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.

5 First Week of School Activities Your Upper Graders Will Love

Upper elementary teachers, you may be asking any one of the following questions: What do I teach the first week of school? What should I do on the first day of school? How can I welcome students to my classroom while teaching some essential classroom routines? If you find yourself pondering these questions or if you are currently staring at your blank planning book (trust me, I’ve been there), then this blog post is for you!

It’s just about that time of year again… back-to-school season! This time of year always brings a sense of hope, anticipation, and unfortunately some stress. In this blog post, I will share some ideas on how to have a fun-filled first week of school.

PLUS, there is a freebie to help you get started.

I LOVE the start of the school year. It is a time when both teachers and students can simply enjoy being together. I cannot wait to meet my classroom family this year!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE LOVE LOVE summer. Even as I write this, I am feeling rejuvenated and reinvigorated…slippers, feet up, tea, pup alongside me…life is good. However, a part of me is still excited about that first day of school. The smell of freshly sharpened pencils, the aroma of books that have not been read in a while (or even better, brand-new books you picked up over the summer), and the sight of an organized classroom just waiting for students to arrive…so exciting!!! Now, you may have guessed by now that I am that teacher, the teacher that enjoys summer by reading teaching blogs (or by writing them :P), researching best practices and teaching tips, and creating a classroom wishlist for the upcoming school year. However, I want to acknowledge the other type of teacher, the teacher that truly enjoys summer and unplugs from the hustle and bustle of teaching for an entire two months. Good for you! (I am trying to find that balance. It is a work in progress for sure.) Regardless of the category you fall into, regardless of if you are reading this the day it was posted or as you are on your way to school for your first day back, my hope is that you will find some easy-to-implement ideas to help you and your new classroom family truly enjoy your first week together.

Whether you are a first-year teacher or have been teaching for years and years, there is one question that all of us have on our minds right around now…

What do you do the first week of school?

I would actually extend this question to include the first TWO weeks of school. I have taught both primary and upper grades, and in every grade, I do not start the curriculum until the third week of school. Upper grade and middle grade teachers, in particular, seem to have some concerns with this idea. I hear you! I am you! Trust me, if you have never waited this long to start your curriculum, I know what you’re thinking…

  • Without my curriculum, how will I know what to teach? Won’t that be wasted instructional minutes?
  • I teach all of the subjects. Without curriculum, I am going to have to spend hours and hours planning and prepping those first two weeks.
  • I am a (insert grade level here) teacher. There are WAY TOO MANY standards that I need to cover. I will not be able to teach them by the end of the year if I give up any instructional time.

First of all, I hear your concerns. For several years, I have spent the first two weeks of school without using the curriculum, and even now, the above thoughts run through my head almost every school year. That brings me to why I wrote this blog post. I want to share what I have learned over the years in terms of how to make the first couple of weeks of school fun, engaging, and stress-free. PLUS, if done right, you will set up your kiddos for success for the remainder of the year. You will find that your classroom runs smoother, your kids are regularly engaged and demonstrating on-task behavior, and your spending less time pulling your hair out.

Read on, and you too will go through this transformation.

Activity #1: Student Bingo

This is not your traditional BINGO game. Rather than calling numbers or words and having your students try to get five in a row, Student Bingo encourages discussions and creates a safe environment for your students to get to know each other. Here is how it works: each student receives a Bingo sheet with discussion topics in each box. For example, “Find a student who has the same favorite subject as you.” Once the student finds someone who likes the same subject, s/he writes that person’s name down. The first student to get five in a row or fill-in the Bingo sheet wins. (You could also play for first or second place if you wish.) These ready-made Student Bingo sheets will save you some time.

Now for the why…Why is Student Bingo perfect for the first day of school? The beginning of the year, although exciting, also brings with it some first day of school jitters. This is true for teachers AND students, but it is especially true for certain groups of students…new students, shy students, students who were virtual in 2020, students with anxiety, the list goes on and on. The beauty of planning an activity like Student Bingo is that it provides an opportunity for students to talk to other students without having to think of what to say. Many students that are shy or nervous about speaking to their peers are worried about their thoughts/comments being judged. With Student Bingo, they are simply reading from a worksheet. They are getting to know their peers without having to initiate the conversation. Then, after playing the game, they now have things to talk about at recess or lunch. The teacher is essentially providing an opportunity where students can learn how much they have in common with each other. Trust me, this game is a MUST-DO for the first day of school.

