Sunday, September 25, 2016

Week 5: The School Year's First Progress Report (week of 9/23/16)

Time sure is flying this year. I can't believe that we're already halfway through our first quarter!

Soon, progress reports will be mailed home. They're exactly what they sound like, a report of your son or daughter's progress in their classes so far. Progress reports aren't official and won't appear on any transcript; they serve as a "heads up" for those students and parents who aren't checking PowerSchool regularly. Hopefully, you'll see no surprises. Again, I strongly suggest checking in on PowerSchool at least once every week to ensure that assignments are turned in while they're still relevant. There's even an app for your phone that keeps you logged in constantly, so easy! Remember, the most important tool for student success in middle school is the parent-teacher-student triad. We must all work together in order to ensure success. Please don't hesitate to talk with your son or daughter about missing assignments or low scores (I'm always happy to discuss these as well, but please speak with them first).

As we talked about at Back to School Night and in previous blog posts, middle school is the time for your son or daughter to start testing the waters, so to speak, in regards to autonomy and responsibility. Middle school is safe and a good portion of teachers are willing to work with students to help them be successful. I was reading an article the other day that pretty much sums up the advice I was going to give you at this point in the school year. Titled "The Homework Helper", Educational Therapist Janel A. Umfress offers some tips and tricks to help your son or daughter find success in middle school:

Have Supplies at the Ready: “First off, make sure supplies—pens, pencils, paper, scissors—are easily accessible. That way, your child can do the task efficiently and effectively without any distractions.”

Plan it Out: “Oftentimes children get overwhelmed when they have numerous different assignments. Helping them prioritize their work and think about how much time each will take can tremendously smooth out the process. Just remember: It’s important to allow them to choose which assignment they want to get started on first—that way they’ll learn the importance of making their own decisions.”

Know When to Help: “In terms of how involved you should be in your child’s assignment, think of it like teaching them to ride a bike. You’re right there behind them if they fall, but you’re letting them do all the work until that happens. If you’re too present as a parent, your kid will get to thinking they can’t do the work without your help.”

Homework is Life: “Helping your child put their schoolwork into context—i.e., applying the lesson at hand to something they know really well, like their favorite outdoor activity or game—is a huge motivator. Plus, learning things that can be applied to the real world is the whole point of getting an education, isn’t it?”



Patience is Key: “It’s important to realize that when a kid says, ‘I can’t do it,’ it could mean they can’t do it in that moment. It’s easy to feel your kid is being oppositional or lazy, but sometimes they just need a soft nudge. Those are the best times to step in and lend a hand.”


Take a Break: “If your child is getting frustrated, take a short break. Down time, whether that be reading a book or playing outside, really encourages creativity. Though, I would recommend staying away from phones and computers, as they can be seriously distracting to a child trying to get their work done.”


Question for the dinner table/drive home:
1. Who is your favorite character from a book? What makes them your favorite character?
2. What are this week's five academic vocabulary words? Use them correctly in a sentence.
3. What is the STEAL method when we're talking about characterization? Which one do you think is the most important and why?

Warmest wishes,
Kevin Laffin

Class website: https://sites.google.com/a/slcusd.org/laffin/home

Join my Remind classes to receive reminders and updates. Text the following codes to 81010:
Period 1- @laffin1
Period 2- @laffin2
Period 3- @laffin3
Period 4- @laffin4
AVID (Period 6)- @avidlams

Friday, September 16, 2016

Week 4: Wrapping Up Plot, the Reading Inventory test, and Progress Reports (week of 9/14/16)

This week began with an exciting game of Quizlet Live and Kahoot, the two study games we'll be playing a lot throughout the school year. These games allow my students to have fun and study in an engaging way. We always begin with Quizlet Live, a game that takes the Quizlet notecard sets (available on my website) and turns them into a group race-to-the-finish. The game automatically puts students into groups of three or four, getting them up and moving around the classroom and interacting with different students. In their small groups, each student receives the same definition. However, each student will receive four different vocabulary words from that week's set and only one student will actually have the correct answer. Students then must talk and discuss their answers to ensure they click the correct answer and move forward on the scoreboard. I like to start with this game because it evens the playing field and bit because all students are talking over the vocabulary and its definition.


We follow up Quizlet Live with Kahoot. While Quizlet Live is a loud, interactive, exciting group game, Kahoot is a loud, interactive, exciting individual game (seeing a pattern here?). Students at this point have seen and heard the words and their definitions many times in the class period and have an advantage for when we move from the group Quizlet Live to the solo Kahoot. I've been playing Kahoot for a little over two years in my room, thanks to the heads up from Mr. Townsend a coupole years ago. This game is similar to Quizlet Live where students are given a question and a choice of four answers. Students must read the question and colored answers on the projector screen and match the color to the correct button on their own Chromebook screen. Sometimes it's a simple question and other times there's a picture component. These games help take simple vocabulary from hanging out in the short-term memory portion of the brain (what we call "recall", mainly used to cram for a test and forget) and pushes it into the long-term area of the brain so students can use the information throughout the year, and hopefully in future years. Both of these games mask studying with a lot of interaction and fun and my students really enjoy these study games!


