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

Archive for March, 2017

Tests, Drills, and Alarms

Over the years, I have found myself reflecting on the nature of tests and what they are for. A common theme is that tests are a way to prepare for when the information, the skill, or the procedure is actually needed, when it is relevant. We have tests of the Emergency Alert System on the radio and television so that we will know what to do in the case of a real emergency. We have tests that we take before receiving certification or licensure so that we can demonstrate that we actually know what to do in the job or position. We test the severe weather sirens in this area on the first Tuesday of every month so that we are conditioned to know what to do when we hear the sound. We have fire drills in schools to get us ready for what to do in the case of an actual fire.

I have also found that my students often ask, when they hear an alarm go off, “Is this for real?” My response is always the same: “Yes, the alarm is really going off. It does not matter if there is an actual fire or not. What matters is that something has triggered the alarm and that means we need to immediately exit the building and wait for further instructions.”

Today we had a chance to put the practice into action. In the early afternoon, shortly after lunch and just as we were about to start our math lesson, I heard a buzzing coming from the hallway. I immediately recognised this as the fire alarm, as did all of my students. With little prompting, they quickly stood up, walked out the door, down the hall, exited the building, and walked down to the sidewalk. I grabbed my emergency attendance folder and made sure that all of my students were accounted for.

Then we waited.

It was cold and started to drizzle. But the alarms were still going off, and so we waited. The students were, for the most part, doing exactly what they should have been doing: they stayed closed, they huddled together to keep warm, and they waited.

We were finally given directions to go to one of the churches on the corner that serve as gathering places during emergencies. The students again knew exactly what to do and even made sure the three student teachers with us knew what to do, too. After getting to the church, they sat down and waited, grateful for the warmth. Once we were given the all clear, we returned to the building and took a couple of minutes to process what had happened.

I made sure that all of the students knew that they did exactly what they were supposed to do and understood that this is why we practice the way we do. The tests prepare them for when it is “for real,” but they only knew what to do because they took the tests seriously.

Next week we start PARCC testing in our building. It is just a test. It is not life or death. It won’t determine if they advance to the next grade, if they get into college, or what jobs they get. What it does do is help them think about what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to know as they progress through school and become more active participants in our society.

Lofty ideas, for sure, but isn’t that what tests are all about, anyway?

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Back in the Saddle

Many years ago, my wife and I found ourselves without a car. During that time, I rode my bike everywhere I could as often as I could. After nearly passing out from heat exhaustion on a day when the heat index was over 90° F (32° C), I decided that was my upper limit for biking. As winter came, I also discovered that biking when the wind chill was below 20° F (-6° C) was equally a bad idea! On those days, I was fortunate to have coworkers who were kind enough to give me a ride to work. For the most part, though, as long as it wasn’t too hot, too cold, or raining, I was on my bike.

Even after we got a new (to us) car, I continued to bike as often as possible. Cycling was a great form of exercise, it saved a lot of money on automobile costs, it helped energise me in the morning, and it was fun. My students also recognised me when they saw me biking, so they knew that I was setting a good example for the physical activity that we are frequently telling students they all ought to be getting! Then I started graduate school. I still rode my bike a few times, but I quickly realised that biking home in the dark was not particularly safe, even with reflective gear and lights. So I started driving my car again.

I had wanted to get back into the (bicycle) saddle again this year, but it seemed like every day it was too hot, too cold, too wet, or too foggy, and so I was driving my car all the time. In fact, I think I rode my bike once all of the first semester and, until today, not once since then.

But I got back into the saddle again today. It wasn’t too cold, it wasn’t raining or foggy, and I knew I needed to stop making excuses. I woke up earlier than usual, got myself ready, and hopped on my bike, expecting to get to work in about 30 minutes, which is about what I used to average.

I forgot to take into account two important things: one, it has been months since I last rode my bike and two, it was a windy morning. It took me about 40 minutes to get to work, which may not seem like much, but it did mean that I didn’t give myself nearly as much time to get settled in at the start of the day.

All that being said, I am glad I am back on my bike. Graduate school was great for my mind but not so kind to my waistline. I am hoping that cycling 9-10 miles every day will bring back all of those positive outcomes that I saw back when I was biking more regularly. In the meantime, I think I ought to get up about 15 minutes earlier to give myself just a little bit more time in the morning!


