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

Posts tagged “Fears

Tests, Drills, and Alarms

Over the years, I have found myself reflecting on the nature of tests and what they are for. A common theme is that tests are a way to prepare for when the information, the skill, or the procedure is actually needed, when it is relevant. We have tests of the Emergency Alert System on the radio and television so that we will know what to do in the case of a real emergency. We have tests that we take before receiving certification or licensure so that we can demonstrate that we actually know what to do in the job or position. We test the severe weather sirens in this area on the first Tuesday of every month so that we are conditioned to know what to do when we hear the sound. We have fire drills in schools to get us ready for what to do in the case of an actual fire.

I have also found that my students often ask, when they hear an alarm go off, “Is this for real?” My response is always the same: “Yes, the alarm is really going off. It does not matter if there is an actual fire or not. What matters is that something has triggered the alarm and that means we need to immediately exit the building and wait for further instructions.”

Today we had a chance to put the practice into action. In the early afternoon, shortly after lunch and just as we were about to start our math lesson, I heard a buzzing coming from the hallway. I immediately recognised this as the fire alarm, as did all of my students. With little prompting, they quickly stood up, walked out the door, down the hall, exited the building, and walked down to the sidewalk. I grabbed my emergency attendance folder and made sure that all of my students were accounted for.

Then we waited.

It was cold and started to drizzle. But the alarms were still going off, and so we waited. The students were, for the most part, doing exactly what they should have been doing: they stayed closed, they huddled together to keep warm, and they waited.

We were finally given directions to go to one of the churches on the corner that serve as gathering places during emergencies. The students again knew exactly what to do and even made sure the three student teachers with us knew what to do, too. After getting to the church, they sat down and waited, grateful for the warmth. Once we were given the all clear, we returned to the building and took a couple of minutes to process what had happened.

I made sure that all of the students knew that they did exactly what they were supposed to do and understood that this is why we practice the way we do. The tests prepare them for when it is “for real,” but they only knew what to do because they took the tests seriously.

Next week we start PARCC testing in our building. It is just a test. It is not life or death. It won’t determine if they advance to the next grade, if they get into college, or what jobs they get. What it does do is help them think about what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to know as they progress through school and become more active participants in our society.

Lofty ideas, for sure, but isn’t that what tests are all about, anyway?

Intruder Drills

There are a lot of emergency drills we practice in schools: fire drills, tornado drills, severe weather drills, earthquake drills. These are all natural disaster that can happen at a moment’s notice. We hope that they don’t, but we plan for the worst so we will know what to do in case nature’s fury comes toward our school.

But then there are the drills we practice that aren’t hazardous weather. They are the drills that we have to practice because our society has an illness and nobody has quite yet figured out a cure. I have no intention of using this space as a forum for discussing the politics of this issue, though; rather, I want parents and members of the community to know that we do take this just as seriously as we take the possibility of fires or severe weather.

I am referring, of course, to dangerous intruders. I still remember the morning I opened up my bundle of newspapers (this was before the 24-hour news cycle came to dominate our lives) and read about the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. It wasn’t the first such case but, unfortunately, that seemed to be the beginning of the illness that has spread. Why is it that there are people out there who want to hurt children? I don’t know. What I do know is that the safety of my young students will always be my number one priority.

We are at that time of year when Illinois schools are mandated by the state to run intruder drills in their buildings. We won’t know when or how, but we do know that at some point the police will come to the school, while students are present, to test to see if we as teachers know the protocols to keep our children safe. For my fourth graders, this means that I need to make sure that they, too, know what to do.

That is why I took some time this afternoon to review the procedure with my class. Even though we have talked about it before, I wanted to make absolutely certain they knew what to do and why to do it. I’m not going to go into the details here, but I want to assure anyone who may be reading that my students do indeed know how to quickly, safely, respond to an intruder alert in our classroom.

I pray that we will never experience a real-life intruder alert; I hope that the only alert my students encounter is the one that the police practice with us. I also pray that we never experience a tornado hitting our school, an earthquake rocking our foundations, or a fire destroying our libraries. But I want my students to be just as prepared for dangerous situations as they are for following a recipe at home when they are fixing dinner or determining their proper way to cite an author in a research paper.

Long gone are the days when school was just about reading, writing, and arithmetic. We need to prepare our students to know how to handle whatever situation life throws at them, even if it is the unthinkable. Because, sadly, the unthinkable is all too possible these days.

Well-Rested and Ready to Learn

Today was an important day for my students, although I don’t know how many of them even realised it. After all, in many ways it was just like any other Monday: they came in, made their lunch choices, wrote a brief journal entry about what they did over the long holiday weekend/break, got onto XtraMath to practice multiplication facts, came to the carpet for a morning meeting, learned about comparing fractions with unlike denominators in math and practiced specific skills related to fractions on Front Row, had recess, went to library, started a new unit for science, worked on writing, went to lunch, had physical education after lunch, engaged in independent literacy tasks while I met with small groups, went to a Coyote College, came back to the room for our read aloud at the end of the day, and then went home at 3 pm.

Yep, a pretty typical Monday (well, except for the Coyote College which interrupted our literacy block).

So what made today so important?

Two things: first, it marked the end of November, which means the end of that period of time that, because it sometimes feels like a long Dark Evil Vortex going from Late September, and passing through all of both October and November, some teachers call DEVOLSON. And I have to be honest: with the cold and the rain and the random bursts of warm weather followed by more cold and more rain, the past two months felt like they were dragging on for-eh-ver.

But all things come to an end, and thus has November ended. And now we are on the second part that made today important: it was the first day of the final push to Winter Break. In just three weeks (fourteen days of school) my students will have completed 50% of their fourth grade careers! From feeling like November would never end to suddenly realising how much time has passed, we are taking advantage of the relaxing Thanksgiving break to push ourselves forward to the end of the semester!

We kicked the final stretch off with a new science unit. Students cheered as soon as they saw me wearing my white lab coat because they all know exactly what that means! (If I had enough hours in the day, we would have science and social studies every day. Instead, I teach them in blocks.) We began exploring concepts about energy, heat, and renewable and non-renewable resources.

So here’s the getting through Late September, October, and November! Here’s to eating way too much pie, getting lots of sleep, and getting back to work! Here’s to the final push to the end of the first semester! And, of course, here’s to lots and lots and lots of learning!


A Job for Everyone

For many years now, I have used the idea of having classroom jobs in my room as I way to help foster a sense of shared responsibility for our classroom.



At the same time, I have been pondering how I can really improve the use of time at the end of the day. As I have mentioned recently, the end of the day routines in my classroom have been somewhat chaotic this year, so I switched my P.E. and read aloud times and moved Today’s Topics into a facet of my Daily CAFE (literacy block). These changes have helped, but there has been still chaos at the end of the day or, even worse, we run out of time for our read aloud.

I was talking to my student teacher about this frustration and told her that I would be asking around and seeking ideas from others to see what they’ve done. I remarked that, during my first year of teaching, I had several students in the after-school child care program who would come into my room to stack chairs for me. However, this hasn’t been a feasible solution this year. Then I thought about making it a responsibility for my substitute helpers, who have also been tasked with passing out lunch cards each day.

And that’s when it hit me: I need more jobs.

In fact, I need a job for every student, every day.

So I Googled “classroom job ideas” and found a list from Scholastic that was pretty good but I adapted it to fit my needs and added a few roles. Then I updated my classroom job chart, so this is what it looks like now:


I have also typed up brief descriptions of the jobs that will be placed next to the chart so that students can see what they are expected to do. I am sure that there will be some bumps along the way as we get these new routines in place, but I am also sure that making sure that every student has a job to do every day will help strengthen our sense of community.

And hopefully less chaos at the end of the day.

New Schedule

I admit, I sometimes get in a rut when it comes to doing things a certain way at a certain time. I like schedules, I like consistency, and I like to keep things the way they are if they are working.

Of course, sometimes things aren’t working and I keep trying to keep them the way they are, anyway.

This is kind of silly, especially because one of my personal mantras is a quote from the movie “Australia.” After two of the main characters have discussed something they both view as a problem and one says that it should be changed, the other responds, “But that is just the way it is!” The first then makes brilliantly simply yet profound statement:

So after nearly three months of trying to find a better way to get some better control to our end of the day routines in our classroom, I realised that one of the problems has been a direct result of having P.E. scheduled from 2:15-2:45. That time just has not given us enough time to return to the classroom, get packed up, and ready to go without a lot running around and chaos.

As a result, I was finally able to look at the P.E. schedule for the building and found that another teacher recently moved her times, which opened up the spots from 1:00-1:30 on Monday and Wednesday. I checked with the various interventionists who work with my students and decided to take the spots. Moving our P.E. times allowed me move our literacy block forward half an hour and move my daily read aloud to the very end of the day. So this is what my new schedule looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 4.45.52 PM

We started working with this new schedule last Friday but we had a lot of changes in the day so today was our first time really trying to follow it. The day worked fairly well until it got to be time to pack up (Today’s Topics on the schedule). Things were still a bit chaotic and so we were not able to read more of Fablehaven. We did have a brief class discussion about it, though, and it seems like the students are willing to give it a go again. I am hopeful that this schedule will be better once we work out the kinks.

But if it doesn’t, that just means I have to do something new!


Unplanned Teachable Moments

Teachers are expected to plan out their lessons. In teacher preparation programs, you spend vast quantities of time learning how to design lesson plans that are aligned to state standards with clear student-centric objectives. Lesson plans should be built around enduring understandings and essential questions. We agonize over what we want to say and what the students might and points that might need clarification. And yet no matter how well we plan, students always manage to ask the unanticipated question, make the unusual connection, or throw us for a curve.

Some teachers get frustrated when this happens and tell the students that such questions or remarks aren’t appropriate. I remember a time my baby sister was in a class and the teacher made some comment about how you could achieve anything if you just set your mind to it. She asked, at the age of fourteen, what would happen if you were born without arms but dreamed of being an concert pianist. Rather than take advantage of the outlier question and discuss ways that people have overcome adversity, the teacher said to her, “Stop wasting my time with such stupid questions or you can just not come back.” When I heard about this, I was furious! The quickest way to stifle a young person’s innate curiosity is to devalue their questions and cut them down. Fortunately, my sister knew this and was able to continue to learn and grow. She just learned to never ask questions of that particular teachers. Seven years later and it still makes me angry to just think about it.

Other teachers know that the curveballs are just another way that learning happens. The cliché advice to expect the unexpected is what makes teaching such a worthwhile and valuable pursuit. Being prepared to go on a side trip to explore students’ questions and challenge our assumptions is how we learn and grow together. And when a teacher doesn’t have an answer, teacher and student begin to learn together. It is always a wonderful experience. And even though I half-jokingly tell my students that I know everything, I always follow that statement with the observation that the reason I know everything isn’t because I have every fact filed away in my mind but because I know how to find answers and that is what I want my students to learn how to do that, too.

Today I experienced one of these unplanned teachable moments. We were doing a Number Talk that involved adding two multidigit numbers. One of the strategies a student shared was something like this:

7,761 + 4,123 =

(7,000 + 4,000) + (700 + 100) + (60 + 20) + (1 + 3) =

11,000 + 800 + 80 + 4 =


I noted that this student’s strategy took advantage of expanded notation to group numbers by their place value. Several students raised their hands and one of them asked what expanded notation was. I realised that I had an assumption in my observation that was demonstrably false: not all of my students knew what expanded notation was. This turned into a minilesson for the whole class on place value. After I finished teaching about place value and expanded notation, I had the students work independently on Front Row on the Numbers and Base Ten domain so that they could get differentiated practice on this skill.

And yet my lesson plan said that we would review strategies for solving addition and subtraction problems, including open number lines and the standard vertical algorithms, and that students would use mental math strategies to evaluate the reasonableness of their answer. Did I expect to teach place value and expanded notation? No. Did I ignore the students who didn’t understand the concept or needed clarification? Of course not! Did the students who already got it feel like I was wasting their time? Nope. Why? Because I included them as peer teachers and had them help others as we worked through the concept.

All moments in the classroom should be teachable moments. Most of them will probably be planned. But when the unplanned ones happen, I hope that all teachers will take advantage of the opportunity and be willing to acknowledge that a student who asks a question is asking a question worth exploring and answering.


Another Year Gone

And we are done.

I have to say, this has been a draining year, physically, mentally, and emotionally. There have been a lot of challenges. I’d like to say we overcame all of them, but I don’t know if that is quite true. We overcame a lot of them, though. From the first day to the the end, we have grown.

Sure, our progress has been “two steps forward, one step back” but it has still been progress. My students and I learned together. We explored together. We experimented with changes to classroom routines, classroom procedures, and classroom policies. We used technology in ways we had never used it before. We learned what worked and we learned what didn’t. We set lofty goals and we made progress toward them.

Was it a home run? No, not really. Was it the best year I’ve ever had? No. Was it the worst? Well, no, it wasn’t that, either. It had its high points and its low points and its mid points and through it all, we persevered.

Maybe that is the best thing to have come out of this year. I and my 21 students learned that we could keep on plugging away, keep on moving, and keep on learning, no matter how long and hard the road.

And speaking of goals, the students at Wiley this year were challenged to do 1,000,000 math problems in the second semester. Just like two years ago, I offered to sacrifice my curly locks of hair if they did it.

Well, we didn’t quite reach the goal. In fact, we were just over the half-way mark. 502,413, to be specific.

So, what did we do yesterday afternoon?

We rewarded the students for reaching half of their goal.

Photo on 5-28-15 at 4.14 PM

The rest of the hair is going away this afternoon.

Have a wonderful, safe, fun summer! I’ll be posting from time to time, so feel free to check back, or just follow me on Twitter to catch when I post.


New (Temporary) Principal

Our building principal has been involved in education for a long time. She’s done just about everything there is to do. She’s been the principal of our building for about six years now, I believe. She has been a constant presence in our building since I started here and I think our entire school community has grown accustomed to her way of doing this. Unfortunately, she has had to take a leave of absence to attend to personal family matters. This is going to be a tough transition for our school family, but we all want to support our principal in doing what is best for her family at this time.

In the interval, we will have a substitute principal who has worked in Urbana and Champaign schools in the past and was actually here at Wiley back in December for about a week. I am grateful to have someone in the building who is familiar with our school and our community helping out as we enter the last quarter of the year! I am also glad that our district superintendent has made a commitment to support our entire school community during this time.

Change can be challenging, especially when it comes without warning. But we are strong and we will do what we always do: take it, roll with it, and continue onward.

But there are some things that I know won’t change:

  • The students aren’t going to give up on their challenge to complete 1,000,000 math problems by the end of May so that I can finally get my hair cut again! (Yep, we are doing another challenge to shave Mr. Valencic’s head!)
  • The students aren’t going to give up on their goal to earn the colours needed for our second annual Wiley Colour Run at the end of the year!
  • The teachers and students are still going to prepare for an amazing kickball game!
  • Students and teachers are still going to work together, learn together, and grow together.

It is going to be a good nine weeks. Happy Spring!

Hearing Brightly

I have always had hearing loss. I typically describe the level of my hearing loss as about 75% deaf in my left ear and about 50% deaf in my right ear. I’ve never actually asked a doctor how accurate this description is, but it is how it has felt for me. I had hearing aids for most of my childhood and early adulthood, but I got to a point where they were lost or broken or both and I simply didn’t have the money or insurance to cover replacing them.

I finally got a new hearing aid during my first or second year of teaching here at Wiley but it was an old model that didn’t do much more than amplify all of the noise around me, which didn’t really help. Also, it was a model that fit behind the ear and that caused several problems for me, too. And on top of all that, it was for my left ear, which has, for reasons unknown to me or my team of medical professionals, never been able to keep a hearing aid working for long.

Then last year someone suggested I get in touch with an agency in town that might be able to help with hearing aids. I met with a representative in May and started the process. It took a long time. In fact, the entire summer passed and I still hadn’t even had a mold for my ears made or been able to select a model of hearing aid, although I knew exactly what kind I wanted. But I persevered.

In the meantime, my hearing got worse. I got a really bad case of tinnitus, so I have had a constant buzzing sound similar to cicadas in the background. This has made it really difficult to hear quiet conversations and sometimes to even hear clearly what people were saying to me in a normal conversational tone. But I persevered.

I met with my audiologist again a few months ago, got a new set of hearing tests done, got molds taken of both of my ears, and selected the model of hearing aid that would most help me in my work environment. Then it seemed like another forever-long wait. But I persevered.

Then I got a call from my audiologist last week, asking if I could come in for a fitting. I was elated! I scheduled the appointment, went in, and saw my new hearing aids. They were everything I had hoped for. She and her intern explained some of the features, and put them in.

At first, nothing happened. And then, just as I was getting ready to ask, I had an experience that came directly out of a book. She turned them on:

How can I describe what I heard when the doctor turn on my hearing aids? Or what I didn’t hear? It’s too hard to think of words. The ocean just wasn’t living inside my head anymore. It was gone. I could hear sounds like shiny lights in my brain It was like when you’re in a room where one of the lightbulbs on the ceiling isn’t working, but you don’t realize how dark it is until someone changes the lightbulb and the you’re like, whoa, it’s so bright in here! I don’t know if there’s a word that means the same thing as “bright” in terms of hearing, but I wish I knew one, because my ears were hearing brightly now.

I don’t know if R.J. Palacio has experienced hearing loss herself or know someone who has, but this description from Wonder has perfectly captured my experience with hearing aids for the past several days. I love the wording: hearing brightly. That really is what it sounds like.

And while it is going to take me some time to get used to all of the ambient noises around me and even longer to get used to the sound of my voice, I am so thrilled to be able to hear again!

PARCC Testing – Day One

Concern about the latest incarnation of high-stakes standardised testing has been at a frenzy over the past several months. The same type of testing that has existed (albeit without the high stakes) in our nation since at least the mid-1930s. The same type of testing that has been a major part of our national educational conscience since the late 1980s when the Reagan administration released A Nation at Risk and then the first Bush administration released  America 2000 followed by the Clinton administration’s  Goals 2000 before we finally settled on the second Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind.

The names of the tests have changed, the format and content have changed, but the test themselves have been around for a long time. Now that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been fully adopted, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) has developed an assessment aligned to the CCSS that Illinois has, along with 17 other states, adopted as our high-stakes standardised test.

And because it is new and because of a hundred million reasons, it seems like everyone has been going crazy over the tests, talking about opting out, refusing to do it, the possible impact it will have on our schools and our students, and whether or not we are ready.

Some schools have devoted weeks, even months to test preparation. Some districts have paid large sums of money for test prep kits and modules. There are some states that are tying students exam results to teacher evaluation and student promotion. These are all decisions with which I disagree.

What did we do in my tiny fourth grade classroom on the edge of east central Illinois? We looked at the math and English/Language Arts (ELA) modules available on the PARCC website and we did a tutorial on how to use the online tools.

That’s all.

Otherwise, our days have gone as usual. Math at the start of the morning, social studies or science in the middle of the morning, literacy at the end of the morning. Lunch then a read aloud before fine arts. Ending the day with writing. Other tasks and activities sprinkled liberally throughout the day. Just doing what we do every day, some of it very productively and some of it needed to be revised before trying it again.

And then the day of testing arrived.

My class was the first one scheduled to start the day, with the students doing the first ELA section. (There are three ELA sections and two mathematics sections.) We had a breakfast snack in the morning and I made sure every student had a chance to use the restroom. Then we headed across the hall to the computer lab. My principal was there. And my librarian. And my reading interventionist. And my instructional coach. And my superintendent. Wow. No pressure, right?

The students came in quietly, took their seats, and followed my directions. We got them logged in, and then they get started. There were no disruptions, no distractions, and no problems. My students know how to use technology. They know how to navigate websites. They know how to access digital tools that are made available.

Was the test itself easy for every? No, not really.

Am I worried about the test results? No, not really.

Do I think that high-stakes standardised testing of all students is necessary? No, not really.

Do I think this is something that teachers, administrators, parents, or students should be anxious about? No, not really.

I keep thinking about the letter about PARCC testing that my superintendent recently distributed to all families in the district and shared on our district web site. Specifically, I am thinking about this line:

“We do not allow one assessment to define our students, our teachers, or our schools.”

And at the end of the day, as I sit in my empty classroom and think about what the rest of this week will bring, I keep reminding myself of one simple truth: My students did their best. How can I possibly expect them to do anything more than that?

Getting Out of a Slump

I just realised it has been over a week since I last wrote a blog post. I don’t know why I’ve had such a hard time updating each day this year. Maybe it is because of grad school, maybe it is because I feel so totally exhausted at the end of the day, maybe it is just because I feel like I am repeating myself a lot after more than four years of blogging about my teaching experiences.

The thing is, I don’t think I actually am repeating myself all that much. Each year provides a new class with new experiences and each day is a fresh start. I don’t think I’m in a rut or in a slump. I think I’m just trying to get back into the habit of writing. My father-in-law, whose many hats includes published author, has often shared that one of the tricks to writing is to just do it. Write! Every single day!

This is good, sound advice! So is this bit of wisdom from a favoured author:

So even though I’ve said it before, I’m going to say it again, because it is the same standard that I hold my students to: I need to write every day. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to be something. Of course, it has to be something about the classroom, even if it is just a brief snippet of a conversation with a student.

I want my students to work on their writing every day. I can’t in good conscience tell my students to do something that I myself am not willing to do, too. So I am going to start writing again every day and hopefully I will get out of this slump and back into the swing of things. After all, this blog is my space to reflect on my teaching practices and what happens in my classroom and I can’t do that if I am not, well, doing it!

I also need my handful of faithful readers to hold me accountable. Whether you call me out on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, phone call, text message, or carrier pigeon, I need someone to be my writing accountability buddy. So if you are willing to help me, please let me know if I haven’t shared something on my blog by 5 pm!



About Those “What Gifts NOT to Give” Articles You’ve Probably Seen

Well, that may be just about the longest blog post title I’ve written on this blog. Maybe not. I haven’t actually gone back to look at all of them to see. Oh well. I digress before I even start.

A teacher friend of mine from Champaign shared a blog post/article this morning on Facebook. She was not sharing it because she agreed with it, though. She shared it because it upset her and she wanted to know what her other teacher friends thought. All of us have agreed: it is terrible.

Two or three times a year, someone on the Internet writes a post about giving gifts to teachers that is trying to be helpful. I try to look at them in the best possible light and I try to remember that the authors really are trying to be helpful. Unfortunately, they also always make me feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially when the author prefaces her post by saying, “I am a teacher, so I know.” The articles are not the same, but they have the same message: Don’t buy this gift or that for a teacher. She won’t really like. He won’t want to keep it. She will smile and accept it and throw it in the trash. He would rather you gave him something else.

It makes me sad.

Very, very sad.

You see, I was one of those kids who each year gave his teachers the same gift: a coffee mug with some chocolates inside and a thank you note. I was one of those kids that came from a large family (five older brothers and two younger sisters) and so many of my teachers had taught many Valencic children over the year. And I was one of those kids that came from a family that was not wealthy. In all honesty, we were somewhere between poverty and lower middle class. I don’t write that in an effort to shame my parents. I don’t write that to garner sympathy. I write it because it was the reality of my childhood, but it was a reality that I was mostly unaware of. My parents always made sure we had life’s essentials: food, shelter, clothing, love, and books. But because of our financial situation and because of the size of my family, it wasn’t feasible to provide costly gifts for all of those teachers. But my parents wanted to make sure that we knew that our teachers were important, and gifts around the holiday season were one way of doing that.

So when I see a blog post that tells parents to stop giving coffee cups, chocolates, homemade treats, lotions, soaps, ornaments, knickknacks, flowers, plants, etc. I can’t stay silent. I can’t let my lack of a voice be a passive consent to such words. So I am writing a rare weekend blog post, writing much more personally than I usually do here, and asking all parents to please, please, please, please ignore those posts. Don’t believe the person who says the teacher doesn’t appreciate the gift. Don’t buy into the notion that there are “right” and “wrong” gifts for a teacher. And please, please, please, please, please do not feel like you are obligated to purchase, make, or send a gift for your child’s teacher. Once something is an obligation, it is no longer a gift; it is tribute. And that is the last thing I want any child or parent to feel that they have to provide.

I realise I have only been teaching professionally for seven years and that I am only in my fourth year teaching full time. I realise that teachers who have taught for decades have probably been given more gifts than they have room to store them. But I talked to some of these teachers and I read their comments on my friend’s initial post on Facebook. Here is what these teachers and retired teachers had to say about gifts:

“I am truly appreciative of every single GIFT I receive. I still have the coffee cup Lawrence gave me 15 years ago and I think of his precious face every time I use it!!!”

“One of my most challenging students one year gave me a simple pin that he helped make. It said “Teachers Have Class!” The pin part broke off so I turned it into a magnet. Every time I look at it, I think about that student. It doesn’t matter that I have pins and magnets already; it matters that it came from him. He was so proud of it!”

“I put a Christmas ornament on the tree this year that is 26 years old from a student in my first class.”

A little girl in my very first class made me an apple ornament for my tree. That was back in 1978. Every year when I hang that ornament I think about her. I didn’t always keep all the gifts I received over the years (I could have opened an Avon store), but I treasure the memory and the thought behind every single one of them. Being a support staff teacher I never received as many gifts as regular classroom teachers but I never scoffed at any. The thought behind every gift always made me smile and I was always touched that students and their parents thought of me. Particularly with parents who couldn’t afford to give me gifts, the fact that they did was all the more touching.”

And the personal memory that prompted me to write this: “I have one gift that I got from a student that always makes me smile because of the presentation. He shuffled in with his head down, as was his usual method, handed me a package without looking at me, and said, “My mom made me give this to you.” It was a shirt being sold online that I had seen and shared on Facebook. I see this student now each morning as he walks to the middle school, head held high, laughing and talking with friends, and always stopping to say hello to me as I am working the car drop-off. Such a change in such a short period of time!”

So during this holiday season, as the end of the first semester quickly approaches, if you feel the need to give a gift, if you or your child saw something and thought, “Wow, I bet Mr. Valencic would love that!” and you want to give it as a gift, go ahead and do so. I will graciously and grateful accept with all sincerity. I know what such gifts truly mean and what they are truly worth.

Celebrating Small Victories

I wrote recently about the short-term “token economy” system that our new music teacher and I decided to put into place for my class as an effort to bolster their positive behaviour. Another thing I have done with my classes over the years to support following rules and meeting expectations has been using a pebble jar. I have had varying success with the pebble jar over the years, but it has been more positive than not, so I’ve continued to use it. (When I first introduced it this year, I had hoped we’d be able to fill the jar in three weeks. It has taken us almost three months. Hopefully the second filling will go much faster!)

The jar I use holds 168 glass pebbles. My class had earned 167 of them but was still having a hard time with expectations, especially in Music. So I decided to have them earn the last pebble by getting an “excellent” report from the music teacher. “Pretty good, “okay,” and “all right” were not going to be good enough for the pebble. It had to be “excellent.” To show how big a deal this last pebble was, I even put it in a ring box so that I could display it while we waited to earn it.

The first few days of trying to earn the last pebble didn’t go so well and I began to briefly despair. But then things got just a little bit better. And then still a little better. Then we had a “good” report. But I was still waiting for that “excellent.” On Wednesday, we had an amazing morning. And the afternoon read aloud went pretty well, so I was being cautiously optimistic about my class’s ability to hold it together through Music. I reminded them of the last pebble once again, dropped them off, and then went about doing the usual prep work I do in the classroom with my student teacher while they were gone.

When I went to pick them up, I immediately noticed something different: the class was quietly lined up, waiting patiently, and the music teacher was actually smiling! I asked her how things went.

She looked at the class.

The class looked at her.

I looked at all of them.

Then she said the words we had been waiting to hear: “You know, Mr. Valencic? I think I have to say that today was pretty… excellent!”

The whole class cheered. I cheered (inside). As we walked out, they all seemed to hold their heads a little higher and were just a little more relaxed and more focused on their afternoon task of reading with their Learning Buddies before returning to the classroom for math. It was a small victory, to be sure, but a victory nonetheless.

The next day we had a vote for how to celebrate. The class came up with the ideas and then selected their favourite. They decided they wanted to have an electronics party. Students were invited to bring in personal electronic devices (which I kept locked in a cabinet during the day) and got to use them for 30 minutes this morning. Those who didn’t bring in devices were able to use the Nooks and the Chromebooks.

Before starting the celebration, I talked with the class about the difference between how they felt when they earned their last pebble (good, happy, excited, positive) and how they felt on other days (upset, frustrated, sad, angry). They all agreed that it felt a lot better to walk out of Music on Wednesday knowing that they had all done what they were supposed to do and they felt a lot better about themselves.

Do they still have some learned behaviours and habits that need to be unlearned and broken? Oh, definitely. Did they have an excellent day in the library yesterday and an excellent day in Music today? No, unfortunately, they didn’t. Did this experience give them a glimpse of what can be? Absolutely it did. And that’s my point for using the pebble jar: to focus students on the good and the positive and to encourage them to do more of that each day.

Learning To Let Go

It feels like it has been forever since I last wrote a blog post when, really, it has only been a week. It is just that the past week included our Thanksgiving Break. I didn’t write a post yesterday for the simple reason that I had two meetings after school and then class until late and I really wanted to eat dinner and go to bed last night. Toward the end of the year, I felt guilty when I “missed” a post, but as the weeks have gone by, I’ve realised something important: I need to know what is important.

I love blogging about my teaching experiences. I am delighted when family and friends mention that they have been keeping up with my blog, even if they don’t read every post. I am even more delighted when I learn that students’ parents are reading the blog to get a general idea of what we are doing in the classroom. It always makes me feel great when a fellow educator that I only know through other blogs and Twitter shares a post or starts “following” my blog through RSS feeds. But I don’t love feeling like I have to blog. And even though I try to update every day, I no longer feel guilty about missing a day because life happens.

Which gets me to my greater theme for today, which is a theme I’ve touched on before and is a theme that I have been trying to teach to my students: learning to let go. There are things in our lives that are really important. Things like family, friends, keeping promises, integrity, learning, and personal growth. These are things that are always going to take a priority in my life. Then there are things that aren’t all that important. A college football game, a television show, the premiere of a much-anticipated movie, the knot I choose to tie my necktie with in the morning. They may be worthwhile and they may be something I want to take the time for because I enjoy them and enjoy sharing in the experiences with others, but if I had to pick between spending time with family and watching a YouTube video to learn a new knot, I’m going to pick family, every time. (Ideally, though, I will watch that video with my family so that we can share in my weird hobbies together.)

Likewise in the classroom, there are things that are important and worth melting for, and there are things that just aren’t that big of a deal. My students will always come first in my classroom. Their physical and emotional safety and well-being are a priority. Their personal learning and growth are priorities, too. Following directions, doing what is expected, being safe, responsible, and respectful, these things are important. But there are some things that I can let go of because while they are important to me, they aren’t that important.

If I know that a student was up late one night because he was waiting for his dad to get home from an extended trip away from the family and as a result that student didn’t get a lot of sleep, I’m not going to have a conniption when he falls asleep on the carpet during my read aloud. Would I prefer that my students are alive, awake, alert, and enthusiastic? Of course! Is it something to make a big deal out of? Probably not. If I am teaching a math lesson and a student suddenly gets frustrated and flips her desk over and starts yelling at me (something that has never happened in my classroom), that’s a big deal. If two students are playing during recess and get into a physical altercation, that’s a big deal. If they are playing and they get into a disagreement and one says something unkind to the other, well, it is important that we understand why kind words are always better, but am I going to send the offender to the office? No, of course not. Because in the long run, it isn’t that big of a deal!

For the past two days, I’ve had an aide in my room helping with some changes that have taken place. I also had a student teacher from Eastern Illinois University spend some time in my room today as he is finishing his practicum work. This has been a great opportunity for me to reflect on why I allow my students to do some things that other teachers may not. For example, I typically allow my students to wear hats in my classroom, provided they are not distracting others and are simply staying on heads. It has been a small way that they can express their personalities. Non-distracting clothing and accessories are simply not a big deal to me, and so I choose to let it go.

Learning to let go of the small stuff is a big deal, though. It can be hard, especially when you are in the middle of something. I have found that something small can seem enormous if you are already in an agitated state. A student may have had several classmates make unkind comments about her friendship with another student in the class. And then someone else says something related, but not even unkind. Then she gets upset at this last person and nobody can understand why. But as I talk to those involved, the big picture comes together and then we understand what happened much more. If we take the time to stop and ask what is really going on, we usually find out that it wasn’t that big of a deal in the first place.

We only have thirteen days of school left before the winter break. My goal is to focus on learning to let go of the small stuff so we can focus on the big picture. I hope that while I am working on knowing when to let go, my students will work on it, too.

Turning Things Over

I love hosting student teachers in my classroom. They challenge me to continually think deeply about what I am doing, how I am doing it, and why I am making the choices I make. They also bring fresh ideas to the classroom that I love trying out. I also really enjoy being able to serve as a mentor as they are preparing to do full-time student teaching. Some of my student teachers pass through and then I don’t hear from them again. Others keep in touch. (My student teacher from last fall, Ms. Shapiro, got hired over the summer and is teaching fourth grade in Schaumburg!)

My student teacher this semester, Ms. Schultz, has been with us every Tuesday and Wednesday. She has taken on many responsibilities over the past several weeks, including some of the more mundane teacher tasks such as attendance and lunch cart to some of the very important instructional responsibilities of guided reading, math instruction, and our daily read aloud.

This week, however, was her trial by fire! Every student teacher in the fall is expected to take over all of the teaching responsibilities for two days. We decided to have her do her full take-over this week so that she wouldn’t have to do it after our extended Thanksgiving holiday break.

Even though she was doing all of the teaching, I was still in the classroom for the vast majority of the time. It was hard for me to sit back and not intervene when I noticed students off-task, but I soon realised that she totally had things under control. She was quick to redirect students and get them back on task and they were, for the most part, quick to respond. Many of the students were definitely challenging her authority yesterday but today they were much, much more responsive as they accepted that I was deferring responsibility to her. Any time someone came to me with a question, I directed their inquiries to Ms. Schultz first.

We still have several weeks left of the semester, and so Ms. Schultz will continue to be with our class each Tuesday and Wednesday. As we move toward the end, there will be less modeling and less just turning things over and much more co-teaching and co-planning. And that’s the other thing I love about having student teachers: serving as a mentor and helping them go from being observers who are usually trepidatious about being in a formal teaching assignment for the first time to being an active, eager part of a teaching team!

Body Safety

Every so often, our school has representatives from a coalition of the Urbana Fire Department, the Urbana Police Deapartment, the American Red Cross, and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District visit to talk to the students about different risks that students are exposed to during their day-to-day lives. Some of these include fire safety, gun safety, severe weather, and potentially hazardous liquids. Because of recent legislation in Illinois, our district has joined with the schools in Champaign to provide a body safety presentation, too. Members of the coalition visited each classroom yesterday and today to talk to the students about this very important safety topic.

They started by talking about “stranger danger” and the reminder that students shouldn’t engage in conversations with people they don’t know, especially when they are alone or with friends. Each student should have a list of safe adults that they can go to when they need help. They practiced saying “NO!” in a strong, loud, confident voice and were reminded that whenever they feel unsafe or uncomfortable they should say NO! and RUN AWAY to a safe place. The presenters shared strategies for getting away from a person who is trying to hurt them, including hitting them in a sensitive place.

There was a reminder that these strategies for staying safe are not meant to be used as games or jokes. They also shouldn’t be used when a student in mad at a teacher for telling them to stop doing something that is not safe, respectful, or responsible. Throughout the presentation, our school social worker was present to help monitor students and be aware of possible triggers.

The entire presentation was perfectly geared for my students and taught important skills and concepts without making anyone feel uncomfortable! I am very grateful to those in this student health and safety coalition for putting together these presentations and giving my students the tools and knowledge they need to keep themselves safe from danger.

Bus Evacuation

I have several students in my class who ride the bus to school, but the majority of them are either car riders or they simply walk home, due to the close proximity of the school to their homes. As a result, I have many students who don’t ride school buses all that much. We are only able to go on one or two field trips a year, depending on the distance and time, so some of my students are only on a school bus once every few months.

However, we want all of the students in our school to be trained in how to safely evacuate a bus in case of an emergency. Today was our bus evacuation training day. My students boarded a bus and first learned about the safety features, such as the high foam seat backs that are designed to absorb massive shock and prevent injury to students in case the bust has to stop quickly, or the plexiglass windows that are designed to be kicked out to create an exit in the event that the regular exits and emergency exits are inaccessible. They also learned that the bus is equipped with a GPS device that lets the district’s transportation supervisor monitor where all of the buses are at all times. There is a special sensor on the bus that is activated whenever the bus is turned off that detects motion in the case of a student accidentally being left on a bus. (Our driver told us that this has happened 14 times in the past year, but not in Urbana!)

The class also learned how to safely exit a bus through the rear door, by sitting down on the edge and hopping down, then having the taller, older students help smaller, younger students get down. We were told that it only takes 2 minutes for a bus to fill with smoke and just 4 minutes before it could be engulfed in flames, so it is urgent that, in the case of an emergency, they exit the bus as quickly as possible! They also learned how to exit a bus if it stalls on railroad tracks and a train is coming. They leave from either the front or the back and run 100 yards toward the train (staying off the tracks, of course) in order to be shielded from any potential debris.

After reviewing all of the safety precautions and the procedures for exiting a bus, we practiced a front-door exit. (There were three buses providing training this morning and there wasn’t enough space to practice a rear-door exit.) I was the first off the bus and timed my class. We were able to safely evacuate and get away in just 36.7 seconds! Not bad! I feel much more comfortable about the prospect of taking the class to Springfield this spring, knowing that if there is an emergency, my students will know what to do. And a huge shout-out to Dawn, our driver, who answered every student’s question and helped them feel more comfortable about being on a bus!

Feeding the Energy

We talk about energy in a lot of different ways. There is the scientific notion of energy as power used to carry out motion. There is also energy that describes how we are carrying out our own lives. There is also the energy we get from others that impacts our moods. (This energy is also given to others as we impact them.) Ideally, this energy is positive and builds us up, making us all feel a lot happier. But sometimes the energy is negative, and it makes us, and others, feel frustrated and upset.

The thing is, sometimes we can get so used to the negative that it starts to be what we feed on. It starts to be what we start to think of as positive because we honestly don’t know the difference. And then we don’t only come to expect negative to come to us, we start to believe that negative is all we should produce, too.

This is something we talked about as a class today. There has been a lot of negative energy in the room this year. Those who read my blog regularly know that I try to focus on the positives, but I also want to be honest. While we have had some amazingly wonderful things happen, I have been disheartened by all of the negative energy. As I’ve talked to other teachers, I’ve come to realise that this negativity has been hovering over my class like a dark raincloud for years. Even though each day is a fresh new start, my young students have a hard time understanding that and allowing each other to start over. They are used to the negative, they feed on the negative, and they do it because I think many of them honestly don’t know the difference.

So I decided today to focus on changing the message, changing the energy. We had a blow-up in the classroom after lunch during our read aloud. It doesn’t matter what happened, it doesn’t matter why it happened; what matters is it did happen. Some students had to leave the room to reset with another teacher. While they were gone, I felt it important to apologise for it happening. I know that my students don’t come to school expecting to have things blow up; they come to school expecting to learn. It is my job to provide an environment where that can happen. It is also my job to provide an environment where everyone feels safe.

The best way for this environment to exist is to focus on the positives. I asked my class to try an experiment. I told them that it would only work if each and every single one of them committed completely to trying it. The experiment is deceptively simple: stop feeding the negative energy. When a student blurts out an answer, we ignore it. When a student calls another student a name, we ignore it. When a student starts kicking their desk and insisting they need help, we ignore it. Those are negative behaviours and not the kind we want to reinforce. (Of course, I, as the teacher, am responsible for redirecting and reestablishing the correct, desired behavior. When I say “we” I am speaking of the class as a whole.) But when a student raises a hand and asks for help, we thank them and we provide help. When a student does the right thing, we praise it. The goal is to change the focus from the negative to the positive. It is all about changing what we’ve been doing.

We had an opportunity to try it out this afternoon. The students were reading silently at their seats while a few were finishing a writing assignment. One student started loudly complaining that it was too hard. Nobody responded. After several minutes of this, the same student raised a hand and when I came over, said, “Mr. Valencic, this is hard; I need help.” I calmly responded, “I understand; can you ask me for help instead?” After a pause, the student said, “Mr. Valencic, will you please help me?” I said, “Yes, of course! Thank you so much for asking!” I helped the student with the assignment and then, when it was done, I heard this observation: “Oh, I get how to do this! That was actually pretty easy!”

The whole room changed during this half hour. Instead of feeling tense, stressed, and anxious, the students were relaxed, calm, and focused. They ignored the negative energy but quickly acknowledged the positive.

Are things going to miraculously change over the weekend so that the negativity is gone? Honestly, I doubt it. We are still learning. Did we get a glimpse of the change we want to see? Absolutely we did. I’m going to take the weekend to recharge and refocus. I am planning on starting Monday fresh, with a new attitude and a new focus on the positive. After all, if I’m gonna make a change, I’ve gotta start with me!

Building Confidence In Ourselves

I taught my students about function tables today. It was interesting, actually, because they were just a part of the math lesson that is part of our first unit on the fundamental concepts of multiplication. The students’ homework assignments have included function tables several times, but today was the first official lesson.

Because these are fourth graders, the tables were pretty basic: one desk has four legs. If I have 5 desks, how many legs? (Answer: 20.) If I have 20 desks, how many legs? (40). If I have d desks, how many legs? The simple equation is l = 4 * d; we can also determine the number of desks by knowing the legs: d = l / 4. After just one example, most of the students were ready to complete the tables on their own and then solve word problems, too.

It was a simple assignment, but it resulted in one of the best things I can hear in a classroom: “Hey, I can do this! This is easy!”

It is what I love about the math series I use. It starts small and builds up bit by bit. Sometimes it can seem like it is moving too slowly, but it allows my students to build confidence in their own abilities. They realise that they can do things that once seemed daunting. Yes, we are going to spend at least a month of school reviewing multiplication facts and multiplying two digit numbers by a single digit. Yes, some of them can do this already. But even they will accept the challenge of doing it faster, improving their fluency and monitoring their accuracy.

Taking it slow at the start lets them build confidence so that when I introduce two-digit by two-digit multiplication, they recognise that they already know how to do it; they just have to learn a new application. The information is there in their heads and thus the knowledge because accessible. We are going to start using more digital technology to support differentiated learning soon. Students will use resources like XtraMath and Front Row to practice where they most need the help. But we are also going to work together as a class to support one another, build confidence in ourselves, and know that we really can do whatever is thrown our way. And who knows? Maybe one of my students will be the person to solve a supposedly impossible problem in theoretical physics and receive the Nobel Prize as a result. (If that happens, I hope they will remember their fourth grade teacher and at least give me a shout-out at the award ceremony!) Is that a big dream? It sure is! But it all has to start somewhere; why not in fourth grade?

Problem Solving

We had a pretty serious storm last night, with lots of lightning and thunder. As teachers were arriving early this morning, some of them noticed that one of the trees in the back of the building had been struck by lightning! There was a long strip of bark that had been blasted off and one of the limbs had a large crack in it. Our custodian noticed it and mentioned it to me this morning while we were working together at the student drop-off area. He also suggested I take my class to look at it in case the the district grounds personnel decide to have the tree removed.

I decided to take it one step further. I brought my class outside and had them look at the tree and figure out what the problem was. It took them a few minutes of discussion, but they eventually saw what our custodian saw: the tree had been hit by lightning and one of the limbs was broken. I then asked them to come up with a possible solution to the problem as we walked back to the classroom.

In the room, I had the students work in their groups of four to come up with a solution and write it as a letter to the custodian. Their letters had to have similar components: address the custodian, tell him what they saw, explain their solution, and thank him for his time. I also emphasised that the handwriting had to be clear so that others could read it. They worked on the letters for half an hour. As they finished, they turned them in so Ms. Schultz and I could read through them. We were very impressed with the suggestions!

Several said that he should use a chainsaw to cut the branch down. Others said that they needed to provide a support to hold the tree and the branch up so it wouldn’t fall down. One group even went so far as to suggest cutting the entire tree down and slicing the trunk into stools for students to sit on around the playground! All of the groups expressed concern about the branch falling and hitting buses or teachers’ cars.

I gave the six letters to the custodian who read them and said he would be talking to the grounds department about the need to assess the situation. I will let the class know tomorrow about his reaction so they will know that their voices can be heard and that they really can have a hand in solving problems in the classroom, in the school, in the community, and even in the nation!

Just So You Know, I Still Care

After today there are just six days left of school. Of those six days, at least one of them will include a half-day of fun and games as a school-wide celebration of the end of the year. Another afternoon will be the fifth grade musical and recognition. Another afternoon will be an assembly for third and fourth grade to show off some dances they have been working on. If it rains tomorrow afternoon, our kickball game will be delayed, and that will take up another afternoon. So time is really running short.

At this time of year, there are a lot of students who start to mentally check-out. This is a normal part of group dynamics, actually. There are teachers, too, who start to do this. The year is ending, they’ve done about all they can do, and it is time to start wrapping up and saying goodbye. Again, a perfectly normal part of life. We’ve spent all year together and now it is almost time to pack up, clean up, and move on.

But only almost.

You see, even with the half-days that are going to take away time from the classroom, and even with the swift approach of the year, we aren’t actually there yet. Every year, right about this time, I start to think about my all-time favourite Olympic marathon runner. He isn’t the guy who set records and dominated the field for years. I don’t even know if such a a guy exists. In fact, he’s not even the guy who won once, and the only record he probably set was for the worst Olympic marathon time. Maybe. I’ve never really checked. And, in fact, he was an Olympic  athlete long before I was even born. But I still love his story.

John Stephen Akwhari was Tanzania’s representative in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic marathon. During the race, he had gotten injured and lagged behind the other runners. This is his story:

For some reason, that story has always resonated with me and I think about it during this time of year. Even though we are so very close to the end, we aren’t actually there, and so I remind myself that just as Mr. Akwhari was not sent 5,000 miles to start a marathon, I was not given these 24 students to start the year. I was given them to finish. And that’s exactly what I am going to do. So even though some of them may have checked out and decided the year is done, I am going to keep on pushing them to push themselves to make it to the year. Because I still care, and that’s enough for me.

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!

Teacher Appreciation Week

In past years, I have used at least one post during Teacher Appreciation Week (the first week of May) to think about those teachers who have influenced me in my life and my career. These men and women have been a huge impact on my life and have really helped me become the person I am today. Earlier this morning, a post by a friend on Facebook made me think about another group of teachers that I admire, teachers I have never actually met in person but know about through their books, their blogs, and their Twitter accounts. These are the teachers I wish to acknowledge today, even if they never see, read, or even hear about this post.

Some of these teachers are men and women that I have interacted with through various online social media resources, others I have only admired from afar. All of them are, in my opinion, exemplars of the type of dedication and passion to education that I hope to emulate in my own work. This is in no way a comprehensive list. There are surely many more who deserve praise and accolades for all they do. Many of them do have blogs and I have linked them on here whenever possible. In no particular order, then, are the teachers who have influenced me, even if they don’t even know I exist.

First on the list is Esmé Raji Codell. I have written about her very briefly in the past, usually by sharing a favoured section of her book about her first year of teaching. I’ve never met her, although I’ve heard that she has visited the Champaign-Urbana-Savoy area (what I like to call Chambanavoy) in the past. I read her book, Educating Esmé, as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. It was one of the few required books that I both purchased and kept that year. I loved her story, her passion, her dedication, her honesty. It was her own diary from her first year as a teacher that actually inspired me to create a daily blog about my adventures, first in substituting and now as a fourth grade teacher.

Another teacher that I learned about through a book and later a movie is Erin Gruwell, famous for her Freedom Writers project in California. My mum got a copy of her book at a school board conference she attended one year and offered it to me. I read it and was captivated by the idea that student writing could be used as a force for social change. I also realised that the best writing will come when it is authentic–when students are writing for a purpose that is important to them and for them. I have tried to keep that in mind when I have my students write in my classroom. Whether they are responding to literature, thinking about social issues, expressing an opinion, or explaining how to do something, I want them to feel like their writing matters to their audience, even if that audience is just themselves. And while I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Ms. Gruwell, I have met one of her students, Manuel V. Scott, and I was impressed by the legacy that his high school English teacher passed on to him and that he is now passing on to others.

Mr. Greg Michie is a teacher from Illinois that I learned about through his memoir, Holler If You Hear Me, written about his experiences as a middle school teacher in the Back of the Yards neighbourhood of Chicago. Mr. Michie is one of those teachers who learned that the only way to truly reach his students was to meet them where they were. He found literature that appealed to them, he invited them to bring their lives and their culture to the classroom to share and to be accepted, and he made sure that each of his students knew that he really did care, even if they didn’t care back. His book is another one of the few selections from my undergrad days that has stayed in my personal collection and has been read more than once.

Not all of the teachers I am writing about today are teachers I know through books. Many are teachers who I have met through their blogs. As mentioned above, I have made an effort to link their blogs here if I felt they were relevant and worth sharing. (Spoiler: If I like a blog, I think it is worth sharing with others!) Honestly, I have no idea how many of them even know that I have shared their blogs or that I am a teacher blogger. I have no idea if there is even one other blog that has linked to me. And, again in all honesty, I don’t mind. I don’t blog for the traffic or the accolades. I blog because it allows me  to reflect on my teaching. I just realised that I have already written over 800 words, so I hope that these teachers will not feel slighted if I mention them all in one batch. Each one writes for a different purpose and has captured my attention for a different reason, but they all have one thing in common: they love teaching and they love education. So on this Teacher Appreciation Week, my thanks goes out to my online teacher colleagues and mentors (although they don’t know it!):

  • Mr. Colby Sharp, co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club and the person who inspired my own first-day-of-school welcoming speech
  • Mr. John Schumacher, a fellow Nerdy Book Clubber who uses videos and book trailers to get the right books into the right hands of the students who visit his library
  • Ms. Katherine Sokolowski, a fellow East Central Illinoisan and middle grade teacher who is devoted to sharing her passion for reading with her students
  • Ms. Pernille Ripp, a teacher who has taken social-emotional learning and fully integrated it into her classroom in a way that makes me constantly realise that there is so very much more I can be doing and so very much that I can stop doing to make room for the important stuff
  • Ms. Jennifer Orr, a teacher on the East Coast who has inspired me to be open and honest about my experiences as a teacher in a Title I school, but also to be positive and upbeat about all that happens
  • Amanda and Stacia, whose approach to mentor texts has gotten me to use far more picture books in my teaching this year than I have in all of my previous years combined
  • Mr. John Spencer, who is brave enough to write about what we can and should be doing differently, even if it isn’t very popular among the news media and political circles

To all of you, thank you so very much. I know I am a relatively obscure teacher in a relatively obscure school in a not-quite-so-obscure small urban community in the middle of corn and soybean fields, but I have been inspired by you and appreciate all that you do!


We are learning about the water cycle, weather systems, and climate in science. While most weather is fairly benign, fourth graders are almost always more interested in the severe ones: hurricanes, blizzards, and, of course, tornadoes.

Living in Illinois, tornadoes are a fact of life. There are an average of 64 tornadoes in Illinois each year, usually occurring between March and May. Yet most of these tornadoes are barely noticed by our residents. Some occur high in the atmosphere, some are brief, but some are much more severe. In 1917, there was a tornado in Mattoon, just south of us, that resulted in over 100 fatalities. In 1925, there was a tri-state tornado that killed 695 people. These were two of the worst tornadoes in our nation’s history.

Last year Illinois saw a huge number of tornadoes in the month of November, which is very, very, very uncommon for our part of the nation. The November 17 outbreak hit especially close to home for me. I grew up in the city of Washington, where my parents and many of my friends still live. On that day, an EF-4 tornado with winds of 190 mph tore through my hometown, causing millions of dollars in damages, but only causing two fatalities. My family was fine and while some of my friends had property damage, none had their lives and livelihoods completely destroyed. How is it that a tornado nearly a hundred years ago killed so many and a tornado last year, far more severe in strength, killed so few? I am sure that there will be many who debate the answer to this question, but I am confident that at least one aspect is preparation.

I am an Eagle Scout and a currently volunteer as the Cubmaster of a local Cub Scout pack. As Scouts, we are all about preparation. So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that I transfer these skills into all aspects of my life. I know how valuable it is to be prepared for any event. And thus I am very pleased when the Urbana Fire Marshall comes by our building with his safety house simulator every few months to help our students prepare for the worst. Today he came to talk about tornado safety.

Before going to the simulator, he and two of his colleagues spoke with the students about creating a disaster preparedness kit with water (one gallon per person per day), food (non-perishables like canned goods and individually-wrapped protein bars), first-aid kits, flashlights (with extra batteries), portable radios, and even simple card games to provide a way to pass the time. Then we went to the simulator where we practiced getting to a safe space in the house (basement or room in the middle of the ground floor, preferably without windows and/or pipes) and following the directions of meteorologists and parents.

Do things like this help? What about our monthly severe weather drills that we do in our school when the sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of the month? Rather than getting the answer from me, I will defer to this six-year-old from my hometown:

Tornadoes and other severe weather are interesting to study. Students are fascinated by them. Teachers are fascinated by them. But it is important to realise that they are very much something to take seriously when they happen. I am grateful to my own teachers, parents, and older brothers who showed me how to be safe during storms. I hope that my students will take this in and pass it on, too.