Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Missing Homework Epidemic

Well, I've come to believe that the average middle-schooler boycotts homework.  The number of students shirking their responsibilities lately far surpasses their homework-completing counterparts. This problem has begun to affect my sleep.  I lay in bed trying to strategically devise a plan of attack that will motivate students; part of me also wonders if only consequences should ensue for those who choose to take the dirt road.
Rewarding those who do what they're supposed to do is always a conundrum to me.  I'd like to take all of those students who always do their homework and give them "Dodgeball Mondays" while the ones who don't complete their work come to Saturday school, but is it right to reward what is expected anyway?  Probably not.  Would it make those who don't do homework second guess their choices when they don't get to play dodgeball?  Probably so.  By the way, I'm all for no dodgeball and Saturday school for those homework shirkers.  I'd be glad to supervise in the auditorium as they work on homework on their typical day off... now to figure out how to provide transportation for those who say they have no way to the school...I digress.
I've spoken with staff members to get their ideas of effective strategies they'd like to try and ones they've used in the past.  I've heard several good ideas:  daily point systems which make classes work as teams (if one person is missing homework, the entire class doesn't receive their point), competing with other classes to see which class can accumulate the most points at the end of a predetermined time, outdoor activities for those who do their work weekly, etc.

As I read more and more research articles on family partnerships, I continue to see the idea of TIPS (Teachers Involving Parents in Schoolwork) as a means to increasing homework completion.  Most recently, I read a study by Bennett-Conroy (2012) which used bidirectional communication (5 minute conversations weekly from teachers to parents on their child's progress in class and TIPS homework) as a means of increasing homework completion in language arts classes.  Seven weeks of TIPS assignments and 5 minutes or more conversations led to not only an increase in homework completion, but higher homework grades, and an increase in parent communication which is deemed a best practice in increasing parents' perceptions of a positive school climate.  Maybe TIPS will be in our future at Swansboro Middle School.  At this point, I'm willing to try anything!

Bennett-Conroy, W. (2012).  Engaging parents of eighth grade students in parent-teacher bidirectional communication.  School Community Journal.  22(2), 87-110.  Retrieved from

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why do partnerships matter?

     This question makes me think about Gary (pseudonym), an eighth grader at SBMS.  Last school year, Gary frequently got in trouble on the bus.  He had two to three write-ups weekly.  I'd call him in my office, ask him why he was throwing paper or eating on the bus (two of the most frequent offenses), and then suspend him for a day or two.  I'd call his mom to let her know since she'd need to drive him in and pick him up in the afternoons.  Of course, in the beginning, Mrs. Daringer (pseudonym) would get upset with Gary but after the third or fourth suspension, she was over it.  Surely the bus driver must have it out for Gary...  Maybe we were being too harsh...  Maybe she should drive him to school every day to avoid these conversations.  As an administrator, I was tired of seeing Gary in my office, for the same thing, time and time again.
     Fast forward to October of this school year.  Gary's older brother (Pat), a ninth grader, comes home to find his dad has had a massive heart attack on their front porch.  His dad had died and Pat had to call the rescue squad and his mother.  Pat, Gary, and Matty (Gary's twin sister) are devastated; so is Mrs. D.

     There have been a total of two bus write-ups on Gary this year.  He, his siblings, and mom have had a lot to deal with personally and financially.  Whether the decrease in incidents has been a product of his family situation, maturity, or a little of both, I'm not sure.  One thing is for sure- Gary has had a special place in my heart since his father's death.  I couldn't imagine having to go through what he and his siblings have endured, but I've made it my mission to build a relationship with him, Matty, and Mrs. D.

     Instead of bus suspensions for the two incidents on the bus, I had Gary sweep the bus out for a week each time.  This was a perfect match for his lollipop eating and paper tossing incidents.  The second time I had him in my office, I decided to check his grades in PowerSchool, just to see how he was doing.  I noticed his grades had begun to decline; he was not turning in all of his work.  He and I had a talk that Friday morning.  "I'll make you a deal. You get these two missing assignments completed this weekend and bring them to me on Monday.  No assignments and you'll be in ISS during encores until they're done."

     I called mom to follow up on Gary's and my conversation.  I also had to share about having him sweep the bus as a consequence.  First, the bus incident.  Mrs. D loved the idea of sweeping the bus! She was glad she didn't have to bring him to school and knew he'd not like sweeping.  Then, I wanted to know if she was aware of his grade in Language Arts and that he was missing the two assignments. She had no idea.  I told her about the deal I made Gary.  She agreed to stay on him and ensure he completed his work.

     This story ends happily... Well, I should say it continues in a great way since the school year isn't over.  From that point forward, Mrs. D asks to speak with me if she calls the school with a concern. She waves when I see her in the parking lot during dismissal.  Gary makes a point to come talk to me in the hallway and I always sit at his table for a few minutes during lunch to see how he's doing, making small talk.

Now, back to the missing work/ISS part...

