Tips for Positive Parent Interactions

Although it is often underestimated and overlooked, parent and teacher collaboration is vitally important to student success.  Some parents have time to be very involved and others have significantly less time and/or resources to dedicate to schooling.  Either way, parents ought to be a respected part of the education equation and positive communication with them should be toward the top of teachers’ priorities.  Here are a few tips for keeping parent communication positive:

Be available. Within our school environments, we often know the best way to get ahold of our colleagues.  The principal prefers email, a department chair likes voicemail, a close colleague is best through text, and so on.  However, parents are not part of our day to day operations and it isn’t always obvious to them how to get ahold of us.  Be sure to include your best contact info at Back to School Night, Parent Conferences, Open House, and your website if you have one.  Tell parents if they can contact you through:

  • Email (make sure the address is easily accessible)
  • Voicemail (make sure your extension is listed on syllabus, website, etc)
  • The Learning Management System of your school
  • Social Media
  • Text (one of my local schools has gone to parent/teacher texting via celly).
  • Walk-in hours
  • Other

It may seem obvious, but after you communicate this information to parents, you have to follow through. This is one of the most common frustrations I hear from parents.  A teacher will say that email is best, but then not consistently check it or respond to it or he/she may say that social media is always available and then not update for months. This leads to my next point.

Have boundaries. You probably will not have positive parent interactions without some boundaries. You should not be a slave to parent communication, emailing back at midnight to let them know what specifically the student missed on the last test. Here are some boundaries that I find helpful:

  • Establish a 24 hour response time. I think this is fair to both parties.  I keep this standard on the weekends also, but you may want to make it 48 hours on non-school days.  Whatever you decide, communicate it to parents so they know what to expect.
  • Conference when necessary: Some situations warrant a meeting. Instead of writing a long email that may be misconstrued because of tone or jargon, don’t be afraid to ask for a meeting.
  • Let them know any pitfalls to communication.  For me, this is voicemail.  Even with a post-it on my computer monitor and a recurring cellphone reminder, I have the hardest time remembering to check my school voicemail.  Our phones don’t have a flashing red light or any other indication that we have a message, so voicemails occasionally go unnoticed by me.  Voicemails are also not available over the weekend, so the response time can be much longer for multiple reasons.

Make positive contact. It can be a daunting task when you have 200 students spread over 5 periods, but sending an authentic positive note or call home sets the stage for open and positive communication later if or when you need to discuss any issues. For me, email is better (and quicker), but a phone call is preferable when email access is limited. Some of the positives you can use to contact parents include:

  • High test/quiz scores
  • Improvement
  • Consistent effort
  • Additions to class discussion
  • Taking responsibility
  • Coming in for extra help when needed
  • Helping others when needed
  • Anything else you notice!

Use technology (if appropriate). You know your school demographics best. If parents have access to technology, use it to your advantage!  Here are two ideas:

  • Celly: This service allows you to use texting for academic purposes in a safe, private manner.  There are many applications for celly in the classroom, but one of them is for parent communication. Parents can opt in to the service with a simple text. The website offers printable instructions for teachers, students, and parents.  Once it is set up, parents can text you within appropriate boundaries.  You don’t have to give out your actual phone number, and you can set acceptable hours for texts.  You can text privately with individual parents and also send out announcements to the entire list.  Click here for the celly website and click here for my earlier blog post about ways to use it in your classroom.
  • Google Forms: If parents of your students can access your website, you can quickly embed a google form that will help you schedule parent communication.  You can make certain fields required, which is nice because it ensures you get all the proper information to contact them back, prepared to discuss their comment or concern.  For more info, click here for an older blog post about using google forms.

Parent-Teacher Contact

Daily Affirmations for Secondary Students

Sometimes in the muck and mire of teenage life, negative self-talk takes over and it is hard to focus on academics, building positive relationships, and accomplishing goals. As English teachers, we ignite a love of our favorite authors, cultivate solid argument writers, and extol the virtues of effective communication, but occasionally we have to break through some tough barriers of negativity to impart our knowledge and help students think critically.  When we are up in front of the class lecturing, teens may be thinking about things like:

  • A negative body image
  • Parental arguments
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • A growling stomach
  • A lack of social acceptance
  • and a myriad of other ailments.

How can they focus on reading Byron, Shelley, and Keats when they are bullying themselves?  I do not pretend that we can change all of these feelings in 10 seconds a day, but thinking about this issue got me reminiscing about one of my Jr. High teachers, Mrs. Kelley. EVERYDAY when the bell rang, she had  us ALL repeat a daily affirmation in a call and response fashion.  At first, I thought it was crazy, but by the end of the year I looked forward to it because it felt good to say something nice to myself, especially in the middle of a stressful school day.  20 years later, I can still hear her voice saying the affirmation below. I have not conducted formal studies on the matter, but I have my anecdotal experience and here is a link to an article about the importance of positive self-talk, also here is an article about daily affirmations. Below are three of my favorite daily affirmations for secondary students, starting with the one Mrs. Kelley ingrained in me.

Affirmation 1

Affimation 2 Affirmation 3

Would you or do you say daily affirmations with your students?  What words do you want penetrating their daily outlook?

Pop Culture Reminders for Effective Writing

Do you find yourself giving the same advice to student writers over and over again?  Sometimes I feel like I just can’t get certain things to stick.  Students need to see and hear certain ideas over and over again to internalize the message and actually put them into practice.  Enter memes.  I’ve seen some teachers do amazing things with memes, so I thought it could be a good idea to put some writing tip memes up in my room.  Basically the idea is that I would talk about the story behind the meme and connect that story to some key writing advice.  Then I would print large memes to put up in the front of the room above the white board where students can see them everyday and remember the story.  I could also include some bullet points around them and refer to them occasionally.

dice move

The first meme comes from a movie in which the main character is an clumsy dancer, repeating the same dance move too often. From this one, we can talk about overusing the same sentence structure and the same word or phrase.  (Note: I would not show the clip of this movie in class as the main characters are drinking in a club during the scene, but students are familiar with the context for the most part and can understand the premise just with the brief explanation.)

double check


This meme reminds students of the horror experienced in the movie Home Alone when the mother realizes she forgot one of her children.  I could accompany this with advice about the absolute necessity of proofreading and double checking for style and usage. This clip is easily found on youtube to drive the point home.


Although Ferris Bueller took his day off in 1986, this cult classic is well-known among the high school students in my area of Southern California. The monotone teacher can remind students to add variety in vocabulary and sentence structure as well as interest to arguments.


Poor Olaf!  Everyone who has seen Frozen knows that this wacky snowman is unaware of the consequences of summer, basing his whole song on a false premise.  I could use this as a jumping off point for using research and literature appropriately.  The song (or essay) can  be catchy and beautiful, but if the facts don’t support the argument or miss a major premise, the reader is laughing at you, not with you.


What pieces of writing advice do you give over and over again?  What memes would you add?  We’d love to hear form you in the comment section below!

5 Tips for Remembering Students’ Names

5 Tips to Remember Students NamesWhile some teachers can have everyone’s name down pat by the end of the first period, others need a little more help. If you are struggling to remember your students’ names, here are 4 time tested tips and 1 new, fun project idea to get you going:

  1. Create a seating chart right away. Seating charts will help you quickly connect names and faces during attendance and when calling on students. If you keep the seating chart on the podium in the front of your room or on a clip board, you can covertly glance down at names when needed so students won’t be the wiser! I suggest marking the seating chart with students’ preferred names to avoid confusion (e.g. Chris instead of Christopher).
  2. Greet students at the door. I like to stand at the door and casually greet students as they come in. I’ve had collogues who effectively and joyfully shake hands with every student as they walk in. I take a less formal approach, smiling and saying good morning, using names whenever possible to reinforce them in my brain. I also make quick chit chat with them because knowing a little about them helps me solidify a relationship, not to mention remember names.
  3. Make name cards. If the seating chart doesn’t help or you choose not to use one, paper tent name cards can also help. You can ask students to tuck them in their books and reuse them all week until you have a better grasp on their names.


  1. Say their names when you call on them. It may sound weird at first, but it is a networking trick in the business world and beyond. The adage says that saying a name 3 times when you meet a person will help you remember. You may be hard pressed to use every student’s name 3 times in a class period, especially if your numbers are creeping up to 35+ like they are in my area. However, after a few days of diligence, you can sure get in your fair share of naming and remembering.
  2. Make a fun selfie project! Why not harness the incredible technology so readily available to today’s teens? Sample directions: Take a selfie with something important to you. All photos must be school appropriate. Include your name and period number in the picture. Students could turn them in to you via google docs, celly, email, schoology, evernote, or any other technology that you are comfortable with. Then you can easily study their pictures with names attached and as an added bonus you have great conversation starters built in for getting to know students. Here are to samples of a teacher and a student:


The student is posing with a piece of his art from sculpture class and I am posing with my new baby Willa!  Both of these could be great memory devices and conversation starters!

What helps you remember students’ names? How long does it usually take you to know them all?

5 of the Biggest Problems Facing English Teachers Today

English Problems

Warning: I will not claim to solve any of the problems listed below!  That being said, I think it is important for us to acknowledge the issues that we face so that we can work together to find some solutions.  I’d love to hear your struggles, thoughts, and solutions in the comment section below!

1. Refusal to read outside of class. Between the shortcuts of online summaries and the incredibly busy schedules kept by many of today’s teens, it is not surprising that English teachers are struggling to get students to read outside of class.  So what do we do?

  • Do we start reading during class time?  What will be the impact on curriculum and timing? What will be the long-term impact on creating authentic readers?
  • Do we start daily reading quizzes and other assessments that make it difficult to pass our classes without completing the reading?  Does that value comprehension over critical thinking?  Is it possible/feasible to assess true reading over summary reading?

2. Lack of parent support. This problem is not specific to English teachers, but it impacts us as much as anyone. It is incredibly hard to teach growth in the process of critical thinking and writing when some parents and students are obsessed with grades and refuse to accept teachers’ advice and criticism. How do we address parent support?

  • Do we actively recruit parent allies?  If so, how?  Does it have to be a bigger effort on the part of our schools and districts?
  • Do we work directly with students to improve accountability without parent intervention?  Is it a recipe for disaster to try to work around parents?

3. Plagiarism. The internet has such power to support critical thinkers and writers, but it also allows for a myriad of writing short cuts and academic dishonesty. How do we empower students to use the internet as a research tool and not as a vehicle for plagiarism?

  • Do we limit or shelter their internet use?  What will happen when they get into college and life without those limits?  Would that be a disservice?
  • Do we buy into plagiarism detection sites and software like Turnitin and Grammarly?   Can our strained school budgets afford them?

4. Current teacher time models.  With growing class sizes and demands of teacher time, how can we not struggle to meaningfully assess so many students in a meager prep period that is also full of IEP meetings, broken copy machines, planning, parent emails and a million other teacher tasks?

  • Is there any way to change the system so that teachers have more time for grading assessments and giving meaningful feedback?  Will independent study and online classrooms release some of this pressure?
  • Would flipping the classroom be the answer or at least part of the answer in a traditional classroom setting?

5. An over-emphasis on testing. Personally, I think that most of the ELA standards are well conceived and academically appropriate.  The problem of over-testing is another issue in my opinion.  When teachers and students are pressured to do well on tests or face consequences in job retention, college admission, and other important aspects of their lives, it is no wonder that we go into survival mode and test prep takes an overbearing part in our classrooms.

  • What is the role of opting out of testing?  Will that teach students effective activism or avoidance of the uncomfortable?
  • Is there a way to help students prepare for these tests without compromising other important parts of our curriculum?

Are these the 5 most significant problems you face or are there others more prominent?   What solutions have you found or do you plan to experiment with?  Please share below.

The Best and Worst Teaching Advice I’ve Received


Today I’m sharing some of the best and worst advice I’ve received as a teacher.  I would love to hear some of your good and bad advice in the comment section below!

The Worst (Yes, I have really been told all of the following):

  1. Keep the students quiet and you will avoid concerns from administrators. First off, I think we can all agree that constantly quiet students in neat little rows are a cultural and pedagogical thing of the past. I want my students to develop the skills to quietly read, analyze, and write about a text, but the process toward that goal mostly looks like collaboration, discussion, debate, and critical problem solving, none of which are very quiet in my experience. Second, my job is not to keep up appearances for administrators; it is to teach the students in front of me.   Great admins know what great teaching looks like; they applaud our efforts and continue to help us improve with meaningful dialogue. Mediocre or poor administrators may want to pleasantly walk down the silent halls without disruption, but that priority is not in line with my philosophy of education, so I cannot exert effort toward that goal. Luckily, in 10 years of teaching, I’ve had more positive than negative experiences with administrators once we have all gotten to know each other and value each other’s strengths.
  2. Don’t let them see you sweat. Over and over again as a 20 something new teacher, I was advised to never let students know that I didn’t know the answer, that I was new to teaching/content, or that I wasn’t sure how a lesson was going to turn out. Granted, it gets much easier to admit I don’t know everything now that I am a 30 something veteran teacher, but I my experience even at the beginning was that students know we are human and respect us much more when we admit it and move on.
  3. Don’t smile until Christmas. This age old classic piece of teacher advice needs to retire. Teaching can be stressful and overwhelming and exhausting, but it can also be so much fun! Having a sense of humor should be a credential requirement in my opinion.

