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

Posts tagged “Music

Field Trip: Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra

I’ve written about field trips to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts many times over the past seven years that I have been teaching at Wiley. They are some of my favourite trips to take with students, most likely because they are short bus rides and they expose students to an amazing world-class performance space that is right in their own neighbourhood. Today the two fourth grade classes at Wiley got to go to the Krannert Center for the second time this school year, this time to attend the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra‘s youth concert. When we arrived, a student noticed a bus from Effingham and wondered aloud why someone would come so far. I explained that not every community has a place like the Krannert Center and reminded the students who were listening how fortunate we are to have a space so close and so accessible. (I said this then and write this now while still acknowledging that ticket prices for general admission are often well beyond what my students’ families can afford, especially if they want to take the whole family. This is something that I wish the Krannert Center Board of Directors would consider changing.)

During today’s performance, the students not only got to listen to movements from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, movements from Georges Brizet’s Carmen Overture, and a complete piece by CUSO’s current Composer-in-Residence Stacy Garrop, but they also got to learn about music composition and orchestration as Music Director Stephen Alltop explained concepts such as melody, colour (or timbre), and harmony.

Later in the afternoon, I had my students write letters to the C-U Symphony Orchestra, thanking them for the performance and sharing their favourite parts. I was impressed with the number of students who recognised some of the melodies, the knowledge of different musical instruments, and the personal connections many made. (One student shared that she loved the Peer Gynt Suite because that is the music her mom uses to wake her up each morning.)

I was so proud of all of our fourth graders! They were a model audience, listening intently at the right times, clapping at the end of pieces, responding when asked to, and ignoring the distractions of classes around them that were not quite so well behaved. A huge shout-out to our music teacher, Mrs. V, who arranged this, and the parents who were able to come and help us out!

[NOTE: Neither video is of the C-U Symphony Orchestra, but I wanted videos with the music in case students’ parents saw this and wanted to talk to the children about the music they heard today.]

Field Trip: Youth Concert

Way back at the start of the year, my fourth grade partner and I had arranged for our class to have two field trips in April: one to Springfield right before our Spring Holiday and one to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the end of the month to celebrate the end of PARCC testing. Several weeks ago, our awesome music teacher let us know that she was able to secure tickets for our classes to go to the Krannert Center for the Youth Concert, which happened to be scheduled for April 10. That meant that our three April trips would be on the tenth, twelfth, and twenty-first.

Today was the first of the trips. We got to spend a part of the morning at the Krannert Center listening to a performance by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra of Peter and the Wolf. It was exciting to bring our students to Krannert to see a very different kind of performance from the one we saw back at the start of the year. We talked to the students ahead of time about how to engage with a symphony orchestra performance: quiet and listening, applauding at the end of each piece.

(Obviously, the YouTube video isn’t the performance we saw today, but I wanted to share a video so that students could talk about and share what they saw and heard.)

I wish I could say that everything went flawlessly for my students, but the reality is that some of them have never been to a performance like this before and are still learning how to respond appropriately to such settings. There were many conversation afterwards about it and I hope that my students will find the opportunity to attend the symphony again at some point. I also hope that they will learn from this experience!

Thank you to the symphony members and the Krannert staff for providing such a great learning opportunity and being patient with the hundreds of students who were attending their performance this morning!

Field Trip: Black Violin

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Sir Roger de Coverley Dance

In Urbana School District #116, we are very proud of our fine arts programming that is available for all students in all grade levels. In the elementary schools, my students are able to attend special classes for visual arts, music, drama, and dance. In addition, classroom teachers are able to arrange for arts infusion projects with the fine arts teachers, tying the classroom curriculum to the arts. I am not always able to take advantage of such infusion projects, but I was really excited to do one to go along with our social studies unit on colonial America.

I talked with our dance teacher and she was able to find out information about a traditional colonial era dance called the Sir Roger de Coverley (sometimes spelled Coverly) dance. This is a group dance that involves six pairs (traditionally male and female partners, but can easily be done with any arrangement of pairs). We modified it slightly to better accommodate our students and to keep them more actively involved.

After practicing once a week for several weeks, we had a demonstration this morning. Parents, family, and friends were invited to attend, along with our kindergarten buddies. My students demonstrated for the dance first and did an amazing job remembering all of the steps and the turns! Then they invited the audience to join in and they taught the dance to them! Several parents took videos and pictures; alas, because I was helping to prompt the students, I was unable to do either. (Any parents who were there, please feel free to upload to Google Drive and share your videos or pictures with me or burn them onto a disc!)

As I told our audience at the end, the entire thing went about 500 times better than I could have hoped for! There was so much laughter and fun and clapping and enjoyment all around! I love being able to infuse the arts into my curriculum and hope to fit in at least one more project before the end of the year. (I already have an idea in my head to discuss with our music teacher but I haven’t talked to her about it at all yet so I don’t know if we will be able to pull it off or not!)

Thank you to everyone who came out to support my students! They were so excited to see so many people there for them and they had a wonderful time teaching what they had learned to others!

How do you connect the arts to what you are doing?


Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration 2015

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

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

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

Increasing Productivity with Music

Practically since the day my students first got to use their Chromebooks in my class this year, there has been a constant request coming from them: wanting to listen to music while doing independent work. For several weeks now, I have held firm against it, but I didn’t have a particular reason why.

