Simple Common Core Literacy Standards for Grades 9-12

My co-teacher and I will be teaching special education students who are in our alternative classroom for part of the school day. Since we will be using Common Core standards, we felt that it would be important to put those standards into language that the students can understand, that way they can learn to evaluate themselves using concrete criteria.

We want to move away from letter grades and move toward standards-based grading and having the Common Core in language students and parents can understand is an important first step for that.

Here is a link to the chart we created for our students; please feel free to use it and change it as needed: CCStandardsinLaymansTerms

A Reading to Learn Activity Plan: High School Debate

Curriculum Area/Topic:  Current Events topic related to the Olympics for a 10th grade literacy class with small group instruction.

Instructional Strategy:   The Creative Debate strategy allows students to practice their social skills (working together, giving feedback to peers) and it allows them to practice speaking skills (making eye contact, choosing appropriate language, speaking in front of people).  Students are also, of course, working toward meeting Common Core Standards (which aren’t written for special education students who are below grade level like mine, but that’s another conversation entirely).  This reflection strategy is useful because it gives students more realistic practice in an important life skill:  supporting opinions with facts.  Most of my students like to say “because” when asked “why”; I prefer that they learn to give good reasons based on facts and understanding.

Goals and Objectives:

The Common Core states that 10th grade students will present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance and style are appropriate to purpose, audience and task (SL.9-10.4).  It also states that 10th grade students will write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence (W.0-10.1) and they will produce clear and coherent writing…(W.9-10.4).  So the objectives of this lesson are as follows:

  1. Students will find evidence from the text which supports their side of the issue.
  2. Students will write a brief summary stating their side of the issue; the summary will contain clear, concise writing with logical and supporting evidence, and it will contain proper grammar, usage and mechanics.
  3. Students will present their side of the debate in front of a class using clear, concise and logical information.

Prerequisites:  Students should already be familiar with the 2 articles and their subject matter due to class work and discussion in previous classes including vocabulary work, main idea/topic work, and gathering supporting details for a class summary of the articles.


  1. Each student will have a copy of each of the articles:  “The Waste and Corruption of Vladimir Putin’s 2014 Olympics” and “The Elusive Economic Lift of the Olympics
  2. Tell students that it is now time to prepare for and debate a major issue set forth in the Vladimir Putin article. Give them the debate sides:  Russia wasted money on the Olympics, or The money Russia spent will help bring an economic boom to the economy.  Tell them which side they will defend and organize the students into two teams.  Go over the grading rubric for the debate.
  3. Give students each a graphic organizer to help them keep track of information that will support their side (see “materials to prepare”). Indicate additional resources students can use to find more support for their side:
  1. Students will review the information they already have and they will find information that supports their side of the debate and enter it into their debate preparation graphic organizers. Students will work as a group to find information, but will each complete their own graphic organizers.  For students who need extra support, teachers can scribe.  The teachers should circulate and check-in with teams to make sure they are getting enough relevant information to support their topic and that they are adequately summarizing it.  This part of the lesson will likely take an entire class period.
  2. When the organizers are completed each student will be given notecards to use during the debate; they can complete them as follows (or in a way more comfortable for them—though I find that my students like to be told how to organize because they never learned how):
    1. Opening statement (front) Ending statement (back)
    2. 3 cards: Major point with supporting facts (front) Major point with facts (back)
    3. Points the opposition might use (front) counterarguments and rebuttals (back)
  3. Allow time for practice (each team in a separate space working with a teacher). Students can adjust their debate points based on teacher feedback.  Steps 5+6 will likely take another whole class period to prepare.
  4. The two teams will present their debate in front of teachers and students from another class. For students with significant anxiety, they can present their arguments individually to the teacher and will become part of the audience during the debate. Tell students how the debate will progress:
    1. First each side will begin with an opening statement
    2. The “wasted $” side will begin with 3-5 minutes to make their major points
    3. The “economic boom” side will make their major points (3-5 minutes)
    4. The “wasted $” side will make counterarguments (3 mins)
    5. The “economic boom” side will make counterarguments (3 mins)
    6. Rebuttals will continue as necessary
    7. Each side will end with a closing statement
  5. Once the debate is completed, the audience will each complete a scoring rubric.
  6. Students will write a brief summary of their side of the issue in a well-written short essay that has proper grammar, usage and mechanics (homework).
  7. Students who wish to complete “make-up” work (because they have been absent) or who wish to earn extra credit can do a write up for the opposing side.


The students will be assessed based on completion of the scoring rubric by the audience.  The teacher will also have completed a scoring rubric during the presentation.  The students will also be assessed on their short writing piece (whether their arguments were logical and well supported as well as for proper English conventions of writing).

Materials to Prepare:

Graphic organizer (outline) for debate preparation:

My side of the issue is:

5 points that support my side (each point has 1 fact to prove it):

5 points the opposition might say:

Counterpoints (facts I can use against the opposition):

Debate Scoring Rubric (PDF)

Ideas for Teaching the Cognitive Processes of Questioning to Students with Emotional and Behavioral Challenges


This is a project I designed back in 2000.  It is designed to help emotionally and behaviorally disturbed high school students learn the skills they need to do better in school and assume responsibility for their learning.  I recommend that it be used with students who are in an alternative school setting and to use this curriculum as part of the process of reintegrating students to the mainstream.  This curriculum is designed for small groups (of about 6) so that there can be follow up and more accurate observation.  Ideally parts of this curriculum would be used in all classes to aid understanding and generalization.  This program will work well if there is already a behavior management system in place so that certain positive behaviors can be reinforced. There are also many ways you can update the activities for the 21st Century.

The teaching principles of this curriculum project include:  addressing several learning styles, relating information to real life, using teacher modeling, using systematic and explicit steps, making it interesting and age appropriate, and giving meaningful feedback.


By the time EBD students are in high school, they have had thousands of terrible school experiences.  To make matters worse, they might even have disabilities in processing, reading or writing.  My goal as a teacher in an alternative school is to get these EBD students back to the mainstream.  Most of the readiness has to happen with a change in their behavior.  We have found over the past couple of years that we need to prepare them better for the rigorous academics of high school.  Many of our students who transition back to mainstream end up out of the school and referred back to an alternative setting (if they don’t drop out first).  If we can help these students become successful learners then one of the hurdles has been jumped when they transition back.

My students have difficulty answering teacher questions because they don’t understand the meaning of some of the cognitive verbs.  They also have difficulty classifying and labeling, interpreting and inferring and explaining, supporting and predicting.  We get the shoulder shrug a lot when we ask them how their behavior affects others or when we ask them what would happen if they were to behave [like that] while on the job.

A curriculum designed to help EBD students learn to learn better could help in several ways.  First it could help the teacher reach the student potential more successfully.  And it could help the EBD student feel more confident in school.  Part of being a successful student is knowing how to answer questions and discuss topics—feeling more confident about their abilities might give them the incentive to stay in school, participate and take more control of their learning.  It can’t be much fun to sit and be a passive learner—no wonder their behavior takes over, they want some control.  I want to teach them to gain it in positive ways.

I recorded my eighth grade science class in order to be able to accurately record teacher questions and student answers to assess the student learning.  These students are emotionally and behaviorally disabled and they are in an alternative school specifically dealing with that disability.  The goal is for them to be mainstreamed back to their sending schools, though that is not always the reality.

On the day of taping, I had asked students to try taking notes from one of the paragraphs on their own as we had practiced before, with disastrous results.  Students were copying word for word from the book and they were not judging the appropriate main ideas.  I quickly put a stop to it and helped them as I had been doing since the start of the school year.  As I watched the recording I wondered why these students didn’t paraphrase the notes and why they had trouble evaluating the importance of information.

Goal and Objectives:

Goal:   To teach EBD high school students to recognize teacher questions and improve their questioning techniques.

Students will:

  1. understand question/answer and discussion patterns
  2. understand the meaning of some cognitive verbs
  3. understand the purpose of questioning and the rules of questioning
  4. understand some different roles of the questioner
  5. understand how to recognize what answer the teacher is looking for
  6. understand how to use questions to check own understanding of the learning

Objectives and Activities:

  1. Students will review the question-answer-discussion pattern of learning and analyze the value of questions and discussions.

