New Teacher Series/ Question 15: What is the best way to involve parents?

Communication and trust between parents and their child’s teacher is crucial, and you should strive to initiate and maintain that relationship as soon as you get your roster until the last day of school. You’ll have no better partner in the academic success of that child than his or her parents.  Here are a few ways to build that bridge and connect with parents often:

  1. Home visits: This is a huge time investment, but so worth it. Home visits at the beginning of the year show parents you care enough about your job and their child to drive around three hours every night for a week to visit families. Call ahead, send an email, or write a letter and let parents know when to expect you.  Go with someone, another teacher or a principal, for company.   Have something like a welcome letter or a contact sheet or a personal profile to leave on the porch or in the door to say that you’ve been there if no one is home.  If they are home, stay long enough to introduce yourself and meet the family, answering any questions they may have, but be considerate of their time. This is a great way to start the year on a positive note.
  2. Communicate virtually:   There are times when talking directly to a parent on the phone is necessary and preferred, but using virtual communication is often more efficient and effective to keep parents in the loop about assignments, field trips, dues, or club activities.  You can create a simple newsletter to distribute via email or create a class website that you update frequently with assignments and a calendar of events. I also use a  great texting app called Remind that is both safe and secure.  Students and parents join your class by texting a class-specific code to a five-digit number. Once they’ve joined, you can send a single announcement to the whole class or contact a parent or student directly with a private message.
  3. PTA: We have an unbelievably strong parent-teacher-student organization at the high school where I teach, and one of the great benefits of that organization is the parent involvement with other parents.  By joining in the planning or working at a school wide event, their involvement increases the family’s investment in the culture of the school.
  4. Open House: If your school has open house before school starts, your role is hostess. Print up some nice inexpensive business cards with your contact information, classroom website, times that are good for parent conferences, and hand these out to parents.  Be sure to welcome them in and encourage them to look around and ask questions. If your school has open house after school starts, your role is to communicate to parents how their child is doing in your class.  Have samples of each student’s work available for parents to see along with a specific praise for their child.  If there are concerns, request a parent-teacher conference later; open houses are usually not a good place to go in depth about one child because multiple parent and guardian groups may be moving in and out of your classrooms, and confidentiality may be compromsied.
  5. Field Trips: The parents that I’ve had the best relationships with have been the ones that I’ve asked to help with field trips. I believe in the value of taking kids outside the brick and mortar school as often as possible, and I have several small walking field trips to places near our school throughou the year. Because our district requires a 1:10 chaperone-student ratio on field trips, I often reach out to parents to help.  These are low-stakes trips that often do not require transportation and last only for a few hours.  It’s a great opportunity to get to know parents beyond a cursory conference.
  6. Night Events: Another great way to create parental involvement is to plan events where their child will be performing or participating. This might be a debate or a mock trial, a spoken word poetry open mic, or a theatrical performance. All of these activities draw parents out to support their children, and you can use this as an opportunity to make contact and give them an update on their child’s performance in your class.
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New Teacher Series/ Question 9: What are the best strategies for novels?

In the landscape of English-Language Arts, there are different camps for how to best teach the novel, so as with anything, you should read widely about strategies and find the ones that work for you and your students. While I’m a great believer in the power and beauty of classic literature, I believe reading should be a joy and a pleasure, and for some students, particularly what teachers call “reluctant” readers, the classics can be torture.  They become just one more irrelevant thing foisted on them by teachers.

Kids who don’t read well may not like to read because they haven’t mastered the skills to tap into the wonderment and magic of a novel. Maybe they didn’t have positive early literacy experiences; maybe they can decode the words but can’t comprehend the meaning; maybe they were forced to read boring texts and associate reading with suffering and agony. The list goes on and on.  But I firmly agree with J. K. Rowling, who said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right book yet.”

Outside of an AP curriculum, where choices tend toward classic lit, I am a proponent of both the canon and the contemporary – whatever gets a kid to become a crazy-mad reader – comic books, graphic novels, genre fiction, poetry, whatever.  Reading is a skill, like writing, that improves with practice. The more a student reads, the better she becomes at reading.  The better she becomes at reading, the more she will enjoy the experience and become more proficient.  But the first step is hooking the kid, and that hook should be baited with a juicy bite. As he grows as a reader, his tastes and abilities may change.  There’s room for all levels and likes at the table of literacy.  But how do you get kids to willingly join you?

