Group work. Love it? Or bane of your existence? Have you ever assigned a group assignment and had any of these problems?
We've all run into these problems as teachers, and often times its easier to just throw in the towel and go back to lecture-style teaching. But I would encourage you to not give up completely on group or collaborative assignments. By the time your students reach college, they will be much better off if they know how to study and work with peers. When they enter the work force they will likely have no choice but to collaborate with their colleagues (PLC's.... amiright?)
After teaching a PBL course for a few years that uses group work almost exclusively, I’ve had to learn how to monitor groups effectively. Here is my list of top 10 tips to keep your group work running smoothly:
1. CHOOSE YOUR GROUPS METHODICALLY.
Although students always beg to choose their own groups, 9 times out of 10 I choose them beforehand. The size of the group and the way I choose student groupings depends on the assignment. One way to help figure out group sizes is to map out the project tasks and estimate the work load. I tend to prefer groups of 3-4, but for some projects you might choose pairs or large groups. After I’ve figured out how many students I want in each group, I think about strengths and weaknesses of students and group them accordingly. For example, if the project is a formal debate, I make sure each team has a few strong speakers, some students that are good at researching, and others that are strong writers. Throughout the year as students get used to their classmates and working in groups will begin to step out of their comfort zones, but in the beginning it is really important you play to their strengths to help them feel like they are set up to succeed.
2. USE MODELS AND RUBRICS TO SET THE PROJECT EXPECTATIONS AND GOALS
It is the worst when you have spent 3 weeks on a project, students turn in or present their work, and the quality is nowhere near what you were expecting. To help avoid this, make the project expectations clear to students by passing out and reviewing the rubric, and showing them samples or models. One counter argument I always hear is “but if I show them a model, they just copy it.” If your project is set up to be engaging and encourages creativity, students won’t copy the sample.
The sample you show them doesn’t have to be a model of exemplary work… in fact it’s almost better if it’s not. That way you can have students analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the model and find ways to make improvements for their own project. Have them review the final grading rubric, allow them to ask any clarifying questions, and grade the sample. It will help them realize what an "A" project should look like.
3. HAVE CLEARLY DEFINED STUDENT ROLES
In order to avoid some students in the group working a lot harder than others, have defined job roles for the project along with formative checkpoints to make sure they are progressing. For example, for a forensic crime scene project, group roles could include: evidence collector, crime scene photographer, forensic science specialist, and reporter. Naturally, not every group role will have the exact same amount of work, so they need to learn how to help each other (more on this with tip #9).
4. GIVE STUDENTS SOME FREEDOM OF CHOICE
One way to get student buy in is by letting them have some freedom to make decisions in the project. In PBL, this is called student voice and choice. You can allow students to choose which roles they want, who their audience should be, their mode of presentation (powerpoint vs brochure or poster etc). If you are worried about them having too much freedom, you can require teacher approval of whatever they decide before moving on. Overall, you will have a lot more buy-in from students when they have had an opportunity to make group decisions.
5. HAVE A GROUP NORMS CONTRACT
Even when you teach older grades, you will still have students whining “but (enter student name) just sits on her phone” or “(enter student name) never has his part ready on time.” Students need to learn how to self monitor and not run to the teacher with complaints. At the beginning of the project, have the group create a norms sheet that they all agree to and sign off on. If any students are breaking the norms during the project, they should be able to more effectively monitor themselves when they have a signed document to refer back to. They can say things like “Remember when we all agreed to have our work completed on time?”
6. TEACH STUDENTS TO GIVE EFFECTIVE PEER FEEDBACK
Throughout the project, you need to have students give each other peer feedback. This will take a lot of the work load and grading off your shoulders and you will end up with higher quality work. Depending on the project, you can a) choose to have students give feedback to others within their own group, or b) have them critique the work of other groups (this only works well when groups aren't competing with each other or trying to come up with really original ideas).
Some ways you can have students give each other feedback are:
7. CHECK IN WITH GROUPS OFTEN, REDIRECT, AND REMIND THEM OF THE END GOAL.
If your goal of assigning a group project is for you to have a little R&R at your desk, you have the wrong idea. You need to be constantly monitoring groups, checking in, and giving guidance. Students have a tendency to have side conversations about prom, check their phones, discuss their work schedule.... you know the drill. When you are walking around monitoring progress it will help nip these behaviors in the bud.
