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

Posts tagged “Teachers’ Secrets

Competitions in the Classroom

I love watching movies, and I really love watching movies about inspiring teachers. Lean On Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Music of the Heart, Freedom Writers, Stand and DeliverSister Act 2, Akeelah and the Bee… the list goes on! I think what I love most about them is that they are movies that remind me that I am not the only teacher who has struggles in the classroom, but also that it can and does get better. These movies are also reminders to me that student engagement is such a huge component in contributing to a safe, positive learning environment. In fact, of the movies I listed above, each of them has a turning point in which the teacher finds a way to connect with their students’ interests and discover the joy of teaching students where they are at.

The reality of day-to-day teaching, however, is that I am not the final voice of what I do in my classroom. I have building, district, and state rules, policies, procedures, curricula, and standards that guide my instruction and inform what I teach. That being said, I am fortunate to be in a district that has leaders who encourage teachers to do what works best with their students.

So, even though I have spent this entire year teaching math with a curriculum that is much more rigid than I am used to, I have found ways to change things up to meet their needs, most often by utilising small groups and taking advantage of the abundance of student teachers and tutors and volunteers I had at my disposal throughout the year.

With just six school days remaining to the year, we are definitely in wind-down mode in many ways. My students are also working on culminating projects for writing, they are finishing books, and they are reviewing all of the concepts and skills they have learned during mathing workshop.

Yesterday and today I took a new approach to reviewing math skills. I have had a set of math and English/language arts “task cards” that I picked up from a school supply shop years ago but hadn’t really used much this year. In fact, they have mostly sat on a shelf collecting dust. I decided to brush off the dust, take out the cards, and set up a challenge:

Students self-selected teams of three or four and spread out in the room. Each team was given a random task card (face-down) that connected to a specific Common Core State Standard for Mathematics. I set a time for 30 minutes and set up a tally sheet on my Promethean Board. As soon as the timer started, students flipped the cards over and began solving the problems or completing the tasks given to them. As soon as a card was correctly completed, the team would earn one point and then receive a new card. The process repeated until the timer ran out.

Over the course of the two days that we did this, my students completed about 45 different math tasks. They were engaged, working together, encouraging their group members, checking work, explaining answers, and shouting with excitement when they completed a card and earned a point.

I don’t think I have ever seen a group so focused or engaged in mathematics as I did this afternoon. For the first time, my students were actually excited to do math. Was it because it was a competition? Because the winning team members got to select prizes from my prize box? Because they were able to work together? Most likely, it was a combination of all of the reasons and others that I haven’t even though about yet.

The entire process made me wonder: why haven’t I been doing this more often? Why have I been so reluctant to break out of the rut I found myself in, to give my students a lot more freedom than I had been giving them, the kind of freedom they have during reading, writing, and inquiry workshop times? I think a big part was that I was using a new math curriculum this year (along with everyone else in the district) and no matter how confident I was in the content and my delivery, I needed to see how the curriculum works “as written” before I start changing it up, in much the same way that I do when baking. I always follow the recipe exactly the first time to know what to expect, then I start tinkering with the ingredients to see what I can do to make it better or just different.

So I imagine that my mathematics instruction next year will be much more flexible and group-oriented than it was this year. I’m not saying that my math instruction this year was lacking, mind you. I am just saying that next year it will be better.

And it will certainly include more competitions.


Observe and Write

As the end of the year swiftly approaches, it can be tempting to cut out “extras” from the day to make room for the “essentials.” But, for me, the “extras” are essential. This is definitely true for the ongoing professional collaboration I do with Miss C, one of our kindergarten teachers–our Learning Buddies project. Next week will be our last time bringing our two classes together for the year, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped doing amazing projects and activities with them!

The project we started last week and completed today was all about observing and writing. The students got to go to the outdoor learning space we have behind the building and observe something they saw in nature, whether it was a plant, an insect, a bird, or even a rock. As they observed, they drew detailed pictures of what they saw and then they wrote a paragraph based on their observations.

The role of the fourth graders was to be support and encouragement. The role of the kindergarteners was to draw and write as much as they could on their own. Both groups were responsible for talking to each other, helping each other, and staying focused on the task at hand.

Not only did my students get to be mentors and teachers for a brief part of the day, but they also got to see the fruit of their labours. They well remember that many of their buddies did not even know all of the letters of the alphabet at the start of the year and needed help writing their own names. Now these same children were writing entire paragraphs!

Next week we will have a celebration to wrap up this project, but today? Today was just learning as usual: collaboratively and cooperatively.


17 1/2 Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 1/2 days. We will make it!


