Flip the parent teacher conference

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For the last few years our parent teacher conferences have been held during the week of President’s Day. This means there is no school Monday, no school Friday, and two half days. Not surprisingly, a lot of families travel that week and skip conferences all together.  Teachers still have a long week of conferences though.

There are a number of alternatives to parent conferences that schools could try and, after chatting with a friend this afternoon when I swung by my old school, I decided to put together and publish a list of ideas I’ve been accumulating for the last few years – especially since I used to have a lot of time on my hands during the night of conferences.

The other thing I noticed, at least from my teacher perspective, is that the families who attended conferences were usually the ones whose children were successful in school while the struggling students didn’t have anyone attend.

From Alternative Models for Traditional Parent Teacher Conferences, Tammy Jackson’s idea to use the evening as time for student credit recovery is great. “Our attempts to develop non-traditional uses of contractual PTC time were not meant to diminish the importance of communicating with parents. Positive relationships with parents are the single most important aspect of a healthy school culture. Working directly with students is what we do best and should always be our number one priority.”

I love the idea of showcasing some student talent in the auditorium and in the hallways – kind of like a gallery walk or showcase of work from classes. Some of it could be digital or recorded so it will continue to live online.

Invite parents in for a showing of a film like Screenagers or Most Likely to Succeed in order to continue the conversations about school.

But here’s my idea. Last spring I brainstormed a few ways to let parents be more involved in my classroom. I’d already had success flipping back to school night so parents could come in and talk to me instead of just listen to me. In a typical PTC there is very little depth of conversation or of understanding the learning that is taking place. So…

Flip the conference. Parents check grades online with relative frequency and have easy access to teachers through e-mail. Some teachers have websites or learning management systems that parents can check out to view the assignments, or send out regular newsletters with updates on the overall learning that is taking place in classrooms. So why not take it a step further? We may have plenty of rigor and relevance in our classrooms, but we need to develop our relationships with parents and families, not just students.

A week or so before conferences send parents a brief reflective survey on their child’s learning and collect it via a conversation at parent conferences. For parents who can’t attend, or for the purpose of collecting qualitative data, you could collect information electronically via a Google Form. Make sure there is a way to include questions, to make the flipped PTC inquiry-based rather than just an assignment parents complete. If you collect digital work from your students, have them accumulate it into a simple folder in Google Drive or a fancy Google Site as a digital portfolio for parents to check out ahead of time.

You could take it a little further and build in time for students to reflect on their learning (standards, college and career readiness, mindset, etc. would all be great places to start) and then share those reflections with parents so the conversation can center around metacognitive learning.

In my opinion, as both an educator and a parent, this would be more fun and thought-provoking than our traditional high school conferences. Since parents and students are coming off the more dynamic model of student-led conferences at middle school, it could be a great opportunity to build on that collaborative, student centered culture.

 

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Annotation and close reading

pexels-photo-632470.jpegWhen I was a sophomore in high school I was assigned selections from Hamlet to read in my English class. I read it, understood it, and took notes in the margins as I was asked to do. But the following day I was told I didn’t have “enough” annotations and was assigned a detention (a Friday Evening Inconvenience – it was boarding school).

But what is “enough” when it comes to annotation? As a college student I think I finally learned to annotate so that my thinking – at the time I took the note – was clear to me when it came time to use the note.

I think that, as teachers, we need to help students connect to the text through annotation. This starts with how we select the text and how we select the assign the annotation. We have to give them clear guidelines and support. Annotation is a skill that needs to be developed

Chunk – How can you break up longer texts?

Purpose – What’s the learning objective? Make this explicit to the students so you can all begin with the end in mind

Quantify – How many comments do you expect per paragraph, per page?

Notations – What do you want to see in the margins? Symbols, questions, definitions, specific connections? Symbols or color coding should include a key each time.

Rereads – When you need them to reread for fluency or in a coaching group, give them a different purpose or lens for the next read

We can use technology or low tech tools to support students through universal design.

  • Color coded sticky notes with questions or comments written on them
  • Hypertext annotation to definitions, expansion of ideas, etc.
  • Kami – potential shared annotation
  • Google Docs – comments in the margins
  • A document camera will allow you to model the annotation, with out-loud metacognitive thinking about why and how you are annotating, for students. Some document cameras will allow you to record the whole thing for playback later.

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9/11 – addressing difficult things

Last year South Anchorage High School teachers began the tradition of teaching a common text on the same day. This year they will do it again with texts about 9/11, starting with this old blog post of mine that I shared.

September 11th was a current event and now it’s a moment in history; most high school students weren’t even alive in 2001. This is also a very personal event for most of us. We have a personal connection to what happened because it changed the world around us and changed how we view the world.

I taught the events of 9/11 through my personal story (my dad worked in the South tower and, at the time the building collapsed we still had not heard from him) and through poetry.

And then we went to stories that have been written down. I read “The Names” by Billy Collins and I told them it makes me think of everyone I’ve lost, that echoes of people are everywhere. Next came “Prayer for the Dead,” by Stuart Kestenbaum. His line, “…if you discover some piece of your own writing, or an old photograph, you may remember that it was you and even if it was once you, it’s not you now…”  because that’s the reason I have them write an autobiography over the course of the year, so they can look back and see themselves as freshmen in high school. And the last poem, “Five Years Later,” by Tony Gloegger, addresses survivor’s remorse and the pain all of us go through when forced to tell about or relive something traumatic.

I love how new-to-South teacher Ken Hemenway added to the ideas and discussion.

I was attending graduate school in Boston on September 11 and went to New York to visit a girl I was dating in Hoboken, NJ, Friday through Sunday of that week. I have very vivid memories of the smoke, smell, and utter bewilderment of the whole situation from a personal perspective. Needless to say it was surreal and I’ll never forget the numerous places where people had put up papers, pleading for information regarding their lost, loved ones.

I attended Boston College with a young man by the name of Welles Crowther. He played lacrosse and our paths crossed being I was also playing hockey at the time and the student athlete population was a close knit community.
He lost his life on September 11th and I put a link for a short ESPN video presentation entitled “9/11 The Man in the Red Bandanna.” I’m not sure if anyone would like to use this, but I think it may compliment some of the great material shared above.
I’m eager to see how this looks in classes on Monday and will be visiting a teacher to see it in action.
How do you teach 9/11 as an English/language arts teacher? How do you teach other difficult topics and current events like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Syrian refugees, etc. so your students build empathy and cultural literacy?
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This is my seven year-old’s drawing of September 11th, some sort of pirate airplane attack – that is how he created context. I don’t know what prompted him to draw it for me but I have it hanging in my office as a reminder of the importance of teaching kids about difficult topics.

#ObserveMe

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I was too chicken to try this last year. Robert Kaplinsky has a great site that demonstrates the power of #ObserveMe, the hashtag I saw all over twitter last fall. He has templates, examples, stories, etc. but as I went to write my questions and print my sign I chickened out. The thought of inviting in my friends and colleagues at random times was scary to me. I never minded if people stopped by to hang out or ask questions but the thought of being so transparent and admitting that there were things I still wanted to improve was really awkward.

I reflect constantly; it’s part of my learning process. During meeting at George School we sat and mostly reflected on our lives and the world around us. We synthesized what we learned in class with what we learned in the dorms, from our friends, our parents, our discussions with peers. During the National Board process I was constantly pushed to reflect on how what I did with students impacted their learning. NBPTS has a great little publication called “What Teachers Know and Should be Able to Do” that I still refer to, reframing the five core propositions as reflective questions.

But now I am in the unique position of being able to go into classrooms and see the amazing work English and Language Arts teachers in the Anchorage School District are doing – I find myself turning again to the #ObserveMe movement I was too chicken to try as a classroom teacher, choosing instead to rely only on myself. Though I think the questions we ask ourselves should intersect with the questions we ask of others… So, teachers, as I start scheduling classroom visits please let me in on the questions you ask yourself and I will give you my answers. It doesn’t mean that what I think is the only answer, it just gives you another viewpoint to help you on your own journey of continual improvement.

In the meantime, I am working on my own #ObserveMe sign for my new little office. Stop by and visit so you can help me as I learn my new position and work on how I can improve.

leaving the classroom

Just one week ago I sat down for an interview for a position I was pretty sure I wanted, but wasn’t sure my heart  was ready for. It’s been a whirlwind week since then but resulted in me sitting in an office instead of a classroom, and taking on a new position in the district.

I love teaching. It’s my passion, my hobby, and often all consuming. But for the last few years I have worked to lead more professional development, be more deliberate and focused with technology integration, and take on more small leadership projects. Last year, working on the implementation of AP Capstone and AP Seminar at South, I felt pulled in too many directions and had to pause some of the things I feel passionate about lest I begin to not be there as a good teacher for my students and become a too-exhausted parent for my children.

So now I am the language arts curriculum coordinator for the district. I get to pull together all of the elements I love about curriculum and instruction, including inquiry based learning and flipped learning, together and perhaps stay a little more focused and sane.

My head tells me that all of this will work out but, since I am very attached to my identity as a classroom teacher it will be a bit before I am really adjusted. The emotional components of this switch will take a little while to process.

Conferencing with students

I LOVE it when my students come in to talk to me about their work and grades in my class but I really love it when I know they are coming and I know what they want to visit about. Since I teach primarily upper grade classes I post “office hours” on my door because I know that will be a good transition into college for students.

In the past, I’ve just asked kids to tell me ahead of time that they are coming. But this year I have set up a “You Book Me” link on my website. It integrates with my school district Google calendar and was pretty simple to set up. When an appointment is scheduled students will even be asked to tell me what we are meeting about, so I can be prepared to give feedback on writing, clarification on an assignment, etc.

I set it up with a custom URL offered by youbook.me and then followed the directions. It integrates nicely but you don’t want kids trying to book appointments during other classes so it’s important to create “appointments” in your Google Calendar that will block out those times – I even made it so kids can’t book times during my conference period so I can make sure to get focused work done during that time.

You can customize the appointment lengths, start/end times (helpful for schools with odd bell schedules), color of your calendar, etc. If you are trying to set one up and hit a wall, ask me for help! It took a little finagling for me to get it just right and that may be the case for you, too.

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The image on my website takes students to the booking calendar

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My booking calendar has grayed out times for when I am in class, so students can only choose before school, after school, and lunch

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blocked out time in my Google Calendar

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I created two blocks of classes and then made them repeat on weekdays