The first week of school is filled with excitement and anticipation. As teachers, we focus on getting to know our students and building a classroom community. Aside from social-emotional learning, there is one more critical component to a successful back-to-school season: routines and procedures.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of talking at your students for hours on end about these routines and procedures. I learned the hard way that this doesn’t work. They will tune you out.
I have found that introducing a couple of routines a day and doing so through fun, engaging activities will help ensure your students won’t tune you out. This will help set up your class for a successful and smooth school year.
In this blog post, I will identify the must-teach procedures for the first couple of weeks of school and describe a few ideas on how to successfully introduce them to your class.
#1 Morning Routine
This is a big one. In my opinion, this should be taught and practiced the very first day of school. Your morning routine should answer the following questions: How do students enter the classroom? What do they do once they get there? How is attendance taken? How is homework submitted? There is a lot to consider.
For me, I like to make a sign or poster that lists the four steps of our Morning Routine:
- Unpack and begin Morning Work.
- Once your table is dismissed, check-in on the attendance board and submit homework.
- Complete your Class Job if needed. (Attendance monitor checks the attendance board and alerts the substitute if someone is absent. Teacher’s assistant calls on table groups to check-in one at a time. Homework monitors check homework. Team leaders check for any papers that need to go into the teacher’s mailbox. On Fridays, librarians “renew” library books and make sure all students have the books with them.)
- Work on the “E.T. Chart” once finished with your Morning Work. (E.T. stands for “extra time”. This list is also often called Must Do/May Do.)
On the first day of school, as soon as my students walk in, I introduce them to this procedure. For their Morning Work, I often start with one of my First Week of School Activities (perhaps All About Me or I Wish My Teacher Knew). After briefly describing the procedure and displaying the steps on the board, they practice the Morning Routine. On the second day, before entering the classroom, I remind them of the four steps. You may even want to display the four steps near the door of your classroom.
#2 Sharpening Pencils
Imagine this…you have spent hours planning and preparing the perfect lesson, your students are at the edge of their seats, hanging on to your every word, and you are about to get to the heart of your lesson, they “ah-hah” moment…when the obnoxious, electric pencil sharpener goes off. Ugh!!! Now, this routine is certainly not a new idea, but it is so critical. Every teacher is different, but for me, I really hate the pencil sharpener sound. I do have an electric pencil sharpener, but only our pencil monitor is allowed to use it. S/he sharpens 5-10 pencils during our Afternoon Routine (described later). They then put these pencils in a bin marked “Sharp”. When students need a sharpened pencil, s/he places the dull pencil in “Dull” before taking a sharpened pencil from “Sharp”. If a student absolutely needs to sharpen his/her pencil during a lesson, I also include a handheld sharpener (with a lid) in their group supplies. Again, this is a pretty common classroom routine, but in my opinion, it is absolutely necessary.
#3 Disributing and Collecting Papers
When it comes to learning, every minute counts. The less time we use transitioning between activities, the better. Distributing supplies is often a time-consuming transition. Many teachers have classes of over 30 students. We need transitions to be as efficient as possible.
I usually have one student from every table group in charge of collecting and distributing supplies. In the morning, during our Morning Routine, the Homework Monitor collects homework and submits it. Alternatively, you can have students turn in their own homework to their mailboxes. That way, you can see who did not submit it. Whichever way you choose, you should have a designated spot for classwork, homework, and paperwork for the office/teacher.
#4 Classroom Jobs
In a previous blog post about setting up your classroom, I described a few examples of Classroom Jobs. These jobs improve student ownership over their learning and build classroom community. During the first week of school, I model each job for the students. I do this throughout the week and make sure to mention which job I am demonstrating. During the second week of school, I ask for volunteers to do each job. This gives me the opportunity to train the students as we go rather than all at once. Around week three, the students apply for their top three job choices. The beauty of it is that they have pretty much already observed every job in the classroom, so they are able to make informed decisions. Also, since I had students volunteer to do classroom jobs for a week, I often ask those students to train the students who will be taking over their positions.
As mentioned earlier, transitions are crucial to a smooth and successful school year. Often, especially in elementary classrooms where we are teaching all subjects, too many instructional minutes are lost due to transition time. Have you ever found that some of your students dilly-dally when switching from one subject to another? Have you ever found yourself repeating yourself to death when trying to get students to take out certain supplies? Use timed music for all of your transitions. Trust me, it works!
Simply choose a 2-3 minute song and train your students to transition every time they hear it. When students hear this song, they stop what they are doing and look to the board. This is where you will write the supplies they will need for the next lesson or activity. If they do not need any supplies, just write “Clear desk”. This is a game-changer. Never again will you have to repeat yourself over and over again trying to get students ready for the next lesson. Never again will your students keep asking you what supplies they need. Never again will you waste precious instructional minutes transitioning. Honestly, once students are in this routine, transitions usually take about a minute.
Looking for an incentive? Call this procedure “Beat the Music”. If a table group is ready to learn BEFORE the music has needed, award them table points.
If you looking to learn more time-saving tips, I recommend reading Rick Morris’s Big Book. It is comprised of all of his classroom management books, and it will completely transform your classroom. It is a must-read for teachers!
#6 Preparing for a Lesson
What would you like your students to have done before you start your lessons? Names on papers? Notebooks open to a certain section? Titles and objectives written in their notes? Consider what takes up the most time at the start of your lesson. and include that in your transitions. Allow me to explain…
I teach math in small groups every day. At the start of the lesson, students write a title, the date, and a Big Idea Question at the top of their notes. This takes up a good amount of time, but they do not really need me to help them with it. Therefore, I train the students to start this on their own while our transition music is playing. That way, once the transition music has stopped, every student is ready for the actual instruction to begin. At the end of the lesson, I include a Check for Understanding, meaning that students work on 1-2 problems independently before they are released to complete their exit tickets. Other than checking their answers, this does not require a whole lot of teacher attention. So, while they are working on their couple of problems, I begin writing the title and Big Idea Question (if different) for my next small group. I tell that group to start getting ready for their lesson, which means cleaning up and writing the title and Big Idea Question in their notebooks. This way, my next small group is getting ready for their lesson while my current group is completing their Check for Understanding. Trust me, this will save you countless minutes of transitioning between groups.
The key? Practice, practice, practice. Allow at least 3 days of practicing this routine BEFORE beginning your math curriculum. You will thank me later. 🙂
#7 Leaving the Classroom (Restroom/Office)
How will students leave to go to the restroom? Get a drink of water? Go to the nurse or the office? This procedure is a safety concern. As teachers, we need to keep track of where our students are at all times. With 30+ students, remembering where they are at any given moment can be challenging. This why I use my attendance board as a way to help me. When a student needs to use the restroom, s/he moves his/her student number from “Class” to “Restroom”. If they need to visit the nurse, they move their numbers to “Office”. Whenever a student returns, s/he simply moves the number back to “Class”. This way, I know exactly where my students are throughout the day.
#8 Graphic Organizers
If you use graphic organizers, the first two weeks of school are the perfect time to teach your students how to use them. They can be used for back-to-school activities; they do not just have to be used to support the curriculum. For example, I use a Notice/Wonder/Infer table for several subjects throughout the year. On the first day of school, I give each student one of these tables, and we use them to make observations about our new classroom. This is also when I introduce them to the concept of a “Gallery Walk”. Before exploring the classroom, we discuss what the three columns mean. This activity allows the students to learn how to use this table before diving into our grade-level standards. To learn more about this activity AND to download a freebie resource, read this blog post.
#9 Classroom Discussions and Collaboration
Learning how to work in a group and collaborate must be worked on during the first two weeks of school. Collaboration skills must must must be explicitly taught.
For classroom discussions, consider using hand signals. Have you ever experienced looking out into your classroom and seeing a dozen hands in the air? You call on one student, and they begin to elaborately describe a completely off-task story that seems to last forever. Had you known that they had a comment and not a question, that situation could have been avoided. Use hand signals! Problem solved! Have a signal for when a student asks a question, has a comment to share, agrees with another classmate’s comment, needs to use the restroom, and would like a drink of water. This will absolutely help your classroom discussions stay on track.
As far as collaboration, make sure to include several opportunities for students to work in groups during the first two weeks of school. Before each activity, lead a mini-lesson on one collaboration skill. Here are a few examples of such skills:
What makes a successful team?
What qualities does a strong leader have?
What does it mean to compromise?
How can we respectfully disagree?
How can we resolve conflicts?
What does it mean to be actively listening?
Each one of the above skills should be its own lesson with its own activity. Demonstrate both examples and non-examples. Ask for student volunteers to act out both examples and non-examples. (They get a real kick out of this.) Whatever method or activity you use, these teamwork lessons are absolutely necessary to teach and practice early on in the school year.
#10 Afternoon Routine
Just as the Morning Routine was taught and practiced, the Afternoon Routine must be taught and practiced. This ideally should be done on the first day of school. How do students pack up and clean up? How do they get their homework or paperwork for their parents? How will you get graded papers back to them? These are all questions that should be answered by your Afternoon Routine. Similar to my Morning Routine, I make a sign with four steps for the Afternoon Routine.
- Write down your homework.
- Pack up.
- Complete your Class Job if needed. (Homework monitors distribute homework, and paper monitors give back papers. Technology monitors make sure all devices have been returned and are charging. Librarians organize and clean the classroom library. Team leaders and/or supply monitors organize classroom supplies. Clean-up crew walks around the room and makes sure the classroom is clean.)
- Clean/organize your desk if needed.
You may want to consider using timed music specifically for your Afternoon Routine. This way, students know when it is the end of the day. Make sure this music is a bit longer than your transition music. I recommend a playlist that is 7-10 minutes long. This will allow plenty of time for students to also complete their classroom jobs.
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