Category Archives: Back to School

Making the Case for TRUE Writing In the Classroom

I love to write. I have loved to write from the time I was young and had the wonderful opportunity of taking a summer course in which we worked on writing and illustrating a book for a few weeks. This, of course, was years ago, so I mean we used ACTUAL pencils and markers and paper; few of today’s students would understand such a thing when they are creating books on their iPads… which brings me to my point.

Today’s students are storytellers. They are creating and curating with technology tools as never before. Ask a kid about the latest Youtube craze or blog, and there’s an excellent chance you will Writing by marinlearn more in two minutes than you ever knew before about technology. They’re not just using Snapchat and Instagram for inappropriate purposes, as the media would have you believe. Many of them are telling stories through their words and images.

And, young children still have that spark for wanting to write and taking ownership of their work. My five year old is a beginning reader and writer, and he is fascinated by how letters and words string together. Lately, he prefers writing “in the sky” with his fingers instead of answering me verbally; his favorite words to write are no, yes, and ok. He asks me to write down words that he has not seen before, so he can “see how they look.” Small children especially are fascinated by the mystery of writing and letters.

The problem is, once they enter the public school testing machine, they lose that fascination and spark that is inherent to their curiosity. Writing becomes something they “have to do for the test” instead of something they want to do for themselves. I have been in elementary schools and seen students’ writing work proudly displayed in the halls, and I’ve been completely dismayed by what I’ve read.  All of the kids’ work started with the exact same sentence. Then, they all used the same transition words (and I had to stifle a scream when I saw all of the -ly suffixes: firstly, secondly, lastly, most importantly) and closing sentences. Talk about a cookie-cutter education!

The worst part was, I could almost hear the kids counting their sentences and paragraphs; most elementary students are taught a basic three-paragraph structure, with 3 sentences in the opening, 5 sentences in the body, and 3 sentences in the closing. Why is writing about numbers? Why is writing about everybody doing it the same way? The teachers see what it takes to be “proficient in writing,” and they crank the formulas out to their kids.

The absolute travesty is seeing kids who don’t understand what a paragraph (or sometimes, even a sentence) is by the time they are freshmen and sophomores in high school. These kids don’t realize that they start with a main idea in a topic sentence because they are writing about an idea in a cohesive unit of text: a paragraph. They just think they are reading a prompt, restating it, giving 3 details for support, and slapping on a closing sentence.

second thoughts by Laura BillingsThey’ve been trained to do this, because we’ve been trained to teach it that way. This idea of formula writing caught on years ago, and everybody is terrified of breaking the mold because we are told in data team meetings and in-service days that the writing scores are the pits and we need to do something to change it. We also are told that kids lose too many points on reading and math assessments because they skip the written response questions, and that we have to model how to score well on that portion of the assessment with whole-group, small-group, and independent writing activities in our classrooms that involve a scaffolded plan for support.

Because the scoring guides are written in a way that value a restated prompt, a certain number of details from the text, and explanation for support, that’s all kids are being shown how to do when it comes to writing. It has gotten to the point where we see high school students writing a topic sentence that is not indented, including a bulleted list of evidence from the text, and rewriting the topic sentence after the bulleted list as an attempt at a conclusion. Sometimes, we are lucky to see a transition word at the beginning of the closing sentence.

We need to STOP! This is exactly what opponents of standardized tests are talking about when we say that kids are being taught to be test takers instead of being taught how to be thinkers. And, while I am not in the business of blaming teachers, I definitely take issue with any teacher who instructs a student to write this way. However, I certainly understand the pressures that teachers face from administrators, parents, and community members when the test scores are published and the district is labeled as “failing.”

So, what is a teacher to do? Well, we advocate for standing up for kids. We want you to stand up for your own profession. If you know that what you are doing is not helping kids to be better thinkers, change your practice. Talk with other teachers in your building and see what they are doing. You may just be surprised by how many people appear to be doing the test prep BS but actually are “breaking out” and doing something that is good for kids.

The funny thing about all of this is, I was asked by a principal a few years ago to speak at our local Intermediate Unit about my writing instruction, because my students had some of the highest scores on our state writing assessments. I told him that I would be happy to speak, but I wanted to let him know that I did not use a writing program or a published set of writing strategy books or test prep items; I just had my kids write every day to prompts that related to our lessons and learning. Writing was a learning tool in my classroom. Most times, I did not formally grade the students’ writing, because I wanted them to see writing as another learning tool instead of as a chore or a huge graded project. And, it apparently worked, because their scores made my administrators happy; but, more important to me, I was seeing the kids write more analytical pieces and getting far fewer questions like, “How many sentences should this be?’ He did not follow through with his invitation for me to speak, after I told him all of this. I guess I didn’t fit his idea of a “good writing instructor” after all. That’s the only time I can recall that he didn’t listen to his data; I suppose it’s hard to reconcile the data with a teacher who doesn’t play by the rules.

students hard at work by Susan SermonetaThe TRUTH is, I was getting better writing results because I had the kids write every day. I was giving them prompts that made them think and connect and reflect. I was giving them immediate feedback on their writing and ideas by making our Bell Ringers and Tickets Out the Door (Do Nows) short writing assignments. I was walking around the room, reading over kids’ shoulders while they wrote; I was writing positive comments, drawing smiley faces, or putting stickers on good responses to encourage them to keep going. I was asking for volunteers to share their writing with the class. I was assigning larger writing assignments and providing kids with scoring guides and due dates from Day 1. I also was assigning peer editors, modeling the peer editing process, and giving them time to collaborate from brainstorming to final draft editing. I was scheduling writing conferences with students. And, I was giving choice in assignments so kids could choose their topics, prompts, or assignments.

