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

Posts tagged “Writing

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.]

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Network Issues and a Broken Toe

So, I haven’t updated my blog in a while. And there is a really simple, but kind of silly, reason why: my district’s network won’t let me access my blog’s admin panel. I can visit my blog, but I can’t post any updates while at work. So I haven’t been posting any updates at all.

“But wait!” You ask, “Why don’t you just update at home?”

I used to do that. But then I realised I was taking time away from my family. So I tried to write my blog posts during the time I had after school while waiting for my wife to come pick me up. I suppose I could write them in Google Docs and then just copy and paste from home, but for some reason that I can’t identify, I haven’t been doing that. Maybe I ought to start. Or maybe I ought to just start blogging from home again.

What’s ironic is that I am writing this from home right now. Mostly because I managed to break my little toe yesterday and didn’t do anything about it last night. I spent most of today hobbling around the building, trying to keep up with my students who didn’t fully realise what a teacher’s broken toe would mean. But I am writing from home because my wife is downstairs painting and I am upstairs, trying to keep my foot elevated and wondering how such a tiny thing can cause such a great deal of pain.

Which brings me back to the network issues. You see, my computer also stopped connecting to any of our district’s networks this afternoon, so I wasn’t able to pull up notes for reading groups, I wasn’t able to get to my plans for writing groups, and I couldn’t print off the parent newsletter I was hoping to send home this week. I still met with reading groups, but I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted. And I ended up moving some parts of my day around so that the students had some free choice time at the end of the day. (I guess this was kind of my birthday present to them. Oh, right, today was also my birthday. 35 years old. I have almost spent more of my life living and working in this area than not. Not quite, but almost.)

Anyway, I digress, which, come to think of it, is something I do more often than not when I am blogging.

Having network issues at work when you are an instructional technology specialist and you use 21st century digital technology in the classroom more than anyone else is as painfully inconvenient as having a broken toe. Sure, I can still hobble around and work, but it is still annoying.

I am hoping I can get this issue resolved soon. I would like to get back to blogging about my adventures as a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois. I would like to have more time to reflect on the positives in my classroom. Because here’s the other thing I’ve noticed: I am becoming more negative about little things that happen. Much like having a broken toe has made me painfully aware of every step I take as I have pain shoot through my foot, so, too, does being unable to post about the great things happening each day make me painfully aware of all the not-so-great things that happen every day.

I don’t want to be that teacher. You know, the one who is grumbling about everything and doesn’t seem to enjoy teaching but can’t get out. The truth of the matter is that I do enjoy teaching and I love my students. Each and every single one of them. Not just the 22 assigned to my classroom, but all 284 or so in my building. They make me laugh, they make me learn, they challenge my thinking, they push me to do better, and they expand my horizons as they share their experiences with me.

I hope that they all know that. I hope that they know that they are the reason I come to work each day. They are the reason I keep trying to do better. They are the reason I keep trying to help them to do better, too. I need to have the time to reflect on that and share that every day. Otherwise, I become another grouchy old man hobbling through the building, complaining about how much my foot hurts.


Collaborative Storytelling

The other day I had the opportunity to accompany five Wiley students to the 39th annual Urbana School District Young Authors Celebration. I have written quite a bit about the Young Authors program in the past and continue to feel a great deal of gratitude that I get to work in a district that so thoroughly supports this program for our students in grade K-8.

During the celebration, we got to listen to a professional storyteller, Mama Edie, who told students that we are all storytellers: any time we come home from doing something and start off with, “Guess what?!” we are preparing to tell a story. I love telling stories. It is often the way that I introduce new topics in my classroom, whether it is fractions (talking about the time I messed up a recipe because I didn’t double the ingredients correctly), or early American history (the story of the Revolutionary War), I am always telling stories.

I also love listening to stories. My students have wonderful experiences and they rarely shy from telling them, no matter how silly or how serious they may be. I listen to podcasts as I bike to work so I can listen to the stories of other school leaders, I watch documentaries, television shows, and movies to listen to the stories others have to tell, and I surround myself with music to embrace those stories, too.

So it should be no surprise that, when given the opportunity, I find ways to let my students tell stories through their writing. Inspired by an activity I used at the Young Authors celebration yesterday, I had my students today engage in collaborative storytelling using Rory’s Story Cubes to start the stories.

Students broke up into groups of four and spread out in the room. Each group was given a sheet of paper, a pencil, and four random story cubes. Then they were given five minutes to start telling their stories. Every five minutes, they would rotate papers, read what the previous group wrote, and continue the story, using the story cubes if needed or just picking up where they left off. This provided a great way for them to tell stories together, have fun, and work on writing, all at once.

