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!

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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 used the First Week of School to Ensure a Well-Managed Classroom for the Entire Year

My first year of teaching I made a horrible mistake. Okay, well, I made a LOT of mistakes, but the worst mistake I made was on the very first day. I told my students I didn’t really have any rules. Yes. Yes, I said it. They even asked me what my rules were, and I honest-to-God told them, “I don’t really have any rules.” I think I might have said something after that about wanting them to be respectful and do their work or something, but there’s no shot that they heard it. There are only a handful of things I wish I could go back in time and undo, and that is one of them. Most of the mistakes I made turned out to be great learning experiences. This one was, too, but I could have learned a LOT of the same things without saying that, and my year would have been a LOT easier.

Frustrated businessman, with sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, screaming and pulling his hair. Taken with a Panasonic FZ30 Lumix.

Fortunately, I learned my lesson, and the next year I implemented rules. I don’t remember exactly what they were, so I know I didn’t do it right that second year, either. But the second year was better than the first. My third year I still didn’t have it quite figured out, and I had more problems (but who wouldn’t with over 40 kids in a class?). But then, somewhere, I read about a student “handbook” for the classroom. Some teacher I talked to or read their blog (honestly, it was almost ten years ago, and I don’t remember exactly where I saw the idea) explained that s/he gave their students a document at the beginning of the year every year. This document had all the rules and expectations for the classroom for the year. The students even signed it like a real contract.

student contract 4

So I did what any good teacher would do (or one who was trying to be better) and made my own! I had three years’ worth of behavior issues to work with, and each year I had kept a list of all the things that had gone wrong and that I wanted to change. I also wrote down things I wish I had rules or procedures for but didn’t know how to implement in the middle of the year when I thought about them. I spent some time (like, weeks) putting together every issue I could think of. Everything that had ever gone wrong in my room, everything any student had ever asked me about procedures/behavior/etc., all these things went into the document. I decided to call it the “what if” student contract. This is because every single rule or expectation was addressed as a student asking me a question.

“What do I need for this class?” “What if I have to go to the bathroom?” “What if I am late to class?” “What if I forget my homework?” “What if I feel sick?” “What if the person next to me is bothering me?” “What if I forgot a pencil?” “What if I’m hungry?” “What if I’m tired?” “What if I want a ‘free day’?”

student contract 3

Literally, every possible question I could imagine a student needing or wanting to know on the first day, I answered in my document. I also included my discipline plan (rules and consequences) so students knew what to expect. The document was long. I mean, really, really long – like 10 pages (5 front & back). And I didn’t know if it would work, but I was willing to try. I was nervous. I’d never really done anything that first week of school except start teaching. Of course, the second and third year I spent a little time that first day going over my rules and the consequences, but not more than half the period. I jumped into instruction right away. I didn’t know any better.

student contract 6

Year four, though, I decided to do things differently. I printed my rules and procedures student contract. I copied enough for every student to have his/her own (and I made extras, too, for students who came in later in the year). They were ready for the first day. When the students came in, I had three things for them: a student information page (What do you like to be called? Who do you live with? What’s your email? What’s your parents’ email(s)? What do you like to do for fun? What’s your favorite subject? Etc.), a supply list, and my rules and expectations packet. After they filled out the information sheet, I passed out the packets, had students put their name on them, and began to read through page by page. I answered questions as they arose. I even had students model some of the behaviors I expected (coming in tardy, asking to borrow supplies from a neighbor, disliking the lesson, being angry with me, etc.). I had them model incorrect behavior (they loved that part) and then correct behavior. By the end of the first class I realized we’d only gotten through about a page and a half. We certainly hadn’t gone past page two. The next day, we picked up where we left off. It took the entire first week to get through the packet. Some kids got a little antsy that we hadn’t started instruction. Heck, I got a little antsy when I realized how long this thing was taking. But I was going to do my experiment right, so I plowed through to the end. Once we finished, I asked for any final questions and then had students sign their name. I put the packets in their student folders (I’ll have another post on how I organized student work later on), and the following Monday, we began instruction.

When a student asked me a question covered in the document, I referred them to the document. It kept me from having to answer the same questions over and over. Eventually kids either asked a neighbor or looked through the document themselves. If I had a new student enroll, the first thing they would get would be the same stack of papers students got on the first day of school. I would have students spend the entire day reading through their paperwork, ask me any questions they had, sign it, and then put it in their file. Every student who came through my door promised they would abide by my rules and do their best to meet my expectations.

