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

Posts tagged “Weekends

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.


Weekend Writing

It has been a long-time goal of mine to help my students write more authentically. Authentic writing, for me, is writing that is real–not realistic, nor based on reality, but real as in from the heart and mind of the author. Authentic writing is something you mean and something you intend. This can be challenging when you are being told what to write and when to write, but I believe it is possible. To borrow a phrase from a book that I read this summer, I want my students to write pieces that they want to write and that the audience wants to read.

I was expressing this goal to my district’s elementary literacy coach and she had some ideas. Students often tell us they have nothing to write about or they don’t know what to write about. Her strategy for helping them overcome this writer’s block is to do something she calls “weekend writing.” I have no idea if this was an original idea she developed, if it was something she adapted, or if it is a strategy she lifted directly from another teacher, but I had never heard of it before and was excited to try it out with my class, as it seems to get at the heart of authentic writing.

After discussing and planning, we arranged for her to visit my class today to introduce the topic. She showed the students the graphic organizer for weekend writing and modeled how she would fill it out. I assisted in the process. After the organizer was completed, she and I had a conversation about what was written. This is a key component of the writing process that often gets overlooked. If students can talk to each other about what they did or what they think, they can write about it!

Once we had modeled it for the students, we gave them the graphic organizers and set them on the task of jotting down some ideas about what they did over the weekend, writing things like who they were with, what they did inside, what they did outside, what they ate, and where they went. As she told one student who said he had nothing to write, “Everyone was with someone and ate something over the weekend!” He realised this was true and immediately wrote far more than he had in previous weeks!

Students then turned to their elbow partners to discuss one single thing they recorded. As they talked, their partner asked probing questions such as “why did you do that?” or “what did you think about it?” Then students were given just five minutes to start writing. Instead of claiming they had nothing to write, each student was able to write something about their weekend that was important to them.

Tomorrow we will revisit weekend writing and explore how we can use these brief ideas, or “small moments,” as Writing Workshop guru Lucy Calkins calls them, to develop longer passages of authentic writing. I am hopeful that this writing will then transfer to students’ other writing as they think about ways to capture brief ideas and expand on them.

Oh, and the highlight of my weekend? Making a perfect batch of pumpkin French toast on Saturday morning! (Friends and family who are connected with me on social media have seen this picture already. It is too fantastic to not share. Click on the image for a link to the recipe!)


Illinois JAC – Day Two

Today was the second day of the Illinois Joint Annual Conference. There were so many panel discussions, carousel discussions, and learning labs, in addition to the second general session and the exhibition hall, that I found myself wishing, more than once, that Hermione Granger’s time-turner really existed so that I could have gone to everything!

Alas, I only had so many hours in the day, so I had to pick and choose what to do with my time and also make sure that I remembered to do important things like eating. (As it was, after eating an apple at 7:30 in the morning and an oatmeal raisin cookie around 8:45, I didn’t eat again until nearly 1 pm. Oops.)

I started my day with a visit with my wife, who is at this conference with me, to the IASB book store and saw several books that I want to add to my professional collection, such as Todd Whitaker’s “Shifting the Monkey” and Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators.” I also found a series of picture books by “Star Wars: Jedi Academy” series author Jeffrey Brown that I want for my personal library. Then we stopped by the Educational Environments Exhibit Hall to see some amazing examples of brilliant school design (including the Award of Distinction-winning Urbana Early Childhood Center).

For the couple of hours we wandered through the Exhibition Hall, talking to vendors about issues such as educational technology, creative learning resources, data management systems, innovative security tools, and modular carpeting. A I was particularly impressed with BoardShare, which has developed a cost-effective tool that allows you to turn any flat surface into an interactive board, and Scribfolio, which takes simple abstract figures and allows students to create pictures that tell a story. We attended a learning laboratory presentation about health and wellness that included ideas for utilising wearable technology, such as Humana’s 100-Day Dash. (I am now brainstorming ways we can use pedometers to develop a similar challenge for my school community.)

