During my first weekend as a teacher, I needed to smack myself. I had asked every one of my over sixty writing students to write a letter to me telling me about themselves. And I promised to reply to each and every one. I started in Mountain View on Friday night, wrote all during a visit to my cousins in Sacramento, got my mother, a retired teacher, to answer several, kept writing during the scorching three-hour car ride home on Sunday evening, and finally finished somewhere outside of Oakland. My hand ached, I still had to plan lessons for the week, and I dreaded having to do this again in five short days. In that moment, I chucked my plan for a weekly correspondence with my new and precious students.
Since then, I have found that new teachers have big ideas for things they will do daily, weekly, monthly, and even quarterly, and it all gets, well, overwhelming. Pare down, simplify, go easy on yourself. At the school supply store, I met a new teacher who was buying a wall calendar so she could write down what day to do each of the homework assignments as well as weekly learning goals and self-check points, and I just thought, “Yuck. That is going to take hours to maintain every Saturday. And for what?” Send the homework packet home on Monday. Collect it on Friday. The children can figure the rest out. Many children are too busy to follow your carefully crafted schedule anyway.
Speaking of careful crafting, teachers look for nirvana in seating charts. Or at least some peace. I once watched a veteran middle school teacher spend her entire lunch break re-working a single seating chart, moving a tiny post-it for every student, looking for that perfect combination that separates all of the talkers, gives five front row seats to the nine who need them, and spreads six children who need to be separated into four corners. She would have to repeat the process for each of her five classes. I used to spend entire weekends developing an algorithm that would do this for me in a fair and fast way. I finally realized I only needed to move one child.
Yes, move one child. I even let the student move wherever he or she wants unless I have a known problem written on my clipboard. I have been amazed at much the room changes when two children switch places. Now I post who gets to move every Monday on the whiteboard. Once I approve, the children take care of it. They wait months for their turn. I get a new class every week without wasting my time or theirs. I have even seen extraordinary things happen. Once, I let an extremely disruptive child move in with a nest of noisy students only because I had no known problems on my clipboard. Several of the students told me it was a bad idea. I figured I could always move someone if I needed to. But to my surprise, the noisy students were so irritated by his behavior that they settled down. In fact, they started complaining about how they couldn’t concentrate because he was so distracting. I liked that change. I left him there.
There are a couple of ground rules. At the beginning of the year, students select their own seats. Little ones do it with the help of their parents. Once we start making weekly moves, no one gets to complain about someone moving in next to them or they can wait their turn for a couple more months. Finally, the student who had no choice about moving gets a free mechanical pencil from me. It’s the only time I give them out which makes them special.
Do create a rhythm for yourself. This one contextual feature will carry you when you are overwhelmed, sleepless, or sick. Start with a daily rhythm. Children need predictability and consistency and so will you. Make a big schedule and post it. What time is reading, writing, math? What time will they have breaks? What time do they go home? Appoint one child to be your timekeeper. Only that child is allowed to tell you when it’s almost time to clean up. Don’t worry, the others will tell that child, probably a dozen times. When I taught middle school, we had four different bell schedules in a five day week. I made little cards with “pack up” and “bell” times and put them in a wall chart. All of the students were allowed to point silently at the clock when we hit pack up time. I tended to notice a dozen kids pointing at the clock and got us finished on time, but I knew our lesson was great on days when everyone forgot to point. (By the way, a fantastic location for a word wall is right next to the clock.)
You may have to turn one day into a “chaos” day. I work hard to place reading, math, and every other subject at the same time every day, but it seems that events conspire against me every year. Many requests to speak to my class come in from counselors, nurses, nutritionists, librarians, team builders, etc. I also have to plan visits to libraries, gardens and other schools. All are worthwhile, but interrupt our rhythm. To cope, I designate one day a week, usually Monday when attendance is poorest or whatever day we have the most specials time, as “chaos” day, and schedule as many of those interruptions as possible into that day. That way, I can tell volunteers what day not to come, and we can keep our rhythm the rest of the week.
Add a morning rhythm. It’s nothing more than a greeting, “Good morning, let me see your smiles!” and a list of chores including collecting homework, checking that everyone is wearing their glasses, updating the calendar, making sure the refrigerator is on, checking for sharp pencils, and delivering any paperwork to the office. Oh, and taking attendance. If not for our rhythm, I would forget. Add any special announcements for that day. Celebrate anything you can think of – birthdays, behavior chart milestones, book reading milestones, student of the month, appearances in the newspaper, compliments, thank you’s, anything worthy of a round of applause, and a “We are proud of you!” Go over the day’s agenda if anything special is happening. If not, leave the agenda up on the board for the students to figure out themselves. It improves their reading comprehension.
