Matchbook Summaries

My brilliant teaching partner, Paige, came up with this idea for our students. She calls them “matchbook summaries” and we’ve used them in several ways this year.

Most recently, we were teaching students about plot and how each chapter should move a story forward. In the classic novel, The Cay, each chapter has a mini-conflict that moves the story toward the ultimate climax. Sometimes the mini-conflict is resolved, sometimes it isn’t.

We wanted to see how students understood this concept, and asked them to create a matchbook summary as a formative assessment.

The process to create the format is easy:

  1. Give each student a 3×5 index card.
  2. They turn it sideways and fold it almost in half, leaving a ¼ inch or so at the top.
  3. Fold over this last little bit, so the final product looks a bit like a matchbook.

matchbook-summary-how-toWhen they finished, we asked students to choose a chapter from the previous day’s readings. They labeled the ¼ inch flap with the chapter number, and then drew an illustration of the major conflict in that chapter. (Note – my students are 6th graders, so the artistic ability tended heavily toward the stick figure).

Then, inside the matchbook cover, they had to write out:

  • matchbook-summary-product

    Examples of matchbook summaries from my Fall 2016 students.

    What they thought the major conflict was in the chapter

  • Whether it was man v. man, man v. nature, man v. society, or man v. self
  • Whether they thought it was resolved within that chapter and
  • If “yes”, they said how the resolution happened; if “no”, they made a prediction about how it would be resolved later.


This could be used as a formative assessment in other ways too:

  • Write a claim to answer a text-based question on the outside and list three pieces of evidence on the inside.
  • Identify a key character and draw a picture with details from the text on the outside, include a key quote from the character on the inside, along with an explanation of why that quote is significant.
  • Make a prediction about a story on the outside, along with evidence from the story and reasoning for the prediction on the inside.

The format is simple, allows for a creative output from students, but lets the teacher require text-based answers to a specific learning target.

When we did this for The Cay the first time, it felt like a trick. Students were actually excited about the task, were looking for details in their chapter – rereading and thinking more deeply about what they had read. While the products weren’t brilliant pieces of artwork that will be hung in the Louvre, most demonstrated critical thinking about the concept of conflict, and an understanding of how the plot in the novel was developing.

What ideas have you used for formative assessment that incorporates drawing or another non-written product?

Mission Impossible? Bringing Back the Letter

I have a plan. Well, I’m starting to plan, because I have a mission.

We need to write more letters.

I read an article by Malcolm Jones in Newsweek years ago, that made the point that historians rely on a written record to have something to study. According to Jones,

“The decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. Historians depend on the written record. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that they are at the mercy of that record.”

With the advent of email (and, the article posits, even the advent of the telegraph bears some blame) we are losing records of daily activities that historians study.

Since I was teaching History and Government at the time, this was something that really made me say, “Hmmm….”

So, I’m going to have my students write letters. This may be in their journals, or maybe as an assignment where they write a letter to the editor with an argument, or even a letter to someone that they know. I’ve set a goal that students will write at least three letters of some form by the end of the year.

A few years after that Newsweek article, Charlotte Higgins wrote about “The Lost Art of Letter-Writing” and noted that she had recently received a letter from a friend who had authored a book about letter writing. She described it:

Last week I received a letter from him….It was a wonderful letter: thanking me for dinner, yes, but also giving me some advice on a tricky work question, and in general showing that he’d thought about the conversations we’d had that night.

Such a simple thing – for a letter writer to show that they were thinking about someone else. (Sounds like a lesson in empathy for my students. Perhaps a letter as the final task for that lesson?) A letter is a chance for the writer to show not only that they are thinking about someone else, but also to share a part of their day with someone.

It doesn’t have to be something momentous. The details shared in a letter connect two people – the author and the recipient. My sister in law is the best letter writer I know. And part of what I love about her missives, is that she sometimes writes them over an entire day – or two. She will tell me what she did that day – gardening, laundry, canning, home repairs – and will describe how long it took her, or how she felt when she finished, or why she had put the tasks off for so long. Those small details are interesting to me. They help me picture her, in her red and white kitchen, filled with Coca-Cola memorabilia, taking a few minutes to think about me and share something about her day.

It’s better than a phone call. Because I can save it, reread it, and return to it over and over when I’m missing her. Her letters bring me joy.

