High Leverage Practices for Special Education: Collaborative Methods at Home

In part one, we discussed the four different categories of high leverage practices (HLP) and how educators utilize these practices to drive instruction and learning. Whether in a physical classroom or not, the goal of HLPs is to ensure that young learners are engaged, supported, and challenged. Now that we’re all in the throes of virtual learning, where much of our schooling is happening at home, it’s helpful for families to be able to adopt and modify various high leverage practices for their own use.

 

Collaboration is key, especially since much of the learning is currently happening outside of the classroom. Students are no longer experiencing a fully monitored, structured school day, which makes collaboration and open communication all that much more important.

 

  • Goal statement: Since the aim of collaborative HLPs is to ensure that all members of the child’s support system are on the same page, working towards the same goals, parents should use a goal statement as a starting point when reaching out to teachers. Whether in person, on the phone, or via email, parents should make a point to advocate for their child’s learning goals and reiterate them as needed to provide teachers with reminders about where they’d like their child’s learning to be headed.
  • Check-in: Yes, students receiving special education services already have formal documentation concerning learning goals, but it never hurts to remind the team of those goals along the way. Teachers can easily become overwhelmed throughout the quarter with IEPs, 504s, and numerous other learning plans for individual students. And while teachers are legally obligated to offer modifications and accommodations, the learning goals may receive less attention. This is why parents should make a point to check in regularly with their child’s teachers to ensure that everyone is aware of and working towards the child’s learning goals.
  • Reevaluation: These check-ins also allow for data updates, recent observations, and discussions about reevaluating or resetting goals if necessary. Be sure to ask for quantifiable updates, such as Lexile level, Map scores, attendance and participation, writing samples, etc.
  • Point person: To simplify the task of reaching out, especially with middle or high school students who have multiple teachers, parents can plan to send a weekly or biweekly email to their child’s counselor or special education case manager. This person will act as the point of contact and will be sure to disseminate all vital information to the teachers, while keeping you in the loop about all of the replies.
  • Student accountability: Bring your child into the collaborative effort by asking him to help track his own progress towards the goals set at the beginning of the year or quarter. It’s much more probable for a student to strive for success when he’s been part of the goal setting process. Involving your child in these discussions ensures that he’s taking ownership and feels invested in the effort he’s putting forth.
  • Positive reinforcementConsider small benchmarks or checkpoints along the way and make a point to acknowledge when goals are achieved. No matter your child’s age, kids benefit from positive reinforcement and thrive on recognition for a job well done.
  • Open communication: Another high leverage form of helpful collaboration is to connect your child’s teachers with any other “key player” on your child’s educational team. Teachers must have parental permission to correspond with pediatricians, therapists, psychologists, tutors, and even older siblings regarding a student. Therefore, if you want certain professionals to cooperate, you must first provide permission and then facilitate that correspondence. Remember, it takes a village, but you have to put all of the villagers in contact with one another, first.
  • Support groups: Another collaborative HLP that parents can modify for use at home is to facilitate a small virtual study group or neighborhood support group for certain ages, subjects, or classes. Reach out to neighbors about how their child is fairing with virtual learning. Ask if they are using any specific programs, tools, or methods that they find particularly helpful. During these times, many parents are finding that distance or virtual learning is all about trial and error. So why not collaborate with other parents in your neighborhood to help carry the load?

Zoom Differentiation and Accommodations

Virtual learning certainly has its challenges, especially when it comes to differentiating in the virtual classroom. For students with special education accommodations, teachers will need to get creative in order to account for every student’s unique needs and optimize learning opportunities. Thankfully, there are strategies and methods for providing special education accommodations in Zoom—we just need to think outside the box and modify what each accommodation looks like in the virtual realm.

Zoom Chat: Since we are no longer physically in the classroom, proximity, prompting, and cueing accommodations pose a bit of a challenge for instructors. Yet, nothing has changed in terms of the student’s needs. In fact, students who struggle to focus and/or stay on task may need the prompting and proximity accommodations even more now that they are sitting in front of a screen. Online learning does not allow for physical proximity; however, teachers can utilize the chat function to maximize student engagement and provide an alternative form of proximity, prompting, and cueing.

  • Reaching out: The Zoom chat can be used to individually reach out to specific students with prompting accommodations to spur participation and to rephrase a question when necessary.
  • Clarifying: The chat also allows teachers to check for understanding by providing a platform for asking clarifying questions, follow-up questions, etc.
  • Advocating: Teachers should remind students of their chatting capabilities so that students with accommodations can advocate for themselves and speak up when they need assistance.
  • Tracking: The chat also acts as a data tracker; teachers can modify their settings in Zoom so that chats are saved. This allows for teachers to review correspondence with students and share questions and check-ins with parents. Teachers can also use saved chats to track the number of times a student initiates a task, asks clarifying questions, responds to polls or exit responses, etc.
  • Reminding: Teachers can use the Zoom chat as a method for reminding students of their extended time or reduced workload accommodations as well. This allows teachers to discreetly remind a certain student that his due date is extended without drawing attention to the student’s accommodations in front of the whole class. **Just be certain that, when chatting with specific students about these accommodations, you have selected the student’s name from the dropdown so that the chat remains a private, 1:1 conversation.

Breakout Rooms: The grouping function in Zoom can also be beneficial when ensuring certain special education accommodations are offered. Teachers have the option to manually assign groups, which means that students with special education services can be grouped with a para educator or with other students who have the same accommodations.

  • Variance: Teachers should try to avoid always grouping special education students together, however, as to avoid drawing attention to certain small groups or stigmatizing students who need additional support.
  • Oversight: Teachers can randomly assign groups using the “automatic” option when creating breakout rooms. Then, while students work, the “host” can pop in and out of groups to act as a “check-in” for students with that accommodation.
  • Mobility: Teachers can also move the para educator from group to group during breakout room sessions so that every student receives supports throughout the collaborative activity.
  • Discretion: Breakout rooms also offer opportunities for differentiation. Teachers can modify assignments and link adapted materials in the chat to send to specific breakout rooms. From the chat link, students can click on the shared Google doc to access the modified material. This function can provide students with resources such as word banks, sentence starters, outlines, graphic organizers, glossaries, etc. The key is that each student who receives these accommodations will have access in a discreet manner and can choose to use the materials as needed.

Breakout Room Benefits for Teachers, Part II

In part one, we shared the many ways in which breakout rooms during a Zoom class session can be helpful. Logistically speaking, small groups allow for more intimate collaboration among students and provide a more manageable platform for discussion. Now we want to explore additional ideas that show how to use breakout rooms for various instructional benefits. Below are creative ways for educators to utilize breakout rooms in Zoom.

 

Accountability techniques: Feedback that I have already been receiving from several students involves the lack of full participation, even during small group activities in breakout rooms. As is typical in the brick and mortar classroom as well, some students feel as though they are carrying the entire team and shouldering the workload themselves. Here’s how to account for this issue in breakout rooms:

 

  • Create a Google document with directions, prompts, discussion questions, and anything else you would like students to collaborate on in groups.
  • Specify different text boxes or spaces on the document where different groups should respond. (Breakout rooms are numbered, so you can keep it simple by designating response spaces for group 1, group 2, group 3, etc.)
  • Share the link to the Google document in the Zoom chat prior to arranging breakout groups. **Make sure that participants with the link have editing access; this is manageable in your shared settings**
  • Ask students to open the document to ensure that everyone has access before opening breakout rooms.
  • Once in breakout rooms, students will need to discuss cooperatively, but respond individually on the Google doc. This allows teachers to track participants and identify if anyone has not contributed to their group’s notes on the Google document.

 

Listening practices: It is easy for us to zoom out (pun intended, sorry!) while participating in hours of Zoom classes every day. To spur engagement and meaningful conversations, teachers can use breakout rooms to set up 1:1 student interviews or chat sessions:

 

  • Review expectations and procedures for breakout room groups.
  • Introduce “accountable talk” stems of sentence starters for younger learners so that their conversations stay on track.
  • Assign interview questions on a shared Google document (as explained above) and ask students to “report back” with new information about his or her peer.
  • Remind students that they may paraphrase their partner’s information, so long as they are still accurately relaying what their partner said. This allows time for students to truly listen to one another.
  • This activity can be used for ice breakers or getting to know you activities, perspective taking, peer reviews, etc.

