Open House Tips & Tricks

I would love for open house to be a full day. There’s just never enough time to communicate everything I feel is necessary to everyone who attends. I don’t get to spend enough time with parents/guardians talking about expectations and how my class works. I wish I had more time.

open house need more time

Teachers who have been to this rodeo before do certain things ensure open house is successful. We print supply lists ahead of time. We have people sign in – we might even have them jot down their phone number or email for us. We hand out curriculum/course overviews. We have our rules posted and our rooms decorated. But over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how I can get even more out of this year’s open house.

Secondary teachers’ open house night/day is different from elementary. We’ve got multiple classes – so do the kids. So, there’s a lot of roaming around. And a lot of students and families are only there to map out their day; they aren’t attending with the intention of truly engaging in any meaningful discussions with the teacher. They’ve been to this rodeo, too (6th and 9th grades are, I find, the exception to this rule). Still, I found that I was run ragged after open house, even though I had things set up in a reasonably organized fashion.

open house exhausted

As the school year has inched ever closer with each passing day, I find myself wondering, “How can I get even more out of this event? How can I facilitate independence for those families who just come for the map and supply lists so I am free to answer questions from other families?”

One thing I tried last year that worked well and that I will be employing this year is to project a screen onto my board with class supplies for families (along with a printed handout). When employing this strategy, I had a lot of people walk in, read the screen, pick up the handout, sign my information sheet, and then walk out after making eye contact and giving me a smile.

This year, though, I’m determined to digitize my classroom experience even further, though. My PowerPoint slide this year is going to have a chart, and in that chart, will be QR codes and bitly links to the Google sheet into which parents will enter their contact information, the supply list document, the welcome letter document, and the Remind sign up instructions pages (never used Remind? Google it! Maybe I’ll even write a post about it later!). I’m also going to have the Google sheet for contact information up on my student desktop computer for parents who don’t have (or don’t feel comfortable using) a smart phone. Of course, I’ll have paper copies of the supply list, welcome letter, and Remind instructions for those families as well.

open house ppt slide new

I am hoping that this will streamline things even further because 1) I’ll save time and resources not having to print so much, 2) I won’t have to manually transfer each hand-written email and phone number (you know, just because someone is a grown up doesn’t mean handwriting is readable…and of course the information in the school database is often wrong…) but can simply import it from the electronic sheet, and 3) I won’t have to be as involved in the distribution of paperwork (I’m betting most families have a smart phone for at least one of the members!).

Something else I have done with great success is to list important class-level items needed (hand sanitizer, tissues, paper towels, etc.) on sticky notes with my name, classroom, and subject, and allow people to take the sticky notes with them as they exit. I’ve seen teachers simply list (creatively and beautifully) what is needed, and sometimes parents will even write it down, but often times they forget which teacher asked for what and the supplies never make it into the right room. The use of sticky notes helps tremendously with this (I’ve had parents give me direct feedback on this for many years).

open house post it supplies

I have also had several years (before having my child) where my husband has come to open house and set up “shop” in the back of the room giving families the opportunity to purchase supplies cheaply and conveniently rather than have to make another trip to the store after the tax-free days our state gives us. Because elementary schools (and pre-schools) are really good about sending home supply lists before the start of the year, but secondary teachers/schools find this more difficult because each student now has 7 teachers, and there are 1000+ students and all their schedules are different.

If you like these ideas and want an open house freebie, I’ve got something for you to check out!

Have a wonderful open house and a great start to the year!

Why I Offered Extra Credit, and How It Worked

So I decided to accept late work and I really became judicious about the homework I assigned. Yes, things improved for my students, but there were still many who would come to me at the end of the quarter and ask for extra credit. I found myself with a dilemma. On one hand, I had students who wouldn’t do all their work during the quarter, and then would ask for extra credit to raise their grade at the very end. So I stopped offering extra credit because I told them they had to do their work. On the other hand, I had kids who would do all their work and really were giving (at least close to) their all, but their grades still weren’t what they wanted. So I did want to give them an opportunity to do something to raise their grades. *sigh* Rock and a hard place.

So I got creative. I decided to offer real and true extra credit. In my experience talking with other teachers, I have found that most of them either don’t offer extra credit at all or they offer fake extra credit. And by fake, I mean they let anyone do extra work to raise their grade regardless of their effort throughout the quarter. Now I offer extra credit. What I do NOT offer is “instead of” credit. Here is what I mean. If a student comes to me at the end of the quarter (before the last Friday before the end of the quarter) and asks for extra credit or what he/she can do to raise his/her grade, I look at the grade book. If s/he has missing work, I tell the student to do the missing work and turn it in, because extra credit is just that: extra. It’s not “instead of” credit. They don’t get to do it instead of the work. If the student has no missing work, then I offer an extra credit assignment to improve his/her grade. This ensures that students don’t get a free pass to a higher grade, but also that if a student really has given some amount of effort, s/he can still bump his/her grade up a little bit.