The morning ended with a panel session presented by Reyna Hernandez, the Illinois State Board of Education’s Assistant Superintendent of English Language Learning and Early Childhood. She spoke about the ISBE Family Engagement Framework and shared some wonderful research on best practices for engaging families across all areas in a way that would promote longterm sustainability. One of my favourite statements came near the end of her presentation when she told us that while buy-in is good, it is even better for parents and members of the community to feel ownership for school initiatives. How do we make this possible? By involving them in all aspects of the decision-making processes.

After a late lunch, I attended another panel session with my mother on student-led conferences and left eager to use them for parent-teacher conferences in the Spring. The concept is simple: instead of teachers meeting with parents to tell them how their students are doing, parents and teachers meet with the students so that they, the students, can explain why they are doing it! The session was presented by teachers and administrators from Belleville, Illinois, and I was very impressed with the planning that went into place before this conference model was implemented.

Day two of JAC 2015 was definitely an incredibly busy, very full day, but I have so many awesome ideas that I can hardly wait to bring back to my school and district!

New Classroom Arrangement

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher had tables for us instead of desks. We had plastic totes kept in a huge cubby shelf thing for our supplies and a separate tote in the middle of the table that had shared materials, especially pencils. I loved this grouping arrangement and loved how my friends and I were able to work so collaboratively and cooperatively throughout the year. (Miss McNamara would give us seating assignments but my best friends and I always took our supplies and went to her extra table at the back of the room to work. She let us do this as long as we actually worked, which we always did because we didn’t want to get split up!)

When I first started working as a substitute teacher, I saw all sorts of classroom arrangements: desks in rows, desks in groups, and tables of various sizes being the most common. (I never went to a classroom that had no furniture, although I’ve heard stories of such rooms existing.) After three years of working in hundreds of different classrooms, I definitely came to prefer groups of desks or tables.

Then I got my own classroom and my principal at the time strongly encouraged me to start the year off with rows so that I could establish my “teacher presence” in the classroom. Later in the year I switched to groups of four desk that faced each other. This has continued to be my preference.

At the end of last year I came to realise that I would most likely have a very large class this year (possibly upwards of 28-30 students). So I began to reimagine my entire room and I enlisted the help of my wife, who is able to think about negative space in a way that I have a hard time doing. (Give me a limited space and tell me to fill it completely and I’ll do it without a problem; give me the same space and tell me that I have to have empty space and I hit a brick wall.) She helped me figure out where to move bookshelves, my desk, my reading table, and the students’ desks so that I could optimise my space. (On a side note, I was told my first year here that my classroom is actually about 100 square feet smaller than the recommended space for the number of fourth grade students I have. Even though I’ve had several opportunities to switch classrooms, I’ve always opted to stay because all of my materials are already in here and organised in a way that works for me.)

I started this year with four columns of desks that were mirrored across the center line of my room. This meant that two columns faced the right and two columns faced the left. This worked for a brief period of time but then I needed my students to be able to work in small groups at their seats and so I arranged things to make room for groups of four or five desks. It had been this way for over a month, but I was frustrated by some of the problems I ran into, including not being able to monitor all of my students, limited space, and the constant shifting of desks as students moved around.

Then I got a much-needed filing cabinet that I needed close to my desk and reading table and discovered that I had no good place to put it. I struggled with it for a couple of hours before finally asking my wife to come down and help me out. She suggested changing my desk’s orientation, moving my table, and completely reconfiguring the students’ desks. Now I have four rows of desks that face the front of the room with an aisle down the middle to provide ease of access. My table is strategically placed so that I can see every student’s desk and, more importantly, Chromebook screen, from where I sit as I work with small groups. I can also see students on the carpet as they work with my aide, student teacher, or each other.

More importantly, though, is what my students are able to do: focus on their work, complete assignments with independence, trust that their teacher is monitoring the entire classroom to ensure safety, and ask others for help in appropriate ways as needed.

I don’t think it is the best arrangement possible, but it is the best arrangement for what we need at this moment. My students spend much of the day out of their seats, anyway, spreading out as the work with partners and self-selected groups. Because I am doing a workshop model for literacy and math instruction, I spend very little time each day at the front of the room teaching the entire class the same thing at the same time. Instead, I present short minilessons and then set students off to complete a variety of independent, differentiated tasks as I work with my small groups on targeted skills.

