Students Need Strategies, Not Just Graduation

try1When I first tell people that I am a resource teacher and teach a class called learning strategies, I sometimes get the famous comment, “Oh, is your class really a homework hour?” “Is your main focus to help the kids graduate? ” My responses are no to the first and partially to the second.

Our program does support students in their academic classes, but our first and foremost goal is to teach the strategies for success, not just support them to get a diploma.

We are doing a disservice to students, especially struggling learners, if our focus in high school is just to help them graduate. Sure, the content is very important, but if students don’t have strategies to implement to tackle new content, they will struggle immensely as the content requires higher orders of thinking beyond basic understanding.

I have had the privilege of working with many amazing students as a teacher. One particular student comes to mind as I think about what a huge impact strategies have on student success. Student A, was diagnosed with dyslexia as well as a learning disability in the areas of reading comprehension and math problem solving. But through the use of exposure to varying strategies, and finding which ones worked best for her, she moved out of resource English and Math classes as she progressed through high school.  She found she learned best through color coding, reviewing material over and over and staying extremely organized in order to be successful as well as integrating technology supports. This August, she began her second year of college and has made the dean’s list during her freshman year. Through hard work and determination, she has taken what she learned in high school and has applied it to her entire life. Had we only helped her muddle through strictly the content of high school material, she would have been at a huge disadvantage once she left our doors.

Life is about learning different strategies, finding which one(s) work best for you, and implementing them. Let’s make this year about preparing our students for the challenges they face beyond strictly content.


Filling Your Strategy Toolbox


Editors Note: This post is written by guest author Aubrey Trimble. The views expressed are her own. 

I have been very fortunate in my role as a Learning Consultant to see some awesome teaching and great classroom strategies that help reach our at-risk and special education students. I would like to share a few that I have found to be very successful in the general education classroom.

Summarizing Technique

In high school, we assume our students understand how to summarize a text, whether a fictional or non-fictional text. When I was teaching in the classroom I found a lot of the students understood what summarizing was, but not exactly how to do it; inevitably, the student would end up re-telling the story.

  • Have students read a text. Before the students read the text, ask the students to write down five to ten (depending on how long the text may be) words that are important to understanding the text.
  • Once all the students have finished, ask the student to write a summary that cannot be any longer than 4-5 sentences and must include all of the words they had previously identified as important.

This strategy allows the student to identify what is important while reading the text and stops the student from re-telling the story because they have to prioritize what are the most important ideas to include.

Teacher/Student Made Book Marks
This is a great strategy for teachers who perhaps are reading a novel that may have a lot of characters, changes in setting, etc. or for a science text that may have vocabulary that will be new to the students. The book mark allows for a “hint sheet” to the important pieces of the text so that the student has access to this information, readily and easily.

  • For a chapter book, create a book mark that outlines the important literary pieces of the text the students must understand in order to understand the book. The book mark can be filled previously before reading or the student can fill it in as they read.
  • For vocabulary purposes, create a book mark with the new vocabulary words on it where, again, they can be filled in previously or the student can fill it out as they go along.
  • For due dates in a chapter book, you can create a book mark with due dates for when chapters need to be read by.

This strategy is helpful because it is a tool all students can use and will have the important pieces of information the students may need to understand the concepts of the text or the text itself in a fun, easy to use book mark.

Test Corrections: What Does the Student Really Know?

This strategy is great because it addresses the information the student does not know so the student can address these issues before  moving forward without gaps in the understanding and potentially getting further behind.

Once the test has been corrected by the teacher, hand the test back out to the student. Have the students identify what questions they did wrong. You can:

  1. Create a t-chart and have the student look for patterns to the questions done incorrectly. For example, in math, are they missing a key step in each problem or on an English test, is the student only struggling with the vocabulary section of the assessment. The t-chart labels would be question type-mistake made.
  2. Have students write a reflection on what type of answers they did wrong and why. The student can also reflect on what steps did they take to prepare for the test and are they happy with the results.
  3. Have students make corrections and then write out why the correct answer is correct and why the answer they chose was incorrect.

This strategy allows you as the teacher to see the patterns of strengths and weaknesses within your students’ abilities and knowledge, as well as allow for the students to identify this. In this, students can begin addressing the areas they may need to strengthen when it comes to test taking, whether that is strengthen their content knowledge, slowing down when testing or using a better study method.

Students Create Test Questions

This is a great strategy because it will allow you to see if you and your students are on the same page when it comes to content coming up on a test. Even our brightest students can perform poorly on a test if they do not study the right material. Students who typically struggle in school, I feel, really struggle with test because they feel like every test has been created to “trick them” and they typically do not prepare for the test by studying sufficiently the days before.

