Keeping Parents Connected


Yesterday was Parent Visiting Day at my school. It was endearing to see the students excited to show their parents around the building, point out their projects on display, and introduce them to their teachers. What’s more, parents get a glimpse into the daily lives of their children as they go through their schedule. I’ll admit that it’s also gratifying when they hug me and say things like, “I don’t know how you do it. I’m exhausted!” or tell me that they had a lot of fun in my class. It would be wonderful if there were more opportunities for such positive interactions.

Because I began my career as a special education teacher, I was accustomed to having a great deal of communication with parents. My philosophy was that the parents and I were on the same team. When I transitioned to teaching English, I knew I wanted to keep the same level of interaction. I wanted to do more than merely keep parents informed. I wanted them to be engaged and to realize their important role in their child’s education beyond elementary school.

When children are young, it is simpler for parents to become a part of their child’s class, but this proves more difficult once students enter middle school. Children begin striving for independence and establishing their adolescent identity without the interference of their parents. Parents are caught off guard when their child suddenly begins pushing them away. Because middle schoolers are walking contradictions, they are pushing parents away with one hand, while wanting their other hand to be held. Therefore, I try to incorporate ways for my students to remain connected to their parents as they navigate adolescence.

The very first homework assignment I give every year is for parents (to the delight of my students). I send home a simple writing prompt: In a Million Words or Less, Tell Me About Your Child. Their responses are varied and valuable. I have had parents write poems, include childhood photos, or insert relevant song lyrics. Often, the parents tell me they were moved to share their assignment with their child, bringing both of them to tears. More often than not, I receive emails like this: “I really appreciate your interest in helping Jade and the other students. How wonderful to have such a caring educator.” I know my request is appreciated.

As the year goes on, I give many assignments where adult interaction is an essential component. Students conduct interviews about family traditions and stories. They write poems about their heritage and family traditions. I ask parents to take reading “selfies” to display in class. I encourage them to discuss the novel we are reading in class with their child (and many even end up reading the book). Pupils write persuasive letters to their parents. I often receive unsolicited feedback from these projects, and it is heartwarming. Last week, I received this email response about poems students wrote modeled on the “Where I’m From” poem by George Ella Lyon: “When I was at Parent Visiting Day, I saw [my child’s] poem on the wall, I was in a hurry so I took a picture and forgot to read it until today. It brought tears to my eyes. Every single word in it is related to something deep and special.”

Beyond family assignments, I email parents at the beginning of every new unit and invite them to participate by sharing their special skillset. In addition, I request parent feedback on each of the projects we do. One parent said, “What you have taught these students has gone far beyond the classroom and [my student] is a better person for having you in her life. I cannot thank you enough.” In this small way, parents are seamlessly integrated into their child’s class.

I know many teachers feel that parents are a necessary evil that comes with the territory of our chosen professions. At times, this can be true. However, I’ve found tremendous success by being as transparent and inclusive as possible. I open the door to the classroom and invite them in. In doing so, we become teammates instead of adversaries. After all, we are all on the same side—that of their child.

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Plagiarism: An Ounce of Prevention

ID-100213876My SmartBlog on Education article from 11.04.14

I do not enjoy being the plagiarism police with my middle school students. For me, detecting plagiarism and determining consequences take more energy than investing time into proactively planning assignments that don’t lend themselves to copying.

Here are some steps I take and recommend to try to prevent plagiarism before it begins. I won’t claim that these will make the assignment plagiarism proof, but they will certainly make it more difficult.


