Sunday, September 28, 2014

Parent Teacher Conferences: 10 Tips and Tricks

It's getting to be that time of year again. Parent-Teacher Conferences (PTC's). I have to say that I love PTC's. Working at the school that I did, it might be the only time I ever saw and actually communicated with the parents of certain students. Yes it meant long days at the school and trying to find a nice way to say "YOU WANT TO SEE PROGRESS?!? TRY WORKING WITH YOUR CHILD AT HOME!!!", but it also meant that parents and I were coming together to try and help their child become better.

(Let's all admit that conference's are also a time for parents to give you lip service about how much they have/do/plan to/promise to work with their child. Okay, now I can move on.)

My first year teaching conferences scared me to death. Here I was a 22 year old having to face parents and talk about their babies struggles and strengths. There are a lot of Mama and Papa Bears out there who are fiercely protective of their children and I didn't want to say the wrong thing. I would always wonder:

-Have I prepared enough?

-Am I brave enough to tell "Jason's" mom what needs to be said?

-Will it even matter?

-Am I wasting my time?

-Will parents even show up?

-How can I tell these parents, who work three jobs and speak little English, that their child is very far behind?

In an effort to help other teachers who have this struggle, I want to share some tips and tricks I learned along the way. (There is also a great handout from the Harvard Family Research Project that says some similar things.)

1. Send out invitations, reminders, reminders, and more reminders

Parents are busy. My school was a school that had a lot of immigrant and refugee families. Many worked several minimum-wage jobs. Even just one job is hard when you have kids. The more reminders you can send out, the better. Do it at LEAST ONE WEEK before conferences so you can reschedule/rearrange parents who can't make their conference. As much of a pain as rescheduling is, it's better than having no-shows where you are just sitting there by yourself in a room for fifteen minutes wasting time.

2. Prepare, prepare, prepare

Make sure you have everything you need for each conference. You only have a short time to talk to these people. You want to come off looking prepared and professional with everything in order. You don't want to waste precious minutes looking for an example of a student's work while the parents stare blankly at you. I have a folder for each child in my filing cabinet. I would put examples of good (and not so good) examples in there so when conference time rolled around I had things ready to go. I also used math journals in my class and those were easy to grab from student's desks to show their work.

Make sure you also have all the papers for each child together: report cards, attendance sheets, any Special Education information, library book late notices, etc. Then, put them in the order you want to talk about them. I also had my students fill out a reflection sheet. We would end with that, talking about goals the child had made for the future so it ended on a positive note no matter how the conference went.

Finally, create an agenda or list of important issues you want to make sure you hit on. This will help you cover everything you need to.

3. Send out reminders

Did this already? Do it again.

4. Set up a warm environment

Another teacher in my school was really good at this. I would just pull my guided reading table closer to the door with adult-sized chairs around it and all my papers neatly stacked. Then, I went into her room and felt stupid. She had covered her table with cute paper on the top, set out a small bowl of candy, moved the small plant from her window to the edge of the table and sprayed her room with something yummy smelling (the last couple years I plugged in a Scentsy warmer to make the room smell better. Don't tell the fire marshall!). This really warmed up the place and made parents feel comfortable talking about their child.

5. Start and end with the positive

This is their baby. As hard as this child may be, as low as this child may be, this is their baby. Start with something positive to say about this student. Sometimes it might be "Hey your kid didn't throw a desk today! Score!". Then, end with something positive like "Those are great goals you made for yourself! I know you will work hard to reach them!". This also makes the student feel loved and appreciated.

6. Use concrete examples

Examples, good or bad, really add to the conversation and show parents what you are seeing in the classroom. I had one mother who was in total denial that her 8 year old could read or write more than a few short words at a time. She said that he did it all the time at home. Well, I whipped out his guided reading notebook and showed her his handwriting, sentence structure and spelling )which was basically something like: TBWEXTIOSS. That not only gently made her face reality, but also gave us a starting point to start making goals for the future. Good examples help a child and parent feel empowered.

7. Listen attentively to concerns, take notes, and ask questions

This is an opportunity for parents to tell you about their child and ask for help. I have found that doing the above three things really starts a conversation about a child. If a parent sees that I am taking note on what we are talking about, it helps to reassure them that I will follow through with what we have discussed. Parents are more likely to put in effort if they feel you are.

