Why I Use PowerPoint to Teach Middle School Math

Nowadays, one of the major components of many teacher evaluations – including mine – is student engagement. Especially as a new teacher, I struggled with what felt like a game of “Whack-A-Mole” – getting student A on task only to find student B across the room is flinging paper at the student in the next seat. It was a never-ending cycle that left me exhausted. No matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out a way to get every student on task, doing what I needed them (and what they needed) to be doing.

why teach PPT whackamole

It took me a while to figure out that there were two major reasons why my students weren’t always on task. And no, it wasn’t that my lessons themselves weren’t “engaging,” although, as a new teacher, that actually was part of it, but not the central part. I know this to be true because as I progressed in my teaching career, I learned how to make much more engaging lessons, but unless I employed the tactics I’m about to explain, I wound up with the same problems.

The two reasons my students weren’t always on task were

1) they didn’t know what to do/didn’t have something to do

and

2) they couldn’t do what they were supposed to be doing.

Many of my students were off task because they didn’t know what to or have something to do. I had way too much downtime in my lessons. The students who were mature were able to sit and wait until the next component – which, admittedly, wasn’t long. It wasn’t like I had 5 or 10 minutes of dead time, but any teacher can tell you that even just 10 seconds of space is enough to derail a student who is either immature or not self-directed.

Students goofing off in classroom

Students goofing off in classroom — Image by © Sean De Burca/Corbis

So, what’s a girl to do? I abhorred the idea of busy work – I still do. Whatever I had for my students to do, it had to be authentic and worthwhile. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the flash of lightning that hit me for the inspiration, but at some point, I decided to try PowerPoint lessons. I put together all the vocabulary, notes, examples, and practice problems for a concept into a slide show and required my students to take these notes for a grade.

why teach PPT projected slide

Do you know what it’s like to hear the angels of heaven sing?

why teach PPT angels sing

I suppose it sounds like different things to different people, but that day it was the sound of silence. It was my whole class on task. Seriously. Every single student. And I know that most teachers will confirm that novelty and/or gimmicks may solve a problem in the short term, but give it about two weeks and things often go back to the way they were.

why teach PPT wait_for_it

That didn’t happen. I used PowerPoints with the same success regarding engagement and on-task behavior throughout the rest of not that year, but subsequent years. This is because PowerPoints give students clear and consistent expectations of what they are supposed to be doing, and provides enough information on each slide to keep students engaged if they finish one definition or problem before other students.

The other reason my students were off task was because I was expecting them to do things they couldn’t. Many of my students – like so many in our country – were performing below grade level. When I was putting up one problem at a time and asking students to work on it, the ones who couldn’t do it were off task. Once I changed to PowerPoint lessons, though, this problem was eliminated. Instead of one or two problems at a time, I was able to have several – sometimes up to ten different problems on a slide! I was able to have different levels of problems so that everyone was able to do what I wanted them to do. Additionally, the other slides alleviated this problem because everyone can write down information from a slide. This may not seem worthwhile, but I made sure my students knew two important things about this: 1) this was building notetaking skills, where were vital for their future in education, and 2) these notes were graded, so even if they didn’t fully understand the lesson, just by writing down the information on the slides, they could earn a grade that would help them overall.

why teach PPT important

And guess what? This all had an unexpected side effect: because these low-performing students now knew what they had to do/had something to do AND could do it, they actually began to improve their understanding and comprehension.

why teach PPT whaaat

If you’ve never tried using a PowerPoint in your middle school math classroom but you’d like to, I’d encourage you to check out some ready-made lessons that are Common Core-aligned. These are my most popular and best-selling lessons:

Independent vs. Dependent Variables

Ratios and Proportions

Integers and Absolute Value

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

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’?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Have a great school year!

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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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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!