In middle school, my rhythm was a little different. I had to start with attendance every period. And I still appointed a student to remind me to walk to the back of the room and put it into the computer. Any time everyone was present, I would declare, “It’s an auspicious day!” Drove the kids crazy. They couldn’t spell it and didn’t know what it meant. It took them months to find it in a dictionary and even longer to figure out what it really meant. Near the end of the year, the phrase appeared in a literature circle novel, and the entire class went nuts.
Add an end-of-day rhythm. Ours is “Pick up, pack up, stack up,” but we don’t line up. Lines at the end of the day get too rowdy. The floor gets picked up, backpacks get packed, and the chairs get stacked. Then everyone stands behind their desks. If, by some miracle, we are early, we drum. The students repeat my pattern on their own desks. I watch for kids who can’t keep up because the latest brain research links time delay in following patterns with difficulties in reading (Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain). (Warning: Remove jewelry. I broke my wedding ring drumming on desks.) Or we quiz what we learned today. If we have loads of time, we build our classroom community by playing the Name Game. (See Appendix D) Anything to keep them focused right up to the bell.
Add a transitions rhythm. There are two kinds of transitions, the kind where you leave the room and the kind between subjects. I teach in a trailer so our leave-the-room transitions involve lines and weather. Rain and wind we just live with, but if I don’t teach them proper line etiquette, someone gets snowballs going by mid-year. First, think about what you want from a line. I have seen teachers turn into line dragons for unclear reasons. If classes are not disrupted and no one is being hurt, then why worry about talking or straightness? On the other hand, I have seen 5th graders run over kindergartners. At that school straight lines were necessary. If you travel while class is in session, quiet is necessary. If students tend to crash into each other, body control is necessary. I start the year with “cross and bubble”, as in cross your arms in front of you and bubble your cheeks out. That way, they’re not touching anyone and not talking. We have been known to arrive late to some lessons because we needed extra practice.
My favorite thing to do with lines is “Pick up the cue. Pass it on.” We walk in and out of our trailer at least six times a day. I can either complain about poor behavior or give my students something positive to do. So I make up a motion, and they have to copy it. Hands in pockets, walk like Frankenstein, tiptoe, crisp turns, stick to the far right, anything I can think of. At one point, they were following a parent who took off in a runway model stomp. If part of the line doesn’t catch it, I whisper, “Pick up the cue, pass it on.” This practice turned out to be vital on a field trip when a sidewalk was covered in glass. The whole line got the warning, and no one ruined their shoes, or worse, collected a piece. My favorite moment, however was when letters fell off of our word wall. While I was making jokes that no one got, “Has anyone seen the C?” one boy said, “Pick up the Q, pass it on!”
Transitions between subjects are also challenging. Some students move promptly. Others don’t stop what they’re working on, can’t find their books, need to dig through their backpacks, or even step across the room to socialize. And a few fail to notice they don’t have a pencil for ten minutes. I never understand this one. They had a pencil for the last lesson. Where did it go? Anyway, be prepared. Time your transitions on the first few days. One year, my worst time was eleven minutes. Horrifying. That’s over half of our word study period. We worked, practiced, earned extra recess and prizes for speedy tables until we were consistently below three minutes. Our rhythm is to “Freeze, don’t move, your instructions are only verbal,” (unless I need to put a list on the board), followed by “Go,” when the clock starts.
All of these simple rhythms help create your classroom community and even its personality. But you’ll find out how truly vital they are the first time you are sick. You will find that even though you have no energy, the pattern that you have created will carry you through the day, and that your students will stay calm even though you are clearly not at your best. I remember getting slammed with a migraine one afternoon. The medicine didn’t work, and I had to call the office and run for the bathroom. After throwing up, there I sat in the dark on the bathroom floor which shares a thin wall with my classroom, unable to move and worrying about my students. Then I heard Patience’s voice, “Hey, you guys, get out a book to read!” Bless her. Bless my class for remembering that’s what we did every time we had a free moment. No one knew this would happen, but patterns can create calm even in a crisis.