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.

New Teacher Series/ Question 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Grading is the English teacher’s special crucible.  Sunday nights are especially arduous. You’ll bring those papers in on Friday afternoon, promising yourself to grade them first thing Saturday morning.  But Saturday morning rolls around, and you run some errands, go to the grocery. Then you promise yourself that you’ll get to them Saturday afternoon.  You know what happens. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm on Sunday, and there’s a pile of ungraded essays on your coffee table that you keep circling.

My late father-in-law always said to me, “You know how to avoid those essays? Don’t assign them!”

Of course, it’s not that simple with English teachers.  Writing is a skill that requires nuanced and individualized feedback.  Last year, a meme was making its way around the interweaves that showed how many hours it takes teachers to grade essays.  At the low end (a teacher who had 100 students and only spent 5 minutes on each essays) the teacher spent 8 hours grading papers.  At the high end (a teacher who had 150 students and spent 20 minutes per paper) the teacher spent 50 hours grading papers.  That’s just insanity.  So how does a high school teacher, with a relentless daily schedule, do it?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t make everything due at the same time. I know this might be impossible if you are teaching several sections of the same class, and you want to keep them at the same pace, but one class of 25 essays isn’t as daunting as five classes of 25 essays.  Even if you break them up by a few days, the wiggle room will keep the grading stress to a minimum.
  2. Don’t grade everything all the time. There are numerous activities that are both important and beneficial that don’t need to be assessed.   Carol Jago’s book Papers, Papers, Papers gives many examples of strategies for assessments that are non-graded, but still provides students with skill practice.
  3. Google Forms is your friend. Any online grading system, such as a clicker system, which collates student answers in a spreadsheet and provides graphs and individualized data for you is excellent for quick assessments.   Use these online data gathering tools to streamline your grading flow.
  4. Grade essays with an analytical rubric, preferably one designed with your students. Rubrics make grading essays easier as the descriptions and feedback concentrates on 3-5 categories in a range of performance levels. Creating a rubric with your students is an instructional gold mine that allows them to understand how they are being assessed and what the expectations of the assignment are before they start.
  5. Formative assessment comes in many forms. You don’t have to have a paper and pencil test to assess all student learning. A quick conference or a thumbs up/thumbs down survey can yield the information you need to know.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

In 2008, I first used bell ringers to sneak in a few ACT strategies before the regularly scheduled curriculum, but I liked them so much I began using them in every class to prime the class for whatever learning objective was on the table.   They have been lauded by everyone from Fred Jones to Harry Wong, and they serve as an effective way to set the tone and smooth the transition from the bustle of class change to an academic environment.

The utility of the bell ringer is myriad.  During a unit on the argument, I might post two short blurbs from opposing views on a controversial topic for a quick bell ringer debate. During a literature class, I might use the bell ringer to take a quick formative assessment to test for retention of a concept or skill from the previous day.  During a study skills class, I might introduce a free time or money saving app and have students try it out on their cell phones.  During a project-based writing class, I might use a quick Google form to check in with each student’s status and their goals for the day. During film units, I might show establishing shots or clips of dialogue or one scene and ask for a quick analysis.   Bell ringers can be used for introducing, reviewing, reteaching, or building on a skill or concept.

  • They need to be relevant. Don’t slap a bell ringer on the board just so you can take attendance in quietness.  Make sure the bell ringer is relevant to the skill or content you are teaching.  Ideally a bell ringer previews or taps into prior knowledge of what you are teaching that day or connects to an essential question that drives a larger part of your curriculum.
  • The transitions need to be smooth. One of the main reasons bell ringers are popular is they create a good transition from the bustle of the hall to the academic environment in the classroom, but the transition from the bell ringer into the main lesson needs to be equally seamless. Bell ringers that require a lot of moving parts are cumbersome and the cost-to-benefit ratio decreases when that is the case. The strategy should increase, not decrease, classroom efficiency.
  • They need to be time-bound. Don’t allow the bell ringer creep. This is sometimes difficult, especially if your bell ringer involves discussion or debate, but I use the online stopwatch and project it onto the whiteboard to make sure the bell ringer stays within the time limit.  Some teachers play music and the bell ringer is finished when a single song is over.
  • They should be diverse. Having a writing prompt every single day can get stale. Using a variety of  bell ringers will keep the practice fresh.   A quick poetry analysis or a visual rhetoric inquiry using a video will create the necessary change of pace, but also include inquiries, grammar, journaling, vocabulary, silent reading, even mindful meditation, breathing and stretching– all great bell ringers.