Activity 1:  Twenty Questions

Before doing this activity, a teacher should let students know that there are certain patterns for discussion that teachers follow in school to help students learn better and to help them learn to think.  Students can learn these patterns to help them follow a discussion better and to help them anticipate what will happen.  This game, when followed up with a “debrief” discussion, will help students practice the pattern.  The format of the game is that the teacher chooses an item and students have to guess what it is.  Here are the rules:  students can only ask yes or no questions; no answers can be repeated; students can only ask 20 questions (total); students only get three guesses (total); students must ask their questions in turn; students must write down questions they want to ask; students must raise their hands to speak.  Repeat the game 3-5 times.  Afterward, ask students:  What questions were asked?  Which questions helped us get the answer more easily?  What do we notice about these questions?  (looking for things like:  they were specific, they were related to the other questions)

Activity 2:  Taped Talk-show Segment (or news interview)

The teacher will carefully select and edit a segment of a talk-show where there is questioning and answering going on (an interview will work the best).  A teacher might be able to find a segment with a group interview as an example of a discussion for the students to watch.  As the students watch, they should be filling in a graphic organizer while viewing to help them focus on what specifically they are looking for.  They should be looking for general things like how the interviewer presents his/her questions; how the people interact with each other (social skills); and how the interviewer’s questions relate to previous answers. Go over the answers students put on the organizer.

Activity 3:  “Debrief” Discussion

Students have a teacher-led discussion about what they did in the first two activities.  The teacher states that a discussion has the following form:  question-answer- response (which could be another question).  A student’s job is to participate in the discussion in all parts—answering, questioning and responding.  The teacher should model the questioning and follow-up student answers with additional questions while also inviting students to ask their own questions.  So they can see how to use this format with anyone, not just with the teacher.  The teacher can ask questions, but so can they.  On an organizer, have students first answer questions about a discussion.  For example, these questions might include:  What are some reasons for asking questions?  Where are some places (what are some times) where you will have to ask questions?  The teacher will then lead the discussion this way to move students to a higher order of thinking:

  1. Let’s list all of the things that were said and done that we can remember that happened during the game and the video. What kinds of questions were asked?  What kinds of responses were given?  What do we know about having a class discussion?
  2. Now let’s group things that seem to go together (for example, let’s group all of the questions together)
  3. How do we know these things go together?
  4. How can we use this information that we just gathered?  What does it tell us?

What things helped the questioning?  What hurt the questioning?

  1. What are some ways that questions can help with learning? With our job?
  2. Let’s predict some specific questions that could be asked in certain classes (students should write these down and also share them orally). How about in certain jobs?

Students then write a journal entry:  What did you learn about discussions?  What is the purpose of the question-answer-discussion pattern of learning?  How does it help a student to learn better?  Give some examples of questions you could ask in school.  How will questioning and discussion help you in your job later in life?


The teacher will be able to read the journal entry to see what the students took away from the discussion and activities.  The teacher will also be able to see their organizers and the questions they wrote during the twenty questions activity.  The teacher should also set up an ongoing “contract” with the students (this is based on a behavior management system already in place.  When a student asks an appropriate question during a discussion in any class then it is recorded and after a pre-determined number have been recorded then the student earns something). It is ok to remind students of their ongoing contract because after awhile it will become something of a habit for them and you won’t have to do much reminding.

  1. Students will determine the meanings of: explain, analyze, summarize, compare, predict, contrast and describe

Brainstorm/Underlining Activity

Students will go through sheets in their folders (worksheets, quizzes etc…) and they will underline all of the cognitive verbs from the list above that they can find.  They will count the number of times those words are used in their work.  As a group the results will be tallied.  The teacher will ask what the importance of this number is and then move on to “what do these words mean?”  The group will brainstorm some definitions (in a style appropriate for them…some drawing, some semantic mapping, some listing).  Then students will do a worksheet that has example scenarios that the students have to match with a word from the list.  The group goes over the sheet when it is done and they write down the correct definitions.

Vocabulary Activity

Students will again fill in scenarios (examples and non-examples) of the words.  This sheet will also have a section where students write their own scenarios for the words.  Discuss the answers as a group.