Also, sometimes students have been working hard and won't seek you out for help, but when you sit down with the group you realize they really need some redirection and suggestions. When this happens, take out the grading rubric, remind them of the final goal, and help align what they have done with the project expectations.
8. BE WILLING TO STEP BACK AND LET STUDENTS STRUGGLE
Now, I know I just told you to redirect groups and give suggestions when needed, but this does NOT mean tell them how to complete the assignment or do any hand holding. It is 100% okay to let them struggle! Part of their growth and learning process is to struggle along the way, brainstorm solutions to any problems that arise, and learn to overcome hurdles. Some of the best projects were ones that my students whined about the most. For example, I had students create animated videos on scratch.mit.edu, an introductory coding site. Partners were assigned a cell process (such as photosynthesis or DNA replication) and had to show me an animated version of that process by making a video. Let me tell you.... they whined and cried for 2 weeks about how hard it was. The struggle was real. But by the end, they had some awesome videos to show me that they were really proud of.
9. WHEN YOUR PART IS DONE, YOU AREN'T DONE. BE A TEAM PLAYER.
When you are nearing the end of the assignment, you might catch some students sitting back with their feet up. When I would ask "why aren't you working with your group?" I would often get the response "because my part is done."
We had many classroom conversations about how nobody is done until the entire group assignment is completed. There is ALWAYS work to be done. Sometimes it is helpful to give students a checklist of things they can do when their part is completed. It could include:
10. EVALUATE AND REFLECT
I always allow students to peer evaluate their group members at the end of a group assignment. It's not fair for everyone to receive the same grade if they didn't do equal amounts of work. Give students a grading rubric (it can be simple: rate your peer on a 1-5 scale on these 3 criteria) and have them rate their group members. I always tell them to be completely honest- no one will see the papers but me.
Once the group project is over, I also think it is valuable to have a classroom discussion on what went well and what didn't go well. How can we work better next time? Where did we fall short? Where did we exceed expectations? (These conversations are really valuable for you as the teacher so you can learn what to modify and tweak for the following school year). When students worked exceptionally hard, I would always try and have some sort of reward. It can be as simple as buying a box of otter pops or having a movie day (ideally related to the project), but allowing students to have a break at the end of a project giving them a brain break is always appreciated.
I hope you found some of these tips helpful and try a group project or two this year!
It can be frustrating when students are absent on lab days. You spend a lot of time setting up and often spend money out of your own pocket for supplies. If you are doing labs often or teach multiple preps, dealing with student absences just gets harder to juggle. By the time the student comes back and asks "what did I miss?" I've often torn down the lab or passed the supplies onto another teacher in my department and don't have them available. Instead of scrambling to re-set up the lab every time, here are a few alternative options:
1. DO THE LAB MAKE-UP ON THEIR OWN TIME
If the lab isn't super labor intensive and students can read through the procedures on their own to figure out what to do, I have them come in and make up the lab on their own time. Luckily my school has an advisory period built into the school day where students can travel to get caught up on their classes. If you don't have this luxury, they could come in during lunch or after school.
2. SUBSTITUTE THE WET LAB FOR A VIRTUAL LAB
There are a bunch of virtual labs out on the internet that you could substitute for the wet lab. Phet or Glencoe are great options to check out.
3. COPY THE LAB DATA FROM A PEER AND ANSWER THE ANALYSIS QUESTIONS
This option is my go-to for labs that take multiple days. If students missed the first day of experimental design or data collection, they can come back in, join a lab group, and finish the lab. If it was a one day lab, you can have a "master copy" of data that absent students can copy down and analyze before answering the post lab analysis questions.
4. DO AN ALTERNATIVE ASSIGNMENT ON THE SAME TOPIC
If you can't find a virtual lab on the same topic, try and find an article or worksheet on the same topic and use that assignment to replace the lab grade. Newsela is a great place to find free non-fiction articles. Don't forget to look for freebies on TpT! (type in the topic you are looking for and filter by grade and cost).
5. EXCUSE THE ASSIGNMENT
I would like to begin with a disclaimer that this is NOT something I do regularly. I think students need to somehow show proficiency on a standard, not just get it excused. However, if a student tells you they were absent for a week because they were in the hospital or had a true family emergency that you can verify, sometimes they just need to be cut a break. Realize they will have missing assignments from 6 other classes on top of yours, pick which assignments you think are vital for mastering the standard, and excuse the rest.
