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

Posts tagged “Gifted

Something New, Something Old

As a teacher, I am constantly trying out new things. I am never content for something to be “good enough” if I think that we can do better. As I tell my students all the time, good enough just isn’t good enough; I want great. I expect my students to always be trying new things, as well. Yesterday, as part of our Thinks You Think project, I read Green Eggs and Ham and then had the students think about the main idea of the story and how it relates to this quote, oft-used in the drug prevention/teen leadership field–and probably a bajillion other fields, as well. It goes like this:

If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Now, I am fairly certain that the grammatical structure of the statement leaves something to be desired, but I the idea is the important part: if you are content to never try anything new, then you’re never going to have any results other than those you’ve always had. As one of the students in my class said, “It is like Ms. GLP [my grade level partner] says: variety is the spice of life!” (It was really cool when he said that, by the way, because that was one of the things she said when we first started this project, and it has just stuck with him.) We reminded the students that just as we, their teachers, are always willing to try new things, we want them to try new things, too. Incidentally, she and I should probably get around to putting up the motivational posters we have, too. One of the ones she has, that she told the class about, is the basketball hockey quote about missing 100% of the shots you never take. (Wayne Gretzky is the source of that quote, according to, not Michael Jordan, who I thought it was. Whoops.)

Last week I decided to try something new with my class, but first I had to get it. It is actually something old for me, because it is an idea that I got from a teacher I had subbed for several times last year. She has a set of three chimes on her desk that she uses to get her students’ attention. At least, I assume that is what she uses them for; I know that’s what I used them for when I was there! So last week I finally got around to asking her where she got them, and she directed me to the website Really Good Stuff. But, being the fiscally conservative fellow that I am, I hunted down a less expensive vendor before ordering them for my room. The order was placed Thursday evening, so I was shocked when they actually arrived at my house yesterday! I was expecting to wait a week, not a weekend!

I brought the chimes to my room and then, rather than explaining them to the class, I just started using them. I was curious to see what the response would be without any formal explanation. I learned a few things in the process:

  • I learned that students have been conditioned to interpret certain signals to give a specific meaning. Nearly everyone in the room knew, without being told, that hearing a series of bell tones was most likely a signal to sit down, stop moving, and listen.
  • I learned that some students will insist that they don’t know what this signal means because I didn’t tell them, even if they were among those responding in the appropriate way.
  • I learned that some students do not appreciate high, somewhat piercing noises, and will cover their ears as soon as they see me lift the small mallet that came with the chimes. Personally, I am hoping that this will serve as an incentive to respond quickly to the signal in the first place!

I will spend more time tomorrow formally teaching the expectations, procedures, and routines associated with the chimes. My primary goal is to use them to take the place of the “Give me 5!” vocal command so that I don’t have to speak loudly over a class of 27 active boys and girls. This is in no way a negative comment about the class, mind you. I love that my kids are so engaged! I just recognise that 27 voices discussing math, science, social studies, reading, and Pokemon (sigh) are often going to be louder than my one voice, although we are working on that, too. So you try something new and see how it works. And you acknowledge that, as with any skill or activity, it takes time to not just learn it and to learn it the right way.

Interview IV

Today I had an interview at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign. I was interviewing for a 2nd grade (gifted) position that is, in many ways, a new position.

In past years, the gifted program at BT Washington has been two classrooms: 2/3 and 4/5. This year, there will be three: 2, 3, and 4/5. Another change is in the school itself. BT Washington has long been the only bilingual school in the district. Many kindergarten students come in speaking only Spanish and learn English as they go through the grades. There are also English-speaking students who learn Spanish every other day. The district is moving (or just closing–I’m not clear which) the bilingual program, and turning the building into a STEM magnet school – Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

All of this means that they are really looking for a candidate who has expertise in gifted education, science, technology, engineering, and math. (Although they would be okay with someone whose expertise is gifted and one of the four STEM classes). Alas, I have none of the above.

