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

Archive for October, 2015

New Classroom Arrangement

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher had tables for us instead of desks. We had plastic totes kept in a huge cubby shelf thing for our supplies and a separate tote in the middle of the table that had shared materials, especially pencils. I loved this grouping arrangement and loved how my friends and I were able to work so collaboratively and cooperatively throughout the year. (Miss McNamara would give us seating assignments but my best friends and I always took our supplies and went to her extra table at the back of the room to work. She let us do this as long as we actually worked, which we always did because we didn’t want to get split up!)

When I first started working as a substitute teacher, I saw all sorts of classroom arrangements: desks in rows, desks in groups, and tables of various sizes being the most common. (I never went to a classroom that had no furniture, although I’ve heard stories of such rooms existing.) After three years of working in hundreds of different classrooms, I definitely came to prefer groups of desks or tables.

Then I got my own classroom and my principal at the time strongly encouraged me to start the year off with rows so that I could establish my “teacher presence” in the classroom. Later in the year I switched to groups of four desk that faced each other. This has continued to be my preference.

At the end of last year I came to realise that I would most likely have a very large class this year (possibly upwards of 28-30 students). So I began to reimagine my entire room and I enlisted the help of my wife, who is able to think about negative space in a way that I have a hard time doing. (Give me a limited space and tell me to fill it completely and I’ll do it without a problem; give me the same space and tell me that I have to have empty space and I hit a brick wall.) She helped me figure out where to move bookshelves, my desk, my reading table, and the students’ desks so that I could optimise my space. (On a side note, I was told my first year here that my classroom is actually about 100 square feet smaller than the recommended space for the number of fourth grade students I have. Even though I’ve had several opportunities to switch classrooms, I’ve always opted to stay because all of my materials are already in here and organised in a way that works for me.)

I started this year with four columns of desks that were mirrored across the center line of my room. This meant that two columns faced the right and two columns faced the left. This worked for a brief period of time but then I needed my students to be able to work in small groups at their seats and so I arranged things to make room for groups of four or five desks. It had been this way for over a month, but I was frustrated by some of the problems I ran into, including not being able to monitor all of my students, limited space, and the constant shifting of desks as students moved around.

Then I got a much-needed filing cabinet that I needed close to my desk and reading table and discovered that I had no good place to put it. I struggled with it for a couple of hours before finally asking my wife to come down and help me out. She suggested changing my desk’s orientation, moving my table, and completely reconfiguring the students’ desks. Now I have four rows of desks that face the front of the room with an aisle down the middle to provide ease of access. My table is strategically placed so that I can see every student’s desk and, more importantly, Chromebook screen, from where I sit as I work with small groups. I can also see students on the carpet as they work with my aide, student teacher, or each other.

More importantly, though, is what my students are able to do: focus on their work, complete assignments with independence, trust that their teacher is monitoring the entire classroom to ensure safety, and ask others for help in appropriate ways as needed.

I don’t think it is the best arrangement possible, but it is the best arrangement for what we need at this moment. My students spend much of the day out of their seats, anyway, spreading out as the work with partners and self-selected groups. Because I am doing a workshop model for literacy and math instruction, I spend very little time each day at the front of the room teaching the entire class the same thing at the same time. Instead, I present short minilessons and then set students off to complete a variety of independent, differentiated tasks as I work with my small groups on targeted skills.

This entire exercise has been a good reminder for me that the classroom and the learning environment need to be designed around the needs of the students, not the wishes of the teacher. We may return to groups in the future. We may have a large horseshoe arrangement another time. And we may keep our rows and columns. It is all about the students being able to learn in a safe, positive, appropriate environment. Always.


Taking a Break from Technology

I wear many hats in my building and in my school district: classroom teacher, instructional technology specialist, improvement team member, grade-level leader, writing committee, technology cadre, technology-enhanced learning environments task force member, program council member, professional development leader, PBIS universal team, Young Authors coordinator, Young Authors representative, union building representative, union leadership team member, union elections chair, and probably some others that I have forgotten.

