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

Posts tagged “Fifth Grade

Field Trip: Black Violin

I love data. Really, I do. I find it incredibly valuable to look at data and interpret the story of what the numbers and facts represent. Data tell us so much about what a student is doing at a specific time, what is happening in a room or a school, and how students, teachers, administrators, and families are operating as a system. I love digging in deep and sifting through the massive amounts of collected data to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

A big component of data these days comes from standardised testing. There are many who thumb their noses at such assessments, rightfully arguing that not all students learn the same way or at the same rate, therefore testing them all the same way does not accurately tell us the whole picture. And I agree, especially with that last part: standardised tests should never be used to determine the whole picture. However, they do give us useful data about part of the picture and we can use that part of the picture to understand how some of the other components are working. Data drives instructional decisions and help us know what we need to do to help our students be successful.

But there are some things in a school setting that can’t be measured by hard data. There are some things that simply cannot be adequately measured, categorised, and tagged. I got a brief glimpse of this today as I went with my class, along with the other fourth grade class and both fifth grade classes, to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to see and listen to a performance of by Black Violin. This performance was a part of the Krannert Center’s amazing Youth Series, which allows young people the opportunity to watch fantastic performances in a world-class facility for a very low cost. Black Violin, for those who have never heard of them, here’s a video that provides a great explanation of what they do:

For about an hour, our students got to listen to a performance that energised and excited them. I saw students standing up, clapping, singing along, cheering, and full of a pure joy that will never be captured by a standardised test.img_4929

And that’s okay. In fact, that is more than okay. It is wonderful! The thing I love most about taking my students to Youth Series performances is that I am able to see a completely different side to my students than I will never get to see in the classroom. The message that Kev and Wil shared is that we should be willing to break out of our boxes, defy stereotypes, and do the unexpected. Watching these two guys on the stage with their violins, playing a synthesis of classical music and hip-hop, is all about breaking stereotypes!


Thank you, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Black Violin, for making it possible!

Book Review: The Sixty-Eight Rooms

When I first started teaching at Wiley, I heard about an off-campus learning experience that our fifth graders got to do called KAM-WAM. This was an opportunity for the students to spend a week at the Krannert Art Museum, learning about art and history and literature and movement and light and so many other things. As part of this project, most of the students would be reading the book Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, Some of the students would read a similar book by Marianne Malone called The Sixty-Eight Rooms. This latter book floated in the background of my mind for several years until last year when I met the author at the Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington. Hearing her talk about the book and some of the processes involved in writing it piqued my interest and I purchased a copy (which I also got autographed, of course).


As with so many other books, this went on my To Be Read pile by my bed but then stayed there for months as new books went on top and other obligations got in the way. I finally read it this summer and quite thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the first in a series of books that incorporate a theme of magic in modern days along with interesting art history.

What I found most intriguing in this story was the incorporation of the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have only been to the Art Institute once in my entire life but now I very much want to go again so I can visit the exhibit and share in the wonder of the miniature rooms that Mrs. James Ward Thorne created to represent, on a scale of one inch to one foot, everyday life from Europe and America.

The characters from this story are equally compelling and I found myself wanting to cheer when they solved a problem, hug them when challenges were overcome, and laugh when they shared secret jokes that, as a reader, I was in on.

If I ever have the opportunity to bring a class to the Art Institute of Chicago, I will make sure that they have read this book first and come to the exhibit prepared to question, to wonder, and to observe. And if I am unable to bring my students to the Art Institute, I would find a way to bring the Art Institute to them!

Collaborative Discussions

Today is Tuesday. My district has asked that I submit student progress reports by 11:59 pm tonight. My students are still expected to be at school tomorrow and on Thursday, both full days. At this point of the year, there are some teachers who would surely be ready to throw in the towel and fill the day with fun, non-essential activities; things that I would tend to refer to as “fluff” or, to use a word that sits in my categories/tags list and is rarely used, floccinaucinihilipilification.

I am not one of those teachers.

I realise that any formative or summative assessments I do at this point will not count toward students’ final progress reports, but that doesn’t mean I am not going to be assessing. Assessing is something that I do all day, every day. If I don’t know what my students know, if I don’t know what they are capable of doing, if I don’t know what they have learned, if I don’t know how well I have taught then, quite frankly, I have failed to do my job. Knowing these things is what assessment is all about. Assessment isn’t just giving a paper-and-pencil test or a computer-based test. Assessment is “the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.” And that happens in a lot of ways every day.

So even though today was the last Tuesday of my students’ fourth grade career, even though it was the last Tuesday of this academic year, and even though we are now 13 hours and 30 minutes of school time (actually just 12 hours of instructional time) away from the end of the year, I am still teaching and I am still assessing.

Today I decided to teach my students about participating in “grand conversations.” A grand conversation is a collaborative discussion among all the members of the classroom in which students ask each other questions, respond to each other’s questions, and listen closely to one another so that they can respond to what others have said. Some of the phrases I want my students to be used to using are among the following:

  • I think . . . because . . .
  • I (also) agree with . . . because . . .
  • I (also) disagree with . . . because . . .
  • . . . ‘s comment reminds me of  . . .
  • . . . , can you explain what you meant when you said . . . ?

These are simple statements, but they are so helpful in guiding these conversations. To practice participating in a grand conversation, I read Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen to the class, displaying it on my Promethean ActivPanel as I did so. This allowed the students to see the text and the pictures and refer to them as we discussed the question of whether or not lions should be permitted to be in the library.

One student started the conversation by sharing her opinion. Another student began to say that he agreed with her, but instead of explaining why, he went off on a tangent that indicated that he was more interested in sharing his own thinking than in responding to her initial comment. I had to stop him and explain how the sentence starters are used. Then I called on another student. (Yes, we are still early enough in the process that I still need to facilitate the conversation.) I later came back to the second student who stated that the first student’s comment made him think about something else.

The entire conversation went fairly well, with many students participating. We ran out of time, however, so not all had a chance to give input. What shocked me, however, was how many students were upset that they didn’t get to share, including students who normally refrain from participating!

We will do a couple more grand conversations tomorrow and Thursday before students head home for the summer. It is my hope that many will remember doing this so when they start fifth grade they will be able to access the memory and jump into the process.

Like I said, we are still working and still learning. We have have just two days of school left, but they are going to be busy ones, with lots of learning and applying!

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, my class reached a consensus on the question and decided that tame lions should be allowed in libraries as long as they don’t hurt anybody or ruin the books or furniture.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration 2015

Each year our school has a special assembly to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know how long this tradition has gone on, but I know it has been many, many years. This year’s assembly kind of snuck up on us, in part because of the two “cold days” we had right after winter break, which is when we usually plan and organise the assembly.

However, we were still able to put together a great program, in large part due to the Herculean efforts of our visual arts teacher and one of our dance/drama/music teachers. Different classes put together presentations, including songs, videos, and poetry recitals. The first graders sang a song about being peacemakers. One of the third grade classes shared a video about ways that they can make Dr. King’s dream a reality. A fifth grade class presented a video of students reading excerpts of poems by Langston Hughes. The other fifth grade class did a song. One of the fourth grade classes (not mine) did an animation based on a poem about Dr. King. (My class was going to do an animation to a song by the Beatles but we simply ran out of time.)

The entire assembly was led by the handsome engagement director guy from the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, who has been a long-time friend to Wiley Elementary School and has become a part of our school family over the years. Families were invited to attend and join in group singing while celebrating the work of a man who dedicated his life to ending racial inequality and fighting for justice. Our society still has a long way to go before we truly achieve the dream that Dr. King shared, but I truly believe we are doing better than we were in the past. This weekend, take some time to reflect on not just what Dr. King did, but also the other men and women who struggled to bring about civil rights for all people.

Intermediate Informance Assembly

The music/dance/drama teacher for the intermediate classes this year has done some amazing work with Wiley’s third, fourth, and fifth graders. The students have been working hard throughout the year. This last quarter has been their dance block. In addition to meeting with them during their regular fine arts time, she has been taking the fourth grade classes to work on dances and songs related to our social studies units throughout the year.

Today, though, the intermediate classes were putting on what she called an “informance,” or an informational dance to show what they have learned. Earlier in the day, she asked if we could bring our two fourth grade classes together to practice their dances for the afternoon. After running through their performances a couple of time, my fourth grade partner and I decided to utilise our time in the gym for some more practice so the classes could work at syncing up with each other. I think the extra practice really helped! It also let us, as their teachers, see who was paying attention in fine arts classes!

The assembly started with the third grade classes each doing a dance. It was really cool watching how the classes have come together to learn these dances. The fifth graders also did two dances, one inspired by traditional African dance and one from their upcoming musical. But as much fun as those were, my interest was, of course, on the middle performances of the fourth graders!


Spring Training

One of the highlights of the end of the year at Wiley is the epic (and yes, I do mean epic) Teachers vs. Students Kickball Game. This tradition has last several years and I have been a proud part of it since my first year here. (Admittedly, this is only my third year, but still, I love the kickball game!) The game is a part of our annual Wiley Fun Day, which is our big PBIS send-off for the year.

Not all of the teachers play, but there are enough of us who volunteer to do so that we are able to field a respectable team. The students’ team, on the other hand, is by peer nomination. The six intermediate classes (third through fifth grades) each select two boys and two girls to represent them on the team. I allow my students to vote for the classmates they want to have participate based on the criteria of athletic skill and good sportsmanship. We have had students in the past who were very athletic but had failed to demonstrate good sportsmanship and therefore didn’t make the team. Each year I can guess who will be selected but I refrain from sharing my thoughts with the students because I want them to have total ownership over the selection.

Before voting, though, I make sure all students have an opportunity to properly train for the game! So we use our last few weeks of school to train during P.E. If the weather is agreeable, we go outside and have kickball games. Today, though, it was cold and damp, so we did some indoor training. After stretching and warming up, the students divided themselves into two groups which ended up being all the boys in one group and all the girls in the other. (This was entirely their doing.)

For the next ten minutes, the girls practiced throwing, catching, and sometimes dodging while the boys practiced speed and dexterity. Then they switched places and practices for another ten minutes. Some students were initially reluctant to participate, but their friends encouraged them and soon everyone was joining in on our Spring Training. We will continue our kickball unit for the next couple of weeks before voting for our representatives on the Wiley Student Kickball Team.


For several years now, fifth grade students at Wiley have had the opportunity to spend an entire week of school at the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign. The museum, affiliated with the University of Illinois, has an impressive collection of artwork and some amazing educators who are passionate about sharing art with students. This event, known as KAM-WAM, has been the envy of younger students. As I have watched my former students move up and participate, I, too, have felt envy that they had this remarkable experience. I love museums, I love art, and, no surprise, I love art museums!

So it was with quite a large amount of excitement that I learned last year that the fourth graders would get to pilot a sister program. Instead of spending a whole week at the museum, they would get to spend just one day, but it would still be the entire day. A team was assembled and we started planning over the summer and then met a few times over the course of this year, determining the format, the schedule, and the purpose. A date was selected, permission slips sent home, and finally the day, today, arrived. Noting that the day would be quick but powerful, it was decided that this shorter event would be known as KAM BAM.


Even though it was bitterly cold outside, we loaded our 45 fourth graders (three were absent today) onto the bus shortly after school started and headed over to the art museum. After a brief introduction and reminder of museum rules and policies, the students split into their four groups and went on a scavenger hunt around the museum for the morning, learning about the different galleries. Students got to view art from around the world, including eastern Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, Africa, South America, and even contemporary North America. They learned, they examined, they discussed, and they shared prior knowledge about cultures and art.



The afternoon was spent in four different groupings, participating in creation stations around the museum. I didn’t get to visit all of the stations, as I wanted to create alongside my group, but some of the art that students created included sculptures made with aluminum foil and tape, designer hats made with paper, eight-page graphic novel mini-books, storyboarding with statues as the inspiration.



The entire day went by so quickly I could hardly believe it was actually over! There were times in the museum that I felt particularly nervous, especially when we visited the gallery for the Mandala Flea Market Mutants, which has several fragile pieces on display in a relatively small space. However, our fourth graders proved once again that I had no cause to worry. They were safe, respectful, and responsible the whole time they were in the art museum. After returning to school, I informally polled my class and learned that many had a wonderful time and are planning on returning to the museum with their families to show the exhibits they saw and visit other galleries. A huge shout-out of gratitude to all the folks at the Krannert Art Museum, the Urbana School District #116 fine arts program, and my colleagues here at Wiley for helping to make this such a memorable experience!