Activity #2: The Meme Game

For those of you who have been using the Fun Friday Nearpod games that were posted last year…the wait is over!!! If you have not had the chance to check out our most popular Fun Friday games, make sure to check out this Nearpod resource or all-inclusive year-long bundle. I have created several ice breaker games and Fun Friday activities, but BY FAR, our most popular game amongst upper-grade students is the Meme Game. Due to popular demand, we now have a Nearpod resource entirely dedicated to the Meme Game. It includes slides for EVERY MONTH OF THE YEAR. Your students are sure to love it!!! First, let’s learn how to play…

In this digital activity, students complete a meme by either adding their own text or finding a funny picture. This can be played either in person using student devices (i.e. Chromebooks) or during virtual instruction. There are two ways to play this game: You can give the text and ask students to post a picture OR you post a picture and ask students to write text to go with it. Both ways are super fun and super hilarious! PLUS, on Nearpod, the teacher is able to approve posts in real-time, so you will be able to make sure all posts are school-appropriate. Want to learn more about how this game works? Click here to watch last year’s webinar recording.

Activity #3: Classroom Walk-Through

About halfway through week one, I start to slowly start preparing my students for how the classroom will run the rest of the school year. Notice, I still have not mentioned academic goals. That will come later. I simply start to plan activities that address our classroom routines and procedures.

Now, in order to get the most bang for our buck, we have to find ways to sneak in some routines and procedures with our first week of school activities. I am not a huge advocate of going over classroom rules on day 1. It is not that I don’t understand the NEED for rules. It is just that I have found there is way more buy-in if students feel they have a say in their classroom environment. So, rather than dive into a classroom rule list or classroom constitution, how about do a classroom walk-through? For me, I use a strategy called “Notice and Wonder” for pretty much every subject during the school year. I actually expand on this popular strategy by adding “Infer” after “Wonder”. On the first day of school, I incorporate a “Notice, Wonder, Infer” chart with a classroom walk-through. Allow me to explain…

There is something very magical about the first day of school. When students walk in, they are walking into a home away from home. They want to feel welcomed, wanted, and excited. Even though your bulletin boards may be a work in progress and the desks are empty, I whole-heartedly believe the classroom should be colorful, decorated, and give a sneak peek into what your kids will learn that year. To me, your students’ first look into their classroom should be like a movie preview. It should ignite excitement and curiosity. Let’s hone in and take advantage of their natural curiosity! After doing an initial ice breaker (see activity #1) and a fun game (see activity #2), I usually schedule a classroom walk-through. (This can also be done first thing on day one. Either way works great!) I give each student a Notice/Wonder/Infer table and ask them to walk around the room jotting down bullet points. What do they notice in the room? What initially caught their attention when first walking into the room? What questions do they have about what they see? What inferences can they make about what we will be learning? After briefly going through each column, I turn on some timed classical music and allow them to explore the room at their leisure, with clipboards, and worksheets in hand.

NOTE: This is also a great opportunity to practice using music in your classroom. I won’t go too deeply into this topic, as it could almost be a separate post entirely, but I recommend having a timed playlist of classical music that will signal your students to quietly walk around the room. You could use this same playlist for gallery walks and brainstorming activities.


Activity #4: All About Me

Ahhh…a first week of school classic. Even though this activity has been a bit overdone (in my opinion), I cannot write a post about first week of school activities without including this one! I totally get the value of these activities…Students can share themselves with their teacher and peers, thus reinforcing the idea that they are important. Plus, it is a great way for you as their teacher to learn about them as individuals.

If you are anything like me, you totally understand the value of these activities, but at the same time, you would like to do something different. This is especially true for you upper grade teachers out there. By the time students have entered your classroom, they have had several first days of school, and thus, have completed several “All About Me” worksheets. I am not by any means discouraging you from using these worksheets. They are a strong way to start the school year. However, I wanted to share a few ideas on how you can put a twist on this classic back to school activity:

  • Student Interviews – Pair students off and give them interview questions. Then, have each student fill out an “All About _____” worksheet. Thet way, they are creating a worksheet about their partners.
  • Flipgrid Introductions – Have your students record a quick video introduction on Flipgrid. I highly recommend giving them a list of questions to answer (name, siblings, how long they have been at your school, favorite subject/sports/hobby/food/movie/game, etc.) Then, the rest of the class can watch the recordings. You could even have them jot down notes if you want them to practice a particular way of note-taking. Tell them they can use these notes for a game later (see activity #5). Look! You are already prepping them for the rest of the school year. You can read more sneaky ways to incorporate classroom procedures in my upcoming Classroom Routines and Procedures post, which will go live 8/21/21.
  • Student Guess Who – A digital version of this game is also included in the Nearpod Fun Friday games mentioned earlier. Basically, students draw a picture of themselves and then draw clues about themselves. You can either choose one randomly and guess who it is as a class or post them to the wall and have students guess on their secret worksheets. I, personally think this game is ideal for Nearpod even if teaching in person. Watch this video to learn more about this game.
  • Time Capsule – Ask students to create a time capsule that best represents them. Ask them to include pictures of their favorite food/subject/sport, etc. These capsules can be elaborate or as simple as a shoe box or paper bag. The point of this activity to have students share about themselves in a more hands-on way. EXTENSION: Save these capsules and re-open them at the end of the year to see if any of their favorite things have changed. You would be surprised how much can change in one school year!

Activity #5: How Well Do You Know…?

This game is a great way to end the first week of school. I recommend playing after students have had some time to get to know each other. For me, I usually play Student Bingo on the first day of school, assign Flipgrid the second or third day, and then play this game on day 4.

Once students have introduced themselves, I have them jot down a fact about each student. I then use those facts to write questions about the students. This can be played on a variety of platforms, but I have found Nearpod to be most engaging. I use Time to Climb on Nearpod. For those of you who have not used Nearpod before, it is an interactive, digital resource where students can draw, type, and even record their own voices. One of the interactive features is a game called Time to Climb. In this game, students race up a mountain by answering questions, in this case, questions about each other. The best part? They will be able to see their peers racing right alongside them! This game can be played in the classroom simultaneously, individually, or during live, virtual meetings. Want to help students get to know YOU, THEIR TEACHER? No problem! Simply write questions about yourself. Students of all ages love getting to know their teacher.

Watch this Teacher Tidbit to learn how to create your own Time to Climb game OR check out these pre-made Nearpod games. (Please be aware that the resource says it is best for grades 1-4, but honestly, my sixth graders LOVED them last year!)

Well there you have it: a fun, no-stress first week of school. As mentioned before, I feel strongly about holding off on curriculum until the third week of school. So, now you may be wondering…

What do you do the second week of school?

Don’t worry, I am not going to leave you in the dust. Check out the blog posts linked below for even more ideas!

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

Setting Up Your Classroom: 10 Must-Dos for Any Upper-Grade Teacher Who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned classroom reveal?!
10 must-teach classroom routines and procedures to start the year off right Includes 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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Differentiated Phonics Instruction – Virtual Learning Edition

Last spring, when schools closed, I didn’t know what to think. I was in shock to be honest. When has this ever happened? I had never heard of it. My thoughts began to race…Of course, I understood that health and safety are top priority, but I began to think about my students and the progress they had made. Would that progress be lost? How can I possibly teach struggling learners in an online setting?

As an intervention specialist, I was in a bit of a predicament. My students had been struggling during in-person instruction. That is why they were referred to me. If online learning was proving to be a struggle for students who had not previously been struggling, what was to become of my kiddos? I knew I had to act quickly. I could not risk my students losing the tremendous progress we had made over the course of the school year. I wanted them to feel successful even though the odds were stacked against them. I wanted them to know that I cared, that I still believed in them, but most importantly, I wanted them to believe in themselves.

In order to continue to make progress, I needed to hear them read and help them learn the remaining phonics skills we had yet to cover. Then, it hit me…(cue the music)…


There are a ton of online resources, but this one is an absolute must!

This is an online platform that I had used for years in the classroom, but now I NEEDED it! I needed a way to see my students’ decoding skills in real time during our live virtual lessons. I then created my first set of lessons, using the Draw It activities as a means of students using the skills and strategies we had learned in class: breaking apart words or chunking, highlighting the target phonics skill, and so many more!

I had never taught Nearpod during an online lesson before, but I figured that it should work. There was only one way to find out! I sent out my first Zoom link to parents, along with instructions on how to bookmark Nearpod. (I had to reassure parents A LOT. I asked them to trust me that this process would work, but the truth is I had never done this myself.) My first lesson came, and by the end of it, my students were BEGGING me for another lesson. I am totally serious. They were so excited to play Time to Climb again and work to earn “Monster Points”. (If you read last month’s blog post, you know exactly what I am talking about.)

Well, as you can imagine, I then became a Nearpod lesson-creating machine. I made a Nearpod lesson for EVERY phonics skill I taught. CVC Words through Diphthongs, I have a lesson for them all!!!

I had my online phonics program down to a system:

Day 1

Introduce Phonics Skill – Use a gesture to represent the sound

Highlight the new skill in a single-syllable word and practice reading the words out loud, sometimes using the recoding feature on Nearpod

Matching Activity – Students independently read single-syllable words with the target skill and match the words with their pictures

Time to Climb with single-syllable words

Day 2

Review Phonics Skill – Review gesture

Practice chunking – Highlight the new sound in two-syllable words and practice sounding those words

Students write on their screen to practice chunking multi-syllable words.

Matching Activity – Students independently read two-syllable words with target phonics skill and them to their pictures

Phonics Fluency Passage – Students highlight words with the target skill and read the passage out loud three times

Comprehension Questions

Time to Climb – Students choose the best sentence with two-syllable words to match the picture

Day 3

Review Day / Fluency Practice Day – Review the same sound if needed OR review all sounds covered so far

That brings me to my blog and TpT store. I would love to be able to share these lessons with you and help you navigate an online phonics program. Trust me, this works!

I have created differentiated Nearpod lessons and supplemental worksheets to go right along with them. Grab the bundle or purchase the individual Nearpod lessons. Save your time and deliver targeted phonics instruction in your literacy centers as independent work or via Zoom during distance learning.

Click here to view the All-In-One MEGA Bundle. From there, you can click on individual lessons or worksheet packets if you wish to purchase them separately.

Virtual Classroom Rewards and Incentives

Over the summer, I have spent numerous hours collaborating and brainstorming with teachers from across the globe. In preparation of this coming school year amid the global pandemic, we discussed the biggest challenges of distance learning. One common challenge arose from these virtual conversations:


How can we motivate students and get them to attend regularly when we are not in the same room as them?!

Trust me…I get it! We have zero control over a student’s learning environment and almost no control over their daily schedule! We, as teachers, can encourage them to come to our virtual lessons on time, but if a student does not log in, there is very little we can do. This, as a teacher is heartbreaking! How can I ensure my students are receiving the best possible education if I cannot get them to show up?

I have come up with a solid virtual management plan that is kid-tested and teacher-approved! This plan can work for Kinders all the way up to middle schoolers. (Sorry high school teachers! I have never taught past middle school. Props to you though for teaching teenagers though.) Read on and learn how to use Class Dojo and create your own virtual store. It is worth the time! Trust me…this works!!!

First off, let me answer the question that EVERY one of my students was dying to know as soon as they found out about our Virtual Class Store:

How do I earn points?! How do I get invited to shop at our class store?!

FYI – This came from a sixth grader, so you know the store must be pretty exciting!

You can give out points for anything your heart desires, but my go-to reasons are for being “on time and ready” for lessons, completing all classwork and homework, and showing kindness to our class/parents/teachers. I added the latter this school year. I am trying to help parents out by encouraging my students to find a way to help out at home, whether helping a sibling log-in to a class meeting or helping a parent by cleaning up around the house. I encourage you to think outside the box when awarding these points.

And now…what we’ve all been waiting for…


I am all for intrinsic rewards, but sometimes a teacher just needs some good old fashioned prizes! Treasure boxes are fun, but I definitely like to reward my students with privileges rather than just toys they will most likely lose in a minute or two. Now that many of us are in a virtual learning environment, this gives up the opportunity to put our creative thinking teacher hats on and brainstorm some unique student prizes.

One of my favorite virtual prizes is a guest speaker ticket. I ask for volunteers to teach a virtual enrichment class: art, story time, coding, science, cooking, etc. (If you are short on volunteers, you can teach it yourself.) Just make it a fun lesson or activity that the students don’t usually get during academic learning time. If they earn enough points, they will get an invite link to a virtual meeting where they will learn to be an artist, chef, writer, etc. Kids LOVE this!!! I usually offer these enrichment opportunities at the end of the month. I spend the rest of the month building up to it! For example, if I have a guest artist teaching an art lesson, I will assign articles about various careers in the art world throughout the month. We will even brainstorm questions for the artist. SO FUN!!!

Another easy prize is virtual backgrounds. These make learning fun and festive. Students can use these backgrounds during live virtual meetings. Make them seasonal and lay them out in a Google Slides where students can “shop”.

These images are from my virtual class store. Students fill out an order form and state the image they would like to purchase. I have a year’s worth of seasonal backgrounds available. Click here to check them out.

All of these ideas AND MORE are described in my FREE Virtual Management System. Yes, you read that right…it’s FREE!!! Click here to download!

Until next time…may your class be managed, and your students be merry! Thanks for reading!!!

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Welcome to the Learning N Progress Blog!!!

Welcome fellow educators!!! First, I just want to say how thrilled I am to be in your company. I feel truly blessed to be surrounded by so much talent and inspiration. For my first blog post, I’d like to share a bit about my vision for this forum. Let me tell you a little about my journey and what has led me to this moment…

This may sound cliche, but I have ALWAYS wanted to be a teacher. I was the kid who lined up her stuffed animals and practiced teaching a lesson. Then, I reflected and re-taught the same lesson to make it better. Yes! I was THAT kid. I started working as a tutor as soon as I turned 16. I officially accepted my job on my 16th birthday. I was the very definition of an “eager beaver”. What I didn’t realize was how truly challenging and rewarding this profession would be…

Throughout college, I worked at a school district and ran various extracurricular programs for kids in elementary school. I am SO grateful for these opportunities, as I learned a ton about managing a group of kids. (Taking a group of 30 energetic 5 year-olds to an amusement park teachers you A LOT.) Kinder teachers, hats off to you! Unfortunately, the economy crashed as soon as I was ready to graduate. Districts in my area were not even accepting subs, let alone accepting applications for teaching positions.

In short, teaching seemed like a pipe dream.

I am not going to lie…Sometimes, I felt like giving up. What got me through it was my love for education. That seems corny, I know. But, when I say I LOVE teaching, I really mean it! I actually ended up going back to school to earn a culinary degree (more on that in a later post 😜). That additional degree allowed me to work a full-time job at night while keeping my part-time teaching job during the day. I was not ready to give up on teaching. If I could just get my foot in the door somewhere…

Finally, it happened…a long-term sub position!!!

Now, this wasn’t your run of the mill long-term position. Due to unexpected circumstances, the room had not been set up. There were no established routines and procedures. There was no end date. The position was unknown. I had been given “those kids”. We have all heard THAT before. This was my first position, and I had been thrown into a very challenging situation. Long story short, I learned a VERY important lesson that first year…

I LOVE “those kids”.

This is when I really discovered what it meant to believe EVERY child can succeed.

That first month, I’m not going to lie, it was rough. I would spend all weekend planning the “perfect” lessons and then realize in the moment that I had to adjust. My kids weren’t ready for those lessons. They needed support…emotional, behavioral, academic…I had my work cut out for me. At the end of the day, I would quickly gather my stack of papers to grade and rush off to my second job at the restaurant. I remember grading papers in the back during my dinner breaks…those were the days…

There was one moment that changed everything for me…I was at a loss with this class, so I decided to pause the plans and lead a discussion with my students in regards to how they were feeling about school. One student in particular sticks out. He responded that he actually was starting to feel better about school because he realized that all he needed to do was figure out what he was good at…That’s it!!!

Every child is good at something. It is our job to help them find that strength and use it to their advantage.

What I realized in that moment was that I had to differentiate my instruction. I started small. Each student took out a piece of paper and brainstormed their own strengths. Then, we did a share out. That moment completely changed the rest of the school year. My students started to realize they were good at something. They were capable. This is now an exercise I do with my class at the beginning of each school year. This 9 year-old changed the trajectory of my career. I decided to dedicate myself to learning how to effectively differentiate my instruction and how to use my students’ strengths to manage a classroom.

Over the next several years, I attended every workshop, read every book I could get my hands on, and collaborated with as many fellow educators as possible. I even started to present on differentiating instruction for a couple of educational companies. I even became the intervention lead at my school, organizing both intervention and enrichment for students in grades K-6.

That brings me here…to this moment.

I would like to share what I have learned with you.

I want to create a place where passionate, inspirational teachers like you go to learn and share ideas about how we as educators can strive to reach EVERY student…because somewhere “those kids” are counting on us. Let’s reach them…together.

Differentiation Made Easy…

back to school classroom community Classroom Management Classroom Setup Differentiated Instruction Distance Learning ELA first week of school Literacy Literacy Centers Nearpod Phonics Reading Reading Workshop SEL Student Rewards

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