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Classroom Management

Five Tips for Talking to Parents

“I’m going to call your mom after school today and let her know about this conversation we’re having.” These words may have been terrifying as a student, but I never imagined how terrifying they would be as a teacher! If you’re anything like me, I hated picking up the phone and talking to parents when students messed up in the classroom. It was THE WORST. 

In a very long story short, I began calling parents when I taught a group of about 15 boys who were all REALLY good friends. I’m talking… play on the same club baseball team, go to school together since kindergarten, and take multi-family vacations together. 

They could have all been brothers, and the fact that they were at school did not phase how they treated each other. Sometimes their enthusiasm for life and each other spilled over into the classroom, filling the room with, shall we say, excess energy. I knew I had to enlist the help of parents if anything was going to change.

Here’s what I learned. Parents are AWESOME!

Each parent I talked to was so kind. So gracious. So helpful. Not one of them was frustrated with me or angry. I learned a little bit about them and their students. Now I had an open connection moving forward. It didn’t solve the problem, but it sure did help. 

Oh the phone with a parent. We had to make long distance calls from our work room.

Here’s the truth: We need to see parents as teammates, not opponents. 

I don’t know where we got the idea that we shouldn’t reach out to parents. We need to change our mindset. Talking to parents is not something that we should avoid.

Most parents simply want to know what’s going on – to be informed. Their most important possession spends the day with us! And so often, parents never hear a word. They want to help their students do well in school, but they also want to help you do your job! 

Talking to parents has not always been my strong suit. I have made a lot of progress and learned how important this aspect of teaching is.

I want to make it less scary for you!

I’ve compiled a list of five tips for contacting parents, and I’m giving you SEVEN FREE email templates for different scenarios you’ll face with your students! Grab those here!

1. Be Gracious

If you don’t hear anything else I say, hear this. Your frustration may be valid. You may be at the end of your rope. You may have tried everything you can possibly think of to do.

It’s okay. They’re raising and taking care of their child the best way they see fit. For THEIR child. You will get much more accomplished and have a great relationship by being gracious and understanding. Offer to let them turn in late work or make up a quiz. Open your classroom early one day. Offer test corrections or a retake. 

Your goal is to be on the same team! Being harsh and frustrated will not achieve that. 

2. Contact Early and Often  

Teachers don’t always know what to contact parents about, so they don’t. I’m not about that. Start making calls and sending emails early. 

The key here is to keep the early contact as positive as possible. That does not mean shy away from a negative call if you need to make one.

If You Teach Middle School

I’ll admit one of my biggest struggles: I can’t talk to every single parent (this year I have 180 kids!). Where do I start? Especially at the beginning of the year as I’m learning about who the students are?

If they have a 504 or an IEP, reach out to the parents and ask for insight. You will have students who are very social. Call and praise the student’s ability to participate in a classroom discussion. That really is something to be praised! Ask the teachers who taught your students last year if any parents contacted them a lot. Be proactive and start that relationship! Pick anything positive and share it! 

3. Ask for Help

Which email sounds better? 

Email 1:  “Hannah is missing assignments and they are bringing her grade down to an F. She needs to turn them in by Friday, or she can’t get any credit.”

Email 2: “These are the assignments Hannah is missing. Can you help me by checking with her to see if they’re in her backpack? If you find any of them, have her finish them and turn them in. I have to close grades on Friday, so she can’t turn them in after that point. Thanks for your help!”

These emails say the SAME THING! But the second email will be received so much better by a parent. They want to help, so tell them how! 

4. Copy and Paste is Your Best Friend

I sent eight copy and pasted emails in about 20 minutes a few weeks ago. Write a generic “your student is awesome” email. 

Then, and this is important – add something personal! Be specific about something you saw. Do they always turn their work in on time? Do they get right to work when they come in? Were they helpful today (even if they’re distracting 99% of the time they’re trying to help)? Parents want to hear about how you know their student, so tell them! 

5. Pick Up the Phone!

This is the most unpopular opinion! DO IT ANYWAY!!

I told you almost every parent I’ve talked to has been so kind and understanding, even thankful that I called. You lose so much of what you are actually trying to say over email. There is value in having a two way conversation. 

