Attendance Matters

Good attendance matters.

I have come to realize, once again, just how much attendance matters. In our school, we try to encourage good attendance, but many of our students miss multiple days of school, or come in 30-45 minutes late almost daily.

This always baffles me, given what we hear about children in other countries, so desperate for an education, they will walk for miles to get to school.  When I hear the stories about these children who fight for their right to learn, it makes me sad that our children view it as a chore, not a privilege.  I picture those other children, seeing what our kids have available: school buses, schools with heating and lights, etc.  Not that all schools in the U.S. are spectacular, but they are the difference between attending college and not attending.  Or the difference between a well-paying job and a not-so-well-paying job.

Research tells us that students who miss 10% of the school year fall behind academically (which shouldn’t come as any kind of shock to a teacher!).  Obviously, if the student isn’t in the classroom, their learning will be negatively impacted.  In elementary school, lack of good attendance can lead to students not reading at grade level.  In middle school and high school, this kind of chronic absence can impact graduation. has a wealth of resources schools and teachers can use to improve school attendance.  I would definitely check out their website – it’s amazing how much they have available to help schools with improving attendance.

While I am not an expert, by any means, I do know what encouraging good attendance looks like in my own classroom.

Here is what I try to do:

First, I always talk to my students about the difference between “I don’t feel like coming to school” and “I feel too sick to come to school”.  This means having a frank discussion about the negative effects of absences.  I always make sure to restate that if they are truly sick, they should stay home, since we don’t want them to infect the rest of us.  However, often a sniffly nose will cause kids to think they should take the day off.  That’s the type of absence I’m trying to avoid.

Second, as a follow up to the Come to School discussion, I talk to them about getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food and drinking enough water.  Being a middle school teacher, some of my students are starting to stay up way too late and it causes them to not make it to school in the mornings.  Talking to them about going to bed on time can help some of them (it won’t solve everything, unfortunately!).

Third, I have found, if a student misses a second day of school, consecutively, making a phone call helps to get them back to school.  I call home the second day and inquire about the child, ask if he or she needs homework, and generally make a connection.  More times than not, the student comes back the next day.  If you have time, calling the first day a student is absent might be an even better solution.  Given the numbers of absences some of my students had, that would be hard to keep up with.

Finally, I started charting the class’ attendance on the board each day.  I listed it as a percentage and the students quickly started to notice.  They would comment on whether it was up or down and look to see who was missing.  Just making them aware of the absences helped some of them make attending school a priority.

Our school also recognizes perfect attendance each trimester with a pizza lunch.  Students are given a paper invitation for the luncheon and on the day, they get pizza, pop and mood music.  The kids really look forward to these lunches and talk about earning the invitation.  They’re always very excited to get their invitation.

What does your school do to encourage good attendance?

Project Based Learning in the Middle School Classroom


Project Based Learning.  Everyone is talking about it.  Probably because it’s a great way to get kids to care about learning.  But where do you start? What should you do? How do you find something that kids are going to get behind?


In my classroom, I use entrepreneurship.  We start out working with Junior Achievement. They are an awesome group that sends local businesspeople into classrooms to teach lessons about money and economincs, for free!  Check them out here:

They do a “start your own business” unit that sets things up well for my students.  


Once they have the basics, it’s time to step it up with some competition.  I’m lucky because in my area, there is an economic development group that sponsors a startup challenge for middle school and high school kids each year.  They hold it in a venue that typically hosts these kinds of events and secure sponsors who pay for everything, including fabulous cash prizes. However, when I started doing this, I actually just did it in my middle school library and invited the local chamber of commerce to come and hand out fake money to the kids as investors.  

Step one: help students decide what their business will be.  I try to guide them toward something they know about – pets are a perennial favorite, as well as lawnmowing and babysitting.  However, I have also had students invent something to sell or bake cookies or cupcakes.


Step two: guide students through writing up a business plan.  Check out my templates (which I give the students to help them understand what to do) here: _Youth Startup Challenge Business Plan

Step three: help students revise and edit their business plan.  This takes quite a while and involves a certain amount of math as they figure out their profit and expenses.  They tend to want to guess at how much things will cost and how much they will make, so I have to really hold them accountable for showing me where their numbers come from.


Step four: once the business plans are complete and well-done, they start on a display.  We use computer generated items for their displays. Google drive and are both great tools for creating the items to put on their display boards.


