Community Circles: Combining SEL and Classroom Community

Taking the time to build community, to get to know your people will have long-lasting benefits.

-Clifton Taulbert

Ah…SEL… sometimes I feel like we have a love-hate relationship. It’s not that I don’t see the importance of explicitly teaching social and emotional skills. In fact, quite the opposite! As educators, our ultimate goal is to help our students become kind, well-rounded human beings who will benefit our future society. This means SEL should make up part of our curriculum. The reason I have a tough time with this is there is simply too much to teach in a day. Who’s with me? Between all of the pull-outs and the never-ending list of standards, it is very difficult to find the time to add anything to our day.

This is why I like to combine subject matter or activities and get the most “bang for my buck” if you will. For SEL at the start of the year, I teach mini-lessons based on my favorite picture books. These mini-lessons act as our language arts curriculum. We use Thinking Maps, hold classroom discussions, and even answer a few writing prompts. But, what can you do during the rest of the year? After all, SEL should be an integral part of the whole year, not just the first two weeks of school.

Well, that’s where community circles come into play. Morning meeting, which is another great activity to build classroom community, is very similar to community circles. So, the good news is that if you currently start your day with morning meeting, you can easily combine SEL with your current routine.

How do you run a community circle?

First, let me just say that in upper grade, I always have students run community circles and morning meetings. (Honestly, I would even do this in primary grades. I would just spend more time modeling it first.) This is where you get the buy-in! At the start of the day during our Morning Routine, the student in charge of community circles looks through our box of sharing questions and chooses two of them to display on our whiteboard. This way, the class knows what we will be sharing that day.

As far as choosing who is in charge of community circles, you can have it be one of your classroom jobs. I typically have teacher’s assistant or a separate morning meeting manager run community circles. (This ends up being one of the most popular jobs. So many kids apply for it because they love running these meetings!) Alternatively, you could take turns. Depending on how many students want a turn, you could rotate through students every other day, every week, or every month. The choice is yours!

Once it is time for your community circle, the student in charge dismisses the rest of the class to sit in the meeting area. (Make sure to have a designated place in or outside your classroom for your meeting area.) The student then shares the first question and reminds the class of the rules or expectations. I always allow 30 seconds of “think time” before sharing begins. (I recommend using a timed song to help manage time. Read more about how to use timed music for classroom management here.)

After 30 seconds of “think time”, every student takes a turn answering the first sharing question. Remind students to keep it short! They are answering in a short sentence rather sharing their life stories. 😛 Although it would be wonderful for every student to say as much as they want, it is simply not feasible when you have 30+ students in your class. It is of course your choice how much time you can allot for sharing, but I usually remind students to keep it brief. After everyone shares, repeat the process with a second or third sharing question.

What is the difference between morning meeting and community circles?

Many of you may be wondering what is the difference between community circles and morning meetings? Let me just say that these two activities are very similar, especially when comparing their goals. They both are used to build classroom community and are the perfect way to teach SEL throughout the year. The main difference is in their procedures. Morning meetings typically incorporate games and some kind of message from the teacher. Teachers often also use morning meetings to go over the daily schedule and/or objectives. Community circles, however, just focus on the sharing aspect of morning meetings. They can also lend themselves to restorative circles once students are comfortable with the routine.

Since this blog post is primarily focused on community circles, I would like to take a moment to at least mention the four steps of a typical morning meeting. That way, you can combine these two ideas into one should you wish to do so.

A traditional morning meeting includes four steps:

  • Morning Message: This step can be done at the beginning, end, or middle, depending on your activity for the day. During morning message, the teacher shares the daily schedule and/or objectives. Typically, this message is written, allowing for some editing/revising lessons. Depending on your grade level, you may want to demonstrate proper grammar and write the message in front of your class. Another idea is to share an inspirational quote. This could be chosen by the teacher or the student in charge of the meeting.
  • Greeting: Students take turns quickly greeting each other, whether by saying an adjective to describe themselves or good morning in a different language (especially beneficial for EL students to share their home languages). There are a million ways to greet each other; those are just two examples.
  • Sharing: This is almost identical to community circles, so I will go over this step below.
  • Activity: This is some kind of fun game that encourages collaboration and teamwork. One example of a quick activity is having the class line up in order of birthdays without saying a word. This game would also be a great way to teach nonverbal communication. Plus, the students love it!

How can I incorporate SEL into community circles?

Now, that brings us to our main topic for this post: incorporating SEL into community circles. The trick is to build SEL into your community circles over time. You do not want to start with heavy, deep questions before your students get the chance to get to know and trust each other. You want to create a safe, welcoming space before digging deep into personal questions. For my classroom, I look at community circles as a three-step process that encompasses the first half of the school year. My goal is that my students are ready to really dig into deep questions by the time we return from winter break.

1) Getting to Know You Questions

For the first month or so, I use community circles as a way for my students to simply get to know each other. It is also a way for them to get to know me, as I am an active participant in this activity. This is also the time when you teach routines and expectations regarding community circles. Here are a few guidelines that you can teach your students:

  • Everyone shares and participates during this time. Any student is allowed to pass, but they are strongly encouraged to share at the end after the other students have taken their turns. (Please note that I do not believe in forcing students to share, but I do believe in setting the expectation that everyone will at some point participate.)
  • This is a safe space and a judgment-free zone. It is essential to teach students to be open to others’ opinions, even if they are different than their own. I highly recommend teaching students how to respectfully listen and disagree before starting community circles.
  • All participants must actively listen, showing respect at all times. In my class, we actually practice nonverbal ways of showing respect and listening (i.e. nodding occasionally when someone is speaking, facing the speaker with a calm body, not fidgeting, etc.).
  • Only one speaker is allowed to share at a time. (Make sure to have a talking stick or stuffed animal to indicate who is speaking. I cut and laminate the sharing questions, and we use that as the talking stick. Look at the bottom of this blog for a freebie!)

2) Tying Questions Into SEL Mini-Lessons

Now that your students are comfortable with each other, we can start incorporating some SEL lessons into our community circles. I start by tying our sharing questions to the lessons I taught at the beginning of the school year. These lessons are connected to picture books and can easily be revisited throughout the school year.

The reason I begin with these questions is that the students already have some background knowledge. The read alouds, book activities (freebie alert), and classroom discussions provide the students a starting point. Here are a few sharing questions that directly connect with the picture books in my blog post linked above:

  • The Day You Begin
    • When have you ever felt a little different? How did you feel?
    • What could you do to help someone else feel included?
  • The Magical Yet
    • Name one short-term and one long-term goal for this school year.
    • Name a time you overcame a challenge.
    • Why is having a positive attitude critical to our success?
    • What can you do to make progress towards a goal today?
  • Songbird
    • What is your biggest dream?
    • What do you want to do when you grow up?
    • How can you accomplish your goals?
    • How can you support someone while they try to accomplish their goals?
    • How can you be a supportive classmate?
  • Listen
    • What does it mean to actively listen?
    • How can we show we are listening?
    • Why is listening an important skill in class? When building friendships?
  • After the Fall
    • How do you feel when you make a mistake?
    • What can you do after making a mistake?
    • Discuss a time you learned from a mistake.
    • Why are mistakes learning opportunities?

3) Digging Deep

As mentioned earlier, community circles can even lend themselves to restorative justice. This could be a completely separate blog post, but I think it is definitely worth a brief introduction in this one. The “why” for restorative justice is simple: everyone makes mistakes. Granted, some mistakes are bigger and more impactful than others, but they are still mistakes. This is especially true for kids!

I once saw a video that really resonated with me. It stated that when a child does not know how to add, we teach them. If a child does not know how to ride a bike or swim, we teach them. But, when a child does not know how to behave or respectfully communicate, do we teach them or punish them? Unfortunately, the last question is not as easy to answer as the others. As adults, we need to realize that being kind and respectful does not occur naturally. Humans are not born with those skills; they need to be taught.

Que restorative circles! When a child makes a mistake, teach the child how to fix it rather than just assigning a consequence. (Now, although I am an advocate for restorative justice, I am not completely against consequences. Consequences are a part of life. Adults have them too, and I believe children should learn that their actions sometimes have negative results. I just think that consequences should not make up the sum of behavior management.)

Let’s say a group of students get into an argument at recess. Rather than punishing the entire group and taking away their recess tomorrow, get them together and run a restorative circle. They each get a turn to state how they were feeling in the moment. As the teacher, ask guiding questions, such as how their emotions affected their actions. Did they raise their voices? Did they show their anger in a negative way that upset those around them? After everyone involved has a turn to share, ask them to think about what they could have done to help the situation rather than escalate it.

This takes practice! Be patient with yourself and your students. If you practice this repeatedly, trust me, your students will be better for it. By the end of the year, they will be better at conflict resolution, which is a life-long skill.


Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Ready for Back to School

Picture Books: A Window Into the World of SELRead about my top 5 back-to-school books to help you teach social and emotional skills. (freebie alert!)
10 must-teach classroom routines and procedures to start the year off rightLearn about Morning Routine, classroom management techniques, and so much more!
5 Goals of Reading Workshop:
Is Reading Workshop Effective?
Instill a love of reading in your classroom. Trust me, this is a MUST-READ.

Picture Books: A Window into the World of SEL

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

Vivian Greene

Although SEL, or social-emotional learning, has been around for decades, it has really made headlines in the world of education since the pandemic. We as educators must explicitly teach students how to manage their emotions. Being able to identify specific emotions, as well as what to do with said emotions is a lifelong skill.

A common question from teachers is “What does that look like in the classroom?”. SEL can be used to help students play on the playground while also helping them collaborate in the classroom. Therefore, SEL should be a vital component of our back-to-school curriculum.

Those of you who know me know how strongly I feel about the first two weeks of school. They should be filled with fun activities, routines and procedures, and SEL lessons. In this blog post, we will be looking at five specific picture books that will lend themselves to learning key social-emotional skills that are sure to make this school year a success.

