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How to Increase Parental Involvement

Getting Parents Involved



Make sure that your first interaction with a parent is a positive interaction

During the first week of the year, find one thing that you really like about each student in your class. Then, call the parents and share that with them. By doing this, you’ll establish the norm of regular communication and show parents that they are expected to be involved in their child’s education throughout the year.  It also separates you from teachers past, because you are willing to get parents involved with positive news, not just when something goes wrong.

Middle school and high school teachers - I know it is a near impossible task for you to contact the parents of all your students by phone. While I have close friends who have made early contact with every family by phone, there are other ways to go about this task that are not as time consuming. For instance, try sending home a newsletter after the first week with a compliment for each student written on a Post-it. Every student will up sharing your kind words with their parents!



At the beginning of the year, host an event that will help gather students and families

I know that most schools host a Back to School Night, but after watching my dad try to argue his way out of going each year, I figured there must be something wrong with the event. My first year as a teacher, I found out exactly what it is that makes parents dread Back to School Night. While the night may be informative, it’s really boring. Spice it up and find a fun way to gather families together to share your class expectations and goals for the year.

I’ve had friends organize potlucks and barbecues at local parks for students and families to attend, all of which ended up with a very large turnout. In the middle of the event, ask for everyone’s attention for a few minutes to introduce yourself and share your plans for the year.  By having students and their families gather together outside of the school setting, you are getting parents involved in two different ways. First, you are showing that you are willing to go the extra mile to accommodate families and plan activities are fun and inclusive.  Second, you are showing yourself as more than just their child’s teacher, but as a human being.  This human aspect is what will build relationships and increase trust.



Hold student success planning meetings at the beginning of the year

Once you have had the chance to informally introduce yourself to parents on the phone or at a fun gathering, it’s time to show that you mean business.  Set up a time to have a student come in with his or her parents for a 15-20 minute “student success meeting”.  This meeting should be structured around 3 key pieces:

  1. What the student wants to accomplish in the future (goals, dream job, education, etc.)

  2. What the parents want from their child’s education

  3. What everyone at the table (parents, teacher and student) will do during the school year to ensure the student is on their individual path to success 

Make sure that you take notes on everything discussed at this meeting, and keep them in a place you can easily reference throughout the year.  It is absolutely vital that everyone at the meeting leaves with clear next steps - hold the student, parent and yourself accountable throughout the year!



Encourage parents to spend time volunteering in your classroom

A colleague and good friend of mine had a policy in her class that each family needed to have at least one parent volunteer in the classroom during the school year. While the policy was totally unenforceable, all families bought into the idea and the vast majority ended up volunteering more than once. When asked why she felt the need to have every family spend time volunteering in class, she said that she wanted the parents to see what their kids were capable of accomplishing, so that they would believe in their child’s ability as much as she did.

Like any teacher would, I stole this idea and tried it with my class. While I never did get every parent to volunteer, I came close a few times and what I discovered is fascinating. Once a parent volunteers their time, they always become more involved in their child’s education. Parents who had never previously shown an interest in their child’s progress began to help with homework, and showed up to ask me questions or for resources they could use at home to help.  Whether it stems from the realization that they are an integral part of their child’s education, a stronger connection to the class, or a sense of belief in their child, parents that volunteer in class always get more involved.



Lead activities that make parents want to get involved

Early in my first year teaching, I noticed that I was getting a lot of support and help from the mothers of my students, but not nearly as much from the fathers. One of my goals for the year was to focus on getting all parents involved, so this was frustrating. After trying to determine why the dads weren’t showing up, I realized that I wasn’t providing them with a good reason to get involved.  Much of the help I asked for was with crafts, decorations and organizing files - not your typical dad activities.

That first winter I decided to become the school’s basketball coach, and wouldn’t you know it - all the dads started showing up to help.  Fortunately, their involvement didn’t stop at sports.  Once the dads found a common interest with me, they felt more comfortable becoming involved in their child’s education.  This group of fathers became my close friends and truly took to improving the lives of their children.

The key takeaway here is that not every person has fond memories of school, or wants to give up their precious time to do something they dislike. However, once you get parents to show up, you can use the time with them to form relationships and inspire them to get involved. All you have to do is find something that will compel the parents enough to make them want to show up. Ideas such as a computer lab for the community, coaching a sports team, leading a drama club, or hosting multi-cultural nights will fill your room with parents who are willing to step up and get involved.


Keeping Parents Involved


Maintain regular contact throughout the year, including progress towards success

Making initial contact and having meaningful conversations with parents at the beginning of the year isn’t very difficult - keeping that same level of communication throughout the year is where most teachers struggle.  It’s important to keep parents updated on both individual student progress and news from the class throughout the duration of the year, but it can be quite time consuming.

If time is an issue, there are some new programs that you can use in class that will automatically keep parents updated on individual student progress.  Both ClassDojo and Front Row will send periodic reports with detailed student progress to parents that sign up. In order to keep parents updated on what’s going on in class, start up a weekly newsletter or blog.  It doesn’t take long to write a weekly update or record a two-minute video that you’ll post to your blog, but it can make all the difference.  Remember that the more time you spend communicating with parents, the more involved they will be in their student’s education!  



Send home parent feedback surveys every month

Asking for brutal, honest feedback as to how you can improve is the sign of a true professional.  Every month, send home a detailed feedback survey for parents to fill out.  Your goal is to determine what strengths you should build off and what you can do to improve, so design your survey accordingly.  I always made sure to include questions regarding my teaching style, the happiness of my students, how well my students understood the material covered in class, and how I was doing with home-school communication.  You should end every survey with a place for parents to provide a written response for any other feedback they have.  On the day that these are turned back in, read all of them and make a plan for how you will improve based on the feedback given.