 

Reviewing class material: Another way to utilize breakout rooms is for important class review sessions or to debrief a whole group discussion or lesson:

 

  • Share a class Google document, as mentioned above, that includes key topics or important takeaways from the day or week’s lesson.
  • In breakout rooms, students should use the time to ask questions of the group about anything that they are confused about. This could include vocabulary/terms, questions about an assigned text, clarification on a certain topic, etc. The point is to use this time as an open forum to seek clarity and ask questions.
  • While discussing, prompt students to capture the questions and any possible answers/responses on the shared Google document.
  • The document will act as a free-flowing study guide, which students can access after class.
  • This document also allows teachers to address unclear concepts, lingering questions, and any material that they’d like to reteach before moving forward.

Breakout Room Benefits for Teachers Pt. I

This new normal that we are all trying our best to become acquainted with has us dodging curveballs left and right. Teachers are especially frazzled right now. Think about it—seasoned educators have been tasked with completely modifying every known skill set on a dime, with little to no training, all while under the community’s microscope. For a field that tends to attract Type A personalities, all of these hurdles have undoubtedly been overwhelming for professionals who pride themselves on being proactive and prepared.

 

While the move to full-time virtual learning involves a plethora of suggested technology for educators, the sheer amount of platforms and resources can be daunting. One saving grace I’ve found while “Zooming” through the first two weeks of the 2020-2021 school year is the breakout room function during Zoom classes. What is essentially an automatic “small groupinator” at the click of the mouse actually proves to be a life saver for many different reasons. Read on for strategies and methods for utilizing breakout rooms in Zoom.

 

  • Attendance Check: Taking attendance, a seemingly routine daily task, is not so simple anymore. Between the constant Zoom doorbell, the screen sharing, and switching back and forth between countless open tabs, attendance is often the last task a teacher is focused on during class. However, the use of breakout rooms during Zoom meetings makes attendance much more manageable. While groups are meeting, discussing, collaborating, etc., teachers are able to scroll through each group’s participants and check off for attendance on a physical roster. This has been such a time saver, especially since Zoom participants are alphabetized by first name, while our grade books are alphabetized by last name.
  • Student Discourse: Breakout rooms are also beneficial for spurring student discourse. My first week of virtual instruction was beyond painful due to the lack of participation. Virtual learning is awkward for many reasons—it’s new and unfamiliar, students are videotaped, technology glitches occur regularly, it involves a look inside everyone’s personal living spaces…the list goes on and on. However, once I put my students into breakout rooms for discussions, the small group aspect allowed students to share willingly without the pressure of 30+ people staring.
  • Time to Think: The small group aspect also allows students to have some wait time before speaking; they are able to process and gather thoughts without feeling rushed or pressured.
  • Collaboration: Virtual small groups also encourage collaborative efforts. Before entering breakout rooms, I review participant expectations and guidelines so that everyone is on the same page. Group members are responsible for contributing, listening, summarizing, and sharing. Group members are also presented with accountable talk sentence stems to help spur productive discussions.
  • Participation: Sometimes, students are tasked with summarizing their group’s discussion individually as an assignment for participation. This way, teachers can ensure that even the more quiet or reluctant students were able to get something out of their classmates’ discussion groups.
  • Random Grouping: The breakout room feature allows teachers to group randomly or strategically. This means that students have opportunities to work with different peers each time. It also means that teachers can thoughtfully group students based on academic or personal needs.
  • Special Needs: With a special educator or para educator on the Zoom call, teachers can purposefully pair students who might require extra guidance or support with an additional adult in the breakout group.

New Emergency Procedures in MCPS

A dismal update, but essential nonetheless, pertains to Montgomery County Public Schools’ new emergency response initiative. Teachers and students have been or are currently receiving training and information regarding the new procedures. Parents are also to be briefed on the updates at some point in the coming months. While these are trainings intended for “worst case scenarios,” we unfortunately live in a day and age where the “worst case” is becoming a woeful reality.

 

Original protocols

The original or former protocol for intruders and/or immediate threats to the school was to simply lockdown. A lockdown meant that, no matter the circumstances, location, or immediacy of the threat, teachers would uniformly follow lockdown procedures. This meant completing a brisk hall sweep to collect any students in the hallway, locking the classroom, pulling shades, and shutting off lights. The point of the lockdown was (and still is) to make it appear as though the classroom is vacant. There should be no noise, movement, or activity once the lockdown has been put into effect.

 

Alterations and considerations

Because of the fact that, depending on various circumstances, a lockdown may not be the best strategy for surviving an intruder or immediate threat, MCPS, as well as state and national law enforcement, saw a need for more specific measures to be put into place to protect students and staff against instances of school violence. As opposed to the original plan of locking down no matter what, the new acronym, ADD, offers staff more options to consider when facing a potential threat at school.

 

Avoid (A)

“Avoid” is the first option that students and staff should consider if circumstances allow for safe evacuation. Essentially, the goal is to avoid or flee the area if at all possible. For instance, if a shooting is taking place on one side of the building, teachers and students on the other side of the building, farther removed from immediate harm, should evacuate the building using the nearest exit. In this instance, teachers would instruct students to silently and swiftly flee the building.

 

  • Through the training, teachers have been instructed to call 911 en route or once they have reached a safe distance from the building; they should not call 911 from inside the building if planning to then evacuate, as getting students to safety is the first priority.
  • They are also supposed to take students to a location that is far enough away so that the building is no longer in direct sight.
  • If students get separated from their class or teacher during that evacuation, students should continue to run to a safe location in the neighborhood and call for help or ask a neighbor to call 911.
  • Parent/student reunification plans would be made once the situation has been resolved and there is no longer a threat to public safety.
  • Under no circumstances should students or staff return to the school building once they have evacuated. Only after safety is assured and the crime scene(s) has been processed will anyone be permitted to return to the building.

 

Deny (D)

“Deny” is the second option of the new procedures for active assailants. Essentially, deny is similar to the former lockdown procedure, except for the fact that makeshift barricades have been added as a suggestion when locking down.

 

  • Teachers will still do a quick hall sweep to bring in any students who may have been in the bathroom, health room, etc. Then teachers will lockdown, quickly securing the door and covering any windows.
  • Teachers, with the help of any capable students, should begin barricading the door using as much furniture as possible. Even doors that swing outward should be barricaded as much as possible. The point here is to put as many obstacles as possible between the assailant and the civilians in the classroom.
  • On average, police arrive on scene 3-4 minutes after the first 911 call has been placed. Therefore, mere seconds can make a substantial difference in the casualty count. With this knowledge, anything that impedes an entryway or slows the assailant buys vital time for students and staff.
  • Suggested barricade items include desks, chairs, bookcases, laptop carts, work benches, etc.
  • Once the door has been thoroughly barricaded, the lights should be turned off and the room should be silent, just like in the former lockdown guidelines.

 

Defend (D)

“Defend” is the final option—essentially the last-case scenario when dealing with an active shooter in the building. Defend is the back-up plan when avoidance or evacuation is not possible and the “deny” efforts have been compromised and the room is no longer secure. As scary as this sounds, it is critical that staff be prepared to defend if necessary.

 

  • Defense measures would come into play if the lockdown and barricade fails to keep the shooter out of the immediate area.
  • Teachers have been instructed to fight off or disarm the assailant by any means possible. SWAT trainings, provided to MCPS teachers, instruct teachers and/or capable and willing students, to aim for eyes/face, throat, and groin areas if attacking the assailant.
  • Using any item in the classroom as a weapon or shield is also suggested.

Accountable Talk for Behavior Modification

The somewhat recent educational philosophy of accountable talk is rooted in the idea that, through discussion, students practice accountability for their learning and their contributions to others’ learning through discourse. To simplify, the word accountable means, “required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.” Therefore, when students are using accountable talk in the classroom, they are maintaining responsibility for accurate, verifiable evidence, support, or reasoning, and are expanding their own thinking through rigor and collaboration.

