New Year's Resolution: Focus on Skills

By on February 9, 2014

I focus my planning and instruction on skills, so naturally, I thought I was involving my students in this process. After some data analysis and reflection, I can see there was a disconnect between my plans and what actually happened. I know if I focus on skills, the students can transfer those skills to any situation, but I need the students to learn and understand that. Moving forward, this requires me to become really transparent with my teaching practices. Since I need to start again, it is time for a resolution.

I teach an English Learner 9th grade combo class with two levels of ELD: High Beginning and Intermediate. So that I can teach the two different textbooks, I use a stations model of instruction. This requires students to work in small groups and on computers daily. When I began this journey in September, I assumed there would be the usual challenges: language gaps to fill, behaviors to address, classroom procedures to learn, and skills to develop, but the real struggle in this class is simple:

The students focus on grades and scores without thinking about what they have to “do” to earn the grades or scores.

From observing their actions, they do not seem to understand the importance of reading and following all directions; either they do not know how (or maybe) do not want to read and follow directions for assignments. In 9th grade, most of the directions are loaded with multiple tasks. My students focus on the first task and stop there or just speculate and do something to say they completed the assignment. I lectured them on the importance of reading all the steps in the directions and showed them how to read and follow the directions, but it didn't help. They seem to read without thinking. They admit that when they read, their goal is to finish the page. Reading is a struggle for two reasons: the language barrier and their academic habits. I feel it is my personal responsibility to fix this problem.

So as the new year approached, I thought of ways we can develop healthy academic habits in our class. The shift I want my students to make is from placing the focus on scores and grades to shifting the focus on skills and understanding how to evaluate the skills. The only way I can accomplish this task is by getting them involved in thinking about their own study habits and behaviors . They need to know how to measure and self-assess their skills; therefore, I need to focus my instruction on showing the students how and why we are developing the skills and how to know when they are successful.

My action plan starts with getting organized, or in our case, reorganized. I have a notebook system that works wonders, but I let things go somewhere back in November. I maintained the expectation, but I did not hold them accountable. Some of my students kept up their notebooks since September, while others completed assignments but did not keep it organized. So we will start again from the beginning.

Setting Up the Notebook

1. Numbering the Pages

  • Students write their names inside the front cover of their spiral bound notebooks.
  • They reserve the first 4 pages for a table of contents. On the 5th page, they begin to number each page of the notebook starting with number one. Each page of the notebook needs a number like a book. Be careful that students do not give the same number to more than one page. You might need to hold up a book and explain that books do not have "two page 5s."

2. Create a Table of Contents:

  • Explain the function of a table of contents and how a reader uses it to locate information in a book.
  • Students build a table of contents on all 4 of the pages they reserved in the front of their spiral bound notebooks. The table of contents needs the following headings:
Date Assignment Name Page # Check off When Completed


3. Using the Notebook:

The first lesson in the notebook should focus on the purpose of the notebook and what the students will be doing everyday. For example, I explained there is a class website:, and we will be writing daily notes from their class calendar/lesson plans: High Beginning/Intermediate ELD (Mrs. Sagapolutele).

  • Explain and model that they will be taking daily notes in their notebooks from the lesson plan pages on the class website.
  • Project the daily lesson plans from your class website.
  • Explain that every time they see a blue title, they need to write it in their table of contents and again in their notebooks. For example,

Task: 2/07/14 Practice Reading Strategy (Level A p.118-122 and Level B. p.116-120)

  • They copy the date and title and write the page number from their notebooks. Explain to the students they will all be on different pages in their notebooks since some students write more than others.
  • After they copy the title in the table of contents, they need to go to the corresponding page in their notebook and copy the title again. This is where they will complete the assignment.
  • Once students complete an assignment, they will place a checkmark in the column titled "Check off When Completed."

I have been doing this for years. It is effective when accountability and expectations are carried out. Since this really works, it means more frequent and consistent checking and more following through on consequences if it students are not completing the task. My students observed that the most successful students in the class from first semester  were the ones who wrote every single assignment title in their notebooks and completed/checked off each task. They measured success by moving up one level in ELD. Now they see the results, they are ready to try it. I am holding them accountable by checking and stamping their notebooks daily. This is just the start of our new focus on skills. I will keep you updated on our next steps in this adventure.

If you have any questions about the notebook system or would like to share your experience, please let me know.

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