Additionally, I try really hard to make the extra credit something students really have to have a strong desire to raise their grade to want to do. What I mean is, as an English teacher, I didn’t just give a list of words to define. As a math teacher, I didn’t just give a packet of worksheets with computation/skill & drill/plug & chug. I gave assignments that would require a real time and effort commitment. One extra credit assignment I gave as a high school English teacher was a list of 100 common PSAT words and students had to research, find, and list the word parts and meanings (prefixes, roots, & suffixes) along with either 3 words with the same root or 3 synonyms and 3 antonyms (grade-level quality). This took a LONG time, so I knew students were serious about improving their grades if they worked on this assignment. As a math teacher, one of my favorite extra credit assignments was a research paper/biography on a famous mathematician. I had a list of 50 or so mathematicians throughout history and students had to pick one, research him/her, and write a biography essay (word count and paragraph count minimums would vary by grade level and ability). I made an effort to do cross-curricular things, so students who were just expecting a random plug & chug extra credit were sorely mistaken. They had to really want it to do the research and write the essay. This strategy helped weed out the contenders from the pretenders. It also helped ensure that students felt like they allowed to do as much as possible to get their grade as high as possible.

Why I Decided to Accept Late Work

This post is highly related to my thoughts on why I stopped assigning homework – or better, really, why I changed my outlook on homework assignments. That being said, this post can be read in isolation from the homework post series.

I used to not accept late work. I think my first 2 years for sure, and probably my third year, too. But my third year was the year I lost my job in part because I had too many failing students and many of them came from families who did not like to have failing (or in some cases, C or D) students. I had to re-evaluate my philosophy on late work.

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So I did. I decided that in order to help students raise their grades if they were interested, I would accept their late work with many restrictions. Each day the work was late, students would receive only partial credit. Each additional day would result in less and less credit. I think I capped the late work submissions at either 3 or 5 days late, and then I would not accept the work.

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Holy frickin’ cow was that a lot of work for me. First I had to remember how many days late the student was turning the assignment in. Good luck with that, since students turned work into a tray and never put dates on their work, so it might be the next day before I saw it and had no idea when they turned it in. Then I had to do the math for how much credit to give. Would have been easy if the kid earned 100%, right? 1 day late? You get 90%, 2 days you get 80%, and 3 days, you get 70%. But ohmygosh no. The kid earned 62.5%, so now I have to figure out 80% of 62.5% and put it in the system. Since most of my work was worth like, 10-15 points, kids were getting like, 3 or 4 points by the time I was done. When I could figure out when the heck they turned it in. It was SO not successful. SUCH a bad idea.

But what else could I do? Accept late work the whole quarter? What kind of teacher would I be if I just let kids turn in their work whenever they wanted? Wouldn’t I foster and enable irresponsibility? Wouldn’t I perpetuate the problem of not doing work on time? Wouldn’t I suddenly get entire classes of kids not doing their work and suddenly giving me every single assignment from the quarter on the very last day? OH. MY. GOSH. How could I entertain such a notion?

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Well, I decided to give it a try because really, the worst that could happen would be that it didn’t work and the next quarter I’d revamp my policy. So I set up some very basic ground rules. Work that was not turned in when I collected it was late. No ifs, ands, or buts. This was true for classwork and homework (I rarely – if ever – assigned homework in many of my classes, so this distinction that work was work is important). If I collected it and it wasn’t ready to be turned in (I usually would count down from 5) it was considered late.

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Side note: This tip doesn’t warrant its own post, but I used to have lots of kids claim they turned work in on time and I had just lost it. I couldn’t prove them wrong, so I had to accept their re-work for full credit. To stop these shenanigans, I began stapling student work together. I’d count down from 5 with a stapler in my hand and say that anyone whose paper wasn’t in the stapled pile would be considered late. I never had another issue again.

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If a student wanted to turn in late work, I would accept it for half credit. Blanket rule. Half credit. 50%. Done.

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I would accept late work up until the last Friday before the end of the quarter. This gave me a full week, at least, to grade the late work so I wasn’t staying up all night the day before grades were due.

The only kids who failed my class were kids who didn’t turn in all their work. Really. I am dead serious. Not kids who did all their work on time. Not kids who got A’s on all their work. Not kids who passed all their tests. Any kid who turned in every assignment at any point during the quarter passed my class. This. Was. Groundbreaking. It was ammunition. It was fuel. Failing kid? Angry parent? Angry administrator? Did the kid do their work? Not my problem. Every other kid who turned in their work passed the class. End of story. Can he still turn it in? When does the quarter end? If it’s before the next Friday, then yes, he can turn it in. All of it. Let me tell you how fast that shut people up.

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I was a revolutionary. A visionary in my field.