 

Since this strategy is shown to boost engagement, communication skills, and cooperative learning, why not utilize the same philosophies to support behavioral modifications? The idea translates quite simply—if students are able to practice accountable talk regarding academic content, try applying those skills to discussions involving behavioral issues.

 

 

Accountable Talk
Standard/Expectation

For Instruction,
accountable talk requires that students:

For Behaviors,
accountable talk requires that students:

Listening

  • Practicing active/attentive listening
  • Be able to summarize what another student said
  • Be capable of building upon a peer’s thoughts by adding their own considerations
  • Turn and face the peer or adult who is speaking to them; this demonstrates respect and builds positive communication skills
  • Maintain eye contact; avoid straying, daydreaming, and eye-rolling
  • Nod when in agreement to show that they are engaged and/or are aware of the other speaker’s position and opinion

Knowledgeable

  • Be able to defend their position, opinion, stance, etc. with evidence or support
  • Make connections between prior knowledge, other content areas, or a peer’s comment to establish relevance
  • Be able to verify one’s point if challenged or questioned
  • Unpack their position with details and analysis of how they arrived at such a conclusion
  • Explain why they made the choice that they did; discuss their thought process for acting or speaking the way that they did in class
  • Be able to recap or summarize the events prior to the incident or observed behavior
  • Examine the cause and effect relationship between triggers and decisions or responses

Reflective

  • Have opportunities to consider another’s perspective
  • Be provided with wait-time, as to ensure that thoughts are processed and responses are worded precisely
  • Consider how they might approach the task, challenge, or problem differently if given another opportunity or different circumstances
  • Think carefully before speaking
  • Consider the other person’s feelings or reactions to the incident
  • Connect this experience to something they have encountered previously
  • Brainstorm and discuss how this problem, quarrel, or conflict could be ironed out in more productive ways next time
  • Take responsibility for their actions and consider solutions for moving forward or making amends

 

Again, the same principles and benefits that accompany accountable talk practices for critical thinking and rigor during instruction can prove to be just as beneficial for addressing behavior concerns. The more opportunities that students get to practice accountability, whether with regard to academic content, or their own behavioral impulses, the more responsible students will become. Through accountable talk, they must not only listen to others to develop communications skills, broaden their knowledge, and expand on the ability to reflect, but also they must gain a sense of ownership in what they say and how they say it.

Equitable Practices in the Classroom, Part II

In part one, we discussed the importance of addressing students using equitable methods. We also looked at ways to increase participation and ensure that all students feel capable of contributing in classroom discussions and group tasks. Equity is an essential piece, not only in how we teach, but also in what we use to teach.

 

Physical classroom set-up:

There are ways in which teachers can choose to organize, decorate, and structure the classroom to promote a more equitable learning environment. From simple aspects such as desk arrangements, to posters and texts selected for the classroom library, all of these decisions can either foster or stifle equity. When arranging desks, it is important that teachers consider the learning goals of the lesson or unit and the avenues with which students can arrive at these objectives. If discourse is an essential piece of the learning goal, desks should be arranged in a “U shape” or circled up to promote small group discussions, collaborative activities, and cooperative learning practices.

 

If drafting, peer review, or teacher feedback is a critical aspect of the objective, then desks should be set up in groups of twos, threes, or fours to create work spaces that allow for pair sharing and teacher conferences. Whatever the goal may be, the key is for teachers to feel free to structure the classroom as needed, even if this means moving seating arrangements regularly. The room should account for dynamic, free-flowing learning; it does not need to be the stereotypical static formation of rows of desks facing forward.

 

Familiar faces:

An equitable classroom is also one in which students feel welcomed by familiar faces and people with similar experiences. While teachers cannot always provide that face of familiarity themselves, they can ensure that the classroom is adorned with posters, student work, displays, bulletin boards, and texts that are racially and ethnically inclusive of all students.

