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.]


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.


Author Visit

One of the many reasons I look forward to the Illinois Young Authors Contest, with its accompanying Young Authors Conference in Bloomington each year. is the opportunity to meet published authors from across the state of Illinois. I have written about several of these authors in the past and the Skype chats they have done with my class.

Last Friday, we had the chance to meet another one of these authors who was visiting as part of the Illinois Youth Literature Festival. Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of several books, include an awesome biographical picture book called Josephine. She visited with all of the fourth and fifth grade classes and then visited second and third grade.

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During her presentation, she talked about the writing process, shared two of her stories, and answered questions. I was impressed by the quality questions my students asked. I was particularly grateful to hear Ms. Powell talk about the amount of time she spends on editing and revising her work.

It was a great visit and a wonderful way to finish the week! I hope at least some of my students were able to go to the literature festival over the weekend so they could meet other authors and learn more about some of the great literature resources available in our own community.


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!)

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Return of the Chromebooks

It has been a long three weeks or so without Chromebooks in our classroom. There was an issue with the district’s cache servers shortly after school started that resulted in all devices having to be shut off and put away until they could resolve the issue. Today was the first day we were able to access the devices and wow, what a difference it made!

When I first got my cart of Chromebooks, I signed an agreement that I would infuse technology into my classroom practices and instruction. I spent the past two years or so researching websites and online learning tools, trying them out with my students, studying best practices of technology integration, and generally designing my classroom around the use of Chromebooks throughout the day.

Some people have expressed shock that my students access their devices first thing in the morning and keep them out until the end of the day. They are not on them all day, of course, but they are nearby and used much more than they are not.

During our mathing workshop, students use their Chromebooks to access sites such as Zearn, Front Row, Prodigy, and XtraMath to support and supplement their learning and help them improve on skills. The devices are accessed for fluency practice and for independent work while I am with small groups.

During our inquiry workshop, the Chromebooks become the principle tool for researching a variety of topics, keeping notes, and demonstrating learning through multimedia presentations. The students also use their devices to communicate with one another using shared documents in Google Drive.

During our writing workshop, students take their early drafts and type them into Google Docs, then use the available tools to edit, revise, and format as they prepare for publication. They also use the Chromebooks to research ideas and find better ways to express ideas.

During our reading workshop, the Chromebooks are used as students access eBooks through Storia, read articles on Wonderopolis and Newsela, continue writing that they started during writing workshop, and engage in creative writing through Storybird. They also record reading through sites like Whooo’s Reading.

On top of all that, we use our devices for online quizzes through Google Forms, Google Classroom, and Kahoot! Students take brain and body breaks with sites like GoNoodle and find ways to focus with music accessed through Google Play. (We have access to the full suite of Google Apps for Education.) They review and discuss digital citizenship through the Common Sense Media Digital Passport and share projects with one another, with students in other classes, and with their families.

Like I said, I have a technology-infused classroom. So we were all very excited when we were given the green light to start using our devices again! I can hardly wait to see what my students do with their devices tomorrow!


Learning Workshops

As part of my goal to have my students’ days full of inquiry and student-centered learning instead of traditional teacher-led lessons and independent work, I have organised my daily schedule around four major workshops. With one excepting, each of these workshops is titled by a verb ending in -ing. The four workshops are as follows:

“Mathing Workshop”

I decided to use the word “mathing” instead of just “math” because I want my students to think of math as something they actively do. We are using Eureka Math in my district this year, a curriculum series designed around the Common Core State Standards by teachers, for teachers. A committee of teachers in my district selected Eureka Math among many options as our new math series (replacing the old textbooks published by Houghton-Mifflin.) As the students become more familiar with the language and format of Eureka Math, I will give the students the opportunity to do math independently, with partners, and in skills-based small groups each day. We will also be using technology through websites such as Front Row, Zearn, and XtraMath.

“Writing Workshop”

I am continuing to use the Lucy Calkins framework for Writing Workshop to help the students improve their skills as writers. Students will have short 15-minute lessons each day on a specific writing task related to narratives, essays, opinion pieces, or other writing formats. Then they will have 30 minutes to work on their own writing as I meet with students individually or in small groups. We started this today with an overview of the format and then with students doing a quick write on the topic of pie. (I learned that some of my students, like me, love pie while others absolutely hate it. All of their beginning drafts were quite passionate on the subject!)

“Reading Workshop”

Our third daily workshop is designed around the Daily 5 and the idea that students benefit from being able to read independently, read with someone, meet with the teacher in a guided reading group, and work on developing vocabulary every day. We will also have daily read alouds and will read together as a class so that they can experience the fifth daily activity, listening to reading. Right now we are working on building up stamina to read independently so that we can start implementing the other activities later over the next couple of weeks.

“Inquiry Workshop”

My last workshop focuses on general inquiry, during which the students will be learning a variety social studies and science topics. I have been able to arrange my schedule so that this can happen every single day. Our social studies topics will focus on asking (and answering) one big question: how and why are we here? The science topics will be aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards and will focus on deepening students’ understanding of the scientific inquiry and engineering design processes.

I am really excited to use this workshop model for the year! I hope that my students are just as excited!


Revisiting the Basal

Basal readers get a lot of grief in education circles these days. Prepackaged curriculum that claim to meet all of the many complex requirements of teaching, with teacher’s editions that have all the answers and worksheets for everything, all meant to make teaching easier, more straightforward, and user-friendly.

Of course, anyone who has spent just one day in a classroom knows that the basal text rarely works that way. Students don’t respond the way the book says they should, their answers are so far off-base that the teacher finds himself wondering if they were even in the same room, let alone the same story, and the diverse needs of students are rarely met with the handful of worksheets that claim to be differentiated but, in reality, usually aren’t; at least, not well.

However, there is a balance to be found. There is a way that a basal reader can be used in the classroom as a way to establish baselines with students but not take over instruction. My first year teaching at Wiley, I relied on the basal heavily, mostly because I honestly didn’t know what else to do. (I still did guided reading, groups, too, but I definitely used the pre-packaged curriculum a lot.) Over the past few years, I’ve used it less and less. I don’t think I used it with my entire class once last year. This year I’ve decided to revisit this teaching tool.

My goal is to use the shorter selections as the foundation of my whole-class lessons in literacy before switching over to guided texts with smaller groups. I am also going to use the comprehension questions at the end of selections to give students more opportunities to put thinking into practice. In addition to the reading selections, I am going to use the spelling/vocabulary features with my students. I am not convinced that the spelling features are the greatest thing out there, but I am willing to try using them again in an effort to support my students’ ability to expand their vocabularies and apply understanding of parts of words and speech.

We are going to dive into our first story from the text next week. We started today with the spelling, looking at words with long a (such as gray and pain), long e (like sweet or chief), short a (like pass or scratch), and short e (such as send or smell). While this link provides far more words than the 25-word list found in the book series, it is a useful reference for seeing the kind of words that students may encounter. Unfortunately, the document is for every single selection in the basal reader, instead of being a separate document for each story.

I am hoping that I can find the right balance between using the basal reader provided by my district and using the other resources for guided literacy and specific supports for students as I get to know them better throughout the year.


Book Review: The Journey Is Everything

About two months ago, I received a flyer in the mail from an education publishing company that came to me as a byproduct of my membership in the National Council of Teachers of English. The flyer was about a new book coming out in May called The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them by Katherine Bomer.

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The title alone captured my interest. Having a father-in-law who is a college English professor who wants posted a satirical video of himself tearing up papers and crying out “Crap! Garbage! Terrible!” while grading student essays and having a brother who is also a college English professor who has engaged me in countless discussions of the horrors of the five-paragraph essay/theme, I wanted to know what Ms. Bomer had to say about this topic. Fortunately for me, the publisher provided a link to their website where I could read an excerpt from the introduction. A table of contents and five pages later, and I knew that this was a book I would want to read.

Around the same time, I bumped into my district’s director of professional development and started talking about book studies and PD offerings for the coming year. I told her about this book and suggested that, building on my district’s recent work on improving writing instruction (I happen to be on the writing committee), this might be a great addition. The tricky part, however, was that the book had just been published, and I was uneasy about suggesting a book study on a book nobody had read. (After all, what if the book turned out to be awful and the introduction was just a ploy to get unwitting teachers to buy another book with a pretty cover?) No problem, she told me. She would order a copy for me so I could read it over the summer.

Have I mentioned recently how much I love my school district and the willingness of district leaders to encourage teachers to take leadership in providing worthwhile professional development?

