Challenging Classrooms

By Ashley Jenkins


I enjoy seeing my former students in the hallways at school. When one of them came by my room to tell me she was moving to a new school, I asked her why. She replied, “My parents think I’m not being challenged enough.”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but this was not the first time I had heard this from a student. I sometimes hear this complaint from friends who are parents, too. When speaking with colleagues and other teacher friends, I found that this is something we have all heard more frequently as of late, as test scores, emphasis on STEM programs, and invitation letters for gifted programs are on many parents’ minds. While frustrated by these comments, I wanted to take a step back and evaluate my own classroom as well as find meaningful ways to have conversations with parents about this topic.

Ways to assess and enhance your own challenging environment:


Check in with students: This could be as simple as a walk around the room while students are doing independent work. Who is engaged? Are students clear about expectations? Do they need a lot of support? Are they aware of where to look for guidance and self-assessment?

Equally as important: carve out time for your higher-achieving students. We so often (myself included) can be guilty of assuming they can work independently and don’t need our help. Make sure they are clear that you are holding them to the same standards as everyone else.

Include more creativity: Some of my favorite activities I learned while taking gifted coursework involved creativity. These are always a big hit in my classroom with every student but especially with higher-achieving learners. Because most of our day is often filled with the same routines, getting the chance to be creative forces students to use a different part of their brain. One of my favorite activities I did when I taught third grade was tasking students to create an animal that could survive in multiple biomes during a unit on adaptations and habitats. I loved seeing the details in their art, and they were able to provide scientific evidence as to why their animal would survive. Of course, providing opportunities like these are much easier for me to do now that I’m teaching kindergarten than they may be if you are in a testing grade. Squeeze them in when you can.

Fast-forward: If a student has mastered a concept, don’t make them repeat it with the rest of the class. This is commonly known as curriculum compacting. If I’m doing a whole-class phonics lesson that my higher readers have already mastered, I allow them to independently read or work on a reading program on our class iPads while I work with the rest of the class.

Partner/small-group teach: I’m a firm believer that students learn more from talking to each other than they do listening to me. Research also shows that students benefit from conversation (Fisher, Frey & Rothenberg, 2008).  I have a student this year who excels in math. Rather than constantly giving him more to do, I found that he enjoyed explaining what he learned to his peers. And when students asked him questions, he often had to think about the answer and go back through his steps.

It’s never easy having a parent criticize your job, but if you are approached by a parent about the level of rigor their child is not getting, here are some helpful ways to approach:

Listen and home in on what their complaint is: Are they basing the level of challenge for their child on test scores, grades, amount of homework brought home, etc.? I find that sometimes parents make judgments only on evidence of one thing, and I have to remind myself that they don’t see everything that happens in the classroom every day. If they believe their child needs more challenge due to test scores, cross reference test data with classroom work and anecdotal data of what you see in class. I send home weekly classwork so parents can actually see what their child is working on, and I also keep some of their most important writings and projects for portfolios. Often, when I show parents these samples at conferences, they are blown away by the level of depth and rigor that their child is doing in the classroom. They just are not able to see this on a test score.

Be honest about what you are facing in the classroom: Most parents mean well. They don’t know the many levels you have to differentiate and plan for every day. I honestly tell them, in a respectful way: “One of the most difficult things about teaching is that there are (x) number of students, and one of me. I wish I had an unlimited amount of time to spend with everyone each day. I try to make up for this with allotted time for small groups each day. Here is how I am working with your child to meet their needs:____.” I have found that parents appreciate my honesty and it reminds them that I, too, am human.

Get their help: Is there an activity you would love to work on with your students needing more of a challenge, but you are short on time or it would be too much prep? See if the parents are willing to help. This year in my kindergarten class, I have a student reading much higher than the rest of her peers. I wanted to start a more advanced word study program with her but was always short on time to prep. I asked her mom if she would be willing to work with her on it at home and she happily obliged. This kept her in the loop of what her daughter needed to work on and saved me time. I required her to bring in her completed work to me and instead we could use our time to extend what she learned rather than teaching it from scratch. Both parties won. I’ve also had other parents offer to come in and print weekly readers or prep materials for higher students that maybe I would not have had time for otherwise. I find that most parents understand that it does take a village to teach a child, and students are much more successful when we work together.

Hopefully you will find some of these ideas helpful. What have you found to be successful in creating a challenging environment in your own classroom, as well as in communicating with parents?