  1. Discuss the idea of plagiarism on a personal level. Have a conversation about how annoying it is when someone copies them on a superficial level such as hairstyle, clothing, catchphrases, etc. Then, take it to a deeper level and discuss how they would feel if someone stole the product of their hard labor. Perhaps even share some current plagiarism scandals in the news.
  2. Explicitly teach the skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. It is not enough to tell students to “put it in your own words” or “don’t copy” because many don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t have to be boring. For example, they enjoy when I challenge them to take a couple of paragraphs of text and summarize them in exactly 12 words.
  3. Incorporate some form of collaboration, discussion, and feedback into the project. Also, add the element of publicly sharing their work in on online format. These encourage students to produce original work due to the social pressure of their work being read by more than just the teacher.
  4. Add a personal reflection component—either within the assignment itself, or thinking back on the process of completing the work.
  5. Connect the assignment to something you have specifically done in class. Incorporate a news article they read, a video clip you showed, or a class discussion into the final product.
  6. Break the assignment into chunks and have required check-ins regularly. Some students copy because they waited until the last minute and are rushing.
  7. Conference with the student throughout the process. This will allow you to determine to what extent they are understanding their topic. For instance, you could ask them what surprised them most from their research thus far. In addition, some part of the assignment should be completed in class with teacher supervision.
  8. Designate one specific source they must use (ideally a current one).
  9. Add a piece that cannot be copied. For example, students could interview an expert or design an oral presentation.
  10. Most importantly, design assignments utilizing higher-order thinking skills and creativity. When students are required to explain, problem solve, evaluate, hypothesize, or compare, it is nearly impossible for them to find this kind of assignment online from which to borrow. To illustrate: rather than writing a biography of a president (a sure recipe for plagiarism), have them write a mock letter to the post office or the White House persuading the officials to designate a new stamp or holiday to be held in that president’s honor due to his many accomplishments.

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Tips to Ease Test Anxiety

ID-100104405My SmartBlog on Education article for 03.06.15

I distinctly remember one terrible part of my unremarkable years of playing softball. During practice, I could hit the ball far enough for at least a base hit. Then — the game. As soon as I was up to bat, I would freeze up and choke, barely hitting the ball to the pitcher. I would have been a surefire out if it weren’t for the fact that I was so short that I had a very narrow strike zone and got walked a lot. I now know that I suffered from performance anxiety, but at the time I was devastated until I finally convinced my father that I should quit playing. I can still recall the relief at never having to bat in a game again.
Now that I teach, I recognize the signs of performance anxiety in my middle-school students in one specific area — text anxiety. While it’s true that a certain amount of trepidation and doubt are normal before any high-stakes event, their anxiety borders on debilitating. They experience the same feelings I had while standing in the batter’s box: sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat, nervous fidgeting, light-headedness and a suddenly blank mind.
When students are anxious during tests, they are less likely to perform up to their academic potential. They often end up doing poorly, which starts a cycle of self-doubt and disappointment. Fortunately, there are many ways that classroom teachers can help ease text anxiety by addressing the needs of the whole child.
Optimizing the physical environment on test day will go a long way in helping students be able to focus on the task at hand.

  • This is not the day to try out a completely new seating arrangement or change out posters on the wall. The more that the classroom looks like the conditions in which the material was taught, the better.
  • Try to minimize distractions and keep the classroom as calm and quiet as possible. When a child is already anxious, they are more likely to be distracted by the slightest noise or movement.
  • Allow the students to spread out the seats, if possible, so that they may concentrate on what’s on their desk and not their neighbor’s.

Consider supplying some sort of fidget toy. Many soft, quiet “touchable” toys can be found at a dollar store or even homemade. Displacing some of that physical energy can help ease some psychological discomfort.

Because adolescents are social beings and greatly affected by the opinion of their peers, teachers need to make all efforts to protect their fragile sense of self.

  • Share their grades with them privately. Grades should never be a competition. Posting grades (even if you don’t use student names) is a destructive practice. Even if you don’t think they will figure out whose grade is whose, they will. And it can be hurtful.
  • It is not necessary to share the grade breakdown either for the same reasons as above. It does nothing but rub it in to the student who scored poorly.
  • One practice I have used in all my years of teaching that has made the most difference is to not allow any student to get up to hand in their tests when finished. Seeing their peers get up to turn in a paper early only increases their sense of urgency if they are already petrified of failing. Instead, I tell every student to turn their paper over at their desk and read silently (I teach English and they all have a choice reading book). When I’ve taught other subjects, I have put some sort of puzzle or activity on the back for them to do while others finish. This practice has received more thanks from students and parents than almost any other thing I do.

A few simple ideas can help lessen the cognitive load that is distracting them from the material they are trying to recall or formulate.

