Why am I emailing parents all the time?

I don’t think parents want to know nearly as much as we seem to think they want to know.  Parents claim they want to know everything happening in their child’s school day, and we try to make that happen.  We post our curriculum so parents can see it; we post our weekly lesson plans so parents can see exactly what we are teaching their children.  We post grades in real time so parents can see exactly what is completed and how their children did on it.  Many of my colleagues are constantly sending email updates to their students’ parents.  One of my colleagues even makes this a weekly routine.

And yet, I would bet most (and by most, I mean an extremely high percentage) parents barely even look at any of this.  Maybe it’s cynical of me, but in my experience most parents become interested when their child is doing poorly or something goes wrong.  Do we really believe many parents are carefully reading our class policies when we make them sign it?  Think about it.  A parent with 2 kids in high school would have about 15 different sets of policies to read if we all did this.  My son’s kindergarten teacher kept a blog last year updating parents on what is happening in class.  To be honest, I looked at it maybe 4 times all year.

This is all to say, we bend over backwards to inform parents, but it isn’t really worth all the effort.  Please know that I think the home-school connection is vital; I just don’t think we are going about it the right way.  I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying something new with my summer school students.  I haven’t decided if it works quite yet, though.

Instead of emailing their parents myself, I made my students email their own parents and CC me on it.  The summer session is only 3 weeks long, so on Friday of each week, students have to email their parents telling them what they did this week, any grades they got, and upcoming due dates.   This keeps parents posted, forces communication between the student and his/her parents, makes the practice writing a bit, and saves me the time.

Does it work?  I don’t know yet.  A few students are super resistant to it.  I’m pretty sure one of my students doesn’t actually email his parents-just some sort of dummy account.  Students don’t know how to write appropriate and effective emails either.  In fairness, this is a skill I should probably be teaching them, but summer school doesn’t allow enough time for that really.

I’ll obviously contact parents if I have concerns as the summer session rounds out, but I like the premise of having students send the email instead of me.  I think this is an idea I’ll toy with a bit more during the actual school year.

Warning: Deadlines are closer than they appear

Today is the last day of April break.  Tomorrow starts the down hill slide to graduation and summer break.  This means my juniors have their major essays due in a few weeks, and my seniors are fighting (not hard enough) lustily against senior-itis.  Thinking about the end of the year has me thinking about deadlines and holding students accountable.

There is a general consensus in education circles today that students should not have their grades punished for missing deadlines-that leniency is necessary since it is more important that students complete the work and it doesn’t matter so much when they complete their work.  This has led to much frustration as the theory and practice aren’t aligning nearly as nicely as people would like.  Teachers lament that students believe deadlines don’t mean anything and we aren’t teaching them any sort of accountability.  Isn’t part of our job to teach them responsibility?  Sure, if I don’t turn something into my boss on time, I don’t immediately lose my job, but if I consistently don’t do stuff on time, I do risk losing my job.

These are all very legitimate arguments, but punishing students’ grades is not the answer.  In reflecting on my practice when listening to other teachers, it occurred to me that I don’t have nearly as many issues with students taking advantage of me regarding deadlines.  Part of that is that I teach some A level classes, which are students who are generally responsible and motivated by grades.  But I also have a reputation for being a bit of a hard ass; my students-in pretty much all my classes-will tell you that my workload and expectations put them under a great deal of stress.  And yet, very few issues regarding deadlines.

To that end, I’m going to throw out some different strategies I use for managing student deadlines:

  1.  provide sliding deadlines.  I sometimes provide a range for a due date: essays are due Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  You choose.  When I do this, even my most habitual malingerers give me an essay by Friday.
  2. indicate a time when the essay is due and provide a justification.  Somethings are due at the start of class since we will be using them in class.  Some things are due by the end of the day (2:30 to be precise)
  3. let the class decide on a  due date.  I give them a time frame (1 week), lay out what we are doing in class each day that they may have to prepare for, and then the class decides as a whole when they want the thing due.  I find providing this control for them really helps.
  4. let them decide individually.  I generally only due this for my smallest classes, but sometimes when I hand by essay drafts, I ask each kid when conferencing: when can you get me the final draft?  They’re generally pretty reasonable and then they can pace themselves accordingly.  Is it more work to keep track of each kid’s individual due date?  Not really-I just keep a little log going for each day.
  5. remind them that they can turn stuff in early.  I find this helps them pace themselves better and avoid procrastinating.
  6. sometimes I keep a countdown on the board for major assignments.  This keeps it a little fresher in their heads.
  7. move pre-established due dates.  It demonstrates flexibility and kindness on my part.  I often have essays due on Fridays, but then change it to Monday when I realize there is no way I will start grading them over the weekend.
  8. work with kids individually on their time management and deadlines.  This should be a no brainer, but it bears repeating.  If I notice a kid is way behind in major project, I’ll usually sit down with him and set new due dates and goals for him to get caught up.  Letting him sink further into a hole helps no one.