Semantic Feature Analysis

As a group, the chart will be discussed and filled in.  The main point that the teacher should now be expressing is that the teacher will choose the words according to what information he/she wants to find out.  Where and how can they be used?  Let’s find out.

Writing Questions

Students will write quiz questions using the words.  They will use their notes from a particular subject to do this.  Students also need to make an answer key for their questions (they need to answer their own questions correctly so that the teacher can see if the students know how to use the words appropriately).  Students can pass their question sheets on to other students if there is time and interest.


Students have activity sheets including written scenarios.  They also have their own written questions and answers.  The teacher can also get a feel for how the group understands the words when they discuss the semantic feature analysis (since there are at most, 6 kids in the group it makes it more obvious).  A teacher can also set up an ongoing contract where a student can earn 1 bonus point on work for every time they find and underline the words and answer the question correctly.

  1. Students will establish and use the rules of questioning and discussion

Discovering the Guidelines of Group Discussion

This is a teacher-led discussion for students to come up with some good practices for speaking and listening.  The quality of the information and the amount the teacher needs to lead the group depends on the group itself.  Students should take notes.  The discussion should be lead in the following way (and it will vary a little depending on the group and how much prodding the teacher has to do):

  1. a) let’s list/draw everything we know about speaking and listening
  2. b) what ideas seem to go together?  How do we know?
  3. c) how will these things help us communicate better with each other? How will good speaking and listening skills help us in school and on the job?
  4. d) where are some places we use speaking and listening skills? Why do we need these skills?  What happens when we don’t use these skills?
  5. e) Using what we know about speaking and listening, what are some good guidelines for asking questions? Let’s make three rules we should always follow.

Group Mock Interview

The teacher thinks of a “famous person” and the students need to figure out the identity of that person using questioning skills and keeping the guidelines (they just created) in mind.  Here are the rules for the activity:  each question must be related to something that has just been said (for example:  if a question is “are you living or dead” and the answer is “dead,” then the next logical question could be “what year did you die?”—this could be difficult for students to attempt right off—it could be something students start to practice after doing the activity a few times) questions must be asked one at a time and a student must raise hand to speak.  If necessary a teacher might incorporate a strategy to help with the questioning:  for instance, take one word from the last statement made and use it to form your question—this should teach students to listen to each other and it can help them keep to the topic at hand.   This activity should be recorded so that students can go back over it and judge whether or not their discussion topic flowed and their questions followed each other.

Partner Conversation

Students work with a partner and ask questions of each other on a topic of their interest.  They need to write down their topic and the questions that they will ask (but these can be revised based on the flow of the conversation).  Students should ask at least one question using one of the cognitive verbs and  the teacher can help them formulate these questions if necessary.  When students have practiced a little, then they can perform their “conversation” in front of the group.  The group should be evaluating the partners using a pre-made form.  There should be a discussion after everyone has performed.


The videotape and observations will help the teacher understand what the students took away from the learning.

  1. Students will determine different roles they can take in discussions

Redefining a Product

The teacher will begin this activity by first asking students if everyone participates in a discussion in the same way (hopefully students realize that the answer is no).  The teacher will then give examples of different ways people participate in discussions:  the leader, the summarizer, the “idea-generator” etc.  Students can then try to guess what role they usually play.  After the discussion, the teacher will define 4 roles:

the “idea-generator” who cranks out ideas/accepts feedback well

The nurturer who gives positive feedback to everyone and encourages by saying things like “that’s a great idea”

The summarizer who puts ideas together/takes notes “let me see if I have this right…”

The leader who mediates arguments/keeps time/decides order/asks questions to keep discussion going

The students are assigned roles and then given an activity to “redefine a product.”  They work for a company that has created 10 tons of radioactive jell-o and they can’t just dump it somewhere.  They are the committee formed to come up with a way to use it safely.  Their job is to talk about what to do with it and then make a decision to propose to the CEO.  This activity should be video-taped.