The Day You Begin

Jacqueline Woodson’s “The Day You Begin” is perfect for the first day of school. It reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes. Maybe we are new to the school or maybe we look different than our peers. Perhaps we have different interests or hobbies. Whatever the case may be, it takes courage to meet new people and connect with them.

After reading this book, I like to do an activity about what makes each of us unique. This would also be a good place to discuss identity and values if you so choose. After creating posters, students can introduce themselves to each other, either in small groups or in front of the class. You could even play a round of “Guess Who”. Collect the posters before the students go to recess or lunch and display them somewhere in the room. When students come back, they can guess which poster belongs to which students. (Make sure the students DO NOT write their names on the front of their papers.)

TEACHING TIP: Before hanging up the posters, give students the opportunity to interview each other first. You may want to consider playing Student Bingo first.

Click here to read about Student Bingo and other first week of school activities.

The Magical Yet

“The Magical Yet” by Angela DiTerlizzi is a colorful book that reminds us that all skills at some point were first challenges.

I think this is a perfect book for the first or second day of school. Starting a new grade level in a new classroom with a new teacher can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. This book reminds students that they have overcome challenges many times before. They may have learned to ride a bike or play a sport or learned how to tie their shoes. At one point, everyone has learned something!

This book is a beautiful way to remind them that the challenges they will face this school year can be overcome just as previous challenges were. This book would best be read on a goal-setting day. Give your students the opportunity to not only set academic goals but personal goals, as well. Will they meet a new friend? Befriend someone new to the school? Learn how to play a sport? Help their parents at home? Help take care of their younger siblings? The possibilities are endless.


Jenn Larson’s “Songbird” is an endearing book that teaches kids to dream big, despite all odds. In the story, a small bird dreams not of collecting seeds but of being a conductor. Despite the obvious obstacles, the bird works hard to achieve what seems to be nearly impossible. This book shows students that with determination and support, the possibilities are limitless.

To me, this is the perfect story to read after goal setting. I like to revisit our goals made the day before and choose one to make even bigger. Maybe instead of befriending one student, we will try to meet one student in each class. Perhaps we can learn one sport and one art skill. Again, there are a lot of possibilities here.

The main goal here is to push students to challenge themselves. This would be a great place to do a quick write. You may even consider journaling with your students. Not only would you be able to have a first writing sample, but you would also learn a bit about your students’ interests and goals.


“Listen” by Gabi Snyder is a lovely book that teaches mindfulness. The main character, a young girl on her way to school, is confronted with the sounds of a busy city.

This picture book can help teach student to focus and eliminate distractions, especially during group time. It can also be used to bring up how to show we are actively listening.

I use this book to teach how to listen, not only to the teacher but to each other, as well. I begin by doing a quick activity where we all close our eyes and see how many different sounds we can hear in our classroom. We list them as a class and discuss how to focus our attention on only the teacher’s voice. We then discuss how we can eliminate distractions to allow us to get the most out of our lessons.

In terms of SEL, we discuss what it means to listen to friends rather than just hear them. We discuss trying to understand a person’s intentions before reacting in a negative light. This would be a good time to bring up nonverbal communication, especially during group time. I usually like to use this picture book before beginning our first collaborative activity.

After the Fall

We all know the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, but have you ever wondered what happened to him afterward?

This adorable book by Dan Santiat describes the struggle Humpty Dumpty endures after taking a terrible fall. The message is that no matter the setback, there is always a way to recover and overcome it.

If I had to recommend one book for back to school, it would be this one. (I have even used this after winter break as a way to remind students what we discussed at the beginning of the year.)

This book has so many applications. Students enter our classrooms with their own unique struggles, traumas, and hardships. This book teaches us that we can overcome any challenge, academic or otherwise, with time, support, and love. In the story, Humpty Dumpty finds that he is terrified of heights after his fall, thereby causing him to miss out on some of the activities he once loved. Similarly, students may have difficulty making friends after being isolated due to the pandemic. They may also struggle to be successful after failing a test or striking out during baseball. Perhaps they were embarrassed on the playground and are extremely shy now. Again, the applications are endless. This book teaches students that it is okay to struggle sometimes. We all struggle sometimes. What we do afterward is what makes us successful.

“After the Fall” is also the perfect way to teach students to be risk-takers and that it is okay to make mistakes. Mistakes are learning opportunities, and this realization does not come naturally to students. Honestly, it does not come naturally to adults either.

A possible follow-up activity could be to have students think of a time when they learned something from a mistake they made. Alternatively, students could design a poster that visually displays the book’s theme or message. I have done this poster activity every year, and you would not believe how beautiful they turn out! I usually like to display them for Back to School Night.

I hope that these picture books help you create a warm, nurturing environment for your new classroom family. Explicitly teaching these skills makes all the difference in the world, not just for this school year but for your students’ entire lives.

I would love to hear your success stories, so feel free to comment below or tag me on Instagram @learningnprogress. Let’s celebrate the beginning of this school year together!!!

Summer Planning in 3 Hours or Less

Oh, how we love summer…a time to rest, a time to reflect, and honestly a time to become human again. We as teachers know how truly exhausting the profession is, and everyone outside of the teaching world just doesn’t get it. I think I can speak for most educators when I say the first month of summer is spent simply recuperating from the school year.

Teachers don’t get summers off; they just collect their overtime.


After the initial phase of summer where I am simply regaining my strength and energy, I am often ready to dive right back into curriculum and start planning for the upcoming year. Well, that’s usually the case…This year, I am finding myself pushing things off until the last possible second. Anyone else with me? This year more than ever I am looking to get the most bang for my buck when it comes to planning.

Cue this blog post…

MY GOAL: to finish my long-term planning in three hours or less

Now, I obviously cannot make copies and plan every detail of every lesson in three hours. However, my goal is to set up my planner and create an outline of my year. I like to break down my summer planning into three tasks:

Teach Love Inspire – I LOVE my Purple Trail teacher planner!

Task 1: Planner Setup

Perhaps one of the most mundane yet necessary steps of setting up your planner is writing in the dates for the school year. I did this for years until I finally splurged and got a pre-dated planner from Purple Trail. What I love MOST about this planner is that everything is customizable. The absolute best option is the pre-dated planner and customized subject headings.

Check out Purple Trail planners here. Use this link to save $10 off your order!

Curious why I LOVE my Purple Trail planner so much? Click here, and I’ll tell ya…

Once the dates are written in, it’s sticker time! I get out my school’s calendar and put in all the important school events: Back to School Night, Open House, Conference Weeks, field trips, minimum dismissals, etc. For me, I use stickers, but you could always just write these dates in, of course. Having these events already in your planner saves heartache down the road.

There was a time I used to add these dates in every month, but I undoubtedly would forget an important event. Then, I would “overplan” on a minimum day, for instance. Although this mistake is not the end of the world, it does get annoying if done often enough.

Teacher Tip: While you are writing the dates in your planner, write the dates on your newsletter templates also! This will save you the hassle of doing it every week. Trust me, it’s worth the time. OR…

Let me do the work for you. You will never have to date another newsletter EVER!!!***

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Task 2: Scope and Sequence

Now that your planner is ready to go, it’s time to long-term plan. It is extremely difficult to fit everything into a school year. Therefore, it is critical to divide the standards and curriculum before the school year begins.

I know this may be debatable, but I stand firm in my opinion. For me, in order to be most effective, I need to know what I will be teaching next. I think it is even important for students to know what they will be learning next.

For example, when I teach my students how to infer, I explain to them that they will need this skill in order to analyze the theme of a text. That way, by the time we get to theme, they are already well aware that inferencing is needed. It helps to “warm up their brains” to this concept.

In order to be able to teach in such a way, you as the educator must know your year-long plans like the back of your hand.

When I sit down to plan, I start with math. I look over each unit and determine which units are most essential and will be the most challenging for students. (It may be helpful to look at your students’ data from the previous school year. Are there any gaps in their learning that will need to be addressed?) I then assign a total number of weeks for each unit. NOTE: I recommend taking one week per unit test if you are planning on giving second chance tests and intervention days.

Once the weeks have been assigned, spread the units out over the school year, taking into account school breaks, holidays, field trips, and other school events. UPPER-GRADE TEACHERS: Make sure to plan around state testing! You will need to finish the essential standards beforehand. Leave the non-essential standards, or standards that will be reviewed in the next grade level, for after testing.

Rinse and repeat for the other subjects you teach! It usually takes me around 15 minutes per subject, if that. If you are new to your grade level, it may take you a bit longer. The good news is you can always use the same scope and sequence for years to come!!!

Task 3: First Week Plans

The last task for our summer planning session is to plan the first week of school. The first week of school should be filled with “getting to know you” activities, classroom community games, and a ton of SEL! Pandemic or not, my opinion has always remained the same: curriculum does not belong in the first two weeks of school. Routines and procedures, yes. Standards, no. Perhaps you can include some foundational skills during the second week but definitely not during the first.

If you typically start teaching right away, this idea may seem a bit daunting to you, but trust me, building a strong classroom community filled with learners who feel loved, welcomed, and excited is worth every minute. The rest of the school year will thank you for taking the time to build such a strong learning environment.

I am not going to go into detail about various activities, as I have already written a detailed blog post about them. However, I do want to mention what a typical first week of school looks like in my classroom. No matter the grade level, I always include the following activities every day during that first week:

  • “Getting to Know You” Activity – All About Me, I Wish My Teacher Knew, Reading Preferences, etc
  • Student Ice Breaker – These are fun!
  • Teamwork Activity – I love PBL (project-based learning) tasks. I often teach one skill per day, such as how to respectfully disagree, how to be a strong leader, how to split up tasks, etc. Looking for ideas? Check these out!
  • SEL Read Aloud and Reflection – Picture books are NOT just for primary grades. They can be used to teach skills such as perseverance, respect, friendship, and so much more! During the first week, no matter what grade I am teaching, I end the day with a picture book read aloud. We then do a quick activity to practice applying the book’s message to our classroom. This activity comes in the form of a discussion, drawing, or quick write. Sometimes, I will even use what they created in a Gallery Walk the next morning. I am currently compiling a list of books and ideas that you can use during the first couple weeks of school. BLOG POST COMING SOON!!!

