Back to School Time

back to school

I’m trying something new this year:  a powerpoint to have running in my classroom during our Back to School Barbecue.  Our building holds a barbecue to welcome the students back.  Students can pick up their schedules, check their lockers, see the classrooms and enjoy a hot dog.  Since teachers are working at various stations, we aren’t in our classrooms.

I created a powerpoint of information parents and students might like to know about the class.  It will run on an endless loop on my smartboard, so parents and students can come in at any time to see the slides.

back to school

Connecting with Students

Connecting with StudentsIt’s that time of year when teachers are thinking about how they want their next school year to go.   One thing I really like about teaching is that I get a new start each fall.  Even if it’s students I’ve worked with before (in the after school program, etc), it’s still a fresh year, fresh class, and all of that.  This is when I like to ponder how I am going to connect with my students.

To me, it’s the most important part of my job.  When my students feel like they are a part of a team, with me, instead of against me, my whole year goes more smoothly.  They are more willing to listen, to learn, to try, if they feel a connection to me.

I have a confession to make: I’m VERY lazy.  I like nothing more than to sit on the couch and read a book. watch TV or scroll through  Hard work is not my friend.  Therefore, I look for ways to do more with less effort.

Here are the things I do to try to connect with my students the lazy girl’s way:

1) I send a postcard to all of my students the week before school starts.  Our students don’t find out who their teacher is until that time, so I can’t send them earlier in the summer.  It’s just a simple postcard welcoming them to my classroom (or my team if I’m working with a team teacher) and letting them know when Back to School Night is.

2) I greet each student at the door each morning.  I’m expected to be supervising the hallway, anyway, so as students are walking past to go to lockers, or entering my room, I say good morning and try to make some sort of comment unique to them.

3) I pay attention to their interests,  If I can, I try to gear the lessons toward their interests.  I also bring in newspaper clippings about these interests if I come across anything.

4) I suggest books for them when we go to the library.  I try, again, to keep their interests in mind when I make suggestions.  I also talk to them about the books they are checking out.  I ask them to give me their opinion, offer similar titles, that sort of thing.

5) I ask the class to “try out” new ideas that I have.  Whenever I want to try something new, I tell the class that I’d like to try it and I need their feedback.  I always ask them what they think as we work through my new idea and when we finish.  I always preface it with the fact that I may need to overrule them, but I want to hear what they think.

6) If I’m going to do something that might seem like a trick I’m playing on them, I warn them that I’m going to play a trick on them.  It helps them feel better when we get to the “trick” and they trust me the rest of the time.  For instance, sometimes I’ll have them list all the terms they can think of related to a subject (like a football game) and then ask them to write about it without using any of those words.  Giving them a heads up keeps them from being angry at me about the writing assignment.

7) I laugh at myself.  I often tell them stories about silly things I’ve done, mistakes I’ve made, foolish situations I’ve gotten into.  By sharing these stories, they feel better when they run into some sort of embarrassing situation.  They also feel as if they know me, which helps them to connect.

8) I start off the year with a letter to the class.  I write about my interests, my daughters, my life and then ask them to write a letter to me.  It’s always fun to see what they write back to me.

What do you do to connect with your students?

Reach for the Stars

Photo courtesy of NASA

Oh my goodness, I just watched the most awesome beginning of the year video! made a video about his song “Reach for the Stars”.  He worked with NASA to beam his song to Mars.  In working with them, he brought in an orchestra and children to record the song.  He also talks quite a bit about the need to work together, study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and be creative.

Curiosity Rover ‏@MarsCuriosity  Humans sent me to Mars. Today I sent some of their creativity back to Earth.

I’m now planning to show this to my students on our first day of school.  Reach for the Stars lyrics


This is the perfect lead in for so many discussions:

Goal setting – the United States set a goal in the 1960’s to put a man on the moon and has continued setting and reaching those goals

Teamwork – rocket scientists have to work with others in order to get their rockets into space, had to work with NASA to get his song beamed up to Mars

The importance of education – imagine if these people hadn’t bothered to learn.  What would we be living without?  (computers, cell phones, gps devices, satellite TV…)

I can’t wait to show this to my class and use it to launch our learning for the year.  How are you starting your year?

Helping Your Class Stay on Task

Here are the Xs on the board, ready for the class

One of the biggest concerns every year for teachers is classroom management.  When you stop to think about it, we are grossly outnumbered by the students.  My fear right before school starts is always, “what if they don’t do what I ask them to do?”  Even though I’ve been teaching 25 years, it’s still something that comes into my mind at this time of year (admit it, you worry about it, too!)

To the rescue is a points system that is simple, quick and effective.  My teammate years ago introduced me to it and I’ve used it ever since.  Without the points, I’m not sure my class would be as easily focused as it has been.  A system, in order to work well, has to be simple, and not take a lot of time.  This system does just that.

First, you start each day with marks on the board for your class.  I use Xs, because it’s quick and easy, but students occasionally like to change them to smiley faces or some other little drawing.  We start each day with 10 Xs for each class.  Throughout the day, as the class is doing something they shouldn’t, you erase an X.  It’s amazing how quickly the class quiets down when they see you headed for the points!

