Being Your Students’ Cheerleader

As I stood watching the Homecoming parade last Friday night, I realized, again, how much it matters to my students when I attend their events.  Seeing the high school students, who were once my 6th graders, was fun and they were excited to wave at me.  However, it was my middle school students who really showed how thrilled they were.  Mind you, their idea of showing their appreciation involved pelting me with candy, but it’s the thought that counts!  (That and being able to duck for cover!)

Last weekend, I attended one of their football games.  I sat in the stands, assuming they wouldn’t see me all the way up there.  Unfortunately, after the game, the coach had them in a huddle, then they were busy picking up the field.  It was cold and rainy, so I headed for my car.  The next Monday, though, it was clear they had seen me.  Every one of them asked if that really was me in the stands.  Each player then proceeded to ask if I had seen their play time.  Whether it was a touchdown, a catch, a throw, or standing downfield, they each wanted to make sure I had noticed them.  The excitement they showed when they spoke to me made the cold, rainy Saturday evening worthwhile.

Over the years, I have attended plays, concerts, sporting events and more.  Each time, the students are beyond thrilled that I would take the time to attend.  When my daughter was in 2nd grade, she and her friends were on a swim team.  Granted, most of their practices consisted more of splashing around in the shallow end, but still, they were considered swimmers!  Their 2nd grade teacher attended one of their swim meets.  The girls couldn’t believe it.  Watching how much it meant to them (they continued talking about that meet for months to come) reminded me how important it is to students to show your interest in their lives outside of school.  My grandmother always said “you put your time into what’s important”.  My students matter to me, and I like to show them that.

Whenever possible, take a few minutes to attend an event your students participate in.  The benefits will far outweigh the small amount of time spent.  It means the world to our students when we demonstrate how important they are to us.  (As a side note, the parents are also always impressed that you took the time to see their child.  This goes a long way in parents’ minds regarding their opinion of you as a teacher!)  Nothing pleases me more than to see my students performing.  It’s such a thrill to see those adorable faces (yes, even my former students who are big, bad high schoolers will always be adorable to me!).  It’s one of the highlights of what I do.

Extra, Extra, Read All About It: Today’s Homework

One of the easiest methods we’ve found to communicate with (and impress!) parents is a daily email.  When my daughter was in 4th grade, her teacher did this, and it made such an impression on me, I decided to implement it in my own classroom.  While it sounds time-consuming, it’s actually one of the quicker and easier things I do during the day.

Basically, we collect parent email addresses and organize them into a group.  Once the work of inputting their addresses is complete, the rest is super simple.  Each afternoon, we put the group’s addresses in the blind carbon copy space of an email.  I list the subject as “homework for _____ date”.  The actual text of the email is very brief: math, page ____, spelling worksheet.  That’s it!  Then we click on send and parents are immediately updated with what the day’s assignments are.

We use the BCC on the email so that if a parent doesn’t want their email address broadcast to everyone else, it’s not.  We generally wait until right after school so that if an unexpected assignment comes up, it’s easily included.  We don’t like to write a lot in this email – parents are busy and don’t always have the time to read lengthy details.  This just lets them keep up to date with their child quickly and easily.  We also are able to send multiple emails to the parents: mom, dad, grandparent, babysitter, etc, since it’s in a group.  This lets whichever person will be responsible for the child that afternoon know what needs to be worked on.

Often, parents will call their child after school to check in on him or her.  Having looked at their email, the parent can ask the child about specific assignments.  This avoids the “forgotten” homework that doesn’t get remembered until bedtime, or later.  It also helps those students who don’t remember what page the math homework was, etc.

Occasionally, we’ll include information such as “newsletters went home today”, or “permission slips are due on _____ date”.  We also try to give a heads up on upcoming parent teacher conferences and events like that.  However, we keep it as short and simple as possible.  Many parents are reading the email on their phone, which lends itself better to a short message.

We send the email every day, including Friday, even though there isn’t homework every day.  If there’s no homework, the email says so, allowing parents to believe their child when he or she says there’s none.  This also ensures that parents know the technology is still working and they will be getting emails.

Many parents have commented on what a help this email is.  As busy, working moms ourselves, we’ve tried to make things just a little easier for the parents of our students.

If you’re looking for an easy way to keep the lines of communication open with parents, this is the way to go!

Decorating my Classroom

When I went back into my classroom this summer to start getting things set up, I knew I wanted a new look.  In the past, my decorating tended to run toward the “teacher store vomit” look.  Every cute poster, decoration, brightly colored doodad I could find was in my room.  This year, though, I decided what would work better was to have a calm, organized classroom.  Everything I did this summer was geared to making my room seem calm and orderly.

First, the colors:  Instead of using tons of bright colors, I stuck to teal and black.  At times, I had to go with more of a navy blue, but I kept it to blue and black.  I discovered a can of spray paint can go a long way toward unifying hand me down items.  After spray painting my file cabinets, the cardboard boxes that my leveled readers came in and a notecard box I found in the basement, I had storage that looked similar.

I had plastic drawers from Target from last year, so I used those for my art supplies.  I also had matching milk crates, so those hold my dictionaries and a carefully curated set of novels.  Labels make it easier to see what is in each drawer and help students return supplies to the correct spot.  I found some square nametags that had black and white polka dots in the border.  These allowed me to label things, but keep it looking nice.

These drawers and milk crates house supplies and books

My daughters’ school colors were red and royal blue, so I had a couple of leftover plastic tablecloths from their open houses.  I used these as background on two of my wall panels.  I have the removable walls on both sides of my room, so the panels are bulletin board from floor to ceiling.  Using the tablecloths covered the white and made it look a little less stark.

One blue panel now displays a quote from Dr. Seuss.  I change it out weekly.  To make the Cat in the Hat for the panel, I found a drawing online, then used an old fashioned overhead projector to trace it onto a piece of paper.  A little marker action, and I’ve got the Cat in the Hat talking to my students.

This is where the graphs are displayed for their work turn in rates, spelling tests, etc. Note – no names are attached, only overall data.

The other panel is being used for my class data.  I saw the idea on pinterest.com (love that site!) and decided to use it in my room.  Currently, I’m graphing the turn in rate for my two classes.  I’m pushing a bit of friendly competition between the two groups to see which can have a higher turn in rate.  The winning class each month will get a certificate up on my fridge (more on that later).  In addition, I’m graphing the number of students who earn 100% on spelling tests each week.  Again, a little competition between the two groups will, hopefully, spur them on to study more.

At the other end of my room, I have a printout of a refrigerator.  Our building is focused on celebrating pride in ourselves, so I’m using that to help.  I found an image of an old fashioned style refrigerator and had it printed on a piece of vinyl.  I got lucky and had a friend who could do it for free.  However, if you don’t have a friend like that, you could use the overhead projector again to create one on a large piece of paper.  We’ve been posting things we’re proud of on the fridge (just like you do at home).

For posting things we are proud of.

My desk is also designed to be calming.  The front of it was looking a bit worse for wear, so I covered it with fabric.  A little hot melt glue and some ribbon and it now goes nicely with the rest of my classroom.  On top of my desk, I keep only the bare necessities.  My lesson plan book, my powerpoint binder, textbook and some post it pads.

This is my desk area.

For storing all the paperwork that goes in and out of my desk area, I used a file holder that mounts to the wall.  I discovered that Command makes Velcro strips that are removable, but hold up to 16 pounds.  In one, I have a folder for each day of the week.  As I make copies to hand out to students, I put them in the appropriate folder.  I also have one that says “to grade” and one that says “to hand back”, for obvious reasons.

These are posters I made, then framed. Below them, you can see the boxes I painted that store my leveled readers.

The other thing I discovered to keep the classroom looking calm is poster frames.  I had a leftover frame for a piece of posterboard, so I used it for one of my anchor posters.  It made the poster look much more professional.  I then created several other anchor posters that we will refer to all year.  Watching for the frames to go on sale saved me a few dollars.  For the other posters that were going to go on the removable walls, I used black bulletin borders to create the look of black frames.  This way, they won’t have a problem when the wall folds up, but they create a unified look.