This entire exercise has been a good reminder for me that the classroom and the learning environment need to be designed around the needs of the students, not the wishes of the teacher. We may return to groups in the future. We may have a large horseshoe arrangement another time. And we may keep our rows and columns. It is all about the students being able to learn in a safe, positive, appropriate environment. Always.

Student Guest Post 5: Exciting Things Going On

This is the fifth in my series of guest posts written by students. Once again, it is presented without any edits, even if I really want to go through and correct the mechanics…

Our principal said that if we do not have any office refferals our names would be drawn to go to the Krannert art museum to see some wonderful chinese acrobats witch we look forward to. The Wiley Walk-a-thon is happening and

we are exited. Mr.Valencic’s class is working on a social studies inquiry project on pre-Colombian civilizations such as the aztec, mayan and inca empires. i like my teacher because he is fun and cool and he is teaching me how to read and do math.

I do feel like I need to clarify that the students will be learning about pre-Columbian civilisations from medieval Europe, western Africa, in addition to the cultures that existed in the Americas. (Also, I am not particularly fond of the term “pre-Columbian” but since we tend to use that as a term to describe the time period before the European Age of Discovery, I’ll use it for simplicity’s sake.)

There is no school on Monday, so have a wonderful three-day weekend!

Super Blood Moons, Lunar Eclipse, and Proving the Teacher Wrong

Every now and then I make outlandish claims to students just to see if they are really paying attention to what I am saying. And sometimes those outlandish claims turn into really fun quick projects for my class.

Today provided one of those opportunities.

Each Monday morning in our class meeting, the students get a chance to share what they did over the weekend. The vast majority of my class mentioned staying up to see the super blood moon and the lunar eclipse that happened last night. After every student shared, I told them what I did: took a nap on Saturday afternoon, watched the new Cinderella movie that evening, and orchestrated the lunar eclipse on Sunday evening.

One student said, “Wow, that’s awesome. Mr. Valencic!”

The rest of the class said, “Wait… what?! You didn’t cause the lunar eclipse!”

I said, “Oh, really? Okay, you have ten minutes to prove me wrong. You’ve got your Chromebooks and our science books. Go for it!”

Image not even close to be to scale.(Image not even close to being to scale.)

For the next ten minutes, nearly every student in my class was reading articles about lunar eclipses and learning more about what causes a blood moon and a super moon. Then they shared with each other what they learned. There were discussions about the rotation of the earth and the orbit of the moon and the earth’s orbit around the sun (one student said something about the sun orbiting the earth but his classmate’s quickly corrected him). And they all convincingly proved that I didn’t actually cause the eclipse.

I did get to take a nice long nap on Saturday afternoon, though, and I really did watch the new Cinderella movie that evening.

Student Saturday

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned having a guest post of sorts go up on Kirby Larson’s blog. I also mentioned that I was going to start incorporating her Teacher Tuesday concept on my blog with Student Saturdays. I am not going to use any of my students’ names, first, last, or even initials. I will just be featuring a different student’s response to a few questions I asked them each Saturday. I actually meant to start this two weeks ago, but you know, life…

Anyway, today is the first Student Saturday feature. I am not going to edit my students’ responses at all. I want this to be their voices sharing their ideas without any interference from me! My goal is to let each student have an opportunity to share a little bit about him- or herself with visitors to our blog. If you have any questions or remarks for them, feel free to leave them in the comments below and I will pass them on!


  • What is your all-time favorite book? Why?
    I don’t have a favorite book all the ones I read are really good so I can’t really tell
  • Tell about a recent story, poem, or essay you have written. Why did you write it?
    It’s called The Tale Of The Two Princess’s I wrote it because I felt like writing a book
  • What has been the most challenging thing you have learned to do in math?
    I don’t really know maybe two digit by two digit multiplication.
  • What has been the best research project or science experiment you have done?
    My French Explorer report.
  • Who is your favorite person in all of history? Why?
    In all of history maybe Leonardo Da Vinci  because he was an awesome artist
  • What is your favorite activity in P.E.? Why?
    FOUR CORNER DODGEBALL AND BLOB TAG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Because they the awesomest games of all time
  • What do you prefer to do during recess? Why?
    In recess I like to play SORRY!! because it is awesome
  • Describe fourth grade in just one word!

So there you have it! Have a great weekend! School starts again on Monday!