Step five: Start filling up the display board.  We use the tri-fold boards for our displays. I also have students use construction paper as a background for the graphics.  This gives a nice frame around each item and draws the eye in. I have them choose 1-2 colors to use for all of their display items.  That way, it’s more cohesive,


Step six: create business cards.  We use google slides for this. They create a slide which is their business card, then duplicate it six times.  Then, when printing, select handouts – six slides per page. This gives the correct size and ratio for the cards without having to do a lot of messing around on the computer.


Finally, hold your competition.  Invite the school board, parents, local business people, city council, the mayor – anyone who might come and oooh and ahh over your students’ work.  


Why do this sort of project?  It’s meaningful. Kids are more likely to revise and edit a paper that is going to get them into a competition than one that is just being read by an overworked teacher.  


It’s educational.  Students are learning more than just how to start a business.  They are learning graphic design, public speaking, teamwork, and written communication.  This is in addition to the experience they get from examining what makes a good business.  The analytical skills used in this project more than meet the common core standards.


It’s fun.  The kids are excited to work on it each day, which makes my job so much easier.  Instead of groaning when it’s time to do classwork, they beg for more time.


Other suggestions for success:

Teach students how to shake hands and introduce themselves.  One aspect of our work that gets the most comments at our Startup Challenge is the way the students interact with the adults.

I teach them the 10-4 rule: when an adult is 10 feet away from you, make eye contact.  When they are 4 feet away from you, reach out to shake their hand, saying “Hi, I’m ___ and I’m the CEO (or whatever title) of ___”.  


Read The Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen to the students as you work through this project.  This book has a ton of economics based terms in it and explains them all through the story about a boy who starts a lawn mowing business.  Alternatively, there is The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies. Both books are great to use as you move through this project.





Expect this to take a while.  We typically start in early January and are ready for the competition in late March.  It takes about 6 weeks to get the business plans completed, revised and edited. Then, it takes another 6 weeks to get the displays ready to go.  This included the time practicing what they will say about their business in their “pitch”.


Be sure to invite your principal to your showcase.  It’s always fun for the principal to see what students can accomplish!


I have included links to the different templates I use throughout the unit below.  I have found the more structure I give the kids, the better. Since this is something of a new concept for them, extra help in setting it all up is best.

Display Boards

Business Presentation to Judges

Business Paragraph

Business Expo Display

Financial Summary Worksheet – Product

Financial Summary Worksheet – Service

Starting a Business

3 Ways I Was Teaching Vocabulary All Wrong

I have always taught vocabulary in my classroom.  In math, science and social studies classes, there are the obvious content words we need to teach for a unit.  In reading and writing, there are those words that come up during a reading passage or a writing assignment.  However, I was doing it all wrong!

What I Did Wrong


  1. I didn’t have the students say the word.  At least 12 times!  I said it when I was introducing it and occasionally as I talked about the meaning, but I never had the kids say it. Research shows that students need to say a word 12 times to truly remember it.

By having the class repeat the word as we go through the slides and talk about the words, they are beginning to make the words their own.

Jamestown vocabulary

2. I didn’t have the word in front of them with its meaning, part of speech, and word origin.  Back in the day, we used overhead projectors and I might have written the word down, even adding the meaning.  But I didn’t go over the part of speech or word origin.  I also didn’t include related words or examples.  I certainly didn’t include non-examples!  Now, I use a PowerPoint for each lesson and make a slide showing these items.

Satchel Paige Vocabulary PowerPoint


3. I didn’t review the vocabulary words for several days.  Once I had taught the words, that pretty much did it.  Now, each successive day of the unit, at the beginning of the lesson, I run through the PowerPoint again with the class.  This puts those words in front of them one more time, giving them still more chances to say the words and/or meanings out loud.

All of this seems so obvious to me, now that I’ve done it this way.

Of course, they need to also say the word out loud along with the meaning.  Don’t we learn something best by teaching it?

Of course, using this as another chance to go over parts of speech is going to help the students in grammar class.  When they are consistently seeing those words: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc, it’s reinforcing what they are learning elsewhere – something we all say is a good idea!

I don't know

Of course, having them see the word and say it will help.  It’s embarrassing to think of how many times I have mispronounced a word because I never heard it at the same time as I saw it.

Sometimes when I realize I haven’t been doing something as well as I could, it gets me down.  In times like that, I try to remember Maya Angelou’s words:  know better, do better. Now that I know better how to teach vocabulary, I try to do better.

What do you do to help your students learn vocabulary?  I’m always looking for other ideas!

Helping Students Learn to Write

outdoor writing

Teachers are funny creatures.  We go into teaching to help our students.  However, too many times, once we’re in the classroom, we forget they need our help.

