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.

Writing this makes me a better teacher

Recently a friend posted an article in which the author argues that she is a better writing teacher because she writes frequently.  I merely skimmed the article, but she seemed to primarily focus on how she writes creatively on a regular basis, and as a result of this, she is a better writing teacher.  I couldn’t tell you the last time I tackled any sort of creative writing, and I can only think of a select few assignments that I have given over the years that force students to write creatively.  I love fiction; I don’t consider myself a strong fiction writer, nor do I feel confident in grading students’ fiction writing.

That being said, I do assign a great deal of academic writing ranging from short responses to multi-page research papers that go through many drafts.  I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and as I think about it, I’m not just a better writing teacher because of it, but an all around better teacher because of it.

Writing, though seemingly simple, is actually a difficult task.  When writing, students not only have to flesh out high quality ideas, but they need to communicate them in the most effective way possible, which is, of course, a matter of interpretation.  While there are many writing rules, none of them are truly set in stone, and good writers break them all the time.  Imagine how complicated this must be for students.  As a teacher, when the last thing you wrote was in college, think of how difficult it is to sympathize with what your students are tasked to do.  Even the best writers come to a stand still and get writers’ block, and yet our students are still faced with deadlines that don’t really care about writers’ block.

Writing this blog on a  semi-regular basis helps me sympathize with what my students are forced to do not just in my classes, but in all their classes that require some writing.  I share this with others on social media and receive a great deal of feedback from educators around the country and plenty of non-educators as well.  The comments I have received on this blog via Facebook, twitter, wordpress, etc. have helped me flesh out my ideas more clearly and helped me realize where I lack in communicating those ideas that leads to confusion and misinterpretations.

Pretty much everything I write in here is what I consider first draft writing.  I rarely re-read and edit before posting.  Seeing how people respond has helped me understand my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer which allow me to understand my students’ struggles more clearly.  I only have anecdotal evidence, but I conference better and provide much better feedback to my students since I have taken up writing this blog.

Not only that, but I am an overall better teacher because I write this blog.  I’m an education nerd.  I love talking shop, and this blog has allowed me to do that and reflect on so many aspects of education.  Educational leaders are constantly reminding us that we should be reflecting on our practice.  This blog allows me to do that, and then allows me to re-read and reconsider my practice.  It also allows me to reflect on policies and trends in education, so that I can figure out how to best implement theory into practice.  This blog has opened up dialogue with my students, my colleagues, to some extent my bosses, as well as people outside of the educational community who offer interesting insight into what education can offer.

I cannot off the top of my head point to particular and specific data that demonstrates growth as a teacher as a result of this blog.  But I can think of how I have taught in the past and my educational philosophies and I can quickly realize that writing this blog has helped me grow as a teacher.

This has been a very self actualizing project for me.  As a teacher, time is perhaps our most precious commodity, and it can be very difficult to find the time to do all that we want nonetheless add another task to our to do list.  And while I have not blogged nearly as frequently as I’d like this past year, I think this may be the best professional development tool available to me on a regular basis.  After all, when we sit in workshops we are not developing professionally; it is when we think about and wrestle with the ideas presented that we actually develop professionally.  That is what this blog allows me to do.

 

Who do I write for?

One of the things we don’t talk about enough when it comes to writing is who we are really writing for.  When I assign my students an essay rarely do I tell them who their intended audience should be, and I’m not so sure that when we are discussing academic writing we have ever truly clarified that.  Often times I hear teachers tell students to write as if their classmates are their audience, but then their classmates rarely actually read the essay.  Sometimes we make up an audience and tell them to pretend they are writing to congress or some such thing.  This sounds great in theory, but then, when we read the essay as the teacher, do we truly view it through the lens of a congressman?  If not, then really their audience is the teacher.

This got me to thinking about who I write this for.  I never had an intended audience in mind; I was just looking to clarify my own thoughts and put it out there.  I guess I assumed only other educators would be interested in what I have to say, but I know there are non-educators who read this as well.

Recently some of my students have found this blog since they seem to enjoy googling my name rather than writing their essays when we go to the computer lab.  In fact, we are going later today, so Hi Tommie, Zack, Matt, James, and Michael, and anyone else in my class who stumbles upon this.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  On one hand there is something almost embarrassing about having my students read and critique/tease me in class about my writing.  Especially when I want them working on something else.

On the other hand, there are some nice benefits too.  I like that they get to see that I write from time to time.  We ask students to write all the time, but we ourselves don’t do it nearly enough.  They can see my style, my voice, and my flaws as a writer.  Ultimately I think this is a good thing.   They also have too much fun picking apart my writing, but there are valuable skills inherent in that.  One of my students found an egregious error in parallel structure in one of my posts.  Since I taught them parallel structure, there is a sense of pride in knowing that he can identify it outside of a worksheet-even if it is in my own writing.

So to go back to the original purpose here: who do I write for?  I still don’t know if I have a good answer for that.  This started as a self reflective practice, but it’s developed beyond that some.  I like that I have colleagues who read this; I like that that I have non-educators who read this; and I think that I like that I have students who have read this.

We’re having the wrong conversation about Homework

My senior writing course is all about argument and persuasion, so on their final exam they need to write an argumentative essay in response to an article.  One of the articles that many of them chose to use as the basis for their argument suggests that homework is a vital part of the educational process and it is necessary for learning.  Those who chose this prompt universally agreed with it this year as they generally have in the past couple of years.  These are not honors students; this is a class full of mid-level students; many of them are college bound, but not all of them.  These are not students who always get great grades and consider school a top priority.  In fact this level of student is notorious for not completing all their homework, and yet they are generally all suggesting that teachers should continue assigning homework or even assign more homework.

