Back To School Tips

Without fail, the summer always seems to end the same way—abruptly. While families have been soaking up the sun with days filled with themed camps, pool time, beach vacations and fireflies, classrooms have been prepped for a new surge of activity. For most of us, the backpacks are buried in the closet and homework has long been forgotten. However, all of that is about to change. Signs that school is just around the corner are everywhere—the stores are stocked with school clothes, while ads are displaying the hottest new school supplies. One thing is for sure, it’s time to get in gear for the school year ahead.

  • Set a schedule. Start a school schedule at least a week prior to school. Include bedtime, morning wake-up and routine, and lunch preparation.
  • Gauge feelings. Talk to your children about their feelings and concerns.  Ask questions that prompt conversation and help them feel in control. What subjects interest them most? What friends are they excited to see? What new challenges await them?
  • Aim high. Talk to your children about the expectations for the different parts of their day. Consider creating a visual “to do” list that includes a morning routine, homework, and other responsibilities. Encourage students to check off listed items prior to leisure or screen time.
  • Drive by. Drive or walk by the school, take a tour of the classrooms, visit the website, and visualize the school day from start to finish. What will the bus ride be like? What will lunchtime entail? Where are the gym, art room, music room and restrooms?
  • Phone a friend. Reconnect with friends from last year. Schedule a play date or meet for ice cream. If your child is shy or new to the school, this is a great way to have a friend waiting on the first day of school.
  • Give control. Students often have mixed feelings about going back to school. Shop for supplies early and allow them to make selections. This decreases their anxiety, limits pressure on you, and avoids the last-minute crowds.
  • Strike a pose. Take your child shopping at his or her favorite store to pick out new school clothes. Your child’s style may not be your style, but here’s a chance to encourage positive self-image and expression.
  • Ease into it. Don’t suddenly stop summer fun, but slowly infuse learning opportunities. Take a trip to a museum, paint pottery, or visit the library.
  • Be available. As your child eases into a new school routine, regularly make time to listen to your child’s first impressions, new discoveries and fresh challenges. Be proactive in helping your child adjust and advance, and you will stay informed as new challenges arise.
  • Be an advocate. Before school starts, schedule a meeting with the school nurse, teacher, or guidance counselor to discuss significant changes, learning concerns, or summer progress. Remember to initiate a follow-up chat once school gets underway to ensure any issues were addressed.

Encouraging Student Effort in the Home Stretch

May is the time of the school year when many students and teachers begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, making it a difficult month to focus and persevere. Even as the adult in the classroom, I notice the excitability in the air when the school year has begun to wind down to mere weeks. The difficulty then becomes maintaining the attention of children and teens when, truth be told, they are likely daydreaming about their soon-to-be-realized freedom. Below are tips for holding students’ interest at the end of the school yearand quelling the impatience that comes with it.

  • Fake it until you make it in order to sustain engagement. Yes, this is the opposite of what the body and mind is telling us. Towards the end of the year, students are not the only ones dreaming of long summer days and sleeping in. As the adults in the room, it is our responsibility to set the tone of the classroom, even when all attention is elsewhere. Students, no matter the age group, feed off of the energy that you bring into your lessons. When we lack motivation or energy, students undoubtedly pick up on that lethargy. When this happens, all bets are off for maintaining a focused and engaged classroom. So, even when you are fried—which you certainly will be—remember the mantra above: fake enthusiasm and let the energetic tone be contagious. 
  • Talk to your classes about the importance of follow-through and self-sufficiency. Remind students of all of the hard work that they have done over the course of the school year. Stress the importance of finishing strong and working diligently through the last assignment of the year. Now is not the time to let distractions interfere with the momentum that has been built since day one in the fall. Instead, encourage students to finish the last leg of the race that is the school year as if each assignment decides their final grade. 
  • Keep creative with lessons and assignments. Obvious? Yes, but necessary nonetheless. Try not to let the allure of summer sunshine blind you—plan engaging lessons that allow students to explore, create, or choose from different options in terms of assignments. Avoid the go-to “busy work” plan that leaves students will dull or redundant worksheets. 
  • Think outside of the classroom. When possible, plan activities or lessons that could take place outside. Keep the activities structured and organized, as to maintain control of the learning. Rotation stations allow for collaboration while ensuring that groups are small and productive at the same time. Feel free to have small blocks for silent reading outside. This practice helps students to see reading as a leisure activity, as opposed to simply a completion box to check. 
  • Consider holding catch-up or work periods to ensure that students are thoroughly completing assignments even as they weeks are winding down. Provide students with additional copies of tasks that they may have misplaced, make-up work from absences, reassessments, etc. For students that are all caught up, have options for them to partake in.