The moral of the story: Don't lose your sanity trying to have every absent student do make up labs.
When we ask students to review each other's work and give feedback, we often hear...
"Why did you do that?" or
"It's just wrong." or
"It's good" (even when it's not).
Teaching students to give effective feedback is hard and takes a lot of student practice. And then more practice. If you are using project based learning in your classroom, peer feedback is a vital part of the process (you can read more about PBL here). But it's worth it when you get to the point where students give feedback that is meaningful and actionable, and you are receiving higher quality work at the end. It's going to save you a lot of grading time!
So, where do you begin?
1. Always begin by modeling what good feedback looks like.
Pass out a sample lab report, essay, or whatever assignment your class will be completing. Walk the students through the strengths and weaknesses of the assignment, and show them that feedback needs to be specific in order for the person to improve. Show them how it is possible to be honest and be kind at the same time.
2. Don't ask them to give feedback on everything all at once.
It can be overwhelming if a student gets back their lab report or essay and it is covered from top to bottom in red pen. Instead, beak it down into smaller chunks. On the first round of feedback, have students look for and highlight the thesis or hypothesis and write in tips to make it more clear. On the second round have them look for and highlight supporting details or data and write in any clarifying questions. On the third round they can check for grammatical errors.... you get the picture. By breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks you are making it easier on both the student giving the feedback and the student receiving the feedback.
3. Feedback should be actionable.
Make sure that if students leave comments, they need to be actionable. If they just write "paragraph needs work" in the margin, that isn't helpful. Why does it need work? What specifically needs to be improved? If the feedback isn't clear, the author of the assignment can go back and ask "What did you mean when you wrote this?" and get some clarification.
4. Feedback should be timely.
One mistake is waiting until the very end of the assignment or project to do a round of peer evaluations. If the assignment is due on a Friday and you wait until Wednesday or Thursday to give feedback, it can be too late. Students are busy after school with jobs and sports and need time to make edits. By giving feedback multiple times along the way, it will save them a lot of frustration and time at the end. Also, plan ahead and build in class time for editing instead of having them do it all at home.
5. Feedback can be anonymous.
Sometimes students don't want to offend or hurt feelings when giving feedback, so they only leave nice comments instead of being completely honest. By providing methods of anonymous feedback such as sticky notes, gallery walks, or removing names and numbering the papers instead, you are allowing students to be more honest in their critique. That being said, you are opening the door to negative comments as well. Be sure to go over expectations with students prior to the activity, and if problems do arise, have a way to track down the offender (try different pen colors or group them in small groups to narrow down the possibilities).
I love this video of "Austin's Butterfly" and show it to my high school students even though it is of elementary kiddos. It shows the process of giving feedback where "they were specific but they weren't mean about it."
Sentence frames are also a great way for students to give structured feedback, especially when they don't know where to begin. If you would like to check out some FREE peer feedback forms I have used with my students, you can download them here.
Do you have students that shut down in your class and don't do any work? Most of the time there is always a reason for this. There could be issues going on in the home, issues with friends, or health problems. But did you ever consider you as the teacher might be contributing to the problem? This is especially something teachers who like to be sarcastic at times (like me!) need to be conscious of. If this is not your personality, this blog post isn't for you. But if you like to goof and be sarcastic with students, then time for a little self reflection. Here are my top 3 tips of things we often do as teachers that we need to stop doing in order to build a better classroom culture:
1. WHAT YOU MIGHT BE DOING: Bringing up things kids did previously.
We are all human. We make mistakes. And guess what- nobody likes to have those mistakes brought up, especially in front of their friends or peers. Here are some examples:
Have you had a kid drop a beaker? Next time she comes to pick up lab supplies, don't say "let's not drop it again!" because I can promise you she didn't do it on purpose the first time, and now she won't want to participate in the lab because she is so worried about breaking something.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Instead, try to not put the student on the spot, but give gentle reminders to the entire class. Using the broken beaker example, when ALL students come to pick up their supplies, keep repeating "Use two hands please" so she gets the reminder without being singled out.
