Teacher Speak

A mom friend recently asked me how to contact a “prickly” teacher because of a confusing project grade her daughter received. My mom friend happened to call on my parent teacher conference day, so I was already prepping myself for parent teacher conversations.

There are many lists out there about constructive ways for parents and teachers to communicate. My list below is by no means complete. Since I see both sides, I listed the top three pointers that are most useful to me as a parent and the top three that work well for me as a teacher.

The Parent Side

  1. If you would like a teacher to review a grade, make the question about the paper or grade (de-personalize as much as possible). If you start out your message by saying, “You (teacher) made a mistake,” the teacher will probably feel defensive. Teachers are better at responding to notes that say, “We don’t understand why points were deducted from the conclusion of the essay; could you explain?” Or, “We rechecked question #3 on the test and think it may have been mismarked. Can you look at it again?”
  2. Allow teachers 24 hours to respond to a phone message or e-mail. If you contact a teacher on a Friday afternoon, wait until Monday afternoon before sending another note. After two or three attempts without a response, you might contact the administrator for your child’s class. Try to avoid contacting the administrator without making the teacher aware first. Teachers feel ambushed when that happens.
  3. If you get any comments about material management, using assignment books more effectively, or missing assignments, you may want to focus on organization with your child. Establish routines at home for how, when, and where homework is completed. Keep bookbags and school papers in one place at home and always use that same location. Items won’t get lost or left behind as easily.

The Teacher Side

  1. Keep a Parent Contact Log in your grade book. If you call a parent or speak to a parent in person, note the date and topics discussed. This helps me the teacher be specific when a parent does not remember prior discussions about poor grades or disruptive behavior. If sending an e-mail, save that e-mail (and any replies) to a parent folder for the specific academic year. If it is taking two or three drafts to compose an e-mail, you probably need to just pick up the phone and call.
  2. Do not send home a failing grade on a progress report without contacting a parent first. In fact, if a child is going to fail a whole grading period, the teacher should have been in contact with the parent multiple times and have parent signatures on individual test grades and big assignments.
  3. Always start a conversation with something positive about the student. End the conversation with specific actions for the parents and/or student to keep improving. This is something I learned during student teaching, and it has always stuck with me.

Basically, it all boils down to showing respect. What are other successful strategies you have to avoid miscommunication between the parent and the teacher?

The Write Way

I have not cracked the code, but I am coming close to a grammar system that (almost) guarantees students will write in complete sentences. When I started a 6th grade teaching job about 15 years ago, my teammate handed me a binder called Sentence Writing Strategies**. I attended the training for it at University of Georgia, and it has changed my grammar world. Teachers, if you can attend a training session in your area, run– don’t walk!

I am able to adapt the key elements of the Sentence Writing Strategies and fold it into whatever grammar textbook my school has at whatever grade level I am teaching. Basically, I use my grammar textbook in the Sentence Writing Strategies order.

Step 1: Teach some basic parts of speech and then begin introducing each sentence type (simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex). The steps in My Grammar Plan take me about 6-8 weeks with 4th graders. The order is the key!

Students mark prepositional phrases, infinitives, verbs/helping verbs, and subjects in every sentence– IN THAT ORDER– every time. If students can do this well, they can more easily identify all of the other “stuff”. Parents, if you are working with a child at home who struggles with complete sentences or identifying parts of sentences, following these steps will help.

Step 2: Begin simple sentences. Writing Strategies gives you formulas for simple sentences. Each simple sentence (independent clause) must meet 3 criteria. A sentence must have a subject, a verb, and make sense on its own.

Step 3: Build the folders. Is anyone familiar with magnetic poetry? I had a set of the little word magnets on my refrigerator for a long time and thought my students could move word pieces a la magnetic poetry around to create sentences. My students know the definition of a simple sentence and can identify the parts of a simple sentence, but actually executing the simple sentence was proving to be a bit of a challenge.

I sealed white mailing envelopes and cut them in half to make pockets. You could use coin envelopes or library card pockets too. You will need to cut the height down some, so little fingers can reach into the pockets. My pockets are about 2 1/2 in. tall. I glued the pockets to the left side of a manila folder and labeled them. I created a sentence building space with directions on the right side of the folder. In each pocket are small cardstock chips with the word choices for each part of the sentence we know to date.


I put the students in groups of 2 or 3 and gave them each a folder. The students used the word chips in the folders to build simple sentences. After they created a sentence, they transferred the words to a piece of notebook paper and marked the sentence to check for any errors.

