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.