As students read each others’ stories, they began revising and editing, making corrections and clarifying confusing points. They supported one another and engaged in the writing process in a way that they don’t often do. While I won’t be able to do a writing activity like this every day, it was a great way to kick off the return of Mr. Valencic teaching writing. (My student teacher is finished on Friday and so we decided to transition back some instructional control to me today, starting with writing so that he wouldn’t start a new unit and have me finish.)

How have you engaged in collaborative storytelling? Do you find it valuable?


Staring at a Blank Page

I have a confession to make: the reason I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I used doesn’t actually have all that much to do with time constraints, although graduate school definitely did contribute to the issue. I haven’t been in graduate classes in 11 months, and yet I still haven’t been blogging all that much.

No, the reason is much simpler: I have spent too much time staring at blank pages and simply walking away from the computer.

I have been blogging for over six years. I love talking about education. I love sharing what I do and why I do it. I have been fortunate to have so many amazing experiences over the years, whether it was attending conferences and workshops, presenting to colleagues, leading professional development, reading phenomenal books, collaborating with other teachers and, of course, simply teaching in the classroom every day.

And yet I’ve been in a slump all year long that I just don’t seem to be able to break out of. I feel like so many of the things that we are doing in my classroom are things I have already blogged about. I have a constant fear that my blog has become stale and uninteresting. After all this time, I still don’t know who actually reads these posts. I certainly don’t get that many views and I get even fewer comments.

Of course, I don’t blog for the page views or the comments. In fact, I blog for myself: to give myself an outlet for reflecting on my professional practice and to keep a record of positive events in the classroom. But somehow I find myself opening a new blog post page and then… nothing.

Just a blank page.

So what should I do? What do I write about when I have nothing to write about? What I have been doing is walking away, thinking I might have something else to write about later. But, clearly, that hasn’t been happening. That’s how it has been a couple of days since my last post.

So today I decided a new strategy. I was staring at a blank page for a few minutes and then I just started writing. I wasn’t worried about the topic, nor was I worried about what others might think about my stream-of-consciousness blogging. Instead, I just started typing.

And this is what happened. Four hundred words later and I haven’t really said anything about my classroom or my day, but I have written about what I do when I find myself staring at a blank page.

Just write.

I feel like I have heard that advice before.

Oh, that’s right, I have.

From me.

When my students tell me they don’t know what to write about them, I tell them to not worry about it and just start writing. The most important audience we ever write for is ourselves. Then we eventually think that someone else might want to read what we wrote. I suppose it is time I start taking my own advice. Instead of thinking, “I have nothing to write about that others want to read,” I need to start thinking, “I need to just start writing and let the ideas flow together.”

The funny thing is that, about 200 words ago, I realised that there were things I could write about regarding my classroom and my day, but now that I have committed nearly 600 words to this topic of dealing with writer’s block, I feel like it would be silly to delete it all to write about something completely different. Instead, I will save the idea for Monday.

What do you do when you run into writer’s block?


Tweaking the Approach to Guided Reading

Right before Winter Break, my fourth grade partner and I spent a day looking at student literacy data and talking about ways we could better meet the needs of our four dozen or so students. One thing we realised was that we could more effectively and efficiently serve them by changing the way we grouped students for guided reading. Instead of each forming groups from our own classes, we put all of the data for all of our students together and made groups based on that new information. What happened was that about half of my students would be in groups with her and about half of her students would be in groups with me.

We looked at our schedules, bumped some things around, and found a way to both have our main literacy block at the same time. We started this shortly after the second semester resumed and have been meeting at least twice a week to discuss progress, strengths, weaknesses, and any changes we need to make.

Initially, I was meeting with all five of my new groups every day. Then I tried meeting with four groups each day by alternating days with two of the groups. Last week, as we looked at data further, I decided to tweak the schedule a little bit more so that I only meet with three groups on any given day. This has had the benefit of letting me a) give more time to students when I meet with them in their small groups and b) give them more time to work on independent tasks. With this newly tweaked schedule, my students now go to three of four possible twenty-minute stations: Teacher Time (only three of my five groups each day), Read to Self (every group), Writing (every group), and Front Row (two of the three groups, namely, the two not meeting with me for Teacher Time).

Yes, all of my groups are named after somewhat random and/or obscure trees.