  • Before a test, instead of giving the students a study guide, have the students create a test of their own. Challenge the students to think about what were the important concepts that were the focus throughout the unit and let that information fuel the questions they create.
  • Students have to create the same types of questions that will be found on the test. For example, if you are going to have some multiple choice questions with an essay question at the end, then the students must create the same.

This would be a great opportunity to discuss with students the different types of questions stems teachers use and how the student will see the same stem over and over again. After the students have created the questions, have the students share with the class and discuss what questions “sound” like questions that “may” be on the test and what questions they would not find.

This strategy allows students to put on their teacher “hats” and focus in on the important material that needs to be studied for a test. It also allows the students to see the process the teacher goes through to create a test, which takes some of the mystery out of the question, “What is going to be on the test tomorrow?”

Consider trying out a new strategy this coming year that you haven’t in the past.Have a great start to the school year!

Beginning of the Year: Blending Procedures, Icebreakers, and Fun

scavenger huntWe all know that explicitly teaching and re-teaching procedures at the start of the school year is considered “best practice.” We also know that building relationships with students is vital to a successful and enjoyable year, and a great way to do this is through get-to-know-you “icebreakers” at the beginning of the year. Lastly, we know that students learn by doing, movement, and teaching others (and have a lot more fun this way).

Why not combine the three?

Two years ago at the middle school level I did a “Procedures Scavenger Hunt” at the beginning of the year, and not only did my students learn my procedures quickly, they also loved it. Last year at the high school we spent a few days of procedure lists, which were, I’ll admit, less than thrilling for us and the kids. I am excited to bring back the scavenger hunt, get students moving, practicing talking to each other, investigating information on their own, and adding a little competition in there too!

Procedures Scavenger Hunt (or a more creative name you can come up with):

Type simple procedures in question/answer format onto a Word document. Leave the answers blank (the students will complete these during the game). I write the procedures in order from most important (#1) to less important, so that, even in my smaller classes, we are covering the most vital information when I give only one answer notecard to each student.

Next, gather notecards and write 1 answer on each.

Give one answer notecard to each student (if you have more students than procedures, it’s fun to add questions about yourself, the school, etc.). Pass out one procedures Word doc to each student with a clipboard. Give the students a set amount of time (5 minutes) to walk around the room and talk to as many students as possible to exchange answers. If they want to guess for some answers they did not get to talk to the corresponding student about, that’s okay! The goal is to try to answer as many correct questions before time runs out. When the time is up, show the correct answers one by one and have students “grade themselves” or each other, and write down any answers they missed. The student with the most correct answers wins!

Challenge variation: Do not number the answer note cards- students guess which question the answer fits with.

More structured variation: Have students walk around the room until you say “Stop!” Then they find a student to pair with and exchange answers. After 30 seconds of talking about answers, they walk around the room again until you tell them to stop and partner up. This could be fun with music, too!

*Note: Be prepared for students potentially giving each other more than just their own note card answer when they meet to exchange answers. For high school students, I see it difficult and also unnecessary to try to prevent this, but instead important to encourage the students to try to exchange as many answers as possible in the 30-second talking period.

Even more structured variation: Form two large circles with equal numbers of students in each. They stand and exchange answers with the person across from them until you say, “Rotate.” Then the inner circle rotates (this method would not work as a competition).

Independent/Exploring the room variation: Tape the answer note cards on walls, desks, etc. all around the room. Give students a set amount of time, and they explore the room to find as many answers as possible in that time frame.

Don’t forget to model and re-teach procedures often, and provide rationale (sometimes I even like to role-play, which the kids think is hilarious!). I believe catching any student not following them the first few days of school will really help to prevent problems the rest of the school year.

The Power of Silence

listen-upAs we’ve talked about before, building relationships is a very important part of every classroom’s culture. In building relationships, communication is very important. Teachers should seek to understand, before seeking to be understood.

Editors Note: This post is written by guest author Aubrey Trimble. The views expressed are her own.

I learned recently about the  power of silence within a conversation. I know that may sound a bit like an oxymoron; “The power of silence within a conversation,” but after working with at-risk students and students with special needs now for almost ten years,  I have learned to be comfortable with silence and allow the students more wait time to respond when we are having crucial conversations.

This was a hard lesson for me to learn due to the fact that I am chatty by nature. When I would have students come into my office to discuss issues they were having I found that I was processing/talking through the problem by myself and not involving the student within that important life lesson of talking through a problem, coming up with solutions and reflecting upon the result.

Like most of the important lessons I have learned throughout my teaching career, a student helped me find the power in silence. A freshman student, we will call Joe, was beginning to fail many of his academic classes and was transferred into the Academic Center for second semester. I had had his older brother the previous year and was familiar with the family background.  Joe came to the Academic Center angry to be in there, feeling as though he did not need any academic support, which in all truth, he did not. Joe was a bright student who was, unknowingly at the time, trying to go through the process of grieving his father who had passed suddenly the year before.   When Joe came into the AC I tried all my usual tricks of the trade; I asked about his family, classes, and talked about the importance of school. Throughout this whole process, Joe was stone cold, quiet and angry. He was scheduled into the Academic Center for his third hour period and most days ended up in my office for trying to sleep, talking back, etc. Every day he would come into my office I would talk at him, instilling upon him what I felt was important in terms of respecting his teachers, reaching his potential, etc. etc. etc. and Joe never spoke.

I went home every night thinking about Joe because I was at a loss of what to do and uncomfortable with the silence between us. So then I decided to try a new approach: be comfortable with the silence and allow Joe to have the control about where the conversation would go. The next day, Joe ended up in my office and instead of reading him the riot act I asked, “Do you need any help with your work?” and left it at that. The first day, no response. The second and the third, no response. Until one day he really opened up about the fact that he did really struggle with math and that he was not applying himself anywhere else because he is just angry and grieving; he actually felt guilty that he may be the reason for his dad’s untimely death. My usual conversations with students stayed, for me , in the “safe zone” of school work, behavior expectations, homework and the like, but Joe took me out of my comfort zone to talk about the root of his academic issues, which were not academic at all. He became a regular visitor in my office and eventually became quiet the chatty kiddo. When he was ready, we involved his guidance counselor to help him begin his journey through the grieving process and talking through some of the guilt he was feeling.

Most teachers, by nature, like to talk. Most teachers, by nature, want to feel in control of their students and classrooms. Most teachers, by nature, want what is best for their students. I found that, at times, what is best for my students is to allow myself to let go and have faith in where the conversation and student may take me.

How Important is Relationship Building in the Classroom?

relationship2Think about the people in your life you are closest to. If they asked you to do something for them, even something absurd, would you do it? Why?

How about someone you know but you do not particularly like or who does not seem to care much for you. If he/she asked you for a favor, would you do it? Would you want to?

I believe the same rule applies in the classroom. There are many students who have been brought up to respect authority and follow directions simply because a teacher tells them to, and we are very thankful for these students. These sweet, well-behaved kids deserve all of the love and attention we can give them. However, there are also those few who seem to want to do the opposite of what we ask and may not always be interested in our consequences. This is where relationships come in.

I still remember my education professor at Hope College imparting her wisdom: “Some kids won’t do anything for you… until you build a relationship. Then they’ll do ANYTHING for you!” I have taught in elementary, middle, and high schools, and I believe these words to be true at every level.

Check out the words of one of our most struggling and sometimes verbally inappropriate high school students about a teacher who has taken time and energy to build a relationship with him:

“She makes sure I have my work done or at least am attempting at it. If it was another teacher trying to nag at me about doing something, I would of simply told them off. For some people, it’s really hard to get someone to do something. At least for me, I’m probably the most stubborn and hard-headed in the class so that’s pretty impressive. I’ve been kicked out and suspended from the class before (more than once) but she still was there to help. I’ve improved myself I think because of her. She also happened to be there when I was struggling in life. She asks about why I wasn’t at school and how to help. I’ve also more understood that not all people are bad or wish the worst on you to do bad. Most teachers couldn’t care less about you… she could of chose to be like that, but she didn’t. I appreciate that the most. For her to take extra time from her job and put it elsewhere is a great thing. She could hate me and just say I’ll become the next dropout or screw up my own life but does she? No. If more teachers were as helpful as her, some kids would be able to look forward to going to school.”

Building relationships does not:

  • mean you do not give consequences
  • happen overnight
  • involve being on a “friend level” with students, or that they don’t respect you as authority
  • ever become wasted time

Some specific tips I’ve developed over the years:

  • I try to keep this thought in mind: The 55 minutes in your classroom might be the most attention that student receives all day.
  • Kids like to know we’re human beings. Telling stories or even apologizing for something we did wrong helps build a relationship with them.
  • All students, but especially older or “at risk” students, will want a rationale about why they need to do an assigned task. The more we can honestly explain the necessity of a direction we’ve given, the more the relationship is built and the happier the student will be to complete it.
  • If you’re about ready to give up on a student, realize that probably every other teacher (and maybe even the student’s family) is too. That’s exactly when they need you in their corner the most: not letting them get away with anything, but also not disregarding them as “not worth the time.”
  • Some kids enjoy compliments, but to build relationships with those who don’t, I simply make observations. “Oh wow, you got a haircut!” “You really know these quadratic equations.” “Looks like you got new shoes!” These things still show them you’re noticing them.