I want to share that experience with my students somehow. Jones points out how important the written record is to historians:

…to the historian, nothing written is trivial, because it all contributes to the picture we have of the past. In the last century or so, as historians have turned away from their fixation on the doings of the great and included the lives of average people in their study, the letters those people left behind are invaluable evidence of how life was once lived. We know what our ancestors ate, how they dressed, what they dreamed about love and what they thought about warfare, all from their letters. Without that correspondence, the guesswork mounts.

But on a personal level, handwritten letters are also important for the connection between people. Higgins pointed that she admired the elegant handwriting of her friend in his letter. I was thinking about that when I went back through the cards from our wedding recently. My grandmother died a few years ago, and I had a moment of melancholy when I saw the card she had given us, written in her crabbed script by her gnarled-by-arthritis hands.

It was an even more poignant moment when I found a little note, written by my cousin Dena, in her neat-as-a-pin print. The message wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me…and even the context for it is fading in my memory. Dena drowned when she was in her early 20s–a loss that I think about regularly. But her handwriting was so distinctive that I was really struck by it in that moment – rereading her last note. Anyone watching me would have seen a visible pause in my movements.

I’ve heard friends say that they type emails because their “handwriting is so bad.” We need to get over that handwriting issue – imagine a child who can’t recognize their parent’s handwriting, or their grandparent. (Or their cousin, in my case) What a loss! If students don’t practice letter writing when they’re young, how will they develop the habit as an adult?

 

handwriting

My friend Shelley has had the same handwriting since we met in 7th grade. Even without my name on this letter, I would probably have known it was from her.

Aside from handwriting, letter writing is usually more informal and a place where someone’s “voice” appears. For students, it’s a chance to write and share their style, their thinking, details about their life. I think I will challenge them to choose a moment in their day and share it. They can practice writing description, including specific detail, and organizing their thoughts to include relevant information and give context to their thinking – all targeted standards for my subject and grade.

 

Yep. I have a mission.

I’m working on a plan. Students in my little corner of the world will hear about why letters are important. They will practice what to include in a letter. They will send a letter – and hopefully they will receive a response so they begin to learn the joy that a correspondence brings.

 

Pushing the “birds” out of the nest…

One of the ways Common Core has changed my teaching is the idea of leading students to mastery. It’s not really new; I remember learning about the idea of “I do, we do, they do” at some meeting or another over the years.

And I tried to do that. But it can be so hard to “push the babies out of the nest”, so to speak. Visions of the babies (metaphorically) dropping straight to the ground and conking their heads (or otherwise injuring their psyches) abounded when it was time for students to turn in an assignment.

But, as I learn more and more about teaching in a Common Core aligned way, I know that I really wasn’t letting “they do” happen to the extent that I should. It’s a little scary,  you know? We know that students don’t always understand what we teach the first time (at least I don’t think that I’m alone in that). And often, not the second time. And really, sometimes not even the third. It can feel like I’m failing as a teacher, and it can be depressing for a student when they try something, fail, and have to move on to the next task that they aren’t confident about.

I mostly saw this in writing, with my ELA classes, but it was also true with research assignments or written assignments in my Social Studies classes.

I asked students to do things but I didn’t really always give them room to “fail” at the task. I would scaffold and scaffold and scaffold without gradually removing the supports. Or, to be exact, I wouldn’t remove all of the scaffolds because I didn’t want my kids to do poorly. They didn’t always get to try things independently.

Part of that comes from feeling like I needed to move on to the next lesson or book or unit, and we didn’t have time for students to “fail” at something. I just figured they would get better at the task (writing an analytical essay for example) the next time they encountered it.

Not always true.

Or, at least, students didn’t show as much growth from task to task as I wished. And yet, I’m learning that failing can be a great lesson.

The key to turning failure into a learning opportunity is to let students revise or redo a lesson. Finding and fixing errors is the way humans learn. I need to remember that when I worry about those babies falling on their metaphorical heads.

As I’ve started to embrace “they do” more fully, I’ve seen the benefit of redos. I’m talking about redos required by me, not just allowed if someone wanted to do it. (We all know that most of the time, the student who will redo the paper is the one wanting to go from a B+ to an A, rather than the one wanting to go from a D to a C, or even a B. Rarely do those students find themselves motivated to do more work that they feel likely to fail at.)

So I’ve started building revision into my class where I can. Sometimes that means giving up a unit or a book or a lesson, and replacing it with more time for writing.

After I give back an assignment with my own checklist or rubric and the grade, I ask students to remove it. Then I have students look at each other’s work, and use a blank rubric or checklist on their writing partner’s essay. They point out what went well (especially if they can note where they see that a student applied one of our mini-lessons), and they make suggestions for the two most important things to work on for the next draft.