2. WHAT YOU MIGHT BE DOING: Punishing behaviors you want to see.
I know this sounds like something you would never do, but if you think about it, you've probably done it. Do you have a student that comes to class tardy almost every day? I have plenty.... and it is super frustrating. Lets say Jesse has a bad habit of coming to class 5 minutes late. You've talked to Jesse about it and even called home. Finally Jesse comes to class on time and when he enters you look at him and say "FINALLY!" or "Am I seeing things?" Even if you are joking, these comments will likely make Jesse feel uncomfortable when he should instead be getting positive reinforcement.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Instead, reinforce the behavior with a positive comment like "Hi Jesse, I'm so glad to see you!" or "I really appreciate you making an effort to be here early today."
3. WHAT YOU MIGHT BE DOING: Being inconsistent with with consequences.
This is the number one thing students will call you out on if you ever do it. For example, you walk by Vanessa who should be on task but is on her phone and you say "Vanessa, please put the phone away." Then 10 minutes later you see Ricardo on his phone and take it away until the end of the class period. I can promise you, Ricardo isn't going to give up that phone without an argument if you aren't being equitable.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Try and do your best to be consistent with your consequences at all times. While there are sometimes exceptions to this rule (IEP accommodations, doctors notes for extra bathroom breaks, etc) try and be conscious of being fair to all students, even the ones that are repeat offenders. And when you do make a mistake and a student yells "that's not fair!"... own it. They will respect you more when you admit you were in the wrong opposed you answering "life's not fair" (even if that is what is crossing your mind).
Overall, building positive relationships with your students is key to them learning. As Rita Pierson says, "kids can't learn from people they don't like." So even when you are having a bad day and you want to crawl under your desk and cry (I've been there), try your best to take a deep breath and build the kids up, not down.
When I switched from teaching middle school to high school, my new district required all new hires to participate in a new teacher program our first year. Even though I already had 5 years of teaching experience, I took monthly classes with a professional development specialist whose job it was to help navigate teachers through that first year of teaching (which we all know is the toughest year!) The PD specialist who ran the class and came to observe us was phenomenal. I will be forever grateful for some of the nuggets of wisdom she shared with me.
One topic I remember coming up was the issue of students coming to school without paper or pencils. She said she would often walk into a classroom, see a student sitting there not working, and ask them why. Often times they would respond "because I don't have a pencil and my teacher won't give me one." She taught us "If your biggest obstacle in the classroom is a pencil, you are in good shape. JUST GIVE THE KID A PENCIL."
I know you know that kid. The same kid who comes in every.single.day without a pencil. And it's especially frustrating when the day before you said, "just keep the pencil so you have one tomorrow." And they still lose it. As I sat there and listened to her words I self-reflected... had I ever denied a student a pencil? Luckily I don't think I had, but I know I had made comments in the past such as, "Again? You just asked for one yesterday!"
Recently I came across this poem written by Joshua T. Dickerson that really spoke to me:
The reason I'm writing this blog post is because I shared it on my facebook page and it got quite a few shares and comments. A handful of teachers voiced their frustration with the pencil issue. Luckily enough, the author of the poem came across the post and chimed in on why he wrote it. His comments are shared here with permission:
"Around the beginning of each school year, my poem usually goes into heavy circulation and sparks numerous debates. People always ask me, why did I write the poem.
First I will start out by telling you, what this poem is not. This poem is not an attack towards educators. As a former classroom teacher, I know about the long hours, the challenges of teaching students, the frustrations, and difficulties. I have the utmost respect for teachers, administrators, and anyone else who serves in the education arena, who is striving to do their job in the correct way. This poem is not written for the children who do not make an effort to positively impact their own education. While reading the poem, you will see the tremendous amount of effort that the student is making. Educators are some of the most underpaid people in the world!
Now on to why I wrote the poem. I wrote the poem for those children in extreme poverty. Their are children around the world that do not have basic things that we take for granted. Lights, food, running water, heating, and air is not present in all homes.
I wrote this to give a voice to the students whose parents or guardians have not given them school supplies. In presentations the question always comes up, "what about the kids with iPhones and Jordan's"? My response is that younger children don't purchase those items for themselves. In reality we have children who are punished because their parents or guardians made the decision to buy those things. It's not the teacher's fault, but also not the child's fault. It is my wish that we would have a conversation with the child and parent before jumping to a conclusion that neither cares about education.
I wrote this for the child who may simply forget a pencil. As an adult, I've come to a meeting without a pen before. My own children have forgotten supplies. It happens.
When I present in high schools, people say that their children are older and should be held accountable. I agree. They should be held accountable. However, I always stress to not assume that the child has been taught the lesson of valuing school supplies. At least first have a conversation with the student and the parent. As a father, I realize that my teenager still needs parenting and coaching.
Finally, I wrote this to highlight poverty. Poverty exists and it has a tremendous impact. Those who are born and raised in poverty have a higher chance of dying at an early age, not finishing high school, or being incarcerated. Often times it is forgotten or conveniently looked over that years of research has shown that poverty is difficult to climb out of and nearly impossible to climb out of without an education. I pray that it inspires someone to continue the fight of working with students and parents that truly need us most."
I loved having the author's insight on the poem. So many things rang true for me as I read. Just because a student has an i-phone does not mean they can afford school supplies. Maybe the phone was a gift. Maybe they got it an unconventional way. Regardless of how they got the phone, why do we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking "poor kids can't have nice stuff?"
Another common complaint I heard teachers voice was "I give out pencils but they just break them." I think when this happens our immediate thought is "they don't respect people's property." And maybe in some cases this is true. But it could also be because they are trying to get attention from you. Or maybe they have already mastered the material and are simply bored. Next time this happens, ask them why they broke it, and calmly explain to them your perspective and why you feel frustrated.
Reasoning aside of why the student doesn't have a pencil, I wanted to share some tips on how you can handle the situation to make it less of an issue. Try one way that works for you and your class.
1. Try a collateral system.
All students at my school are required to wear school IDs on a lanyard. If a student needs a pencil, they just leave their ID on my desk and grab a pencil. When they return the pencil, they get their ID back. If your students don't have school ID's, they could leave behind headphones or something else from their backpack.
2. Try a sign-out system.
I've seen some teachers buy magnetic clips, put them on the whiteboard, and clip a pencil to each one. When a student needs a pencil they sign their name on the whiteboard and erase their name when the pencil is returned. (Download a free cute sign from the Lone Star Classroom HERE)
3. Try golf pencils.
While these aren't ideal because they don't have erasers they will do the trick. You can buy a box of over 100 golf pencils for a few bucks so you won't break the bank.
4. Try a reward system.
If it's not the majority of the class but instead the same darn kid every day asking for a pencil, try a reward system. Maybe they are forgetful or maybe they truly don't see the value in not losing or breaking the pencil. Regardless, some sort of reward may help. Tell them if they keep the same pencil all week without losing it they get a reward on Friday. It doesn't have to be big- maybe a piece of candy or 5 minutes of free time at the end of class- but if there is an incentive to not lose the pencil they just might keep track of it.
5. Sell them at cost.
During August back to school sales, I stock up on pencils while they are cheap. During those sales I can get a 10 pack of mechanical pencils for $1.99 (and wooden pencils even cheaper). If a student needs a pencil and wants to keep it instead of returning it at the end of class, I charge them a quarter and its all theirs. Note: Yes, there are often school rules about not being able to sell things on campus. However, as long as you aren't making a profit but just selling them at cost, you shouldn't have a problem with administration. If you are worried about this, check with admin first.
6. Get some donations.
If money for pencils is the issue, there are ways to not spend your own. First, I'd ask your administrator or department head if there are pencils you can have (there probably are). You can also reach out to parents or even do a Donors Choose request to get school supplies.
I hope one of these methods works for you! Because truly there are a lot of issues our kiddos are dealing with as teens, and fighting for a pencil should not be one of them. Have another method that works for you? Leave it in the comments!
One of the hardest parts of being a teacher is making sure you are providing instruction at the level of all your students in the classroom. In classes of 30+ students, it can seem daunting to modify for kids that still need help, while also increasing the rigor for kids that have already mastered the content. I think many teachers tend to be good at one end of the spectrum, but it is hard to be good at both. I’ve reached out and gotten tips from some fellow secondary teachers, and I hope you find them useful!
How to help the students that "just don't get it"
These are your kids that tend to give up easily. They struggle, don't believe in themselves, and get frustrated easily. How can you keep these kids from quitting and start believing in themselves?
