How to Create a Student Focus Group

I gave a survey to my class recently about what is going well so far this year and what they would like to see change. In my science classes, the overwhelming response was, “We want more labs!”

Labs and hands-on activities are vital to an engaging and inspiring science classes, but they also require significantly more prep time than my other science lessons. Between researching the lab, trying it out myself to make sure it works, troubleshooting any problems that arise, buying all of the materials, setting them up, and cleaning up, labs are a challenge.

But they really are the best way for students to learn and practice scientific skills, and the kids love them!

So I decided to reach out to them for help.

I created a student focus group called the Science Ambassadors. I announced the club to my class, described the qualities I was looking for in an ambassador, and made an application using Google Forms.

We recently held our first meeting. Students brought lab ideas they had researched for our first unit, and we ended up choosing one to do in class. Then we talked about the next unit–human body systems–and each student chose one body system to research a hands-on activity or experiment for.

In the future, students will also help me test out the labs & set them up for classes.

If a once-a-week meeting is still too much of a time commitment for some busy teachers, you can take all the discussion online using Google Classroom or your preferred method of online communication.

I’m excited about this way to involve student voice in learning. I love being able to introduce a lab and mention the student’s name who helped find it.

Personalized Study Guides


One of my professional goals this year is to increase the opportunities I give students for differentiation by readiness. Using personalized study guides is one way I accomplish this.

It also helps students develop metacognitive skills by providing them with ways to assess their learning before the test and make an action plan to meet their goal.

Here’s how it works:

List Skills from the Test

I start with my summative test and make a list of all of the skills students need to demonstrate mastery of the unit. Since I am at an IB school, these skills often come straight from my rubrics, but I also bring in some information from our state standards. For example:

  • Skill 1: I can identify whether something is abiotic or biotic and explain my thinking.
  • Skill 2: I can describe scientific knowledge about the 3 major domains of life, including the number of cells, presence or absence of a nucleus, and way energy is obtained.
  • Skill 3: I can use scientific evidence to make judgments about whether viruses are living or non-living.

An added bonus of explicitly listing these skills is that sometimes I discover my assessment is weak (not enough opportunity for higher level thinking skills), incomplete, or fails to align with what’s really important for students to learn. Then, I can go back and make adjustments to my instruction or assessment as needed.

Create the Study Guide

Next, I create 1 section of the study guide to correspond with each skill. I make sure that the activities correspond to the skills.

From the example above, Section 1 might have pictures of different items (a branch, a leaf, a drop of water) where students have to correctly identify whether it is abiotic or biotic along with a few lines to explain their thinking.

In Section 2, I might include some matching items to help students build their confidence in this content-heavy section, but I would also provide opportunities to describe knowledge–since that’s what the skill demands.

In Section 3, I need to include a task that helps students practice what I will ask them to do on the test. I can ask them to write an outline or paragraph about whether viruses are living or not. I can provide tools to support their thinking, such as asking them to highlight at least 3 pieces of scientific evidence.

When I began to truly match my study guides to what I was asking students to do on the test, I noticed that my study guides became more rigorous and more helpful to students.

Help Students Figure Out Which Sections to Do

For the study guide to become personalized, students must eliminate sections they have already mastered and focus their attention on what they still need to learn.

This is tough for students because it feels good to study material you are already familiar with!

To help students with this, I make a table of contents for the study guide. Here’s an example:

I leave “formative feedback” blank because sometimes they will need to write in different types of information for each section. For example, for Section 1, I may ask students to write in their Quizlet score. For Section 3, I may ask them to write the peer feedback they received from a prior writing exercise on using scientific evidence.

Then I give them some whole-class guidance on which checkbox to mark.

  • Did you make less than 80% on your vocabulary quiz? –> Check “yes — required”
  • Did you make 80-89% OR do you feel like you could use some extra review? –> Check “yes — for extra practice”
  • Did you make 90% or above AND feel confident in your vocabulary knowledge? –> Check “No — mastered it!”

Let Them Work!

After students identify what they need to work on, I give them time to complete it. Often students will move to specific tables for each skill, where I leave additional resources and answer keys for that section. Plus, they get the added benefit of working together on those tasks.

While they are working, this gives me an opportunity to pull small groups for additional teacher support prior to the test.

How do you use personalized study guides or other forms of differentiation to help students prepare for the test? What is something I should add to my study guides?

How to Make Any Lesson an Opportunity for Parent Engagement


Some of my seventh graders’ parents have complained, “I can’t get her to say much about school” or “He just says it’s going fine.”

To help facilitate a deeper, more meaningful conversation between parents and students, I decided to incorporate a lesson that asks students to write thoughtful reflections about their learning to send to their parents.

What It Is

Students write a letter to a parent or another authentic audience about something they have learned in class. I use this as an opportunity for students to reflect at the end of an activity, such as reading a novel or viewing a film.

I provide support in the form of a checklist so they know what to include (one example of my checklist & instructions is at the bottom of this post). This elevates the letter from a simple “here’s what I learned today” into a reflection on their learning. I also show them an exemplar so my expectations in terms of length and depth are clear from the beginning.

Why It’s Worth Using

  • Provides an authentic communication task with a non-teacher audience
  • Doubles as formative assessment of the student’s understanding — reading over their thoughts and questions gives me a better sense of what they know
  • Students can choose who they want to write to, so there’s more buy-in
  • Lets parents know what is going on in class
  • Gives parents an opportunity to further support what is going on in class — through these letters, I have often found out about parents who would make great guest speakers or who had further experience with the topic

How You Can Use It

If you have access to technology at school, your class can write emails to parents or other family members. Some students preferred to write to a favorite teacher, administrator, or counselor. The point is to engage in conversation with another person about their learning, so they should write to someone they feel comfortable with. If your students have access to email, you can also use this as an opportunity to teach email etiquette and what “Cc” and “Bcc” are for.

If you don’t have access to technology, this activity works just as well as a hand-written note (and in fact, can be even more fun for parents to receive this way!). Students can carry the note home or bring in an addressed, stamped envelope to mail it.

I have used this in both English and science classes. In English, students selected one of several empathy-related novels (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Wonder, Fade to Black, Wintergirls, etc.). After reading the novel, they reflected on empathy and wrote about what they had learned from the novel.

In science, students watched the documentary Fed Up about the impact refined sugar has on our diet. This was in conjunction with our unit on carbs, lipids, and proteins. Students reflected on their own food habits and wrote to their parents about how the documentary impacted their thoughts on eating.

This lesson could easily be adapted to any subject area!


Here is an excerpt one of the student letters from our empathy novel unit:

Dear Mom,

In our ELA unit, we are reading books that will help us develop empathy for some person who is having a pretty big problem. The word empathy means to be able to share/know how someone else feels and to be able to care for them. In this unit, I chose the book Wonder by RJ Palacio. The book is about a boy named August, who was born with a major facial deformity. Before, he was homeschooled, because he and his parents were afraid of what other people would say. But this year, he is beginning his first year at Beecher Prep, in the fifth grade. Throughout the book, August has to suffer through the challenges of middle school, and the horrible things people have to say and do about his face. A way this book helps me develop empathy for people is because you kind of feel for and with him throughout the book… It’s important that we learn about empathy in middle school. It gets us better equipped for the road ahead of us, so we can treat everyone with kindness, even those who are different than we are.

One of my favorite parts of this lesson is when the parents write back!


Parent Email Task Description

Parent Email Handout

How could you use this in your classroom? Do you have other ways that you facilitate parent engagement in your lessons?

Giving Back-to-School Night Back to Students

My middle school hosts a back-to-school Curriculum Night around the third week of school. Parents are invited, and students are strongly encouraged to stay home.

When parents arrive, they get a copy of their child’s schedule, report to homeroom, and spend 7 minutes in each of the 7 class periods their child visits each day. Teachers rush through a whirlwind explanation of the year’s upcoming units, behavior expectations, homework routines, and grading policies.

Sound exhausting? It is! I would end each night almost unable to form sentences anymore. And parents felt the same way, too.

Why This Needed to Change

I saw 3 main problems with this format:

  • It wasn’t worth the time. Any time that we ask parents AND teachers to find child care or otherwise postpone important time after work (or for some parents, ask them to miss work!), it needs to be worth it. Instead, teachers were mainly delivering information that could be communicated online through a video or written format.
  • It wasn’t effective. With such a limited time and so much information to share, I did not feel like I had time to share the things parents really want to see — what the school day is like for their child. Instead, it was an information dump. The impression parents got was, “No wonder my child is confused by having 7 different teachers, classrooms, and routines — I’m confused after this night, too!”
  • It didn’t involve the students at all. Why was every stakeholder in attendance except for the main one? Student voice was completely missing from the night.

Time to Try Something New

A few of my colleagues and I asked if we could try something different. In the spirit of embracing beta testing-style teaching, we proposed a pilot of a student-centered Curriculum Night.

The conditions were not ideal. We had a little less than 2 weeks to plan it, explain it to students, communicate with parents, and provide students with work time in our already packed lessons.

But we knew we had to dive in and try it; the conditions for trying something new are never ideal.

We gave students about 5-10 minutes each day for a week to make a Google Slides presentation with information about their classes. Students included the following in their presentation:

  • The names & topics of each unit in the class for the whole year
  • Homework expectations
  • Which units and activities I am looking forward to & why
  • Summative assessments
  • What I’m currently learning
  • Personal, academic, social, & athletic goals for the year
  • Information on how to access online classrooms & gradebooks

In order to make these presentations, students really had to understand the curriculum & procedures of each class. Many didn’t know these yet, so it provided a great opportunity to clear up misconceptions & address topics that we had left out of our introductions at the beginning of the year.

It also encouraged students to develop self-advocacy & communication skills. They learned to write emails to teachers when they had questions about the class that otherwise, they might have kept to themselves.

How Did It Go?

Students shared presentations with their parents in small groups at tables around the room. What a change in energy! The frantic environment of a typical Curriculum Night was replaced with relaxed conversations. Rather than teachers sharing their expectations, students were able to explain each class. If parents had questions, the teachers were actually available to answer them — something we rarely had time for in the traditional format.

We were also able to give families back a large portion of their night — an event that normally lasted 1.5 or 2 hours was over in 30 minutes!

We collected feedback from parents in a Google Form at the end of each student’s presentation. Here is what some of the parents had to say:

  • 90% of parents said this was mostly or completely a better format than the traditional night
  • “I like the goals setting plan! Great way to empower children by showing us their work.”
  • “I enjoyed interaction with my child.”
  • “Well done, liked everything about it! Kids were well prepared.”

Of course, we have plenty of suggestions to make it even better for next year, from parents, teachers, and students.

Next time, we will remember to:

  • Start from the beginning of the year so the presentation can be entirely student-created (we provided templates for many of the classes due to our short time-frame for preparation)
  • Provide students more time to practice presentation skills, such as slowly presenting, maintaining eye contact, etc.
  • Ask students to include work samples
  • Have students interview their parents about what specific questions they have regarding their school year so students can tailor the presentation to their needs

What is back-to-school night like at your school? What ideas do you have for us for next year? What ideas does this give you for your own school? Let me know in the comments!