Monday, October 3, 2022

5 Suggestions For What To Do When You Know Students Will Miss School

Probably the most common reason students are absent from school is illness.  For English Learners, observing religious holidays, going on family vacations, and visiting sick relatives also rank high on the list of why students are absent.  There are other reasons students miss school, such as difficult family circumstances, but in this blog post I’d like to discuss what you can do when you know in advance that your students are going to be absent.

Image of elderly Asian woman in hospital bed with mother, father, and son standing next to her
Source: The ESL Nexus

Reason #1: Holidays

Some school districts in the U.S. give students time off to celebrate religious holidays and others don’t.  Some districts incorporate some religions’ holidays in their calendar but not holidays for other religions.  
When I was growing up, I always stayed home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  But when I started teaching in Massachusetts, the Jewish High Holy Day weren’t days off for everyone in the district I taught in.  (If you want to teach your students about these holidays, check out my newest resource.)  My district had a large population of Muslim and Hindu students but major holidays from those religions weren’t official days off, either.
English Learners come from many backgrounds.  Many of the religions they follow are not widely observed in the U.S.  So when a holiday occurs, those students miss school in order to celebrate it.  And because it isn’t an officially sanctioned day off, the students have work they need to make up when they return.

Reason #2: Traveling to Foreign Countries

English Learners are sometimes pulled out of school for extended periods of time so they can visit family in other countries.  It could be for vacation or a family emergency.  One of my elementary students was absent for several weeks because her mother took her out of school to visit their sick father/grandfather.  One of my middle school students was absent because his family went to a relative’s wedding in another country.  Some of my students missed the last week of school to go visit their relatives in Latin America or they returned late from winter vacations because they were still overseas.
It's not just English Learners who are pulled out of school, though.  When I was a kid, my family went on a week-long vacation in early December, before the regular winter vacation.  Lots of students in the Massachusetts school district where I taught missed school for week-long periods in order to participate in sports competitions or just to go to Disney World.

What Not To Do About Student Absences

When I went on that December vacation, my teachers loaded me up with work.  I spent the plane flight home doing it but I didn’t finish everything.  I do not recommend handing a pile of work to students without any instructions and saying: Here, do this.  I was a good student but not that good.
Before my elementary student left for several weeks, I make up a packet of work for her and explained to her mother what to do with it.  There was a small assignment for every day.  At the time, I thought it was important my English Learner student be exposed to English daily so she wouldn’t lose the progress she’d been making.  I was surprised when the student returned and had done none of the work.  In hindsight and with more experience, I realized I had given both mother and child an impossible task.  So I don’t recommend trying to simulate a regular school day, either.
I really thought I’d hit on the right mix of rigor and enjoyment with my assignment for the boy who was going to his relative’s wedding.  I asked him to do a project: Create a multimedia description of his time away.  I gave him criteria to fulfill that included language and content objectives and explicitly spelled out what to do.  It was supposed to be something fun that wouldn’t be onerous to complete; all he had to do was take photos of his surroundings and write about them.  But this student didn’t do any of the work, either -- he said he hadn’t had the time.  And that may very have been true.  Clearly, a project that requires a fair amount of independent initiative and time is not going to produce the kind of work many students will want to do or are able to do while away from school for an extended period of time.

What To Do About Student Absences

So what can teachers do to help their students keep up with their schoolwork while they are gone?  Well, here’s the thing: What all of these types of absences have in common is that they are known in advance.  The families know when a student will miss school due to a religious holiday.  Families also usually know, unless it’s an emergency, when they’ll be traveling out of the country.  Students definitely know if they’ll be missing school because they’ll be playing in an athletic tournament or visiting a theme park.
In all these cases, students are going to be too busy to spend time doing schoolwork.  They need something quick and easy to do.  And if it’s something fun, that’s a bonus.  What it doesn’t need to be is something that requires a great deal of thought and effort.


Ideally, the work will relate to whatever units of study the student will miss.  Here are a few ideas:
* Tell students to create a 1-pager about the topic(s) you’ll be covering during the absence.  If you’re not familiar with 1-pagers, this article explains what they are.  It doesn’t actually have to actually be accurate since they won’t have learned the material yet.  Just have students write and draw whatever they already know.  Then, you can use it as a formative assessment when they return and fill in the gaps at some point.
* Have students create word search puzzles about the topics they’d be learning if they weren’t absent.  You can give students a list of words to use or just give them the topic and tell students to come up 10 or 15 words themselves.  You can also give students a template for creating word search puzzles or tell them to make their own. 
* If you teach about holidays around the world and/or in the U.S., you can give students one of the puzzles from my print and digital word search and crossword puzzles resource.  They’re targeted to U.S. American holidays so you can use whichever ones are for the months your students miss school.  Although they are not explicitly focused on subject-are vocabulary, they do help students learn about the holidays.  They’re also differentiated for students at different levels of language proficiency so you can choose which version makes the most sense for each student who’ll be absent.
* Give students a list of vocabulary words about the topic(s) you’ll be teaching and tell them to draw pictures that illustrate the vocab words they already know.  If they students will be absent for more than a few days, you could also ask them to write a sentence about their pictures.
* Write up a 1-page summary outline of information about the topics the students will miss.  Tell the students to read the info and write down 3-5 questions about it.  When they return, you can show them where to find the answers to their questions, have other students answer their questions (which has the added benefit of seeing how much the rest of the class has learned) or give them the answers yourself.

Display of several word search and corssword puzzles for US holidays and a hand with a pencil in the bottom right corner doing a puzzle
Click HERE for info about these puzzles

It's always difficult to catch students up after being absent, especially if it’s for an extended period of time.  I hope these suggestions give you some ideas on how you can prevent your students from falling too far behind when this happens.