Casey* got an email yesterday from his daughter’s teacher. He instantly panicked. In a few sentences, it seemed the teacher was informing him that his daughter was having severe behavior issues in the classroom.
So, Casey reread it. He vacillated on what to do. He called his spouse. He called a friend. He vented to co-workers. Eventually, he went back to the source: he re-connected with the teacher, but this time over the phone.
Hearing Casey’s voice, the teacher sensed his anxiety and assured him that the email had been misunderstood. The teacher had meant to convey, I’m going to explore some ways I can best support your daughter; but Casey had interpreted it as, your daughter needs some immediate behavioral interventions.
This misunderstanding, and all the anxiety that came along with it, could have been avoided by skipping the email and picking up the phone instead.
As teachers, our lives are hectic. We have to manage our time, and often an email appears to be the quickest route for parent/guardian communication. We hop on Skyward, grab the parent/guardian’s email address, open Outlook and we’re off—just a few clicks, some tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard, and we’re all set. Communication home is done. But, in truth, it’s rarely that simple.
In my last classroom, the phone was on the other side of the room from my computer. Calling home meant (1) clicking into Skyward, (2) writing down the number [and crossing my fingers that it wasn’t a long-distance number since my classroom phone blocked such calls], (3) walking across the room to dial, (4) crossing my fingers that the parent/guardian picked up, while also (5) crossing my fingers that if s/he did there were only questions asked that I could answer without having to reference something on my computer which was still across the room... But, despite this complicated process, it was worth it.
Calling home has power:
While, calling home can may be daunting to some, here are three ways to make it more manageable.
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When thinking back to when my brothers and I were in school, the phone calls my parents received from teachers and administrators were almost always negative. One of us had been in the principal’s office, one of us had an unexcused absence, or one of us was struggling in math class. Where were the phone calls when I had been selected to attend a poetry workshop, when my brother got a ribbon in the science fair, or when my other brother had managed to not be in the principal’s office for an entire month?
This is where the strategy “8 Greats” comes into play.
If you’d like to read more on this idea--or similar ones--consider exploring the following:
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Make a Sandwich
I’m from the generation labeled as ‘xennials’. Much like many of my millennial counterparts, I am uncomfortable making phone calls. I’d prefer to send a text, an email, or even leave a voicemail. The thought of actually having to talk on the phone with someone gives me anxiety.
Whether you are of a similar generation or are simply not sure what to say once you get someone on the other end of the line, the “Make a Sandwich” strategy might be for you.
Start each call with a respectful, collaborative, and positive opening.
In the middle, add in the details, listen, and adjust. Know that the more complicated or negative the message, the more effort we need to use when selecting our words and tone.
End each call with a respectful, collaborative, and positive finish.
If you’d like to read more on this idea, consider exploring chapter 6 “Positive Communication with Parents” from the book Dealing with Difficult Parents by Todd Whitaker and Douglas J. Fiore; as well as chapter 13, “Delivering Bad News.”
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Making phone calls doesn’t have to take a lot of time. A few years ago I worked with a middle school teacher who often had students make the calls home, whether the news be uplifting or difficult. There was power in how these students took ownership of communication with their parent(s)/guardian(s).
This is where the strategy “Quick Calls” works well.
No matter what information is shared, imagine the conversations that will happen between those students and those parent(s)/guardian(s) when, later that day, they get picked up after school or sit down at the dinner table.
Whatever structure you use to make phone calls home, keep parents/guardians like Casey in mind. We want to work collaboratively with our students and their important adults, and that often begins by picking up the phone.
This post brought to you by Heather Lyke, Secondary Implementation Associate
*The name of this parent has been changed for data privacy purposes.
