The power of a positive phone call

This week my students wrote an essay in which they argued that they should be allowed to chew gum in school.  They had to pull evidence from a pair of articles that I provided from CNN and The Guardian.  Argument writing has been our focus this quarter, and with the quarter winding down, I wanted to see how well they could craft an argument on their own.

One student in particular did a phenomenal job of creating a well-organized essay, which is such an accomplishment for her because she entered my 7th grade class reading at a 3rd grade level. For her to be able to complete this task is nothing short of huge. I had to pass this information along to her mother.  Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Me: I wanted to let you know how proud I am of Nakia for her work on her argumentative essay this week.  She worked really hard, and she put together a great piece of writing that used several pieces of strong supporting evidence that supported her claim.

Parent: Uh-huh.

Me: I’m just so proud of how much growth she has shown this year as both a reader and writer.

Parent: So…this is a good call?

Me: Yes!  Definitely a good call.

Parent: Oh, that’s so nice to hear! I thought maybe she hadn’t gotten something done in class.

Me: No, no, no. She’s doing fine.

Parent: That’s really nice to hear.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon.  I try my best to call home whenever students reach milestones in my class, whether they finish a book, write an amazing essay or just improve upon their behavior.  For the most part, these calls are met with uncertainty because the parents at my school generally assume that if they are getting a call from the school, their child has done something wrong.

Now, I make my fair share of parent phone calls home when my students aren’t meeting my expectations, either academically or behaviorally. I’m sure, like most teachers, I make way more phone calls home of this variety.  The student that disrupts the learning environment in my room is going to get a call home that day; the other twenty-something kids who come to class and attempt to do everything I ask of them will not.  Obviously, there’s not enough time in the day to call all of our student’s parents regularly to discuss positives or negatives.  It just isn’t happening. But we must make time to have those positive discussions with parents when their children are succeeding at school.  Here’s why:

Positive phone calls build currency with students

Teaching is all about relationships. Teachers that have strong relationships with their students are going to have classes where those students are engaged and ready to take the academic risks that are necessary for true learning to occur.  Making a good call home for a student when it is warranted is an important step in cultivating that teacher-student relationship.  It rewards the student for his or her accomplishment, and it shows the student that you value that accomplishment so much that you wanted to share the good news with someone at home.  Students will work hard for that sort of praise.  Plus, a teacher that makes a positive phone call home for a student now has currency that he or she can use when they might have to make a phone call home to discuss a transgression.  Students, like their parents, naturally presume that a call home means that they’ve done something wrong.  When a student knows that his or her teacher calls home to discuss both the good and the bad, that student will see that their teacher is invested in them.

Positive phone calls improve parent-teacher relationships

Being a parent of a student who struggles at school has to be difficult.  Getting phone calls to discuss poor grades or behavioral shortcomings cannot be easy.  As teachers, we all have those students that are regularly not meeting the expectations of our classroom, and if you are like me, you spend a decent amount of time on the phone with those parents. I believe it’s critical to make parents aware of what their child is doing in my class when that child is not performing well.  If I were the parent of that child, I’d want to know.  However, having these discussions is not a simple process because emotions are involved.  Whenever I call home to let a parent know that his or her child had a slip-up behaviorally or academically, I am cognizant of the fact that I am speaking to someone who loves this student for better or worse.

However, when I make a genuine positive phone call home for those same struggling students, it begins to change the narrative of my relationship with that parent. They see that I am not just another teacher that focuses on all of the negative attributes of their child. Those positive phone calls show those parents that I celebrate the positive contributions that their child is making to the class as well, and that communication can be transformative.  The parent sees that I am observing their child fairly.  They know that I care about their child’s well-being.  It’s a big step in fostering a relationship with that parent that says to their child that the parent and I are on the same team.


