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

Posts tagged “Day Off

Mid-Year Reflection

Many teachers are familiar with the concept of a mid-year reflection. For those who aren’t, it is exactly what it sounds like: an opportunity for the teacher, roughly half-way through the school year, to look back and what has been working, what hasn’t, and what changes need to be made before the second half of the year starts. For some teachers, this is a requirement of their professional evaluation. For others, this is something that they do on their own. I am a part of the latter group, which, honestly, is likely not a suprise to anyone.

I am writing this sitting in the lobby/breakfast area of an economy hotel about an hour south of Cleveland, Ohio. My wife and I traveled with her dad to visit family in Chagrin Falls and are now heading back home. It is snowy and cold, although not as snowy as it is in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I have extended family buried under more than five feet of snow (yes, friends outside the United States, that is over 1.5 m!), nor is it as cold as it is in Washington, Illinois, where my mother and two of my siblings live. Still, it is cold and it is snowy.

Why do I mention the weather conditions as they compare to other places? Well, I feel like it is an apt metaphor for my mid-year reflection. Far too often, we compare ourselves and our surroundings to others, either to point out how it could be worse or better. But, really, does it matter? What we are going through right now is still what we are going through right now. My challenges are still challenges, even if they aren’t as great as someone else’s challenges, or even my own challenges from a year ago. So as I look back at the first half of the school year, I am going to make an effort to not worry about whether things are better or worse than last year, nor whether or not they are better or worse than the things my coworkers may be experiencing. Instead, I want to focus on what has been happening in my classroom now.

I am using a tool, briefly mentioned above, as I do this reflection. I learned about it years ago from Michael Brandwein, a leadership training speaker who came to the Illinois Teen Institute (now known as the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute). The tool is called Awareness of Process and it consists of three simple yet important questions: What’s working? What’s not? What will I do differently? As I answer these questions, I use a three-two-one approach in answering. Three things that are working, two things that are not, and one thing I will do differently. This helps me stay focused on the positives while realistically setting goals for how to improve.

What’s working in my classroom this year?

My students are working, that’s for sure! Mathematics, reading, writing, inquiring, engaging, growing, thinking. All of these things are going on. And I am working, too! Planning and leading lessons, guiding students, reading, writing, mathematics, inquiring, engaging, growing, thinking. Yes, my students and I are doing many things together and we are working as we do it.

Restorative practices are working… for most. The majority of my blog posts this year have been connected to the restorative practices we are using. I have written far fewer office referrals this year than I have in the past because I am finding different ways to respond to students’ undesirable behaviours and to coach them in peacefully resolving conflicts so that they can stay in the classroom and stay with their peers.

Tabletop gaming has been working well. This seems like a strange thing, but, seriously, the more I watch how my students interact with one another as they play games, the more I am glad that I was able to acquire these games in the first place. (Thank you, once again, amazing contributors to my Donors Choose project!) Through tabletop gaming, my students are developing cooperative problem solving skills, using peaceful conflict resolution, and learning to take turns, to listen to others, to be encouraging, and to be responsible in using materials in a way that others can enjoy later.

What’s not working for us this year?

Technology management. This has been a huge stumbling block for us. In the past, teachers have had access to web-based software that would let us monitor students’ use of Chromebooks while we were doing other things. This meant that I could have group of students in one corner of the room reading articles online, another group of students in a different corner doing math practice, another group in a different corner writing narratives or essays, another group in a fourth corner expanding their vocabulary, all while I am meeting with a small group or an individual student, but I could monitor what everyone was doing in real time and put into place controls as needed. Due to a host of decisions made by others, we have not had access to this software this year, nor were we given a replacement. As a result, my students have not always been diligent in doing what they were supposed to be doing when using Chromebooks and I have not been as effective as I could be in monitoring them because I needed to do more important things, such as work with a small group or an individual student.

Another thing not working has been how my students have interacted with other teachers in our building, especially our fine arts teachers and our librarian. Somehow the positive behaviours we have been trying so hard to hold one another accountable to are not transferring to working with other teachers. Far too often, the reports I get from these specialists are full of concerns about disrespect, irresponsibility, and unsafe actions. It is frustrating for me because while my students are not 100% perfect, I know they can do better and I haven’t figured out why it is that they aren’t. (This is, of course, speaking of my class broadly and not of individual students, some of whom do an amazing job working with every teacher they have everywhere. The issue is that they are a much smaller percentage of my class than I would like.)

What will I do differently?

I can’t change the decisions made by the district technology team regarding device management, so I will have to keep on trying to solve that problem in a different way, but that isn’t going to be my focus going into the second half of the school year. No, my focus is definitely going to be on how my students interact with other teachers. Specifically, I am going to find ways to bring those teachers into our classroom so that they can develop better, healthier, relationships with the students. Our librarian is an amazing researcher. I will invite her to our classroom to help our students work on research projects and engage in the grand work of inquiry. I will invite our fine arts teachers to our room to help bring the arts to our classroom activities. The goal is for students to get to know these teachers better so that they can build stronger relationships of trust and respect. Hopefully this will result in fewer problems when they are with other teachers. If it doesn’t, well, we will try something else. But if there is one thing I have learned over the years of my teaching, it is that doing something is better than doing nothing!

With just a few days of our winter break remaining, I am going to spend most of my time with family and friends, playing games, watching movies, reading books, taking naps, and trying my hardest to not think about all of the undone work in my classroom, such as my messy desk or my unorganised bookshelves!

Book Review: Words Kids Need to Hear

Several months ago, a coworker was weeding her library collection at home and emailed all of her coworkers asking if anyone would be interested in them. These books included many genres: special education, general education, classroom management, parenting, general fiction, general nonfiction, and others that I am not recalling. As an avowed bibliophile, I jumped at the chance to expand my personal library and requested a few of her selections. One of the books I claimed was called Words Kids Need to Hear. While published under the category of Religion/Christian Life, I quickly found that there was very little, with the exception of a Christian scriptural reference here or there, that was specifically religious. In fact, I would argue that this book is very much just about parenting in general and how parents (and other adults responsible for children, such as teachers) speak to the children in their care.

I grabbed this book off my shelf before heading out of town for a trip to visit family in Ohio. I had another book I was about to finish so I thought this book would be a something to read as time permitted as we traveled. As it turned out, I was able to finish my other book fairly early into the trip and then read all of Mr. Staal’s book in the time it took to travel from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. So, while I have been left without a book to read (the horrors for an avid such as myself are real), I am glad I read this book as it gave me several important reminders about what I say to my students (and my nephews and nieces and Cub Scouts) and how I say it.

The seven specific phrases or words that Mr. Staal suggests kids need to hear are not a secret (they are listed on the back cover of the book) nor are they earth-shattering (they are words that we have hopefully all used from time to time). They are still very important, which is why we ought to be more diligent in saying them more often.  What are these words? They are as follows:

  • I believe in you
  • You can count on me
  • I treasure (or value/appreciate) you
  • I’m sorry, please forgive me
  • Because
  • No
  • I love you

Each phrase is deservedly given its own chapter, which is broken down into chunk of what the words are, why they matter, and what can happen if they are overused. This last part I found particularly useful as I know I am guilty of overzealously using words and phrases. (Even if my blogging, I have to remind myself to limit my use of the words “however,” “unfortunately,” and “fortunately.”) For the purposes of this review, I am going to touch briefly on each phrase.

“I believe in you.” How often do the children in our lives hear this from the adults they trust? Do we encourage them without doing it for them? Do we mean it when we say it? I hope that all of my students know that I believe in them and believe that they can achieve the goals they set. I hope that they will let me into the worlds enough to let me help them in their efforts. This connects directly to the next phrase: you can count on me. I value my integrity above any other character trait. If I say I am going to do something, I will make every effort to do it. I don’t want anyone to ever brush off a commitment I make.

I am reminded of an experience I had several years ago when I first took over the leadership of my Cub Scout pack. Each year, Boy Scout units have to recharter their unit (pack or troop). The recharter is usually due the 15th of January. When I took on the responsibilities of leading my pack, I was new to everything and, as a result, our recharter packet didn’t get turned in until March. When I went to the Scout Office to turn everything in and apologise for the tardiness, I was told, “Oh, that’s okay; we are used to your unit being late.” Ouch! I promised right there and then that we would never turn in our recharter packet late again. Four years later, and that promise has been kept. (We are working on our current recharter and are on track to having it turned in shortly after the start of the year.)

I am going to jump out of order because I think the fourth phrase fits better right after the second: I’m sorry, please forgive me. We are all imperfect; we all make mistakes. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I am unable to fulfill a commitment. It is easy to come up with excuses for why this happened. It is easy to justify failing to follow through. It is a lot harder to own up to the mistake and ask for forgiveness without any qualifiers or justifications. As Mr. Staal observes, “Oh, how strong the temptation feels to continue speaking after the word ‘me’ in ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me.’ But be warned: the potency of an apology diminishes with every syllable that follows.” If I want my students to be sincere in their apologies, they need to hear models of sincere apologies from their teachers just as much as they need to hear them from their peers.

I know many adults whose justifications for why they want children to do something is “I’m the adult; I said so.” As a child, this was terribly unsatisfying. Knowing why helped me accept things I didn’t want to do. “Clean your room!” “Why?” “Because a clean room allows you to be safe and healthy and it is easier to work or play in.” “Oh, that makes sense.” Or how about an example from a school setting? “We need to be quiet as we walk down the halls because there are 250 other students in this building who are also learning and we don’t want to distract them as we go past their classrooms.” “I need you to sit down at your desk because we are doing a restroom and drink break and I can’t tell who has come back already if you are not where you are supposed to be.” Yes, it takes longer to explain why. Yes, there are instances when we don’t have time to explain everything, but if we have the time, we ought to do it!

Explaining why often helps children understand why we say no, which is another word kids need to hear. Sometimes we are afraid that the children in our lives will stop liking or loving us if we tell them no. I don’t think we could be any further from the truth. We all need to hear the word “no” from time to time. Whether that is “No, you can’t drive through this intersection right now, there are people walking in it” or “No, you can’t go into the theatre yet, there are still people in there from the last show,” being told no is a part of life. If that “no” is coupled with an explanation, even better! When children know that they can count on you to do what is best and they are used to you giving them explanations, they will likely be more willing to accept a no.

The third and seventh phrases, to me, go hand-in-hand. Do the children in our lives know that they are loved and valued? Do they know that your love for them is not predicated on their obedience or compliance? How often do we tell them, not just in our deeds but also with our words, that they are loved and that they are treasured?

One thing I plan on doing before school resumes on January 3 is write a card for each of my students to express my appreciation for them. Each card will be individualised and will speak of specific things I have seen from them that help them know that they are valuable and beloved members of our classroom community. Will it make a difference? I don’t know; that isn’t the point. The point is only to tell them that there teacher loves and values them. Also, that I believe in them, that they can count on me, that I have a reason for the things I want them to do, that sometimes I am going to have to say no, and that when I make a mistake, I will ask for forgiveness.

These are definitely words my kids need to hear from me.

Recovering from a Long Weekend

It happens. We get into the flow of a five-day work week with a two-day weekend and then, BAM!, we get hit with a three-day weekend. What do we do? What do we do? We have this extra day! An extra 24 hours where we don’t have to go to bed early because we don’t have to get up early to get ready for school or work! It is a holiday and, by golly, we are going to make the most of it!

I’m all for holidays. I love them. They are fun and exciting and, sometimes, even restful! Over the Labor Day Weekend, I got to travel to Ohio to visit family that I haven’t seen since last Christmas. I hung out with my two nieces and my nephew. We played with toys, we laughed, my nieces painted my toenails, we ate ice cream, I read a book, we took long naps, and we played games. It was awesome.

But then Monday came, and it was time to head back home. Because, as we all ought to know, Tuesday still comes after Monday and that meant it was time to come back to work, back to school.

I wish I could say my class just picked up right where we left off last week. I wish I could say that we kept on keeping on without a single disruption.

I wish.

To be totally honest, today was probably the most challenging day of this year so far. (And yes, I realise it was only our twelfth day of school.) There was a lot more talking and there were a lot more students who were having trouble focusing on what we were trying to do.

I should have stopped and regrouped. But I kept trying to push through, hoping that my students would correct themselves and get back to being the awesome, amazing, hardworking, focused students I had the first eleven days of school.

But I didn’t and, really, that is my fault. The challenges today are on me. I should have stopped. I should have helped them regroup, to use restorative practices to help my students get back to where they were supposed to be. Sure, my students had a role in the chaos that happened today. Sure, they could have been more helpful in helping me. But I am the the adult in the room; I am the one who does know better and should have been better.

Sometimes we make mistakes. It happens. We get caught up in the moment and we forget what we are really trying to do because we get mired in the stuff that gets in our way. Fortunately, tomorrow is a new day, a new chance to start over, to reevaluate, to apologise, and to make amends.

Thank goodness for new days!

Book Review: Is It Working in Your Middle School?

[NOTE: The following is a review I wrote for MiddleWeb, an online organisation all about teaching and learning in the middle grades, which they define as grades 4-8. I have written four reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review can be found on their website here]

Quick! Grab a pen or pencil or open up a new document on your computer. Ready? Good. Now, write down the name of every initiative you school or district has adopted since you started working there.

Need more time? Go ahead, I’ll wait.

All finished? Okay. Now, circle all of the ones that you can prove are improving student learning and growth. How many initiatives did you list? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? How many did you circle? One? Two? Zero?

If there is anything that school leaders and policymakers are frustratingly good at doing, it is coming up with new initiatives for classrooms, schools, and districts. Whether the initiatives are focused on academics, behavior, instruction, culture, family engagement, teacher quality, or any number of possibilities, there is not a school in the nation that doesn’t have at least one new initiative put into place every year. But what do we do after we initiate the initiative? How do we know if it is actually making a difference? Are we even bothering to check? Or do we just start something new and keep doing it mechanically, thinking to ourselves that this, too, shall pass? Has the Shiny New Thing become so commonplace that we don’t even care if it works or not?

Dr. Nikki C. Woodson, an educational leader, and James W. Frakes, a business consultant who has spent much of his career working with the manufacturing industry, both believe that the problem with initiatives is not the initiatives themselves, but the lack of intentionality and monitoring. In their book, Is It Working in Your Middle School?, they provide a simple framework for identifying appropriate initiatives and monitoring them with consistency so that teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders can separate the wheat from the chaff and put into place programs, policies, and practices that will lead to meaningful, lasting changes in your school.

While focusing on middle schools, the authors are quick to note that their framework, based on proven quality assurance processes, can be used in any school setting and, indeed, in any organization that wants to know if what they are doing is actually making a difference. Their process will help anyone with an interest in improving their school to identify all of the current initiatives, or programs in place, eliminate the ones that have no discernible purpose, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, identifying quantifiable strategies, assess the efficacy of the strategies, monitor for success, and plan for next steps to the school improvement process truly continuous. To help the reader through the process, Woodson and Frakes provide templates for reflection, goal setting, planning, and monitoring which can be either copied from the book or downloaded for free through a website given. They also use a case study to model how their framework has been used to change a middle school’s approach to improvement plan goals.

Classrooms, schools, and districts are constantly adapting as they try to keep up with the latest research, best practices, and the ever-changing landscape of education in the 21st century. These adaptations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing; they can push a school to grow and improvement. Growth and improvement will only happen, though, if teachers and leaders work together to monitor the changes and keep asking each other two simple questions: Is it working? How do we know? If you are concerned that the programs you are using in your classroom, school, and/or district are not making a difference in student achievement but are not sure how to prove it, or you are convinced that your programs are working but need evidence to justify continuing them, this is the book for you! You may not be able to stem the tide of Shiny New Things coming your way, but you will be able to show which ones are making a difference in the lives of your students and which ones are just passing fads.

Workshop Presentations – Part II

[NOTE: This is the second of two blog posts about workshop presentations I recently gave.]

Ever since I started working at Wiley Elementary School and participated in the New Teacher Mentoring and Induction program, I have received regular email updates from the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative. I attended the annual conference my first year at Wiley, then I attended a Beginning Teacher Conference the summer after that year. The following summer I attended the Beginning Teacher Conference again. I have found these conferences to be incredibly useful and believe I am a better teacher for having participated in them.


Earlier this year, I received an email seeking requests for workshop proposals for the the 11th Annual Induction and Mentoring Conference to be held in Champaign. One of the event organisers happens to also be one of the organisers for EdCamp CU, the “unconference” that I have helped organise for the past year. She asked me if I would be willing to put in a proposal for the conference based on two of the critical areas they were going to focus on: Teachers as Learners and Teachers as Influencers. I wrote a proposal for each and submitted them.

To my surprise, both proposals were accepted, and so it was that today I spent the day at the iHotel and Conference Center in Champaign, networking with teachers, administrators, and professional development coordinators. In addition to presenting two workshops, I got to attend the EdChats (mini general session presentations), and got to help two early career teachers from a nearby district make plans for how they can create an induction and mentoring program in their schools.

The first session I presented was on the cross-grade collaboration process I have done with Miss C for the past six years. It started as Reading Buddies but has morphed into Learning Buddies. I only had four participants, but they seemed excited about the ways that could increase collaboration in their schools and find teachers to partner with to create vertical learning opportunities for their students.

The second session I gave also only had four participants. This one was on using social media to influence the school environment for good. I shared my belief that it is more important for teachers to have a positive social media presence than to have no presence at all. (Many teachers, especially early career teachers, are told to hide their identities online and avoid any networking with students, parents, or colleagues. I take a different approach, although, in general, I avoid adding parents to my personal Facebook network until after their students have left my classroom for good.) I showed how I use Twitter to connect with educators and researchers and how I use hashtags to track important topics. The teachers present shared how they use social media and gave others resources for how to get started.

The INTC Conference was a long, busy day, but it was so worth it! I was able to connect with great teachers, share ways that my school district has helped me become a teacher leader, and even got to connect with a friend from the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute who is now a teacher in the nearby district mentioned above.

Tomorrow I return to the classroom after a long absence. I hope I will be able to use what I learned on Friday and today to make a difference in my students’ lives.

Workshop Presentations – Part I

[NOTE: This is the first of two blog posts about workshop presentations that I recently gave.]

Last Friday I had the opportunity to present a workshop to two groups of teachers during my district’s Winter Institute. My workshop focused on Hapara Dashboard, the web-based software that we use to monitor students on their Chromebooks. (Oddly enough, I have apparently never written about this software, despite the fact that it has been in use in my building for over a year. Oops.)

Hapara Dashboard allows me to see what students are doing on their Chromebooks in real time by showing me what tabs they have open at any given time. I can also view and save screenshots of their active screens. Through Highlights, I can send links to every device in my classroom and I can limit students’ browsing to specific sites. I can view their Google Drive folders and can create documents that are sent to each individual student and automatically populated in a folder that I have specified. I can send students messages to remind them of tasks or call them to my back table without saying anything. Through Workspace, I can create assignments with stated goals, resources, evidence, and rubrics. I can grade assignments and return them for further editing or return them with a final grade, making it so students cannot alter them further.

My presentation was to showcase all of these features and ask teachers if they would be interested in using this software if it was made available. Every single teacher who came to my sessions told me that they were definitely interested and wanted to know why we didn’t already have this software in place. (Short answer: it is expensive.) Still, the response was overwhelmingly positive and many teachers felt that using Hapara Dashboard would greatly increase productivity in the classroom and make the devices more effective.

I am hopeful that this will be something that will happen soon!

Giving Thanks

I feel like I have had a lot of posts this year that have hinted at frustration with my job, with my students, and with the slow progress we have been making in establishing a strong classroom community. While I don’t want to diminish those feelings, which I believe are perfectly valid and understandable, I also don’t want the casual reader of this blog to think that I am one of those teachers who blogs simply to vent.

Because I’m not and I don’t.

As a matter of fact, my blogging has become a way for me to proclaim, loudly and publicly, that I love my job and I love my students even though I am frustrated as can be with some of the things that are happening and, perhaps more importantly, not happening. I am very grateful for the opportunity I have had for the past five and a half years to do what I do. This is, after all, the job I dreamed of having since I was in fourth grade. It is still my dream job even if, yes, I am hoping to eventually move from classroom leadership to building leadership as I transition from classroom teacher to building principal.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love my job because, again, I really, really, really do. Anyone who has ever talked to me in person knows that there are some topics that will get me going for hours on end and what I do every single day as a teacher is one of those topics. (Other topics include books, tabletop gaming, and British television.)

As the last hour or so of the annual Thanksgiving Day observance in the United States approaches, I wanted to express gratitude for the teachers, principal, staff, parents, and students who have made my job at Wiley Elementary School the wonderful experience it has been. In keeping with my blogging norms, I will not name them by name, but know this:

  • My principal is wonderful; she cares, she supports, she encourages, she directs, she leads.
  • My fourth grade partner this year (number five in six years) has been wonderful! We are learning together as we navigate a new math curriculum and as we change and adapt to the needs of our students.
  • The fifth grade team makes me proud to say that I taught roughly half of their students. These two wonderful women (plus the long-term substitute who is covering maternity leave for one of them) are passionate about challenging their students, holding them to high standards of leadership, and preparing them for the oh-so-scary world of middle school.
  • The third grade team does a great job of teaching and guiding, preparing their students for my classroom while maintaining wonderful relationships with them after they move to my room.
  • The second grade teachers are a powerhouse of experience and they never make me feel weak or inferior when I come in to ask for help or advice, nor do they shy away from asking a much newer teacher (me) for technology assistance.
  • The first grade teachers are delightfully wacky and quirky but they know how important their work is and they make sure their students are learning and growing every single day.
  • The kindergarten teachers started at Wiley the same year I did, although one has gone from second grade to first grade to kindergarten. They are two of my closest friends at work and their passion for early childhood education amazes me.
  • Our office secretaries are so patient with students, with families, and with teachers! I cannot imagine Wiley without them, although I still miss our previous office manager/secretary who retired this year.
  • Our new custodian (who started this year after our previous custodian also retired and promptly moved to Florida), is great with students, smiling and talking to them but making sure they know that they had better not make a mess in the bathrooms!
  • Our special education teachers are an amazing team that works hard to make sure we are meeting the needs of our students with special needs. The teacher who works directly with my students has been especially supportive of helping me find ways to increase the sense of community in my room.
  • Our two reading interventionists are another powerhouse team that have worked together for more years than I can say, yet they are continually learning and improving in what they do.
  • Our other specialists, such as our speech and language pathologist, our social worker, and our school psychologist, are always on the go and yet they are always ready to provide advice, counsel, or just to listen if I need to talk.
  • Our fine arts teachers are amazing individuals who share their passion for music, for visual arts, and the performing arts in a way that makes each student know that the arts are just as important as academic subjects.
  • Our new PE teacher has been a huge blessing to our building! Not only do our students receive a higher quality level of physical education than when teachers were doing it on our own, but he also works with us to identify ways we can improve play during recess. (And I am able to collaborate with my grade level partner twice a week every week now!)
  • The other professionals who pop in and out of our building throughout the week are no less important. Whether they are working with students with specialised needs or teaching band and strings or providing instructional coaching, I see them and I appreciate them.

If not for these amazing women and men, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. They inspire me every single day and I hope that I am a positive influence on them and their students, as well. So on this day of giving thanks, to my wonderful colleagues, while I know it isn’t nearly enough, I say thank you. You really are the best colleagues I could hope for!

I Voted

There have been so many things on my mind over the past several weeks, but I have been ridiculously busy and so this once-daily blog has become an occasional blog. I keep hoping I will get back into the swing of writing each day, but then something comes up and gets in the way (usually my need to eat and/or sleep).

Many of you know that I am a Champaign County Election Judge. This is a very fancy title for the people who spend all day at the polling places on election days, checking in voters, distributing ballots, answering questions about assigned precincts, directing voters to the tabulator after they marked their ballots, and processing grace-period voters who are able to register and vote in their precinct on election day.

This past Tuesday was the quadrennial General Election for the United States and, among many other things, voters headed out to the polls to select their choice for President of the United States of America. I was assigned to my own precinct this year, which means I got to be the first voter in line and the first person at the Savoy Recreation Center to cast a ballot. We processed 971 other voters during the course of the 13 hours the polls were open and it was a very busy day, from the time polls opened at 6:00 am until they closed at 7:00 pm.

Every time I return to school after an election, students ask me who I voted for. A colleague of mine shared on social media that his response to students is always, “I voted for you.” I was thinking about this on Tuesday and wrote something that I suppose could be deemed a poem. (My father-in-law is dancing a happy jig right now.) It is not polished at all, but I wanted to share it anyway.

I Voted

I voted today.
I voted for you
I voted for me
I voted for him
I voted for her
I voted for them
I voted for us.

I voted for today
I voted for tomorrow
I voted for the present
I voted for the future.

I voted for truth
I voted for justice
I voted for freedom
I voted for mercy
I voted for compassion
I voted for kindness.

I voted for all who can
I voted for all who cannot
I voted for those who will
I voted for those who will not.

I voted for the old
Who have walked a long way
I voted for the young
Whose journeys have just begun.

I voted for the lame, the halt, the withered
I voted for the tired, the weary, the poor
I voted for the yearning masses
Struggling to be free.

I voted for the hearty, the hale, the bold
I voted for the healthy, the strong, the wealthy
I voted for the eager millions
Enjoying freedom’s light.

I voted to make a difference
I voted to change the world
I voted to shape our lives.
I voted for the belief
That things can be better.
I voted for the belief
That what always has been
Doesn’t always have to be.

I voted.

One Little Word

I don’t normally make a big deal about the New Year because, for me, the year starts in August when school starts. January 1 is just another cold day in a typically cold month that, other than including the birthdays of some of the most amazing people in history, isn’t all that spectacular. However, Monday is the start of the new semester, and I can embrace making changes based on that.
My friend Aubrey has challenged her friends to pick one little word to be there focus for the coming year. I’ve been thinking about this today as I have been finishing up artifacts and reflections for my internship and realised that that is going to be my one little word: focus. I have a habit of stretching myself thin, of running from thing to thing, of wanting to do everything at once, and of, unfortunately, starting things and not always finishing them. So this year I am going to focus on being more focused.
There are some things I am deeply committed to that I won’t be dropping from my life, even if they do keep my busy. Some of them, like volunteering with the Boy Scouts, Operation Snowball, and the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute, are because they have been a part of me for well over half my lifetime. Others, such as graduate school, are long-term endeavours that need to be completed. But these are things that I want to do well, and focus will help me do that.
In my classroom, there is definitely a need for me to be more focused. I feel like I have let myself take on too many things at once. Too many online learning tools, too many new ideas, too many changes in what I teach and how I teach. So I am going to be focusing on the things that work best to accomplish what matters most: my students all learning. I’ve already started some  of these changes. During our teacher record day, I took time to make small changes to my daily schedule that will improve how I do guided math and literacy groups. I began organising my classroom and will be going in either Friday or Saturday to finish.
I am also recommitting myself, again, to being more diligent in my blogging, not because I crave the attention from others, but because it helps me focus on what it going well in my classroom. I have used this platform for the past five years or so to reflect and to focus. I need to do that more, even if my posts are very brief.
I won’t call it a New Year’s resolution because, like I said, for me, this is the middle of the year. But it is my goal for the second semester. It is my one little word. What is yours?

Illinois JAC 2015 – Day One

Today was the first time this academic year that I was gone for the entire day. I am actually surprised that I made it all the way to the middle/end of November without an absence, but I guess that many of the district committees and task forces and professional groups I have been a part of for four years have stopped having meetings that lasted either an entire day or a half day.

To prepare my students for my absence, I told them that it was going to be happening all this week then we spent about half an hour yesterday discussing the students’ responsibilities when a substitute teacher is there, as well as the substitute teacher’s responsibilities. I shared with students what the day should be like for them, going over the schedule and making sure they knew what I expected of them. And, of course, I left detailed plans for my substitute, since I still remember well the terror I experienced when I worked as a substitute and walked into a classroom where there were no plans left for me. (Sorry, Urbana teachers; I don’t remember the name of the teacher I was subbing for that day.)

It is now almost 10 pm on Friday night and I didn’t get any phone calls, text messages, or emails about my class, so I am hoping that it means that my students made it through the day without duct-taping the substitute to the wall or setting the room on fire.

So, what took me away from my classroom today? It was the first day of the 83rd Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the the Illinois Association of School Business Officers (often called the Triple I Conference or the Illinois Joint Annual Conference, abbreviated on Twitter as ILjac15 because JACIASBIASAIASBO2015 is a bit over the top). This was my third year attending as a guest of Washington Grade School District 52, where my mother is in her 15th year on the school board. (Of course, since I am in an educational administration program, my hope is that one day I will attend as a member of the IASA and/or as a representative of my own school district!)

Due to traffic and other delays, I wasn’t able to make it to some of the early panel sessions held today, but I did get to hear the first general session speaker, DeDe Murcer Moffett, who spoke passionately about the need to have people in your life who help you snap out of it when you start wallowing in doubt or regret, push you forward, and encourage you to succeed. She calls these people your snappers and pushers and it got me wondering who my snappers and pushers are. I thought about my amazing colleagues in my building and my district and the support that we offer each other. I thought about the fantastic teachers I had in my own educational career and the equally fantastic teachers that I have the privilege of working with in my building and my district. Then I thought about whether or not I am a snapper and a pusher in my role in my school as a teacher, a technology specialist, a union representative, and a member of the building leadership team. I’d like to think that I am.

It was a great way to kick off a conference that I look forward to attending each year! (I also ran into my district deputy superintendent and got to chat a few minutes about the awesome recognition that the district received for the Urbana Early Childhood Center. And somehow managed to forget to introduce my wife. Oops. Sorry!) I’m definitely looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on family and community engagement, technology, wellness, and student-led conferences!

Wear Out

I was gone last Friday attending a conference in Chicago. When I got back this morning, I read through the notes my substitute teacher left for me and saw that the students had played a game in P.E. called Wear Out. She made an observation that the students loved the game. I had actually never heard of it before and so my interest was quite piqued!

I asked my class to tell me about the game so that we could play this morning. It involves the students dividing into two teams on opposite ends of the gym. On the signal, one student from each team races around the gym. As soon as they make it to their base, the next student in line races. The goal is for everyone on your team to make it around first. It is a simple game and the name says exactly what the purpose is: wear out the students as they run, run, and run some more!

The students wanted to compete boys against girls, which they did twice. Then I had them select their own teams of half boys and half girls. They competed two more times. Then I recombined the mixed teams and allowed them to race two more times. After six races, they were quite thoroughly exhausted!

I’m always in favour of learning about new games and activities to use for P.E. We have a lot of resources available in our school and our district, but I am grateful to the retired teachers who share their expertise with me and my students, too!

It Takes a Village

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was still in middle school, I remember hearing about a book that the current First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wrote. It was called It Takes a Village. I’ve never read the book. I’ve never read the counter-arguments or criticisms of it. All I’ve ever encountered was the title. (I just requested it through the public library and am hoping to read it soon.) The title, though, has resonated with me over the years.

Before leaving for the conference in Chicago I am attending this weekend, I had the opportunity to visit two different classrooms in my district. The first was a classroom for children who are learning English as a second language. The second was at the Urbana Early Childhood School. Both visits were so I could do brief observations as a part of my graduate school coursework. As I left the schools, I was struck with the realisation of the truthfulness to the title of Mrs. Clinton’s book. It really does take a village to raise a child. Parents and immediately family are the primary caregivers, typically, but they are not the only ones teaching and helping children grow. Teachers also play a key role. So do their peers and their classmates.

This was especially clear to me as I was visiting UECS. The principal gave me a tour of the building and I learned that the school is divided into three “villages” with four classes each. I have no idea if the idea of calling the groups of classrooms “villages” is tied to this proverb or not, but it is certainly appropriate! As we walked through UECS, I was struck by the sense of community and friendliness that permeates the very walls! Even as we were just walking past one of the rooms, a young girl saw the principal and rushed over just to say hi before getting back to the class activity! (The principal, ever the teacher, coached the girl on waving hello instead of leaving her class to greet someone.)

I spent about 20 minutes inside one of the classrooms and was amazed at the wonderful things I saw going on. Students spend most of their time in the early childhood program learning through play. There are centers in each room that the principal requires but each teacher sets them up differently. I sat near the house center and watched as boys and girls played at being parents using baby dolls. One girl turned to a boy and said, “Don’t you hear these babies crying? Why do you always leave to go to the office each day and leave me home with these crying babies?!” to which he responded, “I have to go to the office; how else am I going to pay the bills?!” Keep in mind, children at UECS are between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, and yet they have such sophisticated language skills! Later, the girl played at growing frustrated with a baby and talked about spanking her. The teacher came over and, in a calm and wonderfully patient way, coached the students on more appropriate methods for expressing frustration.

I could have stayed in the classrooms I was visiting all day, but, alas, I had to leave so that I could finish packing before leaving for our weekend trip. But I want to return to my original theme. It really does take a village. Anyone and everyone who is around children knows that the things they say and do matter and make a lasting impressions. While my wife and I have no children of our own, we are still very much involved in teaching young people to become decent, honest people. We are a part of the village. I’m very grateful to those who let me visit today so that I could witness first-hand the awesome things that are happening within my school district. While I am attending this conference as a guest of Washington District 52, I am very proud to tell others that I am a teacher in Urbana!

Planning for an Absence

Because of the various district task forces I am a part of, as well as a professional inquiry group, I have quite a few planned absences for this year. Most of them are for just half days scattered throughout the year, but there are some planned absences that will be for an entire day. Two of these absences I have each year are both in November. The first one already came: Election Day. As a Judge of the Election for Champaign County, I can plan on being gone on the first Tuesday of November every year.

The other absence will be tomorrow. My mother in on the school board in my hometown and gets to attend the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. (Also known as the Triple I Conference because JACIASBIASAIASBO doesn’t really lend itself to easy pronunciation.) As a schoolb board member, she is allowed to invite guests to attend the conference with her. My wife and I went with her last year and had a wonderful time. I learned about amazing resources available to our schools and met some really impressive school leaders and researchers. So when we were invited to attend again this year, we gladly accepted!

Knowing for such a long time that I would be gone tomorrow, I have been helping my students plan for my absence. They know who my substitute teacher will be, they know what they will be working on, and they know what the expectations will be. (We reviewed the expectations this morning and reinforced that our classroom expectations are the same whether I am here or not!) We’ve also been talking about consequences for following expectations and consequences for not following them.

This last part has been an interesting conversation because we often associate “consequences” with “punishment” instead of “the result of an action or choice.” The consequences of doing what you are supposed to do is you get to continue to do things that you find pleasant, enjoyable, or worthwhile. In a classroom setting, you get to continue learning, participating, being with your peers, and receiving positive attention from classmates, teachers, and parents. The consequences of making poor decisions are a removal of privileges, having to do things that are less desirable, being separated from peers, and gaining negative attention.

While I am traveling to Chicago and spending the weekend learning about school leaders, technology integration, family engagement, and new tools and resources, I am confident that my students will be doing what they are supposed to be doing so that they can receive the positive consequences of doing the right thing!

Changing the Narrative on Lunch

One of the books I was expected to read while working on my bachelor’s degree and my elementary teaching certification was The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong. I found the book incredibly helpful with lots of practical advice and real-to-life scenarios intended to help me on that very first first day of school. There were a host of other books I had to read and while they all had different focuses and different purposes, there was one piece of advice to novice teachers that i came across again and again: stay out of the teachers’ lounge! Supposedly, the teachers’ lounge is a den of negativity, hate, backbiting, complaining, and the source of all bad morale.

Then I did my student teaching and learned something very important: the teachers’ lounges at Garden Hills Elementary in Champaign and Clara Peterson Elementary in Paxton were wonderful places for me to talk to other teachers and learn about what they were doing in their rooms and what their classes were like. After graduation, I started working as a substitute teacher in Champaign and worked in nearly all but one of the elementary schools, all three middles schools, and both high schools at least once. After two years I started subbing in Mahomet, where I worked in both elementary schools, the junior high, and the high school. I also subbed for two days at Leal Elementary in Urbana. Over the course of those three years, I ate in the teachers’ lounge almost every single day and discovered something shocking:

The books were wrong!

In the course of three and a half years, I ate lunch is dozens of teachers’ lounges in four different cities. And not once did I witness a teachers’ lounge like I had read about in The First Days of School and various other professional texts. Then I started following several teachers’ blogs and I found this same narrative being played out. No matter the author, I was told that the teachers’ lounge is the native home of the worst of the worst and I need to stay as far away as possible. The weirdest thing, to me, is that these books and these blogs are written by teachers I admire, I respect, and I consider virtual mentors. I don’t understand how they can be so right about so much but so very wrong about this.

And then I realised something: we need to change the narrative. Teachers have been trash-talking the lounge for so long that they’ve stopped going there and they’ve missed out on what has happened. I think the lounge used to be all the horrible things people say it is. But teaching is dynamic and our profession is constantly changing. One of those changes has been what takes place in the teachers’ lounge.

You see, I cannot accept the notion that the teachers in Champaign, Mahomet, Paxton, and Urbana have all figured out some secret that nobody else in the country, perhaps the entire world, has figured out. I refuse to believe that the teachers I shared lunch with for three and a half years in four communities are the only teachers out of the millions in our nation that can eat lunch without being negative, angry, and bitter. I have to believe that others have figured out what I have learned:

The teachers’ lounge is the place I go to recharge. It is the place I go to discuss my job with professionals who love their work, love their students, and love what they are doing. It is where I go to talk to the third grade teachers and the fifth grade teachers and the Title I reading intervention specialists and the school’s instructional coach and the librarian and the volunteer coordinator and the fine arts teachers and the social worker and the school psychologist and learn about the amazing things going on in their rooms. It is the place that I go to check up on a former student and celebrate with her teacher the huge growth she has made. It is the place I go to hear about the students I will have next year and start making plans to establish the necessary relationships with these children so that their fourth grade year can be as fantastic as possible. It is the place I go to discuss education policy, district initiatives, building goals, politics, movies, television shows, books, bike rides, exercise programs, babies, spouses, personal celebrations, and shared struggles.

In short, the teachers’ lounge is where I go to spend thirty minutes of my day interacting with colleagues who help me become a better teacher and a better person. You know who I don’t see in the lounge? The complainers, the whiners, the never-good-enough-for-them-ers, the negative nancys, the debbie downers, and the horrible harrys. In short, all those people that I was told spent every free moment of every day sucking the energy out of their colleagues are nowhere to be seen in the teachers’ lounges I have frequented.

Maybe it really is awful everywhere else except where I have gone. Maybe I really have been just that lucky. Or maybe it is time to change the narrative and start pointing out all the good things that can happen in the teachers’ lounges all over the nation. And maybe it is time that those who have had positive experiences eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge stand up and speak out in behalf of themselves and their colleagues. If you are a teacher and you are reading this, I would love to know your personal experiences with the teachers’ lounge. Please feel free to share them in the comments section!

Necktie Knots

My wife had surgery today, so I had to call in for a substitute. While my students were continuing their work of improving their literacy skills, learning about the colonial era of America, taking a math test, working with their first grade buddies on our arts infusion project, going to art, listening to a story about the Revolutionary War, and reading or writing independently at the end of the day, I was sitting at the hospital, waiting to hear how the procedure went, and then getting her home (and wondering once again why the speed bumps at our complex are so big!), and caring for her during the post-operation phase.

Instead of a post about what happened in the classroom today, I decided to do a post about how I dress for work. I am 99% certain that anyone reading this blog knows that I wear neckties to work nearly every single day. (The only exceptions are when we have our assemblies and I have to  wear a school shirt and when we have a full week of school and I wear a college hoodie on Friday.) I don’t know how many know that I have been learning different ways to tie my ties over the past several months. I am not going to provide tutorials for all of them, as you can easily find them on YouTube by searching the name of the knot. (My favourite tutorial are made by a fellow named Alex Krasny, if you are interested.) I apologise in advance for the poor quality of the photos. I was working in a room with poor lighting, using the built-in camera on my computer.


Too Much Snow

For years, my wife has maintained that Champaign County exists in a weird weather bubble that causes nasty weather away from us. It gets hot in summer and cold in winter, but we rarely get heavy snowfall. This year has been quite different! From the first snowfall of the season, I don’t believe we have had a single day during which all of the snow has actually melted. This has meant, among many other things, that I have not been able to ride my bike to work in months.

It started snowing again yesterday afternoon. I held out hope that the snow would stop early enough that road and grounds crews could do their jobs but, alas, the snow resumed in the early hours of the morning and word was sent out that there was simply too much snow and not enough time to get it all cleared, so school was cancelled for the sixth time this school year.

You may have seen the video that has been making its rounds of a school principal setting his snow day announcement to music, singing it to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody.

I have to say that the phone message I received from one of our assistant superintendent’s this morning was even better! It was sent out to all of the staff at 5:45 am. Several of my colleagues have been sharing it online through different social media sites. I asked for permission, and it was granted, to share it through this blog. I hope you enjoy!

UPDATE: The song has been shared on YouTube!

Stay warm and safe!

Under Pressure

My wife and I went to my high school’s Operation Snowball event this weekend. It is something I have done nearly every single year since 1998 (excepting only the two years that I was serving a mission in California), so this was my fifteenth such event at Washington Community High School. Gretch started going in 2008, shortly after we’d started dating, and has been six times now. (She didn’t go last year due to medical circumstances.)

The theme for Washington’s Snowball this year was “Under Pressure” and thus it has been on my thoughts a lot the past few days. It seemed particularly appropriate for these students whose lives have been under immense pressure over the past couple of months. You may be aware that there was a massive tornado that blew through a few communities in central Illinois this past November. What you may not realise is that the community that was hit the hardest was Washington. The town is still struggling to recover and rebuild, but they are doing it!

There are many times that I hear others describe social/emotional pressure as a bad thing: peer pressure is often associated with negative choices, such as consuming alcohol, experimenting with drugs, and participating in risky behaviours. But there is positive peer pressure: pressure to do well in school, to have good friends who lift you up, to follow rules. Too much pressure, whether positive or negative, can break you. Not enough pressure, though, can leave you weak. The challenge is to find the right balance of positive pressure.

The t-shirts printed for this weekend’s event had a statement printed on the back:

“When we long for life without difficulties, remember that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”

This quotation is properly attributed to the Rev. Peter Marshall, former pastor of New York Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and two-time Chaplain of the United States Senate. However, what I know him for best is this other quotation of his:

“Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right thing happen.”

Interestingly enough, this quotation from Rev. Marshall’s US Senate prayer on 10 March 1948 is sometimes misattributed to Horace Mann. Although spoken at different times, both statements have related themes. We should not, we cannot, run away from difficulties, from choices, from living! Life is hard; life is messy. It is full of opportunities to make choices, and it is up to each of us to make the right choices so that we will be strong, emotionally, mentally, intellectually.

Earlier today a friend of mine shared a brief conversation she recently had with a college athlete on Twitter. She made a comment about athletes being role models, to which he responded that he does not think of himself as such, nor do most athletes. (And, by extension, it is true that many athletes and celebrities feel the same way.) Here’s the thing: You don’t get to choose whether or not you are a role model. Once people know who you are, once they know what you do, there are going to be others who use you as their example. Whether you are an international celebrity or just an older brother or sister, you are a role model to someone. That isn’t the choice you get to make. The choice you get to make is what kind of role model you are going to be. Are you going to be a positive role model who lifts others up or are you going to be the kind that becomes the butt of late-night television jokes and social media derision? We all live under pressure; we all have choices to make. You can’t always change what happens to you; you can change how you respond to it.

This year’s Snowball event was a good one. I learned a lot and I have a lot that I will take with me as a move forward and contemplate how I will respond to pressure and choices, as a husband, as a brother, as a son, as an uncle, as a teacher, as a leader, as a friend, as a role model.

[NOTE: This has been cross-posted on my blog.]

Dairy Queen Treat for Teachers Award

This is a blog post that I have been wanting to write for over a month now, but I have been delaying because I was waiting for a number of things to come through, such as official confirmation and some photographs. However, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, so I figured I’d use this second cold weather day of the week to write up. Family and close friends already know about it, as well as anyone who follows me on Twitter, Instagram, and/or visits the Urbana School District’s website.

Way back in August, even before school started, all of the teachers in our district got an email from our superintendent, alerting us to an essay writing for teachers being sponsored by Dairy Queen. The writing prompt for the essay was simple: in 149 words or less, explain why you think you deserve to get money for new supplies for your classroom. There would be ten grand prizes of $1,490 each and one hundred prizes for $149 each. I wasn’t initially going to write an essay and apply, but then I got to thinking about the pull-down maps in my classroom. I have an outdated map of the world and an old map of Illinois, but no pull-down map of the United States. I decided I’d apply, hoping to get a bit of money toward buying new maps. Besides, I have already written over 230 words and this has taken me less than ten minutes to write.

My first draft was over 250 words long. I rewrote it a few times, decided I didn’t like how it was going at all, scrapped the whole thing, and started writing again. I was still way over the word limit, so I wrote several more drafts before I had a product that I thought was satisfactory. By this time the deadline had already approached so I wasn’t able to ask anyone to read it for me. I just put it aside for an hour or so and the re-read it. Still finding it satisfactory, I filled out the application and submitted the essay to Dairy Queen.

And then I kind of forgot about the whole thing. I didn’t have any idea when they would actually select the winners and I had other things to do, like the start of school. Then a few months ago I got a phone call from someone at Pierson Grant who said they were calling about my essay. Honestly, I thought the whole thing was a hoax. It just didn’t seem real. I researched them online and discovered that they are the public relations firm that represents, among many other businesses, Dairy Queen. I got caught in a game of phone tag before finally reaching someone and learned that I had been selected as a winner for the first Dairy Queen/Orange Julius Treat for Teachers essay contest. Not only was I a winner, I was one of the ten grand prize winners, selected from over 1,500 essays!

I have spent several weeks mulling over what I can do with $1,490 toward classroom supplies. As I’ve said, I originally thought I’d get some maps. But with this much money, I want to do something bigger, better, and more long-lasting. Once I’ve figured that out and have the supplies, I’m sure there will be a follow-up post! In the meantime, here is the essay I wrote:

Have you ever tried to teach about Europe with a map that shows countries that no longer existed? Have you ever taught a course on U.S. History without an up-to-date textbook or even a map of the nation? Have you stood in front a classroom and watched as books fell off shelves, globes broke, and students are crowding around to see the small whiteboard that is the only writing surface in the room? Have you taught both U.S. Customary and metric measurement using only a yardstick? Have you tried to instruct students in critical reading strategies using dusty, smelly, falling-apart books? Have you presented a technology course without the benefit of computers or tablets or even a projector?

If you have answered yes to any (or all) of these questions, then you will understand why I need new materials!

Have a great afternoon and for my students, make sure you get some rest tonight! Assuming we have school tomorrow, it is going to be a long day with a lot of catching-up to do! But don’t worry; it’ll be a fun day, too!


I have a confession to make: I planned on blogging more over the break than I did. I also planned on catching up on all the blogs that I follow over the break. I didn’t do that, either. Come to think of it, I planned on doing a lot of things over the break that I didn’t actually do. But I did do one thing that was super, super, super important: I actually took a break. I know so many teachers who allow their jobs to consume 100% of their lives. They wake up early and get to school before anyone else. They stay until everyone but the night-time cleaning crew has left. They go home and work on projects, lesson plans, grading, and other things related to their class. They go to bed late and dream about teaching. Then they wake up and do it all over again.

I am a believer in moderation. Any one thing taken to an extreme becomes unhealthy. I have a lot of geeky obsessions in my life. I love my geeky obsessions! But having so many means that I don’t allow any one thing to be the only thing I do. So over the winter break, instead of lesson planning, grading, project-ing, blogging about teaching, reading about teaching, blogging about what I read about teaching, and talking about teaching, I spent time with family. I spent time with friends. I spent time just sitting on my couch with my wife, catching up with TV shows, reading books (not about teaching!), and listening to music.

It was a nice, relaxing break. And now we have one more extra day that we will make up at the end of the year because it is really, really, really cold outside! Today I am getting myself ready to get back into the swing of things. My day is going to be full of teacher activities, like lesson planning, finding materials to support some projects my students asked to undertake, and catching up with blogs.

Speaking of which…

As I was catching up with the two dozen or so blogs related to teaching that I have bookmarked, I came upon this post by Internet colleague Katherine. And it just so happens that as I was reading the sun finally pushed through the haze and lit up my living room. Seriously!

So I guess I’ve been nominated for a Sunshine Award by default? I hope some day that my blog will gain enough traction that I will have people actually read it who aren’t parents of students and friends and family. Pretty certain that was something I said I’d like to see in 2014. Yep, it was!

What is this award?

The sunshine award gives others an opportunity to learn more about me as a blogger and then, in turn, I will send sunshine the way of 11 other amazing bloggers for you to get to know!

What are the rules?

Acknowledge the nominating blogger. Share 11 random facts about yourself. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
 Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

All right, eleven random facts about myself.

  1. I was born with a congenital cataract in my left eye. It was removed when I was about 9 years old. Because of this, I have no vision in my left eye (well, I can see colours and light but that’s about all), which means I don’t really have any depth perception.
  2. I tell people I was struck by lightning when I was in 8th grade. No, a lightning bolt did not come down and hit me directly. I was delivering newspapers during a severe storm and rode my bicycle into electrically-charged particles in the air.
  3. I am absolutely terrified of heights, but I have jumped out of an airplane (with a parachute, of course).
  4. I don’t drink coffee, black tea, or alcohol. I tend to drink water more than anything else, especially in the classroom, but I also drink soft drinks, herbal teas, juice, and sports drinks.
  5. I am an Eagle Scout, have served as a Webelos Den Leader, and am currently the Cubmaster for a local Cub Scout pack.
  6. I collect letter openers, especially antique ones, and have a collection of well over 100. I haven’t counted them lately, so I can’t give an exact number.
  7. I love playing board games and card games! My wife and I have a collection of over 60 games!
  8. I have become a connoisseur of necktie knots. My knot repertoire currently includes the Full Windsor, Eldredge, Trinity, Murrell, Merovingian, Krasny Hourglass, Van Wijk, Four-in-Hand, and Cape knots. (There are some other knots I’ve learned that I don’t particularly care for and therefore don’t use.)
  9. I was recently diagnosed with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which means, among other things, I tend to feel light-headed and dizzy whenever I change position (sitting to standing, especially). This is a minor annoyance.
  10. I wear a pink wristband for breast cancer awareness every single day.
  11. I am going to be teaching cursive handwriting this semester because 22 of my 24 students asked me to.

And the eleven questions:

  1. What is one dream you have that you want to accomplish this year? I want to finally start grad school so I can begin working on my Ed.M in Educational Administration.
  2. Favorite food? Ice cream.
  3. Where are you most comfortable? Everywhere. Seriously.
  4. Favorite subject in school as a kid? If you teach, favorite now? As a kid I loved my literature classes (with maybe one or two exceptions). As a teacher, I love teaching literacy because it ties directly into everything else.
  5. What is the best book you read last? I Want My Hat Back by John Klassen.
  6. Favorite movie of all time? I honestly do not have one! I have too many movies that I love for too many reasons!
  7. If you had to pick, what is your favorite way to exercise? Riding a bicycle. Which is what I do anyway.
  8. How do you prefer to travel – train, plane, boat, or car? Why? It depends on where I am going and why, but most of the time I would say plane. Even though I am terrified of heights, I don’t mind flying and it gets me to my destination faster so I can spend more time doing what I went there to do.
  9. Favorite season? Autumn. Love the colours, love the smells, love the feel.
  10. Snow days – love them or hate them? I am ambivalent toward them. I appreciate them because our district only has them when there is a very strong reason, usually related to the safety and well-being of students and staff.
  11. What are you looking forward to in 2014? I wrote an entire post about this last week!

At more than 1,100 words, I feel like this post is way longer than it should have been. I feel like most of the bloggers I follow have already done this, so I’ll ask a question, instead. Look at my list of Teaching Blogs that are over there on the right. (Sorry, you’ll have to scroll down a bit.) Who should be on this list? Why? Tell me and I will nominate them!

Looking Forward to 2014

I spend a lot of time on this blog reflecting on my teaching and what happens in and around my classroom. That makes sense, since this is, primarily, a blog about what happens in and around my classroom. But I also spend a lot of time off the blog reflecting on my personal expectations for Adventures in Teaching Fourth. I don’t write about this nearly as much, but today I will make an exception because a) it is December 31, b) I just reviewed my official WordPress Annual Report and c) it is early in the morning and my herbal tea is still steeping, so I don’t have much else to do right now.

I suppose that before I get into what I expect of this blog, I should review my stated purpose for blogging. This can be found in my blogging manifesto (which I have recently reviewed and updated for the fourth time), borrowed and adapted from an online colleague’s blog, that can be found in the upper right-hand corner of the page. I won’t copy it all here, but the section on my rights and responsibilities is particularly relevant to this topic:

As an educator who chooses to blog, I have the following rights:

  • I have the right to use my blog to reflect on my teaching journey, honestly and openly.
  • I have the right to collaborate with educators from all over the world.
  • I have the right to wonder what is best practice, debate education policies/practices/teaching styles, and question what is not working within our system in general and my classroom specifically.
  • I have the right to use my blog to process a difficult day, as long as I stay within the limits of the responsibilities listed below.

As an education blogger, I have the following responsibilities:

  • I will never forget the purpose for why I’m blogging.
  • I will always write about my students in such a manner that if parents found this blog they would know that I respect every aspect of their child’s learning.
  • I will always write about my co-workers, including all members of the faculty and staff of the buildings in which I work, in a way that reflects their strengths.
  • I will not write anything that will prevent anyone, especially myself and my colleagues, from doing his or her job.

By acknowledging these rights and responsibilities, I will be better able to:

  • Communicate with educators, parents, and others from all over the world
  • Become more reflective in my teaching
  • Improve my teaching practices to best benefit my students
  • Find the silver linings inside the most frustrating of days
  • Keep a sense of humor, which, in turn, allows me to be a stronger teacher who comes back to work day after day inspired, energized, and ready for a challenge.

To summarise all of those bullet points, my purpose in blogging about teaching is to reflect on what I am doing in a way that is positive, productive, and helpful. I often use an acronym to help my students quickly reflect before they say or do anything. I thought I’d shared this before, but I can’t find it, so I am guessing I never did. It is fairly simple: THINK! Ask yourself the following questions:


Likewise as a teacher, I need to THINK before I post anything online, especially if it is about students, parents, colleagues, or administrators! What this means in practice is that if there is a part of my day that is frustrating, I can still write about it, but I can do so in a way that will help us process what worked well, what didn’t, and what we can do better the next day.

I also use my blog as another way to communicate with parents, teachers, and members of the community. I include my URL on every newsletter I send home, it is linked by my name on my school’s website, and links are shared publicly through a variety of social networking services, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Tumblr. (And yes, that is just another of the many reasons that I will NEVER use the name of a student on my blog and I will ONLY use the name of colleagues or other adults with explicit permission.)

So, getting back to that original question, what do I expect for Adventures of Teaching Fourth in 2014?


I’m not really sure.

I know I want to continue what I have been doing: blog each day I am with students to share at least one highlight of the day. Think about what I am doing and why I am doing it. Invite others to read and share these posts. Keep track of the books I have been reading, particularly those that relate to my work, regardless of genre.

I also know what I would love to see happen: more comments. I know that I have on average 40 unique visitors to my blog each day, but I have no idea who these people are or why they are coming. I would be delighted to see more parents visiting and leaving brief comments, anonymous or not, to let me know they are reading and discussing with their children; for teachers, administrators, and other interested parties to share their thoughts; for suggestions on what I can do better in teaching and/or on topics to write about in the future. But I also have to be completely honest here: if I did not have a single visitor to my blog, I would continue to write. I am doing this primarily for me, to keep track of what I am doing. I share it with others because it is a medium I enjoy using and believe that others enjoy, as well.

The coming year is going to be a great one! Thank you, one and all, for being a part of my journey. I look forward to continuing to reflect on my own adventures!

Book Review: Managing the Madness

Some of you may recall a few months ago I wrote a book review for MiddleWeb, an online resource for middle grade teachers. After reviewing Guided Math in Action, I signed up to review another book, this time selecting one that was related to classroom management. After finishing the book I wrote a review for MiddleWeb and waited to hear if the review would be posted. I just received word last week that it was! Here’s the review I wrote about Managing the Madness: A Practical Guide to Middle Grades Classrooms:

Every now and then, I find a book written by a teacher, for teachers, that is full of such wonderful wisdom and advice that I wonder how I ever managed to teach a class without using the strategies recommended.

Jack C. Berckemeyer has written one of those books.

Managing the Madness truly is a practical guide to middle grades classrooms that I would recommend to everyone. While it is focused on middle schools, the strategies contained within easily transfer to working with students of any age. As I read, I found myself highlighting sections, taking pictures and posting them online, and thinking, “Oh my goodness! I am going to use this idea tomorrow!”

Managing the Madness A Practical Guide valencic

After providing a simple overview of his teaching career, Berckemeyer shares ideas he has used in his middle grades classrooms. He packs a lot into the 150 pages of this timeless book.

From classroom management to group work to hallways to detentions to homework, he guides the reader through common situations and offers advice on how to help students develop the skills they need to be successful and, in the process, helps the teachers develop the patience, concern, and empathy needed to reach these students.

While it is great to read that this book is well worth the read, I have always believed in the old adage that the proof is in the pudding. Here are just some of Jack Berckemeyer’s suggestions for working with middle grades students.

On classroom management:
“Classroom management is about trial and error; it comes through practice, patience, teamwork, flexibility, quality mentoring, willingness to seek help when needed, and a huge dose of humor… There is no one solution or strategy for every classroom management problem that will occur. Try new ideas, take time to listen to your students, trust your instincts, and most important—have some fun along the way.”

On keeping students engaged:
“Dry erase boards can be a teacher’s best friend. Place one under every students desk. When you ask a question, students can write their answers on the dry erase board; if they do not know the answer, they can draw a question mark. When they are done, ask them to use both hands to hold the boards up in the air as high as they can reach. This forces to them to stretch and sit up straight. In addition to engaging academically. They are physically active in a positive way.”

On working in groups:
“…You need to realize that when young adolescents are in a group, they will socialize. It is part of who they are; they crave interaction with their peers. Their need to laugh, debate, and argue in groups helps build social skills and social norms—a critical part of their development.”

On identifying with students:
“Getting a class back on track might mean breaking out into a current pop song. If you can’t sing, that’s even better. Pay attention to the newest movies and television shows. Make references that support what you might be teaching with a movie line or television catchphrase… Discard the “READ” poster with yesterday’s celebrities that young adolescents do not know. Be honest—some of the posters in your room cause you to wonder if the featured celebrity is still alive. Some classics, of course, are worth keeping such as the inflatable T-Rex or the life-sized cutout of you dressed in that unique spirit day outfit…”

On managing work:
“At the beginning of class, give students only half of the worksheet; later give them the other half. This strategy counters the tendency of students to look at the time in a class period and the number of questions and feel. ‘I will never finish this time.’ For some students that list of twenty questions is overwhelming, and they shut down before they even start… [Another strategy is to] start class by saying, ‘We have a million things to do today.’ Write on the board a list of 10 items that students need to complete by the end of the day. And don’t worry about overwhelming them. Here is the important part: of the list of 10 items, only 5 are real.”

There is so much more in this book that I just don’t have room to share! Whether your middle grade students are still at an elementary school or getting ready to enter high school, the strategies within this book really do work! Don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just make sure you laugh with your class when you do! Your students will love you for it.

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

How on earth have I managed to not write a review of the 2013 Newbery Medal recipient?! I started reading The One and Only Ivan over the summer, and finished it when I bought nearly two dozen new books for my classroom about a month ago. In fact, it was the very first book I read of the collection and, since I had already read most of it over the summer, I finished it in a very short period of time.

Although this blog is primarily a place for me to reflect on my day-to-day teaching, I am also using it to keep track of all the books I have read. So for those of you who happened to pop in today (or saw a link on Facebook or Twitter), you get a bonus-bonus post today!

Katherine Applegate’s story is a tender one about Ivan, the mighty silverback gorilla, Stella and Ruby, African elephants, and Bob, an old stray dog who hangs around the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where Ivan has lived in solitary captivity for many, many years. It was inspired by real events, and although the story itself is fictitious, the lessons learned and taught are true and important. Through Ivan we learn lessons of honesty, integrity, friendship, compassion, perseverance, respect, love, and trust.

The story is written in the first-person perspective of Ivan with flashbacks to his childhood mixed in with the present-day challenges he faces. Some of the chapters are just a few words long, while others are several pages. From beginning to end, the reader is captivated by Ms. Applegate’s story, which is, in many ways, the story of all creatures, both human and animal, that are trapped by circumstances often outside their own control. Despite the many great odds Ivan faces, he is able to overcome as he reminds himself that a promise is a promise.

Many of my students have already read this book, so I doubt it will make it into my classroom read-aloud list this year, but I will certainly be encouraging students to read it on their own and plan on reading it to an entire class in the years to come.

Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk

Have you ever noticed that parents have a way of sometimes spinning outlandish tales to explain otherwise mundane things? I know my father certainly does. There is an art to parental storytelling that includes pacing, sequence, hyperbole, and commentary. And, knowing that the storytelling probably is just a story, it seems that children absolutely delight in it!

I think this is what makes Neil Gaiman’s latest contribution to children’s literature so very wonderful. Fortunately, the Milk is the story of a boy, his sister, and their father, home together for a few days while their mother is on a business trip. The father is known for being a little scatter-brained, so the mother makes sure she leaves him very, very, very detailed instructions. One morning the children wake up to discover there is no milk for their cereal and their father decides to go to the corner market to get some.

He is gone for ages and ages and ages. When he returns, the children ask what took so long. And then begins a classic parental story of adventure and heroism. Abducted by space aliens, kidnapped by pirates, and saved by a super-intelligent time-traveling dinosaur, father outwits worshipers of Splod, escapes from wumpires, and saves the world from being remodeled by snot-like creatures from space. Throughout, father manages to, fortunately, hold onto the milk and keep it safe.

The children tell him that they don’t believe a word of his tale, but the end makes you wonder: was it actually true?

Accompanying Mr. Gaiman’s masterful storytelling are delightful illustrations by Scottie Young. Fortunately, the Milk is likely to become a personal favourite that I read to my students, other children, and myself year after year after year. Not only is the story fantastic, the writer’s craft that Neil Gaiman uses will allow this short story to serve as a mentor text for organisation, word choice, voice, and so many other traits of quality writing!

A Few Items

Just a few random items to share today…

  • Yesterday was Columbus Day. This is a holiday that is becoming more and more controversial with every passing year. However, I think it is worth taking note of Columbus’s historic voyage not because he was the first to come here, but because he was the first to tell everyone else about it and thus kicked off a new phase of early European exploration. If Columbus hadn’t come, someone else surely would have. But he was the first during the Age of Discovery, so he gets credit for that. Even if his actions afterwards were deplorable by all modern standards.
  • I was not at school today due to two different professional groups I am a part of. The first was our district’s focus group examining the Model Content Framework for English/Language Arts as it relates to the Common Core State Standards. We talked a lot about how to explicitly teach reading of complex disciplinary texts, such as history books, science articles, and math problems. We also discussed what we need as teachers to most successfully teach the new standards. The second was the Urbana Inquiry Group, which I have been a part of since I started working at Wiley. (It was formerly known as the Literacy Across Content Areas Inquiry Group but we have shifted our focus to cross-curricular teaching in general.) This year we are going to focus on mathematical literacy and close reading. We will once again be meeting once a month. I am looking forward to further my understanding of best practices as they relate to teaching my students.
  • While I was gone, my student teacher, under the supervision of an excellent substitute teacher who is a former teacher from my building, taught my class today. By all reports she did a fantastic job. (My students were also “wonderful” according to the sub, whom I caught in the hall as she was leaving.)
  • I went to Barnes & Noble on Saturday. I think my students will be thrilled to see what I picked up. (Spoiler: I have 20 new books for our classroom, many of which were suggested by students in my room.)
  • My class was featured in a post on the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant page. I believe I have shared the link before, but in case you missed it, it can be found here. I learned today that one of the directors of the summer workshop I attended has passed it on to the other fourteen teachers I was with aboard the Lake Guardian! I believe the post has also been shared with folks in the other 32 Sea Grant programs across the nation.