This week, my students took three quizzes on plot. It sounds like a lot, but each quiz was quick and helped me gauge where we were going, as we're getting ready to move on from plot and into characterization with "The Outsiders". Tuesday's quiz was a vocabulary quiz that students took online. Wednesday's quiz was a "life test". "Life Tests" are where I ask my students to take their knowledge and apply it to something in their life; it's an atypical quiz (though I call it a "life test", it's really a quiz). For this particular quiz, we watched the Pixar short "Day and Night" three times in a row. During the six-minute short (18 minutes in total viewing time), students were responsible for writing down the specific elements of plot from the movie. The students may have struggled with this portion of the quiz, and that's fine. I explained to them Friday that we're still in the infancy stages of our study of plot and we'd be getting better at it as time went on. This quiz was just to measure what we knew and what we needed to focus on a bit more. Friday's quiz was a similar quiz to Wednesday's, but this time it was online and students matched answers instead of writing them. We also went through the movie and the specific elements of plot and took notes before the quiz, ensuring that my students got the information that they were being asked to know.
Speaking of quizzes and tests, this week was heavy with them. It's rare that there's ever more than one quiz or test in my class per week. First and foremost, I try to make my quizzes as low-stress as possible, so even though there were many knowledge measurements this week, I hope my students were comfortable and were able to see their growth as the week progressed. Thursday, we took the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) test; your son or daughter may have taken this test in elementary school as well. This test gives me and our reading specialist an idea of where our students' reading levels are. This test was not worth anything in my gradebook, but I stressed to students that it would really help me to be a better teacher if they took it seriously and showed me their true reading level. As a school, we're working towards getting our students into the classes they need to be successful sooner rather than later. The SRI will help us figure out who needs additional support and who doesn't. It's a pretty low-key reading test that measures a students' reading comprehension. At the end, they're given their Lexile score which is their reading level. Using this number, students can go to whatshouldireadnext.com or arbookfind.com and find a book that they'll understand and enjoy. For example, a student at a 920 Lexile level will have a 75% success rate at understanding a book that is labeled 920L. If a student is reading at their specific reading level, they'll be more successful and will grow, eventually meeting a higher reading level. We suggest not reading above a students' reading level because comprehension goes down and frustration goes up.

Finally, progress reports will be coming out soon. If you or your student have yet to visit PowerSchool, I suggest doing it now rather than later. Progress reports and report cards are usually a time of surprises, a la "I didn't know I was failing." Students and parents alike have access to student grades 24/7 at PowerSchool. Please check your child's grade and help them to get in the missing assignments they may have. I accept late work at a 10% deduction until the quarter ends.

Question for the dinner table/drive home:
1. How did your understanding of the elements of plot change this week? Did it grow, shrink, or stay the same?
2. What are this week's five academic vocabulary words? Use them correctly in a sentence.
3. Look at your IBP book; what elements of plot have you come across so far? How do you know?

Warmest wishes,
Kevin Laffin

Class website: https://sites.google.com/a/slcusd.org/laffin/home

Join my Remind classes to receive reminders and updates. Text the following codes to 81010:
Period 1- @laffin1
Period 2- @laffin2
Period 3- @laffin3
Period 4- @laffin4
AVID (Period 6)- @avidlams

Friday, September 9, 2016

Week 3: Plot is "For the Birds" and Academic, Scholarly, and Professional Work (week of 9/9/16)

I hope everyone enjoyed their Labor Day; I went down to LA to visit my parents and hang out with my brother, Kris, who's just returned home from working on Shanghai Disney for three years. I was also absent Tuesday, as I was in Fresno with Miss Ahearn and Mr. Schalde (as well as Mr. Illig, Mr. Angel, and Mr. Jarvis from LOMS) at a follow-up WEB Coordinator training. I'm really excited for what's in store with WEB over the next year!!!

We continued our study of plot this week, pushing our knowledge from short term memory to long term memory. On Tuesday, Mr. Taylor led the students on a textbook scavenger hunt. Not only does this activity familiarize the students with the English textbook, but it also gets them using their critical thinking skills as they comb through both fiction and nonfiction texts. My students are used to me saying, "Solve your own problem" whenever they can't figure something out. What I mean, and they know I mean, is that they have the tools to be successful (their eyes and brain) right in front of them and should use those tools in conjunction with what's provided. If a student is genuinely struggling, I don't let them struggle for too long. I just like to get my students thinking of how they can solve a problem on their own before asking for help, which in turn helps them to become more responsible and autonomous.

I spoke with Mr. Taylor regarding my students' progress. It turned out that one class period wasn't enough to complete the scavenger hunt AND my students were working hard, so we spent Wednesday and part of Thursday working hard to finish the hunt. We all now have a better understanding of the textbook and our own knowledge and thinking.

On Thursday, we jumped back into plot by watching "For the Birds", another hilarious Pixar short. Armed with our PDP Cornell Notes and our knowledge from last week, we began filling out a plot diagram (what's referred to as "plot mountain" in my class). My classes are really on the ball with their knowledge and understanding of the elements of plot and should do amazing on their quiz next week! The quiz is scheduled for Tuesday and includes both a multiple choice section and a fill-in-the-plot-diagram section (using a third Pixar short). Students can study for the quiz using their notes or my Quizlet flashcard set online.