As a substitute teacher, my expertise is a mile wide and a fathom deep. It is deep, but it covers a vast array of topics. I am a generalist educator, first and foremost. I am very pleased with my broad knowledge base, and actually consider it to be a strong selling point for my qualifications for a full-time teaching position. It is a rare day when a student asks me a question and I don’t know the answer. Even rarer is when I can’t find the answer. So, honestly, I don’t know if this position really is the best one for me.

But we shall see. I have another job interview tomorrow morning for a 4th grade position in Richton Park (a Chicago suburb) and will hopefully have an interview in Urbana soon for another 4th grade position. Lots of interviews this summer. Gretch and I have already decided that, since I am only applying for jobs that I would actually accept if offered, I should take the first offer made. So it’ll be an exciting week!

Update: I apparently never blogged about my third job interview, which was for a 3rd grade position at Thomasboro Elementary just north of the Champaign-Urbana area. Thomasboro has a nice school and a great teaching staff. The principal and superintendent were both very supportive and I could tell that they work hard to work with their teachers to improve their school. I had the interview on June 21, not quite a week after my interview at Woodland. I sent the superintendent an email the following morning with a question and an additional letter of reference and got a reply back that, while they were very impressed, they selected someone else. Sorry about forgetting about it!


Today I was a 2nd grade (gifted/talented) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. With just 7 1/2 school days remaining before the end of the year, it is also quite possible that today was last day this year that I will have been with this class. In case you are new to the blog (hahaha – yes, I like to think that I have new people coming by), you can read my previous adventures with this class here, here, and here. I went to this assignment with an expectation that we would have another great day. Alas, I forgot to factor in the fact that the school year is almost over.

To be totally honest, the day wasn’t that bad. Compared to some of my other experiences at Stratton, the class was quite well behaved. But I have come to have higher expectations for them because I know what they are capable of doing. Still, I was somewhat disappointed that so many members of the class were constantly getting off task, talking when they were supposed to be working independently, and the petty arguments.

Oy vey, the arguments!

“He stole my pencil!”
“She took something from my desk!”
“He won’t work with me!”
“She’s making me do all the work!”
“She hid my shoes under the cubbies two weeks ago, and now I found them, and she was going to write on them, but she didn’t!”
“She kicked me in the gut! Well, okay, actually, my back, but she kicked me!”

Sure, the complaints were legitimate. Nobody was making things up. And yes, these boys and girls are only in the second grade. But they have spent a lot of time this year on conflict resolution. I mediated each complaint as it came to me. The boy who stole a pencil? He had already given it back. The girl who took something from a boy’s desk? All she had done was look at it; she didn’t actually take anything. The boy who wasn’t working? Well, okay, this was actually a legitimate problem, and the final solution was to just have his partner work on her own, with the promise that his mother was going to be getting a phone call later. The girl who was making her partner do all the work? They needed to come up with a division of labour. The girl who hid the shoes? It was two weeks ago; nothing I can do about it now. Nothing had happened to them, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. The boy who got kicked in the gut (actually the back)? It was an accident, and the girl had already apologised.

By the end of the day, I had most of the class working on their projects the way they should have been all day. I was thoroughly exhausted, but it was a good day. Who knows… maybe I will be there again before the end of the year. If I do, I fully expect to have a great day. And, knowing now that the class is becoming somewhat more whiny, I will address it from the beginning of the day. You live, you learn, you move on.

I find out about my job interview tomorrow afternoon! Wish me luck!

Brutal Honesty

Today I was a 2nd grade (gifted) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I had known about this assignment for about a week, and I had been looking forward to it quite a bit. After all, my last experience there, back in February, was one of the best days I have ever had teaching at Stratton, and probably ranks pretty high on my list of over-all awesome days. Due to the nature of how the assignments are placed online, I only know about the teachers’ absences if I am available that day. And since I have been teaching nearly every day, it is possible that there has been another sub in the room since I was last there; I don’t know. Regardless, the students were all quite happy to see me again, which always serves to boost my ego a notch or two.

The day went really well, as expected. I told the class about how impressed I had been with their dedication to reading last time, and that I was looking forward to seeing if they could do it again. This time, though, they had no interest in reading for 45 minutes. No, sir, 45 minutes was simply not enough time! They begged me to give them a full hour to read! I told them that if they were all reading for 45 minutes then I would give them the extra 15 as a reward. I love being able to reward students with time to read! They all did it. Needless to say, it was awesome. (more…)

I <3 Reading

Today was a 2nd grade (gifted/talented) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. It has been some time since I last worked with these students, but I have always had a great experience with them. Today was no different. The students in this class are bright, hard-working, fun, and engaging.

The greatest part of the day was, by far, the 45 minutes we spent on a readers workshop. This is a somewhat new practice started in the school district that incorporates a program known as the Daily Five, although the Daily Five doesn’t always actually include all five activities. The activities are: read to self, read with others, listen to reading, word work, and writing. During the workshop, were to engage in reading to themselves. They were given one minute to select a book, select a place in the room, and start reading. I have tried to do things like this in the past with other classes, but usually the results are somewhat mixed. Today was much different though.

It took the entire class only 30 seconds to get situated. They began reading and they continued reading. Instead of having to walk around the room reminding students to read quietly, I was able to actually sit down and read as well. It was awesome. I actually felt bad about making them stop reading at the end of 45 minutes, but we had to move on to other work. It was days like today that make me think that, just maybe, Stratton’s emphasis on reading is getting through to at least some of the students in the school.


Today I was once again a fourth grade (gifted/talented) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. Today went just as well as Friday, which was no surprise to me or the student teacher with whom I was working. The students were on task and respectful and we also had a lot of fun. I love the days when we have fun while learning and learn while having fun. That is one of my goals as an educator. When students and teachers are miserable, there is not much else going on.

Of course, there are some days when everyone is tired. The student teacher and I were discussing how often we get home at the end of the day and are just exhausted. I admitted that I am not nearly as exhausted after a day like today, when everything went according to plan, as I am on days when I feel like I am waging war with 25 children. But I am still exhausted. I get home around 4 pm or so, even when school is out around 2:15 pm, simply because my wife and I have errands to run. We are both well-aware of the fact that if we are to come home, we probably are not going to leave again. So my work days often start around 7 am and end around 4 pm. I gotta admit: a 9-hour work day can be draining, especially when I am putting my everything into at least seven of those nine hours.

However, I am glad to be exhausted at the end of days like today. I am exhausted because I did everything I could with the few brief hours I had with my students to teach them and to give them the tools they need to become life-long learners. That there is the core of my educational philosophy: I want my students to each want to learn on their own, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. If they do not have the desire to gain knowledge, then I have failed them. I don’t care what the knowledge is, specifically, just so long as they are always learning, and always coming to a greater understanding of the world around them.

Maybe it is a lofty goal to have as a substitute teacher. After all, the majority of my students will rarely see me again or, if they do, it will be between long breaks and with very little consistency. But I firmly believe that my job as a substitute teacher is to be a teacher first and foremost. As I tell my students, I am a certified teacher hired by their school district to take over the education process for a day or two when their regular classroom teachers cannot be there. That means that I need to be always teaching and, yes, always learning.

Gifted Education

Today I was a 4th grade gifted/talented teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I have known the teacher for whom I was subbing for many years now and was delighted to finally work in her classroom. I was not disappointed in the least!

Her class was really great: they did their work, they were engaged and engaging, they were fun, and they followed directions. This last is an important issue in schools. I don’t mind if students talk or move around the room. I do mind when they do it for no purpose and ignore directions. What I often tell students is that when I need it quiet, they need to be quiet. If they can’t handle that, then I can’t let them work together. This class proved that they know exactly what is expected of them while in school, and that they can exceed those expectations.

I am going to be working with these students again on Monday. I am excited to see them again and continue working with them. They are so different from the students across the hall that I was with earlier this week! Where they were belligerent and uncooperative, my students today were amicable and supportive. I was even able to let them work all afternoon on a single project without constantly reminding them to stay on task. It was truly like a breath of fresh air.

So now I find myself wondering: what’s the difference? Why is it that students in the gifted/talented program at Stratton are so mature, responsible, respectful, and pleasant while the rest of the school has more than its fair share of immature, irresponsible, disrespectful, and unpleasant students? Is it simply that students who are gifted/talented are better behaved by nature? Is it a matter of confidence levels? The students in this program come from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. The students in the other classes are equally diverse. I suppose I could do some research on that matter, but right now, anecdotal evidence from the past four years indicates that students who are high-achieving in academic terms are often the students who are more socially-adjusted.

I believe in the model of education that proclaims that that which is suitable for gifted/talented students is suitable for all students. I have had some exposure to the philosophy of gifted/talented education. It mainly focuses on differentiated instruction in the form of project-based learning. I want to do that with all of my students. Yet the students with behavioural issues seem to be unable to handle such open-ended instruction. So, again, I am back to my initial question: what is the difference? And, perhaps more importantly, how can I tap into this difference and find a way to bring it into the traditional classroom?

Pejoratives and Growing Up

Today I was a second grade (gifted) teacher at Stratton Elementary. I had been in this class before, but it had been a long enough time that I didn’t remember all of the students’ names. I did remember, however, that this was a great class, and memory served me well.

We spent the morning discussing the difference between minimums and maximums and then writing letters to other students through the Stratton Post Office. The afternoon was spent watching an animated movie adaptation of E.B. White’s “Trumpet of the Swan”, which proved to be quite popular with the students. They had just finished reading the book yesterday, so they were excited to see a retelling of the story.

While I had a great day, there were two incidents that serve as bookmarks for today’s adventures. The first happened in the morning as a girl was sorting out her classmates’ homework. One boy had not turned in his work and, in an effort to be helpful, she went to his bookbag and got it out. He got really upset when he noticed and starting yelling at her. At one point he uttered a pejorative that I find quite upsetting. He called her “Little Girl” in the nastiest voice possible for an 8-year-old. I hate it when anyone uses someone’s gender as an attack. (I consider it a completely different matter when it is used as a term of endearment–such as when my brother Adam calls me “Boy” or when my friend Noah lovingly calls his wife “Woman”.)

I immediately intervened and asked this particular boy how he would feel if we all went around calling him “Little Boy” for the rest of the day. He said he wouldn’t like it at all. I then asked him why he thought it was okay to call his classmate a nasty name like “Little Girl” then. He started to say something about her and what she had done and I cut him off. I explained that I didn’t want him to tell me what she had done, I wanted him to tell me why he thought it was okay to call people names. It took him a couple of tries before he finally gave up and issued a half-hearted apology. I have no idea if it will stick or not, but I have made a personal commitment to never pass up the opportunity to teach students, no matter how old or how young, the importance of respectful disagreement.

On the other end of my day, I had a couple of fourth grade girls ask me what my name was. I told them (“Mr. Valencic”) and they asked if they could just call me “Mr. V” which I said was quite all right. Most students and teachers call me that, anyway. It is just too hard for them to figure out how to say my last name, I guess. One of them then asked, “Mr. V, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I chuckled and said, “Well, I don’t think I want to grow up. Right now I am a teacher, and I expect to do that for a long time, but as far as growing up is concerned, I think it is a bit over-rated.”

As an educator, I believe that one of the great keys to teaching is to never take myself too seriously. I try to laugh, give high fives, fist bumps, and have fun whenever possible. Even when students are jerks to each other, I find that not taking myself too seriously helps diffuse a situation much faster than shooting a hostage. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it seems to work for me.