Create a Jingle

This is a continuation of the previous activity.  Students are given new roles:

The justifier who explains ideas and why they are important

The interpreter who talks about the value of the ideas

The arguer who is the “devil’s advocate” and thinks of all the reasons why an idea won’t work

The evaluator who makes decisions based on the best idea and what has the best outcomes and asks clarifying questions

The teacher will have to help students with their roles by leading a discussion about what these characters might say.  When that is set, the group goes to work on writing a commercial or jingle to market the radioactive jell-0 (also videotaped).  The jingle/commercial should be based on the decision they made in the first activity.  After the activities, there are discussion sheets to fill in and talk about.

What are some observations we can make about the two activities?

What was hard about the activity?  Easy?

Which roles were helpful to the group?  Why?

Which roles weren’t helpful—how do we know?

How would these roles be used in conversations with friends? Parents? At work?

What could happen if you stay in one role all of the time?

What could happen if you always argue or never argue?

What are some good ways to approach discussions?  What do you want to keep in mind about the roles?

Journal Writing

Analyze your conversational style.  What role(s) do you usually play?  Why do you like that role?  Analyze how the role is different at work or with friends? Set a goal:  how will you improve or change your conversational style?


The teacher will analyze the question sheets, videotapes and journal to evaluate the student’s learning.  The teacher should write meaningful comments (especially in the journal).  The teacher should also give meaningful comments as the groups are discussing.

  1. Students will recognize what answer the teacher is looking for when he/she asks a question


Students will refer back to their semantic feature analysis and review the meanings of the cognitive verbs.  They will brainstorm knowledge they’d use to answer types of questions.  The teacher will give examples (for instance, when a teacher asks a multiple choice question he/she wants to know if the student knows a fact and when a teacher asks an essay question the teacher usually is determining if the student can apply the facts they know).  Students will also figure out what kind of information they can use to get the answer to the question.  Students will take notes during this discussion.


Students will be given a sheet with several scenarios on it (for example:  The teacher wants to know if a student can compare bacteria and viruses.  What kind of question (using your cognitive verbs) would he/she write to find this out).   Scenarios should also relate to work and home (for example:  You have to train a new employee to work the cash register at work tomorrow and your boss wants to make sure you can give that person the correct information.  What kind of question (using your verbs) might he/she ask you just to make sure you know the information?)  Hopefully students will write questions like:  “Compare a bacteria with a virus,” and “explain how to use this cash register.”

Index Cards and Wall Charts

Students will make their own index cards with reminders about types of questions and answers which can be laminated for them to keep handy.  Update this for 21st Century learning by having students use their 1:1 iPad instead of notecards. They can also make a wall chart for each classroom for a reminder as well.  They should include things like:  the definitions of the major cognitive verbs, and what kinds of answers (information) are being sought for certain kinds of questions.


The teacher can look at the index cards, wall charts and scenario sheet to evaluate the learning from these activities.

  1. Students will analyze how to use questions to check their own understanding and to get clarification


Students will do role-plays of social skills that use questioning formats to gain understanding (following instructions, receiving negative feedback, negotiation, giving negative feedback).  Before the role-playing starts the teacher should ask “What are some situations where we might need to ask what is going on (get a better understanding of a situation)?”  Lead students to their social skills and then help them discover situations at home, school and work.  Have students role-play pre-made scenarios of difficult instructions to follow where they have to ask questions to check their understanding and/or get clarification.  Example:  You have to give instructions to your house to someone who has never been to [Burlington].  One person gives the instructions and one person is the “out-of-towner.”

Clarifying Directions

Students will be given a worksheet of directions for various assignments.  They must read the directions and write a specific question for each to check their understanding (to question the question).  This question is not something like “what do I do?” but it could be something like “I’m not sure what this word means…am I supposed to just list information?” and “What does this question ask?”  After completing the sheets, as a group, students pool their best clarifying questions and try to make them as universal as possible so that they can create another wall chart (and/or index card); They can also be given a list of Paul’s Critical Thinking Questions to help them with the index cards.

Comic Strip

Students will draw or create a comic strip or picture of characters involved in a discussion.  Characters are asking clarifying questions of each other to continue the discussion.  Show a teacher model of this so that students know what to do.  An example is included in the materials section of this project.  Before they begin to draw, brainstorm some situations where clarifying questions will have to be asked.