Here are a few tips to get started.

  • Read whole novels, not just excerpts. Teaching students how to analyze and read closely through the use of excised novel passages of no more than 750 words, about the length of a reading passage on the ACT, has become a trend. This practice is not teaching reading; it’s teaching the skim/scan/chunk method of test prep, and it should only be used in addition to reading whole novels.  This practice is like asking kids to appreciate a seven-course dining experience, but only giving them the soup.
  • Teach reading and analytical skills explicitly.   Using To Kill a Mockingbird to study social justice or civil rights is a defensible lesson, but developing reading and critical thinking skills is the primary objective.  Any novel can be used as the text by which students learn to analyze theme, characters, diction, syntax, and structure. Teaching a novel isn’t teaching content alone, but as a corrolary enticement to reading skill and practice.  Questioning, reacting, inferring, predicting, and analyzing are reading skills students will need whether they’re reading Jude the Obscure or  Unwind. 
  • Create a culture of reading in your classroom. Be excited about reading yourself. Constantly share with your students what you’re currently reading.  Share articles, blog posts, videos about popular writers and popular books with your students.  Talk about characters as if they were real people. Model what literacy looks like.  Have a classroom library, and create many opportunities for them to visit your school’s library.  Start an after-school book club. Demonstrate for them that proficiency in reading is powerful personally and politically.
  • Become proficient at Lit Circles and Socratic Seminar. The heart of both of these approaches is discussion.  When you, as a practiced reader, read something that sits your head on fire, you naturally want to share, talk about it with someone else, analyze the whys and hows.  Using Lit Circles and Socratic Seminars in your classroom gives students an outlet and a forming ground for discussing the themes, motivations, and conflicts in the text. The dialogue and debates that both of these practices generate mimic the conversations of practiced and sophisticated thinkers and readers.  I’ve used these two practices to great effect in my regular English classes with texts, both classic and contemporary.
  • Be a literary matchmaker. Know where your students’ interests lie, and then make recommendations to kids of books you think they will like. If students gravitate naturally toward Young Adult lit, use those texts to teach the skills they will need to develop and strength in order to read more complex texts in the future. I loved teaching the classics, but the language can be arcane, the syntax cumbersome, and the subject matter foreign to a reluctant reader.  Bait the hook with their choice of novels, then reel them in with deeper, denser, more challenging reading as they develop their abilities.  Help them create the text-to-self connections that make reading relevant and real to them.

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 7: Should I create a classroom policy list or go by school policy?

Policies, procedures, and protocols. Oh my!  These words seem to have floated out of the business world and right into the classroom in the last decade.  They provide neat working labels for all the tasks that ensure the efficient and effective operation of your classroom.  Let me state from the get-go:  It doesn’t matter what you call them – rules, expectations, contracts, policies, norms, agreements— they only work if you enforce them with consistency and fairness.

These boundaries and parameters aren’t designed to create fascism in the classroom.  In fact, just the opposite.  When the infrastructure of organization and management are communicated and observed, the real meat of the classroom—learning and discovery—happen more smoothly.  Here are three levels of management that need to be communicated to your classroom early and often: expectations, procedures, and policies.

Expectations:  Expectations are broad, general statements that set the tone of your classroom. Expectations form the philosophy or the guiding mission/ vision statement of the classroom. They also establish the culture of the room, and create a”this is who we are” declaration.  Expectations might be something like:  Respect yourself and others; Be on time and prepared; Always do your best; Follow directions the first time they’re given. I only have three expectations in my class, which are directed at me as much as they are for my kids.

  1. Civility: I will treat each of you with respect, courtesy, and support; I expect each one of you to extend that same respect and support to me, to my teaching assistants, and to each other.
  2. Commitment: I will push each of you to achieve your potential. I will follow up on homework assignments, contact parents, and encourage you to be the best writer you can be.   I want you to make a commitment to become a more creative, independent, and powerful writer.
  3. Community: We are a team.  We are a family. A success for one of us is a success for all of us.  We are all going to become better writers this year, and we are going to be kind and supportive toward each other.