The book came in my mailbox a few weeks later and was put near the top of my To Be Read pile. When I was later emailed to submit a formal request to lead the PD session in the fall, I realised I needed to bump the book to the top of the pile. I started reading it about two or three weeks ago and finished today. I would have finished sooner but I found I needed to be able to highlight and annotate as I read, so I couldn’t read while eating and before going to sleep.

Oh, by the way: I hate highlighting books. And I hate writing in the margins. I have rejected copies of highly-desired books simply because they have a note in the margin here and there. My copy of this book? Highlighted and annotated on nearly every page.

There is no way I can give justice to this entire book in a single blog post. There is also no way that I can select one or two quotes to capture the essence of the argument Ms. Bomer makes. However, I will say this: The five-paragraph essay is arguably the worst formula ever conceived for teaching students how to write. (It is an artificial structure and the product isn’t even really an essay.) Essay writing should be a journey for the author who is writing to think and discovering meaning in text and in the world. If we are serious about wanting to teach students how to express their thoughts, we need to stop trying to force those thoughts to conform to a rigid introduction/thesis/support/conclusion structure. Think about this: when is the last time you read something in that format that moved you to think, to consider, to change, to act? I know my answer: never.

Instead of relying on this old-but-terrible formula, essay writing needs to be open to exposing the soul of the writer. To quote Ms. Bomer who was referencing another researcher, “essays feel like gritos to me: soulful, aching cries in the wilderness of surprise, joy, anger, grief, freedom, and celebration. I want children to be able to put their particularly cries, their gritos, into the world and for the world to read them and respond. Why would we deny our students the ability to be soulful and beautiful?”

Why, indeed.


Walk and Talk, Take Two

Nearly a year and a half ago, I read about a literacy strategy on one of the many education-focused blogs and newsletters I follow. The strategy is called “Walk and Talk” and it consists of doing just that: having students walk and talk about literacy. Now that we are getting down to the last few days of school, Miss C and I decided to use this strategy with our learning buddies today.

We were a little uncertain how well it would work with kindergarteners and fourth graders, but if there is nothing else we have learned from our five years of buddying our classes together, it has been that our students will rise to the occasion whenever we give them the opportunity!

Armed with a book, a clipboard, a pencil, and a graphic organiser, the buddies started at the beginning of the loop around the front of the building and wrote a brief synopsis of the beginning of their selected text. Then they walked about halfway, talking as they went, before stopping to write about the middle. They then continued their way, still talking, until they got to the end, at which point they, of course, wrote about the end of the story.

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It was a simple task but one that had multiple benefits:

  • Students were able to talk to one another about literature
  • Students were able to demonstrate an understanding that a story has a beginning, middle, and end
  • Students were able to move freely, getting some physical activity in instead of sitting in one place
  • Students were able to enjoy the warm weather

If that’s not a successful activity, I’m not sure what is!


Roman Numerals

Today I found myself teaching an impromptu lesson on Roman numerals to one of my guided reading groups. It wasn’t a part of my plan at all, but I was happy to quickly change course when a student asked a question about them.

The question itself was fairly simple: she wanted to know what it meant in her book when it said “Chapter VI.” I asked if she knew what Roman numerals were and she said she did not. I asked the rest of the group and they had similar responses. So I quickly turned and pulled out one of my whiteboards and one of my few remaining Expo markers and wrote out the Roman numerals:

I = 1
V = 5
X = 10
L = 50
C = 100
D = 500
M = 1,000

Then we briefly discussed how the numerals are used to express different values. One of the students asked me what they used for zero and I explained that there wasn’t a numeral for zero. They found that very odd but then we continued discussing how to represent various numbers of greater and greater size. I would write some numbers in Arabic numerals and have them convert to the Roman numerals and other times I did the opposite. As they were looking at the numerals, one of them asked what you do when the number is greater than 1,000 and I explained that the convention was to draw a bar over the numerals and that represented “times 1,000.” Then I gave them the big challenge: 2,134,694.

After much discussion, this is what they came up with:
_________
MMCXXXIVDCXCIV

They read it out loud as I checked their work:
“M bar, M bar, C bar, X bar, X bar, X bar, I bar, V bar, D, C, X, C, I, V.”

A student was walking by at that moment and said, “Mr. Valencic, why are chanting a witch spell?!”

We laughed and explained that they were Roman numerals. I think the student thought we were crazy.

What a wonderful way to end a short week before parent-teacher conferences and a day of professional development!

How do you respond to unexpected questions?


Non-Digital Presentations

As much as I love integrating 21st century technologies into my classroom activities, there are times that I like to challenge my students to go outside their comfort zones and consider other ways that they can present information they have learned. If given the choice to use a digital resource, at least 20 of my 26 students will make a Google Slides presentation or type a report on Google Docs or make a movie. These aren’t always the most creative presentations, though, and I try to challenge my students to think outside the box; in this case, the computer screen.

That is why I declared the final product of their latest research projects to be non-digital presentations. The students were partnered up with classmates and assigned one of the thirteen original American colonies to research and describe to the class. As I always do, the students generated their own questions and then used these questions to guide their inquiry. I gave them two weeks to work with their partners during school, guaranteeing at least 30 minutes a day for the two weeks (ten days). This week was set aside for presentations.

I was curious to see what the students would make and enjoyed watching them research and then craft presentations over the past two weeks. The students used a collection of print resources from our school library and different electronic resources they found online to find answers to questions about the history of their colonies, including famous people, key events, important landmarks, and jobs. Then they made posters, dioramas, flip books, and even a quiz game to share what they had learned.

Next week we will dive into the events that led up to the American War for Independence or the Revolutionary War, including the French and Indian War, the “Intolerable” Acts, and the lack of representation in the English Parliament. Then we will spend a week or two on the Revolutionary War itself before taking a break from social studies and switching to a really fun science project I have planned.

How do you challenge others to go outside their comfort zones?


Funeral for a Friend

We went to a funeral for a friend in my classroom today.

Actually, we didn’t go to a funeral; we actually held a funeral.

And, to be fair, it wasn’t so much for a friend as it was for a phrase that has been overused in my classroom this year.

I got the idea from a colleague within my district. Whenever she notices a word or phrase that students overuse, she has a funeral for it and then challenges students to stop using it in the classroom. I’ve loved this idea since she first told me about it three years ago, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to use it.

The phrase that we put to rest today was “I am going to tell you…” Nearly all of my students have been using this phrase in their persuasive, explanatory, and opinion writing. I have repeatedly explained that they do not need to tell me that they are going to tell me because they are obviously telling me when they tell me something! Of course, that is a bit confusing, so I tried something new to get the point across: during my minilesson for writers’ workshop, I started every single sentence with “I am going to tell you…” I nearly two dozen pairs of eyes looking at me with bewilderment as I explained what I wanted them to do by saying, “I am going to tell you that you should have an introduction that tells your audience about your subject. Then I am going to tell you that you should have at least three supporting reasons for why you want your audience to know about your topic. The next thing I am going to tell you is that you should have a paragraph that describes the materials you will need to do the thing you are explaining…”

After establishing the reality of the overuse of this entirely unnecessary phrase, we brainstormed some reasons why the students loved using it: the phrase constantly focuses on us as the writers, it has a sense of humour, it is always there for us, and we love it.

But I shared the sad news that the phrase “I am going to tell you…” died in a horrible accident and it was no longer with us. We had a funeral (I played a recording of Taps as we had a moment of silence) and then the students read through their writing to remove the offending phrase from their writing, along with its cousins, “that is why I think you should…” and “I hope you liked my essay about…”

What are words or phrases that you find are overused that you wish you could have a funeral for?


Writing Stamina

We do a lot of writing in my classroom. Sometimes it is paper-and-pencil writing, sometimes it is typing-on-a-device writing, but we write. A lot. With all of the writing we do in our room, one would expect that my students all have excellent writing stamina. After all, conventional wisdom says that anything we do often we begin to do well.

But that isn’t always the case.

Instead of writing for extended periods of time, many of my students write for incredibly short periods of time, interspersed with excessively long breaks. They don’t, of course, call them breaks. In fact, if you were to ask them, they would probably claim to be writing the entire time. But what actually happens is that my students are very good at appearing busy while accomplishing next to nothing. A student will walk over to the pencil sharpener, pick out the perfect pencil, sharpen it to needlepoint accuracy, and then walk back to her seat. Then she will walk over to the paper tray, pick out several sheets of paper (none of them touching each other), and walk back to her desk. She will start writing for a few minutes until the tip of the pencil breaks and then she needs to sharpen a pencil again. While on the way, she grabs a tissue to blow her nose, picks out a clipboard, throws away the tissue, finally sharpens the pencil, gets a new tissue to blow her nose again, throws that tissue away, and then finally sits back down. This process goes on throughout our entire writing block. At the end of the 30-45 minutes, she has one or two sentences written and says she is done.