I’m sure there are plenty more great ideas out there.  This is just a quick list to get started.  God speed to all teachers as we head toward the end of the school year.

Defending the whole class read

Like most everyone we are in the constant process of rewriting and refining our curriculum.  Just this past week we were reminded that the skills and enduring understandings are the most important aspects of the curriculum and that, in our English classrooms, the texts we read are vehicles to help students obtain the skills.  For example, if the enduring understanding is about understanding the hero’s journey, students don’t necessarily have to read The Odyssey; they can read any texts relating to the hero’s journey.  This allows students more choice and thus more ownership in their own learning.

This is all true, but there is something to be said for assigning an entire class a novel.  I’m all for student choice and giving options, but that doesn’t mean students need options on everything all the time.  My juniors have 3 assigned novels that the whole class reads: The Scarlet Letter, Player Piano or The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby.  My seniors have 2 assigned novels: 1984 and On the Beach.  Assigning these novels offers a variety of benefits that extend beyond the classroom.

In a lot of ways, I think it is good to have students read something that is not in their wheel house.  When I assign 1984, many students aren’t interested in a futuristic totalitarian society, which is exactly why they need to read it.  If we only expect students to work within their own passion and comfort zones, we are greatly limiting their growth and thinking.  Are there are other dystopian, totalitarian novels?  sure.  Do they present the same opportunities for shared and meaningful discussion?  I’m not so convinced.  When I teach these novels as a class, and see success both in terms of the standards and in terms of student engagement, I’m not so ready to simply throw it all out the window.

The shared experiences and conversations that can ensue from a whole class read are also extremely important.  For one thing, I like that by the time my students are seniors they have all read, for example, The Odyssey.  This allows me as the teacher to make references and comparisons to it when I talk about heroism while teaching Beowulf.  I do this throughout my course too.  We read 1984 to start the semester, and I reference it over and over again as we read Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales, etc.  If they hadn’t all had these shared reading experience, these references would be lost.  More importantly, the shared discussion of a novel as a class is an important learning tool.  I routinely watch my students discuss and question each other about a novel offering insight and interpretations to each other.  While this can happen in lit circles, that unnecessarily limits the number of people involved.

Student choice is great and can be a powerful motivating tool, but it isn’t everything.  Sometimes as the teacher, I know what is best.  Students don’t need choices for everything.

A cool inquiry based activity

I realize I haven’t posted much recently.  This year it has been harder to keep up with the blog because of the way my schedule is set up.  I used to have a study right smack in the middle of the day when I would do most of my posting.  Now my free period and study are at the beginning and end of the day.  For some reason, this complicates my writing schedule.  I come rushing in in the morning and have to use my first free period to make copies and get ready for the day, and then my end of the day duty gets taken over by various end of the day tasks.

So on that note, I want to take a few minutes on this Friday morning to describe a nice inquiry based activity that I learned this year and have implemented a couple of times.  All credit for this activity goes to my ever great colleague, T. Kerman (who, I think, stole it from someone else, but she is the one who told me all about it.)

The activity is called an inner-outer circle discussion.  Essentially students are in 2 circles.  half the class is in the inner circle (facing into each other) and the other half is on the outer circle (facing into the inner circle).  The outer  circle question asks discussion questions and then the inner circle discusses those questions amongst themselves.