8. Seek collaborative solutions and make an action plan

Once the lines of communication are open, come up with solutions that the parents can get behind. For example, I had nine different languages in my last class. Not all of the parents could read or speak English. When their child was trying to work on reading, we decided that the child would read out loud to their parents. This helped the parents with their English as they looked at easy children's books, and helped their child with reading. Did they mess up some of the words? Probably. But as long as the book was on the child's level, I found that it worked pretty well.

Wow I'm long winded. I promise I'm almost done!

9. Establish lines of communication

Set up a plan for how you can communicate with parents. Some of my parents changed cell phones every three months when they couldn't pay their phone bill. With these people, I knew to send notes home stapled in their child's planner. Some prefer email. Some text (be careful about that one. I never felt comfortable doing that.) Whatever the best way is for you and for them try it. Don't be afraid to change it up if it isn't working for you. Make sure to communicate positive behaviors as much as possible. I set up a time once a week where I would call 3-5 student families with something positive that their child did that week. It was one of the best parts of my week because phone calls from school usually mean something bad. Getting a positive call made the parents so happy!

10. Did you send out a reminder? Do it now!

If you liked the forms and letters I used, you can find them by clicking on the link. There is also an editable version included where you can type directly into the forms.

Parent-Teacher Conference MEGA Pack

What are some tips and tricks you have found useful?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

12 Virtual Field Trips You Don't Want To Miss!

Schools are so lucky these days. We have millions of dollars to use, para-educators in every classroom, the most up to date technology and full parent support. Wait....I'm being told that none of what I just typed is true. Hmmm... so now what?

If you were like my school, money was tight, parental support was limited, and technology was a foreign word. (I finally was able to upgrade my overhead projector with the transparencies about two years ago. No joke.)

Because of tight funds and the inability to fly my students across the country to view some of the things we learn about, I really liked the idea of virtual field trips. Virtual Field Trips (hereto known as VFT) are a great way to bring learning to life from your very own classroom. I've gone through the interwebs and found some of my favorite links to share with you. Enjoy!


The 7 Wonders of the World: panoramic views that you can click and drag for 360 degree views.

The Proverbs

Google Art Collections: Google has taken 1,000's of art pieces from 17 museums around the world and compiled them into one place. You can even create a portfolio of your favorite pieces and add notes.

Hubble Space Telescope

Google Sky: A really fun one! You an look at distant galaxies, track the movement of the constellations and planets and see the universe in x-ray vision.

Smithsonian: Museum of Natural History: I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the Smithsonian Museums! I could spend forever walking their halls. This VFT if awesome because it takes you through the museum and all you have to do is click the blue arrows to keep moving. Simple. The pictures are really high quality too.

White House Tours

Inside the White House: A fun way to look inside the White House. Did you know they have an underground floral shop inside there somewhere? Kinda cool.

First Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving by Scholastic: A timely one for this time of year. It lets you talk to the Pilgrims and visit their village. It also has videos you can watch.


NASA Virtual Field Trip: This one is cool because it compares sites on Earth to Mars. However, you do need to download the software (it's free).

Mount Vernon
Inside Mount Vernon: This one takes you inside this historic house of George Washington.

Rare Book Room
Rare Book Room: I like this one. It lets you see pictures from the works of Shakespeare, Galileo, Benjamin Franklin. You can click on the picture to zoom in and actually read the text.

Dinosaur Dig:  Interactive Dinosaur Dig. Fun!

Anne Frank's House: Very powerful. Especially for someone like me who has actually been there.

Mt. Everest
Mt. Everest: This one is pretty cool. Scroll all the way down to the bottom to get to the virtual tour. There is music that plays with the different sites you can visit.

The are SO MANY more out there. If you teach about something, chances are there is some type of VFT that will engage your students.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Exit Tickets: Quick and Easy Assessments

 Exit Tickets in the Classroom
I need to tell you about one of my obsessions: exit tickets! I love them! They are the quickest and most effective way I have found to assess your students understanding of core concepts. I have tried various ways to incorporate exit tickets. I have had students write answers to questions on scratch paper, have had them answer questions on index cards, and even had them tell me something as they walked out the door (for example: two equivalent fractions as the walk out the door to recess).

All of these worked out okay, but I wanted something that was easy to prepare beforehand that met the exact standard I needed met. It was a lot of upfront investment but it was completely worth it. By preparing my exit tickets beforehand (instead of in the moment like usual) I was also able to keep my teaching on track and make sure that I was incorporating the strategies I wanted to use. It kept me focused on what our learning objectives were for the day as well. I don't know about you, but I the more I plan beforehand, the better the lesson seems to go.
 Math Exit Tickets

What's great about exit tickets is that they can be used as formative or summative assessments. In my classroom, I used them mostly as formative. It seems to me with all of the testing we now need to do that I have enough summative data. I wanted something that would help me see a snapshot of where my kids were and where I still needed to take them. I like to think of these exit tickets as "checkpoints" along the way. I feel like if I am not constantly checking in with my students learning, then I as their teacher can't do my job to it's fullest.
 Math Exit Tickets

This is a nice little video about formative versus summative assessment. I really like how he talks about turning a summative assessment into a formative assessment if your students do poorly on it!