I may or may not feel like hitting my head on my desk when this happens.

So this week I have decided that we need to go back to a component of the first twenty days of writers’ workshop and focus on building our writing stamina:

First I made sure that every student had a sharpened pencil, a working eraser, and a piece of paper. (The few students who had permission to work on the carpet also had clipboards.)

Then I gave them a prompt: How do you feel about cold weather? Do you love it? Hate it? Why? What do you do when it is cold outside? Why?

Finally, I gave them a set amount of time to write: one minute.

Yes, that is all. Just one minute to write on this topic. The expectations were that they would have pencils on the paper and voices silent for the duration of the writing time. Remember, though, that this was just one minute. Sixty seconds. That’s all.

Nearly everyone in the class was successful. A few needed some extra support. After making sure they were all ready, I told the students to continue writing for jut one minute. This time I had all of my students writing silently. Once we had established that everyone in the room could write independently for just one minute, I extended the time to three minutes. We repeated this twice. At this point the students had written independently for eleven minutes. So then I gave them five minutes to write. Once again, everyone was able to do it and they had increased their stamina more. Another five minutes brought them to a total of twenty-one minutes of independent writing. We had nine minutes remaining until lunch, so I challenged the students to write for the entire nine minutes, still on this same topic. Some said that they were done, but I told them that they were expected to actually write the entire time, not just write until they felt they were done. I told them that they could write poems, lists, essays, narratives, or even just write “I hate the cold” over and over again.

Nobody took me up on the last suggestion. What they did take me up on was the challenge to actually write for the entire time. When we finished, my students had successfully written independently for thirty minutes. Yes, we broke it into smaller chunks. Yes, some of them needed some extra help. Yes, there were a few who did not get much writing done because they were thinking about the prompt. But many students had an entire page or two of writing completed.

I informed the class that we would continue to work on building our writing stamina this week so that they can start working on their explanatory/demonstrative essays again next week. The goal is for every student to be able to write for thirty minutes without interruptions while I work with small groups on key skills.

How do you build stamina, whether it is for reading, writing, or other tasks?


Letting Students Use Technology

As an elementary teacher who has technology deeply infused in my classroom, it is not at all uncommon for someone to walk into my room and see me sitting at my horseshoe table at the back of the room with four or six students while the other twenty or so are scattered about the room working on their Chromebooks. I have spent a great deal of time and effort learning how to best integrate technology in my classroom in a way that makes it so the devices are not simply a substitution for traditional learning tools. (However, like even the best of technology-minded teachers, it still happens.)

This week, however, I came to a realisation: far too much of my students’ technology use has been student-centered but teacher-directed. By this I mean that while I use technological resources to differentiate my instruction and allow my students to work within their zones of proximal development (as many of the tools we use provide help within their interfaces), they are almost always doing things that I have specifically directed them to do.

This week, however, my students have begun using their Chromebooks in a way that I quite honestly did not expect. We are starting a new science unit on how Earth’s processes impact landforms and I have had them working out of our Harcourt Science textbooks to build up background knowledge. To hold my class accountable for their learning, I have had the students answer the review questions at the end of the text lessons. Instead of just writing them answers on a piece of paper and turning them in, many students, without asking or even thinking that they should ask, opened their Chromebooks, created a new Google Doc or Goole Slides presentation, and combined information from the textbook with information they found online and then sharing the final product with me.

It has been really cool looking through the responses. One student had a separate slide for each of the review questions and then linked to a video about Mt. Etna in Sicily. If I had told the students that they had to use paper and pencil for their responses, the likelihood of my students finding this video and learning more about how volcanic eruption impact Earth and its plant and animal (including human) populations!

The result of this realisation has been a recommitment on my part to let my students use technology. I will still direct, guide, and prompt, but if I want them to become savvy users of these advanced tools, I need to be willing to let them explore and find ways to use them that I wouldn’t consider.

How has learning to let others act on their own impacted what you do?


Seeking Expert Assistance

Way back in my first year of teaching, my students were working on writing an alphabet book about European exploration and one of the students was tasked to write a page for the letter O. She decided to write about the oceans. This led to an unplanned inquiry process in my classroom that I wrote about here and then followed-up with it here.

