Two Small Changes That Made All the Difference in My Classroom

Want to know the best way I have found to curb excess talking?

How about the most equitable and easy way I found to handle classroom jobs? These two seemingly small changes made a huge impact in my classroom!

Let’s talk about ways to curb the chatting first, shall we?

Every morning, each student got 3 bands. I used the hair ties that came in packs of 100 for $1 at Dollar Tree and just kept them in a tin I had from a gift I had received years ago!  I bought 5-6 packs at the beginning of the year and that usually lasted us the entire year—you could even think about putting them on your supply list or wish list for your classroom.  Invariably, I would have some break, or accidentally go home with a child. They also just wore out after a while—at 100 for $1, they aren’t necessarily the highest quality item you will find!

Here’s how the idea works:

The students could wear them on their wrist, keep them on their nametags, supply boxes, or whatever you choose. Each time they blurt out, they put one back in the container we keep them in. I even developed a nonverbal cue to let them know that they had lost a band, so that I didn’t have to disrupt my teaching.  I would make eye contact with them and just tap my wrist and then point to the tin where the bands were kept.  This way I could keep going with what I was doing, and they simply got up and put the band back in the tin.  They knew right where it was kept (for me it was right on top of our mailboxes, so it was easily accessible, and they saw it often) and they could do that without any further disruption. In over 20 years of teaching, I had tried several things, but this was by far the one that worked the best for me. It’s great because it’s a visual reminder for the kids, and this way you can be sure you have given them 3 warnings first before giving a more serious consequence. Win/win in my book!!!

The other so-simple-I-can’t-believe-I-didn’t-think-of-it-sooner hack is how I handled classroom jobs.

It was another classroom “chore” that I tried multiple ways of managing before I finally settled on a great, easy solution.  When I was first teaching I had only a few jobs, but kids felt left out because only a few students ever got to help.  Then I purchased a pre-made bulletin board kit, but their jobs didn’t meet my needs.  Then I came up with a list of jobs so that every child had a job that I was changing every week.  Except that I would often forget.  Then I had students complain that some jobs were almost never used, while others were used multiple times a day.  There was even a year where I thought I would tie persuasive writing to the class jobs, so that kids could convince me that they were the right person for the job.  All in all, no matter what approach I took, it was just a headache that I never looked forward to dealing with until I came up with the idea that I will share with you here.

Some of you may already be familiar with Tara West and her blog Little Minds at Work.

She has tons of great ideas for primary grades.  She did a blog post with a printable for a “Lucky Duck.”  She used it to choose a mystery student for staying on task.  However, one day when I was particularly frustrated with jobs and kids complaining about them, I decided to make my “Lucky Duck” the helper for the day.  So each day, during our morning meeting, I pulled one stick and that person was the person who did any job that was needed that day—passing out papers or other materials, helping with calendar (this was a kindergarten classroom), taking things to the office or to other teachers, etc.  If I needed more than one person to help, I just had the Lucky Duck from the previous day fill that position so that there were no arguments.  Once I had selected the Lucky Duck, I put the stick back in the jar with the duck side down, so I knew that student had been selected.  Once all the sticks were duck side down, I knew everyone had had a turn and I could flip them over and start again.  Something else I thought of on my third year making them, that I will save you right now from making the same mistake, is that I just put numbers on the sticks instead of names.  This way they are reusable from year to year.  Just match the number on the stick with your student’s number on your roster. Easy peasy.

Both ideas were simple, low prep and effective while making my teaching life easier and more streamlined.  I hope they are as helpful for you!

Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day

I can’t believe we are already in the third full week of January! An essential teaching point for this month is Martin Luther King Day, and I believe this is true no matter what grade you teach.  I typically did activities on my own and with our cross-age peers. If you have followed me for awhile, you know that one of the things I am most passionate about is cross-age peers.  It is one of the very few things that has stayed constant throughout my 25-year career in multiple grades. I can go more in depth into the benefits in another blog post, but today I want to share some of the projects we did with our partners to celebrate Martin Luther King as well as activities we completed independently throughout the years.

Activities for Older Grades

When I taught older grades, we read books about him and watched the full version of the March on Washington and his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.  Every time I hear that speech, it still moves me to tears.  We also did a simulation of a march for civil rights. My students looked up examples of posters, and created their own to resemble them.  We pushed the seats to the edge of the room, held our posters high, and with “We Shall Overcome” playing in the background, simulated a protest march in our classroom. I projected images of the actual marches to help us feel more “in the moment.” This activity was based on a lesson in our Social Studies book, Social Studies Alive.  After we finished we debriefed the activity with the following questions:

  • What did you learn from this activity?
  • How did you feel?
  • What was hard for you in this activity? What was easy?
  • What would you do if you lived during that time?
  • How do you think this applies to our lives today?

Fourth Grade – with First Grade Partners

When I taught fourth grade, we had first grade partners.  We would read a picture book about Dr. King (either whole group or the older kids would read a book to their partner if we had enough copies) and then work together to make mobiles.  Across the hanger, we had an oval cutout that read “My Dream Is..” and then we cut cloud shapes with our die cut machine and pairs worked together to write what their dream was.  We had a discussion beforehand of what type of dream we meant in this case and gave some examples (i.e. not what happens when you go to sleep and dream about a trip to Disney World!)  The first graders hung these up in their classroom.  Unfortunately, this was several years ago, and long before we could just whip out our phone and take a picture, so I don’t have photos of this to share with you.