Well, we are officially rolling with the school year! The new supplies are in their places, new routines are being solidified, and classrooms are buzzing with new learning. We’ve introduced ourselves to our students and had them introduce themselves to us. There have been all sorts of ice breakers and “get to know you” activities. We know that this student loves dogs, this other one loves to dance, another one loves music, and this one over here loves to read science fiction. Our traditional “get to know you” activities are really great tools to gather information about our students. We talk about them a lot at the beginning of the year, but I’m proposing we don't stop doing them once the shine wears off of those new school supplies.
This time of year, when I reflect on the different ways we get to know our students after the first few days of school, I often think of my tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Anderson. Our first assignment of the year was to write our own obituary (yeah…super morbid, right?). I wrote the required one page of, “She was loved by her family…”, “She was preceded in death by…”, “She did this and that…”.
I turned it in and a few days later, it came back to me, dripping in red ink. I was convinced I had completely failed. As I started to read the comments on my paper though, my anxiety lifted. All along the margins, I read comments like, “No way! Your grandpa was my bus driver when I was a kid!” and “Your cousin is my best friend!” Awkward-and-anxious me suddenly knew I had someone in my corner. Mr. Anderson was making connections with me that went beyond my favorite color or which sports I play, and I suddenly cared much more about my English class than I ever imagined I would.
Throughout the year in that English class, every writing assignment came back with Mr. Anderson’s commentary along the margins, forcing me to rethink my thesis or supporting arguments, or cracking a joke about a silly spelling error. Every once in a while, I would find a post it on my desk, introducing me to authors like Jane Smiley or Toni Morrison (who is, to this day, still my favorite). Mr. Anderson had taken the time throughout the year to get to know me both as a learner and as a person who had a life outside of his classroom.
This year, you are going to hear a lot about the district’s continued work around culturally and linguistically responsive teaching practices (CLR). We know we need to think about culture and bias. We know how important it is to understand who our students are culturally and the cultural nuances they bring to our classrooms every day. That is why I’d like to provide a few “get to know you” strategies that can be used throughout the year, multiple times, to continue to build relationships and connections with your students and get to know them as cultural beings.
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SOME COMPLETED STUDENT EXAMPLES FROM PAST YEARS
- An online survey. At our final 2017-2018 new teacher training session, Heather Willman shared this online version, created by teacher, author, and speaker Pernille Ripp, who uses a Google Form to collect her data.
- An essay reflection. I have personally used this type of end-of-year data collection as well. (An added bonus here is that I was able to give them feedback on their writing, while simultaneously collecting feedback on what they took away from the course as a whole!) Here is the prompt I used a few years ago with my juniors in AP Literature & Composition, along with a few examples of student responses:
SOME STUDENT EXAMPLES FROM PAST YEARS
- Small group reflection. Vanderbilt University recommends using a small group approach to collecting end-of-year feedback from students. You can read more about this method here.
- Explain the purpose of the survey to your students. If they know that you are going to use the data, and how, they often take it more seriously and provide you with more precise examples. In the past, I have gone so far as to share will students how I have adjusted which texts I use in the course, how much homework I expect students to do over long breaks, and how I no longer expect all assignments to be typed—all decisions made based on feedback that students shared in the end-of-year surveys in years past.
- Share examples of helpful vs. obstructive feedback. Sometimes students need a quick reminder of what constructive feedback looks and sounds like. If a student writes, “Your class is dumb,” not only does that hurt my feelings as the instructor but it also does not help me make changes for future students. However, if that student instead writes, “I don’t understand why grammar matters, so I hate our Tuesday grammar lessons and find them boring”...well, now that’s information that I can work with. Making students aware of this difference seems to help them weave more constructive criticism into their answers.
- Ensure students have enough time allotted. When students are rushed, they may skip an open ended question or two, misread a question, or even circle answers at random just in order to be done in time. This type of inaccurate data is misguiding later on when you go to reflect on the responses.
- Consider anonymity. Some students will be more honest with you when they know their name is not attached. Then again, without names it can be hard to follow up with any personalized feedback that should be addressed right away. Again, consider what your goal is in collecting the data, along with when you’re giving the survey (if it’s the last week of school, for instance, you might not have time to follow up on responses so names would not matter anyway).
