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

Posts tagged “Grade School

The Wonder Wall

I was participating in a Twitter chat over the weekend when someone made a point I had never thought about before: the walls and halls of our school buildings are just as much a part of the learning environment as everything else; what are we doing with them?

I thought about my own classroom walls. One wall is a giant bank of windows, another has bulletin boards where I post reading strategies for comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expression, another is taken up by my Promethean Board, and the fourth is a giant mirror with a bookcase underneath it. Not much I can do with those spaces.

But I also have a bulletin board outside my classroom that has not been updated as frequently as it should be. For the past couple of months, it has had some posters the students made explaining different plane figures and geometric concepts. Bo-ring.

So today I finally took it all down, including the faded border with illustrations of apples and pencils. I told the students that this was going to become our new wonder wall. I laid out a large pile of Post-It notes and asked students to write down something they had learned or something they still wondered and then they stuck them on our classroom door. As they walked out, they would read them. There were notes about math, about listening to others, about the importance of reading, as well as questions about college and careers and driving cars. At the end of the day, I transferred the Post-It notes to the bulletin board so that passers-by can read them, too.

I may not have the students write notes every day, but we are going to do this often enough, and with lots of different sizes and colours of Post-Its, that the bulletin board will eventually be filled with the things we have learned and the things we have wondered. Once we get some more content, I will take a picture so you can check it out, too!

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Network Issues and a Broken Toe

So, I haven’t updated my blog in a while. And there is a really simple, but kind of silly, reason why: my district’s network won’t let me access my blog’s admin panel. I can visit my blog, but I can’t post any updates while at work. So I haven’t been posting any updates at all.

“But wait!” You ask, “Why don’t you just update at home?”

I used to do that. But then I realised I was taking time away from my family. So I tried to write my blog posts during the time I had after school while waiting for my wife to come pick me up. I suppose I could write them in Google Docs and then just copy and paste from home, but for some reason that I can’t identify, I haven’t been doing that. Maybe I ought to start. Or maybe I ought to just start blogging from home again.

What’s ironic is that I am writing this from home right now. Mostly because I managed to break my little toe yesterday and didn’t do anything about it last night. I spent most of today hobbling around the building, trying to keep up with my students who didn’t fully realise what a teacher’s broken toe would mean. But I am writing from home because my wife is downstairs painting and I am upstairs, trying to keep my foot elevated and wondering how such a tiny thing can cause such a great deal of pain.

Which brings me back to the network issues. You see, my computer also stopped connecting to any of our district’s networks this afternoon, so I wasn’t able to pull up notes for reading groups, I wasn’t able to get to my plans for writing groups, and I couldn’t print off the parent newsletter I was hoping to send home this week. I still met with reading groups, but I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted. And I ended up moving some parts of my day around so that the students had some free choice time at the end of the day. (I guess this was kind of my birthday present to them. Oh, right, today was also my birthday. 35 years old. I have almost spent more of my life living and working in this area than not. Not quite, but almost.)

Anyway, I digress, which, come to think of it, is something I do more often than not when I am blogging.

Having network issues at work when you are an instructional technology specialist and you use 21st century digital technology in the classroom more than anyone else is as painfully inconvenient as having a broken toe. Sure, I can still hobble around and work, but it is still annoying.

I am hoping I can get this issue resolved soon. I would like to get back to blogging about my adventures as a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois. I would like to have more time to reflect on the positives in my classroom. Because here’s the other thing I’ve noticed: I am becoming more negative about little things that happen. Much like having a broken toe has made me painfully aware of every step I take as I have pain shoot through my foot, so, too, does being unable to post about the great things happening each day make me painfully aware of all the not-so-great things that happen every day.

I don’t want to be that teacher. You know, the one who is grumbling about everything and doesn’t seem to enjoy teaching but can’t get out. The truth of the matter is that I do enjoy teaching and I love my students. Each and every single one of them. Not just the 22 assigned to my classroom, but all 284 or so in my building. They make me laugh, they make me learn, they challenge my thinking, they push me to do better, and they expand my horizons as they share their experiences with me.

I hope that they all know that. I hope that they know that they are the reason I come to work each day. They are the reason I keep trying to do better. They are the reason I keep trying to help them to do better, too. I need to have the time to reflect on that and share that every day. Otherwise, I become another grouchy old man hobbling through the building, complaining about how much my foot hurts.


After School Club

First off, I apologise for not posting yesterday; my computer was being super slow and glitchy all day. It turns out I just needed to shut everything down and restart. I guess having about 20 different tabs open at once is a bad idea.

