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

Archive for January, 2017

Inquiry Experiments

Elementary teachers in Urbana spent a considerable amount of time last school year exploring concepts surrounding inquiry. We talked about the different types of inquiry, such as structured, guided, and open. One of the goals we set as a staff across the district was to use more inquiry focus in our science instruction; to get students away from textbooks, articles, and videos and into actually creating, doing, and discussing as they explored concepts.

Some of the concepts that fourth graders are supposed to learn and understand don’t lend themselves very well to inquiry of this sort. Understanding that energy is transferred through waves, for example, is challenging to teach through hands-on inquiry lessons. Understanding that weathering and erosion can and do change land formations, on the other hand, is quite fun to teach through open inquiry!

We did this as a short three-week unit in my classroom that started before Winter Break and finished today. For the first two weeks, the students did a lot of reading, researched concepts, and watched videos that introduced these concepts. We wrapped up this week with one of the most open approaches to guided inquiry I have ever used.

I provided the students with a variety of materials, such as sand, gravel, plastic containers, and water, then told them that they were to work in small groups to plan, design, build, and demonstrate a model that would show the effects of weathering and/or erosion. I gave no directions on how to do this, nor did I tell students what I expected. My only requirement was that they found a way to show how weathering breaks up rocks and soil and/or that erosion moves rocks and soil to a new location.

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After making their plans earlier in the week, today was the day to actually build and demonstrate. It was so much fun watching and listening as they all worked together in their groups. Yes, they made a huge mess. Yes, there were hands stained green and red from the food dye that they randomly discovered and decided to use. And yes, there was a lot of talking and laughing and bumping into each other. But the students also all worked together as a class to clean up afterwards, to get the spilled water and the wet sand cleaned up and properly disposed of so that our room was once again a clean place to work and learn together.

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We let the models rest during lunch and then the groups did their demonstrations in the afternoon. We had models of mountains, hills, and canyons with demonstrations of rain fall, floods, and rock slides. The students gathered around and listened to one another and made observations about how water could cause both weathering (breaking things up) and erosion (carrying them away). They encouraged one another and helped clean up after the demonstrations.

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All in all, it was a fantastic end to our first week back after the Winter Break! We are going to move into a new social studies unit on Monday and I am really excited about the possibilities we have before us, but I am so pleased that my students were able to so confidently demonstrate their learning. They were especially excited when one of the fifth grade teachers came in and they were able to explain to her what they were doing!

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The Power of Silence

Teachers talk. A lot. Surprisingly, there are no classes in university programs that prepare prospective teachers for this. I never had a single class on how to develop and use my “teacher voice.” But I don’t think anyone goes into the education profession expecting to spend their time in quiet rooms with limited talking. Maybe it is from our own experiences that we just know that it is part of the job.

I love talking to my students but, more importantly, I love talking with my students. They have such great ideas, unique experiences, and clever wit. We can talk about life and learning and hobbies and interests and we can go from making jokes to identifying deep thoughts within a few minutes. Maybe this is why my main teaching style is discussion. I lead discussions often, whether for mathing or reading or inquiry. I believe it gives students an opportunity to express their own ideas and take risks when they do so.

Teachers also talk when they are guiding students in their behaviour. I make a point to praise positive behaviour, to acknowledge it when I see it. But I also use my voice to correct inappropriate behaviour. I try to do so with as little fanfare as possible. One of my favourite phrases to describe correcting student behaviour is to use a “matter of fact voice.” Yes, there are times when I need to increase my volume simply to be heard over the regular noise of the classroom, but I try to make sure I am not speaking out of anger.

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However, there are definitely times when it is time to stop talking. When the noise of students gets too loud, it can be tempting to raise my voice to be louder. I have learned, though, that silence can speak much more clearly than volume can. Silence will get students’ attention more effectively that shouting, yelling, or screaming ever will.

Today I had one of those moments. As we approached the end of the day, I realised several of my students were getting off track and were losing their focus. It came to a head when I released students to work with partners on a math problem and chaos broke out. I immediately signaled my class with my chimes, sent them to their seats, and then waited in silence. It took a long time, much longer than I would have wished, but it was necessary. Once the entire class was refocused, I was able to speak softly and lead a discussion of what students were supposed to be doing, what had been happening, and how we could fix it moving forward. We will continue this conversation tomorrow morning, setting a goal as a class for improved behaviour that will create a better, safer, learning environment.

