an understanding that “plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction” (Next Generation Science Standard 4-LS1-1). My class did this by learning about fish in the Great Lakes. The other fourth graders learned about many different animals from around the world. My students presented their information to the class with posters, PowerPoints, and oral reports. The other class made papier-mâché models of their animals and then hosted an animal adaptations expo in their classroom.

My class was one many that was invited to visit their expo and learn about the students’ research. They had displays set up all around the room, much like a professional convention, and as my students approached, the others would stand and share what they had learned. Their project combined visual arts, research, writing, and oral speaking skills. It was really cool!

It was great to learn from other fourth graders and it is already giving me ideas for what my students will do when they finish their American colony research project that we just started this week. (They will have all of next week to work in school, then a two-week winter break, followed by one more week to finish before presentations will take place some time in the second week of January.) I am glad that we were invited to take part in their celebration of a small victory of academic success!

Puzzled Penguin

The math curriculum I use has a recurring character who shows up in the student workbook to help them identify computational and algorithmic errors. His name is Puzzled Penguin. I haven’t really spent much time on the workbook activities that utilise Puzzled Penguin but he came up in a conversation during a recent inquiry group discussion about troubleshooting strategies.

The idea of troubleshooting is pretty simple: the students are given a solved problem with errors in it. The first thing they do, though, is not correct the errors. Instead, they figure out what was done right. Then, and only then, do we go back and look for the mistakes. As students identify the mistakes, they are able to review the processes used to solve similar problems.

The most empowering way to do this troubleshooting is to use a student’s own work, but you also want to make sure that the student isn’t embarrassed or humiliated. So there needs to be a culture of cooperation and collaboration. We are still working on establishing that in our classroom, so I decided to use Puzzled Penguin as an intermediary. Still using student work, I explained who Puzzled Penguin was (most of the students already knew) and had them help him figure out what he did right and what he needed to fix.

It was a great strategy and helped many of my students better understanding the standard vertical algorithm for multiplication and how it connects to other strategies we’ve used, such as the open array model. I am hoping to see my students use these strategies with their own work. In the meantime, we will continue to help Puzzled Penguin become less puzzled!


I was at my teacher inquiry group yesterday afternoon and, in the course of discussing creating thought-provoking questions that require close reading, read this short passage from The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo:

There is no comfort in the word “farewell,” even if you say it in French. “Farewell” is a word that, in any language, is full of sorrow. It is a word that promises absolutely nothing.

I mean no disrespect to Ms. DiCamillo, who has written a treasury of fabulous children’s stories, but “farewell” is not a word full of sorrow, nor is it a word that promises nothing. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Farewell” is a wish for the one who is parting. It speaks of safe travels. It is a compound of two words:

The first, faran, is from Old English and means “to journey, set forth, go, travel, wander, make one’s way,” The second, wel, also from Old English, means “abundantly, very, very much.” So when we say “farewell” to someone, we are telling them that we wish for them to set forth on a journey in an abundant, or very good, way. That’s pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Other words and phrases we use when parting express similar wishes. We also say things like, “talk to you later,” or “see you later.” I learned German while I was in high school and loved coming to realise that some of their common parting words, auf Wiedersehen and auf Wiederhoeren, both have that same meaning: until I see you (or hear you) again.

So today my class bid farewell. Not to one another, not to me, not a friend, but to our amazing student teacher, Ms. Schultz. She has been a part of our classroom community since the start of school, coming in every Tuesday and Wednesday to learn with us, to work with us, to teach and to be taught. But all good things come to an end. Today was her last day here in Room 31 at Wiley Elementary School. And so we celebrated in the only way that seemed fitting: we worked. Math, social studies, writers’ workshop, literacy, read aloud, learning buddies, we did it all.

Then we came to the room and said our goodbyes (a word that has its roots in the phrase God be with ye, once again expressing hope and wishes for the one who is leaving). Ms. Schultz brought some small tokens of appreciation for the students and I gave her a small gift of a special staple remover/letter opener that will remind her of how indispensable she has been to us this year.


And then there was nothing left to do but to say thank you, take a group picture, and say farewell. We wish Ms. Schultz all the best as she goes to her next placement in the Spring. She has promised to keep in touch and we will keep in touch, too.