Appendix A – The Idea Box

Photo Credit: bigisthenewsmall.com

Photo Credit: bigisthenewsmall.com

When I start a new job, I keep an old-fashioned box of index cards handy. Whenever I come across an idea that I like but can’t use right away, I jot it down on a card and drop it into the box. When I need inspiration, I thumb through the box and refresh myself. I can’t send you a box, but here’s a list of ideas so you can start your own.

  • Keep a file folder or box titled “New Student Handouts.” When you pass out something you want the students to keep, put the extras in that file. When a new student starts, assign them a buddy to pull the pages and get them started on the essentials of being in class.
  • Keep a flat open box on top of a bookshelf and toss in the extra copies of all of the handouts that the office sends you. That way, when something doesn’t make it home, or a parent stops by with a question, you can quickly fish it out and look brilliant.
  • Write an agenda of the day’s lessons on the board. Students love to see what’s up when they come into the room, they don’t bombard you with the same questions over and over, and if you tend to forget things, the students will remind you.
  • Put your word wall in a maximum visibility area. If you have a door to a restroom, use that. If not, put it right next to the clock. Even if you have to stand on a chair to reach it, it will get hours of exposure.
  • Start a “Resolutions for Next Year” list and keep it on your desktop. As you go through your year, note everything that you want to do better next year on the list. When summer (or a long holiday) comes, go over the list and start making changes.
  • Appoint a timekeeper so only one child can run up to you and tell you that you’re running over. Or teach all of your students to tell time by having them silently point at the clock three minutes before the bell rings. (You’ll know your lessons are really good when everyone forgets.)
  • Get children to practice counting by having them count down to their turn on high-demand playground equipment. We have counted to 100 on tetherball, 30 for swings, and 20 for spinners. Daily practice encourages amazing progress.
  • Keep a binder with blank pages by your phone to note parent contact. Drop copies of e-mails in there as well. That way, when a parent calls, you can quickly review your past conversations with one hand while you hold the phone with the other. Keep the binder forever. Schools get sued as much as ten years after a student has left, and it will help jog your memory.
  • Put a Post-it in your teacher’s editions to mark the lesson you’re on. Volunteers can quickly find the page to tutor with or get answers from, and you can get there fast when there’s a train of students waiting for help. More important, if you whack your head (don’t laugh, it’s happened to me… twice), you can write a minimal sub plan from the hospital.
  • Buy boxes of thank you notes whenever they’re cheap. Quick thank yous are much less intimidating when you don’t have to stop at the store and buy the card first.
  • Make color copies of the covers of books you read out loud to the class and put them up on a wall. Students who have trouble selecting books search for these. Also, students who wouldn’t try a difficult book will attempt one that you read to them if you give them a way to recognize it.
  • Book talk the last book you read at home or the last pile of books you bought. Tell students why you loved the books, how hard it was to read, and who might like it. If a book stinks, say so, and discuss when it’s okay to abandon a book. When you create conversation around books, the room buzzes, and the books will fly out of your hands.
  • Make color copies of book covers as you read them and line them up along a long classroom wall. Challenge yourself in front of your students to make it to the end of the wall by the end of the year. (The year I didn’t make it was the year I realized that I needed glasses.)
  • Smile at your students in the morning. Have them smile back. I give out bathroom passes for great smiles. I relax, they relax, and we all get off to a better start.
  • Work a word from the end of year novel into your daily routine. Every time we had perfect attendance, I said, “It’s an auspicious day,” and refused to define or even spell the word. Students spent the whole year trying to figure it out, until April when one literature circle came across it and ran around the room showing it off.
  • To get students to put their names on their papers, invent “a terrible, terrifying disease spreading across the classroom… No Namia!” By the end of the year, pencils will be scribbling on the word “terrible.”
  • To get students to put their names on papers, select one assignment per week and check it for names. Everyone who puts their name on it gets a homework pass (Thank you Millie Fall for this idea).
  • Keep all student papers in a tray that is NOT on your desk so students can never tell their parents that their work is lost on your desk. You also need to be able to know (and say) that there is never student work on your desk. If you teach more than one class, use one tray per class so both you and parents can look through ungraded work to see if something has been turned in.
  • You have permission to quietly throw away anything a retiring teacher gives you. The same for a teacher who is moving out. Teachers get attached to materials and cannot throw them away. So they pass them on instead. You have neither space nor time. Toss them when no one is looking. Consider it a public service.
  • Make many extra copies of your Meet the Teacher night handouts. Give them to every new student for the rest of the year so the parent feels welcome as well.
