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

Posts tagged “Parties

Halloween 2017

Monday was Halloween. It is absolutely my favourite real holiday of the year, even if I do greatly enjoy celebrating Australia Day (because it is my birthday) and Talk Like a Pirate Day (because it is silly and fun). We had our regular school-wide Halloween costume parade in the afternoon and classroom parties immediately following, but my students also had a pretty awesome experience in the morning that I have never been able to do with a class before.

We went with the two third grade classes and the other fourth grade class to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts for a half-day workshop with the Lyric Theatre at Illinois to learn about their production of the opera Hansel and Gretel. Many of the students knew the basic story, but this experience was unique in that we weren’t watching the show or an abbreviated version of it. Instead, the students got to work with cast members to learn about some of the dances, songs, and costume design.

It was really neat learning with my students about these aspects of opera, some of which I didn’t know before. (For example, Hansel and Gretel is written so that the parts can be played by anyone, regardless of gender. So the witch can be played by a male singer and Hansel can be played by a female singer.)

It was also fun to spend time with students I don’t normally get to see. Although we had four classes going, the Krannert Center folks asked us to divide the classes into three groups. Instead of trying to mix and match all four classes, the teacher coordinating the field trip suggested that my class divide evenly among the other three classes. As a result, I was with the other fourth grade class and a third of my own students. Even though we were only together for a few hours, I noticed today that many of the other fourth graders seem much more comfortable talking to me and approaching me with concerns.

Oh, and our Halloween party was pretty great, too: lots of goodies, lots of fun costumes, lots of chances to chat with my students in a more informal setting, and a few chances to talk with parents who weren’t able to make it to parent/teacher conferences last week.

All in all, Halloween 2017 was a great success! Now to convince Congress to declare November 1 a national holiday so that students don’t have to come to school the next day when they have likely eaten too much sugar and gotten too little sleep…


Holiday Party Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you feel about classroom parties?

Holiday Parties and Gifts for Teachers

Today marked the end of the first semester for students. (Teachers and other staff still have one more day of work tomorrow.) As per tradition, the classes at Wiley had holiday parties in the afternoon to celebrate the end of the semester and to send the students off on a high note for their two-week winter break. And, as is also traditional, many students brought in small gifts for their teacher.

This got me thinking about a post I wrote last year. There had been a slew of blog posts shared by, I hope, well-meaning people offering advice on what to get teachers for gifts. However, these posts were often full of restrictions and suggestions on what not to get, setting up a scenario in which the reader could imagine teachers being disappointed or even angry that students gave them candy, handmade cards, or other such traditional gifts. And I so I responded, wanting to make sure that the students and parents in my classroom knew that I appreciate each gift I receive from my students, regardless of its value.

In addition to being appreciative of the gifts I was given, I was also amused. You see, at the start of the year, I shared a Google Slides presentation with my class about expectations and procedures and mentioned in it that backpacks should not be brought into the classroom unless they were full of books for our book exchange or chocolate for the teacher. I have regularly made reference to how much I love chocolate, as well as books, bacon, and geeky science fiction and fantasy things. Here’s a picture of what my students (and some colleagues) got for me this year:


I guess my students really do listen to me! Lots of chocolate, several books, root beer (one of my favourite beverages), and a Star Wars Stormtrooper mug.

Thank you, everyone, for a wonderful semester! It has definitely been a roller coaster with its ups and downs and I know that I have not been as consistent in my blogging this year as I have been the past five years (and I know that I still have five posts to write about some big events we recently participated in), but there have been mores ups than downs and I have been pleased with the growth of my students and my own growth as a professional. I don’t know how much updating I will be doing over the winter break, but I am looking forward to getting some rest before we dive into the second half the year come January!

Happy holidays!

A Celebration of Writing

For two months, my students have been immersed in writing. We used the Writers’ Workshop format designed by Lucy Calkins and focused on writing realistic fiction. Before we started, I had my students do a writing sample for me. Some wrote a paragraph, some wrote a single sentence, most wrote something in between. Then we started working on developing stories, identifying seed ideas, picking topics that we already know about from personal experience, sketching pictures, outlining story arcs, developing characters, “turning on the lights,” and writing so that the reader can “jump into the character’s skin.” Then student had time to just write. Every day, for 30-45 minutes. They wrote, I conferenced. They wrote, I conferenced. Repeat.

Today we celebrated our writing. After two months of work, the students shared the stories with one another. I divided them into groups and let them read to each other. One read, the others listened. They took turns. They shared. They applauded. They celebrated. We celebrated.

I am so impressed with the quality of writing that my students have produced! From a few scattered sentences to well-developed narratives, they have shown me what they are capable of! More importantly, they have realised what they themselves can do! So many started to unit telling me that they hated writing, that they didn’t want anything to do with it, that it was boring, and that they had nothing to write about. Now they know better. Everyone has ideas. Everyone can write those ideas and create something that nobody else has ever made before. That’s some pretty powerful stuff there!

A huge shout-out to our expert from the University of Illinois Center for Education in Small Urban Communities, Mrs. DeHart! She helped us get started, offered support throughout, and came back today for our celebration! This celebration was such a wonderful way to end our quarter and the first semester! I already have so many ideas for where to take this next, with writing and researching and sharing and publishing and oh so many other things!



I was at my teacher inquiry group yesterday afternoon and, in the course of discussing creating thought-provoking questions that require close reading, read this short passage from The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo:

There is no comfort in the word “farewell,” even if you say it in French. “Farewell” is a word that, in any language, is full of sorrow. It is a word that promises absolutely nothing.

I mean no disrespect to Ms. DiCamillo, who has written a treasury of fabulous children’s stories, but “farewell” is not a word full of sorrow, nor is it a word that promises nothing. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Farewell” is a wish for the one who is parting. It speaks of safe travels. It is a compound of two words:

The first, faran, is from Old English and means “to journey, set forth, go, travel, wander, make one’s way,” The second, wel, also from Old English, means “abundantly, very, very much.” So when we say “farewell” to someone, we are telling them that we wish for them to set forth on a journey in an abundant, or very good, way. That’s pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Other words and phrases we use when parting express similar wishes. We also say things like, “talk to you later,” or “see you later.” I learned German while I was in high school and loved coming to realise that some of their common parting words, auf Wiedersehen and auf Wiederhoeren, both have that same meaning: until I see you (or hear you) again.

So today my class bid farewell. Not to one another, not to me, not a friend, but to our amazing student teacher, Ms. Schultz. She has been a part of our classroom community since the start of school, coming in every Tuesday and Wednesday to learn with us, to work with us, to teach and to be taught. But all good things come to an end. Today was her last day here in Room 31 at Wiley Elementary School. And so we celebrated in the only way that seemed fitting: we worked. Math, social studies, writers’ workshop, literacy, read aloud, learning buddies, we did it all.

Then we came to the room and said our goodbyes (a word that has its roots in the phrase God be with ye, once again expressing hope and wishes for the one who is leaving). Ms. Schultz brought some small tokens of appreciation for the students and I gave her a small gift of a special staple remover/letter opener that will remind her of how indispensable she has been to us this year.


And then there was nothing left to do but to say thank you, take a group picture, and say farewell. We wish Ms. Schultz all the best as she goes to her next placement in the Spring. She has promised to keep in touch and we will keep in touch, too.


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.

Because Sometimes We Don’t Need a Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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