Including parents in your own development as a teacher shows that you value parental input and recognize them as an important part of the class structure.  Being a teacher who cares about parents lends itself a group of parents who care about the teacher and the class.  Once you have parents who care, you will see their involvement increase.



Be part of the community

At the NCEBC Summit in 2011, a renowned educator said, “If you aren’t willing to live in the same zip code as the school at which you teach, you should be teaching at a different school.” While there are obvious restrictions to all teachers living in the same zip code as their schools, he did present an interesting argument that we can all learn from - be a part of the community in which you teach.

If you want to get parents more involved in their students’ education, you have to be willing to get more involved in the community in which your students and their families live. While being a teacher is an extremely important part of building up a community, you shouldn’t restrict your impact to within the school walls. Whether you volunteer at a local homeless shelter, attend youth sports games or frequent local shops and restaurants, let it be known that you care about the community.  

What about you? How do you make sure parents are involved?  Let me know in the comments!


The 8 Benefits of Giving Teachers more Spending Power

Let’s start by making something clear - this isn’t a call for more money to be pumped into education.  It’s not a call for the head of district budgeting to be fired or a call for a district to give all of its teachers tens of thousands of dollars to spend as they see fit.  Rather, it is a look at how schools and districts could benefit from shifting more spending power to the teachers. What advantage is there if the people who made decisions about which curriculum to implement were the same ones who would be using that curriculum?  Most of all, it’s about trying to determine whether this shift in spending power would produce enough benefits to make it worth trying.


8 Benefits of Shifting More Spending Power to the Teachers



1. We would get rid of ineffective math and reading programs

It’s a sad truth that many teachers today are mandated to deliver instruction in core subjects with curriculum programs that aren’t effective.  Some programs don’t engage the students at all, while others do a pitiful job of explaining important concepts.  But teachers still use them.  They use these programs because that’s what the district decided to buy at the end of 2010 and they don’t have the money to buy something else.  They use them because they’re told that they need to be teaching Lesson 3.1 from 9:30 - 9:55 on Tuesday.  The teachers are the ones who use the programs, and the students are the ones who suffer.

Imagine if we shifted some spending power to the teachers and allowed them to test out different programs before deciding which curriculum to use in the classroom.  Teachers would finally have a say in how they go about instructing their students and could pick a program that matched well with their teaching style and student needs.  They would no longer have to sludge through 5 years of poor instruction and resources, but could instead make changes when necessary.



2. Teachers would be able to use new programs and technology in class

Teachers are the ones who scour the internet and find the best new education programs.  They show up at the conferences and connect one on one with the companies who build products for classroom use.  They always have an ear and an eye out for anything that could improve the education of their students.  Unfortunately, they are far too often stuck once they have found exactly what they were looking for.  Without the money needed to buy these programs and technologies, teachers are left to either rely on donors for financial support or hope that their district or school will make the purchase for them. Shifting spending power to the teachers will allow them to find great programs and technology, bring them into the classroom immediately, and let students reap the benefits.




3. Teachers would start to feel valued and trusted

One of the most common complaints from teachers is that they feel undervalued.  We place them in charge of educating and raising the next generation, but we often don’t give them a say in what they teach or how they teach it.  Instead, we give them directions to follow, programs they must use and scripted lessons.  By giving teachers more spending power, you would be showing them that they are not only valued, but trusted to make good decisions for them and their students.



4. Teachers could address and improve upon their weaknesses

Not every teacher is a rockstar in all subjects.  Most teachers know which subjects are their strengths, and where they have difficulty.  By shifting spending power to teachers, you are allowing them to improve upon their individual weaknesses by attending more targeted professional development sessions or purchasing support materials.  How powerful would it be to have your own individual professional development budget that you could use to help improve your teaching methods?  For once, PD would be tailored directly to your needs.



5. Schools would cut down on wasteful purchases

A good friend of mine recently told me about an empty classroom at his school that was completely full of old textbooks and technology.  He estimated that there must have been somewhere between 500-1000 textbooks, 30 overhead projectors, 10 televisions and boxes upon boxes of school supplies.  When I asked him what his school planned to do with it, he said that they had no need for any of it and it was stuff that had accumulated over time as extra materials.  

Spending money efficiently will never result in an entire classroom full of extra materials.  Getting teachers involved in the budgeting process by giving them more spending power would prevent wasteful purchases.  Teachers know what they need, but more importantly, they know what they don’t need.  Schools would no longer assume that all classrooms would want all of the programs, materials and new technology being purchased - freeing up that extra classroom for something a little more useful.  



6. Major textbook and curriculum companies would start to focus more on teachers and on students

The primary goal of major textbook and curriculum companies is to keep business profitable.  They’re more concerned about making sales to the people with decision-making power than creating the best resource possible.  If the spending power and decision-making ability shifted to the teacher, that would change.  Textbook companies would begin to reach out and develop relationships with teachers rather than districts.  Instead of trying to plan out the best way to sign a million dollar contract, they would be in classrooms trying to determine how they could improve.  This new line of communication would lead to better textbooks, more effective curriculum programs and more growth in all students.



7. Teachers wouldn’t have to keep spending their own money

While this one may seem obvious, it still needs to be mentioned.  When I was teaching, somewhere near 10% of my pay was going right back into my classroom.  I wanted to make sure that my students had what they needed to succeed and I was willing to use some of my own money to make sure that happened.  Not all teachers have this ability.  Many are supporting families and are already stretched thin financially.  Distributing some of the spending power so that teachers can purchase what they need for their classrooms without dipping into their own pockets would help remove a burden that teachers don’t need to carry.



8. Schools and districts would retain their strongest teachers

There are always some teachers that a school can’t afford to lose.  They help lead the professional development sessions, research new methods of instruction, motivate all students at the school to excel, and are total rockstars in the classroom.  They have parents in the office begging for their students to be placed into Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so’s class.  Right now, they’re most likely fed up.  They want to keep teaching because they see the potential of every student and they know they can make a difference, but they’re so darn tired of not having any real decision-making power.  

Giving teachers more spending power makes them feel important.  It makes them believe that they do have a say in the direction the school is heading.  What rockstar teachers really want is to be free to make the necessary decisions that will benefit students.  They don’t want to be held back by mandatory minutes spent teaching each subject, district-mandated curriculum or a lack of spending power.  Giving them the ability to make impactful decisions will keep them in your schools, right where they belong.

What do you think?  Should teachers be given more spending power?  Let me know in the comments!


Hosting Classroom Debates that Revolutionize Student Learning



The First Debate

The first debate I ever hosted in my classroom was at the end of my first week teaching.  At the time, the big story in the news was the BP Gulf Oil Spill, so I figured that we would have a debate on the topic of offshore drilling.  I started to plan the debate and was more than prepared for it to be a flop.  I figured that my students not only wouldn’t know what offshore drilling was, but they probably wouldn’t be able to understand how complicated the issue at hand was.  I knew that I would need to provide them with on-level resources and information if this debate was going to have any shot at all.  I scoured the internet and eventually found a 6-minute long video explaining: the basic mechanics of offshore drilling, why companies use offshore drilling, what went wrong during the gulf coast spill, and what the consequences of the spill were.  It was pure gold; the missing piece the debate needed to have a fighting chance of becoming a worthwhile classroom activity.

The next day, I began by asking my students a question. “Should oil companies be allowed to continue offshore drilling?”  While the answer itself is much more complex than a simple yes or no, I made sure to keep it basic enough that my students could partake in meaningful discussion.  I wrote the question on the board, and followed by showing the video clip found the previous night.  

What happened next still astonishes me to this day.  I asked students to separate themselves to different sides of the classroom - left side for those who believed offshore drilling should continue and right side for those who believed offshore drilling should be stopped.  While most of the class split evenly to the different sides of the room, one student remained in his seat right in the middle of the classroom.  At first I thought he hadn’t heard my instructions, but he didn’t take his eyes off me.  

I asked him what he was thinking, and he responded “Well, I see a way that we don’t have to choose yes or no.  I think that the companies who want to drill for oil should be required to hire a team of scientists that develop antidotes for all of the animals and plants that could be hurt by an oil spill.  Then, they could keep drilling for oil and protect the environment.”  My jaw dropped immediately.  Did an 8 year old really just say that?  I watched the video again later that night and found that they didn’t even give a remotely similar idea in the video.  He used the word antidote!

From this moment on, I made sure to hold at least one or two debates a week.  They always brought out the best thinking in my students, and continued to be my class’ favorite activity.  Students learned how to stand up for what they believed in and how to use evidence to back up their claims.  They became critical and active thinkers, but even more, they became agents for their own beliefs.


5 reasons to host debates in your classroom

1. Debates help students become independent, critical thinkers.

While so much of our education system is based on abstract concepts, debates help to bring real world situations and events to life in the classroom.  By selecting debate topics that cover real-world situations and current events, students open their eyes to the world around them and learn how to navigate decision making.  Once the students have all the facts, they are forced to think critically and make a decision as to what they believe based on the evidence given.  They learn to think for themselves and become independent in their decision-making.

2. Debates show students that it is okay to change their opinions.

One of the most difficult skills to learn in life is to admit when you are wrong.  Many people are stubborn and would rather argue their way into the ground than accept that their point may be incorrect.  Debates teach students that when new evidence is provided, it is completely acceptable to change your opinion on a subject.  By showing students at a young age that it is okay to change your opinion, you are giving them an extremely valuable skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

3. Debates can be used in any subject.

I think that something often overlooked about debates is their flexibility within the classroom.  You can easily adapt your debate format for any subject.  In math, hold debates about whether it is smarter to save money for the future or spend money now on something you really want.  In reading, create a debate based around which character in a particular book made the better decision.  Social studies allows you to bring in debate topics about both current and historical events.  As long as you are creative (or really good at Google searches), you can host a debate in any subject.

4. Debates give you direct insight into how each student thinks.

Worksheets, assessments, homework and even writing samples don’t give you as much access to your students’ thinking as debates do.  By having students talk through their thoughts on complex issues with small groups, you get the opportunity to see how they develop and formulate their arguments.  Many students will be the first to share their opinions, but others will gather the information shared by other members of their small group before sharing.  Listening to these small group conversations shows you how each student thinks and makes decisions - giving you the kind of information that you can use moving forward.

5. Debates are both engaging and rigorous.

Is your lesson going to engage students?  Do you have to “up the rigor” in order to get the most out of class time?  It seems as if engagement and rigor dominate every discussion about teaching nowadays, with teachers struggling to design lessons that are both engaging and rigorous.  Fear not, debates will have your students completely engaged in a very rigorous activity.  They’re up and out of their seats, openly discussing their opinions on a complex topic with classmates - sounds like a great combination to me!



Image Credit: Tribune 242

Suggested Debate Format for Elementary and Middle School (Allow for 30-40 minutes of class time)

1.  Begin with a question on a controversial topic that is age appropriate and relevant.

2.  Support the students by giving them as much information as you can regarding the topic (videos, articles, etc.).  Make sure that the information provides rationale for both sides of the argument.

3.  Have students break into two different groups and physically move to different sides of the classroom based on their opinion.

4.  Form small groups (3-4 students) on each side and elect a speaker for each small group.

5.  Have each group of students develop an opening argument about why they chose to agree with that side of the debate.  These arguments can be written on note cards of pieces of paper for the speaker to reference.

6.  All speakers step forward and share their opening arguments (one at a time) with the rest of the class.

7.  The teacher then poses a secondary question related to the topic that may cause students to adjust their opinion.

8.  Students gather again in their small groups, and form an argument that answers the secondary question.

9.  All speakers step forward and share their group’s argument (one at a time) to the secondary question.

10.  Teachers have students group together one last time to form a closing argument on the topic.  The closing argument has students summarize their thoughts on the original topic and question, drawing insight from opinions shared during the debate.

11.  All speakers step forward and share their group’s closing arguments (one at a time).

12.  Once the closing arguments have been shared, have students move to the side they agree with most at the end of the debate.  Some students will switch sides because their classmates from the other side shared opinions that they agree with more.

13.  Students return to their desks and write a detailed answer to the original question, using arguments from the debate to support their thinking.


Teacher’s Preparation and Role during Debates

In order to prepare for the debate, the teacher will need to have selected an age appropriate topic and found resources regarding the topic (videos, articles, etc.) that are also age appropriate to share with the class.  The teacher will also need to have a primary question (question that the debate is based around) and a secondary question that may cause students to adjust their thinking.

Sample Primary Question: Should students at this school be forced to wear school uniforms?

Sample Secondary Question: What if the students got to vote on the school uniform that will be selected out of 5 different options?

As you can see, the primary question will have students answer a simple question, while the secondary question causes them to adjust their thinking and back up their original thoughts with further reasoning.

The teacher’s role during the debate should be to present the topic, answer any clarifying questions, and to moderate/observe.  While introducing the topic, the teacher should remain unbiased and provide reasoning and clarification for each side.  Throughout the duration of the debate, the teacher should be checking in with each group and asking them questions that will further their thinking.  The teacher should always point out the good arguments students formulate during the debate, and help redirect students when they get confused or go off-topic.  When it is time for the speakers to share, the teacher should make sure that the speaker has the floor and the attention of the class.  Most importantly, the teacher must ensure that every student’s thoughts are treated with respect by every person in that classroom!

Ways to spice up the debate!

1. Include yourself in the debate.  Especially when the majority of students move to one side, join the unpopular side and participate in the debate.

2.  From time to time, encourage students to try to join the side that they disagree with.  This will help them to see the other side’s perspective and cause them to think more critically about the topic at hand.

3.  Keep score. Award points for the side that you think provided the best arguments (not the one you agree with most) during each round of the debate.  Make sure you explain why that side earned the points.

4.  Recognize one student as the “King/Queen of the Debate”.  Whether he or she provided the most unique and thoughtful response, had the best writing summary, or was the most spectacular teammate, show that you are paying attention to who is putting forth a full effort.

From a very young age, students can benefit from participating in structured debates within the classroom.  I encourage you to give it a try this upcoming school year!  Do you have any good debate topics?  If so, let me know in the comments!

Turn up the music in your class! The Beauty of Song Fluency


As one of the key indicators of a child’s ability to read, fluency is very important to develop at a young age.  The most common methods of teaching fluency often combine practice with letter sounds, syllabication and sight words.  Lower elementary students spend time focusing on phonemes and blending, while upper elementary and middle school students begin to use their foundational skills in order to read longer texts fluently.

In comes song fluency.  Song fluency works by playing a song and having lyrics to that song available for students to read (either projected or printed).  While the song is playing, students sing along with the lyrics - requiring them to read with enough fluency to keep up with the music.  You can think of the activity as a type of “student karaoke”.  Once the song is over, the teacher will shift the focus from reading fluency to reading comprehension and have students engage in a deep discussion about the content found in the lyrics.  

Not only does this activity practice multiple important skills, students LOVE it!  After the first time I used song fluency in my class, I was pestered nonstop about when the next song fluency would happen.  Before I knew it, we were beginning every day with song fluency, allowing me to start the day with an important message (based on my song choice) and my students to start the day engaged in an important activity.

Here’s what you need to consider when bringing song fluency to your class:

1.  Select songs that are both lyrically appropriate and content appropriate!  

Before you use a song in class, perform the song fluency yourself.  Make sure that you won’t run into any trouble if you decide to use a particular song for fluency practice with your students.  

2.  Select songs that your students don’t have memorized!  

Rather than always choosing the new radio hits and being the cool teacher, play a wide variety of songs that your students may not have heard before.  This exposes them to different types of music and connects them with stories from different cultures and time periods.  Plus, it does your students no good to play a song they already know - they won’t even be practicing fluency!

3.  Play songs that have a meaningful message or theme - and discuss them.

Once the song is over, discuss the content of the song with your students. See if they can identify what the metaphors within the song mean.  Have them work with a partner to determine the main theme of the song.   Hold an open discussion as to why the songwriter wrote the song (author’s purpose).  There’s no reason to stop with fluency!  Lyrics are another form of text - have your student’s practice their reading comprehension skills with the song lyrics.

4.  Pick songs with appropriate lyrical tempo (songs that don’t go too slow or too fast). 

Having your students listen to a 4-minute song with only 30 words is just as pointless as having them practice fluency with a song that says 190 words in a 25 second span (I’m looking at you Eminem).  The main point of song fluency is to practice reading fluency, so make sure you choose a song that gives them the opportunity to do that.  Sometimes you may want to switch things up with a “challenge song” or an “easy song”, but make sure you pay attention to the lyrical tempo used in your song selections. 

5.  Have fun with song fluency - let your students dance or play air guitar.

I looped with many of my students for two consecutive years from 3rd-5th grade, and by their 5th grade year we had a class “air band” that played during every song fluency.  The band still sang the lyrics during fluency, but their time to shine was during the solos.  Our air guitarist became the 5th grade Hendrix when it was time for the guitar solo and a break in the lyrics, making the atmosphere a lot more fun.  No matter what song you play, most of your class will end up dancing to the music - let them.  It creates the best environment for the activity, and turns the activity into reading practice that all students look forward to. 

6.  Suggested Genres and Songs

Country, R&B, Soul and Pop songs often meet all the criteria described above, but make sure that you find a way to bring some of your favorite music into the mix!  I always tried to throw in some Classic Rock and Hip-hop songs, with the sole purpose of sharing songs that I enjoy with my class.  Students learn a lot about you if you’re willing to share more about your childhood or interests during song fluency.  

Below, I’ve included 5 song starter kits for some of the different genres discussed.  Feel free to try them out, or pick and choose which songs will work best in your class!


It’s a Great Day to be Alive - Travis Tritt

The Only Way I Know - Jason Aldean

The Road Less Traveled - George Strait

Live Like You Were Dying - Tim McGraw

Challenge Song: Something to be Proud Of - Montgomery Gentry 


The World’s Greatest - R. Kelly

What’s Going On - Marvin Gaye

Love is the Answer - Aloe Blacc

[Sittin’ On] The Dock of the Bay - Otis Redding

Challenge Song: Where is the Love? - Black Eyed Peas


Keep Your Head Up - Andy Grammer

Dream Like New York - Tyrone Wells

What Would You Say - Trailer Choir

Imagine - John Lennon

Challenge Song: Man in the Mirror - Michael Jackson


What about you?  What would your 5 song starter kit look like?  Let me know in the comments!

10 Characteristics of Great Teachers - How to Show them in your Class


1. Great teachers show a genuine interest in their students

At the very beginning of the school year, set the precedent that you care about students and their interests.  Have your students fill out detailed student interest surveys on the first day of the year, and spend the first night reading the surveys to learn about each of the students you’ll be teaching.  Then, find ways to weave what you’ve learned about your students into casual conversations - letting them know that you took the time to read what each student had to say.  Make it clear from day one that your class isn’t about the teacher, it’s about the students.

However, don’t only use the beginning of the year to get to know your students - continue to learn about their interests throughout the year!  Imagine what a student thinks if you’re super excited to see them and learn about them during the first few weeks of the year, and then slowly you stop engaging with them over time.  Students don’t understand that you’re simply exhausted from grading 6 inch stacks of paper every night and teaching 35 kids all day - they’ll just assume you don’t like them anymore.  Be a great teacher by showing that you’re interested in every student and their interests from the first day of school until the first day of summer.


Image Credit: US Navy

2. Great teachers are involved

What’s your favorite activity?  Do you like to knit, read, watch movies, or play sports?  Great, now take that and make a club or a team that meets either before school or after school.  If you’re only available one day a month, that’s fine!  While it’s ideal to meet or practice at least once a week, it will still be a treat for students if you can only meet once a month.  By showing that you aren’t just a teacher, but someone who has interests and passions that you’re willing to share with your students, you can become someone truly special in their lives.  Those who join your club or team will talk about how fun it was to spend time with you after school, and before you know it, participation will increase.


Image Credit: Grand Canyon National Park

3. Great teachers make parents and families an integral part of the class

Parents are generally hesitant to trust - you steal their children from them for 7 hours a day and all - but it’s vital that you build trust with families.  Towards the beginning of the school year, organize a fun event that will get all the families to gather together.  Throw a potluck or a BBQ, have a Students vs. Parents kickball game, or host a multicultural night where the families come together to share more about their heritage.  Let this be a time where parents see just how much you care, and use it as a place to share a message with all the families about what you hope to accomplish.  Let parents know that the success of their students depends on a team formed between teacher, family and student.  Throughout the year, continue to make an effort to include parents in all that you do in the class - keep them well-informed and have an open invitation for parents to come into class to help, observe, or learn.  Have open conversations with parents, and let them know that their voices are heard and important in making decisions that impact the class.


 4. Great teachers find out what every student wants to achieve in their life, and helps them build a plan to get there

Design a lesson that will help you to find out each student’s hopes, goals and dreams for the future.  Once students have shared their thoughts in writing, take the time to sit down with each student and his or her parents to discuss what everyone can do to make sure the goals are met.  Start with a plan for the upcoming school year, and build it out until you reach the point where that student is successful in the career of his or her choice (15-20 years down the road). Telling your students that they need to work their hardest to reach their dreams isn’t enough.  They need to know without a doubt what it will take to get where they want to go.



5. Great teachers know how to build intrinsic motivation in their students

You should know what students want to accomplish in their lives.  Once you have this information, build intrinsic motivation in your students by guiding them towards being confident and having a strong belief in themselves and their abilities.  If Jorge wants to be an engineer, a job that requires math skills, hang up that 95% he got on the last math test on the wall.  Show him that you believe he’ll be an engineer, and then every time he does something that’s moving him closer to this goal, point it out.  “Jorge, the way that you took your time and really thought through all of your ideas before deciding how to proceed is exactly what engineers do every day.  I can’t wait to see what you’ll accomplish in your work as an engineer.”  Before you know it, Jorge will know that he’s going to be an engineer and will be motivated to do all it takes get there.



Image Credit: Paul Goyette

6. Great teachers are always available for support and advice

Early on in the year, make it known that you will be there for students if they ever need any help, support, guidance or advice.  Keep your door open before and after school, and speak to a student if you sense that something is wrong.  Often times, students just need someone to listen to them - be an active listener and try to understand what’s going on.  Most importantly, always get them the help they need if you aren’t fully equipped to deal with the situation yourself.