For example, in teaching writing, we just assume they will figure it out if we encourage enough.  I was guilty of this for years.  I did my best to give interesting writing prompts, making the time for students to plan, write a rough draft, revise, edit, etc.  I thought that the less I talked about writing, or directed their writing, the more they would develop their own style.


However, I have since come to realize that isn’t really the best way for most of our students to learn to write.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some natural writers in each class that don’t need much help from me.  Give them a prompt and some time, maybe a hint or two about conventions and they’re all set.  Most students, though, need more direct instruction,

In the last couple of years, I have spent at least half of my school year giving students step by step instructions for their writing.  Think of it as the wine and painting class craze that is sweeping the nation.  When we go to one of those events, we don’t want the artist saying something like, “paint a picture of a moonlit night”, then walking around encouraging us to keep at it.  Most of us need more than that.  We’re very happy to follow the step by step directions given to create a “masterpiece” that looks something like the sample the teacher has in front of the room.

I am a writer

Does this mean we can’t eventually branch out and start painting our own ideas?  Probably not.  But without some direct instruction, we leave thinking we’re “just not cut out to be a painter”.  Do we really want our students to grow up thinking they’re “just not cut out to be a writer”?

To help my students, I now use a writing guide.  This scaffolds the writing process for them by telling them what to write in each sentence.  For instance, when writing a story, you start by introducing the characters, so I put that at the beginning of paragraph one. You can see one here Guide to Writing a Mystery

By telling students explicitly how to begin their story, and why, we help them internalize this information.

This method lets students complete a rough draft in a class period.  The more they write, the better they will get (just like any other skill), so being able to complete a rough draft quickly allows for more rough drafts.

What do you do to help students write well?  Comment below – I’m always looking for new ideas!

Data Driven Teaching

As teachers, we’ve always tended to go with our hunches, or feelings about how students are doing.  The recent push to use data to drive our teaching has created quite a shift in thinking about learning and teaching.  While constant testing of the students can inhibit their learning, using data to drive our instruction can help them.

I use a daily formative assessment to determine how my teaching is going.  I write up 10 questions in multiple choice format.  Most of the questions refer to content from the day’s lesson, however, I include some past information to ensure it’s still in their minds.  At first, it took a little while to write these up.  As I continued, however, it got easier, and faster.  I also sometimes reuse questions from previous assessments (so far, my students don’t seem to notice, or if they do, they don’t say anything!).

Some days, I use to do the assessing (they love that, since it feels like a video game) others, I use scan sheets for our online system.  I laminated the scan sheets to save on paper and time spent copying, so all they need is the questions printed out (although I plan to pilot using the google classroom format to go a little more paperless).  Next week, I’m going to try and see how that goes.

Once my students have completed their assessment, they get the feedback.  That’s one of the main reasons I do multiple choice – it allows immediate feedback for the students.  I offer an incentive for 80% or better, just to help them want to try, but not a big enough incentive to cause them to feel stressed about it.

The feedback is the piece I look at after school.  I download the results into a spreadsheet.  Sometimes I just look then for questions lots of students missed.  Any questions they all missed, reveal content they need more time on.  Other times, I use a chart and look at which skills each student has mastered, or not.  This information lets me see which students need review and which students are ready to move on.

By using this daily assessment, I can see what my students are learning well before the end of the unit and adjust my teaching accordingly.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as just reviewing a vocabulary word.  Other times, it demonstrates they don’t understand a math concept that I thought seemed simple.

What do you do to help decide where to go next in your teaching?  Do you use formative assessments?

Team Endeavor – a different kind of classroom


This year, I was given the opportunity to try something new for some of our at-risk sixth graders.  We handpicked 20 of them for a class.  This class is completely different from the normal 6th grade classroom.  

First, I don’t assign homework.  In part because many of these students don’t do homework, but more importantly, homework has not been show to increase student achievement.  In addition, some of these students will do their homework, but do it incorrectly, which means they have practiced it incorrectly and I now would have to fix that.


Second, for the most part, I try to avoid assigned seats, although after they were such a problem for my last sub, I did assign seats for the week!

 By letting students  choose their seats, I believe they gain a certain responsibility.  They also become more self-aware.  In making choices about who they sit with and where, in the classroom, they sit, they are given the opportunity to learn that their choices have consequences, both good and bad.



Third, I try to only use research based strategies.  That means being careful with what I take from Pinterest or Teacher Pay Teacher.  While there are cute ideas on both websites, my students need to make one and a half year’s growth in a year.  I don’t have time to spend on cute stuff.

researchWe’re about halfway through our first year.  So far, there have been a lot of positives.  Check back for posts about the successes!

Working Fun into the Learning

One thing I’m hoping to change next year is my students’ attitudes toward school.  They, as a class, tend to view school as something to “get through” so you can spend lunch with your friends, or go home and do what they want.

my-goal-in-the-classroom-was-always-to-make-sure-they-were-having-so-much-fun-th-403x403-nk5yfzSince they have a number of years left for school, I need to get them excited about school and learning.  Toward that end, I’m planning some “fun” Friday activities.  Each Friday, we’ll do something out of the ordinary.  They’ll still be learning, but in a different manner.

have_fun_learning_english_quote_from_rodrigoWeek one will be an art lesson.  I’ve been working with a friend of mine who is an art teacher for some good solid art lessons that will benefit my students.  Activities like weaving, collages, wire sculpture and positive/negative space drawings will expand their thinking and help them see the world differently.  Also, since art is more freeing, they can feel success in the lessons.

Week two will be a mystery Skype.  If you haven’t heard of Mystery Skypes, they’re basically a chance for classrooms to connect to other classrooms around the world.  Each class asks yes or no questions of the other class to try to figure out where the other class is.  You can check it out here:  This fits nicely with our social studies curriculum of sixth grade geography, and allows students to participate in an activity they are excited about.

Week three will be a problem solving session.  I’ll be using the box and ideas from Breakout Edu – seen here: to give them a story to solve.  In order to open the box, they need to work together to solve riddles.  This will expand their thinking and encourage creativity.

Week four will be a Guest Speaker.  Each month, we’ll have a guest speaker come in (or Skype) and talk to my class about careers.  People like plumbers, stage managers, business owners will all be coming in to speak.  This gives my students a chance to start thinking about their future.  As they hear about various careers, we’ll be able to talk about what is needed to attain that career.  This gives a purpose to their education beyond a grade on a report card.

images-2Having a monthly plan like this makes life easier when you’re teaching.  This allows me to get the plans set in advance, so the details can be worked out before I’m too busy to think!

What do you do to get students excited to come to school?

I’m Back!

Oh my goodness, it’s been way too long!  Somehow, life got in the way of my blogging.  First, my in-laws were struggling and we had to take over the finances and medical stuff (read lots and lots of doctors appointments!).  Then, my father-in-law passed away and we had to deal with that, selling two houses (both filled to the rafters with stuff – major hoarders here!).  Then, I switched grades and subjects, so last year, while lots of fun, required huge amounts of time to be prepared to teach 5th graders math, science and social studies.  However, all of that is behind me now, and it’s summer vacation.  Yay!

My blog will be taking a bit of a turn this year, because my principal and I have started a grand experiment.  I will be teaching 20 at-risk sixth graders in a self-contained class.  My job is to help them achieve a year and a half growth in math and reading in a year.  Bit of a challenge, eh? I’m pretty excited, though, since I have been doing a lot of research getting ready for this.  I think it’s going to be my best year ever!

We’re calling our class Team Endeavor, because to endeavor means to try hard.  That seemed to fit us to a T.

How did we select these students?  I’m glad you asked!  We used teacher recommendations, as well as test scores and grades.  Each of these students scored well below average on a universal screener for math and reading.  In addition, they tend to have failing report card grades and low motivation.  Their work ethic varies, as does their behavior.  Some work very hard, some not at all.  Some have a few behavior issues, while others are model students in the classroom.  All are at-risk of not graduating high school (or passing 6th grade, for that matter).

To start the year off right, I began in June.  I held a class meeting with them and mailed a letter to their parents.  In the class meeting, I told them: You were all specially selected for this class. We’re going to reinvent 6th grade. We felt that you would be the best students for this experiment because of who you are, your strengths.

Then, I hit them where it counts.  I told them we are going to reinvent sixth grade.  For instance, there won’t be assigned homework.  That got their attention!  I also told them no seating charts.  The excitement on their faces let me know I’m on the right track.

Why no homework?  Because several of these students faithfully do the homework, incorrectly, night after night.  Is it helping them to practice incorrectly?  Several more don’t do the homework at all.  Is it helping them to assign work they won’t even start?  Several more get overwhelmed when dealing with homework.  Again, it’s not helping them.

Why no seating chart?  First, because we usually use a seating chart to separate the problem students and put bright students with struggling ones.  Since I will have all problem and struggling students, a seating chart won’t help.  Second, because research is finding that giving students choice in where they work is beneficial.