- Look for trends. Sometimes you will have data outliers, but as soon as you have three or more responses that send similar messages they deserve our time and our attention (sometimes the outliers do too, for that matter). Once you notice trends, record them.
Ask yourself hard questions. Take a look at your trend data. What does it say about your classroom, your course, your own instructional practices, the demographic of your students? Frankly, this part of the process can be hard. In the past, trend data has made me turn inward as I wrestled with a wide variety of issues, some of which included:
- Many students indicated not having computer access at home. Can I continue to expect students to type everything?
- Multiple students noted that they struggled with Cold Mountain as their book group novel. What could I replace it with? Could I just eliminate this title and make groups a bit larger?
- Too many students noted that this is the first English course that they’ve taken where reading Spark Notes wasn’t enough—they had to think about the texts. What (likely hard) conversations can I have with my co-workers to ensure that we’re all asking students to think about their reading, not simply recall plot/characters/etc.?
- Make a list of intentions. Data collection often isn’t worth the time it takes unless it helps you in some way. To ensure you take action on what the data indicates, make a list of intentions and then save that list in a place where you know you will reference it as you lay out your plans for next year.
- Share your intentions with your PLC. Ideally, others in your PLC gave the same (or similar) survey, which allows you to share the trend data and merge your list of intentions into one unified set of goals. An added bonus is that when you share your intentions, research shows you are more likely to act on them.
- Preserve surveys that will help you refuel when running on empty. I have a “Why I Teach” folder. I borrowed this from a mentor of mine, Sandy Nieland (teacher at John Marshall), who shared that she uses this as a way to refocus when she starts to get distracted by negative forces. For this reason, I pull surveys that have particularly kind comments, insightful reflections, or purposeful remarks and hold on to them. In times of high stress, I pull these out and remind myself why all the stress is worth it in the end. In recent years, I’ve shifted to an electronic version of this folder, taking pictures of such reflections, as you can see here:
Code Switch: Race and Identity, Remixed
Some recent Code Switch stories that RPS staff have been discussing, and in some cases also using in their classrooms, are:
- “White Skin, Black Emojis?” by Kumari Devariajan
- “Can Marval’s New Superhero Bear the Weight of Representation?” by Gene Demby
- “The Difficult Math of Being Native American” by Savannah Maher
- “‘Strong’ Black Women? ‘Smart’ Asian Man? The Downside to Positive Stereotypes” by Kumari Devariajan
- The three part series Raising Kings done in collaboration with Education Week, authored by Cory Turner and Kavitha Cardoza
This resource makes suggestions for both nonfiction articles and fiction books; as a bonus, many come with some VABBing suggestions made by Hollie and his team!
This Sincerely, X Episode
“Episode 10: Gifted Kid,” the episode I hear discussed most often around the district, explores what it’s like to be a gifted kid in a neighborhood so rough that students' gifts become difficult to see, explained by a teacher who is trying to fix that.
Those who worked through this book together found it shed light on cultural aspects that often go unnoticed because those experiencing them, at least in this context, are white.
Consider exploring this text further by reading "The Lives of Poor White People" by Joshua Rothman, a detailed New York Times review about Vance's memoir.
If you too would like to dig deeper into what Hollie has been sharing with us, and will continue to share with staff on Thursday, perhaps you might wish to begin with one of the above four resources.
As you explore further, please considering reaching out to your instructional coach or one of us from the C&I team: we would love to discuss any of these resources with you.
Chip In and Let's Get Started!
How class begins can set the tone for the rest of the class period. There are different strategies that can help get students into a focused mindset and allow for high productivity. Last year, I began the adventure of flexible seating. We’ve added short stools, tall stools, office chairs, bean bags, crates, floor pillows, benches, a work nook, and several other working areas. The goals of flexible seating were to:
- Maximize student productivity
- Inspire creativity
- Support and encourage personal responsibility
Maximize Student Productivity & Inspire Creativity
Maximizing student productivity and inspiring creativity go hand-in-hand. As a teacher of writing, I know that it’s not a favorite or strong subject of many students. When I personally need to accomplish something (especially something that takes more sustained effort), I do not choose to sit in hard blue chairs. With this in mind, I set out to create options for students to select a seat that would allow them to be productive each day. When students feel comfortable, they often feel more inspired and creative. I’ve witnessed this first hand and been reaffirmed through student feedback.
Support and Encourage Personal Responsibility
As a middle school teacher (really the goal of any teacher), we want our students to become independent and personally responsible. Selecting a seat is a big responsibility. Students know that they have goals to accomplish, and their seat should help them achieve those learning goals. Choosing different seats each day is encouraged as opportunities to explore what works and what doesn’t work. Students can always discretely move during class if a spot isn’t working. If a student’s seat is not working, they know I always have the right to move them for the sake of their learning. They may hear me quietly ask, “Is your seat working, or would you like to try another one?” If students are moved, we try again the next day where they take personal responsibility to pick their own seat. In the end, we want students to have the life skill of making choices, reflecting on their choices, and adjusting to achieve success.
One challenge that came up with flexible seating and up to seven classes of students each day was how to take attendance. It was a laborious process to search the room for students or call off names to do attendance each day. What a waste of time! I set off to find a way to quickly take attendance which led to… Chip In!
What began as a way to take attendance has morphed into so much more.
There are two response options, one in each bucket. This is a very quick procedure that can serve multiple purposes:
- It is a quick way to take attendance especially if you do not have assigned seats. (exp. Flexible seating)
- It gives students a connection to a prior lesson.
- It gives students focus for today’s lesson or work time.
- It drums up curiosity for what they will be learning.
- It can introduce new vocabulary/concepts.
- It can be a quick formative assessment and check in as well as inform future instruction.
I am ready for today’s assessment. OR I will keep a positive attitude and work hard.
- Goals achieved: Self-reflect, focus, growth mindset
- This response gives students focus that we will be taking an assessment (that we’ve been preparing for… no surprises!) It encourages students to embrace a growth mindset and keep a positive attitude even when they don’t feel prepared. This can also give me feedback for example if the majority of students don’t feel prepared, I may be asking them questions to reflect on what I’ve done (or not done) to help them be prepared.
If I had time to learn about or do anything, I know what I would do. OR I will ponder that.
- Goals achieved: Hook curiosity, regard for student perspective, focus, build vocabulary
- This prompt was an introduction to our research passion project where students ultimately got to select anything they wanted to learn about while using the research process. It got students thinking about their passions, interests, and wonders. We had instant engagement when they asked, “Anything?” “At school?” This also introduced the vocabulary word “ponder” in context for many that had not heard it prior.
After students chip in and sit down, they have a bell ringer that is often connected to the chip in responses. This again gives focus and a really quick, meaningful formative assessment to guide future instruction, intervention, and enrichment. The Chip In! strategy works for ALL grades and ALL subject areas. Get some chips, a bucket, and create responses that fit for your class!
It’s common to spend a lot of time on the ‘big things’ in our classrooms, such as fine-tuning our curriculum, considering various spatial structures, implementing strong instructional strategies, and establishing clear policies and procedures. Simultaneously, we must be sure not to overlook one of the littlest things that has some of the biggest impact: our words.
Three specific areas where our diction choices can have a notable impact are:
- Increasing Student Engagement
- Ensuring Cultural Responsiveness
- Growing a Growth Mindset
Below are some specific examples.
Increasing Student Engagement
Ensuring Cultural Responsiveness
Growing a Growth Mindset
Do you have questions or thoughts on this topic? Consider reaching out to your Instructional Coach or one of us on the Secondary Curriculum and Instruction team. We’d love to help you explore this further.
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