  • My school places a large calendar for each grade in the staff lounge. An electronic calendar works great too. All the teachers in that grade record tests, project due dates, and quizzes on it so that they can monitor the schedule for overload. This way, a student will never experience the nightmare of three tests in one day or the like.
  • As a regular practice, on non-test days, teachers can give students practical test-taking tips as well as sample questions so that they feel more comfortable with the format on test day.
  • Consider flexible time limits or breaking the test into parts so that students who are already anxious don’t feel rushed and tempted to guess.
  • A pet peeve of mine is teachers who put unfair or trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs” or test over material not covered in class. A test is supposed to assess their understanding of the material they learned, not some sort of magical thinking.
  • Most importantly, make all attempts to help kids deal with the intense, possibly debilitating, emotions causing their minds to go blank. Blowing the significance of the test out of proportion causes text anxiety for some. Very few classroom tests are do-or-die. At least they shouldn’t be. Helping the students gain some perspective about this one test’s place in the overall scheme allows them to regain some logical thinking.
  • Give as much notice as possible before the test. Even though not all of your students will need this courtesy, it is invaluable to those who do. Many students have incredibly busy lives outside of school and need to by hyper organized to succeed. Last-second notice is unfair.
  • Teach them a simple deep breathing or meditating technique and have all students begin each test with this practice.
  • Discuss test anxiety as a real entity and have students share strategies they have used on their own to help cope. They may have ideas you never thought of and it also helps normalize their emotions by realizing they are not alone.
  • It doesn’t hurt for you to be their cheerleader before the test. Let them know that you have confidence in them and that they have studied the material. They trust your guidance and a little confidence boost may be all some of them need.

I am sure many teachers have their own experiences with performance anxiety such as I had with softball. The difference is that this source of student anxiety is not an extracurricular activity — it is not going away. The reality is that we live in a data and test-driven society. Since the ultimate goal of testing is to measure student understanding of the material, reducing anxiety will result in a more reliable assessment. Furthermore, teachers will be doing a great service in helping students deal with this issue now before the tests become high-stakes. None of the techniques suggested above are overly complicated, but if they can alleviate even a little bit of test stress, it will be time well spent.

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I Am My Words

ID-10094137My SmartBlog on Education article for 12.04.14

As a child, any report to an adult of another child saying mean things to me was met with the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Those adults were so wrong. Words in the hands of the right person can be weapons of mass destruction.
As a teacher, I am acutely aware that my words have the power to uplift or destroy. An entire year of progress can be undone in an instant. This was reinforced for me recently when I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I saw many of my students’ favorite authors speak and a common thread emerged. In their early school careers, many of these authors were in the classroom of a teacher whose words and actions left them deflated and hopeless. They began to believe that they had no worth as a student, or more importantly, as a person.
So what changed the trajectory of failure for these authors and prevented these damaging words from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? One teacher. Each of them could point to the one teacher who saw them as a person with individual gifts and talents and did not penalize them for not fitting a preconceived mold. That one teacher got the message across that they were worthy and this gave them the will to become their authentic selves.

These authors put into words what I wanted as a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom — a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated and cherished. They need to know that they have value solely for who they are.
My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I am extremely careful with my words and actions and I am quick to apologize and try to make it right if I ever do realize that I have hurt a child. My words have power, and I must use that power for good.
A few years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite, because they are. They and their parents have trusted me with their minds and hearts, and my main duty is to protect that like the precious gift that it is. Hiam Ginott, who pioneered the idea of supportive conversations with children, said, “If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

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Passion Project Serendipity

My SmartBlog on Education article from 01.09.05

Passion Project Serendipity

One thing I have learned in over 20 years of teaching middle school is to expect the unexpected. When the unexpected surpasses the original plan: serendipity.

This fall, I had high hopes that implementing Passion Projects would accomplish several lofty academic goals. My classroom is student-centered, meaning I believe in choice and inquiry-based learning. I do not spoon-feed information to my pupils, but rather encourage them to seek answers on their own. Their learning experiences should be purposeful and authentic to the extent that this is feasible. For better or worse, a world full of information is at their fingertips. This, coupled with adults who often don’t allow children to grapple with challenges, means that many of our students don’t have practice with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. I wanted to spark their curiosity as well as inspire them to work beyond what comes easily. As an English teacher, I also wanted students to practice their verbal communication skills and thought that a presentation on a subject about which they were passionate would be the best avenue. The end result was full of happy accidents and completely exceeded my expectations.

