Tips for staying organized when students have been absent

Student absences occur on a regular basis throughout the school year, but it can be so difficult to keep those students (and ourselves!) organized and caught up.  Here are some tips to consider when establishing your own routines for handling absences in the classroom.

1 – Establish expectations early
In my course expectations at the beginning of the year, I include a blurb that outlines my policy in the event of absences.  No matter what you decide to set as an expectation, make it clear and stick to it throughout the year as best as you can.  Personally, I use the phrase “mutually agreed upon date” when describing the timeline in which makeup work needs to get done.  The length of time depends on the number of days of the absence, the type of work that needs to be made up, and what the student and I believe they can handle.  I like to differentiate in this way, rather than set a standard time limit.  Since the date is agreed upon on the day they return, students know exactly when they need to be caught up by.


I also include a statement that reads, “students may need to stay after school to get caught up on missed content.”  My eighth graders tend to have the expectation that – even if they’ve been out for a few days – they can make up everything they need to at home and in school.  Although this may be the case for some students, the majority of my students would need to stay after school for instruction on the missed topics if they had been out for three or more days.  Setting the expectations early and including this statement in my course expectations eliminates the element of surprise when students are asked to stay after school for missed work.

2 – Enlist the help of other students
As teachers, we are B. U. S. Y.  Even in my sixth year, the length of my to-do list still shocks me every fall.  And especially within the class period, how can teachers be expected to keep track of missed assignments for those students who are absent on top of everything else we are trying to remember?  I found myself staying after school late every day, checking my class lists to remind myself who was out and make note of what they needed to make up.  It was time-consuming and I felt disorganized. 

Then I decided to enlist the help of my students.  I create the “While You Were Out…” bulletin board and absent slips.  My absent slips are available for free in my store.  My students sit in pairs the majority of the time in my classroom.  If someone’s partner is out, I ask them to fill out an absent slip, collect any handouts received in class, and pin the papers to the bulletin board.  The absent slip summarizes the objective, agenda, and homework for the day so students know exactly what they missed and what they need to make up.  Upon their return to school, students then need to retrieve the papers from the bulletin board and check in with me only to determine a timeline for completion.  This process keeps students who have been absent organized and has been a big time-saver for me.

3 – Maintain an organized Assignment Chart
Just as valuable as keeping students organized is keeping yourself organized.  Take time to develop a system for tracking assignments and/or homework.  I keep a checklist on a clipboard and walk around with it as I check homework.  If students are absent, I write “A” in the box that corresponds with their name and that day.  If students miss an assignment, I write “0.”  “½” is for some homework completed and I check off all other students who have the assignment done.  An “A” needs to eventually get a check next to it.  This must occur within the time period we predetermined upon their reentry to school.  If the assignment is not turned in or the student does not take the initiative to show me, the “A” becomes a “0.”  I try to remind students at least once if they are missing work from an absence, but ultimately I believe it is their responsibility.

These strategies are working well in my classroom, but I am always looking for ways to improve.  I’d love to hear about methods that you use in your classroom.

Check out my free absent slips by clicking on the image:

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Developing Reflective Learners

When I first started teaching eighth grade math, I would see students get back their quiz, look at their score, MAYBE flip it over to see where they lost points, then slide it into their folder – perhaps never to look at it again.  I knew I had to do something to help my students learn to be more reflective about their progress.   I wanted my students to take ownership of their work and learn from their mistakes.  Over the past few years, I have incorporated several strategies that I believe are helping to facilitate the development of reflective learners.  Three of them are shared here.

1 – Quiz Evaluations and Corrections
After each quiz, students fill out an evaluation and complete corrections on the problems where they lost points.  On the evaluation, students identify a strength and a challenge from their quiz.  (I stopped using the word weakness a long time ago.  Challenges can be overcome!)  The strength and the challenge could be a particular concept or a general skill like checking over work or studying.  Then students set a SMART goal.  I use this term loosely in this context, although I do talk to students about thinking about a goal that is Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Rigorous, and Timely.  They identify something they would like to achieve and state one strategy they will use to get there.

Once students have reflected on their overall achievement, they focus on the details of the quiz.  For each question where they lost points, they fill in a chart with the problem number, topic, number of points lost, and then they check off whether it was a simple error or something they don’t or didn’t understand.  For each of these problems, they either redo the problem again or they write a sentence describing their error and what they should have done.

This process is worth the effort!  I rarely see students make the same mistakes on the test that they did on the quiz.  I give students two nights to complete the assignment, but we also have an Advisory block built into the day so they have some time in school to work on this as well.

By popular demand, my Quiz Evaluation is now available as a document in my Classroom Forms pack.

2 – Self-Evaluation of Level of Understanding
As teachers, we are constantly evaluating our students’ knowledge.  We ask questions, give exit tickets, use whiteboards, listen to discussions, etc.  It’s also important that our students are assessing their own knowledge and understanding on specific topics.  Often times I ask students to quickly rate and share their level of understanding with me using hand signals.  I will pause during a transition in the lesson and ask students to rate their comfort with a topic from 5-1.  5 fingers represents a strong understanding of the topic and 1 finger represents feeling completely lost.

This strategy is multi-purpose.  Students assess themselves and reflect on their understanding.  They are also able to deliver a quick, silent message to me, indicating how they are feeling about the topic.  As the teacher, with a quick scan around the room I can quickly see if I can move on, if I should readdress a topic, which students I need to check-in with in a small group for remediation, which students need some challenging practice, etc.

A variation of this that I will occasionally use is thumbs up, down, or sideways.  In this case, students are still assessing themselves, but it’s also a great quick check to make sure students are paying attention to the lesson.

3 – “Choose Your Challenge”
Homework and Classwork
When differentiating for my middle school math students, I often provide “Choose Your Challenge” activities, meaning I provide two levels of practice of a same topic.  Students select based on their level of comfort with the material we are practicing that day.  One level will typically be aligned with what we have been doing in class, and a second level will be a bit more challenging for those students who are ready to extend their understanding of a topic.

When I first started offering these assignments, I was concerned that students would not select the correct level for themselves: either too easy or too hard.  Occasionally I have to redirect a student to a different assignment, but it is amazing to see their appropriate selections.  I think a lot of this stems from how the options are introduced and presented.  This first few times I offer a “Choose Your Challenge” assignment we have a whole class discussion about how some topics with come more easily than others for them, and those strong topics they experience will be different for different students at various times throughout the year.  It’s important that they challenge themselves at a level that is helping them best learn.

On average 10-20% of students in my standard math classes take on the challenge assignment.  That percentage tends to be higher when I offer this opportunity in my accelerated classes.  I should note here that I work in a very high achieving public school district in Massachusetts where it is “cool” to be in accelerated and our students, in general, are very hard workers.

Developing reflective learners has been a goal of mine for a few years.  I am very happy with everything that I have learned and incorporated in my classes so far, but I would also love to hear what other teachers are doing to promote self-reflection in the classroom.  I look forward to reading your thoughts below!

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5 Benefits of Partners in the Classroom

It is so important to provide students with a variety of learning experiences in order to meet the needs of different learning styles and to keep students engaged.  Students engage in various activities individually, in pairs, in small groups, and as a whole class.  In my eighth grade math classes, one of my favorite ways to group my students is in pairs.  I have found significant benefits to this setup through the years.  Here are my top 5:

1 – Peer Teaching
Peer teaching is such an incredible mutually beneficial tool.  I group and pair students in a variety of ways.  One method involves matching a struggling learner with a student that has a strong understanding of the current topic.  The struggling learner benefits from hearing an additional explanation, or perhaps a different perspective, and the high-flyer develops a stronger understanding of the material by having to explain the concept aloud in their own words.  Win-Win.

2 – Increased Confidence
The Think-Pair-Share model is fantastic for increasing student confidence in the classroom.  Without the “pair,” I have often found it difficult to find volunteers who are willing to share their ideas.  However, once students have had a chance to compare and discuss their ideas with their neighbor, many more hands end up in the air.  The extra step of confirming that their own thought process is on the right track can sometimes be just enough of a push needed to boost participation.

3 – Increased Class Engagement
In a whole class discussion, most students are listening while one individual at a time shares their ideas.  Although there is a time and a place for this model, a disadvantage is that many students will be minimally engaged, if not completely disengaged.  On the other hand, allowing students to chat about a topic with a partner increases classroom participation because many students are able to talk at once.  All students can be engaged in meaningful conversation about the selected topic at the same time.

4 – Break from Direct Instruction
Much of my Accelerated Algebra 1 class consists of direct instruction.  Students take notes, try practice problems, then practice some more at home.  I often use frequent partner check-ins during class to break up the traditional direct instruction routine.  Students may be asked to explain a concept that we have just learned to their partner in their own words.  Or often times students try a practice problem on their own, then check answers with their partner and help one another out with any errors or misconceptions.

5 – Face-to-Face Communication
Let’s face it.  Face-to-face communication is not as prevalent in the lives of our students as it has been in ours.  With the rise in social media, many students text, Snapchat, Instagram, tweet, etc with their friends.  Working with a partner, requires use of verbal communication skills that are still imperative in today’s world.  I also love that students may need to branch out and interact with students they would not necessarily talk to outside of class.

Try it out!  My Discovery-Based Worksheet Series consists of worksheets designed to increase conceptual understanding by providing students with explorations into the connections that exist between mathematical concepts.  I use the Think-Pair-Share model often when facilitating these learning experiences.  

Your turn!  How do you use partners in your classroom? 
What other advantages have you witnessed?  Comment below.

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