  • If you grade pages and pages of workbooks, set up a universal grading system. Mine is that every page is worth ten points. Minus one is 9 points (A), minus two is 8 points (B), minus three is 7 points (C), four is 6 (D), more is an F, no matter how many problems are on the page. If they even attempt anything on a page, they get half credit. Students must redo F’s and can redo anything else so they can’t complain about my grading system. (When I taught middle school, I kept from being overwhelmed by limiting redo’s to D’s and F’s with the best possible grade of C.)
  • If you have students turning in papers every period, create a large manila envelope for each student. Pass it out at the beginning of the period to collect work, grade the contents, then have the students empty their envelopes the next time you see them. You can even leave notes on the board about whose envelopes you graded last night and should therefore be emptied. This gives you a way to see who is missing homework without being caught up on grading, and it gives parents a chance to stop in the room and see if their child turned in what they promised. I even kept composition books in their envelopes so no one ever lost one. (Thank you to my mom, Barbara DeWilde, who transformed my classroom with this idea.)
  • Don’t waste time re-seating all of your students. It takes hours to do and only buys you a week of peace, two at most. Instead, ask one student change their seat every Monday. It changes the entire complexion of the classroom. I even let them decide who to trade with. (I do keep a short list of “may never sit with” and give a mechanical pencil to the child who had no choice about the trade.)
  • Celebrate everything. Briefly. We have celebrations almost every day. Someone has hit a milestone on the school behavior chart, improved a test score, hit a book reading milestone, or had perfect attendance. They stand up, get a round of applause, and a, “We are proud of you!” Sometimes they get class cash, a homework pass, a book from the classroom library, or even a ten-minute birthday party, but most students like the “We are proud of you!” the best.
  • Never allow children to vote on school awards unless it’s for student council. Asking a child to vote based on judgment rather than friendship is not age-appropriate and may even have consequences on the playground. Instead, let each student nominate their candidate on a Post-It, celebrate the nominees (“Give yourself a pat on the back!”), and you pick from that list.
  • Create enough class awards so everyone can win something before anyone wins a second award. While the school may give Student of the Month or character awards, fill in with Star Reader, Great Worker, Math Magician, or any other awards you need to recognize every child and leave none out.
  • If your school doesn’t have bells, schedule an extra five minutes per day of recess. That way, you don’t run afoul of state law if you dismiss late or decide a few students lose minutes for poor behavior. You can even cancel one recess per week and still stay within guidelines.
  • To add calm to your classroom, post a list for line order (My favorites are ABC and height) and rotate through it so every child has a day to go first for everything including choice of snacks, jobs, getting work checked, and anything else that matters. Children don’t see drawing Popsicle sticks as fair. (They aren’t. One year for college housing lottery, I drew 399 out of 400. The next year, I drew 800 out of 800. How was that fair?) Randomness creates uncertainty and tension. Banish it.
  • To keep the same five students from sucking up all of your time, make rules for who can come to get help. I call up students in order by whose day it is to go first and no one else can come up unless they are completely finished. If someone is panicked and needs help before then, they may, “Ask someone smart,” usually one of the early finishers or “Ask three before me,” which doesn’t work as well.
  • To improve participation, have all of the students stand up. Each child can sit down once they answer a question or contribute an idea. The irony is that children can’t wait to get out of their seat until you make them stand up. Then they can’t wait to sit down.
  • As you change reading, math, spelling, etc. groups post the group lists with “Reading Groups #2” or “Math Groups #3” at the top so visitors to the classroom don’t question whether your groups change and how often.
  • Put spelling/word study on a two-week cycle. In other words, have a test every other When I analyzed my district’s schedule, only 55% of our weeks were 5 days long. Throw in a field trip, assembly, or a snow day, and we’re down to half of our weeks being “normal.” An every-other-Friday schedule allows us to absorb odd schedules, do deeper word study, and never have to cancel.
  • Put an “expiration date” on word study lists. If your spelling study list goes home separately from your newsletter, tell parents when they can throw it out. Otherwise, the paper pile at home gets really confusing.
  • Get at least one huge unabridged dictionary (Ours is nicknamed “Big Blue”) and several college dictionaries to inspire students to move past student dictionaries as quickly as possible. This works even in the primary grades.
  • If you can’t afford, or don’t have room for, a special “author’s chair” for the students to share their work from, make a rule that no one sits in the teacher’s chair – ever. Then when it’s time for authors to share their work, push your chair to the front of the room and make a big deal of the fact that it’s the one time they get to sit in your chair.