Guest Speaker

Students practice asking questions and having a discussion with a guest speaker willing to come in and talk about a topic of interest (of high interest).  The teacher should let the speaker know before-hand what the goal is and that the students are working on asking questions and participating in discussions.  The speaker can also model by being sure to point out what kind of information he/she is giving based on the student’s question (and the speaker can question the students in return).  For example:  a student asks “when were you born?” the speaker might respond by saying “that’s a simple fact, 1972.” Or a student might ask “what is the hardest thing about being a meteorologist?” and the speaker could say “well, I have to analyze a lot about my job to answer that question…”  In short, the teacher should prep the speaker.  It is also a good idea to have everyone sit in a circle for this activity—it will be more intimate and fun that way.  This can be videotaped for teacher review.


The teacher will use the video tape, the scenarios and comic strip.  The teacher should also fill out an evaluation form for the role-plays so that the students get feedback.

Ongoing Evaluation

Once the curriculum is done, the teacher helps shape behavior that is desired in the mainstream by using the behavior management system that is already in place.  For instance, a teacher will now point out “it’s great to have you participating in this discussion,” and “That’s a good clarifying question.”  Students receive “positives” or “points” toward incentives when the teacher observes and acknowledges this type of behavior.

Reading Comprehension Strategies for Non-readers

From my own experiences, what I’ve found most helpful with working with poor readers are the pre-reading strategies or preparatory work that we can do with students to really “hook” them into a piece of text.  I recently had the task of teaching a 6-7 grade class (of all non-readers and behavior problem students) about the 3 main types of volcanoes.  Rather than just get into the 2 paragraphs, I began with a website that showed them video clips and photos of different volcanoes erupting.  I know they didn’t have much background knowledge of volcanoes; I know they didn’t have good strategies for coming up with questions about a piece of reading, so I needed to give them visuals which would stimulate some ideas or connections for them.  They thought it was so cool—one student said, “you mean there’s different kinds of volcanoes?” and they were into it; they wanted to know the three types.  We read (the 1st grade level text) about the 3 main types and then looked at the pictures and video clips again to match the types with the real photos/videos.  I am certain they never would have even bothered to be interested without that “visual hook,” that thing that needed to be done to capture their interest and prepare them for the reading.  When I wanted to go back to review the three types of volcanoes the next day, I reminded them of the pictures and video clips that they saw to help them remember.

One thing I find difficult to teach to students who are poor readers is the meta-cognitive stuff about reading.  Some of them can hear themselves stumble when they read out loud when something doesn’t make sense, and they go back.  I think the RAP (read, ask what’s important, put it in your own words) strategy will work well for that too.  This strategy has helped me teach them the idea of paraphrasing—so if they can paraphrase what they read then I can be reasonably sure they are understanding and monitoring their understanding.

Questioning during reading is something I’ve become very practiced at.  My students have become very good at answering my “how” and “why” questions.  I want to show them how they can find the answers to the different kinds of questions.  Break questions down into “in the book” and “in my head” questions.  In my classroom we keep a list of questions everyone asks as we read.  For example, when we were reading The Iliad, some of the questions my students came up with were “Will Paris die?”; “Will Achilles die?”; “Who was good and who was bad?”; “Why was Paris called a coward?”; “who will win the war?”  Then I can work with them further on how to better discover the answers to the questions—will we find the answer in the book or will we have to think about it?  Then I can ask them, “will we need information from the story to think about it or can we answer it without the book?”  I want to be able to get them to a point where they can generate questions for each other without my prompting.  Learning to distinguish between kinds of questions will help them in their other subject areas too. Teaching them to think about reading isn’t just teaching them to think about reading—it’s teaching them to think about the world.  I always love when one or more of them say, “ok, so now Dawn is going to ask us how this character is like a real person and what advice would we give them if we met them blah blah blah,” and they do it with a bit of exasperation and sarcasm because I always ask it and they are so sick of hearing it, but they do it– and I’ve made them think about things in the world that are different from what they are used to.

