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

Archive for February, 2015

Acoustical Engineering, Part II

I haven’t forgotten about my blog, I promise! I was out sick last week and thought it wasn’t that big of a deal. Then I had a sore throat that persisted for several days. I finally went to the doctor about it and, after she ran a culture test, learned that I had streptococcal pharyngitis (aka strep throat). I immediately started a course of antibiotics, but I had to wait 24 hours before I was no longer potentially contagious. So that’s why I haven’t been updating. Even when I was at work, I was sick enough that I’d get home and simply crash until the next day. I’m feeling much better, though, and hopefully my blogging will pick up, too!

Miss C and I have been having a lot of fun with our Learning Buddies model this year. The students have done so much more than just reading! They have learned poetry for Veterans’ Day, studied the Preamble to the US Constitution for Constitution Day, made maps of the classroom for a geography unit, participated in a “walk and talk” book summary, and, the biggest project so far, learned about acoustical engineering through the Engineering Is Elementary series!

If you had asked me at the start of the year if I thought fourth graders could wrap their heads around the fundamentals of acoustical engineering, I’d have said no. Maybe the very basic idea that acoustical engineering deals with sound, but more than that? No way! If you had asked me if first graders could understand it, I would have laughed out loud. But as Miss C and looked at our science standards and conferred with our amazing Instructional Coach, we realised it was possible. We knew it would take a lot of planning, but we were excited to try it out.

We spent several weeks meeting during our shared plan time at school, going through the lesson materials, figuring out what we would present, how we would present it, and when it would be presented. We talked about what we wanted our students to understand. And then we got started. I wrote about the first part of this project back in January, when we first began with Kwame’s Sounds. Since then, the students have learned about the Engineering Design Process:

They worked through the process to design, build, and improve musical instruments made from upcycled materials, such as soda bottles, cereal boxes, whipped topping containers, and rubber bands. Then they learned about methods of dampening sound and controlling it. Along the way, our amazing students learned that sound is caused by vibrations, that slow vibrations have a deeper pitch and fast vibrations have a higher pitch. They shared that acoustical engineers design solutions that deal with sound. They learned that engineering is something that they can do, even at an early age!

To celebrate the completion of this project, we brought our classes together this afternoon to watch a movie showing a percussion group using the principles of acoustical engineering to create music using everyday objects. Some may be familiar with this group. The students enjoyed watching the video, even though they didn’t get to see all of it. For those who have never heard of STOMP, here is the video we watched:

I am really excited for the next Learning Buddies project that Miss C and I undertake! We aren’t going to tell anyone what it is yet, but I guarantee it is going to be amazing!

Book Review: Chains

While browsing my favourite section of Barnes & Noble last year (the only bookstore in our area), I kept finding myself drawn to a collection of books written by Laurie Halse Anderson. They were all listed as historical fiction, and one of them, Fever 1793, was one I had seen regularly in the classroom collection section of my school library. But the books that kept catching my eye were two sitting side by side: Chains and Forge.

I think the thing that caught my attention most was actually the cover of Forge. Even though I knew nothing about any of these books, I could tell that this particular book took place during the Revolutionary War. The pose of the silhouetted figure was a familiar image from the terrible winter at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.

Even though these books caught my attention, it was actually several months before I finally caved to the internal pressure and purchased all three books.  I asked teacher friends online about the books and received mixed reviews, so I set them aside as possible reading over the summer. (As a matter of fact, I purchased them on 12 October 2013 but didn’t read until June of the following year!) As soon as I finished reading the first book I picked up the second, trying to decide which would be better suited as a read aloud for my class. Once I finished Forge, eight days after I finished Chains, I knew I was going to read the first book in this series to my class this year. I also knew I was going to plan it to coincide with our unit on the Revolutionary War.

There were several reasons I chose to use Chains. First, it is the first book in the series, so that just made sense. Second, it presents the story from the point of view of a slave girl, which is considerably different from the typical period story about soldiers, politicians, and/or members of the Sons of Liberty or people who associated with them (such as Johnny Tremain.) A third reason I selected this story is because it took place in New York instead of Massachusetts. Finally, I admit to choosing it because it had received several awards, my wife had strongly endorsed the author, and it was a modern selection.

For those who have read this far and are really wanting to just know what the story is about, here is the summary from Ms. Anderson’s website:

If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?

As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight… for freedom.  Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate, become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel.  When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion.  She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.

Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a beautiful, captivating, engaging story of a girl whose greatest wish is to gain freedom. In the process, she meets allies and friends, enemies and the indifferent, learns of broken promises and false hopes, but also maintains an intense desire to be her own self.

