MAT Blog

5 More Ways to Build a Relationship-Driven Classroom

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Aug 20, 2013 1:36:00 PM

relationship-driven-classroomLast week, we talked about building relationship-driven classrooms and covered five simple ways for teachers to connect with their students. Because this topic is so important to us, we’ve decided to share five more of Allen Mendler’s tips with you.

5 More Ways to Build a Relationship-Driven Classroom

Send home birthday cards
Think about the last time you sifted through your mail and found a handwritten card in the pile of mortgage payments, cell-phone bills and pizza coupons. It felt pretty good, didn’t it? It was nice to know that a friend took the time not only to pick out a card that made him or her think of you, but also that s/he handwrote a message, sealed it, stamped it, and dropped it off at the post office instead of sending you a text message or “Facebooking” you.

Now imagine how your students will feel when they receive a handwritten birthday card from their favorite teacher.

Keep pictures of your family or friends posted in class
In seventh grade, one of my teachers had an entire bulletin board devoted to pictures of her friends and family. Whenever she went to a movie or a concert, she’d save the ticket stub and pin it to the board; over time, we got to know her friends’ names, what they did for a living, what their talents were, and what our teacher did over the weekend.

Every Monday morning we’d arrive to find that the bulletin board contained a new piece of ephemera. After a while, we developed a Monday morning ritual centered on the bulletin board: Our teacher would tell us about her weekend, grab pictures off the wall, pass them around, and ask us to tell her about our weekends.

Reach out to a student who rarely speaks up in class
In graduate school, I took a course on Romantic poetry. Out of the 15 students enrolled in the course, I was by far the quietest. I saved my opinions and “close readings” for the two-page responses we submitted each week. My second response essay was returned with a personal note from the professor that said, “I’ve been enjoying your responses; they offer a unique perspective and I think our class discussions would benefit from your opinions. I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but I’d like to encourage you to share these insights in the upcoming weeks.”

This simple gesture not only impacted my self-esteem, but inspired me to contribute.

Think aloud
Share how you work through ideas and conflicts aloud, especially when choices aren’t clear. This works with both academic and interpersonal conflict. Say, for example, that you hear students using inappropriate language, you might say,

“Whoa, when I hear words that sound disrespectful, there is a part of me that wants to argue and yell, and another equally strong part that wants to try to understand why it is that we sometimes forget where we are and what is appropriate. It’s upsetting to hear this kind of language, but I think it would be more productive to get back to the lesson.”

Engage Students in a How-Can-I-Help-You? Approach
We’ve mentioned this one before, but think it’s worth repeating: When your students aren’t focusing on what they are reading or when they submit careless work it is bothersome—but many of us are bothered for the wrong reasons. We’re bothered because we’ve taken it personally; we’re bothered because WE wouldn’t have done it that way.

When you engage your students in a how-can-I-help-you approach, your frustration manifests through care and respect. Next time your student disrupts class or fails to turn in assignments, catch the student on the way to lunch and say, “Hey, I’m worried about X. Am I seeing this correctly? I want to do everything I can to help you. Do you have any ideas?”



15 Ways to Kick Start the First Day of School

Tags: effective teacher, impact on students, improving academic performance, effective feedback, Relationship-Driven Classroom

5 simple ways to strengthen student engagement

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 25, 2013 3:07:00 PM

student engagementTeaching entails many things, but at its core, teaching is about relationships. Relationships breathe life into a curriculum that would otherwise be static; relationships also create a safe space for open discourse, they encourage exploration, confidence and respect. Most of us believe this and while we do our best to nurture strong relationships with students, we often feel them getting lost in the hum of daily activity and the increasing demands of our profession. Thanks to Diane Mierzwik’s book, Quick and Easy Ways to Connect With Students and Their Parents, we’ve got five simple ways you can strengthen your relationships with students.

5 simple ways to strengthen student engagement

Handing back papers
Returning papers is a perfunctory activity; it doesn’t require any preparation or expertise, so often we ask one of our students to hand back papers while we take attendance or make last-minute preparations. But there’s a good reason for teachers to reclaim ownership of this activity.

When teachers return papers, they have the opportunity to connect a student’s performance to that student. “But why not simply glance at my grade book?” you say. Sure, you can do that too, but we’ve found that handing back papers helps connect specific assignments and lessons with that particular student; this makes it easier to remember when our students are succeeding and struggling.  

Collecting assignments
Many of us collect work by having students “pass up” assignments from the back row to the front. This is efficient, but it is another lost opportunity to connect with students. Walking up and down the row to collect each assignment may take another minute or two, but the payoff can be huge.

When you collect homework, you know immediately who did not complete the assignment. Instead of literally getting lost in the shuffle, now you know exactly who you should speak to after class to find out why the assignment is missing.

Commenting on your students’ work
Imagine a track runner; every time she completes a lap and passes her coach, he simply shouts, “B minus!” That’s not very helpful, is it? Based on this “feedback,” the runner is able to ascertain that she could be performing better, but she still has no idea what she’s doing wrong. Now apply the analogy to your students.

Regardless of where we teach, most of us are expected to issue letter grades. Fine, but is there a way to supply your students with more information about their performance? Where could they improve? What did they do well? All it takes is a sentence or two to encourage, congratulate and instruct.

What do your students think about their work?
Teaching our students to self-assess is an important life skill. Too often our students look to us to give them the answers or tell them what is “wrong” with their work. Having students write self-reflections and attach them to their homework gives us the opportunity to see their work through their eyes; it also gives students the opportunity to think critically about their own work, what they did well, and where they could improve.

Informal, 5-minute conferences
Another effective way to connect with students is through informal conferences. The purpose of these conferences is simply to catch up and ask your students how they think things are going. We encourage students to openly share their thoughts. We usually ask them the following questions:

  • What activities do they enjoy?
  • What are their least favorite?
  • Where could they improve?
  • Where are they succeeding?
  • What are their goals for the upcoming month?
  • How might we better assist them in their goals?

While you can run conferences during class, we recommend having them before or after school, or turning them into an informal “lunch with a teacher” event.  


15 Ways to Kick Start the First Day of School

Tags: engaging students, classroom management, student engagement, effective feedback

Writing effective report card comments just got 16,000 times easier.

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 18, 2013 12:13:00 PM

report card commentsNo matter what grade level or subject we teach, most of us are expected to issue report cards two, three or four times a year. And no matter how many years we’ve been doing it, writing effective report card comments is never easy. To help you cut down on the hours you spend writing and reviewing your comments, stop by Report Card Comments.

Enter your student’s name, select his/her gender and begin selecting comments from three separate tabs: introduction, effort and final. Clicking on comments automatically relocates them to your quick report pad where you can customize them by adding (or subtracting) more information about your students’ progress.

To give you a feel for the language, we’ve listed a few comments below:

  • Pupil name is a reserved member of the group who displays a quiet interest in the subject

  • Pupil name always listens carefully and puts full effort into tasks

  • The progress Pupil name has shown this year has been hindered by attendance issues

  • Pupil name puts considerable effort into his work but doesn't plan out his tasks in sufficient detail.

While we do find this application helpful, you’ll still need to finesse the default comments. Take the last comment as an example: We know that the pupil “puts considerable effort into his work,” but we’ll need more information about what tasks he doesn’t plan out in detail and what steps he might take to accomplish this.

While a basic account is free for 24 hours, upgrading (for $1.25/month) gives you access to a larger comment bank which includes access to over 16,000 comments. 

If you’re looking for more information on how you can write more effective report cards, you might be interested in one of our recent blogs, 5 tips for writing clear and constructive report card comments or check out Susan Shafer’s book, Writing Effective Report Card Comments.


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Tags: engaging students, report card comments, apps for educators, apps for teachers, student engagement, effective feedback

5 tips for writing clear and constructive report card comments

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 13, 2013 6:00:00 AM

report card commentsIt goes without saying, but what we write in report cards and how we write it impacts our students and their parents. Thoughtful, well-written report card comments offer praise and constructive criticism; they are clear, concise and solution-oriented. Vague and poorly-written report comments, however, may confuse and discourage parents and students.

To help you write report card comments that inspire, instruct and promote growth, we’d like to share 5 simple tips from Pam Robbins’s and Harvey Alvy’s book, The Principal’s Companion.  

5 tips for writing clear and constructive report card comments

1. When you are describing a challenge or an area in which the student could improve, be specific and try to provide recommendations.

“Ned is not doing well in speech class” is vague and doesn’t offer any feedback.

On the other hand, “Ned’s speeches show potential: he is at ease in front of the class and always appears confident. However, his speeches need more organization. I’ve encouraged him to rehearse his speech by setting a timer and/or practicing in front of friends/family to help him organize and pace his presentation” is clear and offers suggestions for how Ned can improve.

2. Keep in mind that a report card is a permanent document; it’s also a keepsake and memory record: Parents often keep these in old shoe boxes and pull them out years later.

Considering this, report card comments should be meaningful. “Elise has a habit of forgetting to write her name on her homework” is probably not something that deserves to be a part of a student’s permanent record.

3. Be discreet and avoid insensitive comments: Praising a student is one thing, but avoid comparing him/her with peers. “Joey continues to excel in composition; in fact, he is the best writer in the class” will certainly make the student and his/her parents feel good, but this is not a competition. Avoid praising one student and undermining 15 others at the same time. 

4. Make sure the grade matches the comment: Praise next to “needs improvement” is confusing.

5. If you want to make a general point, use the “general comments” section on the back of the report card instead of the designated subject area section. Mentioning that “Jessica is a pleasure to have in class” or “Steven is often late to school” should not be the primary point under the math section of the report card. Summary comments about the student’s overall performance belong in the additional comments section.

We hope some of these tips help you in the forthcoming school year. If you are looking for more tips on how to write effective report card comments, we highly recommend Susan Shafer’s book, Writing Effective Report Card Comments.

Photo credit: Aburk018


15 Ways to Kick Start the First Day of School

Tags: engaging students, report card comments, student engagement, effective feedback

Are you providing effective feedback? Or are students ignoring you?

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Mar 21, 2013 3:31:00 PM

effective feedbackHow much time have you spent responding to student essays over the years? Probably more time than you’ve spent sleeping! Providing effective feedback is challenging and there are several reasons for this: First, there are always too many essays and not enough time; then there’s the frustration of laboring over your students’ work, returning them, and getting back a “revision” that is essentially the same paper. We look at the “revision” in disbelief; then we compare it to the first draft and find that, good heavens, most of our comments have been “ignored.”

Are you providing effective feedback? Or are students ignoring you?

It took us a while, but what we eventually figured out is that our students weren’t ignoring our comments. No, the problem had much more to do with us than we cared to admit. While we thought we were offering effective feedback, we were actually trying to do too many things at once and overwhelming our students.

We think Jim Hahn—whose article you can find in Carol Olson’s book, Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Processhas done a nice job of boiling down what are essentially three categories of feedback that most of us use when we respond to student work:

  • We provide comments related to content and organization
    These comments may ask students to develop paragraphs, provide more support or detail—or even relocate, omit or combine paragraphs
  • We make notes or marks addressing grammar, mechanics and spelling
    This is obvious enough: Commas, periods and all the rest...
  • We assign Final Marks
    Final Marks refer to the letter grade or point system we use to “grade” the paper

Indeed, each category has a time and a place. But when we address all three simultaneously, we are sending our students very confusing and contradictory messages.

Not only are we telling them to “develop paragraphs,” we are also telling them to “insert commas” into the same paragraph we want them to change. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it, especially considering that the same paragraph may not even exist in subsequent drafts? And when we assign a letter grade to the draft—a 94%, for example—aren’t we inadvertently telling our students, “Hey, nice job—now go ahead and ignore the comments I spent so much time making.”

Here’s Hahn’s two cents: The conventions of writing (grammar, spelling) must eventually be addressed—but addressing them too early in the writing process is counterintuitive. Why? Because students will commit themselves to “correct form” even when the passage has no place in the essay. Here’s Hahn’s hierarchy, his approach towards responding to student work:

Address content and organization first. This may take more than one draft. Once you and the student are satisfied with the development, flow, organization, etc., of the essay, move on to the grammar. THEN, when the work has gone as far as it can go—because we know that “art is never finished, only abandoned”—should we consider assigning it a letter grade. Not only will this make responding to essays quicker, it will also make it more effective.

If you are looking for a few more tips for providing effective feedback, check out one of our recent blogs, “Offering your students effective feedback: 5 essentials.” And while you're at it, download our free guide, Writing Reinvented!

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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills, writing a thesis statement, effective feedback

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