Saturday, December 26, 2009

Low Attendance Days

Attendance is a major issue for many of our students. It's the major issue with our school's progress and it oftentimes leaves our administration and staff scratching our heads about how to increase our numbers. Right now we're averaging about eighty-five percent as a school, although the high school averages in the seventies while the middle school averages a bit higher (our seventh graders in particular never miss school, which makes me very excited about teaching them next year). The numbers are averages, so of course there are good attendance days and bad attendance days. The numbers also drive us to plan around them, which is both smart and dangerous.

Last year I did not anticipate one of the the lower-end outliers: Halloween. It was really poor planning on my part, but my lack of experience and inability to accept the fact that students oftentimes don't do what they're supposed to do led to a major project almost falling flat in front of my administration.

On Halloween (a Friday) I planned a work day during which the students were to complete speeches for a rally the following Monday. They were writing speeches about the presidential race, either supporting Obama or McCain (I did actually have one student write one supporting McCain, though it was a bit sarcastic). It had begun to dawn on me that Friday's had lower attendance rates, but last year on Halloween the attendance in the eighth grade bottomed out at around twenty-five percent. When that happens the motivation of the students who do come to school plummets and the amount of work that is completed is abysmal. Come the following Monday, I had to give students the first half of the period to finish speeches before they were given. Smiling nervously at the administrators who had come to watch, wondering if the whole thing was going to fall apart, the students who I hand-picked to give speeches actually did fairly well.

The day before Winter Break this year showed something interesting about which students tend to show up on days before a break. Because our classes are highly tracked we have been able to see the dramatic differences between low and high achievers at our school. The turnout on Wednesday was as we expected, but was not perhaps what people off the front lines expect: the high-end students and the low-end students show up; the students in the middle do not.

The reasons for this are numerous, but if you simplify it completely: high-end students come because they are motivated to succeed, the low-end students come because they oftentimes have no where else to go and they want to be in a warm, familiar place before they head into a break that will be less than spectacular. The middle of the road students, on the other hand, have neither of these incentives working for them. They know that the day before break most teachers aren't going to plan anything major and there is the assumption that other students will be absent, so they can be as well. They may also simply want to extend their break by a day.

Fridays in general mean a sharp decline in attendance. Students look for that three-day weekend, some feeling that they've done enough work by showing up at least three days of the week (perhaps they even followed directions!). While we should try to boost attendance on Fridays and other low-attendance days, we also need to plan for the fact that many students will not be present. On one end of the spectrum, the day before break this year saw our high school teachers taking their students to the movies, which meant half their students stayed home and the other half were doing nothing academic. Our ninth grade science teacher complained that the teachers allowed the students to dictate what was going to happen that day, as the teachers made the assumption that absolutely nothing academic could be done on that (whether that was true or not is debatable). The other end was what I did in my classroom, which was a huge gamble, though less of one because I teach middle school and not high school.

I did plan something academic this year before break. I've done my best to push the students academically and somehow, with an hour left before ten days of break, my high-tracked class (which had been reamed out all day for goofing around), buckled down and for the most part finished five-paragraph essays about working conditions in the early 1900s and what the government and individuals did to improve those conditions. While I got a number of pretty awesome presents for Christmas this year, that one trumped them easily. I'm still trying to figure out what happened, but I'm happy as a lark about it.

As a first year teacher something that happens a lot is that students dictate the tempo of instruction. I struggled so much last year with this, thinking that "students aren't going to do s*** anyway, so why plan for it?" This is dangerous. On low-attendance days allowing students to dictate what is going to happen empowers them to take control on other days. Of course there is a balance to be had- planning huge assessments or assignments for low attendance days is also not the answer (it'll be like pulling teeth to get my students who were absent for that essay to actually complete it), but if you expect that the students will not produce anything that day, they won't- and many of them won't even show up.

Today's Wine: Louis Martini Cabernet and a cheap house wine at a bar. These were had at a local establishment out in semi-small town USA. The cheap something may have been the strangest red wine I've ever had. It was bad, to be sure, but it tasted as if they'd left the grapes out. It wasn't light-bodied, it had no body. The waitress was very gracious, taking it back and asking what "flavor" we'd like to try instead. I've written about Louis Martini before and knew it would be just fine, so I chose that flavor.


  1. Return confiscated cell phones and other electronics only on Fridays and days before vacation.

  2. That is a very good idea. It would mean, however, an incredible spike in suspensions, as the students would stop handing them over when we ask (the penalty for which is suspension). Last year we couldn't get the students to hand them over for any reason, so I think it would be great to work toward a system in which we could use this idea.