So how does this work exactly?  Beforehand, students have to prepare 5-6 questions on the topic/readings. This would be a huge component of the inquiry based portion.  I found that they require instruction on how to do that.  I give them three levels of questions: level 1 are factual based questions.  If it is a level one question, you can literally put your finger on the answer in the text.  Level 2 are interpretive or inferential questions.  If it is a level two question, you can put your finger on the evidence to support your answer.  Level 3 questions are experiential questions.  If it is a level 3 question, you don’t have to have read the piece to answer it, but it helps.  I instruct my students that their questions must be include both level 2 or 3, but no level 1 questions.

On the day of the discussion, students are seated in either the inner or outer circle.  I have let them choose (first come, first served), but then they switch, so every one is in both the inner and outer circles.  I could certainly see benefits of assigning students to inner or outer circle groups to mix it up though.  Once seated, someone in the outer circle asks one of their questions.  The inner circle then discusses the question using textual evidence.  Again, I found this requires a bit of training to get them to actually search for evidence before answering.  They don’t like the silence while everyone checks their books.  While they are discussing the question, the outer circle cannot talk or add to the discussion at all, but needs to merely take notes on what is said.  Once the inner circle decides they have sufficiently answered the question, they throw it back to the outer circle for another discussion question.  Eventually, the inner and outer circle switch spots–either the following day or perhaps half way through the class.

At the end, I grade students on their participation in the inner circle (speaking clearly, respecting opinions, responding to peers appropriately, providing appropriate evidence, etc.).  I also grade them on the questions they brought to the outer circle (were the appropriate, thoughtful questions?), as well as their listening while in the outer circle (I generally ask them to answer some questions regarding the discussion and /or the questions that were asked).

So what do I like about this activity?  It touches upon so many important skills and ideas. By having students develop the question and police themselves while in the discussion, it is a fully student centered and student driven activity.  The topic I give them is specific enough that it relates to the big ideas and concepts of the course at that moment, but they decide exactly what to ask and how to answer.  I also like that it requires students to find evidence to support their answer-an important close reading and arguing skill.  Finally, I find it to be a great way to increase students speaking and listening skills.  Generally, those students who are quiet in a full class discussion are more talkative when discussing in a smaller group, but it is also an important lesson in having the more dominant students draw responses from the less talkative ones.  And it is a great moment to help those more dominant students learn to not take over the entire conversation.

Obviously, there are management concerns that everyone needs to figure out on their own, and determine what works best for you and your class.  Obviously, everyone needs to figure out their own method to track the conversation and such.  And while this activity works well in an English classroom, I could certainly see it working effectively in all different disciplines where students are tasked with finding evidence to support their answers.  In short, I highly recommend giving this activity a try; I’m quite glad I did.

 

Students shouldn’t study for tests

Last week I gave my juniors a test, and of course, the day before the test I reviewed what would be on it and its format, and in each class someone asked “how should I study for this?”  And it got me thinking, in some ways we are doing our students a disservice by telling them to study for the test.

When we tell students to study , we usually mean a couple of things: review your notes, or drill with flashcards, or practice problems again.  What are we really saying there?  When we tell students to study, aren’t we really telling them to read, and reread a bunch of facts/information?  Practicing problems (I’m thinking math here, but it applies elsewhere) is a bit different.  Shouldn’t tests be more than just reproducing facts and information?  or doing the same problems students have already done?

I don’t like to give a test until I am pretty confident that students know the material and can discuss it or work with it in some deeper way.  If you know it, you shouldn’t have to study it, right?

There is a place for “drill and kill” in schools.  Memorization is important to some extent.  Yes, you need to memorize verb conjugations in foreign languages.  Yes, you need to memorize the list of pronouns in English in order to do any more in-depth grammar.  That requires studying and students should be quizzed on their memorization, but the final summative test should include much more.  Students should be well past the memorization phase.

How do you study for my test?  You don’t.  You already know it.

introverts are people too

In light of the Common Core state standards there has been a push to increase the speaking and listening skills of our students.  The argument being that being able to present information and engage in meaningful conversations is necessary to being college and career ready.  The push to build QPA’s in schools often includes a push to include some sort of presentation piece.  This I all agree with.  We do our students a disservice when we don’t expect them to participate meaningful in discussion; when we don’t force them to present their findings (if for no other reason than to expand their audience and gain more feedback.)

That being said, we have to be judicious in how we go about implementing these changes.  If we say that it is important that students are able to engage in discussions, then we have to hold them to three distinct criteria:

  1.  speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear
  2. contributing meaningfully
  3. listening to one another by not speaking over each other, texting, having side conversations, etc.

