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

Posts tagged “Language Arts

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?

Tweaking the Approach to Guided Reading

Right before Winter Break, my fourth grade partner and I spent a day looking at student literacy data and talking about ways we could better meet the needs of our four dozen or so students. One thing we realised was that we could more effectively and efficiently serve them by changing the way we grouped students for guided reading. Instead of each forming groups from our own classes, we put all of the data for all of our students together and made groups based on that new information. What happened was that about half of my students would be in groups with her and about half of her students would be in groups with me.

We looked at our schedules, bumped some things around, and found a way to both have our main literacy block at the same time. We started this shortly after the second semester resumed and have been meeting at least twice a week to discuss progress, strengths, weaknesses, and any changes we need to make.

Initially, I was meeting with all five of my new groups every day. Then I tried meeting with four groups each day by alternating days with two of the groups. Last week, as we looked at data further, I decided to tweak the schedule a little bit more so that I only meet with three groups on any given day. This has had the benefit of letting me a) give more time to students when I meet with them in their small groups and b) give them more time to work on independent tasks. With this newly tweaked schedule, my students now go to three of four possible twenty-minute stations: Teacher Time (only three of my five groups each day), Read to Self (every group), Writing (every group), and Front Row (two of the three groups, namely, the two not meeting with me for Teacher Time).

Yes, all of my groups are named after somewhat random and/or obscure trees.

At the same time, we decided to use an article series on the newly released Front Row Social Studies page as the foundation of our guided reading texts. Each article is published at multiple grade levels so we can differentiate as needed for our diverse groups of learners. For each article, students read it online, complete a brief comprehension quiz, and have a written response. I would like to say that the students are blowing me away with both their excellent understanding of the texts and with their detailed analyses of what they have read, but that would not be true.

What I am learning, instead, is that many of them are struggling with connecting what they have read and what they know with the questions being given to them. I am also learning that they are not writing very detailed responses. In fact, several students are only writing one or two sentences, while others have copied the entire article and pasted it into their response.

Fortunately, I am able to take this information and use it in my instruction! My student teacher is starting to take over more and more of the teaching responsibilities in the classroom, which means that I can work with more students on specific, targeted skills. I am hopeful that this will result in improved output from students, not because of a test or any arbitrary, artificial metric, but because being able to communicate clearly and effectively with others is an important life skill that I want all of my students to develop!

Return of the Chromebooks

It has been a long three weeks or so without Chromebooks in our classroom. There was an issue with the district’s cache servers shortly after school started that resulted in all devices having to be shut off and put away until they could resolve the issue. Today was the first day we were able to access the devices and wow, what a difference it made!

When I first got my cart of Chromebooks, I signed an agreement that I would infuse technology into my classroom practices and instruction. I spent the past two years or so researching websites and online learning tools, trying them out with my students, studying best practices of technology integration, and generally designing my classroom around the use of Chromebooks throughout the day.

Some people have expressed shock that my students access their devices first thing in the morning and keep them out until the end of the day. They are not on them all day, of course, but they are nearby and used much more than they are not.

During our mathing workshop, students use their Chromebooks to access sites such as Zearn, Front Row, Prodigy, and XtraMath to support and supplement their learning and help them improve on skills. The devices are accessed for fluency practice and for independent work while I am with small groups.

During our inquiry workshop, the Chromebooks become the principle tool for researching a variety of topics, keeping notes, and demonstrating learning through multimedia presentations. The students also use their devices to communicate with one another using shared documents in Google Drive.

During our writing workshop, students take their early drafts and type them into Google Docs, then use the available tools to edit, revise, and format as they prepare for publication. They also use the Chromebooks to research ideas and find better ways to express ideas.

During our reading workshop, the Chromebooks are used as students access eBooks through Storia, read articles on Wonderopolis and Newsela, continue writing that they started during writing workshop, and engage in creative writing through Storybird. They also record reading through sites like Whooo’s Reading.

On top of all that, we use our devices for online quizzes through Google Forms, Google Classroom, and Kahoot! Students take brain and body breaks with sites like GoNoodle and find ways to focus with music accessed through Google Play. (We have access to the full suite of Google Apps for Education.) They review and discuss digital citizenship through the Common Sense Media Digital Passport and share projects with one another, with students in other classes, and with their families.

Like I said, I have a technology-infused classroom. So we were all very excited when we were given the green light to start using our devices again! I can hardly wait to see what my students do with their devices tomorrow!

Revisiting the Basal

Basal readers get a lot of grief in education circles these days. Prepackaged curriculum that claim to meet all of the many complex requirements of teaching, with teacher’s editions that have all the answers and worksheets for everything, all meant to make teaching easier, more straightforward, and user-friendly.

Of course, anyone who has spent just one day in a classroom knows that the basal text rarely works that way. Students don’t respond the way the book says they should, their answers are so far off-base that the teacher finds himself wondering if they were even in the same room, let alone the same story, and the diverse needs of students are rarely met with the handful of worksheets that claim to be differentiated but, in reality, usually aren’t; at least, not well.

However, there is a balance to be found. There is a way that a basal reader can be used in the classroom as a way to establish baselines with students but not take over instruction. My first year teaching at Wiley, I relied on the basal heavily, mostly because I honestly didn’t know what else to do. (I still did guided reading, groups, too, but I definitely used the pre-packaged curriculum a lot.) Over the past few years, I’ve used it less and less. I don’t think I used it with my entire class once last year. This year I’ve decided to revisit this teaching tool.

