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

Archive for March, 2016

The Sir Roger de Coverley Dance

In Urbana School District #116, we are very proud of our fine arts programming that is available for all students in all grade levels. In the elementary schools, my students are able to attend special classes for visual arts, music, drama, and dance. In addition, classroom teachers are able to arrange for arts infusion projects with the fine arts teachers, tying the classroom curriculum to the arts. I am not always able to take advantage of such infusion projects, but I was really excited to do one to go along with our social studies unit on colonial America.

I talked with our dance teacher and she was able to find out information about a traditional colonial era dance called the Sir Roger de Coverley (sometimes spelled Coverly) dance. This is a group dance that involves six pairs (traditionally male and female partners, but can easily be done with any arrangement of pairs). We modified it slightly to better accommodate our students and to keep them more actively involved.

After practicing once a week for several weeks, we had a demonstration this morning. Parents, family, and friends were invited to attend, along with our kindergarten buddies. My students demonstrated for the dance first and did an amazing job remembering all of the steps and the turns! Then they invited the audience to join in and they taught the dance to them! Several parents took videos and pictures; alas, because I was helping to prompt the students, I was unable to do either. (Any parents who were there, please feel free to upload to Google Drive and share your videos or pictures with me or burn them onto a disc!)

As I told our audience at the end, the entire thing went about 500 times better than I could have hoped for! There was so much laughter and fun and clapping and enjoyment all around! I love being able to infuse the arts into my curriculum and hope to fit in at least one more project before the end of the year. (I already have an idea in my head to discuss with our music teacher but I haven’t talked to her about it at all yet so I don’t know if we will be able to pull it off or not!)

Thank you to everyone who came out to support my students! They were so excited to see so many people there for them and they had a wonderful time teaching what they had learned to others!

How do you connect the arts to what you are doing?


What Is Technology?

For the past two years, I have been the Instructional Technology Specialist for my school. This responsibility has been in addition to my role as a classroom teacher and is just one of many additional duties that I have taken on. I applied for, was offered, and accepted the role because I am passionate about not just using technology in the classroom, but using it well. Because of this role, I test out a lot of new things in my room that I then share with others and encourage them to try out. (Of course, some of the things I have tried out have been failures and so I just drop them completely and encourage others to not use them; I don’t blog about those, though, because I really try to keep this as positive as possible.) As the Instructional Technology Specialist, I am a member of my district’s Tech Cadre and serve on the Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments task force. I am also a Grade-Level Leader and work with other grade-level leaders in the district to identify and implement best practices in technology education at the elementary level.

When it comes to technology, one of my great peeves is when others describe technology simply in terms of 21st century digital technologies; i.e., Internet-connected devices. Computers, tablets, mobile devices, interactive boards and screens, projectors, media players, and similar things are all definitely part of the large umbrella of technology. But technology is so much more than just the devices.

Illinois recently adopted the Next Generation Science Standards as the targets for what students can and should be able to do and know at different grade levels. In addition to concepts and skills about earth science, life science, and physical science, students are also taught grade-appropriate concepts about technology and engineering. A great resource the Instructional Coaches in my district have made available is the Engineering is Elementary series. The series presents a variety of engineering tasks that correlate directly to the new science standards and also pair the activities with multicultural real-world texts and applications. Each unit starts with a fundamental question to ask students:

What is technology?

Knowing how I feel about the concept of technology, it should be no surprise that I was thrilled when my students explained that technology is “anything designed or created to make a task easier to accomplish or make the world a better place.”


That definition is exactly what I want my students to understand! To help further this idea, I had them work with their seat groups to identify an item on their desks (not a Chromebook), that was an example of technology and describe what problem it solves. Some of the items identified were glasses (they help you see better), headphones (they let you listen to music without distracting others), earmuffs (they help block out extra noise), and a ruler (it helps you accurately measure different lengths).

21st century digital devices are absolutely technology and they are definitely the first things people tend to think of when they think of technology; but technology is so much more than just the device. Technology is what you use to solve a problem. Tomorrow we will discuss what role engineers play in creating and developing technology as we learning about geotechnical engineering. In the meantime, I can rest easy know that my students recognise that technology is much more than the device that connects to the Internet.

How do you define technology?

Kahooting Our Way Through the Revolution

For the past few weeks, my students have been learning all about the American Revolutionary War or the American War for Independence. Each day has featured a focus on a major player, major event, or major battle. The students have read articles, compared books, watched videos, and view multimedia presentations.

After laying the groundwork for why the Revolutionary War happened, I had hoped to cover the major battles in just one week, or five days. I know there are far more than just five “major” battles from the war, but I had hoped to get to a fun science unit this week, so I wanted to wrap up the war last week. (As it turned out, things took longer than expected and so the science unit will have to wait until after Spring Break.)

The five battles we looked at were: the Battles of Lexington & Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill (that actually took place on Breed’s Hill), the Battles of Trenton & Princeton,the Battle of Saratoga, and the Battle of Yorktown. In order to assess how well the students remembered the key facts, I chose to do quick reviews using Kahoot!. I’ve written about this online quizzing site a few times in the past (check here, here, and here), but this has been the first time I have consistently used the quizzes as part of my formal assessment of students’ learning. It has been a pretty cool experience!

I have borrowed from other teachers’ quizzes to have the foundation for mine in place but then edited them to match the information that was shared with students. I have found that the majority of my class retains their new knowledge but the quizzes have also helped me identify problem areas that need further review. Yesterday we looked at the Articles of Confederation and I thought the class had a firm understanding of the key points. But after taking the quiz, I quickly realised that we needed to spend more time on it. I found an interactive presentation on the Articles from the Colonial Williamsburg website and then we played the Kahoot! quiz again and this time the students did much, much better!

For those who may be interested, here are the links to the Revolutionary War quizzes I have used:

Lexington & Concord

Bunker Hill

Trenton & Princeton



Articles of Confederation

Tomorrow we are going to wrap up this unit by watching a movie about the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia and then we will have a week off for Spring Break!

How have you used interactive technologies to reinforce or assess understanding?


Roman Numerals

Today I found myself teaching an impromptu lesson on Roman numerals to one of my guided reading groups. It wasn’t a part of my plan at all, but I was happy to quickly change course when a student asked a question about them.

The question itself was fairly simple: she wanted to know what it meant in her book when it said “Chapter VI.” I asked if she knew what Roman numerals were and she said she did not. I asked the rest of the group and they had similar responses. So I quickly turned and pulled out one of my whiteboards and one of my few remaining Expo markers and wrote out the Roman numerals:

I = 1
V = 5
X = 10
L = 50
C = 100
D = 500
M = 1,000

Then we briefly discussed how the numerals are used to express different values. One of the students asked me what they used for zero and I explained that there wasn’t a numeral for zero. They found that very odd but then we continued discussing how to represent various numbers of greater and greater size. I would write some numbers in Arabic numerals and have them convert to the Roman numerals and other times I did the opposite. As they were looking at the numerals, one of them asked what you do when the number is greater than 1,000 and I explained that the convention was to draw a bar over the numerals and that represented “times 1,000.” Then I gave them the big challenge: 2,134,694.

After much discussion, this is what they came up with:

They read it out loud as I checked their work:
“M bar, M bar, C bar, X bar, X bar, X bar, I bar, V bar, D, C, X, C, I, V.”

A student was walking by at that moment and said, “Mr. Valencic, why are chanting a witch spell?!”

We laughed and explained that they were Roman numerals. I think the student thought we were crazy.

What a wonderful way to end a short week before parent-teacher conferences and a day of professional development!

How do you respond to unexpected questions?

The Quiet Buzz of Engaged Learning

This is a post that I have been meaning to write for a couple of days now but life has been busy and it has prevented me from updating as frequently as I had hoped. I am happy that I finally have time to blog, though, because we have had a remarkable transformation in my classroom this week!

Throughout the year, I have worked to establish a sense of time management and ownership in my classroom. I have emphasised that my students are truly responsible for their own learning. Yes, I provide the framework and yes, I am the one who is teaching, whether in whole-class or small-group settings, but I want my students to feel that they are the ones who are responsible for their time and for what they are learning on their own.

My goal has been for my students to manage themselves independently while I work with small groups. I have tried to limit the amount of time I spend standing at the front of the room, preferring instead to move around the classroom, helping students, answering questions, and probing for understanding. When I am not floating around the room, I am typically found at the back of the room at my table, working with groups of two to seven students at a time.

The challenge has been getting my students to the point that they can work independently while I am working one-on-one or with small groups. Some students have demonstrated the ability to do this quite well. Other students seem to need someone watching them constantly in order for them to stay on task. Most students, of course, are somewhere in the middle.

This week, however, I have witnessed my students staying focused and on-task for extended periods of time, both during our long math block in the morning and our longer literacy block in the afternoon. I don’t know what changed or why it changed, but I am happy to know that it has changed. I love pausing from working with small groups or individual students and looking around my classroom so that I can both see and hear the quiet buzz of engaged learning. My heart thrills when I see students helping each other, not just talking about whatever random topic has popped into their heads. I am delighted when a student raises a hand to ask a question and then, before I even get a chance to make it through the maze of desks to help the student, she has waved me away saying, “Never mind; I figured it out on my own!”

We are swiftly approaching the end of the third quarter (just six school days to go!), but I am finding myself feeling confident that we will somehow manage to do all of the things that we need to do before the end of the year hits us. And while we are running toward the finish line, I am hopeful that my students will keep on going after they leave my classroom.

As I tell students at the start of each year, my job is to help my students learn how they learn so that they can learn without me telling them what to learn.

I feel like we are getting closer to that point.

What signs do you see of active engagement around you?