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

Posts tagged “Bullying


I started reading a new book this morning at about 8 am. I finished it by 11 am. Three hours to read a 200-page book. That doesn’t happen very often for me. It has from time to time, but most books take me at least a week or so. I get distracted or hungry or tired or I just have other things to do.

I didn’t have anything to do this morning. So instead of turning on the TV and watching episodes of Parks and Recreation on Netflix while meandering through Facebook and Twitter, I decided to read. This book was recommended by my wife, who first read it several years ago but decided to read it again. Even before she finished, she told me yesterday that I needed to read it. I have a personal rule about book recommendations: when my wife says I need to read a book, I will stop whatever else I am doing and read it.

I’m glad I did.

This is not a book for fourth graders or fifth graders. It probably isn’t even a book for middle schoolers, although I could see using it with eighth graders. It is a book for every parent, every teacher, every administrator, every counselor, every aunt, every uncle, every older sibling who knows a child and knows that she or he will be going into high school. It is a book for those who notice that some children, especially when they enter high school, seem to inexplicably change and the adults who love them and want them best for them don’t know what happened or why.

It is a book for teenagers who are afraid to speak, to talk about what has happened. It is a book for those who feel trapped and don’t know how to get out. It is a book for those who don’t think anyone else understands. It is that kind of book.

Speak is the story of Melinda Sordino, a freshman at a school in Syracuse, New York, who experienced a traumatic experience a few weeks before school started. Instead of talking to her parents, her friends, anyone, she withdrew, which happens to many who experience such experiences. Her friends feel betrayed and abandon her. Her teachers are upset by her poor grades. Her parents don’t know what is going on and take their frustration out on their daughter. Melinda is as alone as you can possibly be in a building with 1,500 people. It is a tragic story, but it ends with a ray of hope.

As a teacher, this story touched me deeply. I see my young students go through wild mood swings and often never know why. I ask them, and they usually don’t say anything, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know what to say. In my three years of full-time teaching, I have students experience the death of a parent, homelessness, abject poverty, past abuse, bullying, the loss of a best friend over a silly argument, even struggles with school work because of something so simple as poor vision. Not everything is a tragedy that will leave scars, but it is a Big Deal to them and therefore it needs to be a Big Deal to me. No judgement, no anger, no blame. Just listening, compassion, kindness, help.

I spend most of my day talking. This book is a reminder that I need to spend time listening, too. So that my students can actually speak.

Stop, Walk, Talk v 2.0

Way back when I first began teaching at Wiley, I was introduced to a peer conflict resolution tool called “Stop, Walk, Talk.” I felt that it was a wonderful way for students to solve minor problems on their own and to build their own confidence in being able to respond appropriately to slight annoyances and other aggravations.

I still feel this way, but over the years I and several of my colleagues have felt that we needed to tweak the system a bit. For example, the original SWT model instructed students to tell a classmate to stop doing something and to use a universal hand gesture when doing so. Much to our consternation, this hand gesture, the American Sign Language sign for “stop”, has been used as a way to heighten conflict, rather than decrease it. My fourth grade partner and I talked about it and came up with a modification that we wanted to try with our classes this year. The building PBIS team (of which I am a part) supported this change, and so we have been piloting it in fourth grade. The process is similar, but with some key differences:

  1. Stop -When you are feeling angry, frustrated, annoyed, or know someone is pushing your “anger buttons,” stop yourself and take three deep breaths.
  2. Walk – Walk away from the situation or the person. If you are in the classroom and there is a designated space, go there. If you are in the hall, go to the end of the line. If you are on the playground, just go somewhere else. The goal is to simply remove yourself from the situation.
  3. Talk – Once you are calm and away from the situation/person, talk to yourself and make a plan to address the issue.

While these are the three formal steps of Stop, Walk, Talk, there is of course one fourth step that is crucial: Fix it! Follow your plan and ask yourself if the plan worked. If it didn’t, talk to a teacher or trusted adult and ask for help. We have told the students that they do not have to talk to a teacher or other trusted adult unless the problem persists but, of course, they are always welcome to share with us how they used their problem solving skills successfully!

As much as I appreciated the SWT model when we first started using it three years ago, I love our new version even more because it places the responsibility for dealing with minor issues on the student. I cannot make anyone else do anything. My students cannot make anyone else do anything. But I can control what I do and they can control what they do. This goes along very well with a common mantra in my room: you are responsible for you. So far this year, we have seen wonderful results from this updated version of Stop, Walk, Talk. The PBIS team will be sharing it with the rest of the staff soon and then we will most likely announce it to the entire school at our monthly Coyote College assembly before the end of the semester.

Book Review: The Midwife’s Apprentice

There are some books that I see at the library or a book store or on someone’s shelf and find myself thinking, “Hm, you know, I really ought to read that one.” I think this is especially true for the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor books. I have quite a collection of them at home and lesser collection at school, and I encourage my students to read them and try to figure out what about the book merited being “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” (or why someone thought it was worthy of it). I have not formally signed up for the Newbery Challenge, which is simply reading the full collection of Newbery Medal winners, but I have read quite a few of them.