My goal is to use the shorter selections as the foundation of my whole-class lessons in literacy before switching over to guided texts with smaller groups. I am also going to use the comprehension questions at the end of selections to give students more opportunities to put thinking into practice. In addition to the reading selections, I am going to use the spelling/vocabulary features with my students. I am not convinced that the spelling features are the greatest thing out there, but I am willing to try using them again in an effort to support my students’ ability to expand their vocabularies and apply understanding of parts of words and speech.

We are going to dive into our first story from the text next week. We started today with the spelling, looking at words with long a (such as gray and pain), long e (like sweet or chief), short a (like pass or scratch), and short e (such as send or smell). While this link provides far more words than the 25-word list found in the book series, it is a useful reference for seeing the kind of words that students may encounter. Unfortunately, the document is for every single selection in the basal reader, instead of being a separate document for each story.

I am hoping that I can find the right balance between using the basal reader provided by my district and using the other resources for guided literacy and specific supports for students as I get to know them better throughout the year.

So Much Going On

Wow. I know I have decreased my blogging frequency this year, but I just realised that it has been over two weeks since I last updated and that is pretty bad, even for me.


It has been a really busy two weeks. In addition to everything we have had going on in my classroom, I am in the final weeks of my master’s degree program (graduation is on May 14!) and I have been spending a lot of time after school working on collecting artifacts from my internship, writing reflections, and doing a massive online training module that is required for my principal’s endorsement. (Speaking of which, I am 99% certain I’ve mentioned this at least once in the past two years, but my master’s degree is going to be in educational administration and I will be receiving my principal’s endorsement so that I can one day move from the self-contained classroom to the principal’s office. I am not sure when that is actually going to happen, though.)

So, what has been keeping us so busy over the past two weeks? Here are a few highlights: (more…)

Roman Numerals

Today I found myself teaching an impromptu lesson on Roman numerals to one of my guided reading groups. It wasn’t a part of my plan at all, but I was happy to quickly change course when a student asked a question about them.

The question itself was fairly simple: she wanted to know what it meant in her book when it said “Chapter VI.” I asked if she knew what Roman numerals were and she said she did not. I asked the rest of the group and they had similar responses. So I quickly turned and pulled out one of my whiteboards and one of my few remaining Expo markers and wrote out the Roman numerals:

I = 1
V = 5
X = 10
L = 50
C = 100
D = 500
M = 1,000

Then we briefly discussed how the numerals are used to express different values. One of the students asked me what they used for zero and I explained that there wasn’t a numeral for zero. They found that very odd but then we continued discussing how to represent various numbers of greater and greater size. I would write some numbers in Arabic numerals and have them convert to the Roman numerals and other times I did the opposite. As they were looking at the numerals, one of them asked what you do when the number is greater than 1,000 and I explained that the convention was to draw a bar over the numerals and that represented “times 1,000.” Then I gave them the big challenge: 2,134,694.

After much discussion, this is what they came up with:

They read it out loud as I checked their work:
“M bar, M bar, C bar, X bar, X bar, X bar, I bar, V bar, D, C, X, C, I, V.”

A student was walking by at that moment and said, “Mr. Valencic, why are chanting a witch spell?!”

We laughed and explained that they were Roman numerals. I think the student thought we were crazy.

What a wonderful way to end a short week before parent-teacher conferences and a day of professional development!

How do you respond to unexpected questions?

Seeking Expert Assistance

Way back in my first year of teaching, my students were working on writing an alphabet book about European exploration and one of the students was tasked to write a page for the letter O. She decided to write about the oceans. This led to an unplanned inquiry process in my classroom that I wrote about here and then followed-up with it here.

Jump ahead to this year. I decided to once again do an alphabet book for my class, but instead of having a variety of terms, I wanted it to focus on specific people. Yesterday we reviewed the narrative of early European exploration and, as mentioned, I used today to go over the geography of the world’s continents and oceans.

I didn’t even think about it, honestly, but the exact same question came up. That shouldn’t be surprising, since I still have the same map of the world at the front of the room and the same globe of the world sitting on my bookshelves. I thought we could resolve the question more easily by checking on Google Earth.


Instead of identifying just four oceans, like my globe does, or identifying five oceans, like my map does, Google Earth had six oceans: Arctic, Indian, North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, and South Atlantic. So I asked my students to form an opinion and state their reasons.

Many of them had at least one reason for why they felt there should be four, five, or six identifiable oceans, but they couldn’t articulate why. They tried looking up information online and just got more confused. So I decided to do what I had done four years ago when this question last came up: I taught my students how to seek expert assistance.

Using the Letter Generator from, the students wrote business letters to Dr. John M. Toole, Senior Scientist, Physical Oceanography, at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. They told him what they had been learning about, what they thought about the oceans, and asked him for his professional opinion. I wrote a cover letter explaining what we were doing and will be mailing the letters off over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

I felt very fortunate that Dr. Toole replied to my class all those years ago. I have not contacted him in advance to tell him about this project, so I have no idea what kind of response we will get this time, but I am very hopeful that he will once again graciously answer my students’ questions.

I love it when I have the opportunity to grab a “teachable moment” and turn it into a project that engages my students in meaningful inquiry and development of important skills!