Source: Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

The Best Teacher Appreciation Gift

It’s teacher appreciation week and all across the country, appreciative parents are looking for ways to express their gratitude (at least, that’s what I tell myself). The best teacher appreciation gift I ever received cost the giver nothing but 10 minutes of her time. If you want to make a teacher’s day this week, do what she did:


1. Sit down with your children and ask them who their favorite teachers are. 

2. Ask them, “What are three things you like about this teacher?” 

3. Write an email to those teachers and tell them what your child told you.

4. Click the little CC button and enter the email addresses of the teacher’s principal and the district’s superintendent. 

5. Share this idea with five other parents.


That’s it. No trip to the store. No Internet searches. No dollars spent. As Bob Newby says:

A complimentary email that is copied to the teacher’s supervisors is the best gift any teacher can receive because

1. Teachers don’t get a lot of appreciation. Part of that is because employees in general don’t receive a lot of appreciation for their work. Part of it is because a teacher’s work is not very visible to anyone except students. Teachers often have no idea whether what they’re doing is appreciated by anyone because no one tells them.

2. Most principals know far less about their teachers than you think. Principals are busy people and few of them spend a lot of time in classrooms. When they do visit, they tend to come in, see a little teaching, and leave. I don’t blame them for this. Their presence is uncomfortable for both the principal and the teacher, especially when the visits are infrequent.

Because they don’t directly observe teachers for long periods of time, most of their judgments are formed from circumstantial evidence. They walk past Mrs. Clark’s room and it’s always quiet, and since Mrs. Clark never sends kids to the office, they assume Mrs. Clark has excellent classroom management. Mr. Hocking’s line on the way to gym is always disjointed and loud, so Mr. Hocking’s management probably needs work, which means his students probably aren’t learning as much as they could be. Test scores look good from Ms. Irving’s class, so they assume she’s an effective instructor. Joyce’s car is always in the parking lot before everyone else’s and she’s the last to leave at night, so she’s assumed to be more dedicated than her colleagues.

And principals hear things, from students, from other teachers, and from parents who call to complain (because more call to complain than to praise). The things they hear color their opinions of their teachers, but they’re only getting part of the story.

All of this results in a portrait of a teacher that may or may not be true. Principals don’t know a lot of what goes on in classrooms on a day-to-day basis, and unless someone tells them, they’re likely missing some important pieces. They don’t know that Timmy hated school last year but likes it a whole lot more this year because of his teacher’s winning personality. They’ll never hear how Mr. Johnson took the time to counsel one of his students about a personal issue and the difference that made. They have no way of knowing that Cassandra likes math now because of the way her teacher teaches it. They’re missing pieces of the puzzle, and unless someone gives them those pieces, they’ll never have the whole picture.

So tell them.

When you write an email to your child’s teacher and you copy the principal on that email, the principal has an opportunity to add more detail to the image she’s created in her mind about your child’s teacher. She has the opportunity to learn things she would otherwise not. When evaluation time comes around, she will be able to consider more factors into her assessment and the evaluation will be fairer. And that’s something all teachers appreciate.



5 Unique Ways to Practice Reading With Your Child

Photo by Mark Zamora on Unsplash

5 Unique Ways to Practice Reading With Your Child

By Paige A. Mitchell

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ and for young children, learning to read is no exception. Research has shown that children who regularly practice their reading skills, even for as little as 15 minutes a day, can see great improvement.

Unfortunately, getting your child to sit down and focus on reading isn’t always an easy thing to do. But with a little creativity, you can help your child learn to enjoy reading while also improving their skills.

Keep reading to learn five unique ways to practice reading with your child.

1. Create a cool reading area

If your child likes to feel comfortable and relaxed while reading, having a cool distraction-free reading area could help make reading more fun.

This reading area can be a simple section in your living room with pillows and all of your child’s favorite books, or it can be an elaborate reading nook filled with color and unique furniture.

If your child has a special place that’s dedicated to their favorite books, reading may become an activity they look forward to instead of dreading.

2. Take turns reading

Many kids are motivated by the examples set by those around them, especially their parents. One of the best ways to get your child engaged in reading is to practice shared reading.

You can start by reading a paragraph aloud and then asking your child to read the following paragraph. Once your child starts feeling more confident, you can take turns reading longer sections, which might turn into chapters and then full novels.

3. Find books with characters your child can relate to

Getting through a book that you have absolutely no connection to can be tough for anyone. Children (and even adults) are more likely to be interested in stories centered around characters they can relate to.

If your child is a big fan of sports, it may be a good idea to practice reading with books about sports and athletes. Or perhaps they’re animal lovers. Then, choose a story with talking elephants and flying pigs. This can help children sharpen their reading abilities while also helping them learn more about things and people that interest them.

4. Ask for help with household chores

Have a DIY or home improvement project coming up? This could be the perfect opportunity to get some quality time with your reader-in-training.

Encourage your child to sound out words in instruction manuals for installing an appliance or repairing a car. They can read reviews of services and products and help you sort through junk mail. This can be a great way to get your child involved around the house while also allowing them to practice reading.

You might remember this tip from the TV show, Parenthood, when Zeke helps his grandson, Victor, learn to read by rehabbing a retro car together. Victor later goes on to write an award-winning essay on the experience. Hurrah!

Grocery shopping and cooking are other chores kids can help with while practicing reading. Let them write a grocery list before leaving the house and ask them what’s next on the list while you’re at the market. Then, let aspiring young chefs help in the kitchen by reading recipes step by step as you prepare dinner.

5. Read books that were turned into movies

If your child loves movies, reading books that have been made into films can help them stay motivated.

Once your child has finished the book, the whole family can watch the movie together as a reward for finishing another book. You can even discuss some of the differences and similarities between the book and the movie to ensure your child has picked up on important details.

By making reading fun, you can take the frustration out of the learning process. Practicing reading with your child is one of the many steps to helping develop the skills that’ll be necessary to succeed in school and in life.


How to Create a Distraction-Free Learning Zone at Home

A guest post by Paige A. Mitchell


Designing a space at home for concentration can be beneficial to everyone, whether you’re a parent who’s trying to create an A+ learning environment for your child or if you, yourself, could use a quiet home office. Here are four clever ways to improve your at-home learning zone by minimizing distractions (and no, the answer is not a fidget spinner).

Ditch the devices

In our digital age, we all have the tendency to turn to our technology after a hard day’s work. Kids rush to the TV straight after school while adults scroll through social media as soon as they get a chance to sit down. This 20-minute break quickly snowballs into an hour-long break and soon you’re rushing to get dinner on the table and kids in the bath and no one gets as much sleep as they should.

Instead of taking a break as soon as they get home, many children will find it easier to stay in a studious mindset by getting started on homework before they’re allowed TV or tablet time.

Making this shift won’t be easy, but parents can make it a little more bearable by arranging a vibrant but nutritious after-school snack, like ants on a log. Introducing a star chart from which they’ll reap rewards after five consecutive days of homework completion is also an ace of an idea. This digital detox may be easier if the whole family gets on board. Use a multi-device charging station to dock all devices in one central place during study hour.

Organize your workspace

Eighty-four percent of survey-takers reported feeling stressed at home due to disorganization. Clutter causes a slew of health issues from increased anxiety to unhealthy eating habits. The New Year is always a popular time to declutter, but it should remain an important part of your routine throughout the year.

You can start small by keeping your workspace clear at all times—whether that’s the kitchen table or an office desk. Toss junk mail, keep food and grocery lists off the countertop, and invest in a basket for corralling toys.

Address annoying sounds

Perhaps the most torturous thing a parent could do to a child who does not want to come inside, sit still, and do homework is forcing your child to listen to other kids playing. First, position work surfaces (be it a desk, countertop, or kitchen table) out of sight from the playground or backyard. Then, shut windows if neighbors are playing outside and enforce quiet time if you have other children who do not have to endure homework.

For parents or hypersensitive children, listening to a dishwasher continuously clank or your old washing machine rumble through its spin cycle can get under anyone’s skin, let alone someone who can’t concentrate in noisy environments. Nip these noises in the bud by making it your personal project to see to it that broken appliances get fixed this weekend.

On the other hand, silence may be too stark for someone to produce high-quality work. White noise or music on low volume may actually stimulate a learner’s mind. Classical music, especially, has been used as a productivity tool inside and outside of the classroom.

Encourage a healthy lifestyle

Some distractions also lie within. Snack cravings, hyperactivity, and sleep deprivation can be just as distracting as the noises, clutter, and devices around us. Preparing healthy, after-school snacks will hush growling tummies until dinnertime.

Encouraging kids to play outside after homework is done is also a way for them to finally release the energy that’s been building since recess. Playing fetch with the dog or going on a walk with the family is not only good exercise, but you’ll all get a healthy dose of fresh air and Vitamin D from sunlight.

After fueling up with fruits and veggies and blowing off some steam, the last ingredient to a healthy lifestyle is a good night’s sleep. Seventy-five percent of high school students alone get less than eight hours of sleep at night, according to the American Academy of Sleep. Inadequate sleep can wreak havoc on a developing body and cause memory issues, a lack of attention, and mood swings. The National Sleep Foundation reports students ages five to 10 should get 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night.