At the same time, we decided to use an article series on the newly released Front Row Social Studies page as the foundation of our guided reading texts. Each article is published at multiple grade levels so we can differentiate as needed for our diverse groups of learners. For each article, students read it online, complete a brief comprehension quiz, and have a written response. I would like to say that the students are blowing me away with both their excellent understanding of the texts and with their detailed analyses of what they have read, but that would not be true.

What I am learning, instead, is that many of them are struggling with connecting what they have read and what they know with the questions being given to them. I am also learning that they are not writing very detailed responses. In fact, several students are only writing one or two sentences, while others have copied the entire article and pasted it into their response.

Fortunately, I am able to take this information and use it in my instruction! My student teacher is starting to take over more and more of the teaching responsibilities in the classroom, which means that I can work with more students on specific, targeted skills. I am hopeful that this will result in improved output from students, not because of a test or any arbitrary, artificial metric, but because being able to communicate clearly and effectively with others is an important life skill that I want all of my students to develop!


2017 Reading Challenge

Last year I came across a reading challenge from the folks at WeAreTeachers.com. I had hoped to attempt the challenge, but graduate school, life, and my own To Be Read pile got in the way. I had shared the challenge on Facebook so it popped up again in my feed (thank you, Facebook memories feature!) and I decided to try it again. Here’s the challenge:

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So even though it is now 2017, I am going to undertake the WeAreTeachers 2016 Reading Challenge. I am also going to challenge my students to take on this challenge, albeit with a few slight changes. (Instead of spouse or partner, it will be parent or other family member.) To help my students keep track of their reading challenge, they will use an online resource, Whooo’s Reading, to record the books they’ve read and write responses about what they read.

Of course, there are only 12 books on this list, and I plan on reading considerably more than one book a month. So the supplementary part of my personal reading goal for 2017 is to at least five books from each of the following genres:

  • Autobiography/Biography
  • Classic Literature
  • Fantasy
  • Graphic Novel
  • Historical Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Nonfiction (not related to education)
  • Picture Book
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Science Fiction

None of the books I read for the WeAreTeachers challenge can be counted toward the genre challenge, so I am setting a goal to read a total of 62 books in 2017! (According to my Goodreads account, I read 50 books in 2016, so this is going to be a bit of a stretch goal for me.) Parents, family, and friends are all welcome to join us in our reading challenge!

What will you read this year?


I Voted

There have been so many things on my mind over the past several weeks, but I have been ridiculously busy and so this once-daily blog has become an occasional blog. I keep hoping I will get back into the swing of writing each day, but then something comes up and gets in the way (usually my need to eat and/or sleep).

Many of you know that I am a Champaign County Election Judge. This is a very fancy title for the people who spend all day at the polling places on election days, checking in voters, distributing ballots, answering questions about assigned precincts, directing voters to the tabulator after they marked their ballots, and processing grace-period voters who are able to register and vote in their precinct on election day.

This past Tuesday was the quadrennial General Election for the United States and, among many other things, voters headed out to the polls to select their choice for President of the United States of America. I was assigned to my own precinct this year, which means I got to be the first voter in line and the first person at the Savoy Recreation Center to cast a ballot. We processed 971 other voters during the course of the 13 hours the polls were open and it was a very busy day, from the time polls opened at 6:00 am until they closed at 7:00 pm.

Every time I return to school after an election, students ask me who I voted for. A colleague of mine shared on social media that his response to students is always, “I voted for you.” I was thinking about this on Tuesday and wrote something that I suppose could be deemed a poem. (My father-in-law is dancing a happy jig right now.) It is not polished at all, but I wanted to share it anyway.

I Voted

I voted today.
I voted for you
I voted for me
I voted for him
I voted for her
I voted for them
I voted for us.

I voted for today
I voted for tomorrow
I voted for the present
I voted for the future.

I voted for truth
I voted for justice
I voted for freedom
I voted for mercy
I voted for compassion
I voted for kindness.

I voted for all who can
I voted for all who cannot
I voted for those who will
I voted for those who will not.

I voted for the old
Who have walked a long way
I voted for the young
Whose journeys have just begun.

I voted for the lame, the halt, the withered
I voted for the tired, the weary, the poor
I voted for the yearning masses
Struggling to be free.

I voted for the hearty, the hale, the bold
I voted for the healthy, the strong, the wealthy
I voted for the eager millions
Enjoying freedom’s light.

I voted to make a difference
I voted to change the world
I voted to shape our lives.
I voted for the belief
That things can be better.
I voted for the belief
That what always has been
Doesn’t always have to be.

I voted.