Category Archives: education

Helping Your Middle School Student with his/her failing grades [FULL TEXT]

Originally published on March 30, 2017 in On Parenting, the Lifestyle section of the Washington Post. It needed trimming for WaPo but I wanted to put the full text on my site. It was really well received and even tweeted by the National Council for Teachers of English & Dad 2.0 Summit. 

Treat your middle schooler like a rattlesnake.

So it’s the end of March and your middle schooler’s grades are still unstable. And, to make matters worse, poor performance at school is eroding your child’s self-esteem. I know a few students who feel like their academic life is happening to them. Furthermore, parenting a middle school student is complicated. Questions about when you are helping or when you are helicoptering loom large.

But there’s still last quarter/trimester and that means there’s still time for improvement. I’ve taught English at secondary level, tutored middle school students in writing, and I’m a parent myself. Below I offer practical suggestions for helping your child become more self-directed and advocating for him in a way that’s not *gasp* helicoptering.

First, gather as much information as possible. There is so much lost in translation between the classroom and the home. Here’s what you need to know:

What are my child’s grades in each class? What are the consequences of failing a class?  How can I monitor those grades in between progress reports and report card distribution? Many schools use an online grade book where teachers, students, and parents have access to scores. This makes for fewer surprises when report cards are distributed. Find out what the consequences of academic failure are. Most schools address failing grades by removing students from extra-curricular activities. This policy is usually explicitly stated in the school handbook. If your child is highly invested in the musical or soccer team, this policy can be an effective motivator to improve those grades.

In each class, how is the final grade for a marking period computed? Not all grades count equally. A quiz usually counts for far less than a test, project, or research paper. This information was probably outlined at the beginning of the school year. And while it’s likely that each department calculates grades differently, it’s unlikely that your child will remember how the grading in each class works.

What units will the teacher cover last quarter/trimester? What are the big assignments? Many teachers already know due dates for projects or can approximate dates for tests. Teachers plot out each marking period with learning objectives and assessments.

 Does the teacher have his/her own website where students and parents can access information? When I taught English, I had a simple website powered by Google sites. I uploaded PDFs of short stories, assignments, graphic organizers, and informational handouts. I updated my site regularly with homework assignments or “housekeeping” items (i.e. field trip money due). Browsing teacher websites is a good way to keep yourself informed about what’s going on in the classroom without having to email the teacher multiple times and wait for replies. Moreover, you can synthesize the information on the websites along with your child. This makes for teachable moments about web literacy at home.

Where does my kid lose the most points? Is she crumbling on tests? Does he hand in essays late? As a teacher and tutor, I can usually identify the defining factor in a student’s failing performance. For some it is time management. For others it is lack of study skills. Some come alive when we read aloud in class but have problems reading at home. If you want a full picture here, this conversation with your child’s teacher is best done over the phone or in person. Email works perfectly when your questions require concrete answers. But when a situation is emotionally charged (like one about your child failing at school), email fails because it requires too much nuance.

Second, make a plan with your child. I realize this is easier said than done and will require an unremitting amount patience and energy.

Choose what to focus on. If you get answers to the questions above, you can use them to help your child budget her time. If your child knows what big assignments are coming up, he can focus on tackling one task at a time.

Get extra help. You don’t have to hire a tutor or pay tuition at a learning center (i.e. Mathnasium). Those are viable options, sure, but many teachers offer extra help. Encourage your son to ask when and where extra help takes place. It’s usually after school but sometimes teachers give extra help during unscheduled periods. And extra help is typically a smaller group. There’s more opportunity for your child to build rapport with her teacher and get questions answered.

Incentivize good grades. From sticker charts for chores to promotions with larger salaries at work, reward systems work regardless of age and stage. The key is identifying the right incentive. Set some challenging but doable goals with your middle schooler. Then establish something worthwhile to motivate your child. Be explicit in your conversations about both the goals and the rewards.

Invest in a planner. Transitioning from one teacher in elementary school to 6-7 teachers in middle school is jarring to students. Moreover, assignments have longer lead times. When I taught freshmen, I spent some time at the beginning of the year going over the school’s planner (a combo handbook, calendar, weekly organizer). Most adults keep some form of calendar. But maintaining an organized planner is not intuitive to most adolescents.

Teach your child how to email his teacher(s). Speaking of skills that are not intuitive, your child might be well-versed in new apps, but in sixth grade, she probably doesn’t know how to compose a good email. Writing polite, focused emails is necessary for success today. A few weeks ago, as my tutee Owen and I discussed his current English project, I realized he didn’t know enough about his teacher’s timeline or expectations. Instead of aimlessly circling the issue, we spent part of our session that night sending an email to his teacher. Owen asked questions about email etiquette like why does it need a subject or how do I write the salutation and closing. He was amazed at how quickly his teacher replied and how easy it was to get clarification. He’s a confident and capable adolescent. Knowing how to write an email is going to give Owen more agency in his academic life.

Third, work the plan. Consistent and clear dialogue is key as you move forward. I’m willing to bet that once you have the necessary information and a plan, you and your child will feel less anxious. Less anxiety will make conversations with your child go more smoothly. I’m a believer in frontloading: invest a good amount of time in the beginning and you’ll be able to pull away the scaffolding as your child builds his/her own study skills. Good luck!

 

 

 

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“Three Miles”: A Visceral Response

I was never a podcast person. I barely even listen to talk radio on the morning commute. Listening–in the car, at the gym, around the house–is for music. But that all changed when I started listening to Serial, a podcast by This American Life that took my facebook feed (and the iTunes charts) by storm.  Since finishing Serial, I’ve mostly been complaining to myself that there isn’t more Serial. But this week, I decided to try This American Life. A quick look at the description of the podcast “Three Miles” was enough to draw me in. It was about the connection between education and equity and exposure. They were speaking my language. And with two little children at home, this podcast was sure to be a nice break from playing weebles and filling sippy cups. Ah, fifty minutes where I don’t feel my brain cells weeping.

“Three Miles,” like all This American Life content I’m sure, is superbly made. It’s informational, it’s well-paced, it’s provocative. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I highly recommend it. Since this podcast alone has prompted numerous conversations on my social media feeds, I decided to try to come up with a cohesive response to it. My reaction to “Three Miles” was multi-faceted and visceral at times.

This American Life logo“Three Miles” is about the experience of two groups of students from very different backgrounds and educational experiences interacting with each other through the curation of two English teachers who thought it would be good if their students met. One group is from University Heights, a South Bronx public school and the other group is from Fieldston, a private school three miles away. Fieldston tuition per year = cost of one BMW (roughly).

After writing letters, the teachers decide it would be beneficial if the students met each other. This seems like a good idea. (I still believe it is.) The podcast notes that for the University Heights kids, the field trip to the private school could show them another world, a world where you don’t have to be poor, hungry, angry, on your way to nowhere. And for the private school kids, many of whom will become leaders in the corporate and political world, the exposure to how “the other half lives” is beneficial. Chana Joffe notes “And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is– seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses– it’s good for them to know not everybody’s life looks like theirs.” How can you write policy or affect change (something that you should be doing if you’re privileged) if you’ve never encountered someone who could benefit from the changes? Sounds good, right?

Not really for Melanie. She freaks out when they get there. And you know what? I understood the freak out. Joffe presented it as an odd reaction but I could easily see one of my former students from Preston reacting the same way. I sympathized with Melanie and imagined myself as her teacher. I agreed with her. Yes, why do the Fieldston kids have the idyllic high school experience you envisioned for yourself. The experience where, as one interviewee remembers, you could leave your bookbag on the floor of the library and no one would take it. I left my bag everywhere in my high school. Sure, I had some stuff taken from my locker but I could leave my bag somewhere without fear of someone rifling through it. What would they take? The keys to my 1989 Nissan Sentra? Sure, just make sure you leave me the keys to your mom’s SUV of which she tired after a few months.

The part that hit me the hardest was when the journalist finally caught up with Melanie. (Ten years later…) Melanie described going through the process of the Posse Foundation, a scholarship that provides a full ride to underprivileged kids who show promise. These are the kids who exhibit an alternative set of predictors for college success. Some of these kids I met in my time at Preston.  Melanie made it to the third round of the process, I think. She started crying when she described the rejection. You feel like the whole world your whole future is riding on this scholarship and when it doesn’t happen, you’re crushed.. She says “But it’s a really beautiful thing if you do get it. At least that’s the way it looked. But what you put children through to get there is hard to then be turned down. I’d say, why didn’t I get it? What was wrong with me?”

I’ve been part of the counseling students through a few of these scholarships at Preston. I usually taught freshmen and sophomores so I never saw a student through the process of say, the Gates Millenium Scholarship or the NYT Scholarship. But I’ve reviewed essays, talked to students about what to wear and what to say in interviews for colleges and various programs that would help them finance college or just put another feather in their college application cap. I remember the disappointment students felt so acutely when they got their rejection letters, probably more than I remember the excitement of a student getting accepted to their college of choice or getting the necessary funding to go there.

Melanie’s recounting of her disappointment, the absolute despair she felt, how she felt she must not deserve a better life, filled me to the brim with pity. I wept hearing her voice shake as she retold it. To think that with all the compassion and dedication some educators pour out every year and still Melanie would think that she wasn’t good enough. I can remember having a few emotional conversations with students about their disappointment, about the pain of rejection. In the back of my mind was always the adult voice saying, “Oh this is just life sometimes. But good things will happen too.” But “Three Miles” presents you with someone whose life is such that good things don’t happen. And it’s incredibly sad to think that so many people go through life never expecting something good to happen.

Robert_E_Hill_Fieldston_plaqueIn the end, while I found the podcast interesting, I felt sad. One of the teachers, Pablo, says that he’s an example of someone who got out of the projects and he’s working on his PhD now. He’s “made it.” He says that he keeps telling students that more education, that college is the way out of their current situations. However, he knows that only a handful will cross class barriers. I feel the same way. If I were still teaching at Preston, I’d be doggedly pushing that same message. Get into college. Get your next degree. Move up the food chain.

I started writing this blog post because so many of my friends on twitter and facebook were talking about it. The mention of Fordham was enough for fellow grads to start the dialogue. Everyone had sensitive, sound responses and offered ideas for how to better support the “University Heights” kids when they get to college and have to sit in the same room as the “Fieldston” kids. But what was devastating about the podcast was that so many of these students have such a low sense of self-worth. They don’t expect to succeed. They are literally the opposite of entitled. They have supports and they don’t reach out sometimes. Jonathan, who won the Posse Foundation scholarship, failed out of college. He just didn’t go to class. He couldn’t afford the books. He didn’t ask for help. Jonathan tells Chana: “So now I’m embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn’t do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I’m not going to class. It’s a catch-22, because now I’m still the black kid now that just doesn’t come to class, and doesn’t do the work on top of that.” He gives in to this insidious self-fulfilling prophecy that poverty constructs. He tells TAL that he never felt like he deserved this opportunity, that he was scared. How do educators combat that level of low self-esteem? I’m not saying that the programs are not worthy or that they don’t work. I think these are noble pursuits but to hear that someone like Jonathan didn’t make it just breaks my heart.

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