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And I didn’t end up with piles and piles that last Friday before the end of the quarter. I found out that kids would normally turn their late work in within about a week or so. It ended up being much more of a trickle effect than a flood. I’d have one or two kids that would do all their missing work the last week and hand it to me, but that was manageable. I never had a kid who was missing ALL his work and then tried to turn it in. I found out that the kids who did absolutely nothing weren’t going to do it late any more than they were going to do it on time. And those were the kids who failed.

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Side note #2: I also did not grade work with no name. I know some teachers do the “no-name pile” for kids to claim, but I didn’t play that game. No name = no grade. If you don’t care enough about your work to put your name on it, I don’t care enough to grade it. Or if your work’s not important enough for you to write your name on it, it’s not important enough for me to grade. I wasn’t nasty about it. I didn’t tear up no-name work into little pieces in front of the kid whose work it was and make them cry to instill a lesson upon the class at large. I just threw them away at home or during my prep when I was grading and never brought it up. When a kid looked at their grades and realized it was missing, they’d come tell me they did it and I’d tell them it must not have had their name on it. BUT DON’T WORRY! I’d reassure them, you can redo it for half credit. And I promise, if this is the only time it happens, it won’t affect your overall grade. Occasionally I’d get some tears, but I never had to defend it to a parent or an administrator, because the kid got it.

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Again, my decisions about late work were predicated on the assumption that the work I assigned was valuable. I wanted my students to write the essay. I wanted them to do the definitions. I wanted them to answer the questions. They needed the practice. I needed the assessment to see their achievement. The work needed to be done. It wasn’t busy work. It wasn’t useless. It had a purpose. So if they didn’t do it on time, I wanted them to still do it for the intrinsic value of the work itself. So I gave them half credit for it. The percentage of my students doing their work throughout the quarter rose drastically. So did their grades. So did their learning. So did their achievement. So did their self-concept and self-esteem, because I had kids who were career failures suddenly passing a class.

I hope this post has made you think about the value of the work you assign and your own late work policy. What are your thoughts on my policy? What is your policy? Why do you have that policy?

Why I Stopped Assigning Homework – Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of my series on Why I Stopped Assigning Homework. This will make more sense if you read part 1, but you might still get useful information and insight if you read this entry first.

In part 1, I discussed how I noticed a correlation between student demographic and homework completion. I met another teacher who changed how I looked at homework and late work. I knew I needed to make changes.

But I still faced another reality: demographics. I began to realize that no matter how much some of my students might want to complete their work and see the value in the assignment, their home lives simply didn’t allow them to do it – at least not consistently. What was I to do? Well, I stopped assigning homework. It was that simple. I took the assignments I would normally have assigned as homework and I had students do them in class. You might ask how on earth I was able to get through the necessary material if I was taking up class time with work other teachers would have assigned to be done at home. I think that’s sort of like asking a mother of triplets, “How do you do it?” You just do. Once you set parameters and boundaries for yourself, you learn to live within them. I streamlined my classroom management. No longer did I have five minutes to waste on attendance. No longer did I have five more to waste passing out or collecting papers. I figured out ways to delegate secretarial tasks to students and ways to make my “housekeeping” tasks more efficient. I found the instructional minutes I needed so students could do the practice they needed, but in class.

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I didn’t anticipate a side effect of this, which was to help with missing work due to absenteeism. Like it or not, demographics are related to absenteeism, too – for a variety of reasons. However, I found that because I started having my students do all their work in class that when they came back, all they had to do was the classwork we’d done from while they were out. They just worked on it in class until they caught up with the rest of us. I’ll have more on how I handled absent work in a later post, because it really takes a whole system to make this no-homework approach work.

My students’ achievement soared. Where once I had over 50% failing rates, I was now having only 3-5 failing students in a class. Did every student do every assignment? No, of course not. I had students who refused to work. I had students who refused to make up things they missed. I had students who refused (okay, “forgot,” “lost,” whatever) to turn things in. It wasn’t perfect, but no longer did I participate in the teacher discussions lamenting the incompletion of homework. When I would chime in that “I don’t assign homework,” I would get looks like I’d grown a third head. To each their own.

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The flip side of this were the high-aptitude, low-motivated students. Most of my bright/gifted students came from situations where homework was expected and capable of being completed. If I stopped assigning homework to these students, many parents would have pitched a fit. But I still had a problem. I had students who didn’t do their homework and I had to fight tooth and nail with the parents to get it done. Or the kid failed. At best, he would earn a grade well below his potential. So I had to focus on purpose. I had to focus on challenge. Here is where I began to differentiate my students’ work by product. I gave them more options to complete assignments (drawing, technology incorporation, etc.). I piqued their interest. I made the assignments interesting (I refuse to say “fun” because my job is not to make things “fun.” I tell my students that if you want to have fun, go to Disney. My job is to make learning meaningful, engaging, and purposeful. If you have fun, great, but that’s not my goal.) and the completion rate went up. Sure, I still had students who were obstinate and just plain old refused to do the work, but dealing with one or two kids in a class as opposed to eight or ten was a huge lifesaver.

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You might be wondering about the situations where I had the student from a low SES background in a class where the majority of students were from higher SES backgrounds. My school grouped (I won’t use “tracked” because that’s such a taboo word, right?) students by ability level. In middle school there were three groups: regular, advanced, and honors. In high school, there were regular and honors in 9th and 10th and then AP in 11th and 12th. You would be correct if you assumed that these groupings followed a demographic trend. “Regs” and most “Advanced” students came from lower SES backgrounds and “Honors” kids were almost exclusively from high SES backgrounds. Same with Reg vs. Honors/AP in high school. So yes, I did occasionally get a student or two whose background and home life did not support homework. But again, with my new system, this meant I was working with just one or two students in a class in this situation. And I had the authority to be flexible. We were usually able to make it work.

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I just had to keep it in perspective. Why was I assigning this? Did it matter where it was done? Could a student complete it in class if s/he had the time? If so, why did it matter where it was completed? If it had to be done outside the classroom due to necessary materials (research on the internet, art materials, etc.), what could I do to make sure that students who didn’t have the ability to do those things at home could get them done somehow at school.

It was about purpose. Once I began to look at homework in that light, things changed. I didn’t have to fight the weary battles. My low SES students didn’t have homework to complete and my high SES students were more motivated to complete the homework they did have because it was more purposeful. And I had less grading to do, too. It was a win-win.

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I hope this has made you think about your homework philosophy and how it benefits (or doesn’t) your students.

Why I Stopped Assigning Homework – Part 1

Okay, okay, you got me. I didn’t completely stop assigning homework, but over the years I changed my philosophy about homework and it made a real difference in my students’ achievement.

I used to assign homework every night. I began my teaching career as a math teacher. I assigned homework. What kind of math teacher would I be if I didn’t assign homework? I taught 7th grade pre-Algebra and 8th grade Algebra I Honors.

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Wellllll, here’s the thing. Most of my students didn’t do their homework. Ever. Even if I accepted it late. They didn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. I didn’t know at first which one it was, or even if it was a combination of both. But the homework did not get done. And since I graded homework…you guessed it: my students were failing. It was doubly bad because they were getting 0’s on their homework and then they were failing their quizzes and tests because they weren’t getting the practice they needed from the homework. And since they didn’t do the homework, I couldn’t really do any sort of remediation or re-teaching because I didn’t know what they didn’t know. And they couldn’t ask useful questions because they didn’t know what they didn’t know. It was a mess. This went on for three years. At one point, I actually lost a teaching position in part because I couldn’t figure out how to get my passing rate up to an acceptable margin. My answer was: “They’re not doing their work!” But I had yet to figure out how to take that and make it NOT impact my employment.

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I began to notice patterns in homework completion (or lack thereof). There were two very important things that began to crystallize.

The first thing I noticed – politically incorrectly, I might add (probably, anyway) – was that there was a strong correlation between student homework completion and demographic. Students with low SES rarely completed their homework. No matter how much time I would give them, it just wouldn’t get done. They often were career failures and were on track to drop out at 16, enter the work force, and probably live on public assistance the rest of their lives. It wasn’t pretty.

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The second thing I noticed was that there was a strong correlation between student aptitude and homework completion. Very frequently, I noticed that students who were very capable but highly unmotivated chose not to complete their homework. With this population, if I called home enough and really made an effort, most of the time the parents would somehow manage to get some of the missing work completed and students who were capable of making straight A’s would scrape by with a C or a D.

What was I to do?

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I had to have a paradigm shift regarding homework. I honestly don’t remember where I was – some professional development thing, no doubt – and I met a veteran teacher (I only had a few years under my belt) who was explaining her view on homework. Now during my first few years of teaching I was vehemently against accepting late work and I would only do it begrudgingly in extreme circumstances. I was also a staunch advocate of assigning homework. But the teacher I met changed my views. I don’t think she even intended to; I remember it wasn’t a discussion about the merits or such of homework, but it was just part of a larger conversation that happened to feature her views on homework. I have to paraphrase her words because it’s been too long to remember them exactly, but essentially she asked, “What is the purpose of homework?” That really made me think. Why did I assign homework? What did I hope to accomplish with it? Was it just to have something to grade? Was it so students could practice a skill? Was it to punish? Was it to reward? Was it to enhance? Was it to enrich? What was its purpose? The more I thought about it, the more I realized there were many reasons that I assigned homework. She went on to explain that if she was assigning homework for the right reasons, she really wanted students to do it and would do whatever she could to ensure it would get done because of how valuable it was to the student.

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In that instant, I completely changed my outlook on accepting late work – but that will be elaborated in another post. But in the following moments, I also changed my outlook on assigning homework. I didn’t want to assign work that wasn’t meaningful. I didn’t want to assign homework because it was just what teachers did. I wanted to make sure my homework was purposeful. Was there a new skill students needed to practice? Did I need more points to incorporate into students’ grades? Was there an upcoming assessments for which students needed to review? I wanted to make sure that students would want to do their work because it meant something to them.

Next week’s post will conclude this series. Stay tuned!

How I used the First Week of School to Ensure a Well-Managed Classroom for the Entire Year

My first year of teaching I made a horrible mistake. Okay, well, I made a LOT of mistakes, but the worst mistake I made was on the very first day. I told my students I didn’t really have any rules. Yes. Yes, I said it. They even asked me what my rules were, and I honest-to-God told them, “I don’t really have any rules.” I think I might have said something after that about wanting them to be respectful and do their work or something, but there’s no shot that they heard it. There are only a handful of things I wish I could go back in time and undo, and that is one of them. Most of the mistakes I made turned out to be great learning experiences. This one was, too, but I could have learned a LOT of the same things without saying that, and my year would have been a LOT easier.

Frustrated businessman, with sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, screaming and pulling his hair. Taken with a Panasonic FZ30 Lumix.

Fortunately, I learned my lesson, and the next year I implemented rules. I don’t remember exactly what they were, so I know I didn’t do it right that second year, either. But the second year was better than the first. My third year I still didn’t have it quite figured out, and I had more problems (but who wouldn’t with over 40 kids in a class?). But then, somewhere, I read about a student “handbook” for the classroom. Some teacher I talked to or read their blog (honestly, it was almost ten years ago, and I don’t remember exactly where I saw the idea) explained that s/he gave their students a document at the beginning of the year every year. This document had all the rules and expectations for the classroom for the year. The students even signed it like a real contract.

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So I did what any good teacher would do (or one who was trying to be better) and made my own! I had three years’ worth of behavior issues to work with, and each year I had kept a list of all the things that had gone wrong and that I wanted to change. I also wrote down things I wish I had rules or procedures for but didn’t know how to implement in the middle of the year when I thought about them. I spent some time (like, weeks) putting together every issue I could think of. Everything that had ever gone wrong in my room, everything any student had ever asked me about procedures/behavior/etc., all these things went into the document. I decided to call it the “what if” student contract. This is because every single rule or expectation was addressed as a student asking me a question.

“What do I need for this class?” “What if I have to go to the bathroom?” “What if I am late to class?” “What if I forget my homework?” “What if I feel sick?” “What if the person next to me is bothering me?” “What if I forgot a pencil?” “What if I’m hungry?” “What if I’m tired?” “What if I want a ‘free day’?”

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Literally, every possible question I could imagine a student needing or wanting to know on the first day, I answered in my document. I also included my discipline plan (rules and consequences) so students knew what to expect. The document was long. I mean, really, really long – like 10 pages (5 front & back). And I didn’t know if it would work, but I was willing to try. I was nervous. I’d never really done anything that first week of school except start teaching. Of course, the second and third year I spent a little time that first day going over my rules and the consequences, but not more than half the period. I jumped into instruction right away. I didn’t know any better.

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Year four, though, I decided to do things differently. I printed my rules and procedures student contract. I copied enough for every student to have his/her own (and I made extras, too, for students who came in later in the year). They were ready for the first day. When the students came in, I had three things for them: a student information page (What do you like to be called? Who do you live with? What’s your email? What’s your parents’ email(s)? What do you like to do for fun? What’s your favorite subject? Etc.), a supply list, and my rules and expectations packet. After they filled out the information sheet, I passed out the packets, had students put their name on them, and began to read through page by page. I answered questions as they arose. I even had students model some of the behaviors I expected (coming in tardy, asking to borrow supplies from a neighbor, disliking the lesson, being angry with me, etc.). I had them model incorrect behavior (they loved that part) and then correct behavior. By the end of the first class I realized we’d only gotten through about a page and a half. We certainly hadn’t gone past page two. The next day, we picked up where we left off. It took the entire first week to get through the packet. Some kids got a little antsy that we hadn’t started instruction. Heck, I got a little antsy when I realized how long this thing was taking. But I was going to do my experiment right, so I plowed through to the end. Once we finished, I asked for any final questions and then had students sign their name. I put the packets in their student folders (I’ll have another post on how I organized student work later on), and the following Monday, we began instruction.

When a student asked me a question covered in the document, I referred them to the document. It kept me from having to answer the same questions over and over. Eventually kids either asked a neighbor or looked through the document themselves. If I had a new student enroll, the first thing they would get would be the same stack of papers students got on the first day of school. I would have students spend the entire day reading through their paperwork, ask me any questions they had, sign it, and then put it in their file. Every student who came through my door promised they would abide by my rules and do their best to meet my expectations.

My fourth year of teaching was UH-MAZING. It was like teaching was meant to be. I enjoyed myself. The kids enjoyed themselves. I taught. Students learned. It was magical.

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I had problems, yes. I had issues, but they were manageable and quickly remedied. I continued the first week routine every year after that. I even did it in high school. Once I began teaching high school, I did streamline it a bit so that I could discuss the document in 3-4 days instead of a full 5, but we did NOT begin instruction until I was sure every student understood my expectations and what would happen if they were not met. Every year I would add to it when a student did/asked something I hadn’t thought of.

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I also re-visited the document at the beginning of the second semester after kids returned from break. I didn’t spend a whole week on it then, but highlighted the major issues that had been weakening towards the end of semester one. One year, I even made it into a PowerPoint presentation, but I found that to be slightly less effective, so I went back to reading through the physical document the next year.

If you think this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It was. However, it was LESS work than dealing with behavior and management issues the entire year. I went from daily or weekly referrals and multiple administrators in my room for behavior issues in my first 3 years to a handful of referrals a year and 1 visit from an administrator for behavior issues in the next 6 years. To say it was successful would be a gross understatement.

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Maybe you’re a first-year teacher anxious about classroom management. Maybe you’re a veteran teacher looking for a new way to improve student behavior and achievement. I encourage you to make your own rules and expectations student contract. If you think this idea would work for you but you don’t want to or don’t have enough time to make your own, you can use mine as a starting point and then add to in order to meet your specific needs. I know it will work for you as well as it did for me – as long as you put the work in on the front end during that first week and then are CONSISTENT in enforcing rules, expectations, and consequences throughout the year.

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Have a great school year!

student contract

Why I Stopped Being the Gum Nazi

Classroom management; classroom discipline; student behavior; whatever you call it, these things are on teachers’ minds in July and August. Really, they’re year-long endeavors, but back-to-school season is the prime time for developing a game plan for a well-run classroom. If you read classroom management books, teacher blogs, or even just talk to successful teachers, there is a theme among their rules: less is more. Picking 3-5 rules and consistently enforcing them tends to work better than having a laundry list of things posted in a classroom and expecting students to really buy into them.

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It’s from this philosophy that many teachers (including myself) employ the well-known phrase “hill to die on.” One thing I learned during my decade in the classroom is that you can’t fight every battle and expect to win. During my first few years, I tried to fight every battle that came my way and I wound up exhausted and defeated.

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And my students suffered: they ran rampant and didn’t learn as much as they should have or could have. As I gained experience, I began to realize that I had to just let some things go. I’m a lot better at it now that I’m a parent, and if I ever go back into the classroom, I think that experience will serve me well in this regard. But as I grew in my teaching experience, I finally reached the point where I had to decide what were going to be my hills to die on. One of the things I considered was gum-chewing. My decision on how to handle gum chewing actually came about in a sort of convoluted, backwards sort-of way. I hate bugs. Bugs of any kind. And the last thing I wanted were bugs in my classroom. I never opened my windows, and I never left food lying around my classroom. In fact, I rarely ate in my classroom. I tried to eat in other teachers’ rooms or a staff room or something in order to minimize the likelihood of crumbs on my floor, which would attract bugs.

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Well, my students wanted to eat in my room. This was less of a problem in middle school, but when I moved up to teaching high school, it was pervasive. I would have students that brought what seemed to be entire meals and would want to eat them during my class. Now, when I was in college, I did this sometimes. In fact, I remember I did it in one specific class because I had a full day and only had time to grab food from somewhere on my way to class and then eat it during class. But I digress. When I refused to let them eat in my room, my students would always spout back at me that “so-and-so” teacher let them eat in class. I could not fathom how any teacher would let teenagers eat in their classroom when they would undoubtedly leave trash and food behind. But somehow, in my growth, I realized that unless it fell under some sort of school or district policy, classroom rules like whether or not students could eat in a classroom were up to teacher discretion.

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And so I began to find my hills.

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One of my hills was food in the classroom. I will expound more upon this in a later post, but my policy has always been and will always be (at least I think it will) that no one eats in my classroom – even me. (I am very cognizant of not falling into the “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” trap; if I require it of my students, I do it myself, too. I don’t let my students eat in my room, and I never eat in front of them.) So finally one year I decided to experiment. I was tired of fighting the gum battle. I mean, it was so prevalent: ever teacher I’d ever had and had ever known had made kids spit out their gum. Gum was not allowed. But I was tired of being the gum Nazi. I was tired of gum under my desks and on the floor and being found in places one just should not find gum. So I really thought about it. I had nothing against gum. I chew gum all the time. It doesn’t interfere with my ability to teach and as a student, it never interfered with my ability to learn. So why did we always ban gum? I looked it up; it wasn’t a district or even a school-wide policy. It was just culture. Anti-gum culture.

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So I took a leap of faith. Maybe, if I allowed gum, the gum problems would cease. Maybe if I wasn’t constantly on the lookout to find gum and order it into the trash can, it would stop being put under desks and on floors and windows and such. Maybe if I just gave up being the gum Nazi, I could put my energy into fighting a different battle that meant more to me (like eating in the classroom). I was prepared for failure. I was prepared to retract my policy after the first quarter – or even first semester. But let me tell you: it was completely successful. I started the school year with my rules and expectations outline (again, a later post), and in it, I made it clear that I allowed my students to chew gum, provided it wasn’t distracting, stayed in the mouth, and went into the trash when it was finished. My students thought I was playing some sort of trick. I had at least 2-3 hands in every period ask things like, “Are you serious?” and “Really? You’re for real?” I assured them that I really was serious and that I reserved the right to change my mind if I started finding gum in inappropriate places. But I didn’t. My students chewed their gum quietly. They didn’t blow bubbles. They didn’t put it in each other’s hair. When it lost flavor, they spit it out and put in a new piece (the first few times I would get the side eye, as if to make sure I was really going to let them do it). It was liberating.

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I had so much more energy to devote to other things than sniffing out gum. I even had kids offer me gum (which was sweet; not that I ever took them up on it, but…sweet, nonetheless). So every year after that I continued my policy. And if I ever go back into the classroom, I will continue it. I stopped being the gum Nazi because it sucked my energy away from things that mattered more to me. When I stopped devoting energy to gum, I was able to spend more time teaching and less time worrying about something that, in the grand scheme of things (for me, personally), was not worthy of being a hill to die on.

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It Summer! And Other Interesting Things.

By now most teachers are completely done with the school year. 14-15 is OVER. Is there anyone who is still teaching this far into June? Unless you’re at a year-round school, probably not. I really miss my summers. This is the 3rd summer I’ve had to work, since I now occupy a 12-month position. And I miss my summers. There are things I DON’T miss about the classroom, that’s for sure. But I do miss my summers. I miss sleeping in. Not that there was much of that, what with trainings and planning for the upcoming year, but there was some. And I do miss planning for the upcoming year. I used to keep a running document of all the things that didn’t work during the school year and I would spend the summer figuring out how to improve them. Not just specific lessons, but stuff in general. Like maybe I realized I was ending up with too much work to grade. I would sit down and try to figure out a system where I could still assign what I needed to in order to achieve certain goals but get things graded on time and without taking up three hours of my evenings. Or I might realize that students spent way too much time going to the bathroom and so I would figure out a plan to reduce (or eliminate) that problem. How many of you do that? I tell you, it’s what really helped each year of my teaching improve. It’s how I came up with my student contract and my hall passes.

In other news, the Teachers Pay Teachers annual conference is coming up very soon! It’s scheduled for July 9-10 in Las Vegas, NV. I had such a great time and learned so much last year that I can’t wait to go back. And this time, my husband is coming with me! We’ll get to go to twice the number of sessions and learn double what I could have on my own. If anyone is coming, I’d love to meet up with you at some point. We will probably be going to the secondary seller meet up Thursday night after the sessions end. I also got business cards this year, since they were super popular last year and I wished I’d brought some. They came in early and I’m stoked about how they turned out. If you’re a premium seller on TpT and you haven’t registered for the conference, I think they’re still accepting registrations. It is SO worth it. I was nervous that it wouldn’t be, but it totally was! I learned so much and improved my business by leaps and bounds! I hope to see you there!

Thanks, Mom!

My mother likes to email me things she thinks are useful and/or amusing. Nine times out of ten, I have little-to-no use for or interest in what she’s forwarded to me in my inbox. Every once in a while, though, she sends me a little gem. This week, my entry will be based on a top-ten list she sent me found here.

I won’t get it all covered in one entry, so I’ll carry it over to next week.

Coming in at the number ten spot on the important skills students need to succeed in life list is computer science. Not your basic keyboarding and word processing skills, though – something much more in depth and difficult: programming. I’ll be the first to admit that computer programming is not at the top of my “fun things to do” list. I took one computer information systems class in college, and it absolutely destroyed me. I had zero idea what I was doing. None of it made sense. Now I’m in a job where it would be beneficial to understand and be able to write programming code, but I can’t do it. Yes, I’m old, but I’m not so old that I couldn’t have had some instruction in basic programming. I’m pretty sure C++, at least, was around while I was in high school. Computer programming is a completely different language. It’s a completely different way of thinking. It’s not like trying to learn French if you speak English; it’s like trying to learn Chinese if you speak English. A completely separate alphabet, grammar structure, etc. With the technology industry continuing to grow, this ability is a virtual necessity. At best, however, it is something students will be introduced to if they choose it as an elective. Instead, it should be as mandatory as a visual art or physical education credit. What can the average teacher do about it? Not much, to be honest, but if you can get in the ear of the media or technology specialist at your site, or even the administrator in charge of scheduling classes, maybe you can plant the seed about this being a necessity.

Clocking in at number nine is the art of speed reading. Does every student need to know how to speed read? Does anyone, for that matter? Probably not. But the article makes a good point that the foundations of speed reading can be useful for other reading skills. Especially for struggling readers, the ability to skim lengthy texts and still get the gist of what the central ideas are is critical. Teaching students how to visually chunk text as they read can benefit them in many ways. So what can teachers do to foster this skill? For English and Reading teachers, direct instruction on this would be useful. Built-in practice time during class is easier than for other subject areas (note I said “easier” and not “easy” – I know no one has extra time to do anything that isn’t in the curriculum). But if you teach another subject, you still read. Modeling skimming or block/chunk reading to students is helpful. The metacognition (where you talk aloud as you “think” so students can follow your train of thought) teaches students how to do the task.

Last one for this entry is the number 8: Time management. This really deserves an entire entry all for itself. Teachers tend to be naturally good time managers. We have to be. There are a million things to do and about an inch worth’s of time to get it all done. But how did we get to be good time managers? For most of us, it was trial and error. Because we were self-motivated, we kept at it until we figured out how to be successful. Unfortunately, many of our students don’t harbor that intrinsic drive, and failure becomes routine. Teaching students basic time management techniques is critical. There really could be a whole class on it (in some districts, they’re actually moving towards this with programs like AVID). Students need to know how to use planners/assignment logs. They need to know how to prioritize. They need to know how to schedule their time and then keep track of it. Even just starting with something simple like time management on tests is a good place to begin. Teaching students to regularly check the clock to make sure they’re not taking too long on one question or that they’re not going to run out of time on a test can be the basis for good time management skills in other areas of their lives. Scheduling deadlines for students throughout long-term projects is another way to foster this skill. Even if the students don’t seem to want to manage their time or maybe don’t even seem capable, showing them successful tools and strategies can be impactful later. Once they “wake up” and realize they need better time management, they’ll have the arsenal of “Oh yeah, Mrs. Moody made me plan out my project work on that stupid calendar so I didn’t let it all pile up until the last day. I guess it wasn’t so stupid…” and other techniques they’ve been exposed to during their schooling. Every teacher can contribute to this. It doesn’t matter what you teach – you can model good time management for your students and teach them time management skills for them to use in their own lives. Who knows, maybe it will help you manage your own time a little better, too.

That’s all for this week! Stay tuned next week for numbers 7, 6, and 5!

Also, don’t forget to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and now I’m on Bloglovin!

CNN Student News

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Well, for my school district (in Tampa, FL) today was the first day back for students. So – anyone who had kiddos for the first time today…I hope it went great. If you’ve already had your first day back with the kidlets, I hope it went awesome, too. And if you’ve yet to have day 1, I hope it is just spectacular. So, here’s my first entry of the 14-15 school year. I thought I’d start out with something that might help you get your classes started at least a few times a week.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of CNN student news, but ever since I was introduced to it, I have loved it. It is primarily used in middle school social studies classrooms, although I think it could be used in English classes as well. There is one, 10-minute video each day with headlines and interactive features (polls, etc.). Some teachers have students take notes on each video and then give an assessment at the end of the week. This is a great way to do bell work and keep kids accountable. As an English teacher, I think it would be neat to have students write reflection, analysis, or persuasive pieces on the covered stories. Research skills could also be contextually taught if a teacher wanted to extend the topic beyond bell work.

CNN Student News website

There are archives of videos so if you’re looking for a particular topic you can search for it. They even have transcripts of the videos to utilize as written text. I think it would be a great way to explore bias in the news media and the use of rhetorical devices.

For each video, CNN provides a daily curriculum .pdf, key concepts of the show, a short (3-5 question) quiz for after the show (or during, if you wish), and discussion questions.

I think it would be cool to show a video on a Monday and assign an essay/written response on one of the stories. Tuesday and Wednesday students could be shown other sources focusing on the same story. They could edit (peer or individually) their writing on Thursday, and then create the final draft on Friday. This could be done as bell work, a mini-lesson, or a full-blown class period.

Some writing topics:
Do you agree or disagree with the stance [person] took on [topic]? Why or why not?
How did the CNN student news coverage of the story compare to ?
What rhetorical devices were present in the story? How effective were they?
Is [story] a worthwhile piece of reporting? Why or why not? Persuade someone to agree with your claim.
Using all the resources you have had access to, write a [#] paragraph paper on the story.
Write a summary of the story.
Create [#] interview questions for [person in story], then, answer them the way you think he/she would given all the research you have done on the topic.

By the way, tomorrow is a one-day back-to-school boost sale on TeachersPayTeachers. My entire store is 20% off plus the site-wide discount. I’ve got lots of great stuff for classroom management to start the year off right, along with math and ELA lessons/resources for middle and high school. Come check it out!

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