Thursday, February 4, 2010

Operation Black-Eyed Scorpion

There's nothing like being a first year teacher. I've had such varied experiences during my first semester. I've been profoundly touched by the thoughtfulness of many of my students, I've come close to breaking up fights, I've witnessed one of my students get arrested in the hall right outside of my class, and I've been alternately frustrated and bemused beyond belief.

I learned a lot about teaching in my first semester.

I'm dedicating this post specifically to classroom organization. I made some major changes to my classroom between first and second semester. Last semester, my room was constantly a disaster area, it collected trash and handouts, and students never knew where to pick things up or turn things in. This semester, my room stays neat, students always know where to get things and where to put things, and everything is running smoothly. When things run smoothly, learning is much more likely to take place - and learning is my ultimate goal.

Last semester drove me nuts - I started to look like this guy on a daily basis:
This semester, I've been considerably saner and happier with my classroom, classes, and abilities as a teacher. Part of that is because I only have World History II classes right now (with an Honors thrown in). No US History. Having one content area cuts the prep work in half. Part of it is because I've now taught the content all the way through once and don't have to reinvent the wheel and relearn the content every evening. I can tweak my lessons and ideas from last semester. However, I contribute part of my returned sanity and peace to my "Strategic Battle Plan For Organization" or "Operation Black-Eyed Scorpion." (Thanks Love...)

First, I learned that I don't like traditional rows - too many kids too far away at any given time. Too easy for them to get away with putting down their heads or texting or shooting rubberbands at each other. I also learned that having any extra chairs or tables in the back of the room will result in an accumulation of papers and trash. Plus, the students will take any opportunity that they can to sit on them.

Last semester's classroom layout:

So, I took away the tables in the back and re-purposed them. I rearranged the desks so that no student is ever more than 3 desks away. I arranged them in a way which encourages discussion and worked with the flow of the room.

This semester's classroom layout:

I placed X's under each desk so that the desks don't migrate and always get moved back where they are supposed to be after group work. No student's desk is too close to a wall. It makes it harder for them to fall asleep. I'm mean.The center table holds classroom supplies - markers, colored pencils, rulers, staplers, hole punchers, glue, scissors, and highlighters. They are all in separate LABELED containers. It didn't take me long to figure out that high schoolers are terrific at destroying supplies unless you become Dictator Brunhilda With The Beady Eye. They don't put the caps back on the markers. They don't keep them sorted unless the containers are labeled. They are much worse than kindergartners.
Understanding that high schoolers have a knack for destruction, I ration their supplies to them. I keep an entire box of extra supplies under my desk.

It's also important to keep high schoolers constantly busy and learning. Any lost class time or free time will be taken full advantage of. You are more likely to have shenanigans and fights break out if you give them free time. Always overplan for class!

Keeping this in mind, I have something called a "Bell Ringer" - usually a journal entry or series of thought provoking questions that I have the students respond to in their class notebooks as soon as the bell rings. I used the bell ringer last semester, but my students didn't put much effort into it and some didn't do it at all. If it's not graded, they don't see why they should have to do it. So this semester, I collect their notebooks every day and have random notebook checks. It's working so well! They work quietly at the beginning of class while I take attendance and pass back graded work. WOO HOO! I have a LABELED box for each class under the central table.
I also implemented something new that I call the SOL folder. When it came time to review for the SOL at the end of last semester, at least half of my students didn't have any of their notes or handouts from throughout the semester. They're crazy. I kept everything when I was in school. However, many students don't have the organizational skills to hold onto their notes. So, I'm forcing organization on them. They leave their 3-prong SOL folder in my classroom. We occasionally add notes or a handout from the many different units to the folder. At the end of the semester, they will have everything they need to study.
Notice that those shelves are labeled? EVERYTHING MUST BE LABELED! If you want them to turn their homework in, you must have a labeled, stationary location for them to turn it in. If it isn't screwed into the cinderblock wall, then one of the students will move it, hide it, or take it apart. Trust me.Also, the desks in my classroom are your typical 1950s-way-too-small-for-high-school-students-and-very-uncomfortable desks. They have this annoying cubby in the bottom of the desk. Students like to leave their work and trash under the desks. It can get pretty bad. So, this semester, I told the kids that anything they left in the desks would get dumped in the trash each afternoon. So far, they are staying relatively clear.The daily bell ringer is always written on the white board in the front corner of the class. Students must always pick up handouts from the table by the door when they first enter the class. Consistent locations and consistent routine are key.
The objective, daily agenda, and homework must be written in the same place on the board every day. I didn't always have time last semester because I was always rushing last minute to get lessons together. This semester, I have it all up on the board at the end of the school day the day before. It works so well.
I realized that a lot of students confuse chronology and sequencing in Social Studies last semester. They assume that everything we learn is happening in sequence, when, in reality, the Renaissance, Reformation, and Age of Discovery are really all happening at the same time. It's just hard to teach all of them simultaneously. To help students understand when things are occurring in time and how they overlap, I've created a giant timeline on my wall. As we finish learning about different eras, we add them onto the timeline. It seems to be working well for the kids.
Another important lesson for a first year teacher - always have extra handouts (even if you have a set number of copies you can make a year...). Why? Because students lose their assignments. CONSTANTLY. Or they're sick and want their assignments right now. Even when you are clearly busy with something else. The solution is to keep extra handouts and file them immediately! If you keep your papers and handouts in giant piles (like I did first semester...) you can never find what the student needs when the student needs it. So file it.
And keep a binder of all of the notes and handouts that you give each day. Keep the keys for classroom handouts. That way, the students can always get their missing notes without your direct assistance. They can just get the binder. It's avoids big headaches.
I have a podium this semester. Not to lecture at. I walk around a lot when I'm teaching. Proximity is just one more way to keep your students from misbehaving. But the podium is useful in that I keep a few very important clipboards. Attendance and behavior. I track the number of warnings each student gets and how many times they are sent to in school detention. That way, I have all of that information on hand when I call their parents.
I'm also grading work as I get it - which is new for me. Last semester, my kids were lucky if they got feedback anytime other than around progress reports and finals. Bad, I know, but I had to sleep at some point. This semester, I grade work as it comes in and hand it back the next day. I feel like a real teacher.
I keep a stack of quartered paper from the recycling bin to write notes and passes on when necessary, but I also keep 3 planners on hand that the students must fill out for me to sign before going to the bathroom or to guidance (etc.). That way, I'm not wasting time writing 6-7 notes every class. I just have to sign it. It's also a deterrent for students who want you to just let them walk to the bathroom without a pass. Nope. Sorry. Not happening.

Oh. And stickers are great. High schoolers like stickers. I still like stickers. We are all still 3 on the inside.
Now, I'm working on implementing the rest of my ideas for the semester... Lots of reflection...
It's an evolving process...


  1. WOW! This was a huge post! I am extrememly impressed with how much work you are doing to improve your world of teaching during your first year AND while you are pregnant! I have so many goes:

    1. New classroom set-up is great. I think it'll keep working well for you.
    2. Not sure if it would help on your desks bc of the size, but definitely on table legs and chairs...slice tennis balls and stick them on the bottoms of chairs, etc. It makes for much easier moving of furniture! (and cuts down on noise volume!)
    3. Our "bell ringer" is known as "do now." VITAL for getting kids promptly on task! Try laminating a bunch of your favs from each unit so that you'll have them ready to go each day for years to come! Just pop them up on the board (I attach magnets to the back..)
    4. I don't know what "SOL" stands for, but it sounds like a binder full of every handout you give. This is good for you to keep, not only for your students, but for you! In case you teach this course again, just follow along in the binder, and your homeworks/quizzes/activities are ready to go! (assuming you want to reuse them.)
    5. For hall pass control...Try having a standard pass to help with wasted teacher and/or student time...maybe laminate an idex card with your initials on it. On one of your clipboards...maybe an attendance spreadsheet... include 3(or whichever # you choose) columns for passes..Ex: Pass #1, Pass #2, Pass #3. Each time a student takes the past, write down the date in that box. When all 3 are filled, no more passes. They rarely "HAVE" to use the pass anyway.

    Okay, so, there's a lot of stuff going on there. Hopefully some will help!

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