Monday, February 28, 2011

Virginia Living Museum.... Again.

I found out a few weeks ago that the field trip schedule for Newport News Public Schools has not changed in 15+ years. Considering the curriculum and standards are revised EVERY year, this proves to be a problem. Since we live in the birthplace of America, and study Virginia History in 4th grade, you'd think field trips would be easy to come by... and they should be. This year, the teachers were finally asked to provide input on our current field trips and provide ideas of where we would like to take future field trips. The 4th grade team at my school alone was able to come up with a very extensive list of suggestions. Unfortunately, since it seems everything always comes down to finances, I am not sure how many of these we will get, but hopefully at least a couple! Until that time, we are stuck going places that do not cause a financial burden, such as the Virginia Living Museum (VLM).
Now, let me just say, I LOVE the VLM. It has exceptional displays, wonderful information, hands-on everything and a beautiful trail for walking and looking at some native Virginia animals. It is a wonderful place to visit with kids... one or two of them, that is... definitely not 23.
Since the VLM is located in Newport News, they have built a partnership with the school system over the years. As a result, a set number of classes are granted the opportunity to take a field trip there every year without costing the school district an arm and a leg. Now, this sounds terrific, and ideally it is. In reality, though, there are quite a few issues that make it less than ideal.
First of all, there are 180 days in a school year. This is plenty of time to squeeze in a field trip for every class at every school... so they do. Meaning, by the time the kids reach me in 4th grade, they have been to the VLM a minimum of 4 times. (Unless they are from out of state, which would take their minimum down to 2-3 because, the VLM is one of the few "kid attractions" in Newport News, so most families hit that within the first few months of living here.) I don't know about you, but walking through a man-made bat cave and seeing a few wolves run around their fenced in area loses its appeal after a few years. I actually had a girl bring me a parent note last year saying that she would rather sit at school and do a book report than go on the field trip!
Another problem I have with this trip is that it is WAY too long. We got there at 9:30 and didn't leave until 1. Now, I mentioned that there were a lot of cool exhibits. BUT, when you have 23 hyperactive kids, standing around reading information about fossils in a confined area doesn't usually end well. Thankfully, this year I was more experienced and knew about the extended time period, so paced myself accordingly. My students went to the "All About Plants" class first, then we quickly went through the indoor exhibits, and finally I took them on the outside walking tour where they could be as noisy as they wanted... for the most part. It worked out okay, but overall, I would be perfectly fine with them cutting an hour or two off the trip!
Thirdly, the content. The aforementioned class was about plants. In 4th grade, we don't study plants until late May. So, not only will my kids have already forgotten everything the lady tried to squeeze into an hour, but they could care less about germination! Their favorite part of the Plants Class was getting a chance to touch a de-scented skunk (which was clearly only thrown in to make the kids think that the class was actually entertaining!!). Also, it will not help them in any way on their Reading, Math, or Social Studies SOL tests. (They take Science in 5th grade, by which time I KNOW they will not remember her rushed speech!!)

All that to say, I did have a good day. I enjoy being able to just hang out with my kids and see them get excited about little things like looking through a telescope at a duck. On this trip, my quietest student decided it was finally his time to bloom and started talking up a storm! He was naming every animal we passed. I believe "Foxy" and "Wolfy" were two of his favorites... you know, real creative stuff like that. (**Note: Ever since this field trip, he has officially lost his title as quietest student in the class and has totally blossomed! He's still respectful and sweet, though! His comments are always so funny and out of nowhere!**)

With the Virginia Living Museum, we officially completed our field trips for this school year. Hopefully next year we'll switch things up and possibly visit the War Museum or the Mariner's Museum? Who knows! Stay tuned... :)

As usual, Mrs. Bozung and I are busy taking pictures or talking  to each other and paying no mind to our students. :)

Checkin' out the "Swamp" Exhibit.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Say What?