Way back in 2011, when I was first hired to work at Wiley, I wanted to start a chess club, but my principal didn’t want me taking on extra duties as a first-year teacher, The next couple of years I continued to petition for starting a club, but I was told it had to be during the school day and open to all, which was more than I could handle. After I received my awesome collection of tabletop games for my classroom through a Donors Choose campaign last year, I changed my idea to an after school tabletop gaming club. My principal liked the idea but nothing happened.

Why tabletop gaming? First, it is a great hobby and I am definitely an enthusiast! Second, tabletop gaming encourages good sportsmanship, communication, creative problem solving, and critical thinking. Third, it is a relatively inexpensive hobby. (Yes, there are expensive tabletop games, but most are about $25 and you don’t have to own a $500 game system to play them.) Fourth, they encourage fair play and turn taking. Fifth, tabletop gaming helps players learn how to deal with disappointment in a safe, controlled environment. Sixth, all of these things happen in real time and with real face-to-face interactions!

Determined to get my club off the ground this year, I started off with a concrete plan ready to go. The idea was approved and I started spreading the word. After a few delays, we finally had our inaugural meeting this afternoon. The tabletop gaming club is currently only open to students in grades 2-5 and, although 40 expressed interest in joining, only 6 brought in permission slips. (I have three more who will likely be joining us next week.)

The plan is to meet once a week for about one hour. Students will learn games and play games. And, really, that’s the whole plan. Simple, fun, engaging. I am hoping more students will join us as time goes on. And maybe other teachers will come up with club ideas, too. In the meantime. I am going to look forward to my weekly game afternoon with some great students who want to unplug to connect!


17 1/2 Days

Urbana School District #116 adopted six character traits to “model, integrate, and cultivate” in all of our schools. These character traits have been an overarching focus for social-emotional learning for at least five years. The character traits we strive to instill in our students are:

  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Cooperation
  • Compassion
  • Perseverance

At Wiley, we have a character trait of the month throughout the school year. (August/September have the same trait, as do December/January). The last trait of the year is always perseverance, which I find so important at this time!

We are approaching the final stretch. There are 17 1/2 school days between now and the end of school.

17 1/2 days to teach my students as much as I can about appreciating literacy, inquiring into the whats, hows, and whys of our world, developing their voices as authors and speakers, and expanding their abilities to effectively solve problems, whether numeric or otherwise.

17 1/2 days to continue fostering a sense of shared responsibility and mutual respect, to build a classroom community centered on intellectual and emotional growth.

17 1/2 days to assess each student’s reading, writing, and mathing abilities, to allow them to show me what they can do and how well they can do it.

17 1/2 days. That’s not a lot. It reminds me of this song from the Broadway musical The Pajama Game:

17 1/2 days doesn’t seem to be a lot on its own, but when I break it down, well, then, that’s about 130 hours and I can do an awful lot with 130 hours. I can work with 7,875 minutes. I can definitely help my students accomplish quite a bit with 7,875 minutes! And when I break it down even further, 472,500 seconds gives me plenty of time.

It all gets down to perseverance. It is all about pushing on, pushing through, of trying no matter how challenging it may be, no matter how tired we may be, no matter how much we would rather be outside playing. We have a purpose, an aim, a goal: to each achieve personal greatness every second of every minute of every day.

17 1/2 days. We will make it!


Rewards, Punishment, Consequences, and Discipline

Classroom management is really important.

No, seriously. I am going to write that again because it is that important: Classroom management is really important.

Teachers do a lot of things throughout the course of their days. It is often claimed (based on work reported by Dr. Philip W. Jackson in his book Life in Classrooms) that teachers make approximately 1,500 decisions a day. I get to work at about 7:30 am and am making decisions directly related to my classroom until 3:30 pm every day. That’s eight hours. In those 4 hours, I guarantee that I am making some kind of decision at least every 15 seconds, probably closer to 10. But let’s go with 15, or 4 decisions a minute. That’s 240 decisions an hour, which is a total of 1,920 decisions a day. So, really, I think Dr. Jackson was actually lowballing the number of decisions a teacher makes.

Every single one of those decisions impacts how the class is managed, or run. Classroom management is so important that, when searching the term, Google came up with 19,100,000 results in 0.73 seconds. If even just one-tenth of those were unique hits, that still gives us nearly 2,000,000 websites, books, articles, and other resources about this concept. Search just books on classroom management on Goodreads and you find 790 results in 0.15 seconds.

All of which is to say there is no way I could possibly address all the nuances and ideas and theories that abound when it comes to what classroom management actually is, how it works, how to do it effectively, and how to adjust to different situations as they arise. As an educator leader I recently listened to once said, when it comes to students, one size fits one; there is no magic cure that will address every need every time.

So what am I writing about classroom management for? Mostly because I wanted to tease out my own thoughts on four foundational components of running an organisation such as a classroom: rewards, punishment, consequences, and discipline. For me, these terms all have very specific meaning and very specific uses that need to be clearly taught, not just to students, but also to parents, teachers, and other adults.

The first two are fairly straightforward and have had long-standing definitions that are generally understood by everyone: do the right thing and receive a reward, one that is either tangible and extrinsic or intangible and extrinsic. Do the wrong thing and something unpleasant or undesirable happens to you: a punishment.

The second two, on the other hand, seem to get a bit messier when we try to discuss them with others. What I have observed in my years teaching and in general is that “consequences” are often equated with “punishment.” Teachers often talk about “natural consequences” but what they usually refer to are the negative ones; the punishment. But consequences are simply what happens as a result of a decision. Rewards are consequences for desired behaviour. Punishment is the consequence for undesired behaviour. If you are working quietly on your exam and you are focused on the questions, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform at your best. If you are trying to talk to others and are easily distracted, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform poorly. The point is that consequences, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad; they simply are.

Discipline, likewise, is far too often equated with punishment. If a student receives an office discipline referral, it isn’t because the student has done something desirable. If you hear a parent talk about disciplining a child at home, it rarely means anything other than meting out punishment that, hopefully, matches the severity of the crime. But that’s not what discipline really is, even if that is the usage that has been around for over a thousand years. Discipline is, at it’s root, a word that refers to instruction given, teaching, learning, gaining knowledge. I find it incredible disheartening that we have, for centuries, taken the view that the only way to learn something is through punishment; that we do things out of fear of something unpleasant instead of a desire for something good. (A related word, disciple, incidentally, seems to have only positive connotations as it reflects the idea of being one who has taken hold of, grasped, or fully comprehended something.)

How does all of this relate to my classroom management approach? My practice is rooted in the belief that children are still learning how to be people, how to interact with other children, with adults, with peers, and with authority figures. They are learning, in short, how to be. Sometimes this learning results in punishment, yes. Sometimes it results in rewards. I hope that they always connect their actions to the consequences that follow and, in so doing, learn personal discipline, or self-mastery. Everything I do as a teacher, all of those thousands of decisions I make each day, all come back to one single question: what is best for the students? If I can honestly say that what I have done has been because I am putting the needs of my 23 individual students, and of my class, my school, my district, and/or my community first, then I am doing what I need to do: teaching my students to be masters of their own selves. But if I am focusing on just the first two and ignoring the second, then I am not teaching them how to be, I am simply teaching them how to do.

That’s not good enough for me, and, I hope, it isn’t good enough for them, either.


Collaborative Storytelling

The other day I had the opportunity to accompany five Wiley students to the 39th annual Urbana School District Young Authors Celebration. I have written quite a bit about the Young Authors program in the past and continue to feel a great deal of gratitude that I get to work in a district that so thoroughly supports this program for our students in grade K-8.

During the celebration, we got to listen to a professional storyteller, Mama Edie, who told students that we are all storytellers: any time we come home from doing something and start off with, “Guess what?!” we are preparing to tell a story. I love telling stories. It is often the way that I introduce new topics in my classroom, whether it is fractions (talking about the time I messed up a recipe because I didn’t double the ingredients correctly), or early American history (the story of the Revolutionary War), I am always telling stories.

I also love listening to stories. My students have wonderful experiences and they rarely shy from telling them, no matter how silly or how serious they may be. I listen to podcasts as I bike to work so I can listen to the stories of other school leaders, I watch documentaries, television shows, and movies to listen to the stories others have to tell, and I surround myself with music to embrace those stories, too.

So it should be no surprise that, when given the opportunity, I find ways to let my students tell stories through their writing. Inspired by an activity I used at the Young Authors celebration yesterday, I had my students today engage in collaborative storytelling using Rory’s Story Cubes to start the stories.

Students broke up into groups of four and spread out in the room. Each group was given a sheet of paper, a pencil, and four random story cubes. Then they were given five minutes to start telling their stories. Every five minutes, they would rotate papers, read what the previous group wrote, and continue the story, using the story cubes if needed or just picking up where they left off. This provided a great way for them to tell stories together, have fun, and work on writing, all at once.

As students read each others’ stories, they began revising and editing, making corrections and clarifying confusing points. They supported one another and engaged in the writing process in a way that they don’t often do. While I won’t be able to do a writing activity like this every day, it was a great way to kick off the return of Mr. Valencic teaching writing. (My student teacher is finished on Friday and so we decided to transition back some instructional control to me today, starting with writing so that he wouldn’t start a new unit and have me finish.)

How have you engaged in collaborative storytelling? Do you find it valuable?


Tests, Drills, and Alarms

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

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

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

Then we waited.

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

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

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

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

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