Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Making My English Class into a Tae Kwon Do Studio

I have never been truly happy with my writing instruction in my middle school English class, and this year I am doing something about it.

In the past, I assigned a couple essays each quarter, and my strong writers did fine, turning in well-written essays on the due date. My struggling writers, however, had a much more difficult time. Every step took longer, and they were lucky to finish their first draft on the due date. They would turn in an almost-finished essay, be content with a mediocre grade, and ignore my comments, ready to repeat the process a couple weeks later on the next essay.

The worst part of this pattern is that my struggling
writers never learned edit their work. Henry Kissinger once said that, “Good writing is good rewriting,” and Ernest Hemingway wrote, “There is no writing, just rewriting.” Proofreading, correcting, and publishing essays is more important for struggling writers than it is for strong writers since strong writers naturally communicate in grammatically correct, nice sounding sentences.

So this year, I will assess student writing less like a school project and more like a tae kwon do studio. I'm no expert - I only studied tae kwon do for three years before I had children - but I like the systems of belts that represent achievement. Martial artists must test In order to progress to the next belt, show that they have mastered the skills of the previous belt before graduating to the next belt.

This year, my students must master the first steps in writing before progressing to the next. For instance, a “yellow belt” student will write a complete first draft before moving on to “green belt.” The student must have a complete introductory paragraph, perfect thesis statement, and well-developed body paragraphs in the first draft before I will approve her to start editing as a green belt. Most importantly, she must complete all of the steps of editing - especially incorporating my comments -  before starting the outline of the second essay, which is the difference between the green belt and the orange belt.

It was hard for me when I realized that at the end of the quarter, some students would only complete one and a half essays while others would complete three. But outside of school, everyone's expected to learn at a different pace, and we don't move on until we have finished the earlier steps. One of my struggling writers might complete fewer essays, but he will have fully edited and perfected the once he did write, which is a more valuable learning experience than almost finishing three essays. In the end, that student might get the same mediocre grade for writing, but at least he has learned skills that will help him do better next time.

This idea did not come from watching a martial arts movie or learning tae kwon do. It came to me while at a faculty meeting before the first day of school. Our administrator asked us to discuss what we would change about school. While some at my table wished for a later start time or more STEM (or even better coffee in the teachers’ lounge), I wished that I could scrap the whole system where students move to the next grade at the beginning of the new school year. I wish that students moved to the next classroom when they had mastered the skills, no matter how long it took. I may not be able to totally rework the traditional school system, but I can rework the writing instruction in my class.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Don't Hate the Five Paragraph Essay

Over the years, I have heard a number of educators, usually upper-level high school teachers, complaining about the traditional five paragraph essay. It usually goes something like, "If I have to read another one of those boring five paragraph essays, I think I'll..." followed by some unmentionable act. There logic is flawed, though. They believe that if the student did not write a five paragraph essay, she would write a more well-developed, original piece that is enjoyable to read because each piece of the argument is logical and fully explained. They are wrong. If the student did not follow the steps of the five paragraph essay, she would probably write a seven line blurb made up of a series of random thoughts sprinkled one after another, each in 140 characters or fewer.

To the small group of readers unfamiliar with the five paragraph essay, it is a structure, almost a
formula, that students use to write expository essays. It begins with an introductory paragraph, followed by three body paragraphs, and ends in a concluding paragraph. Each body paragraph begins with a topic sentence and is supported with 4-6 sentences of facts and explanation. Standard school essay.

The five paragraph essay is what I used when teaching writing in my middle school English classes and is also what students use when they write using my website, Clickademics Essay Engine, which helps struggling writers through the writing process. I like it because it is a good starting point. It forces students to lay out the argument of the paper in a logical way that is easy for readers to follow. Were it not for this structure, most young writers would simply write sentences as they popped in their head. If a high school teacher told his students to avoid writing five paragraph essays, he would not receive a variety of well-written prose, he would receive a couple good essays and a whole lot of jumbled, hard-to-read text that would be far more difficult to read than a homogeneous stack of five paragraph essays.