And Then There Were Two

Approximately 16 weeks ago, I began hosting a student teacher from Eastern Illinois University, a man I will call Mr. G (it is what the students called him, too, since his last name was much longer than even mine). For 16 weeks, he was in my classroom every day, working with students, getting to know them, and, only a few short weeks into his placement, teaching them all day every day.

This made my job much different than what I had been used to doing for the previous five and a half years. More specifically, my job went from teaching my class directly, with all of the thousands of decisions involved in that process, to sitting back so that Mr. G could teach while I gave him feedback and support.

At about the same time, my classroom became even more crowded as I welcomed in a team of five pre-service teachers from the University of Illinois who were in a collaborative placement. I rarely had all five of them in my room at the same time, as I shared the placement with the other fourth grade teacher and our reading interventionist, but it meant that, on any given day, I could have had up to six extra adults in my room (including America Reads/America Counts tutors, Vis-a-Vis tutors, and other volunteers).

For the past four weeks, the U of I students were in a full-time placement, and we all got very used to have lots of adult support in my classroom. We were able to do a wide variety of group work, targeted instruction, and one-on-one work.

But, as with all good things, an end had to come, and that end was last Friday afternoon. After four weeks of an abundance of teachers, we are now looking at the final four weeks of school with just two of us: me and my amazing aide.

True, we still have the tutors and volunteers who come in at different times each day, and yes, the reading interventionist and special education teacher are both able to push in at times, but brief push-in is a huge difference from full support all day long.

Today was the first day with just the two of us. The day started strong. The students were introduced to our next short inquiry unit on Westward Expansion, they went to Music, and then we did our Reading Workshop. Reading Workshop was interrupted by a tornado safety workshop we attended, but then we got back to work and ended the morning reading more of The Lightning Thief.

After lunch, however, was a bit of a challenge. The combination of warm air, lots of sunshine, playground disagreements, and plain old fatigue resulted in a loss of focus for many of my students who are wondering if they are really going to be able to make it through the last month of school. (Spoiler alert: they will.)

I’m excited about the final month of school, though! My aide and I are going to be doing great things with my class, we are going to be doing great projects with Miss C’s kindergarteners, and this last month is just going to be fantastic!


Book Review: Is It Working in Your Middle School?

[NOTE: The following is a review I wrote for MiddleWeb, an online organisation all about teaching and learning in the middle grades, which they define as grades 4-8. I have written four reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review will likely be on their website in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, you can read it now.]

Quick! Grab a pen or pencil or open up a new document on your computer. Ready? Good. Now, write down the name of every initiative you school or district has adopted since you started working there. Go ahead, I’ll wait. All finished? Okay. Now, circle all of the ones that you can prove are improving student learning and growth. How many initiatives did you list? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? How many did you circle? One? Two? Zero?

If there is anything that school leaders and policymakers are frustratingly good at doing, it is coming up with new initiatives for classrooms, schools, and districts. Whether the initiatives are focused on academics, behavior, instruction, culture, family engagement, teacher quality, or any number of possibilities, there is not a school in the nation that doesn’t have at least one new initiative put into place every year. But what do we do after we initiate the initiative? How do we know if it is actually making a difference? Are we even bothering to check? Or do we just start something new and keep doing it mechanically, thinking to ourselves that this, too, shall pass? Has the Shiny New Thing become so commonplace that we don’t even care if it works or not?

Dr. Nikki C. Woodson, an educational leader, and James W. Frakes, a business consultant who has spent much of his career working with the manufacturing industry, both believe that the problem with initiatives is not the initiatives themselves, but the lack of intentionality and monitoring. In their book, Is It Working in Your Middle School?, they provide a simple framework for identifying appropriate initiatives and monitoring them with consistency so that teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders can separate the wheat from the chaff and put into place programs, policies, and practices that will lead to meaningful, lasting changes in your school.

While focusing on middle schools, the authors are quick to note that their framework, based on proven quality assurance processes, can be used in any school setting and, indeed, in any organization that wants to know if what they are doing is actually making a difference. Their process will help anyone with an interest in improving their school to identify all of the current initiatives, or programs in place, eliminate the ones that have no discernible purpose, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, identifying quantifiable strategies, assess the efficacy of the strategies, monitor for success, and plan for next steps to the school improvement process truly continuous. To help the reader through the process, Woodson and Frakes provide templates for reflection, goal setting, planning, and monitoring which can be either copied from the book or downloaded for free through a website given. They also use a case study to model how their framework has been used to change a middle school’s approach to improvement plan goals.