As I finished reading the book to my class today, my principal happened to walk in for a moment. She got to see how my students responded to a description of Isabel rowing a boat long into the night, the oars creating blisters on her hands, the blisters popping, then forming and popping again. And yet Isabel is strong. Years of hauling firewood and toting water across town, coupled with her intense desire to be free, gave her strength to push on.

Now that we have finished this story, I find myself wishing I could let my class write letters to Ms. Anderson to share their thoughts and ask her their questions. However, I know how busy she is, especially with writing Ashes, which is the last book in the series. So I guess I’ll need to content myself with sharing this blog post with her and hoping she knows how much fourth graders loved her book!

Rules and Expectations

For most of my professional career, I have places a very large emphasis on the need for establishing classroom expectations for what students (and teachers!) should be doing, rather than making rules that must be followed. It is my firm belief that if expectations are being met, then rules would not be necessary.

In my school, we have three universal expectations: be safe, be responsible, and be respectful. We have our amazing PBIS posters (that are now being adopted by districts across the country) that give examples of what these expectations look like in practice in different settings. Each classroom teacher has the freedom to set expectations within these basic three.

My students help establish the expectations at the start of the year. The ones we decided on this year are as follows:

Be Safe:

  • KHFOOTY (Keep Hands, Feet, and Other Objects To Yourself)
  • Give Others Space
  • Walk With A Purpose

Be Respectful:

  • Use Kind Words
  • Listen to the Speaker
  • Raise Your Hand

Be Responsible:

  • Do Your Own Work
  • Follow Directions
  • Accept Consequences

If all of the members of the class did all of these things all the time, there wouldn’t be a need for many rules. But there are times when we need rules to guide us toward meeting the expectations. For example, I expect my students to listen to speakers, but sometimes they forget and get up to get a tissue or sharpen a pencil. The rule is that students stay seated when someone is speaking. There are always consequences connected to rules, but these consequences can be either positive or negative. We often focus on the negative consequences, or the punishment, associated with not following rules. If a student gets up when someone is speaking, the consequence is being verbally redirected, which may lead to slight embarrassment. But we shouldn’t forget about the positive consequences for following rules! If a student stays in her seat when someone is speaking, she gets to hear what is being said and receives the appreciation of classmates who were also able to hear.

I recently announced a new rule in my classroom, in the form of a simple couple:

Do as I say, or lose the next day!

What does this mean? It is simple: we use our Chromebooks a lot in my classroom. A colleague recently shared that her students don’t use their Chromebooks all that much, maybe just 20-30 minutes a day. I responded that we probably only have 20-30 minutes a day when we are not using our Chromebooks. They are an educational tool, much like textbooks and pencils, and we use them all day long. Unfortunately, some students keep using them when I’ve said to put them away, or they use them for unauthorised purposes. I want my students to appreciate these tools and recognise how important it is to practice digital citizenship, both in terms of interacting with others online appropriately and in terms of using use technology at the right time. So the rule is that students who don’t follow directions when using our Chromebooks will miss out on using them for either the remainder of the day or for the following day.

It has only taken a couple of applications for students to realise how much they value using their Chromebooks. They are much more responsive to following directions the first time now, knowing that the consequence is to lose their access. This rule has helped them meet the expectations to listen to the speaker, to follow directions, and to accept consequences. So as much as I believe in setting expectations and emphasising those over all else, I value the use of rules to guide students in their behaviour.

Phillis Wheatley

While reading aloud the book Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson to my class on Friday, we got to a section that made brief mention of a poet named Phillis Wheatley. None of my students had heard of her but some were interested in knowing more, so I made plans to have them learn about her today.

I checked out our school library to look for a biography about Phillis Wheatley and discovered one written by an author whose work I absolutely love, Kathryn Lasky. I am most familiar with her Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, which was first introduced to me by my wife. Knowing this, I was certain that Ms. Lasky’s biography would be a great way to share more about Ms. Wheatley!

I read the first part of the book to my class at the start of our literacy block, leading up to the point where we learned about Phillis’s published book of poetry. Then I challenged all of the students to use online research tools such as InstaGrok to learn more about her and find a poem she wrote. Then, using Google Classroom, I created a document for them to share some of the poems they found. I am going to us these poems later in the year when we celebrate National Poetry Month in April.