My fourth year of teaching was UH-MAZING. It was like teaching was meant to be. I enjoyed myself. The kids enjoyed themselves. I taught. Students learned. It was magical.

student contract 7

I had problems, yes. I had issues, but they were manageable and quickly remedied. I continued the first week routine every year after that. I even did it in high school. Once I began teaching high school, I did streamline it a bit so that I could discuss the document in 3-4 days instead of a full 5, but we did NOT begin instruction until I was sure every student understood my expectations and what would happen if they were not met. Every year I would add to it when a student did/asked something I hadn’t thought of.

student contract 8

I also re-visited the document at the beginning of the second semester after kids returned from break. I didn’t spend a whole week on it then, but highlighted the major issues that had been weakening towards the end of semester one. One year, I even made it into a PowerPoint presentation, but I found that to be slightly less effective, so I went back to reading through the physical document the next year.

If you think this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It was. However, it was LESS work than dealing with behavior and management issues the entire year. I went from daily or weekly referrals and multiple administrators in my room for behavior issues in my first 3 years to a handful of referrals a year and 1 visit from an administrator for behavior issues in the next 6 years. To say it was successful would be a gross understatement.

student contract 9

Maybe you’re a first-year teacher anxious about classroom management. Maybe you’re a veteran teacher looking for a new way to improve student behavior and achievement. I encourage you to make your own rules and expectations student contract. If you think this idea would work for you but you don’t want to or don’t have enough time to make your own, you can use mine as a starting point and then add to in order to meet your specific needs. I know it will work for you as well as it did for me – as long as you put the work in on the front end during that first week and then are CONSISTENT in enforcing rules, expectations, and consequences throughout the year.

student contract 1 student contract 2

Have a great school year!

student contract

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.

blog 7-20-15 c

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.

blog 7-20-15 g

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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It Summer! And Other Interesting Things.

By now most teachers are completely done with the school year. 14-15 is OVER. Is there anyone who is still teaching this far into June? Unless you’re at a year-round school, probably not. I really miss my summers. This is the 3rd summer I’ve had to work, since I now occupy a 12-month position. And I miss my summers. There are things I DON’T miss about the classroom, that’s for sure. But I do miss my summers. I miss sleeping in. Not that there was much of that, what with trainings and planning for the upcoming year, but there was some. And I do miss planning for the upcoming year. I used to keep a running document of all the things that didn’t work during the school year and I would spend the summer figuring out how to improve them. Not just specific lessons, but stuff in general. Like maybe I realized I was ending up with too much work to grade. I would sit down and try to figure out a system where I could still assign what I needed to in order to achieve certain goals but get things graded on time and without taking up three hours of my evenings. Or I might realize that students spent way too much time going to the bathroom and so I would figure out a plan to reduce (or eliminate) that problem. How many of you do that? I tell you, it’s what really helped each year of my teaching improve. It’s how I came up with my student contract and my hall passes.

In other news, the Teachers Pay Teachers annual conference is coming up very soon! It’s scheduled for July 9-10 in Las Vegas, NV. I had such a great time and learned so much last year that I can’t wait to go back. And this time, my husband is coming with me! We’ll get to go to twice the number of sessions and learn double what I could have on my own. If anyone is coming, I’d love to meet up with you at some point. We will probably be going to the secondary seller meet up Thursday night after the sessions end. I also got business cards this year, since they were super popular last year and I wished I’d brought some. They came in early and I’m stoked about how they turned out. If you’re a premium seller on TpT and you haven’t registered for the conference, I think they’re still accepting registrations. It is SO worth it. I was nervous that it wouldn’t be, but it totally was! I learned so much and improved my business by leaps and bounds! I hope to see you there!

Teachers are Heroes!

It’s true, teachers really are heroes! Teachers are leaders, nurses, parents, psychologists, social workers, friends, confidants, and so much more. If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to check out Teachers Pay Teachers, it has arrived! Today (only for a few more hours!) everything on the site – in every single store! – is at least 10% off! My store has everything 28% off! That’s right! If you’ve been eyeing that perfect lesson, activity, or resource, now is the time to stop by and stock up! There probably won’t be another sale until my birthday (that’s all the way in April, people!), so get test prep, Common Core and LAFS resources, math lessons, writing resources, reading activities, and so much more! And don’t forget, there’s a TON of free stuff on the site, too – not just my store, but hundreds – thousands (literally, there are over 70K stores on TpT!) – of stores with something for everyone. So no matter what or you teach – in a classroom K-12, early childhood, college, or even homeschool, there is something for you! Head on over and check it out!

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Get your teaching resources while the getting is good!

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.

seating chart

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.

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The Sleeper

Oh, Natalia, such fond memories I have of you. Mostly they are of the back of your head because you were face down on the desk, sleeping through my class. We all have them: the sleepers. I’m not talking about the honors kid that pulls an all-nighter and falls asleep accidentally while you’ve got on “Romeo and Juliet” with the lights off that day. No, I’m talking about Natalia, who comes in 3-to-4 days of the week and after the first three minutes of class, curls up in her coat (even though we’re in Florida and it’s a trillion degrees outside), puts her head down on her desk, and goes to sleep. The first few times, of course, I ask Natalia to, “wake up, please,” and join the class activity, which, naturally, she does not do. After that, I ask a couple of times if she is feeling all right. Much to my (un)surprise, Natalia has headaches. She has them every day. At 1pm. During my class. She asks to go to the nurse the first time, but after I impress upon her the uselessness of this action (Really, what is the nurse going to do for your headache? She can’t give you medicine, and she’s not going to call your mom.), she doesn’t ask again.

What am I to do? I talk with Natalia before and after class several times, at which point she assures me that she will start getting more sleep at home and will try to stay awake during class. I am lucky, because Natalia promises me that it’s not that she hates me or my class. (Incidentally, my reaction to the student who simply hates me and my class and chooses to sleep is exactly the same as my response to Natalia.) I thank her for her effort.

The next day, Natalia falls asleep in my class. This time I call home. Perhaps there is some domestic issue (or medical?) of which I should be aware. Natalia’s dad (I know, can you believe it? The phone number was right and someone actually answered! Score!) is adamant that he will make sure she gets to bed at a decent hour so she can stay awake in class.

The next day…and the next day…and the next day, Natalia falls asleep in class. Perhaps I should involve guidance. I think back to some of the other students whom I have referred to that department. The stellar lack of results convinces me that I can bypass this step. But maybe your guidance department is different. Best of luck with that. I debate writing a referral. But what will that gain me? I’ll look like I can’t handle what’s going on in my classroom and the AP will be annoyed with me. Plus, Natalia will just get a day of ISS – which she’ll sleep through as well. So, yeah, that’s pretty much useless.

How do I keep Natalia awake?! What must I do to motivate her to stay awake during my class? I show her her grades. I give her opportunities to make up missed work. I bargain with her and promise if she just does one thing a day with the class that she can put her head down the rest of the time. That one actually works for a few days. But she just.keeps.on.sleeping.

I have to figure out a way to fix this problem! The other students have seen Natalia sleeping for weeks, now. Surely they are going to think that it is all right for them to sleep in class as well! Soon, all my students will be napping as I try to teach them the excitement that is Romeo and Juliet (or factoring polynomials, or Newton’s third law, or the underlying causes of the Civil War…take your pick)! I cannot let this one student (because it really is just one student – I’ve rarely had 2 or more sleepers in a single class) undermine my authority as a teacher! I cannot let her sleep in my class!

But I can. I’ve done everything I can do (except that guidance step, but…really, if you have a Natalia, you know that will be ineffective, too).

One of the things I had to learn as a first-year, idealistic teacher was that although I may want to save them all, I can’t. My time is a resource and it is limited, and it is better spent on students who want to be saved. If Natalia changes her mind, I will be there for her. I will do whatever it takes to help her succeed, but I’ve done what I can do for now. I have 25 (or 30+) other students who need me; who want me.

And believe it or not, the students get it. I’ve never, ever, ended up with a classroom full of napping students. They understand that I care about Natalia and I want her to be successful, but she is choosing not to. They don’t see her as undermining my authority as a teacher, they see her as missing out on an opportunity to learn. They don’t envy her, they pity her. Sometimes her friends will even try to shake her awake, but for the most part, she is left alone, in the corner, until she wakes up (pardon the pun) and realizes what she’s missing.

Does this make me a bad teacher? Does this mean I don’t care about my students? Does this mean I give up on those who need me the most? You may think so. I’d love to hear how you get your Natalias to stay awake (and for goodness’ sake, don’t tell me to make my lessons “meaningful” – this is a single student we’re talking about here, it’s not my entire class that isn’t engaged – my instruction is sufficiently authentic and engaging). But the way I see it, I’ve done what I can and I’m just waiting for her to do the rest.

And while it is sad and profoundly tragic that Natalias exist, I will take her any day over Bryan, whose sole goal between 9:30am and 10:25am is to make my life a living hell. But that’s a post for another day.

Picking Battles

As a parent of a two-year-old, I am learning a lot about picking which battles to fight. This was something I learned during my tenure as a teacher, too, though. As teachers, we don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to deal with every single issue that crosses our doorstep. If we addressed everything, we’d be spending time managing:

backpacks in the aisle
bathroom usage
brushing hair in class
chairs tilted on the back two legs
classroom wandering
cleavage
drawing on desks
drink
feet on desks
food
gum
hats
headphones
hoodies
humming
iPods
late work
painting nails in class
pen color variety
putting on makeup in class
ripped edges of notebook paper torn out of spirals
saggy pants
short shorts
short skirts
singing
sleeping in class
swearing
tardies
texting
touching other students
touching the teacher
touching stuff on the teacher’s desk
trash on the floor
trips to the clinic
wife beaters
working on a different class’s assignment during your class
writing on the board

and so much more…

So what’s a teacher to do? You’d never get anything else done if you were constantly on kids about all these things. You pick your battles. That’s what you do. And it’s pretty much a given that your battles won’t be the same as other teachers’, but if that bothers them, that’s their problem, not yours. Kids may complain that “so-and-so lets us…” but certainly by the time kids are in middle school, they are mature enough to know that different people have different rules. It’s the same as being at their friends’ houses vs. being at home. My turf, my rules.

Here’s my suggestion. Pick a small number (single digits) of issues that you just absolutely cannot stand. Pick the ones that if you encountered them every day you’d vacillate between suicidal and homicidal. For me personally, it was backpacks in the aisle, feet on desks, swearing, and eating/drinking in class. (I really picked writing on the board, too, but I dealt with that by hiding my markers so none of my kids ever needed to be told off about it.) Establish your rules about those issues the first few days of school. You can even give them your rationale if you like. For me, backpacks in the aisle were about safety and having access to nefarious, distracting items during class. Feet on the desks (for me it was the metal baskets beneath the desk in front of them) was about potentially breaking the school equipment. Swearing was about respect (I don’t swear in my classroom – I don’t even say “shut up” in front of my students, and I expect the same from them.). No food/drink was about keeping away the trash and bugs (and because I had this rule and enforced it, I was absolutely okay with students standing outside the door for the first few seconds of class to finish their snack/soda – and they never abused it). These are the issues that you’ll have to go over again and again and constantly harp on, but it’s only a couple, so it’s not that exhausting.

Now pick the ones (should be single digits) that you HAVE to fight because of district or school policy (that you can’t ignore – like, I always ignored the dress code unless it personally offended me; sometimes I would make a comment to a kid about his pants or whatever, but by-and-large I let most things slide). For most teachers, things like tardies and dress code (at least some parts of it – I would NOT tolerate hats or sunglasses in my room) will be on this list. These are easier to enforce because it should be relatively universal throughout the school. To varying degrees, surely, but most other teachers will be on your side.

If you do this, you’re left with just a handful of issues that you will have to battle throughout the year. Let the rest go. Is it really such a bad thing if the kid wants to write in green pen? Is the world going to end because the kid is chewing gum (provided it doesn’t go under the desk…although in my experience, I’ve found that if I’m not the gum Nazi, kids spit it out in the trash can when they’re done with it, because they’re not trying to hide it from me). If a kid is done with all his work for you and he wants to do some [other subject] work, do you really want to keep him from being responsible?

Whatever battles you choose, you’ll have your reasons. And whatever battles you stay away from, chances are someone else will question your decisions. But it’s your classroom, your time, and your energy. Spend it in the way that is most optimal for you and your students.