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


Staring at a Blank Page

I have a confession to make: the reason I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I used doesn’t actually have all that much to do with time constraints, although graduate school definitely did contribute to the issue. I haven’t been in graduate classes in 11 months, and yet I still haven’t been blogging all that much.

No, the reason is much simpler: I have spent too much time staring at blank pages and simply walking away from the computer.

I have been blogging for over six years. I love talking about education. I love sharing what I do and why I do it. I have been fortunate to have so many amazing experiences over the years, whether it was attending conferences and workshops, presenting to colleagues, leading professional development, reading phenomenal books, collaborating with other teachers and, of course, simply teaching in the classroom every day.

And yet I’ve been in a slump all year long that I just don’t seem to be able to break out of. I feel like so many of the things that we are doing in my classroom are things I have already blogged about. I have a constant fear that my blog has become stale and uninteresting. After all this time, I still don’t know who actually reads these posts. I certainly don’t get that many views and I get even fewer comments.

Of course, I don’t blog for the page views or the comments. In fact, I blog for myself: to give myself an outlet for reflecting on my professional practice and to keep a record of positive events in the classroom. But somehow I find myself opening a new blog post page and then… nothing.

Just a blank page.

So what should I do? What do I write about when I have nothing to write about? What I have been doing is walking away, thinking I might have something else to write about later. But, clearly, that hasn’t been happening. That’s how it has been a couple of days since my last post.

So today I decided a new strategy. I was staring at a blank page for a few minutes and then I just started writing. I wasn’t worried about the topic, nor was I worried about what others might think about my stream-of-consciousness blogging. Instead, I just started typing.

And this is what happened. Four hundred words later and I haven’t really said anything about my classroom or my day, but I have written about what I do when I find myself staring at a blank page.

Just write.

I feel like I have heard that advice before.

Oh, that’s right, I have.

From me.

When my students tell me they don’t know what to write about them, I tell them to not worry about it and just start writing. The most important audience we ever write for is ourselves. Then we eventually think that someone else might want to read what we wrote. I suppose it is time I start taking my own advice. Instead of thinking, “I have nothing to write about that others want to read,” I need to start thinking, “I need to just start writing and let the ideas flow together.”

The funny thing is that, about 200 words ago, I realised that there were things I could write about regarding my classroom and my day, but now that I have committed nearly 600 words to this topic of dealing with writer’s block, I feel like it would be silly to delete it all to write about something completely different. Instead, I will save the idea for Monday.

What do you do when you run into writer’s block?

One Thousand

On October 14, 2010, I started a new blog which I somewhat randomly called “Adventures in Substituting.” It was started because some of my friends had no idea what a substitute teacher actually did, even though all of them had experienced having a substitute for at least one teacher at least once in their school experiences. (The blog then became “Adventures in Teaching Fourth” when I got hired to work at Wiley.)

That first blog post was entitled Why I Teach, which was based on a paper/short essay I wrote for an early college class. While you can click on the link to read the entire post, here is an excerpt that still rings as true today as it did 2,365 days ago when I first published it online:

Rainer Maria Rilke, an author of the early 1900s, published a series of letters he wrote to Franz Kappus, an aspiring poet who wanted Rilke’s advice and approval of his work. The work is aptly and simply entitled, “Letters To A Young Poet.” In the very beginning, Rilke suggests to his young friend that the only way to know if he [Kappus] would know if he was to be a poet or not would be to examine himself in the middle of the night and see if there is anything else he can think of doing other than writing poetry.

Although Rilke’s advice was offered in the context of writing, I have found that it has many applications in my own vocational goals. I have often asked myself, “What do I want to do with my life?” When I wake up in the morning, I know that answer. I want to teach. I cannot think of doing anything else with my life. A student once asked me why I wasn’t a lawyer, or a doctor. I responded, “Because I am a teacher.” It seemed self-evident to me that that was what I would be, because it is what I was (and still am today).

Teaching is so much more than presenting information from a textbook. It is also more than creating a classroom that is open to diversity, although these are both important aspects of it. The best descriptions of teaching I know comes from a movie I saw some time ago: “A teacher has two jobs. To fill young minds with knowledge, yes. But also to act as a compass to give those minds direction.” The true teacher is one who guides students to a personal, life-long quest for knowledge, so that some day the student can, as Elbert Hubbard once observed, “get along without his teacher.” To “get along” is to be able to learn, to appreciate, and to understand the changing world in which we live, and it is my hope to be a part of that process.

That is why I teach.

In the nearly six and a half years since then, I have blogged about my experiences teaching at all grade levels and in dozens of schools across East Central Illinois as a substitute teacher, about my experiences as a fourth grade teacher for almost six of those years (my substituting career actually started two years before I started blogging), things I have learned at conferences and workshops, books I have read, and memoirs and introspectives related to my career, my vocation, my calling, my passion. I have tried to keep each post unique but there have certainly been times when I wrote about something and then a year later wrote about it again.

Each experience has been valuable and important in its own unique way. I know that my blogging frequency has decreased rapidly over the past two years. I used to blog every day I worked (as a substitute), and then I blogged every school day (plus some extra). My frequency started to decrease during grad school when, instead of taking time to write about my reflections for the day, I would use the time after work and before class to read assignments, write assignments, or work on projects. I felt like I was in a rut this year, with my blogging, and so I gave myself permission to not write every day, which turned into sometimes a month or more without a post.

But I have never stopped reflecting, pondering, and evaluating my day. I have never stopped worrying about my students, about my colleagues, about my district, about the public education system in general. I ask what I can do to make things better, not as a comparison to others but as an internal comparison. I ask myself the same three questions I frequently ask my students: what worked well? what didn’t? what can I do better next time?

And now, at the conclusion of my 1000th blog post about my adventures in teaching, my answer to Rifka’s question is still the same: I am a teacher because there is nothing else I can ever imagine myself doing, whether that teaching is of 23 fourth graders in a classroom or 40 adults in a building. It is what I do because it is what I am.

Adventures in Annual State Testing

Comprehensive summative assessment. End of year testing. High stakes testing. Annual state testing. ITBS. ISAT. ACT. SAT. PSAE. PARCC. The combination of alphabet soup names and education policy jargon all point to the same thing: it is that time of year when I put several things on hold so that my students can sit through hours of assessments meant to show, theoretically, how well I am teaching and how well they are learning.

Of course, the reality is that one test could not possibly demonstrate that. One test is not enough to tell anyone anything meaningful about a single individual or even a single class. However, that one test can give a picture of trends over time when looking at large data pools, such as every 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade student in over a dozen states.

All that being said, I actually find annual assessment of students valuable for what it does, but I definitely agree with many researchers that there are better ways to do it. This post, however, is not about the value or merits of annual high-stakes testing. At present, it is a part of my job as a fourth grade teacher and it is something I will do my best to help my students do their best by teaching them all I can to help them be successful.

Once we get in the testing environment, though, I am not allowed to do much more than say, “Just do your best!” That doesn’t mean that they don’t try getting help. Which is why the following scenarios have taken place over the past couple of days:

Teacher (in classroom): Remember, you will have 60 minutes to complete the unit, so take your time, check your work, and do your best! Once we go into the computer lab, I’ll have a script to read and then you will get started.
*class goes into computer lab*
Teacher (before test starts): You will have 60 minutes. I will tell you when you have 10 minutes remaining. You may begin.
*ten minutes later*
Student: Done!
Teacher: …

Student: I don’t know how to do this.
Teacher: I can’t help you; just do your best!
Student: But I need help!
Teacher: I can’t help you; just do your best!
Student: But I really don’t know what to do!
Teacher: I can’t help you; just do your best!
Student: Okay.
*five seconds later*
Student: I need help!
Teacher: …

Teacher: Do not hit “Exit Test” until I tell you to do so.
*three seconds later*
Student: Oops…
Teacher: …

Student: It won’t let me write my answer here!
Teacher: Read the directions again.
Student: Oh. I didn’t do that.
Teacher: …

What adventures await us tomorrow? Only time will tell!

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?

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.


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!