Stay tuned – I’ll be updating regularly with my plans and, once school starts, with how things are going.  10304386123_210f58c113

Running as a Metaphor for Teaching

I was out for my run this morning, and I got thinking about how similar running and teaching are.  I have been running for about 10 years.  I wasn’t a runner as a kid.  I thought it sounded good, but the actual work of running wasn’t appealing, so I never got into it.  I’m a recent convert.  I like to tell people I run, since no one ever asks if I run fast.  I don’t.  I’m slower than a turtle going through peanut butter.

Anyway, I find that teaching has a lot in common with running.  For instance, you have good runs and bad runs.  There’s never a reason behind a run being good or bad.  Yesterday, I went out for my run and felt amazing.  It was cold, windy and early in the morning (none of which are good in my book!), but my running felt good.  I finished and felt so proud that I had accomplished a run.

Then, today.  It was awful.  I had to take a number of walking breaks.  I hated every minute of it.  I was in a  terrible mood when I got back (no runner’s high for me!)  It was just plain yucky.   Beautiful, sunny sky, warmer than yesterday, not as windy, later in the morning.  None of that mattered.

I have those kinds of days teaching, too.  Some days, everything just clicks.  No reason for it to be a good day, but there it is.  Friday was just such a day in my classroom.  Full moon, Friday, big unit test.  All things that should have caused the kids to be a problem.  Even a mix up with the unit test and I gave them the pre-test for the next unit instead of the test we had been prepping for.  None of it stopped them.  They worked hard, were happy to be in school and generally had a great day!

Then there are the days where you’ve planned everything out.  You’ve got an exciting lesson plan, full of fun activities that will lead to those light bulb moments.  Until everything falls apart.  You know how that goes – you expect it to be wonderful and it’s NOT.  Everyone frowns as they leave for the day.

Teaching is like training for a race.  You put in the hours, day in and day out, slogging through the tough workouts, until the day when it all pays off.  Friday, it paid off for me.  I have a student who has been failing my class all year (and everyone else’s).  I’ve been working with him every day to get his work for the week caught up.  Friday afternoon, he had everything done and got to hang out with his friends for the last half hour of the day, instead of catch up on work.  He was so excited!

What else is a metaphor for the hard work of teaching?  What do you compare it to?

Creating a Tour of Canada

Sorry it’s been a while – life got in the way.


Here’s what my classes have been up to:

Touring Canada

We read about Canada from the textbook and did the obligatory end of the section questions.  We also labelled maps and watched some Discovery Channel videos.  I think it’s important to use the textbook and teach them how to answer questions from the end of the section because otherwise, when they get into higher grades, they’re clueless about it.  So we practice looking for the information, putting our finger on it, deciding how to answer the question using a complete sentence.

Now that we’ve got some background knowledge, it’s time for a little fun!

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comMy students are planning a tour of Canada.  They can take their tour anywhere in the country they like.  We discussed possible themes for their tours: hunting, hiking, shopping, ghost towns, sports, etc.  Then they started their plans.

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comPlanning Packet

I took them through this paper step by step.  As students filled in the blanks, we discussed possible answers they might like to put down.  I’ve found going through it together helps them complete the work more quickly.  Otherwise, many of them spend ridiculous amounts of time deciding how many days their trip will take, then never get to the rest of the packet.  🙂

I used manilla folders to organize all of their work.  The folders stay in my room.  This way, they never are stuck not being able to work because they left their papers at home.  They also won’t lose their work (which is an ongoing issue with 6th graders!)

I simply have each table group gather their folders at the end of the hour, then bring me the stack.  Each group of folders goes in a hanging folder in a crate.  The next day, I give the stack back to the table and they’re ready to go.

I also put all of the worksheets they will need in their folders to start with.  That way, they have everything they need and we don’t have to waste time handing more out.

At the beginning of the hour, I have the class look through their folder, decide what they need to work on that day (I generally give them about 4 choices).  Then, I take a chart on a clipboard and go down the list alphabetically and ask each student what their plan for the day is.  This takes about 30 seconds and I just note the date at the top, and an initial for what they’re doing.  This helps keep them accountable and I can see at a glance if they’ve spent too long on any one thing.


Now the fun part:

Each class will submit their tours at the end of this project.  I’ll choose the top 5.  Those tours will earn a Klondike bar (get it? for the Klondike Gold Rush?).  Then, the principal and counselor will choose the top tour from each class (from the top 5).  Those students earn a $5 McDonald’s gift card.  I posted a picture on the board of a Klondike bar and the McDonald’s logo to keep the prize in view.

klondike bar McDonald's

Here are the papers I used.  They have instructions, as well as point values, etc.

Canada Tour Packet