The Best:

  1. Make your classroom your castle. A very wise teacher gave this advice to me right before her retirement. She told me to confidently build up the walls of my classroom castle with my best practices and my best efforts based on my particular students. She warned me to not get caught up in the drama of teachers or administrators. She said to come to collaboration as the strong, yet reasonable queen of my castle knowing that I know what is best for my people. I am open to new ideas and changing frameworks, but I should never completely throw away systems that work for my students in favor of systems that work for others.
  2. Say what you mean and mean what you say. This old adage is easier said than done. It has made me a teacher of fewer words and policies. For the most part, I’ve learned not to include idle threats or policies that I can’t enforce. I’ve also learned to craft parent emails very carefully and wait a few hours before I press send if there is any kind of negative emotion associated with it.
  3. File it appropriately (in the trash). Another wonderfully wise teacher taught me this little saying to help me stay calm when the inevitable drama of students, parents, teachers, administrators, curriculum policies, and other academic frustrations rear their ugly heads. I used to get so upset when an email would enter my inbox that included some inane complaint or senseless drama. She told me to take serious criticism seriously, but to file the rest of it in the round file (garbage). During a couple stressful school years, all she would have to do is tell me to “file it appropriately” and I would know exactly what she meant.  It was an awesome code phrase so that passing students wouldn’t pick up on the true advice to throw it away!

What are some of the best and worst pieces of advice you have received?

Activism vs. Slacktivism: A Lesson in Research and Informational Texts

Activism Lesson PlanIf you are like me, there are few things more exciting than introducing students to amazing novels and other works of fiction, but finding ways to engage students in informational texts can be a little trickier.  Today I want to share a lesson that I came upon recently that had students engaged in reading an informational text, researching credible sources, and discussing their findings.  I’ll outline the lesson below.  Please comment with questions, comments, and other informational texts that your students love!

The Lesson: 

1. Start by reading Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 essay “Small Change: Why the Revolution Won’t be Tweeted”.  It is in my textbook and I’ve seen it popping up more and more in texts, but it is also widely available through an internet search.

2. Have students discuss the main assertion of the argument and the evidence Gladwell uses to support his thesis.  They should come to the conclusion that Gladwell’s main argument is that social media movements do not constitute real activism. I think it is also helpful to have students do a collaborative list of evidence.

3. Then the fun starts!  Start with asking students to share their preliminary ideas about whether or not social media movements are real activism.  Here are some points for discussion:

  • How can we define activism?  What are necessary elements?
  • What social media movements have you seen or participated in?  Were they real activism?
  • How have social media movements changed since 2010?

4. Challenge students to do some research about the topic. This can be an in class search if students have access or it can be homework.  Remind them about using credible sources! Here are some topics to get them started on their research, but they should be used as a jumping off point for lots of avenues for discussion:

  • Slacktivism vs. Activism
  • Social Media in the Arab Spring
  • Kony 2012
  • The ALS ice bucket challenge
  • Social Media campaigns regarding: police, sexuality, race, gender, bullying, suicide, etc.

5. After students have completed some research, structure a discussion. You could use socratic seminar, debate, or other discussion technique depending on students and time constraints.

Extension idea: After the discussion, students could formulate arguments that defend, qualify, or refute Gladwell’s assertion that social media movements are not real activism.

My students found this topic intriguing and easy to discuss in an academic setting.  I’d love to hear your questions, comments, and suggestions for other engaging informational texts in the comment section below!

Teach Students to Organize Research with Scrible!

scribleI’ve just finished another round of student research papers and as laborious as the grading can be, the process of curating research is one of the most valuable lessons that I teach students heading into our modern world.  For the rest of their lives at home and work, students will need to solve problems and reach conclusions based on the incredible expanse of information on the internet.  They will need to be able to determine the credibility of sources, understand multiple perspectives, and use resources to form educated responses to their world.  Academic research, including research papers can be one step along the path to digital proficiency. (For tips about research paper assignments, click here.  For more about teaching students to determine source credibility, click here.)

One of the major drawbacks of my recent research projects is excessive paper usage.  I have students collect a lot of research before they start writing and then we go through a process of source distillation.  Traditionally, I have done this process in hard copy with highlights and annotations. All that waste, not to mention the lost and damaged sources along the way, has always made me uncomfortable.  There was also the tedious process of double checking suspicious quotes and citations by sifting through huge stacks of paper.

Enter scrible.  Scrible is an online tool specifically created to help people manage online research. It is free to teachers and students with special features designed for academic use.  There are also plans and resources for non-student use, which makes this a tool that students can use long after they leave our class; I love that!

What scrible can do: 

  • Compile sources digitally to save paper and the agony of lost sources.
  • Easily annotate digital sources so that students don’t lose that valuable component.
  • Create citations and bibliographies to emphasize academic integrity.
  • Share libraries for collaboration or teacher review to ease grading support.
  • Search sources for key words/phrases to help students track down forgotten information and help teachers look into any academic discrepancies.

Learn more about scrible features here and specific student resources here. You can also watch the general overview here:

I am very excited to try this out next year!  I’d love to hear questions, comments, and suggestions for other research curator tools that you love with your students!

Preparing for Maternity, Paternity, or Family Leave

IMG_2133Teacher friends, I know that many of you are like me with a serious appetite for control.  Organizing, planing, and assessing variables are some of the things that make us good teachers. They are also some of the exact things we need to let go of when preparing for a maternity, paternity, or family leave sub.  I’m currently in the process of preparing to take maternity leave for my second baby.  It is such a personal decision and a personal process that I can’t emphasize enough how different this experience can be for everyone.  No parent should feel compelled to fit neatly into the model that worked for their co-workers, friends, or even themselves with a previous child.  As a society and as a profession, we should reach out in support for people needing to take family leave no matter if they are: mothers or fathers, biological or adoptive parents, caring for a baby or a relative of another age or in any other circumstance.  That being said, I would like to go through a few things that I think are good to think about when preparing for family leave.

1. Timing: As with many things in life, timing is everything.  Unfortunately, we cannot always plan these things, so here are some time issues to consider:

  • Time of year: If you are going to be gone for the first few weeks of a school year, it may be advantageous to leave some detailed instructions for policies and procedures that will help you transition smoothly into the rest of the year (but be prepared to start over when you come back anyway).  If you will be gone during testing, you can communicate proactively to assure students that they will still be able to do their best.  If you are going to miss the end of the year, be realistic with what a sub can cover!  Fourth quarter is a hard time for all of us.  No matter what period you will be missing, think about what may come up during that time and plan accordingly as much as possible.
  • How much time you have to prepare: Some teachers have 30+ weeks to prepare and some teachers have an emergency that necessitates a quick exit.  Do what you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you need to leave in a hurry.  As much as we love to control our classrooms, sometimes we have to give ourselves an excused assignment and trust that our capable colleagues, administrators, and substitutes will have our back.
  • How much time you will need off: I am a fan of over preparing just in case you need more time than you originally expect.  Over-preparation will also help smooth the transition back since you will have many things already taken care of!

2. The Sub: If you are lucky enough to know who your sub will be in advance of your absence, you can use that information to effectively plan.  Experienced subs may need very little more than an outline of what should be covered during your absence.  Newbies may want more scaffolding and resources.  There can also be a trust factor when preparing for a sub, especially for secondary teachers.  We have spent our careers building, tweaking, and perfecting our curriculum and assessment banks.  It can be scary to hand over the keys and other resources, knowing that a careless steward can result in having to recreate final exams and other sensitive materials.

3. School Culture: Your school may have a well-estabished protocol for preparing for a long-term sub.  It is helpful to ask administrator and any co-workers who have been through the process before you start preparing just in case there is a specific plan already in place or in case they have some time-saving advice for you.

4. The Students: If you have students or parents that will be espeically sensitive to your absence, consider how to best preparing them in advance, but also consider creating something for the sub to share with them while you are gone.  You can pre-write some notes of encouragement or pre-record a video pep talk to pump them up before things like graduation or a big test.

5. Your Situation: It is not fair to compare.  You may be ready to come back sooner or later than your co-workers in similar situations.  You may be dealing with more complicated medical issues or other private factors.  Don’t expect that your path will match the expectations of those around you.  Allow yourself the space to take care of yourself and your family so that when you return, you are ready to take care of the students in front of you.

Our jobs are incredibly important.  We change lives. Many of us count our students as our children.  In the end, though we must let go in order to take care of ourselves and our families.  We have to rely on each other to keep the system moving and care for the young minds entrusted to our care.  The issues above are ever-present in the minds of teachers preparing for leave, but should also be present in the minds of fellow teachers who can choose to be part of the support system.

We’d love to hear your leave stories, advice, and questions in the comment section below.