I never send an email if a student is truly in trouble with a consequence. I hate the call, but I’d much rather talk, explain the situation, and let parents ask questions. Hopefully by this time, I’ve contacted them at least once already. 

For the 1% 

Most of the parents you encounter will be reasonable. There will be a handful who aren’t. Still be gracious. Be more than kind and more than accommodating. Ask your administration and team for help. The 1% that seems unreasonable still wants what’s best for their student! 

Make talking to parents your goal this week! If you didn’t get a chance to snag those seven FREE EMAIL TEMPLATES, you can right here!

Classroom Management, Professionalism, Uncategorized

Three Steps To Writing Perfect Sub Plan

The best middle school teachers have a plan.

My first week of teaching was rough. Let me tell you. And it got a little rougher when my principal came in to check on me Thursday afternoon. I was wearing my winter coat and a hat … inside.

“You feeling okay?” Nope. I was not feeling okay. I felt like I was teaching in Antarctica. She told me not to come in the next day. I needed to stay home and rest. 

Cue panic.

I had never in my life written a sub plan. I felt absolutely terrible. And I had taught these kids for exactly four days. I didn’t even know what I was doing!! Much less what someone else should do! 

Since that day six years ago, there have few days where I’ve had to call out last minute. I learned pretty quickly writing a sub plan is not quick or easy. Turns out there are a lot of facets a substitute teacher needs to know about your campus and classroom.

Great news… I’m giving you my sub plan template and sharing my super low prep, go-to sub plan!

I will say this. Teaching the same thing five times in one day does make writing sub plans easier. This sub plan is definitely geared toward middle school teachers, but can be used to science or social studied in upper elementary as well.

The Three Parts Of A Perfect Sub Plan

The bell schedule should be on the first page of your sub plan.
\A middle school teacher’s sub plan should include campus logistics, classroom logistics, and daily plans!

Step 1: Campus Logistics

So, here are the three components to a great sub plan you should print and keep NOW for those days you are unexpectedly gone. Plus, I’m sharing my sub plan template with you – including some verbiage and ideas for policies and procedures a sub may need to know! I’ve broken this down into three sections for you. 

As a middle school teacher, you know how complicated your campus can be! Your classroom is not a stand alone entity. It is one small piece in maze of other teachers, classrooms, and staff. Include information like: 

  • The bell schedule
  • Your duty location
  • Phone numbers to the office staff & other teachers on your team/grade level
  • The nurse’s extension (for emergencies)
  • Where the AED is – I can write this at a later time, but it’s important! 

Step 2: Classroom Policies

What is important to know about your classroom? Add that information here. It’s hard to remember what to include when you wake up in the middle of the night puking. 

A sub plan organized by campus info, class policies, and daily plans.
This plan includes all the necessary information for a sub!
  • Rosters!!
  • Seating Charts (preferably with name and picture if you can.) Highlight two students in each class you trust to answer questions truthfully.
  • A list of kids who have medical alerts that they should know (heart condition, allergy… use judgement here and ask admin what is appropriate). 
  • Your prep hour
  • Bathroom policy
  • Cell phone & headphones policy
  • Device (classroom Chromebook/iPad) policy
  • Group work policy
  • How and when to distribute supplies
  • Anything else that you think is important for your sub to know. Do you do something special with backpacks? If you need them to use the computer/projector/DVD player, how does it all work? 

Step 3: Daily Plans

This is what you think of when you think of writing sub plans. What are the kids going to do?

Here’s my secret recipe.

Step one

I start with an article from either Tangstar Science or  Newsela every time. Did you hear me? EVERY TIME! 

Tangstar Science is a TPT store with engaging, relevant science articles for middle and high school students. Each article includes comprehension questions – short answer and critical thinking. One of my favorites is The Chemistry of Fireworks. Kids think it is so cool. This tends to be written at a little bit of a higher level, so sometimes I will ask the sub to read it to them and go over the answers to the questions. Her store is such an awesome resource for middle school teachers!

Newsela is a database of nonfiction articles. You can find just about any topic under the sun. I love Newsela because you can adjust the lexile level for students who need accommodations. (Fun fact: did you know you’re legally responsible to accomodate for students even if you are not there?!) 

This screenshot of Newsela shows a variety of text selections about volcanoes.
This shows four articles come up in a search for volcanoes on Newsela. Several more were included in the search and each article has several lexile levels.

Step two

Students use this article to make a comic strip. I have hundreds of these copies in my emergency sub folder because they are so easy. They use the information to summarize what happened at six different points in the article and then they draw and color it. Keep in mind, you’ll probably need to do this with them and model it before you leave it as a sub plan. 

Download the comic template I use here for free!

Step three

This is a coordinate grid graphing activity of a volcano.
Keeps early finishers busy with this coordinate grid!

Leave something for kids who finish early. My worst fear is always that kids will rush through it and then cause chaos. but leaving something like this Volcano Coordinate Plane Mystery Picture gives them a task to complete. 

Copy everything and keep it in a tub or a file box in your classroom with your emergency sub plan info. This is will save you someday!

Let me make a suggestion.

Knock out at least the first two components of your lesson plan this week! You’ll thank yourself later. If you can get at least one day of lessons and copies done and set aside, even better! 

If you include these three components while you write your sub plan, your sub will love you. And so will your admin! 

Classroom Management, Middle School

Foolproof Your First Day of School

This is how I usually look on the first day of school – because I have a plan!

I don’t know about you, but I get anxious about the first day of school. I don’t get anxious about what I’m going to wear or what will happen if my alarm clock doesn’t go off (because I set three), but I always wonder what am I going to do with 32 strange kids for almost an hour?!

They don’t know me. I don’t know them. They need to know rules, procedures, expectations… but I don’t want to bore them to death. Yet, I’m also not ready to jump right into teaching that first day. So, what do I do?

PART 1 – ABOUT YOU AND EXPECTATIONS

I sometimes hear teachers say that we need to be engaging. “Don’t not go over the syllabus or expectations the first day of school.” I agree… to a point. Which is why this is part one. As in… part one of two.

Your classroom is your kingdom. You are the queen (or king). You are the boss. You set the rules. Period. So let your students know!

(I say this meaning – let them know gently. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT walk around announcing this the first day of school… or maybe ever.)

SEATING CHART

Before those kids walk in, have a seating chart ready. Let them sit where they want for a minute. Introduce yourself briefly and then switch their seats. Immediately. You are the boss.

INTRODUCE YOURSELF

As soon as they are settled, tell them a little bit about you! Maybe you have a (brief) powerpoint with some photos or share something you did this summer. They want to know who you are. This is a good time to briefly tell them what topics they’ll cover over the year.

EXPECTATIONS

This is the list I print every year.

This is where most of you tune out and say that this doesn’t belong on the first day. We should be engaging! Let me persuade you otherwise.

Do students sharpen a pencil on the first day? Do students have to throw things away?

Answer: probably!

Again – this is your kingdom and your classroom. They will spend the next nine months with you. I have a typed out list of things I tell students on every first day of school. This is limited to what they need to know in general. I introduce specific procedures and expectations as we use them. My list includes:

  • Where the pencil sharpener is.
  • How and when to sharpen their pencil.
  • What they can and cannot touch without permission.
  • Where to keep their backpacks.
  • How to throw away trash (yes… they need that reminder!)
  • Where to find daily information and bell ringer.

There are a few more, but for those of you needing an idea – there you go! This part should take no longer than 10 minutes, leaving you about 30 to get them working (and packed up properly)!

PART 2 – GRAPHING

Yes. I said it. Graphing.

Some students have a hard time making graphs. This activity doubles as an ice breaker and a formative assessment!

You can snag this worksheet here for free! Students spend a few minutes introducing themselves to each other and asking each other all three of the following questions:

 

  1. Which animal would make a better pet?
  2. Which sounds cooler to explore?
  3. Which type of ice cream is better?

Students collect data by gathering tallies for their peers answers. Give them a time limit to do this.

I actually use grouping cards (click here to read about them and here to just buy them – I live and breathe these!). Students visit a group with their same number, color, and letter (for a total of three different groups) before I send them back to their seats. They get to talk to 12 different people in the class and have some structured freedom to move, while not giving them complete freedom.

Students choose one question to make a graph using their data.

Here’s the assessment piece: look for a bar graph, intervals that are equal and on the lines, labels, and a title. These simple graphs pretty quickly give you an idea as to how capable they are of creating their own accurate graphs later.

I usually find that students need some remediation. Based on what I see, my next several weeks of bell ringers target skills they are missing.

This first day of school gives you the balance of structure while allowing students to start building relationships and friendships immediately.

Whether you’re in need of an idea or just a refresh, this fool proof first day of school will set the standards and engage your students.

Classroom Management, Middle School

Using Grouping Cards in Your Classroom

If you’ve been a middle school teacher for more than a hot second, you know that those kids are social! They want to talk and work with friends! Every time I’m done giving directions, at least one student in every class asks, “Are we going to work in groups?” Ultimately, I have to orchestrate group work and it can be either really easy or really difficult.  

Two Bad Options

Option 1: Easy. Kids make their own groups. This is too lenient for how I run my classroom and leads to goofy behaviors or students feeling left out of peer groups. Occasionally, it’s totally fine.

Option 2: Complicated. I go through each class and put groups of kids together. This is so time-consuming because I’m thinking I know for sure these two kids can’t work together… and this kid and this kid are best friends…. and this kid is always working when he’s next to this kid but not next to this kid. So this becomes a huge a jumbled puzzle that takes me some time to figure out. Or I can create an account on some website and type (ugh) in all the kids names for all my classes. The problem occurs when kids are absent or their schedule changes and they’re not in first hour anymore – and really, who has time to remember to move the kid’s name on the grouping website… what was my login to that anyway?!

The Solution

Enter grouping cards.

I LOVE THESE. I will never teach a day without them again. Here’s how it works. Each student gets one card. The card has one letter, one color, and one number. (I also have each of my lab tables labeled with each color, letter, and number so they know where to go once they are placed in groups.) They can be put into one of three different groups: 

  1. Their number. When I tell the students to go into groups with their number, all the ones go to table one all the twos go to table to all the threes go to table 3 and so on.
  2. Their color. If I tell them to go to their colors, the pinks will go to the pink table, the oranges go to the orange table… and so on. 
  3. Their letter.  I feel like you get it by now.

No Planning Ahead

The number of students in a class does not matter even one bit. If three kids are absent or one gets their schedule changed, it won’t impact how I use the grouping cards. Take out a set of colors or numbers, and add WILD cards if you need to – I’ll get to those in a second! 

After I pass out the cards, I’ll call out which group I want them to go to. Of course, this is the last thing I say because after that, they won’t hear a word – they’re so anxious to get going!

This is where the magic happens. Let’s say I told them to go to their letters. Against all odds, that group of four boys that cannot stop giggling ended up together. I can quickly say, “Never mind! Go to your color!” and I know all four of those boys will be separated, because none of the cards have the same color, letter or number. If they do end up in the same group, I know they’re cheating!

I LOVE this strategy because it’s easy to do on the fly and it is so flexible. Because sometimes you don’t plan for things and groups just suddenly need to happen. Or I don’t want to spend my night making groups.

The Wild Card

The WILD Card was born from a year when I had a class of 38 seventh graders! I only had 8 lab tables, which meant I always had to make a few groups of five. The WILD Card says, “Choose a group, as long as you make the fifth member!” Because they are shuffled into the deck, different kids got them every time and were so excited to get to choose. When I didn’t need them, I took them out. Easy as that.

While I mostly use these for group work, sometimes I need to get the kids to get out of their normal rut. Occasionally I will let them work with their numbers for eight minutes, with their colors for eight minutes and then with their letters for eight minutes. So over the course of the class, they get to work with 11 other people on the same assignment but they didn’t work with friends the whole time.

I will say it again. This is the best classroom management tool I have ever used. The structure moves kids efficiently, but the flexibility to change things up is perfect for a classroom. Grouping cards are a LIFESAVER for any teacher!

Quick disclaimer, especially for new teachers. While these card will help your classroom management, introducing these cards will require you to model like crazy. Kids need to know that there is a specific procedure for how to use these. When you pass them out the first time, explain how to use them. Have all the twos raise their hand and then have everyone point to where the twos go. Repeat this with all the blues or all the As. Randomly call out a few groups before you decide on letters, numbers, or colors. Students will start to get the idea.

 

Classroom Management, Labs, Middle School