Secondary Solutions

Ideas, tips, and tools for the middle and high school English Language Arts teacher. Visit our store at www.4secondarysolutions.com!

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5 Tips for Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences

At my school, it is time again for parent conferences.  This opportunity can be bitter sweet.  Before I get into my tips for successful parent-teacher conferences, can I just take a moment to explain my love-hate relationship with parent conferences? (Note: Our conferences are organized as open time slots 3 times a year without RSVPs or scheduling)

What I LOVE:

  • when conferences end in successful partnerships between parent and teacher that ultimately foster successful student outcomes
  • when parents have the opportunity to be pleasantly impressed with their offspring

What I DON’T LOVE:

  • when the majority of parents that I really need to talk with do not make it to conference night
  • working late without any breaks the day before/after

Tips for Successful Conferences:

1. Prepare with students. I don’t have the luxury of knowing which parents will attend at what time, and so I prepare all of my students just in case.  To prep, I give each student a manilla folder and ask them to dig through their work and put in a few pieces that they are proud of (1 piece of writing is required, plus homework, tests, projects, and other work that they like). I also have students fill out a brief form that asks: 1. What have you done well this semester?  2. What are you still working on?  3. What was the most interesting topic for you? I give the students a quiz grade for this to ensure that I get them all back.  I then organize the folders in crates so I can easily pull out the student work when a parent comes. With folders in hand, the focus of the conferences is kept with the student work and student voice.  I get a lot of parents who are impressed with the level of work produced.

2. Stay positive and solution-oriented. We all know that we should give positive feedback along with the constructive criticism, but sometimes  in the rush of conferences, we forget to take a step back and remember that parents have entrusted us with the education of their sweet babies (that have momentarily turned into teenagers).  Instead of focusing on the lack of homework or low quiz scores, focus on the opportunities to bring up the homework or assessment grade through future diligence.  I also post or photocopy my office hours, the school tutoring options, and other helpful resources that parents may not know about.  It has to be about the solution.

3. Actively listen. It seems that every year my heart is broken by the stories of the “simple hell people give other people” (Yes, that was To Kill a Mockingbird).  Sometimes students have home issues, learning difficulties, school situations, health concerns, crazy schedules, and a whole host of other obstacles.  More often than not, the only way that we learn about these struggles is by listening, not just waiting to talk.  (Note to self: I am guilty of this one too much!)

4. Watch the time. Don’t spend so long with one parent that another is neglected.   If the conference seems to need more time or is particularly contentious, invite them to schedule something for a later date and potentially with an admin or department chair.

5. Invite future communication.  Tell parents the best way to communicate with you for future concerns.  I am an email girl, so I print small strips of paper with my email address to hand out when needed.  Routine communication can head off some major issues at the pass.

What are your tips for successful parent-teacher conferences?  Leave them in the comment section below!

conferences

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How Should We Pick Required Reading?

required reading

A co-worker recently re-posted this article criticizing changes that my alma mater UCLA made in 2011 to the English department required courses.  Gone are the days of required single author courses in Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, which have been replaced with thematic courses and syllabi full of a combination of the traditional canon and new voices.  Of course, I poked around and saw other articles like this one, in support of the changes and found this clear explanation of the changes from the Daily Bruin.  This all got me thinking about the books that our high schools require.  I currently teach American lit and British lit to juniors and seniors in high school and so my required reading relies heavily on our anthology with the supplement of a couple of novels.  Even though I LOVE my curriculum, I think it is important to think about how we select required reading. Below I’ve listed some of the major considerations out there with a brief opinion of my own. I’d love to hear your two cents!  How much control do you have over your required reading?  Are you happy with your current list?