Which is why I find myself surprised when I see a title that I’ve seen before but never read. Especially when it is a book that was published way back when I was still in middle school in 1995. One such book is The Midwife’s Apprentice” by Karen Cushman. Published in 1995, this book is a quick read that I picked up at the library a few weeks ago when I was looking for something completely different. It sat in my “To Read” pile for quite some time before I finally picked it up and started reading. Before I knew it, I had read the first third of the book in one sitting. I went to dinner at my in-laws’ last night and read more. Then I read before I went to sleep. I woke up this morning and realised that I had already read two-thirds of the book!

I have a book I keep at school to read at school, but I felt like I just had to finish The Midwife’s Apprentice first, so I tossed it in my backpack and finished reading this morning while my students were doing their own independent reading or writing. (I don’t always read when my class is, but every now and then I have the time available and I like to join with them in independent reading, especially when I don’t have to constantly remind students to get on task!)

All in all, I think it took me a total of six hours to read this book. Maybe. It could have been less. At just over 120 pages, that means I was averaging around 20 pages an hour. Not too shabby, eh?

The Midwife’s Apprentice is the story of a girl who grows up as an orphan in medieval England. She is called Brat by most people and Dung by others. Then a midwife finds her asleep in the dung heap in the barn and says she looks like a dung beetle, and so she is called Beetle. The midwife, Jane, is about to throw Beetle out of the village but Beetle offers to work in exchange for a morsel of food and a spot on the floor to sleep. And so she becomes an apprentice to the midwife.

The boys in the village taunt her and throw rocks at her, the midwife constantly belittles her and tells her she is stupid and good for nothing, and the girls in the village treat her unkindly. But then Beetle meets a man who mistakes her for a girl who could read named Alyce. Beetle is struck by the revelation that, to those who don’t know her, she looks like someone who could read. And someone who can read is not someone with a name like Brat, Dung, or Beetle. And so she takes on the name Alyce and insists on being called that by everyone.

Alyce is never allowed in the cottages when women are giving birth because Jane is afraid of her learning too much and taking away her customers, but she learns a lot about midwifery anyway. She saves a village boy from drowning and the two become friends. She helps him deliver his cows twin calves. And she suddenly finds herself helping to deliver a baby in the middle of the night while the midwife is away tending to another mother in labour.

Through a series of unfortunate events, Alyce finds herself running away from her apprenticeship with Jane and takes on a job at a local inn. She learns to read, to care for customers, to make bread and stew, and she helps shear sheep. Her self-worth increases and she finally starts to realise that she’s not as stupid as everyone always told her. My favourite part of this entire story is this one simple but profound statement: “Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean that you know nothing.”

How often are we put down by others? Friends, family, acquaintances, peers, teachers? As a teacher, it is my prime goal to follow the first rule of medicine: Do no harm. Alternatively, I feel that Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics is easily adapted to education: A teacher may not injure a student or, through inaction, allow a student to come to harm. The Midwife’s Apprentice is a great story for middle grade students and older. I don’t know if I would recommend it to my fourth graders, because there are some themes that may be a bit more mature than they are ready to grapple with, but if one of my students wanted to read this book, I would not stand in his or her way.

Book Review: Wonder

Last year I read a book that I immediately fell in love with and determined I would read to my class every year for as long as I have a class to read it to. I will admit to having a bias in favour of it ahead of time because my teacher friends online had been raving about it non-stop for months. I first read it last year and then read it to my class as our very last read aloud. Several of my students commented that they absolutely loved the story and that I just had to read it to my next class at the very start of the next year.

And yet somehow I don’t actually own this book for myself or my classroom library. Yet. (Barnes & Noble is hosting an Educator Appreciation Week in October and I will be able to get some pretty awesome discounts on books. You can bet your bottom dollar that this book is going to be the top of my list to buy!) Fortunately, our school library has a copy and I was able to snatch it up before anyone else got to it this year.

Additionally, this book is a Battle of the Books selection for this year, which means that many of my students are going to be reading it again. (Awesome!)

So, what book is this that has made such an impact on me, my teaching, and my classroom? It is, of course, Wonder by R. J. Palacio. If you have somehow missed out on catching wind of this story, here’s the book trailer that was released by Random House last year:

August Pullman is a regular ten-year-old kid. He does the same things that other regular ten-year-old kids do. But there is one thing about Auggie that is different: he was born with a genetic disorder that essentially wreaked havoc on his face. Nothing is aligned, his mouth is misshapen, his ears look like cauliflower. As it says in the book, the universe was not kind to August Pullman.

The story is told in multiple voices, introducing us to August, his best friend Jack, his sister Via, his friend Summer, his sister’s friend Via, and even Via’s boyfriend Justin. We read about August attending a school for the first time in his life. He had been homeschooled through fourth grade due to the large number of surgeries he’d had to undergo as doctor’s worked to fix some of the major problems caused by his facial deformity. Throughout the story, there is one message that is repeated over and over again. It is my theme for my own classroom, which happens to go along very well with our school theme of being brave. The message is this: Choose kind.

It is a wonderfully simple message! Taken from a quote by Dr. Dwayne W. Dyer, we are told that “when given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This quote is on the bulletin board outside my classroom, along with students personal thoughts on what it means to choose kind. Another quote shared in the book is by J.M. Barrie: “Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?” And finally, one more quote that sums up what I hope each of my students will take away from this story this year and for the rest of their lives. It is known as John Wesley’s Rule:


I know that Wonder was a bit heavy for the start of the year, but I think it really set the tone for our class. My students actually cheered for Auggie at the end of the story! We will be reading a wide variety of other stories in the coming weeks and months, but I hope that each story will allow us to return to this message of kindness over and over again.

Summer Reading V: How To Be Popular

I am very fortunate to have a large number of nephews and nieces whose ages range from 16 years to a few months. Every time I visit them, I ask for book recommendations, especially from the older ones. All of my nephews and nieces who know how to read do read and quite a bit, actually. It is great when I can get a solid recommendation out of one of them!

About a week ago, I was visiting my parents and other family members, including some of my nephews and nieces. I asked my niece, who is going into sixth grade, what books she’s read recently that I should read. She gave me two suggestions: Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha van Leer, and How To Be Popular by Meg Cabot. I immediately checked with my library and found the latter available as an eBook, so I downloaded it and read it.

After I finished, I asked my niece if she’d be interested in writing a review that I could share here. She was eager to do so. Here is what she submitted to me, with no changes other than a few typographical correction:

How to Popular by Meg Cabot is about Steph Landry, Becca and Jason. Three teenagers who are all best friends. Main character Steph is trying to be popular because of her bad reputation. In the sixth grade she spilled a big red super gulp on mega popular girl Lauren Moffat. Read the book to find more. I really liked the book and I love Meg Cabot.

Here is what I have to say about How To Be Popular by Meg Cabot:

Steph Landry is a teenage girl, dealing with the typical struggles of a teenage girl: relationships with boys, relationships with her best friends, relationships with her family, and relationships with her classmates, particularly those in the “A Crowd.” When Steph was in 6th grade, she accidentally tripped and spilled her Big Red Super Gulp on the most popular girl in school, Lauren Moffat. Lauren, rather than accepting Steph’s apology (which included buying her a new skirt), targeted Steph with an ongoing cruel prank of coining the phrase “pull a Steph Landry,” used any time a person does something really bone-headed.

Steph discovers a book in her best friend’s grandmother’s attic that teaches how to be popular. The summer before 11th grade, she uses her personal savings to buy new clothes and seeks to remake her image by joining the “A Crowd” at school. What follows is a delightful tale of self-discovery, personal worth, friendship, love, and conquering your enemies without destroying them.

Now, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but I never experienced any of the things a typical teenage girl experiences, due to the fact that I was never a teenage girl. As such, I really enjoyed this book because it gave me insights into some of the struggles that girls in my classes experience. (Even though I don’t teach teenagers, many of these “girl problems” start to form in grade school.)

A huge thank you to my niece for recommending How To Be Popular! I can hardly wait to read Between the Lines. In fact, I may make a trip to the library today to pick up a copy! In the meantime, you should make a trip to the library to read Meg Cabot’s fantastic story!

Ignoring Others

One of the common sayings my students hear from me on any given day is this: “There is a secret to life that I want you all to know: You are the only person that you can control. You can’t make anyone else do anything. You can only make you do something.” I share this every time we talk about classroom relationships. Fourth graders are wonderful children, but they are still children. That means that there are going to be many times throughout the day that one student manages to annoy another student.

Another common saying in my classroom is this: “People are annoying. Accept it, deal with it, and ignore it!” As the end of the year swiftly approaches, my students and I have been talking a lot about how to appropriately ignore other people when they do something we don’t like. I decided to really focus on this during my social & emotional learning lesson this morning. I asked the students to think to themselves about what it means to actually ignore a person, then I had them talk with a partner before they shared with the entire class. (This simple procedure is known by the term “Think, Pair, Share,” incidentally.) I was really impressed by the maturity and depth of understanding the students showed in their comments. Some of the things they shared included the following:

  • Ignoring others means that you stay focused on the task/assignment and not on the other “people” around you.
  • Ignoring others means to avoid eye contact with the person trying to distract you.
  • Ignoring others means that you walk away from a person who is trying to create drama. Walking away is not a sign of weakness or cowardice; it is a sign that you are in control of you.
  • Ignoring others means to tell a person to stop and then don’t say anything else about it to them.


After sharing their thoughts, which I wrote on the board, we shared strategies for using these ideas as we wrap up the year. My hope is that we can end the year on a positive note!

Enjoy the weekend! I’ll be attending the 39th Annual Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington!

Choose Kind

For over a year, I have been following as teacher friends and colleagues online have raved about a new book by first-time author R. J. Palacio. The book is called Wonder. It is written in the voices of several different children, including the main character, August “Auggie” Pullman.

August is a regular ten-year-old boy by most accounts: he rides his bike, he likes ice cream, he plays video games, he loves Star Wars. There’s just one thing that sets him apart from everyone else: he was born with a severe facial deformity. As a result of the dozens of surgeries he had to undergo, he was homeschooled until fifth grade. Then his parents decided it was time to send him to school.

Wonder tells the story of August’s first year in school: his friendships, his challenges, his worries, his hopes. And it tells the oh-so-important message that kindness is the most important virtue.

I’ve been eager to get my hands on a copy of this book, and I finally got my wish about a month ago. Our school librarian had acquired a copy and she let me be the first to check it out. After reading it on my own, I knew that I would have to read it to my class, as well. We started last week and have been reading each day. Today we got to the part in the story where Auggie’s English teacher introduced “Mr. Browne’s Precepts” to his fifth graders. The first precept is this: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

I wrote this on the board and repeated it several times, asking the students to think about it. Mr. Browne has his students discuss the precept and then write a brief essay about what it means. I am going to have my class do the same thing. I wish I had been able to get this book at the start of the year so that we could have started off with the challenge to “choose kind“.

Most of my students seem to have already grasped the importance of this message. One of them came to me this afternoon and said, “Mr. Valencic, I know why you are reading us this book. It is because a lot of kids in our class say mean things about each other, especially about how they look.” I suppose that is part of the reason. The bigger part, though, is that I want my students to realise that just because something is true, that doesn’t always mean that it needs to be said. When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Proud To Be Me Day

I’ve written about my “Free To Be Just Me” bulletin board a few times already this year, but we did something special today that definitely warrants sharing.

It all started three years ago with a story that took the geek world by storm. A little girl near Chicago, by the name of Katie Goldman, was in first grade and was super excited to bring her new Star Wars-themed water bottle to school. Her parents had raised her on the Star Wars saga and she was a proud sci-fi geek.

Unfortunately, she had some classmates who didn’t think it was right for a girl to like Star Wars. (I honestly have no idea how anyone who has ever watched a single one of the films could think this, but apparently there are people who do.) They teased Katie about it so much that she eventually told her mom, Carrie Goldman, that she wanted to start taking her pink water bottle to school, instead. Carrie, who writes a column for Chicago Now, a major blogging site for all things related to Chicago. When Carrie found out why her daughter didn’t want to use her beloved Star Wars water bottle anymore, she turned to her blog as a venue to vent her frustrations with the bullying her first grader was experiencing.

The story was picked up by a lot of people, including Jen Yates of the geek girl blog Epbot. Jen asked for the geeks of the Internet, especially those who were fellow Star Wars geek girls, to let the world know that this kind of bullying, and, really, any kind of bullying, was not acceptable. The reaction was amazing! There were over 3,000 comments of Jen’s post, which were all put together in a 552-page book for Katie!

In the process of all this, the geeks of the world decided to make a special day to celebrate their love of Star Wars, sci-fi, and all things geek. And thus Wear Star Wars/Share Star Wars Day began. People all over the world proudly wore their geeky clothing to school or work and joined in solidarity with Katie. (There was even a catchphrase that developed: May the Force be with Katie.) Then they took it one step further: they donated Star Wars toys to children’s hospitals, shelters, homes, etc. and made sure to make a note that these toys were for boys or girls.

A year later they did it all again, and Katie’s school decided it was a great idea, but they wanted it to be more inclusive, so her principal declared it Proud To Be Me Day. And the students and teachers responded in a wonderfully positive way. And Katie has been able to proudly share her love of Star Wars with all of her friends.

This year was the third annual Wear Star Wars/Share Star Wars/Proud To Be Me Day. And I finally had time to plan for it. I talked to some of my colleagues, especially the other fourth grade teacher I work with. She loved the idea. So I told my students this story and invited all of them to wear something today that showcased their geekiness. (Remember, a geek is someone who is passionate about what he or she loves and loves what he or she is passionate about, and fourth graders are nothing if not passionate!) Then I shared this with the other fourth grade class. They all agreed it would be an awesome thing to do!

So today we all showed off who we are! Some wore Star Wars clothes, some wore Doctor Who clothes (including me), some were just being silly, but everyone was there to say “I’m me and that’s okay!”

One of our teachers has a panorama feature on her camera, so we were able to get an awesome picture of our fourth graders!


Wherever you are, whatever you love, I hope that you will be able to share it with your friends, family, and coworkers. And Katie, if you see this, know that you still have lots of friends who support you!

Displaying Confidence

Today was the end of our very short week in our school. We had a spelling test in the morning and did some work in math on using rounding to estimate sums of greater numbers.

But the highlight of the day was surely the end, when my mother-in-law, a fourth grade teacher in a school from a neighbouring school district, and her son, a junior in high school, came to visit my classroom. My mother-in-law is a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and her son is a second-degree black belt. (Both have received all of their training through Newberry’s Leaders for Life Martial Arts in Champaign.) Their district had no school today, and so she asked if I’d be interested in having them come to my class this afternoon to share some training in avoid peer relational aggression (what is sometimes referred to as “bullying”), self-defense, and self-confidence.

Since the other visitors to our classroom had been received so well, I thought it would be a great way to wrap up the week before the Thanksgiving holiday break. When I introduced them to my class, one of my students immediately said, “You always bring your family members in!” I pointed out that this was only the second time that I have done so, as opposed to the many other guests we have had.

The presentation started off with a discussion of why some people choose to pick on others, and how most people who get picked on are perceived as being “weaker” than the others. They talked about the need to display confidence by walking straight, with shoulders back and head up. Then they talked about how important it is to ignore others who are trying to engage them in conflict. I appreciated hearing this, because it is the same message I share with my students on a daily basis and I think they benefit from hearing it from someone who doesn’t work in our building!

The first part of the presentation wrapped up with strategies for avoiding conflicts and how to tell a responsible adult when conflicts do arise. My mother-in-law offered the same steps that we use in our building: tell the person to stop, walk away, and then tell an adult if the problem persists. She added to this the importance of showing confidence when doing so.

Of course, the students wanted to learn about ways to defend themselves when there is no adult to go to. After having them all promise to never use the things she would teach them on friends or family when playing around, she showed some moves to stop a person who is grabbing your arm. Then she and her son talked about self-defense strategies that involved taking advantage of the “soft spots” on a person’s body. They stressed that these should only be used as a last resort. I trust that all of my student’s will follow the rules that they were given.

At the very end, my mother-in-law and her son demonstrated some of their martial arts skills, such as using nunchaku, some pretty awesome kicking, and the first form they have to learn for their black belts. I took a video of this last. I love how very quiet and respectful my class was the entire time! The silence seemed to be a hushed awe and what they were doing.

At the very end, I gave the students time to ask questions. Several were curious to know how long it for my mother-in-law and her son to earn their black belts. (Answer: 18 and 22 months). Others wanted to know how they can learn Tae Kwon Do. (Answer: Contact Newberry’s and remember that it does cost money.) Surprisingly, no one asked any questions of my wife, who happened to be there the entire time, although she didn’t contribute anything specifically to the presentation. She just came because

Post-Election Day

My students are, hopefully, getting used to the idea that I do a lot more than just teach fourth grade. I am a volunteer drug prevention specialist. I am a Webelos den leader. I am a Boy Scout merit badge counselor for eight different merit badges. I am a trumpet player and I sing in my church choir. And I am an election judge for our county. Of all of these, this last was the most important yesterday, since yesterday was the General Election throughout the United States of America.

I spent a lot of time last week preparing my class for my absence yesterday. I talked about my role as an election judge and we talked about elections and voting and politics and why it is all so important to our nation, our state, and even our local community. Even after all this, some students wanted to know why I was gone yesterday. However, others answered before I got a chance, explaining that I am an election judge.

My day yesterday started at 4:00 am when I woke up. By 5:00 am, I was at my assigned precinct, ready to set up the polling place with my fellow judges. At 6:00 am we announced the polls were open. Voters came in a slow but steady stream all day. We averaged about ten voters per hour most of the day, but things picked up enough by the end that we had a total of 185 of the 335 registered voters for our precinct come in. Not too shabby, if you ask me! While I was assisting registered voters with the election, my students were working with a substitute teacher in the morning and then with one of our Title I support teachers in the afternoon. (For a variety of reasons, they were unable to find a sub for me for the entire day.) All of my students had an opportunity to participate in a mock election in the school.

Students went home at 3:00 pm, and I still had about seven hours of my day left. I get paid to work an election, but the day is still awfully long!

When I returned to school this morning, I organized materials, read through notes, and got ready for the day. Then I learned something a bit disappointing: after the mock election, there were some students in my class who were teased for selecting one candidate when their friends had selected another. I have invested a lot of time in the classroom to teaching my students about respecting others’ differences and even valuing the diversity we have in our classroom, our school, our community, our state, our nation, and our world. I didn’t want these reports of teasing to go without any response, but I also didn’t want to emphasise the negative. Instead, I wanted my students to reflect on the positives of our differences.

I talked to them about our “Free To Be Just Me!” bulletin board and helped them reflect on what that means. We discussed how we can encourage others and be kind, even when disagreeing. Then my principal came in and shared more about this. We talked about the idea of debating issues without resorting to name-calling and meanness. She spoke of what it means to argue without being argumentative, to disagree without being disagreeable. By the end, I think that my students were starting to grasp the ideas. We know that there are people around us who don’t do those things; people are are mean-spirited, negative, argumentative, and disagreeable. But we also know that we must be the change we want to see in the world. I love working with young people because I see in them the potential to change the world for the better simply by being better people. The future is theirs to shape and mold. I would like to think that I will be a positive influence in this process. I won’t tell them what to do or how to do it, most of the time, but I will guide them toward the goals we share for promoting equality, justice, freedom, and liberty. Not sameness, though. Equality doesn’t mean being the same; it means having the same opportunity to excel without being put down for being different. I have full confidence that the young people of the world really will make the changes we need. It may take a while, but this is a very long game, indeed. We’re not going to give up just because the road is long and hard.

Making Connections

I love it when my students suddenly make connections between different areas of study in our classroom! The sequence of events in which these connections today took place caught me completely off guard, too!

It started with our Second Step lesson this morning. We were discussing ways to resolve conflicts. I had the students brainstorm ideas how they could solve problems without fighting or creating drama. Some of the ideas they suggested were walking away, doing something else, talking with an adult, and trying to work together. As we talked about these suggestions, we discussed five basic steps that anyone should follow when trying to solve a problem:

  1. Ask, what is the problem?
  2. Ask, what are some possible solutions?
  3. Ask, is the solution: safe? fair? will it work?
  4.  Try a solution!
  5. Ask, did it work?

When I brought up step three, I used as an example those who try to solve problems through violence. I asked if that happens, and many students tried to say it doesn’t. (Unfortunately, they were giving me the answer they thought I wanted to hear, which was not at all what I wanted!) So I asked the students to raise their hands if they have ever seen anyone get in a fight. Everyone raised their hands. I pointed out that that is exactly what happens when someone tries to solve a problem through violence.

I shared with the entire class some advice I gave to a group of students a couple of weeks ago who were dealing with another student creating conflict during recess. I told them that they need to take charge of the situation by walking away and telling the person causing problems, “You have no power over me! I am in charge of my life!” Walking away is not a sign of cowardice; it is a sign of empowerment.

Later in the day, I was reading from A Wrinkle in Time. There is a scene in the story where Charles Wallace has turned himself over to the Prime Coordinator. In an effort to break him free, Calvin tackles him to the ground, but to no avail. Shortly after, Meg suggests that Calvin tries talking to Charles Wallace instead, because he has the gift of communication. As I got to this point, one of my students raised his hand and observed that that was exactly what we had talked about this morning! This led to a brief conversation in the room about how many stories, movies, and TV shows depict people trying to solve problems through violence instead of communicating, but it is often communication that works best.

Like I said, I love when my students make connections! Especially when they are connections to things we have studied or discussed earlier!

Fourth Grade Red Fish Society

Earlier this week, my awesome grade-level partner and I decided, somewhat on a whim, and mostly through her doing, to start something new with our fourth grade classes to try to help propel them into a higher level of social and emotional learning, thinking, and behaving. We have struggled throughout year with helping our students really just learn how to get along in social settings. Not just within the classroom but within the grade level and even within the building. After a particularly trying period of time, we both felt we needed to do something to help our students realise they needed to get over their differences and start working together.

In addition, we wanted a way to recognise the awesome contributions that so many in the classes have been making to this end. After all, it is rarely a majority, or even a large plurality, of students who cause most of the unwanted drama. (For those long-time readers with excellent recall, I actually reflected on this nearly a year and a half ago when placing student behaviour on a bell curve.) The majority of students are those who want to be at school so that they can learn, grow, and become better at what they want to do.

With less than a month left of school, we felt it was time to make a change and, as Michael Jackson so wonderfully put it, if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.

So first I made a change within myself. I’m probably going to slip up, because I’m not perfect, but I am going to make a conscious effort to change how I approach what my students do in my classroom. I am going to acknowledge those who are doing what they are supposed to do, and do it in a way that is more than just saying thank you and pointing out what they are doing. I need to be able to reward them for their efforts.

But we also needed the fourth grade students to also take a look at themselves and decide to make a change. It all started with Swimmy, the little fish who taught his friends, who were all little red fish, how to work together and overcome obstacles. After reading the story, we led the class in a brief discussion about how they are stronger when they work together and we wrote down their ideas. Then we asked them to think about what they could do to make this change. After another brief discussion, this is what they came up with:

  • I will encourage others and never give up on my fourth grade family.
  • I will listen to others and value what they have to say and what they can do.
  • I will put aside differences and be a friend to all.

Finally, we told the class that we would be giving them the opportunity to track their behaviour each day and then, at the end of each week, those students who have been living up to this simple creed would be invited to participate in a celebration with one of us while the other students would be invited to do work with the other teacher. The successful students would be a part of the Fourth Grade Red Fish Society. We have a bulletin board outside my classroom with the Red Fish Society creed, the story of Swimmy, a copy of the students’ behaviour chart, and a large red fish made of small red circles with each fourth grade student’s name written on one. (In the story, Swimmy is a little black fish who leads the way so, of course, my awesome grade-level partner and I are the eye of the fish.)

We started this project on Tuesday, and set a goal for the students. The celebration was to be able to participate in an extended afternoon recess. I am glad to report that every student in the fourth grade was able to participate in our very first Red Fish Society celebration. Of course, next week we will be upping the stakes for participating in the celebration, but I think that this is going to be a wonderful way to propel everyone upward and onward toward the end of the year.

Stop Walk Talk

I am pretty certain that I have mentioned a couple of times that our school has started to implement a new conflict resolution program called “Stop Walk Talk.” It is, at its root, a method of helping students learn how to resolve problems on their own, rather than running to their teachers every time a conflict arises.

We began the formal implementation of Stop Walk Talk with my class yesterday when my grade level partner came in and explained it to my students. However, none of them really began using it until today, when I took time this afternoon to model it with my class.

This actually happened because there were a couple of incidents that necessitated the need, but I was glad to use the students involved in the modelling. Stop Walk Talk works like this:

If a student is being bothered by another person, the student simply says to that person, in a firm voice, “Stop.” No yelling, screaming, fighting, or threatening. They simply tell the other person to stop the behaviour. Then the student needs to walk away. This is so important.

I talked to some of my students about what they would do if they were walking down a dark alley and they saw someone threatening approach them. I asked, “Would you walk to the threatening person, or would you run away?” Of course they would run away. With Stop Walk Talk, it is the same idea. After telling someone who is bothering you to stop, you need to walk away from the person. This may be as simple as walking to a different part of the classroom, or it may mean leaving the room or going across the playground. As long as they leave. The goal is that saying. “Stop!” and then walking away will take care of the problem.

However, if the other person doesn’t stop, or follows and does it again, then comes the talk part. Our students are being taught that they should talk to a teacher or another adult about the problem. Any time a student approaches a teacher to talk about a conflict, the first questions the teacher asks will always be the same: “Did you tell him/her to stop? Did you  walk away?” If the answer to either question is, “No,” then the teachers should respond by saying, “If you didn’t say, ‘Stop,’ and you didn’t walk, then why on earth are coming to me to talk?” I emphasise the words stop, walk, and talk when I say this in order to remind them of the program.

We modeled this a couple of times in the room, and I was happy that my principal was there to help out. I had two students work together then I walked over and started poking one. He told me to stop and then walked away with his friend. I followed and kept poking, so they told the principal what I was doing. Her response was to remind us of the expectations to be respectful and to keep our hands to ourselves.

Then I did the same thing with another pair of students, except that I stopped when they told me to. I also talked about when someone is doing something that is simply annoying, like tapping pencils, clicking pens, or talking to myself. I told them that they need to tell someone to stop each time something like that happens, and then they can walk away or, if it is something minor and the person stops, they can just continue to work.

Immediately after this discussion, we were walking down the hall to art and I saw one student use this when another boy was following him too closely. I am hoping that it will continue to be used and that it will help our class deal with the various conflicts that arise from time to time!

Casual Fridays

Today was Friday. Several things happened today that were different from any other day, not just so far this year, but in my entire professional teaching experience.

For one, we had a school-wide assembly that required me, as a teacher, to stand in front of all the students and, donning sunglasses, strike a pose while a “school is cool” rap of some sort or another was played. (The students all seemed to love this. I couldn’t really tell due to the wearing of sunglasses indoors.)

For another, I was wearing jeans. And a t-shirt. And sneakers.

It was weird. I’ve worn jeans to school twice before this during my time as a substitute. Once was when I was only going to be in a building for two hours at the end of the day, and most of that time was when the students were in the library. The other was on one of the days that people all over the nation wore jeans as part of a fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Both times, though, I wore a button-down shirt or an argyle sweater to maintain a more business-casual appearance.

All of the faculty and staff at my school were wearing the same shirts, though. It was part of the school’s SWAT program to help students learn about conflict resolution. (That’s a big hint there, for the students reading, as to what the SWAT thing is all about, by the way!) Our shirts were red camouflage with the Wiley Coyote on the front and the SWAT theme on the back: “Stop Walk Talk.” (Another hint for the students who are supposed to be trying to learn what Stop Walk Talk is all about: try Googling the phrase!)

I loved the reactions of my students when I collected them at the front door in the morning. One student’s jaw had dropped open and she just gaped at me without saying anything. Another said, “Mr. Valencic… what are you wearing?!” Another wanted to know why all of the teachers were wearing t-shirts. I just said, “You’ll see…” and left it at that. It was quite interesting to observe their confusion over seeing teachers wearing “normal” clothes while at school.

Later in the day, one of my students noticed that my black shoes were sneakers, not the usual shiny black dress shoes that I’ve worn most of the year. She asked why I wasn’t wearing my shiny shoes, and I explained that those are not the kind of shoes one wears with jeans. This led to a brief discussion about the different kinds of shoes that people wear: sneakers, tennis shoes, basketball shoes, running shoes, walking shoes, sandals, flip-flops, high heels, flats, etc. I feel like I should capitalise on this discussion. Maybe I will blend it into next week’s reading about the Titanic… I bet I can do it!

Supposedly, Friday is a casual day at work anyway, but I haven’t dressed casually yet. I made a commitment back when I was a student teacher at Clara Peterson Elementary School in Paxton that I would always dress professionally: slacks, dress shirt, tie, and dress shoes. I have held myself to the standard for the most part. The only time I will not be seen wearing my professional attire is when we have our school assemblies, because all of the teachers will be wearing our SWAT shirts on those days. There will probably also be days when we wear our UEA shirts (yes, I am a member of the teacher’s union), and other such shirts, but otherwise, my students can expect to see me wear any one of the hundreds of ties I own.

Well, have a great weekend, folks! Monday is Labor Day here in the United States of America, so I won’t be working; instead, my wife and I will be spending the day in Arthur, Illinois, with friends, enjoying the annual Amish Country Cheese Festival. If you happen to be there and you see us, be sure to say hi!


Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. As the substitute for my mother-in-law, I spent the day trying to keep out of the way of the student teacher, who has one more week to go before her full take-over in the classroom is over and her supervising teacher can resume teaching (at least part of the time). I have to admit: it is hard to do that.

Especially when there are students in the classroom who don’t understand the weight of their poor choices.

Especially especially when those poor choices lead to bullying of others.

Much like my Internet friend Edna Lee, I hate bullying. In fact, I do not hesitate to say that there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can possibly happen in a classroom that makes me more furious than when I see or even hear about bullying. And it isn’t just because I was bullied throughout my public education career, although that is surely a part of it. It is because the very idea that there are young people who think it is acceptable to insult, harass, tear down, mock, and/or physically injure someone who is thought to be “weaker” than they are makes me sick. It is inexcusable on every level. It makes me boil inside to hear someone say, “Oh, they are just being boys” or “Oh, you know, boys will be boys” or “Oh, it is just a phase–she’ll grow out of it” or “I don’t see why you are so upset; after all, this has been happening for decades. It is a part of growing up.”

I am going to say right now that that is the biggest load of nonsensical crap that I have ever heard in my life. And if you happen to be someone who has said those words in your life, I hope you’ll stop to think about what you are saying, and I hope you’ll erase the phrases from your vocabulary. Bullying is never acceptable. It is never a part of growing up. It is never a rite of passage. It is mean, it is spiteful, and it is evil.

The worst part of it is that, as a substitute teacher, I rarely recognise bullying, because I am not around the students nearly long enough to catch what they are doing. Most bullying is not done in front of teachers, and it isn’t done in an ostentatious way. But every now and I then I am around long enough to realise what it going on. And then the brakes are hit, fast and hard. There is absolutely no tolerance in Mr. Valencic’s classroom for bullying.

So this morning the students were starting a chemistry lesson when some student said something to someone else. I honestly did not hear it, but the student teacher did. And she did exactly what was needed: she slammed the brakes and she put a stop to it. She had already been planning a minilesson on bullying for the afternoon, but it got bumped up to the beginning of the day right quick. She talked to the class about expectations and about the problem with bullying, even when it is just what the students think of as “harmless name-calling.” I remember growing up and hearing kids repeat this idiotic adage time and again: “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I am so glad to see signs that counter it. My personal adaptation is this: “Sticks and stones may break the bones, but words will crush the spirit.”

The university supervisor was there this morning to observe the student teacher and she even jumped in with some comments about bullying. (For those who may not know, university supervisors almost never say anything to anyone other than the teachers in the room.) She pointed out to the class that bullying is illegal; it is harassment, and they can go to jail for it. (Technically, Illinois only has laws requiring all schools to have anti-bullying policies as outlined by the State. Unless I am misreading the law, there is currently no criminal penalty for bullying, although there are penalties for harassment, which is the umbrella crime under which bullying would fall.) She also informed the students that there is a case in Urbana right now in which several students have been arrested in response to a severe case of bullying.

Will the bullying in the classroom stop? Maybe not. Will the teachers and administrators make a much more concerted effort to respond swiftly and appropriately to all claims of bullying? I think they will. In the meantime, I hope and pray that parents all over the nation will do everything they can to support to anti-bullying policies in schools and actively work toward teaching their children appropriate behaviour toward one another.

(And yes, I did have to be more involved as the day went on, just so that there was an extra pair of eyes keeping watch for inappropriate behaviour.)