The question came up yet again yesterday and I decided to really look into the subject. The first thing I did was turn to the power of social networking, specifically, Twitter. There are teachers from across the nation that I can reach out to with questions and thoughts and requests for feedback and it usually comes within a few hours, if not minutes. I have learned the power of using #edchat when trying to get input, and using a modified form, such as #edtechedchat when looking for people who can help with a specific question. So I quickly posted the question and got some replies right way! (The person I had tagged in the initial post is an administrator I met while at a conference in Chicago before Thanksgiving. His district has done a lot with using Chromebooks and 1:1 technology, so I knew he’d be a good person to ask!)

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Then I started looking online for research to support the practice and found several news articles, blog posts, and academic research summaries that supported the practice. So I decided to do what I’ve been doing all year long: I took a chance.

I told my class about the process (because I always want them to understand why we are doing the things we do) and I made this point about monitoring their behviour: one of our classroom expectations, and indeed a district-wide expectation, is for students (and staff) to be responsible. If I truly expect my students to be responsible, that means that I am expecting them to monitor their own behaviour and use the technology and resources we have correctly. I told them that I wouldn’t go around unplugging headphones to try to “catch” them doing the wrong thing; instead, I would trust that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. (Of course, I would notice what was on their screens as I was moving around the room and helping with questions or offering suggestions as they worked, so it isn’t as if I am leaving them to use technology unsupervised!) I also made sure that they understood that listening to music was only something they could do during independent work time.

The class was excited to try this out. They knew that they had to make good choices in order to maintain this new privilege and they wanted it! So I gave them a few minutes to get situated and then made sure everyone was working. While that happened, Ms. Schultz and I were able to work with individual students, and the students were quiet and focused on their work!

Perhaps one of the greatest things to happen was when a student came to me with her Chromebook and a piece of writing that she felt she had finished. I started to look over it and then realised that I could pull it up on my computer (since all of my students’ writing is shared with me) and work with her on the revising process. We conferenced together, looking at her writing, discussing word choice, moving some parts around, cutting out repetitive phrases, and correcting for spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation, all while maintaining her unique voice. It was exactly what I have wanted to have happen during our Writers’ Workshop time!

I am so excited to do this again tomorrow and to do more conferences with students as they finish their writing and prepare to publish! I haven’t collected any data yet to measure productivity, but I do know from anecdotal observations that students were working, they were focused, and they were allowing others to do the same. That’s counts as improved productivity in my book!

Celebrating Small Victories

I wrote recently about the short-term “token economy” system that our new music teacher and I decided to put into place for my class as an effort to bolster their positive behaviour. Another thing I have done with my classes over the years to support following rules and meeting expectations has been using a pebble jar. I have had varying success with the pebble jar over the years, but it has been more positive than not, so I’ve continued to use it. (When I first introduced it this year, I had hoped we’d be able to fill the jar in three weeks. It has taken us almost three months. Hopefully the second filling will go much faster!)

The jar I use holds 168 glass pebbles. My class had earned 167 of them but was still having a hard time with expectations, especially in Music. So I decided to have them earn the last pebble by getting an “excellent” report from the music teacher. “Pretty good, “okay,” and “all right” were not going to be good enough for the pebble. It had to be “excellent.” To show how big a deal this last pebble was, I even put it in a ring box so that I could display it while we waited to earn it.

The first few days of trying to earn the last pebble didn’t go so well and I began to briefly despair. But then things got just a little bit better. And then still a little better. Then we had a “good” report. But I was still waiting for that “excellent.” On Wednesday, we had an amazing morning. And the afternoon read aloud went pretty well, so I was being cautiously optimistic about my class’s ability to hold it together through Music. I reminded them of the last pebble once again, dropped them off, and then went about doing the usual prep work I do in the classroom with my student teacher while they were gone.

When I went to pick them up, I immediately noticed something different: the class was quietly lined up, waiting patiently, and the music teacher was actually smiling! I asked her how things went.

She looked at the class.

The class looked at her.

I looked at all of them.

Then she said the words we had been waiting to hear: “You know, Mr. Valencic? I think I have to say that today was pretty… excellent!”

The whole class cheered. I cheered (inside). As we walked out, they all seemed to hold their heads a little higher and were just a little more relaxed and more focused on their afternoon task of reading with their Learning Buddies before returning to the classroom for math. It was a small victory, to be sure, but a victory nonetheless.

The next day we had a vote for how to celebrate. The class came up with the ideas and then selected their favourite. They decided they wanted to have an electronics party. Students were invited to bring in personal electronic devices (which I kept locked in a cabinet during the day) and got to use them for 30 minutes this morning. Those who didn’t bring in devices were able to use the Nooks and the Chromebooks.

Before starting the celebration, I talked with the class about the difference between how they felt when they earned their last pebble (good, happy, excited, positive) and how they felt on other days (upset, frustrated, sad, angry). They all agreed that it felt a lot better to walk out of Music on Wednesday knowing that they had all done what they were supposed to do and they felt a lot better about themselves.