Like all rules, the structure of the five paragraph essay was made to be broken. Once students have mastered the basic form, they can expand where needed. If three supporting details are not enough, there is room for more. If six sentences are not enough to fully explain an idea, the writer can expand on the thought, even adding another paragraph. But doesn't that mean it would be a six paragraph essay?

Now the grumpy teachers do have a point - high school students should not be writing the same five paragraph essays that they wrote in middle school. Older writers should be breaking out of the formula and making the structure fit the essays topic. But the answer is not to trash the five paragraph essay structure, it is to explicitly teach how good writers break out,  how to write more without rambling, how to elegantly transition between ideas, how to write a thesis that does not clumsily list the topics of the three paragraphs.

The five paragraph essay is actually misnamed because it does not necessarily have to have five paragraphs. It is simply organized writing. There are, however, some elements that non-negotiable. Every expository essay - or speech for that matter - should have:
  • A catchy introduction
  • A thesis that clearly states the point of the piece
  • Facts and evidence that supports the point
  • Ideas laid out in a logical order
  • A conclusion that gives a sense of completion
These elements apply to all nonfiction writing, from a business email to a doctoral thesis. The lack of logic and organization is what makes college professors and employers so frustrated. If more young students mastered the five paragraph essay, they would be more prepared for writing as an adult.

So don't hate the five paragraph essay. Just know that it is a stepping stone to mature writing. Most students just need a nudge before they can leave the safety of the structure and find their own style.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Good Enough Guide to Making Educational Videos

For my Clickademics site, I make educational videos the hard way, often taking several days to film the lesson, create graphics, and edit it all together. That is fine for my website, but it is completely impossible for a classroom teacher trying to juggle all of the regular teaching duties. Below are my quick and dirty tips for making educational videos that are fast enough to fit in your schedule but quality enough that you won't be embarrassed to show your students. It took about half and hour to film and an hour to edit.


  • Video Camera - any camera will do
  • Microphone - hopefully you have a camera with an audio jack. A cheap label mic does wonders
  • Mac (sorry PC users, the teachers I help all use Macs and so do I)
  • iMovie Editing Software and PowerPoint or Keynote presentation software


1.     Film your lesson, preferably using an external microphone. Teach in short segments with long pauses in between. Don’t be afraid to take many takes until you get each segment just right.
2.     Upload your footage to your computer. If you plan to film several lessons, consider storing the video on an external hard drive.

  1. In iMovie, click on the “File” pull down menu and choose “Import from Camera”
  2. Always choose the “Full” file size, but you do not need to choose “Stabilization” because it takes too long.

3.     iMovie’s screen is separated into “Events” and “Projects.” The Event is the raw footage that you downloaded. The Project is your finished product. You may need to hit the “Project Library” arrow to see all of your projects. Now hit the “+” sign to add a new project. Give your project a name and leave it as 16:9 widescreen and 30 fps.
Adding a New Project
4.     In the “Event Library” watch your footage. When there is a segment you want to use, click on it to surround it with a yellow box. You can drag the beginning and the end of the box to fit keep the good parts.
Capture Clip in Yellow Box
5.     Drag the yellow box up to the “Project” window.
Drag Footage into Project
6.     Keep doing steps 4 and 5 for all of your segments until you have a complete lesson. Remember to keep your lessons short. When it doubt, make several 2-4 minute lessons instead of a 12-14 minute lessons.
This is Your First Draft
7.     Now, create your graphics. Using PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote, make slides that correspond to the important points in your lesson.

  1. Write out your most important points
  2. Show examples
  3. Make diagrams
  4. Add photographs (be sure to search for Creative Commons images that are not copyrighted. You may use copyrighted images in your own classroom but not if the video is available to all students.)
Make Slides
8.     Save your slideshow in a way that can be embedded in your video

  1. The fast, easy way: save each slide as it’s own image.
  2. In Powerpoint, click on the “File” pull down menu and choose “Save As.” Under the “Format” or “File Type” choose “JPG.”
  3.  In Keynote, click on the “Share” pulldown menu and choose “Images.”
  4. Add these photos to your iPhoto library
  5. The slower, fancier way: export your slideshow as a movie that you can edit in to your video lesson
  6. Between each slide you will need to add a “Transition.” Set the transition to happen 20 seconds later so that the slide will stay on the screen long enough.
  7. You will have to use this method if you have animation in your slideshow.
  8. You will find the place to export as a movie in the “Save As” “Format” in PowerPoint or “Share” in Keynote.
9.     Import your slides into your video project. In iMovie, do the following:

  1.  For still images, click on the “photo browser” icon that is shaped like a camera. Find your images so you can use them later.
  2. For slides saved as a movie, click on “File” and “Import” and choose “Movies”
10.  You will now need to be sure that “Picture-in-Picture” is turned on.

  1. Click on the “iMove” pull down menu and click on “Preferences.”
  2. Under “General” be sure that “Show Advanced Tools” is checked.
Inspector for PIP Transitions
11.  Now drag your graphics to the place where you want them.

  1. If you drag the graphic in between clips, it will take the whole screen. This is good if you have a slide that you will use as a title for your video.
  2. If you drag the graphic on top of another clip, the graphic will appear in a small box next to the teacher.
Crop Graphics
Adjust PIP Graphic
Move PIP
12.  You can show a graphic while the audio of the lesson continues. This is good if you are talking through an example, and you want the viewer to follow along.

  1. Click on the clip in the Project to select it. If the clip is longer than you want the graphic on the screen, you will need to right click and choose "Split Clip" to cut the clip where you want it to end,
  2. Right click and choose “Detach Audio.”
  3. Drag the graphic on top of the video of the teacher talking.
  4. Choose “Replace.”
Split your video Clip
13.  Add text to the screen. Click the icon with a “T” on it; these are meant to be titles, but most are good for adding text as well.

  1. If you want to reinforce a point, but you don’t have a slide, you can overlay text on the screen.
  2.  Just select the appearance of the text and drag it to the clip where you want the text. You can stretch or shrink the time the text is on the screen with the yellow box in the Project window.
14.  Once all the content is in place, you can add transitions, but do so sparingly. Click the icon with triangles. Use transitions to

  1. the viewer that you are moving to a new part of the lesson. A “wipe” will alert the student that you are turning the page to a new topic.
  2. Use a “Fade to White” if you have two clips of the teacher talking that don’t quite match
  3. A “Dissolve” is good for most other transitions, but it is ok to jump between two scenes with no transition.
  4. Just be consistent. Create a visual vocabulary that has meaning for your viewer.
Add Transitions
15.  When your video is complete, export it.

  1. Click on the “Share” pull down menu.
  2. You will probably choose either “YouTube” or “Export Movie.”
  3. Choose “Export using Quicktime” if you want to save it as a certain video format or shrink the file size to something easy to share or email. If you want to shrink the movie, change “Default Settings” to “LAN/Intranet.” Click on “Options” and “Size;” change “Compressor Native” to “1280x720 HD” because your video is widescreen.

If you would like to see the finished product, I posted the video on YouTube/Clickademics

Monday, July 8, 2013

Start From Scratch

It's July. It's time to rethink you class. In fact, it's time to throw everything in the trash and start from scratch.

One of the dangers of being an experienced teacher is falling into a rut. If you have taught the same course for a few years, you now have a good, solid unit for every month of the school year. You are past those rookie days where you figured out what you would do in each class the night before the class. Things are more comfortable and predictable. However, if you become stagnant, you run the risk of turning into that fossilized teacher, the one that says, "Pupils, this is the ditto worksheet for day 57."

The way to avoid becoming that fossilized teacher is to redesign your course. Keep it fresh and relevant, and the time to do that is in the middle of the summer after you have had a chance to recover from the previous year but before you have to return to campus for orientation. Here is what I would do every couple years to make sure my class was the best it could be for the students.

  1. Nuke your whole curriculum. Don't become emotionally attached to anything your have done in the past because if it doesn't help students learn, then it must go. It was a sad day when I realized that my free response journal assignment was taking a lot of class time but was not making my students better writers. I threw it out and used the time in class for a research paper writing unit - a unit so effective that students wrote me thank you notes after graduation telling me how it helped them in college.

  2. Get a huge piece of paper so you have lots of room to work. I would just use butcher paper on the floor, but you can put it on the wall if you are more of a spacial thinker. (Have you noticed how detective shows these days put all of their evidence on the wall? It is the new visual way to represent "thinking hard" and it is a lot more interested on the screen than a manilla folder.)

  3. Begin at the end. Ask yourself what your students need to master when they leave your class. This should only be 4-8 big skills like "Compare the journeys in adventure novels to student's own life," "Solve for two variables in an equation," or "Identify the major parts in plants and name their functions." Revisit the Content Standards and make sure that your students are learning what they should. You might even ask the teachers in the grade above yours what they would like incoming students to do. Write these big skills across the top of your page like column headings with lots of space in between.
  4. How can the student demonstrate that he or she has mastered that skill. Though a test or quiz may be part of the assessment, find a project or activity that will show the skill but is also engaging. Does the project deal with a real life problem? Is it a task that adult would do in the workplace? Is the project tied to the student's interests or hobbies? My students always worked much harder and wrestled with the subject matter much more when they were working on something that was meaningful, especially if they had to present in class. A Google search for the subject and "project" is always a great place to start. Write this final assessment project below the corresponding skill. Feel free to keep assessment 
  5. At the bottom of each skill column, write what you think students will be able to do - related to each skill - when they enter your class. This can be something like "Read  a novel with basic comprehension," "Solve a simple equation," or even "No prior knowledge of botany." How will you find out if students are actually starting your class here? Will you give a pre-test, a questionnaire or survey, an interview? A quiz show game during the first week of class is a fun way to get to know your students and find their baseline.
  6. You now have a series of columns with an exit skill at the top and an entrance skill at the bottom. Now list the facts and skills that the student must learn to master those exit skills. Spread these intermediate steps through the column in the order that the student should learn them.
  7. Next to each intermediate step, write when the student will complete it. Is it something, like my grammar lessons, that students will learn and practice once a week throughout the year? Does a column of skills correspond to a unit that your class will work on for a month or two? Be mindful of the academic calendar so that units wrap up before the end of a semester. Don't have a project due right after winter break. Save a fun, interesting unit for the time between spring break and the end of the year when students start to lose focus - this is the time of year when we read "Midsummer Night's Dream" aloud in class with props and costumes because the students loved it.
  8. What is the best way for students to learn this information? I am a big proponent of Blended Learning, and I believe that this is the place to introduce it into your curriculum. You know know what your students need to learn, take a moment to think about how they will learn it. Face to face lectures are necessary at times, but most teachers use lectures for everything. Moving content delivery out of the classroom frees up time for discussion, collaboration, and one on one help. Here are some alternative methods for delivering content to students; which intermediate steps lend themselves to each?
    1. Reading text in an article, website, textbook or teacher-created slideshow
    2. Audio lesson - much easier for the teacher to make and post online
    3. Screen cast - teacher's audio paired to a slideshow
    4. Online video - found on YouTube or some other source
    5. Teacher-created video - these are time-consuming, but can be used for several years or shared with peers. Check in next week for my guide to producing educational videos.
    6. Educational website - online games or helpful websites like Clickademics Essay Engine allow students to work at their own pace. The teacher may then use the time in class to help the students who need extra instruction.
  9. Reintroduce and adapt old activities that fit your learning goals for your students. Now that you know what your students will be learning this year, you can look back at activities you have used in the past and see if they are still applicable. Maybe you held a mock trial in your class during a debate unit. If you have eliminated the debate unit, see if your students can hold a mock trial of a character in a novel or a person from history. The good news about flipping your class and moving content delivery online is that you have more time in class for hands on activities.
  10. Add in grades and assessments. Grades are not the most important thing in education, but you don’t want to find yourself unable to demonstrate your students’ progress. Scan over the year and make sure that there are enough grades to measure student performance. Ideally, you should have a similar number of weighted grades each quarter or trimester.
  11. Prepare to launch. Are there any activities that will require preparation or special equipment? Plan ahead so that you can secure resources at the beginning of the year. Hopefully, you will be filming a few of your lessons. Film a couple during the summer to give yourself a head start.
  12. Copy your plan in a way that is easy for you to use during the school year. If your school has a way that they like to record the curriculum, use that form. The administration at your school will be impressed.

This will take a few days of your summer, but you will enjoy the benefits for the whole school year. And so will your students.

By the way, I found this book helpful during my master's program. It is what spurred me to do this the first time.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Blended Learning, Because Teachers Are Not a Content Delivery Device

“You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.” Do you remember this line from Good Will Hunting? The main character, Matt Damon, says it to impress his love interest, Minny Driver, but every viewer who has attended college knows it is a ridiculous thing to say because an education is so much more than just the material you learn from books. It is just as ridiculous as teachers who claim that they can’t put their lessons online because it will make them obsolete. Let me explain.

I recently spoke with a friend who felt that the other teachers at his school resist ideas like blended learning because they are afraid that they will be working their way out of their own job. What they don’t see is that by sticking with 200 year old teaching techniques, they are lecturing and testing their way out of a job. Teachers that fail to take advantage of new, effective, inexpensive, easy-to-use technologies will go the way of Blockbuster video. This was the inspiration for founding Clickademics and building Essay Engine.

Think of it like this: my second favorite cocktail party conversation starter is, “Who was the teacher that made a difference in your life?” (My first favorite is, “If you could have a super power, would it be flight or invisibility?”) It is a great question because everyone always has an interesting answer. Every person I ask had a teacher in their life that helped them grow. And when I ask how, they always have a story about how the teacher pushed them hard but made every class fun, held them to a high standard but cared about them deeply, or acted as a mentor during a trying time. Not one person has ever recounted a story of a teacher that gave really great grammar lectures or an educator that designed especially effective exams. And if you want to play devil’s advocate and refute my argument with a teacher who was a great story teller and gave the most riveting history lectures, I reply - how much better would it be if that teacher filmed her riveting lectures, got them perfect, and added photos and illustrations, posting the lessons online so that countless students could watch them? Because right now, that history teacher is retired, and all of her riveting lectures have evaporated into the ether.

No, teachers matter because they invest in students, not because they repeat information. That is why every good teacher went into teaching in the first place. They want to prepare their students for life ahead, but they only get about 125 hours with those students if they are secondary teachers. Why would they want to spend half of that talking at the tops of the students’ heads who are furiously writing notes?

Putting lectures online does not take the teaching out of teaching; it takes the boring content-delivery part out of teaching. In fact, in a perfect world, an old timey teacher should have told his students to go home and read the textbook chapter for homework, and that would be the content-delivery. Every piece of content that a student could ever need to know is in a textbook. That is why the Matt Damon character claimed you could get a full education for a $1.50 in public library late fees. The problem with that? Students don’t read the textbook, and if they do, they don’t remember them. A teacher filming her lessons and putting them online is the same as creating a fun, easy to consume textbook. It just happens to not be in book form. 

The real learning does not come from consuming tons of content - my apologies to every AP history teacher in the country. The content consumption is just the first step, the introduction. The real learning happens when students use the knowledge, manipulated it, apply it, compare it, question it, argue with it. There just is not enough time in a school week to let real learning happen if the teacher spends half the week lecturing. Let the students consume content on their own time. They need hours with a teacher and with peers to apply the knowledge, and that should happen during class time.

This is the reason I love online learning but am vehemently against a full online education for students before graduate school. Adolescent and young adult students need interaction. Asking them to read a bunch of online content, write responses for everything, and mix in a Skype session or two is selling them short. A pure online education should be a last resort, perhaps for students with medical issues or extreme distance hurdles. 

When I was in the classroom, my students always worked their hardest on the real-life projects. Though I did all I could to make the projects fun, they were also challenging, as challenging as a big exam or an essay. When I held my mock trial or gave the students my grid of literature projects, they would pour themselves into it to make their projects excellent. And when we did our six week research paper, forget about it. Other teachers would complain that the students were neglecting the homework for the other classes because they were working so hard on their research papers. Those kids really learned, and it wasn’t because I was lecturing.

I got some complements from students on my lectures, but it wasn’t because they learned so much. It was because I told corny jokes. However, you can tell just as many corny jokes when helping small groups with projects or leading class discussions. 

Teachers, you do not need to give the same lecture on the Teapot Dome Scandal or Covalent Bonding five times a day every year. That is repetitive grunt work, only half a step above assembly line work. Give your lecture once, really well, on video. Embed your PowerPoint slides and interesting photos and diagrams, and put it online. Spend your class time interacting with students as they interact with the subject matter. Don’t lecture to kids about facts; talk with kids about ideas using the facts. 

What’s that you say? Won’t it be hard to put lessons online? Isn’t it difficult to develop meaningful activities and discussions to fill the class time that used to be taken by lectures? Doesn’t this mean making a whole new curriculum like a first year teacher? Yup. Those are all true. I realize that all good teachers are completely over-worked and don’t have any time for tasks on top of their current duties. Here are some things I would prescribe to ease the transition:
  • Take it one step at a time. You may not have time to change your whole curriculum, so change one unit at a time. Make a goal to convert one unit to a blended learning unit each quarter. 
  • Partner up. Find another teacher in your department or grade level and work together. Share your ideas and share the work load as you develop a blended learning unit that works for both of your classes. You will look ambitious for integrating across the curriculum.
  • Good teaching is good stealing. Until your can develop everything on your own, use other teachers’ stuff. Use online lesson videos that were made by others. Find projects that have worked in other teachers’ classes. I would say this is temporary for the first three years. You know your students better than anyone else, so your own content and your own projects will always be best.
  • Ask for help. There may be a technology coordinator, a curriculum director, or a resource person on campus who is in administration now but would love to work with you to make a blended learning unit. It is possible that they miss the classroom and would jump at the chance to try something new. More and more schools are hiring technology integration specialists who have great ideas and want to relieve some of the load. Perhaps there is a techie parent at the school with time and brain cells to spare. You will never know unless you ask around.

So use the internet for what it is best at: content delivery. And use class time for what it is best at: interactive projects and discussions. Blended learning does not make the teacher replaceable, it makes teachers indispensable. Because if students could get an education from the internet - or a $1.50 in late fees to the public library - I would be all out of good cocktail party conversation.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Why Orange Tic Tacs Really Improve Grades

Previously, on the Clickademics blog, I wrote about my favorite tip for studying before exams. It involves the student eating Orange Tic Tacs while studying and then again during the exam. That way the smell of the candy will remind the student of the time studying and increase recall.

 I do believe that the sense of smell is linked with memory. After posting my original article, I even had another former student comment that one of his professors cited a study that proved a similar point. However, if Orange Tic Tacs do, in fact, increase student test grades, I think it has more to do with the fact that the student believes it will work.

If I tell a student that strategically eating Orange Tic Tacs will lead to higher test grades, two other variable are at play.
  1. If the student has to eat Orange Tic Tacs while studying for the trick to work, then the student has to actually sit and study. The student will probably spend more time studying for the test than if she had not been told about the trick. She has a reason to sit in front of her notes and text book and focus.
  2. The student knows that I, as her teacher, believe that she can do well on the test. I think that this is the most important factor. Every student needs to know he or she can succeed, and knowing that their parents and teachers believe in them helps considerably. 

Positive attitude matters. Ask any doctor or nurse; patients that believe they can get better do get better. The mind has tremendous effect on the body. I remember when I was coaching my son’s basketball team, one of his friends was nervous because he was going to be playing against us on Saturday. I told him that if he spent ten minutes Friday night picturing himself shooting baskets, he would score more baskets in the game. Sure enough, he played great, and he later told me that he scored more than he had in any other game. If his positive outlook can improve his free-throws, doesn’t it make even more sense that my student’s positive feelings about studying would improve her recall?

My point is that students are more likely to believe that they can succeed when their teachers believe they can succeed. So whether a student does well on a test because of a candy or because she believes she can, it is vital that teachers encourage their students. Don't want a room full of candy? Lucky pencils, encouraging notes, and pre-test pep-talks also work wonders. 

