A Letter from a Fourth Grade Teacher

Dear Parents,

This letter is for you.

You have my undying admiration. Yours is the most meaningful, most important job in the world. I thank you all for trusting me to work with your children. Foremost, they bring me great joy.

The events in Connecticut, USA, these past few days are a reminder of all that is family, compassion, empathy and kindness. I find myself more than a bit angry. Overall, I guess I am just sad.

I have spent a good part of this weekend talking to my wife, family and friends. Still, I cannot fathom what parents are feeling. Understand that I am trying to “get it. ”

I have no grand advice to give you or your children. I only can tell you that I will listen to your kids and try my best to send them in the right direction. I will continue to push them to write, to read good books, and to think. I will continue to smile and make them laugh. We will have as normal a school day as possible. I will make sure that I am a comforting, peaceful presence in your child’s day.

The last week before school lets out for Winter Break is traditionally hectic. Rest assured that I have already scheduled routine, low-key lessons. That said I expect anxiety levels will raise up a notch. I am proud to say that our entire faculty is ready.

Online there are many articles, podcasts and blog postings offering tips on how to talk to your children about tragedy. They help.

However you choose to talk to your child, please help them remember that regardless of what they see on television, school is a safe place. Extremely caring people fill schools worldwide.


Please allow me to close this letter with a haiku from Izumi Shikibu:

“Although the wind

blows terribly here,

the moonlight also leaks

between the roof planks

of this ruined house.”


Take care,

 Barry Mernin



Shibiku, I. (n.d.). “although the wind .”. Retrieved from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178441















How to Teach Fourth Grade: The Math Test

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Life is good for only two things, discovering mathematics and teaching mathematics. 

Simeon Poisson 

My students recently just finished their Everyday Math Written Assessment for Unit 4 and I thought that I would share some of my ideas on issuing the typical fourth grade math test. I hope some of these ideas help.

First of all, my students enjoy math class for they are highly motivated and obviously supported. I view the parents as partners in learning. They play an important and irreplaceable role in math comprehension. I am fully aware that for a good many of my students, my role in their math learning is middling, at best. That said: we have a lot of fun exploring the subject.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I pre-assess each student before the start of each unit. From there, I heap a great amount of responsibility on the students to take charge of their own math understanding. They learn with partners and speak in conversational tones throughout most lessons. My job is to pair up the students with similar ability partners. Next, I steer the conversations so that each student becomes a little stronger in their understanding. Soon I will have the students write daily reflections on their new learning.

At the start of each math test, the students sit in “test mode” seating. Each kid is responsible for setting up dividers and each table group’s “go getter” are responsible for distributing the tests. Students look over the test and one or two students proactively volunteers to pass out needed math tools such as rulers, calculators or protractors.

Each test  an assessment for learning. Therefore, I routinely help out students as they learn. I pat the kids on their backs and compliment them throughout. For this specific test, the kids asked me to define terms like “withdraw” or “deposit. ” Both terms were not on my word wall so I happily explained what the words meant.

I review before each test on my interactive whiteboard. I am a pretty demanding teacher but I stop coaching in while the kids are taking their assessments. Rather, I celebrate their learning and cheer them on and do whatever else I can to boost their confidence.

I assign the first student to complete the test to collect the remaining tests and to alphabetize the tests according to last names. This helps me grade and input data on an excel spreadsheet.

Each grade-level focuses on a different algorithm throughout the year. This helps the student develop mastery with the four operations while the teachers develop mastery in routinely teaching a particular method.

I accommodate the students with graph paper and hands-on learning tools, such as base-ten blocks. All are welcome to use the tools regardless of their learning needs.

This helps all develop confidence in mathematics, my only goal during testing days throughout the year.


Poisson, S. (n.d.). Mathematics quotes. Retrieved from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/mathematics_5.html

Teaching Math Mastery in the International School Fourth Grade Classroom

” In this changing world, those who understand and can do mathematics will have significantly enhanced opportunities and options for shaping their futures. Mathematical competence opens doors to productive futures. A lack of mathematical competence keeps doors closed…All students should have the opportunity and the support necessary to learn significant mathematics with depth and understanding. There is no conflict between equity and excellence.” NCTM (200, p 50)

As an international school fourth grade teacher, I realize that I have 22 students of widely varying degrees of mathematical understanding. The following is a body of thought on how I approach teaching in my classroom.

I believe that each child  be encouraged to take control of their own mathematics learning. This means that I am to create an environment where students discuss findings, compare ideas, and peer tutor. In creating such an environment, I first need to develop a highly structured classroom with easy access to mathematical tools. The students need to develop relationships inside the classroom. I need to develop routines and habits that foster thinking. This is a constant work in progress that finds me tinkering to find small, incremental improvements that alone are not readily noticeable. The students need help each other without exception.

You need lots of math manipulatives.

Curriculum is to fit the student population. This means that school leaders must constantly investigate results to find trends in student math learning. Teachers are to understand reasoning behind decisions and differentiate expectations for each child. I strongly believe that mathematics teachers need support from school leaders. This includes regular, focused and differentiated professional development for mathematics instructors. School leaders must recognize and foster collaborative activities among teachers.

Students learn what the teacher teaches each day. They easily see when a teacher does not deeply understand mathematics instruction. I am a big believer that elementary school teachers need to support each other in explaining ideas that develop teacher ability. This means regular, intentional time for teachers to look over student work and to discuss ideas in how to teach a particular concept.

Assessment is an integral but not overwhelming management aspect. I tend to focus on a bevy of pre assessment strategies so that I can pinpoint my instruction and find a “just right” learning for each child. I teach students to constantly use reflective assessment tools that show and celebrate their “new, big, idea” from each day’s lesson. I post “exit slips” each day and make sure that exemplar posts are widely viewed.

I believe that technology plays an ever increasingly important role in the mathematics classroom. I am a huge fan of ViHart,  Khan Academy and Brainpop in helping me accelerate student understanding. I use these sites religiously. They are excellent tools in a differentiated mathematics classroom.

That is all for now.

Teachers,“How do you approach mathematics instruction in your classroom?”   Please feel free to comment below.

Good luck.

National Council of Mathematics (2000) Principles and standards for school mathematics Reston VA

“What are the most important stories in my life?” Teaching Fourth Graders to Write Personal Narratives that Matter

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Above all, narrative writers must “show, not tell.”  – Donald Graves

Mid Autumn Festival is over in Hong Kong and it is time to teach the craft of narrative writing to my fourth grade students. This is a great time of year for I see steady growth in the writers’ stamina, independence and ability. The students learn to bounce ideas off each other. The writers learn to take risks with their stories. They learn that their writing matters and that an audience reads their pieces.

The 4th grade student writer is becoming more independent with each day’s writing session. Students will investigate mentor texts and published authors to make their own writing more meaningful. Writers will think about moments where they have felt strong emotions and list them. The writers will think of “turning points” in their own lives and list them. The fourth graders will think about and draw upon all that they have learned about writing in previous sessions.

This unit, I aim to improve my craft by habitually asking the students to write a personal SMART writing goal for each session. I will also have the students write their overall message of their current narrative piece. Writers will post both goal and message each day on a post it note adhered to their writing space. These will become quick and simple data points as I walk around and confer with the student writers.

The students will become aware of a shared jargon from our discussions. I plan to teach that internal thoughts run parallel with external actions. I will teach that writers primarily “show and not tell.”(Graves, 1994)  I will teach students that to ask themselves “What is this piece really about?”

One area of growth that I plan to develop will be conventions and mechanics. I will distribute an editor’s checklist for each student writer and model correct use of the checklist. I will have students discuss proper punctuation and paragraphing. I intend on playing a conventions game every 8 days or so. Overall, I hope to teach the students that grammar is a piece of the writing puzzle that not to overlook, yet keep in perspective.

I will use some of the anchor charts that I found on Pinterest:

Punctuation Anchor Chart Idea
Another Punctuation Chart Idea
Even MORE Anchor Charts

Also, I cannot express the need for talk in the writing classroom. I am a believer that the students need to talk about their own growth and new understandings as they write. This is a highly structured routine of every writing session. The students engage in talk and encourage each other.  For more information on talk, check out this site: Why Talk is Important.

Another teaching point that I hope to get across is that writers practice leads. This means that they write, write and rewrite lead sentences and try them out by reading out loud to their writing partner. I have taught the students to actively listen and to politely steer each other to the best sentences.  This develops community and an understanding that risks are appreciated and that choices matter.

Finally, I will continue our habit of celebrating the ending of the unit and sharing our pieces with poetry and parents.

“My mission today is to create a sense of occasion around the upcoming author celebration, and to be sure that editing takes on a special importance because it is a way of preparing one’s work to go out in the world.” (Calkins & Martinelli, 2006)

The students will assemble in small groups of six or seven and each will have the floor. All will share two personal narratives and will share their overall reflections from the unit. All will create a T-Chart observations and thoughts from their writers’ notebook.  They will then be expected to write their reflections to me for evaluation.

Fourth grade teachers, “How do you inspire writers in your classroom?”




Calkins, L. M., & Martinelli, M. (2006). Units of study for teaching writing, grades 3-5.

Graves, D. (1994). A fresh look at writing. Canada: Irwin Publishing.









So, You are About to Start Your Career in Teaching?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So you are about to start a career in teaching?

First of all, let me offer an appreciation for what you are about to do. You are now of an exclusive breed of humanity.The decision to teach is still the most meaningful of my professional life. Teaching is a craft. I am still discovering its joys, perhaps more now than ever.

Alas, your first year will be a shock to your system. Below is a hybrid collection of thoughts from the Twitterverse and me for first-year teachers.

I am indebted to Serena Fan, Tracey Carvell, Becky Blair, Benjamin Hartman, Britt Pumphrey, and aflyontheclassroomwall.com for their advice. Please follow them on Twitter. You will be glad you did.

1.Observe others. Ask lots of questions. Don’t be afraid to try.

2.Understand that teaching is mentally exhausting. When I got home from my first day of student teaching, I fell asleep immediately and did not wake up until the next morning. I was still in my work clothes. I worked as a railroad construction worker during the previous summer. Teaching is FAR more demanding. It gets easier as you learn the ropes.

3.Focus on one area you want to be really good at. You can’t do everything the first year.

4.As a public school teacher, there are an infinite number of obstacles keeping you from doing your job effectively. Ignore them all.

5. Save everything that works well. Next year will be here before you know it.

6.Keep a journal of each day. Force yourself to write ten minutes a day. Research the work of Donald Graves. He will make your life easier.

7.You will need lots of help. Seek assistance from anyone that appears competent. Everyone in a school can offer you advice. Listen, filter, and trust your instincts.

8.Be gentle with the custodians. They will save your hide somewhere along the line.

9.Remember you teach children, not test taking machines. Get to know each as an individual & honor each voice.

10.Plan, plan, and plan. Structure your lessons similarly each day.

11.Take responsibility for the climate of your class, focus on one area at a time to improve, seek wisdom from the best teachers.

12. Read the curriculum guides. Some pretty smart folks developed these, generally speaking. Let the guides be your mentors.

13.Be a learner & know you have more to do than you have time, so you’ll have to choose. Also attend happy hours.

14. Save your voice. I lost mine by for a week in October. Never shout. Never speak conventionally when a whisper will do.

15.Ask for help/find a mentor/partner/someone you trust.

16.Keep your political views to yourself. I told my students about my anti-war stance during the first Gulf War and got into a bit of hot water. (Does anyone use the term” hot water” anymore?)

17.Embrace technology as a tool, but choose wisely. Do not allow technology to interfere with the learning process.

18. Enjoy every moment. You will create memories for a lifetime.


Feel free to contact me if you need any advice. I have seen it all in the elementary education classroom. 

Take care, do well and best of luck to you.


Barry Mernin

How to Teach Mathematics to Fourth Grade Students

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


In two days time, my students will have their first unit math test in geometry. I figured that this is a good time to reflect upon how I teach math in a fourth grade classroom.  I hope it helps.

Pre-assess each unit.  Before starting any learning experience, intentionally pre-assess each skill. Assess each student’s level of understanding and differentiate your instruction from your findings. I try to rearrange my math groups each day according to pre-assessment results.

Differentiate your instruction for each group of students that you teach. I cannot stress this enough. Your students must have a “just right” level of learning for each student, each day. This becomes a habit, in time.

Move it: I begin each year teaching my students the value of seamless transitions. Move your students often in the math class by rotating them to learning centers.

Teach each child each day. Never allow for a student to miss the opportunity to work with you. Structure your lessons so that you have meaningful contact with each student.

Allow the students to use calculators: “Calculators should be in or on students’ desks at all times from kindergarten through high school.”(Van de Walle, 2004)

Converse: Hone your conversation skills so that your students explain their learning in correct common mathematical terms.

Notice student improvement each day and compliment often. I do this regularly by allowing for the students to write and post their big learning for the day.

Assessments are for learning: Each test given to a student is an assessment for understanding. I routinely aid fourth graders in understanding the directions, checking work, and defining terms while they are taking a test.

Distribute all paper assessments to parents. Collect signed assessments and file in a student portfolio. This is a terrific public relations strategy. Evernote helps me immensely in conducting this task.

Post the essential learnings and enduring understanding for each math unit. I generally begin each math lesson reviewing the essential questions from the unit.

Recognize and meaningfully celebrate student thinking.

Name the steps in each algorithm that you teach. Allow for the students to finish your sentences for you. Let the students keep the conversations going.

Post lesson goals and aims, essential questions, and mathematical words to know.

Compete in World Maths Day Competition. This competition is extremely motivating.

Problem of the Week: Here is where I allow for my gifted and talented students to truly engage in higher-level mathematics. My former students reply how much they enjoyed watching me dance when they successfully completed a Problem of the Week.

Pi Day: My students have been known to memorize Pi up to 47 digits. We celebrate each March 14 at 1:59:26 PM. I let the students organize the festivities.

Start a Math Olympiad team: Math Olympiad is a fine program. I have been a PICO for years at my old school. There is time to still sign up. Math Olympiad is highly recommended.

Appreciate the Beauty: Study the math masters and share your love of mathematics with your students. This means so much more than posting a picture or quote from Einstein! Each math idea is an invention. Teach the students that mathematics is forever evolving.

Instructional Videos: If you are going to show them, keep them short and “laser-focused” on the goal at hand. Ratey the Math Cat is perhaps my all time favorite.

Allow for the kids to create presentations for teaching. Share the results on Vimeo, Edmodo,a class twitter account, or a class website.

Store the answers to word problems in an accessible folder and let the kids check their answers themselves. This frees you to more effectively engage.

Read: The Housemaid and the Professor, Fermat’s Last Theorem, and The Man of Numbers. These are amazing books.

Master the interactive whiteboard. It took me four years but I no longer call it the “The StupidBoard”

Teach all the units. Do not allow for any unit to go longer than necessary.

Collaborate with colleagues and ask them for help,regularly. Schedule the lessons so that you both are teaching the same lessons daily. This helps tremendously.

I have a few more ideas and practices, but perhaps for another time.

Have a great year of Mathematics instruction.


Van de Walle, J. A. (2004). Elementary and middle school mathematics: Teaching developmentally. Allyn & Bacon.

How to Teach Literacy to Fourth Grade Students

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fourth grade is now in session. The students know each other and each kid understands the rules. They are happy and they want to learn. Now, it is time to teach.  It is crucial that the effective fourth grade teacher offer an environment where all students can read and write. This takes investigation, knowledge of pedagogy, and confidence in delivering the curriculum. The master teacher is already developing short-range plans for each student entrusted in her care.

Teaching Reading: Humans are earth’s only cultural species. Our ability to read is perhaps our greatest achievement. The alphabet is an incredible invention that has shaped our lives. “Every teacher bears the burden of experimenting carefully and rigorously to identify the appropriate stimulation strategies that will provide students’ brains with an optimal daily enrichment.”(Dehaene, 2009)

As adults we forget how difficult it is to read. It is imperative to remember and provide connections with each child to their struggles. It is imperative to compliment, compliment and compliment each student’s accomplished goal. This means a teacher must provide daily, time-bound instruction, appropriate text, and time to read.

I am also of the belief that the master teacher should have at least some understanding of how the brain functions while reading.

Teaching Writing: Teach the kids to learn how to write from writers. This has been a game changer in my classroom. Each day, teach the craft of writing. Empathize with your student writers by writing each day yourself. Share your stories, struggles, pitfalls and achievements. The kids will appreciate you and offer you valuable insight.

The act of teaching children to appreciate and acknowledge superior writing is a gift. Give students the time to write each day. Allow them time to share their writing with writing partners. Celebrate with passion and allow for reflection after each unit. Provide ample opportunities for students to learn from mentor texts.

Read Aloud: Each day, after lunch recess, my students grab their water bottles, notebooks, and pencils and sit on the rug, waiting for me to begin my read aloud. My books are reserved for the year but I change titles depending on my mood.  I perhaps model reading with an overbearing sense of awe and drama. I figure that if books do not excite me, then I should not be teaching young ones. “Reading aloud is the single most important classroom structure there is.” (Ray, 1999)

This time is sacred to students and to me. I do not allow the students to lie down and rest during read aloud. I specifically teach them to be wide-awake and to notate during read aloud.

This year, my I have scheduled “accountable talk” time. This time is set aside for the students to talk about their connections, observations, predictions and wonderings about the current read aloud book. The circle discussion is student centered and a pleasure to conduct.

Word Study: Words study in fourth grade is essentially recognizing and developing control of spelling conventions. However, it is so much more in a master teacher’s classroom. When students understand that words are inventions and each word grew from different cultures and circumstances, they begin to appreciate the magic of language. Instruct students to analyze and sort words each week and reflect on their growth. Allow time for students to investigate idioms. This is always time well spent.

This is enough for today. Enjoy your students and have an amazing year of literacy.

Dehaene, S. (2012). Reading in the brain, the new science of how we read. Penguin Paperbacks.

Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous words, writers and writing in the elementary classroom. Natl Council of Teachers.