Do they still have some learned behaviours and habits that need to be unlearned and broken? Oh, definitely. Did they have an excellent day in the library yesterday and an excellent day in Music today? No, unfortunately, they didn’t. Did this experience give them a glimpse of what can be? Absolutely it did. And that’s my point for using the pebble jar: to focus students on the good and the positive and to encourage them to do more of that each day.


We have a new music teacher in our building. She and I have done some collaborating on classroom management strategies and using boosters to keep my class on track with following expectations. Through a series of semi-coincidences, it turns out that her husband and I are both playing trumpet in a holiday orchestra this year. So when she invited him to come to her music classes today to share the trumpet with the students, she invited me to visit during my students’ scheduled time.

I started playing the trumpet when I was 10 years old, way back in the fifth grade. I started playing for two reasons:

  1. Two of my oldest brothers had played the trumpet and so my family had ready access to one. (Two other brothers were percussionists and my other older brother played the saxophone.)
  2. My best friend was going to play trumpet, too, because his grandfather was a trumpet player.

And those are really the only reasons why I started playing. Of my five older brothers, only the oldest, who played trumpet, and the younger of the percussionists kept playing through high school. As far as I know, though, none of my brothers continued with their instruments beyond that, unlike me. I started in fifth grade and continued all the way through my junior year of college. I had to stop then because my class schedule and student teaching prevented me from playing in university concert bands. Then I was invited to join a community wind ensemble at Parkland College by two good buddies of mine. I performed with the Parkland Wind Ensemble for several years but had to quit after getting hired at Wiley and simply not being able to devote the time needed to rehearsals. However, I was able to join a summer community band through the St. Joseph (Illinois) Community Arts Resources program. So I have found a way to continue playing the trumpet.

It was fun sharing some of my skills with the students in my class. While the guest performer is a far better trumpet player than me (he is studying trumpet performance at the university), I consider myself to be a competent ensemble performer. I was able to demonstrate for the class the effect different mutes have on the sound of a trumpet and the difference in sound between a traditional Bb trumpet and an orchestral C trumpet. The music teacher’s husband also brought in his piccolo trumpet, which he calls the baby of the trumpet family. He talked to the students about valves, mouthpieces, timbre, and embouchure (although I don’t think he actually used that last term).

Thanks to our music teacher for inviting me to be a part of her class today! It was a nice way to wrap up our short two-day week. I hope all of my fellow American readers have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

More Than Words on a Page

I just spent fifteen minutes writing up an apology for my lack of blogging the past two days but then I thought, “This is silly. If people were really that worried about my inconsistent schedule, they would have asked. I have better things to do.” So I deleted it all. If you really must know, I was at work and class for most of Monday and working as an election judge all day yesterday.

I had an interesting conversation with one of my reading groups this morning. We were starting a discussion about Kate diCamillo’s Newbery Honor book Because of Winn-Dixie and I asked the group to tell me about Opal’s relationship with her father. (They just started reading two weeks ago.) One of the members of the group started to give a rather detailed summary. I stopped her and explained that I didn’t want a summary. I wanted to know what they understood about the main character’s relationship with her father. This somehow got us onto a tangent on reading comprehension and the same student asked me what comprehension was.

We’ve talked about this. As a class, as a small group, during one-on-one conferences. My students know that comprehension is understanding a text. It involves reading, re-reading, thinking, questions, summarising, asking questions, predicting, inferring, and drawing conclusions. Comprehension isn’t just reading the words on the page. As I said this, I realised that I had a great way to illustrate this concept. (Well, maybe not illustrate. I’m not sure what the aural equivalent of illustrating a concept is, but that’s what I was going for.)

Just as performing a musical piece is so very much more than just playing notes on a page, so is reading more than just the words that are printed. I don’t need to teach my students how to read; they can all do that. What they need to learn now is how to read better. How to interact with a text, to think about it, and think about it deeply. To consider the message of the author, the thoughts and feelings of the characters, their own thoughts and feelings as they are reading, what they are learning, how they are connecting.

The same student whose comments started this train of thought made this comment during the video: “Wait. Are you saying that reading should be fun?!” I paused the video. I looked directly at her and then each of the other members of the group. Then I said this: Reading the words on the page isn’t fun. That’s boring. But comprehending what you read should be. That’s my goal.”

Reading should be fun. It should be enjoyable. “It should be about heart, feelings, and moving people, and something beautiful and being alive.” There’s a lot in common between reading literature and performing music. Once my students figure out that connection, I know they will be well on their way to being successful learners!

Tuvan Throat Singing

Wiley Elementary School has, over the years, developed a reputation in our community as a school that truly embraces the arts. I’m not saying that other schools in the community don’t, though. There is a wide appreciation and application of the fine arts in many of our local elementary, middle, and high schools. It is just that my school is definitely part of this group.

This may be why our school was selected as one of the stops of the Alash Ensemble’s U.S. Fall Tour. Alash Ensemble is a group of Tuvan throat singers. At this point, unless you happen to know about this particular style of musical performance and/or you know about this small republic that is a part of the Russian Federation. I will be honest when I say I had no idea who they were or what they did. And even after looking it up online, I still didn’t fully appreciate it. It took hearing them in person to really grasp how amazing this performance style is!

Tuva (also spelled Tyva) is a small republic in the southern reaches of Siberia that borders Mongolia. The people are mostly nomadic cattle herders with ethic roots tying them to Turkic, Mongol, and Samodeic peoples from near the Ural Mountains. Tuvan throat singing is a special style of vocalization that results in multiple harmonic tones caused by controlling the vocal tract. It is definitely a unique style of singing!

