Teaching independence through open-ended projects

Giving students more control and ownership over their lessons and experiences in school is a double-edged sword. Educators want independent learners who want to find out more and know how to study but young people need to learn to self-regulate.

The process of learning how to manage time and own behavior is hard on teachers! Not only is it difficult to witness children sabotaging their own education but our colleagues may judge the noisy classroom as chaotic and unproductive. One horrible project can be enough to put teachers off forever.

Teaching should not be like curling, the winter sport where you clear a path on the ice for the moving rocks. But it should not be like bobsleigh racing either, where you give the team a nudge and they careen down a mountain.

Procrastination, fall outs during group work and issues with focus are all part of the process. Make it easy on yourself (and your class), act as a coach by increasing the difficulty of completing an open ended project gradually. You can increase the difficulty in several directions. If your students are just starting out, it’s best to make one thing harder at a time. You will be able to see where they need the most practice the first time around.

Base level

  • Have your students work in pairs or alone
  • Give a very detailed project specification and tell them how they will know they are successful
  • Give resources/a lecture on the topic at hand
  • Give them time management sheets (I love Gantt charts but they made one of my students cry, so use your discretion)
  • Make them discuss the big picture and the little details
  • Check in with them regularly with mini-deadlines for different stages of the project
  • Bring the class together to share progress updates every lesson
  • Have them grade themselves on their teamwork, time management and effort

More independence

  • Ask them to write their own project specification and success criteria
  • Leave them to decide if they want to focus on big picture or small details
  • Give no background information about the topic they are working on

More teamwork

  • Have larger groups (but usually no more than four, the fifth member of any team goes on cruise control)
  • Have them assign roles (like leader, writer, resources etc)
  • Alternatively: have pairs collaborate with another set as critical friends

More time management

  • Have them decide their own mini-deadlines
  • Take out the mini-deadlines entirely and only have the “Big Date”. This usually ends in disaster… and that’s alright. They have to learn not to leave things to the last minute somewhere. It might as well be with you. Just make sure it’s not a grade YOU need (like an important piece of coursework.)

Stick with it. Some students find this incredibly difficult at first and it is hard to watch them struggle. But stick with it. You will be amazed at their progress over the course of the year. You will also see how this independence affects other types of lessons: once a child knows how to, say, research a topic, write a script, perform it, edit the footage and evaluate it, they are more than capable of pretty much anything else you throw at them.

 

Hang in there — teaching can be tough!

I love someecards no matter what the topic of their hilarity is, but when it comes to their teacher quotes, I roll on the floor laughing. The reason? Because they are so true. This profession is incredibly tough, demanding, tiring, unappreciated, and we often have a love-hate relationship with it. Things as simple as using the restroom become a luxury for us.  It can be a lot to handle, and I’ve had times in my career where I really let the annoyances cloud my viewpoint. Take these tips to keep your chin up, a smile on your face or perhaps a sentimental tear on your cheek, and reflect on the passion and purpose of educating our most important resource: our children.

Laugh

In the spirit of someecards, never forget to laugh.  If you don’t laugh in this profession, you’ll cry… and I don’t mean a gentle tear falling type of cry, I mean a punching bag face, really ugly cry (#beentheredonethat). Hilarious things happen every single day in the classroom. Often we are too overwhelmed with new mandates, Johnny wetting his pants in the corner, or Susan throwing a tantrum at her seat, to stop and appreciate the funny little moments in our days. Whether it’s something a colleague says that makes you chuckle, a funny retort from a student, or searching out a source of humor online like someecards, relish in the moment and have a giggle. Check out the entire collection of teacher-themed someecards and save this link for a rainy (or should I say tear-filled) day in the future!

 

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Inspire

Sometimes we need a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking reality check to remind us about why we entered this crazy profession to begin with and the difference we are truly making each and every day.  Whether we realize it or not, we are inspiring people every day. Sometimes we need the same in return. Personally, I’m a sucker for inspirational quotes. Reading the words of great figures seems to erase any irritating comments from parents, frustrating moments with students, or exhausting district red tape that I have dealt with on any given day. Check out the 50 Most Inspirational Quotes for Teachers. You are certain to find one, or ten, or 50 that bring a smile to a face and a tear to your eye!