Procedures:  Procedures represent the “this is how we do” of your class.  Establishing procedures will save you hours of directing, correcting, and re-directing.  Figure out the following procedures for your classroom and communicate these to your students during the first week and every day afterward until it becomes automatic:

  • entering and exiting the room
  • passing in seatwork
  • turning in homework
  • turning in late work
  • turning in school forms
  • picking up graded work
  • picking up make-up work
  • picking up school forms
  • signing out for a restroom pass
  • using cell phones
  • checking out technology
  • collecting money for field trips/fund raisers
  • requesting assistance for seat work
  • requesting assistance for after-school tutoring
  • managing noise levels for seat work
  • managing noise levels group work
  • calling on students for answers
  • selecting students for group work
  • moving in and out of small groups
  • moving in and out of whole group activities
  • bus/fire/tornado/earthquake/active shooter drills

In 2008, I counted up 22 different procedures in my classroom.  Some were scripted, some were posted; some were just understood.  All of the procedures were consistent so kids knew the ropes of the classroom without having to rely on me to tell them.

Policies:  When I hear the word “policies,” I mostly think about the rules that govern the student body and apply to all students, but many teachers have classroom policies that are separate from their expectations and their procedures.  These are mostly classroom rules that are aligned with the larger school policy for that particular issue.  For example, if the school policy states that no hats are to be worn in the building, then your classroom policy should uphold that.  School policies are often determined by the district or a school’s site-based council as they relate to the entire organization.  Issues such as the dress code, absences, tardiness, cheating, plagarism, fighting, profanity, sexual harrassment, and drug use will have a policy listed in the student handbook. At my school, every class watches a school policy Powerpoint, which explains the policies of the school and the consequences for breaking those policies, during the first week of school.

So, to answer your question, “Should I create a classroom policy list or just go by the schools?” The answer is yes!   Always follow and uphold the school policies and also establish broad philosophical expectations and the very specific procedures.

New Teacher Blog Series: Some Questions

This morning I met a brand new teacher. She’s bright, bubbly, and energetic.  She just landed her first full-time teaching gig. She currently works at a local coffee shop and knew I was a teacher.

“I just want to pick your brain.”  She handed me a coffee-stained menu. On the back she had written fourteen questions, jotted down, I imagine, during her shift.

A multi-tasker.  I liked her already.  I gave up this simple gratitude:  Thank you for young, engaged, smart, caring, pro-active, ever-learning, ever-growing new teachers.

I skimmed down her list.

“When does your next shift start?”

“In 45 minutes,” she said.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to scratch the surface.”

Books can, have, and should continue to be written about these questions. The questions are important and critical, especially to a new teacher who wants to do the very best job for her students.

These would make great blog posts, I mused.  And that’s how, kids, this blog series was born.

Dear optimistic, new teacher, we have three weeks before school starts. Gird your loins. In the next 21 days, I’m going to offer you some tips (First lesson: There are no real answers, only tips; anyone who says he has the answers is a company representative looking to sell your district a costly curriculum package that will, one year later, collect dust in the bookroom.) on the 14 questions you asked (plus one I’m adding into the mix) via this blog.

Below are the questions/topics.  As I complete each blog, I will hyperlink the post to its topic.  Bookmark my blog, and let’s get started!

Blog 1: What were your biggest mistakes as a new teacher?

Blog 2: Should I create a website? If so, what kind?

Blog 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

Blog 4: What system do you use for planning?

Blog 5: How do you gauge student learning and meeting their needs when you have 100 students?

Blog 6: How regimented should I be with rules and procedures during the first few days of school?

Blog 7: Should I create a classroom protocol list or go by school policy?

Blog 8: Keeping up with attendance and make-up work seem really time consuming with so many students.  How does a teacher organize this?

Blog 9: What are the best strategies for reading novels?

Blog 10: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Blog 11: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Blog 12: What are the best strategies for teaching writing? (You actually didn’t ask this one, but I’m suggesting a few tips anyway.)

Blog 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

Blog 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Blog 15: What is the best way to involve parents?