     Wondering if he brought his work on Monday morning?  He most certainly did!  In fact, as I walked past his homeroom Monday morning, he saw me and came running out, calling "Mrs. Howard!"  He gave me a great big hug in the hallway, in front of all his classmates, and said he'd completed all of his work.

     There's a post-it note on my computer monitor with Gary's name on it.  It's a reminder to me to look on PowerSchool every Friday and check Gary's grades.  I call him up to the office every Friday, let him know I checked to see that all his work is completed for the week, and see what his plans are for the weekend.  Every few weeks I call him mom and let her know I am continuing to check on him.  It lets her know I care, motivates her to stay involved as a parent keeping informed of his assignments and how he's doing in his classes.  Gary knows I care about him.  He knows when I see him in the hall that I'm going to say hi and that I'm checking up behind him to make sure he's staying on track.

So, why do partnerships matter? ... Because of kids like Gary.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Communication 2.0

As I think about the actions I will employ in this action research study, more and more articles surface on web 2.0 tools.  Communication is one of the areas I will target because I feel survey results will indicate a disparity in this area.  Of course, if results indicate otherwise, I will have to change my plan of action.  Most recently, I discovered Joe Mazza and his blog on technology strategies to engage families.  Wow.  He's a wealth of knowledge and resources... Below is a webinar he included on his blog identifying high and low tech strategies to use with parents.  Quite informative...

Joe Mazza was the principal at Knapp Elementary before working at the University of Pennsylvania and used many tools which may be beneficial in my setting.  His idea of developing an app for the school was innovative and made me think about how I could make one for Swansboro Middle.  There are many platforms that can be used; Mazza used eJucomm to make his.  His article in SmartBlog on Education outlines the many features and tabs on his app:  parents, events, students, news, contact us, email teacher, and bullying reporting to name a few.  The only drawback, the price.  Five hundred dollars is a steep price.  Now I'm on a mission to see which companies are available and which are the most cost effective so that Swansboro Middle may have its own app next year.  Thanks Joe.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ideas abound...

My goal is to reflect as often as possible throughout this process so I'm constantly thinking about how to move Swansboro Middle forward in creating partnerships.  While I was reading Epstein's (2008) Handbook last night, several thoughts came to mind.  I need to target my initial action research in one area of parent involvement.  Having too many initiatives at one time would be overwhelming to the staff and work against institutionalization.  I foresee communication being the area of focus.  I'd like to have some teachers write notes home to a few students' parents weekly.  Another possibility is having students lead parent conferences.  Our teachers meet with parents when there is a Personalized Education Plan (PEP) in place.  PEPs are for those students at-risk of failing a course and/or their grade. The student-led conferences require students to have a binder of their work and be able to explain their progress during the reporting period to their parents.  Teachers are there to answer questions and extend answers if necessary.  It puts the responsibility of completing work and being able to articulate progress on the student while engaging the parents in a conversation about academics.  One of the articles in Epstein's Handbook told about a school that enforced this method gradually.  Teachers were asked to choose a few students to do this with initially and decide as a team how to carry out the conferences.  Over time, more teachers began to adopt the idea and they tweaked the process along the way based on the experiences they had with the students and the parents. Overall, the teachers felt the relationships they built with the students and parents throughout the process was valuable and encouraged the students to complete their work in a timely manner; they knew there would be accountability for their actions.

Epstein, J. & Associates. (2008). School, family, and community partnerships: Your handbook for action(3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Corwin Press.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The beginning of an action research expedition...

Action research enables practitioners to work through problems in real-time using the process of reflection, action, and evaluation.  It gives educators a voice, encourages them to work with colleagues, professionalizes their career, and provides them with a multitude of data to inform practice (Hendricks, 2013).  Educators are a reflective group who consistently adjust instruction to meet the needs of learners, so action research is a valid platform for finding and implementing research-based strategies that can be used in the classroom or in a large school setting.  

I hope fostering parent, teacher, and community partnerships at Swansboro Middle School will have many benefits:  creating rapport between parents and teachers, assisting teachers with communication strategies, providing resources for both the school and the community to benefit students, and possibly increasing student achievement (Epstein, 2010). 

Initially, I want to survey my population to determine our needs, and then use that data to implement one strategy over the next few weeks.  For example, parents may feel there isn't enough communication “keeping them in the loop” or that the communication they receive is mostly negative.  Our action for a few weeks may be for teachers to choose a few students from their class weekly and make a point of writing notes home about those students'  progress while highlighting something positive they've done or said during the week.  I’d like to follow up with a focus group or individual interviews to determine the effects of the action from the teachers’ perspectives.  Was it a worthwhile activity?  Did you learn anything about your students or their parents you didn't know before?  Is this an activity you would consider continuing?  From there, I'll use survey data and inquiry data from teachers to determine the next action to implement.

Epstein, J. (2010).  School, family, and community partnerships:  Preparing educators and improving schools. (2nd Ed.).  Boulder, CO:  Westview Press.

Hendricks, C. (2013).  Improving schools through action research:  A reflective action approach. (3rd Ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson.