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!

Second Step

One of the many things that I appreciate about living and working in Illinois is the recognition the state has that every resident deserves access to a high quality public education. It is so important, in fact, that it is written into our state constitution! (If you don’t believe me, it is right here in Article X.) Another thing I appreciate is that Illinois expects all students, as part of this high quality public education, to learn not just academic and physical skills, but also social/emotional skills–what we often refer to as social/emotional learning or just SEL.

The very first class I took in my graduate school program was on “school adjustment,” or how students adjust from life at home to life at school with, quite often, a very different set of expectations. As part of that class, I got to research different SEL programs offered to schools and learned that the one we used in Urbana, called Second Step, was one of the highest ranked programs because it is thoroughly research-based and tested across a wide cross-section of learning environments throughout not just the United States, but the world. I also learned that the edition of the program we were using was rather old and began a personal campaign to convince the Powers That Be to invest in updating to the newest version.

A year later, I was told that we would stick with the old program because it wasn’t that much different. A year after that, I was told that they were looking into it. And then, at the end of last year, I was told that we were switching over to the newest edition for the entire district. I was, of course, ecstatic, although I hadn’t even had a chance to look deeply at what the program looked like.

Today was the first time I taught a Second Step lesson with the new curriculum. The first time I noticed was that my students were actually engaged in the lesson for the full duration of it. The videos, the prompts, the discussions, and the pacing seemed important and relevant to them. I love the embedded videos, that the scenarios presented are actual fourth graders dealing with actual problems that fourth graders actually encounter, and that everything is focused on helping my students achieve, as it says on the cover of the program binder, social and academic success.

“But wait!” you cry, “You said that social/emotional learning is in addition to academic and physical skills! How does SEL lead to academic success?”

I’m so glad you asked! Students who are able to navigate the world of public education, in their interactions with peers and teachers and others, are going to be able to better navigate the world of learning about mathematics and literacy and science and history and all of that.They are deeply connected. Students who can respond to disappointment, to anger, to joy, and to boredom, and to excitement, just to name a few, in a way that doesn’t disrupt their lives are going to be able to stay in “learning mode” in a way that others will not.

And that is why social/emotional learning is so important to me. Gone are the days that we simply assume that kids who do well do so because they want to and those who don’t don’t. We recognise that our children need to learn how to do well and if they aren’t, it is because they don’t know how to do it… yet. I am so excited to see how this program works throughout the year and to see the different it makes in my students’ lives! Huge thanks to those in my district who listened to my pleas and saw the same need I saw in providing a better SEL program to all of our students!

The Great American Eclipse 2017

Many of my blog post titles over the past seven years or so have overlapped with other titles. Today’s is definitely unique in every way. (Of course, I will likely be writing a similar post in about seven years, but that is seven years from now; will blogs even be a thing by 2024?)

We had the awesome experience this afternoon of witnessing a solar eclipse; and not just any solar eclipse–this was the first full solar eclipse to pass through the continental United States from the Pacific Northwest through the Atlantic Southeast (totally not a term we use but one we ought to use). The path of totality was about 150 miles south of us, but we still got to witness an eclipse that covered about 94% of the sun and that was pretty cool!

Thanks to our fantastic district superintendent, every student and teacher in the district was given a pair of eclipse glasses so we could all watch at the same time (but not at the same place). Here are some things I learned about 94% totality:

  • 6% of the sunlight is dark enough to turn on street lights but nowhere close enough to being actual dark.
  • 6% of the sunlight definitely results in much cooler temperatures.
  • Watching the moon cover 94% of the sun leaves a pretty remarkable sliver of sunlight that is neat to watch through eclipse glasses.
  • My iPhone camera isn’t sensitive enough to pick up the moon when 6% of the sunlight is demanding attention.
  • My fourth graders still thought the eclipse was pretty cool and were excited to watch, even if they didn’t get to see the sun’s corona or the neat phenomena that accompany 100% totality.

My front-facing camera adjusted for the moon and showed the full circle of the sun.

My wife came down during the eclipse and took this picture by placing the eclipse glasses over my phone’s camera. You can see a tiny little sliver of the moon on the left, even though the eclipse was almost as total as it got in Urbana.

If I get the opportunity, I might try to travel to Carbondale, Illinois, in seven years to experience full totality. But if I can’t, I’ll still enjoy watching the eclipse wherever I may be!

(PS: I apologise for the lateness of this post; I didn’t get home until 8:45 pm and I am unable to update my blog from school due to network filter issues.)

The First Day

Today was my seventh first day at Wiley Elementary School in Urbana. I have 22 students assigned to me currently, although only 18 were in attendance today. I am expecting to have 21 in attendance on Monday (one will be absent due to a family engagement). So I am hopeful that all 22 students will be present by next Tuesday.

So, how was my seventh first day?

Well, it started out as it always does: students gathered outside by classes, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the Wiley Promise as an entire school before entering the building and getting into the classroom. The students had breakfast in the room (a program that was started last year that I never got around to blogging about), worked on all “It’s All About Me” poster, and then went to their Fine Arts class, which I believe is Drama. (The teacher does both Dance and Drama, but I can never remember which she does first, or even if she always does the same one first each year.)

We spent the remainder of the morning going over routines and procedures in the classroom until it was time for lunch, which is about 25 minutes earlier than the students ate lunch last year. (We have three lunch periods, and the students eat K/5, 1/4, and then 2/3).

After lunch we had a class meeting about expectations and then I shared one of my (many) favourite stories with the class, a simple but profoundly touching picture book called One, written by Kathrn Otoshi (which I wrote about three years ago here.) What was interesting was that several of my students were in Miss C’s class back then when I shared it, they remembered the story, and they were so excited to hear it again. (By the way, if anyone ever tells you picture books are only for little children, have them read one like this and think about the message it sends to all.)

All of the intermediate students had a brief assembly with our principal, who went over her expectations for the students this year, and then we came back and wrapped up the first day with some technology time, including a couple of Kahoot! quizzes about expectations and voice levels.

We started packing up at 2:45 pm and everyone was ready to go within ten minutes. My goal is to get the end of the day transition down to just five minutes and you know what? I think this class can do it.

So, again, how was our first day? I’ll let this picture tell you:

Our bulletin board in the hall has my class theme for the year on it. After talking to 2 parents in person  and calling the other 16 after school to tell them what an outstanding start of the year we had, I feel blessed to know that I was able to have a hand in making a lot of people smile this afternoon!

Book Review: Lost at School

I have done a lot of reading over the past three months. In fact, I am currently reading what I believe is my 20th book for the summer. I haven’t written blog posts for every book I’ve read, some because I’ve written about them before, but mostly because I tend to save my reviews for professional books and I have tried to read for more pure pleasure this summer than I have in the past.

That being said, I really do enjoy reading books related to my profession, especially when those books give me not just inspiration, but reliable strategies, techniques, or ideas that I can incorporate in the future. One of the books I recently read did just this. The sad part is that it is a book that I first placed my hands on in 2012 and has been languishing on my shelf and in my TBR pile for nearly five years. (more…)