An Abundance of Teachers

There is an author of young adult books, John Green, who has written several stories that have gained considerable attention in the literary world, such as The Fault in Our StarsLooking for AlaskaPaper Towns, and An Abundance of Katherines. Of these, I have only read the first, which, while a fantastic story, is not particularly well-suited to a grade school classroom. I have wanted to read Mr. Green’s other books and have them on my ever-present and ever-growing To Be Read list. Even without reading them, though, I have long been captivated by his titles.

In my classroom, my students are currently experiencing an abundance of teachers. In addition to Mr. G, who has been with us since January, we have had a team of student observers from the University of Illinois who have come once a week to observe in one of three classrooms. In order to better manage the space, we have had two in my room, two in the other fourth grade room, and one with our reading interventionist. Starting yesterday, they began a four-week placement during which they come to Wiley all day every day. The five rotate so that each of them has the opportunity to be in all of the classrooms with different combinations.

When taking into account myself, my full-time aide, tutors who come either in the morning or in the afternoon, and our special education teacher who pushes in a couple of times a day, there are times when we have at least six teachers in the room at any one time. This works out to about one teacher for every four students.

Like I said, an abundance of teachers.

Adjusting to this new arrangement has been interesting. for both the students and the teachers. However, it has also been fantastic to allow much more targeted instruction as we group and regroup throughout the day. The students are able to get support much more quickly than in the past, due to the fact that there are so adults ready to assist them in their work, answering questions, giving feedback, providing specific praise, redirecting and refocusing, and generally helping wherever and whenever needed.

It is my expectation that, with such an abundance of teachers, my students will all be able to make considerable gains as we push forward in the last quarter of the year. And, of course, we will be sad when all of our student teachers have to leave us to go on to different placements or different jobs.

But, for now, we are going to enjoy our abundance of teachers!


The Story of the American Revolution

I love teaching. I love everything about teaching. I love everything I get to teach. This passionate love for what I do and how I do it transfers to just about everything in my classroom. It also explains why nearly every new unit or topic is introduced to my students as “one of my favourite things.”

All this week, I have been teaching yes, one of my favourite topics of American history: the American Revolutionary War. I do this through a series of narrative discussions with my students. I decided to call it “Story Time with Mr. Valencic” even though it isn’t just me telling the story.

vally_frg

We actually started two weeks ago by having students reading articles on the Front Row Social Studies series about the events leading up to the war, including the French and Indian War, the Stamp Act, and the Boston Massacre. Then we moved to some of the major events of the war: the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, the Battle of Saratoga, the Battle of Yorktown, and the Articles of Confederation. These events are told through a combination of Google Slides presentations and videos. At the end of each lesson, the students compete against each other in a Kahoot! quiz to see who can get the most correct answers.

We are about halfway through the war now. I know there are so many other events we could discuss, but we are hindered by time and resources. So even though I know that there are other important events we are leaving out, I am heartened to know that my students are learning. How do I know this? Because one of my students told me on the way to lunch yesterday that she was actually learning!


Recess

Recess is a regular, time-honoured tradition in schools, although I have read disturbing reports of schools and districts eliminating recesses across the nation. As a child, recess was a break from classroom activities, an opportunity to play with friends, to swing, to slide, to run, to jump. My friends and I came up with elaborate stories we acted out while playing, starting with Star Trek stories in which we were the captains on the ships and later our own science fiction story about the USS Aerostar traveling through time in the 4th dimension. (Or was it the 7th? I’m not quite sure…) In many ways, this was our own version of live-action role-playing, although without the costumes. We connected our play to other ventures, including artwork and writing.

As a teacher, I have a somewhat different view of recess. It is still a break from classroom activities. It is still an opportunity for students to engage in play. But it is also an opportunity for them to develop pro-social skills of taking turns. Additionally, recess is a time for physical activity, to move and expend a bunch of energy.

I realised recently that my students were not doing as much of this last part as I would prefer and, as a result, many were getting “squirrelly” or “antsy” toward the end of the day. (They have a 20-minute lunch recess and a 15-minute afternoon recess each day. Our schedule doesn’t allow for a morning recess, too.) I remembered something I did all last year in the mornings (when it was nice out): having students walk or run laps around the front lawn of the school. I decided to put this into place during our afternoon recesses. Before students have free choice for play, they have to do one, two, or three laps.

The early results have been fantastic! The students are getting my physical activity, they are doing sustained, moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise, and they are able to focus more during mathing workshop. (Keep in mind, we also do a lot of moving around in the classroom, but it isn’t the same as sustained aerobic exercise!) With the increased focus at the end of the day, we have been able to conclude our core instructional activities for the day, leaving time for my students to once again have free choice at the very end of of the day.

What do you do for recesses?