How do you harness the power of silence in your life?


Switching It Up

My class schedule has been fairly consistent through the year. Students knew what we were going to do throughout the day each day because I made a point to make sure we kept it that way. But as we approached the end of the semester, I knew it was time to switch it up a bit.

At the same time, my fourth grade partner and I wanted to try a new approach to guided reading / reading workshop. We put all of our students’ literacy data into a spreadsheet, organised them by different criteria and created new groups that combined students from both classrooms. We ended up wth nine groups. She takes four of them and I take the remaining five. We decided to place our literacy block in the morning after our specials (fine arts, library, and/or physical education), moving mathematics to the afternoon.

Today was the second day with this new schedule. Not only did I switch my mathing and reading workshops, I also switched students. The transition has been remarkably smooth so far! The students have readily accepted this new format and are excited to be with some of their friends from the other classroom for part of the day each day. We will be periodically reviewing the data we are collecting to see what changes should be made to groups and changing groups to allow us both to work with all of the students throughout the semester.

Having mathing workshop in the afternoon has also been an interesting change. I feel like we are not quite as pressed for time, even though we are using the same amount of time as we have before. The students seem to appreciate having a different pacing for the day. We will still be doing our inquiry workshop in the morning, too, of course, but mathing in the afternoon allows more flexibility and it means the entire afternoon is not just literacy.

All in all, I am liking how we have switched things up. Of course, this was just day two, but I am nothing if not eternally optimistic about the future!


Student Teachers

One of the great benefits of working in Urbana is having a wonderful relationship with the major universities near us, specifically the University of Illinois (right here in Urbana and Champaign), Illinois State University (about 45 minutes northwest of us), and Eastern Illinois University (about 45 minutes south of us). I have been able to have guests from the universities come to my classroom for a variety of reasons, but one of the best is for student teachers to do their placements in my classroom.

We had two student teachers in our classroom last semester, Ms. N and Mr. L. They were with us throughout the semester, although they were only in the room for early field experience. This means that, instead of being in the classroom all day every day, they came in for mornings or afternoons twice a week. My class loved having them here and I greatly appreciated their support! From the very beginning, they jumped in and got to know the students and willingly worked with small groups. They have both moved on to new placements, but I am confident that they will be fantastic additions to any building’s teaching staff!

This semester I will actually have several student teachers in my room. Mr G is from Eastern Illinois University and will be with us all day every day for sixteen weeks. Today was his first day and he spent most of the morning observing the organised chaos that is my classroom. In the afternoon, though, he jumped right in to working with students as they reviewed math from last semester.

Additionally, I will be sharing a team of five students teachers from U of I with the other fourth grade teacher and the reading interventionist who works with our classes. We haven’t met them yet, so I am not sure what their schedules will be, but I am super excited to welcome them to my classroom as well!


2017 Reading Challenge

Last year I came across a reading challenge from the folks at WeAreTeachers.com. I had hoped to attempt the challenge, but graduate school, life, and my own To Be Read pile got in the way. I had shared the challenge on Facebook so it popped up again in my feed (thank you, Facebook memories feature!) and I decided to try it again. Here’s the challenge:

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So even though it is now 2017, I am going to undertake the WeAreTeachers 2016 Reading Challenge. I am also going to challenge my students to take on this challenge, albeit with a few slight changes. (Instead of spouse or partner, it will be parent or other family member.) To help my students keep track of their reading challenge, they will use an online resource, Whooo’s Reading, to record the books they’ve read and write responses about what they read.

Of course, there are only 12 books on this list, and I plan on reading considerably more than one book a month. So the supplementary part of my personal reading goal for 2017 is to at least five books from each of the following genres:

  • Autobiography/Biography
  • Classic Literature
  • Fantasy
  • Graphic Novel
  • Historical Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Nonfiction (not related to education)
  • Picture Book
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Science Fiction

None of the books I read for the WeAreTeachers challenge can be counted toward the genre challenge, so I am setting a goal to read a total of 62 books in 2017! (According to my Goodreads account, I read 50 books in 2016, so this is going to be a bit of a stretch goal for me.) Parents, family, and friends are all welcome to join us in our reading challenge!

What will you read this year?