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.

Digital Citizenship

An ongoing conversation in my classroom, in my building, in my district, and, really, across the country, has been revolving around the concept of digital citizenship. We spend so much time teaching our students about being good citizens in their day-to-day activities, treating others with respect, thinking of ideas of equity, justice, and fairness, and making positive contributions to society. However, these principles often are not transferred into the digital forum. Every person I know can think of an instance (or hundreds of instances) of individuals treating others online with extreme disrespect.

As an educator, I am very concerned about my students’ lives outside my classroom, Am I giving them the tools and skills they need to successfully navigate all parts of life. Over the past several months, I have been researching options for promoting positive digital citizenship. One resource I have come back to time and time again is Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship curriculum.

Common Sense Media, according to their website, is a group dedicated to “helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology. [They] empower parents, teachers, and policymakers by providing unbiased information, trusted advice, and innovative tools to help them harness the power of media and technology as a positive force in all kids’ lives.” After going through training and checking out their materials, I feel that their claim is accurate and their tools really do help me help my students use digital media safely and effectively. I am in the process of being officially certified as a Common Sense Media Digital Citizenship Educator.

Before going on, I feel like I should once again make the same kind of disclaimer I have made before: nobody at Common Sense Media has asked me to write this post. I am not getting paid to use their programs, nor will I be paid to become certified under their program. I will let them know, via Twitter, that I have written this post. (more…)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

My fourth graders know the basics of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But that wasn’t enough for me. So this week we started on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They already learned some of the story when they worked with their art teacher making puppets inspired by characters from the play. While I was out sick on Monday, I had my substitute read an adaptation of the play as the read aloud. (I did this mostly because I am reading Where The Red Fern Grows and I wanted to read the entire book together.) The adaptation I selected was one published by Usborne Children’s Books.

I selected this adaptation because the illustrations are delightful and the text is incredibly accessible to my students, even those who struggle with reading. After they read the story once, I wanted them to do a close reading. I decided to use a strategy that I’ve used from time to time in the past, called Stop and Jot.

The strategy is fairly straightforward: as students read, they have a focus question, such as “how would you describe Puck?” Whenever they get to a point in the story that they feel relates to the question, they stop reading, jot down the idea, and then continue. They may also jot down questions, “Aha!” moments, or feelings that arise while reading.

Using this focus question, we read the fourth chapter of the book, which was all about Puck’s tricks. Even before reading, though, I asked the students to tell me about the story in general and identify the main characters. Then we focused on Puck, who all the students felt was mischievous.

After reading, the students turned to a partner and talked about their notes before writing down a couple of sentences about the character. Tomorrow they will review their notes, read again, and write a full paragraph about Puck.

I am really enjoying teaching Shakespeare this year! I love how much my students understand about these stories and the sudden bursts of inspiration when they recognise elements of Shakespeare’s stories in texts the encounter today. During our independent reading today, I had at least half of my class reading Shakespeare stories by choice and the other half disappointed that they couldn’t today!

Relaunching Number Talks

I have been using Number Talks in my classroom during math for a few years now, but I admit that the process hasn’t been done with total fidelity. I have used bits and pieces of it, but I’ve been struggling to get my students fully engaged in the concept of student-led conversations with intentional talks. So even though we are less than two months away from the end of the year, I asked my long-time friend and Teacher Collaborator, Dr. Thompson, to come in and help us relaunch this process. He gladly agreed and we made plans to start this week. I was out sick yesterday, so we had to put off our relaunch today.

Number Talks are short (5-10 minute) discussions around a math problem that foster students’ mathematical understanding, focusing on accuracy, flexibility, and efficiency with different strategies. We have had these conversations throughout the year, but the component we have been missing is where students talk to each other about their mathematical thinking. This is going to be the focus of our week-long relaunch.

We started today with introducing the protocol for Number Talks. We did this by watching a video of a class doing one with their teacher. While we watched the video, my class was responsible for noticing what the students were doing and what the teacher was doing. Then we made an anchor chart for the students to refer to when we do Number Talks in the future.

My students noticed that the students in the video used hand signals to indicate that they had an answer, a solution, a different solution, and agreement. They saw that the students actively listened to the speaker. They told us that the students in the video were clearly thinking about the problem and considering ways to solve the problem. They also noticed that the teacher was responsible for recording the students’ thinking without judgment (there was no “yes, you’re right” or “no, you’re wrong”) and that the teacher provided challenging problems for the students to solve.


Tomorrow we will do a Number Talk as a class to let the students start putting ideas into practice. Then we will start working student-led conversations, in which the students will talk to each other about their mathematical thinking and discussing different strategies.

Determining What’s Important

Several years ago, I helped some friends of mine load a trailer they were using when they moved across the country. They were using a relatively small U-Haul trailer that they hooked to the hitch of their minivan. In preparing to move, they packed their belongings and put them into three categories: things that they had to take, things that they would have liked to take, and things that they would be forced to leave behind. I was in charging of loading the trailer and, using my excellent moving skills, was able to load all of their “must haves,” all of their “nice to haves” and half of their “too bad we can’t haves.” (I have helped dozens of friends move over the years and have gotten really good at loading moving trucks, trailers, and vans.)

I think about this experience often as the end of the year swiftly approaches. Teachers start looking at their standards, which serve as a roadmap to instruction, and think about what’s really important and what’s nice but not actually necessary. There are some things that I know I have to teach them because not teaching those skills and concepts will set them up for difficulty in future years. In our district, we refer to these as “safety net skills.” Then there are things that I would like to be able to teach my students because I believe it is useful. In considering these things, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the shifts in instruction when we adopted the Common Core State Standards many years ago.

Friends and family often ask me what I think about the Common Core. My answer is always that I am a strong advocate, even if there are aspects of the standards that I think need to be tweaked. I am also open about saying that while I value assessment, I don’t think the “high stakes” nature of standardised assessment is good practice and I think there are better ways to use standardised assessments to inform stakeholders of student growth.

Even though I have been teaching the Common Core State Standards since I started at Wiley, I am constantly evaluating and re-evaluating my curriculum and the resources I use to teach. And sometimes I come to a new, deeper understanding of the major shifts in focus under these standards. This process helps me continually refine what I consider to be important and what I consider to be simply nice to know.

As we have been working through our math unit on fractions, this has become particularly important to me. The Common Core standard for fourth grade that focuses on equivalent fractions says this: “Explain why a fraction a/b is equivalent to a fraction (n × a)/(n × b) by using visual fraction models, with attention to how the number and size of the parts differ even though the two fractions themselves are the same size. Use this principle to recognize and generate equivalent fractions.”

The gist of this standard is that students should be able to find equivalent fractions by multiplying the numerator and denominator by the same number or by dividing them by the same number. Students will use this knowledge to generalise their understanding of fraction equivalency.

What the standard does not say is that students must be able to simplify fractions and represent them in lowest form. In fact, this skill is not required at any grade level.

So why do we still teach it? Why is it attached to so many assessments? Why is it something that teachers spend days and weeks on, trying to get their students to grasp the concept?

I honestly don’t have a good answer. I know that my math book provides lessons on this skill and therefore many teachers present it because it is in the book. But that’s not a good reason to teach something. I also know that the learning standards do not tell me what to teach or even how to teach it. The standards are simply targets for the end of the year. The analogy I often use is that of driving a car. I have a destination in mind (the standards), but how I choose to get there, what vehicle I decide to drive, how fast I decide to go, and any stops I may make along the way, that is all up to me. So maybe I will teach my students to find a fraction in simplest form because it involves using other skills that I value.

But when it gets down to crunch time, I am going to be evaluating where we are, where we need to go, and what is really important. The standards aren’t going to tell me that information. That is something that comes from professional judgment, knowing my class, and understanding what is really important, what is nice to know, and what isn’t really all that important.

Springfield Trip 2015

My first year at Wiley, we talked about doing a field trip to Springfield, but it never materialised.

My second year at Wiley, I was determined to make sure it happened, so I took charge of planning, scheduling, and organising. I decided to shoot for right after Spring Break. We had an awesome trip visiting the Illinois State Capitol, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, and the Illinois State Museum. (We had scheduled the Old State Capitol but ran out of time and had to skip it.) The only downside was that we had planned to each lunch outside at a picnic area and the temperature was in the fifties and it was rainy. But we survived!

My third year at Wiley, I was teaching with someone new (again) and knew that I would have to take charge (again) to get the trip done. Based on the suggestions of many colleagues, we visited the Illinois State Museum, the Illinois State Capitol, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. We planned this trip to be right after Spring Break (again). All was well except for one issue: it was cold and rainy (again).

This is my fourth year at Wiley. I am once again teaching with someone new and once again took charge of planning. I was hoping to avoid some of the problems of the past by planning the trip to be in early May instead of April. I submitted five different dates to the Springfield Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. The last date I request was April 1 (right after Spring Break).

And, of course, that was the date we got. I also planned for the same three locations we went to last year: the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Illinois State Capitol, and the Illinois State Museum. So even though we were going to the same places during the same time of year, one thing was different: it was sunny and warm today! (more…)