Engaging Families in Middle School

Do your middle school students try their best to stay away from the middle school when it’s not in session?  Do your middle school parents tend to shy away from the building? Are you searching for ways to bring families into the school setting?

One way our middle school gets families engaged is by holding Curriculum Nights.  We hold a Family Math Night, a Family Science Night and a Family Language Arts Night each year.

First, the hook for kids: we offer extra credit to any student who attends.  We also offer prizes and fun activities, but, let’s be honest, it’s the extra credit that draws them in!

We plan several fun activities related to the content.  Our Family Language Arts Night is coming up next week and our theme is Read Around the World.  Plans include a photo booth with international style props, teaching a few foreign language words along with sharing a travel themed book, coloring a bookmark, creating a book poster (like a movie poster), using the computer lab to look up information about other countries, and playing Scrabble.

When families arrive, they sign in and receive a passport.  As they travel to the various stations, they get their passport stamped at each location.  When they finish, they can show their passport for a small prize before they leave.

We found several versions of printable passport templates here: http://supermombyday.com/?p=1002 or here: http://www.fiarcircle.com/downloads/lessons/passport.htm

We’ve also done a more structured evening, with groups enjoying opening activities during the check in period, then moving from one location to another en masse.  However, the more relaxed version we tried last year was very successful.  Busy families could come in when they were able to, join activities as their time allowed, then head out to get to their next event.

Generally speaking, our Family Nights bring in about 25% of our student population.  Given the busy schedules most families have, we see this as a rousing success!  100 middle school students coming into school in the evening is pretty impressive.

My Students Inspire Me

As I headed out for my run today, I realized something.  While I hope that I can inspire my students, they definitely are an inspiration to me.

Running along, against the wind, through the cold, dodging snowdrifts, avoiding cars, generally having a tough time of it, I kept thinking about quitting.  At best, I’m a reluctant runner.  I’m always happiest when it’s time to stop and walk.  I never have been able to understand the runners who say they can’t stand tapering before a race.  Tapering is the BEST!  It means I don’t have to run as much!

So, tonight, trying to get my 3 miles finished before it got dark, I kept trying to talk myself out of walking.  What really kept me going wasn’t knowing I was getting stronger, or that my pace would be faster, or even that I would finish sooner.  No, what kept me going was thinking about my students.

Some of them are working harder than they ever have before to complete and turn in all assignments so they will be eligible for Reward Day.  This is a tough task for some of them.  These are students who regularly have failing grades, even through elementary school (remember, I teach 6th grade, so these kids are coming to me from elementary style classrooms!)  For them, completing their work and turning it in is just as tough as completing my run is for me.

When I thought about quitting tonight, I kept picturing them, pushing through and completing an assignment.  If I ask them not to quit and not to let me down, how can I not do the same?

Realizing that my running for me is as hard as their assignments are for them is humbling.  It’s also inspiring.  As I pushed through the thoughts of stopping to walk, I realized that’s what I’m asking of them.  To push through when they’d rather take it easy.  They are my inspiration and tonight, they inspired me to keep going and complete 3 miles – longer than I’ve run straight for several months.  It’s a small victory, but, as I tell my students, each step along the way brings you closer to your goal.  In my case, that’s a half marathon in May.  In theirs, it’s an afternoon at the movie theater with their friends.

If we can keep inspiring each other, we all just might reach our goals!  I plan to tell them tomorrow about my run and how they inspired me to keep going.

How do you inspire your students?  How do they inspire you?

Reward Days

Our middle school started offering a Reward Day each trimester to students who have no Ds or Es on their report cards and no office referrals.

Last year was our first time with it and it went so well, we continued it this year.

What we do:

First trimester, teachers develop a fun activity for the students.  The various activities are listed on sign up sheets and students sign up for their choice at lunch.  One teacher (or two, depending on numbers!) mans the academic support room for those students who are not eligible for the Reward activity.  On the scheduled afternoon, students report to their assigned location and enjoy a fun time, or work on some goal setting, etc, to help avoid the academic support room in the future.

Second trimester, we take them on a field trip.  This year, we’re headed to the movie theater.  We book a private showing at a small local theater.  In addition, we are going to film several leaders (mayor, principal, superintendent, school board) congratulating the students on achieving this reward.  We also plan to film the MSU Dance Team congratulating them (they’re coming to one of our assemblies – more on that in a future post!)

Third trimester, we book an assembly.  Last year, our band director, who plays drums in a rock band, brought his band to perform a special concert just for them.  We haven’t booked a group yet for this year, but it will be hard to top that one!

Throughout the trimester, we make announcements reminding students the Reward Day is coming and they should keep working.  My teammate and I have also found quite a bit of success in talking to our students about making sure they are all eligible for Reward Day so he and I can also attend and not have to stay behind for the academic support room.  Sometimes, students will work for someone else more than they will for themselves.  Our catchphrase has been: “don’t let your team down!”

Currently, we only have 6 students out of 59 who are not eligible, with 4 weeks to get those grades up.  That’s half of the number from last trimester, so statistically, it seems to be working!

Does your school do an incentive for students to keep their grades up and stay out of the office?  We’d love to know what other schools are doing!

Why Don’t We Want Our Kids to be Smart?

I keep hearing people say something that bothers me.  It usually involves what schools should be doing in 2014 (or fill in the blank for whatever year it happens to be).  Basically, it goes something like this:

  • Teachers are not a font of knowledge, they are there to help students learn how to find their own research.
  • Students shouldn’t be spending their time learning things they can just google.
  • We should teach critical thinking, not memorization.

I take issue with these statements for several reasons.

1) There are certain things students should just know.  While a calculator can certainly perform the function 3X2, the time it takes to punch that into a calculator is silly when a student can simply (and quickly) answer 6.  Having taught math for 8 years, I’m here to tell you, the higher level thinking needed in algebra is hindered when students don’t know those basic facts.

2) Besides multiplication facts, students should know their address, their phone number.  While google is a wonderful thing, it won’t tell a student who is lost in the city what his or her parent’s cell phone number is.  I worry that we are setting our kids up for being hopelessly lost somewhere, unable to contact anyone because they never learned those basic pieces of information. (And yes, I have 6th graders who don’t know their parents’ cell phone number – and don’t have their own cell phone).

3) Shouldn’t an American citizen know their state capital, the date the Declaration of Independence was signed, and who the president is?  These are all pieces of information that we can google, but it seems to me that students should know things like that.

4) Here’s the big one:

What makes people seem “smart”?  Generally, it’s a knowledge base they can use as the situation calls for it.  That knowledge base is information they have learned over the years – most of it something they could look up.  However, having it in their brain, readily available, means they are seen as smart.  It also means they can take that information and apply it correctly.

We do our students a disservice when we don’t hold them to high standards.  I find great success telling my students that by learning whatever I’m teaching that day will make them smarter.  They all want to be smarter and when I point out this will help, they sit up straighter.

So my question is, why don’t we want our kids to be smart?  Why do we want them to be reduced to a google researcher?  Why can’t they have knowledge in their heads?  The memory is a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.  Instead of telling kids what they don’t need to know, let’s challenge them to learn as much as possible.

Our students should be proud to hold a large amount of knowledge in their heads.  Obviously, once it’s there, it’s only good if they know how to use it.  But let’s stop holding our kids back.  Help them get smarter!  They deserve it!  And so do we, since someday, they’ll be paying our social security!!

What Do Teachers Do?

As I’ve been working with my intern this winter, I’ve realized, once again, just how much teachers have to do/think about/know at any given moment.

1.) When I stand in front of my class, giving direct instruction, I have to constantly monitor the faces and actions of my students.  I need to not only make sure their eyes are open, I also “read” their facial expressions to see if I need to explain something differently.  I also need to make sure they are sitting up, not writing, doing homework, playing video games, etc.

2.) As I stand there, I need to keep an eye on the clock.  Each day, I HAVE to get through certain lessons and assignments.  My curriculum is scripted, which means if I don’t get through today’s lesson, tomorrow’s is impacted, and so on.  This means I need to make sure I’m completing the parts of the lesson on time.  So, I’m constantly checking the time to see how much time I have left (I also need to know if I’m going much faster than usual, which means I better have a back up plan!)

3.) I need to give students enough directions so they can complete whatever task I assign, but don’t give so much that they get bogged down.  I noticed my intern was giving them several questions to discuss at once.  Now, a group of high school or college students might be able to handle that, but 12 year olds cannot.  When we’re discussing the reading they have done, I need to explain what the question is asking, and keep it short.  Too much and they get lost in the words.

4.) I also need to prepare well.  This means, I better know how to pronounce all the words, I better know what they mean, and I definitely need to have read the passage in advance.  In addition, I need to know what the questions are getting at and how they relate to what we discussed yesterday and what we will discuss tomorrow.  This is especially noticeable in interns, since they often don’t believe they need to spend much time preparing.  They think (incorrectly) that because the curriculum is scripted, they can just use the book.  Then they are caught in front of the students, unsure where to go next.

5.) I need to remember which students need to be called on to keep them engaged and which students would be horrified to be called on.  I need to remember which students need to be strategically ignored and which ones I should call out for their behavior.  I need to remember which special ed students will be coming in partway through class and be ready to help them assimilate into the lesson.

6.) I need to keep track of which students I have called on.  It’s easy to call on the same students time after time.  There are always a couple of students who always raise their hands.  If I’m not careful, they’ll dominate the discussion and keep other students from being engaged.

7.) I have to use various strategies for engaging my students.  By changing it up, students are more engaged.  Any time you do the same thing time after time, we all shut down.  It’s important to stay out of the ruts that we can easily fall into.  However, I think humans are genetically programmed to fall into ruts, so it’s tough to fight against that natural inclination.

All of this is going on every time I’m up there teaching.  This is only one part of teaching.  It’s amazing to me, what we have to do, all the time!  Thank goodness a teacher’s brain is up to it!