Managing Make-up Work in the Secondary Classroom: Five Steps for Success!

Make-up work is one of the biggest headaches for teachers, especially on the secondary level where we have such a large number of students.  In New York City, I have a total 170 students, and with a school that has NO ENFORCED ATTENDANCE POLICY, that means I will never, ever have perfect attendance on any given day. 

It took me about four or five years of my teaching career to figure out an efficient system for navigating make-up work.  And as the technology got better, so did my ability to keep up with my absent students.  But I remember those days before I had my current system in place.  Students would line up at my desk before and after class to ask me what they had missed “last Tuesday.”  This always made me completely frazzled because I really needed those five minutes to prepare and reset for the next class walking in the door, especially when the next class was an entirely different grade/ subject area.  Before and after school were not good times to discuss make-up work either because I was either doing school duty in the Writing Center, or I was tutoring, or it was Friday, and I was GONE.  Email didn’t present a super great solution either because I didn’t have time to respond to 20+ emails per day (not all of that about absent work).  So, I decided to come up with a system that would give me back my time answering emails, before/ after school, and in between class periods.  And I wanted a system that put the responsibility back on the students.  After all, part of our job as secondary teachers is to prepare our students for adulthood—whether that is in college or in life.  They need to learn how to be responsible for their own paperwork and keeping up with their own records.

So, here are SIX STEPS for navigating the turbulent waters of high school make-up work.

1.    Give your students a syllabus each marking period.

The first thing I give my students at the beginning of each marking period is a calendar/ syllabus.  When I taught in Texas, this was a requirement, and I am SO GLAD IT WAS because it got me into a habit of planning that has really made my job as a teacher much more efficient.  I put quite a lot of time into planning each marking period.  Here is a sample calendar for an Honors Sophomore English class from 2012:

As you can see, I not only plan out lessons for each day but also homework assignments as well as the major assessments.  Now, some of you might say that this kind of planning doesn’t allow you to respond to your students’ needs and be spontaneous.  Well, if you go this route and decide to give your students a calendar with this kind of detail on it, be sure to include a disclaimer on your calendar that says,

“This calendar is subject to change at any time.  All changes will be announced in class.”

This is key because we know as teachers that nothing ever goes according to plan.  We have TEN fire drills at our school in New York City (imagine 5500 students pouring out onto the streets from a 9-story building!), and they are unannounced fire drills, so when they happen, you lose an entire class period.  Things like this happen, and the calendar has to change.  You can also add in one day per week explicitly for catching up/ enrichment/ re-teaching.  I like to call this a “flex” day.  I did not put that into this particular calendar plan, but it is always a good idea to allow yourself that flexibility, especially as a new teacher.

The calendar is an excellent tool not only for students, but it’s also great to give parents, so they know what’s coming up.  I have also turned in my calendars as “artifacts” of my “effectiveness” as a teacher, so for those of you teaching in Common Core states, this is a great tool you can use to show how you are implementing the standards.  As a side note, putting the Common Core Standards on the calendar is a great idea and will help you keep track of them throughout the year.

2.    Keep a make-up work log. 

The calendar communicates to students their assignments upfront, so if a student is absent on any given day, he/she can look at the calendar to get an idea of what he/she missed in class.  But the calendar doesn’t give instructions, handouts, notes, Power Points, etc.  And it doesn’t reflect changes that have been announced in class.  This is where the Make-up Log comes into play!

At each school where I’ve taught (Texas, Illinois, and New York), I have been given a page on the school’s website devoted specifically to my classes.  I could do anything with this page that I wanted, so I turned it into my “Make-up Work Log.”  If you don’t have a teacher page on your school’s website, consider using Google Classroom, or even a blogging website.   All you need is a place to make a diary entry every single day because that’s exactly what a “Make-up Work Log” is—it’s a diary of everything that has gone on in class.  I add to this log diligently at the end of EVERY. SINGLE. SCHOOL DAY.  It usually takes me about five minutes to add an entry, but that five minutes saves me TONS of time over the course of an entire school year.  When a student asks me, “What did I miss?” I simply respond, “Check the make-up work log.”  Done deal.  I don’t have to spend that five minutes trying to remember.    

