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

Archive for January, 2016

Funeral for a Friend

We went to a funeral for a friend in my classroom today.

Actually, we didn’t go to a funeral; we actually held a funeral.

And, to be fair, it wasn’t so much for a friend as it was for a phrase that has been overused in my classroom this year.

I got the idea from a colleague within my district. Whenever she notices a word or phrase that students overuse, she has a funeral for it and then challenges students to stop using it in the classroom. I’ve loved this idea since she first told me about it three years ago, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to use it.

The phrase that we put to rest today was “I am going to tell you…” Nearly all of my students have been using this phrase in their persuasive, explanatory, and opinion writing. I have repeatedly explained that they do not need to tell me that they are going to tell me because they are obviously telling me when they tell me something! Of course, that is a bit confusing, so I tried something new to get the point across: during my minilesson for writers’ workshop, I started every single sentence with “I am going to tell you…” I nearly two dozen pairs of eyes looking at me with bewilderment as I explained what I wanted them to do by saying, “I am going to tell you that you should have an introduction that tells your audience about your subject. Then I am going to tell you that you should have at least three supporting reasons for why you want your audience to know about your topic. The next thing I am going to tell you is that you should have a paragraph that describes the materials you will need to do the thing you are explaining…”

After establishing the reality of the overuse of this entirely unnecessary phrase, we brainstormed some reasons why the students loved using it: the phrase constantly focuses on us as the writers, it has a sense of humour, it is always there for us, and we love it.

But I shared the sad news that the phrase “I am going to tell you…” died in a horrible accident and it was no longer with us. We had a funeral (I played a recording of Taps as we had a moment of silence) and then the students read through their writing to remove the offending phrase from their writing, along with its cousins, “that is why I think you should…” and “I hope you liked my essay about…”

What are words or phrases that you find are overused that you wish you could have a funeral for?

Special Days

Today was a special day, and yet it was a very typical Tuesday in my classroom: My students started the day by writing about our classroom jobs and trying to decide which one was most important (one girl, always finding a way to answer prompts by not-answering them, insisted that every job is important; she was correct), then we spent 75 minutes in our guided math block (we are working on division of whole numbers) before having an indoor recess (the wind chill had dropped from 18° to 14°) and then going to Dance. Our morning wrapped up with social studies (getting background knowledge on the Southern Colonies in America) and Writers’ Workshop (writing demonstrative essays). After lunch the students worked on their Digital Passports with Common Sense Media and then we finished our day with our Daily CAFE literacy block and a read aloud (another chapter of The Walls of Cartagena by Julia Durango).

Some might be wondering what could make such a typical day so special?

The answer is simple: I have now completed 33 trips around the Sun!

Yep, today was my birthday. I told my students yesterday that the one gift I really wanted was for everyone to promise that they would try their best every day. I didn’t get any formal promises like that this year (unlike my first year teaching, when one student made a very lovely card for me that expressed that promise), but I did get a bunch of wonderful notes and hand-made cards, including a set of cards from my students’ kindergarten learning buddies. Each card and note I received will be treasured, but I wanted to share three of them. First, two from kindergarteners who apparently notice much more about me than I would have thought since I am only in their room for about 30 minutes once a week:


I love how she captured my thick curly locks of dark hair!

I don’t know if you can read what it says in the top left corner, but I’ll leave it to you to decode what IlfYo! means.

And finally, one from a current student who has had several different challenges this year:


Getting all of these notes, as well as the wishes from students and coworkers in the halls, truly made today a special day. (The best hallway greeting had to have been a kindergartener who ran up from behind me and shouted, “Happy Thursday!”)

And finally, because I share a birthday with my favourite country/continent in the Southern Hemisphere, here’s a classic video of Slim Dusty singing a classic Australian folk song, Waltzing Matilda:

Inquiry-Based Learning with Front Row

I have been using Front Row in my classroom for the past two years to provide my students with differentiated math instruction. This year I also started using it with my guided math groups to help me plan for targeted instruction and make sure that I am giving my students the level and variety of work that they need to improve their math skills and strategic thinking. I have really enjoyed using Front Row because my students enjoy it and because it is free. (And let’s be honest: what teacher doesn’t love a high-quality resource that doesn’t cost anything?!)


This year the team at Front Row rolled out a new feature: inquiry-based lessons. These are usually three or four lessons taught over as many days that cover a specific concept and are connected through a narrative that is tied to grade-level science or social studies concepts. (I wrote about them back in September for savvy readers with great memories, but I wanted to expand on them today.) There are a few free units available for each grade level, but the entire collection is only accessible with the paid School Edition. During the month of December, though, Front Row did an inquiry-based learning focus and ran several short contests. I participated in them and one of the prizes I received was full access to the entire library for the month of January.

We didn’t do anything with Front Row our first week back after break, but we dove in last week with a unit on rounding multidigit numbers based on a fictional cross-country road trip. Working with my guided math groups, I had students use these numbers to perform multidigit arithmetic with addition and subtraction, too. This week we did a multiplication unit connected to relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. For both units, I would start the students on the lesson and then have them work in their math teams while I worked with small groups at my back table. We would come together at the end of the unit to share answers and strategies for solving.

I loved listening to my students’ conversations as they worked! They would compliment each other, encourage one another, and use phrases like, “Oh, I didn’t think about it that way!” or “This is challenging; will you help me?” or “Oh, now I get it! Thanks!” I was also able to identify specific needs of students as I worked with their groups, such as the students who are not quite grasping the concept of multiplying by multiples of ten or the students who are not lining up digits by the place values. I also discovered that some of my students are much better at interpreting word problems than others and they are able to explain the problems in such a way that their peers were able to understand the task.

Next week will be our last Front Row unit that I do while I have access to the entire library, so I am going to use a unit on division of whole numbers. It will be interesting to see how the class responds because many of the students have not actually done division in a formal sense, but the lesson is designed in a way that they will naturally thinking about dividing objects into equal groups and then later learn to decide what to do with remainders.

I wish that Front Row had some kind of intermediary offering between the free teacher edition and the paid school edition because I would love to be able to continue to access all of these features. In the meantime, though, I will be grateful for the resources I have available!

What kind of success have you had with online learning tools?

Indoor Recess

One of the realities of living in East Central Illinois is that it gets cold in the winter. Not Antarctica-in-the-winter cold. Not Alaska-in-the-winter cold, and not Siberia-in-the-winter cold, but still cold. Our district policy of staying indoors when the temperature is under 20° F means that we spend a lot of days indoors during January and February. (December, surprisingly, is usually fairly mild.)

Besides the onslaught of cabin fever that comes with the cold weather, students don’t get nearly as much physical activity when we have indoor recess as they do when they are outside. I admit that I don’t blame them. I am frequently expressing a desire to stay inside, wrapped in a blanket, sipping herbal tea, and reading a good book. (Come to think of it, I expressed this very sentiment yesterday when we had our first major snow of the season.) However, as much as I understand the desire to curl up and not move when it is cold out, the reality is that my students need the physical activity. Their bodies are designed to be on the move.

Which is why I am really glad that I finally got around to checking out the Indoor Recess Mega Mixes today from GoNoodle! Instead of spending 10-15 minutes sitting around with their eyes glued to a screen, my students were standing, dancing, high-fiving, and just plain moving. We used one of them today and I was so surprised that all of my students were participating! And then when it was time for Fine Arts, nobody complained about “missing” recess!

Of course, they still like to have time to just chat and play, but we will definitely be using the Indoor Recess Mega Mixes in the future to make sure we are getting in our much-needed physical activity when we can’t go outside because it is too cold!

How do you encourage physical activity when the weather doesn’t cooperate?

First Snow of the Season

We got snow last night. And it actually lasted through the day. In fact, there is still snow on the ground right now, which is the longest the snow has lasted this winter except for maybe one time. And even that time it was just a thin dusting and it was gone within a couple of days. So I am considering this the first snow of the season.

Unfortunately for my students, the temperature was stubbornly hanging around at just below 20° F all day long, and that is the official district-mandated cut-off for staying indoors. (Yes, there are teachers who will take their students out when it is below the cut-off; I am not one of those teachers.) All of that combined to mean that I had several students who wanted to spend more time today staring out the window looking longingly at the snow than actually doing their work.


I tried to inoculate against this first thing in the morning. After the students came to the carpet for our morning meeting, I had everyone stand up and look outside for 30 seconds. Then I had them sit back down and announced that now we all knew that everyone knew that there was snow and we would be able to get to work.

Most of my students accepted my statement and stayed focused and on task all day long. A few fought valiantly against my charge to actually work instead of daydreaming of snowball fights, forts, and hot chocolate. But I always try to focus on the positive, and so I am finding myself grateful today that the majority of my class was able to ignore the snow for the day, knowing that there would be plenty of sunshine left after 3:00 pm for them to play in the snow after they got home.

Me, I prefer to admire the snow from indoors, preferably wrapped in a warm blanket, sipping herbal tea, and reading a good book.

What do you do when the snow finally comes to stay?

Writing Stamina

We do a lot of writing in my classroom. Sometimes it is paper-and-pencil writing, sometimes it is typing-on-a-device writing, but we write. A lot. With all of the writing we do in our room, one would expect that my students all have excellent writing stamina. After all, conventional wisdom says that anything we do often we begin to do well.

But that isn’t always the case.

Instead of writing for extended periods of time, many of my students write for incredibly short periods of time, interspersed with excessively long breaks. They don’t, of course, call them breaks. In fact, if you were to ask them, they would probably claim to be writing the entire time. But what actually happens is that my students are very good at appearing busy while accomplishing next to nothing. A student will walk over to the pencil sharpener, pick out the perfect pencil, sharpen it to needlepoint accuracy, and then walk back to her seat. Then she will walk over to the paper tray, pick out several sheets of paper (none of them touching each other), and walk back to her desk. She will start writing for a few minutes until the tip of the pencil breaks and then she needs to sharpen a pencil again. While on the way, she grabs a tissue to blow her nose, picks out a clipboard, throws away the tissue, finally sharpens the pencil, gets a new tissue to blow her nose again, throws that tissue away, and then finally sits back down. This process goes on throughout our entire writing block. At the end of the 30-45 minutes, she has one or two sentences written and says she is done.

I may or may not feel like hitting my head on my desk when this happens.

So this week I have decided that we need to go back to a component of the first twenty days of writers’ workshop and focus on building our writing stamina:

First I made sure that every student had a sharpened pencil, a working eraser, and a piece of paper. (The few students who had permission to work on the carpet also had clipboards.)

Then I gave them a prompt: How do you feel about cold weather? Do you love it? Hate it? Why? What do you do when it is cold outside? Why?

Finally, I gave them a set amount of time to write: one minute.

Yes, that is all. Just one minute to write on this topic. The expectations were that they would have pencils on the paper and voices silent for the duration of the writing time. Remember, though, that this was just one minute. Sixty seconds. That’s all.

Nearly everyone in the class was successful. A few needed some extra support. After making sure they were all ready, I told the students to continue writing for jut one minute. This time I had all of my students writing silently. Once we had established that everyone in the room could write independently for just one minute, I extended the time to three minutes. We repeated this twice. At this point the students had written independently for eleven minutes. So then I gave them five minutes to write. Once again, everyone was able to do it and they had increased their stamina more. Another five minutes brought them to a total of twenty-one minutes of independent writing. We had nine minutes remaining until lunch, so I challenged the students to write for the entire nine minutes, still on this same topic. Some said that they were done, but I told them that they were expected to actually write the entire time, not just write until they felt they were done. I told them that they could write poems, lists, essays, narratives, or even just write “I hate the cold” over and over again.

Nobody took me up on the last suggestion. What they did take me up on was the challenge to actually write for the entire time. When we finished, my students had successfully written independently for thirty minutes. Yes, we broke it into smaller chunks. Yes, some of them needed some extra help. Yes, there were a few who did not get much writing done because they were thinking about the prompt. But many students had an entire page or two of writing completed.

I informed the class that we would continue to work on building our writing stamina this week so that they can start working on their explanatory/demonstrative essays again next week. The goal is for every student to be able to write for thirty minutes without interruptions while I work with small groups on key skills.

How do you build stamina, whether it is for reading, writing, or other tasks?

Presenting to Colleagues

Today was my school district’s annual Winter Institute, a one-day event in which staff from all levels come together to participate in professional development workshops. Sometimes we have a presenter who has been brought in to speak to everyone in the district or all of the EC-5 teachers, sometimes we have a bunch of different workshop sessions, and sometimes we have a mix. This year was a workshop sessions year and, as one of the grade-level leaders in the district and also a member of the technology cadre, the technology-enhanced learning environments task force, the the model content framework for English/language arts task force, I was invited to propose a session. Looking at the suggestions, I offered to lead a workshop on guided math groups, something I began experimenting with a couple of years ago and have fully implemented this year.

The proposal was accepted and so I found myself presenting to colleagues from across the district this morning. I didn’t have a large group of teachers come to my session, and two of them were colleagues from my own building, but I enjoyed the opportunity to share some of what I have been doing with others and inviting them to try it out in their own rooms. I focused my presentation on the time management and organisation side of guided math instruction because the instructional content varies widely from grade to grade. (For myself, I rely heaving on many on the online learning tools that we use and refer to my grade level math standards to monitor progress. I don’t use a specific formal curriculum because I am not satisfied with the print resources I currently have, although I am definitely moving toward using the EngageNY materials that are available online.)

I honestly have no idea what the teachers in my session really thought about using a guided math approach, although I hope that they will at least be willing to try it out. I have found that guided math lets me work with small groups of students in a setting that lets them grow as they learn and I feel that our math time is much more effective than if I were to just present one lesson to the whole class. We still have bumps along the way, such as students not working independently the entire time or students who are needing extra support from a teacher who is also trying to work with a small group, but I think it is definitely a structure or framework that I will continue to use with my class.

I think I am also finally getting used to presenting to my colleagues. I am super comfortable teaching a large group of students and I am usually comfortable talking to a large diverse group of adults, but I get really nervous talking to groups of teachers because they are my colleagues and many of them probably know more than me anyway. But I didn’t feel that way this time. I felt like I was sharing what I have done because I am proud of the outcome and I wanted them to know more about it.

How has it gone when you’ve presented to your colleagues at work?