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling much more prepared for the school year already. The best part? I am feeling prepared without being overwhelmed!

Our next blog post will post on August 21 and will cover SEL picture books and activities you can use during your first two weeks of school. Make sure to check it out!

Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Ready for Back to School

Setting Up Your Classroom: 10 Must-Dos for Any Upper-Grade TeacherWho doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned classroom reveal?!
5 First Week of School Activities Your Upper Graders Will LoveDiscover ideas and downloadable freebies for the first week of school!
10 must-teach classroom routines and procedures to start the year off rightIncludes Ideas for the
Second Week of School
5 Goals of Reading Workshop:
Is Reading Workshop Effective?
Instill a love of reading in your classroom. Trust me, this is a MUST-READ.

The Ultimate Summer Reading List for Elementary School Teachers

The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.

B.B. King

One of the many reasons I enjoy being a teacher is that I absolutely love to learn! Educators are the ultimate lifelong learners…we learn about our standards, our students, the most effective and up-to-date teaching practices, intervention and differentiation strategies…the list goes on and on…

Although as teachers, we will never run out of skills to learn, during the school year, it is simply hard to find the time. Raise your hand if that last statement resonates with you. (Every teacher’s hand shoots in the air.) The truth is that it is extremely difficult to juggle all aspects of the teaching profession. We wear so many hats! Because of this, I usually choose one professional development book to dig into over summer break.

I know what you’re thinking…summer break is a time to recuperate, a time for friends and family, a time to regain the strength needed for the upcoming school year. I get it, and trust me, I am right there with you! (Notice that I am writing this post well into July, when my summer break began early June. LOL) After spending some time completely unplugged from school, I find I am ready to slowly bring back thinking about my classroom. Now is about that time. With that being said, let’s dig into my top three book selections for any elementary school teacher.

The Big Book by Rick Morris

Rick Morris has compiled several of his books into one BIG BOOK. Trust me, this will completely change the dynamic of your classroom.

Click here to read more. (I am not affiliated with his company, but I really do love the strategies in this book.)

If I were to recommend ONLY ONE book for any teacher, it would be this one. To me, Rick Morris is the classroom management guru. Let me tell you a little about how I first learned about Rick Morris…

Needless to say, I am now a HUGE fan of his strategies. I highly recommend reading the entire book, but I realize that there may not be enough time to read it all before the start of this school year. Therefore, I have compiled a few of my favorite tips and tricks from his book:

  • Extra Time Chart: This is often called a “must do, may do list”. In my classroom, we call it the E.T. Chart. Students work on the assignments listed on the E.T. Chart whenever they finish any given task. The chart is divided into three sections: red, yellow, and green. The red portion is for assignments that are mandatory. For us, they are also the assignments that are due by Friday. Students who finish all of their work by Friday, are invited to “Fun Friday” which is 30 minutes of free time and/or game time. The yellow portion lists 2-3 ongoing practice assignments. It could be independent reading, journal writing, or a lesson from an online platform. The choice is yours! The green section is comprised of fun, educational games and activities. This is essentially free choice for students who have finished everything. (I highly recommend including educational items.) I have found that it is best to have some way to hold the students accountable. For example, they can move their student number on a chart to show which section (red/yellow/green) they are currently working on.
  • Transition music: This is a must must must for any grade level! Rick Morris believes that teachers talk way too much. Can you think of a time when you got frustrated because you had to repeat yourself 10,000 times! I know I can! This is especially true when giving out directions. T: Take out your math notebook. S: Which notebook? T: math Another S: Math textbook? T: No, math notebook Another student: Is that all we need? T: I SAID TAKE OUT YOUR MATH NOTEBOOK! We’ve all been there, right? To eliminate this endlessly frustrating experience, use music and a dry erase marker. Simply choose one song to use during your transitions between one activity and another. Train your students to stop and look up at the whiteboard whenever they hear this music. While the music is playing, simply write all of the materials you want the students to take out on the whiteboard. For example, in my classroom, when we transition to math, I write “math notebook, pencil, dry erase supplies” on the board. My students then know to put everything else away and to only have out the supplies listed on the whiteboard. Trust me, this strategy will completely transform your classroom!
  • Post-it notes for small group learning: Imagine this…you have planned an engaging small group lesson. You have your materials ready and have finally set aside time for dedicated intervention. You call over your most at-risk students and begin teaching. As soon as you have their undivided attention, another student walks up and has a question. It turns out they just needed another pencil. Uugh! You begin teaching again, and a different student walks up because s/he needs to use the restroom. And so the cycle continues…Before you know it, your intervention time has ended and you never even taught the core part of the lesson. We’ve all been there. Two solutions: one is post-it notes. The other I will discuss next. Post-it notes! During small group time, have a pad of post-its and pencils nearby. Students may write a question on the post-it and place it next to you. They then return to their desks until you are ready to answer the questions. This is a life-saver! I know what you’re thinking…won’t students be constantly writing on post-its? There is a way to avoid this! Read on!!!
  • Hand gestures: This is an oldie but a goodie. Use hand gestures so students can quietly ask to use the restroom, drink water, ask a question, make a comment, etc. This way, you can silently excuse students by simply waving your hand, pointing, or nodding your head. This will prevent your teaching from being constantly interrupted. This is true for both whole group and small group learning.

There are so many more strategies in the book, but the ones listed above are my favorites. If you want to read more about what these strategies look like in my own classroom, check out this back to school blog post: 10 Must-Teach Classroom Routines and Procedures to Start the Year Off Right.

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Reluctant readers? Read this book, and ALL of your questions will be answered! How do I get my students to love reading? How can I change a reluctant reader to an active and engaged one? This book absolutely transformed my literacy instruction and my classroom library. I highly recommend you checking it out, especially if you are an upper grade teacher!

Donalyn Miller explains how she turns any reader at any level into a lover of books! If you have ever heard of the “40 book challenge”, this is where it comes from. The book goes into detail about how you can use this challenge to get your students to read 40 books in a year! Yes, you read that right…40 books!!!

Basically, the major takeaway of this book is that we should encourage students to select their own books, set aside time to talk to individual students about their books selections, and set up a classroom environment where students can share their love of reading with each other. I know this sounds like a daunting task, but it is totally doable. Donalyn Miller does not only outline how to create such a classroom; she will actually make you excited about your own classroom library and literacy instruction.

I have written several blog posts on setting up your classroom library, launching reading workshop, and even managing book clubs. Although I have put my own spin on some of these ideas, many of my strageies were inspired by Donalyn Miller.

Looking to get started but don’t have time to create/prep? This resource has everything you need to run Reading Workshop!

Literacy Instruction Blog Posts

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Launch Reading Workshop in 5 Easy StepsFrom organization ideas to tips on helping students select books, this blog post includes everything you need to get started on Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Reading Workshop: Book Clubs DiscussionsFacilitate student-run book club meetings in 3 easy steps!

Teach Like a Champion

Teach Like a Champion has SO MANY teaching strategies. It was definitely difficult to narrow them down. I was able to choose my favorite strategies and describe them below, though a couple of them are closely related to techniques covered in Rick Morris’s Big Book.

  • Check for Understanding/Exit Ticket: This is an important technique for student understanding. In my lessons, I make sure to include both a check for understanding question, as well as an exit ticket. The check for understanding question is a question the students answer independently and then show me the answer immediately. I typically ask them to rate their confidence level, as well. (4/3/2/1) If students get the answer correct and are at a 4 or 3, they are excused to start their exit ticket. The exit ticket is a more in-depth look at the new skill. They complete the exit ticket independently, and I check it after school. The exit tickets guide my instruction for the next lesson. (Occassionally, I will allow my intervention kids to work with a partner if the skill is particularly challenging.)
  • Cold Call / Call and Response: Cold calling students is not a new technique by any means. However, I feel that this book gives several new ideas to traditional cold calling students. (Cold calling is when a teacher pulls a student’s name to answer a question rather than just taking volunteers.) The idea is that this strategy holds students accountable and increases engagement. There are several students who tend to avoid volunteering answers. This strategy allows for them to be heard. Read the next strategy, No Opt Out, for ideas on how to make cold calling less daunting for students. Call and response is a strategy where the entire class or even small groups of students are asked to respond together. This increases engagement but is not putting any one student on the spot. It often feels less nerve-wracking for students who are shy or need support with language/academics.
  • No Opt Out: This is a teaching technique that is also discussed in Rick Morris’s Big Book, though I did not cover it earlier. The idea is that students are required to answer a question rather than not volunteer at all or simply say “I don’t know”. Rather, students may say “Please come back to me.” This way, they are now re-engaged in the classroom discussion. They will be actively listening to their peers and teacher, so they will have an answer when the teacher asks them again after another student(s) shares. This can be used in conjunction with cold calling. This takes the pressure off being called. The important part of this strategy is to make sure not to put students on the spot. As tempting as it may be to remind students to pay attention, this may cause some embarrassment. Simply say, “No problem. We will come back to you after a couple students.” This helps make that students more comfortable being called upon.
  • Wait Time/100 Percent: These two ideas go hand-in-hand in my opinion. I personally like having opportunities for students to volunteer answers. I do not rely on cold calling and call/response all the time. For the times I take volunteers, I make sure to avoid calling students immediately after asking a question. You will always have a handful of students that are eager beavers. As teachers, these students make us excited to teach! However, we want to encourage the rest of the class to join in on the learning. Otherwise, they will simply wait for those few students to answer. In turn, they will learn to disengage from the lessons and classroom discussions. After asking a question, I will “guesstimate” the percentage of students raising their hands. “I see 60% of the class engaged…Now, I see 75%…ooo now 90%! Let’s go for 100%!” Students do not need to be able to calculate percentages in order to understand 100 is good. I have used this stragey with several grade levels, and every year, it is very effective. I have even put up a 100% chart and colored in part of it every time we reach 100% participation. Teacher tip: I only use this strategy after Think-Pair-Share or group/partner work. That way, students have the opportunity to learn from each other before being asked to volunteer an answer. This is also a great way to encourage participation for opinion questions or topics that do not have a right/wrong answer.
  • Entry Routine/Do Now: Awww, routines…my favorite subject. Routines are so critical for smooth classroom management. This is especially true at the start and end of the day. For the purposes of this post, we will focus on the Morning Routine. Every morning in my classroom, students unpack, check-in for attendance, and start their morning work. This gets students ready for the day and focused on their learning. This also allows the teacher to complete morning responsibilities (i.e. attendance, lunch count, answering student questions, homework help, etc.). To read more about morning/afternoon routines, read this blog post: 10 Must-Teach Classroom Routines and Procedures to Start the Year Off Right.
  • SLANT: SLANT is a simple acronym that I use regularly during my lessons. It reminds students to actively listen during instruction. It stands for Sit Up, Listen, Pay Attention, Nod Your Head (show you’re listening), and Track the Teacher.
  • Every Minute Matters/On Your Mark: This is an important one: EVERY minute counts. At the start of the school year, I actually have my upper graders calculate how much time in one year would be wasted if we did nothing for 5 minutes a day. They are always surprised by the amount of instructional minutes that can add up. For this reason, we strive to use every minute of the school day for learning. Thus, we do not waste time in our classroom. As discussed earlier, the E.T. Chart addresses this ideal. During instruction, the strategy “On Your Mark” comes into play. For any given task, whether it be a quick partner discussion, an exit ticket, or a check for understanding question, I always give a specific amount of time. When I say specific, I MEAN SPECIFIC. For example, during a warm-up or hook, I may pose a discussion question to the class. I will then instruct students to share their responses with their table partners, specifically giving them 1.5 minutes to discuss. I also remind them to make sure to have an answer ready, as we will randomly take students to respond afterward. This technique is not meant to rush students, but it does put some “pep in their step”. If students know they have a limited time, they will get started right away. Trust me, this will help you get the most bang for your buck during instruction!
  • Tight Transitions / Seat Signals: I grouped these two ideas together because they are very similar to the ideas shared in Rick Morris’s Big Book. First, tight transitions refer to making sure the transition between centers, activities, or subjects takes as little time as possible. As discussed earlier, using music allows you as the teacher to dictate the appropriate amount of time for such a transition. For example, I usually allow 2 minutes for in-between subjects. This gives students time to switch out their supplies while not giving them enough time to mess around or talk to their friends. In addition, I make sure they know exactly what to do should they have extra time. For my classroom, the expectation is that they are writing down the title/date/question from the board while they wait. As discussed earlier, seat signals have hand signals for restroom/water/pencils/tissues, etc. Basically, it is a way for students to communicate their needs without interrupting instruction.

There you have it…my top three book selections that will change your classroom. These books will transform your classroom into a well-oiled machine where students are not only on-task but love to learn! I cannot emphasize enough what these books have done for my teaching practice. I hope that you find them as beneficial as I have.

If you are looking for some more Back to School ideas, click here. Also, feel free to comment on my posts and share what has worked in your own classrooms!!! I love collaborating with other teachers and hearing about your successes. Let’s learn from each other!

Stay tuned for more teaching ideas on this blog or tune in to the Learning N Progress podcast. Thank you for being a part of our community, and keep learning!!!

Facilitating Elementary Book Club Discussion Meetings in 3 Easy Steps

Listen to the podcast episode.

In past blog posts, we have discussed the benefits of Reading Workshop, 5 easy ways to launch Reading Workshop, and how to start Book Clubs with your elementary students. In this post, we are going to chat about how to help your students run successful book club discussions.

I know what you are thinking…student-run book clubs?! No way!!! You are probably imagining a chaotic zoo of children running amuck with absolutely no learning involved. Okay, so that may be an exaggeration, but I am sure you are at least imagining off-topic conversations and off-task behavior. Remember how we talked about student buy-in for Reading Workshop? Well, that same buy-in helps these book club discussions run smoothly.

Since students are able to select their own book clubs and even apply for those clubs, student ownership significantly increases. The thought process is that they “earned” their spots in these book clubs. (Teacher tip: Really play it up when announcing the students’ books clubs. Congratulate them for being selected into these clubs. Even with older kids, this helps!) Year after year, I have found that students are proud to be in these clubs. Therefore, they WANT to be successful. They just need to know what a successful book club looks like. Cue the teacher! That’s where we come in!

There are three EASY steps to implementing successful student-run book clubs. Once the students are trained using these three steps, book club discussions will quickly become the best part of the day for both you and your students!

Book club meetings will quickly become the best part of the day for both you and your students!

Step 1: Assign roles.

The first step is to have book clubs assign student roles. This is critical to creating book club meetings where every student is engaged. What you don’t want is to have half the class chit-chatting away while the other half passively listen. Having said that, I recommend allowing students to choose their roles. By allowing students to select their roles within their own book clubs, again, you are increasing student ownership, and you may be surprised! I often find that students who I would have never expected to lead a group, choose to be the book club leader. Many students are more comfortable leading a small group with a book they chose rather than speaking in front of the whole class. These book club roles give even the shyest of students the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone in a safe, more comfortable setting.

As I discussed in my last post, I recommend that book clubs are comprised of 3-5 students. The sweet spot is 4 students. I include 4 roles in book clubs, but if you have less students in each club, either remove the optional role or have the leader take on two positions. For groups with more than 4 students, you can have 2 students share a role.

Book Club Role Job Description
Leaderfacilitates the discussion by encouraging everyone to share and asking follow-up questions; chooses the “Big Idea Question” for each meeting
Time Keeperkeeps the group on-task and focused; in charge of moving the group through the three parts of a book club meeting (see step 3); leads the group in creating a reading schedule
Note-Takerjots notes of what was discussed during each book club meeting
Communicatorshares what was discussed during each book club meeting with the class and the teacher; asks the teacher questions when needed (on behalf of the group)

Step 2: Create a schedule.

This requires some brief training. In order to have your students create a reading schedule, they essentially need to be taught how to backward plan. I would give them an end date. In other words, when does their book need to be finished? From there, let them know how often book clubs will meet. This is heavily determined by your own classroom schedule. If your book clubs are a supplement to your core ELA curriculum, you may only want to meet once a week. However, if you are using book clubs as your core curriculum, you may want to consider meeting two or even three times a week. I have done both ways successfully, but now, I use book clubs as part of my core instruction. I have my book clubs meet twice a week, allowing the other three days to be set aside for a mix of independent reading/intervention, mini-lessons on skills needed for book clubs, writing mini-lessons, and occasional assessments.

If you want to learn more about when I implement reading intervention during Reading Workshop, check out this post.

Once you know how often your students will meet with their book clubs, it is time to create a reading schedule. I created a template to help your class get started.

Freebie Alert!

Step 3: Facilitate your first meeting.

Now that your students have assigned jobs and your book clubs are planned, it is time for your first book club meeting! Trust me, it is all going to work out. That first meeting is all about training and practicing. Your students will need to be explicitly taught how to facilitate a book club discussion. I recommend breaking your book club meetings into three parts: Share Out, Discussion, and Reflection. Let’s break down each section:

Share Out

This is time for students to simply share their thoughts about the assigned reading. The book club leader should facilitate this part of the meeting. Students take turns sharing what they liked about the reading, what was confusing, and any questions that they had. They may also want to pose questions to the group, asking for their thoughts and predictions. (I recommend holding a mini-lesson about how to pose questions beforehand. I usually introduce this concept after a few book club meetings.)

Depending on the grade level and language levels of your students, you may also consider teaching discussion sentence frames (i.e. I agree with, I respectfully disagree with, in other words, for example, etc.). I often teach a mini-lesson on this before our first book club meeting. I then provide a “cheat sheet” or anchor chart for the students to refer to during their share out. I would highly recommend at least having a mini-lesson on this topic, even if it is a brief review.

This part of the meeting should only last around 5-10 minutes. It acts as a brief warm-up for the students that will allow them to get more comfortable with sharing their thoughts, as well as provide them an opportunity to simply share their love of reading. This part definitely helps build a sense of community amongst the book clubs. The timekeepers are responsible for keeping track of the time. Once 10 minutes are up, they will move the group along to the discussion part of the meeting.


The goal of the discussion is to practice whatever reading skill you have chosen to target. This is the time that students find evidence and examples from the text to help answer a “Big Idea Question”. You can either provide the question you would like the groups to answer or you can have the groups write their own questions. I have done it both ways. I often start book clubs by providing the questions, and then over the course of the unit, I teach the groups to write their own questions. Additionally, I encourage you to incorporate Depth and Complexity Icons during book clubs.

For the first couple of meetings, I provide the questions. These questions include both academic and content-specific vocabulary. I lead mini-lessons on identifying these vocabulary terms. Essentially, I am teaching the students what makes a strong question. (Ideally, these book clubs will be scheduled after students are familiar with some vocabulary words. See the table below for some examples.)

Academic VocabularyContent-Specific Vocabulary
examinepoint of view or perspective
predictmood or tone

After the first few meetings, I start having the clubs create their own questions. I often give them vocabulary that must be included in the question. For example, if we are learning about multiple perspectives, I may ask them to include the words point of view or perspective in their question. I may even ask them to include specific academic vocabulary words, such as examine or compare/contrast. You could even have the communicators show you the question for approval. I recommend doing this at least the first couple of times.

Once students are comfortable with this process, you may want to consider allowing them to develop their own questions without identifying the required vocabulary for them. This gives them the chance to reflect on what they have been learning in your lessons. This also gives them the opportunity to apply the vocabulary words to their own questions. I noticed that once I gave them this freedom, their understanding of both academic and content-specific vocabulary soared. This process also increased the student buy-in we discussed earlier.