Jump ahead to this year. I decided to once again do an alphabet book for my class, but instead of having a variety of terms, I wanted it to focus on specific people. Yesterday we reviewed the narrative of early European exploration and, as mentioned, I used today to go over the geography of the world’s continents and oceans.

I didn’t even think about it, honestly, but the exact same question came up. That shouldn’t be surprising, since I still have the same map of the world at the front of the room and the same globe of the world sitting on my bookshelves. I thought we could resolve the question more easily by checking on Google Earth.

Oops.

Instead of identifying just four oceans, like my globe does, or identifying five oceans, like my map does, Google Earth had six oceans: Arctic, Indian, North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, and South Atlantic. So I asked my students to form an opinion and state their reasons.

Many of them had at least one reason for why they felt there should be four, five, or six identifiable oceans, but they couldn’t articulate why. They tried looking up information online and just got more confused. So I decided to do what I had done four years ago when this question last came up: I taught my students how to seek expert assistance.

Using the Letter Generator from ReadWriteThink.org, the students wrote business letters to Dr. John M. Toole, Senior Scientist, Physical Oceanography, at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. They told him what they had been learning about, what they thought about the oceans, and asked him for his professional opinion. I wrote a cover letter explaining what we were doing and will be mailing the letters off over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

I felt very fortunate that Dr. Toole replied to my class all those years ago. I have not contacted him in advance to tell him about this project, so I have no idea what kind of response we will get this time, but I am very hopeful that he will once again graciously answer my students’ questions.

I love it when I have the opportunity to grab a “teachable moment” and turn it into a project that engages my students in meaningful inquiry and development of important skills!


Engaged Writers

I’ve been piloting the Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study writing workshop program with my class this year. This series has been around for a long time but has recently changed. For each grade level, she outlines four specific writing units that cover informative, narrative, and opinion writing. My fourth graders learn how to write realistic fiction, persuasive essays, literary persuasive essays, and historical essays. We have been working on persuasive essays for the past two weeks now.

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This unit starts with the students writing simple opinion pieces. We did one together with a very basic thesis: I like ice cream. The students helped to come up with three reasons and then they had to identify at least three facts that supported each detail. This is a very basic essay outline, but it gets them started with the writing process. Then they started writing about a person who was very important to them and they had to again list at least three reasons why and provide at least three facts to support each reason.

Right about this time was when I witnessed something miraculous in my classroom of twenty-six diverse learners: all of them were engaged in writing.

Not some.

Not most.

All.

Every. Single. Student.

To put this in context, I had a student just a few days tell me in no uncertain terms how much he hated writing and how much he hated me for making him write and how much he hated this school for letting me make him write.

And he was writing.

The entire time.

If I were the kind of person who cried (which I’m not), I would have had tears in my eyes (but I didn’t). “Surely,” I thought, “this is just a fluke.”

The next day I had all of my students engaged in writing again.

Not some.

Not most.

All.

Every. Single. Student.

This has gone on for nearly two weeks. When I tell my class it is time for Writers’ Workshop there are some students who actually cheer. Others grab their notebooks and get writing before I even get a chance to get to our minilesson. (They don’t appreciate having to put their writing down to listen to me, either.)

Yes, some students get stuck and their pencils pause over their papers for a few minutes. but I have seen my classroom become a community of writers over the past couple of days. Their opinion pieces range from people who are important to them (moms and dads figure prominently in these essays,although at least one student wrote about her big brother and another student wrote about a classmate), to literary figures (Harry Potter is a hero to at least one girl in my class), to wrestling star John Cena (a man who drew my attention when I learned about his support of the Make-a-Wish Foundation), to Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie (my all-time favourite, if-I-could-only-eat-one-kind-of-pie-ever-again-for-the-rest-of-my-life-favourite pie).

It has been awesome seeing my students engaged in writing. They are sharing their writing with each other and sharing it with me and they are finding ways to add details, add depth, improve word choice, and clean up conventions but, more importantly, they are learning how to share the ideas that form in their minds and put them in writing.

I know there are other writing workshop models, curricula, and guides out there and I am sure that they work well, too, but I am really glad that I got to learn about the Lucy Calkins’ series and try it out this year. I love seeing my students growing as authors!


Book Review: 33 Minutes … Until Morgan Sturtz Kicks My Butt

I have been fortunate enough to be able to attend the Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington, Illinois, each May for the past three years. In the process I have met awesome young people who write fantastic stories and also have been able to network with professional published authors from our state. Through this conference, I have been able to introduce my students to wonderful new books. I have also, from time to time, struck up professional friendships with these writers.

I decided this year to use several of the books I have received at the conference for read-alouds with my class. One of the first books I selected was a work of fiction by Todd Hasak-Lowy called 33 Minutes … Until Morgan Sturtz Kicks My Butt. One reason I picked this book, other than it being such a great story, was that it was inspired, in a way, by Mr. Hasak-Lowy’s own experiences in middle school. When I do my realistic fiction narrative writing unit with my class, one of the suggestions is for students to select personal experiences and use them as the “seed” for their stories. During the Young Authors Conference this past May, I mentioned this to Mr. Hasak-Lowy and he thought it would be a wonderful connection and offered to do a Skype chat or something similar with my class to share his writing process.

We started reading 33 Minutes during the second week of school. It has been an interesting experience, because the narrative style is very different from what my students are used to. Instead of being a fairly linear tale, it jumps back and forth between the present and the past. Instead of numbered chapters, each section is separated with a timestamp. All throughout, students get a picture of what other students may think about middle school: the challenges of finding where you fit in, dealing with teachers who are either excessively strict, excessively passive, or excessively passionate about geeky matters, and, of course, the end of lifelong friendships.

I wasn’t sure how well my class was accepting the story, but we finished it today and the majority of the class felt it was a great story! At least one student went to the local library and acquired a copy so he could reread the entire book. (He actually passed us and finished the book a day earlier than we did!)

Now that we are done, I will be contacting Mr. Hasak-Lowy to see if he is still willing and able to chat with my students via Skype. I understand how busy authors often are, though, but I know that my students would be thrilled to chat with a “real” author!


Student Guest Post 3: Changes in the Classroom

What follows is the third student guest post for my blog. As always, I am presenting it with no edits or changes. Enjoy!

This week our class experienced a birthday, for one of our fellow classmates, we had cupcakes and we had a lot of fun . On Monday, we did not have have school, so we had a four day week instead of a five day week. We experimented with Today’s Topics, instead of writing three things that we do each day, Mr. V tells us a question from Wonderopolis, and we would write it down on our Today’s Topic’s paper. We have done a lot more research on our Fish project, we will present it in front of the class.

I will clarify that the questions for the new Today’s Topics come from the article I mentioned yesterday, not Wonderopolis.

In other news, I recently acquired several new books for my classroom. One of them is R.J. Palacio’s 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts. I wanted to share the precept for yesterday, as I felt it is quite appropriate for many different settings:

Have a great weekend!


Today’s Topics v2.1

At the start of my second year teaching at Wiley, I decided to implement an idea that one of our second grade teachers had been using with considerable success for a number of years so that I could help my students stay organised. The idea was the C.O.Y.O.T.E. Binder, so named because we are, of course, the Wiley Coyotes. (The acronym in the name stands for Carefully Organising My Own Things Every day.)

A major component of this binder, in addition to the homework folder and information sheets for parents with our daily schedule and fourth grade learning standards for mathematics and English/language arts, has been Today’s Topics. At the end of each day, we would come up, as a class, with three statements that students could go home to tell their mom or dad or grandma or grandpa or aunt or uncle or dog or refrigerator–whoever it was that took care of them when they got home. (Yes, this was the list that I would routinely rattle off every single day.)

I have used this system with success for the past three years and had begun using it again this year when a friend shared a blog post with me a couple of weeks ago. It was entitled “30 Questions To Ask Your Kid Instead Of ‘How Was Your Day?'” The point was simple: parents should ask specific questions if they would like specific feedback from their children!

I decided to take on a 30-day challenge. Instead of having the class come up with three statements that they would all record, I would use these questions as the starting point for Today’s Topics. Instead of three statements, they would write one.

Here are the prompts I gave during the past three days, drawing straight from Sara Goldstein‘s list:

Today for lunch I ate _________ and it was ___________.

Today at recess I ____________ and it was ____________ because _________.

The funniest thing to happen today was __________ because ______________.

I chose to skip question two. I’ll have to come up with my own when we get to the end of this experiment. So far, though, it has been quite successful! Students have been reflecting on their days and writing sometimes entire paragraphs about their topics! Thank you, Ms. Goldstein, for such a wonderful idea!