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

Archive for April, 2015

Book Review: The Second Guard

At the 2014 Illinois Young Authors Conference, I had the privilege to volunteer as an author escort and got to meet the wonderful and talented Illinois-born author Julia Durango. I learned about two of her published books, The Walls of CartagenaSea of the Dead, and a third book that she was co-authoring with her friend from Ohio, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. These two authors decided to publish their story under a pseudonym, J.D. Vaughn. I was able to acquire copies of Ms. Durango’s two books and got them signed. Alas, they have sat on my “To Be Read” pile for nearly a year. (I was going to read The Walls of Cartagena to my class when we did our European exploration unit, but didn’t get a chance.)

Although The Second Guard was officially released just a couple of weeks ago, I was able to get an early copy. As a result, I now proudly own more books autographed by her than by any other author. I was finishing another book at the time and then had to do some reading for my graduate classes, so it took me a couple of weeks to finally crack open this book.


I started reading it on Sunday, April 19. I read the first 265 pages in three days. I finished reading it this morning. It is a longer book (432 pages), but it reads quickly because the story is engaging and well-written. (Don’t trust the negative reviews on Goodreads; those people seem to expect every single book they read to be 100% original with no similarities to any other book ever published in the history of stories.)

So what is The Second Guard?

In the land of Tequende, there are three major guilds: the Sun Guild, the Moon Guild, and Earth Guild. Members of the Sun Guild worship the Sun God Intiq and are traders, merchants, and manufacturers; Moon Guilders worship the Moon Goddess Elia and are scholars, artists, and diplomats; and the Earth Guilders, worshipers of Mother Earth Machué, are the farmers, miners, and loggers. Each family in the realm is affiliated with one of these guilds. The first-born children are trained up to follow in their family’s profession. The second-born of each family either trains to serve for four years in the Second Guard, the most formidable military in the Nigh World, or they work as indentured servants for six years.

Talimendra Sanchez of the Magda River Traders is a child of the Sun Guild. Upon traveling to the Second Guard’s fortress and training center, the Alcazar, she meets Zarif Baz Hasan, a Moon Guilder of the Araby Scribes, and Chey Maconde of the Earth Guild’s Batenza Farmers. The unlikely trio swiftly form a tight bond of friendship that challenges the Guild divisions that exist in their society. As they undergo their training, they discover clues of a conspiracy that could destroy the peace and tranquility of their land and overthrow the system of government that has seen Tequende ruled by 22 consecutive queens who devote their lives to serving the people. (The Queens of Tequende do not marry or have children. Instead, they serve until they are 50 years old and then a niece, who was raised as Queen-in-Waiting since she was 16 years old, will reign.)

There is much to be loved about this story, including the development of the friendship among the three main characters, the roles of secondary characters, and the lessons the reader can learn when thinking about one’s own experiences. But I also love that the narrator is unreliable; the storyteller, who focuses on Talimendra (or Tali, as she is called by family and friends), doesn’t know everything. So when there are twists and turns in the narrative, they are just as much a surprise to the reader as they are to the storyteller!

The Second Guard is the first in a series of books. I don’t know how many stories Ms. Durango and Ms. Zimmer plan on writing, but I know that there are enough loose ends in this first story to leave the door open for at least a trilogy.


Writing Something Worth Reading

Continuing on my quest to improve the opinion writing in my classroom, I used some time this afternoon to discuss boring writing.

You’ve all seen it: the words on on the page (or the screen), they are accurate, they tell what the author intended, and they are to the point. But they are also so incredibly dull!

I gave my students an example:

I like tacos. They are yummy. They are easy to make. They are nutritious.

Just like yesterday, I asked my students to rate my writing on a scale of one to five, with one being “well, at least you wrote something. even if it doesn’t make the least bit of sense!” and five being “ohmygoodnessthisisthemostamazingwritingIhaveeverseen! IamsoexcitedthatIcan’tevenstopforpausesbetweenmywords!” At first I had students who said that my paragraph should receive a one. When questioned further, though, they changed their minds and said it deserved at least a two or even a three. Here were their reasons:

  • The author’s position was clear.
  • The author provided three solid reasons to support his argument.
  • The author used proper conventions, such as spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation.

But at the same time, my students all looked at that paragraph and knew it could be better. So I asked them to help me out. I gave them the topic sentence, then they came up with the rest.