To introduce Passion Projects, I asked my students to contemplate the following three questions: 1) What do you want to learn how to do? 2) What would you like to create? or 3) Who would you like to help? (I allowed them to combine two of the three.) When they submitted their project proposals, I was a bit concerned by the results because I wasn’t sure if they were overreaching their abilities or how they would be received at home. Fortunately, I worried needlessly, because things worked out surprisingly well in the end.

The first unexpected result was that many of my students chose Passion Projects that involved little or no technology. Their plans involved old-fashioned “domestic” pursuits such as knitting, sewing, needlepoint, crocheting, or cooking. Others selected technical projects such as building architectural models, crafting organizational products for school lockers, or constructing an LED lit umbrella. A few elected to explore the arts through photography, creative writing, painting, and paper sculpture. What’s more, almost all of these involved learning the skill from a parent or grandparent or actively involving them in the execution. I had anticipated neither the desire for traditional, hands-on experiences, nor the wish for family involvement. The feedback I received from the adults thanked me for the opportunity for bonding time at a time when it is the child’s natural instinct to pull away. The students themselves stated that they enjoyed getting to spend the extra time with their parents or grandparents to create what became keepsakes or new family traditions. Many marveled at the level of skill involved. I was touched hearing their stories during their presentations and was even inspired to replicate a couple of the projects with my own family.

The second fortunate happenstance was that I had forgotten about the natural altruism of middle school students. I was completely surprised that so many chose to complete projects to benefit others through causes close to their heart. Many designed fundraising opportunities for charities such as animal shelters, medical research, domestic violence shelters, or the homeless—to a great degree of success. Some even received public recognition for their contributions. During the Passion Project presentations, their pride in their accomplishments brought me great joy.

One final, completely serendipitous, result of the Passion Project experience was that it naturally promoted a growth mindset. On their written reflections, students unknowingly expressed growth mindset tenets such as “it was really challenging and we had to work past our limits,” “it taught me a work ethic—I didn’t want to quit,” “it pulled something out of me that I might not have discovered otherwise,” and, “we didn’t need a teacher to hold our hands—just to stand beside us.” The parents provided similar feedback marveling at the maturity and inspiration they saw in their children.

Even though Passion Projects began as a way to provide real-world research and fun public-speaking opportunities, they evolved into so much more. Now that I’ve seen the power of their passion, I look forward to repeating these projects. Who knows what surprises lay in store?

Finding the Gift in Every Student

ID-100281002My SmartBlog on Education article from 02.19.15

While scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw a Rick Wormeli slide someone shared about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from his presentation at the 2013 National Conference on Differentiated Instruction. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord with me: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As a former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. Sadly, with the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many students are disenfranchised? There has to be a better way. I believe one large piece of the motivation puzzle lies in emphasizing children’s strengths — not dwelling on deficits.
Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. Herein lies my frustration. If these are our best teaching practices, why are they not used with all of our students?
I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be facetious, it is somewhat based in my truth. I believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. I saw how students who were all but written off by their general education teachers because they could not memorize basic multiplication tables could perform incredibly well on complex problem-solving tasks in algebra with some basic scaffolding. We do our most challenged learners a great disservice when we leave them mired in the depths of repeatedly failing at rote learning tasks. They may never be able to memorize those facts, but they are more than capable of rising to the challenge with proper support. By not providing critical thinking and problem solving opportunities for all students, we are holding them back and we may never discover their unique intellectual gifts.
In Carol Ann Tomlinson’s 1997 article, What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well, she states,
“What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.”
In short, this is a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Although this article is nearly 20 years old, its core premise still rings true. My philosophy of teaching encompasses all of the above criteria, but I believe it is common sense to get all of my students onto that escalator instead of leaving any waiting on the landing.There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. My educational goal is lofty. I want to develop the “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I want to reach every student where they are and take them to new heights. I constantly strive to uncover the giftedness in all my students, regardless of labels. Providing rigorous, engaging instruction to all students, I believe I can achieve this goal.

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