Why I Stopped Letting My Students Have Their Backpacks at Their Desks During Class (aka the Backpack Bay)

In a long-ago post, I mentioned that one of my “hills to die on,” so to speak, was about backpacks in my classroom. Unless the school I work at has a no-backpack in class policy (and I did work at such a school that tried this policy one year), I can’t mandate that my students not bring their backpacks to class. That aside, I do have control over the procedures for my room.

I used to let my students keep their backpacks at their desks. They would put them under the desks, behind them on the chair, on their laps, or some would even hang them on the back of the chair. I got so tired of tripping over backpacks, constantly hearing students shuffle around in their backpacks, and having to reprimand students for trying to use their backpacks to hide that they were eating in class or using their phone. I was over it.

This is where the backpack bay was born. I cleared off a 2-shelf bookcase and started requiring students to store their backpacks there during class. They were expected to come into class and go to their seat, get out the necessary materials for the day, put their backpack on the shelf (or on the floor in front of the shelves if they were full), and come sit back down. At first, students don’t like this rule, but they get used to it pretty quickly.

I’m very strict about accessing backpacks during class. It’s permitted, but only one student can be at the backpack bay at a time. I also require students to keep any water bottles they may have in their backpacks. They can get a drink if they need to, but they aren’t allowed to keep the water at their desks.

I have received many compliments throughout the years I’ve done this from people who come in and can’t believe how easy it is to walk around my room! It also improves student focus and engagement because they don’t have their bag to mess around with all period.

I tried coat racks one year, but made the mistake of going for the cheap ones rather invest for the long haul, so they fell apart halfway through the year. After that, I went and got plastic storage tubs – big ones – and started using those. I have 6 and that was enough for even my largest class of 29. They held up beautifully.

backpack bay.PNG

One unexpected benefit of this rule was that I became better at time management (and my students became involved in it, too). I found I had to make sure I wrapped up my lesson in time to let students retrieve their bags and pack up before the bell rang. I kept better track of time and stayed on schedule more consistently.

If you think this might improve your classroom management, movement, and student focus, here are a couple of tips:

  • Make the bay at the front of the room. That way, you (and the whole class) can see whose bag is being accessed to prevent problems.
  • Be consistent with enforcement. If class has started and I see students whose bags are still at their desks, I’ll either go to them and quietly remind them to put their bag away or I’ll make a general statement about remembering to put backpacks where they belong.
  • Students like to keep their bags on the floor (not sure why), so think about requiring the bags to touch the wall so they don’t start sprawling into other floor space.
  • Think about allowing students to retrieve their bags in groups (perhaps by row or groups – if you use collaborative seating arrangements). You will have a huge bottleneck if you let all the students up for their bags at the same time.
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How I Lessened the Absenteeism Problem in Relation to Student Achievement

This isn’t an entry on how I got kids to come to school. If I had the answer to that, I’d have sold it and be retired. No, absenteeism is a reality within all teachers must live. Instead of lamenting the issue itself, time is better spent thinking up ways to mitigate the consequences of it. I think teachers can sum up the negative consequences of absenteeism in 2 words:

  • Instruction
  • Work

No one wants kids to miss school. It’s a hassle. They come back and teachers have to work overtime (more than we already do) to get that kid caught up. Because no matter how much you chant the mantra that it’s the student’s responsibility to take care of what they missed…it’s really up to you. Because until we can figure out how to reverse the student misconception that if they were absent they are excused from the work…we have to take matters into our own hands because ultimately, we’re judged on that student’s performance.

If you are not fortunate enough to work for a district or school that has either reliable technology or a digital platform, you could do what I used to do (up until semester 2 of the ’15-’16 school year) and have the absent binder. I used to print the forms and “hire” a student captain to fill out the appropriate information each day. This worked really well most of the time, but the students were unreliable sometimes (because: teenagers) and I ended up doing most of the writing. I eventually changed to keeping the document template on my computer and typing in the information each day (or week) and just printing it out and putting it in the binder for students.

This was a lifesaver. I trained my students to go to the binder when they returned and get any handouts they missed (also printed and available in the absent binder), the day’s bell work (starter, bell ringer, whatever you call it in your room), and record the assignment – both in class and homework, if applicable – they missed and only come to me if they couldn’t get what they needed from another classmate. And by “needed,” I mean the notes, questions about the assignment, etc. – not copying answers for problems. This saved me so much time in the long run and made things easier because students had something consistent. They didn’t stop missing school, but they made up their work more frequently and more independently, and that restored a lot of my sanity.

If you do have reliable access to technology (i.e. a desktop/laptop and the internet) I would highly recommend doing this electronically. I’m lucky enough to work for a district that purchased rights to use a digital interface for our grade book, and with it, come some really cool features. I am able to post anything I want in a “class feed.” Think of it as a type of Facebook page for my classes. Each class has its own. Starting 2nd semester of this year, I moved my absent binder to our web interface. I posted the weekly bell work, assignments, everything we did each day on that feed. I got a student desktop through a grant and then when students returned from an absence, I sent them to the computer to get what they needed from the class feed. They did the bell work question, took the notes (I uploaded pictures of my hand-written notes for each day or the PowerPoint lessons I did), did the assignment (I uploaded any specifics – what pages and which book were used, the worksheet if it was stand-alone, etc. I even started videotaping my lessons and uploading those to the feed so students could watch the actual lesson.  And, if it was distributed, I still had a stack of handouts for the entire quarter), and turned it in. Usually. This was so efficient and saved me time and energy (and sanity). It took some work on the front end, and I would fall behind sometimes, but my students would always seem to remind me – which was great; it meant they were looking for what they missed and couldn’t find it.absenteeism 1

Open House Tips & Tricks

I would love for open house to be a full day. There’s just never enough time to communicate everything I feel is necessary to everyone who attends. I don’t get to spend enough time with parents/guardians talking about expectations and how my class works. I wish I had more time.

open house need more time

Teachers who have been to this rodeo before do certain things ensure open house is successful. We print supply lists ahead of time. We have people sign in – we might even have them jot down their phone number or email for us. We hand out curriculum/course overviews. We have our rules posted and our rooms decorated. But over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how I can get even more out of this year’s open house.

