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

Archive for August, 2017

Step by Step Instructions

Far too often in education, we make sweeping assumptions about what our students know and are able to do, often based on our own past experiences or our nostalgic beliefs about past experiences. As a result, we sometimes assume that students already know how to do something when, in reality, they have never been taught.

This is true for social behaviour just as much as it is for academic skills. (I have blogged recently about social behaviors several times, including here, here, and here.) I have been reflecting on the need for step by step explanations that are free of assumptions as I have begun teaching my students the fourth grade math standard of identifying and measuring angles.

It is far too easy to assume that, given a protractor, a ruler, and a worksheet with with practice problems, students will be able to quickly figure out how to use the tools they are given to accurately determine the size of an angle in degrees. What I have learned is that this is far from the truth. In past years, when I have given students protractors and a pre-assessment, I have had students construct arcs instead of angles, measure the length of one ray instead of the distance in degrees between angles, or just left the page blank with a giant question mark over it.

So this year I tried something new. I made no assumptions at all. I began the very beginning and walked my students through each step, slowly and methodically. We had a lesson on plane figures, so they knew what points and rays were, but we reviewed anyway. We constructed the angle one piece at a time: first a point. They a ray pointing in one direction. Then we examined different kinds of protractors. Then we placed the protractor on the paper with the ray pointing at 0. Then we noted the 90° mark and drew a dot on the page at the right spot. Then we used the straight-edge to construct another ray. We labeled the parts and then used a different protractor to see if we got the same measurement.

Repeat with 30°, 45°, and 180° angles. These are our benchmark angles. We know what they look like, so we know that a 135° is much larger than a right angle, so when we look at the protractor, we are looking at the bigger number, number the smaller one.

In taking students through the steps one at a time, there were still some who were confused. There were still some who didn’t quite get what we were doing. But there were many more who did get it, who understood the process, and who realised that they could use any size protractor to identify, measure, and construct angles.

And sure, there were some students who already knew how to do it. But even they were patient and took their time to make sure they didn’t make any mistakes. They also helped others, because we are a classroom community and, as a colleague is so fond of saying, a community is a group of people who work together to help each other. Step by step.

Introducing Rotations in Literacy

The first 20 days of literacy instruction in my building are set aside for helping students build stamina and establish regular routines. We also ideally begin our literacy assessments during this time so that, after the first 20 days, we can start working with small guided reading groups.

The purpose of spending the first 20 days on routines and strong work habits is so that the remaining 160 days or so of school can be spent on learning and growth. I need my students to be able to stay focused on their tasks so that I can focus on mine. If students are supposed to be reading independently while I am meeting with a small group, for example, I need to know that they will actually be reading independently. This allows me to focus my energy on working with my different groups.

To this end, I began introducing literacy rotations to our reading workshop time. I divided my students into three groups and assigned each group a specific location and task: the first group was on the carpet for independent reading; the second group was at their desks working on Front Row ELA tasks; the third group was assigned to read self-selected articles from Wonderopolis at the back of the room. Every 20 minutes we would pause and rotate so that each student had the opportunity to work at each station by the end of the literacy block.

The first 20 minutes went great! Everyone was focused and working on what they were supposed to be doing. The second 20 minutes were good, but not great: there were a few brief snippets of chatter and a few students who were getting up and walking around instead of staying focused on their tasks. The last 20 minutes were just okay: more chatter, more distractedness.

So we now have a plan for our stamina: 20 minutes, 20 minutes, and 20 minutes, with 5-minute breaks between each rotation to let students move and talk before getting back to work. (My goal is for the students to work through the block with fewer breaks, though; I am hoping I can have four rotations total, with one break at the halfway point. But we still have lots of time to build up to that.)

At the end of the literacy block, I shared a video from Flocabulary about finding the main idea of a text, which we watched twice. (I will likely use videos like this at the start of the literacy block in the future to tie in to the mini-lessons of the day, but today it was used in part to give the students time to get up and move around before we switched to the last part of our morning.)

All in all, it was a good start to using rotations in literacy. Tomorrow it will look a little bit different, but we will continue to work on building stamina and establishing routines day by day until the students can regularly and consistently maintain the focus they need to be successful in developing their literacy skills.

Restorative Practices Part II

Last week I wrote about using restorative practices in my classroom, focusing on the using of restorative circles. After missing a day of work due to an illness, I found myself reflecting today on another restorative practice: restoring the classroom to its normal way of doing things.

I was hopeful yesterday that my students would continue to do the things that they typically do on any given day. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly what happened. And so today I had to take time to restore not just our routines and procedures and expectations, I also had to take time to restore my relationships with my students.

If I am going to be an effective teacher, I need my students to know and believe two things: first, that I will always do all I can to keep them safe and second, that they can trust me to make sure their time in the classroom is used to help them learn. In other words, my job gets down to two words: safety and trust. If I don’t have those, then I can’t do anything else, no matter how brilliant my units may be or how amazing the technology tools we have are.

So I spent part of today working to restore the trust and restore the sense of safety. It meant that I had to be firm and consistent with everything I said, to take time to listen to what my students had to say to me, and to show them that I will do the things I say I will do. I also had to own my faults in the troubles that happened yesterday.

Restorative practices are not just about gimmicks; they are about truly restoring relationships so that all can succeed, both students and teachers.

Sick Day

Today was the start of the second full week of school, just the second Monday for my students, and I missed it because I came down with some awful sickness over the weekend.

While my class was hopefully eating breakfast in the classroom, I was lying on the couch, munching on saltine crackers. While my class was hopefully reading independently in 20-minute stretches, I was lying on the couch, reading Frogkisser! by Garth Nix. While my students were supposed to be learning about how to actively listen to one another, I was trying to figure out what the word “fossick” meant. (Answer: to dig around looking for something; it is still used with some regularity in Australia, which is where Mr. Nix is from.)

While my students were eating lunch, I was wondering if I could hold down a small bowl of plain oatmeal. While my students were likely listening to Wonder, I was on hold with my doctor on the phone, trying to get information about a billing statement from last June. While my students were ideally reviewing plane figures, I was taking a break from my book to watch a movie, which required considerably less movement than turning pages. While my students were probably writing letters to the principal to suggest ideas for after school clubs, I was eating jello. And while my students were preparing to go home, I was feeling grateful that the aches and pains in my body had finally subsided.

Of course, there are a lot of unknowns in that paragraph about what my students were up to today for the simple fact that I don’t know if the plans for the day were followed, either by my substitute or my students. And because this absence was unplanned, I didn’t take time beforehand to prep my class on my expectations for what my students should do when I am gone. (Hint: they should be doing the same things they do when I am there.) I also don’t know how much support our special education teachers and literacy interventionists were able to provide while I was gone. I just don’t know.

I’ll find out tomorrow morning when I get back to work. I am hopeful that my plans were followed, that my students were learning, and that we will be able to pick up tomorrow right where we ought to. But if the worst happened and none of my plans were followed, well, that’s part of life. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. In those cases, you simply evaluate the situation and move forward.


Restorative Practices

As many of you know, I earned a Master of Education degree in Educational Administration in May 2016. Over the course of the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to interview for several administrative positions throughout Illinois. It is very common for an interviewer to ask me about my approach to student discipline.

As I mentioned last April,”discipline,” to me, is not simply educator code for “punishment;” discipline is all about helping students develop self-management. As a part of this, my response to the interview question also focuses on my passion for restorative practices in the classroom. This is a concept I have been learning about for about four years, and have paid particular attention to since the passage of Illinois Senate Bill 100, which requires schools to use them to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions through the use of alternative procedures, such as restorative practices.

My school district has been using these at the middle and high school for a few years now, while I have been trying different ideas in my fourth grade classroom. Restorative practices are, simply put, focused on restoring healthy, positive relationships among students and their teachers. Some of these practices may be the Collaborative Problem Solving strategy I wrote about here, or Restorative Circles, sometimes called Classroom Circles, described here.

I facilitated my first formal restorative circle with my class this morning. Several students had been engaging in a disagreement that started with recess the day before. It turned into disruptions during their fine arts class and then spilled into the classroom. Rather than using the Office Discipline Referral form and outsourcing my authority, I had the students involved in the disagreement sit in a circle in the middle of the carpet and then had everyone else sit in a larger circle around them. As the students in the inner circle talked through the issue, they had to describe what had happened and how it made them feel. The others observed simply. One the main problem was identified, those in the other circle were able to share how the incident made them feel. Then the inner circle continued their discussion, focusing on solutions that are acceptable to all parties involved.

Restorative circles are not a quick process, but they have a much more lasting impact that traditional discipline techniques that don’t, in fact, focus so much on student-centered self-mastery and problem solving as do collaborative problem solving and restorative practices. I will continue to learn more about these practices as the year progresses, but I think we are definitely off to a great start!

Building Stamina for Workshops

I mentioned yesterday that I have organised my classroom schedule around a workshop framework for the majority of our instructional time. What I didn’t mention is that it will take quite some time before we are actually there.

For the first 20 days of school, we focus almost entirely on developing good habits in the classroom so that we students can maintain the stamina needed to work independently during the biggest chunk of each workshop period.

In reading workshop, this especially focuses on building independent reading stamina. To this end, we are tracking how many consecutive minutes the students successfully read independently. Independent reading does not mean just reading on one’s own, though. It also means staying focused on the book or text being read, staying silent so as to not distract others, and staying in one spot the entire time.

Yesterday was the first day I recorded the students’ time. They were able to successfully read independently as an entire class (meaning all 23 students were engaged in independent reading) for 8 minutes and 35 seconds. When I timed the class today, they nearly doubled that time, with an even 16 minutes. We will continue to track the time until all of the students are able to successfully maintain their reading stamina for 25 minutes every day.

Once the students have the necessary stamina, we can start moving into the other components of a workshop, especially the mini-lessons and the guided small-group instruction during the work time.

But it all starts with building independent stamina.

Introducing Inquiry Workshop

Some of you may recall that I changed my approach to scheduling instructional blocks last year to create more workshop time for learning. I don’t think I really explained what, exactly, a learning workshop is. For those who aren’t familiar, a learning workshop is an approach to teaching that has a 10-15 minute mini-lesson followed by 30-40 minutes of independent work time and concluding with a 5 minute period for students to share what they have done with the class or small groups.

I have four major workshops set up for my students’ schedule: reading workshop, writing workshop, mathing workshop (yes, I know that mathing is not a real word; I use it anyway to emphasise that math is something that we do),and inquiry workshop (which, as much as I wanted to calling inquiring workshop, sounds better as inquiry).

Inquiry workshop is the time we have set aside for units of study in science and social studies. While I haven’t started any units for either content area yet, I introduced the concept of inquiry workshop this morning by having students complete a simple prompt: what do you wonder?

Each student then shared something he or she wondered. I let the students share anything at all. Some wonders that got shared included the following:

  • Why does Mr. Valencic wear ties every day?
  •  Why is LeBron James so popular?
  • Why didn’t it get very dark during the eclipse?
  • Why do people get sick?

After students shared their wonders, I introduced a website that is dedicated to answering questions like these: Wonderopolis. I showed the students how to find articles, the features each article includes (vocabulary, comprehension check, and text-t0-speech), and how to ask questions. Students may not find the answer to every research question they have on Wonderopolis, but they will certainly be using this site to explore questions they have about the world around them!