Working with children is amazing. I love the moments when I get a little glimpse into their minds and wonder where my imagination and sense of wonder has gone. These are usually the same moments when I realize that the reason they have taken 4+ weeks to figure out long division is because their brains are preoccupied with matters that are wayyyy more important. For example....
Every day as we walk out to the busses, one of my girls finds her way up to the front of the line and holds my  hand. She's always cheerful and smiling, so it's the most wonderful end to every school day. Despite what kind of terrors the kids have been or how much yelling I have done, she always has a funny comment to tell me or question to ask. Her bus is always the last one we get to, so she has plenty of time to hold my hand. Well, Wednesday was no exception. She was at the front of the line when I had them line up and grabbed my hand as soon as we were out the front door. As we were walking around toward her bus, she asked if the bus was going to leave without her. I gave her a "what do you think?" look and then smiled. She realized it was a ridiculous question, smiled back and then hit me out of nowhere with the next question.
Student: "What if all of the busses were miniature busses? We could ride on top of them like we were riding on a horse!"
Me: Stared at her perplexed and confused.
Student: "Then when we were driving through traffic, we'd have to be careful not to get run over by other cars."
Me: Still staring, wondering why she had told me that morning that she couldn't think of anything to write about.
Student: "We'd also have to watch out for birds, because they might try to steal the busses........" etc.
She continued talking about this hypothetical scenario on and off for about 5 minutes. She would stop occasionally and look around or think about something and then continue with the story getting all the more absurd every time! Haha. It appeared that she had been creating this image in her brain for quite some time, but at the same time, it also seemed this was the first time she had imagined this and was really actually concerned about getting eaten by a bird while riding her miniature bus. :) Thankfully, we got to her bus quickly, I sent her on her merry way and haven't heard about the mysterious shrinking busses ever since!

All that to say, I love working with children and those are the questions and stories that keep me going from day to day! If you'd ever like to experience this wonderful phenomenon for yourself, please feel free to spend a day... or hour.. or couple minutes (that's really all it takes!) in my classroom.. it's a common occurrence!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cloudy, with a Chance of... Shaving Cream?

I think I've mentioned before that I LOVE teaching Science. It allows for so much hands-on learning and is so full of experiments and interesting knowledge that the students really enjoy learning it... which makes it so much easier and more enjoyable! One of my favorite units that we teach is Weather. We cover clouds, storms, weather instruments, and meteorology (cold/warm fronts, high/low pressure, etc). We just started this unit last week and so far have mastered the 4 main cloud types and 3 major storms. I love this unit because it deals with topics that kids encounter every day and allows them to feel and sound so much smarter in their day-to-day conversations! Although, I don't expect my kids to go around for the rest of their lives pointing out every cirrus cloud they see, at this point in their lives, it is a big deal and some cool information to know!
Since standing in front of 23 kids and saying lots of new words like 'cumulonimbus' and 'thin and wispy' doesn't seem to have much effect on their learning, I tried to bring in as many kinesthetic activities as possible. The first day of the unit, we attempted the "make a cloud in a bottle." I stress the word 'attempted' because it didn't work. Apparently, if you put a small amount of water in a bottle and then light a match above the lid, suck the smoke into the bottle and put the cap back on, a cloud will form. We tried twice and nothing happened! Before I set off the fire alarm, I decided to stop, told the kids I would practice at home and we could try again at a later date. It still piqued their interest for starting the unit, so mission accomplished! :) From this activity, we watched a few short, educational clips about the clouds. (For some reason if a video says EXACTLY the same information as I do, the kids retain 75% more of it! Go figure!!) We then discussed the information, summarized and stressed the main points they need to know and broke out the shaving cream!
We started with 2 small puffs of cream on each student's desk. Students were not allowed to touch it until we had successfully reviewed all of the characteristics of cumulus clouds (the big, white puffy ones that look like cotton balls in the sky... associated with fair weather, if you're interested!). When they proved they knew it, I told them to make stratus clouds. Stratus clouds are the ones that bring light rain/snow and block out all sunlight, we call it the "blanket in the sky" clouds. In other words, the entire desk was covered.... along with students hands, clothing, faces, etc. What was supposed to be a fun, educational activity, rapidly declined into a loud, educational mess! Apparently shaving cream is a LOT more condensed than I remembered because those "2 small puffs" expanded and expanded and expanded! I couldn't believe the amount of shaving cream each student had! The original plan was to have them make cirrus (featherlike/thin and wispy... predictors of foul weather) and cumulonimbus (thunderstorm clouds), but that plan quickly changed into washing hands and wiping desks! (The janitor walked into the room in the middle of the activity and instead of freaking out, just smiled and said, "Aww, they're cleaning the desks for me and they don't even know it!" :) We eventually got the room free of all shaving cream and I shipped them off to Art class!
Although the activity was a major headache and extremely stressful for me, I will definitely be doing it again next year with my kids (although a modified version!!). The entire time the kids were working with the shaving cream the only things I could hear were comments such as "This is AWESOME!" and "I can't wait to tell my mom about this!" and "Ms. Wacek, you're the best teacher ever!" and "I LOVE shaving cream!" Haha. It was definitely a moment where I was so happy to be a teacher and even if they got minimal learning from the activity, it hopefully re-established a reason to come to school and love of education! Maybe that's wishful thinking, but I'm going to stick with it! :)

These two tiny little cumulus clouds turned into.....

...a messy classroom full of stratus clouds!!! But totally worth the smiles and laughs!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bake Sale = Fail.

Over Super Bowl weekend, I was cooking up a storm. My parents are both native Wisconsinites, so I had a special fondness for the newest Super Bowl champions! I was all about making every sort of green and gold food I could think of, and was very pleased with the results! (I was also overly pleased with the results of the game!!) As I was baking away for the party, I was also busy making goodies for our 1st Bake Sale at school! The SCA was hosting the sale to raise money for a special activity at field day (in June), and asked teachers to donate yummy treats.
Since it's early February, I decided I wanted to do something Valentiney. I also wanted to do something easy, and that I knew would sell! :) I found a recipe for really cute Rice Krispy hearts. I mixed them up and cut them out on Sunday afternoon. Then, when I got back from my Super Bowl party, I put the icing on them and was exhausted, so decided to package them the next day. Well, despite getting to school 45 minutes early, like usual, I didn't get around to bundling them up until as the kids were walking in. Naturally, seeing anything somewhat resembling food, they were all intrigued. I had about 35 kids ask me what I was doing and what the snacks were for (yes, I do only have 23 students.. I swear students were appearing out of nowhere just to see what was going on!!). After I continually repeated that they were for the SCA Bake Sale that would be happening at lunch, word spread like rapid fire. All of the kids were stoked and scrounging through pockets, desks and backpacks to come up with the 50 cents I told them it would cost. I quickly finished wrapping them and sent them out of the room to the SCA Sponsor. We were eventually able to get focused and had a very pleasant morning until lunch arrived!
As we were walking down the hallway toward the cafeteria, we spotted the small little desk, the SCA President, and a whole lot of treats by the door. The few of my kids who had money went and bought something sugary, while the rest were making a conscious decision to bring their life-savings tomorrow. Lunch went off without a hitch (we've been on green everyday this month, so far!!) and we enjoyed a beautiful day out at recess.
 About an hour later, in the middle of math, I heard one of my SCA reps say, "Ms. Wacek, the nurse is evil." Since I didn't know this child had ever met the nurse and I was in the middle of a thrilling lesson about long division, I was quite caught off guard. I gave him a strange look (although, come to think of it, I give that look a lot, so my children might actually think it's just my normal face...hahaha) and asked him what in the world he was talking about. He said, "She shut down our bake sale. She said the kids were going to get diseases from eating the food. She's evil. It's not like we put poison in the cookies or anything!! She's just evil. I really wanted to buy something for field day!" Hahaha. Oh, the mind of a 10-year-old!! Turns out, according to District (or state?) policy, we are not allowed to sell (or give?) any homemade treats to students out of liability's sake. If a child were to get sick or have any sort of reaction, we'd be to blame. In the eyes of a 4th grader, though, that's hard to understand!
As I found out later, the principal just ended up buying out the bake sale and putting the treats in the teacher's lounge for the staff to enjoy! Ended up being a win-win situation for the SCA and teachers, but I know quite a few students who were bummed out! In fact, today (3 days after the 20-minute bake sale), I had another student come ask me if we would having it again soon because he found 2 dollars in his coat. Haha. I simply told him all the food was gone, so he could keep his money!!
I think I'll just make them a class-set of Rice Krispy hearts and leave it at that. Spoiled children. :) I gave out the leftover Green Bay Packers cookies (low-fat, not very good) and had students beggggging for more. I've given out cupcakes and cookies last year and this year and never once had a parent complaint or child get sick. So, as long as that record keeps up, I plan on continuing my baking career. :)

Our Super Bowl spread (minus the pizza, quesadillas, cheesecake and chocolate pie!)! Look at the beautiful colors! :) The low-fat cookies turned out cute, but mediocre as far as taste!
My creations for the bake sale! :)

Up close.... can you taste the yumminess?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Victory at Yorktown!

As we're gearing up for our second (and final!) field trip on Friday, I realized I never posted about our first one to Yorktown! There were many times over the past few months where I intended to, but it just never happened! So, here goes....!

While I was in school, I never liked history (no offense to any of my former history teachers reading this!!) I always found it a little pointless and the battles all but thrilled me. After teaching about the Revolutionary and Civil War last year, though, all of a sudden I found myself wanting to know more and more about certain historic events. Now, I'm still definitely not a history buff (that would be my brother, History Boy!), and still find a lot of history boring and pointless, but I do have a new-found appreciation of certain time periods and events. I think the biggest reason for my change of attitude was realizing that I am currently living in the birthplace of America! I spent 5 years in college in Newport News and didn't spend any time visiting or learning about this historic area. As I learn and teach about Jamestown and Yorktown, I'm amazed at how truly privileged we are to live in this area and how much we take it for granted! Needless to say, I think it's a terrific opportunity for our students to take a field trip to Yorktown Victory Center, which is where we went on December 6, 2010.

Before I talk about the trip, the last thing I would like to point out is that, although I fully support this field trip and think teaches my kids way more information than I could ever get through to them, at the time, I was not particularly pleased with it. First of all, since our field trip was in early December, it was FREEZING! Virginia experienced an extremely cold winter this year (compared to our normal winters, I should say!) and this just happened to be one of the weeks that the average temperatures were in the 20s-30s. When I describe the trip in a minute, you'll see why this is an issue! Secondly, the timing of this trip happened to be smack dab in the middle of our unit on Jamestown. If you've ever tried to teach Virginia history to a 10-year-old... or anyone, for that matter.... you'll learn that having "town" at the end of both Jamestown and Yorktown makes them easily confuse-able and I had to make sure and emphasize at least 15 times throughout the day that Yorktown was significant during the Revolutionary War, NOT Jamestown where the Indians and colonists lived! But, aside from that, the field trip was most excellent.

After getting all the lunch counts taken care of, last minute bathroom stops, and making sure I had all the necessities (band-aids, flash cards, stickers, emergency contact list and candy), we loaded the bus and headed 20 minutes down the road to Yorktown. (Note: 20 minutes on a bus with 45 excited 4th graders feels like 20 hours.... avoid at all costs!) When we got off, we were divided into our classes and each assigned our tour guide. The guides at Yorktown are AMAZING and I was so impressed with her patience and enthusiasm with the students. Since all five 4th grade classes were on the field trip, we each had a different schedule to stagger the use of the "exhibits." My class got to do the classroom portion first, which I was pleased about because it was able to hold their interest and they hadn't gotten crazy/restless yet! In the "classroom," the kids were broken into 4 groups and each given a question and a bag of artifacts. It was their job to collectively use the artifacts to answer the question. Our guide and an assistant guide were in there to bounce around from group to group and guide the students in their discovery. Although a lot of what they learned included useless trivia (the soldiers in the Continental Army used a "tooth key" to get rid of decaying teeth), kids were also introduced to the terms "credit," "cash crop," and "barter," which were important for our unit at school. After they found an answer to their question, each group was called to the front to present their findings and artifacts to their classmates. Overall, I was VERY pleased with how well my kids did (both behaviorally and academically) at this activity... always a good feeling!

Alexis and her classmate examine artifacts to explain how colonists took care of health needs. You can ask me why the person next to her has his shoe off, but I will not be able to answer! Oh, children! :)

After the classroom lesson, it was our turn to tour a colonial farm/lifestyle. We started in a typical one room, wood floor house where the guide explained that kids usually only had 1-2 outfits, they took a bath once a year, and their education was mainly on the farm. My students were quickly turned off from the idea of living life without video games, so we moved on. Our next stop was in the smokehouse where we saw dried, salted meat hanging from the roof, a slave's bed, the fire and a live turkey meandering around. The kids were fascinated, but the man working this station was not the most exciting or kind, so we got the heck out of there before he had a chance to experience true 9-year-old curiosity. :) We then headed to the tobacco shed. The kids learned way more than they could ever possibly want to know about the process of drying the leaves and grinding them and trading them and..... (I was dealing with an uncooperative/self-decided-non-medicated child during this stop, so missed half of the demonstration. The kids liked it though!)
Some of the kids got to act out plantation owners, bartering, supply and demand, etc.

Finally, we trekked over to the 'battlefield'! I was glad this was last because my kids had heard about it through the grapevine and were most excited, so I was able to use it as leverage! (Thankfully, their ignorance kept them from realizing that a) they would obviously get to see it because it was part of the trip we had paid for, and b) there was no way I could only take the bad kids away because I had no other chaperones!)  After our guide talked about the qualifications of being part of the Army, the living arrangements, and some more about the medical care in the field, the highlight of the trip had arrived. The students hurried over to their platoon leader and he talked to them all about the offensive styles of the Continental and British Armies, pros and cons of a musket, bayonets, etc. Then, he loaded his musket and fired! After the kids recovered from the blast and regained their composure, he led them to an open area and taught them how to march in rows and follow his orders. It was a little sloppy, but hey, they're 10. :)
Complete fascination.
"About Face!" was the hardest one for them to get, I think....
As soon as this was done, we made our way to the busses and headed back to Palmer. The bus ride home was a whole lot quieter since the kids were worn out from being in the cold! (I made the other kids play "I Spy" so that they would stop annoying me!) Back at school, we had lunch in the classroom, watched some Magic School Bus and then had Music.

For homework, I asked students to write down 5 facts that they learned on the trip. Unfortunately, hardly any of the things they wrote down were actually important (ex: they use a tooth key to pull out their tooth, kids don't take baths, the musket has very bad aim, etc..). Fortunately, I could tell by their facts that they had a really good time! :) 

Let's hope the Virginia Living Museum on Friday doesn't disappoint.... stay tuned for a post about it! (I guarantee it will be written this month!!)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Peer Pressure!!

Yes, I do regularly have the "just say no" talk with my kids. Yes, I am constantly telling my kids that they are their own boss and they make their own choices. Yes, I am SO sick of kids saying "he started it" or "she told me to!". And yes, I did just introduce a new  behavior modification system into my classroom that is almost completely dependent on peer pressure! :)

About every 4-5 weeks, I rearrange the desks in my classroom. I feel it brings a little excitement to the room, keeps it from getting boring, helps split up the talkers (although, I'm beginning to think that's impossible because there are so many of them!), and helps refocus the students a little. I start off the year with the kids facing forward so that they are positioned such that their attention most naturally is on me/the board. Then, I gradually start moving them into a U-shape, and new smaller rows, etc. My biggest move is in the middle of the year when I finally arrange their desks into groups! Given that 4th grade is the year of social-blooming, grouping the students is a little daunting! My kids are already chatty, and to place  them into perfect talking position is a little risky! The benefits outweigh the potential noise, though, since collaborative learning and group work are skills that are stressed in creating future 21st century employees!

To counteract the possible chit chat, I adopted a teamwork/peer pressure system, that the kids simply know as "group clips!" :) Hanging from the ceiling  above each group of desks is a laminated sign with a number on it. Throughout the day, whenever I need them all seated or packed up or attentive, I simply pull a clothespin out of my basket and stand up front quietly. Instantly there's a flutter of activity and then silence! Whichever  group was first to follow directions (or has the least clips, if one group is pulling too far ahead!!) earns a clip on their number. Occasionally I'll give a clip to every group at the same time which is clearly counterproductive, but thankfully the majority of my kids haven't figured out the rationale behind it, yet! At the end of every week, whichever group has the most clips will get a prize! (So far, the only thing I could come up w/ is candy... but I'm open to suggestions and might even give the kids some buy in.. we'll see!) So far, the system is working out perfectly and hopefully that'll continue!

My favorite experience regarding these clips so far has been the trash talking happening because of it. Just as peer pressure can be positive or negative, so can trash talk! Our last unit in social studies was the Revolutionary War, if my students learned nothing else about it (which they did, they actually rocked this unit!), it was that the Patriots won, Loyalists lost. I bring this up now because, starting yesterday, by their own doing, I had a classroom full of Patriots and Loyalists! Haha. Whichever group has the most clips will repeatedly refer to themselves as the Patriots and the rest of their peers as Loyalists! If another group takes the lead, all I hear is, "Now we're the Patriots!!"

With these 8 clips, I believe the members of group 2 were the "Patriots" at this moment in time.