Classrooms, schools, and districts are constantly adapting as they try to keep up with the latest research, best practices, and the ever-changing landscape of education in the 21st century. These adaptations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing; they can push a school to grow and improvement. Growth and improvement will only happen, though, if teachers and leaders work together to monitor the changes and keep asking each other two simple questions: Is it working? How do we know? If you are concerned that the programs you are using in your classroom, school, and/or district are not making a difference in student achievement but are not sure how to prove it, or you are convinced that your programs are working but need evidence to justify continuing them, this is the book for you! You may not be able to stem the tide of Shiny New Things coming your way, but you will be able to show which ones are making a difference in the lives of your students and which ones are just passing fads.


Ready to Learn with a Clip Chart

Way back when in my first year of teaching at Wiley, my fourth grade partner at the time was talking with me about classroom management strategies and we were pondering ways we could tackle some challenges of students who needed visual reminders of expectations but also wanted to avoid the pitfalls of assertive discipline. (As a PBIS school, we strive to approach discipline from the assumption that students will rise to the positive expectations they are presented with if they are taught and given the opportunity to do them.)

One of the ideas she discovered was the Clip Chart. We both researched it, read about it, and felt it would be a good tool for our class. However, our principal at the time was worried that it would too easily turn into an assertive approach and thus counseled us to try something different. Giving deference to our principal’s guidance, we did try something different and it worked.

Jump ahead five years. My new teaching partner and I were experience some challenges that were very similar to what I had my first year and she brought up the ideas of the Clip Chart. She put it into place in her classroom and, after just one week, reported a huge change in student behaviour. The chart doesn’t force them to do anything; all it does is lets them visually see what they are doing and how they are impacting others.

Every student starts the day Ready to Learn. Ideally, they rise to the expectations given and go from Good Day to Great Job to Outstanding. Sometimes, however, they slip up and may need to Think About It, receive a Teacher’s Choice consequence, a Parent Contact, or even an Office Referral. Throughout the day, clips move from one space to another. If a student is at Outstanding and makes a mistake, they move down to Great Job. There is no skipping stages up or down.

To help boost this strategy in my room, our latest classroom incentive is to earn 300 “Outstandings.” We count how many students are at Outstanding at the end of each day and fill in our chart. When we hit 300, we will have a student-selected classroom celebration. Some days are great, with over 20 students at Outstanding. Other days are rougher, with maybe only 2 or 3. But each day is an opportunity for students to start at Ready to Learn.

I am grateful that the Clip Chart is working in my classroom. I hope my students will continue to respond positively to it and use the reminders to prompt themselves to move upward and set goals for growth each day!


Back in the Saddle

Many years ago, my wife and I found ourselves without a car. During that time, I rode my bike everywhere I could as often as I could. After nearly passing out from heat exhaustion on a day when the heat index was over 90° F (32° C), I decided that was my upper limit for biking. As winter came, I also discovered that biking when the wind chill was below 20° F (-6° C) was equally a bad idea! On those days, I was fortunate to have coworkers who were kind enough to give me a ride to work. For the most part, though, as long as it wasn’t too hot, too cold, or raining, I was on my bike.

Even after we got a new (to us) car, I continued to bike as often as possible. Cycling was a great form of exercise, it saved a lot of money on automobile costs, it helped energise me in the morning, and it was fun. My students also recognised me when they saw me biking, so they knew that I was setting a good example for the physical activity that we are frequently telling students they all ought to be getting! Then I started graduate school. I still rode my bike a few times, but I quickly realised that biking home in the dark was not particularly safe, even with reflective gear and lights. So I started driving my car again.

I had wanted to get back into the (bicycle) saddle again this year, but it seemed like every day it was too hot, too cold, too wet, or too foggy, and so I was driving my car all the time. In fact, I think I rode my bike once all of the first semester and, until today, not once since then.

But I got back into the saddle again today. It wasn’t too cold, it wasn’t raining or foggy, and I knew I needed to stop making excuses. I woke up earlier than usual, got myself ready, and hopped on my bike, expecting to get to work in about 30 minutes, which is about what I used to average.

I forgot to take into account two important things: one, it has been months since I last rode my bike and two, it was a windy morning. It took me about 40 minutes to get to work, which may not seem like much, but it did mean that I didn’t give myself nearly as much time to get settled in at the start of the day.

All that being said, I am glad I am back on my bike. Graduate school was great for my mind but not so kind to my waistline. I am hoping that cycling 9-10 miles every day will bring back all of those positive outcomes that I saw back when I was biking more regularly. In the meantime, I think I ought to get up about 15 minutes earlier to give myself just a little bit more time in the morning!