 

Not only do students need to see themselves represented in their learning environment, but they also need to see stories of success and perseverance. When building a classroom library, teachers should be sure to include works of art, poetry, fiction, and biographical texts that demonstrate the strength of the human spirit through obstacles and hardships. When students are able to connect to texts, not only a cultural level, but through a common life experience, they become more engaged and motivated by the important themes of overcoming challenges. These essential messages help students connect to the classroom in a way that they might otherwise feel excluded.

 

Teachers can also build equity by including artifacts from the community in the classroom. If students participate in a club sport, consider hanging the team’s memorabilia or team statistics on a bulletin board. If community members primarily speak another language, consider displaying posters or motivational messages in that language around the room. Similarly, make mention of cultural holidays or other important days that represent students’ backgrounds, families, and religious or cultural roots.

 

When possible, incorporate generational influences that students can connect to during instruction. Music, television, current events, and other pop culture references can support student engagement and build equity concurrently.

 

Value multiple perspectives:

Where discourse is involved, students have the special opportunity to voice, hear, and try on multiple perspectives—a key practice for building critical thinking skills. Exposing the learning environment to new perspectives allows student to question previous assumptions, explore unfamiliar theories or viewpoints, and build an understanding for others’ belief systems.

Teachers can help to promote this level of broad thinking and consideration with purposeful modeling, questioning, and differentiation. For instance, when having a group discussion, teachers should prompt students to consider further viewpoints by purposeful phrasing such as:

 

  • “There are a variety of ways to look at this example.”
  • “There is not just one correct answer here, it is more open-ended depending on interpretation.”
  • “That’s an interesting interpretation. Did anyone else see it differently?”
  • “So-and-so solved the problem this way, but is there another way to solve it?”
  • “Can you think of another reason why the character may have responded this way?”
  • “How might someone else respond differently based on personal beliefs or circumstances?”
  • “One valid point does not negate another valid point.”

Equitable Practices in the Classroom, Part I

Equity is much more than an educational buzzword—it involves the conscious and subconscious decisions and methods that we teachers implement in the classroom every day. Equity is also closely linked to student engagement, performance, achievement, and academic expectations. Because of the serious implications of classrooms that lack culturally responsive teaching, equity has become a major focal point for professional development among educators. Equitable practices are so critical, in fact, that most districts incorporate equity standards in teachers’ evaluations and professional growth systems.

 

With such an emphasis on equity in education, it is important that teachers know how they can foster and promote equitable practices seamlessly into their instruction and classroom procedures. Many of these strategies fall under “best practices”—strategies that most teachers utilize intuitively every day. However, there are additional efforts that can be made to ensure that equity is at the forefront of our teaching and learning.

 

Addressing students:

Teachers should work to welcome and address students by name at the door upon entering class. This helps to build a positive classroom climate and ensures that students know they are each cared for and welcome.

 

Teachers should ask about correct pronunciation and if students have a preferred nickname. Often, students are shy about correcting a teacher’s pronunciation; however, it is important that teachers correctly identify and pronounce students by name to recognize their personal and cultural identities. Over time, when teachers continuously mispronounce a student’s name, it sends an unintentional message that the student’s name is arbitrary, difficult, or complicated. In essence, teachers may be inadvertently “othering” a student by neglecting to correct their pronunciation or drawing attention to the name’s unique qualities.

 

Teachers may also unknowingly address students by name only when they have done something wrong or are being reprimanded. While unintentional, this habit creates a negative rapport among teachers and students. Instead, teachers should consciously address all students by name when recognizing them for positive behaviors as well.

 

Student participation:

Best practices include random calling methods to ensure that all students get the opportunity to share in whole group and small group settings. Calling sticks help teachers to truly randomize student participation. This practice fosters equity in a few different ways: it holds all students accountable for learning, and it also establishes the belief that all opinions are valid and everyone’s perspectives matter. Calling sticks also encourage students to maintain focus and engagement because they never know when they will be asked to participate.

 

Calling sticks and other random calling methods should be used for more than just participation. Teachers can utilize calling methods to encourage students to come up to the board to lead a part of the lesson. Teachers can also use calling sticks to highlight a randomly selected student’s writing, art, poem, math strategy, etc. The key is to allow all students the opportunity to speak, demonstrate learning, ask questions, and receive praise.

 

Participation during group work or collaborative presentations can provide teachers with another opportunity to build equity among learners. Oftentimes, group work and presentations reward the talkative leaders and participatory over-achievers. Instead of allowing groups to determine who will share out or present, randomize the speaking role. Insist that the group member with the most recent birthday, shortest hair, longest bus ride, most siblings, or most colorful clothing share out. This provides the more quiet, reserved, or reticent group members with the low-risk opportunity to share the group’s work.

 

Proximity is another method to ensure equity when addressing students, particularly with student behavior. Teachers may subconsciously move toward students who are misbehaving or disrupting; however, it is just as important to use proximity when students are on task and exhibiting positive behavior. Physical proximity, whether addressing positive or negative behaviors, sends the same message to all students—“I see you; I recognize what you’re doing.” When students are “caught” doing something positive, use physical proximity to send that positive message. This subtle recognition helps to build classroom environment and an encouraging climate for students.

Parent Conferences

Parent conferences are extremely beneficial for students and their academic success. The constructive feedback and collaborative effort that parent conferences offer provide foundations for growth, no matter the student’s previous track record or measures of ability. Like many school districts, November is the month when Montgomery County Public Schools open their doors to parents and guardians for conferences. While any meeting of the minds is beneficial to students, there are methods to optimize the conference so that both parents and teachers walk away with feedback and strategies to best support the learner at home and at school.

For the parents:
➢ Come prepared with specific questions about your child’s academic progress. Questions like, “How is so-and-so doing?” is broad and somewhat generic, which will likely beget a broad response and leave the teacher with little direction with which to steer the conversation. Instead, review recent grades or classwork at home with your child and prepare to discuss specific areas of weakness on recent tasks. This allows the teacher to focus in on specific areas of need and strategies for growth.

➢ Consider asking questions that span beyond academic success. Ask about participation, where your students sit in the classroom, if they are socializing or pairing up during partner or group work, how frequently they ask questions or come in for extra help during lunch, if they arrive to class on time and with necessary materials? Beyond the academic picture, answers to these questions provide parents with an overall view of their child as a learner.

➢ Be ready to listen to constructive feedback about your child’s behavior. Often times, the child you see at home is a slightly (or sometimes vastly) different person from the student, athlete, peer or  persona that your child displays at school. Teachers are good at navigating precarious conversations about behavior, but they also aim to provide genuine feedback. Therefore, some information may be surprising or difficult to hear, but know that they will follow up their concerns with helpful strategies and new approaches to remedy any issues.

➢ Feel free to take notes. These meetings involve a lot of feedback from several different teachers, especially when your child is at the secondary level. It might be difficult to remember the key pointers from each teacher, particularly when your child’s abilities and behaviors vary from subject to subject. Therefore, a quick jot of each teacher’s talking points will ensure that you can refer back to these observations and suggestions when discussing with children at home.

For the teachers:
➢ Aside from current grade sheets, compile a few work samples with your feedback or comments included. Photo copy these samples so that parents have the option to take them home for further discussion with their child. If possible, provide a range of the student’s written responses or essays and include the rubric so that parents have an idea of what the task entailed and where their child may need help.

➢ Lead with positive comments so that the conversation is balanced. It is difficult for parents to hear criticism of their child; they may become overwhelmed or even defensive during a tough conversation. Talk about the student’s unique strengths first if you know that you will need to venture into a more critical conversation regarding his or her struggles.

➢ Prepare to offer strategies and resources that students can use outside of school to improve their areas of need. There are many online resources and apps that can help students with everything from spelling and typing to geometry and study skills—the problem is, parents often need guidance when finding age-appropriate and ability-specific resources that also align with the Common Core State Standards. A quick reference guide will help ease the stress of finding additional supports to use at home.

➢ Ask about the student’s interests, extracurricular activities, weekend obligations, and study habits. Answers to these questions can provide helpful insight into the student’s after-school schedule and ability to juggle social, academic, and home obligations. This also opens the door to discuss time management skills and how to ensure that academics remain a priority.

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.