Tales of Our Fourth Grade Someones…

Fourth grade . . . a banner year filled with wonderful writing, challenging units, wonderful writing, conceptual math, wonderful writing, novel units with interesting tales, and did I mention, wonderful writing?!  The outstanding classroom leaders pictured here are Jane Crisp, Brittany Cole, Jennifer Kids, Shannon Williams, and Susie Dickard . . . and there’s nothing black or white, plain, or ordinary about what they teach, how they teach, or why they teach in 4th grade!

Perhaps you’ve heard of the book Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing about the adventures of Peter Hatcher, his little brother Fudgie, baby sister Tootsie, their neighbor Sheila, various pets, and other minor characters is the series.  This novel and its cousins (Super Fudge, Fudge-a-mania, and Otherwise Known as Sheila The Great) have entertained young readers since they first appeared in the early 1970s. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is the first of these entertaining yarns. Peter, because he’s the oldest (and in fourth grade), must deal with Fudgie’s disgusting cuteness, his constant meddling with Peter’s stuff, and other grave brotherly offenses, one of which is almost too much to bear. All these incidents are presented with the big-hearted humor of masterful writer, Judy Blume. Though some of her books for older readers have aroused controversy in the past, the Hatcher brothers and their adventures remain above the fray, where they belong . . . anyway . . . back to my fourth grade tale . . .

Just like the Hatcher brothers, these extraordinary classroom leaders take the raw reading and writing talent our fourth graders present at the beginning of the school year and begin to masterfully weave it into a tapestry of amazing writing products throughout the year.  Their educational adventures with their learners, humorous experiences during daily school life, and unique views on a variety of topics and interests challenge each student to think and write beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary.  As one fourth grade friend noted, “Mrs. Van, I’m not a fourth grade nothing; I’m a fourth grade someone . . . just ask my teacher!”

Due to growth, we have a large section of fourth grade learners this year at Miller; this year will indeed be a unique challenge in many ways.  Your personal assistance is very much appreciated in our 4th grade classrooms this coming year.  The one thing you can do to encourage your fourth grader is write–write about everything from a list of groceries to a fun family weekend adventure.  Tell stories, write stories, share stories together; turn your verbal thoughts into written expressions so you model to your young writer.  The best writers write what they know; you have so much to share with someone.  There are many tales to tell in fourth grade (and many I could share about these classroom leaders too!); here’s hoping you take time to share some fourth grade tales with us this year!

Brush, brush, brush your teeth…

How many times a day do you brush your teeth?  REALLY brush your teeth?  Do you ever stop and think about it?  What does brushing your teeth have to do with school anyway?  Why am I even bringing up the subject of brushing?

As noted before, there are many activities we participate in daily at school that have little to do with curriculum, state assessments, textbooks, or rules.  As educators, we find ourselves teaching young learners life lessons about respect, healthy living, altruism, planning for the future, and making good choices in order to reinforce lessons first taught in the home.  As our learning partners and participating members of our learning community, you are your child’s first and most important teacher.  You have special tools in place we can use to integrate both settings (home and school) in a positive, productive manner . . . just like the tools used in brushing teeth.

For example, as my young friends in this picture are demonstrating for you, your mouth must be open wide so you get all the little crevices clean.  Your toothbrush must be guided gently around each tooth using another important tool, your toothpaste.  You have to really put some elbow strength into this job and take your time.  As you get older, you add other oral hygiene tools (such as floss or mouthwash) to enhance the overall experience.  You also learn to complete this skill independent of direct instruction or intervention . . . I think you understand the analogy here.

Teaching young learners to read, write, listen, speak, compute, synthesize, evaluate, hypothesize, draw, jump, or any number of other skills requires the same use of special tools, wisdom, and strength in order to foster sustained success.  It takes daily practice, careful planning, and attention to all the fine details–traits our talented classroom leaders masterfully execute to meet individual needs.  We invite you to join us and share your home tools so we do our best to match them here with our school tools.  Here’s hoping we all remember the lesson our toothbrush friends shared:  “Mrs. Van, keep working at it; work so your smile shines!” 🙂

Saving the World…one degree at a time!

I frequently remind our learners and their leaders:  “Plan your work; work your plan; autograph your work with personal excellence daily.”  Having a plan and seeing it through is one of those life lessons that no curriculum or state assessment can measure.  As part of MISD’s “College . . . Go Get It!” Week, Miller learners, Riley and Avery, joined me on the north porch this morning dressed in their finest academic regalia as the ticket to their future dreams.  Staff members spent time today sharing their own college experiences, talking about the importance of strong study habits, building team with school spirit (we’re playing college fight songs all week on the announcements), and other interesting college details (the appropriate ones, that is).  These discussions will hopefully encourage our young learners to begin thinking about their future plans beyond their high school education.

I know what you’re thinking . . . why talk to a 6-year-old about college?  As a mom of two daughters (MISD grads) currently in college and graduate school, I speak from personal experience when I share it’s never too early to have these family conversations, let alone to financially plan for this continuing educational journey (this could be several other blog entries).  As with any plan or future goal, we want to encourage our learners to aim high in order to succeed to his or her personal best.  As Coach Rogers tells our students everyday:  “We don’t expect everyone to be the best; we expect everyone to give and do their best!”

Without dreams and leaps in our imagination, we lose the excitement of possibilities.  Dreaming is, after all, a form of planning.  Learning to work that plan at a younger age teaches the discipline and responsibility needed to succeed in life.  Higher education, in all its many forms, is definitely a “ticket to dreams.”  As my friend Avery noted this morning, “Mrs. Van, I’m a super college girl saving the world one degree at a time!”  🙂

Do You Hear What I Hear?

If there’s a song or a sound or a hand signal in the air at LaRue Miller Elementary on any given school day, most likely these ladies have something to do with it.  Pictured left to right are Shanna Horton, Delaina Wimpee, and Kathleen Stuckert.  Not pictured are Leisa Bradley and Jennifer Mabra.  These experts are who I affectionately call our “Speechies” because they specifically work with learners in PK-5th grades who qualify for speech services at LME (and yes, I am forever doing my best pronunciation and diction around all these ladies)!

Our LEAD (Language Enrichment Articulation Development) Program provides services to learners (ages 3 and 4) in a structured PK setting two days per week.  Classroom activities are designed to build expressive and receptive language while working on specific articulation goals with each learner.  These young students play games, work in centers, sing songs, and work on goals to meet their personalized plans.  As one youngster shared with me:  “We tell lots of stories.”  🙂 When asked about the kinds of stories shared, “Well…I like to use the flashlight when I tell my story ’cause it’s scarier that way.”  🙂

Three years ago, our new campus embraced the power of sign language in a really big way.  We are fortunate to have sign interpreters who work directly with our learners with auditory impairments, however, our entire staff works with SEE (Signed Exact English).  Through a promising practices model, all students and staff members benefit from learning basic sign language throughout our building.

Emphasis in all our speech and language programs (PK – 5th) is placed on individual learner goals worked on in a risk-free educational setting.  Through highly engaging activities, learners work smart to reach successful communication outcomes.  A nurturing school therapy environment is created so every child reaches his or her personal best; the work is then transferred into the general educational setting.  The ultimate goal, after all, is to carry over work practiced from the speech setting into regular conversation with ease.

As one of our Speechies likes to say,  “If you must raise your voice, do it to cheer your students onward!”  Whether it’s songs, games, questions, or challenges, these lessons of speaking and listening provide powerful tools for students to raise their own voices.  Our therapists don’t just focus on the final destination of speech goals…they make the learning journey fun.  Do you hear what they hear?  Here’s hoping you do!

Third Grade Thinkers!

It’s true; I’m in awe of our thinking third grade learners and their classroom leaders everyday!  Pictured left to right are the brilliant minds and souls who lead the charge:  Jean Waddill, Amy Clark, Jennifer Rinehart, Traci Samek, and Nikki Hoover.  Each of these ladies bring several years of teaching and learning experience to the table; they also live by the example of our school namesake, Mrs. Miller (obvious from where they chose to take this picture for me!).

Third grade is truly a transitional year on so many levels!  Learners develop the skills needed to critically solve problems; they begin to think in terms of being real problem solvers (not just in math either).  They make the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in all subject areas; it is an exciting time for learners, leaders, and families!

Third grade also begins the necessary journey of mandated state assessments in Texas.  With the new STAAR test coming online this school year, there are many unknowns.  This team of classroom leaders, though, work through what they know and do best–teaching the required state curriculum and concentrating on state student expectations.  We have no way of knowing what a test or even a question will look like, but we do know what best practices and teaching models can do to support learners.  As one third grader shared with me: “Third grade is fun; we use tons of technology and we blog everyday!”  Another learner noted: “I like the fact our teachers want our families involved in our work everyday; we share everything.”  One friend added, “There’s never a dull moment; I work until my hair hurts.”  As a third grade teacher likes to note: “Students do not arrive in my classroom with an instruction manual; it’s my job to determine how each works to his or her best potential.”

My Granny B. would often observe:  “Opportunities are disguised as challenges or problems in work clothes (overalls in her case sometimes), so roll up those sleeves and get to solving.”  Our third grade team of learners and leaders accept and conquer opportunities every school day.  We challenge you to join us on the journey so you can be a THINKER too!

**On another campus note this week:  It is MISD “College…Go Get It!” Week.  We have special themes at Miller each day and are working to stretch our learners’ minds to plan for their futures.  We invite and challenge our families to begin conversations about higher education because it’s never too early to maximize the foundation for a future leader!

Apples and Ideas…Are you listening?

George Bernard Shaw observed:  “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still have an apple.  If you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”  For example, in a classroom this morning a small group of learners were discussing a book about apples (this is what we call a literature circle).  One member commented: “I like Gala apples because they are sweeter.”  Another child added, “But Red Delicious are really sweet too; I eat these for dessert sometimes.”  Still another chimed in: “When my granny makes pie she uses Granny Smith green apples even though they’re more tart than the other two–she just adds extra sugar!”  Clearly, these learners were taking personal apple experiences and holding each other accountable for their observations.  They were listening, really listening, to one another and contributing ideas to the discussion.  Their statements were also offering evidence to support their experiences.

I want to jump for JOY (I know; not a pretty picture) when I hear conversations such as this!  Learners are thinking about, talking about, and sharing together their ideas in a way that teaches active listening.  The exchange of ideas teaches teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation–all skills we need to survive in the “real” world.

As I’ve noted before, school is not all books and structured instruction; many activities lend themselves to self-discovery and inquiry.  I challenge you to ask a simple question and expand on the response with your child today, but whether it’s apples or other ideas, I hope we are all really listening!

Letters of Hope…

Someone noted:  “To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.”  I had the brief privilege today to watch a group of learners practice the art of letter-writing (a long forgotten skill for many of us).  They were writing “letters of hope” and drawing pictures of possibilities to a group of students they have never met or talked with before now.  Their classroom leader has a friend in Bastrop County whose entire classroom of learners have individually lost virtually every material possession in the wake of the recent Central Texas fires.  During their “morning meeting” time, they discussed current events and the news about the Texas fires.  Noted one child: “It’s some fire; some of us can’t go outside at recess here in Midlothian because of the smoke this week and we live far away from them.”  Another commented: “I can’t imagine not being able to save my cat or dog.”  An additional student shared: “My family lost everything in a fire three years ago; I know how this feels.”  WOW–what a comprehensive sharing of feelings, ideas, and understanding during “morning meeting!”

The classroom leader asked what the class, as a whole, could do to assist them in moving beyond this horrible tragedy to a new possibility.  Lots of intense discussion ensued (I could not be more proud even if everyone of these learners were my own child!).  They chose to write letters of encouragement and hope.  The child who had lived through a fire shared how important it was for her to hear from others: “not just the sharing of clothes or shoes, but some words of hope.”  Her personal story sparked the idea for writing letters of hope.  

My classroom visit this morning reminded me of the significance of something as simple as hope.  Children are not jaded in the younger years; they see the light of hope in the midst of tragedy.  They want to help; they need to take action and they do.

School is a forum sometimes for sharing important lessons in life and we, as educators, never take this responsibility lightly or irreverently.  School is not always curriculum, assessment, recess, specials, lunch, and rules; school can be a place reflecting hope.  After all, like towering trees in the midst of the forest, we stand on the shoulders of the previous generation; this generation will stand on ours in the near future.  Sending a simple letter is indeed an extraordinary way to move a heart to hope.  Here’s hoping you take the challenge to write a letter soon to someone in your life who might need a letter of hope!

Let’s get it STARTed!

It’s true; LaRue Miller Elementary offers what I affectionately call the “buffet of services” to learners and their families.  One of these unique opportunities is the Head Start (PK) Program.  Pictured left to right are Danielle Schrodt, Rebekah Johnson, Jurae Greiten, Adrienne Mitchell, and Laura Flores.  WHEW…what these amazing ladies accomplish in a day is nothing short of extraordinary!

The Head Start Program is over 45 years old and has served an estimated 28 million children and families in its long US history.  Personal note:  My first experience with Head Start was in the mid-1960s (no comments about my age!) when my mother was a Head Start teacher in Dallas.  I would often visit her classroom and sit with children to play or read while she worked with another small group.  I vividly remember teaching colors and showing children how to draw certain objects.  Needless to say I was thrilled to know we would have this important program at Miller when we opened our doors in 2008!

While today’s classes look different from those decades ago, the concepts remain very much the same.  It is abundantly clear that the single most important factor in this primary educational setting is the quality of the teachers and their daily practices (true in every classroom).  The patience required to keep up with 3/4 year-olds deserves its own accolades; we could not be more blessed to have our team here at Miller!

Head Start is a Pre-Kindergarten Program with additional services wrapped around it.  Family and community involvement, health services, disability services, parent involvement and education, nutrition, and early childhood best practices are part of the support systems involved in this comprehensive program.  Our program at Miller works collaboratively with our Region 10 Educational Service Center to provide a comprehensive early childhood program for income-eligible children ages 3 and 4.  Our team follows performance standards established by the federal government and our staff members are highly qualified to work with our learners.

Our beautiful learners though . . . they bring the smiles, sparkling eyes, and amazement to the halls of Miller each day!  From a family-style breakfast and lunch to Tricycle Town time to learning how to be an important part of our school family . . . they work smart and with great JOY each day.  As one little friend shared with me on his first day this year, “Let’s get it started!”

Second to None!

Second grade . . . a magical year where reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and integrated transitions begin to merge.  There is a dynamic team of ladies who lead the charge:  Valree Milson, Jennifer Mabra, Michelle Spradley, Heather Cooper, Krista Bruton, and Lana Beckwith.  With a combined 80+ years of experience, these classroom leaders know how to problem solve!

As a second grade friend recently shared with me, “Mrs. Van, second grade is hard.  I get grades now, not just those letters and checks from first grade.”  Another friend added, “You should see our math work . . . ‘whew!’ Sometimes I have to re-do and I didn’t even know what that was the first week of school.”  Two additional friends chimed in, “We really talk about how things work and she’s always asking ‘why?’ when we give an answer . . . yeah, but she uses cool technology in our lessons everyday.”

Second grade leaders smile and observe the strides these young learners make as the year progresses.  There’s a natural transition beginning where learners take the foundational reading skills highly concentrated on in the younger years and begin to shift the skill of reading to learn new material;  instead of learning to read, they begin the process of reading to learn (the biggest shift, I think, occurs in third grade, but more on this thought in a later blog).

There are smiles, laughs, cute stories, smart work, and fun times in second grade.  It’s a magical time before the reality of state assessment begins to cloud the process.  After all, second grade learners and second grade leaders are really second to none . . . .

Reader are Leaders!

Readers are leaders; it’s a known fact.  As this picture of second graders reading with Dustin Martin (#21 on our Panther Team) illustrates, there is always something magical about Story Time (especially on game day around here!).  Dustin is a football star on the field, but he talks with younger students about the importance of doing well in school, studying, and taking time out to read.  Our students are blessed to have wonderful reading models like Dustin each Friday with our Panther Team Readers.

A language-rich and print-rich environment at school and at home are instrumental in building better readers, writers, listeners, and thinkers.  The best way to promote strong reading skills, share a love of books, and just spend time together (as a model reader) occurs during Read-Alouds or Story Time.  Want to spend time with your learner building reading skills and teaching a love of books?  Here are some simple suggestions:

  1. Read regularly – try to read together daily, perhaps at bedtime (what I called rocker time when my girls were little).  Read-alouds can be done on the way to soccer practice or while supper is cooking.
  2. Take turns choosing books together – old favorites are fun but learn to branch out some into new genres such as poetry, non-fiction, or biographies.
  3. Let the child participate and be playful – use different voices for different characters or substitute the child’s name for the main character along with family member names for other characters.  Ask your child to turn pages or finish rhyming words in sentences for you.

The joy of reading is cultivated just like your favorite flower or herb in the garden.  Reading is the foundation of everything we do at school; reading sets expectations for all future academic success.  We are grateful to the many volunteers who spend valuable time in our classrooms as guest readers and leaders . . . and as Dustin knows from the football field to the classroom, readers are leaders!  Go Panthers!