Of all of these different hats, the one I am most passionate about is being a classroom teacher. I am constantly asking myself what I am doing well, what is not working out, and what I can do better. Many of the other hats are directly connected to this one. Which is why it should not be at all surprising that I am also very passionate about educational technology. For the past year and a half, I have served as my building’s instructional technology specialist, which means that I spend my time outside the classroom thinking about ways I can help my colleagues effectively use technology in their own classrooms. And, of course, this means I also think about how I can be more effective in my own technology use.

Sometimes that means that I need to take a break from the technology. It seems counterintuitive at first, but sometimes we get so caught up in using the technology for the sake of technology’s use that we lose sight of why we are using it. Or, as is perhaps more often the case, our students get caught up in the use and lose sight of what they are supposed to be doing. This is what happened in my classroom this week.

We use technology a lot. All day, every day, my students are using technology to connect and to learn in ways that they simply cannot do using traditional materials and resources. (That isn’t to say that traditional materials and resources are not important; they are!) But I realised yesterday that far too many of my students were using technology for activities that were not actually connected to what they were supposed to be doing at that time.

My students love using Prodigy to do math. If it is a rainy day and we have to stay inside for recess, they will ask if they can use their Chromebooks to do Prodigy. Why would I tell them no? If they are doing more math practice and are either honing their skills or learning new concepts, I am not going to stand in the way of that! However, if we are in the midst of our Daily CAFE and students are supposed to be reading or writing independently while I am meeting with a small group and instead they are doing math on Prodigy, that is problematic. It isn’t that I don’t want them doing math; it is that I also need them to work on improving their literacy skills!

As I was finishing meeting with groups yesterday, my awesome teacher’s aide informed me that eight different students had been accessing websites that were not connected to literacy. With twenty-six students in my class, those eight represented nearly one-third of my class! And so I realised that we needed to take a break from the technology to refocus on what independent learning tasks should look and feel like.

All of that to explain why my students came to school today and discovered that our Chromebook cart was locked up this morning. Instead of practicing math facts on XtraMath first thing in the morning, the students wrote about technology expectations. Instead of working on Front Row, Khan Academy, and Prodigy during our guided math group time, they worked out of the math book, used task cards, and worked together on real world math situations. Instead of using InstaGrok to research ancient Mayan, Incan, and Aztec civilisations, they used our social studies books to read about these groups of people and to learn about their amazing accomplishments. Instead of using Storybird, Google Docs, and Storia to read and write during our Daily CAFE, they read from guided reading group books, self-selected texts, and completed graphic organisers related to the texts they had been reading with me in small groups.

Were these all tasks that could be done using technology? Of course! Does the technology give them access to a wider variety of information and resources than found within their print materials. Yes. Were my students still engaged in meaningful learning activities today that helped them improve skills and deepen understanding? They sure were!

In many ways, I think my students think of technology as a substitute for more traditional materials, or they consider the technological tools as something that simply augments what they have available. I don’t blame them; when we consider models for technology integration in the classroom, many people have an enhancement mindset. My goal is to use technology to transform the classroom by modifying tasks or, even better, to completely redesign learning situations so that students are using technology to learn and share in ways that are simply not possible otherwise. (Ironically, I found myself using the traditional materials to substitute for the technology today instead of the other way around!)

After a day off from the technology, we will begin working tomorrow to slowly reintroduce our advanced learning tools in the classroom. Now that we have seen what we can do, it is time to refocus in on what we should do.


