Skip to Content

Your Classroom

Books Build Bridges Between Older, Younger

By Karen Whetzel

At the southern end of Shenandoah County, Stonewall Jackson High School, North Fork Middle School and Ashby-Lee Elementary School share a campus, and Trish Diachenko, an English teacher at Stonewall Jackson, has found a unique way to take advantage of that.

At the beginning of the year, Diachenko, a member of the Shenandoah County Education Association, tells her students that they will be paired with an Ashby-Lee student, about whom they will write a book. The high school students then meet and interview their elementary partner, and later create a personalized book for him or her. The project began small several years ago, and this year grew to include all six kindergarten classes at Ashby-Lee.

It’s more than fun, too: Diachenko, who is also a National Board Certified Teacher, believes the project helps prepare her students for the English Writing Standards of Learning test. She sits down with each student and reviews their book.

“I think this helps me teach reading because with each individual book I proofread, the student and I are looking at such a small sample that it isn’t overwhelming,” she says. “It’s easier for me to see patterns of mistakes students might be making in an approximately 25-sentence book, and it’s easier to show students those mistakes and have them correct them right there in front of me, than trying to do the same thing with a big essay. I believe it helps imprint the corrections in my kids’ heads.”

To be sure no one was overlooked, Diachenko asked the kindergarten teachers to complete an interview sheet for anyone who was absent when high school students visited to interview kindergarten students. 

Most of the books were around 25 pages long. And, since a picture is worth a thousand words, each high school student illustrated their book with black and white line drawings so the kindergartners could personalize their books even more by coloring the illustrations. All told, over 100 kindergarten students were able to take home a personalized book, which was delivered and read to them at school by the authors.

The project was especially meaningful at Ashby-Lee, home to some of the lowest socio-economic status students in Shenandoah County. For these kindergartners, the idea of getting individual attention and a personalized book from a high school student can be very helpful as they adjust to life at school. Some do not get one-on-one time with an older person at home, and some live in homes where English is not spoken. Some of the books created by the high school students were bilingual, so that when the youngsters took the book home, their parents could read it to them even if they don’t speak English.

A local newspaper featured the project. “This is an idea I’d love to see ‘go viral’ and be a part of a lot of different subject areas,” says Diachenko. “Middle school kids could write for elementary ones, and high-schoolers could write for middle and elementary. The possibilities for application across the curriculum are endless.”

A teacher at another county school who doesn’t know Diachenko emailed after seeing the newspaper story, saying “Read the article about what your kids are doing with the reading/writing program at Ashby-Lee, and I just love it! The story actually brought tears of joy to my eyes!”

Whetzel, a past president of the Shenandoah County Education Association  and former member of the VEA Board of Directors, retired in 2010 and now serves on the county’s school board.


What Teachers Want recently polled over 3,000 teachers about classroom issues, including what they most appreciate about their students. Here are the top three qualities teachers in the survey look for from young people:
• A willingness to try their hardest every day
• Asking questions when they don’t understand
• Being polite and respectful to the teacher

What Parents Want
The National School Public Relations Association and K12 Insight, Inc. recently analyzed the responses of 43,410 parents in 50 school districts throughout the U.S. on the subject of family-school communication. Here are the top items that parents want from educators:

Information parents want from elementary teachers:

1. Updates on their child's progress and insight on how to improve.
2. Timely notice when child's performance is slipping.
3. Information on child's behavior, how he or she gets along with others.
4. Information on what their child is expected to learn this year.
5. Class events calendar, homework, and grading policies.

Information parents want from secondary teachers:

1. Timely notices when child's performance is slipping.
2. Updates on their child's progress and insight on how to improve.
3. Homework and grading policies.
4. Best ways to communicate with teachers.
5. Information on what their child is expected to learn this year.

Meetings: Adjourn from Inefficiency

By Jared Nieters

You can learn a lot in meetings. For example, with some careful bending, a paper clip can be turned into a nifty spring.

Meetings are nearly universally despised for a number of reasons. Teachers perceive them to hinder already packed schedules, believing that they last too long and often end without clear resolution. Meetings can end up as venues for people to vent about problems without offering solutions. And sometimes teachers behave as badly at meetings as their most challenging students. These experiences can be very frustrating and even damaging to morale.   But meetings are an inevitable fact of life: From faculty meetings to department meetings, teacher schedules are filled with this bureaucratic staple. 