Secondary teachers’ open house night/day is different from elementary. We’ve got multiple classes – so do the kids. So, there’s a lot of roaming around. And a lot of students and families are only there to map out their day; they aren’t attending with the intention of truly engaging in any meaningful discussions with the teacher. They’ve been to this rodeo, too (6th and 9th grades are, I find, the exception to this rule). Still, I found that I was run ragged after open house, even though I had things set up in a reasonably organized fashion.

open house exhausted

As the school year has inched ever closer with each passing day, I find myself wondering, “How can I get even more out of this event? How can I facilitate independence for those families who just come for the map and supply lists so I am free to answer questions from other families?”

One thing I tried last year that worked well and that I will be employing this year is to project a screen onto my board with class supplies for families (along with a printed handout). When employing this strategy, I had a lot of people walk in, read the screen, pick up the handout, sign my information sheet, and then walk out after making eye contact and giving me a smile.

This year, though, I’m determined to digitize my classroom experience even further, though. My PowerPoint slide this year is going to have a chart, and in that chart, will be QR codes and bitly links to the Google sheet into which parents will enter their contact information, the supply list document, the welcome letter document, and the Remind sign up instructions pages (never used Remind? Google it! Maybe I’ll even write a post about it later!). I’m also going to have the Google sheet for contact information up on my student desktop computer for parents who don’t have (or don’t feel comfortable using) a smart phone. Of course, I’ll have paper copies of the supply list, welcome letter, and Remind instructions for those families as well.

open house ppt slide new

I am hoping that this will streamline things even further because 1) I’ll save time and resources not having to print so much, 2) I won’t have to manually transfer each hand-written email and phone number (you know, just because someone is a grown up doesn’t mean handwriting is readable…and of course the information in the school database is often wrong…) but can simply import it from the electronic sheet, and 3) I won’t have to be as involved in the distribution of paperwork (I’m betting most families have a smart phone for at least one of the members!).

Something else I have done with great success is to list important class-level items needed (hand sanitizer, tissues, paper towels, etc.) on sticky notes with my name, classroom, and subject, and allow people to take the sticky notes with them as they exit. I’ve seen teachers simply list (creatively and beautifully) what is needed, and sometimes parents will even write it down, but often times they forget which teacher asked for what and the supplies never make it into the right room. The use of sticky notes helps tremendously with this (I’ve had parents give me direct feedback on this for many years).

open house post it supplies

I have also had several years (before having my child) where my husband has come to open house and set up “shop” in the back of the room giving families the opportunity to purchase supplies cheaply and conveniently rather than have to make another trip to the store after the tax-free days our state gives us. Because elementary schools (and pre-schools) are really good about sending home supply lists before the start of the year, but secondary teachers/schools find this more difficult because each student now has 7 teachers, and there are 1000+ students and all their schedules are different.

If you like these ideas and want an open house freebie, I’ve got something for you to check out!

Have a wonderful open house and a great start to the year!

Why I Assign Seats in My Secondary Classroom

I began my teaching career in 7th and 8th grade math. I taught that for a few years and then switched to 7th grade English. Then, I moved up to high school English and Reading. After a 2.5 year break working in administration, I’m back in a 7th grade math classroom. I’ve found, through the years, that in the secondary (and most especially, high school) world, I am among the minority of teachers who assign seats.

I’m sure any teacher who doesn’t assign seats has a good reason for it, but I’ve found that for me, assigning seats helps my classes run more smoothly and more effectively. Here are some reasons I assign seats in my secondary classroom (the only grade I did NOT assign seats was 12th, because I felt like as adults, assigning seats was a bit much for them):

Housekeeping: Attendance is quick and easy with a seating chart. I don’t have to call out names or waste time trying to figure out who isn’t present. I look at the empty seats and match them to the names on the chart and attendance is done in 10 seconds.

Variety: I get bored easily and changing seats allows me to stay interested. Kids also get bored with who they sit next to (or get too chummy and chatty), so changing seats prevents social issues.

Scaffolding: One of the seating arrangements I employ is to seat a struggling student with a successful student (if my desks are in pairs – if they’re in rows, I seat every other student high-low by grade). This provides good modeling for the struggling student and someone to help them if I can’t.

Behavior management: Figuring out who can’t sit next to who in order for class to go smoothly is important. By assigning seats I can make sure troublemakers don’t sit next to each other and I stop problems before they start.

Life skills: Assigning seats teaches the life skill of working with someone you may not like. Students learn quickly not to complain about or ask to change their seat. I tell them, “It’s not a marriage. You don’t have to be next to him/her forever. I’m not asking you to be best friends, I’m asking you to sit next to him/her. You’ll move again in a few weeks. Deal with it.” And they do – for the most part.

Structure: Students like structure. It helps them be efficient. They feel secure. They don’t have to choose where to sit when they come into the room. Instead, they get right to work and it saves a lot of time (and trouble with seat fighting).

Not sure how to seat your students? Here are some of the ways I order them (and I change seats every 2 weeks in my room, so I rotate through this list several times a year):

By last name, by first name, by gender (alternating boy-girl or boys on one side, girls on the other), by grade/average (low-high alternating or low in front and high in back), by behavior/participation (I use the corners to seat behavior problems and make sure focused, quiet students surround them to keep them from drawing others in).

How do you seat your students? Do you assign seats? Why or why not?

On the Secret Use of Sticky Notes for Classroom Management

I often find that if I tell a student to stop doing something (or to do something), it can turn into a power struggle. I work with secondary students, and they are primarily concerned with looking good in front of their friends. If they sense that they look weak or have lost control, they will battle against whoever put them in that situation. It can get ugly.

teacher student fight

I also hate escalation and disruption while I teach. If I have to ask a kid 3 or 4 times to do something, that’s taking away from my lesson and probably getting the kid all worked up as well. Everything from eating to wearing the hoodie – my verbally asking a kid to stop is a disruption. Sometimes I just ignore things, but I don’t like that option, either, because it undermines my authority and shows other students that rules don’t have to be followed. I’ve also learned about the value of wait time – not just for question/answer sessions, but for directions as well. If I tell a kid to take off his hat, it’s unlikely he’ll do it immediately. But instead of telling him over and over and risking an escalation, I’ve found that if I just give him a few minutes, he’ll comply. I guess it’s a way of exercising some sort of control over the situation – he’ll do it, but he’ll do it when he feels like it.

student in hoodie

But there are some kids that even that won’t work for, so I use sticky notes. I’m not sure where I picked up this little method. All I know is I didn’t come up with it on my own. I carry around a clipboard with me throughout classes for various reasons – attendance, behavior documentation, participation tracking, etc. and on this clipboard, I carry a stack of sticky notes. If I notice a student doing something they shouldn’t be, I write them a note and make my way to their desk. I casually stick it right in front of them and keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t make any sort of fuss or draw attention to it. The majority of the time, no one else even notices what I’ve done. The kid reads my note, (9 times out of 10 s/he crumples it up) and then a minute or two later stops whatever behavior I’ve asked them to stop.

sticky note note

I used to just use this to manage misbehavior, but I eventually realized I could use this for positive reinforcement or even just basic directions. I have students who don’t like to be singled out for any reason – good or bad. But I still want to recognize when they’ve done something well, so I use sticky notes to write them a positive note when I’m impressed with their work or thankful they’re making good choices. I also use this when I have something I need done but I don’t want to disrupt the class asking for a volunteer. Most of the time I use my errand captain for stuff like this, but sometimes I’ll get a sticky note, write down what I need done, and give it to a kid without skipping a beat in my lesson. I also do this when someone’s been called to the office. When I hang up the phone, I continue teaching, write my note to the student who’s been called, and give it to them. Zero disruption.

I hope this teaching tip has been helpful for you. I’d love to hear what you use in your classroom to minimize power struggles and manage behavior effectively!

How Not to Argue with Students

I often encounter teachers who (usually without realizing it) argue with their students. I’ll even admit – I was one of them. And, okay, I’ll admit it again, every once in a while, I fall back into old habits and argue with a kid. But when I do, I pull out (mentally, of course) this “How-to” guide to prevent myself from arguing with my students.

Why don’t I argue with my students? Simple: they’re kids. It’s unproductive. It’s disruptive. It undermines my authority. It gives into negative, attention-seeking behavior. It has no discernable, positive results. Most importantly, though, I’m the adult in the situation. I have to have control of myself and my classroom, and when I argue with a student, I lose that control.

There are only 2 simple rules in this “How-to” guide:

  1. Agree with the student.

Now, hold on – I can hear you shouting at me through your computer. I can imagine your eyebrows disappearing into your hairline. Let me explain.

I don’t mean tell the student they’re right and let it go. There’s an art to agreeing without losing ground or control. Let me give you some examples.

 

Student says:

Teacher arguing: Teacher agreeing:
“This is stupid!” “Don’t say that about my class!”

“No, it’s not!”

“Be quiet!”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“I hate this class!” “Why would you say that?”

“Stop being disruptive!”

“I don’t like you much, either!”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“You can’t make me do that!” “Watch me!”

“Yes I can!”

“Stop being so rude!”

“No, I can’t. But I hope you’re prepared for the consequences if you choose not to do it.”
“I don’t feel like doing that.” “Do what I say!”

“Do it!”

“Get it out and start doing it now!”

“That’s too bad. I hope you change your mind later.”
“I can’t do ___ because I don’t have my ___.” “Why are you always unprepared?”

“Why can’t you just bring your materials?”

“That’s a zero, then.”

“That’s unfortunate. Perhaps you could borrow one from a neighbor.”

This takes a LOT of practice to become comfortable using responses like this. It is difficult at first because it feels like you’re letting the student walk all over you and be disrespectful. However, once you say your statement, the student diffuses and you can have a conversation about their words and actions later, when it won’t derail your class.

The second rule is

  1. Be a broken record.

This eliminates arguing entirely and students who thrive off of arguing quickly learn they will not get anywhere with you. Let me give you some examples:

Argument with student Broken record
S: “Can I go to the bathroom?”

T: “Not right now.”

S: “But I really have to go!”

T: “I told you no!”

S: “How come I can’t go?”

T: “We’re in the middle of the lesson.”

S: “I’ll get the notes from R.”

T: “You’ve gone to the bathroom at the same time 3 days in a row.”

S: “’Cause I really have to pee!”

T: “You’re disrupting the class.”

S: “Please let me go!”

T: “Stop asking me if you can go!”

S: “Can I go to the bathroom?”

T: “No.”

S: “But I really have to go!”

T: “No.”

S: “How come I can’t go?”

T: “No.”

S: “Can I please go?”

T: “No.”

S: “I’m gonna pee my pants.”

T: “No.”

S: “Jeez! So stupid.”

T: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” (employing rule #1)

T: “Everyone sit down!”

S: “I gotta throw this away.”

T: “No you don’t. Go sit down.”

S: “But I gotta sharpen my pencil.”

T: “I said sit down.”

S: “It’ll only take a second.”

T: “No! I told you to sit down!”

S: “But I gotta give P a piece of paper.”

T: “Why can’t you just do what I’m asking you to?”

T: “I need everyone seated, please.”

S: “I gotta throw this away.”

T: “Please sit down.”

S: “But I gotta sharpen my pencil.”

T: “Please sit down.”

S: “It’ll only take a second.”

T: “Please sit down.”

S: “But I gotta give P a piece of paper.”

T: “Please sit down.”

S: “Jeez! So stupid.”

T: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” (employing rule #1)

 

You can see that the teacher who does not engage will create an environment where students choose not to argue. They may not be happy about it, but when they learn that you do not engage or argue with them, they will stop trying to argue with you. You will have to be consistent with this method, but after the first several times, your students will learn you have stopped arguing with them and they will cease and desist after about your second or third response.

How I Encouraged Productive Participation (aka, How I Made Grade Inflation Defensible)

My third year teaching I encountered something new. I had multiple classes of honors students and, being honors students, many of them thought they could just skate by doing the bare minimum and get straight A’s in my class. Well, I wasn’t about to let that happen, so when they didn’t do what I asked (homework, whatever), they didn’t get good grades. At the end of the semester, I was called into the principal’s office and asked about my grades. I had (what I believe to remember) a relatively normal grade distribution, but I did have students making C’s, D’s, and F’s. My administrators asked me what I was going to do to have more A’s and B’s. I told them I’d give the students many opportunities, but they simply hadn’t done their work and so their grades reflected that. I was told I needed to do something to have more A’s and B’s in my honors classes. You can read between the lines about what went down in that office.

explosion

I actually ended up losing my job over the incident. Well, that probably wasn’t the only reason, but it was definitely one of them. It turns out it was a good thing, though, because it really made me think about my grading. As the years went on, I began to realize that no matter what the students did (or, in most cases, did NOT do), I was always being asked what I was doing to improve their grades. So I started giving participation grades. This worked well with the new wave of teacher evaluations that required all students to be engaged in the lesson. I mean, I’ve never had a lesson where every single student participated meaningfully and engaged in higher order thinking, but…hey, I’ve only been in the classroom 10 years. I’ve got a ways to go.

long road

First, let me say that my personal philosophy is to try, at all costs, to not put students on the spot. I have found that I get more out of my students (especially ones with behavior issues and such) if I let them come to me, so to speak, rather than drag them kicking and screaming. If I just call on a student because I don’t think they’ve been paying attention, for me, that just creates all sorts of problems. I’m all about using public shaming, but it has to be artful. It can’t be for the sole purpose of embarrassing a kid who I know already struggles with something. And having been both a math and English teacher, there are kids who just struggle with some stuff. So anyway, my plan of attack was predicated on the philosophy that I don’t call kids out (99% of the time).

deer in headlights

I am a clipboard fanatic. I carry mine around with me everywhere. It gives me a huge advantage. Have you ever seen the look on a student’s face when he has done something he isn’t supposed to do and you just look at him and hold your clipboard and pretend to jot something down and then look right back at him? That’s a day-maker right there. You’ve got that kid in line for the rest of the class. I also carry around a list of positive phrases to help me with my classroom management. I can get pretty frustrated with my students when they act like…well…teenagers. So I have to work hard to stay even-keel and not let my emotions get the better of me. Point being, I carry a clipboard. I actually have 2 in case I set one down on one side of the room and go to the other and realize I need it.

clipboard

What I decided to do was give out participation grades. I decided (after lots of trial and error and tweaking) to give 4 participation grades every quarter. This worked out to about 1 participation grade every 2 weeks or so. I would print out a roster and track student participation during whole-class discussions and even small-group or partner work. I decided I would give students credit for wanting to participate. This was a key ingredient to the success of this system. I had 2 groups of students I worried about. The first were the overachievers. They raised their hands for everything. Hands up even before the question was finished. Every time. Clockwork. If I didn’t give these students credit – or the opportunity to earn credit – for being eager beavers, it would crush their spirit and they would probably take it personally and think that they’d done something wrong and I was mad at them. Then I had the stones. The kids that sat there and never wanted to say anything. Ever. Sometimes I wondered if they were even alive. There was no way they were actually going to answer a question. And even if I called on them (without their volunteering, of course), it would be hit or miss as to whether or not they would know the answer. So I had a dilemma with these students. What to do? What if I gave students credit just for raising their hands? Seriously. I ask a question (or another student asks a question) and I give points just for being willing to contribute. Obviously, I’m not able to call on every single student every single time, so sure, I would only call on 1 or 2, but the rest would get credit.

Game. Changer.game changer

First of all, the type-A’s were okay with it because they knew they were earning points to pad their 110% grade even when I didn’t call on them. Second, the students who normally sat like a bump on a log would wait until I asked a question that a ton of people knew the answer to and then they would raise their hand and hope to God I didn’t actually call on them. Which I often didn’t, because I knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t want to jeopardize the baby steps I was making with them. Plus, I also hit a 3rd group I didn’t realize existed. The fragiles. I have students every year who are high maintenance. They require finesse. They are the “I was just gonna say that” kid. They have a need to be recognized but not singled out. They are the “this is too hard! I can’t do this!” just because it doesn’t come easily right away or takes more than a single step to complete. When this kid raises a hand, you MUST call on him. Because if you don’t, you will a) hear from him that “I was just gonna say that!” after you call on the kid you do call on, and b) this kid will think you purposefully did not call on him because you don’t like him, think he’s stupid, or some other laundry list of teenager logic that makes little sense to the rest of us. But if I told everyone that they were getting credit for just raising their hands because I KNEW I wouldn’t be able to call on everyone every time, and that it was important to me that I hear from as many different people in a period as possible, that kid was managed. No longer did he feel slighted, because he knew I was paying attention to him. He saw that I saw his hand. He knew I knew that he “was gonna say that.”

But how did I manage this new method of participation grading? Ticks.tick marks

Tick marks. This system had an added benefit that I didn’t expect: increased wait time. In order for me to stay true to my word and give students points for raising their hands and participating, I had to keep track of it somehow. So I printed off a roster and slapped it on my clipboard. Whenever we were having a discussion, I would mark down tick marks every time a student raised his/her hand. Depending on the situation, I might even make a secondary mark after I actually called on a student. But the point was I was physically tracking student participation. And they knew it. They saw it. So they raised their hands. And I would mark a tick down for every single student. And when you have 22+ kids in a class, that can take some time. It feels like it takes forever, but it doesn’t really. What it does do is give you the wait time students so desperately need to process the question, find the answer, and decide to participate. By the time I was halfway through the tick marks, nearly every student’s hand would be raised. It was amazing.

wait time

To assign grades, I would give the student with the most tick marks for the time period (again, about 2 weeks) a 100% – in most cases it was out of 25 points, so a 25/25. Then, grades were calculated on a sliding scale. The next highest person (or persons, if there was a tie) would get 24/25, and so on and so forth. Everyone sort of bottomed out at about a “C”. I also would subtract points if a student was habitually disruptive or lethargic (sleeping, etc.).

If I knew certain students needed a teeny grade boost, I would reiterate the system before a class discussion. It would prompt participation. My students began to learn when I would get lazy, too. If I didn’t have my clipboard, participation dropped dramatically. The second I picked it up and started marking…boom. Sea of hands.

sea of hands

I like this system better than the popsicle sticks because even though students know they have to be prepared with that system, it still feels to me like a “gotcha.” I really like the idea of giving students the motivation to want to participate on their own. I mean, grades, by definition, are extrinsic motivation, but…I’m trying to build some sort of initiative and self-motive here. I have used this system with my 7th graders and also with my 9th graders and it has worked beautifully. And it’s a great tool to pull out when the administration walks through because you can show how engaged your students are in the lesson – and not just doing what you tell them to do; not just compliant, but really engaged and wanting to be a part of the discussion. On their own.

eager beaver

Once I started using this system, I found I had a lot more leeway to nudge students who might fall into that “yes, but what are you doing, as the teacher, to raise his/her grade” category. And I was able to sleep at night because it wasn’t really grade inflation, it was students earning points in a legitimate way. And it gave me ammunition. If parents or administration questioned my grades, I had one more intervention to throw at them: I give students points just for raising their hands. Let me tell you how many parents that shut up. It worked great in tandem with my “yes, and all the quizzes and tests are open notes.” There’ll be another post about why I give open-notes assessments in the future. And I used it to work the kids, too. I would tell them if they weren’t participating that they were essentially throwing points down the drain. There would always be a few who would rather die than raise their hand, but…to them, I would say, “Look, I’m doing everything I can here to help you out. I’m tempted to give you points just for breathing, but some of you are so intent on failing my class that I’m afraid you might actually stop.” Which would earn some laughs and maybe get a hand or two from those kids. Not always, but maybe.

making progress

Why I Stopped Being the Gum Nazi

Classroom management; classroom discipline; student behavior; whatever you call it, these things are on teachers’ minds in July and August. Really, they’re year-long endeavors, but back-to-school season is the prime time for developing a game plan for a well-run classroom. If you read classroom management books, teacher blogs, or even just talk to successful teachers, there is a theme among their rules: less is more. Picking 3-5 rules and consistently enforcing them tends to work better than having a laundry list of things posted in a classroom and expecting students to really buy into them.

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It’s from this philosophy that many teachers (including myself) employ the well-known phrase “hill to die on.” One thing I learned during my decade in the classroom is that you can’t fight every battle and expect to win. During my first few years, I tried to fight every battle that came my way and I wound up exhausted and defeated.

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And my students suffered: they ran rampant and didn’t learn as much as they should have or could have. As I gained experience, I began to realize that I had to just let some things go. I’m a lot better at it now that I’m a parent, and if I ever go back into the classroom, I think that experience will serve me well in this regard. But as I grew in my teaching experience, I finally reached the point where I had to decide what were going to be my hills to die on. One of the things I considered was gum-chewing. My decision on how to handle gum chewing actually came about in a sort of convoluted, backwards sort-of way. I hate bugs. Bugs of any kind. And the last thing I wanted were bugs in my classroom. I never opened my windows, and I never left food lying around my classroom. In fact, I rarely ate in my classroom. I tried to eat in other teachers’ rooms or a staff room or something in order to minimize the likelihood of crumbs on my floor, which would attract bugs.

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Well, my students wanted to eat in my room. This was less of a problem in middle school, but when I moved up to teaching high school, it was pervasive. I would have students that brought what seemed to be entire meals and would want to eat them during my class. Now, when I was in college, I did this sometimes. In fact, I remember I did it in one specific class because I had a full day and only had time to grab food from somewhere on my way to class and then eat it during class. But I digress. When I refused to let them eat in my room, my students would always spout back at me that “so-and-so” teacher let them eat in class. I could not fathom how any teacher would let teenagers eat in their classroom when they would undoubtedly leave trash and food behind. But somehow, in my growth, I realized that unless it fell under some sort of school or district policy, classroom rules like whether or not students could eat in a classroom were up to teacher discretion.

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And so I began to find my hills.

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One of my hills was food in the classroom. I will expound more upon this in a later post, but my policy has always been and will always be (at least I think it will) that no one eats in my classroom – even me. (I am very cognizant of not falling into the “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” trap; if I require it of my students, I do it myself, too. I don’t let my students eat in my room, and I never eat in front of them.) So finally one year I decided to experiment. I was tired of fighting the gum battle. I mean, it was so prevalent: ever teacher I’d ever had and had ever known had made kids spit out their gum. Gum was not allowed. But I was tired of being the gum Nazi. I was tired of gum under my desks and on the floor and being found in places one just should not find gum. So I really thought about it. I had nothing against gum. I chew gum all the time. It doesn’t interfere with my ability to teach and as a student, it never interfered with my ability to learn. So why did we always ban gum? I looked it up; it wasn’t a district or even a school-wide policy. It was just culture. Anti-gum culture.

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So I took a leap of faith. Maybe, if I allowed gum, the gum problems would cease. Maybe if I wasn’t constantly on the lookout to find gum and order it into the trash can, it would stop being put under desks and on floors and windows and such. Maybe if I just gave up being the gum Nazi, I could put my energy into fighting a different battle that meant more to me (like eating in the classroom). I was prepared for failure. I was prepared to retract my policy after the first quarter – or even first semester. But let me tell you: it was completely successful. I started the school year with my rules and expectations outline (again, a later post), and in it, I made it clear that I allowed my students to chew gum, provided it wasn’t distracting, stayed in the mouth, and went into the trash when it was finished. My students thought I was playing some sort of trick. I had at least 2-3 hands in every period ask things like, “Are you serious?” and “Really? You’re for real?” I assured them that I really was serious and that I reserved the right to change my mind if I started finding gum in inappropriate places. But I didn’t. My students chewed their gum quietly. They didn’t blow bubbles. They didn’t put it in each other’s hair. When it lost flavor, they spit it out and put in a new piece (the first few times I would get the side eye, as if to make sure I was really going to let them do it). It was liberating.

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I had so much more energy to devote to other things than sniffing out gum. I even had kids offer me gum (which was sweet; not that I ever took them up on it, but…sweet, nonetheless). So every year after that I continued my policy. And if I ever go back into the classroom, I will continue it. I stopped being the gum Nazi because it sucked my energy away from things that mattered more to me. When I stopped devoting energy to gum, I was able to spend more time teaching and less time worrying about something that, in the grand scheme of things (for me, personally), was not worthy of being a hill to die on.

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Musical Chairs

First things first: Go Buckeyes! That’s right, the Ohio State Buckeyes showed those Turtles (Maryland) who is the boss of the Big Ten! Tomorrow you’ll get your football freebie, so be sure to check back! And if you’re not a huge Ohio State fan (although, why wouldn’t you be, really?), you can tell yourself this is a reward for 1) University of Kentucky beating SCAR (yes, I know, UK won a football game…how bizarre…put that together with Duke having another good season and it sets up a hopeful UK vs. Duke bowl game…crazy…) or 2) University of M*ch*gan losing yet another game. Your call.

Anyway, on to this week’s entry.

I remember my very first year of teaching during pre-planning, spending time in my classroom deciding how to arrange my desks. Being the super, awesome, idealistic teacher that I was, I was determined to make group work and collaborative learning king of my castle. Students in rows? I scoffed. Not in this classroom! Wellllll, fast forward a few weeks into the school year and I was kicking myself. My students would NOT stop talking. They didn’t do any work. They were off task. It was a nightmare. Of course, this was due to a variety of factors, but one of them was my seating arrangement. It took some time, trial, and error, but after a few years, I had made adjustments and my middle school classrooms were running smoothly. The two biggest changes I made were 1) No group seating without group work and 2) Assigned seats.

1) No group seating without group work: Anyone who reads educational research can tell you the benefits of group work and collaborative learning at all levels of education. However, there is no way that any teacher can make every single activity or lesson a collaborative learning opportunity. The whole point of differentiated instruction is to vary all aspects of learning. You wouldn’t want to just teach through the collaborative process. So why arrange your desks in a way that doesn’t support the type of learning going on? If you’re going to be doing direct instruction (or a test, etc.), sitting students in groups doesn’t make sense. Arranging desks in groups indicates collaborative work. Putting students in a physical environment that suggests collaboration and then expecting them not to collaborate is unfair. And it’s a recipe for disaster. Here’s how I changed my environment to maximize instruction: The desks in my classroom were arranged in rows. Every class period, if you walked into my classroom before the bell rang, you would see desks arranged in rows. 5 x 5, 6 x 5, 5 x 4…it doesn’t matter. Rows. My students were trained at the beginning of the year to come into the classroom, get their needed supplies out of their backpacks, put their bags at the front of the room, go to their seats, and begin work on the bell work (bell ringer, morning work, whatever you call it in your classroom). In the event that the lesson planned for the day incorporated collaborative learning, I spent time at the start of the year training my students to quickly, quietly, and efficiently move themselves and the desks into groups (and back, of course, into rows). By the time the year was in full swing, my students could go from rows to desks in less than about 10 seconds. Most of the time, it was closer to 5. Then, when the collaborative portion of the lesson is over, back into rows they went. Again, 5-10 seconds, and…done! So, if you have your desks in groups and you are having trouble getting your students to focus when they are not doing group work, I’d suggest giving this method a try.

2) Assigned seats: It doesn’t take much to figure out that students are chatty. They talk to their friends. They talk to the new kid. They talk to the person they don’t even like – although not nicely. They’ll talk to themselves, if they have to. They like to talk. If you let them, they’ll sit with the people who will talk the most with them. This is bad news for your classroom learning environment. Can you let your students pick their own seats and still have a successful class? Of course. And if that’s how you roll, then high five to you. But that’s not the way we did it in my room. I found that the majority of middle school teachers regularly assigned seats. What I also found, however, was that they did not change those seats frequently. If you assign seats but don’t change them often, your students will befriend each other. Sit next to someone long enough, and you’ll find something to whisper about. So I changed my students’ seats every two weeks. That’s right: Every two weeks. If there was a short week or some other event, I might let it ride to three, but that was definitely the max. The first few months, I’d brace for the groan when students came in and saw a new chart up on the ELMO, but by the middle of 2nd quarter, there was no more fight in them. They came, they sat, they learned. When I moved up to teach at the high school level, it never occurred to me to let my students pick their own seats. I assigned seats from day one. I taught 9th and 10th grade my first year. My students could not BELIEVE that I assigned them seats. From the way they told it, I was, apparently, the only high school teacher in the entire building that assigned seats. I told them, “Tough. Life sucks, then you die. There are assigned seats in room 212.” I will say that my 3rd year teaching high school I ended up with a class of seniors. I did give them the benefit of the doubt and refrained from assigning seats. They never abused the privilege, so I never saw reason to change the status quo. So, two questions: a) why assign seats and b) how does one effectively assign seats?

a. Why assign seats? Assigned seats are a classroom management tool. The first benefit to assigned seats is attendance. I never had to call roll. I never took more than about 15 seconds to take attendance. I looked at the seating chart; I looked at the students in their seats; I marked the blank chairs. Done. The second benefit to assigned seats is structure. Students like structure. Heck, we all like structure. Especially for my challenging students, the consistency of sitting in the same spot every day took at least one choice off their plate and kept them from making a bad decision day after day. And for those students who really struggled with change, I’d keep their seat in roughly the same spot (or the exact same chair) even when it was time to change. Half the time they didn’t even notice, because their neighbors changed. Assigned seats not only eliminated the opportunity to make bad seating choices, but it also eliminated the need to choose any seat at all. This is a huge time saver for those students who continually ping pong around the classroom before the bell rings (or even once it does). They (purposefully) waste time deciding where to sit. Assign them a seat and you’ll eliminate that. A third benefit to assigned seats is instructional intervention. As you’ll see below, one way you can assign seats is according to grade or ability level. If you have a struggling student and you continually seat him/her next to high performing peers, you have that in your arsenal when your administration or the parent asks what you’ve done to support that child.

b. How does one effectively assign seats? Most teachers use a district-adopted electronic grade book, and most of these programs support an option for seating charts. Let me tell you, though, that I cannot ever remember simply pressing the “assign” or “random” button when assigning seats. To make seat assignments work for you, you have to put some effort in. First, ask yourself what your goal is for the seating arrangement. Do you have a class of talkers? Do you have a handful of students who are royally obnoxious? Do you have one or two students who are just really struggling academically? Do you have students who are unmotivated? Do you have students who like to sleep? Do you have students who are belligerent? Do you have students who over-involve? For nearly every issue you can think of, assigned seats can help eliminate the problem.

The chatters and the PITAs. [Oh, and if you don’t know what a PITA is…google it.] If you have just had it with those students in your class who will.not.shut.up or who seem to irritate everyone around them and cause a ton of drama, a seating chart can help. For this situation, it is vital to identify the catalysts (or, epicenters, if you will) in the class. You might be tempted to say, “But my whole class talks!” If you really watch, however, you’ll see that it begins with just a few students – maybe 2-3, and then when they are not curbed, others jump in. If you’re having trouble identifying these students, ask a fellow teacher to come in and watch specifically for this. Once you have identified the 2-3 students who instigate the talking or the drama, seat them in the corners of the room. Not like, wearing a dunce cap, but in the desks at the four corners of the rows. Then, build your chart inward, with the least talkative students surrounding your instigators and finally finish with the students in the center. See the diagram below.

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So, you can see that I have done quite a bit of damage to keep my instigators isolated and prevent them from disrupting the class. Also notice that I’ve worked hard to keep any of my “yellow light” students from being directly next to an instigator. You might feel like you have a class of all reds, or that you just don’t have enough greens, but play around with your seating chart and you will find something that at least makes things better, if not solves the problem completely. The key here is to switch these seats regularly – again, I suggest every 2 weeks. It keeps the reds from 1) annoying the greens they’re seated next to and b) befriending the greens and turning them into yellows or reds.

Here are other suggestions for seating arrangements:

Seat by grade (%). I do not suggest doing a simple high-low or low-high. Then you end up with all the unmotivated, failing kids in the same place, which is no bueno. Instead, seat your students alternating high-low-high-low-etc. This ensures that the struggling students always have someone next to them that is 1) likely on task, 2) available for partner work, 3) modeling positive academic behavior (participating, etc.). “But the ‘F’ kids will just cheat off of the ‘A’ kids!” you might argue. I have never had that issue. I provided alternate forms of the test so no one sat next to someone with the same version. Too much work? Then have a “test day” seating chart where you sit in a generic alpha-order or some other arbitrary mode. For a single day, that won’t cause any disruptions.

Seat by gender. You can either do boy-girl-boy-girl alternating (which can have the side benefit of curbing chatter, depending on your mix) or all boys on one side and all girls on the other. My students LOVED it when I sat them this way. Be careful not to seat front vs. back, though, or it will look like favoritism. Assign left vs. right to avoid any problems.

CAUTION: Pay attention to the racial makeup of your class. You want to make sure you disperse all races equally over the layout of the classroom. Not that you would so something on purpose, but…sometimes I didn’t realize it until they all sat down, but I’d end up with the 3 black boys in the class in the back row. Or the 5 white girls all in the front. Oops…

Ideas for seating single problem students:

The sleeper. Obviously all teachers have their own methods of dealing with sleepers (if you read my “sleeper” post, you’ll be familiar with mine). I’ve found it works best if you seat the sleepers in the very back on the edge. Or at least along the edges of the desks. This makes for easy and inconspicuous access, should you decide to intervene.

The belligerent arguer. One of the corners on the row closest to the door. This way, if I had to either 1) ask the student to leave or 2) chat with the student in the hall, they were less disruptive to the class because they had a shorter distance to cover to get to the door.

The one you know hates your guts. Seat this beauty front and center. Send the message that you even though you know they can’t stand you, it doesn’t affect your desire for them to learn.

The one who always seems to be turned around talking. Sit this in the last seat of either the first or the last row. There’s nowhere to turn.

Ideas for small classes:

Sit students every other seat. I was lucky enough to have some classes where I could get away with this arrangement. Let me tell you how much work they got done! Holy cow!

Sit students all in the first 3 rows. Forbid students from sitting in the back.

In-classroom seating interventions:

“Islands of Shame.” I may have covered this in a previous post, but I’m not sure, so I’ll go over it again. In my classroom, I had 5 rows of 6 desks. I also had 3 desks strategically placed in isolated locations around the room. Two up underneath the white board (opposite sides of the classroom) and one facing the 2nd whiteboard on the side wall, behind the upright cabinet. Students who would not stop talking, regardless of where I sat them (I’m talking about just shouting across the room, turning around and disrupting class constantly), I would direct them to an island of shame. And yes, I called it the island of shame. Sarcasm (sort of gently) was part of my classroom culture, though – I’m not advocating you use the term “island of shame” if it doesn’t fit with your personality – so the kids knew it wasn’t personal, just that I really had had it with their disruptions. It got so popular that some of my problem kids would move themselves there when they knew things were getting out of control. And of course, any time a student moved him/herself away from a problem I NEVER stopped them.

Standing. I’ve got a pretty clear set of rules I follow for dealing with sleepers, but occasionally I’d have a kid who was just having a rough day and wanted to sleep. This was usually the case when we would watch a film clip (not “movie day” four days in a row, but a legit film clip for a lesson) and the lights would be off for more than 45 seconds. Or, I’d have the kid who just kept putting his feet on the desk in front of him and pissing off the kid there. I’d warn these students one time to stop their behavior and tell them if it happened again, they’d have to stand. Sure enough, if it happened again, I’d tell them to go stand in the back of the classroom against the wall. Not yelling at them, not making them feel like crap, just, “Please stand up.” I rarely had anyone argue with me over it. In fact, kids who were repeat offenders (especially during the ‘lights off’ film time or when there was a Power Point or something) would ask as soon as I turned the lights off if they could stand in the back of the room. I’d say “sure!” and thank them for being so proactive.

So that’s my post for the week. I know it’s getting close to the end of the first quarter, and some of you may be struggling with some behavior issues. I hope that the ideas I’ve presented in this entry about seating charts will help you gain a little more control in your classroom so your students can learn as much as possible! Of course, comments are welcome!

And of course, if you’re looking for classroom management ideas, I have a great bundle you can buy: here.

classroom mgmt super bundle

Check it out!

Fabulous Football Freebie!

In honor of the Buckeye’s victory over the Bearcats, I have put together a freebie that I think will come in handy in the next few weeks. I know the end of the first quarter is right around the corner – just a few weeks away, can you believe it?!

I did not expect my middle school students to understand the calculation of GPAs, semester grades, or the like. However, once I moved up to high school, though, I was surprised that even my upper classmen didn’t really understand how those things were determined. The high honors kids figured it out, of course, but they weren’t the ones who needed the help. I found that my low-performing students would get so discouraged at the end of the first quarter if they made poor grades that they would throw away the entire second quarter because they didn’t understand that things were still salvageable. I also encountered students who did quite well first quarter, but honestly thought they didn’t have to do any more work the rest of the semester because they already had their “A” (or “B” or whatever). SMH, I know, but they didn’t know any better. That’s when I decided it was my duty to wise them up.

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Setting Grade Goals

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This freebie helps you take students through the process of using 2 separate quarter grades and a semester exam grade to create a semester grade that will appear on a “permanent” record: the report card. It’s important you know how your district calculates semester grades – what percentage of the semester grade is the exam? Once you figure that out, make a spreadsheet that shows students the various combinations of quarter and exam grades to create a final semester grade. Many districts have this as a part of the district’s student handbook. You will be AMAZED at the difference in attitude your students show when they realize their entire year isn’t completely shot (or that they can’t sit back and do nothing for the next 9 weeks…). They’ll thank you, too, even if they’re doing well in your class, because they can use this in their other courses that might not be going so well.

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This is what I have noticed with my students:

Highly focused, motivated, overachievers like this tool when they get a “B” instead of an “A” that first quarter because it shows them they can still earn an “A” for the semester. This calms them down and keeps those helicopter parents off your back.

Average students (B/C) tend to be hit or miss with this – sometimes it really motivates them to push for that extra mile. Other times they’re like, “Sweet. I only have to get a ___ and then I’ll have my C.” So it kinda depends.

Struggling students who have a bad spell in the middle of the quarter or miss a major due date or something and end up with a “C” or “D” and it really rattles them and you can tell they’re going to just give up – these are the bread-and-butter kids. They love that they can hop back on board and turn everything around. I get the best responses from these kids (even if they’re not performing this way in my class, they might be in someone else’s).

“F” students don’t tend to benefit as much from this (unfortunately). Although, it can at least help some of them decide to do enough to at least pass the second quarter and the exam. There are other, better interventions for these students.

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I have also found that teaching students how to calculate their GPA yields similar results. This, however, does actually work well with those “F” students because it helps them see the damage they are doing if they are “taking some time off” like – “oh, freshman year doesn’t matter” or “oh, I’m already a senior – I already got into ___ school…” Of course, for this, you have to know how your district/state calculates (weights) courses for GPA purposes. But it’s not a bad idea to show kids how to calculate their unweighted GPAs, since that’s how the vast majority of colleges and universities decide admission. It also pushes home the importance of doing your best in every class rather than taking the “Honors” or “AP” courses but doing just “okay” and relying on weighting to keep a good GPA.
Kids are naturally competitive. If you show them how to track their performance, they’ll be motivated to do better. It also shows them you really care about them, because 99% of the time, you’ll be the only teacher/adult they know who is taking time to show them how this stuff works. It can make a huge difference.

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These activities can help you drive home to students the importance of being successful in high school. I used to talk about colleges with my students, but of course there were lots who didn’t seem to care, because they’d decided college wasn’t for them. It was hard for me to hear that, since education was so important to me (as a teacher – obviously). I realized, though, that while college may not be the motivator for every kid, every student does have a button. I started broadening my horizons to talk about community colleges, AA programs (Associate Degrees, not substance abuse), technical education, and other reasons that high school grades affect the future. I was fond of saying that “The poor choices you make now are closing doors you don’t even know are there.” I would remind them that just because they don’t want to go to college (or any other post-secondary program) now doesn’t mean they won’t want to later in life. I also would stress that “College may not be for everyone, but graduation is.” There is no good argument against graduating from high school. Unfortunately, for many students, this realization comes too late. So if you start working with your students and helping them manage their grades and their education early in high school, it will really pay off. Can you “save” them all? Of course not – and I’m not going to lie and say you can. But you can help a lot of them – and for the ones you don’t “save,” you’ll at least know that you made the effort; you extended the branch.

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If you decide this is right for you and your students, it’s imperative that you find out your district’s formula for calculating semester grades. A standard, traditional calculation is 37.5% weight to quarter 1 grade, 37.5% weight to quarter 2 grade, and 25% weight to the exam. Some districts also do a 40% – 40% – 20% split. This activity won’t be useful unless you know how your district does it. I included a table that shows students the different grade combinations and it’s based on the 25% exam grade weight. It is from my district (Hillsborough County Public Schools – FL). I’ve also included a chart based on a 25% exam weight that does NOT follow the F=50% rule that HCPS uses. And I’ve included a chart based on a 20% exam grade weight, but I’m not sure how accurate that will be when compared with another district’s – again, because it’s purely mathematical; it doesn’t have any rules about minimum values, etc. Finally, I included a blank chart so you can fill in your district’s grades once you figure them out if they don’t match the two charts I included. Be sure when you are checking on your district policies, to note any specific rules, like auto-F for a semester grade if the exam grade is an F-below 50 (an HCPS rule). Or some districts have a 2/3 rule that must be met. Just make sure you have all the information to give your students – because they will ask.

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I hope you find this resource useful! Have a great week…and go Buckeyes! We take on Maryland this Saturday!