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

Archive for December, 2015

One Little Word

I don’t normally make a big deal about the New Year because, for me, the year starts in August when school starts. January 1 is just another cold day in a typically cold month that, other than including the birthdays of some of the most amazing people in history, isn’t all that spectacular. However, Monday is the start of the new semester, and I can embrace making changes based on that.
My friend Aubrey has challenged her friends to pick one little word to be there focus for the coming year. I’ve been thinking about this today as I have been finishing up artifacts and reflections for my internship and realised that that is going to be my one little word: focus. I have a habit of stretching myself thin, of running from thing to thing, of wanting to do everything at once, and of, unfortunately, starting things and not always finishing them. So this year I am going to focus on being more focused.
There are some things I am deeply committed to that I won’t be dropping from my life, even if they do keep my busy. Some of them, like volunteering with the Boy Scouts, Operation Snowball, and the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute, are because they have been a part of me for well over half my lifetime. Others, such as graduate school, are long-term endeavours that need to be completed. But these are things that I want to do well, and focus will help me do that.
In my classroom, there is definitely a need for me to be more focused. I feel like I have let myself take on too many things at once. Too many online learning tools, too many new ideas, too many changes in what I teach and how I teach. So I am going to be focusing on the things that work best to accomplish what matters most: my students all learning. I’ve already started some  of these changes. During our teacher record day, I took time to make small changes to my daily schedule that will improve how I do guided math and literacy groups. I began organising my classroom and will be going in either Friday or Saturday to finish.
I am also recommitting myself, again, to being more diligent in my blogging, not because I crave the attention from others, but because it helps me focus on what it going well in my classroom. I have used this platform for the past five years or so to reflect and to focus. I need to do that more, even if my posts are very brief.
I won’t call it a New Year’s resolution because, like I said, for me, this is the middle of the year. But it is my goal for the second semester. It is my one little word. What is yours?

Holiday Parties and Gifts for Teachers

Today marked the end of the first semester for students. (Teachers and other staff still have one more day of work tomorrow.) As per tradition, the classes at Wiley had holiday parties in the afternoon to celebrate the end of the semester and to send the students off on a high note for their two-week winter break. And, as is also traditional, many students brought in small gifts for their teacher.

This got me thinking about a post I wrote last year. There had been a slew of blog posts shared by, I hope, well-meaning people offering advice on what to get teachers for gifts. However, these posts were often full of restrictions and suggestions on what not to get, setting up a scenario in which the reader could imagine teachers being disappointed or even angry that students gave them candy, handmade cards, or other such traditional gifts. And I so I responded, wanting to make sure that the students and parents in my classroom knew that I appreciate each gift I receive from my students, regardless of its value.

In addition to being appreciative of the gifts I was given, I was also amused. You see, at the start of the year, I shared a Google Slides presentation with my class about expectations and procedures and mentioned in it that backpacks should not be brought into the classroom unless they were full of books for our book exchange or chocolate for the teacher. I have regularly made reference to how much I love chocolate, as well as books, bacon, and geeky science fiction and fantasy things. Here’s a picture of what my students (and some colleagues) got for me this year:


I guess my students really do listen to me! Lots of chocolate, several books, root beer (one of my favourite beverages), and a Star Wars Stormtrooper mug.

Thank you, everyone, for a wonderful semester! It has definitely been a roller coaster with its ups and downs and I know that I have not been as consistent in my blogging this year as I have been the past five years (and I know that I still have five posts to write about some big events we recently participated in), but there have been mores ups than downs and I have been pleased with the growth of my students and my own growth as a professional. I don’t know how much updating I will be doing over the winter break, but I am looking forward to getting some rest before we dive into the second half the year come January!

Happy holidays!


Way back in the summer of 2013, I learned about a wonderful source for high-interest nonfiction articles that I could share with my class called Wonderopolis. I have been using it quite regularly with my students for over two years now but have somehow never gotten around to writing a blog post about it. (Unless, of course, you include this post in which I made brief mention of it.)

There are many ways to use Wonderopolis in the classroom. I have been using it this year to support our health standards. I have found articles about the skeletal system, the digestive system, the circulatory system, communicable diseases, and pollution, among many others, that my students have read as a class. Then we take the short quizzes at the end and check our knowledge of key vocabulary terms. I put the articles up on my Promethean Board but many students will load them on their Chromebooks so that they can read along with us.

A comprehension tool I recently started using after seeing it mentioned on Twitter is the 3-2-1 protocol (I think they called it 3-2-1 Wonderopolis). The idea is simple: the students share 3 things they learned, 2 things they found interesting, and 1 thing they still wonder about the topic. We have been doing this as a class and have expanded it to other areas, such as student presentations. I will be using this strategy in coming weeks to have students focus their research questions when we start our next inquiry unit after  Winter Break.

I am happy I learned about Wonderopolis and I am even happier that my students love using it! I think we are going to start submitting our own questions to the Wonder Bank. I am also going to have them use the 3-2-1 strategy to pick a topic and share what they learned. I know many teachers do a Wonder Wednesday. Maybe we will start joining in the fun.

U of I Repertory Dance Company

I don’t think I will ever grow tired of writing the praises of the amazing fine arts program we have here in the Urbana School District! My fine arts education in grade school was limited to a weekly trip to the music room with Mrs. Howell, a very, very, very old woman teaching us from very, very, very old books. (She did teach me how to play the recorder in fourth grade, though); a weekly visit from the Art Lady (I honestly don’t think I ever knew her actual name); and, in fifth grade, joining the beginning band where I first started playing the trumpet (a instrument I still play to this day, unlike the recorder, on which I can only play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns”). Our fine arts experiences expanded slightly in middle school but it wasn’t until high school that the opportunity to really dig into them was made possible. Sadly, due to my bizarre desire to take an abundance of academic courses, my high fine arts experiences were limited to all of the bands (concert, jazz, marching, symphonic), and the concert choir. (I did audition for the show choir my junior year but didn’t make it, ending a glorious reign of Valencic boys in the Washington Community High School Company.)

Knowing how much I missed out on the fine arts is, in part, why I am always so excited by the options and the opportunities presented to my students now. In addition to the regular classes of visual arts, music, dance, and drama, we get to have performers from the University of Illinois visit our school on a fairly regular basis. One such event took place last Friday. The U of I Repertory Dance Company came to showcase the different styles of dance that they learn in their program. Students got to see examples of modern dance, jazz, ballet, hip hop, and African dance and to learn about the choreography process. It was an awesome experience!




At the end of the performances the dancers allowed students to ask them questions. Not every student got to ask his/her question, but the performers told them that they could write them down later and have their teachers deliver them. This doesn’t actually happen very often, but I had one student who wrote a letter to one of the dancers. I don’t know what she (the student) wrote and I don’t know if she (the dancer) will respond, but I do know this: if the performance had a positive impact on at least one student, it was definitely worth it!


Falling Behind

Wow. I have had at least three major things happen in my classroom over the past few days that I meant to blog about and then completely forgot or simply ran out of time to do so. Rather than try to cram all of them into one post, giving justice to none, I will be trying to get them written up and posted today and tomorrow. This post is just a filler to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about them!

So for those who have heard about our awesome University of Illinois Dance Repertory assembly last week, an interesting Body Safety workshop we had on Tuesday, or the departure of my wonderful student teacher yesterday, my apologies for not getting posts written about those. I will also have a post about our (first-ever, I think) school-wide pajama day today plus (hopefully) a student guest post tomorrow. So between now and Friday evening, you should see five (!!!) new posts! Sorry to dump them all at once!

Here’s a picture of me as a fourth grader (with my fourth grade teacher) to tide you over until then:


Monitoring Voice Levels

Just yesterday I wrote about the need for me to be more consistent with my expectations of voice levels in my classroom and the need to reteach what the specific voice levels should be. Today I decided to act on this double obligation from the very start of the day.