"Algebra 2 can be intimidating for my students so I have a word wall for them that shows math terms and concepts in context with lots of examples. I also give my students “cheat sheets” for the multi-step work we do, like graphing exponential functions or factoring quadratics. When one of my kids gets overwhelmed, I will also cut back on their amount of work. This is a special education accommodation that we use for kids with slower processing speeds and it also works well for kids who are having a tough time for any reason. My central goal is to have kids leave my class with the confidence they need to take on more math classes after high school so everything I do to support my students is done with this in mind."
-Shana from Scaffolded Science and Math
"The short answer - scaffold! That can look very different depending on the assignment and the students. Some examples would be providing a model, sentence starters, a template, or some labelled diagrams to help get started on an assignment or break down a difficult concept."
-Tara from Science In The City
How to challenge the students who already get it
These students pick up new concepts easily. Because of this, they tend to get bored and can often act up in class. Giving them more work or asking them to tutor their peers is typically not the solution. So how do you keep them engaged and busy without assigning extra work?
"Try out project based learning! With project based learning, you pose students with a question or problem to solve. There should be many methods to complete the project, so it is a great way for your high kids to dig deeper into the content. For example: suppose you are doing a unit on evolution. Instead of just teaching the students about Darwin and his voyage, have the students create a podcast interview. Students will need to do background research about his journey and his life, write an engaging script, and record it. The higher level students will be thrilled that they get to be creative and problem solve instead of just showing their learning on a test."
-Becca from Science Lessons That Rock
"I find that many high level learners are pretty motivated IF they are interested in something, and I find it's my job to really get them interested in it. I feel that high level learners respond well to a lot of thought-type scenario questions like "what if this happened, what do you think would happen next?" I feel that high level learners really have a thirst, a need for their brains to have something to work on. For example, if we are talking about karyotypes and independent assortment, I would pose the question "Are you related equally to all of your grandparents?" (The answer is actually no, you aren't.) Lower level learners may not be able to grasp this, but higher level learners will be intrigued, and many of them will google it or read more about it and ponder about it in and after class. Higher level learners often want to connect with you on an intellectual level. (I find that sometimes lower level learners are more motivated by connection on the emotional/you-as-a-person level, but that is a big generalization). With higher level learners, you could give them the question and the end result/answer, and ask them to scaffold! Ask them to show you or prove the why on how to reach a particular answer."
-Bethany from Science with Mrs. Lau
Have any additional tips to share? Leave them in the comments!
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Have you been this teacher before? You think you had a great lesson, students understood the material, and then you go to grade the assignment and it's clear they didn't get it?
Part of the problem may be you... (sorry, it's true). I have come to realize over the years that many students need help and simply won't ask for it. They are either too embarrassed to draw any attention to themselves or sometimes too lazy to get up and talk to you. I have made two changes and it greatly increased the number of kids who asked for help. If you are a veteran teacher these two things are likely second nature for you, but for newer teachers these are conscious decisions you need to make:
1. Make yourself more accessible to the students.
If you finish a lesson and hang out near the front of the classroom or your desk, very few students are going to come up and ask you for help. You need to walk around the classroom frequently. Once you get close students are more likely to call you over.
One way you can check in on how you are doing is by measuring your steps each day. I wear a fitbit so I can see how many steps I'm taking. Don't have a fitbit? If you are an I-phone user your phone is automatically measuring your steps in your health app (this only works if your phone is in your pocket, not locked up in your desk). If I'm only hitting around 4000 - 5000 steps for the day, I know I didn't walk around my classroom enough. My goal is to reach around 8000 steps by the end of the school day. (This can vary depending on the size of your classroom and if you have lunch duty, etc.)
2. Change the way you ask students if they need help.
Try to not make asking for help optional. You can do this by changing the way you ask your students who needs help. If you stand at the front of the room and say "does anyone have questions?" then most likely you will hear crickets.
Instead, try walking around the room and asking "Who can I help next?" and don't stop until you get some takers. When you make it sound like you are ready and expecting someone to speak up, they usually will. Changing a few words might sound like no big deal, but I promise it works. If nobody is still speaking up, hover around the students you know are probably struggling based on your previous formative assessments and give them some help even if they don't ask. It may seem annoying to them at first, but I'm more annoying when they have a failing grade and nag them to come get tutoring after the fact.
These two tips may seem overly simple but I promise they work. Try it! Any other tips of the trade? Leave them in the comments!
