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

Fourth Grade

Teaching Students to THINK

Students in fourth grade talk. A lot. And because they talk a lot, they say a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have read a few books by Dr. Tony Wagner, an educator who has focused his research on the skills or competencies students need to survive and thrive in the 21st century, and the seven he has identified are: problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, analysing information, and curiosity. (This is very much a simplification of his findings, but if you are interested in knowing more, I recommend his books The Global Achievement GapCreating Innovators, and Most Likely to Succeed.) All of these survival skills connect to communicating with others, though, so it would make sense that, as students enter the middle grades (4-8) and really start developing these skills, that they are going to spend a lot of time talking to and with each other.

But because they are in the early stages of learning how to do these things, it also means that they spend much more time saying things that they ought not to say than I, their other teachers, or the classmates, would prefer. Today was one of those days where the opportunity to teach students to THINK before they speak presented itself and I took full advantage of the moment.

Many teachers, and others, I would hope, are familiar with this concept. Before saying something, you should ask yourself five simple questions:

 

Now, I certainly did not come up with this acronym, nor did I make the image. (I tried to find an original source for it, but failed in my efforts.) And there are some variations on it, but this is the one I prefer.

Far too often, my students justify a comment they make by arguing that what they said is true. I don’t disagree with them. However, I do ask them to consider further if the comment is helpful to our learning community and, if so, how. I then ask if it is important to say it right then and there. This is slightly different from being necessary, which may need to be said, but not at that moment. And I end by asking if it is kind. When presented with these questions, students will  often recognise that while what they said was true, it usually wasn’t helpful, important, necessary, or kind.

Now, to be honest, there are still some students who say things that are hurtful or unimportant or unnecessary or unkind anyway and will try to justify it to themselves and others but, most of the time, they will acknowledge that the comments were not appropriate for that setting and will apologise to their classmates and/or teachers.

That is part of learning how to do something. We try, we make mistakes, we change, and we try something new. Sometimes we try the same thing several times before finally admitting that it isn’t working. But we never give up on ourselves or others; that’s what being a community of learners is all about, and that’s why learning how to THINK before we speak is so very important.

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Resisting the Status Quo

The status quo is such an interesting concept. On the one hand, innovation that results in changes for the better is key to successful teaching. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. On the other hand, there are certain things that are done because they are tried, tested, and effective. The goal, for me, is to find the balance between doing what has been known to work and making changes that will result in improved outcomes.

For those who have been reading my blog, it should be no surprise that this year has been a year for me to resist the status quo when it comes to responding to student behaviour, whether desired or not. I have been reading and researching effective systems of classroom management, especially when it comes to restorative practices, and it has become increasingly apparent to me that doing what teachers have always done is resulting in the same outcomes that we have always seen, despite sincere efforts to change.

I expected some push-back as I began to make changes in my classroom management approach. I knew that there would be people who would prefer I use the traditional approaches because they are familiar. But I’ll be honest: I expected the most push-back to come from colleagues who might have felt like I was implying that what they have been doing is wrong and from parents who very often don’t like big changes in how teachers do things. I was wrong on both assumptions. While many of my colleagues are not yet ready to jump into restorative practices, many are testing them out and seeing how things work for me. Most parents have been very supportive, especially as I have been open and honest about why I am doing what I am doing.

Instead, the push-back has been coming from my students, who still don’t understand why I don’t just call their parents in the middle of class, send students to the principal’s office, take away recesses or other privileges, or suspend them for acting out. Even though they can articulate my reasoning (these practices don’t result in changed behaviour and often result in increased challenges), they don’t really understand that we have to be willing to do something else.

Often what I hear from students is accusations that I don’t do anything. This isn’t true; it is just that what I do isn’t always obvious to everyone. But that is kind of the point. The traditional approaches often incorporate very public punishments: things that are, at their root, intended to shame students into correct behaviour. However, there are very few instances when such an approach actually has the desired outcome. And so I am using approaches that, in many ways, are similar to the Boy Scouts of America’s EDGE method of teaching: I explain, I demonstrate, I guide, and I enable. My goal is always to teach my students the self-discipline to be active agents in making better choices.

This is a lofty goal, I know. But I also know that my students are very capable of rising to the challenge. It may take a long time to unlearn the expectations of the past, but it will happen. I know it. Some of them know it. Eventually I hope that all of them will know it.

In the meantime, I will continue to resist the status quo. I will resist the urge to give in to the pressure and resort to old methods that haven’t worked for me and, more importantly, haven’t worked for them.


Multiplication Mondays

I suppose I should start by pointing out that I meant to write this yesterday, but the day got busier than anticipated, which is why you get it today, instead. Of course, I suppose I should also acknowledge that I still, even after all this time, have no idea how many people actually read my blog, nor how many read my posts as they go up. (To those reading this in the future, I am writing this on a Tuesday.)

My students are about to start module 3 in the Eureka Math program (their fourth module because I started the year with module 4 and then jumped back to 1). This unit is all about the multiplication and division of multi-digit whole numbers. We could have started the unit yesterday, but I wanted to take some time to establish a firm foundation of basic multiplication facts before moving into the actual arithmetic.