Getting students talking more about what they are reading

I struggle to get all of my classes engaged in discussions that are centered around the novels that we read in class. Some classes are more chatty than others. Within those classes, the same group of kids regularly provide responses to the questions that I ask while we read. Talking about what we read is powerful. It helps us gain a deeper comprehension of the text while also providing us with other perspectives concerning the issues within the book. I need to get all of my students talking about what they read as they read so that they become better readers, even the shy ones.  Plus, it makes reading a lot more fun when it’s a shared experience!

I found this gem on Pinterest this week:

partner read questions

I put it up on the overhead and modeled for students how to use the prompts after we finished a page during our read aloud.  After I read another page, multiple hands shot up.  By the time we completed our third page, more than half of my students had a comment using one of the prompts listed on the chart.  And this was in my 1st period reading class, which is comprised of students who need additional reading support because they are still comprehending below grade level.  I was blown away by how much the level of engagement in our class discussion increased simply by giving the kids these prompts to begin their responses with.

When class ended, I immediately made twenty-something copies of the handout and had the media center specialist laminate them.  This is the teacher equivalent to changing a relationship status on Facebook, except in this case it’s taking something paper and giving it a protective plastic coating that will prolong its lifespan.  Let’s examine the parts of this tool and focus on why it’s so perfect for students when reading:

  • I’m thinking“, “I’m noticing“, “I’m wondering” and “I can’t believe” all give students the chance to quickly reflect on what they have just read.
  • This part reminds me of” allows students to connect what they are reading to something from their own lives or the real world.  These types of connections are essential in helping students better understand a text because it improves their ability to make inferences about what the characters are saying and doing simply by having that related background knowledge.
  • This is confusing because” and “Why” might be my favorites because they encourage students to think critically about what they have just read.  They may question a character’s motives or an author’s decision to reveal certain information at this point in the novel.
  • I like this part because” provides students with the practice of making a claim or statement and supporting it with evidence from the text.
  • I think the character is feeling _____ because” forces the students to make inferences based on a character’s actions or words, and they have to support that inference with evidence from the text.
  • I think _____ will happen next” gives students a chance to make predictions as to what they think will happen based upon what they have read thus far. Making predictions is one of the top indicators of an informed and engaged reader.
  • In all honesty, we haven’t gotten to the last square yet, and I don’t have a “retelling bookmark“, so this might remain untouched by my classes.  I can live with that.

The day after our read aloud, I put all of my students in all of my classes in pairs, and I gave each pair a laminated copy of the “Ways we can partner talk” card.  One student would read a page from our novel, and when he or she finished, each kid said something about what they just read using one of the prompts on the card, then the other student read and the process repeated itself again and again.  Just thinking back on these classes has me giddy! I couldn’t believe all of the incredibly rich and wonderful discussions going on around the classroom between all of the different pairs of students.  My euphoria during the moment when the reading and discussing was going on was quickly met with regret that I hadn’t discovered this tool earlier in the year.  There’s always next year, though, and I will definitely be implementing this card into my classes sometime around the first week of school.


Making evaluating arguments fun for middle schoolers

Pedagogical highlight of the week:

Last week, we worked on analyzing and evaluating the effectiveness of written arguments.  We discussed what makes an argument strong (facts and evidence), and what weakens an argument (unsupported opinions).  The kids underlined and annotated multiple written arguments, identifying important elements like the author’s claim, thesis, reasons and evidence.  Eventually, my students will begin crafting written arguments of their own, so it’s critical that they be exposed to exemplars so that they have models to draw from when they begin writing.

While highly important, examining written arguments may not be considered the most engaging classwork to the average 13-year-old.  I’m a realist. I know that my students are not jumping out of bed and rushing to school with the hopes that I will have an essay for them to annotate. Most of my students are really into their independent reading books, and they are enjoying our class novel as well.  Argumentative writing is taking time away from both of those activities, which means it has the potential to be met with some resistance.

In an effort to spice things up a bit, I felt like I had to get away from just identifying the key components of an argumentative essay and having the students answer questions about the essays they were reading.  I wanted them to produce something to show me that they understood the validity of the argument.