The ensemble today comprised just three members. They performed traditional Tuvan songs with their voices and instruments. They also allowed students to ask some questions before performing one last song that involved audience participation. The students were all thoroughly engaged and captivated by this performance! I am appreciative of all those who worked together to make it happen!

Field Trip: The Magic Flute

One of the amazing benefits of living and teaching in the Champaign-Urbana area (or Urbana-Champaign or Chambana or, as I prefer to call it, Chambanavoy, because Savoy is just as much as part of the wider community as the two bigger cities) is our access to amazing cultural arts that people and especially students in other areas might not get to experience. Even growing up near Peoria, Illinois, I recall going to the Peoria Civic Center in grade school once to see a stage production of The Velveteen Rabbit. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started going to broadway musicals, the symphony, the orchestra, and to performances of choral groups. And even though the opportunities were there, the first ballet I ever attended was just a couple of years ago when I went with a group of friends to see The Nutcracker and the first opera was about the same time. I don’t even remember the name of the show; I just remember that we all heard it was going on, the tickets for students were reasonably priced, and we thought it would be fun to dress up in fancy clothes and go to an opera performed in a language none of us spoke (probably Italian).

And yet today my students, who are almost all nine-years-olds (with just a couple of exceptions), got to go to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to see a South African adaptation of Mozart’s classic opera, The Magic Flute. (The show was Impempe Yomlingo performed by ISANGO Ensemble.) The opportunity was developed by scheming by my new fourth grade partner, our building instructional coach, and the education outreach guy handsome engagement director from Krannert who has worked closely with our building for several years.

To prep for this trip, we read two different adaptations of the story, discussed the main characters and the plot, and read about the performing group’s history and the history of how Mozart’s opera came about. Personally, I think it is pretty cool that I have a class of fourth grade students who can tell you that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed The Magic Flute (actually Die Zauberflöte) while in Salzburg, Austria, in 1791 at the request of his friend who ran a theatre in Vienna.

I was so proud of my students while they were in the auditorium for the production!  They were respectful of others, they showed that they know how to sit properly in auditorium seats (nobody was climbing on chairs or bouncing up and down on them), and they were a captive audience! This was our first outing as both a class and as a fourth grade and things went very, very well! I am very appreciative of the support staff who came along (as well as our principal) to help out! I am also grateful to my colleagues for organizing this trip. We are going to use it as a springboard for a future arts infusion project that is still in development that I think students and families are going to love! But even if this was just a stand-alone event, I am so grateful to be in a community where young children have access to other cultures and other styles of entertainment that they may not otherwise get to experience at such a young age!

The Impact of Music

I taught a brief health lesson this morning on how music and other external stimuli can impact how we are feeling. It was really interesting to observe how easily recogniseable the effects really are!

I started with asking the students to take a moment to take a mental note of their physical state: what their bodies were doing, what their heart rates were like, and how they were feeling in general. Then I asked them to listen to a song and think about what their bodies did in response. While the song was playing, I had all the lights on to make the room as bright as possible. The song was Sandstorm by Darude. For those who aren’t familiar, it is a non-lyric piece of techno music with very fast beats. While it played, several students danced in their chairs, moving to the beat, and getting excited. When it was done, they took note of their heart rates and commented that their hearts were beating much faster.

Then I turned off a set of lights and played another instrumental piece, this one from the British television series Doctor Who.

The results were quite dramatic! The students quickly calmed down, rested their heads, relaxed their muscles, breathed deeply, and seemed to enjoy the brief respite from so much stimulation all the time. When it was done, I asked the same questions. They shared that they felt much calmer and their hearts were not racing.

I explained that different kinds of music affect us in different ways. Fast music is good when we want to get pumped up; slow music is good for when we want to relax. And being able to recognise which we want to do is part of good health!

The Best Day of My Life

Today was the first day of the new school year for my fourth graders! We spent much of the day getting to know one another, discussing plans for the year, setting expectations, going over routines, and getting settled in. In other words, a fairly typical first day of school.

I chose to use a picture book for our very first read aloud, with our first chapter book starting tomorrow. The selection I read today was a story by Patricia MacLachlan, perhaps best known for Sarah, Plain and Tall, winner of the 1986 Newbery Medal. The story today was What You Know First, a short story about a girl who has to move from her home that she knows to a place that is new and unfamiliar. In this short but touching tale, we are drawn to thinking about how we take what we know wherever we go. I tied this to how all of my students have gone from something they knew, third grade, and have moved to something completely new, fourth grade. They were great listeners and shared some wonderful insights about moving and doing new things.

I also wanted to have a writing assignment today. During the summer I became familiar with a song by American Authors that has become something of a theme song for me and many of the young adults I work with through the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute. Even though I wasn’t able to go to the Institute this year, I was still able to connect and knew that I would be using this song with my class. I thought this would go well with our story, also, since there are two ways to respond to change: fight it or embrace. In the story, the girl wanted to fight it until she realised it was an opportunity to share what she knew and to take her experiences with her as she created something new. When we have change, we can embrace it and make the best of it, or we can fight against it and harbor resentment. I choose to make the best of each change, each experience, each day.