My next plan for grammar domination is to expand the folders. I thought I could add pockets for adjectives and adverbs. I can keep adding to the sentence types, so students can build compound and complex sentences… then I will need coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. The possibilities are endless. What else can I do with my folders?

** For more information about the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning,  Strategic Instruction Model®, search Learning Strategies: Sentence Writing – Fundamentals in the Sentence Writing Strategy and Proficiency in the Sentence Writing Strategy or click on the link above.

School Business

About a week ago, my students started reading The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies as a novel study in class. I love teaching this book. Not only do the boys like it as much as the girls, but it is funny and has great practical information about money and starting a business. When the students finish reading the book, about half reach for the sequel, The Lemonade Crime by Davies. If The Lemonade Crime is checked out of the library, there are many other book recommendations (see list below) that portray a main character who gets things going. The characters might run a business, be the leader of a project, or become responsible for something significant.

This type of storyline promotes creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit. Many of these books teach students about the basics of business (profit, loss, partnership, etc.). I also like the fact that these books depict children as problem-solvers without a parent or adult handing them the easy solution. Although, there is usually a supportive adult somewhere in the story. What are your best “independent kid” books? I know I am missing some good ones.

Chapter Books

  • The Bread Winner by Arvella Whitmore
  • Crunch by Leslie Connor
  • The Secret School by Avi
  • Lunch Money by Andrew Clements
  • School Story by Andrew Clements
  • Hotel for Dogs by Lois Duncan
  • Tarantula Shoes by Tom Birdseye
  • Lawn Boy and Lawn Boy Returns by Gary Paulsen
  • Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary
  • Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin
  • The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill

Picture Books

  • A Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoban
  • The Gardener by Sarah Stewart
  • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
  • Sheep in a Shop by Nancy Shaw
  • Alexander, Who Used To Be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst


  • The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton
  • Everyone Wears His Name: A Biography of Levi Strauss by Sondra Henry
  • Model T: How Henry Ford Built a Legend by David Weitzman
  • Chocolate by Hershey: A Story About Milton S. Hershey by Betty Burford
  • Kidpreneurs, Young Entrepeneurs with Big Ideas by Adam Toren and Matthew Toren
  • Growing Money: A Complete Investing Guide for Kids by Gail Karlitz and Debbie Honig

Effective Peer Editing

Behold. My first student writing assignment of the school year. These stories have three things going for them. They were all typed, so I do not have to decipher any bad 4th grade cursive. The students completed them at school, so I am fairly certain that this is student work, and I avoided any parent tampering. And finally, they were peer edited, so the spelling and grammar mistakes should be minimal (insert uncontrollable laughter here).

To teachers and students and parents who remember being a student, “peer edit” is usually the code name for socializing during class without anyone noticing. Well, never fear, theroommom is here. I actually have some peer editing strategies that might work for you. Not only can teachers use these in the classroom at any grade level, parents can use these techniques with their children at home without being tempted to over-help the child. Believe me, teachers know when a parent has had a heavy hand in a student’s paper!

What useful tips do you have to improve writing– adult’s or child’s?

Task 1

Have a classmate (or parent) read the essay aloud to the writer. Read EXACTLY what is on the page. If the paragraph does not contain a period, do not pause. If the author wrote “they’re” instead of “there”, read “they are”. If the author wrote “exited” instead of “excited”, pronounce it phonetically. The writer should be able to hear problems with punctuation, misspelled, and misused words. The writer should also hear missing information or disorganized ideas.

Task 2

Highlight the first word of every sentence in the essay and review the highlighted words. Do you have a variety of words or did you begin every sentence with the same word? Is there only one highlighted word in a whole paragraph– or even worse– the whole essay? That means you have forgotten punctuation somewhere. Are the highlighted words the same distance apart throughout the whole piece? That means you may be using only one type of sentence (like all simple sentences) when you should have a variety of sentence types and lengths. You can also have students count the number of highlighted words if you require a certain number of sentences in a paragraph. Five highlighted words should equal five sentences.

Task 3

Circle any helping verbs in the story even if the verb is not being used as a helping verb in that particular sentence. Remove half. This helps to fix passive voice even if you do not understand what passive voice is. I require that my fourth graders memorize the helping verb list some time around October, and it is such a useful tool for many grammar and writing tasks.