Please check out our Essay Engine program that helps students write and like us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Teachers Should Know About Parents

Last week, I wrote What Parents Should Know About Teachers based on my experiences in the classroom. Here is the other perspective, What Teachers Should Know About Parents, things that I have learned now that my kids are in school.

While teaching, I encountered three types of parents:

I’ll begin with the parents in the middle. Most of your students’ parents are great. They love their kids, they are happy with the school, and they want to support you as the teacher. You only need to know one thing about these parents: if their kids are happy, they’re happy. If you set their kids up for success, throw in some creative activities, and tell a joke or two, all is good.

There is a second group of parents, the ones with too little time. These folks are maxed out with work, with family, and with other commitments. Many of these parents belong to the first, happy group, but they really hope that you, the teacher, take care of the school thing since they are juggling so much. In general, you can help these parents by:
  • Keeping your emails short and easy to skim on their phone. I’m an involved parent, and I read all of the teachers’ emails, but even I rarely make it to the Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku page.
  • Making your homework and project instructions easy for the student to understand. These parents are grateful when their kids can knock out their homework without a lot of help.
  • Avoiding projects that require trips to the craft store. You should definitely avoid the dreaded collaborative project where the kids have to get together at someone’s house – it takes forever, and they never get anything done there anyway.

The third group of parents has too much time on their hands. These folks are very involved (some might say too involved) with their child’s education. They want to know everything that is going on, and if you don’t let them know ahead of time, they will email, call, and request meetings to find out. And you know what? They have every right to know what is going on in their child’s day. More on that later.

Here are my suggestions for keeping everyone happy.
  • Send out a class newsletter periodically, either by email, on paper, or both. Elementary students might need a weekly homework newsletter every Monday while older students might only need one monthly covering the big tests and projects. This will keep the busy parents happy.
  • Meanwhile, put everything on your class webpage or Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku page and put links in the newsletter. Now, if a parent wants to know the agenda for the day or the instructions for a project, it is easy to find. This requires extra work at the beginning of the month, but it will save you time answering questions later.
  • Make sure that the parent can check the student’s grades online and that the grades are current.

Now there is something that took me several years to learn while I was teaching; it is more important that I support a family’s parenting than it is for them to support my teaching. By that I mean it is good for parents to be intentional about the choices that they make for their children, choices about media, about time spent online, about language. If parents have chosen to raise their child without movies or television, it is not the place of the teacher to undo that by showing a movie in class or making the child write about a television show. If parents choose to shelter their children from strong language, the teacher should not undo all of that work by assigning a novel that contains those elements. For instance, Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest American novels, but some families may be uncomfortable with the language. I believe it is best if the teacher lets the parents know early. If a parent has an issue with the book, try to find a compromise – perhaps the student can read a different book. When I taught Edgar Allan Poe in my English class, a couple of parents over the years were uncomfortable with the violence. I found that the same lesson could be taught with a different piece of literature. Every American should read Huck Finn and Edgar Allan Poe at some point, in my opinion, but it does not have to happen freshman year.

And returning to my point about the overly involved parents, they should be allowed to be overly involved. I may not choose to parent that way, but you never know if the child has a special need or may forget to do homework unless that parent double and triple checks. Or maybe that parent just wants to push the kid super hard to get into Stanford. I don’t think it is going to make that kid into a happy adult, but it is not my choice as the teacher.

One last note, this time about surprises. All parents like to be pleasantly surprised, so catch each student doing something great, and let the parents know. Make a comment or send an email letting the parent know how helpful the student was in science lab or how well she did on the test. Most parents only get called when the child is in trouble or is hurt and will love to hear that you noticed their child’s strength. Conversely, all parents hate to be unpleasantly surprised. If a student has grades that are slipping or has missed an assignment, let the parent know early and often. It does take some time to analyze student data each week, but it is worth it for everyone. Some of my worst times as a teacher were spent with angry parents whose kid was doing poorly, but there was not enough time in the semester for the child to raise the grade. This can go for behavior problems too.

Realize that even though you have taught hundreds of students at this grade level, this is only the first or second time most of these parents have raised a child this age, so be patient with them.

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