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

Posts tagged “Spring Break

Lessons from a Children’s Basketball Game

Those who know me well know that athleticism is not my strong suit. Sure, I like riding my bike and, when the weather cooperates, cheerfully bike the 5-6 miles from my house to work and back. And yes, I love camping and hiking through the woods. But beyond that? Nope. I don’t play basketball, soccer, rugby, football, volleyball, hockey, baseball, tennis, lacrosse. Nor do I compete in track and field events, figure skating, swimming, running, or competitive cycling. Now, this can be chalked up to several reasons: I am blind in one eye, so I don’t have any depth perception; I likely have exercise-induced asthma, so running is generally a bad idea; no one in my family participated in athletics when I was growing up; very few of my friends cared much about participating in sports; I enjoy being a spectator.

This last bit is an important point, though! Even though I myself do not participate in sports, I actually really enjoy watching others play, compete, perform, etc. This was true in high school, when I was in the pep band and performed for nearly every football and basketball game. This was true when my baby sister was on a soccer team and I went to her games. And this has been true for the seven years I have been teaching fourth grade and asking my students to let me know about any games or performances so I can go and cheer them on.

A few weeks ago, two of my students invited me to come to their basketball games on Saturday mornings. I gladly accepted the invitation. While watching them play, I was reminded of a few lessons you can learn from being on a competitive team and wanted to write them down, both for myself and for those who may be reading:

Cooperation: Watching my students play on a team, I saw many examples of cooperation. Particularly as they were playing basketball, I watched as they got the ball, passed it to others, and worked together to achieve their objectives. What was especially interesting to witness was when those on the other team did not cooperate and took wild shots instead of passing the ball to another. Cooperation is that constant trait of working together for the glory of all, not the glory of one.

Compassion: My students won both of the games I watched. In fact, they dominated. But they showed compassion and kindness to the other teams. There was no gloating or mockery. When someone fell down, one of my boys was the first to run over and help him up and help him across the court.

Focus: There are so many voices yelling at the boys playing on the court. I was impressed as I watched my students focus on listening to their coaches and ignoring all of the other noise bombarding them. I noticed another boy who listened to what everyone was saying and, as a result, he was frequently confused and made poor decisions.

Joy: This may be the one thing that I saw most exuberantly. I am fully aware of the reality that not everything I have my students do in the classroom brings joy to them. As much as I love all of the subjects I teach (and I really do!), I know that my students do not always share that love, that joy. But I have burned in my memory the image of my students’ smiles of pure joy when they saw me walk into the gymnasium to watch them play. That joy lasted throughout the game.

As Spring Break wraps up and we return to the classroom on Monday, I hope to bring these lessons from the court to the classroom. I plan on using the examples I saw as I teach my students to cooperate, to show compassion, to focus on what’s important, and to find joy in the things they do. Many teachers throughout the country have adopted the Hour of Code; maybe it is time to institute the Hour of Joy, where students are given the freedom to explore whatever it is that brings them the most joy and to share that joy with others.

Words Can Build Us Up

Over Spring Break, I stumbled upon a video on YouTube that I saw circulating the social media networks. After nearly a dozen different people I knew had shared it, I finally watched it, not really knowing anything more than this simple description: “Our youth group wanted to see if positive words could have an impact on people. We were surprised at how quickly we found out.”

I have worked very hard with my class this year to establish a community of positive peer influence. We have read books like Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and discussed the impact of kind words and actions. We have used the Second Step social-emotional learning curriculum to explore topics of empathy, problem-solving, and anger management. We have used the Golden Apple to identify positive attributes of our classmates. We have a RESPECT board that students can sign, with drawings each time the board is filled to further acknowledge students’ actions.

Even so, it seems like the third quarter saw an increase of peer conflict and unkind words. Maybe it was the weather that kept us cooped up inside for too long. Maybe it was just the stress of everyday life. Whatever the cause, I felt like my students were starting to forget all of the wonderful things that they had all done. So when I saw this video, I knew it was something I was going to do with my class when we got back from Spring Break.

Of course, I wanted to modify the activity to better include each of my students. But I also wanted to recognise that I am also a part of the class community. So the first thing I did was go to my room on Friday morning and, with the help of my wonderfully talented wife, redo the bulletin board outside my classroom door. We put up new paper, drew large circles all over it, and wrote the name of each member of the class (including myself) in the middle. (But because of my efforts to maintain as much anonymity for my students as possible, I won’t be sharing pictures of that.) I used my bulletin board letters to post “Words can build us up!” as the header. Then I printed out a list of each class member and gave it to the students this morning.



We watched the video and talked about the importance of sharing positive messages. Then everyone had time to write down a positive word or phrase that they associated with their classmates. I reviewed each list to check for spelling and offered suggestions for simplicity when a statement was too wordy. Once a list was done, that student was able to go out in the hall and write their words or phrases in each person’s bubble. By the end of the morning we had a bulletin board with 25 bubbles that had 24 positive affirmations in each one. (Students didn’t write affirmations for themselves!)


Words really do have power. I love the message of this song: words can build us up, words can tear us down, words can start a fire in the heart, and put it out. We used to say that sticks and stones could break bones but words wouldn’t hurt us. Now we know better. Yes, sticks and stones can break bones, but words can break a person. It is my goal to have students who stop and think carefully about the words they use, all day, every day.

Knowing that one single activity is never enough to make anything a habit, we are going to take some time each day to share positive comments about one another. We are in the fourth quarter, which means we have just a couple months remaining before school is done for the year. So while we continue our academic work, especially math, literacy, science, and social studies, we are also going to continue our social growth. Not only do social skills have lasting benefits throughout life, they make the overall classroom environment much more pleasant, leading to more collaborative projects that will foster increased student learning. Also, social-emotional learning will improve the quality of our out-of-school learning activities, such as the upcoming field trips to the Krannert Center for Performing Arts and the museums in Springfield.


Snow Day

After a week of ISAT testing, a week of wrapping up the third quarter, and a week of Spring Break, I was all set to return to school today and start many of the wonderful ideas I have for the fourth quarter!

I went to school to get everything ready for the coming week. I had a very productive day and was excited for Monday to come so I could reconnect with my students and get going on our Writers’ Workshop, Wonder, division of multi-digit whole numbers, fractions, decimals, Lewis & Clark, Abraham Lincoln, the water cycle and weather systems, and a host of other awesome things to come.

Mother Nature, it seems, had other plans. Winter just won’t go away this year! There was a light dusting on snow on Friday evening, but Saturday was pleasantly cool, with temperatures in the mid-40s. Then it got colder and, by Sunday afternoon, the snow started. And it just kept coming. With somewhere in the range of 10-12 in (25-30 cm) with the snow continuing to fall into today, school was canceled.

So, we’ve got a snow day! Add to this the fact that we have our Spring Holiday on this coming Friday, and I’ve got three days with my class this week. Not the ideal situation, but we’ll make it work!

In the meantime, stay safe and have fun! I think I’m going to make an igloo in my front yard today.

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!

C-U Optimists’ Club’s Children’s Challenge

A couple of months ago, I received an email from one of our district assistant superintendents regarding the Champaign-Urbana Optimists’ Club’s Children’s Challenge. This is a fairly new award that the Optimists’ created to recognise children in grades K-5 in excellence in arts, humanities, science, courage, fellowship, and community service.

Shortly after, the president of the Optimists’ Club, who is a retired teacher from our building who now works as a substitute, came by and asked us to nominate our students for one of the awards. (She is, incidentally, the sub who I request for my room, so she knows my class pretty well!) I wanted to nominate some of my students, but I wasn’t quite sure who, or for what category, until a week before the nomination deadline.

For quite some time now, I have noticed two girls in my class writing in a notebook. They would pass the notebook back and forth during independent a work times, preferred activity times, and any time they finished work and were waiting for us to start a new activity. Just before Spring Break, I finally decided to find the notebook and see what they had been writing.

What I discovered nearly took my breath away! It was a 94-page, 24-chapter fictional narrative, complete with character sketches, seed stories, and outlines. I thumbed through the pages of the story and was quite impressed at the depth and quality of the writing. Unfortunately, the awards are arranged so that there can only be one student nominated at a time, but multiple students can be nominated from a class. I nominated one of the girls for humanities, and another for fellowship.

Another member of my class has been a leader in reaching out to new students, including students who were not participating, and trying to help everyone in the class feel like they are part of our school community. She has also been one of the students who has collaborated with several other students while writing stories on Storybird, and encourages students to work  together and really be a part of the group.

I nominated all three girls, and was very happy to learn last night that two of them had been selected as winners in the Children’s Challenge! I spoke with both students and then we called their parents this morning to let them. The Optimists’ Club held a reception dinner this evening, where the winning students were given their awards. As their nominating teacher, I was invited to attend, along with two guests of their choice.