Serenity, Courage, Wisdom, and Change

As I was driving home from a meeting late last night, I heard a radio host talking about serenity. She spoke about in terms of the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. I have no desire to let this get into a religious discussion, but I found myself pondering the three components of this statement:

  • Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change:
    I started thinking about what serenity is (other than a really cool spaceship from a fantastic television series that I hope will somehow make its way back into the hearts and minds of society). Serenity is a sense of calm and peace. There are so many things that I don’t have any control over, but it can be really easy to let all of those things fill up my mind and distract me from what’s important. But if I can be calm and at peace with the fact that there are some things that I simply cannot change, I can begin to focus on the things I can. Which leads to the second part…
  • [Grant me] the courage to change the things I can:
    Courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one” or “strength in the face of pain or grief.” When it comes to change, it can be scary. Do I have the courage to stand up for what is right, to call out error and injustice when I see it, and to make change when it needs to be made? More importantly, do I have the courage to change myself first? If I do, then I can move to the final part…
  • [Grant me] the wisdom to know the difference:
    Wisdom is understanding how to apply knowledge. I can know in my mind what things I can and cannot change, but do I understand how to make use of that knowledge? What can I change? Again, it often has to start with me. I cannot make any other person do anything. I can encourage, I can cajole, I can even threaten, but ultimately, they are the ones who have to do it. I can, however, make me do things. I can change myself.

What does this have to do with teaching? Everything! There are so many things that happen outside my classroom that I cannot change, but they directly impact what happens in my classroom. I talk to my colleagues and I find out that they are encountering the same issues, the same challenges. We can complain about it until we are blue in the face, but complaining about it isn’t going to make a lick of difference. As one of my coworkers said a couple of years ago, “Once it becomes cathartic, it is no longer productive.” Words have to be followed by actions. That’s where courage comes into the picture. Wisdom is required to make use of the knowledge, skills, and resources we have to set about making changes that will actually make a difference for good. But we always need that sense of calm and peace to keep us centered on what’s most important.

I’ve got to be willing to forgive others when they make mistakes. Including myself. I’m not perfect. My students aren’t perfect. Their parents aren’t perfect. But I do believe we are all doing the best we know how. This has been a roller coaster of a week. I’ve felt a lot of stress pulling me in every direction at once. Tomorrow is Friday. It is also the last day of the first quarter. But it is as good a time as any to start making some changes. Starting with me. So I am going to take a few steps back in my classroom and reevaluate what I am doing and why I am doing it.

It reminds me of my all-time favourite episode of the longest running American primetime television show in history and the longest running American animated series in history: after one of the main characters returns to a job that has a lot of unpleasantness to it, his boss puts a demoralising sign in his office that says, “Don’t forget you’re here forever.” However, with some carefully placed photographs, he is able to change it to reflect why he’s really at his job:

I love my job. I love my profession. I love teaching. I love learning. I need to get better at blocking out the distracting, demoralising messages being thrown at me and at my students all the time and focus on doing what’s right for the right reasons: it isn’t about me; it’s about them.


Student Guest Post 5: Exciting Things Going On

This is the fifth in my series of guest posts written by students. Once again, it is presented without any edits, even if I really want to go through and correct the mechanics…

Our principal said that if we do not have any office refferals our names would be drawn to go to the Krannert art museum to see some wonderful chinese acrobats witch we look forward to. The Wiley Walk-a-thon is happening and

we are exited. Mr.Valencic’s class is working on a social studies inquiry project on pre-Colombian civilizations such as the aztec, mayan and inca empires. i like my teacher because he is fun and cool and he is teaching me how to read and do math.

I do feel like I need to clarify that the students will be learning about pre-Columbian civilisations from medieval Europe, western Africa, in addition to the cultures that existed in the Americas. (Also, I am not particularly fond of the term “pre-Columbian” but since we tend to use that as a term to describe the time period before the European Age of Discovery, I’ll use it for simplicity’s sake.)

There is no school on Monday, so have a wonderful three-day weekend!


So. Very. Busy.

Teachers have a lot going on in their lives. They come to work early each morning and/or stay late each evening, and all the time that they are spending in their classrooms is focused on students.

I get a 30-minute prep period each day and that time is used for preparation: printing worksheets, generating homework assignments, organising lessons, collaborating with other teachers, providing tech support (one of the many hats I wear in my building is an instructional technology specialist), responding to messages from parents, teachers, and/or administrators.

When I am finally done with work and leave my building, I am thinking about what I am doing the next day and the day after that while also preparing for my graduate classes (once a month on Monday and every week on Thursday) and working on the assignments, readings, and projects for those classes.

If I am not at work and I am not in class and I am not preparing for class, then I am either doing volunteer work with the Boy Scouts of America (I am a Cubmaster, a Unit Commissioner, a Merit Badge Counselor, and a District Committee member), or I am actually taking a break from everything so I can spend time with my infinitely patient wife who understands that the life of a teacher is just so. very. busy.

All of which is 223 words to explain why my desk looks the way it does right now.

Photo on 10-7-15 at 5.15 PM

I try to teach my students to keep their work areas clear and organised and all I can say in my own defense is that my primary work area (that is, the place where I sit down to work with students if I am not standing near my Promethean board or walking around the room) is my horseshoe table and at least that area is generally free of piles.

Photo on 10-7-15 at 5.17 PM

So if you walk into a teacher’s classroom and you see piles of papers and books all over the desk and you notice that things aren’t as neat and tidy as stock photography images lead you to believe, chance are it is because that teacher, too, is so. very. busy. and would probably love it if you offered to shelve books, file papers, hang up student work on a bulletin board, and make copies of those guided reading group graphic organisers that have been sitting out for the past week.

But if you can’t do any of those things, at least smile at the teacher and offer a heartfelt thank you for all that they do to inspire, engage, and educate young people.


Illinois Animal Expo!

I have done an inquiry unit for science for four years now. The first year I did it, the students all picked their own animal and worked in small groups to learn about the habitats, life cycle, food web, appearance, and adaptations of animals, which tied to our fourth grade Illinois learning standards for science. The second year was after I participated in the Lake Guardian workshop on Lake Ontario and I chose to focus on fish from the Great Lakes region because I had made a commitment with the workshop to integrate Great Lakes literacy into my curriculum. As Illinois has shifted to the Next Generation Science Standards, I have wrapped the inquiry unit around the standard that students would be able to “construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.” The other fourth grade teacher did an expo in her room last year on animals from Illinois, so we decided to merge our inquiry units and do a shared Illinois Animal Expo this year. (more…)


Teaching, Reteaching, and Reteaching Again

Conventional wisdom tells us that someone needs to do something for 21 consecutive days in order for it to become a habit. However, that conventional wisdom is based on rather faulty anecdotal evidence, and so a team of researchers, Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts and Jane Wardle, set out to find a more definitive answer to the amount of time it takes something to become habit forming.

Their results, to use the vernacular of modern click-baiting links, will surprise you: they found that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to make any given action a habit!

What does this have to do with me, my students, and fourth grade?

From the very start of the year, we start working on establish routines in the classroom. I teach them, the students practice them, I reteach them, they practice them again. We put them into place and we use them consistently throughout the day, all day, every day, every week, every month.

But it takes time for those routines to become habits. We know that young children take longer to learn skills and have the things they are told move from their short-term to their long-term memory. And so I find myself telling my students the same things over and over and over again, although I try to find different ways to say it and different ways to model it.

Some days I feel like I have told them something a hundred times, maybe even a thousand times or more. And the reality is that I probably have. The reality is also that they need to hear it a hundred times, or ever a thousand times. They are learning new habits.

This is also why I feel it is so important for their to be consistency across grade levels. If students hear similar messages in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and third grade, it is more likely that they will quickly respond to signals and expectations when they reach my room as fourth graders. While the research referenced above says that there is not much difference if someone misses a day or two when trying to form a new habit, the reality for my students is that they are only in school for less than a quarter of the day, less than half of a year. So it is to be expected that it will take them much longer to form those habits.

And that means that I need to teach, then reteach, the reteach again. That’s what teaching is all about. And so we will continue to revisit our routines, continue to practice, rehearse, implement, and use them again and again and again.