Coincidentally, the timing of these two stories, Chains and A Voice of Her Own, both align with Black History Month. While I try to incorporate multicultural perspectives in my instruction throughout the year, I appreciate having had a natural way to focus on an incredibly important, incredibly influential African American poet while also sharing a story that presents a perspective from the American Revolutionary War period that is often passed over in historical fiction. I have told my students that Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Chains as the first book of a trilogy, but I will not be reading the sequel as a read aloud. I will, however, make it available if any students are interested in reading it. (And I can hardly wait for the third book to come out!) We will also be returning to Ms. Lasky’s biography about Phillis Wheatley as we do close reads of the text this week.

Young Authors 2015

One of my treasured memories of middle school was co-authoring a story with my best friend. He had actually written a first draft of the story but decided it was awful and was going to trash the whole thing. I convinced him to rewrite instead and offered to help. Our rewrite was actually going to be to just turn the whole thing into a joke and then scrap it. But somewhere along the way we realised that we were actually writing a really good story and decided to finish it.

That story, entitled The Wizard of Nome (despite having very little to do with the title character or place), was entered into our school’s Young Authors competition when we were in seventh grade. We were winners not just for our building, but for the entire district! That gave us the opportunity to go to the Illinois Young Authors Conference held at Illinois State University in Bloomington, Illinois, in 1996.

It has been almost 20 years since that event. But I still remember it and the experience. My friend and I went on to co-author two sequels to The Wizard of Nome over the course of the next four years. We finished the last story quite literally right before he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. (His parents were actually waiting in the car with the moving truck while we were at the computer at my house finishing the story!)

I was so excited to learn that the Urbana School District participates in this annual contest and that students in my building are frequent contributors. After two years of someone else running the contest at Wiley, I took over last year, with the previous coordinator guiding me along the way. This year is my first official year as coordinator, but I called in help from Miss C in the primary hall because I wanted to increase participation from our younger students.

We had a total of 33 students contribute an amazing collection of original stories! Students from kindergarten through fifth grade participated, but we were only allowed to select five as building winners to go on to the district celebration, with just one overall winner to represent our district at the state conference in May (still held at ISU in Bloomington). Miss C and I convinced a number of adult readers to review the stories, rate them on a four-point scale for ideas, creativity, and overall quality each before reading through all of the stories that received a composite score of ten points or higher. Then we selected the top five and read them again to select the overall winner. It was a lengthy process but so worth it as we read and reread these stories and marveled at the creativity of our young authors!

We announced the winners today at our Coyote College after acknowledging all of the students who participated. The winners will go on to a district celebration in April, and I am really looking forward to being a part of that event before going to Bloomington with Miss C and also my wife, who has been volunteering with me at the state conference since 2012.

Congratulations to all of our Young Authors! I hope next year we will have even more students participating!


I love the many amazing community resources we have here in the Champaign-Urbana area! My students have been able to see an opera at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and we have had visitors to come in to present to our class. Today we got to experience yet another wonderful event: KAM BAM. (more…)

Question-Answer Relationships

Our building recently acquired a new collection of nonfiction trade paperback books that I have been excited to use with my class in guided reading groups. It took some time for the books to get cataloged by our librarian so that students could check them out, but I was able to get my hands on these books yesterday. I made sure I planned for enough time to meet with each of my four guided reading groups and introduced the books to them and the goals for our reading.

In the process of doing so, I also knew that I wanted to focus on not just the text and comprehension, but also the ability of students to recognise the types of questions they often encounter when responding to nonfiction. A few years ago, my colleagues and I decided to emphasise these types of questions through the Question-Answer Relationship model proposed by Taffy Raphael. We had an old handout that describe these relationships, but we wanted it updated, so we turned to my wife and asked her to use her graphic design skills to help out.


I introduced the QARs before the books, guiding the students through a discussion about “right there” and “think and search” questions that require them to look through the book and “author and me” and “on my own” questions that require them to connect to prior knowledge. I asked them to provide examples of each of the four questions and these are samples of what I heard:

  • Right There: What year was the Declaration of Independence signed?
  • Think and Search: What are some of the major causes of the Revolutionary War?
  • Author and Me: What kind of person is Julian (from Wonder by R. J. Palacio)?
  • On My Own: What do you know about Washington, D.C.?

After sharing the books that the students will be reading over the next couple of weeks, I explained that we would be using these relationships to discuss what they read and what they were learning. Each of the texts will connect to our social studies units on early American history, including the history of Washington, D.C., the Trail of Tears, Abraham Lincoln, and the Oregon Trail. Each group will be responsible for sharing what they learned with their classmates and writing their own questions to reflect each of the four relationships.