How to Perform a Close Reading: Middle School

Middle school is such a huge transition. From the larger school, the locker situation, and the new faces, to the noticeable increase in homework and advancement of skill sets, many students feel overwhelmed at first. In terms of critical thinking skills, middle school students are still on the beginning tier—they are building a foundation and finding strategies that work for them.  As we progress from reading comprehension and understanding texts to dissecting and analyzing the content (i.e. close reading), we must alter the strategies to explicitly teach students how to examine the finite details. This practice in critical thinking and analysis does not evolve in one fell swoop—it must be practiced.

With our transition-plagued, middle school readers, we want to be transparent about how we approach the subject of close reading. The goal is to gain a richer understanding of the text by questioning, dissecting, and relating to it. This practice should help to cultivate a love of reading in our novice readers—not stifle their interest with rote exercises. In order to accomplish this while still scratching the surface of building close reading skills, educators and parents can implement different strategies to subtly introduce the concept to their middle schoolers.

  • Use one of your favorite paintings or photographs to practice close reading strategies in a more subtle fashion. Cover the image with post-it notes. Then, while slowly revealing portions of the painting, ask your middle schooler to describe what they think is happening in the painting. The key here is that they closely “read” the scenario without having the full picture to reference. This is a subtle way to prompt a young reader to look at the context clues in the illustrations. Be ready with questions to take the discussion further, such as, “What emotion is this painting evoking?” Or, “Where do you think this scene takes place based on the background?” These questions motivate readers to look closely at the details and draw interpretations and inferences—the same practices involved in close reading written text.
  • Familiarize your adolescent with unknown words by helping him search for definitions. When reading any text, even an article, poem, or short story, there are bound to be some words that your child is less familiar with. Practice recognizing when this happens by asking if he or she knows what a certain word means. If she doesn’t, use a dictionary or web search to define the word together. This practice allows kids to not only recognize when they are unfamiliar with a word, but encourages them to seek clarification—a skill required for close reading. Enrich this practice by asking middle schoolers to find synonyms and antonyms for these newly-defined terms.
  • Introduce the concept of questioning the author’s creative choices by discussing the title of a new book. Again, the subtly of this practice is a great pre-reading strategy that helps middle schoolers make predictions. Ask why the author may have chosen this specific title? Are there any other titles that might fit the story? Ask students to make inferences about what might happen in the story based on the title. Be sure to ask her why she thinks that. After reading, refer back to initial assumptions or predictions and discuss new findings.
  • Encourage your middle schooler to ask questions while reading. These questions are likely the beginning of the close reading process. Explain that sometimes, questions may be left unanswered based on the story. Discuss how these unanswered questions allow readers to use their imaginations and draw their own conclusions.
  • Seek clues from uses of figurative language and other creative writing approaches. For example, ask why a certain poem contains repetition. Does it create a sense of urgency? Help to establish rhythm? Solidify the theme or central message? Look into an author’s background to identify influences or common themes. An understanding of the writer helps when investigating the text during close reading.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Middle Schoolers

With the prevalence of smartphones, middle schoolers have almost constant connectivity and sources of information. Today’s middle schoolers may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events; however, with the current state of affairs for national and global news, it is important that preteens are receiving accurate, appropriate information. As much as we want all kids to be properly informed, they must be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Much like the qualms with social media, middle schoolers are equally vulnerable when it comes to today’s current events. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with middle school-aged students.