The most impactful teachers aren’t the ones who make students laugh and feel happy when they’re having a good day.  They’re the ones who can tell when something is wrong and offer support.  Be someone that students seek out when times are tough by making yourself available and demonstrating on a daily basis that you truly care about every student in your class.  Be patient, be compassionate, and be available.


 7. Great teachers hold high expectations and never accept mediocrity from any student

If there’s one specific quality that separates a great teacher from a bad teacher, it’s the unwavering expectations they place upon their students.  Great teachers expect excellence from each of their students, and are never okay with a student giving them less than their very best.  Bad teachers expect their students to simply complete their work, and are quick to make excuses for why the work wasn’t high quality.  There are so many reasons why John always misbehaves, why Angela isn’t doing her reading, or why DJ’s story is only two sentences long.  Those aren’t reasons, they’re excuses - never be okay with any of them.

If you want to be a great teacher, you need to stop making excuses for your students, and you need to let it be known that no excuses from students will be accepted.  Though some may take longer than others, all students will eventually rise to meet your expectations if you hold them high.  The beauty of high expectations is that your students will soon be working at a level that they previously thought impossible, and they’ll start to gain confidence.  With confidence comes a belief that they can achieve their dreams, and with that belief you’ve given them the most powerful tool possible.


8. Great teachers design lessons that have a lasting impact

Your lessons should be designed with the future of each child in mind.  Before planning a lesson, think about what the lasting impact of that particular lesson will be.  Is it enough to stand at the whiteboard and simply explain how to go about solving a certain type of math problem, or should you do more?  Great teachers design lessons with the goal of creating a learning experience that will always be remembered by the students in their classroom.  Think back to the great teachers you’ve had in your life - I bet that you can remember learning experiences from their classes that still help you today.



 9. Great teachers teach students how to succeed

There are no standards for the subject of success, but that doesn’t mean students don’t need explicit instruction on becoming successful.  Recognize this, and supplement your classes with lessons on how to become successful.  A good friend of mine recommended teaching students John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, and said that it worked well with 5th graders and could easily be modified for any grade level.  

Teach your students about the traits of successful people, and discuss how we can all begin to show these traits in our daily lives.  Have them read biographies to learn from the mistakes of those who failed before them, as well as the decisions that led to success.  For most people, becoming successful is elusive - equip your students with the traits and the skills they’ll need to achieve their goals.



Image Credit: starmanseries

10. Great teachers emulate other great teachers

Which teacher do you remember the most?  Who do you point to for helping you become successful?  What did they do that made them such a great teacher? Now do what all teachers do best, and steal their ideas!  They say that great teachers are great thieves, so feel free to steal the teaching style of an amazing teacher you’ve had in the past.  Think about how that teacher would act in a particular situation and try to channel your inner Mr. Johanssen or Mrs. Schmidt to reach your students.


*The beauty of being a teacher is that every year is another chance to improve, to learn, and to be great.  We already know that this upcoming year will be plagued with unexpected events, difficult situations, and sleepless nights.  Don’t let the hard times prevent you from becoming great - stay strong, believe in yourself, and work hard to give every student the education they deserve.  If all else fails, just try your hand at acting and pretend to be another teacher (it’s worked for me on more than one occasion).  Did I miss anything?  If so, let me know in the comments!




10 Ways to Make the Most of your Summer Break


Image Credit: Aplaster

During my first summer as a teacher, I battled to balance my desire to get prepared for the next school year with my body’s need to relax.  The time I spent relaxing left me feeling guilty for not working, and the time I spent working left me wishing I were relaxing.  It seemed as if this conflict would continue throughout the rest of the summer, and maybe for all the summers I would spend in the classroom.  Rather than allowing summer to elicit any more feelings of guilt or regret, I sat down and brainstormed different ways I could make the most out of my summer break as a teacher.  Over the past several years, I’ve shared these ideas with friends and colleagues, taken their input, and updated them to make sure that any teacher can use them to have a productive, fun summer break. Follow these 10 steps, and you’ll be on the path towards making next school year your best school year ever!


Image Credit: Antonio Litterio


1) Within 1 week of school ending, reflect on the past year

The smartest thing that a teacher can do once the school year ends is reflect on the year when it’s still fresh in his or her mind.  Take out a pen, a laptop, or a quill and some parchment and write down your thoughts on the past year.  Make sure you focus on areas in which you succeeded (don’t short yourself), and areas where you want to show improvement during the next school year.  

This reflection should not be a 5 minute activity - it should take you several hours.  I know that the last thing you want to do once school ends is work, but trust me - these might be the most meaningful hours you spend all summer long.  Write down everything that comes to your mind and save the paper or document on which you wrote your reflections - you’ll need it later in the summer.

2) Know what you want to accomplish over the summer

Many teachers that I have talked with struggle over the summer because they know that they should be getting work done, but they don’t know exactly what that work is.  Working during the summer is nothing like working during the school year, where you have a planned objective to teach each day, therefore giving you a specific direction.  

The best thing you can do to ensure you have productive work hours during the summer is to write down a comprehensive plan of what you want to accomplish in preparation for next school year.  Long term plans, unit plans, creating assessments, researching programs, or familiarizing yourself with standards and curriculum are all examples of what could be included on your summer plan, but whatever your plan is, make sure it is comprehensive!  The hope is that this plan will prevent you from any unnecessary stress in the weeks and days leading up to the school year.


Image Credit: user Eacuna

3) Set aside a period of time where you don’t do any work

There’s a reason that teachers get a summer break - teaching is not easy.  Summer break should be a time where you recharge your energy in preparation for the next school year.  However, just like during the school year, teachers know that there’s always more work that needs to be done.  Don’t give in to the temptation to do work every day!  You’ll never be able to recharge and come back with the energy it takes to be a great teacher if you spend the entire summer working.

Instead, set aside a period of time where you vow to not do any work.  Use your comprehensive plan from #2 to determine how long this workless period will last, but it should be at least 2 weeks in a row.  I always told myself that the month of July was mine, and I would focus on reflections during June and begin my work for the upcoming school year on August 1st.  The key here is to do what works best for you.  If you’re like me and have turned the art of procrastination into a science, then you should be able to set aside a time at the beginning of the summer to enjoy.  If you’re someone who can’t relax until the work is done, then finish your work at the beginning of the summer and devote the end of the summer to relaxing and getting away from work.

4) Do something you’ve been meaning to do for a while

Having a summer break is not normal in most professions - so take advantage of it!  Having a few months off in the middle of the year is the perfect time to catch up on everything you’ve been missing.  That new season of Orange is the New Black just came out, and you know that you’ve been dying to binge watch all 13 episodes - turn it on!  Want to spend more time with your kids?  Pick out some days and do some fun activities with them.  What about the book you’ve always told yourself you would write?  Get to it!  Summer break always seems to fly by, so make sure you don’t leave any unfinished business before heading into next school year!


Image Credit: user Simon

5) Try a new hobby

I don’t mean continue the same hobby you’ve been doing forever - get out there and try something new.  If you always go hiking, hop on a mountain bike and start riding some basic trails.  Never been too comfortable in the kitchen?  Get yourself a cookbook and try out some of the recipes for fun.  Feel free to involve your kids or friends in your new hobby as well.  Summer is the perfect time to find what you love to do, but that can’t happen unless you step out of your comfort zone and have some novel experiences.

6) Spend quality time with family and friends

As time goes on, we tend to drift farther away from our family and friends, simply because life seems to get in the way.  Summer is your opportunity to reconnect with friends and family.  Yes, I know that they all have jobs that steal them from you between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm.  They also have something that teachers don’t have - a lunch break.  Believe it or not, they actually get to leave the premises of their workplace and eat a lunch that doesn’t consist of goopy cafeteria food or paper bag sandwiches.  Make plans to join your friends or family on their lunch break and catch up - they’ll enjoy it!


Image Credit: user keulefm

7) Travel and explore

As teachers, we are often the connection between our students and the great big world outside.  When I was teaching, the majority of my students had never left the state, and some hadn’t even left the city of Las Vegas.  Not only were my students eager to hear about my time spent traveling different countries - they were genuinely interested in what life was like in a city a few hundred miles away.  Children naturally want to know what else is out there, but they often don’t have the means to get there themselves.  Make it a point to have a meaningful traveling experience - be it around the globe or to a town an hour down the road.  You’ll learn more about the world during your time traveling than you ever will watching documentaries, reading history books, or hearing other people’s experiences.  Then take your experiences and make them come to life for your students the following school year.

8) Read

How often do we tell our students that they need to read at home? Daily?  More than once a day? Every hour? We know that reading is a key level to success for students, but it’s also a key lever for our success as teachers and professionals.  It doesn’t matter whether you crack open a young adult novel like John Green’s Looking for Alaska or a non-fiction, education related book like How Children Succeed by Paul Tough.  Reading opens our eyes to new mindsets and connects us with people around the world.  So read for pleasure, or read to learn, but make sure that you spend the summer doing a fair amount of reading.

9) Limit your working hours

Whether you’re the type that needs to get your work done at the beginning of the summer, or someone who like to rest and relax before getting back to the daily grind, you should set some limits on the amount of time you spend working on any given day.  Teachers have an endless amount of work that they could be doing.  Don’t burn yourself out before the school year even starts - set some limits!  Make sure that you reference the list of what you intended to accomplish over the summer (#2) to prevent yourself from doing any unnecessary work, and stick to a schedule.

When I would first get back to work at the beginning of August, I would limit my working hours from 10 am - 2 pm.  Each week I would increase the amount of time I worked by 1 hour, until I was working normal school hours the week before school started.  This allowed me to come back prepared, refreshed, and excited for the new school year.

10) Set personal and professional goals for the upcoming year

Remember how I told you to hold on to the reflections you made at the very beginning of the summer?  Get those out a few weeks before school starts, and draft up some personal and professional goals that you have for the upcoming year.  These goals should guide the way that you live and work during the school year, so don’t skimp on time!

Your professional goals should build off your strengths from last year, and account for ways to improve in the areas you identified as needing improvement.  If your students did great in reading growth last year, make it a goal to have them do even better this year.  If you didn’t connect with parents as much as you would have liked last year, make it a goal to improve this year.

I always believe that personal goals are just as important as our professional goals.  We can’t be as effective as we’d like if we aren’t happy in our personal lives, so take the time to develop some personal benchmarks for yourself.  Want to stay in shape throughout the school year?  Hope to spend more time with your kids and family at home?

All of your goals should be written down, and should be kept in a place where you can see them each and every day.  I always printed mine out and kept them on my bedroom wall, so I left each day with my goals in mind, and reflected each night on how I progressed towards those goals.


Remember that summer isn’t all about getting ready for next school year, and it’s not all about sitting on the couch and doing nothing.  It’s a unique time to reflect, relax, explore, and prepare.  Make the most out of this summer, and let me know in the comments if you have other ideas or thoughts!


The Amazing Front Row Race is on!

The Amazing Front Row Race is on! After the first day, Waukesha Schools lead the race, but it’s still early - every district is still in the game. 

We hope you’re as excited to see what happens over the course of March as we are - it’s going to be an exciting month!

Stay tuned for updates to the standings here:

Our Free Adaptive Math App now has Middle School Content

Students can now practice 6th - 8th grade Geometry and Ratios & Proportional Relationships in Front Row! Just update the iPad app (Web app will be updated automatically) and tap the “Advanced Domains” button on the bottom right of the domain picker screen. 

We’re announcing the beginning of our rollout of Front Row for 6th through 8th grade - starting with Middle School Geometry and Ratios & Proportional relationships. Now, middle school students and advanced elementary school students can use Front Row to practice math! All teachers who have full access automatically get access to the new Middle School domains. All referred teachers will also automatically get access. 

The Geometry and Ratios & Proportional Relationships domains come with: 
- Over 5,000 Common Core Aligned Questions (Over 21,000 in all of Front Row now!)
- 241 Videos (Over 900 in all of Front Row now!) 
- Manipulatives to help your students with both domains 
- Standards based report cards for both domains 
- Still completely free (if you don’t have full access, contact us

We want to make sure there is absolutely nothing stopping you from giving your students the best math education you can. If there’s anything we can improve, please drop us a line. 

Teacher Talks: Meg Holmes on using data from Front Row to personalize instruction


This edition of Teacher Talks features Meg Holmes, a third grade teacher at The American School of Barcelona in Spain, a PreK-12 private IB world school with students from over 40 countries

How do you use Front Row?

I read a lot of teaching and tech blogs, so I recall learning about Front Row on a blog I visit regularly. In September 2013, ASB started a Pilot Program with five iPads per classroom in grades 1-3, so I was searching for an app to use during math center time in my third grade classroom that aligned to the CCSS and would allow my students to practice and review math concepts at their own pace.

Students began using Front Row by taking a placement test to determine their understanding of CCSS math concepts. Based on their score, students are placed in a level and then advance through the lessons independently. After using Front Row for about a month in the classroom, I decided that the differentiated practice and tutorial videos were so effective that I wanted my students to use it for daily homework practice. Due to recent upgrades, students are now able to use Front Row on their iPad and PC’s, which ensures that all of them can access it from home.

Every week, Front Row sends me a report via email providing updates on students’ progress in each of the CCSS’ areas (e.g., NBT; CCOA). Students in my class complete all the lessons on Front Row aligned to the third grade standards before moving on to the next content area. This ensures they are mastering the content.  The app also has a teacher dashboard that shows me each student’s progress visually using an analysis matrix, recommendations for small groups based on the current standard each student is working on, and a standards-based report card with details about each student’s progress that can be printed and shared with parents. Front Row also provides differentiated printables for each student based on the current CCSS they are working on in the app.

Because of Front Row, I don’t have to:

  • I no longer have to search for resources to work with my small math groups. I am able use Front Row’s printables to remediate, review and extend students’ learning.

  • I don’t have to be concerned about students using an app that does not address their instructional needs. I know that with Front Row, all the students in my class are working at their “just right” level and, if they get stuck on a problem, they can watch a video tutorial to learn the concept. This frees me to work with other students in small groups and ensures that students are using their time effectively.

  • I don’t have to send math worksheets for homework that are too easy for some students and too difficult for others. I also don’t have to spend time correcting their homework with them in class.

Because of Front Row, I CAN:

  • I am able to design math lessons that challenge students to use different strategies to solve problems, and I know that Front Row provides them with the opportunity to apply these strategies using the virtual manipulatives and whiteboard space on the app.

  • I am able to see exactly where each student is in their learning because Front Row provides individual report cards that list all the CCSS math standards and whether students have mastered them or are currently in progress.

  • Thanks to Front Row’s “insights” tab, I can instantly see which students made the most/least progress and which standard(s) the highest percentage of students have struggled with. This helps me to focus my attention on the students who need additional tuition and also see which standard(s) I need to review.

Tell us about your students and how they’ve used Front Row

One of the students in my class began the year really struggling in math. She had changed schools several times and appeared to have a lot of gaps in her learning. She confused basic operations in math and was having such a hard time that her self-confidence was quite low. She had almost stopped listening during instruction.

There is something magical about putting an iPad into the hands of a child because when I introduced Front Row to the class, this student couldn’t wait to get started. She is making steady progress in math now and has almost mastered all the third-grade lessons in NBT. The video tutorials on Front Row supplement our class instruction and help this student build confidence in her math skills in a non-threatening environment.

Are you and your school taking any initiatives to prepare for the Common Core?

The American School of Barcelona is in the process of aligning our Math and English Language Arts curricula to the CCSS. Up until this year, ASB taught the AERO standards (American Education Reaches Out), which is a project supported by the U.S. Department’s of Overseas Schools Advisory Council to assist schools in developing and implementing standards-based curricula. We are currently updating our Math and ELA curricula to reflect the CCSS. ASB students in grades 3-9 take two standardized tests each year, the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) and ISA (International Schools Assessment) to evaluate student progress and instruction and assess their academic level compared to other international schools.

Announcing Fractions Printables - One-click Individualized Fractions Practice

You can now create printables in the Fractions (NF) domain, in addition to printables for Base 10 (NBT). Individualized learning, no technology required. 

We’ve been hard at work writing thousands more questions for fractions - and we’re thrilled to announce you can now generate Fractions printables! 

The Front Row iPad app and Chrome app make individualized math practice a breeze in the classroom, and individualized math practice is now a breeze at home, too! Just select NF at the top of your dashboard, open the Printables tab, and click the Generate button. Within seconds you’ll have a separate targeted practice sheet for each student, with Common Core aligned questions based on individual student ability. 

As with everything else we do at Front Row, we hope this makes your life that much easier. If there’s anything we can improve, please drop us a line.