Research has shown that work stresses, such as lengthy and unproductive meetings, lead to fatigue and morale problems. Yet it’s not uncommon for teachers to attend four to six after-school meetings each month. During an average school year, teachers can spend about a full work week’s time in meetings.

Despite this, meetings are often necessary—and can be used efficiently. Meetings can actually strengthen bonds, improve workplace collaboration, and generate a greater sense of community. They can also enhance new, creative thinking when teachers are directly exposed to different ideas from their co-workers. At the same time, it’s important to eliminate unnecessary meetings, such as those whose purpose is simply to distribute information.

Here are a few simple parameters to turn meetings from a dreaded waste of time into an effective tool that creates synergy among the staff:

Determine if the meeting is vital. If a meeting is initiated without a concrete goal, it’s doomed to failure. Identifying what needs to be accomplished is the first step. Considering whether the objective can be met with a memo or a quick round of emails can save many lost hours of productivity. 

Plan ahead. Printing a clear and concise agenda, disseminating pertinent background information, and establishing a reasonable time to meet are all essential to a successful meeting. When participants arrive informed, time isn’t wasted and attendees are better prepared to make valuable contributions. In advance, indicate clearly why a meeting is crucial, so participants arrive with an aim in mind.

Planning for your meeting should not include food. This may seem counterintuitive and may not be a popular change if a precedent has been established, but having a snack distracts from the task at hand. This isn’t to say that attendees should be discouraged from bringing something for themselves, but serving food to the group draws focus from the meeting’s leader and the task at hand.

Start on time. Waiting for people is tremendously inefficient.  Each minute spent waiting for latecomers is multiplied by all in attendance. Not only is this wasteful, but it’s frustrating to those who made the effort to arrive on time. Do not recap for those who arrive late, as it validates their tardiness, undermines the importance of the meeting, and once again wastes the time of those who arrived promptly. 

Plan seating arrangements. Choosing the physical orientation of meeting participants can have a profound effect on efficiency. 

For larger numbers and director-focused meetings, theater seating can be used. It’s a generally efficient use of space, but does not lend itself to group-wide collaboration. This orientation requires constant management from a single director.

Small groups are able to work as a single unit when organized in a circle or U-shape.  These meetings can and should be run by a single director, but this orientation offers greater opportunity for participants to interact directly with the group. 

Having a number of smaller clusters, or pods, of 3-5 participants each can create an effective meeting, which often shifts from director-focused to individual work in the pods, with the pods then reporting back to the full group.

Use the agenda. Agenda items should guide the meeting toward a concrete goal. Each item should be discussed, with pertinent information provided by key players in attendance. If there are agenda items that carry over from previous meetings and action items have been accomplished in the interim, address those first. This can help prevent redundancies and keep all in attendance fully informed.
For every item, old and new, develop a plan of action, spelling out tasks to be accomplished, individuals responsible, and timelines.

Direct the discussion. If someone tries to use the meeting as an opportunity to complain about circumstances, keep everyone focused with effective leadership, like using phrases such as “Let’s keep our objective in mind” and “How does this specifically address solving the problem at hand?” Leaders shouldn’t hesitate to identify discussion not related to the objective and earmark it for a future meeting. Quite often those in attendance are grateful for strong direction.

Recap action items and conclude. Effective meetings end with a quick summary of action items, which helps remind people of their responsibilities and reinforces a sense of productivity for attendees. Keeping meetings short can help maximize productivity and maintain attendee attention.  By packing a lot into the short timeframe, participants leave with a sense of accomplishment. 
Follow up. This is crucial. Holding participants accountable for their commitments and responsibilities helps ensure that the work gets done. This validates the meeting and illustrates that it was both necessary and effective.
Using these guidelines, meetings can not only become more efficient, but may even be seen as valuable tools in a collaborative work environment. Wasted time and morale problems can be avoided, leading to increased productivity for everyone.

Nieters is president of the Rappahannock County Education Association.


Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard