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

Posts tagged “Floccinaucinihilipilification

Limits with Limitless Possibilities

I am a big fan of setting limits, of establishing boundaries, or making parameters known. These are things that make like slightly more predictable, comfortable, and safe. I’ve blogged before about the benefits of setting limits in the classroom and how that relates to classroom management. What I am writing about today, though, is something different. I am writing about the limitations that actually lead to limitless possibilities.

It has been a long-standing tradition in my classroom that students get 30-45 minutes each week on Friday to engage in an activity that I call “Read, Write, Think!” While I have blogged about this before, too, the gist of it is that, during this time, students have several options: the can read independently, with a partner, or in a group; they can write independently, with a partner, or in a group; or they can think by  drawing, playing cognitive games with others, solving puzzles, or doing math. This is a time when Chromebooks are closed and students are selecting what they will do.

There are definite limits to this activity. It is not free choice, which is something that they may have done in the primary grades. It is not indoor recess, which they have had lots of during the cold months of winter. It is a time for students to select from a menu of options a task that they want to engage in. Some may wish to do something from each category. Others pick on option and stay with it.

What is interesting about these limits is how limitless the possibilities are. There are three categories with ten sub-categories. But I have hundreds, if not thousands, of books in my classroom. Student writing can be anything at all. I have dozens of cognitive games and puzzles. There are likely an infinite number of math problems or challenges that students could tackle. And so the limitations still have limitless possibilties.

It is easy to look at the limits and bemoan what cannot be done. Far too often, I hear students say, “But I don’t want to do that!” My goal is to help them see the limits and as a way of focusing on what they can do, though. I definitely have limitations on what I can do in my life, but within those limitations? The possibilities are endless!

Staring at a Blank Page

I have a confession to make: the reason I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I used doesn’t actually have all that much to do with time constraints, although graduate school definitely did contribute to the issue. I haven’t been in graduate classes in 11 months, and yet I still haven’t been blogging all that much.

No, the reason is much simpler: I have spent too much time staring at blank pages and simply walking away from the computer.

I have been blogging for over six years. I love talking about education. I love sharing what I do and why I do it. I have been fortunate to have so many amazing experiences over the years, whether it was attending conferences and workshops, presenting to colleagues, leading professional development, reading phenomenal books, collaborating with other teachers and, of course, simply teaching in the classroom every day.

And yet I’ve been in a slump all year long that I just don’t seem to be able to break out of. I feel like so many of the things that we are doing in my classroom are things I have already blogged about. I have a constant fear that my blog has become stale and uninteresting. After all this time, I still don’t know who actually reads these posts. I certainly don’t get that many views and I get even fewer comments.

Of course, I don’t blog for the page views or the comments. In fact, I blog for myself: to give myself an outlet for reflecting on my professional practice and to keep a record of positive events in the classroom. But somehow I find myself opening a new blog post page and then… nothing.

Just a blank page.

So what should I do? What do I write about when I have nothing to write about? What I have been doing is walking away, thinking I might have something else to write about later. But, clearly, that hasn’t been happening. That’s how it has been a couple of days since my last post.

So today I decided a new strategy. I was staring at a blank page for a few minutes and then I just started writing. I wasn’t worried about the topic, nor was I worried about what others might think about my stream-of-consciousness blogging. Instead, I just started typing.

And this is what happened. Four hundred words later and I haven’t really said anything about my classroom or my day, but I have written about what I do when I find myself staring at a blank page.

Just write.

I feel like I have heard that advice before.

Oh, that’s right, I have.

From me.

When my students tell me they don’t know what to write about them, I tell them to not worry about it and just start writing. The most important audience we ever write for is ourselves. Then we eventually think that someone else might want to read what we wrote. I suppose it is time I start taking my own advice. Instead of thinking, “I have nothing to write about that others want to read,” I need to start thinking, “I need to just start writing and let the ideas flow together.”

The funny thing is that, about 200 words ago, I realised that there were things I could write about regarding my classroom and my day, but now that I have committed nearly 600 words to this topic of dealing with writer’s block, I feel like it would be silly to delete it all to write about something completely different. Instead, I will save the idea for Monday.

What do you do when you run into writer’s block?

A Brief Explanation

It has been over a month since I posted something on my classroom blog. It isn’t because I haven’t had anything to blog about (because I have). And it isn’t because I haven’t wanted to (because I definitely have). It is simply because, for reasons I’ve been unable to ascertain, I can’t access WordPress when I am at work and by the time I get home, I have other matters to attend to, such as caring for my pets, spending time with my wife, eating, decompressing, and sleeping.

So my apologies to those who may actually read my blog. (Yes, it is a recurring theme of mine that I have no idea who actually reads this, if anyone actually does, or why they do.)

I know I can’t give justice to everything we have done over the past month, but I will try to get a few posts written and scheduled to go up over the next few days that will cover some of the highlights. I am going to get drafts written while I am at work over the next few days, then I will post them when I get home until I can figure out why my district’s internet filter is blocking my blog.

In the meantime, here’s a quote about education that is completely, totally, one hundred percent unrelated to the rest of this post, but is a quote I recently came across and has now been added to my personal collection of favourite quotes:


Teaching is a hard business. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, the thin-skinned, the unmotivated, or the inflexible. I have many days that I go home completely, thoroughly, unashamedly exhausted, physically, mentally, emotionally. There are days that I wonder if I did any good, if I made a difference, if any of it matters.

But then I talk to someone, maybe a friend or a family member, maybe a complete stranger, and I am reminded that yes, I am doing good, I am making a difference, and what I am doing every day does matter. Whether it is that boy whose fourth grade teacher awakened a sense of purpose and passion or a girl who was brought from the brink of despair by an English teacher who found the right book at the right moment or the young man who was taught how to beat a drum and find a community in the marching band, teachers are making a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of children every single day.

Yet we still have tough times. We push through, we find our center, we recharge, we regroup, and we carry on. As so many have said in so many different settings, “This, too, shall pass.”

Today I reflect on the near completion of that time of year that a teacher blogger colleague I admire yet have never met refers to, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as DEVOLSON: the Dark, Evil Void of Late September, October, and November.


(I apologise to We Are Teachers and Love, Teach for snatching the image from their website; the last time I tried linking it, the link vanished and the image disappeared with it.)

I know that November isn’t quite over (we actually have a handful of days after Thanksgiving Break), but as far as I am concerned, today is the end of the longest 11-week period of the year. Tomorrow is going to be fun. It is going to be great. We are going to have fun and we are going to do great things. Why? Because I said so. I’m not going to let the upcoming five-day weekend of gorging myself on way too much pie, pumpkin, turkey, pie, more pie, and a little bit more pie get ruined by anything. Tomorrow is my day and it is our day.

The nonsense that happened today (having to call parents during the middle of a writing lesson, having to send students out of the room, having to deal with flying glue stick caps and pencils, and a host of other things) are done and over. Tomorrow is a brand new day with no mistakes and I am determined to see it end that way!

What are some of the things we are going to do to make the day before Thanksgiving Break an awesome one? I’m glad you asked! Here’s a sampler:

  • Make picture frames with our learning buddies to celebrate the work we’ve already done this year
  • Write thank you letters to one another for being a part of our classroom community (thank you, Love, Teach, for the idea!)
  • Break out our tabletop games for a chunk of time in the morning to unplug and reconnect with one another
  • Enjoy the crisp autumn air before it is quickly replaced with air that hurts
  • Watch videos of Kid President encouraging us to be more awesome

DEVOLSON 2016 is done and gone; how do you celebrate the end of the DEVOLSON?

Lots of Absences

It is that time of year when a highly-contagious bug is going around the school and it has hit my class especially hard. I had 6 of my 26 students absent today, or nearly a fourth of my class. Such a large number of absences can certainly put a kink in plans to start new projects because I would just have to go over everything again the next day, or have students work in their assigned groups because the absences were surprisingly distributed evenly throughout my room.

It can be tempting to simply declare the day a write-off and fill it with a lot of review and supplementary activities and just hope that the students will all be back the next day. It can be tempting to pop in a movie, kick back, and relax. It can be tempting to avoid the hassle of reteaching the next day by not teaching anything new.

But giving in to those temptations is poor practice and ineffective teaching.

So, instead, today was a regular Monday. We talked about what we did over the weekend, we had a six-minute multiplication quiz, we worked on multi-step word problems in math, we began learning about the major events leading up to the American Revolutionary War, we worked on writing and setting personally challenging goals, we had physical education, and we worked in on guided reading groups and literature circles. All things we would have done today no matter how many students were here.

Sure, I’ll have to take some time tomorrow to go over what we did today, but here’s the trick: I would be doing that anyway. Every day should have a review of the previous day’s learning so that students can make connections and ask questions for clarification. So even though I was missing nearly a fourth of my fourth graders today, today wasn’t a write-off at all. It was a good day!


What do you do when you are missing a large number of your group?

Holiday Party Reflections

We have three holiday parties each year here at Wiley Elementary School: Halloween, Winter, and Valentine’s Day. (The Winter Holiday class party is called such because there are many different holidays going on at the same time.) The students love them, parents come out in full force to support them, and the teachers appreciate all of the love and attention and chocolate. (Of course, there is a part of us that dreads them, simply because the students can get antsy with the anticipation of a party, but mostly we enjoy the time to relax and have fun with our students.)

Having now successfully completed my fifteenth class holiday party since I started teaching here, I wanted to reflect a moment on some of the things I have noticed about the parties, the students, and the parents. (As always, this post is meant to let me reflect on the positive things happening in my classroom, so if you are expecting a rant about all the things that can or do go wrong, you’re reading the wrong blog!)

Classroom holiday parties really are a great way for the students to come together as a classroom community. Each of them contributes something to the party, whether it is snacks, treats, drinks, decorations, dishes, or just their very existence that adds to the overall excitement. In earlier grades, the parties are very structured events with lots of games and activities. By the time the students get to me in fourth grade, though, they just want to eat, drink, and talk amongst themselves.

Throughout the day leading up to the parties, my challenge has always been how to keep students on task and working. Today I took advantage of one of my behaviour management tools, Class Dojo, and told the students that anyone whose point total was in the negative by the time we started the party would have to go to another room to do an alternative assignment. I awarded points to students about every 15 to 20 minutes throughout the morning and afternoon. If students were on task, they earned one point. If they were off task, they lost one point. Students also earned positive points for persistence, helping others, and showing respect. Ways to lose points also included talking, being disrespectful, or being disruptive. As a class, our Dojo score is usually around 75%. Today’s score was 89%! All 26 of my students got to participate in the party!

I always appreciate the parents who come to support our classroom parties. They do all of the work; all I do is provide the students and the classroom! It is especially appreciated when they help remind students of the classroom expectations. (I have seen parents in the past sit in the room on their phones, ignoring their own children. I am glad that this has not happened in a long time!) I also appreciate the parents who take the time to include everyone in the room. With 26 fourth graders and half a dozen or so parents, it can be easy for someone to get overlooked, but my room parents are always so wonderfully considerate of others!

So even though classroom parties can be stressful and even though they are not always my favourite part of my job, I am grateful for the chance it allows us to strengthen our sense of community. Thank you to everyone who helped out with our party today!

How do you feel about classroom parties?

First Snow of the Season

We got snow last night. And it actually lasted through the day. In fact, there is still snow on the ground right now, which is the longest the snow has lasted this winter except for maybe one time. And even that time it was just a thin dusting and it was gone within a couple of days. So I am considering this the first snow of the season.

Unfortunately for my students, the temperature was stubbornly hanging around at just below 20° F all day long, and that is the official district-mandated cut-off for staying indoors. (Yes, there are teachers who will take their students out when it is below the cut-off; I am not one of those teachers.) All of that combined to mean that I had several students who wanted to spend more time today staring out the window looking longingly at the snow than actually doing their work.


I tried to inoculate against this first thing in the morning. After the students came to the carpet for our morning meeting, I had everyone stand up and look outside for 30 seconds. Then I had them sit back down and announced that now we all knew that everyone knew that there was snow and we would be able to get to work.

Most of my students accepted my statement and stayed focused and on task all day long. A few fought valiantly against my charge to actually work instead of daydreaming of snowball fights, forts, and hot chocolate. But I always try to focus on the positive, and so I am finding myself grateful today that the majority of my class was able to ignore the snow for the day, knowing that there would be plenty of sunshine left after 3:00 pm for them to play in the snow after they got home.

Me, I prefer to admire the snow from indoors, preferably wrapped in a warm blanket, sipping herbal tea, and reading a good book.

What do you do when the snow finally comes to stay?

Falling Behind

Wow. I have had at least three major things happen in my classroom over the past few days that I meant to blog about and then completely forgot or simply ran out of time to do so. Rather than try to cram all of them into one post, giving justice to none, I will be trying to get them written up and posted today and tomorrow. This post is just a filler to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about them!

So for those who have heard about our awesome University of Illinois Dance Repertory assembly last week, an interesting Body Safety workshop we had on Tuesday, or the departure of my wonderful student teacher yesterday, my apologies for not getting posts written about those. I will also have a post about our (first-ever, I think) school-wide pajama day today plus (hopefully) a student guest post tomorrow. So between now and Friday evening, you should see five (!!!) new posts! Sorry to dump them all at once!

Here’s a picture of me as a fourth grader (with my fourth grade teacher) to tide you over until then:


Hello, Again

I haven’t updated my blog since April 25 (nearly three weeks) because I just haven’t felt like I had anything to blog about. This is the result of exhaustion from late nights finishing graduate school assignments, district collective bargaining agreement negotiations, End-Of-Year PARCC testing, and personal angst about my classroom.

I was getting ready to write a new post this evening and discovered that I had 96 views on May 6. This shocked me, because my busiest day was November 11, 2013, when Neil Gaiman tweeted my post about his delightful children’s book, Fortunately, The Milk. So I looked at the stats closer and saw that I only had 7 unique visitors. So somebody came to my blog and spent a long time reading. A lot. Because I have a free account, I have no way of tracking down this individual but just in case you decided to start following my blog in the hopes that I would start posting again: Thank you, random stranger, for spending your day reading my random musings. I hope you got something good out of it. And I promise I will be updating more regularly over the next couple of weeks. I’ll even try to update over the summer, too.

Stay tuned for a new post later tonight!

The Things Students Say (and Do)

There used to be a television show hosted by Bill Cosby called Kids Say The Darnedest Things. I never watched it, but I know the general idea. Students say and do things that are sometimes just so… weird!

Not that that is a bad thing! No, not at all! It is one of the reasons I love teaching fourth grade: fourth graders are weird, but they don’t really care! They say and do things because they are realising more about the world around them and they are making connections they never made before.

Sometimes they say or do something that makes me laugh and then I have to go back and try to explain why, although funny, it probably isn’t the most appropriate thing in school. Other times they say something that just leaves me speechless.

Here are a few snippets from this year:

[While reading Because of Winn-Dixie and talking about the main character’s parents, who separated, among other things, because the mother was an alcoholic]
Student A: What is an alcoholic?
Me: An alcoholic is someone who has an addiction to alcoholic beverages.
Student A: What is alcohol?
Student B: You know, drinks like beer or whiskey.
Student A: Oh! I think my mom is an alcoholic. She drinks a lot of beer.
Me: …
[I then changed the subject.]

[A student has started wearing handmade paper bowties taped to his t-shirts each day.]
Student: Hey, Mr. Valencic, I see you are wearing a bowtie! Do you like mine?
Me: Yep! But you still don’t get a prize unless you wear one you tied yourself.
Student: That’s okay. Do you know who else wears bowties?
Me: I know a lot of people who do; who are you talking about?
Student: Dr. Owen! He always wears them! [Dr. Owen is our superintendent. And yes, he almost always wears a bowtie. There’s a cool story as to why that you should ask him about if you see him.]

[When I am done talking to a student, I usually wave my hand and tell them to “go away.” This is always done with a smile. Today I was talking to a student about her math work.]
Student: Did I do these correctly?
Me: Well, you got the first part, but now you need to simplify the improper fractions and turn them into mixed numbers.
Student: But that’s harder!
Me: Yep! Do you need help?
Student: No, I can do it! [smiles] Now go away. [she accompanies this with a dismissive wave of her hand]

Can you tell we are definitely in the fourth quarter now? What are things you see your children/students doing that fall in these categories? Do they surprise you? Make you laugh? Share in the comments below!

Because Sometimes We Don’t Need a Reason

Being a PBIS school, we are all about positive behavior interventions and supports. That means that we focus on what students are doing, we focus on how help to them do things better, and we focus on providing positive feedback. That also means that we have celebrations throughout the year when students show that they are meeting or exceeding expectations. When a student messes up (and let’s be honest, we all mess up from time to time), we try to frame the issue in a way that we can build from the positive and use input from students, teachers, families, and administrators in providing the necessary supports and interventions to bring about student success.

In the classroom, we have a lot of strategies for building on the positives. I have a RESPECT board that students can sign to enter a drawing for small prizes. We have a pebble jar that we fill for different reasons throughout the year, working toward incentives. We have small celebrations and large celebrations, all of them tied to a specific event or cause. We recently had a huge school-wide celebration in the form of a students vs. teachers kickball game and a color run. (More on these when I get all of the pictures!) So we have a lot of reasons to celebrate.

But sometimes we don’t need a reason. Sometimes we just celebrate because we can. There isn’t a specific reason. Today we had such a celebration. Our head room parent caught me during lunch and mentioned that she was bringing in ice cream for the first grade class that we have been partnering with all year and she wanted to know if I’d be interested in her bringing ice cream for my class, too. Now, you may not know this, but when it comes to ice cream, I never say no. I love ice cream, maybe even more than I love bacon and reading, and that says quite a lot! (Okay, maybe not more, but they are all at least on equal standing.) So of course I said yes!

After getting back from Dance and reading a chapter from A Single Shard (which we are going to finish before the end of school on Wednesday!), I had the students get their books or writing so that they could SOAR. Then, after they had all gotten started, our HRP came in, dropped off the ice cream, and left. I didn’t say anything to the students at first because I was looking for something for a student. But they all wanted to know what it was. I finally gathered them and explained that we had ice cream. There were three varieties: fudge swirl, strawberry swirl, and vanilla. I asked the students to group together to indicate which kind they would like and, thankfully, we had enough for everyone to get their preferred kind!

Eventually the question came up: why are we having ice cream? I asked why not and a student said, “But there has to be a reason!” I called him over and just said, quietly, “You know, sometimes there doesn’t have to be a reason.” He pondered that for a moment and decided not to look a gift horse in its mouth and cheerfully finished his ice cream. Then everyone got back to reading.

But this has left me wondering, too. As much as we focus on the positive supports, the celebrations, and tying positive outcomes to positive actions, do we make too much of a connection between the two? I am all about celebrating with my students. But I also need to make sure that we do fun things just because. After all, of the four expectations we have established in our classroom, the foundation is having fun. We only have two days left, and I’d like to say that most of the year has been fun, but I am going to make a special focus on including fun things in our last days for no reason at all.

Understanding Wasted Time

As a classroom teacher, one of my biggest pet peeves is wasted time. This is different from down time (when take a break to reenergise) or transition time (when we are going from one task to another and haven’t yet learned the impossible art of moving seamlessly from one to the other without any pause). Wasted time is what happens when I have to pause a lesson because students are talking and not paying attention. Wasted time is what happens when a student or a group of students leave the room and everyone else stops what they are doing to worry about them, instead. I value every minute I have with my students and I would hope that they value every minute they have, too.

But the reality is that some time is going to be wasted. Maybe it is because I don’t give the students a break when they need it and they lose focus. Maybe it is because there is too much stimulation or too many distractions. And maybe it is just because my students are 9- and 10-year-olds who are still learning self-regulation. So I try to take wasted time and turn it into teachable moments. To guide the students through an understanding of how time was wasted, why it was wasted, and how they can better manage themselves so that it will not happen again. (Or at least, not happen as much!)

Today I decided to use our morning meeting to better understand how quickly wasted time can multiply and how that can impact learning time. I started by asking the class to make an estimate as to how much time is lost in the classroom each day due to things like students talking, moving around, distracting others, etc. The estimates ranged from anywhere to five minutes to an hour. I have not actually measured it this year, so I am not sure, but the average estimate from my students’ perception was about 30 minutes a day. (I would guess it is actually much, much lower, but I wanted to honour their perceptions.) Then we did some calculations:

  • If the students wasted 30 minutes a day for 165 days, they would log 4,950 minutes in a school year.
  • 4,950 minutes is equal to 82.5 hours
  • Since we spend roughly 7 hours a day in school, those 82.5 hours are approximately 12 days of school.
  • A student who reads 100 words per minute could read 495,000 words during this time. (They grade level target is between 120 and 160 words per minute, though.)
  • The average middle grade book contains something close to 35,000 words. That means those 495,000 words are close to 14 complete books that could be reading in just one year. (Of course, the flip side of this is that if students read just 30 minutes a day while in school, they should be able to read at least 14 grade-level chapter books by the end of the year. That’s  certainly something to think about when setting goals for the future!)

After doing these computations with the students (they did the multiplication and division with limited support from me), they all agreed that wasted time is definitely a big issue that really matters. Even with ISAT testing all of next week, I am going to start keeping track of the time so that my students can better understand what they are using their time for and how they can better manage themselves. We will also set goals for decreasing wasted time between now and the end of the year. I admire my students’ ability to think critically about themselves, identify weaknesses, and come up with strategies to fix problems. It will be interesting to see what happens from this day on!

Go Back and Do It Again

There is a classroom management strategy that I have seen teachers use off and on over the years that came to the forefront of my mind last year after a workshop I attended for the new teachers in our district. It is called “Go Back and Do It Again” and it involves having students do exactly what it sounds like: going back to where they were and doing what they did again, but doing it the right way. I often use this when students are lining up to leave the room or when someone has come into the classroom in a way that is disruptive, such as talking, making loud noises, etc. I simply tell the student to go back and do it again the right way.

There are times when I find that I need to use this strategy on myself when it comes to teaching. Today was a prime example. The students have been using our United States history textbooks to learn background information about the thirteen colonies that eventually became the first thirteen states in our nation. We started with the New England Colonies, learning about the Puritans, the Mayflower, and Plymouth. Then they moved down to the Southern Colonies and learned about Georgia as a penal colony, and the cotton and tobacco farmers. We concluded with the middle colonies and their history, especially Jamestown and Williamsburg.

I wanted the students to review and share what they had learned, so I asked them to complete a simple graphic organiser to share who founded the colonies, when they were founded, and the principal reason for their settlement. Because I do not have quite a full class set of the textbooks, I allowed the students to work in pairs to complete the assignment.

Now, whenever the class is working in pairs or small groups, there is going to be a certain increase in the noise levels of the room. We try to keep the noise to about 80 dB (I track it with an app on my phone and let the students know when they get too loud), but there always conversations going on. As there should be. And I am okay with that.

I also know that the students will get sidetracked while working, as their minds take them on various tangents. I am okay with this, as well, because I find that tangential thoughts are when real learning often happens. Students read, hear, or see something and it gets their brains going in a way that hadn’t happened before and suddenly they are seeking out more information to learn on their own. This is awesome when it happens!

But sometimes the conversations get so far off-track that there is nothing to do but stop and try it again. This is what happened today. I realised that far too many of the pairs were just being silly without really working. When I asked a few groups about the questions they were trying to answer and I got nothing but blank stares, I knew it was time for a do over.

So we stopped, put the work away, and did something else. We will do this assignment again tomorrow, but in a different way. Instead of working with groups, I will find a way for the students to work independently. We will do some shared reading and then the students will read on their own. I know that they are capable of completing this assignment; I need them to know it, too.

Being able to go back and do something again the right way is such a great life skill to develop. Few things are set in stone as soon as they are done. There is almost always a way to make corrections. It is hard to admit when we are at fault, but hey, pobody’s nerfect, right? We’ll do it again tomorrow and we’ll do it the right way!


Words are important. It is incredibly difficult to communicate without them. It is possible, yes, but it is much, much easier to communicate when you have command of language and understand the words. There is a lot of debate over the way we interpret those words. Do words have inherent meaning? Is the meaning determined by usage? Should we teach vocabulary in a descriptivist or prescriptivist way? These conversations and debates don’t come up often in a fourth grade classroom, but I think about them when I think about my students’ own use of vocabulary.

One of the many things I love about teaching fourth grade, one of the great adventures, is seeing my students learn how to navigate the world around them. My students this year have a great interest in words. When I use a word they don’t know, someone will inevitably make their way to the dictionary to find the word and the definition. (Of course, my students will also try to determine what the word means from context.)

Last week, as I was walking past the other fourth grade teacher’s classroom, I noticed her room was a hive of activity. I walked in a saw a list of words on the overhead. I don’t recall all of the words, but some of them were Vietnam, astrophysical, willy nilly, cornucopia, statue, and liberty. As I looked around, I saw that the students were practicing the words, quizzing each other, looking them up, and drawing pictures. I asked a student what the words had in common and learned that they were the vocabulary words for the week. I was curious to know how those words managed to make it onto the list and I asked my grade-level partner about it and learned that the students’ selected the words on their own.

It works like this: On the first day of the week, each student finds a partner and picks a word that they want on the vocabulary list for the week. And that’s it! The students practice the words during the rest of the week, and then take a vocabulary quiz on the last day of the week. The students love it! They take complete ownership of the words, they are extremely engaged, and they love that they get to choose the words!

I decided to introduce this to my class today, and it went over extremely well. At first there was surprise: “Wait… Mr. Valencic, are you telling us that we get to pick the words?! Really?!” Yep! They got together, picked their words, and wrote them on the white board. Here’s a sampling of some of the words they came up with:

  • floccinaucinihilipilification
  • labyrinth
  • integrity
  • objective
  • chaotic
  • singer
  • discombobulated
  • liberty
  • battle
  • electricity
  • evacuation
  • evaporation
  • monkey
  • Zoroastrianism

I love the variation they came up with! I also love that I can tell what we words I have used that students have picked up on and the words that they have decided they want to learn more about. I am interested to see how this experiment of student-guided learning goes!

EDIT: I have added the three words I had left off from the list. Also, a reassurance: I still teach vocabulary, phonetics, and grammar. Allowing students to pick their vocabulary list for the week simply gives them ownership of using the skills that I am teaching!

Daily Objectives

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. That’s what John Lennon said, right? I could apply this to my job. Teaching is what happens when I’m busy making other plans. Also, those other plans tend to get pushed to the wayside because of that teaching.

Which is why it took me roughly three months to do something I had planning on doing since I started posting my daily schedule way back in October. What I’ve been meaning to do is post our daily learning objectives right next to the schedule. I’ve even had the organiser posted on the board right next to the agenda organiser. Because it has been there, my students asked me, on a nearly daily basis, when I was going to put something in there.

I kept saying I’d get around to it. But other things took precedence, such as teaching, assessing, evaluating, re-teaching, re-assessing, and re-evaluating. I committed to get it done over the Winter Break and I almost did.

But I left them at home yesterday.

And they weren’t quite done.

You see, my daily objectives are based on the “I Can” statements developed by a team of teachers across my district, who used the Common Core State Standards as their guide. The statements were only developed for mathematics and English/language arts, but there are a little under 170 in all. I took all of those statements and, with the help of my wonderfully talented and patient wife, put them on 2″ x 11″ strips of paper. And now I am able to post them and refer to them throughout the day.

So after three months, this is what students see when they enter the classroom:


Not everything we do has an “I Can” statement, but most of it does. (And even for science, we will have objectives related to doing research once we start researching and experimenting during our electricity unit. Today was some review that didn’t quite fit in with any of the statements we have.)

After reviewing the daily schedule, I had different students read the objectives aloud and then we referred to them during the day. It was really neat to see how the students would glance up at them during our literacy block. When we were talking about how to write a summary, someone pointed out that the summary had to refer to the details from the text, which is exactly what the objective says!

For those who may be interested in using the document I created, I have made the PDF available here. (The math standards are listed first, then the ELA ones. I did not label them by category, though.) You are also welcome to email me ( if the link doesn’t work. I am glad to share the resources!

Halfway There!

Today was the end of the second quarter, which means we are officially halfway through the year! Just as I didn’t let the day before the winter break be a day of wasted time, I didn’t want today to be a complete waste, either. We had a classroom party in the afternoon, but that wasn’t going to stop us from working all morning!

We started the morning with P.E., where the students wanted to play dodgeball and, since it was the end of the semester, I allowed them. The teams were randomly assigned, but several students complained that they were not balanced, anyway. (This is why I usually don’t have the students play dodgeball.) Right after that, we went down to the Primary hallway to join our first grade reading buddies for one last buddy reading session before the break. The students (three classes, nearly 50 students in all) did a great job! Nearly everyone was focused on reading together instead of talking to their neighbours.

After music, we finished up our morning with a U.S. geography test on all fifty states. We have spent the past three weeks learning about the different regions, so I was expecting to see an improvement in my students’ knowledge of which states are located where. More than anything, though, I wanted them to know where our own state, Illinois, is! Following the test, we watched the last 20 minutes of Horton Hears a Who and then cleaned up the room and got ready for lunch.

The afternoon passed quickly. We did some independent silent reading before the classroom party began. I was so happy that my students take independent silent reading seriously. There are always a few who take a little while to get going but once they do, they are focused and on task!

Then it was finally time for the holiday party! Students and parents had been dropping off treats and snacks throughout the day, and then a handful of parents came in to help out with the celebration. Some of the younger classes in the building have a lot of activities and games planned for their holiday parties; not in my room. My students just want to eat snacks and treats and have time to chat in the classroom. Some of the students decided to do an impromptu sing-along, too.

And then the day was done! The first semester has been a great one! I’m looking forward to taking the next two weeks to recharge and prepare for the second half of the year! Happy holidays!

The Day Before the End

Today was the day before the last day of the semester. Winter Break officially starts at 3 pm on Thursday afternoon for students. (I have a teacher record day on Friday and have to report to work for a brief meeting and then will spend the day working with my fabulous fourth grade teaching partner to coordinate schedules, as much as possible, for next semester.) The day before the end of a semester always seems to be more difficult than the actual last day.

Students are tired and ready for a break. Teachers are tired and ready for a break. When it is the Winter Break, the weather is finally starting to get winter-y and that seems to bring people down. People all over are getting sick and coughing their germs all over everyone and everything. It is incredible difficult to find the motivation to push on through to the end.

But push on through to the end we do and will! I think this is a habit I picked up from my high school calculus teacher. I remember him admonishing us to take advantage of every moment we had to study and learn, all in preparation for the almighty Calculus AP test we would be taking at the end of the year. We watched films like Stand and Deliver to motivate us, we came together as a class and had study sessions on Friday nights, and we always had work to do over long breaks to keep our minds active and focused on the task at hand: learning.

I want my students to do the same thing. There will be plenty of time to celebrate the end of the first half of the year tomorrow when we actually reach the end of the first half of the year. But today was not the end. Today was the penultimate day, and I made sure we kept on working.

We started the day wrapping up our social studies unit on United States geography. After giving a pre-test on the fifty states, having the students label the states on a blank outline map, we spent the next two weeks learning about the four major regions of the nation: the Midwest (where we live), the Northeast (where we will be studying in our next major social studies unit), the South (the coastal states of which we will also be studying in our next unit), and, last of all, the West, which we focused on today. For each region, the students were given a blank outline map that they had to complete and then they had to find at least five interesting facts about each region. They are going to take a post-test tomorrow. My hope is that they will be able to correctly identify most, if not all, of the fifty states this time around.

I also did some pre-assessing for our big multiplication unit that we are starting in January. Since I plan on revising the scope and sequence of our curriculum for the rest of the year, I wanted to get a feel for where we need to start. Many of the students can multiply greater numbers by a one-digit number, but fewer knew how to multiply by two-digit numbers. This was to be expected, but I wanted to confirm it.

The afternoon was spent following our regular literacy block, as I read some more of Anne of Green Gables to my class, guided them in a writing prompt expressing their opinions of different works of art, and then worked with a guided reading group while the rest of the class did silent reading. We wrapped up our day by celebrating a birthday and then cleaned up the room.

I feel like today was incredibly productive, which was my goal. We probably could have had less wasted time, but it could have been a lot worse, too. I once heard someone say that the best indicator of a good day at school is when the teacher and students go home completely exhausted. Based on this standard, today was definitely a great day!

The Urbana Junior League of Anti-Floccinaucinihilipilificators

With parent-teacher conferences on Thursday and Friday and then the weekend, it seems like a really long time since I have written a “real” blog post on my adventures in teaching fourth grade. Yeah, I know I wrote a post on Thursday, but it was a quick one that was composed on my phone because it was also my father-in-law’s birthday. So it feels nice to be writing again.

It is not really a secret that I love the English language. I love that we have a rich and diverse vocabulary that has begged, borrowed, and stolen from so many other languages. Once a person masters the affixes we use in our language, we can do all sorts of fun things with our words. Sure, many of the words we use are pure gibberish or are just made up, but neologisms and portmanteaus are fun anyway. (My father-in-law probably finds such a statement coming from me to be ridiculous, since I am so often talking about how I am a language purist. Let me clarify: I am okay with making up new words. I am not so okay with randomly changing the meanings of the words we already have. I know that we have a living language that evolves, but I don’t think it is evolving to simply use a word in a completely foreign way.)

Because I love my language, I have devoted a large part of my life to understanding my language and learning the words. I have always been very good at spelling. When I was in eighth grade, I participated in my school’s spelling bee and eventually went on to represent my district in the regional spelling bee. (I was knocked out in the first round when I was given the word vicious and spelled viscous instead. That’s a mistake I’ll never make again!)

As a result of this, I was really excited to get an email from our Assistant Superintendent to announce the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation’s 1st Annual Adult Team Extreme Spelling Bee. Teams of three would be facing off to compete in a spelling bee that would be raising money for the schools in our communities. Unfortunately, the entry fee was $150. Then we got another email informing us that several administrators in the district had made contributions to pay for the entry fees and teachers were invited to apply to be a part of the team. The application process was simple: Submit a one-sentence explanation of why you should be on the team. While the exact email I sent was lost, I remember the essence of what I wrote: I was my district’s spelling champion when I was in the 8th grade and feel like I would be an excellent contribution to the district’s team. Only a few others applied and so I received yet another email informing me that I would be a part of the team! We were asked to suggest a team name.

I thought about it for about fifteen minutes before coming up with an awesome name: the Urbana League of Anti-Floccinaucinihilipilificators! What does that mean, you ask? Well, we are a group from the Urbana School District, which explains the Urbana League part. “Anti” means “against.” And floccinaucinihilipilification is the process of deeming something worthless or of little value. So a floccinaucinihilipilificator is a worthless, lazy person. So we are opposed to being lazy. (As a fun aside, floccinaucinihilipilification is the longest non-technical word in the English language, beating antidisestablishmentarianism by one letter.)

My team name suggestion was accepted and my wife, being the amazing graphic designer she is, came up with a shirt design for us. The spelling bee was on Saturday. My team didn’t make it to the Finals, but we did make it to the 21st round of the Swarm Competition, before failing to spell fallacious correctly. (We left out an l.) So we were runners-up to making it to the Finals. The bee was a lot of fun and I got a great t-shirt out of it, which I wore to school today. We also won the award for best team name!

My reason for wearing it to school was two-fold. First, whenever I attend an event that is school related and I get a t-shirt, I like to wear it to school the following day. Second, I wanted to tie my experience with the spelling bee into my students’ spelling work, which I decided to get rolling this week. I told my students about the spelling bee this morning and mentioned we’d start doing spelling work in the afternoon. As promised, I announced the spelling curriculum and gave the students their first assignment. They were given a list of twenty-four words that they needed to sort according to their vowel/consonant patterns. There were three patterns that I wanted them to specifically look at: VCV (such as in hoping), VCCV (as in hopping), and VVCV (like in cleaning). Then the students will do some other activities, such as writing the words multiple times in print or cursive, and using at least twelve of the words  in sentences, in a story, or by giving the definitions. We will have our first spelling test on Friday afternoon. Those students who complete the spelling assignment and pass the test with an  80% or better (get at least 20 words correct), will become members of the Urbana Junior League of Anti-Floccinaucinihilipilificators! (Then they will have to get at least 90% correct on the next test and 100% on the third test to stay in the UJLA-F. My expectation is that the students will begin to see patterns emerging in their vocabulary that will transfer to their spelling. We’ll see how it goes!


Today was, hopefully, the last time this year that I will be gone for an extended period of time. I had my final meeting with the Literacy Across Content Areas inquiry group. I called to report the planned professional leave and requested one of my two “go-to” subs that have worked with my class on a regular basis. When I initially made sub plans, I did so with the hope that I would have one or the other.

Unfortunately, it turned out that neither was available, and the sub who was assigned was one I had not worked with in the past, nor did I know very well. So I had to change my plans somewhat.

I remember having substitute teachers as a kid. They were usually days where little work was done and most of the day was spent watching vaguely educational movies and playing outside for extended periods of time. Those days are gone, though. As those who have read this blog since it was “Adventures in Substituting” know, substitutes are expected to be teachers hired by the districts in which they work to teach when regular classroom teachers are unable to be in the room, whether for professional, personal, or sick leave. Of course, not all substitute teachers can be as awesome as I was. (No, really, I am certifiably awesome.)

Because I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect of my substitute teacher this afternoon, I reverted to the old-school stand-by: movies. But I didn’t select ones that were vaguely educational. Instead, I selected ones that were most definitely educational. I had two short science videos about electricity and magnetism, which is what we are studying for our last science unit, and another about Abraham Lincoln and New Salem, which is an important part of our fourth grade social studies standards.

When I came back to the school at the end of the day, I was pleased to see that my room was still in one piece, there were no scorch marks on the floor or walls, no students or teachers duct-taped to a chair, and there was a pile of students’ notes from each of the videos. It seems that the videos worked out, even if they weren’t my most preferred option for having a substitute teacher with my class.

(And no, I don’t ever expect to find my room on fire or people duct-taped to chairs. It is just an irrational fear that I have.)

Making Changes, Part II

Yesterday I wrote about how I was planning on making some changes in my classroom. Today I wanted to give a quick follow-up on how those changes were received.

In addition to changing the book I had selected for our final read aloud, I decided to make some changes to the daily schedule, based largely on some very productive conversations that went on during a PBIS team meeting yesterday evening.

For most of the year, my class has had an afternoon recess at the very end of the day. This has been done partly as an incentive for students to work hard throughout the afternoon and then also an incentive to help them quickly get through their work routines. Unfortunately, there have always been slight issues with this schedule. For one, several students leave the room before the end of the day for reasons like Safety Patrol duty, FitKids (a local program run by the University of Illinois and directed by a good friend of mine, incidentally), and checking in with younger students they’ve been asked to assist or with mentors and other teachers. For another, the end of the day has always been hectic, with students trying to get their belongings and get to buses, rides, the After School Child Care Program, etc.

So with just two and a half weeks of school left, I figured, what the heck, let’s try something new that I’ll probably be doing more consistently next year anyway. Instead of having our afternoon recess at the end of the day as an incentive, we are going to have our afternoon recess after math and before fine arts as a break. At the end of the day, students will pack up and then have the last fifteen minutes or so of the day to work independently on silent reading, writing, or have extra help on math or other academic areas.

I told my class about this, and they all seemed very supportive of the idea, especially those who have missed most or all of recess as a result of the above mentioned reasons. Of course, today was also the day that I had a meeting at 1:15, so I had a sub come in at that time, and there was no time for her to go over what I had asked her to teach if she was going to be taking them outside for recess fifteen minutes after she arrived. So today didn’t actually work out as planned, but hey, that’s life, right? If we don’t get to the new schedule changes this week, we’ll definitely be able to start next Monday!

Oh, and everyone seemed happy that I decided to put aside Abe Lincoln Grows Up and read a new book (It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville–the Newberry Award winner from 1964). We talked a bit this morning about how we sometimes just don’t “feel” a book at the time we start to read it, and how that is okay because we may “feel” it at another date. So yeah, the changes appear to be ones that will be well-received.


There’s this story of Greek legend about a dude named Narcissus who spent all of his time staring at mirrors to see his reflection. Or something like that. Today I realised that there is a certain level of narcissism inherent in my job. This is especially true on teachers’ birthdays.

I actually had a very good birthday. My students were able to watch some videos about early American settlers in the morning as part of their fun day to celebrate filling the large vase of pebbles. (Sadly, though, some students did not think that this should count; their idea of a fun day is coming to school and doing nothing of value. They have apparently not yet internalised our classroom expectation of having fun with a purpose.) We also spent the bulk of the afternoon playing Around the World with my Fourth Grade edition of BrainQuest. The fun had by all was definitely purposeful.

Some highlights of my day included: the giant tin of cookies in the teachers’ lounge that I left there for all to enjoy; the second grade class that, entirely on their own, decided to make birthday cards for me and deliver them while my class was in P.E.; and having students and teachers wish me a happy birthday as I walked the halls of my building.

Of course, the most narcissist aspect of the day came at the very end. I started with a quick review of the meaning of the parts of a multiplication problem, having the class hark back to the lesson using cheeseballs. We talked about the number of items in a group, the number of groups, and the number of items in all. I asked the students to figure out how many cheeseballs I would have in all if I had 12 cheeseballs in a cup and 23 cups. The answer was 276. I then reversed the problem: If I have 276 cheeseballs and 23 cups, how many cheeseballs will be in a cup? I then passed out the cups (we had some students who were absent today) and the class sang Happy Birthday to me. Definitely narcissistic, although I didn’t ask  for or require it. I also got a few birthday presents: several books, a bag of mixed chocolate candy bars (fun size), some truffles and other exotic candies, and the gift I told I wanted from each student: a commitment to work hard and do their personal best every day for the rest of the year and the rest of their lives. (One student actually made something for me with that written on it; there is a strong likelihood that this will be laminated and permanently saved on my desk.)

Since my birthday happens to coincide with Australia Day, something that makes me very happy, I am going to leave you with this most excellent of videos:


Back to the Grindstone

Today was our first day back after the two-week winter break. However, I only had 18 of my 27 students in class today. I had received emails from a couple of parents letting me know that their kids would not be back for various reasons, and the others, apparently, forgot to call or forgot that school was starting up again. I will note here that I checked the school calendar about 20 times over the break to make sure that I was, in fact, supposed to be back today. I also had a few colleagues note that they had forgotten about the return to work until they caught numerous posts on Facebook about it. So I am not at all surprised that several students and their parents forgot, too.

Because I was missing a third of the class, though, I had to adjust the plans for the day, since anything new taught today would have to be taught again tomorrow. We started the day with a showcase of several of the items I had received for Christmas for use in the room, including a wooden block puzzle, three versions of the ever-popular BrainQuest series, and a book of brainteasers. I also showed them the nutcracker my dad gave me that looks a lot like me, and a few other items I got that are not-for-students.

After having the students read silently for 30 minutes, they worked on a writing project that involved writing about what they did over the break and then finding pictures from the various Concierge magazines that my wife (through the company she works for) donated to illustrate the quite essays with collages.  The students had a lot of fun doing this, and it got them back in the mode of writing and thinking and doing all of those things that are oh-so-very-important to being in school.

I didn’t want to cover any new material in math with so many students missing, but I did take time to do some reviewing. I started by sharing the incredibly difficult math problem that I got from a friend of mine. It is a theoretical physics problem that has an answer, but nobody knows what it is. (At least, this was true five years ago when he first shared it with me. I don’t know if it this is still the case, but I assume it is. I should probably check with him and verify this.) It is, of course, mathematics that is far beyond what any of my fourth graders are capable of, but that was kind of the point. I want them to think about what they may be able to do in the future if they master what they are doing now. This is a regular theme in my classroom, and I wrapped it up by explaining that the person who solves this problem will probably win a Nobel Prize, and I would be delighted to know that, someday in the future, one of my students was the recipient! Then we did some basic multiplication review before breaking for lunch.

The afternoon was spent on projects, including the morning’s project, the European explorers project that we really need to wrap up, and the letters to pen pals that, for some reason, several of my students had not finished. The students kept busy, had fun, and then they were off to art before we wrapped up our day. We will finish the explorers project tomorrow, and then we will finally be ready to publish our book! So, after two weeks of vacation, it is right back into the swing of things! I haven’t started a countdown to the ISAT yet, but it is definitely there at the back of my mind. But before that is the countdown to my 29th birthday–just 24 more days!

2011 in Review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,400 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 57 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this whole thing, but it looked spiffy, so I figured I’d toss it out there for anyone who may be interested. The important thing for me, though, is not the stats. I monitor them for curiosity’s sake but, really, they are just curious. The important thing is taking time to reflect and consider what I am doing. I blog for the sake of recording my experiences and sharing them with those who may be interested in reading them. If I didn’t have a single blog visitor for the rest of the time I wrote, I would still write, though.

Here’s to a new year! See you all on Monday!

The End of the Year

Well, I made it! The first half of the year is now done, and I am still alive, my students are still with me, and none of us have gone off the deep end. If that’s not good enough, we’ve accomplished a lot so far. I could make a list, but then that would only remind me of everything we still have to do, and I am afraid that that may set me off in a panic. Besides, if you really want to see a list of what was accomplished this year, just read through the titles of the blog posts I have written since I started working at Wiley!

Today was a crazy day. I didn’t want to send any homework with my students, since they have a two-week break, and it can be asking a lot of 9- and 10-year-olds to keep track of something for that long, so I didn’t want to start teaching any new concepts. I have encouraged the students to practice multiplication facts using their flashcards or Mr. Martini’s Classroom. I’m not sure show many actually will, but hey, I can hope! Also, we had a pretty full day with some set activities: P.E. in the morning, followed by the book exchange, leaving us with an hour and forty-five minutes before lunch. After lunch, the class had another hour and fifteen minutes before going to the 3rd grade fashion show (the culmination of a very awesome art project they had been working on), which was followed by our classroom party. (The classroom party was a lot of fun, although I think the next party–in February, I believe–is going to be much more structured than the first two were. Just part of learning and growing as a teacher, right?)

So I had about three hours of instructional time available to me. That is what made the day crazy, although the students were kind of crazy, too, what with the excitement over the classroom party and the winter break. I gave the students time to read independently from their books they got at the book exchange, and also had a few more type up their pages for our alphabet book. Sadly, not everyone got done, so we’ll need to pick up after the break and get it finished quickly so we can move on.

We also took time to clean out desks and tidy up the room. Several students have been working on reorganising my collection of storybooks and nonfiction literature, but there are roughly 650 books in that collection, if I recall correctly, and it has been slow-going. I plan on finishing it up during the break because, despite what we call it, I will definitely be going in to the classroom during the break to get some work done.

Not every day, though. I do want to be able to do things around the house that I’ve been putting off until the break. In addition to the random jobs, I am also going to try to make several slow-cooker meals that I can portion out and freeze so I have a ready supply of lunches available when school resumes in January.

So, on the one hand, I feel like I could have and should have done more this week and even today. On the other hand, I think that we did what we needed to do. It wasn’t the greatest day we’ve ever had in our classroom, but it wasn’t the worst, either. It was… well, it was the end of the year. Everyone is ready for a break, and I am already making plans for when we get back together. There is so much I have wanted to do, and I feel like I now have time to think it out and start implementing ideas that I have been floating around in my mind for the past several months. I don’t think that my classroom is going to be completely different, but there will definitely be some differences that will make it a better learning environment for all. Or so I hope!