  • Make your classroom as self-serve as possible. Teach students where to find pencils, papers of all kinds, tape, staples, reference books, etc. Make it a class job to get into closets and drawers for other students. The less time you spend fetching, the more time you get to teach.
  • To make sure you get scissors, whiteboard markers, erasers, or other borrowed supplies back, have your middle school students surrender a shoe. Put a student in charge of returning the shoes when the supplies are returned.
  • If you simply need to see whether a piece of classwork is complete, no matter what the answers are, grade it immediately and rapidly by saying, “1…2…3… Stick it on your forehead.” Walk around the room with a class list and write down grades on the spot. (Thank you to an amazing art teacher for this idea.)
  • Instead of having each child come up front and share, gallery walk work that is worth sharing with the entire class. Have everyone put their work on their desk along with a comment page. Let the students walk the room, sit in any empty chair, study the work, and leave a comment. Comments must be positive and signed. The walk continues as long as students are engaged. (Thank you to that same amazing art teacher for this idea.)
  • To help your students listen better, speak gibberish. It’s amazing what you can communicate with tone, facial expression, and hand motions. The entire class will love it and pay close attention to figure out what you are saying. And when you finish, they’ll ask you to do it again. If you want to make a point about how they could listen like that all of the time, go ahead.
  • If you have a personal crisis or get completely overwhelmed by papers to grade, it’s okay to declare a “Paperwork Reduction Act.” Cancel homework, have students do presentations or plays instead of written work, and partner read. Explain to students and parents why you are doing this and how long they can expect it to last.
  • Promise parents that you will send homework every week without fail. If there is no homework, you will send a note and post an announcement on your web site. Even with this practice, one or two students will still convince their parents that you have sent no homework for weeks, but it does help.
  • If you feel taken advantage of, charge your students for the service. Then it simply becomes a transaction and you can remove the emotion. I charge class cash, bathroom passes, or recess laps for cleaning out desks, finding lost books, and extra copies of homework. They get what they need, and I don’t get grumpy.
  • For middle school, label a large binder “Extra Copies” and put every extra copy of your handouts in there, newest on top. Make it the student’s responsibility to locate what they lost and, when the binder gets full, recycle the papers at the back.
  • With hundreds, or even thousands, of grades in your gradebook, there will be errors. Pay students to find them. Every time a student proves you wrong, make a huge announcement, and give them some sort of prize – a piece of candy, early dismissal, drawing time, a minute of extra recess, a bathroom pass, something. Students get to feel like they put one over one you, and it takes the sting out of parents’ bad feelings. My record is eleven errors for one child. The grading program must have urped the night I entered her work, but she became a living legend at school.
  • Keep a written, physical list on a post-it, clipboard, or index card, of everything technical that you want fixed in your room. IT staff inevitably walk into your room in the middle of class, and you can never give them your full attention. Nor will you be able to remember all of the things that are bothering you. Hand them the list.
  • As you find out which teachers are good at what computer problems, write that strength next to their name on the phone list. That way, when you are standing in front of your class and can’t get your sound system working, you can make a quick call to the right person for help. Or after school, when report cards are due and the grading system refuses to bring up the screen you want, you can get help fast.
  • In advance, make a plan for when technology fails, even if it is as simple as “get out a book and read while I sort this out.” It would be great if every lesson had a backup, but for your first years, at least have a generic option.
  • Identify which one or two students actually are good at computers. Let them help you. Tell the rest who think they know what they are doing, but really don’t, to stop shouting suggestions, get out a book, and read.
  • Buy a date stamp. Every time you give an assignment in a spiral notebook or a composition book, whiz around the room and date stamp the page. It gets the students started faster, you know they are on the right page, and any student who is absent won’t have a stamp so you’ll know to excuse their work when you grade the notebook.
  • Get the following tools, in order of importance – a regular screwdriver, a Phillips screwdriver, a pair of pliers, a hammer, and, if you’re flush with cash, an eyeglass repair kit. This is all of the hardware you will need to repair almost anything in your classroom.
  • Put your classroom library into small bins. Shelving them like a regular library can work with middle school students, but younger children can never get a book put back into the right spot on the shelf. In small classrooms, plastic bins hold more books per shelf. However, small children can’t get their hands into the bottom of big bins. When the bins get too full, they can’t get through the books and eventually give up using the library.
  • Before allowing students to print anything from the internet, give a lesson on how to do it properly. Include how to print pages 1 to 2 instead of all, how to print a selection, how to print a single picture, how to change from portrait to landscape, and how to preview what will print.
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