In the wise words of my mother in law, “Everyone’s carrying their own cross.” When I’m burdened and stressed, I become less pleasant. What I need in that time is not only for someone to reprimand my behavior but more importantly for them to care about me, listen to me, and ask me if I’m okay. (See next tip)

  • Certain students are best disciplined in private. I have learned to switch my conversation from “Stop acting this way!” to “Are you okay?” Once I listen to the student about anything going on in his or her life that may be affecting their behavior, then we can handle consequences.

By building a relationship with your students, they will love you, be happy about coming to your class, and work for you, even when they don’t feel like it, because they know how much you care!

Some kids won’t do anything for you. Until you build a relationship; Then they’ll do ANYTHING for you.

Review, Don’t Cram!

cram We will be having a test over the Cell Cycle on Monday. Here is your study guide. Make sure to study!

The words, “We will have a test” and “Make sure to study!” can bring anxiety to even the most academically strong student. But for the struggling learner, they can be so overwhelming that the first response is just not to study. Or the student will study to the best of their knowledge and still be unsuccessful. Testing will most likely never end, but how we prepare students for classroom testing can. And how and when students start preparing needs to be well before the night before the test.

After our daily lesson, students are given time to ask questions on their homework, have a concept reviewed or preview an upcoming topic from one of their classes.To avoid the ever common slogan in previous years of, “I have no homework,” we implemented this past year #teamAC review activities.

These activities allow students to take information they have learned from one if their classes and review the material in various ways to help learn and retain what they have been taught. The activities are designed around lessons we have covered in class such as how to make flashcards or,  acronyms, creating  practice problems for themselves, using chapter reviews, rhyming and many more.  When students come to class and don’t have any homework questions, they take out their review sheets and pick an activity. For an incentive, each review part is assigned a point value. Once students reach 50 points, they can chose a reward such as a free iPod time or a treat as well as we provide them with a review activity certificate.
These straightforward review lessons have given students more ways to work with information. And the great part is they experience many different ways to manipulate the material, allowing them to learn for themselves how they best study. And all of the review Activities can be done at home too. Once students become stronger with the material, we move them to studying together with a partner as well as small group review sessions.

Consider the next time you tell your students, “Don’t forget to study!” that many students might not even know how to do that. Instead, consider ways to  integrate review tasks into your class to teach these skills.

Can Your Hear Me Now?

CommunicationOne  important skill we can teach students is how to communicate with others . In talking with general education teachers, one of their biggest concerns for students, especially students with special needs, is the importance of  them learning to communicate and connect in the classroom . Once students get to high school, the expectation becomes stronger for students to use communication to help them succeed. As a result, communication skills are a curriculum target area with the students in our Academic Center.

Teacher Connect  Students need to know how to get in touch with  their teachers outside of the classroom. To begin with, we have students learn how to connect with their teachers. Does the teacher use a website? Do they use Moodle? Do they have set times to help students before or after school? What is their grading policy? Students review theses areas for all of their classes.

Communication with Teachers Throughout the semester, we work with students that may be having issues with a specific class. Some ways in which we help students with the communication process is by accompanying the student when they meet with a teacher. Often being there as a support person, can do wonders for student’s confidence. The student does most of the talking and we only speak up if the student needs the support. The progresses to future student/teacher meetings where we are no longer needed to accompany the student. If students need to contact teachers, we have them send an email to the teacher explaining their concern. Often teachers are able to clarify any questions with the student via email. While we work for students to speak with their teachers in person with concerns, we like the email contact for students who may otherwise forget to speak with their teachers, or who may have initial anxiety about face to face contact.

Communicating with Parents  Every Monday in our classroom, students check grades for their core classes. They identify any missing assignments they may have as well as what their current grades. Students, not the teachers, call their parents if they have any Ds or Es in their classes. For the first calls, we review what type of information they need to provide their parents about their grades, and why they are calling home. They also state what their plan is to improve their grades. If needed, students can fill out a flowchart script to assist them with this conversation. For some students who struggle with communication and/or remembering information, this is vital. As students become more fluent in the calls, they move away from the script.Team-Building-real-estate-agents-qualities

Communicating with Other Students As a blended program, our students come from a variety of learning and personal experiences. Some our students share many classes together. As a result, we integrate many team building activities into our classroom routines. From the Marshmallow Challenge to the Paper Tower Challenge to silent team building activities, we work with our students to learn to use a variety of communication skills to work successfully with others.

Communication is a skill that will be a driving force behind the success of students, and deserves  a place in every classroom. What do you do to integrate teaching communication skills into your classroom?