Once the questions have been written, the book clubs then switch their attention to gathering evidence from the text to answer their questions. They flip through their books, jotting down page and chapter numbers, as well as direct quotes. This is also the time that you can provide intervention. First, check in with each club, noting if any specific groups need teacher support. Afterward, meet with the individual groups that may benefit from a small group lesson.


After the book discussion, which should last the majority of the time assigned for ELA, it is time for reflection. This can take one of two forms: written response to the “Big Idea Question” or group report where each book club shares their thoughts and evidence. I typically plan a mix of the two options.

The written response is completed by individual students, though they are allowed to receive peer support from their book club members. This process takes no more than 10 minutes. Students simply look over the notes they took during the book club discussion and use that evidence to compose a brief paragraph response to the “Big Idea Question”. I highly recommend having students create a writing checklist that includes the writing skills you have targeted as a class. For example, if I taught them mini-lessons on writing strong topic sentences and using transition with commas earlier in the month, I would make sure to include those goals in the checklist (see example below). I would instruct the students to read their writing and only check the topic sentence to make sure it clearly introduces the topic. Then, they would read their writing again and only check for evidence. Last, they would read their writing a third time and only check for transitions and commas. This process teaches them how to self-correct their own writing. It also reinforces the writing skills you have taught in previous lessons.

Writing GoalCompleted
Strong Topic Sentence
Evidence from the Text
Transitions and Commas
Writing instruction is easy to incorporate into book clubs.

I try to schedule at least one group report for each reading skill. For example, if we are learning about analyzing themes over the course of a month, I will plan to have the book clubs report their findings at least one time that month. Please note that these reports do not last long. They are typically only a few minutes per group. If you wish to plan a more formal assessment, you could always add an official group presentation to your plans.

Other Blog Posts to Help You Implement Reading Workshop

The 5 Goals of Reading WorkshopDiscover the benefits of Reading Workshop. Teach your students to love reading and differentiate your reading instruction at the same time!
5 Tips on How to Launch Reading Workshop SuccessfullyLearn how to level books, celebrate student successes, and recommend books to students.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Depth and Complexity Icons: Where Book Clubs Meet Advanced LearningDiscover how depth and complexity icons fit into your student-run book clubs.

Reading Workshop: An Introduction to Book Clubs for Elementary Students

Listen to the podcast episode.

Now that you have learned the benefits of Reading Workshop, as well as 5 easy ways to launch Reading Workshop, you are ready to dive into the world of Book Clubs.

Book Clubs are a great way to build classroom community, encourage collaboration, and improve reading comprehension. This concept fits hand-in-hand with Reading Workshop because like Reading Workshop, Book Clubs revolves around the idea that students can read what they want to read. The only difference is that they share their love of reading with peers who have similar interests.

You could have a genre study book club, for instance, where students join a club based on their favorite book genres. You could have an author book club, where students join a club based on their favorite authors. You could have book clubs based on series books. The ideas are endless, but again, at the heart of Book Clubs is the idea that students are sharing their love of reading with their peers.

So, you may be wondering, “How do I get started?” Good news! There are three easy steps!

Book clubs teach kids to simply love reading.

Step 1: Book Club Research

This step helps encourage student buy-in and student ownership over these books clubs. By allowing students to research their choices for Book Clubs, you are better able to select choices that actually interest the students.

First, have students research possible books. I recommend giving them some parameters (i.e. number of pages, genres, themes, etc.). This will help them narrow their focus when researching books. Make sure to grab your freebie resource at the end of this blog post. It includes worksheets that will help your students research and pitch their ideas to their peers.

There is a catch though…Unless you already have a large classroom library or school library, it may be difficult to get enough books. You will need 3-4 copies of each book that is chosen. The plus is that once students research and submit their selections, you can narrow down the list based on the books that are available to your class.

Ways to Collect Books for Book ClubsWebsite
Create a Donors Choose project to request books your students chose.Donors Choose
Raise funds or purchase books through Scholastic Book Clubs. Earn points towards free books when your students purchase books.Scholastic Book Clubs
Ask families for donations by creating an Amazon Wish List.Amazon
Ways to Collect Books at a Reasonable Price for Book Clubs

Step 2: Book Club Pitch

After your students research possible books for clubs, have them select one or two books to pitch to their other classmates. This is an ideal opportunity to teach persuasive speaking and listening. You can even tie in some persuasive writing!

I recommend approving the selections before they are pitched. That way, you can make sure they are school-appropriate, grade-level appropriate, and meet whatever requirements you set for your class. During the approval process, you may want to hold individual conferences with students or have students write a formal book proposal. If you want to target speaking skills, hold conferences. If you want to target writing skills, assign book proposals. These assignments lend themselves to mini-lessons that will focus on grade-level standards.

After each student has an approved book to pitch, give them time to work on their pitches. They can give formal presentations in front of the class, or they can pitch using one of the ideas listed in the table below:

How Students Can Pitch their Ideas to the ClassWebsite
Students can record their presentations on Flipgrid. They can include images, text, and even share their screens. The rest of the class can then log in to watch the other pitches. They can leave video or text comments. It is a great presentation tool! Best part? It’s free!Flipgrid
Students can create an Adobe Spark video advertisement for their book selections. This is a highly engaging way for students to present information. These videos can be played in front of the class or shared with individual students.Adobe Spark
Flipgrid and Adobe Spark are engaging ways for students to pitch their ideas.

Step 3: Book Club Selection

Whether your students record their presentations or give them in front of the class, make sure the other students take notes while watching the pitches. This is a great way for students to practice their listening skills. I recommend giving a mini-lesson on how to identify a speaker’s key arguments. This activity targets grade level listening standards.

While the students are listening to the pitches and taking notes, they should be thinking about what book clubs they are most interested in and which ones they feel would be the best options for the class. In the freebie below, they should narrow down the book choices to their top five and then their top three.

After selecting their top three books, have the students apply to be in their top three book clubs. This will help you as the teacher place students into their book clubs. First, I would choose the Book Clubs for the class based on book availability and the students’ top three choices. If possible, try to put every students into one of their top three choices. This might mean that your book clubs are different sizes. This is totally okay! I would recommend that each club be between 3-5 students. A club that is more than 5 students should probably be divided into separate clubs. It is possible to have a club of only two students, but I have found that students benefit from slightly larger clubs. This way, you can have more than two roles within the club.

After placing students into their clubs, have them choose roles within their clubs: Book Club Leader, time keeper, communicator (can be combined with leader if needed), and discussion facilitator. These roles are critical to successful Book Clubs because they help to keep the students on track during Book Club discussions. My next blog post will focus on how to run successful, on-task Book Club discussions.

Freebie Alert!

Other Blog Posts to Help You Implement Reading Workshop

The 5 Goals of Reading WorkshopNew to Reading Workshop? Read this blog post to learn more about how Reading Workshop can completely transform your literacy instruction.
5 Tips on How to Launch Reading Workshop SuccessfullyLearn how to level books, celebrate student successes, and recommend books to students.
Reading Workshop: Book Club DiscussionsFacilitate student-run book club meetings in 3 easy steps!
Read these blog posts about Reading Workshop from Learning N Progress.

Launch Reading Workshop in 5 Easy Steps

Listen to the podcast episode.

Reading Workshop…we love it and sometimes hate it…As teachers, we know that students need to be reading in order to improve their literacy. We also know the catchy phrase, “the more you read, the more you know…” and so on. However, for many teachers, the thought of tackling Reading Workshop is daunting. Although it sounds like a wonderful way to instill a love of reading, allow for student choice, and encourage differentiated instruction, it simply sounds unmanageable.

Reading Workshop requires hours and hours of planning.

Reading Workshop does not improve literacy without whole group lessons.

Reading Workshop is difficult to manage.

Reading Workshop is an overwhelmingly difficult task to tackle.

If any of the above concerns resonate with you, you are in the right place! In my last blog post, I discussed the many benefits of Reading Workshop. Now, I will cover how to go about launching this unique style of teaching. Trust me, this process is doable!

Reading Workshop teaches kids to love reading!

Step #1: Organize Your Classroom Library

This is perhaps the most time-consuming step, but it is so critical! A classroom library should be inviting, comfortable, and organized! It needs to be a place that students can organize themselves. Even primary students can keep a library organized. I’ve seen it with my own eyes! An organized library does more than looks good; it keeps your library books in good condition and prevents you from losing library books.

There are several ways to organize a classroom library: by reading level, genre, author, title, the list goes on and on…For me, I prefer organizing my library by genre. Each genre is color-coded. Mystery is red; myth/legend is orange; fantasy is yellow; historical fiction is green; realistic fiction is blue; nonfiction is purple. Within each genre, I include topics. For example, I group fantasy books about animals in the same yellow bin. This way, students have a starting point when browsing for their next perfect read.

This is an important tip: make sure to have a way for students to check out books. There are several items you can purchase to electronically check out books. You could also consider using QR codes. However, for me, I make my own library cards by simply printing the title and gluing it on an index card. When a student checks out a book, they grab the book’s library card and place it in their library pocket. This way, I can see who has each book. It’s that easy!

You may be asking yourself, “How do I prevent the loss of books?” You may have images of shredded books coming back to your library or books getting lost altogether. Have no fear! I have some tips on how to prevent this. I highly recommend assigning 1-2 librarians as class jobs. Every Friday, these librarians are in charge of “renewing” the books. Each student has to show the librarians the books they are currently reading and would like to “renew”. If a book is missing or in poor condition, the librarians let me know. I get in touch with the students’ parents. Here is the beauty of this system…it rarely happens that a book goes missing or comes back destroyed. Before students are allowed to check out books, we have mini-lessons on how to care for our books. I also make sure to tell the students that they are expected to show their books are in good condition every Friday. This alone prevents loss/damage. I even let the students take home their books for reading homework! In the last few years alone, I have only lost 5 books. This process works.

If you are more comfortable, you can always send home a letter to families reviewing expectations. You can ask for permission for students to take these books home, giving parents the opportunity to opt out. In this case, parents are assuming responsibility for lost/damaged books.

Step #2: Level Books

I also level my books. As an upper-grade teacher, I never want to limit my students to their reading levels, but I do teach students how to select a “just right book”. I simply teach them that if they are having a difficult time understanding what they are reading, they may want to consider choosing a book closer to the letter A. (If you are looking to learn how to level your books, click here. I have a resource that can help!)

In addition to the reading level, I also label each book with a point value. As students finish reading books, they earn points for completion. They have a “Book Chat” with me (explained below), and I award stickers based on the book’s reading level and the number of pages. The more pages, the more points. The higher the reading level, the more points. This system highly motivates students to read. It also inevitably motivates reluctant readers to challenge themselves with more complex texts. (My newest Reading Workshop resource will teach you how to assign point values to your books.)

Step #3: Get to Know Your Students as Readers

At the heart of Reading Workshop, students should be reading books that interest them. In order to help students find books that may interest them, I suggest having students complete a Book Interest Form and Reading Preferences Form. These forms ask students to select their favorite topics, share favorite books or movies, and decide how they would like to read (location, with a partner, etc.). These forms are also included in my latest Reading Workshop resource.

Another idea is to prep what I like to call “Grab Bag Books”. I love making reading recommendations to students, but I also give them the option of getting a wrapped book. Students enjoy reading the three clues about each book and unwrapping one they think they will enjoy.

“Grab Bag Books” add excitement and a bit of mystery to your Reading Workshop!

Step #4: Set Up an Area for “Book Chats” and “Book Ends”

“Book Chats” are brief discussions that I have with my students after they finish reading a book. This gives me as the teacher the opportunity to check my students’ understanding of the book, assess key reading skills, and simply share a love of reading with my students. This not only holds the students accountable, it also allows me to assess our current learning objective. I use magnetic numbers. Students place their student numbers under “Book Chats” once they finish a book.

I also award “bonus points” for completing small book assignments called “Book Ends”. These give students a short “brain break” between books, gives them the chance to practice writing about reading, and encourages creativity. Teacher tip: Make these assignments creative. Avoid simply assigning students the task of summarizing what they read. My Reading Workshop resource includes student instructions, point values, and worksheets for several Book Ends.

Step #5: Build Reading Stamina

Even upper grade students need to build their reading stamina. It is difficulty for students to be able to read for prolonged periods of time. Therefore, before diving into Reading Workshop for your entire ELA block, I suggest slowly increasing the reading time each day. Perhaps the first day you start with a mini-lesson on what it means to be actively reading followed by 10 minutes fo independent reading. Every day after, increase the amount of independent reading by 10 minutes until you reach the full ELA block. Trust me, this makes all the difference in the world. If you are looking for ideas for how to get your students ready for Reading Workshop, check out the table below.

Mini-Lesson IdeaIndependent Reading Time
How can we preview a book? OR
How can we find a “good fit” book?
What does it mean to be an “active reader”?20
How can we check for understanding while we read?30
What tools and strategies will strengthen our ability to critically think about a text?45
Mini-Lesson Ideas for Preparing Your Students for Reading Workshop

Reading Workshop can truly transform your classroom culture. I’ve experienced it myself! My students year to year come in as sometimes reluctant readers but leave with a strengthened love of literature. You can often hear students at recess discussing their current book selections and even making recommendations to their friends. If you have not implemented this type of teaching yet, I recommend taking the plunge.

I would love to hear from you! Whether you have used Reading Workshop for years or are new to it this year, share your experiences in the comments below. Let’s celebrate each other’s success stories!

Other Blog Posts to Help You Implement Reading Workshop

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Reading Workshop: Book Clubs DiscussionsFacilitate student-run book club meetings in 3 easy steps!

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?

Listen to the podcast episode.

Reading is perhaps the most complicated yet most necessary skill to teach elementary students. This is a skill that will truly affect the rest of their lives. Phonics, fluency, comprehension…so much is involved in becoming literate, but what is the most challenging part of reading instruction? The buy-in!

Have you ever heard a parent say “My kid is not a reader”? Have you ever looked out at your class and seen kids blanky staring into their books, drool forming, and their eyes are drifting into sleep? There are so many students who are convinced that reading is not for them or simply hate reading. Teacher heart = broken. I have witnessed these situations more times than I can count. What is confusing to me is that reading should be fun.

Books are plane tickets into worlds with endless possibilities; they are mysteries waiting to be solved; they are filled with new friends and inspiring stories; and they are filled with information we are dying to learn.

With so many genres and topics, I am truly convinced that there is a book for everyone and that everyone is a reader if given that right book. Our challenge as educators is to find that right book for every student in our class all while teaching the grade-level reading standards. This is no easy feat. The good news…there is a way to make that happen: Reading Workshop.

What is Reading Workshop?

Reading Workshop is an instructional practice where teachers provide mini-lessons on key reading skills and students practice these skills using books that they choose. Yes, books of their choice. This part is critical. This is where you get that buy-in. By allowing students to choose their own books, you increase engagement, encourage active reading, and instill a love of literature over time.

Reading Workshop is usually divided into four parts: mini-lesson, independent reading, student conferences/intervention, and partner sharing. Each lesson will ideally include all four components. Luckily for us, there have been several books written about how to successfully implement Reading Workshop. I HIGHLY recommend the following two books if you are looking to learn more: Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study curriculum.

I know what you’re thinking…Is this type of reading instruction effective? Although I am not going to cite any research or refer to any longitudinal studies (they do exist though), I will address my experience as a classroom teacher and discuss the benefits I have witnessed after implementing reading workshop.

a group of children enjoying reading together

The Five Goals and Benefits of Reading Workshop

#1 Reading Workshop helps instill a love of reading.

Remember those students who you saw blankly staring into their books? Well, imagine those students now eagerly turning pages in a corner of your classroom and waiting for their turn to talk to you about the last chapter they read. How? You may ask…Reading Workshop. I know this transformation seems unrealistic and perhaps unbelievable, but I assure you that it will happen. It just takes time. Over the course of the year, students will slowly learn that books are not just classwork or homework assignments. They are ways that we can experience new places and learn about topics we are interested in. They will learn to love it!

Confession time…When I was an elementary student, I hated reading. GASP! Now, I was a strong reader, but I never enjoyed it. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how much I love to read. Why? It is simply because as an adult, I was able to read books that interested me. For example, every summer, I read books about teaching ideas and pedagogy. As a kid, I would have never guessed that I would like nonfiction! Who knew?!I just needed to find the right topic.

This is true for kids. They just need help finding the right book.

Now, I have some ideas that will help students find the right book quicker, and I will share these ideas in my next blog post on 9/4/21. For now, just trust me, this process works.

#2 Reading Workshop increases student engagement by allowing for student choice.

As educators, we know that student choice helps increase engagement, but sometimes it can be challenging to find ways to encourage student choice while following the curriculum and teaching grade-level standards. Reading Workshop is the perfect way to allow students to have some control over what they learn by allowing them to choose what they read.

Students love browsing through our library to find their next book selection. I often highlight seasonal books or books that are related to what we are learning. Students also really love teacher recommendations. I will dive into some ideas on how best to recommend books to students in my next blog post. For now, feel free to check out this resource. I would use the Book Interest and Reading Preferences forms in the first two weeks of school.

#3 Reading Workshop strengthens reading skills and allows ample time for intervention.

There has been tons and tons of research on the strong correlation between consistent, independent reading and literacy. Basically, the more students read, the better they get at it. The difficult part is getting students to read. As educators, our daily schedule is so busy. Fitting in multiple subjects a day is a true balancing act. However, we must schedule time for students to just read. The beauty of Reading Workshop is that most of the time is allotted for independent reading. Don’t feel like this is “wasted time”, however. While students are independently reading, you can pull groups of students for some targeted intervention and/or enrichment. Essentially, Reading Workshop can double as intervention time. It is ideal for small group instruction!

#4 Reading Workshop is perfect for differentiated instruction.

Reading Workshop lends itself to differentiation. Since students are all reading different books at different levels, the small group lessons will naturally be geared towards each student’s learning needs. This may sound overwhelming…Don’t worry. It’s not!

The key is to solidify ONE target objective for the daily lesson. For example, maybe one day you are focused on citing evidence to support a claim. You start off with a mini-lesson on how to make a claim by analyzing a character, using evidence from the text to support it. Then, when you release students to read independently, they will practice that same skill using characters from their own books.

There have been so many great books written on this subject. Check out my recommendations on this Pinterest board.

#5 Reading Workshop builds classroom community.

I often say that the classroom library is the heart of my classroom. What I mean is that a love of literature is evident in all we do. I have a whole corner of my classroom dedicated to my library. Equipped with special seats, a cozy rug, and tons of books, this space is truly loved by my students. In this space, there is an area where students can recommend books, create a classroom wish list, and show off what they are currently reading. I often find students browsing through the titles that other students are reading and then asking those students for book recommendations.

In addition, I have a bulletin board to celebrate student successes. Throughout the year, students earn points by reading books and completing small book assignments. Once they reach various thresholds, they earn reading awards. They then sign this board. Students absolutely LOVE this!!!

What I have noticed is that over time, reading becomes an integral part of our classroom culture. I often overhear students at recess and lunch discussing books they want to read next. These comments even come from “reluctant readers”! I have even had students start their own book clubs over the weekends or during the summer. It is truly inspiring.

My students bond over books. Reading is a big part of who we are as a class. Reading Workshop is to thank for this.

Other Blog Posts to Help You Implement Reading Workshop

5 Tips on How to Launch Reading Workshop SuccessfullyLearn how to level books, celebrate student successes, and recommend books to students.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Reading Workshop: Book Club DiscussionsFacilitate student-run book club meetings in 3 easy steps!