So I had them create an advertising campaign for an essay that they read about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving.  Here’s how I mapped it out:

  1. They read the essay on their own and underlined the author’s claim and any supporting evidence.
  2. In groups of three, students compared their findings and decided which evidence was the strongest.
  3. We reconvened as a class and discussed the claim of the essay and any relevant evidence or statistics that the author used to strengthen her position.
  4. I showed my students the following anti-smoking advertisements.  We first identified each ad’s claim and the facts that were included as well.  I also asked the kids to notice how the campaign had cleverly used images that were interwoven into the ad’s perspective and supporting evidence.


5. Students were challenged to create an advertisement against cell phone usage while driving, and they had to use information from the Hang Up and Drive essay to help them design their ad.

Here are a few of the more creative finished products:


Both of these students made the artful decision to put the text evidence inside the phone screen in their advertisement.  I told each student that I thought that their idea could easily be a real ad a magazine.

If time permits, I generally ask students what they think about lessons, especially when I try something new like this.  Overall, the feedback was pretty positive on this one. Most of the students enjoyed the opportunity to produce something other than a standard written response.  I really value the feedback that I get from these quick conversations, and I would definitely encourage teachers to solicit comments from students regarding instruction whenever possible.

This week, my classes will be co-constructing argumentative essays using evidence from an NPR article on school start times.  This will be the first time that I’ve constructed an essay with the entire class, and I’m very curious to see how it plays out.  I’ll have to report back next Sunday with a full analysis of the pros and cons of co-constructing an argumentative essay with 20-something 7th graders at the same time.  What could possibly go wrong, right?

Heart-warming moment of the week:

I have three boys in my 2nd period that have formed a quasi-book club that kind of organically arose from our independent reading time.  First, they all read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  Then they read Solo by Kwame Alexander.  When I took their class to the library this week, I overheard the three of them deciding upon the next book that they would read.  They wanted another book written in poetic form.  They also needed a title with three available copies in the library.  They settled on Nikki Grimes’s Planet Middle School, the coming-of-age story of self-proclaimed tomboy Joylin Johnson and her journey into adolescence and eventually her first crush.  I cannot wait to hear their in-class discussions on this book, and I LOVE that they are reading a book told from the perspective of a female protagonist, since so much of what they have been reading has been told from a male’s point of view.


Graphic novels as a gateway to literacy for struggling readers

My principal has fully-supported the choice reading time that I give my students at the beginning of class each day.  In fact, she’s supported it so much that’s she’s asked the 6th and 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) teachers to begin implementing a similar approach to their classrooms as well.  This week, an 8th grade ELA teacher found me at buses after school after her first day of trying this new strategy; in short, she was frustrated.  She relayed that only half the kids read, and she spent the majority of the 10 minutes fighting the other half to read something.  Apparently, if students weren’t interested in a book in her classroom library, they could read a NewsELA article.  Now, I’m a HUGE NewsELA fan.  I regularly use it in my classroom when I want to level the informational texts that we read.  But I’d never force it upon students during independent reading time. Maybe a few would be interested, but I’m guessing not many.

I then suggested that she could offer graphic novels to the reluctant readers.  She looked surprised and stated that she didn’t want her students reading graphic novels because they “weren’t real books”. Yes, she said this.  I briefly tried to explain to her that they could be a good option for a struggling reader, but she disagreed.  Although I wanted to continue this conversation with her, I had to run to get to a meeting that was a 20-minute drive away, so this blog post will have to suffice.

If I didn’t have the meeting, I would have argued vehemently that graphic novels are most certainly books, as much as any other books are books.  My room is filled with graphic novels like American Born Chinese, Awkward, Drama, Sisters, Smile, Persepolis, March, Cardboard, Roller Girl, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  These books examine a host of universal themes: friendship, family, acceptance, equity, determination and persistence.  They contain complex characters that develop and grow throughout the story.  They offer unique perspectives that encourage students to explore varying viewpoints that promote empathy, kindness and relationships.  Graphic novels expose students to story arcs: rising action, climax, conflicts, resolutions.