We rounded out our week by finishing the plot diagram and writing our first ever theme statement. We then spent the remainder of the period getting our persuasive letters into "final form". I provided each student with a checklist that they used to grade their work. They then traded with a neighbor and double-checked each other's work. "Final form" points are always worth 10 points. These points are "easy" points and are given in addition to (but separately from) the assignment's score.

Question for the dinner table/drive home:
1. What did you learn about your english textbook this week? What story are you looking forward to reading?
2. What are this week's five academic vocabulary words? Use them correctly in a sentence.
3. Which element of plot is the toughest for you to remember? Why do you think that is? Which one is the easiest?

Warmest wishes,
Kevin Laffin

Class website: https://sites.google.com/a/slcusd.org/laffin/home

Join my Remind classes to receive reminders and updates. Text the following codes to 81010:
Period 1- @laffin1
Period 2- @laffin2
Period 3- @laffin3
Period 4- @laffin4
AVID (Period 6)- @avidlams


Saturday, September 3, 2016

Week 2: Climbing Plot Mountain and Making Noise in the LAMS Library (week of 9/02/2016)


This week, we studied the elements of plot and how they interact to create a good story. To do this, I always start by showing a Pixar short, this time it was "Presto". We then dove into our Plot PDP Cornell Notes to discover each part of an effective plot. PDP, or pre-during-post, Cornell notes are an effective note-taking strategy aimed at having students solidify the information they're learning. To do this, we begin with a prediction by answering the essential question. This prediction gets the students thinking about the concept without having the fear of being wrong, as it doesn't matter if they are right or wrong. This is the "pre" portion of the notes. The "during" is the actual note-taking process when we write definitions and look at those elements in the Pixar short. The "post" portion of the notes is a summary. Students have to summarize their entire notes packet using five vocabulary words, which I have chosen for them. This week, my students asked if they could challenge themselves to include the school-wide academic vocabulary in their summaries in addition to the five words I chose. I was floored by the students' great idea and offered one point of extra credit for each of the five academic vocabulary word they used correctly. I got some amazing summaries!

I also introduced my classes to their IBP, or the Independent Book Project. Each quarter, students will be completing a book project to show that they have mastered the concepts taught in class. These projects allow students to self-select a book and allows them to read it on their own timeline; I also go over a sample timeline for students who need support figuring out how much to read each night in order to be successful on the project. This quarter's book project is on fiction and the book must be: one they've never read before and over 150 pages. The book cannot be "The Outsiders" or "The Giver", as we'll be reading those in class.
The written portion of this project is due Friday, October 7, 2016.
The presentations for this project are Monday, October 10- Friday, October 14, 2016.
***Project guidelines and rubrics were sent home this week***

The written portion will focus on a short author biography and a theme statement, complete with evidence from a credible, online source. The presentation will be a book talk: a brief, five-minute-or-less presentation with short author bio, book background information, and a short passage read from the book they chose.

I'd also like to spend a moment talking about PowerSchool. This week, parent usernames and passwords were sent home for PowerSchool. I'm asking my students to be diligent and check once each week and I'd suggest the same for parents. No one likes a surprise at the end of the quarter and middle school teachers, especially myself, don't check in or send home progress reports nearly as much as parents would like. There are only a few grades in my gradebook at the moment so every point carries a higher value. Missing assignments are automatic zeros until they are turned in, regardless of if the student was absent or not. You'll notice that the zero drops the student's grade considerably, which is exactly why it's a zero instead of a blank space in the gradebook. Assignments can be turned in until the end of the quarter they were assigned in. Late assignements receive 10% off of the points earned; absent work is given one day for each absent day to be turned in before late credit is assigned. For more grading policies and PowerSchool support, please visit my website (PowerSchool Support, Grading Policies).

Lastly, we spent Thursday and Friday in the library with Mrs. Schwoerer for library and tech orientation. I really enjoy spending time in the library because it is such a cool space. Mrs. Schwoerer showed us the ins and outs of the library and checking out books, talked to us about all of the fun, interactive activities the library has throughout the year, and helped us check out books for our Independent Book Project. We also explored the Gale Database and ETC Portal, two academic search engines. I walked my students through how to get their work in "final form" using their persuasive letters. It was a great week in G-6 and the library!


Question for the dinner table/drive home:
1. Why is it important to have your typed work in final form? What does "final form" even mean?
2. What are this week's five academic vocabulary words? Use them correctly in a sentence.
3. What book are you reading for your independent book project? Why did you choose it? What do you like about your book so far?

Warmest wishes,
Kevin Laffin

Class website: https://sites.google.com/a/slcusd.org/laffin/home

Join my Remind classes to receive reminders and updates. Text the following codes to 81010:
Period 1- @laffin1
Period 2- @laffin2
Period 3- @laffin3
Period 4- @laffin4
AVID (Period 6)- @avidlams