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.

Fundraisers for Field Trips

How we raise funds for field trips

How we raise funds for field trips

Ah, field trips.  I do love taking my students out of the classroom!  The adventure, the break from routine, the hands-on activities, the bus ride.  It’s all good!  The downside is the cost.  Our 6th grade team has found some ways to make it easier to take our students on field trips.

We take about 6 field trips each year.  Some are free.  For instance, there is an ecology festival for Earth Day in downtown Lansing that is free.  The only cost for us is the bus to get there.  We also go downtown for a scavenger hunt – the students invade the businesses with a question they need answered (we okay it with the business owners in advance!).  I have attached the worksheet that students use so you can see what I mean.

Scavenger hunt

We also take the students to a nature preserve that our district owns, since that is a free trip, too.  At the end of the year, we have a picnic at the beach which has a minimal cost.

Our other trips are a bit more costly: the science center, the Imax movie theater, scuba diving.  However, all of our students are able to participate because we hold several fundraisers for our trips.

At the beginning of the year, we decide which trips we are going to take and add up the cost of all of them, adding a few dollars so we can cover students who can’t afford to pay for the trip.  Then, we let parents know what the total cost will be and that we will be fundraising.  Parents who prefer, can simply write a check to cover all of the field trips up front, or they can pay as we get ready to take each trip.  Other parents can use the fundraiser to help cover the cost.

What fundraisers do we use?  Not the usual candy bars and candles.  I have attached the note we give to parents about our field trip plans.

6th Grade Field Trips 2012

Instead, we hold a read-a-thon the day before Thanksgiving.  In honor of Children’s Book Week, we give students the opportunity to collect pledges for their reading time. I always counsel my students to ask their grandparents first.  Grandparents tend to pledge high, which sets the tone for other donors.  🙂  When the day comes, students can bring in blankets, pillows and snacks.  We have a few guest readers, but the day is mostly for finding a comfy spot to read.  Whether students have collected pledges or not, they are still expected to read.

In the spring, we hold a second fundraiser – a walk-a-thon.  Again, students can collect pledges for walking laps at the high school track.  We go up there the afternoon before Spring Break and walk laps.  We have a playlist of music for the loudspeaker and add in some fun themes like a Spartan lap (Spartan fans, only) and a Wolverine lap (Wolverine fans, only), along with a train lap – make a train with your friends and a dance lap – dance while you walk the track.  We also do a girls’ lap, during which time the boys gather in the end zone for a granola bar and bottle of water, then a boys’ lap, so the girls get their snack.  While we do these theme laps, we use music paired specially for it – Boys of Summer for the boys’ lap, Girls Just Want to Have Fun for the girls’ lap, you get the idea.

The kids enjoy participating in both fundraisers, and parents enjoy the chance to have their child earn the money for their field trips.  This allows us to offer field trips to our students, while also keeping the cost in line with the current economy.  Plus, we enjoy participating in the fundraisers, too!

Starting a Book Club

Our after school program has started a parent child book club.  The idea behind the club is to give students an opportunity to read with their parent and help the parents with some reading strategies they can use at home.

For our first book, we chose IFunny by James Patterson.  We decided to go with a humorous book because it draws students in.  This particular novel is geared towards middle school, but interest and reading level.  It’s about a boy in a wheelchair who wants to break into stand up comedy.

Worth reading!

Worth reading!

What’s great about Patterson’s books is that they have lots of things going on.  Not only does he have the comedy routine challenges, the wheelchair challenges and generally being a middle school student (which is always challenging!) but he is living with his aunt and uncle and the biggest bully in school is his cousin.  There are a number of scenes with the bully going after him, but he handles all of it with poise and charm.

For the first meeting, we put together a powerpoint of pictures of scenes from New York City.  Since our students live in a small, rural town in Michigan, they don’t have much experience with big cities.  Our tallest building is the grain elevator at 2 stories.  🙂  By giving them some background on the setting, we made it easier for them to visualize what they were reading.

New York City sites

The second meeting will include some youtube videos of old-time stand up comedians: Groucho Marx, Abbott and Costello, and Victor Borge.  Some of these people are mentioned in the book, so giving them an idea of who they are and what they were like will help them better understand the reading.

In addition to discussing the book and its ideas, we order in a pizza to share.  There’s something about food that makes everyone more comfortable.  It feels more like a party and less like a class.

As we go forward, in our next few meetings, we’ll do some read alouds to demonstrate to parents that kids are never to old to enjoy being read to.  We’ll also try out our own stand up comedy and see how we do.  We’ll finish with a trip to a bookstore to learn strategies to choose a book you would enjoy.

I really believe that a lot of reading is about enjoying the book, so the main focus in our book club has been how to find a book you like to read.  Once a student wants to read, half the battle is over.

Do you hold any sort of book club for your parents/students?  If so, I’d love to know what you read, what you do and how it goes.  We’re just starting, so we’re still figuring things out!

Student Led Conferences

student led conferenceOur sixth grade team has been holding student led conferences in the spring for a number of years.  We spend several weeks preparing.  First, students go over their grade reports, write down their current grade in each class and any missing assignments.  With the computer grading system, they are also able to look at their overall percentages in categories like homework, tests, participation, etc.  This information helps them look honestly at their work habits.

Next, students fill out a self evaluation page.  Statements like “I come to class prepared”, “I turn in my work on time” or “I put time and effort into my work” help students prepare to explain their grades and work habits to their parents.  I have found that students often grade themselves more harshly than I would on many of these categories.

At this point, we talk to them about setting goals.  We ask them to set a goal for the third trimester, along with a plan to reach it, and a goal for 7th grade.  We also have them write down their favorite things about 6th grade, to keep everything on a positive note.  It’s always interesting to see the goals they set.  They take the process very seriously and tailor their goals to their current achievement and hopes for the future.

Once we have the preparations in place, we take them to the computer lab to create a powerpoint.  Since we have a smartboard in the classroom, we’ve found that having them create a powerpoint to use during their conference gives them a boost of confidence, and shows their parents some of the technology they use each day.  We don’t give them much direction at this point, other than to remind them that the slides will serve to help them talk to their parents about how they have been doing in school.

Some students keep their slideshow pretty basic – just the facts.  Others include pictures, transitions, animations and sounds.  We leave all of that up to their individual preference.

Finally, students are given time to practice their presentations.  They work with a partner and go over their slides, practicing what to say.  One thing we have them practice is introducing us to their parents.  This is an important social skill, so we make sure they know how to do it properly, with names included.  In addition, we suggest they ask parents to “hold all questions until the end”.  Giving them that small amount of power really makes them feel good about the process.  Of course, we practice making that request politely.

Over the years, with the advent of smartboards, and the addition of the powerpoint, I’ve noticed a real change in the parents’ reactions.  In the past, with paper notes, parents tended to ask a lot of questions and often got angry with their child as he or she revealed the grades.  However, using the powerpoint, the parents seem so awestruck by what their child is capable, they generally don’t have as many questions.  Whether it’s because the slides answer all the questions, or parents just aren’t used to seeing a smartboard in use, I’m not sure.

One thing I am sure of, having the students prepare and run their own conference is a very worthwhile activity.  I have found it’s very good for them to see what goes into the grades they earn.  It also gives them that necessary practice presenting, and gives them a measure of confidence for the future.  (It’s also a much easier conference night for me, since I don’t have to spend the entire three hours talking non-stop!)

Do you hold student led conferences?  Are they well attended?


Family Language Arts Night

bookOur school has held Family Curriculum Nights for years.  We started with Family Science Night, then added Family Math Night and now we also hold Family Language Arts Night.  In the past, we followed the standard Family Science Night format – openers for a half hour, 3 half hour sessions led by a teacher, then wrap up and cookies at the end.

This year, we changed that up a bit.  We held our Annual Family Language Arts Night with an open house format.  This meant that families could arrive at whatever time worked for their schedule, move through the activities at their own pace, then head home when they were finished.  With busy families, this was a highly successful model.

We used a Dr Seuss theme this year.  The students picked up a punch card at the front lobby, along with some trivia questions they could work on throughout the evening.

The activities included a photo booth (complete with Cat in the Hat props and a frame), bookmark making, online madlib kind of website, book recommendations and a page for a book to place in the school library.  Families could spend as much or as little time at each station they liked.

The photo booth was a hit – a digital camera allowed us to take pictures (we had them printed out over the weekend).  We took an old frame from a bulletin board and painted it red.

The students definitely liked the book page.  Each student was able to use a prompt to create a page.  The pages will be bound together to make a book to place in the library.  Students love to see their work and the work of former students, so this will be a hot item!

Our computer lab had a water main break over Christmas, so it just got re-opened with brand new computers, carpet, tables, etc.  This generated a lot of excitement for the families to get in and use the brand new stuff.  The online website we found: http://www.eduplace.com/tales/ kept them well engaged.

For the book recommendations, we printed speech bubbles.  The students were able to pick a book from the library, write a blurb about why this book was worth reading.  Now, the librarian can add these to various books in the library to generate interest in them.

In addition to all of this foolishness, our after school program baked Cat in the Hat cookies and decorated them.  These were handed out as families were leaving, along with a note: “Thanks for stopping by, please enjoy this sugar high”.

All in all, it was a very successful evening and families were enthusiastic about attending.

Next year, we plan to follow a Paddle to the Sea theme. (The author lived in our town!)

book pages and mustache template

Parent Teacher Conference Time!

Okay, the longest week of the year has arrived!  I love parent teacher conferences, since it’s an opportunity to meet with parents and discuss their child.  Sharing successes with parents is always fun.  The downside to parent teacher conferences is the long day.  We hold ours in the evenings, after a full day of school.  It makes for one tired teacher by the end of the week!

As a parent and a teacher, I’ve spent many hours in parent teacher conferences (on both sides of the table).  One thing I know is that it’s very helpful to have information to share with the parents.  When I first started, no one prepared me for conferences.  It was hard to know what to say to the parents.  It felt very awkward to just share the grade their child had earned, with a smile and a nice compliment.

Over the years, I learned to create a progress report of skills to share with the parents.  As a teacher, this gave me specific information to share with the parents.  I was able to focus on the skills and topics we had been working on in class.  Going over this information let parents see where their child was succeeding and where their child could work more.

As a parent, I noticed that at the elementary level, teachers tended to have this sort of report prepared for me at each conference.  Once my children reached the secondary level (about 7th grade), teachers were sharing more about the number of assignments turned in and less about the skills my child had achieved.

This began to be a bit frustrating for me.  I would sit, waiting to speak to a teacher for 30-45 minutes, only to be told, my child has an A and everything is fine.  It seemed to me that if the teacher had a report prepared (similar to what the elementary teachers do), they would have more to share with me and we would both be able to use this time to better help my child.

While I am in no way implying that teachers are not doing their job, I have found that when we have this report prepared, conferences go much more smoothly.  When I create the progress report, I try to look at skills and topics that I already have data for.  This way, it’s a quick task to look up the data and fill out the report.  I think it’s well worth the half hour or so filling out the form, since it makes the conference go so well.

At our building and level, we schedule conferences.  This means that I meet with my homeroom students.  Since we team, I don’t teach them math, science or social studies.  This progress report allows me to discuss how the child is doing in other classes, even though I don’t teach them.

6th Grade Progress Report

I also will often have students write a letter to their parents explaining how they think they are doing in class.  The students are amazingly honest in these letters (often brutally so!)  The parents enjoy seeing the letter written and are interested to hear what their child has to say about the work he or she is doing.

In the spring, we use a student led conference format, which is also highly successful.  More on that next spring!

What do you do to prepare for conferences?

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.