When School’s Not All Lollipops

A MiddleWeb Blog

It’s the time of year when most of us are halfway through the term and some of our students are falling apart.

The reality of their academic struggles is like getting into a cold car on a winter morning. It’s a wake-up call: we need to warm things up by making a plan for them and for ourselves.

The challenge is we really may not know where to begin. Do we contact a parent/guardian, conferencing on the phone or in person? Do we reread their files — maybe we missed something earlier in the year when we checked their school history? Or do we chat with last year’s teachers looking for some helpful ideas about what worked for them then?

For some kids the so-called honeymoon period is over. No more lollipops and roses — now we’re worrying about all those incomplete projects, failed tests/quizzes, and missing homework assignments. Some of those buzzing insects have stingers.

The projects and homework assignments are lost or lingering in the child’s “black hole of a binder,” along with the first-week-of-school welcome letters we carefully typed up but that never made it out of the inside pocket and into their family’s hands.

I think if we break down the list of where kids fall apart, we end up with categories that look something like this:

• Organization
• Difficulty on assessments
• Lack of support outside of school
• Rethinking accommodations
• Behavior affecting classroom performance

For my next several posts here at Two Teachers in the Classroom, I’d like to examine each of these areas and offer some ideas that might assist all of us in helping our students when things start coming apart.

Let’s Start with Organization

Organization is one of the most difficult challenges that face middle school kids, their teachers and parents/guardians. How do we teach organizational strategies that stick, so that kids can make a good start and then continue on their own?

Several years ago, I wrote an article for Ed Week Teacher with tips for helping students organize themselves at the beginning of the year. The ideas I shared apply anytime kids are demonstrating difficulty with organization.

If you are a content-area or homeroom teacher, posting a monthly calendar with upcoming tests and quizzes, project due dates, and deadlines for grade books to close for the term can provide kids with frequent visual reminders.

I have a homeroom this year which I love, since it puts me in contact with kids I might not normally teach. I remind all of my students about upcoming due dates and will tell them, “Make sure you make flashcards to help you study for Wednesday’s quiz in ELA!” or, “Start making a list of ideas for your 3-D project in History class.”

In addition, we have a homework board with the daily assignments written with due dates. Our paraprofessional usually updates it, but I also have a homeroom assistant who keeps an eye on it, if our para is absent. I also assign student jobs in my homeroom, which rotate each month. Two of my students take attendance for me; one answers the phone, another is my “handouts person” in charge of passing out all those end-of-the-day notices, as well as collecting fundraiser and field trip forms. The kids aren’t the only ones who need organizational help. :^)

The Homework Dilemma

For some kids, it can make a huge difference to have a teacher or paraprofessional check their agenda book each day or during each class to ensure their homework is written down correctly. Our principal also links each of our homework pages to the school website.

Schoolnotes.com is a great, free site, and it allows you to link documents such as project guidelines and homework. I link all of my colleagues’ sites to mine (that’s me hiking with a llama in Western Mass. If you’ve never done it before, I highly recommend it!)

Some kids may need further modifications than originally recommended on their IEP. We will circle required problems and questions that they must do; the rest are optional. Kids with reading and processing disabilities can often take twice as long to complete the 8 modified problems while their classmates can complete double the amount of work in the same time period.

I Owe You’s: Each of my colleagues and I keep an IOU area with kids’ names written on it if they’ve forgotten to complete or pass-in a project or they owe us a test or quiz. If kids are absent, each teacher has a system for notes that are missed, homework sheets, and Do-Now activities. My favorite is a teacher binder with sleeve protectors that includes extra copies of the work assignments. It sits on a counter with the sign, “Absent? Check here to see what you missed!”

I also keep a model notebook for kids to copy from in math. It has two purposes: first, to help kids who are disorganized and often don’t copy the entire problem down; and also to update  kids who were out. It includes the date, the goal and the problems. I leave a model science notebook with glued templates and organizers, completed worksheets, and the like, available as well.

You can find more organizational ideas in my article — and be sure to check out the ideas and links in this MiddleWeb interview with my Teacher Leaders Network friend Cossondra George, another middle grades special ed teacher.

Next post: I’ll share ideas on Assessments, and how to help kids who struggle with tests, quizzes and projects.

Laurie Wasserman

Laurie Wasserman is a National Board Certified 6th-grade special needs teacher in Medford, Massachusetts. She has been teaching for 32 years, has written articles for Education Week, Teacher Magazine and Education World, all about her love of working with kids who “learn differently.” She is also a co-author of the 2011 book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Public Schools Now and in the Future. Laurie is a member of the Boston Writing Project, and Teacher Leaders Network, as well as a new teacher mentor.

3 Responses

  1. I am the author of The Middle School Student’s Guide to Ruling the World which provides how-to instruction in work habits, time management and organizational skills for grades 6-8. Too often the burden of organization and time management falls (and stays) on the parent or adult caregiver. It’s really important, particularly for college-readiness, that students become self-reliant in organizational and time management skills. Parents/adult caregivers can lead students to independence in these skills. It’s not hard, and well worth the effort.

    • Susan,
      Thank-you for writing and sharing your thoughts about organizing middle schoolers. It sounds like you have written a teriffic and timely book for all of us.

      Would you be interested in sending a professional copy of your book to our moderator, John Norton, so a lucky teacher can read it and review it? If so, please click on the “contact us” link above on the upper left.

  2. Kathy Perez says:

    I enjoyed your blog. Organization is the key to success! You might want to check out my latest book: The Co-Teaching Book of Lists (Jossey-Bass Pub.). It is full of quick and easy strategies for procedures and routines in a co-taught classroom. I would be happy to send you a review copy.
    Kathy Perez

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