We watched the video, which I downloaded and saved to avoid any inappropriate advertisements which, unfortunately, I can’t control if streaming, twice and then I gave the students their first writing assignment: with a partner, using words and pictures, describe the best day of your own life. It could be something real, something imagined, or something longed for. We are going to use the work today as a seed for a lengthier writing assignment that I will display on one of our hallways bulletin boards. Today was just to get used to writing again and to get the ideas started.

Some students wrote about special holidays or cherished family traditions. One wrote about adopting their family dog. (Inspired, possibly, by the lyric music video we watched.) Others chose to take a fantastic route, writing about gaining special powers, like controlling weather or fire. All of them were working during the short period of time allotted for the activity.

Today was a fantastic start of the year! There were no fights, no arguments, no overturned desks (except when I did so as a non-example of how to deal with a challenging situation), and no melt-downs. Just twenty fourth graders who were working, following directions, listening, and getting ready for the best year of their lives (at lest so far). My challenge to my students, and to myself, is to make every day the best day. I am hoping today was a foreshadow of what our year will be like!

DoCha Concert

We have had a lot of field trips over the past couple of weeks! It seems like every couple of days were learned about a new opportunity for our students that would not cost them any money and would expose them to things in the community that they and their families may not have known about. I know I certainly didn’t know about some of these wonderful things! The Downtown Champaign Chamber Music ensemble (usually known as just DoCha) is one such thing.

According to their website, DoCha “is a collaborative effort among University of Illinois faculty, students, community members and friends under the artistic coordination of a world renowned violinist and UIUC School of Music Professor Stefan Milenkovich to experiment with new and fun ways to present chamber music.” Chamber music is a style of classical performance that involves a small group of musicians creating music together. As the name indicates, the idea was that they would be able to fit within a chamber, or a small room, of a palace. This is quite different from a full orchestra or symphony ensemble that takes up a very large space!

We got to take the 3rd and 4th grade students at Wiley to the DoCha performance at the Orpheum Children’s Museum this morning. The performers shared a variety of classical music pieces demonstrating the different categories, such as baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary. Between numbers, they explained the differences in the styles:

  • The baroque era is known for its elaborate, ornate buildings, paintings, clothing, and, of course, music
  • The classical era was inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans and is noted for its clean, clear imagery
  • The romantic period is not so much about what we think of romance today (lovey-dovey stuff), but rather deep, passionate emotions
  • Contemporary classical is a modern application of some of these older styles

At the end of the performance, students were invited to ask questions about the music, composition, and performance. Then they made their own musical instruments taking plastic eggs and filling them with random objects like beads, pins, keys, and rubber bands. After taping them shut, they were able to shake them and see how the different combinations of items created different sounds.

It was a very enjoyable performance overall! The DoCha 2014 Festival is going on this weekend! All events are free of charge and take place at the Orpheum. I would strongly encourage everyone to check out the festival schedule and see if there is a performance that they can attend with their families!

A Visit from the UMS Music Program

Following what I hope will be an annual tradition, the entire student body at Wiley today was given a special concert by the Urbana Middle School music program. Featuring the 8th grade ensembles for strings, choir, and band, we were able to listen to a wide variety of music and enjoy a break in the middle of the week as we lead up to the final days before Spring Break.

I love it when the middle school and high school music programs visit. It was always a highlight of the week when the high school in my community growing up visited our school. I still remember the time in grade school when the high school madrigals program visited and gave a silly rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas. When I was in high school, I got to visit the grade schools in the community with the jazz ensembles and the show choirs. (I was in the jazz ensemble my freshman year and then served as their chief sound engineer for the following three; I was also the sound engineer for the show choir.) The jazz ensembles and show choir also went on performance tours together around the community, which was always a wonderful experience!


So I love it when my students now get to have similar experiences. Even if they do not decide to play a musical instrument, join a choir, or get involved in theater, I want them to know that they can. I want my students to consider the wide range of possibilities available to them. I also want to expose them to everything the fine arts have to offer. I know that they know about popular music; they sing it and dance to it every day. I want them to know what else is out there.

My class  really enjoyed the performances from the eighth graders they saw today! It was also great that the music directors identified those students who had gone to Wiley in the past. I hope that I will see my own students up there on the stage and on the concert floor in a few short years. I also hope that any students who are currently playing an instrument, singing in a choir, or competing in an athletic competition will let me know. While I can’t always make it to performances or games, I would love to go if I can!

Too Much Snow

For years, my wife has maintained that Champaign County exists in a weird weather bubble that causes nasty weather away from us. It gets hot in summer and cold in winter, but we rarely get heavy snowfall. This year has been quite different! From the first snowfall of the season, I don’t believe we have had a single day during which all of the snow has actually melted. This has meant, among many other things, that I have not been able to ride my bike to work in months.

It started snowing again yesterday afternoon. I held out hope that the snow would stop early enough that road and grounds crews could do their jobs but, alas, the snow resumed in the early hours of the morning and word was sent out that there was simply too much snow and not enough time to get it all cleared, so school was cancelled for the sixth time this school year.

You may have seen the video that has been making its rounds of a school principal setting his snow day announcement to music, singing it to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody.

I have to say that the phone message I received from one of our assistant superintendent’s this morning was even better! It was sent out to all of the staff at 5:45 am. Several of my colleagues have been sharing it online through different social media sites. I asked for permission, and it was granted, to share it through this blog. I hope you enjoy!

UPDATE: The song has been shared on YouTube!

Stay warm and safe!

A Cappella

Fourth graders have an amazingly wide variety of interests. This is one of the reasons that I absolutely love teaching this grade level. Not only are they interested in just about everything in the world (as am I), they are willing to share these interests with anyone and everyone at any given moment!

About a month ago or so, some of the fourth grade girls in the two classes started sharing songs that they had written and/or learned with me and the other fourth grade teacher. They usually did this during recess, breaking out into song without much warning. My fourth grade partner, being the wonderfully intuitive person that she is, started finding YouTube videos of a cappella groups and sharing them with her class. She mentioned this to me, and then we both mentioned it to our music teacher.

That was all it took to get the ball rolling on another fantastic arts infusion project. The University of Illinois has a number of award-winning a cappella groups. The music teacher reached out to them and asked if they would be willing to do a performance for our fourth graders. One of the groups said they could do so, but they asked for payment that was quite simply outside our school’s budget. Another group, though, offered to do so at a discounted price. Then we learned about a grant opportunity through an arts-in-the-schools benefactor from New York. An application was made and she agreed to fund the visit!

Over the past two weeks, the fourth graders have been learning about a cappella music during our arts infusion time. They have also been preparing for this visit, thinking about questions they could ask the performers and how a cappella would differ from the music they hear on the radio or other places.

The University of Illinois Rip Chords, an all-female a cappella group, came this afternoon and performed for all of the intermediate grades. The first piece they did was our school’s theme song for the year: Brave by Sara Bareilles.

After singing a variety of other songs, including You Make My Dreams Come True by Hall & Oates and Signed, Sealed, Delivered by Stevie Wonder, the Rip Chords took questions from the students. I was so happy that the fourth graders’ questions were meaningful and relevant to the type of music they were listening to! After several questions, the Rip Chords closed with a signature number, their cover of Yesterday by The Beatles.

It was a great way to end the day! A huge thank you to our music teacher, to our benefactor from New York, and our fourth grade students who shared their interests and got us all thinking about this unique musical style!

The Jazzman Cometh

Well, actually, I suppose the title of this blog post should have been “The Jazzman Cameth” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it… As I have said many times before, I am proud to consider myself a geek of all things. I have a particular fondness for books and movies, but I also love science fiction in general, British television, anything to do with Scouting, the theater stage, and music.

I started playing the trumpet when I was in fifth grade, due largely to the fact that two of my older brothers played it and my best friend was starting trumpet as well. From that time onward, for the next eight years or so, I performed with concert bands, marching bands, pep bands, mixed brass ensembles, symphonic bands, and, getting to the point of this post, jazz ensembles. During my freshman year of high school, I was in the Varsity Jazz Ensemble. My sophomore year I put down my trumpet and picked up the sound board (figuratively speaking). For the next three years I was the Chief Sound Engineer of the Washington Community High School Varsity Jazz Ensemble. (In all seriousness, my role was to make sure the microphones were set up correctly and to help the girl who played the electric bass keyboard get her equipment together.) When I was a senior in high school I joined the newly-formed Junior Varsity Jazz Ensemble just because I could and I wanted to play jazz music again.

I continued to stay active with instrumental ensembles while in college and then joined the Parkland Wind Ensemble during my last semester at the University of Illinois. Due to scheduling conflicts I eventually had to drop out of the Wind Ensemble and am currently in the middle of my longest break from being in an ensemble of any sort in over ten years. (There were two years that I did not perform with any groups while I lived in California.)

All of this is just a long way to say that among my many passions is music. So I was really excited to learn that we were going to have a special assembly this afternoon featuring a local jazz ensemble. The students really enjoyed the music and I loved hearing songs that I have actually performed, like Basin Street Blues and It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. Following the assembly, the students finished up a project we had started in the morning and I let them listen to some instrumental jazz music. I know that our fine arts teachers are working with community resources to bring other special guests to the building. I can’t wait to see who we have visit next!

(Sorry the post is up so late. We had some guests over for dinner so I didn’t get a chance to get it up earlier.)

The Last Full Day

Today was the last full day of school for the year. After the three day weekend (due to Memorial Day), students will return on Tuesday for one hour to get report cards, clean out their desks, return materials, and clean out their lockers. If there is time, I will have them do a quick writing task related to our reading of Wonder, but only if time permits.

The first part of our day was like any other Friday. The students came in, made their lunch choices, sharpened pencils, turned in mail, and wrote in their daily journals. The journal topic of the day was “What would you like to be able to do better next year?” (Each of our journal entries throughout the year have involved some kind of personal reflection for the students, often related to social/emotional skills.) Then we did some vocabulary practice and had one last spelling test, which was focused on words that have prefixes that identify numbers (such as unity, tripod, pentagon, and octopus). We did one final independent, silent reading session for twenty-five minutes and then the students were off to Music.

Afterwards, we went outside for a brief 15-minute recess and then came in for one last math assignment. We reviewed angles and protractors, and then I had the student complete a worksheet on measuring and identifying angles. They also did a short assignment on reading graphs and line plots. The morning ended with our fourth and final All About Weather video, this one on wind and clouds. Without even being told, the students got out their science journals or other paper and took notes on what they were learning! Several of the points in the videos repeated themselves, and it was great to hear my students finishing statements about weather and the water cycle!

After lunch, our day was considerably different from our usual Friday afternoons, or any day, for that matter. The students got to stay outside for about 15 minutes longer than usual as they finished off snow cones that had been provided by a member of our PTA. We came back in and I read one last part of Bridge to Terabithia to the class. (We started on Monday, even though we knew we wouldn’t be able to finish by the end of the week. I hope that some, if not all, of my students will go to the library and check out a copy so they can finish.)

At one o’clock, we went outside for the third annual Students vs. Teachers Kickball Game! I was once again on the teacher team, so I changed into my awesome teacher uniform (a jersey with a W and “Wiley School” on the front and “Teacher” and the number “00” on the back) and joined the other teachers on the field while my class got settled in the spectator section. I was one of the pitchers for the teachers, and I was glad of all the practice I’ve gotten this quarter as my students played kickball in P.E.! After about 45 minutes, we had to call the game, even though we hadn’t finished all of the innings. The students won for the first time, partly due to the help of Urbana Fire Marshal Phil Edwards, who had come to provide music and play on the teacher team, but he defected to the students and helped bring in a couple of grand slams and home runs. The final score was 17-14. I’m glad the students won this year. While all of the teachers tried our best, I think we were all secretly rooting for the students to beat us for once!

The day ended with a final school-wide assembly in the gym. Fireman Phil continued to act as our DJ as students showcased their amazing duct tape accessories in a fashion show. Then we had a dance party before returning to our classroom, cleaning up and stacking chairs, and then the students were dismissed. It was a long, busy day, but we had a lot of fun. The students earned an all-time high ClassDojo score of 92%, which I thought was a fantastic way to wrap up the year!

One final hour and then summer break! (Of course, my summer won’t have much down time, what with the STEM Enrichment Camp, Chancellor’s Academy, a research cruise on Lake Ontario, the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute, and moving  in July/August!) Enjoy the three day weekend and remember to take time on Monday to remember those who gave their lives in defense of our nation and to thank their fellow soldiers who have lost their comrades-in-arms for their service and sacrifice!

The American Dream

Each year, the fifth grade students at Wiley put on a musical performance as part of their recognition ceremony. They start working on the musical before Winter Break, learning the music, practicing lines, and rehearsing the choreography. They continue on through the entire second half of the year, all leading up to the big day.

Today was that day. The fifth graders gathered in the morning to do one last run-through and then all of the students in the school gathered in the gym this afternoon to watch the first full performance of the fifth grade musical. The musical this year was called The American Dream. It went through early exploration, colonization, westward expansion, and the Civil War.


While this was only my second Wiley musical, I was very impressed with the quality of the overall production. There were solos, duets, and trios, whole group numbers, dancing, and even a student accompaniment of the last song! It was awesome to see the students who were in my classroom last year and I am looking forward to attending their recognition ceremony this evening!

Double Assembly Day

As the end of the year approaches, we seem to have lots of assemblies. There are celebrations of students’ accomplishments, previews of the fifth grade musical, visits from the Public Health Department and the local police and fire departments about safety, visits from the public library, and special presentations showcasing some of the musical ensembles we have in our school.

Today was a double assembly day, featuring the last two mentioned above. The Urbana Free Library had originally scheduled to come yesterday morning, but they had to reschedule so they came today. The children’s librarians shared a skit of sorts about the library’s summer reading program, highlighted some of the new books they have, and generally tried to get the students pumped up about reading over the summer.

Then after lunch, we had the fifth grade band and strings concert. It was great listening to the students who were in my class last year, listening to them as they made music, and then realising that more than half of the students in band or strings came from my room last year. I don’t know that I can claim any credit for it, but I am thrilled to see so many of my former students pursuing music!

The strings performed first. They shared a small set of songs, and I was able to take a recording of one of them:

Following the strings, the fifth grade band performed a small set of songs, one of which I was also able to record:

The concert was wonderful! I am looking forward to years of listening to students practicing in the small spare rooms in our building, particularly when they are just down the hall from me. One of the great joys of teaching fourth grade is that I get to see my students again the next year as they grow as fifth graders and prepare for middle school. The fifth grade musical will be shared with the school sometime next week. From what I have heard, it will be absolutely fantastic!

Just Another Manic Monday

I like Mondays. They are crazy, they are busy, they are unorganised, but they are wonderful. Each Monday represents the start of not just a fresh new day but also a fresh new week. It is a day where we can say, “Look, nothing’s gone wrong yet! We’ve got a clean slate ahead of us!”

I said that Mondays are disorganised; that isn’t quite accurate. I have plans for every day, every week, every month, every quarter, every semester, and every year. So I know what I want to accomplish. But I never know what my students are going to bring to the classroom after the weekend. They are eager to share their thoughts, their activities, their accomplishments. This is part of what makes Mondays so wonderful, though!

Today was, as the song from the 1980s says, just another manic Monday. Our day started with writing in journals, then the students went outside for P.E. The boys played kickball while the girls played basketball or used the jump ropes. (Last Thursday it was the girls who played kickball and the boys who played basketball or used the jump ropes. There was a suggestion that we let them split up to let more people participate in the kickball games, which we are doing as training for the big students vs. teachers kickball game on the 24th.)

After P.E., we had about twenty minutes before Music, so the students worked on their vocabulary/spelling for the week or worked on the narratives or they read independently. I was very happy with how well they worked during this time. Following Music, we started working on our last arithmetic unit of the year: decimals. I introduced the unit by reviewing tenths and hundredths, and then I taught the students some of the more common fraction to decimal conversions, such as 1/10, 1/8, 1/5, 1/4, 3/8, 1/2, 5/8, 3/4, and 7/8. We also talked briefly about percentages, which the students caught onto very quickly! After doing some conversions together,  I let the students work independently or with partners until lunch.

Our afternoon was our typical literacy block: I read aloud from Wonder, then the students worked on their narratives or vocabulary until we went outside for a recess. Following recess, the students read independently while I met with one of my guided reading groups. We read a book about landslides which they all found very interesting!

And then our day was done! We cleaned up the classroom, stacked chairs, and then the students went home. I had  a staff meeting right after school and then I finished writing up my plans for tomorrow. (I’ll be gone all day, but I have an excellent teacher subbing for me.)

And that was my typical, manic Monday.

The End of the Third Quarter

Today was the last day of the third quarter and, as of 3:00 pm CDT, the start of Spring Break. My students are all ready for a break. I am ready for a break. We need some time to relax, unwind, and get some fresh air before we get back to school and make the big push to the end of the year.

The third quarter has been a good one. We’ve accomplished so much!

  • The students learned and, for the most part, mastered multi-digit multiplication.
  • They explored the metric system and finished our mini-units on geometry and two-dimensional plane figures.
  • They made a geometry “flipbook” to show what they’ve learned about two-dimensional plane figures.
  • They’ve learned about the American Revolutionary War and are in the middle of a research project on the early American colonies.
  • They experimented with magnets and electricity and learned about renewable and non-renewable resources that we use for energy. They’ve read. Oh, how they have read!
  • They have written about what they read, they’ve written about what they want to read, they’ve written letters to persuade, they’ve written letters of friendship, and they’ve written just to write.
  • They started a huge integrated unit with the fine arts teachers on the Harlem Renaissance.
  • They’ve run relays, done volleyball drills, and they’ve experimented with different games that can be played using balls of various sizes.
  • They completed eight 45-55 minute sessions of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test for Fourth Grade which covered learning standards in reading, mathematics, and science.

And that’s just a sampling of the highlights of our third quarter. It has been a busy quarter. Now it is time to recharge. The fourth quarter is going to see a major writer’s workshop focus, finish American colonialism and moving on toward Westward Expansion, especially the Corps of Discovery, and learning about Illinois and local history, culminating in a field trip to visit several historic sites in our state’s capital. We will be reading some phenomenal books that I am incredibly excited to share with my class. (One is a new book I’ve never read but have had recommended by every single teacher friend I know on Twitter and the Nerdy Book Club, and the other is an old-time favourite that I read when I was in fourth grade and am continuing the tradition.) We are going to master the division of multi-digit whole numbers, fractions, decimals, and the U.S. customary system of measurement. We are going to study the water cycle and weather patterns. It is going to be a strong finish to a strong year. We’re not done yet, although the finish line is almost in sight. Just like John Stephen Akwhari, the Tanzanian Olympic marathon runner from 1968, we have not been sent to start the race; we’ve been sent to finish.

And on that note, I am going to wrap up my 500th blog post since October 14, 2010. Have a wonderful, safe, fun, and restful Spring Break!

Learning About Oil

I think my students have finally gotten used to the idea that I know a lot of people who work in a lot of really awesome professions that relate to our curricula, and I like to invite these experts to share their work and ideas with the class. We have had guests share their interests in biology, nuclear energy, Native American flutes, martial arts, and music. We have also had special assemblies provided to the entire school, such as visits from some of the performing groups from the high school.

Today we welcomed another special guest. While most of our guests have been from the Champaign-Urbana community, this guest came to us all the way from Alaska! When I told my class this, their interests were instantly piqued. When I told them that part of her job when she lived in Canada was to blow things up, everyone was hooked.

Our guest, Ms. Climer, is actually a native of the community, having grown up in Champaign. She attended the University of Illinois and got a degree in environmental engineering, wih an emphasis on hydrology. She and I were discussing my students’ science curriculum and when I mentioned that one of our units explores the different ways we generate electricity, particularly using renewable and non-renewable resources, she reminded me that she works for BP America.

Ms. Climer came in this afternoon and took questions from the students. They wanted to know what she does and how she does it. Then she talked about oil exploration and how oil is extracted from the ground and used. It was really fun to see the students’ amazement when they realised how many products they use every day use oil byproducts! I also loved the quality of questions many of the students asked; they were really showing that they were paying attention and using their own prior knowledge to further their understanding of what oil is and how it is used.

Before leaving, Ms. Climer gave all of the students a gift from her company: a ruler with a calculator built into it. She will be back tomorrow and Thursday to talk about other energy resources, such as wood, coal, natural gas, wind, water, and solar. This is going to be a great way to wrap up the third quarter before Spring Break!