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

Archive for February, 2016

It Is Just One Test

As the instructional technology specialist in my building, I have taken it upon myself to try out a lot of different online learning tools over the past few years. One of the tools that I have used most frequently has been Front Row. (And no, I have not told them I am writing this post nor have I asked them for any kind of compensation for it.) I have written about Front Row a handful of times in the past, discussing some of the different features that are available.

One feature that was not available on the free teacher edition has been the assessment tool. This allows teachers to select specific standards or all of the standards and administer an online test of student knowledge. Due to a special promotion, I was able to gain access to this special feature between now and the end of the school year, so I decided to try it out. Because we are approaching the end of the third quarter, I wanted to get a wide-angle view of where my students are at in their progress toward our end of the year math goals, so I created an assessment that covered every single math standard.

I knew that the assessment was designed so that the students would be given one problem per standard, which meant that a lot of them would be scored on a pass/fail. I also knew that there were many standards I have not explicitly taught in my classroom yet, but I wanted to see what my students have picked up since they have been working on all five of the foundational domains in math all year long.

What I found was that many of them did not perform very well. In fact, the class average was 46%.

But this was also just one test. Just one assessment. Just one quick snapshot of what they were doing at that time. One test does not tell the whole story. It never has and it never will.

When I looked at the results, some of them were incorrect because the students did not mark every correct answer on problems that had more one. Sometimes it was a simple computational error. (I took the assessment myself and scored a 95% because I misread a few of the problems and had at least one computational error). Do such poor results mean that my students have not been learning? Do the results indicate that I have been failing to do my job as a teacher? Do they mean that my school is underperforming? To all three of these questions, I respond with a resounding no, of course not!

What it means is that this was just one test taken the day after an unexpected day off that came as the result of a severe snowstorm that itself had come on the heels of a weekend in February during which the temperature reached close to 70° F! It also means that I now have a better sense of where I need to focus my energies over the next several weeks.

I use a lot of different tools to assess my students’ knowledge of our fourth grade math standards. I appreciate being able to try out this tool that Front Row has available and am looking forward to using it in different ways in the coming weeks and months. (For example, I am going to be creating new math groups soon and I will be able to have differentiated assessments for each group to monitor their progress.) I just hope that my students remember that, when it comes to testing, it is just one test. One test never tells the whole story.

What online assessment tools have you found to be useful?

Lots of Absences

It is that time of year when a highly-contagious bug is going around the school and it has hit my class especially hard. I had 6 of my 26 students absent today, or nearly a fourth of my class. Such a large number of absences can certainly put a kink in plans to start new projects because I would just have to go over everything again the next day, or have students work in their assigned groups because the absences were surprisingly distributed evenly throughout my room.

It can be tempting to simply declare the day a write-off and fill it with a lot of review and supplementary activities and just hope that the students will all be back the next day. It can be tempting to pop in a movie, kick back, and relax. It can be tempting to avoid the hassle of reteaching the next day by not teaching anything new.

But giving in to those temptations is poor practice and ineffective teaching.

So, instead, today was a regular Monday. We talked about what we did over the weekend, we had a six-minute multiplication quiz, we worked on multi-step word problems in math, we began learning about the major events leading up to the American Revolutionary War, we worked on writing and setting personally challenging goals, we had physical education, and we worked in on guided reading groups and literature circles. All things we would have done today no matter how many students were here.

Sure, I’ll have to take some time tomorrow to go over what we did today, but here’s the trick: I would be doing that anyway. Every day should have a review of the previous day’s learning so that students can make connections and ask questions for clarification. So even though I was missing nearly a fourth of my fourth graders today, today wasn’t a write-off at all. It was a good day!


What do you do when you are missing a large number of your group?

Non-Digital Presentations

As much as I love integrating 21st century technologies into my classroom activities, there are times that I like to challenge my students to go outside their comfort zones and consider other ways that they can present information they have learned. If given the choice to use a digital resource, at least 20 of my 26 students will make a Google Slides presentation or type a report on Google Docs or make a movie. These aren’t always the most creative presentations, though, and I try to challenge my students to think outside the box; in this case, the computer screen.

That is why I declared the final product of their latest research projects to be non-digital presentations. The students were partnered up with classmates and assigned one of the thirteen original American colonies to research and describe to the class. As I always do, the students generated their own questions and then used these questions to guide their inquiry. I gave them two weeks to work with their partners during school, guaranteeing at least 30 minutes a day for the two weeks (ten days). This week was set aside for presentations.

I was curious to see what the students would make and enjoyed watching them research and then craft presentations over the past two weeks. The students used a collection of print resources from our school library and different electronic resources they found online to find answers to questions about the history of their colonies, including famous people, key events, important landmarks, and jobs. Then they made posters, dioramas, flip books, and even a quiz game to share what they had learned.

Next week we will dive into the events that led up to the American War for Independence or the Revolutionary War, including the French and Indian War, the “Intolerable” Acts, and the lack of representation in the English Parliament. Then we will spend a week or two on the Revolutionary War itself before taking a break from social studies and switching to a really fun science project I have planned.

How do you challenge others to go outside their comfort zones?

Skype Chat: Julia Durango

As one of the coordinators for the Young Authors writing contest in my district, I have had the opportunity to go to the Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington for the past three years. My second year attending, I got to be an Author Escort, which means I spent the day going around with one of the guest authors, Ms. Julia Durango, assisting when she presented to student groups, eating a fancy lunch, and having a delightful time of chatting with her about reading, writing, and education. I also acquired several of her books at the conference and have acquired a couple more since then. In addition to all of that, we became “friends” on Facebook but have seen that online friendship become a real friendship as we chat and share and learn together.

I decided to read one of Ms. Durango’s books to my class this year because it gives a very different perspective of life in the Americas during the 18th century. Inspired by the true story of an Angolan slave who as a young child was identified as being gifted with languages, The Walls of Cartagena tells a fictional story of how this boy, Calepino, may have reacted to his experiences. It is a relatively short read but it captured my students’ attention and many of them were interested in reading the book for themselves.

At the same time I was finishing this book, I was finally able to get a webcam with built-in microphone to use with my HP Pavilion Mini that is connected to our Promethean ActivPanel Touch interactive board. I contacted my friend Julia and asked her if she would be willing to do a Skype chat with my class. I had never done a Skype chat with an author with my class before, although we did do a Google Hangouts chat with my sister two weeks ago to wish her a happy birthday.

Today was the day we picked to do the chat. I had my students prep by thinking of questions they could ask Ms. Durango and write them down. Then we got Skype running, she called us, and away we went! She shared some of her background, including that she went to school at the University of Illinois and used to live in Urbana and how she got into writing stories for her sons who are now teenagers. Then she did a back-and-forth question-and-answer session with my students. They asked her about her favourite books, favourite authors, inspiration for reading and writing, and hobbies (crocheting, hiking, eating, and watching old movies were all listed). She asked them about their favourite books and authors, what they thought the hardest part of writing was, and how many of them like to read and write now.


It was just a thirty-minute chat but it was so wonderful seeing my students engaging with her and sharing thoughts and ideas and listening attentively! She also hinted that she might stop by our room if she is ever in Urbana. I assured her (and my students) that she is always welcome!

Having done one chat, I am so excited about some of the other chats I have lined up and others that I am going to be arranging soon! I am so grateful for authors who are willing to take a break from their very busy schedules to chat with a group of fourth grade students who are eager to learn more about the people who wrote the books that they love.

How do you try to connect with authors?

Holiday Party Reflections

We have three holiday parties each year here at Wiley Elementary School: Halloween, Winter, and Valentine’s Day. (The Winter Holiday class party is called such because there are many different holidays going on at the same time.) The students love them, parents come out in full force to support them, and the teachers appreciate all of the love and attention and chocolate. (Of course, there is a part of us that dreads them, simply because the students can get antsy with the anticipation of a party, but mostly we enjoy the time to relax and have fun with our students.)

Having now successfully completed my fifteenth class holiday party since I started teaching here, I wanted to reflect a moment on some of the things I have noticed about the parties, the students, and the parents. (As always, this post is meant to let me reflect on the positive things happening in my classroom, so if you are expecting a rant about all the things that can or do go wrong, you’re reading the wrong blog!)

Classroom holiday parties really are a great way for the students to come together as a classroom community. Each of them contributes something to the party, whether it is snacks, treats, drinks, decorations, dishes, or just their very existence that adds to the overall excitement. In earlier grades, the parties are very structured events with lots of games and activities. By the time the students get to me in fourth grade, though, they just want to eat, drink, and talk amongst themselves.

Throughout the day leading up to the parties, my challenge has always been how to keep students on task and working. Today I took advantage of one of my behaviour management tools, Class Dojo, and told the students that anyone whose point total was in the negative by the time we started the party would have to go to another room to do an alternative assignment. I awarded points to students about every 15 to 20 minutes throughout the morning and afternoon. If students were on task, they earned one point. If they were off task, they lost one point. Students also earned positive points for persistence, helping others, and showing respect. Ways to lose points also included talking, being disrespectful, or being disruptive. As a class, our Dojo score is usually around 75%. Today’s score was 89%! All 26 of my students got to participate in the party!

I always appreciate the parents who come to support our classroom parties. They do all of the work; all I do is provide the students and the classroom! It is especially appreciated when they help remind students of the classroom expectations. (I have seen parents in the past sit in the room on their phones, ignoring their own children. I am glad that this has not happened in a long time!) I also appreciate the parents who take the time to include everyone in the room. With 26 fourth graders and half a dozen or so parents, it can be easy for someone to get overlooked, but my room parents are always so wonderfully considerate of others!

So even though classroom parties can be stressful and even though they are not always my favourite part of my job, I am grateful for the chance it allows us to strengthen our sense of community. Thank you to everyone who helped out with our party today!

How do you feel about classroom parties?

Adjusting to a Substitute

This has been an odd year for me in terms of time away from the classroom. For the past four years, I have been on various committees and inquiry groups and task forces that have met during school hours that I have had at least one full-day or half-day absence a month throughout the year. That changed this year when my district’s administration made the decision to move most of the meetings to after-school hours, cut back on the frequency of said meetings, and the inquiry group I had been a part of was disbanded when funding requirements changed. As a result, I have had very few absences, other than my once-a-week special education collaboration meeting and my once-every-three weeks Response to Intervention meeting. In fact, I have had two sick days and one personal day for the entire year.

As a result of all of this, my class has not had to adjust to substitute teachers very often. Even with our fine arts/library schedule, those teachers have not been gone very often, either, and so the students have gotten very comfortable with the same teachers being there all day every day.

That changed this week. Our dance teacher has been with the fifth grade students at the Krannert Art Museum as part of their Week at the Museum (KAM-WAM) integrated arts project. The students go to the library each Monday so this was the third day with a substitute teacher for dance. The first day was a bit rocky. Some students had to be removed from the class and others had to be moved away from peers. I remember talking to the substitute about it (a retired teacher from our district) and he expressed concerns about what the rest of the week would be like.

Yesterday was totally different, though. I went to pick them up and they were quietly working on their assignment. They lined up and he said, “So, should I brag on you to your teacher?” The students cheered and he told me how great it had gone. (At least one student who had been sent out of the room the day before I approached him at the start, apologised for his previous behaviour, and promised to do better. And he did!)

Today was a repeat of yesterday. I was so happy! The students seemed to have all adjusted to the fact that they were going to have a different teacher for dance this week, they were okay with him being different from the teacher they were used to, and they realised that the expectations were still the same. Tomorrow will be their last day with a sub and I am fully expecting it to be another awesome day. I am looking forward to reporting to their regular dance teacher that they really pulled it all together and had a fantastic week!

This also makes me more comfortable with a few upcoming absences. I am confident that my students will be able to handle themselves responsibly, treat the substitute respectfully, and accomplish all the things that they will be asked to do.

How do you adjust for changes in your regular schedule?

Mayhem Poets

The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts has an amazing Youth Series that they do every school year. They provide discounted tickets for students to attend abbreviated shows in their world-class theatres to bring the arts alive. In the past, students from my school have seen plays, musicals, concerts, and dance performances. Today we had an opportunity to see something new: spoken word.

The performance was by a trio called The Mayhem Poets. The performance included inspirational messages, stories from their own lives, calls for imagination, and audience participation. They made us laugh, they made us cheer, and they made us think.

They also inspired several of our fourth graders to think more deeply about different art forms, including poetry, hip hop, and rap (which I learned many consider to be an acronym for rhythm and poetry). I am hoping to see these students explore these art forms and consider ways that they can use them to share messages they consider to be important to others.

While I had a few students who were not the greatest audience members I will readily admit that, by and large, my class behaved quite well throughout the performance. They knew when to participate and make some noise and they knew when to sit quietly and listen. It isn’t often that 9- and 10-year-old children get to go to a performance space such as the Krannert Center so I am always delighted when the opportunity arises. Also, this was a good preview for our next Krannert trip in April. I definitely know which things I need to go over with my class to help them be even more successful visitors and audience members!