How I Lessened the Absenteeism Problem in Relation to Student Achievement

This isn’t an entry on how I got kids to come to school. If I had the answer to that, I’d have sold it and be retired. No, absenteeism is a reality within all teachers must live. Instead of lamenting the issue itself, time is better spent thinking up ways to mitigate the consequences of it. I think teachers can sum up the negative consequences of absenteeism in 2 words:

  • Instruction
  • Work

No one wants kids to miss school. It’s a hassle. They come back and teachers have to work overtime (more than we already do) to get that kid caught up. Because no matter how much you chant the mantra that it’s the student’s responsibility to take care of what they missed…it’s really up to you. Because until we can figure out how to reverse the student misconception that if they were absent they are excused from the work…we have to take matters into our own hands because ultimately, we’re judged on that student’s performance.

If you are not fortunate enough to work for a district or school that has either reliable technology or a digital platform, you could do what I used to do (up until semester 2 of the ’15-’16 school year) and have the absent binder. I used to print the forms and “hire” a student captain to fill out the appropriate information each day. This worked really well most of the time, but the students were unreliable sometimes (because: teenagers) and I ended up doing most of the writing. I eventually changed to keeping the document template on my computer and typing in the information each day (or week) and just printing it out and putting it in the binder for students.

This was a lifesaver. I trained my students to go to the binder when they returned and get any handouts they missed (also printed and available in the absent binder), the day’s bell work (starter, bell ringer, whatever you call it in your room), and record the assignment – both in class and homework, if applicable – they missed and only come to me if they couldn’t get what they needed from another classmate. And by “needed,” I mean the notes, questions about the assignment, etc. – not copying answers for problems. This saved me so much time in the long run and made things easier because students had something consistent. They didn’t stop missing school, but they made up their work more frequently and more independently, and that restored a lot of my sanity.

If you do have reliable access to technology (i.e. a desktop/laptop and the internet) I would highly recommend doing this electronically. I’m lucky enough to work for a district that purchased rights to use a digital interface for our grade book, and with it, come some really cool features. I am able to post anything I want in a “class feed.” Think of it as a type of Facebook page for my classes. Each class has its own. Starting 2nd semester of this year, I moved my absent binder to our web interface. I posted the weekly bell work, assignments, everything we did each day on that feed. I got a student desktop through a grant and then when students returned from an absence, I sent them to the computer to get what they needed from the class feed. They did the bell work question, took the notes (I uploaded pictures of my hand-written notes for each day or the PowerPoint lessons I did), did the assignment (I uploaded any specifics – what pages and which book were used, the worksheet if it was stand-alone, etc. I even started videotaping my lessons and uploading those to the feed so students could watch the actual lesson.  And, if it was distributed, I still had a stack of handouts for the entire quarter), and turned it in. Usually. This was so efficient and saved me time and energy (and sanity). It took some work on the front end, and I would fall behind sometimes, but my students would always seem to remind me – which was great; it meant they were looking for what they missed and couldn’t find it.absenteeism 1

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Why I Taught Formulaic Writing

Obviously, I am a writer. Obviously. You’re reading something I wrote right now. I write a wide variety of works, everything from poetry to book reviews. I’ve published a novel and create unique curriculum resources. I even write in the world of fan fiction. I will be the first person to champion free-form, creative writing. In fact, I am not a huge fan of strict structure in most writing (have you ever actually tried to write a sonnet?). So, why would someone like me resort to teaching formulaic writing in my classroom? I’m not talking about “beginning, middle, end” structure. I’m talking about essentially fill-in-the-blank templates for students. It might seem counter-productive. I’ve even had other teachers side-eye me when they hear or see what I do. Heck, I’ll be honest, the first time I saw this type of writing instruction, I side-eyed it.

formulaic writing side eye.gif

But I have my reasons. I have taught 7th, 9th, 10th, and 12th grade ELA (in that order). Every single grade level I have taught I kept hoping it would get better. I kept hoping that my students would come to me as good writers and I could take their writing and help them soar. I wanted to take them from good to great. I wanted them to enter contests and win scholarships. I wanted them to score straight 6’s on the state writing test. But for 3 years, my 7th graders demonstrated over and over their inability to form a coherent paragraph (some even struggled with a coherent sentence). When I moved up to high school, I was sure the students would have more basic skill. I was wrong. I started my formulaic writing in middle school and continued it in high school for 1 simple reason: I had to.

formulaic writing desperation.PNG

I taught low-performing, low-achieving students. I won’t pretend that I had any sort of Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds experiences, but I had students routinely performing at level 1 and level 2 (level 3 is considered proficient in my state) and in remedial reading classes. I had ESE students in my FUSE classes. I had scores of students who either couldn’t write, thought they couldn’t write, or didn’t want to write. I would give writing prompts and watch as students put their heads down on their desks without writing a single word. Over and over I would try to get to the root of the problem. “Why aren’t you writing?” I would ask. Over and over I would hear some variant of the same answer: “I don’t know what to write.”

formulaic writing student head down

Well, finally, I said enough was enough. No one should not know what to write unless they’re halfway through a novel and can’t figure out how to relate a once-vibrant subplot to the theme. The prompts that the vast majority of my students were asked to write on were no cause for this answer. They didn’t require endless wells of creativity. They required some basic grasp of the main writing traits: structure, conventions, and ideas (I know there are 6 writing traits, but for students who typically hand in a blank sheet, even just getting 3 three under control is a major accomplishment). The vast majority of my students will not only likely never be published authors, but also don’t have any desire to be. I just had to figure out a way for them to live within their reality. I had to figure out a way to help them demonstrate some sort of mastery of the basics. If I could do that, then I could consider myself successful.

formulaic writing success

And so my formulaic writing was born. I began with my lowest students and created the skeleton essay. This is where I put every structurally required element in for them and they only had to come up with quasi-coherent content. I began with the three basic paragraphs: introduction, body, and conclusion. I skipped the hook (because face it, you can have a functional essay without one) and wrote the thesis statement for them. I wrote all the transition words and the blueprint for the body paragraph as well as the conclusion paragraph. I started with easy questions. Inflammatory questions. Questions that are in no way related to the higher-order thinking prompts required on state writing tests and SAT and ACT writing portions. But you know what? That’s okay. Starting with the hackneyed, “Should there be school uniforms?” is okay when you’re trying to get a kid from blank-page-head-on-the-desk to turning in something with meaning – something that shows him/her writing is something s/he can do.

formulaic writing argumenet

I started with blueprint, formulaic writing with insanely basic prompts and allowed anecdote after anecdote for “evidence.” I fostered the mentality that “no one cares if what you write is true; the reader cares if what you write is reasonable and related.” Once my students knew the formula and felt “allowed” to (essentially) make up evidence, they had no excuse. There was no room for “I don’t know what to write.” Because now they had a blueprint. They had a formula. They didn’t have to figure out how to start. I began having students who would write absolutely nothing turning in multi-paragraph essays. Not grade-level vocabulary or even sentence-length, but they felt like they had accomplished something.

formulaic writing happy student

I’ve learned over the course of my teaching career that I have to meet and teach students where they’re at. If I asked my 4-year-old to do Calculus, he’d hop down from the chair after less than a minute and want to go play. He wouldn’t care if it was state-mandated that he demonstrate mastery. He wouldn’t be able to do it. I have had to let go of the idea that I could get every kid performing at or above grade-level over the course of the year. I have seen time and time again that if I teach a student where s/he is at, engagement is higher, motivation is higher, and that student’s achievement is higher. Have I made up for years’ worth of deficits? No, but have I prevented yet another wasted year? I like to think so.

If you’d like to see (and perhaps try!) some of what I used to improve my students’ writing, come check out my mini-lesson on writing thesis statements or my writer’s workshop!