I want to see what my students know and if my lesson/strategies were effective (of course I love to assume that my teaching was perfect!). The students would be given an exit ticket that had a few problems on it that tied in directly to what I was teaching that day. They would answer them and come check them off with me before they headed outside to recess. Depending on the day, I would either grade them immediately and have students go back and fix mistakes (that's the beauty of having only a few problems per ticket), or collect them and use the data to form my teaching for the next day.

Sometimes, I would also do a "Student Teacher". That means, the first 1-3 kids that finished with 100% could help me grade using their ticket as an answer key. This was really helpful when we got near testing at the end of the year and I wanted to work more one on one with the students who needed it. Those who just needed a quick check could go to the Student Teachers and I could pull the kids who were struggling and work with them.
 Math Exit Tickets

Another way I used exit tickets was to help differentiate my instruction by working with my teaching partner using the data from the tickets. We would take the students who really struggled and they would work with one teacher going over the problems on the tickets. Then, the kids who could use an extension or extra practice would work with the other teacher on going beyond the ticket.

When I created my tickets, I made two to a page for easy printing. I try to save paper anywhere I can!
 Math Exit Tickets

I would make the copies I needed and cut them in half. I also created answer keys two to a page. This made it so both teachers could have a copy of the answer key. Sometimes we had para-educators or parents that could help us grade and having multiple answer keys really helped.
 Math Exit Tickets

Here is a short video showing how another teacher uses exit tickets.
If you are interested in trying out my exit tickets, I have attached a sample of them across a few grade levels. They can be found by clicking on this link: Exit Tickets

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Whole Brain Teaching: Classroom Rules

Whole Brain Teaching Class Rules

The Whole Brain Teaching rules is one of my favorite things to do with my kids. This is something they really get into and it really is effective. There are only 5 rules and they are so, sweet, and to the point.
 The five rules are:
1. Follow directions quickly!
2. Raise your hand for permission to speak.
3. Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat.
4. Make smart choices.
5. Keep your dear teacher happy!

There are hand gestures that go with these as well. (You can see what the WBT website recommends here.) I will give you my suggestions but feel free to make this your own.

Rule 1: Have students circle their arms up so they holding one finger on each hand in the air to show rule number one as they say "Rule number 1". Then, as they say the words, have them snap their fingers back to their laps quickly.

Rule 2: Have students circle arms up from their laps while showing two fingers on each hand and saying "Rule number 2". Then have them raise both hands in the air as they say "Raise your hand for permission to speak."

Rule 3: Have students circle arms up from their laps while showing three fingers on each hand and saying "Rule number 3". Have them raise their arms while they say "Raise your hand". Then, during the "permission to leave your seat part", have them take two fingers on one hand as "legs" and walk them along the palm of the other hand.

Rule 4: Circle arms around from lap with four fingers on each hand while saying "Rule number 4". Then, take the two pointer fingers on either hand and tap your temples while saying "Make smart choices."

Rule 5: Circle arms around from lap with 5 fingers held up on each hand saying "Rule number 5". This one I do exactly like WBT recommends. Hold up each thumb and index finger out like an “L” framing your face; bob your head back and forth with each word and smile really big!

I go over these about a thousand times during the first weeks of school. Every time there is a lull, right before we would leave the classroom for any reason, at the end of the day before they went home etc. This really reinforces the ideas and gestures for each rule.

In order to make it fun, I created a list of voices the kids could say the rules in. I wrote them on popsicle sticks and had a different student pick one out each time we said the rules. That got them smiling. Some of the voices I used were:


I'm sure you could add to that! After the routines were established, if one of the rules was broken, all I had to say is "Rule number 2!" and the kids would instantly respond "Raise your hand for permission to speak!" with the gestures. Not only did it refocus the student(s) who were off task, it also kept me from singling out any one student.

Here is a video example of one room doing the rules:

I made some FREE Whole Brain Teaching Classroom Rules Posters (that's a mouthful isn't it?!?). Just click on the link or any of the pictures.

Do you use the WBT rules in your room?

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