The recognition dinner was fantastic! The nominating letters were read aloud, and then the students were given their awards and had their pictures taken. There were six students in all who received awards: two from Countryside School (a private school in Champaign), one from Washington STEM Academy, one from Kenwood Elementary (both public schools in Champaign), and the two students from my class. All students who had been nominated will receive recognition awards.

The girls both enjoyed the buffet dinner, as well, especially the ice cream, the giant tub of M&Ms, the jello, and the tacos!

What a wonderful way to end the week! Tomorrow is our district’s Spring Holiday (Good Friday and Passover Seder happen to fall on the same day this year).

Something’s Coming…

I hope you have all been enjoying the week thus far! My Spring Break so far has entailed the following:

Monday: Went to the classroom and did some housekeeping in the morning.

Tuesday: Served as an Election Judge for Champaign County’s primary elections in the Cunningham 7 and 8 precincts in Urbana.

Wednesday: Decided to have one day during which I would do absolutely nothing productive; I finished a book, watched several episodes of The X-Files, and took a two-hour nap.

Thursday: Helped me wife with an emergency at her office. Oh, and I finally got a delivery that I’ve been waiting for for several weeks:

Something’s coming to my classroom! I hope my students enjoy the surprise!

I’ll be working on third quarter report cards during most of tomorrow. Happy day!

Last Day Before Spring Break

Spring Break has officially started!

But before the students went home today, they had a lot of work to do!

The students spent the morning watching a video about Colonial Williamsburg called, simple enough, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot. After watching the movie, which follows the story of John Fry, a fictional composite character from the colonial period, they completed a Venn diagram comparing John Fry with Johnny Tremain. After identifying their differences, we worked to identify what they had in common. Some of the similarities the students identified included really simple things like they were both men and they were both named John. After working on identifying the similarities, they had to write a one or two sentence conclusion. One of the conclusions suggested was that although Johnny Tremain and John Fry led different lives, they were both committed to fighting against the British.

After the film and Venn diagram, we had a penny basketball tournament. Just before lunch, I called my mum during her lunch break and wished her a happy birthday. Then the students sang Happy Birthday to her, which was pretty awesome.

The day got wrapped up with a special visit from members the University of Illinois Quench Foundation. They came to talk about the need for clean drinking water in developing nations, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. They also showed the students how to create a water filtration system using sand, gravel, and rocks. The class really enjoyed the presentation, especially the filters!






Having successfully completed the last week of the third quarter, we now get a week off for Spring Break before we get back to work on March 26. Enjoy the break, everyone! I may post during the break, but no guarantees.

Finally Taking a Break

Today is Thursday. I have one more day remaining of my days off for Spring Break, then the weekend and I am back to work on Monday. So I am taking a break today and tomorrow from blogging about anything teaching-related. I have books to read, episodes of The X-Files to watch, hair to get cut (I’m about two months overdue for a haircut now), a wife to spend time with, and an intense desire to actually take a break, be lazy, and maybe even get some more sleep than I have lately.

So I’ll be back on Monday. Feel free to come back and read through the archives and find any typos that may have snuck by editor.


Teaching Strategies: Hump Day

Today is Wednesday. For reasons not quite clear to me, this day is generally known as Hump Day. I find it a somewhat annoying term, and yet I see it all around me. Perhaps that is why I find it annoying. Who knows for sure. When I was serving a two-year mission for my church, there was a common way of describing periods of the mission: first entering the mission field (as we called it) was the Bump. Six months later was something or other that was never defined often enough for me to remember. One year in was the Hump. 18 months in was the Slump, when the missionaries began to think about going home. And at the end was the Trunk, when the bags were packed and the missionary went home. Fortunately, we don’t break down the work week that much. Our society is content to focus on the middle of the week, which we seem to dread while also looking forward to it.

I guess I am fortunate enough to find myself in a profession that allows me to enjoy what I do every day. Yeah, I get tired at times, but I still love my job. I look forward to each day. I hope someone will smack me when I start counting down the days until the end of the week. I don’t have a problem with counting the days until a break or until the end of the school year. But spending all of your time looking forward to the weekend? That seems a bit counter-productive.

Which is why I write about this as a teaching strategy. The strategy isn’t actually Hump Day, of course. Nor is it the recognition of the concept or the use of the term. Rather, it is the opposite. One of the most important things a teacher can do is to simply love coming to work, each and every single day. I’ve met the teachers who are their to do their jobs, as they think of it. And I’ve met the teachers who understand that their jobs are a lot more than what the contract says. I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus yesterday, and I think that this scene captures beautifully what I am talking about:


Fortunately for the music students at John F. Kennedy High School, Mr. Holland learned:


So the next time you find yourself thinking of Hump Day and then looking forward to the weekend, just remember: the teachers who rush to the parking lot with gusto as soon as their work day is over are rarely the teachers for whom after-school assemblies are planned and former students come back 30 years later to celebrate.

Teaching Strategies: Games

Following the topic I used yesterday, I have decided to devote this week to discussing different teaching strategies, which, for my purposes, are being differentiated from pedagogical methods. Yesterday was the use of videos, particularly those found on YouTube, to complement and/or supplement classroom lessons.

Today I’ll be talking about using games. Believe it or not, this was actually a major focus of a unit of student in one of my curriculum and instruction courses during my last year at the University of Illinois. Each class was begun with a student sharing a game that can be used in the classroom. Games have many different uses. Through my work with the Illinois Teen Institute and Operation Snowball, we regularly use games as a teaching tool. As the saying goes, we strive to have fun with a purpose. Every game, every activity, every silly song we sing shares the purpose of helping those involved progress toward the goals of the program. And so it is with the use of games in the classroom.

Some games are used as ice breakers. They help the class get comfortable with one another or to get to know each other. Some games are used as energizers. No matter how exciting the lesson may be, there are times when the students are going to start dragging. They need something to get them up and moving around. Other times the students are too wiggly and they just need to expend some energy. There are also the games used as closers, although they are not used as often in the formal classroom setting. These allow the group to prepare to move on to whatever comes next.

But there are two categories of games that are most important, in my opinion. They are the team builders and the self-awareness builders. Team building activities have been around for a long time. I love them because they allow those involved to learn to trust each other. As an educator, I strive for a classroom that is truly a cohesive unit. I want my students to rely upon each other, to help each other, to teach each other. This is very much an aspect of my egalitarian views of education. Team building activities provide opportunities for small successes, which in turn set the stage for improvement through scaffolding and supports.

Those activities or games that develop self-awareness are not used as often, but I find that I use them most often when it seems like the class is not paying attention. My favourite is the hand on the chin activity.  This is how it goes:

I tell everyone in the class that we are going to do an activity, and I need everyone to stand up by their chairs. Everyone stands.
I tell the class that I want them to follow my directions as I give them. They give consent, wondering what I’m going to have them do.
I tell them to extend their right arms, and I show them what I mean. Everyone extends his or her right arm. (If someone uses the left, I will point this out, and they switch.)
I tell them to take their thumbs and index fingers of their right hands and make a circle. Again, I model this, and they follow.
I then tell them to slowly bring their arm in and place the “O” on their cheek. As I do this, I slowly bring my arm in and place my “O” on my chin. 9 times out of 10, every person in the class will do exactly as I did. Occasionally I will have a student who catches what I said and chuckles. The rest of the students are standing with their hands on the chins wondering what is so funny.
I repeat the last instruction. Slowly, realisation dawns: the chin is not the cheek. My response to this is that it is important to follow directions and to listen closely. We need to be aware that those in our lives may say one thing and do another. We should be confident enough in our classroom setting, and in our lives, to stand tall doing what is right, even if everyone else is doing the wrong thing.

I love the change that comes over the classroom when we do this. For a brief while, I have a room of students who are paying attention, working hard, and helping each other. And I’ll admit it: it is really funny to have a room of 25 boys and girls all place their hands on the chins after being told to put them on their cheeks.


Teaching Strategies: YouTube

Today is the first real day of Spring Break here in Champaign, Mahomet, and Urbana. I had earlier stated on Twitter that I would not be posting anything today, but I just found this awesome YouTube channel that I wanted to share with all of you. (Shout out to Edna Lee at Regurgitated Alpha Bits for sharing this on her blog!)

The channel consists of surprisingly well-made (for amateurs) music videos of 52 different events in history, put to popular music. Some of the songs are contemporary, such as the story of the French Revolution set to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance while others use hits from the 1980s, such as Tainted Love by Soft Cell to tell the story of the Trojan War. There are even some Beatles tunes thrown in. Some of the videos are better than others, but they are fun and would be great to share in the classroom.

Except, of course, for that nagging problem that seemingly every school district in the nation has blocked access to YouTube. This channel alone provides an excellent argument for allowing teachers and staff access to sites that are blocked to students. There are lots of ways around this, of course, and a quick Google search can give you directions on how to take advantage of any number of them. (Edna Lee even offers a way to rip YouTube videos, but I’ve never used it and I have no idea what the legality of it is, so I’ll leave you to find your own methods of acquiring the content).

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite videos from History for Music Lovers!