One thing we are fortunate enough to be able to do in a small, alternative setting is to help generalize reading strategies through the other subject areas.  Students at ONTOP take different classes every day (like they would in a mainstream high school). But one of our goals is to focus on literacy—get them to read and think at higher levels than they do now so they won’t feel so intimidated in a high school class.  When teachers teach a reading strategy or a vocabulary strategy then the other teachers in the building will also model and use that strategy in their subject area.  There are only 6 teachers, so it’s easy to collaborate and we have support for each other—it makes it easy to give the students as much exposure to strategies as possible.  This is one of the main things that helps our students learn to read and comprehend more quickly.  We don’t need all those reading accommodations that the students needed in mainstream education because we use text that they can read and have the time to teach them strategies and expose them across subject areas—you just can’t get that kind of package deal in a mainstream high school classroom where the goal is to get through the curriculum rather than teach the student how to read.  Learning and practicing strategies for reading helps the students gain confidence and self-esteem which will make sitting in a mainstream high school class less intimidating.  A couple of years ago I had a student say to me, “you tricked me into liking reading.”  He became the first in his family to graduate from high school.

Tips for Working with Tough Kids and Their Parents

As a teacher of students with significant emotional and behavioral challenges, I’ve found that it is imperative to form good working relationships with the parents of my students.  As part of our alternative school program, parents meet every two weeks with the special education “team.”  We call these meetings “home conferences;” it doesn’t mean that we meet with the parents at home–it just means that we have a home-school meeting with all the players on the student’s team.  

2The best thing you can do to work with parents of tough kids is to remember that they might not have the same values as you do.  Some of the parents I have worked with over the years are people who aren’t necessarily people I think are the best role models, but I look beyond that and understand that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.  Listen to them; let them download their worries to you, and be someone they can lean on.  Don’t try to make them fit into a middle class mold.  Shake their hand when you meet them, smile at them warmly, and ask them about themselves.  Their child might be difficult in the classroom, and you need the parents on your side.  

Set up regular meetings that are based on all of the good things the student has accomplished.  These meetings might only be 10-15 minutes long, but you will quickly become well-liked when you are sharing positives about their child in person. Parents of your difficult students have often had difficulties back when they were in school, so school is a negative and scary place to be.  When you communicate positive accomplishments, the parents aren’t as afraid of school personnel.  You will need to have at least 40 positive communications “in the bank” with a tough kid before you have a negative communication with that child; otherwise it will be an uphill climb to build a relationship with that student and to have them trust you.  The same can be said for working with a parent of a tough kid; build up the positives so that when things get difficult and you have to give some negative feedback, the parent trusts you.

Relationship is key.  In order to work best with a tough kid, you have to build a solid relationship with them because you will be relying on that when their behavior gets difficult.  A tough kid is not going to follow your directions and listen to you because you are the “authority.”  You have to show that kid that you can be trusted.  You have to be a safe person for the tough kids.  In the classroom, tell the child, “thank you for (insert compliment),” or “I like how you (insert compliment).”  Be specific with your feedback, so that it shapes the positive behavior you want.  Try to ignore minor attention seeking behaviors.  

Likewise, if you are a principal who only sees your students occasionally or when they have been “bad,” then you aren’t going to garner respect from the tough students.  Stand in the hall in the morning and greet each student as he or she enters the building; go to student homerooms to say hello, or talk to them while they eat breakfast (or eat with them).  If you work in an alternative school, this is even more important.  Go into classrooms and compliment students who are on task and show interest in their work and accomplishments.  I don’t know how many times since we’ve gotten our new principal that the students will ask where she is, or they will comment on the fact that she only comes into a classroom when someone is in trouble.  Students notice, and teachers can’t hide it.  Further, if you are a principal of tough kids, go to the positive parent-teacher meetings and be a presence in the room when there is good news; if you only go to the meetings where there is “bad news,” again, you aren’t going to build any trust with the parents or the students.  A case in point:  our principal doesn’t go to many parent-teacher meetings; I’ve had parents in the spring of the school year who never remember meeting the principal; I’ve also had parents say to me that they don’t want her at a meeting because they don’t trust her.  Because she’s an authority figure in the school, they especially don’t trust her; they see her just like they’ve seen all authority figures in the past:  not on their side.

No matter what type of school you work in, and no matter what type of principal you have, you need to build the strongest relationships with your toughest students and their parents.  Those are the people who need to know that you are a safe person who is on their side so that when times get tough, they can trust that you have the best interest of their child at heart.