Be cognizant of the inevitable biases present in news media. Middles school is right around the time that students begin to learn about performing sound research, obtaining evidence, and citing sources.  Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, adolescents need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is likely a newer concept for middle schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that middle school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Middle schoolers should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for middle schoolers.

Behavior Management

A few years in the classroom has taught me a lot in terms of managing behaviors. I can honestly say that behavior management can make or break a classroom environment. As amazing as your planning and delivery might be, without the proper management in place, an unruly classroom will derail any lesson. If you have hit a speedbump in your management style, which happens to even the most seasoned teachers, consider these pointers:

Be the adult.

When it seems that your buttons are being pushed from all angles, remember that these are children or adolescents with whom you are dealing. There is no negotiating unless you feel the need to open that door. When students push back, keep your head and say something like, “I’m sorry you are upset, but I gave you my answer. This conversation is over.” This lets them know that you are in charge and that no amount of effort on their behalf is going to change the decision you have made—because trust me, they will try to convince you otherwise. Once you have made your decision, close the door on negotiating, begging, guilt-tripping, etc. Be sure to stand your ground—the second that you go back on your word, you’ve lost. Explain that no amount of disrespect or anger is going to help their cause, regardless of how much they argue, question or try to manipulate you.

Remain calm.

Similarly to standing your ground, teachers must remember to try to remain calm and keep cool—even when the students are not doing the same. Easier said than done, I know. We teachers know all too well that emotionally engaging in an argument or tiff with a student is never beneficial. Again, you are the adult. The conversation ends when you end it; no need to fuel the fire. As much as we are inclined to be kind, supportive, and nurturing towards the young people in our classrooms, we must remember that we do not need to seek their approval. Every student will not always like you all the time, but building a respectful relationship is what matters most. When you start to feel bad or guilty about managing behaviors strictly and swiftly, remember that being their friend is not your prerogative.

Wield power with responsibility.

Frame every decision so that it is in the best interest of your students. Demonstrate fairness to the class by explaining that you are not making decisions just to assert control or power. They need to understand that teaching is a decision-making role that involves a great deal of responsibility. Teachers are responsible for the safety and education of every student—so any behaviors that disrupt that must be redirected for the good of the whole. Yes, students will have plenty of opportunities to make their own choices, but for now, they need guidance from the adults in the room. They may not show it, but they will eventually understand your sound reasoning.

Recognize trends and triggers.

Finally, gauge emotions and recognize triggers for your many students. After years in the classroom, teachers are masters at recognizing behavior patterns, trends, and triggers for different personalities and age groups. So, take mental note of when a student begins to exhibit frustration. Isolate the root of the emotional response and act on that—they may be whining about homework, but the frustration may stem from a lack of confidence, knowledge, or patience. Of course, every student is different. So it is important to manage behaviors accordingly. What works for one student may not work for another.

Homework Strategies for Easy and Effective Practice at Home

Now more than ever, students are experiencing astounding amounts of work outside of school. Instead of an hour of homework per night, many students and parents are now seeing an hour of work per content area each night. Depending on grade level, this may mean as much as 5+ hours of homework on any given school night. With so much time going to homework, it is important to make sure that work time at home is as stress-free as possible. So, how can parents help to alleviate homework woes? It is as easy as 1-2-3.

Praise effort. Much of the stress affiliated with homework revolves around the ideal of homework perfection. Yes, correctness is important, and students need to be ready to exhibit mastery when it comes to major projects and assessments. However, the everyday homework assignments that come home are likely for practice—not perfection. Instead of hours of struggling to arrive at the correct answer for every question on every assignment, encourage the honest effort put forth. The importance of homework is to provide opportunities to practice and seek clarity for new concepts or skills. Students should feel allowed to make blunders or experience difficulty when completing homework so that they are prepared to ask questions, analyze errors, and reflect on their practices when they arrive back in the classroom.