  • Students should read the foundations like mythology, the bible, and philosophy.  The argument here is that students cannot fully appreciate any works inside or outside of the traditional canon if they do not understand the allusions and underpinnings.
    • I can relate to the difficulties of teaching Romeo and Juliet to students without a working understanding of mythology or Bless Me Ultima without the biblical allusions.  I also relate to the struggle of engaging high school students in the philosophies of the metaphysical poets or the transcendentalist thinkers.
  • Student should be able to read texts that connect with their identity. The required reading should be tailored to the school’s population to reflect authors, characters, and themes that connect with the race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status of students.
    • I have witnessed students come alive as readers when reading works from authors that they personally connect with, like Cisneros, Cullen, and Hong Kingston to name a few. There is a definite power in the approach and I think it is most evident in the long-term inspiration for students to be life long readers and writers.
  • Students should read the masters like Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Pound.  In Emerson’s “Education”, he writes about the paradox of genius and drill.  Students must closely read the masters in order to create new, relevant works.
    • This is a tough one for me because I sometimes feel that I sacrifice depth in order to cover the breadth of the “masters” which leaves even less time to explore other works.  On the other hand, I want my students going into college with a working knowledge of the major literary players.
  • Students should read around a universal theme. This approach can incorporate the traditional canon and maringalized voices around a common thread.
    • I personally love this approach because it marries the two sides of the argument allowing the educator to juxtapose the traditional canon with additional perspectives. I think this can also lead to a deeper understanding of genres and style through direct comparison.
  • Students should be able to choose their literature. There is also the argument that education in the information age must completely revolutionize to include choice as a center piece.
    • In theory I like this, in practice I loathe it.  As a teacher I take pride in my ability to guide a curriculum toward objectives.  Allowing 100% choice muddies the water of rigor and assessment for me.

What do you think?  How should we be picking the required reading for high school students?

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9 Tips to Inspire Students to Actually Read

Get Students to Read

We’ve all had those class periods that seem to drag on with a flat discussion because half the class didn’t really read the last night’s homework.  With all of the shortcuts out there on the internet and sometimes a general apathy that hits teenagers, how do we get them to actually read?  Here are some of my ideas and I’d love to hear yours in the comment section below:

1. Introduce with enthusiasm. It doesn’t always work, but I know that sharing the reasons why I fell in love with the book or author goes a long way with some students to get them excited to start reading.  It sounds cliché, but attitude really is 90% of teaching sometimes right?

2. Daily reading quizzes. Most of my homework is reading.  Read a chapter, read a story, read a speech.  I don’t usually assign questions with the reading because I want them to read fluidly and possibly even enjoy what they are reading without the hassle of stopping every paragraph to answer a question (Plus, grading daily homework and reading quizzes on top of regular essays would probably put me over the edge!).  Every day after the reading, I give a quick comprehension quiz that is not based on the sparks note version, but the actual reading.  During the first quarter, grades suffer, but after that most students figure out that actually reading is the easiest way to pass the quizzes.

3. Talk about the long-term. I teach mostly college prep and honors classes and I find that sometimes high school students need a little perspective.  In my most non-condescending voice we have candid talks about the kind of reading skills and self-discipline students will need to compete in college.

4. Put students in charge. Create projects, assignments, and assessments in which students teach the reading.  Check out this post for a specific game plan on this one.

5. Leverage technology. Check out these posts on how to enhance curriculum by using resources like collaborize classroom, twitter, prezi, google presentations, google forms, explain everything, iPads, and infographics.  Kids love technology, let’s use it to our advantage.

6. Create a social experience. Students are more likely to read when there will be some social aspect with their peers in class. I personally love using socratic seminar and literature circles.

7. Give students options. When possible, allow students to pick a book from a thematic list.  For times when the whole class is reading the same book, give choices on the accompanying assignment.  For example, for a chapter of The Great Gatsby, choose a character and outline his or her actions and motivations.  This allows students to connect more meaningfully with a character that they choose.

8. Use the power of the audio book. My students told me about the librivox app and at first I was a little leery, but now I’ve heard so many success stories that I am sold.  I have students who need to read the chapter with the audiobook and others who read first and then listen as a review on their way to school.  If they are going to have the headphones in anyway, it might as well be in the name of the classic authors.

9. Teach annotation strategies. Actively teach students how to highlight and write brief notes in the margins.  If they become more successful at reading assessments through close reading strategies, they are more likely to feel motivated to actually read and not give up before they start.

What would you add to this list?  I think it needs an even 10…

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