This is where I am finding (based on talking to other teachers) we are tripping up.  In order to do this well, we have to lay these  expectations out clearly beforehand and then sticking to it.  In conversations as colleagues, we often have trouble with these criteria (how many times have you seen number 3 at a faculty meeting?)  This requires diligence and teaching and reteaching on our part; it doesn’t happen on its own.

More importantly, we need to be respectful of our introverted students.  In our zeal to promote speaking, we often gloss over these students and force them to speak.  Sitting on the sides of a discussion and listening is not a flaw.  In fact for many of our students, they are  gaining more from the discussion by listening and not stressing about when they will be speaking.

So how can we force these students to speak while respecting their introversion?  It’s rather simple.  Speaking and listening should be scaffolded just as we scaffold other skills.  I inform my students early on that they will all be expected to speak throughout the course, and then I remind them often of this expectation.  I then prime them for this, by offering them opportunities to share in smaller settings (think/pair/share or group work-groups are usually chosen by me).  On the first day that I truly expect everyone to speak, students must first write out a claim.  This way, if they are called on to speak and have nothing to add (as is often the case with introverted students), they can simply read their claim.  This limits their stress of thinking of what to say.  As the discussion comes to a close, if I realize that some people haven’t spoken yet, I simply call on them to speak.  I do this in a non-threatening and non-accusatory manner.  This teaches them that I will hold them to this expectation, and more importantly, that their opinion/thoughts matter and they can contribute it safely.

After the first discussion in which everyone is required to speak, students reflect on the discussion as a whole and their own participation.  From their reflections, I ask how to improve for next time, and I can increase my expectations from there.  For the record, this first discussion just happened today in one my classes-a full three weeks into the school year.  I built up to this moment throughout the previous weeks.

Expecting students to just get over it (whether you say that or not, that is the implication when students are forced up to speak too quickly) quite simply doesn’t work.  Instead, lay out expectations and build up to the main event.  It’s worth the extra effort.

A simple way to introduce argument on day 1

The first day of school traditionally means handing out the syllabus and policies for each class and maybe doing some icebreakers.  It’s not usually until the 2nd day or so that we get around to teaching material.  I didn’t want to follow that pattern this year.  I was inspired by this blog post by Dave Stuart  to add argument to day 1.  (If you aren’t familiar with Dave Stuart, you should be.  I have gotten so many great ideas from his blog.)  This is especially vital for my seniors since the course is all about argumentative writing.

I began by projecting the school’s vision statement.  I asked the class to summarize it and then pull out the key words/phrases.  They of course were able to find the key phrases such as: critical knowledge, innovation, communicators, responsible and productive citizens etc.  I then proceeded to lead a discussion about what a vision statement is and how it should be a driving force in the institution both in classes and the greater community.  This was a rather informal discussion; kids who had things to say contributed, while others listened.

I then handed out a page with the key terms on it, and asked them to work with the person next to them to define each of those terms/phrases.  In other words, what does it really mean to “become thinkers”?  While it is very interesting to me to see how these define these terms as opposed to how the adults may define them (not necessarily the same way), I was more interested in getting them talking to a partner, and thinking deeply to define these terms.

Then I asked 2 simple questions of each pair: How well does the school actually do this? and How do English classes relate to this?  I got some very thoughtful answers from both traditionally good students as well as traditionally poor students.  But the main goal was to have them apply and synthesize information.   So far so good.

Their final task was to write 12-15 debatable claims regarding the vision.  Again, interesting to read from my perspective while also getting students used to the idea of writing debatable claims.  Eventually I asked them to share some of their claims (speaking and listening!  Boom!) at which point I could introduce and discuss ideas such as evidence, reasoning and counterclaims-all of which are going to play a vital part in the course.

I could then springboard the conversation about the vision statement into a conversation about their responsibilities as students and my responsibilities as their teacher which leads nicely into the syllabus and policies/expectations.

At the end of the 2 days (45 minute classes are just too short), I had students practicing writing and sharing claims.  They had some practice in speaking; they had some practice in evaluating and defining terms, and they got an idea of how the course fits into the bigger picture.  Overall, a successful way to begin the school year, I think.