Note – we usually do this before they turn in an essay, but many times students are so worried about the due date, that they don’t take revision seriously. (Am I alone in this?) They’re getting better about it, but it feels like I’m battling some ingrained habits, especially for students who don’t like to write.

Somehow, having the actual grade and being asked to “fix” their paper has produced more effort. Maybe because they know where they are at, and that any improvements can only make it better. (I think there’s a graduate thesis in there somewhere if anyone is looking for a topic: “The Psychology of Failing and Fixing”; Personally, I’ve been there, done that, and don’t need another Master’s Degree.)

goals-edit

One student’s goal page for writing a Personal Narrative.

I also ask students to make notes on their “Goals” page in their Thinking Notebook. What did they learn from their partner’s writing? What can they set as a goal for their own paper when they get it back? Sometimes they learn a strategy to try. Sometimes they use something that wasn’t going well in the other essay to set a revision goal of their own.

Admittedly, I may only schedule time for one redo in class. But the chance to learn from each other and see other model texts (both good and bad) changes the focus from “one and done” to “How can I learn from this?”

With the most recent assignment, I was able to ask students (before turning in the initial final draft for grading) to use the goals sheet from previous assignments to see if they had worked on those tasks already. We agreed that I should expect them to try to work on those goals each time, if it fit the writing task before them.

And it shows them that they should learn from their earlier work.

Its making it easier for me to imagine pushing the baby birds from the nest…and hoping they will not flop straight to the ground. Maybe this mama bird thing isn’t so bad…

 

It’s That Time of Year

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a blog explaining my absence from writing for the past 6 weeks.

It all seems to come back to: It’s That Time of Year.

Does anyone else find themselves using that phrase a lot right now?

For me, it reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where they talk about how useful “yadda yadda” is as a phrase. I use It’s that time of the year to explain many things, in school and at home – usually those are ultimately related to time management.

It’s That Time of Year…it was that weird three weeks between Thanksgiving Break and Winter Break. Planning is tough for teachers: do we start a big unit, knowing that kids will be taking a hiatus soon? Kids are wound up: snow started in our region and wistful thinking about snow days was evident in conversations throughout the day. (Just try getting a sixth grader to write for more than 10 minutes when it is snowing outside – even if they wrote for 30 last week! Changing activities every 15 minutes is about SURVIVAL during this time of year people! Not just holding student attention!)

ITToY…Teachers are tired. Why are those three weeks so hard? I’m not sure, but I suspect it is something like: [Holiday prep at home + lots to do at school x 100 student assignments to give feedback on = TIRED]

ITToY…that group of students who just haven’t turned in the big assignments all quarter start to panic. They want to do 6 weeks worth of work in one half-hour after school…because they’re about to be home with the adults in their life for two weeks and they know there will be questions about why they aren’t passing class.

(I spent two afternoons after school with students before Winter Break, reminding them of the lessons that led up to big assignments. Lots of tears…I started to feel like I was giving a therapy session…or maybe that was me wanting a therapy session. It’s a bit of a blur now…)

Then, finally. it arrives: Winter Break. Ahhhhhh! Mid-December I wasn’t sure there were any more magical words in the English language!

I had energy the first couple of days. I was out of bed early, shoveling the sidewalk right away (have I mentioned that it started snowing around here?). I made big breakfasts (because who has time to cook on school mornings?) and it was so nice to have time to bake…or cook bacon! I wrote all my Christmas cards, cleaned the whole house, and wrapped all my gifts. We went out for some kind of event every night leading up to Christmas Eve.

THEN…I ran out of steam.

ITToY… being an introvert, I retreated to the couch to recharge my batteries. After all the holiday gatherings (Staff breakfast, Bunco group Christmas Party, dinner with friends, Christmas party, another dinner with friends, Solstice party, Christmas with the fam…) I was burned out.

img_3160

For the last week of my Break, I knitted and binge-watched Prison Break. I read the Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan. I knitted. My car sat in the driveway for days. The snow piled up until my husband got home – I had no more energy for shoveling. (Have I mentioned that it started snowing here?)

When school started again, it was a bit of a shock. (What? I need to teach something? Oh yeah, I did make a plan back in December…)

And, all of that explains my poor time management and lack of a blog post since November. (Note I said explains not excuses)

A new semester starts on Monday. I’m getting the hang of this sixth grade thing. And my grades are almost ready to submit. I can do this. I’m back to writing. I have thoughts about something besides surviving until the next break from school.

It’s the start of the downhill slide to the end of the school year – and I’m excited to get to work!

It’s that time of year

 

Pulling an Audible

audible

For most of the Fall, I have enough time to 50% just about everything in my life but there’s never time for reading. To save my sanity I have shared my husband’s Audible account for the last five years. It’s a fair trade. He pays for Audible and I pay for our insurance. Win-win. People debate if it’s actual reading if the eyes don’t do the heavy lifting, but a book is a book and I almost feel more immersed in the audible experience, surrounded by the world and its characters.

I often recommend using an audiobook to students I know work or have full schedules. Students have little time to complete the reading work assigned to them on a four-day schedule, because school days take large chunks of the day with sports chewing up a large remainder. The student gets the leftovers of the day to work and complete six classes worth of homework. Some students respond well to the suggestion while others profess an allergy to reading of any kind, especially to listening to books. Their claims usually follow along the lines of, “I can’t follow along.”; “I have no idea what’s happening!”; “I get distracted….” Have our students lost some of their ability to follow along with reading and is it a skill we should continue to teach?

Jim Trelease discusses the necessity of maintaining the exercise of reading aloud to students at older ages because the act advertises and exposes students to books.  Mr. Trelease continues by pointing out that students must listen in addition to reading skills of building vocabulary, stitching plot, keeping track of characters, etc (“Reading Aloud: Are Students EVER Too Old”). I couldn’t help but think, Yes! More things checked off the Common Core!!! Regardless, it is a fun interaction between teacher and student and that inspired my progression to a new resolution for reading in the classroom.

Reading Aloud: Are Students EVER Too Old?”

My students write for ten minutes at the beginning of every class. Previously, I would let them write, give them space to think and create, and take care of business; now, I’m planning on pulling an audible and reading aloud for those ten minutes while they write. I haven’t decided if I’ll read a book with the intention of completing it or if I will read excerpts to advertise different types of books each day. I can’t wait to read Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice to the male population and The Martian and William Shakespeare’s Star Wars to the girls. Maybe I will provide them with literature to challenge their expectations and ideologies; maybe I will give them unpredictable literature they will love; maybe I will be the only person in the room enjoying the exercise at all. But from an advertising stand point, I will be successful if one decides to buy in. From a teaching stand point, I will be successful if they develop two skills in the space of ten minutes. It may seem immature to read aloud to high schoolers, but I think it’s worth a shot.

the-martian-590x330

 

Poem of the Week: Practicing Literary Analysis

Poetry sometimes gets the “short end of the stick” when ELA teachers are choosing texts to practice close reading skills. Until I took a poetry class from the brilliant (teacher and poet) Joy Passanante, I was intimidated by poetry and unsure of how to approach it. I was never confident with it as a reader, or as a text to teach.

Now, it is one of my favorite things to share with students. For the last several years, we have celebrated “Poem of the Week” in my classes, and a number of students show as much enthusiasm as I do when the lesson rolls around.

The weekly focus on poetry helps the students internalize a process for approaching the text. I’m also using it to teach a basic literary analysis format to my 6th graders.

We started out by reviewing a handout with the process I use. Students referred to that as we went through the poems during the first three weeks of the lesson. We spend 20-30 minutes reading and discussing each poem, with me modeling how I annotate and “have a conversation with” the poem. I print the poem in a handout, with lots of white space surrounding it so students can make notes and record their thinking.

At the bottom of each poem, I asked students to write out what they thought the “author’s purpose” was for the poem. This idea – asking what the author wanted the reader to take away from the poem, therefore what the author’s purpose was in writing the poem – was my way of having the students identify a theme. After the third week, we instead started using the term “theme” to refer to this idea when they wrote it on the bottom of the poem handout.

slide2In week 4, after students seemed to have the hang of our process and the idea of identifying a theme for the poem, I asked them to start defending their theme with evidence from the poem. They use a graphic organizer to record the theme, and 3-4 things from the poem that support their claim about the them.

slide3I gave them a handout with sentence frames to use as they write a paragraph about the poem’s theme. The first sentence of each response has to be a sentence that identifies the poem, author, and theme. Then they alternate between sentence frames about the evidence and sentence frames about their reasoning.

Admittedly, the first couple were pretty generic, with some awkward phrasing as students didn’t adjust the frames to flow smoothly. But we focused on how the rhetoric sounds in a big picture the third time they wrote a response. I had them draft the response as they had with the first two, then go back and reread it to see if it flowed smoothly. I modeled how the sentence frames might change depending on what order they use them.

I tell the students that this is a beginning and they will develop their ideas more as they become stronger writers, but the students are really getting the hang of writing a poem response and I can see their confidence building each week as they approach the poems with smiles and energy.

I know I enjoy poetry now – and the for “Poem of the Week” is my favorite day in class!

Note – here are a couple of books that I have found helpful in teaching poetry – with poems, ideas for analysis, and prompts for writing:

Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn

Writing Poems by Michelle Boisseau, Hadara Bar-Nadav and Robert Wallace

Low Stakes Writing Makes for Better Writers

In this era of high stakes testing and over-committed students, it is difficult for me to make this proposal, but I recently read an article by Rebecca Alber on Edutopia that reinforced what I had already been doing, and was glad to see that someone else had the same intuition that I did:

Students need opportunities to write more. Not for a grade, but for the joy and experience of putting their ideas down on paper. As Alber points out:

“Creating a space for your students to write often and routinely in a low-pressure way allows more creativity to discover what they might want to say—and to see what they don’t want to write about.”

We tell students that “in order to become a better reader, they need to read more.” The same is true for writing. In order to become a better writer, students need to write more.

But the idea of a grade can be paralysing for some students. The pressure that what they put down might not be good enough is sometimes more than they can overcome. They would rather fail because they didn’t try, than worry that their efforts will be criticized.

Many of the students I taught at an alternative high school were there because they struggled with writing. They had years of practice at avoiding writing, and they wrestled with organizing their thoughts every time they had a new assignment. While I had the relationship with them necessary to pull something out of them for each assignment, I also tried to include some low-stakes writing on a regular basis so they could practice how to organize their thoughts in writing.

But alternative education tends to “fly below the radar” and we didn’t receive a lot of focus from parents or the public for how we did things.

Now that I’m in a traditional school, “not for a grade” is the kicker for some people. Students want the credit for everything they produce. Parents see grades and use them as a marker for how their student is doing. Going many days without a new grade is problematic because parents and administrators who look at these things wonder what we are doing in class.

So I give a little credit for the work produced. The Core Standards say that students will learn to “write routinely over extended time frames and shorter time frames…for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes and audiences.” (W.10) Students are also asked to “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.” (W.4) I justify to myself the few points students earn by remembering those two standards.

If the small credit helps motivate students to do more writing, all the better.

Some ideas for low-stakes writing:

  • Giving multiple prompts for the same type of essay that students might be producing. Start three or four different flashdrafts for that persuasive essay. (Bonus – students may find that their second or third try actually produces a more inspirational idea than the first was)
  • Daily journal prompts in a Writer’s Notebook. I gave different prompts and just circulated to make sure students were writing. Occasionally I asked them to share, but it was more about giving them time to get ideas and thinking out of their head onto paper before we discussed something in class.
  • Use a sticky note as an exit ticket (its small and unintimidating as paper goes) asking students to write their thoughts about something from class that day. Its deceiving – that small paper makes students really get to the heart of their thinking, without telling them that is what you are doing.
  • Write a letter to someone. And maybe actually mail them. (Seriously! Have you ever asked a student how to address an envelope? I shared my experience with it in another blog post…) The genuine audience may help students with motivation, and the new format may feel less intimidating.

What other low-stakes writing assignments have you used?

Wimpy Kid to Airborn – Monday Reads

My students set weekly page goals in Reading. These are based on their own reading ability and the book they are reading so they range from 60 pages to 800 pages per week. Since this is my first year teaching 6th grade, I wasn’t familiar with student readers at this age, but the ability range was wider than I expected. And recommending books is more complicated as well!

Idowk’m sure anyone who has had contact with a student in upper elementary has heard of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.
My wonderful friend Rachel just donated her son’s copies of the series to my classroom library, saying, “I feel like I’m turning over my son’s childhood!”

He had been a reluctant reader and Rachel believed the DOWK series is the one that gave her son a reading life.

The same is true for several of my students. Those books have not sat for a day on my classroom shelf. They have been helpful for my two ELL students, who report that the pictures help them better understand the story. They also provide a sense of success for my struggling readers, who are so excited about reading conferences where they can report that they read a book (or two) in a given week.

(Many thanks to Rachel and her son for the gift to my classroom!)

On the other end of the spectrum, are the students who read 500, 600, 800 pages in a week. These are the students that I have a hard time challenging with a book.

But they also are the students that give me titles of books to read – recommending books and suggesting I add them to my own “Books I Want to Read” list.  

I was thrilled to find a series that they weren’t already devouring – like Harry Potter, Fablehaven, or Brotherband Chronicles!). This series would work for middle through high school students who enjoy YA books, and several of my strong readers have been powering through it this year.

airbornThe series is by Kenneth Oppel and the first book is called Airborn. At first the book seems almost like a historical novel, set on an old-school blimp, but it develops some subtle fantasy elements. The action builds in a story about airships, pirates, and mysterious flying animals. There are three books in the series, including Skybreaker and Starclimber, and my students devoured all three books in a week or two.

Oppel has written several other books, so my students have found their way to those as they plow their way through my classroom library. I’ve kept them in books for over a month now!

If you’re looking for a lesser-known series to recommend to some of your voracious readers, try the Airborn series.

…and let me know how they like it!

A Questioning Stance is Invaluable

As we all know, new standards in education expect that teachers are exposing students to more non-fiction text, across subject areas. While ELA teachers have some experience with teaching students how to closely read, it can be a challenge for teachers in other subject areas to incorporate texts more effectively. I know I wrestled with this when I taught Social Studies classes in the past.

I recently presented (with my brilliant friend Becky) at my district’s professional development days conference about some strategies for teaching students to read nonfiction. We based the presentation on Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. The book is a follow up to Notice and Note, which gives strategies for close reading in literature.

Reading Nonfiction spends an entire chapter discussing how we define “nonfiction”, making clear that it isn’t as easy as saying that “fiction=made-up” and “nonfiction=truth” (which is the definition that I remember being given in elementary school. Even if that isn’t what the teacher actually said, that is how I internalized it…)

According to Beers and Probst, “Nonfiction intrudes into our world and purports to tell the truth.” As anyone who has watched the political rhetoric fly this year knows, there are lots of people purporting to tell the truth. What we need to be doing, is educating our students about how to evaluate what they hear and determine for themselves what they believe and don’t believe.

nonfiction-definitionWithout developing what Beers and Probst define as a “questioning stance”, students are less likely to challenge and/or verify what they hear and read. But how scary is the idea of an electorate that believes everything they hear?

As teachers, we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to teach our students a questioning stance, and to help them internalize strategies to approach news that they hear and texts that they read, so that they are actively thinking about information and challenging it before they actually form an opinion.

In this election year, it may not be too hyperbolic to say that the future of the country depends upon it.

A Little Good News Goes a Long Way

It is the nature of our busy profession that many parents/guardians typically only hear from the school at scheduled conference time or when something is going wrong. With that in mind, I adopted a practice years ago of having students address a postcard to their parents (or another adult that has been influential and supportive of them). I confess that I don’t remember where the suggestion came from – perhaps a conference I attended when I taught in the Boise School District. But I have used it diligently as often as possible over the years.

good-news-cardsI call these my “Good News” cards. My goal is to reach out at least once each semester with something positive to say about the student. I make it a habit each week to look through my stack of cards and pull 4 or 5 out. I write a message to the recipient about the student’s work in my class that week. It usually begins with something like “I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy having _____ in my class!” I make sure that I can mention something specific about the student from the week (how their smile affected the classroom, how they contributed to discussion, how hard they worked on a particular assignment, or the way they helped another student…) and I mention how I am looking forward to working with the student the rest of the year.

I don’t always hear from the recipient or the student when they receive the postcard, so some people may think the card is random or weird. But the comments that I have received over the past 20 years of doing this have been unanimously positive.

Four years ago, a parent emailed me to thank me for the card, and told me how surprised her son was by the message. It had been one of the last ones I sent that quarter, because the boy had been really sullen and grouchy during class – it was hard to find something positive to say about him. But he worked diligently on an assignment and it turned out well so I grabbed the opportunity to send the card home with that message. His attitude changed almost entirely for the better after his mom received the card. He was still quiet at times, and didn’t always engage fully with the class, but he became receptive to my coaching and comments about his writing.  

Last year one boy sheepishly told me that his mom had put the card on the fridge and he had pretended to be embarrassed (but I think he was secretly pleased). And this year a parent stopped by my room to thank me for the card.

Aside from the chance to teach the practical skill about how to address a piece of mail (Ask your students how many know how – you may be astounded at the lack of knowledge!), I believe that these cards are a chance for me to focus on what I like about my job: seeing students grow and learn. Parents and students should know that I notice when things are going well. If some of them find the cards random, so be it.

The people who’ve expressed appreciation for the good news are worth having anyone else think I’m weird for sending the cards home!

Does anyone else have an idea for conveying good news to parents? Please share!