There are conversations about homework happening all over the educational landscape.  Cathy Vattertot’s book Rethinking Homework is an interesting read on the subject.  Many schools are suggesting a “Homework Bill of Rights” for students; other schools are limiting the amount of time students should be spending doing homework.  All the research about the effectiveness of homework seems inconsistent–some studies suggest that homework increases achievement; others suggest it has no effect.  The homework debate really is a minefield right now.

I think ultimately, we are focusing on the wrong conversations about homework though.  Let’s stop talking about how long students spend doing homework and the undue stress it may cause.  These are just the symptoms of a real problem.  When I go to the doctor, I don’t want him to simply treat the pain; I want him to find out what is wrong with me and solve that problem.  Otherwise the pain will just keep resurfacing or eventually intensify and require stronger medication.  If the doctor figures out what is causing the pain and stops that, then the problem is truly solved.

That’s how I feel about the state of the homework debate.  We’re talking about mitigating the symptoms of the problem rather than actually solving the problem.  The conversation shouldn’t be about how much time should students spend on homework each night.  The conversation should be about whether or not the homework we are assigning is meaningful and purposeful.

School leaders need to not make homework mandates that just anger teachers.  Instead, they need to be leading conversations about the purpose of homework with individual teachers and PLC’s.  Is the study guide that students answer as they read the book really a meaningful piece of homework?  Should we be asking students to draft their essays outside of class?  Do they really need to complete 25 Algebra problems for homework?  Is the worksheet on verb conjugations appropriate practice?  We can’t say definitively whether these are or are not appropriate without knowing the situation, which is why the teaches involved need to be having these discussions with their PLC’s and school leaders.

Sometimes when I suggest things like this, people react by suggesting that we don’t have the time for this.  That’s malarkey.   If we can find the time to discuss how many minutes each night students should spend on homework, then we have the time to discuss whether the homework we are giving each night is meaningful.  It’s not time to start a brand new conversation; it’s time to change the conversation we are already having.

Top Chef and Education

First off, Happy New Year everyone!

Over this winter break, I spent most of one day binge watching Top Chef, the reality cooking competition, and as I watched I couldn’t help but think of schools and teaching.  The episode that really led me down this path was Restaurant Wars.  For those of you who don’t know the show, a variety of chefs are competing for the title of Top Chef and during one episode each season, the chefs split into two teams and have to conceptualize and open a restaurant in 1 day.

This competition lead me to think about assessment and rubrics.  At the end of the episode, the judges choose one winning restaurant.  They don’t do this with a specific rubric (at least none that we as TV viewers see).  Judges comments focus on the taste and presentation of the food, the service at the front of the house, the decor and atmosphere, overall teamwork amongst other things.  Obviously these elements essentially make up a rubric for each restaurant.  The thing that the judges ask each other at the end is: “which restaurant delivered a better experience?”  And that’s the question that led me to think about rubrics and judgements.

In education, we are continually rewriting rubrics to recatergorize and reweight.  We drive ourselves crazy as educators trying to write these perfectly detailed rubrics breaking down each potential element into categories in order to better assess our students to make fair and valid judgements.  But we never ask: “Did this piece of work (essay, speech, project, etc.) deliver the experience it is supposed to?  Did it achieve its desired impact?

I just finished grading a stack of argumentative essays.  I used the rubric to assess the essay’s claim, its development, coherence, etc., but I never really assessed whether or not the essay was actually convincing.  The rubric doesn’t have an area for this.   In Top Chef the judges can sit there and tell the chefs that their food wasn’t good or the service at the restaurant was exemplary, but that doesn’t really tell the chefs if their restaurant overall was any good.

I teach public speaking as well and two of the assigned speeches are a sales pitch and a persuasive speech.  After everyone delivers their sales pitch, I always ask the class if anyone went out to buy a product that their classmate was selling.  If you convinced your classmate to purchase something, then it was surely an effective sales pitch.  If I were the student, I would think of that as much better feedback than the rubric from the teacher.

I’m not entirely sure how to go about doing this, but it seems to me that discussing impact and intended results might be worth the conversation and help make rubrics more meaningful.  I certainly don’t believe we should scrap rubrics altogether–in fact, I am a huge supporter of rubrics, but rubrics shouldn’t be just about justifying a grade; instead we should be focused on how we can improve feedback to our students.  We can make better rubrics.

Failure

So I’ve been thinking about failure today.  As teachers we know that students can learn from failure.  But do they?  Just because a kid fails a quiz or test, doesn’t mean he will automatically learn.  We as teachers have to foster this.  We have to allow the retake/redo.  We have to present the student with an opportunity to learn from failure.  That’s question number one that I’ve been mulling: Even though we say that failure can be the best teacher and shouldn’t be demonized, do our practices support this notion?

My other thoughts relate to teachers failing.  Do we allow ourselves to fail in the classroom?  It is a terrible feeling when a lesson absolutely bombs, but we can certainly learn from that failure and become a better teacher the next day and then the day after that.  But do we allow ourselves to take the risk that something might fail miserably.  How can we tell our students to take risks and then learn from their failure, when we aren’t willing to do it in our own teaching?  Students often don’t want to fail because of the grade or what teachers/parents/peers think or might say.  Teachers don’t want to fail because of our evaluation or what students/parents/peers/administration might say.   Isn’t that a bit hypocritical.

I don’t have answers or even really many attempts at answers; instead I have questions that have been percolating in my mind these last couple of days, but I do know that I’d like to see teachers fail more because they’re trying new and exciting things and want to learn from them.  Let’s fail

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