At the end of the day, the points go into a bank and when the total reaches a set amount, the class wins a prize.  When I work with a team, the entire team’s points add up, when I’m self contained, it’s just the single class’s points that are considered.  We try to base the number of points needed on time.  For instance, this year, my class will be earning points for just one class, not a team, so they need to earn 350 points (the amount they could reach in 7 weeks if they didn’t lose any).  If we’re working as a team, we use 1000 points, since classes can earn a total of 40 points a day, each.

The amount of points is just enough to make it a big deal, but still feels attainable to the students.  They love it when they’re getting close – the amount of spontaneous addition going on at that time would make any math teacher proud.  J  By setting the points to be reached about every 6-7 weeks, you don’t lose much class time when the reward happens.

What kind of prizes might be offered?  I’m glad you asked!  We use several standards: pizza party (we have them make their own), movie and popcorn (the teachers love this one, since it’s easy), ice cream social, going to the park, karaoke party, board games.  The choices go into numbered envelopes.  When the class/team reaches their points, one of the students rolls a die and the number on the die is the number envelope that is opened.  The students understand that we will then set the day for the reward, since we need time to prepare.

These envelopes would be loaded with the appropriate reward.

One thing that helps in the management of this is what is put into the envelopes.  Each time they reach their points, we decide, in advance, what the reward will be.  We then put that item in each envelope.  This is a closely guarded secret, so don’t tell anyone!  By doing this, we keep the suspense for the kids, but allow ourselves the ability to plan ahead.  Since middle school students love mystery and suspense, this meets that need.

We’ve used this system for about 15 years.  It has worked with all but the most difficult students (there is always one in a class, isn’t there?).  If you have a student who delights in making the class lose points, simply don’t take points away when that student acts out.  The class understands and it takes away his/her power.

We always explain to the students that because they worked so hard and stayed on task all this time, we’re able to take a little time out for our reward.  In these days of trying to fit 10 pounds of curriculum into a 9 pound box, stopping for a celebration can seem frivolous.  However, it’s those little things that keep all of us on track.


Magnetic Business Cards

During Back to School Night, you have a great opportunity to connect with the parents of your students.  One good way to do this is to hand out contact information.   We took this a step further and printed the contact information on business card sized magnets.  That way, parents can put the magnet on the refrigerator door and have it to refer to throughout the year.

Doing this offers several benefits.  The first is that it makes it clear to parents that you value communication.  By giving them an easy way to contact you, it’s evident that you welcome their thoughts, ideas and questions.

A second benefit is that it truly does make it easier for parents to contact you.  While many teachers view this as a negative, I always prefer to have a parent come straight to me.  Otherwise, they will still communicate, but it will be on the sidelines of the soccer fields, the bleachers of the basketball courts, or the hallways outside scout meetings.  If they contact me, I can work with them to fix problems, alleviating the unhappiness.

In addition, parents know their children better than anyone else.  If something is going on at home, they can let me know.  Often, this makes a difference in the way a student behaves at school and I can be better prepared.  They also know if their child is not understanding the material.  While I want the student to come to me, occasionally, it’s necessary for a parent to start the conversation.

When we create the magnets, we try to keep them simple.  Sheets of magnetic “paper” can be purchased at an office supply store.  Most word processing programs have a business card template.  We use the template and list our names, our planning time, email addresses, and the school phone number, with our extensions.  If you are comfortable having parents call you at home, you could include that number, as well.

Once they are printed out, a minute or two with a paper cutter and you have magnetic business cards, ready to hand out.  These are also helpful when you have students move in, mid-year.  Nothing looks more welcoming to new students/parents than a packet of information with includes ways to contact the new teachers.


First Days of School

First Days of School

The true secret of classroom management is having a solid connection with your students. The first week of school is the perfect time to start connecting with them.   If they believe you truly care about them, they will behave better, work harder and learn more.

One way we start connecting with our students at the beginning of the year is by placing notecards in their lockers.  Before the first day, we load the lockers with a surprise.  Based on the team name, we put a notecard with a piece of candy on the shelf in their locker.  For instance, when we were the Pirate Team, the note said “Arrgh, there be treasure” and we put Nestle’s Treasures there.  When we were the Surfer Team, it said “Surf’s Up, Dude” and we used Lifesavers.  It’s a nice little “welcome to the team” gesture that starts us off on a positive note.

The first day of school, kids are always excited about two things: who is in their class and where their locker is.  Because of this, as soon as possible, we give the students their locker assignments and combinations.  Then, we take them to the hall to let them try it out.  They’re always excited to see the note.  This also acts as a conversation starter for the students – as they talk about finding this note, they begin talking to each other.

The nice thing about doing this is it not only lets the students know it’s going to be a fun year, it also looks good to the administration, parents, etc.  This is something that doesn’t take much time, but pays off in a big way.

What do you do to connect with students during the first days of school?  How do you let them know you care?