Photo from Unsplash

Yes, I Am Challenging Your Kid

The following is a guest post by Eugene Eaton.  Eugene is an Australian-based blogger for CareersBooster, who is into stand-up comedy. His favorite comedians are Louis CK and George Carlin. A good morning laugh is what keeps Eugene upbeat and motivated through a harsh day.

Dear Parents, I Am Challenging Your Kid

Education has always been a controversial topic. Parents want the best for their children and teachers try their best at the same time. A problem arises when kids don’t accomplish what their parents expect of them.

Their struggle leads parents to misunderstand what’s happening and approaching the problem from the wrong direction. Instead of working things out as a family, they sometimes blame the teacher.

Even when they have a chance to converse normally, they ask uncomfortable questions. Amongst them is an accusation that teachers don’t “challenge” their child. This elephant in the room causes rifts in parent-teacher relationships.

The parents’ perspective

When they raise their children, parents get to know them and learn their habits perfectly. However, this is in a limited environment, without too much proof of the child’s character. The moment school starts, parents expect more from their kids, but from the education system as well.

Expectations are the wrong way to look at their child’s intellectual growth. Instead of bringing joy and success, parents tend to get mad or disappointed when their expectations aren’t met.

Jeremiah Matters, a pedagogy and psychology specialist at CareersBooster, says, “Parents go through a lot of pressure because they want the absolute best for their child. They try so hard that they sometimes end up venting their frustrations the wrong way. Unfortunately, teachers are the ones who suffer because of their children’s shortcomings. The most uncomfortable thing they do is question the work ethic of teachers.”

During parent-teacher conferences, some parents want to know if the teacher is doing everything he or she can to educate their child. All they think about is results, instead of looking at the whole picture.

The parents think the problem is because the teacher doesn’t challenge their child enough. Even posing this question is insulting. As a teacher, I will give you an analysis of the educator’s perspective.

Unnecessary questions

We teachers take our job very seriously and work on even the most basic things. Amongst these facets is the best possible teaching method – posing a challenge to students. A class is structured precisely this way. I teach math to high school students, and I follow one of the most efficient teaching methods. Here’s how it goes:

  • I explain the lesson and everything connected to it.
  • In between different explanations, I pose questions to cause students to become more curious.
  • As they become more curious, they become more involved as I explain the rest of the lesson.
  • Once the lesson is done, I explain problems.
  • Simple problems give children confidence.
  • After we’re done with simple problems, I give them the opportunity to solve the harder ones.
  • As they solve the harder ones, I ask them additional questions and challenge them to give their best.

Education in itself is a challenge. We give our students the tools to solve seemingly difficult tasks. When they feel challenged, they are motivated to give their best and succeed.

In the classroom, we only want the very best for them. So yes, your child is being challenged, and not a single lesson is an exception to this way of approaching students. What’s the problem, then?

Where the problem appears

Some might not realize, but we further deepen the challenging part of our classes. Every day, I do all the following things to help your child become better:

  • Give them a challenging task and allow them to engage
  • Encourage them to solve the problem by establishing a healthy and competitive environment
  • Give them the opportunity to think deeply about the crux of the problem
  • Offer the students an opportunity to teach each other through group assignments and working in pairs
  • Stimulate their love for the topic

Not only do I teach your child everything they need to have an A+ in math, but also everything they need in life. A problem appears when the child doesn’t have good enough marks or if he isn’t motivated.

At this precise time, you should talk to your child before you talk to me. No matter how much I challenge my students, there will still be factors I cannot influence. Through talks with your child, you can learn so much.

Understand your child

Childhood is the most difficult period in everyone’s life. In a little more than one decade, children have to learn so much, about a variety of topics. Even if your child is incredibly intelligent, he can still feel fatigue.

Sit down with them and talk. Don’t be afraid to come over and have a talk with me together. My job isn’t done after the bell rings. Your child is a person, and I want them to grow into the best person they can be.

As a teacher, I encourage all of my students to tell me if I’m making a mistake or if I can do something better. However, you cannot say I am not challenging them enough. That is the basis of my entire profession, and I dedicate every moment of my work to bringing out the best of my students.

Parents and teachers aren’t enemies. We have to work together, and I am always available for cooperation.

Your child may not like math, and that’s okay. Encourage him to speak to me, but please don’t think he or she is not challenged enough. Instead, let us work as a team to make them the best person possible.

Concluding thoughts

A child is going through a turbulent period in their life, and we’re here to help them. Talking resolves all problems, and I’m sure we can come to a solution. Teachers are human too, and we would love if you stopped thinking we’re not challenging your child. Every day, we give our best to provide challenges for the entire class, and we’re never going to give up. Instead of accusing us, talk to us and allow us to get to know your child. Let’s build a relationship.