Watch videos

My friend and fellow blogger, Erin Klein, wrote a fantastically uplifting Scholastic Top Teaching blog post on 9 Videos to Make Teachers Laugh, Cry, and Feel Inspired! Any time I can refer to something that’s teacher-tested-and-approved I go for it. If you need uplifted, check out her post and the videos within. Edutopia also put out a great list of 20 Movies Every Educator Should See. Some of my favorites are on that list and I want to curl up on my couch with a blanket and waste a few hours watching them right now!

What’s MY favorite inspirational teacher video? Kid President’s Pep Talk to Teachers and Students! I adore this kid, and his video pep talk both made me laugh and cry.

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Read

I’m going to be honest, I’m so busy that I often don’t have time to read as much as I would like to. If I can get a book (leisure or professional) on audio, it’s a huge bonus (since I commute 45 minutes each way daily). When I am selecting a book to read, I’m extremely persnickety. I want it to be worth my time and be something that makes a true impact. Thanks to Hope King’s posts about working at the infamous Ron Clark Academy (RCA) and Cara Carroll’s (#teachercrushes) recommendation, I think I’ve found my inspirational book pick for right now: Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me, by Kim Bearden. I have major teacher crushes on both of these educators/bloggers and respect their talents. If they recommend something, I know it’s going to be great.

What Hope has documented about her time at RCA has been amazingly innovative and inspirational, and makes me long to go visit this incredible educational institution. Cara says the book is “heartfelt, inspiring, and amazing.” She states very personally that this book found her at a time when she was questioning everything about her profession, and couldn’t have showed up at a better moment. I am going to order this book and keep it on hand for the moment I am doing my own teacher-sole-searching. I know Kim’s words will comfort, inspire, and even challenge me…and we all need that every now and again as teachers!

Be grateful

Last, but certainly not least, when you’re frustrated with a lesson you’ve taught, losing your mind because it’s the 6th week in a row without outdoor recess due to extreme snow, or downtrodden after an upsetting parental encounter, take a moment to be thankful. Say what?! Yes, be thankful. Even when things seem their worst, there’s always someone or something to be grateful for. Doing so clears your head, brings about positive thoughts, and helps you rise above the daily drudge that can often creep up. Even on the worst day, if you are thankful to have the privilege and pleasure to teach our nation’s youth and make a difference, you will rise above and remember why education is your true calling!

“Didn’t I just say that?” Teaching and Reteaching with Video

“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it twice, I’ve said it a million times.” Whoever started this phrase had to be either a teacher or a parent. I love working with people as they learn something, but it can often be frustrating as a teacher when it feels like you’re saying the same thing over and over and over again.

However, I know I don’t learn things on the first try either. The first time I tried to water ski, despite listening closely to instructions, I fell on my face. The same thing happened the next time and the time after that. Despite doing it for years, I’m still by no means an expert. It’s not natural for my body.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell cites that it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a skill. And since I only see my students about an hour a day for about 180 days a year, we’re very far from that 10,000 hours. I, on the other hand, have been doing the skills I teach for years. They’re natural for me, and I can therefore sometimes have unrealistic expectations for how quickly my students will catch on. My students need to hear it explained multiple times and have feedback in their attempts.

However, I’m not always available to re-explain a concept to them. Therefore, I started creating videos for them, explaining skills we constantly use. They’re really simple screencasts, but they allow students to go at their own pace. To pause the explanation. To replay it as many times as they like.

And the beautiful part: they do. I hear them listen to it in class (it takes a little bit to get over hearing your voice come through their speakers). I see the view count go up as they work at home.

Further, this frees up my time to give them feedback on what they’re creating. As I look through their work, I can give them more specific help. For some students this means commenting with a link to my video, asking them to watch it again. And for others, I join them face-to-face to discuss the holes I see in their skills.

And it’s great for parents, too. I can share with them the things I’ve taught in class. This allows them to understand my expectations and give their students more specific help.

So give it a try. It doesn’t have to be complex. Just talk into your device as you would teach your students in class. It’s finally an opportunity to clone yourself and give students the reinforcement they need.

(On a Mac use Quicktime. On your tablet explore Explain Everything, Screenchomp, or Educreations. On a Chromebook try Snagit. On a Windows machine look at Jing.)

 

Put on Your Thinking Glasses: A Focusing Strategy

Long division. Government. Figurative language. Complex sentences. Elapsed time. We all know what it is like to try to teach concepts that are difficult for students to grasp at first. It seems that the younger the students are, the more difficulty they have. Eventually, with time and practice, the light bulb comes on. And sweet relief! They’ve got it!

But what about the initial introduction to these challenging concepts? What about the meat and potatoes practice and remediation that inevitably follows? All of that can get a bit tedious and frustrating. Take the tension and pressure off a bit by using a novel focusing strategy that is exciting for students and increases their attention to the task at hand: Thinking Glasses!

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“Thinking Glasses” can be found at discount stores marketed as “Nerd Glasses,” but if not, search online. If those are not available, you could alternatively use the cheap sunglasses you find in the dollar junk bins at discount stores. Whatever you choose and acquire, these glasses will be an invaluable “outside-the-box” tool to increase and maintain focus during intense instruction.

Before you introduce challenging curriculum, prepare students for it. Build it up! Let them know that the voyage they are about to embark on requires 100% complete focus, and that you are going to equip them with a tool to facilitate and maintain that focus throughout the lesson. Then dramatically whip out the glasses, making sure that every student has a pair – even save a pair for yourself. Make a big deal about them being called “Thinking Glasses,” and have everyone put them on at the same time. Then…super focused, begin the lesson. Let them continue to wear the glasses through the completion of related performance tasks. You will be surprised at the difference it will make!

Thinking glasses are for occasional wear only. They lose their magic if they are worn routinely! Break them out only for difficult content that requires extra focus, attention, and practice. After the first few uses, if students feel extra challenged by content, they will ask for them. Let them wear them! They are basically asking if you will allow them to increase, sharpen, and maintain their focus while you teach, or while they work. Yes, please! A class set of glasses is a small price to pay for the amount of reward you will get in return.

 

Teaching Writing Part 3: Best Practices for Encouraging Revisions – and Streamlining the Process

This is part 3 of a 3 part series. Read part 1, here and part 2, here

The most important exercises students can do as they learn to write (a close second to, well, writing lots of stuff) all feature responding to feedback.

That said, here’s what most of my experiences with giving students feedback on writing looks like:

Scenario: A student turns in an essay. Normal for a high school student, it’s full of syntax errors, has stylistic problems, it is hard to follow, and has some specious arguments.

Student: Mr. Wolk, why’d I get a bad grade on this essay?

Me: You didn’t get a “bad grade.” This is a work in progress, and the red marks show you where your paper needs work. The grade is an indication of how close to your goal you are.

Student Response 1: Well, I can’t read your marks.

Student Response 2: So, all I have to do is fix the stuff in red and it’ll be an A?

Student Response 3: But why didn’t you like the paper?

Student Response 1 is a problem because I put 15 minutes into making the corrections, and that time is wasted if the student (and I, probably) can’t read my writing.

Student Response 2 is a problem because it’s not about “fixing” or “making corrections,” it’s about editing and improving. Student papers need retooling, sometimes. Or a student needs to go back to – well, not square one, necesarily, but square 2, and reformulate an argument and the proof for the argument. This will not be a 2 minute “fix,” and I don’t want him to think it is. But it will make him a better writer and a master of the material.

Student Response 3 is a problem because the students have learned that teachers grade work with a desirable grade when they “like” it. And that is a dangerous but understandable conclusion for students to draw. It is counterproductive to the meta-goal of learning how to take criticism for the perfection of a product – and teaches that setback is bad. Unlikable. Yucky.

What students need is a clear workflow for learning the process of editing work.

The Challenge:

If the essay is a major part of the curriculum, including outlines and multiple drafts, then each step is built in. Students learn that preparation for writing, a good first try, feedback, and revision is part of the creative process.

But if this is an in-class essay, or a smaller summative assessment, or a mid-unit check-in, you may not have time (in the calendar) for an initial deadline, and a second deadline. And some students may turn in work that satisfies the requirements of the essay. Will you require rewrites for every student? Do you have time to grade second drafts for every student?

Finally, if time is short for you, like it is for all teachers, you’ll note that chasing after mutliple drafts of an essay in order to check to see if revisions were compled is frustrating – and then flipping back and forth between two documents (or two paper copies) is cumbersome.

How can we streamline the incredibly important process of students receiving, reflecting on, and responding to critique?

The Solutions:

1. Do revisions or edits in a format like Google Docs, using the Insert Comment feature. This ensures that the student can read the comment.

  • Include simple corrections and also links to digital documents containing pre-made primers/reviews on the most common writing errors or anything you’ve been focusing on in class. (Passive vs. active voice, transitions, how to cite, etc).
  • You can play with different platforms that allow you to comment in a Google Doc with words, crayon, voice, or even video!

2. Students write essays in the left side of a two column grid. The left side is for the first draft. The right side is for the second draft.

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  • This allows you to see the second draft right next to the first draft. Much easier to see if revisions are made!

3. Unless you are doing a full-scale essay with built in deadlines for outlines and revisions, consider making revisions optional. Here’s how:

  • On the final comment of the essay, include an interim score. Summarize and explain the interim score.
  • Students can recover 50% of any lost credit by perfecting the second draft. (For example, a student who earns a 70% on the first draft can earn an 85 on the second. This encourages students to submit quality work up front, rather than procrastinate until the the rewrite for their best effort.
  • Any error constituting a party foul (a silly misspelling, confusing too/to/two) earns a “strike.” 3 strikes loses 10%, unrecoverable. Students are thus encouraged to proofread before turning in work, rather than relying on you to be their personal editor. Any student who wants or needs your proofreading assistance in advance can meet with you (this meeting should be required – again, you’re not their personal editor) and you will proofread the work together. This reduces “learned helplessness.”
  • Clarify when the deadline is for the second draft. I advise ONE WEEK from the receipt of the revisions.
  • If there is anything about the essay that the student is unlikely to be able to fix on his/her own (whether it’s technical, grammatical, nuanced, or value-based), require a face-to-face meeting before the student begins working on it. If you’re using a program like Schedule Once to make appointments with students, include the link to your scheduling page right in the comment!
  • Students have 1 week from the moment the paper is graded write a revision and tell you in an email (this must be required) that the paper is revised. As these papers come in, flag them and grade them in batches.
  • If you’re using a Learning Management System or Electronic Grade Book, copy and paste your final inserted comment into the gradebook. At the end of the semester, you have a great start to a content-filled narrative for the students.

Additional Notes:

  • For high achieving students who are aiming for an A in the class, a B+ interim grade is often sufficient to entice them to do a second draft.
  • Students who bomb their first draft should earn a much lower grade than you would otherwise have given them, since you will want them to do a second draft. In other words, don’t reward a mediocre paper with a mediocre grade. Give a grade low enough to send the message that the paper is not acceptable – and that the benefit of a second draft is, indeed, required.
  • Give an A- to a highly achieving student who performs just under his/her capacity, who you would like to focus on other class goals (say, in the weeks before a major project). These students may opt not to do a second draft, and the A- sends the message: “Feel free to raise your grade, but it won’t hurt you if you need to start studying for the AP test.”
  • Use ClassDojo to record information about students who bomb their first drafts but do not bother to submit a second draft – or students who are required to meet with you who simply turn in a second draft, (thereby making the same mistakes they made the first time). These students (and their parents) will benefit from this type of very thoughtful “student-ethic” feedback.

Teaching Writing Part 2: Offering Students an Outline

This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Read part 1, here

Maybe you’re lucky, and you have a curriculum that includes teaching students how to organize thoughts, how to ensure that you’ve backed up your ideas – most likely, it’s all part of a unit on how to write an outline.

And maybe you also have a golden Lamborghini and a pair of boots that can fly. And a machine that can make any kind of food you want.

Students often do not know how to organize their thoughts or write an outline. And so, I would receive essays from students I had no idea how to grade. Namely, an advanced writer would look at the prompt and say, “I will need to compose a thesis, come up with three good supporting points, find evidence to back up the points, lay it out in an organized way, and end with a conclusion tying the thesis to some further ideas or questions.”

But what I get often reads more like Kafka’s stream-of-consciousness diary entries. Each idea meanders around, maybe offers a thesis, maybe not. Maybe ideas are developed, maybe they leave the reader wondering if life is nothing but absurdity and darkness.

Now, I am not an English Teacher. I teach a series of humanities electives that borrow from psychology, sociology, and literature. They require cross disciplinary thinking, and any essay students will write for me will require some creative thinking, some mastery of content, and some organizational finessing. This is not: “Compare Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy.”

But I have a background in English Lit. And the English Teacher in me says, “Well, if you can’t follow the student’s thinking, and the ideas are not developed, then that should be reflected in the grade.”

But what about the ideas? The thinking? The mastery? The content at the center of the topic which the student never gets around to because he or she is paddling around, lost, stuck, in circles at the edge of the pond? This is an essay, yes. But it’s also a test. And the main goal of this particular unit was not necessarily to teach writing.

One year, a student with some learning differences bombed an essay test she should have thrived on. She touched on zero of the brilliant ideas she’d fronted in class discussion. At a conference, her mother said, well, was there an outline I could give her to make sure she touched on all the main ideas?

Sure.

The next time we had an essay exam, I gave her an outline in advance, and she thrived.

But what about the other students? Should they learn how to write an outline? Sure. But what about this week, when it’s time for the essay exam for the end of the unit? A third of them don’t know how to organize their thinking.

Should I have them write and submit outlines which I will review and give pointers on? Should they submit a revision of the outline? I will give a third round of revisions, and then they will write the exam!

No! Who has time for this? The essay exam is this week!

 

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*QOL refers to “Quality of Life” – a tool I created for analyzing people’s well being. For more, visit http://bit.ly/magclassqol

Here’s what I started doing.

  • For every essay, I include an outline. The thesis is highlighted in purple. It provides very explicit places to write supporting ideas, textual evidence, a restatement of the thesis, and questions for further thought.
  • If I will include additional requirements (like quoting a support-statement from an in class film or partner work) I build spaces for this into the outline.
  • In their actual exam, their thesis is purple. Their support statements are green. Their textual evidence is orange. Their additional requirements are blue. It’s easy to find these “points of assessment” as I read.
  • And when I grade their essays, I know I am grading not only their fledgling writing skills, but more importantly, their mastery of the material, their creativity, and their critical thinking.

Some day, will I begin to differentiate between students who receive an outline and those who must write their own outline?

Someday.

But the essay exam is this Friday. Onward, we write. With outlines.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Read part 3, here

Engage and learn with podcasts!

Over the past few years podcasting has changed the way educators share and learn from one another. With a few clicks of the mouse pad or taps on the screen people can create content and share with great ease. I love driving to work and listening to my fellow educators from around the world share their insight on best practices. It keeps me motivated and inspired to try new things. Reading someone’s tweet or blog is one thing, but to actually hear them talk shop is another. Here are some tips, tools, and resources on how to make listening and learning a part of your routine:

Apple Podcast App: Download this app onto your iPhone and listen to your favorite educational voices as you work out or drive into work.

BamRadio Network: Access tremendous Twitter chat recap shows such as #Satchat, #Edchat, #BrandEd, and #EdtechChat to name a few.

TeacherCast Podcast: Stay current with educational technology trends and thought leaders from around the world.

SoundCloud: An audio platform that enables sound creators to upload, record, promote and share their originally-created sounds. Great way to create a school or classroom based podcast channel.

Audacity: Free audio editor and recorder.

audioBoom: Give students a voice and a world audience. Use this tool for assessment purposes so that students can show what they know.

Voxer: This push to talk app is great for group discussions on various educational topics. Listen to people in real time or while you are on the road. Discuss your favorite book or a best practice technique. There are so many neat things you can do with this tool.

Listen to Video Clips: Sometimes while driving in my car or working in my office I will play a YouTube video or Ted Talk that is education related. I don’t actually watch it while driving, just listen.

As you can see there are many great ways to stay current or at least begin to start thinking about how you can improve your craft through listening to or creating  podcasts. Reflection, collaboration, and the art of storytelling still remain an important process in the 21st century. All school stakeholders can benefit from the various conversations that take place on the airwaves.

Rainy day recess — bring on the fun!

So what’s a teacher to do when it is pouring down rain outside and it is time for recess? There are schools across this nation who may be lucky enough to have some enclosed pavillion which enables the kiddos to get all that energy out. My school doesn’t have such structure. So my students and myself are left with only one option….the classroom!

So when the rain is pouring and the old man is snoring, what can you do? There are a few safe and effective ways students can release the energy and just play for a bit. I have a few things I rotate periodically so the natives don’t get restless,especially when rainy day one turns into rainy day three.

Quiet Ball

To play quiet ball, you’ll need a small soft ball. My preferred choice is the splash balls for pools. It’s like a small bean bag and really can’t damage things if it hits something.

The students begin the game by forming a circle on the perimeter of the room. A “judge” is picked to maintain order and determine whether a throw or catch is fair during the game. Of course, we use the random feature of ClassDojo to choose the judge. After the judge is picked, that child throws out the first pitch to a student in the circle.

The object of the game is to be the last man standing. To be the last man standing, you must adhere to a few rules.

  • All tosses must be underhand
  • You can not toss the ball to the person next to you. Must be somewhat across from you.
  • If you don’t catch the ball, you are out. However, the judge can determine whether the ball was catchable. If it was judge uncatchable, the thrower is then out.
  • Once there are four kids left, they take position in the four corners of the room and the game continues.
  • When there are only two players left, they position themselves across from each other and the game continues until someone is out.
  • Try to stay quiet! If you are too loud or yelling, the judge can eject you from the game.

Now I know the last bullet is extremely difficult when the game gets really exciting. I get really excited when it gets intense. You have to allow for some level of rumbling. You just want to prohibit those “outside voices” from taking over your hallway.

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Cards and Board Games

My two boys have outgrown most of the board games we once played together. Instead of tossing them or looking for a good home, I brought them to my classroom. You might think Candy Land and Shoots & Ladders would be untouched by 5th graders. It’s just the opposite! They love those games. I also have decks of UNO and SKIP BO cards they can choose. I have to say there is just something magical about seeing my students spread out on the floor and engrossed in a game.

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Go Old School

Sometimes you just have to go back to your days in elementary school.

  • Heads Up Seven Up
  • Whole Group Hangman
  • Simon Says … of course with classroom modification due to space.

I am a strong believer in recess! I’m not talking a 5 minute brain break. I’m talking a full 15 to 20 minutes of time to just be a kid. We as the adults have a luxury of walking away from work when our brain is about to explode. For me to be at my best, I have to leave the thinking at the desk for a good amount of time and focus on something else for a while. I am much more productive and clear headed when I return to my desk. Our students are no different! It takes a lot of energy and brain power to learn. Just like us, they have to step away before their brains ignite into flame.

A voice at the table

Think about the last school leadership team meeting that took place in your school building.  This can be any kind of a meeting where the voices of leaders from your building/district were present, representing key stakeholders.  Who did you see sitting around the table?  You may have seen: a grade level teacher from each grade in your building, a representative from special education, a representative from the PE department, art, music, technology, a social worker, a psychologist, a speech pathologist, a teacher’s aide, a cafeteria worker, a bus driver, a resource officer, a secretary, etc.  If the aforementioned voices were not present at your leadership meeting, (you are not alone, there are a lot of stakeholder voices that schools are notorious for leaving out of leadership meetings) this would be a great opportunity for you and your team to consider inviting any one or all of these important voices to your next leadership meeting that takes place.  However, with that said, there is still a key stakeholder that has been left out of this list — students. Although students are our participants, clients, customers, consumers, teammates, etc. they are often one of the first voices to be left without a seat at the leadership table for collaboration, decision-making, assessing needs, planning, creating action plans, etc.

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Why are the youth who fill our hallways everyday, who receive our curriculum that we worked on tirelessly all summer, who motivate us to be better educators and people ourselves, not sitting at the table next to us?  Although our youth know our classrooms inside and out, understand the nuances of many of the individual teachers and staff at large, live and breathe the school climate and culture, why do we still think that they will not be able to contribute to our critical conversations?

Not only do our youth need to be at the table while we are developing systems, analyzing school data, and implementing academic and behavioral practices to help support them, but they need to be asked their opinions, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives every step of the way.  It is important to ask not one or two students (often pulled from student council or student leadership), but ALL students.  There are several different ways to create a larger student voice at the table and involved in the critical decision-making that is taking place in our schools.  Here are a few to consider:

  • Invite students to be leaders on leadership teams throughout the school, where their voice is equal to others on the team.
  • Send out student surveys throughout the year regarding items such as school safety, discipline, acknowledgments, etc.  Share the results with the staff and students throughout the year.
  • Create a student voice committee.  Invite students from all different corners of the building to be on this committee.  Try to make sure that all the different voices of the youth in the building are represented, not just the faces that are typically seen.  Ask this committee for their opinions regarding all different kinds of decisions being made in the building.
  • Ask a forum/roundtable of students to give their feedback on the student handbook.  Use their feedback to make appropriate adaptations in the handbook, and let the staff and student body know that this took place.

Now, imagine your next school leadership team meeting.  You are sitting next to the principal on one side and a student from the building on the other side.  Which student will you choose to be at the table with you?

 

Teach ALL: Think positive.  Be proactive.  Nurture partnerships.

Are you being transparent with your students’ parents?

It’s report card time. As teachers, we want to try to phrase things positively in reports. That’s someone’s child after all and no one responds well to pure criticism. However, sometimes you have to broach difficult topics in a report and the sugar coating can get in the way of communication.

My top tip from my first teaching mentor: parents usually only get mad if the bad news is a shock. I have noticed that parents react less negatively to a report, if they already were aware of the issue. So, if you need to get in contact with parents about a behavioral or organizational issue, do it before a parent-teacher conference or report cycle.

I had been writing reports for several years when I got into a conversation with a friend who home-educates her three children. I ran my best phrases past her to see if she could pick up what I was putting down. No. She could not. It was an eye-opener.

“Samantha is very enthusiastic but this can mean she does not give other children a chance to contribute.”

What I mean: “Samantha needs to raise her hand and stop shouting out.”

What a parent might hear: ”Samantha is a great orator and the other children love listening to her.”

Consider: “Samantha is very enthusiastic. She needs to remember to raise her hand in classroom discussions.”

“Joey does not always come prepared to lessons.”

What I mean: “Joey almost NEVER comes prepared to lessons.”

What a parent might hear: “Joey sometimes forgets his notebook from time to time.”

Consider “As we have already discussed over the phone, Joey very rarely brings his notebook and pen to lessons.”

“Jessica sometimes does not think about the consequences of her actions.”

What I think I mean: “Jessica is a total nightmare.”

What a parent might hear “Jessica is an adorable little scamp!”

Consider “Jessica gets into situations that distract her and others from the lesson (for example: …). I know she wants to do the right thing and I am supporting her by….”

Another tip, look for ways of automating the process that do not involve Mr Control C and Ms Control V. I’d much rather spend my time writing quality phrases that tell each child exactly how they are achieving and exactly how they can improve, instead of grinding away at typing out similar but not identical phrases for each child. For example, schoolreportwriter.com has a lovely system, where you upload a bank of comments and can choose the appropriate ones for each student. You can even switch adjectives and phrases around for a more tailored report.

Just remember to tell it to them straight, however you write it.