 Here are excerpts from my 2013 Make-up Work Log:

So, each day, I write a brief narrative of what we did in class and what a student needs to do to make up missed work.  It’s quick.  It’s clean.  It’s easy.  It’s efficient. 

I also attach every document I give to my students to this page.  Every. Single. One.  At our school, making photocopies is pretty much impossible with three computers in an office for 30 English teachers!!! and copy machines that are constantly on the fritz.  I bypass that entire headache by making my documents available electronically.  I typically do make a class set of these documents, but if a student wants his/her own copy, he/she can go to the Make-up Work Log to get one. 

These attachments are located at the bottom of the Make-up Work Log. Students can scroll down to find the documents they need.

These attachments are located at the bottom of the Make-up Work Log. Students can scroll down to find the documents they need.

It is important that if you adopt this method, you MUST tell your students about the Make-up Work Log every single day for the first six weeks and then remind them about it throughout the rest of the school year.  It takes time to train them on where to find the information they need.  And in my experience, students don’t pay attention to it until they need it.  That’s when they’ll come asking about it.  If you have the technology to show them where it is on the Internet, then do that frequently.  Think about making signs for your classroom walls about where to find the Make-up Work Log. 

BUT, keep in mind that you will still always have a handful of students that just can’t/won’t/aren’t able to keep up with make-up work on their own—for a myriad of reasons.  It happens every single year.  And as part of differentiating for your students, it is important to maintain flexibility and understanding that not every student is ready to be this independent just yet.  So for these students, I print out the make-up work log and handouts and put them into a folder that I give the student in class.  When the student has completed the make-up work, he/she gives me the folder back with the completed assignments in it.  If that still does not work, I pull that student aside and have him/her complete the make-up work DURING CLASS.  It’s a balancing act.  But, the Make-up Work Log makes it so easy to get these students back on track.  And remember that these are the exceptions, not the rule. 

This brings me to the benefits of keeping a Make-up Work Log.

3.    The residual benefits of keeping a Make-up Work Log

Not only is the Make-up Work Log an excellent tool for managing absent work, but it is also a great resource for students that were present in class!  Like in the case of a student that wants an extra copy of a handout, the student can get it from the log.  A student who wants to make sure he didn’t miss something important in class because he was nervous about his Calculus exam can go to the log to double-check that he didn’t miss something important in English class.  It’s a win-win! 

The Make-up Log also provides principals with proof of your planning skills and communication with students and parents.  I can’t tell you how many parents of my students keep up with the log in order to help their children stay on top of their work.  So, it’s a great communication tool for everyone involved in the process of helping students succeed.  I’ve also printed out my Make-up Work Logs and turned them in as artifacts alongside my calendar.  Hands down, this always impresses my principals, and I always receive effective ratings.  Communication is key to getting these students across that graduation stage!  You can always print out your log weekly and hang it in your classroom to create a trifecta of communication—the assignments are on the calendar, the Make-up Work Log, and in your classroom!  This trifecta would make it very difficult for any student to get “lost.”

Not to mention, the Make-up Work Log is the perfect tool for you as a teacher to plan next year’s curriculum.  I print out my logs and calendars at the end of each school year and then reference them as I plan for the next year (of course, assuming that I’m teaching the same classes!).  This process helps me to tweak the plans from year-to-year and is a huge help in remembering exactly how I taught/ implemented the Common Core.

4.    Turning in make-up work

When students have make-up work to turn in, I’m not a fan of them handing it to me because I might set it down somewhere and not find it later.  And again, I’m not a fan of students lining up at my desk while I’m trying to prepare for class.  So, I keep a Make-up Work Bin on a table by the classroom door.  It’s basically just a box that I labeled “Make-up Work.”  When a student has make-up work to turn in, the student takes it over to the bin, fills out a Make-up Work Form, staples the form to the assignment, and places it in the box. 

Here is the Make-up Work Form that I use (it’s nothing fancy):

Notice that I print multiple forms on a page so that I can make multiple photocopies at once. After copying the forms, I simply cut them into separate slips and set a pile of them beside the Make-up Work Bin.