In addition, graphic novels give struggling readers the boost they need to begin to see themselves as readers.  I’ve had countless struggling readers complete a graphic novel in my class and beam as they tell me it’s the first time they’ve read a book from cover to cover.  That is HUGE. Reading feels far less daunting to a kid when they gain the confidence that comes from knowing they can read a book in its entirety.  I have an English Learner in one of my classes that seems determined to read all 26 volumes of the Dragon Ball Z box set, and I’m all for it.  Those books contain thousands of words.  Why wouldn’t I want him to devour them?

Teachers are always going to have a handful of students that enter their classrooms at the start of the year with an indifference to reading.  It may not be many kids, but inevitably, there will be a few.  I try to get a graphic novel into the hands of these students as soon as possible. Once they complete a graphic novel something inside them clicks.  It almost never fails. Then they read another graphic novel.  And then another.  Guess what eventually happens?  These same students start choosing chapter books that they never would have dreamed of attempting to read when we first met in August.  This happens EVERY SINGLE YEAR.  The graphic novels are a gateway to literacy for students who haven’t had a positive relationship with reading in the past.  They offer these kids an opportunity to realize that they are in fact capable of engaging with a book on a deeper level on their own.

I’m constantly adding to my classroom library. Like many teachers, I probably spend too much money on books. But also like many teachers, I will continue to buy more engaging texts that I think will captivate my students, and I will most certainly continue purchasing graphic novels.


Helping students master argumentative writing

On Friday I was in a professional development session, and the speaker asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves by saying our name, what book we are currently reading and a recent success from the classroom.  I shared that this quarter my students are working on argumentative writing, and I have been pleased with the progress that they are making in being able to explain their reasoning when using text evidence and details their responses.

By the time the students get to me in 7th grade, they are decent enough at finding relevant text evidence when I present them with a text-dependent question.  Where they struggle is being able to explain to the reader how their evidence relates to their ideas.  At the beginning of the year, most of the responses that I get from students on questions that require text evidence usually JUST include the quote from the book or article that we are reading; for the most part, they do not make an attempt to connect that evidence to their topic sentence or claim.

However, my students are now working through that step, and they are showing me in their writing that they understand why they are using the evidence or details that they have selected, and how that evidence supports their ideas and thought process.

I use an argumentative writing model called CSET that I learned in a professional development training at the beginning of the previous school year.  The (C) stands for the claim that that student is trying to make.  The set-up (S) shows the reader where the information is coming from, whether it’s a book, article, movie, etc.  Examples of set ups that I provide my students are:

  • “Article Title” says that…
  • <Author> said that…
  • <Author> reveals that…

The evidence (E) is just that, evidence that the student is using to support his or her claim in the topic sentence.  The last part, the tie-in (T), is the hardest piece for students to master.  This is the part of the paragraph where students have to show me that they understand how their evidence connects and supports their reason(s).  I usually give the kids the following sentence frames to use in their tie-in sentences:

  • Generally, when people…
  • Usually, when people…
  • If people…

I instruct them to use this sentence to show how their evidence supports their claim, and how this is true not just in this one instance, but across a broader societal spectrum.

The first time I teach the kids CSET, I use the following cartoon:


My students and I will co-construct a CSET that answers the following question: How does Slylock know that Shady Shrew is lying? 

I have done this activity with students several times now, so I cannot remember the exact CSET that my students and I put together this year, but it generally looks something like this:

(C) Shady Shrew is definitely lying.  (S) In the cartoon, (E) there is water on the table from a glass that got knocked over. (T) If someone had been gone for three weeks, then that water would have already evaporated; he couldn’t have been away on vacation that long because the water is still there.

Once the kids have the model above to reference, I have them create another CSET using a really short passage.  My students were not amazing CSET writers right off the bat.  They struggled with the tie-in piece because it forces them to think critically about why they are using the evidence that they are using.  But through repetition and practice, they are getting better and so is their writing.

As my students master this concept, I can push them to include multiple pieces of evidence in a paragraph.  Or, if I want them to produce a longer piece of writing – I just tell them to come up with several reasons and write multiple CSETs.

Argumentative writing can be tricky for our students, especially that critical portion where they have to connect the evidence they are using to their claims.  The CSET format gives students a model that helps them convey their thought process and reasoning in an academic fashion.

This week: The Hate U Give, changing mindsets and emojis

I know I’m late to the game, but I recently began The Hate U Give  by Angie Thomas.  My inspiration for beginning this book actually came from one of my students, Demetria, who is quite the avid reader.  Already this year, she’s read The Skin I’m In, Dear Martin, Long Way Down and All-American Boys.  I thought it would be fun to read some of Thomas’s book so that I could ask Demetria questions about it during our independent reading time.  I got hooked into the book early on though, and now we are sort of reading it together (she comes into homeroom each morning and opens my bookmark to see how far I’ve read).  It’s a healthy competition, and it’s giving us a lot to

Anyhow, at the start of the book, the main character, Starr, is in the car with her friend Khalil when they get pulled over by the police as Khalil is driving her home from a party.  The incident gets out of hand and the cop shoots Khalil three times in the back, and Starr watches her friend bleed to death on the street. The book centers around this act of violence, and the over-policing of African-Americans is one of the novel’s central themes.  Though the scene where Khalil is killed is only a few pages, it is full of sensory details that paint a vivid picture of this gruesome image.  So of course I had to read it aloud to all of my classes.

Anyone who has ever taught middle school knows that they are truly elementary school students in overgrown bodies.  In all four of my Language Arts classes, students protested, “Don’t stop! Keep reading!” when I got to the end of the excerpt.  Nearly 90% of my students are African-American and/or Latino, so many of them had experienced or knew family members and friends who had experienced negative interactions with law enforcement. Most of my students admitted to having “the talk” with a parent or grandparent previously about how they should speak to police officers if they are ever stopped and questioned. I confessed to my students that I had never had such a talk with my parents, and that just the week before I was pulled over for speeding and let off with just a warning, to which they hollered, “Because you’re white!”.

In addition to Demetria, three other students hustled to the library to check out this book.  It’s amazing how powerful our influence can be over students and what they read when we provide them with dramatic readings from engaging texts.  Book talks are such an easy yet effective way to hook students into a text. When I read the first chapter aloud from Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, I immediately had five students reading the book during our independent reading time.  The same thing happened when I read from How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon.

My heartwarming moments of the week

This week I had two separate interactions with students that made me feel overwhelmingly satisfied with my position in this world as a teacher.  The first occurred on Wednesday when Saul, a student who professed early on in the year to me how much he disliked school, stopped by my room in the morning on his way to homeroom to ask if he was going to get to read his book, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, at the beginning of class.  Recently, I shifted my classes’ independent reading schedule.  I used to reserve two to three days each week for the students to read from books of their own choosing in the work session, which would mean a 15 to 20 minute block of time.  However, that schedule was resulting in too many weeks where we only read independently for just two days, so I moved it to the first 10 minutes of every class, every day, and it’s been amazing.  I suppose some of the kids haven’t fully-grasped that this is how class is going to start each day since Saul seemed a bit unsure, but the fact that he is entering the building wanting to read something is an immeasurable leap from the beginning of the school year.