I have lived across the United States, I have visited Canada, and I have even lived in Australia. Of all the many different kinds of food I have eaten, tacos are still among my favourites! One reason I love tacos is that their juiciness is so yummy! Another reason I love tacos is because they are so easy to make. Finally, tacos are incredibly nutritious, with all of the food groups wrapped in one delicious package.

The students all agreed that this was a much more effective introduction. Just as we were finishing this, Miss C happened to stop by. We asked her to read our introduction and tell us what she thought. I think her response perfectly captured the kind of feedback we all want from our readers. She said, “Wow! I think I’m going to go get some tacos before I finish reading this!”

I left my paragraph up on the board so my students could refer to it as they worked on their own powerful introductions. I am sure that some used the same words I did, but that’s okay. That is why I had them help me write it. I want them to use my words and make them their own, adding their voices to the writing.

Tomorrow we will begin tackling the body paragraphs, focusing on using evidence and reason to support our arguments.

But first, I am going to make tacos for dinner tonight.

Learning to Opine

My students have a lot of deeply held beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad, preferred and not preferred. They are developing their sense of collective and individual justice and fairness. They frequently share these opinions with me, with other teachers, with parents, and with peers.

However, they don’t always make the strongest arguments.

A common argument I hear in my classroom is simply, “That’s not fair!” When I ask why, the response is typically, “It just isn’t! I wanted to do that and you said no!” (There are often multiple exclamation marks in these arguments that often border on quarreling.) I often calmly and matter-of-factly reply that fairness does not always mean “the same” and there may be a reason one student is permitted to do something that another is not.

As we move into the last month of school, I’ve decided to use Lucy Calkins’s Writers Workshop framework to organise my instruction on writing opinion pieces. My main goal is simply for my students to learn how to express the ideas clearly and well. Before starting the unit, I wanted to get a baseline of their current level, so I picked a topic that I knew would bring out their passion: I told them that our principal was considering canceling the end-of-the-year kickball game and colour run and that the students had to write letters to her explain why she should or shouldn’t.

What I was looking for was a clearly stated opinion, at least three supporting statements, and a conclusion. Some students did this very well, some didn’t do it at all, and most of them did part of it.

So today we started with breaking down the writing process. The first step I decided to teach was picking a topic. This can be easy: make a list of things you care strongly about and keep it handy! Some of the topics the students brought up were video games, homework, music, movies, books, games, recess, sports, etc. The next step was outlining the essay itself. I selected a topic of personal interest and first wrote up a quick opinion piece about it:

I like tacos because they are yummy and I think you should like tacos, too, because then you will agree that they are yummy also.

I asked if this was a well-written opinion piece and asked the students to rate it on a scale of 1 to 5. Most gave it a one or a two. They pointed out that even though it was a run-on sentence, it stated my postion and gave at least one reason. But they also all agreed that my opinion wasn’t very strong.

So then I had then help me outline my piece to make it clearer. Here is what the final outline looked like:



After outlining my essay, I had each student pick a topic of their own and make their own outline. Then they could begin working on an early draft. I will share my own early draft with the class tomorrow and have them help me improve my piece until we have a strong essay that clearly explains why I like tacos.

Our Own Incredible eBook Project

Several months ago I read a blog post by Pernille Ripp, a teacher I have never met in person but have closely followed online and come to greatly admire. Ms. Ripp used to teach fourth grade but now she teaches middle school. I have frequently taken her ideas and looked for ways to apply them to my classroom. The topic of this post was about an “epic nonfiction project” using Google Slides to develop eBooks. As I read through her post, I knew I wanted to try it out with my class.

I initially thought about trying to do it with our Learning Buddies this year, but Miss C and I have already reached our max on the number of projects we can take on. So instead I decided to do what I have been doing all year: I used my class as a pilot for my idea.

I had the students form six groups of three or four and then we started talking about the Westward Expansion period of American history. We did some whole-class research on the period and identified some of the major routes used to settle the West: the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Pony Express, and the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (Technically, the last three were not routes used for settling, but they had a huge impact on our nation’s expansion westward and so I included them.) Each group selected one route to study, ensuring that every group would have at least two options. (The one left over ended up being the Pony Express.)

Over the past several weeks, the groups have been reading about their trails, learning about life in the 1800s, using their online research skills to find appropriate pictures and maps, and discovering famous people from their routes. They received training on how to use Google Slides. One group found a picture in two different books that claimed to be describing two very different situations and so they wrote an email to the Denver Public Library and asked for clarification.

After nearly six weeks of work, it is time we move on, so today was the last day for groups to work. Some of the groups had eBooks that were thoroughly researched with lots of information and pictures. Some groups struggled to find some of the most basic information. But all of the groups worked hard, stayed focused, and persevered. It shocked me when students would voluntarily work on their project together during indoor recesses and during our read aloud.

Now, I’m not going to say that this process was without frustrations and confusion, because it certainly wasn’t. There were times that students accidentally deleted all of their work and I had to show them how to revert to an earlier version. There were times when group members got upset with each other and refused to work together or would start changing what others had done. There were times that students were not working on the project when they were supposed to.

But for the most part? This has been a great learning opportunity for my students and for me. I am definitely wanting to try this project again next year. I know what I will do differently and I know what I will do the same.

And now? We have a three day weekend and then we are going to start tackling an awesome science project that I have been waiting all year to start! Have a great weekend!


Each month we have a character trait that we focus on here at Wiley. The trait for April (and May) is perseverance. That can be a tough word for some students to wrap their heads around. I prefer to use the not-really-a-word “stick-to-it-iveness.” Perseverance is, in its most fundamental form, the trait associated with never giving up, with trying and trying and trying even when everyone else tells you to quit. Perseverance is tackling a challenge head-on and use problem solving skills to overcome.

My all-time favourite example of perseverance is one that I share with my classes every year at about this time. It is the story of an Olympic athlete whose name is rarely remembered because he didn’t set any records, he didn’t win any medals, and he didn’t do anything that the world in general saw as amazing. But when I learned about him, when I learned about his story, I knew that he represented what it truly means to be an Olympian.

His name was John Stephen Akwhari. He was a marathon runner from Tanzania. This is his story:

This morning I asked my students to do a quick write on what it means to show perseverance. Here are some of their responses:

  • It is when you complete something and you are proud of it.
  • Perseverance is when you push through something even if it is difficult.
  • Perseverance is when something is hard and you keep on going like when a math problem is hard and you keep on going thats perseverance.
  • Perseverance is not giving up.
  • Perseverance is when you never give up just because something is in your way, and you usually can succeed.

All this month and into May, we will be looking for examples of perseverance. The students will be recording when they see others persevere so we can add them to our “Wiley Wonders” bulletin board. Teachers will be looking for examples of students persevering, too, so we can award them with “APPAWS’ tickets, which will be tallied up as we work toward earning our final colour (orange) for our annual school colour run.

As tempting as it is to just give up, we will persevere! We will succeed! We have six weeks left of school and I plan on making every day count!

Flashlight Fridays

About one month ago, a teacher friend of mine posted a series of photos on her Facebook page about something she had learned about called “Flashlight Fridays.” I don’t know where she picked up the idea originally, but when I searched on Google, there was something in the range of 1.2 million hits. Now, obviously, most of these are probably not directly related to the concept, but there are plenty of blog posts out there about this concept. (more…)

Encountering Tragedy Through Literature

Here are some of the books I have used as a read aloud this year:

  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • Duke by Kirby Larson
  • Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
  • Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Here are some of the things I have learned by reading this books to my fourth graders:

  • Life is full of tragedy.
  • Somehow we learn how to overcome.
  • Sometimes we think we will never get over a loss.
  • We usually learn that while we will never forget, we manage to move on.
  • Too many dogs die in children’s literature.

I remember discussing this last point with some of my colleagues last year. Someone told a story about a year that a fourth grade teacher had read only books with dead dogs in it. I jokingly said I was going to do that, just to see what would happen.

I didn’t mean it.

Then I made my list of books I wanted to read aloud this year and I didn’t notice that constant theme. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I think I can suffice to say that there has been a lot of tragedy encountered through my read alouds this year.

But something else interesting has happened, too. My students have been able to discuss how they enjoyed the story, even with the sad parts, sometimes because of the sad parts. The stories have helped them realise that their own sadness when similar events have happened in their lives is not unique to them. That other people have been sad, have experienced grief, have wondered why, and that those feelings are not only okay, but also very common.

Because April is National Poetry Month, I had thought about using an excellent novel-in-verse by Sharon Creech as my next read aloud. But I don’t think I will, because it, too, brings the death of a beloved family pet to our literary experiences. I have an alternate selection I will read, though, that still exposes my class to this unique style of telling a story. Because, as much as I love the story Love That Dog, I think my class needs a break from the tragedies.

I’m not actually going to do this as a read aloud. I saw it in my school library, though, and checked it out so if my students want to read it on their own, they can.