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10 Must-Teach Classroom Routines and Procedures to Start the Year Off Right

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:

  1. Unpack and begin Morning Work.
  2. Once your table is dismissed, check-in on the attendance board and submit homework.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.

#5 Transitions

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.

  1. Write down your homework.
  2. Pack up.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.

Other Blog Posts to Help You Implement Reading Workshop

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is Reading Workshop Effective?Discover the benefits of Reading Workshop and why you should implement it in your classroom.
Launch Reading Workshop in 5 Easy StepsLearn how to level books, celebrate student successes, and recommend books to students.

Setting Up Your Classroom: 10 Must Dos for Any Upper Grade Teacher

It’s that time of year again…pre-Back to School season! This is the time of year when teachers hit up Back to School sales, get out those dusty curriculum guides, and start mapping out their classrooms. Some of you reading this, flip flops on, iced tea in hand, laying out on a beach somewhere, are holding onto summer for dear life. I am sure you have seen this image from my all-time favorite show Friends:

I know this image has been used about a million times to demonstrate how teachers feel when they are trying to squeeze every last drop out of their summer break, but the truth is, this image says it all…I HAD to use it in this post. 😛

On the other hand, some of you out there have been back to school shopping, have your classroom mapped out, and may even have your first week of school planned. I would bet that some of you may even be attending back-to-school professional development meetings already. Regardless of where you are at, back to school is just around the corner, and it’s time to start thinking about what you want your classroom to look like this year.

For those of you that know me, I am definitely a planner (to say the least haha). So, I already drew out a map of my classroom and am in full classroom prep mode. Every summer, I take on a big classroom job. This summer, I tackled my classroom closet. Imagine a junk drawer but in closet form. You know the one that you close right away so nothing will fall out? Yeah…I conquered that this year. I bought a ton of clear, plastic drawer organizers and went to town with my label maker! Having everything organized and labeled brings me teacher joy, for sure. If you are anything like me, take a look at the pictures below. Your organized teacher heart will go pitter-pat.

That brings me to our topic today: must-dos for your classroom set-up. Although this post specifically targets upper-grade classrooms, most of the information here can be used in ANY grade level. There is so much to think about as we prepare to return to school. Your classroom set-up can make or break the overall management of the school year. I always recommend setting up your classroom with your routines and procedures in mind. Consider these questions:

  • What will my students do when entering the room in the morning? How will they clean up at the end of the day?
  • Where will students turn in papers? Store supplies? Sharpen pencils?
  • How will I keep track of when students leave the classroom for the restroom, nurse, office?
  • How will I communicate the schedule, small group tasks, and independent learning assignments?
  • If I have a small group table or intervention area (highly recommended for any grade level), where will I keep my teacher supplies for this differentiated instruction?
  • How do I want to arrange the student desks? In groups? Flexible seating?

There is SO much to consider when setting up your classroom. It is truly a home away from home for both you and your students. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to take the time to plan it out. I know, I know…you’re thinking, “What time?” With professional development, meetings, planning your year of curriculum and standards, connecting with your grade-level teams, and decorating your room, there does not seem to be a whole lot of extra time. However, trust me, a solid classroom set-up will make all the difference in the world.

An organized classroom is a happy classroom.

Lucky for you, I have created a list of MUST-DOS for you to consider when setting up your upper-grade classroom this school year.

#1 Classroom Layout

First, let’s chat about classroom layout. If you look up “classroom layout”, you will find tons of variations. Rows, pairs, small groups, flexible seating, a combination…the list goes on and on. What I would encourage you to do is reflect on your teaching style. I wholeheartedly believe this should be done FIRST. Every teacher is unique, and there are pros and cons to virtually any arrangement of desks.

I recommend listing your top three values as a teacher. What is most important to you in the classroom? My three are as follows: differentiated instruction, student ownership, and collaboration. These three values have influenced practically every aspect of my classroom setup. Allow me to elaborate…

  • Differentiated Instruction: This is a big one for me. I incorporate small group learning all day long. What I have noticed over the years is that small group learning becomes more scarce as kids get older. Upper grade teachers, I am talking to you…it is possible, I promise. Small group learning does not necessarily have to take the form of rotations, where you need four distinct areas for students. It can, but it does not have to. I won’t get too deep into how I facilitate this type of learning, but I will discuss this in a future post. What I will say is that I dedicate a section of my whiteboard to communicate what each group will be working on during their math block, for instance. That way, while you are working with a small group of students, the others can work independently without shouting the teacher dreaded, “I’m done! Now what?”
  • Student Ownership: Especially as an upper grade teacher, I really want to enstill some independence in my students. I want them to grow into organized, independent learners. For this reason, I setup my classroom so that students have access to pretty much anything we need to be successful in class. Ran out of pencils? Not problem! The pencil monitor will replenish. Time to deep clean? Our cleaning crew grabs some new wipes and distributes them. No more tissues? Our teacher’s assistant is already on it. The list goes on and on. My classroom layout reflects this value, as I make sure to arrange my furniture in such a way that the students can access these supplies. There is a specific teacher area, and the rest is in the student area. By allowing students access to our supplies, it frees me up to focus on helping students. In addition, I make sure that students have some choice as to where they work. Although I do not use flexible seating 100% of the time, I make sure that students have the opportunity to move around the classroom.
  • Collaboration: I use strategies such as “turn and talk” all the time. I also award team points. I want their to be a team mentality in my room. Therefore, I arrange my desks in groups. Each team has a leader who helps me with group supplies, collecting papers, and organizing student supplies. I keep this in mind when arranging student desks. I also want my students to work with a variety of partners. Sometimes, I want them to work with a student at the same academic level, while other times, I want them to work in mixed-level pairs. I pre-assign these and post them on the whiteboard. (I usually post student numbers rather than names.) Students have one partner (same level) and separate partner (mixed-level) for both ELA and math, 4 different partners total.

#2 Classroom Library

The heart of my classroom is my classroom library. This is my true pride and joy as a teacher. Last year was heartbreaking because all of my library books were in storage. I am SO THRILLED to be able to set up my classroom library this year and to once again be able to instill a love of reading in my class. When organizing your classroom library, consider the following:

  • How will you organize your books? By genre? By author? By reading level?
  • How will students check books in and out? This is very important. Make sure to have a solid system, so you avoid losing too many books, especially if you allow your students to take the books home to read.
  • Will you have reading awards? A point system?

Since reading is such an important part of my classroom, I spend quite a bit of time organizing my library. I include a cozy rug and moveable seats, so my students can have a quiet, relaxing place to read. It is truly the best part of my room. Students read for pleasure and earn points for completing books. We chat about the books and share our love of reading throughout the year. When I set up this area in my classroom, I make sure to include library cards for all of my books. This is how to check books in and out. My library monitors check that each student still their books once a week. This is when students “renew” their books. I also make sure that there is a celebration board, where students sign their names as they reach different reading milestones. (This has to do with the number of pages/books read, not their individual reading levels.)

Make sure to check out my upcoming Reading Workshop blog posts. The first one will post on September 4, 2021.

This resource has everything you need to get started. Learn how to level books, organize your classroom library, and celebrate students’ successes.

Click here to check it out.

#3 Classroom Jobs

As mentioned before, when you set up your classroom, you should keep each classroom job in mind. Even though not every job requires a dedicated area in the classroom, it is good idea to brainstorm your class jobs prior to finishing your classroom setup. Here are some jobs that I typically assign in my classroom, as well as suggested supplies needed for each:

Class JobDuties and ResponsibilitiesSupplies Needed
Teacher’s Assistantassists with every part of the classroom and checks in with other jobschecklist to mark various areas of the classroom (technology, library, group supplies, etc.)
Substitutechecks attendance board and takes over a job if another student is absentpost-its to write down the numbers of students who did not check-in (will also be verified by the teacher)
Morning Meeting Managerruns Morning Meeting
(Check out this digital Morning Meeting resource!)
an area to post the daily morning message and/or discussion topic
Team Leadersencourages group particpation, submits assignments/homework, and organizes all group suppliesorganizes group supplies and access to wipes to clean group areas every week
Pencil Monitorsharpens pencils and replenishes pencil supply when neededan area where extra pencils are stored, access to an electric pencil sharpener
Paper Monitorspasses out papers to students and/or fills weekly folders a container that holds papers to be distributed and/or student mailboxes
Librariansorganizes library and “renews” library booksa worksheet with all student names where they keep track of the books that are checked out / post-its or notebook to inform the teacher when a book is damaged
Technology Monitorcleans technology area and makes sure devices are plugged in at the end of every dayaccess to wipes and devices

NOTE: The above list is not an exhaustive one. In fact, I have a whole set of digital class jobs separate from the ones listed above. The important thing to remember is that classroom jobs should help encourage responsibility and ownership.

Click here to view our Digital Classroom Jobs. It includes a template for a classroom newspaper. Your students will LOVE being on the class newspaper team!

#4 Intervention Area

In addition to differentiated instruction throughout the day, I recommend having a set time to do targeted intervention. It is so important to set aside time to teach foundational skills and fill-in learning gaps for your intervention kiddos. I usually set up some teacher supplies here, as well. I include everything I would typically need to teach small group intervention (i.e. whiteboards, dry erase supplies, manipulatives, intervention curriculum, etc.). That way, even if you only have a 15-20 minutes block set aside for intervention, you can do so efficiently without a ton of setup beforehand.

Intervention does not only need to be for your struggling students. Consider also using this space to offer direct instruction to your gifted students. This would be an opportunity to offer a challenge to those students who often do not receive specialized instruction, unfortunately.

I also tend to use this area as another space for independent work or collaboration assignments. Students love being able to decide where they work. It definitely helps them stay focused! It is quite difficult for anyone to stay in one place over a long period of time.