Kindergarten – with Fifth Grade Partners

Once I moved down to kindergarten, we had fifth grade partners that came to us.  Again, I did activities on my own, but also enjoyed new projects with these partners. On our own, we watched the shorter version of the “I Have A Dream” speech, because, honestly, I don’t think there is anything wrong with watching it every single year—it is such a powerful message! I also had other books that I read aloud to my students and had some students that could read a basic leveled text independently as well (there are loads of freebies on TpT to choose from).  We also made MLK day crowns that I found on Teachers Pay Teachers here and the students got to wear them home the Friday before the holiday.

However, by far my favorite things we did were the activities with our partners. Unless someone was absent, our students were paired with the same fifth grade buddy for each of our weekly sessions. On this day, I worked with most of the partners while my colleague (Jennifer) took several students at a time out in the hall to do the second project.  I stayed in the classroom and did an activity from Teacher to the Core (it is a freebie in her Teachers Pay teachers store). You can find the link to her blog post and the activity here.  I gathered the group together to talk about the “I Have a Dream” speech we both had viewed independently and focused on the quote about being judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin. In her post, she had each student crack an egg, but I decided to just do it myself.  I cracked one brown and one white egg into a bowl and we realized that although they looked different on the outside, the inside looked identical.  Then I put them in small groups and gave each group a basket of plastic eggs with the character traits inside and had them complete the paper. I was surprised that it was more of a challenge than I expected.

Out in the hall, Jennifer (the fifth grade teacher) created this display (see image below) with the students. This idea was adapted from a blog post from A Full Classroom here. Prior to class, I put up the black and white butcher paper and had my much more artistically inclined daughter draw the picture of Martin Luther King based on a photo in the blog post. Jennifer took small groups out to the hallway to paint their hands to make the handprints going around the picture.  The students were allowed to mix shades of paint until they achieved the color they felt best matched their skin. They loved doing this project and it was a great display in the hallway to help us remember Dr. King.  There are so many great ways to share his life and work. What are your favorite ways to celebrate his legacy?

Christmas Art Day, Part 1

Christmas Art Day, Part 1

I am so excited to tell you about one of my favorite activities of the entire year! Christmas Art Day was a day that always brought joy, accomplishment and exhaustion. So, in my opinion, the perfect day! Well, maybe not the exhaustion part—but it was all worth it!  It is one of the few things that I did almost every year that I taught (we started my second year of teaching, so that would be 23 to be exact!) It was always in partnership with our cross age partners, so it was at least two classes together.

It started out as a way to make decorations for our hallway. My teaching partner had the first room as you came in the door to the building with a big display window. Everyone passed by there and so we wanted to make it look festive for the holidays. We decided to set aside a day to make decorations and our parent gifts, and the tradition just continued from there. We did different things over the years, but our main purpose stayed the same—to do our parent gifts and decorate the building.

Step 1: Pick a date

We started by picking a date. We typically picked a Friday in late November/early December. This gave us enough time to have the decorations up and enjoy for the season, but not too early.  Next, we informed the office, custodial staff, cafeteria, etc. and sent letters home to parents asking for volunteers and donations. A great thing about this project is that it is easy for all families to be involved. I had parents who came in and volunteered at a station, parents who came in to help set up, and others who couldn’t come in but were able to send in things or help prep materials at home. Having extra help is crucial!! If you don’t have great parent support, get creative! Are there specialists who could help?? How about university students or church/community volunteers? Maybe your own family members? Ideally, you would have at least one parent at each station. This way you are free to go to each station as needed—and trust me, you will be needed!

Step 2: Decide on projects

About two to three weeks prior to the event, decide on your projects. The amount of help and their level of expertise always helped guide my decisions. If we didn’t have much parent help, the projects were simple, so that they could be completed with little assistance. If I knew I had many parents who could help with more difficult crafts, then we did those. As I mentioned, we always did at least one craft, the parent gift, the photo booth and something to display—one for December and then, in later years, I added a project that could be put up right as we came back in January. We also had stations for early finishers.  All of our holiday books were placed in a partner reading station, I had coloring pages and puzzles, and also enlisted student help with displays if they were done with their station but not ready for the next.

Step 3: Create a materials list

After you have decided on your projects, make a materials list. You can send home a letter asking for donations, purchase it yourself, or get items in your school supply order. For example, for years, part of our parent gift was a reindeer magnet, so I would order the slotted clothespins needed each year in my supply order. Once I knew this would be a regular event, I would also look for deals after Christmas for the following year. Craft kits from Michael’s or other craft stores were always a big hit as an early finisher and I could often pick them up for just a few dollars after Christmas and have enough for the entire class.  For the photo booth, I used the photos to make cards, so each year I would look for the Christmas card stationery that allowed you to just slip a 4 x 6 photo into a frame for the front of the card. Again, I could get enough for a class set for just a few dollars after Christmas.

Step 4: Prep ahead

Prep ahead. If you have copies to make or materials to be cut and prepped, try to get these together at least two weeks prior to the event as well, so that you can send them home for parents to cut or prep for you. They often are glad to help and this is one thing you can take off of your plate at this busy time of year.

I always asked our wonderful custodians to set up extra tables in the hallway the night before. This way as projects were completed, we had a space to let them dry until we could hang them up. I also had a parent or two come in to help me set up the night before.  We moved our classroom tables together to set up three stations in our classroom and then the photo booth was set up in the hallway. I had a parent with a list of partners in charge of taking all of the photographs and then printing them out and putting them in the cards. I was very fortunate that I had a parent who came back multiple years to help and it was always the project he did. I had another parent that put together our giant tree display (it was a floor to ceiling display!) each year. It was so nice to have that consistency!

In part 2 next week, I’ll talk about some of the projects I picked over the years and exactly how I structured the day. Until next week, happy teaching!

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