These have to be folded into the wall when it opens, so they are just paper.

By keeping the clutter out and the colors unified, the classroom has a calming feel as you walk in.   The students have seemed calmer (although maybe that’s just because it’s early in the year) and I feel much better.  I’m able to find what I need and I smile when I enter my classroom now.

What is your classroom decorating philosophy?

All the News That’s Fit to Print!

newsletter

Each week, we send home a newsletter.  I use a template on Microsoft Word to fill in the blanks.  I like to keep it short and simple, since most parents are very busy.  Generally, it includes upcoming events, a blurb about what we learned in class, and outstanding students.  On the back, I copy a study guide, which gives parents an idea of what we will be working on next week.

My goal is always to send home the newsletter on Fridays.  I’ve found it’s very helpful (as a busy mom, myself) to know what to expect.  Therefore, I always try to send home papers on the same day each week.  Parents know to ask their child about it, and it avoids getting buried in the bottom of the backpack.

In addition to the hard copy that goes home with the student, I post a digital copy on my website.  This gives parents a second place they can check for the newsletter (since middle school students are notorious for losing papers!)  It also allows administrators, board members, etc to keep up on what is happening in the classroom.

Along the lines of helping people know what is going on in my classroom, I give a copy to the secretaries.  Since they are the ones who field the questions from parents about when things are taking place, I’ve found this is an easy way for them to have the answers handy.  They appreciate having an answer to give and I like not making them aggravated.  It’s a win-win!

The weekly newsletter is a small thing, on its own, but it makes a big impact.  The mere fact that you are concerned about keeping everyone informed about your class activities tells people you take your job seriously.  My grandmother used to say ‘you put time into what’s important’, so I take the time to send out a weekly newsletter.

Students With Bad Grades, What Do I Do?

One of the downsides to teaching is when a student is getting a bad grade, especially when that student is capable, but is not turning in the work.  When this happens, the best thing to do (after working with the student to fix it) is to keep the parent informed.  It’s never good for a parent to see a bad grade for the first time on a report card.  Even if that student always gets bad grades, parents don’t like surprises like that.

To avoid this problem, I’ve been sending home weekly progress reports for any student who has a C or lower in my class.  They are to take it home, get it signed by a parent and bring it back the next day.  That way, I can be sure the parent is aware of the problem.  Some parents simply sign and return it, but some write questions or call me once they’ve seen it.  This helps tremendously with the communication.

In order to keep track of who I have sent a progress report home with, I keep a chart in the classroom.  We use these charts extensively (see my post about the All Done/Undone Club).  In this case, I put the date I’m sending the progress report home at the top, then put a slash in the square for each student as I hand them the progress report.

When I get the progress report back, I complete the X with another slash.  This allows me to see at a glance who hasn’t returned the progress report.  This also lets me see which students are a concern over time.  Some will have one progress report to take home during the marking period.  Others have an X every week.  It’s a quick way of collecting data on my students.

Each day, I check in with students who have not returned their progress report.  If they have it, great, they’re marked off and we’re done.  If they don’t, I have them call home right then and there to ask their parent to remind them at home to get it signed.  I have a phone in my room which makes this process much easier.

By the end of the week (with a daily phone call from the child), any parent who hasn’t returned the progress report to me gets a phone call from me.  I’ve found that occasionally, students don’t like to give bad news to their parents (shocking, right?).  This lets me make sure the parent is aware of the grades and we can work together to fix the problem.  It tends to be just one or two phone calls by the end of the week, so it’s not an overwhelming burden to make these calls.

I also keep the signed progress reports throughout the year as documentation.  If, in the future, I am questioned about whether a parent was aware of their child’s work/grades/study habits, I can use the signed progress reports to demonstrate my efforts.

This has been a great help for me in my classroom.  By keeping the parents in the loop, parent teacher conferences are not uncomfortable.  Parents appreciate the information.

What do you do to communicate with parents?