Task 4

Read the essay or story backwards one sentence at a time to the writer. The writer should be listening for problems with mechanics, not content. Read one sentence and stop. Check that each sentence has an action, a person/thing doing that action, and is a complete thought. In other words, do you have a complete sentence?

Novel Ideas

Gather round readers. I am about to reveal a handful of literature gems. Each year, I teach about six novel studies with the whole class. We complete activities related to the book that hopefully enhance reading comprehension and improve critical thinking and writing skills. I have a wide range of readers, so I have to be careful with my book and activity choices. The plot of the book and writing assignments must be accessible to my lower readers but keep the higher readers engaged.

Below is a list some of my favorite literature activities. I am hoping you educators might see a novel idea (see how I slipped in that play on words?) that you could use in your classroom this year. But, I always need new ideas to keep things interesting. Do you have any suggestions for me?

Point of View Journals

  • After reading the first chapter of a book, each student selects one of the main characters. I ask them to re-tell the chapter from the point of view of the selected character. We share samples with the whole class and compare the differences in the re-telling. Why is one character’s story different from another? The students complete this task for every chapter, writing 4-5 sentences per chapter. The students stick with the same character throughout the book. Once students make their character choice, they may not change.
  • I used this with THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY by Sheila Burnford. We called them “Incredible Journals” and students became one of the three animals throughout the book.  I also used this activity with THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE by C.S. Lewis. Students had to choose Lucy or Edmund.

narnia map and journal sample

Antique Maps

  • Give each student a ledger sized piece of white copy paper (11×17). Legal paper will work too; letter sized is too small. Dip a tea bag in cold water for several minutes, carefully squeeze out excess water, and “paint” the entire piece of paper until it is a tannish color. Let paper dry. When it is dry, it will be this nice crinkly texture and look like parchment paper.
  • The students then create a map of the setting of the novel. For THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE by C.S. Lewis, students have to search for passages in the book that give clues about where key locations are in the story. They use the clues to build a map of Narnia. This is HARD for 4th graders! I have a Narnia Map Handout, and we do the first few locations together. Students are then allowed to work in pairs. In THE WHITE MOUNTAINS by John Christopher, the main characters travel from England to the Swiss Alps, but it is in the future after an alien invasion. Readers must use descriptions in the book and knowledge of maps of Europe to piece together the route the main characters take (used this with 6th graders).
  • I have also used the antique paper with an activity for THE EGYPT GAME by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. After researching pharaohs, students pretended they were a pharaoh. They created a name and wrote a description of their life as a pharaoh on the antique paper. If you have laser printers, you can print the story, then stain it with the tea bags. Ink jet printed papers will smear.

white mountains map cropped


Amazon Book Listing

  • Students design an Amazon book listing for THE LEMONADE WAR by Jacqueline Davies. The students wrote a catchy book summary and included basic book information. They also provided a “star” rating and provided three additional book suggestions in the “Frequently Bought Together” section, so we built a book recommendation list at the same time.

Amazon book listing sample3

Character Resumes

  • We read a few sections of THE MISSING GOLDEN TICKET by Roald Dahl. This is a great book to kick off discussions about the writing process. It includes a chapter from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with an additional nasty character that Dahl edited out. My students design their own rotten child with a bad habit (a la the Chocolate Factory characters) and build a CHARACTER RESUME for that character. Not only does it help with characterization, it also is a good way to teach word processing skills.

character resume

Novel Newspaper

  • This will work with any novel. I have used it with DANNY, THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD by Roald Dahl. This is a culminating activity after finishing the book. The students create a DANNY NEWSPAPER with 3 articles. The first article is a feature article with quotes. The students must think like a reporter and write a description of the climax scene of the story. They imagine what the main characters might have said on the scene and incorporate quotes from the characters that fit. The second article is an editorial about whether it is acceptable to poach or not. The third article is a book review. The students create the paper in MS Word and use a variety of word processing skills– section breaks, borders, column changes. All of my students’ finished products are pretty impressive.

danny newspaper sample

  • Look at copies of your local newspaper before starting this assignment. Note common layout details on the newspaper and incorporate those into the assignment– newspaper name, date, volume number, author byline… Also note the writing style in a paper. Important facts are in the first paragraph followed by lesser details.

I have many low prep, high engagement novel units available in my teacher store. Click the bold novel titles above to be linked to the resource listing, or CLICK HERE to see the full list.