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

Archive for May, 2015

Another Year Gone

And we are done.

I have to say, this has been a draining year, physically, mentally, and emotionally. There have been a lot of challenges. I’d like to say we overcame all of them, but I don’t know if that is quite true. We overcame a lot of them, though. From the first day to the the end, we have grown.

Sure, our progress has been “two steps forward, one step back” but it has still been progress. My students and I learned together. We explored together. We experimented with changes to classroom routines, classroom procedures, and classroom policies. We used technology in ways we had never used it before. We learned what worked and we learned what didn’t. We set lofty goals and we made progress toward them.

Was it a home run? No, not really. Was it the best year I’ve ever had? No. Was it the worst? Well, no, it wasn’t that, either. It had its high points and its low points and its mid points and through it all, we persevered.

Maybe that is the best thing to have come out of this year. I and my 21 students learned that we could keep on plugging away, keep on moving, and keep on learning, no matter how long and hard the road.

And speaking of goals, the students at Wiley this year were challenged to do 1,000,000 math problems in the second semester. Just like two years ago, I offered to sacrifice my curly locks of hair if they did it.

Well, we didn’t quite reach the goal. In fact, we were just over the half-way mark. 502,413, to be specific.

So, what did we do yesterday afternoon?

We rewarded the students for reaching half of their goal.

Photo on 5-28-15 at 4.14 PM

The rest of the hair is going away this afternoon.

Have a wonderful, safe, fun summer! I’ll be posting from time to time, so feel free to check back, or just follow me on Twitter to catch when I post.


Collaborative Discussions

Today is Tuesday. My district has asked that I submit student progress reports by 11:59 pm tonight. My students are still expected to be at school tomorrow and on Thursday, both full days. At this point of the year, there are some teachers who would surely be ready to throw in the towel and fill the day with fun, non-essential activities; things that I would tend to refer to as “fluff” or, to use a word that sits in my categories/tags list and is rarely used, floccinaucinihilipilification.

I am not one of those teachers.

I realise that any formative or summative assessments I do at this point will not count toward students’ final progress reports, but that doesn’t mean I am not going to be assessing. Assessing is something that I do all day, every day. If I don’t know what my students know, if I don’t know what they are capable of doing, if I don’t know what they have learned, if I don’t know how well I have taught then, quite frankly, I have failed to do my job. Knowing these things is what assessment is all about. Assessment isn’t just giving a paper-and-pencil test or a computer-based test. Assessment is “the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.” And that happens in a lot of ways every day.

So even though today was the last Tuesday of my students’ fourth grade career, even though it was the last Tuesday of this academic year, and even though we are now 13 hours and 30 minutes of school time (actually just 12 hours of instructional time) away from the end of the year, I am still teaching and I am still assessing.

Today I decided to teach my students about participating in “grand conversations.” A grand conversation is a collaborative discussion among all the members of the classroom in which students ask each other questions, respond to each other’s questions, and listen closely to one another so that they can respond to what others have said. Some of the phrases I want my students to be used to using are among the following:

  • I think . . . because . . .
  • I (also) agree with . . . because . . .
  • I (also) disagree with . . . because . . .
  • . . . ‘s comment reminds me of  . . .
  • . . . , can you explain what you meant when you said . . . ?

These are simple statements, but they are so helpful in guiding these conversations. To practice participating in a grand conversation, I read Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen to the class, displaying it on my Promethean ActivPanel as I did so. This allowed the students to see the text and the pictures and refer to them as we discussed the question of whether or not lions should be permitted to be in the library.

One student started the conversation by sharing her opinion. Another student began to say that he agreed with her, but instead of explaining why, he went off on a tangent that indicated that he was more interested in sharing his own thinking than in responding to her initial comment. I had to stop him and explain how the sentence starters are used. Then I called on another student. (Yes, we are still early enough in the process that I still need to facilitate the conversation.) I later came back to the second student who stated that the first student’s comment made him think about something else.

The entire conversation went fairly well, with many students participating. We ran out of time, however, so not all had a chance to give input. What shocked me, however, was how many students were upset that they didn’t get to share, including students who normally refrain from participating!

We will do a couple more grand conversations tomorrow and Thursday before students head home for the summer. It is my hope that many will remember doing this so when they start fifth grade they will be able to access the memory and jump into the process.

Like I said, we are still working and still learning. We have have just two days of school left, but they are going to be busy ones, with lots of learning and applying!

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, my class reached a consensus on the question and decided that tame lions should be allowed in libraries as long as they don’t hurt anybody or ruin the books or furniture.)

Adapting an Ingenious Strategy to Encourage Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is an important social/emotional learning skill that is increasing in its popularity as far as things to be discussed and taught in our schools. Self-regulation is the idea that students can and should learn how to make good decisions for themselves, rather than have those decisions made for them. In my classroom, it is manifest in my belief that my students should be able to recognise their own feelings and emotions and use appropriate strategies to respond to them in a safe, positive, healthy way. Self-regulation also means that my students are able to make choices that will help them grow academically.

There was a time when it was believed that teachers and caregivers needed to direct everything a child did. It was believed that children were incapable or regulating themselves and therefore needed someone older and wiser to make all of the decisions for them. When these decisions were made and the children inevitably pushed back, demanding to know why, the default response was “because I’m the adult and I said so.”

But the times, they are a-changin’.

It is now understood that children are quite capable of self-regulation, but they need to be taught how to do that. That is a big part of my job. Instead of just dumping data into their heads and believing that they will magically absorb and apply information, it is my responsibility to guide them toward understand and empower them to make choices that will help them learn how to learn on their own.

As I once told my very first class of fourth graders four years ago, my job is to help them learn how they learn so that they can learn without me telling them what to learn.

Which leads me to something I tried out today.

There have been far too many afternoons when my class has rushed out of the room in a whirlwind of papers and chairs and backpacks and binders and our evening custodian has had to bear the brunt of the responsibility of cleaning up after them. I have been trying to get this changed throughout the year, using different strategies and different approaches. (After all, regardless of who said it, I do agree that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.) While browsing Pinterest for completely unrelated reasons, I came across this post some time ago.

Now, my students were getting “grounded” but I did need them to decided the best way to get our classroom ready for learning. So I took this idea and adapted it to my own needs:

The objective is simple: in order to use his or her Chromebook during our independent work time in the morning, the student must earn 100 points. There are activities ranging from picking up five objects on the floor (worth ten points) to writing an opinion essay on a topic of their choosing (50 points). Once the student has done enough activities to earn at least 100 points, he or she brings their sheet to me, we both sign it, and they get to use their Chromebook.

My plan was to launch this today. There were a few hiccups along the way, though.

First, I discovered that our wireless network was down, so I wasn’t able to share the score sheet electronically. Second, I wasn’t able to send the sheet to the copy machine, so I had to save it to a flash drive and try to print it that way. Then I remembered that the copy machine won’t print .doc files, only .pdf files and by this time I had to get to my morning supervision assignment.

So I put the document up on the Promethean ActivPanel and watched as the students came in, read the assignment, and responded. Some were shocked that they had to pick what to do. Others got to work right away. Quite a few came to me wanting to know what they were supposed to do.

But all of them earned their 100 points or more. Some organized the bookshelves and game cabinet. Most cleaned their desks. A few chose to read independently for 15 minutes, do a cursive handwriting practice sheet, and a math worksheet. Many picked up trash and pencils found on the floor.

And then we hit the other snag:

The district wireless network was still out of commission.


As students came to me to excitedly share that they had earned 100 points, I had to reveal that the network was done. Then something wonderfully unexpected happened: instead of whining or complaining or getting upset, they simply found other things to do, whether it was helping a classmate clean her desk or doing another math worksheet or just reading silently for another 15 minutes.

I must say, the whole process went remarkably well. And as long as the network is working tomorrow morning, they will get to do it all over again!

Book Review: Out Of My Mind

I acquire a lot of new books each year. I try to keep up with them. I want to read all of those books, but I don’t always get around to it. As I acquire more books, my “To Be Read” list grows longer and longer. Like many bibliophile teachers who are lifelong members of the Nerdy Book Club (even if they don’t know they are members), I have tumbling stacks of books in my classroom, in my office at home, and by my nightstand that are all waiting for me to read them.


One of the books that I have had in my classroom for three years now is Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Students in my class read this book for the Battle of the Books one year, but I didn’t read it. I had a reading group read it last year, but I didn’t actually read it. (I trusted the advice of several former students to have a group read the book together.) So I realised that the best way to force me to read the book would be to select it as a read aloud for this year.


This is the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Melody Brooks, with cerebral palsy that has rendered her unable to talk, walk, or even move much more than her thumbs. She is also brilliant. She has nearly perfect recall, but has no way to communicate it with others. Because of her medical condition, she is diagnosed by a developmental psychologist as being severely retarded (his words). Melody’s mother, fortunately, knows better and refuses to accept the doctor’s diagnosis. Instead, she enrolls her daughter in the local elementary school.

For the next several years, Melody spends her days at school in a self-contained special education room, being bored to tears with the same lessons day after day, year after year. Then Spaulding Street Elementary School starts an inclusion program, bringing students in the special education room into general education classroom settings. Then a miracle happens: Melody learns about augmentative alternative communication devices, such as those used by Dr. Stephen Hawking. She is able to work with her teachers, her parents, and her doctors to put in an application to get a device that would let her talk to others for the first time in her life.

Then she waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And then the day arrives. And everything changes.

I love this book. It is nearly 300 pages long, yet I was able to read the entire book to my class in just a few weeks. My students begged for me to read more. Several borrowed copies from my classroom and from the library. At least one bought it at a book fair. We didn’t have many deep conversations as we read. I didn’t pause to have discussions. I just wanted them to experience the story with me. And they did.

The best thing about Out Of My Mind is that the main character is never someone you feel pity for. She is smart. She is determined. She is amazing. And even when she kicks and screams when she can’t communicate in any other way, you still just want to cheer for her and yell at those who treat her poorly because of her physical disability. This book also makes you think deeply about the assumptions you make about those who are different. I am going to have my students write letters to their pen pals tomorrow to tell them about this book and what they thought and whether or not they would recommend it to others. I know I certainly will!

Hello, Again

I haven’t updated my blog since April 25 (nearly three weeks) because I just haven’t felt like I had anything to blog about. This is the result of exhaustion from late nights finishing graduate school assignments, district collective bargaining agreement negotiations, End-Of-Year PARCC testing, and personal angst about my classroom.

I was getting ready to write a new post this evening and discovered that I had 96 views on May 6. This shocked me, because my busiest day was November 11, 2013, when Neil Gaiman tweeted my post about his delightful children’s book, Fortunately, The Milk. So I looked at the stats closer and saw that I only had 7 unique visitors. So somebody came to my blog and spent a long time reading. A lot. Because I have a free account, I have no way of tracking down this individual but just in case you decided to start following my blog in the hopes that I would start posting again: Thank you, random stranger, for spending your day reading my random musings. I hope you got something good out of it. And I promise I will be updating more regularly over the next couple of weeks. I’ll even try to update over the summer, too.

Stay tuned for a new post later tonight!