Keeping parents in the loop

The following is a (slightly edited) email I sent out to parents recently. I include it here because it might prompt you to do something similar. I have posted previously (see link here) about the importance of keeping parents in the loop (and it is ALWAYS appreciated by parents). Feel free to copy and edit this to suit.

Dear parent,
Thank you for taking the time to come in and see me at the recent parent-teacher meeting. I am following up to maintain contact and to give you the opportunity to ask me anything that wasn’t covered in the meeting itself.

The idea that we are to communicate only once a year is crazy and as a parent it must be difficult trying to remember the comments from ten or more teachers, so hopefully this will help you keep track of the situation in relation to Science class.

During the meeting I jotted down various points that I wanted to expand upon.
They include the following:

We don’t use a textbook. I have found in the past that they contain a lot of extra information which isn’t necessary and for a young student it’s not always obvious which material is necessary and which isn’t. Instead they get a photocopy of notes for each chapter; these contain only the information that they will need to know. These notes also contain a copy of all exam questions that have appeared on that topic in the past (both at Ordinary Level and Higher Level) so they can become familiar with the detail required in their answers for Junior Cert itself.

Having said that, some students like to use the textbook for background reading.

I have asked the students to check that they have a copy of the notes on each of the chapters we covered this year.
If they are missing any they can ask me or they can download them themselves from (click on the relevant chapter from Junior Cert Biology, Chemistry or Physics).

Each chapter should be kept in a separate polypocket.

Students should also have a ‘Chapter Checklist’ which helps them monitor what chapters are covered and which we have yet to do throughout the year. This can be downloaded from here

It should be obvious how to read it but just in case; the chapters covered in Second Year are in column 2. For the Summer exams we also include the chapters from First Year that were covered between Christmas and Summer. These are in the second half of each (Physics/Chemistry/Biology) section.

We will have all the topics covered by the end of next week. After that it’s all revision plus hopefully enough ‘fun’ science to keep everyone interested during the final term.

Experiment Book
Students are expected to keep a record of all the mandatory experiments which they carry out over the three years. Some teachers give them books which they can purchase (or which may have come with the textbook). I prefer to give them out a booklet which I made out and which has been tailored for the specific experiments which we do in class. They don’t need to put in a detailed procedure (I have this done for them). They do however need to put in a diagram and results (where appropriate). I then include a series of questions which tries to tease out whether they really understand the experiment or are just going through the motions. I find this approach leads to more effective learning, with (much)  less heartache all round, while still satisfying the requirements of the Department. They usually fill these in during the class when they have finished the experiment so there’s less likelihood of them loosing the booklets by taking them home. I can also check very quickly that all experiments are up to date.

This is worth 10 % of their final mark. The mark is not dependent on the quality of the write-up or the quality of the results, they merely need to have a record of having done the experiment and I then sign off to this effect so that they can get full marks.

In Third Year the students carry out two investigations (the titles of which will be issued to them towards the end of the first term) and these are worth 25 % of their total mark. The marks are awarded on the basis of their write-up. We don’t need to worry about this until next year. The whole concept is a shambles, but we don’t get to make the rules so we just play ball.
See an old blogpost on this here

They should have a copy of the tests they did on each topic; this allows them to know what they got wrong and this therefore should be what they concentrate on when they go to revise. They were instructed to keep these in the same polypocket as the notes. However it may be that this system only becomes manageable as they become more organised.

You will sometimes receive advice as to how much time a student should be spending on homework on a given night. I tend to read advice like this with an impending sense of doom. When it comes to homework, it’s quality not quantity that counts. And most students just don’t know how to study properly. That’s not their fault; it’s ours for not showing them. If it was up to me I would have a separate subject on the school curriculum called simply ‘Study Skills’. But it’s not up to me. This is probably a good thing.

Revision / Study Skills / What can you do
We will shortly be revising all topics in advance of the exam. Either ask the student what topics are being revised on a given night or alternatively check what we did in class here
You can help be asking them the questions from the end of the notes (answers are also provided, in case your own Science knowledge isn’t quite up to scratch).

Why is Johnny doing great on short class tests but then performing dismally on end-of-term exams?
Doing well on short tests gives a misleading picture and quite often doesn’t translate into doing well on end-of-term exams. In fact it can often be counter-productive.

This ties in directly with what one of you mentioned that your son had said in relation to studying for exams (it had to be a boy). He claimed that “there’s no point learning a week in advance – it will be forgotten before the test”. He is spot on if all he wants to do is do well on that specific test. Cramming the night before does work (in fact it works too well for many students). The problem is that by only visiting the material once, it resides in short term memory only and is all long forgotten before the Summer exams come around.

No problem – we can just cram for everything the night before the Summer exam also – right?

Sadly no; the short term memory (working memory) has only a limited capacity so it’s not going to be able to store a year’s worth of material at short notice.

So the material needs to be in long term memory.
How do we do that?
Answer: Constant (effective)  revision

Which brings us back to Study Skills
In summary:


·         Study for the sake of studying

·         Spend all your time reading notes

·         Spend all your time ‘doing’ the questions (if this merely involves transcribing the information from the textbook to the copy)

·         Waste time writing out the notes

·         Waste time highlighting


·         Set a target

·         Study the material to ensure you ensure you understand it

·         Test yourself

·         Check your answers

·         Learn what went wrong

·         Repeat the test after a short period (say an hour)

·         Repeat again as desired

In short, learning is about retrieval of information from long-term memory.

Rather than writing any more about Homework and Study Skills here I will simply point you to two recent blogposts I penned on the subject. It’s then up to you to read or not as you see fit.
Homework – how effective is it (answer: not much)
Study Skills – how to study hard and still fail

I do try to incorporate these ideas into my own teaching, so with Second Years I give very little homework, and we try to do all our learning in class.

Why do students go through eight years of primary education and six years of secondary education (and quite possibly four or more years of third level education) without ever learning how to learn?
Beats me.
Answers on a postcard please . . .

Student Feedback
Interestingly a number of you mentioned that your son/daughter was reluctant to speak up in class. I have a couple of techniques which I use to counter that – some more successful than others.

One is the use of Coloured Cups; each student gets three cups (red, orange and green). Red means that they don’t understand what the heck I’m on about, Orange means they kinda get it but aren’t too confident. Green means that that get it and are confident that they could explain it to a colleague if asked to do so. They keep cups stacked in front of them with the appropriate cup on top. It means that I can ascertain how the class is going with a quick scan, and as I’m walking around I can stop and take time with an individual where necessary. Tied to that is the use of MiniWhiteBoards (“ShowMe” boards) – students are often happy to write an answer on these in contrast to putting up their hand so it’s another useful weapon to have in the armory. I would however ask that you purchase a couple of whiteboard markers for this purpose. I asked the students to get these themselves but I’m still waiting . . .

In order to make the learning more effective I try to make sure that the students are engaging with their learning. This means getting them to solve problems, make predictions or answer questions in advance of doing an experiment or showing them a demonstration.
Some students are reluctant to make a prediction or take on a challenge because they associate making mistakes (or not getting the right answer) with failure. And they see failure as being Bad. I try to dissuade them of this notion – that failure is a necessary part of the learning process –  but sometimes feel I’m trying to hold back the tide. Therefore it was nice to see that The Science Gallery are currently holding an exhibition on Failure entitled Fail Better. If you get a chance you should head in there with your son/daughter and hopefully they will come away with (as Johnny Cash says) a different point of view. And – you’ve guessed it – I have written about this in more detail here

Academically exceptional students
For some of you, your son/daughter is in the academically exceptional category. You will no doubt have noticed that this can be a mixed blessing in school because, as a rule, teachers just don’t know how to accommodate these students. There are a number of support organisations out there but the one I would recommend most highly is the one with the greatest personal touch;
Tell Catherine I sent you.

Gifted Ireland is a meeting point for parents, teachers and adults interested in supporting and exploring the needs of gifted children and adults in Ireland

If I can help you in any other way please don’t hesitate to give me a shout by email or via a quick text08.


Teachers: engage with parents – they’re on your side

Given that our job is to educate their sons and daughters, it is hard to fathom that formal communication is kept to one (or at most two) parent-teacher meetings over the course of the year. This can’t be right. Early in the new year I gather the email addresses of at least one parent of each student and contact the parents with a general welcome message. Usually it is no more than an introduction and an open offer to parents to contact me by email or text if they have a question about anything to do with my class, but particularly if they have a concern about their child coping in my class.
Later I let them know what I expect from students in relation to behaviour and progress in class, homework policy etc. I also let them know where they can access class notes, what to do if they are missing class for any extended period (see previous post on using timelines), how best to revise, and occasionally give advance notice of upcoming class tests.

Getting feedback from parents who let you know that their child has a particular passion for Science coming in to the school does serve to make you conscious that you have a role to live up to here, but that can’t be any bad thing. I once had a parent ask me if I was likely to inspire her child. I was a little taken aback and the initial response was ‘how dare she?’, but on reflection I thought it was actually a wonderful question, so I answered her as honestly as I could. “I don’t know”, I said, “but I’ll certainly try my best”.

The usefulness of the emails can vary from class to class and year to year, but one thing which doesn’t change is the parents’ appreciation of personal contact. This is most notable with the parents of first-year students, for whom this may be their first experience of secondary education since leaving it themselves. It’s not unusual to get feedback from a parent who claims this is the only communication they have ever had of this kind over their child’s entire primary and secondary education. To be asked to give their own feedback is both a novelty and an affirming experience for these parents who can all often feel that they are  outside the tent when it comes to their children’s education.

Now inviting feedback from parents (or from anyone else for that matter) can leave you a little exposed. I was recently taken to task by a parent for checking his daughter’s homework and, on noticing that she wasn’t able to do some questions, mentioned that I would do them on the board after I checked everybody else’s. By the time I got around to everybody else I had forgotten about this one girl’s issues and proceeded to begin the class proper. The dad informed me that both she and he had spent a large amount of time on these questions the previous night and he wasn’t too impressed that I never went back to explain them in detail. There were a number to points that I took from this.

  1. I probably do this more often than I realise.
  2. The daughter wasn’t surprised that I didn’t go back over the questions – she just assumed that if she couldn’t do the homework this was her problem. This just makes my behaviour so much more disappointing.
  3. While it wasn’t pleasant to hear this, it most definitely was something I needed to be pulled up on. The dad wasn’t being rude; I had told all parents that I welcomed their feedback and he was merely obliging.
  4. What was much more disquieting was the thought that I have probably been doing this for years and would never have changed if it wasn’t pointed out to me. I assume my homework is relatively straightforward but in hindsight this is very presumptuous of me and is something I need to be careful about in the future. While all the time keeping in mind that there is a large body of evidence out there which calls into question the effectiveness of any homework I set.

So for any teachers out there reading this who haven’t already done so, why not send out an email this week to the parents of just one of your classes, setting out to do no more than initiating contact and offering them your email address – what’s the worse that could possibly happen?