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

Archive for August, 2016

Learning Workshops

As part of my goal to have my students’ days full of inquiry and student-centered learning instead of traditional teacher-led lessons and independent work, I have organised my daily schedule around four major workshops. With one excepting, each of these workshops is titled by a verb ending in -ing. The four workshops are as follows:

“Mathing Workshop”

I decided to use the word “mathing” instead of just “math” because I want my students to think of math as something they actively do. We are using Eureka Math in my district this year, a curriculum series designed around the Common Core State Standards by teachers, for teachers. A committee of teachers in my district selected Eureka Math among many options as our new math series (replacing the old textbooks published by Houghton-Mifflin.) As the students become more familiar with the language and format of Eureka Math, I will give the students the opportunity to do math independently, with partners, and in skills-based small groups each day. We will also be using technology through websites such as Front Row, Zearn, and XtraMath.

“Writing Workshop”

I am continuing to use the Lucy Calkins framework for Writing Workshop to help the students improve their skills as writers. Students will have short 15-minute lessons each day on a specific writing task related to narratives, essays, opinion pieces, or other writing formats. Then they will have 30 minutes to work on their own writing as I meet with students individually or in small groups. We started this today with an overview of the format and then with students doing a quick write on the topic of pie. (I learned that some of my students, like me, love pie while others absolutely hate it. All of their beginning drafts were quite passionate on the subject!)

“Reading Workshop”

Our third daily workshop is designed around the Daily 5 and the idea that students benefit from being able to read independently, read with someone, meet with the teacher in a guided reading group, and work on developing vocabulary every day. We will also have daily read alouds and will read together as a class so that they can experience the fifth daily activity, listening to reading. Right now we are working on building up stamina to read independently so that we can start implementing the other activities later over the next couple of weeks.

“Inquiry Workshop”

My last workshop focuses on general inquiry, during which the students will be learning a variety social studies and science topics. I have been able to arrange my schedule so that this can happen every single day. Our social studies topics will focus on asking (and answering) one big question: how and why are we here? The science topics will be aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards and will focus on deepening students’ understanding of the scientific inquiry and engineering design processes.

I am really excited to use this workshop model for the year! I hope that my students are just as excited!


Tabletop Gaming

I love tabletop gaming. It is something I have done throughout most of my life, starting with the most traditional of games, chess, and moving on to other classics such as Scrabble, Monopoly, Life, Connect Four, and, the game I played for hours on end at the public library with my best friend, Trouble. As I got older, I was introduced to other games that were more complex or I learned about games that I simply had never played before, such as Yahtzee, Farkle, Trivial Pursuit, and Balderdash. I jumped on the bandwagon when SceneIt came onto the, well, scene, and still own a few versions of this delightful game that incorporates video clips.

Around the time I got married, I was introduced to a card game called Killer Bunnies that started me on my ongoing passion for tabletop gaming. Along with this game (which is not nearly as violent as the name indicates), I learned about European games such as Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Dominion, and 7 Wonders. My wife and I decided to build up our game collection and have had several regular game nights with different friends and family. (Our current collection includes over 100 unique games.)

I love finding ways to share my passions with my students, which is why I spent time over the summer considering how I could incorporate tabletop gaming into my classroom. I already had some games that students could use during indoor recesses and our weekly Read, Write, Think! time (about half an hour for preferred activities that let students improve cooperation skills, strategic thinking, and problem solving strategies), and I realised this would be the perfect venue. I created a Donors Choose project that was fully funded by awesome generous donors and then I just had to wait for the games to arrive.


After they arrived, I promised the students that we would use them today during Read, Write, Think! Before letting them play the games, though, I knew I had to establish the expectations. First I did a “game talk” in which I described the basic function of the game and the rules, then I talked about the need to be careful with the cards and pieces. Later we watched some video clips that showed how to play several of the games. I also emphasised that these are games to be played in groups of at least four.


I gave the students half an hour to play today. It was awesome! They were reading the instruction booklets, helping each other set up, encouraging one another, showing good sportsmanship, and demonstrating responsibility by cleaning up and putting them all away. I was able to play one of the games with a group of boys who picked one of the more complex games. My goal is to play a different game with a different group each week. My hope is that bringing tabletop gaming into the classroom will help students unplug and connect with one another. (I am also hoping that some of them will share the games with their families at home as a new way to strengthen family relationships.)

There is so much that can be learned through playing; I am so grateful to my friends who introduced me to tabletop gaming and to my other friends and family members who have encouraged this newfound passion. And, of course, I am hugely grateful to those donors who helped purchase these new games for my students!

You can find my classroom collection here. What games would you suggest we add to our classroom library of tabletop games?

Special shout-out to two companies that have produced most of the new games I got: Gamewright and Blue Orange Games. If you are looking to start a game collection that is kid- and family-friendly, I definitely recommend them.

NOTE: Neither company was told in advance about this post, nor was I asked to promote their games.

My Homework Policy

It is funny how the Internet works.

About three years ago, I started paying attention to research on the impact of homework on student growth and learning, especially in the elementary grades. What I saw was a large body of work that determined that homework had a “net zero” impact on student achievement. That is to say, having homework did not seem to have a positive impact on students, but it didn’t have a negative impact, either. It simply had no impact.

This intrigued me, so I started looking deeper, starting with myself. Why was I assigning homework? What was my goal? What was the point? I realised that I had fallen into a trap that so many other educators fall into. I call it the Roast Beef Trap. drawn from this parable:

A young husband was helping his wife prepare a pot roast for dinner and noticed that she cut the ends off of the roast before putting it in the pan. “Why did you do that?” he asked. “What do you mean?” she responded. “Why did you cut off the ends?” he clarified. “It makes the roast taste better; everyone knows that!” she replied in amazement.

The husband thought this very odd and was determined to investigate further. A few weeks later, as luck would have it, he was at his mother-in-law’s house and he decided to ask her about. “You’d never believe what your daughter told me!” he started. “She told me that you are supposed to cut the ends of a pot roast off before putting it in a pan because it makes it taste better!” He laughed, but stopped quickly as his mother-in-law gave him a funny look. “Well, of course, you do! Everyone knows that!” she told him.

The husband was flabbergasted. He had never seen anyone else do that, but both his wife and his mother-in-law insisted it was true. He loved and respected both of them, so he admitted his surprise. “I’ve never known anyone to do that before, but your pot roasts are delicious. Where did you learn this trick?” “My mother taught me!” he learned from his wife’s mother.

Well, he did the only sensible thing. He went to visit his wife’s aged grandmother, a kind, cheerful woman who loved baking. “Grandmama,” he asked her, “both your daughter and granddaughter have told me that you taught them to cut the ends of a pot roast off before putting it in a pan and they both say that this makes the roast taste better. Your family’s pot roast recipe is delicious. I was wondering if you would tell me how you learned this trick.”

“What on earth are you talking about? I don’t cut the ends off to make it taste better! I cut the ends off because my roasting pan is too small!”

And so it is with us. We often do things because other people did them and we assume they had a good reason. Then we start to make up reasons that seem valid but aren’t based on any real evidence. So instead of giving out traditional homework simply because that is what teachers do, I started to look for ways to make homework worthwhile.

What I learned is that students benefit from reading independently each evening.

And that’s about all.

There’s no benefit from doing math worksheets or spelling worksheets. Neither type of assignment has any noticeable impact on measured student learning. Some claim that there is a benefit of learning study habits early to aid when students get to middle school and beyond, but the research shows that students who don’t receive homework until sixth grade do just as well as those who receive it from kindergarten. In fact, there is only one other rationale for sending homework that makes any sense: communication.

When I send a math sheet with my students, it gives them an opportunity to show their parents what they are learning in math at that time and it allows parents an opportunity to discuss math with their children. That’s always a positive in my book.

After learning all this, I decided to do something drastic: I did away with homework. I told students to read each day, but that’s all. No more math worksheets. No more spelling assignments. Just read.

That started off okay, but soon I had parents asking me why I wasn’t sending any homework and then they started calling my principal and asking her about it. She and I talked and we worked out a compromise. It became my official homework policy last year and seems to work well, especially once parents and students understand it. I call it the Homework Menu.

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Students always read each night, then they pick one other item on the menu to do for homework. Items include traditional math work, writing, research, physical activity, and visual or performing arts. At the end of each week, they turn in a Homework Menu Checklist to show me what they did.

And that’s all there is to it. Simple, customised, and designed to make homework less about doing something just to do it and causing a lot of stress and more about homework being a way to encourage independent learning and family communication.

Oh, and that comment at the start about the Internet? Well, it seems like a second grade teacher in Texas has similarly declared a moratorium on homework and is getting a lot of attention for it. I don’t think intended to, and she’s probably shocked that people are so surprised and encouraged by this. But I do hope she makes the most of it.

Even if I did start doing this three years ago and haven’t gotten any viral Internet attention.

Safety First

I have lots of responsibilities as a teacher, far more than “simply” teaching students. However, my number one responsibility is making sure my students are safe. I explain this to them on the first day of school and I repeat it often throughout the year. If my students are not safe, or do not feel safe, they are not going to care about what I am trying to teach them or what I expect them to learn. I take this responsibility very seriously and am often most nervous when we go to places where I cannot keep my eye on every single one of them, such as field trips and recesses. I spend most of my time in those situations scanning to watch out for everyone and listening for any signs of distress.

I was reminded of this responsibility this afternoon. Being a Wednesday, the students at Urbana Middle School were released early, and many of them walk to Wiley to pick up younger brothers and/or sisters. Parents also arrive at school shortly before our last bell in order to pick up their children. At the same time, our fourth graders are going outside for a recess toward the end of the day. (Our schedules being such that we are unable to do a recess earlier but we believe very strongly that the students should have as many opportunities to get outside and play as possible.)

Most parents gather around the big tree outside the front of the building to wait for their children. Others wait near their cars or on the sidewalk. A few of the middle school students, though, were coming onto the playground. I approached them and reminded them that the day was not yet over for our students and, in order for us to ensure the safety of our students, we asked them to wait by the tree or on the sidewalk. It isn’t that we don’t trust siblings or parents or expect anything untoward to happen. It is simply that we are responsible for our students until 3:00 pm and a caregiver picks them up, and having others on the playground with the students makes it more difficult for us to supervise.

I am grateful to the many parents and other caregivers who are respectful of me and my colleagues. We always welcome volunteers in our classrooms and elsewhere. We love when members of the community want to give of their time and talents to support our students. But we need to remember that the students’ safety comes first. Always. Which means we may have to sometimes ask someone to give us a little space and respect boundaries.

Revisiting the Basal

Basal readers get a lot of grief in education circles these days. Prepackaged curriculum that claim to meet all of the many complex requirements of teaching, with teacher’s editions that have all the answers and worksheets for everything, all meant to make teaching easier, more straightforward, and user-friendly.

Of course, anyone who has spent just one day in a classroom knows that the basal text rarely works that way. Students don’t respond the way the book says they should, their answers are so far off-base that the teacher finds himself wondering if they were even in the same room, let alone the same story, and the diverse needs of students are rarely met with the handful of worksheets that claim to be differentiated but, in reality, usually aren’t; at least, not well.

However, there is a balance to be found. There is a way that a basal reader can be used in the classroom as a way to establish baselines with students but not take over instruction. My first year teaching at Wiley, I relied on the basal heavily, mostly because I honestly didn’t know what else to do. (I still did guided reading, groups, too, but I definitely used the pre-packaged curriculum a lot.) Over the past few years, I’ve used it less and less. I don’t think I used it with my entire class once last year. This year I’ve decided to revisit this teaching tool.

My goal is to use the shorter selections as the foundation of my whole-class lessons in literacy before switching over to guided texts with smaller groups. I am also going to use the comprehension questions at the end of selections to give students more opportunities to put thinking into practice. In addition to the reading selections, I am going to use the spelling/vocabulary features with my students. I am not convinced that the spelling features are the greatest thing out there, but I am willing to try using them again in an effort to support my students’ ability to expand their vocabularies and apply understanding of parts of words and speech.

We are going to dive into our first story from the text next week. We started today with the spelling, looking at words with long a (such as gray and pain), long e (like sweet or chief), short a (like pass or scratch), and short e (such as send or smell). While this link provides far more words than the 25-word list found in the book series, it is a useful reference for seeing the kind of words that students may encounter. Unfortunately, the document is for every single selection in the basal reader, instead of being a separate document for each story.

I am hoping that I can find the right balance between using the basal reader provided by my district and using the other resources for guided literacy and specific supports for students as I get to know them better throughout the year.

A New Year & A New Plan

Hello, friends, family, colleagues, parents, administrators, and random people of the Internet! It has been a while! School has now been in session for three days and my ambitious goal to start blogging each day has clearly already hit a roadblock. I have opened up WordPress each day and I have meant to write, but then one issue or another came up and before I knew it, I had to run off to get home in order to make it to one engagement or another.

Ah, the life of a teacher.

As it is, it is now after 6 pm on a Monday, I am still at school, but I am determined to start this week off right! We’ve had an exciting three days of establishing classroom expectations, getting used to routines, and jumping into some new curricular materials. (If you haven’t heard of Eureka Math yet, go check it out–it is going to be the main tool we use when teaching math now.)

So, it is a new year. What else is new? I only have 21 students (so far) which is definitely the smallest class I have had since I started working here at Wiley. I just acquired a bunch of new tabletop style games for my classroom (more on this at a later date) thanks to generous donors on DonorsChoose. And I have changed the format of my classroom to focus on a workshop model throughout the day. Instead of “social studies” or “science” I now have a daily “Inquiry Workshop.” Instead of “math” it is “Mathing Workshop” (because math is a verb; it is something we do.) I still have a Writing Workshop but literacy, which I used to call my “Daily CAFE” is now going to be a “Reading Workshop.” I am super excited to see how using the workshop model throughout the day will increase student engagement and ownership!

Oh, and, of course, we now have elementary physical education teachers in Urbana! I was a part of the exploratory committee that recommended adding them and was so thrilled when the Board of Education approved hiring PE teachers at all of our elementary schools! Not only will our students get better PE instruction from specialists in the area, but the classroom teachers will have time to meet together and collaborate throughout the week! Huzzah!

It is going to be a great year! And now that I am done with graduate school (yes, I am now Mr. Valencic, Master of Education), I should have more time to blog, to read, and to play tabletop games. (Have I mentioned that I am an avid tabletop gamer and I plan on integrating this passion into my classroom?) But don’t worry, techy friends; I am also passionate about educational technology and that will also be a key component of my classroom instruction. Remember, I am a geek of all things!

What are you most excited about for this school year?