Notice that I print multiple forms on a page so that I can make multiple photocopies at once. After copying the forms, I simply cut them into separate slips and set a pile of them beside the Make-up Work Bin.

The form is key because it helps me make sure that the student has followed the school’s make-up work policy (one day of make-up time for every day absent).  I am in LOVE with this bin because it separates make-up work from the other work that students give me, and I can get to it WHEN I CAN GET TO IT.  That is KEY!  Sometimes, I don’t get work out of the make-up bin for two weeks!  It really just depends on how busy I am, but it enables me to be most efficient with my time and do things on my time versus having students hand me random papers while I’m teaching. 

Again, it will take some training to get your students used to this practice.   They will need lots of direction and guidance at first.  Help them out.  Remind them often.  Then, it should be smooth sailing throughout the remainder of the school year.

 5.    Navigating missed tests/ quizzes

Students often want to schedule missed tests/ quizzes in the five minutes between classes, which is not a good time because the student needs to get to his/her next class, and I need to prepare for my next class. So, I always tell my students to email me to schedule the make-up test/ quiz.  I know some teachers keep set times for make-ups (say Tuesdays before school and Thursdays after school) and that works for them.  I think this tends to be more for content areas where there are a lot of quizzes and tests.  In my English classes, I hardly ever give objective tests.  My classes are writing/presentation-based, but if it works for you to have a set time, then go for it.  I would say that to make this plan work, you should plan on giving quizzes and tests only on specific days of the week with the expectation that the student makes up the assessment at the very next scheduled make-up time slot.  Let’s say you give a test on Friday, and a student misses it, and then the student can’t come to the make-up session Tuesday morning but then shows up to take the test Thursday afternoon, that student has had almost an entire extra week to prepare for the test, and I guarantee that if you are giving the same test to the absent student that you gave the other students, the student doing the make-up will already know what’s on it.  These are all things to consider when scheduling make-ups.  Try to think like a teenager who wants to take advantage of the “system.”

6.    Non-tech ways for managing make-up work

Maybe an electronic Make-up Work Log doesn’t work for you, your school, or your students.  Here are a few ideas for managing make-up work within your classroom.  Each of these systems has pros and cons to consider:

Option #1

Keep the electronic log, but print it out every Friday and post it in your classroom along with copies of handouts and notes.  Tell students to check for make-up work updates on Fridays.

  1. Pros:

    1. Still saves you time

    2. Still makes the student responsible for make-up work

  2. Cons:

    1. ou will have to print everything out and make copies, which eats up time.

    2. It is impossible to implement the school’s make-up work policy (if applicable) because you are only posting one day per week. You could print out the log daily and file the pages in a bin according to date… but again, that’s more printing on your end.

Option #2

Assign each student a make-up work partner at the beginning of each marking period (or let them choose).  This is the person the student goes to for make-up work and to get notes.  Leave copies of handouts in the room for students to pick up.  OR have the partner fill out a “While You Were Out” Form with instructions and copies of the handouts and leave it in a folder for the student in the classroom.

  1. Pros:

    1. Still saves you time

    2. Still makes the student responsible for make-up work

    3. You don’t have to keep a log.

  2. Cons:

    1. A student might miss something important if relying upon a peer to keep him/her informed

    2. What if a student’s partner is continually absent?

      1. This becomes a hassle for the student assigned to the one with flaky attendance.

      2. What if both partners are absent on the same day? Where do they get work then?

      3. Lots to consider, but I’ve heard of this working, especially in 12th grade.

Option #3

Create a folder for every single student that is absent and leave it on the Absent Work Table in the classroom. 

  1. Pros:

    1. The student won’t miss anything important.

    2. You don’t have to keep a log.

  2. Cons:

    1. This can eat up quite a bit of time depending upon how many student absences you tend to have in any given day. (I tend to have approximately TEN students absent on any given day, and creating TEN folders of work would take up a lot of time).

    2. You have to type up tailored directions for each student and find the specific handouts/ notes/ documents he/she needs—again, this takes up time.

All in all, there are lots of ways to navigate the issue of make-up work.  What’s your system in the secondary classroom? 

Share with us your thoughts and ideas!  We want to hear from you!

About the Author

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Meredith is the founder and creator of and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.