The Friday Five

An admirable practice explained well by 4th grade teacher, Justin Birckbichler:

Every Friday, I call five parents. While calling them, I share something great about their student from that week. It could be a concept they worked hard to improve, a great peer interaction, or showing respect to me or another teacher. I do this every Friday without fail.

Creating Engaging Classrooms

"Everyone please stop what you're doing, close your computers, and give me your fullest attention. This work we're doing is very important and we all want to do our best. I'm noticing that several of you are off-task now and that's not good. Let's stay mindful of our work and try to remain on task. Thank you."

If you've ever taught, I'm sure you've said this or something similar to students. I know I have.

Let's stop.

The truth is that statements like the one above aren't effective. They distract the students who are on-task without actually addressing the reasons that some are off-task in the first place.

We continue to say things like this because the immediate response is short-term compliance. Students appear to be more engaged after we say something so we feel better about ourselves. This makes us more likely to say things like this in the future.

I'm not suggesting that we stop addressing off-task behavior; I'm actually suggesting that we start.

The next time you're planning produces less engagement than desired, take time to reflect upon why before taking action. Then, take action.

Here are a few ideas, as examples:

1. Involve your students in the planning process.

Form a student academic advisory board in your school or class. Before launching a new project or unit, ask them to convene to tune your ideas. Take their feedback seriously and use it to improve your practice.

Include a broad range of learners. You'll want input from multiple perspectives; asking only the top ten for feedback won't solve your engagement issues.

2. Observe disengaged students and ask them why they're struggling to stay on task.

If your question is sincere, they'll be quite honest. Write their responses down as if you were a researcher collecting data on student behavior. Taking this step will pay off immensely during future planning.

Over time, analyzing this data will reveal patterns of student disengagement. Are the same students always disengaged? Is there a particular activity that disengages more students than others? Are students in some classes or at different times of day more likely to disengage than others?

By analyzing data, you'll be better able plan for and prevent disengagement in the future. To do this, however, you have to first collect the data!

3. Ask an outsider to do the observing for you.

A trusted administrator might be a good place to start. Lacking that (or additionally), ask a colleague to sit in during one of your classes to collect data. Be specific about what data you want them to collect. Help them help you by providing the data collection format and tool.

Do you want to know when or how often a particular group of students disengages? Do you want to know what your proximity in the classroom does to engagement? An outside observer can see things that you never will in your own class.

4. Make peer accountability a celebrated part of your school or classroom culture.

It should not be the teacher's sole responsibility to keep everyone on task. In too many schools, though, we teach our students to be passive bystanders to their peer's disengagement and misbehavior. Make this unacceptable by addressing it explicitly and regularly when it occurs.

When one member of a group does significantly better or worse on an assessment than the the rest, there's a teachable moment that shouldn't be skipped. When one member of the group is distracting the others, what steps can that group take to address that distraction in a non-threatening way?

By taking class time to teach students to hold one another accountable to their work, you'll not only decrease disengagement, but you'll be teaching them an essential 21st-century skill.

5. End every project or unit with a day of student reflection.

Divide the day into three parts.

  1. Start with a review of the work they did and ask them to provide feedback on how you could improve upon it the next time around.
  2. Ask them to reflect upon how the class functioned as a group. What went well? What didn't? What might they be able to do next time to make the class better.
  3. Ask them each to reflect upon how they functioned, individually. What study habits or activities worked particularly well for them? What worked the least? What should they work to improve personally in the future?

Take notes throughout the day and store them with your lesson plans or project resources.

6. End every class with five minutes of honest reflection.

Choose a reflection format, as appropriate, to get student feedback on what they learned, what questions they have, or what needs to be covered more thoroughly the next day.

Whether it be through a journal, an exit slip, a discussion, or a any other format, the point is to increase communication from your students about what they need to learn to be successful.

7. Identify school and district resources for the most disengaged students.

Let's face it, we can't solve every problem ourselves. When we can't, it's important to acknowledge that we can't and to ask for help from someone who can. Regardless whether these students need academic, social, psychological, or behavioral support, remember that no classroom is an island. Use every resource available for this small segment of every school population.

8. Leverage parent relationships to help increase student productivity.

This is especially helpful when students are not engaging in homework. Calls and emails to parents for feedback and support are typically greeted more positively when delivered sincerely and without emotion.

Ask parents what their kids say about your class at home. What work do they see their kids doing at home? How much homework are their kids getting? Is it too much? Are other commitments getting in the way? What do they think could help you engage their kid in learning?

By taking time to collect and analyze data before deciding to act, and then acting intentionally to address the actual challenges of student engagement, we will start to realize a world with increased student engagement and achievement.

Moreover, you can stop giving the whole-class lectures on the importance of staying on-task.

Parent Communication 3.0

Imagine it's Sunday night. You're sitting on the couch with your spouse watching a reality show. During a commercial break, you pick up your smartphone to check Facebook and notice you have 3 new emails from your son's school. Each one is an automated messages about his grades.

He's failing.

Without much understanding of the school's online gradebook or new grading policies, you call him into the room and ask for an explanation about what's going on. You're concerned.

He's dumbfounded. There is no way he could be failing. This must be a mistake.