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 10: What are the best strategies for teaching writing?

 

Last year, I had a conversation with one of my classes on why writing was so hard.  Here are a few of their reasons:

  • I don’t know where to start.
  • I don’t know where to end.
  • I don’t write in chronological order or in any order that makes logical sense. It’s all over the place.
  • I don’t always write in complete sentences, but sometimes I do.
  • I’m afraid I’ll write the wrong thing and have to do the whole thing over.
  • The choices are overwhelming.
  • Every time I write something crappy, my teacher always likes it. Every time I write something I think is brilliant, my teacher thinks its crap.
  • Because it just is.
  • I have a hard time getting what’s in my head out on paper.
  • I’ve discovered that I really don’t know how to tell a story.

In an interview with the New York Times on the occasion of his retirement from fiction writing, novelist Philip Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration.  Writing is frustration— it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And yet failure is the process by which all writers – novelists, essayists, social critics, screenwriters, journalists, technical writers—meander their grief-stricken way to the finished product. How do we support kids in failure?

Next to teaching (and all things for which there are no clear paths—loving someone, raising kids, grieving, etc), writing is the hardest thing I do and it may be the hardest thing we ask kids to do.  We’re asking students to engage in an activity which requires memory, logic, visualization, vocabulary, plus kinesthetic and cognitive awareness.  Plus failure.

Research on the neuroscience of writing shows just how enormous an undertaking writing is.  Neurologically, writing is a skill on par with someone playing a musical instrument or participating in a sporting event. It’s complex, unique, and only develops through practice.

So while I admit that writing is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly hard, I would argue, the teaching of writing is even harder.  A good high school English teacher attempts to create an environment wherein 150 students (with 150 sets of information and misinformation, memory, value, prejudice, vocabulary, and logic) grapple with the enormously complex task of 1) attaching mental images to 2) the concrete, appropriate words in 3) the best order to 4) move an audience for 5) a specific purpose in 6) a specific, cohesive form using 7) appropriate-to-the-product usage and grammar.

Gasp.

So how are we to manage this Herculean task?

You must be a writer yourself.  I feel everything that needs to be said about the importance of English teachers to be active readers and writers has already been said by great teachers, like Nanci Atwell  (In The Middle) and Penny Kittle (Write Beside Them). Writing with your students makes you humble in the face of the staggering, monumental task you are asking them to accomplish. Writing is dynamic, not a set of static concepts students learn once and master.  To understand the struggles of writing, you don’t have to be a published author, you just have to write on a regular basis. You can’t teach writing from a position of theory.  You must have a process and projects of your own.  If not, you are in an untenable position to support students with the overwhelming number of decisions with which they will be faced.

Move beyond the free write, graphic organizers, and constructed response. If students are to become better writers, they must move beyond teacher-created forms, like the 3.5 paragraph essay and the 6 point essay.  Freewriting and graphic organizers have given struggling writers a great tool by which to get the ideas in their head down onto a piece of paper in the form of words and sentences. But those tools are still training wheels, and writers need to learn how to ride, wide open into the dark unknown. Struggling, then failing, then learning how to struggle and fail smarter is part of the process of becoming a better thinker and writer. If we provide students with the pre-fab forms by which to fashion their thought, they will never have the opportunity to learn from the process of navigating that road alone.   Students must learn to manage the project of their own writing from start to finish to become better writers.

Allow students to choose their own writing projects.  Teacher-created writing assignments come from the brain of the teacher, not the student writer. Writing prompts have a long and gloried history in the English classroom. From “What did you do over your summer vacation?” to the perennial “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” writing prompts have provided reluctant writers a spring board from which to jump onto the often-intimidating blank page.  Being able to respond in writing to an on-demand prompt is also one of the skills we use to measures how students demonstrate their own learning of a concept.  However, real world writing asks students to discover their own reasons to communicate, their own exigence.  We need to teach students to recognize this need and to write toward a finished product. Students must learn how to select their own topics, manage the time to research, draft, and edit a long project, and ultimately, deal with the inherent failure, even while becoming a better and braver writer in the end.

 

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 8: How does a teacher organize attendance and make-up work?

I’m the worst person in the world to ask about attendance because our attendance clerk calls my room daily, screaming, “POST YOUR ATTENDANCE NOW!!”

When the kidlets bumble into the room and the energy starts rolling, I want to grab hold of all that great boo-yah and channel it with a great activity or conversation, and I just forget to take attendance. However, taking attendance accurately and consistently is one of the most important systems you need to develop, so I attempt to keep myself organized.