If we want better thinkers, we need better writers. Writing is, hands down, the number one way to get kids to think about the lessons, concepts, connections, and everything else we want them to be doing if they are going to leave our rooms as learners instead of test takers. So, we need to give kids opportunities – several opportunities – to TRULY write in our classrooms. Drop the formulas. Drop the numbers. Let kids tell their stories. Let them write about what matters to them. Once they find their voice and see value in writing, their “academic writing” will become so much better and so much less of a process for them, and for you.

Not sure how to get started? Our writing tips, strategies, graphic organizers, and more are coming soon to our Resources. For now, sign up for our Newsletter and get access to the graphic organizers Bailey already has shared from her classroom, or email Bailey at There’s nothing better than tried-and-true resources!

Writing image via Flickr by marin
Second Thoughts image via Flickr by Laura Billings
Students Hard at Work image via Flickr by Susan Sermoneta

Our Wish For You This Year: BE a Teacher

This is the first day for students in our home district. We know some of you are being saddled with extra responsibilities and duties. We know some of you were handed more paperwork. We know some of you have more students than you expected. We know some of you are dealing with new administrators who did not start off on the right foot. But, today, we know all of you are going to put all of that aside and BE a teacher. The first day of school is the day when that is more possible than any other day of the year. It’s too early to assess, too early to test prep, too early for all of the other nonsense. So, our wish for you this year is that you will BE a teacher more of the time.


some of you will comfort a little one who cries for home.

some of you will wipe little noses.

some of you will learn more names than you ever thought possible.

some of you will make them laugh.

some of you will make them wish they could have you next year, too.

some of you will make them feel right at home.

some of you will feel like you never left the classroom.

some of you will feel refreshed and energized.

some of you will wonder if you can do this again.

some of you will be more exhausted at the end of the day than ever before.

some of you will be more excited about the school year than your students.

some of you will wish the whole year could be this way…

… and maybe it can. BE a TEACHER. Not a tester. Not a hoop jumper. Not a sideline sitter. Not a complier, just for the sake of compliance.

BE a teacher.

FYI: Doing What’s Right for Kids Is Not On the Agenda

The reports are out, and kids, especially teens, officially need more sleep, which translates to a necessary later start time for schools.  The American Academy of Pediatrics is saying what teachers have known for years, yet administrators, school boards, and some politicians across the country are setting the morning bell to ring earlier and earlier to extend school days to get more seat time. The real goal? Extending the school day to cram more test prep into kids’ brains so they’re all the more ready for those assessments. We can only hope that those people pushing for educational reform listen to the doctors, since they haven’t been listening to the teachers. Too bad we can guess where this will go… in one ear and right out the other, along with everything else that is good for kids but bad for business.

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” says Layra y el estudio by Jose Vicente Jimenez RibasDr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, who led the team that wrote the group’s policy statement on the issue. 

Since when are doctors concerned about higher standardized tests scores? And, what I find even more disturbing is the fact that the phrase “higher standardized test scores” is in the same sentence as “an overall better quality of life.” I’m not attacking this doctor, because her research is valid, and she clearly is reporting in the best interests of students. But, this is a perfect example of all that is wrong with the current national discussion on public education.

Image via Flickr by Jose Vicente Jimenez Riba

The Importance of Accurate and Timely Documentation

I have been a teacher mentor twice in my career, and I had a couple of first-year co-teachers that I also helped to mentor. When I sat down and thought about what I wanted to tell them in those first few precious days of in-service before the hubbub of having actual students in our classrooms, one thing continued to come to mind first: Document everything. I had been given that piece of advice by countless seasoned teachers my first year, and I felt an obligation to pass it along to all of the newbies in my charge.

We have a union. But, we also have administrators who do not always listen to our side when parents come knocking; some never listen to teachers regardless of the situation. And, with everything that happens in the day of a life of a teacher, we truly may not be able to remember everything in detail when we are called upon to testify, report, or share in any setting from a court of law to a guidance counselor or principal’s office. While it is possible to go a little overboard with documentation, especially during those first couple of years as a new teacher, it is better to play it safe than sorry and find yourself in a situation where you wish you had documented it.

Documented Life Journal tab by marynbtolSo, what do you document? In my opinion, you should document anything that occurs with a student involving discipline, a confrontation, an uncomfortable conversation, etc. And, the documentation in question here is the sort that you keep in a private three-ring binder, journal, or other source that you easily can take with you on conference days or days that you are out of the classroom. Your documentation will be highly sensitive in nature due to the fact that it will contain the truth about students, their behavior, threats, your evaluations, and more, so when you are out of the classroom you should make every effort to secure it.

As for the importance of documentation, I cannot stress it enough. In an era during which teachers are being blamed for everything, students are beginning to assimilate the war-on-teacher mentality from society at large. They demand that we respect them rather than earn it from us. They assume that they are going to be able to do as they please in our rooms because they know that teachers often are powerless against “squeaky-wheel parents” when they complain to administrators about our plagiarism policy, our grading guidelines, our seating charts… This is what happens when we adopt the school-as-business model: the customer is always right, even when the “customer” is a fourteen-year-old kid armed with a smartphone and an attitude.

Documentation adds another layer in our defense of ourselves. We cannot do much in a their-word-against-our-word scenario without it. With it, we can point to times and dates and witnesses and help build our case. It seems crazy that grown professionals even need to do such a thing, but that is the culture in which we currently operate. Gone are the days when teachers were trusted because they were the professionals and adults in the room.

We have been receiving email from teachers across the country who have horror stories about needing records to defend themselves. In the interest of protecting teachers who want their voices to be heard, we are not going to share any personal information – not even their initials or home states.

  • A teacher received an unsatisfactory rating on an observation dated by an administrator on a date when the teacher was not in the building – she had been out for two weeks due to surgery with sick days in place.
  • A teacher was accused of calling a student an “idiot” during a class with a co-teacher. The parents demanded the teacher be suspended and called school board members and the superintendent. The co-teacher had documented that one student had called another student an “idiot” during class, and the regular teacher addressed it by saying, “We don’t call people idiots in this classroom. Apologize now.” It later was revealed that the student who told his parents the teacher had called him an “idiot” had failed a test and wanted to get the teacher into trouble for failing him.
  • A teacher was accused of targeting a student for plagiarism. The parents contacted the principal and said their child was being accused unfairly and demanded that the teacher accept and grade the paper. The teacher had documented the plagiarism, printed out the website from which the student had taken the paragraphs, highlighted the material in both the student’s work and the website copy, and contacted parents to tell them that the student had five days to redo the assignment. The teacher also had documentation of two other students who had plagiarized, so she was able to prove she was not unfairly targeting any student.
  • A student raised his hand and made a gun with his fingers. He pointed the “gun” at a teacher’s head and said, “Boom!” A teacher documented the incident and took it to an administrator.  The administrator said that he was sure the student didn’t mean it and wouldn’t worry about it. The teacher then took the documentation to the guidance counselor and her union leaders.

This is just a sampling of the stories we have received from teachers. We wish we could say that the documentation made a difference in all of the cases we have heard about, but unfortunately it hasn’t. What it has done is raise awareness about the issues teachers deal with daily and help some teachers feel at least a little better that they have records to rely on when they need to protect themselves.

There are a few things you should keep in mind when you document issues:

  1. Complete the documentation as soon as possible after the incident occurs. The details will be more fresh in your mind and you will be more accurate in your description.
  2. Always include the date, time, and location of the incident, or the date and time of the telephone call, in the documentation.
  3. Include the names of adult witnesses and do everything you can to get them to document the issue and give you a copy to include with your records.
  4. Keep your documentation records secure at all times. Don’t store them in a visible, public area. Most important, remember to take them with you at the end of the day.
  5. Print emails and make copies of notes, evaluations, letters, etc.
  6. If an administrator asks for your documentation, you may want to check with a union leader first. If you don’t have a union, use your best judgment about what to share. If you do turn in your documentation, turn in a copy of it. Never turn in your originals.

Documentation may not help in every instance, but it will help you keep an accurate record of the problems and challenges you face throughout the school year. If the time should come that you need to protect yourself, your documentation is going to be very important to the process. It is almost comical that teachers feel the need to document everything in this day and age; we feel as though all of the forces are working against us and pushing us out of our profession. Yet, other groups are fighting teacher tenure because they feel like we are invincible. The two sides could not be further apart: this is the fallout from the war on teachers.

If you have any stories of your own about the importance of documentation that you would like to share, please email Bailey at or reply in the comments below.

Image via Flickr by marynbtol

8 Proven Ice Breakers, Team Builders, and Group Activities for the Start of the Year

Ice Breakers Team Builders and Group ActivitiesWe’ve already talked about the importance of – and encouraged you to – take time during the first critical few weeks of school to foster a positive learning environment. So this year, instead of boring students with policy changes, rules and regulations, and parent signature forms, try changing things up with some fun activities that just might get your students excited about walking into your room on the second day of school and every day thereafter.

Not only will using these ice breakers and other activities help you learn all your students’ names more quickly, but they model the behavior you expect of your students, lessening the need to put all those rules and consequences into play.

I’ve put every one of these ideas into practice at some point during my eleven years in one of three different secondary Language Arts/English classrooms, but every idea and activity is easily adapted to suit elementary or other secondary content settings.

1. Find Someone Who…

I learned this activity by participating in it as a student in a Penn Literacy Network (PLN) graduate class, and it required little adaptation to put it to use in my own classroom. The purpose of the activity was immediately clear when our facilitator handed us sheets of paper with “Find Someone Who…” written across the top, along with several statements with blank lines at the end.

Working their way around the room, students find classmates to swap papers with, reading the statements to find one that suits and entering their names on the applicable lines. The process is repeated until all students have all their statements completed with student names, with no student signing anyone else’s paper more than once.

Here are a few statements I’ve used for this activity with my students:

  • Find someone who has no siblings.
  • Find someone who went to a Little League World Series game.
  • Find someone who likes Math more than English.
  • Find someone who loves cafeteria chicken nuggets.

Rules of the activity:

  • Students must move around the room and exchange papers with others face-to-face. No passing sheets around the room.
  • Use a timer to let students know they’ll be “on the clock” in your classroom.
  • Students may not return to their seats until the paper is filled out in full.
  • No student may sign another student’s sheet more than once.

When all students have returned to their seats, choose a volunteer to read their first statement out loud and name the student who signed. That student then, in turn, stands up, and reads the second statement on her sheet, and so on.

2. Gift Bag Book Guess

This is another activity I learned in a PLN class, and one that I put to use in the last few years in my classroom with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. For this activity, choose enough books so that when students are divided into groups of four, you will have one book per group. Record four quotations from each book onto index cards, one quotation per card, and place them in gift bags.Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts by Pete

Ask students to separate themselves into groups of four people, and give each group a gift bag, telling them to wait for further instructions. When all groups have received a bag, tell the class that you’ll be giving short talks on the books, which are displayed on a table at the front of the room. Students should be able to review the books while they work, if needed.

After discussing each book, ask students to pull the quotations from the gift bags, one quotation per student, and take turns reading them out loud to the group. Then, they should work together to guess from which book the quotation has been taken. Students write their guess on a slip of paper next to the gift bag’s corresponding number, and pass their gift bag to another group. Repeat the process until each group works with every bag.

A few tips for this activity:

  • Number the gift bags.
  • Number the quotations with corresponding numbers so they don’t get mixed up.
  • Choose books students will have the opportunity to read throughout the year.
  • Choose common quotations that aren’t too obscure.
  • For primary teachers, try using pictures to match settings with characters or plot events with books.

3. Matching

This activity is one of my favorite ways to get students up and moving during the first few days of school. I’ve seen it in so many graduate classes, it’s tough to attribute it to just one. The idea is to match students up in unconventional ways.

For this simple activity, think of two things to match:

  • quotations to people
  • quotations to books
  • art to artists
  • historical figures to eras
  • songs to musicians

Split your class into two halves and have each group stand on one side of the room. In one group, each student receives a card or paper representing one side of your matching scenario; students in the other group receive the other side of the pair. Students are then asked to mingle with the other group and find the student with the card that matches theirs.

4. Draw a Conclusion/Mystery

The premise of this activity is to create a mystery surrounding one aspect of your curriculum. As an English teacher, I always chose a plot from a story or parts of a particularly intriguing author’s life (Poe, anyone?), but you could easily choose a figure from your discipline to use for your purposes. Math teachers easily can do this with a creative word problem and science teachers can use a scientific question or hypothesis, for example.

Create stations placed around the classroom, each with a clue about the mystery. Students work in groups, either of their own choosing, your assignment, or by using one of the grouping activities from this list. Each student has a job: recorder, clue reader, discussion director, or connector. Students rotate jobs as they work around the room and investigate the clues, enabling you to observe how they perform in different roles.

At the final station, give each student a conclusion form (simple Word document with a space for the independent conclusion at the top and a space for the group’s final conclusion at the bottom), to illustrate the idea that you cannot draw a conclusion without first gathering all the evidence. Once filled out, students read and discuss their conclusions with their group members. Groups then create a group conclusion based on their discussions, with one volunteer from each group presenting the group conclusion to the class.

A full-class discussion is held on each group’s conclusion, with the class voting each conclusion as most creative, most logical, etc.

5. Speed Interviewing

This activity helps students develop summarization and note-taking skills. Give students four index cards and ask them to label the cards with their number (corresponding to their numbers in your grade book). Shuffle and redistribute the cards, ensuring no student receives his own number, and have students randomly call out one of their card numbers to pair students.

Set a digital timer for 90 seconds. One student asks a couple questions and takes notes while the other responds. This is followed by a group discussion in which you’ll receive some anticipated complaints: there isn’t enough time to think about and write their answers, partners talked too quickly and didn’t give them enough time to take adequate notes, and so on.

This becomes a teachable moment, in which you can discuss the importance of listening and developing good note-taking skills so that it’s not necessary to write word-for-word, etc. Link this idea to the concept of summarizing, and ask students to write a one- to two-sentence summary of their partners based on their notes. Students will find that even though they didn’t write word-for-word what their partners said, they’re able to write a brief summary based on the notes they took down.

6. iMovie Trailers

If your district uses Apple products, you can have students create their own iMovie trailers. If not, find out if enough students have iPhones that you can pair students with devices with those who don’t have an iPhone to complete this activity.

Have each student or pair of students download the free iMovie app. In one class period, have students create an iMovie trailer to introduce one another to the class. This activity can also be used as a follow-up to the speed interviewing activity described above.

By limiting trailers to 30 seconds in length, you’re asking students to summarize information about their classmates. In my classroom, students interviewed, created, edited, and presented in just two class periods, but this is an activity that’s easily adjusted to suit your time constraints.

7. Candy Colors

Purchase a few bags of foil-wrapped candy in bright fall colors. Give each student a piece of candy upon entering the room, but ask them not to unwrap or eat it until further instructions are provided. Use the various colors to group students in different areas of the classroom, then allow them to eat their candy to sweeten the deal before you hit them with the real work: inventing a new candy to market to kids in their age group.

Tasks include:

  • Make an ingredient list
  • Name the candy
  • Design the wrapper
  • Write a commercial
  • Record it as a radio or TV ad

Students get to choose whether to create a persuasive or descriptive ad and are provided with a scoring guide based on creativity and participation (knowing that grades will not be entered into the grade book).

This activity introduces students to the grading rubrics and project styles that will take place in the class during the year, gets them used to collaborating with peers, and allows you to model expectations and procedures. There are endless ways to modify and customize this activity for your subject matter and grade level. And, it gives you some valuable insights into your students’ personalities based on the inventions and marketing materials they produce.

8. Describe and Draw

For this activity, you’ll need some unusual objects gathered from around your home or elsewhere. The more unusual, the better. I’ve used things like quarters wrapped in a paper towel, then placed inside a Ziploc bag, rubber balls cut in half, and other oddities.

Place each object in a box and label the bottom of the box with what’s inside. Cut a hole in the top, large enough to put a hand and an arm through to feel the object inside, and tape a piece of paper over the opening. I use diaper boxes for this activity, for two reasons: one, because I happened to have ample diaper boxes on-hand, and two, because it adds to the intrigue. Place the boxes strategically in different areas of your classroom.

Group students into teams of three to four, and use whatever method (earliest birthday, etc.) to choose who gets to reach inside the box. Other group members need paper and a writing utensil. While the “feeler” reaches inside the opening and describes what he feels, the other group members attempt to draw the object based on his description.

After this activity is complete, the groups discuss their drawings and decide which they’d like to present to the class. Each group of students shares their results with the rest of the class, while you stand next to the box in question. When they’ve finished sharing their box, reach inside and reveal the object.

Stop Being Boring by Adam BindslevNot only is this activity an excellent ice breaker, it’s a good way to demonstrate that students will have fun in your class, in a structured way with learning. (And, that you’re going to be an unusual teacher.)

Getting kids interested in you, your class, and each other is the best way to kick off a new school year on a positive note. Not to mention, setting the stage for your procedures and expectations will be a way to save time and your sanity throughout the year.

If you have any questions about the activities, feel free to email Bailey at If you have a comment or suggestion, feel free to reply below. Better yet, if you have some tried and true activities of your own, we’d love it if you would share those below, too. Teach on!

Stop Being Boring image via Flickr by Adam Bindslev
Gift bag image via Flickr by Pete

Solve 4 Everyday Classroom Problems With Simple Solutions

When I started teaching, I knew that I had very high expectations for all of my students. I believed they should all put forth as much effort as possible, participate regularly, come to class prepared on a daily basis, and challenge themselves for the duration of the school year. If I wanted them to do that, then I needed to let them know from Day 1 that those were my expectations. And, I did. My expectations were spelled out in my parent and student letters, addressed by my classroom rules, and modeled and enforced in my classroom.

For the most part, I didn’t have any major issues with student discipline. I attributed that to the fact that I worked so hard to develop a rapport with my students and to balance the work with fun and engaging activities. I also espoused my belief that respect is a two-way street and if they wanted me to respect them, they would have to respect me. Administrators and colleagues were very positive about my classroom management techniques and praised me for handling students as well as I did in my very first year of teaching. I’ll never forget a substitute teacher asking me in shock if it really were just my first year because she thought I had years of experience since I handled my classroom so well.

The problem, though, was that I was utterly exhausted. I was, very foolishly, grading each student’s participation on a daily basis. And, I was keeping track of every time a kid forgot a writing utensil or a folder. And, I was logging visits to the nurse and the restroom Paperwork by luxomediaand absent work that never was completed. In class, I told kids who were falling asleep to stand up and do their work standing until they felt more awake. Then, I filled in a discipline form for my file. If a kid put her head down on her desk during class, I would tell her to sit up and then I filled in my discipline log.  The paperwork was getting out of control, as I was doing all of the “discipline” work plus all of the other duties of a teacher: writing lesson plans, designing activities, grading essays and tests, making bulletin boards, making copies, logging student remediation and reteaching and data, analyzing tests to discover student strengths and weaknesses, and on and on. By Christmas of my first year, I thought I was going to go crazy with all of the paperwork and calls home and entries in my discipline log.

That’s right: I had no major discipline issues, but my discipline log was being filled with students who forgot a pencil, who forgot a folder, who forgot to return a signed assessment, etc. It dawned on me that I didn’t necessarily have a discipline problem but a kid problem. These were 7th graders. I should have been happy they found my room some days, let alone actually remembered to bring all of their materials with them. But, what of those high expectations that I had made so clear to the students, their parents, and my administrators?

Well, I realized that I still could have those high expectations, but that I could go about enforcing them in a different way.  I had to learn how to pick my battles, if you will. I wanted to hold kids accountable but stop bringing the learning process to a halt just because a kid was being a kid and forgot to bring something to class. I solved those everyday problems with simple solutions and gave myself a break so I could focus on the more important things in my classroom.

Problem #1: Pencils – Students often forgot a writing utensil, and I would get so angry because I had no idea how they expected to “do” English class without one.

  • Former Fix: Log the infraction in the discipline log, ask student what happened to his pencil, and allow student to borrow one for that class period only. Reduce number ofPencil tips by Dvortygirl participation points for that day. Get frustrated two hours later when I realized the student had left class with MY pencil.
  • Current Fix: Allow student to borrow one from the black turnstile on my desk and leave something for collateral on my desk. Get the student into the beginning of class activity more quickly. Spend time reading his “Do Now” instead of writing in the discipline log. Smile when student returns pencil to turnstile and remembers to take his belonging from my desk at the end of class. Warn student at the door not to make a habit of forgetting his pencil.

Problem #2: Kids who, for the life of them, cannot remember their folders/binders – This infraction bothered me even more than the pencil problem. On the one hand, I at least had some hope that the kid didn’t have his class materials because he had taken them home to review and practice. On the other hand, I knew that he had tossed it somewhere with the rest of his school work and never opened it.

  • Former Fix: Log the infraction in the discipline log, ask student where he left his class materials, and gather extra copies and paper for him. Reduce number of participation points for that day. Get frustrated when I see the extras shoved under his desk in a crumpled mess at the end of class.
  • Current Fix: Option 1: If it’s a chronic problem, and I know the kid truly is not doing anything with his class materials outside of class, make a classroom folder for him and tell him that it will remain in the classroom so that he can learn every day. Remove his excuse for attempting to not do anything in class since he doesn’t have his materials. Option 2: If it’s a first-time occurrence, remind the kid that coming to class prepared is crucial to his success and show him where to find extra copies. Tell him to return the extra copies tomorrow, after he updates his own folder at home that evening.

Problem #3: Missed classwork/notes due to an absence – It’s inevitable: kids miss school for a million different reasons. Even though I stressed that it was their responsibility to inform me ahead of time about a planned absence, especially for athletics, kids forgot. And, the kids who missed school due to illness were supposed to come to me the next morning and get their materials so they could be ready for class; more often than not, they forgot, too.

  • Former Fix: Take attendance and make a sticky note of absent kids. At the end of the day, gather all missed work and write names of absent students at top. Sort work by class period and put into an absentee folder on the front table. Remind kids the next day to Notes by English106get their absent work. Reduce number of participation points for kids who don’t pick up the work or show me complete work by the deadline. Log the problems in the discipline log.
  • Current Fix: Assign students class partners. If they are absent, they borrow the notes from the partner and see which papers they missed. Students get copies of missed work from front table and see me with questions or problems. Remind them they may attend a reteaching session. If chronic absences become an issue, assign them a reteaching session.

Problem #4: Late work because of computer and printer “issues” at home – As an English teacher, I assigned various projects and essays to be completed by a certain due date. I advertised the due date the day that I assigned the work, gave students options for turning it in, including emailing it to me, printing it out and handing it to me, or sending it in Google Drive or putting it in Dropbox. And yet, kids still showed up on due dates with nothing to give to me because their printers had run out of ink. Every. Single. Time.

  • Former Fix: Mark the assignment as late, reduce points in the grade book, and call home. Log the problem in the discipline log. Ask the kid for the assignment the next day and repeat the process every day for a week. Threaten the kid with detention if the assignment isn’t turned in TOMORROW. Get a very poorly completed assignment at the very last second.
  • Current Fix: Reduce the assignment grade by 2%, as per the district’s grading guidelines. Remind the student he has five days to turn it in and that he will lose no more than a total of 10% of his points, as per the grading guidelines. Hand the kid a flash drive and tell him to save the assignment to it and return the flash drive tomorrow. Remove the possibility for excuses and show the kid I mean business about receiving a quality product, even if it is a little late.

These solutions worked for me in my freshmen and sophomore classes. I enjoyed the break I gave myself by refusing to let paperwork and frustration take over my school days. It also seemed to help with some of the kids who realized that I still was holding them accountable but doling out more reasonable consequences when they didn’t live up to my expectations. At the end of the day, I had to keep in mind that they were just kids. It was hard to let go of some of my original “fixes,” but eventually I realized I was doing myself a favor by letting go of some of the issues that weren’t so important in the big picture.

Which everyday problems are most irksome for you? Which solutions have you implemented? Leave a reply to get the discussion going.

Paperwork image via Flickr by luxomedia
Pencil tips image via Flickr by Dvortygirl
Notes image via Flickr by English106

First Impressions: Getting Started on the Right Foot with Parents

A parent’s first impression of their child’s teacher is make-it-or-break-it. If you start off on the wrong foot, there is no redeeming yourself – if you somehow manage that impossible feat, it will be too late in the school year to make a difference.

Interestingly, while it’s rarely possible to overcome an early snafu in the parent-teacher relationship in the eyes of the parent, it is entirely possible to fall out of a parent’s good graces at any point during the school year. And once that happens, the odds of getting back in the black are slim to none. 5 Tips for Positive Parent-Teacher Relationships

No pressure or anything, but your first impression will set the tone of your relationship with every child’s parents or guardians for the entire year.

You already know this. The question is: What can you possibly do to win over the parents who are already on the defensive, the parents with the all-teachers-are-evil mindset who are impossible to please? The reality is, some of these parents are people you wouldn’t ordinarily care to interact with, let alone win over. But you’re facing a whole year in the classroom with their children, and these parents are the ones who can make the next nine months of your life a living hell.

In the healthcare world, some providers and organizations have terms for these parents (the healthcare equivalent being the caregiver or family of a patient), such as “white knights.” Some have good intentions and just want to ensure their children/loved ones are receiving the best possible education/care, while others are seemingly impossible to please and have an uncanny ability to find a problem with every single thing that you do.

You probably won’t please everyone, but you can set the stage for the most positive parent-teacher relationship possible. These five strategies can help you cultivate trust and encourage parent-teacher collaboration. Elementary teachers will be able to utilize these tactics for all students. If you’re a secondary education teacher, you can easily adapt and scale these tactics to suit your larger number of students, or utilize them where necessary with especially challenging relationships.

1. Keep a Student Strengths file.

A Student Strengths file is a record of positive tidbits of information about your students. It can be a simple notebook, or you can use a fancy digital tool for documentation. Essentially, it’s like a positive feedback jar for each of your students that you can use throughout the year.

Try to document bits of information about each student’s learning style, strengths you discover in class, or personality characteristics that make each student special. When communicating with parents, either at the beginning of the year or during one of those inevitable times when you have to break bad news, reference your Student Strengths file. When you’re able to share something positive along with the bad, it softens the blow.

If your difficult-parent radar is going off at the beginning of the year, reach out to these parents with something positive about their children or share why you’re excited to have their child in your class this year.

“Sarah is such an incredible storyteller. Her classmates were riveted when she read her short story aloud. I always enjoy her presentations.”

2. Let parents know that you’re in this together.

The start of a new school year is filled with anxiety for both students and teachers. Letting parents know that this year is as new for you as it is for your students can help to build rapport.

You’ve taught this material before, but you’re teaching to a whole new set of students with different strengths and weaknesses, so you’re adjusting your teaching style to meet their needs as much as they’re adjusting to your teaching style. When you help parents understand that you’re all embarking on a new journey together, you position yourself as a partner rather than an opponent.

“I’m so excited to be sharing this journey with you and your child this year. I can’t wait to learn more about your child through the projects we’ll be doing in class this month.”

3. Send out a parent survey.

At the start of a new school year, parents can be your most vital source of information – if you can get them to share. A simple parent survey inviting parents to share their children’s strengths and weaknesses, rate their children’s current skill level, and share any concerns about their children’s readiness for the subject matter or potential to succeed in your class is a relatively easy way to arm yourself with important information about each of your students – and their parents.

Think about the information you can glean about a parent based on the information they offer on such a survey. Should issues arise, you can target your approach to both student and parent based on this background knowledge.

“Learning more about your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses will help me target my instructional approach to help her succeed this year.”

4. Create a communication plan.

This can be done in conjunction with the parent survey, but even if you don’t use a beginning-of-the-year survey, you should establish a communication plan with parents. Parents come from all walks of life and have varied working schedules. Some prefer phone calls; others avoid the phone like the plague and prefer email or hand-written notes.

Ask parents how and when they prefer to be contacted, and provide them with the same information about you. Give them a policy-approved phone number (yours, the school office, etc., based on your district’s policies), your email address, and the best days and hours to reach you.

Most importantly, stress that you want to hear from them if your child is struggling with your class so that together, you can be proactive about ensuring his success. Finally, describe the different forms of communication parents will receive throughout the year from you. Do you send progress reports for every student each grading period? Will you send a note before making a phone call? Setting expectations upfront sets the stage for effective communication.

“Everyone has busy schedules, so by sharing your preferred method of communication and the best times to reach you, I can be sure to get in touch in the way that’s most convenient for you.”

5. Be a helpful resource.

Put together an information packet for parents at the start of the school year that outlines key concepts your students will focus on and learn throughout the year. Not only does this set expectations on what proficiencies students will be expected to develop, but it gives parents a deeper view into the subject matter for the year. This presents an opportunity for discussion if a parent feels her child isn’t ready for the content.

Additionally, this information packet can include resources for parents, links to websites, book titles, and any other resources or activities that can be used outside of class to reinforce learning. Not every parent will use it (most, in fact, won’t), but those who want to take a more active role in their child’s education can do so. Finally, what goes on in class becomes slightly less of a mystery, making parents feel a little less like outsiders.

“These resources and activities are helpful for reinforcing the concepts we’ll be learning in class this year. Please get in touch with me if your child seems to be struggling with any concepts we’re learning in class throughout the year, and we’ll work together to create a targeted set of reinforcing activities and materials to help her succeed.”   

You won’t win over every parent, but you can set the stage for open lines of communication and a collaborative parent-teacher partnership. By setting expectations and demonstrating that you have an interest in their child’s success, you’ll increase your odds of setting a positive tone for the upcoming school year.

The Importance of (Positive) Parent Contact

It seems so simple, doesn’t it? The idea of contacting parents for positive news instead of negative news is something that I tried so hard to achieve year after year. I kept a log on my desk to track when I observed students being kind, helping one another, trying their best day after day, not being on their phone during class, and so forth. I promised myself that I would make at least one positive phone call a day because, at the very least, it would be a great way to end a difficult day. And yet, it seemed as though I called only the parents of the repeat offenders on a regular basis; I was lucky to make a positive call home more than once every couple of weeks.

Who knows? Maybe it was the urgency of needing to contact those parents that took the spotlight off of the positive calls. And, usually, needing to call those parents meant time dedicated to completing my discipline log and a discipline referral for the office. Plus, getting the discipline referral to the office before the end of the day usually meant explaining to an administrator what had happened so that I could try to get some sort of support from the office in a timely fashion, too. All of those precious minutes at the end of the day seemed fleeting in the face of those contacts.

It wasn’t as though I had dozens of negative contacts to make, but I told my students from Day 1 that I would contact parents to create a supportive team for them throughout the school year. My negative contacts often included calls about students being unprepared for class, being warned for attempting to text during class, needing several prompts to complete class work, failing to show up for tutorial or retesting time… the list goes on and on, not to mention the few times that I had to call home and do one of those office referrals because of student disrespect or insubordination. All of those contacts were important to me, because all of those transgressions negatively impacted the students’ chances of performing well not just on the standardized test, but, more important, on a daily basis in my class. I ran a tight ship, and I expected my students to meet my expectations.

More often than not, though, I found parents to be supportive when I called home for a negative reason. Some apologized and promised to immediately talk to their children about their behavior. Some asked for suggestions to help at home. Some thanked me for calling because their kids never talked to them about school, and they often wondered how they were doing. Some even said they couldn’t believe I called because they hadn’t heard from a teacher in such a long time. The best part was that even the toughest of phone calls home typically ended in a positive outcome: the parents were more informed, the kids knew they were accountable at school and at home, and I had another line of defense when it came to getting kids to meet my expectations.

So, what about those positive contacts? In the end, it seemed that nearly every contact with home was positive in some way. I may not always have been calling home for a positive reason, but the outcome was positive almost every time. And, I also found that I sometimes had more time for positive calls because the calls I made for negative reasons helped to curb some of those negative behaviors.

Teachers, so many of you emailed me asking for specific strategies to get parents more involved after I posted my Letter to Public Education Parents. This is how we get parents more involved. We have to involve them. We need to contact them throughout the school year, for any reason possible. Make a parent-contact goal that suits your schedule, and adjust the frequency of calls throughout the year as needed. Some weeks, you may be able to make a few; other weeks, you may not be able to make any because you are grading too many assessments and preparing too many activities. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall behind in contact that isn’t absolutely necessary. All of those jobs that fit under the umbrella of “teacher” are important, and sometimes it’s not humanly possible to do all of them when you’d like.

But, instead of sitting around, complaining about how many parents aren’t going to show up at open house or orientation or back-to-schoool night this year (just like last year, and the year before that, and the year before that), make a random list of parents to call and invite. Even if they don’t – or can’t – attend, they will know that you made an effort and that you are trying to build a support team for their children. And, you will know that you have opened the lines of communication and support for yourself, in a time when there are so many forces working against you.

If you have any suggestions for how to contact parents, or how to get parents more involved, click to reply at the top or bottom of this post. Or, send me an email –

A Letter to Public Education Parents

Dear Public School Parents:

We know that you are out there. We see you at the preseason practices before your kids step into our classrooms for the new school year. We see you at the scrimmages and on the sidelines for parent/coach meetings. We know you love and support your children. But, we don’t see you in such numbers at back-to-school night, orientation, or open house. We don’t get as many replies to our parent letters and parent information questionnaires as the coaches get to their playbooks and first-string selections.

We know some of you may have a bad taste in your mouth about education. That may be due to your nightmares from your own time in high school, your confusion about all of the jargon being tossed around about learning, or your frustration with the current trends in education. Or, maybe you are just fed up with the negativity being perpetuated by the media, government, and education reform groups.

Regardless of the reason for your absence, we are begging you to come in and meet us. When this school year starts, pledge to get informed and involved. Ask how many times he is taking a standardized practice test in his math and English classes. Find out how many times she has been told she needs to take a tutorial class instead of her art class that she loves, because she is “at risk” of not being proficient on the upcoming high-stakes test. We bet you’ll be surprised.

The problem is, we can’t tell you these things when you do come in and meet us and see the classroom where your child is spending so much time. We can’t impart our own frustration and disgust to you, for fear of being reprimanded, suspended, or worse. We can’t even tell you about where to find help in opting your child out of the testing madness.

We need you. We need you to see the TRUTH in Teaching today. We need you to get as fired up about your kids’ assessment practices as you do their athletic practices. We need you to stand up and cry foul about the current system of testing as loudly as you do for a late hit or a bad call at those sporting events. You see, when we teachers complain, we don’t just fear for our jobs. We fear the backlash from the media, and yes, from you parents because we are “complaining” about our jobs. The media often paints us as excuse makers because, as they put it, our scores aren’t up to par and we aren’t doing our jobs. The administrators and policymakers and politicians don’t want to hear from teachers because they don’t view us as experts in our field. We are just the lowly teachers in the trenches. But, parents can stand together and start to stand up for kids. At the end of the day, they are the ones who are suffering the most from this era of assessment and “reform.”

Please, ask your children about us. Ask them how many of us go above and beyond to help them learn. Ask them how many of us give them our home email addresses, our after-hour appointment times, and our early mornings to help them learn and achieve. Ask them how many of us cheer them on every day in the academic setting and then attend their sporting events, often with our laptops and school bags in tow, so we can work while we cheer them on in their extracurricular activities, too. Ask them how many of us take the time to listen to their fears and frustrations. Ask them.

As this year begins, read those parent letters your children begrudgingly hand you from all of us as they mumble, “You need to fill these out.” Find out who is spending hours with your child this year. Find out how many of us have been doing this for so long that we know how to motivate and inspire your child, even though the current culture of education makes it difficult for us to break out of the testing mold and involve your kids in anything other than test prep. Read those letters and discover that we are humans (no matter what your kid tells you about us later in the year when we are challenging them and pushing them to meet our own high expectations, and not just those of the test makers) and that we are just as passionate about your child as you are.

Then, get to know us yourselves. Email us when your child is struggling and needs extra help but is hesitant to ask. Ask us what you can do to support your child and his learning at home. Find out what you can do to spread the word about TRUTH in Teaching.

Until you lend your voices to get the TRUTH out there, your kids cannot win this “game” of education. We need you.

Teachers for TRUTH

Writing the Dreaded Parent Letter

So, You’re Writing Your Parent Letter…

Have you looked at the calendar lately, or are you in August denial like I always was?  This is the time of year when teachers who are procrastinators make themselves believe that they still have WEEKS before they have to accomplish anything for the first week of school; others already have been schlepping new pencil holders and posters and markers and folders into their stale, hot classrooms for a week.

One thing that I always saw teacher friends doing first on their back-to-school lists was their parent letter. Honestly, I think there are just as many names for them as there are teachers who write them: Welcome Notes, Back-to-School Newsletter, Parent Information Sheet, Parent Letters – you know what I mean. You probably have one saved in the Back to School folder on your desktop that you have perfected and only need to add the first-day-back date to before making copies.

When I was writing my parent letters, I always thought about what I wanted to say in them versus what I actually could say in them. Just in case you’re having trouble turning on that teacher filter now that the first day of school quickly is approaching, here is a list of ideas for saving not only your job but also parent perception of you. If nothing else, I hope they give you a good chuckle.

When You Want to Say… … Say This Instead
If your little cherub doesn’t bring a pencil to my class one more time, I’m going to duct tape one to his hand. I will provide extra pencils throughout the school year, as I can afford them, so that your student can learn, even on his forgetful days. However, if the problem persists, we may need to formulate a plan for helping him remember to come to class prepared.
If your kid doesn’t do his homework one more time, I’m going to come to your home and see if you even have a dog who keeps eating it. Homework is an important part of the learning process, and I expect it to be completed with educational integrity and turned in on time so that I can ensure your student understands the key concepts from class.
I know your kid would be better off in CTE and not CCSS, but the state and federal government and educational groups are bound and determined that all kids go to college. They don’t like operating in reality. We will do all that we can to make sure that your students’ interests are met this year. Even though this is a high-stakes testing environment, we need to keep your student motivated by encouraging his participation in Career and Technical Education, art, or music classes, or other areas that are of interest to him.
I know she’s not going to college and that just getting her to write a paragraph will be a challenge. I will do my best to meet your student where she is and grow her academically by the end of our year together.
I know he’s not into reading fiction/completing proofs/writing lab reports and wants to play on his phone and text his girlfriend all the time in class, but I can’t afford to lose this job because your kid is addicted to his smartphone. I will provide opportunities for your student to use technology as a tool in my classroom, and I expect all students to respect and follow my technology-in-the-classroom policy.
I know you put her into Honors knowing that she can’t handle the work just to avoid the “element” you are afraid she’d encounter in the regular classes. There is more rigor in the Honors class, as well as more independent work and complex writing. If your student does not think she can handle the workload, please contact the guidance counselor immediately to discuss options to ward off the impending frustration she is sure to encounter in my Honors class.

So, what is in your parent letter? I hope there’s at least a little bit of TRUTH in there, even if it’s hidden by semantics. Feel free to share some of your parent letter gems by clicking on “Leave a Reply” at the top or bottom of the post. Teach on!