In fact, he asserts, it may not even be his fault. His teachers don't even teach any more; they call themselves facilitators now and expect the students to do all the learning on their own. It's very stressful and everyone is failing.

This hits a nerve. You know that the school is going through a change process; you attended a meeting about the changes at the beginning of the year. Could they be expecting too much too soon? Is your child, who has always received high marks in school, being harmed by these new changes at school?

You call a few other parents to hear how their kids are doing. The perception is mixed: some are doing better, some the same, and some worse. During each of these conversations, you share your concern for what's going on at school. Could it be the school's fault that your kid is failing?

In desperation, you send a terse email to the teachers and carbon copy the school principal.

While the actual conversations that play out may vary, the theme of the messages I receive is almost always the same:

  1. My child is not doing as well at school as he has in the past.
  2. The school has changed a lot since I was in school.
  3. My child can't articulate what he is doing wrong.
  4. The problem must be the school, program, or teachers.

This is understandable. When the only information parents have comes from their prior experience, an automated email, and a struggling child, it's tough to argue with their logic.

There's no solution to this problem; in fact, it's not even a "problem" to be solved. Rather, it's a complex circumstance of communication that needs to be addressed in multiple simple ways.

1. Reduce the default number of notifications sent out to parents by online gradebooks.

I've heard from parents that our online gradebook sends out as many as ten emails per day, by default, depending on teacher activity. Simply from a signal vs. noise point-of-view, that's far too many. While some parents tune out all emails they receive, others anxiously look into each one in fear that they are going to miss something important if they don't.

I feel sorry for the students with parents in either case.

The truth is that in a challenging school environment, grades fluctuate, especially at the start of each grading term. To notify parents of each fluctuation as they occur is unreasonable: it causes anxiety and leads to an inaccurate assessments of reality.

Schools need the capability to change these default settings to meet their school's particular needs. Or, the default ought to be set to zero; motivated parents who want notifications are more likely to turn them on than they are to turn them off.

2. Involve parents well before problems ever arise.

It's a common misconception that parents should become less involved in their children's education as they grow older. This is harmful. Teenagers need their parents support and understanding as much as they did when they were in elementary school. The only change should be what parental involvement looks like over the years.

A group of parent leaders recently told me that I need to hold a mandatory "parent bootcamp" every summer. While the logistics of this alone scare me to death, the need behind the sentiment is quite real: the high school their kids are going to is a lot different from the high school they attended. The building might be the same, but the culture, instruction, and resources are not.

Parents of 21st-century educated kids need more than a handbook and an hour-long orientation. They need consistent, quality, flexible, and varied opportunities to become involved in their children's educational development.

3.) Educate students on training their parents to use and understand the school's online gradebook.

There's a very practical reason why students should want to do this: to get their parents off their backs when grades do fluctuate. As long as the training comes well before problems arise, parents will know what to expect and when.

Parents may still send teachers emails (and we want them to), but with a more thorough understanding of the school's online gradebook, and after a practical conversation with their child, the tone of that email should change from terse to inquisitive.

4.) Urge teachers to email parents before posting grades that may have a negative impact on overall scores.

There are times when a teacher's lessons do not go as planned. Student writing, for example, does not always live up to expectations. Sometimes, students do not test as well as we'd like them to.

Without getting into an entirely different challenge, let's just acknowledge that when teachers raise performance expectations beyond that which students are accustomed to reaching, the scaffolding can sometimes fall apart.

When it does, it is essential that teachers email parents before grades are posted. And, it's equally important that this email is positive.

Here's an example email that was sent by one of my American Studies facilitators to learners (CC'ing parents) regarding a recent draft:


We have published the Background Information grades. As we stated in class, the paper was graded on each person's individual section of this portion of the White Paper. We were looking for citations, in-text citations, proper use of mechanics, and organization. We also looked to make sure you were contributing equally to your group.

We acknowledge that many of you will be disappointed by your grade, but ask that you understand this is just one phase of the project. As you take our feedback and apply it to your paper, the paper will improve and so will your overall grade for it. Remember, we are all learning and a big part of learning is struggling with the concepts until we can grasp them. I have already seen how much many of you have learned as a result of your struggles and everyday we learn more and more. Please keep that in mind as we push toward completing our rough draft in the week to come.

Have a wonderful week!

This email informs learners and parents that:

  • expectations on the project are high and will not be lowered.
  • that many struggled to meet the expectation.
  • there is no reason for alarm.
  • lessons learned through feedback can be applied to future phases of the project.
  • With effort, everything will be okay.

Imagine the same Sunday night again. This time, something is different.

Getting emails from the school's gradebook is rare, so when one comes in, you investigate it. Recalling the parent workshops you attend, you check for grade comments, look at the posted agendas, and find the rubric used to assess your son's writing.

The conversation you have with your son is more productive because you have talked about the online gradebook before and you have a common understanding about what's going on at school. Moreover, you already had a similar conversation with your son about his grades when the teacher emailed his concern earlier in the week.

Feeling a sense of relationship with the school and the teachers there, you still send an email. This time, though, it's more to learn about after-school study hours and to ask if there is anything you can do to help at home.

Your son is still failing, but you understand why and know what steps he needs to take to improve.

What more could you ask for?