There are dozens of Excel spreadsheets and templates for tracking attendance on TeachersPayTeachers, and Pinterest has over 1000 boards of trackers. There are also great lesson plan books, such as those at Erin Condren, that come with absentee logs, personalized quotes, and fru-fru designs, but these can be quite expensive, and I like to spend my money on swank shoes.

While your school will require you to post attendance and grades in Infinite Campus, which is the student information system used by Kentucky, I prefer to have a hard-copy for everything in case a rogue nation-state destroys our power grid, and I need to know who hasn’t turned in Chapter 11 vocab words.  I’m old school, and while I am gradually moving toward the paperless universe, I still have six actual paper management strategies I use:

Attendance: I keep attendance in a large three-ring binder with tabs for each class.  In each divided tab, I place weekly rosters for each class with the student names down the first column and the date and day of the week across the top row.  There are approximately 36 weeks in a school year, so each week has a separate roster followed by a blank page for notes.  I like making notes for the future fourth-block me when I’ve forgotten my own name or where I’ve parked. At my school, tardiness is tracked through our office with a system called Tardy Table, but if you don’t have that system where you teach, you can also use your attendance log to track tardies as well and then deal with habitual tardiness according to your classroom policy.

Make-Up Work:  At the end of the day (i.e. before I forget what actually happened that day) I fill out make-up slips for students who were absent and place it in their student folders (see below.)  These 3×5 yellow forms are very simple.  They say: Hey, we missed you on _________________ (date).  This is what you missed:___________________ (description of activity/lesson/quiz/etc).  This make-up work is due on __________________ (date). When you turn this in, please staple this form to the front of your make-up work and drop it in the MAKE UP WORK box on top of the black filing cabinet.

Some teachers create a make-up work file for each class somewhere in their room, and it is the student’s responsibility to consult the wall calendar to see what was missed and retrieved the missed assignments from the file. Other teachers post everything on their website, and it’s the student’s responsibility to retrieve and complete it in a timely manner. You will develop your own system, but it’s important to have a system because otherwise, you’ll be standing in front of your class with five kids pestering you for make-up work while you’re trying to begin the next day’s lesson.  And invariably one of them will utter the ridiculous question: “Did we do anything important yesterday?” to which you should devise an answer for right now. My top three are: 1) No, the world stops spinning when you’re not here, 2) We sacrificed a goat and the gods of chaos showed up, or 3) Everyone in class got a $1000 from Oprah, but you had to be present to win.  Sorry.

Bathroom Passes: To reduce the amount of rambling around in the halls during class time, our school policy states that each student has four bathroom passes per class per semester.  That means all students who are in four classes a day (we are on block scheduling) would have 16 bathroom passes or 32 passes for the year in addition to the time between classes and the time going to and from lunch.  If a student needs to go to the bathroom more than this for a medical reason, she is issued a special permit.   To keep track of these passes, I created another large three-ring binder with rosters per class with four columns titled “Pass1, Pass2, Pass3, Pass4” and position it next to the hook where I hang the physical hall pass.  The students are responsible for recording the date of their bathroom pass, and I initial it. I check this often for shenanigans.

Student Work Folders: If someone hooks you up on DonorsChoose.org/teachers and agrees to finance your organizational dreams, you might be able to purchase student drawers or cubbies or mailboxes to file student work, but I have found that a hanging file folder crate (one per class) at less than $10 is a great investment.  Each student has a file with his/her name, and in this file, you can organize return papers, make-up work, parent notes, or school/district forms that need to be filled out.  You should also purchase an expandable file folder for student work you need to take home and grade.

Homework Trays:  The art teacher at my former school hooked me up with some fab storage bins that I’ve been using faithfully as homework trays, (Thank you Becky Banks!) but you could easily use the lids of copy paper boxes.  Just mark them according to class, example: ENG I- A2, ENG II – A3, ENG I – A4, etc. and establish a procedure within the first weeks of school for students to submit all homework and/or seatwork in that box. Remember, the efficiency of this system is designed to free up time for learning, discovery, and general educational merriment.

Substitute Binder:  This is a necessity for all classroom teachers.  Keep your sub folder up-to-date in case your own child projectile vomits across the breakfast table, and you have to call a sub an hour before school starts.  Make sure you include class rosters, a bell schedule, an attendance log, a map of your school, instructions on what to do in the event of a fire/tornado/earthquake/active shooter drill, important phone numbers like the front office, a list of your daily duties, such as bus/hall/bathroom duties, plus a set of emergency lesson plans for every class, and a list of students in every class that are trusted helpers.

 

 

 

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.