My other newly converted reader, Sanchez, read Long Way Down before the holiday break, and he sort of became obsessed with it, but in a good way.  He particularly enjoyed how the book was written in verse, so I tried giving him The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, but for whatever reason he wasn’t feeling it.  I offered him House Arrest by K.A. Holt, and he sunk his teeth into it.  He read it at the start of every class period this week, and on Friday he came up to me in homeroom to let me know that he read thirty-something pages at home the night before.  His confession stopped me in my tracks. This is a kid who repeatedly claimed to “hate reading” from the first day of school.  By the end of this upcoming week, he’ll have finished his second novel this year completely on his own. I’m not totally sure how these transformations occur, but they are marvelous to observe from where I’m standing.

Using emojis to make inferences and cite details

While I absolutely love reading through my students’ journal entries, I do occasionally feel guilty about having them write a journal response before we read, and then having them write responses to a reading prompt after we read.  Maybe I’m becoming a softy.  Anyhow, recently I’ve started having them draw emoji(s) at the end of class that represent their thoughts and downloadfeelings regarding something that they read, either from our class novel or their own books.  Then, they have to go around the room and explain their emoji(s) to at least two other students.  This activity has been a big hit so far because (A) it’s fun to draw emojis, (B) 7th graders love any opportunity to get out of their seats and talk with their peers, and (C) I think the kids appreciate the break from the writing.

This week in my classes: journal writing, role-playing and finishing books

Journal writing

Since returning to school in the new year, my classes have been doing more journal writing than we were doing during the first half of the year.  Both the books that my students are reading – The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake and After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick – pair up well with engaging writing prompts for 13-year-olds.  I’ve been reading through all of my kids’ journals the past few weekends, and though this task is time-consuming, I’m finding that I thoroughly enjoy reading their entries for the window it provides me with into their lives.  Their journal entries offer me conversation starters that I can use with students in the halls between classes, and they are helping me deepen my relationships with them.

Last week, the kids responded to the following prompt:

“Think about a difficult conversation that you’ve had in the past.  What was it about and how did you feel afterwards?”

I was shocked to learn how many of my students have lost parents and other loved ones. Some have seen parents and relatives go to jail. Others have been or still are facing bullying on a regular basis.

Several of the students that wrote that they had experienced some of those issues above can be a challenge in the classroom in regards to behavior, but at least now I might have an idea as to why that’s the case.  I have somewhere that I can start from in regards to helping those kids figure out how they fit into our classroom dynamic.

Hot spot activity

I stole another activity off Twitter that I tried this week that’s called “hot spot“. Here is how it worked: after reading aloud to the class from a novel for roughly 10 minutes, I stopped and chose a student to “become” one of the characters from our book.  That student had to get into the mindset of that character and view the world as only he or she would.  Then, other students could raise their hands to ask that person questions from what we have read so far. What an amazing way to examine character motivation!  The questions that the kids asked were brilliant, and nearly all of them pertained to some specific event from the text. It was a completely student-led discussion over our class novel; I just sat back and observed as my students peppered the student doing the role-playing with questions.  I would highly recommend this activity to anyone looking to spice up classroom book discussions.

Friday is for finishing books

Several more students finished books on Friday that they had been reading in my class for the past several weeks now.  Another girl completed Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds on Friday, and like every student that I teach that has read that book, she was upset by the lack of closure at the end and definitely thinks that Reynolds has to write a sequel.

A boy in one of my advanced classes just wrapped up The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.  This is the second book he’s read to completion on his own in my class this year (his first book was Bull by David Elliott).  This year is the first year that I’ve had an advanced Language Arts class, and I’ve definitely noticed that those students appreciate the time in class for independent reading as much as my other Language Arts classes. Unfortunately, I fear that some teachers assume that just because students are advanced that they are automatically devouring books at home in their free time, but that is not the case.  These kids enjoy video games and social media just as much as the next 13-year-old. They too need some structured time set aside in school each day where they can read for pleasure without any of the distractions that modern technology offers teens today.

Jason Reynolds interview with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show”

This clip should be required viewing for middle and high school English Language Arts students and teachers everywhere.