#5 Small Group Learning

Although your intervention area could definitely be used during small group core instruction, I recommend having a separate area if possible. For me, I use my library for ELA mini-lessons and a small space in front of my whiteboard for math small group lessons. The reason I do this is that this allows me to teach more than five or six students at a time. For math, for instance, I typically teach my grade-level and gifted students during the same lesson. This usually allows me more time to spend with my struggling learners. If you are only able to teach six students at a time, which is typically how many will fit in the intervention area, it would take you way too long to get through an entire class of 30-36 students. I will go more in-depth about how I run my small groups during my math block in a later post.

For me, I set a rug in front of my whiteboard. This is where I meet my small groups during our math block and sometimes during ELA if I need to conference with a group. I simply call up a group, and they bring their clipboards up to the rug for a mini-lesson. They are also allowed to grab a chair or an ottoman from the library if they prefer not to sit on the floor. This area requires very little setup but makes all the difference in the world when differentiating core instruction.

#6 Routines and Procedures

Another thing to consider when setting up your classroom is the routines and procedures you will implement during the first couple of weeks of school. Make sure the room is set up with these important procedures in mind:

  • morning and afternoon routine – How will students check-in, complete morning work or bell ringers, and clean-up/pack-up at the end of the day?
  • leaving the room to go to the restroom, nurse, office, or another classroom for pull-out instruction
  • sharpening pencils – Have a spot for pre-sharpened pencils. Your pencil monitor can replenish this area daily. Don’t allow your students to use an electric sharpener during direct instruction. You’ll thank me later.
  • turning in assignments – Think about if you want to separate them into student groups or subjects.
  • no name papers – Have a designated container for these. It will save you from papers floating all over your beuatifully organized classroom!
  • graded papers and important information – Do you send home weekly folders or newsletters? If you are lucky enough to have volunteers prepping these for you, make sure they have a designated work space and filing system.
  • Academic/Behavior Support Providers – If you have a push-in teacher who provides specialized support for some of your students or a classroom aide, make sure to have a designated spot for them. That way, they can have access to the supplies needed when they arrive.

#7 Student Supplies

Your students will most likely keep their own supplies in their desks. If they are not able to store anything in their desks (perhaps you have collaboration tables rather than desks), I recommend grabbing some seat pockets for them. Trust me, it’s a life-saver! As far as group supplies, however, that will take a bit of planning. I usually have a place in my classroom where each group box is stored. Those boxes house group supplies, such as markers, crayons, extra pencils, post-its, glue, etc. The team leaders are responsible for taking those out when needed. They also clean and organize them at the end of every day. There is nothing I hate more than messy group supplies. LOL Having the students take care of these supplies not only teaches them responsibility, it keeps you from having to look at a messy classroom all year!

#8 Teacher Supplies

Make sure to have an office area for yourself. This could be as small as a teacher stand that rolls around the classroom or as elaborate as an entire section of the classroom. I have had both. I even went one year without a desk of any kind! (I do not recommend doing that though.) Whichever you have room for, dedicate a quiet spot where you can keep office supplies and grade papers. (Upper-grade teachers, you know how much time is spent grading! Make sure you have a dedicated spot in your classroom where you can crank out these grades after school.) I am fortunate enough to have a corner of my classroom just for teacher supplies. Check out the images to find out how I organized this area.

#9 Classroom Theme

Is there nothing more exciting than choosing your classroom theme? I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT!!! There are so many places to look for inspiration: TpT, Instagram, any teacher supply store… I like to change up my theme every so often, just to keep it fresh! What I recommend doing is think about the atmosphere you want to create in your room. Do you want your classroom to be bright, cheerful, and full of energy? If so, maybe choose something with neon, bright colors. Polka dots are always cute! Maybe you want a relaxing atmosphere where students can be at peace. If so, select a theme with calming colors. Perhaps pastels? Rustic and wooden designs always create a relaxing, homey classroom environment.

Whatever your selection is, have at it! Students truly appreciate the small details when it comes to decorating. If you choose a bumblebee design, for instance, perhaps your job board will be called “Worker Bees”. (This is my go-to theme for primary by the way. So adorable!)

Looking for some ready-made classroom decor? Check out the packs from Learning N Progress! Our graphic artist put together some of the cutest designs that are sure to bring smiles to your students’ faces.

Click here to check out our Bumblebee Classroom Decor Pack.

#10 Bulletin Boards

Last but not least…your bulletin boards. Now, I know there is a huge debate in the education world around bulletin boards. Should they be completely finished by the time school starts? Should the kids help create them? Should they be decorative, aid with instruction, or showcase student work? There are SO many decisions!!!

To me, there are three purposes that bulletin boards serve: decorations, teaching tools, or evidence of student learning. The beauty of it is you could have different boards serve different purposes or have all of them serve the same purpose. The choice is yours! Let’s explore each purpose, so that you can make a game plan for your bulletin boards this year.

Bulletin Boards as Decorations

This is perhaps the most common purpose for bulletin boards. Social media is full of posts showcasing the most beautiful boards you have ever seen. I often find myself browsing other teacher’s posts to see what they have come up with…bulletin boards are fun!!! They can be used to welcome students back to school, to celebrate being together (especially after the last year we had), or to simply bring a pop of color to a classroom. Even though I think bulletin boards are a great way to decorate your classroom, I would encourage you to also explore some of the other ideas listed below. As for me, I usually like to have different boards serving different purposes in my classroom. There is no right or wrong way to set up your boards, but sometimes it is nice to have a bit of variety, either from board to board or year to year.

Bulletin Boards as Teaching Tools

Bulletin boards, although decorative in nature and rightly so, can actually enhance student learning. Over the last several years, I have gravitated to use bulletin boards for more than just decorations. They make for excellent reference during lessons and can even be used for collaborative activities. Below is a list of ideas for how you can use your bulletin boards to help deliver instruction.

  • Display anchor charts and vocabulary (both academic and subject-specific). These can act as reference points for your students. I often refer to them myself while teaching.
  • If you use PBL projects in your classroom, consider dedicating a board to help track progress throughout the unit. For example, setup a KWL (Know, Wonder, Learn) chart. I have even put up laminated sheets and checklists for students to write on. Students would use it during PBL time to ask and answer each other’s questions.
  • If you incorporate Genius Hour, this board is a MUST MUST MUST! Use it as a place where students can post possible research questions and/or get student feedback on their projects. This gets a lot of buy-in from students. They love the collaborative nature of this type of board. It is a living and breathing board that changes throughout the school year. You could even have a class job be to monitor this board if you wish.

Bulletin Boards as Evidence of Learning

First off, proceed with caution on this one. This work will be on display for all to see. It should be something that the kids will be proud of, something that showcases each student’s unique talents. I would be cautious about posting assessment scores or anything graded, as this is private student information. I would also hesitate to post assignments where it is very clear that some students, particularly struggling students, are well below the abilities of their grade level peers. When showcasing student work, I would encourage you to display group projects or activities that do not directly relate to a student’s academic levels.

Having said all that, I am completely in favor of using bulletin boards as a way to showcase student learning and achievements. Students of ALL AGES love seeing their work on display! It is a great way to celebrate their accomplishments. Here are some ideas on how you can display student work in a positive way.

  • Have a board showcasing work that the students select. Have students decide which assignment/project they would like on display. The students could even be responsible for changing out their work from time to time. (That’s one less board for you to manage!)
  • If you want a board where work is showcased for every student in your class but do not want students to select different assignments, consider displaying artwork. I like to have a board where we display our seasonal art project. We change this artwork every couple months. I make sure that the project is something where every student can be successful while bringing his/her unique artistic choices.
  • Select which assignments to showcase. You can even make this an honor or award in your class. If a student’s work is selected, the whole class applauds or some kind of small award is given. Students really seem to like this, as it gives them a great sense of pride when their work is chosen. If you choose to go this route, be mindful not to select the same students each and every time. This is harder than you think because you will always have those “renaissance students” who seem to be talented at EVERYTHING. As a teacher it is always exciting to see what those students come up with next, but make sure that you give other students opportunities to have their work on display, as well. I like to keep a log of which students have had work on display. For struggling students, I usually check their work first. As soon as I find an assignment that is their best work, I make sure to select it that time. It is human nature to want to be recognized and to feel successful. For struggling students, those feelings are often far and few between unfortunately. Make sure to recognize their successes too. It makes a HUGE impact! You never know the difference a small recognition like that makes.

I am reminded of one student in particular. I was teaching fifth grade, and we were studying a poetry unit at the time. Each student wrote a poem using figurative language that would later be compiled into a class book. This one student, who had struggled in school since Kindergarden, had written the most beautiful poem. This was by far her best work. I read the poem out loud to the class, with her permission of course, and pointed out exactly what I appreciated about her word choice. The class gave her a round of applause, celebrating her success. During writing workshop later on, I overheard several students approach her, asking for her advice on their poems. She smiled from ear to ear. What I did not know at the time, however, was how much that meant to her. Her mom later told me that she could not stop talking about her poem that night. She even wanted to call her grandparents to read them what she had written! Her mom explained to me that she had never seen her daughter so excited about school. Her daughter was eager to go back to school the next day because she said and I quote, “I am a poet. I want to discuss poetry with the other students because that is what writers do.” That story still brings tears to my eyes.

Wow! There is so much to consider when setting up your classroom! Don’t feel overwhelmed though, just as with anything else in teaching, finding the perfect classroom setup is a process. Your layout will continue to grow and evolve year after year. I would love to hear about your classroom setup. Make sure to comment below to share ideas and ask questions! I love hearing ideas from our Learning N Progress community.

Now that your classroom is ready, it’s time to plan! Click here to read my blog post that will help you plan a fun, stress-free first week of school. This is a MUST-READ!!!

Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Ready for Back to School

10 Must-Teach Classroom Routines and Procedures to Start the Year Off RightIncludes Ideas for the
Second Week of School
5 Goals of Reading Workshop:
Is Reading Workshop Effective?
Instill a love of reading in your classroom. Trust me, this is a MUST-READ.
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