After having the students write descriptions of each voice level in their own words, we discussed as a class what they sounded like and when they should be used. Then I had the students model for me what each level sounds like, starting at the highest.

Level 5 is out of control; it is yelling and screaming and should never be used indoors. Our chart says it is a playground voice but I pointed out that screaming should only be done when students feel they are in danger. because a scream is a signal for those around you that you are in need of immediate assistance.

Level 4 is the voice you use in a loud crowd; it is speaking so loudly that others can hear you over their own voices. Our poster suggests it is a presenting voice but if everyone else is silent, a Level 4 is too loud. We determined that Level 4 is the voice used most often in the gym and on the playground.

Level 3 is our normal conversational voice; it is the voice level that I use when talking to my entire class so that everyone can hear me. It is the voice we use with friends when talking to them outside or in the lunchroom. It is a loud voice but not too loud.

Level 2 is the voice that students should typically use in the classroom because it is our small group voice level. My students do a lot of collaborative work in the room. When they practiced speaking to each other with Level 2 voices, they all noticed how much quieter it was than usual in our room but they also noticed that they could still hear each other when everyone was using the same voice level.

Level 1 is the most difficult voice level to use because it is a whisper. It is the voice you use when you only want one other person to hear you. We don’t actually use Level 1 in my classroom very often but we do use it when we are with our Learning Buddies.

Level 0 is easy to understand because it is total silence; nobody should be talking to anybody at all. We use this when taking a test or doing independent tasks when someone else is doing an assessment. This is also the voice level expectation for the hallways. I try not to require Level 0 in the classroom unless we are doing assessments.

After practicing all of the voice levels, I had the students put their new skills to the test throughout the day and I have to say, it was much much much better! We will go over these expectations again tomorrow so that the students can keep building on their success.

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

Today was my student teacher’s second day of taking over in my classroom, which means it was also my second day of letting go and turning things over. In general, it was a fairly typical Wednesday, with our University of Illinois nursing student coming in to lead a health lesson first thing in the morning, going to Miss C’s room for Learning Buddies before recess, working on our new science unit and writing about what was learned, going to the gym of P.E., working on summarising main ideas for literacy, and ending our day by finishing Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. (The students really enjoyed this book, incidentally, and I am sure that many will be arguing over who gets to read the other books in the series first!)

One of the benefits for me when a student teacher is doing a full take-over is the opportunity to not just observe her practice (sorry, fellas, but I have yet to have a male student teacher working in my room), but also to reflect on what I do. Sometimes I see what someone else does, recognise that it may not be the most effect practice, and then realise that I do it, too. So my feedback for her is often feedback for myself.

Something I realised today was how often teachers say one thing when we kinda-sorta-maybe-don’t-really-mean-it-all-the-way. Oops.



One of the areas in which I am most guilty of this is voice levels in the classroom. I have a lovely chart that our social worker made for me last year that has colour-coded voice levels:

(Our social worker found this on TeachersPayTeachers then made her own version that is much, much larger.)

The default voice level in my classroom is a Level 2. We do lots of small group work and so the students are permitted to speak quietly to one another.

Correction: the default voice level in my classroom is supposed to be a Level 2. In reality, it usually gets up to a 3 and sometimes even a 4.


As teachers, it is so important for us to say what we mean and mean what we say. If we want the students to be at a Level 1 or 2, we need to tell them that. We shouldn’t tell them to be at a Level 0 (absolutely silent) and then allow them to speak quietly to one another. When we do, the students’ minds associate Level 0 with the actual volume of Level 2, which means Level 2 is actually a 4.

My student teacher and I talked about this after school today and I realised that I need to take some time tomorrow to reteach what the voice levels sound like and be more consistent with what I expect of my students. I also need to make sure that if I consider quiet conversations that are on topic acceptable, I need to state that clearly. I shouldn’t tell students to be at a Level 0 if a Level 1 is okay.

I know that it will take time to unlearn some of the habits my students have formed and it will take time to learn the correct habits but, let’s be honest: isn’t that just part of my job?