So, if you find your child in tears or stressed over the presumed need to arrive at the correct answer for every homework assignment, remind him that practice involves making mistakes. Errors not only help young learners to develop grit and determination, but they also allow students to begin to understand themselves as critical thinkers.

Speak with teachers about homework issues—and encourage your child to do the same. When homework, projects, and exams seem to be weighing down the dinner table, chances are the stress is weighing on your child as well. When this happens, reach out to your child’s teacher(s) about your concerns. Send a quick email or a note to school expressing how hard your child worked on the assignment, but that is was not possible to fully complete the work. Again, effort is the key—and teachers will understand that the student truly attempted the work. Homework is meant to be a scaffold or support, one which provides students with opportunities to practice skills. But, if the assignments are too lengthy, redundant, or complicated, students are likely to shut down or break down at home—neither of which is beneficial to academic success.  

Remove distractions—all of them. Parents must set the tone for effective homework time. Allow children to choose a comfortable, quiet area to settle in and complete assignments. Make sure that their workplace is well-lit and contains everything that they will need to work in terms of supplies and work space. Remove distractions such as iPads, cell phones, television, etc. Parents can set a good example by picking up a book and reading quietly while children complete homework.

Providing short breaks between assignments or lengthy projects will help as well. Energy and focus start to lag when working for long stints of time. Encourage your child to take a short 5-10 minute break every 45 minutes or so. Eating a little snack and grabbing a bottle of water while taking a brisk walk around the block will help to rejuvenate and refocus a child who has been working steadily.

Creating a checklist adds to the gratification of completing assignments at home. Much like the to-do lists that we all create, children can also benefit from the checklist in multiple ways. A checklist ensures that children know exactly what must be completed in a given block of time. It is a studious practice—one which helps to keep youngsters organized and promotes self-advocacy. Not only that, but creating a list of assignments is a simple method of boosting intrinsic motivation—crossing off tasks as they are completed is a great way to acknowledge the hard work.

Integrating Technology in the Classroom: Middle School

The use of technology is a pivotal factor in today’s classrooms. Students are expected to proficiently access, analyze, and create using digital tools, even at the middle school level. Information, apps, and tools are everywhere—it is truly unbelievable how much digital information is being presented to students in and out of the classroom. For digital instruction to be effective, however, it must be planned for and utilized with specific and deliberate purposes. Technology for technology’s sake is not beneficial to student learning. Instead, technology should be integrated as a means to engage, enrich, and extend learning objectives for students on a regular basis. So, how can this be accomplished in middle school?

By middle school, students have been introduced to plenty of educational digital forums. Middle school educators must continue to teach students how to be digitally responsible. Parents and teachers are well-aware of the fact that adolescents are connected to all things digital on a grand scale. The unavoidable truth that comes with digital technology use in classrooms is the fact that students become immediately immersed in a world with few boundaries. The impulsive and somewhat self-absorbed mindset that comes with the adolescent years also presents the issue of cyberbullying, which has become a simply newer and easier way to hurt peers. Luckily, schools have made it relatively easy for teachers to monitor what students send, copy, post, or type. In addition, technologies such as Lanschool allow teachers to monitor exactly what each student’s screen looks like, and close it out if need be. Teachers also have the option to screenshot a student’s screen in order to share a concerning incident with parents.

Managing Digital Footprints

Instructing students about their digital footprints is also important in middle school. Not only are students receiving information at rapid rates, but their own digital output is of major concern, as well. A digital footprint is composed of a person’s online actions and behavior. Middle school students must be taught that anything that we post on the web is permanent—digital footprints will never vanish. As many of us know, it is typical of adolescents to dismiss the concept of the far-off future. However, middle school is the opportune time to discuss the likelihood of severe consequences after leaving a negative digital footprint for someone else to stumble across, even years later.