This blog post was co-written by Becca from Science Rocks and Tara from Science In The City. They have 22 combined years of teaching experience in the inner city. To read about their backgrounds, hop down to the bottom of the blog post.
10 TIPS FOR TEACHING IN THE INNER-CITY
I started teaching 10 years ago and honestly didn’t give much thought to what type of school I wanted to end up at. After graduating (with student loan debt looming) all I cared about was getting a job. I completed my student teaching in the fall semester and wasn’t hopeful I would find a job mid-way through the school year. I started googling schools in my area and found out a middle school not too far from my apartment had a science position open.
It turns out the particular school that hired me had the highest poverty rates in the entire county. Many of the families were living in shelters or staying in cheap motels. We would send food home with the students on Fridays or many wouldn’t have anything to eat over the weekend. It was heartbreaking and also the most fulfilling job I could have asked for. I fell in love with the students and quickly learned teaching strategies that worked for me and my classroom. I remember my first month teaching I had colleagues mention to me “You need to be mean or they will walk all over you.” It turns out that what those students really needed was quite the opposite. They needed a mentor. They needed to be treated with respect. They needed to be understood. They needed to feel like my classroom was a safe place for them.
I’ve since moved from middle school to high school but am still teaching in a title 1 district and don’t see that ever changing. Each school and demographic has their own battles and struggles to overcome, and I choose to put my efforts towards helping kids in low income areas. Am I going to get Starbucks gift cards for Christmas or teacher appreciation week? Nope. But I’m getting something far better. I’m building relationships with kids whom many had given up on. I get to help kids be first generation college students. I get to learn and teach humility and empathy on a daily basis. I get to truly make an impact on their lives.
I started teaching 12 years ago, and ended up in an urban district. My education program had a big focus on urban education and social justice, but it wasn’t a particular goal of mine to teach in an urban district. However, I student taught in the city (as well as a neighboring suburban district) and it just happened that my urban cooperating teacher was retiring and negotiated with her principal for me to get hired into her position. I was pregnant (not very marketable), but she worked it out so that I was able to co-teach summer school with her, and she would be the sub for my maternity leave in the fall. I had a good experience student teaching with her, and it was too good of an offer to turn down!
Thus started my urban teaching career! I have now taught for 12 years in one of the poorest, lowest achieving districts in the state. I stayed at that particular school for 5 years, teaching Earth Science and Environmental Science. Then I transferred to a different school and taught middle school science for 2 years. Then as that school was closed down by the state, I moved schools yet again in the same district and taught 2 years of 9th grade Biology. During my last 3 years I have been working in a program throughout the district for students who are behind on credits and are taking classes online that they have previously failed for “credit recovery.” Students are scheduled into a computer lab with other students who are taking virtual courses (but maybe not the same ones). Different subject teachers rotate between the different schools to meet with their particular students, but also to monitor the computer lab and help students (of any subject area). Each of these settings has been a new learning experience for me, as a teacher.
I grew up in the same area where I live, but in the suburbs, rather than the city. The urban environment was foreign, despite being only a few miles away. I struggled at first with what it would take to be successful in that environment, but learned quickly. I am fairly small, and can be soft-spoken. I often experienced disbelief from people that I could teach, or would want to teach, in that environment. However, I don’t believe successful urban teaching is about intimidation or being ‘mean.’ For me it has been about building relationships, and seeing success for students who don’t have a lot of other sources of support, or models in their lives. For many students, knowing that someone cares, believes in them, doesn’t give up on them, and someone pushes them to do their best goes a long way. Many students come from families where no one has graduated from high school before, parents don’t speak English, and they may not have a stable place to sleep at night. Yet they generally want to be successfully at school, and to graduate, despite having so many strikes against them. I am proud to be able to be a small piece of that!
This blog post is all about why I think Cornell notes are beneficial for students, and tips on how to make them easier for teachers. If you don't want to read my background story on how I came to love them and you just want the nitty-gritty, skip to the bottom of the post :)
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My first year teaching was at an AVID demonstration school. If you are familiar with the AVID program, they require students to use Cornell notes during class. I was fresh out of college and had never heard of them before. I was really excited to use interactive notebooks and to be honest I wasn't thrilled with having a set note-taking format I had to use. It felt like I spent the first month of school telling students what to write on the left side of their notes, and what to write on the right side. Getting them to write summaries was like pulling teeth. BUT, after a couple of months things got easier, and students got better at knowing what to write. Eventually students enjoyed having structure instead of messy note pages. I tried my best to make sure my powerpoint slides had clear questions and bolded vocabulary so students knew exactly what to write and what was important. I initially tried to get students to write the summary for homework, but I soon realized they just weren't going to do it. Enter plan B. Instead I would go back the next day and have them review their notes and write the summary for bellwork. It was a great way to refresh their memories on what they learned the previous day. Then I would call on 2 or 3 students to read their summaries out loud, which increased the stakes for writing in complete sentences and explaining things in their own words, not just regurgitating vocabulary words and definitions. Often times students would even call each other out, and say things like "You forgot to answer the essential question!" By the end of the school year my little 6th graders were champs at taking notes.
Fast forward 10 years and I now teach a class of seniors who are taking college biology through duel enrollment. One of the entrance requirements to this duel enrollment course is for students to have been in AVID all 4 years of high school. It has been amazing to see them take notes without asking, and not just during standard lectures. We have had multiple guest speakers visit our classroom, and students automatically set up a notes page, write down notes and questions they have throughout the presentation, and summarize what the speaker taught them. All without groaning. THAT, my teacher friends, is amazing to see.
So in summary, here are a few things to take away...
Why Cornell notes are good for students:
Are you tired of hearing the following questions 10 times a day:
"What did we do yesterday?"
"Was there homework?"
"I lost my paper. Can I have a new one?"
"What are we doing today? Anything FUN?"
"Where do I turn this in?
I know I was. Want to save your sanity? I cannot express to you how important it is to establish routines in your classroom. If you train students the first couple of weeks you will be so grateful later. I've established routines so my students know exactly what to do when they enter the classroom, know where to get missing work, and see what we are doing that day. After a couple of weeks if a student comes up to me and says "where is the worksheet from yesterday?" other students almost instantaneously respond so I don't have to deal with it. Here are a couple of the things I have done in my classroom to save my sanity:
1. As soon as students walk into my classroom, they automatically grab whatever worksheet is in the basket by the door. The first week or two I have to stand by the door and remind them, but after that it is just habit for them to reach over and grab the worksheet. It saves me time later so I don't have to pass out the notes, bellwork form, or worksheet for that day. It is also really nice when you have a sub, because it is one less paper they have to worry about.
2. I was so crazy tired of hearing "What are we doing today? Are we going to do anything FUN?" (Really? Science is always fun). Anyway, I had my sister who has a cricut machine cut out these vinyl letters for my whiteboard. As soon as students come into the classroom they know to get out their bellwork form, write down the daily objective and homework, and have 5 minutes to complete the bellwork on the board. Those 5 minutes are time for me to take attendance, check any urgent emails, and often get lab supplies ready for the next period. In my class students pick up a bellwork form (by the door!) every Monday and turn it in every Friday. So if a student ever says "what are we doing today?" all you have to do is point to the board.
3. If you had students that were absent the day before, do they know where to get their missing assignment? (Hint: The answer should NOT be they have to come bother you to get it). I have a crate in the back of the room for all extra worksheets. There are 5 file folders in the crate, labeled Monday - Friday. If a student was absent on a Tuesday, they know to go to the Tuesday folder and grab whatever papers are in there. Also, if a student wasn't absent but lost an assignment in the depths of their backpack, they know they can find extras in the orange crate.
4. Do your students know where to turn in papers? Whether you use small trays or file folders like I do, it is nice if students know exactly where to turn in papers. I have another milk crate at the front of the room that has file folders labeled with each period of the day. I also have a folder in the very back for no-names, so if students have a missing assignment they know they turned in, they can check the no-name folder. (FYI: Walmart carries these milk crates for very cheap during back to school season!)
5. I don't personally use this last tip, but I know teachers that do and really like it. When students ask "what did we do yesterday?" I usually have them check their neighbor's bellwork form and copy down the objective. But another option is to have a calendar posted in the front of your room and jot down what you taught that day. If you laminate the calendar you can write directly on it with expo markers, but if it's not laminated you can use sticky notes instead.
Overall having set routines will get your classroom running smoother. Ever notice that in many IEP's it has routines listed as an accommodation? It is so much easier to start class when students know exactly what to do. Any other tips you want to share? Leave them in the comments!