To accomplish this, I introduced a new (to them) part of our weekly schedule: Multiplication Mondays. Every Monday, before we get into our regular math lessons, each student will complete an online 20-question multiplication quiz that I found during my first year of teaching here at Wiley. Each quiz is randomly generated, which means that no two students will have the same questions in the same place. For the first quiz, I gave the students as much time as they needed. For the second quiz (this coming Monday), they will have three minutes. Every Monday after that, the students will have just one minute to answer the 20 questions.

Why just one minute? Several of my students still rely on alternative strategies to figure out single-digit multiplication facts, whether it is using a times table chart, counting on fingers, or drawing a picture. None of these strategies are bad or wrong; they are just time consuming! I want my students to be able to quickly recall these basic facts so that they can more successfully solve complex problems.

The goal, of course, is not to focus on rote memorisation. The goal is for students to have a solid foundation of basic facts that they can apply in multiple settings. For example, if a student has a problem that requires multiple steps and mixed operations (a real-to-life scenario that we as adults regularly encounter when shopping and trying to determine how many items to buy, how much they will cost in all, and whether or not we have enough money to purchase them), I do not want him or her to get bogged down in the basic fact computation and forget the actual problem! Automaticity of basic math facts, then, is one of the few instances for which memorisation is key.

For the rest of this week, the students will continue to practice their multiplication facts, working on improving both speed and fluency. We will dive into the actual math module next Monday. Then we will have about ten days to work before we have a two-week winter break and then back to it in January. Module 3 is one of the longest we have this year, so we will be working on it until probably February.


A River Runs Through It

There is a movie I have seen more times that I count that was one of my dad’s favourites, probably because it was about fishing and about a father’s relationships with his sons. (It didn’t seem to matter that the type of fishing was fly fishing, which is something my dad never, to my knowledge, did.) The movie is A River Runs Through It and it is a favourite of mine because it was a favourite of my dad’s.

There is one scene that has always stuck with me. It is when Paul is working on writing an essay for his father. Here is a clip with that scene:

What I love about these scene with the writing is that the father doesn’t care about the actual final product. What he cares about is his son taking time to write well, which involves writing, revising, editing, and rewriting until the piece is clean and polished. Paul gets frustrated at times but he perseveres in making corrections until the work is satisfactory. (And, of course, once it is, he is able to go off to do something he considers much more fun, namely, fishing with his brother!)

I was thinking about this movie this afternoon as my students were doing a math review assignment. I gave them five addition problems, five subtraction problems, and five problems that required rounding to the nearest hundred or thousand. Students were given the option of working on their own or working with a partner. As they completed the assignment, they would bring it to me check. If there were errors, I would mark which ones and then send them back to make corrections.

Some students completed the entire assignment the first time without errors. They voluntarily sought out those who were experiencing challenges and helped by explaining (not doing for them). Others needed to make corrections several times. All students were given as much time as they needed to successfully complete the assignment. Once they completed, they were permitted to either help others or use their Chromebooks to do more math on Front Row, Zearn, or Prodigy.

What I found amazing was that not a single student complained if sent back to make corrections. Nobody complained that it wasn’t fair that some got to use Chromebooks for longer than others. All students focused on doing the work they needed to do without worrying about what others were doing.

I’ve mentioned before that my goal for this year is to have a peaceful classroom that is a community of learners helping one another. Some days are better than others. But I can honestly say that this afternoon during Mathing Workshop was a time when I felt so proud of my students because they were working together, helping each other, and contributing to a peaceful classroom.

As we go on a five-day break for Thanksgiving, I am grateful today for the opportunity to work with these wonderful fourth graders who constantly challenge me to be a better teacher!


Take Time to Breathe and Refocus

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the 85th Annual Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (aka the Joint Annual Conference). While there, I attended sessions on school culture, restorative practices, arts integration, and leadership. I also got to spend time talking to school vendors about products and services that might be beneficial to my building. My wife and I attended the conference as a guest of the school district I attended growing up because my mother in on the school board. (This was our fifth time attending in as many years.)

I will be writing up some blog posts to share over the break with notes and reflections on some of the specific workshops I attended. Today I wanted to share one common theme I heard through the conference, not just from presenters and vendors but also from the school leaders I was able to chat with. It is the idea of taking time to breathe and refocus.

This year has been a great year. It really has. It isn’t because I have fewer students than in the previous six years (although that is true). And it isn’t because I have written far fewer office referrals than in the past (although also true). It is because I have been able to really engage my students in restorative practices that have shifted the mindset of misbehaviour –> punishment to misbhaviour –> opportunity to learn from mistakes and fix the problem.

It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t worked all the time, but it has been different and it has had positive results. This afternoon during some math review, it became apparent that many students were getting off task. Instead of the traditional, often default, response of calling the office and sending students out of the room, I called a class meeting, gathered the students to the carpet, and we had a class discussion using the principles of a restorative circle. The responses from students were illuminating. Many acknowledged that members of the class was talking, off-task, and being disrespectful to others. But they also identified changes that would lead to a more focused, more peaceful classroom. They shared insights that I wasn’t aware of and made suggestions that I would not have thought of.

We took time to breathe and refocus and it changed the direction things were going in the classroom for the rest of the day. Instead of chaos and frustration, we had peace and calm but, more important, learning and engagement. It wasn’t 100% perfect. I don’t expect it to be. But it was better.

I am glad I was able to go to this conference and be reminded of the need to use this simple strategy in my life and in my classroom. Tomorrow is the last day of school before our five-day Thanksgiving Break, and then we have three weeks and two days before the Winter Break. During this time, I fully intend on integrating more times to take time to breathe and refocus.

After all, as one presenter asked, “If nobody is listening, is anyone actually learning?” I’d rather have the next eighteen days of school be days of learning instead of days of just talking. It starts with breathing and refocusing.


Authentic Choices

“Authentic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education, much like “meaningful,” “reflective,” and “engaging.” Some educators, unfortunately, use these words as a way of playing a game. As a result, I try very hard to make sure that I don’t throw “eduspeak” around just to say it; I think often about the counsel to say what you mean and mean what you say. So when I talk about “authentic choices,” I mean giving students options that are both real and acceptable. (This is likely a topic I have written about before, but my computer’s battery is about to die so I don’t have time to search for it.)

I used to give students many different choices at once, but I discovered rather quickly that there were too many options and students were easily overloaded. So, instead, I usually limit the choices to just two. I make sure that they are options that both the students will find want to select and I am okay with them selecting because they all result in students learning. Sometimes these options relate to selecting a book for a guided reading group. Sometimes it is whether we are going to work on writing first and then math, or math first and then writing. Sometimes the choice is whether to do read to self with lights on or off, or music playing or not.

The point isn’t to have life-changing or mind-blowing choices. It is simply to give the students choice and to make sure they know that they are the ones deciding. I always tell them how many choices they have and that either option is completely acceptable to me. What I don’t do is give them false choices, such as choosing between reading at their desks or having a detention after school. Using language like that does nothing more than lead to student distrust and resentment.

Authentic choices definitely improve the culture of the classroom as students recognise that they have a say in what they do. (Obviously, there are times when I cannot give them choices, such as if they have to do a state-mandated assessment or we have to be at one of our special classes at a specific time.) But whenever possible, I try to give students choices so that they can experience making decisions and observing what happens as a result of those choices.


The Peaceful Classroom

As it may be apparent from the majority of my blog posts this academic year, I have been focusing a lot on positive social skills that promote restorative practices and changes to my classroom management approach that will help students be more successful members of a community of learners. One phrase that has often come to mind has been that of the peaceful classroom. (If you have the time and are interested in going down a rabbit hole of articles and suggested books, just Google that phrase and check out any one of the 30,500,000 results that appear in 0.54 seconds! Two I found particularly relevant were this blog post and this PDF. )

What is the peaceful classroom? While there are many different ideas about the nuts and bolts of it, I think all can agree that the peaceful classroom is both one where others feel peace and also promote peace. I will be honest and admit that this is still a lofty goal for me; Room 31 is not the epitome of the peaceful classroom yet.

That “yet” is an important caveat, though. We have had moments of peace throughout each day; today I saw a particularly astounding example, which is what I am going to focus on for the rest of this particular post.

During Reading Workshop, many of my students seemed to momentarily forgot our mutually designed expectations for literacy rotations (stay in assigned spot, use appropriate voice levels, respect others by letting them work without distraction, and work the entire time). When our reading workshop block ended, I realised that we didn’t have enough time to start a new task, but, at the same time, there was still a large enough chunk of time remaining before lunch that we needed to do something worthwhile.

I led a brief discussion with students about how well the class had done at meeting the expectations they had established for literacy and they concluded that only about half of the students were fully focused and attentive on their tasks as expected. I observed that I knew that my students could successfully do this, and I knew that they knew this, but they had forgotten. I then suggested that everyone in the classroom read independently for fifteen minutes. I emphasised that “everyone” included both myself and my student teacher.

I turned off half of the lights in the classroom and allowed the natural light streaming through the windows do its job of providing illumination. As soon as every student was reading, I started the timer and sat down and began reading, as well. What happened next has not happened since my second year of teaching. For fifteen minutes, every single person in the room was reading to him- or herself. When the timer went off, nearly every student quietly sighed and asked if we could continue; I gratefully obliged.

When we finished, and just before going to lunch, I asked the students to think about how they felt right then. Words I heard included calm, relaxed, happy, and peaceful. I observed that much of the tension in the room had gone away and that it seemed like everyone felt comfortable and at peace and asked the students to think about how they could keep that going through the rest of the day.

That didn’t happen.

After lunch, some students were agitated about a disagreement during recess, others were agitated about wanting drinks or needing to use the restroom, and others were just not ready to stay fully on task for the afternoon. But we are still working on it and I am confident that my students can indeed learn the skills necessary to be peacemakers and positive contributors to a community of learners. It starts with the desire to do so and builds from there.

I am grateful that today we saw a brief glimpse of this truth and I hope that we can indeed build from here to becoming a truly peaceful classroom.