Having successfully prepared middle schoolers with the knowledge of safety and security in the digital realm, teachers are then able to utilize technologies to enhance learning like never before. Free resources like, Padlet, Powtoons, and Adobe Spark allow students to research and create in a more interactive and creative way. Using Google classroom as the starting point for assignments and lessons incorporating technology, students are able to go out into the digital world and bring back information and material at an alarming rate. The idea of cooperative learning, student choice, technological creativity, and collaborative synthesis are all possible when using forums such as Google classroom to gather students’ ideas and creations.

Secrets of a Great Student: Part I

Being studious is not necessarily innate. Sure, there are some children that seem to take to academia more readily; however, there is no denying that children can improve their propensity for learning. In fact, an important notion of education is that learning is infinite—it is never “over” or “maxed out.” Since learning truly never ends, we can also presume that learners are always improving and growing. So, what exactly do great students do to achieve greatness in the academic realm?  

A great student is sure to prioritize. This is not always easy, especially nowadays when children are overscheduled like never before. Practices, rehearsals, tournamentsall of these activities are likely familiar to school-age children. Families today are packing as much activity as possible into any given weekday. And, as much as athletics, arts, music, and other extracurricular activities are an integral part of education, successful students know that academics must take a top spot on the list of priorities.   

Great students accept and embrace challenges. The wise saying “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor” certainly applies here. Students who not only accept challenges, but readily chase them, exhibit a few strong characteristics of great students. The pursuit of something difficult means that students are not afraid or intimidated by failure. They are likely confident in their abilities, but also, they know that failure is often a valuable learning experience. The notion that struggle makes you stronger is one that great students try to keep in the forefront when faced with difficulty.

With the grit and hardworking mentality of a great student also comes a positive outlook. Great students not only embrace challenges as mentioned above, they also keep a positive mindset during their endeavors. Remaining positive is quite possibly the most difficult practice for great students. It is natural to feel let down or discouraged when things do not go as planned. However, great students harness those feelings and use them as motivating factors for moving forward—they turn lemons into lemonade, so to speak.

Great students self-check. They are able to recognize their weaknesses and areas of need in order to succeed. Because they are so in-touch with themselves as learners, they know how to study, organize, draft, and execute school work efficiently and effectively. They recognize when they have been able to retain information, and, conversely, when they may have zoned out or missed the mark. Being in tune with how they learn best ensures that time and energy is never wasted when studying or working.

Great students advocate for themselves. This type of productive accountability is often difficult to achieve in elementary school. Students with shy or reserved personalities tend to struggle with this concept at first—speaking to adults can be intimidating for them. As uncomfortable as it may be at first, great students learn to speak up, ask questions, and seek help when necessary. When students take initiative, this type of go-getter attitude also builds self-confidence.

Handwriting Day: Classroom Accommodations for Students

Sloppy handwriting can be frustrating for students, parents, and teachers alike. Because some students’ writing is difficult to read, it may appear as though these students are lazy or careless. While teachers have undoubtedly encountered some “charismatic” writing styles in the classroom, it is likely that they have also met some students who truly struggle with a learning disability that greatly affects their ability to put words on paper—dysgraphia.  Dysgraphia is much more complex than just careless or sloppy writing. Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder or learning disability that affects a person’s written expression. It is characterized by difficulties with putting thoughts to paper in both an expressive sense and a physical sense. Children with dysgraphia may struggle with the thought process behind written spelling and sentence-writing or with the fine motor skills required to physically compose words on paper.

In every area of academics, students are going to need to write clearly, correctly, and somewhat quickly. However, a student who struggles with dysgraphia may find difficulty with one or all of these aspects of writing. Whether students must steadily copy notes in class, provide clearly written short answers, or compose accurate responses, it may not always be easy for students with dysgraphia to relay correct items onto paper. When this is a struggle, accommodations must be considered in order to ensure that students are able to access the curriculum and have a fair shot at success.

Below are helpful accommodations to help students who are diagnosed with dysgraphia. Consider, too, that a struggling student who has not been formally coded with this learning disability may still benefit from some of these best-teaching practices.

Teacher notes ensure that struggling students have accurate and clear notes. Depending on need, you can decide to provide an entire lecture’s notes, or modify it for fill-in-the-blank notes. Fill-in-the-blank helps to guarantee that students are not zoning out during instruction. Since they must follow along in order to fill in the appropriate notes, students are still motivated to listen and write certain important information down. Teacher notes provide students with essential information without the laborious and often stressful act of organizing and writing it all down themselves.

Outlines and graphic organizers—which most teachers use anyhow—prove to be lifesavers for students with dysgraphia who struggle to organize information. One processing difficulty that is often seen with dysgraphia is an inability to logically organize written work on a page. The thoughts are there, but writing them down becomes a roadblock. With outlines and organizers, students focus less organizing material themselves and more on the actual content.

A scribe is an accommodation seen with many students with IEPs or 504s; however, this can be used informally, as well. The learning expectation does not change at all—students must still answer correctly. However, instead of writing the answer or response, students respond orally for the teacher to record. Again, this accommodation removes the frustration of writing, but still ensures that the student has mastered the objective.

Providing student choice is another way to allow students with dysgraphia to circumvent written work. Giving students the option of the output or project they create not only increases student engagement, but it also ensures that students are given a fair shot at being successful. Instead of a written essay on a theme, for instance, students could create a visual representation. Students could also have the choice to give an oral presentation, prepare debate questions, or make a comic strip. Consider providing student choice for major projects or assignments to allow students with writing issues to shine in other ways.

Building a Strong Vocabulary: Secondary Level

Comprehensive studies estimate that there are likely three quarters of a million English words, and this is a conservative estimation. With seemingly limitless options to choose from when speaking, writing, or reading, vocabulary acquisition is a vital, albeit somewhat disregarded, aspect of academic development. Surprisingly, many schools greatly limit vocabulary instruction after a certain grade, some even forgoing it altogether. So, how exactly can we foster a rich vocabulary for teens as they work their way through the upper grades?

Use theater practices or role play to encourage alternate ways of communicating. The idea behind these types of activities involves the practical uses of vocabulary. One major benefit, if not the most important gain from having a vast vocabulary, is the fact that it allows us to be chameleons, so to speak. The more ways that we can express ourselves, the better. Vocabulary is a key component when speaking for different purposes, audiences, or scenarios. When employing certain vocabulary, you are making a conscious decision about how to appeal to the person or persons with whom you are speaking. A sign of intelligence, as well as a major benefit for college and career-ready students, is the ability to alter speech and vocabulary for various circumstances. The more you can practice “playing” certain roles, the better.

Studies suggest that direct instruction of vocabulary does little to build an understanding. Word games, however, are a fun and easy way to practice building vocabulary at any age. Scrabble, Boggle, and crossword puzzles will provide students with skills to build a robust vocabulary. Even using an activity such as Mad Libs can help teens practice vocabulary use in a “play-like” format. Utilizing word games is a great way to build motivation and comprehension without making it seem like instruction.

Incorporating synonyms is another valuable manner of building vocabulary. When your teen is expressing emotions, prompt him or her to use other words beyond “mad,” “sad,” and “happy.” Expressions, actions, emotions—the categories are limitless for introducing synonyms. The point here is to provide as much exposure as possible. Even when speaking around your teens, introduce advanced or unfamiliar words so that they can hear them being used in everyday speech. When doing this, be sure to provide adequate context so that the new terms are rooted in speech or language that they already know. Otherwise, the new terms will be literally lost in translation.

Reading is a very obvious, yet necessary aspect of building a strong vocabulary. When adolescents encounter new texts, they are bound to face new terms, as well. Reading is a natural way to use context clues for vocabulary acquisition. Not every word meaning is going to be handed to a reader—the text will make the reader work for it. Encourage your middle or high schooler to recognize and pause when a word is not decipherable through the context. After rereading, if the word is still unidentifiable, prompt him or her to look it up. Nowadays, technology literally puts resources in the palms of students’ hands. Two seconds is all it takes to add that new definition or understanding to a teen’s repertoire.