Saturday, September 14, 2013

Close-to-Finished-Classroom Reveal

I read a lot of teacher blogs and this time of year is filled with posts as teachers a heck of a lot more organized than me show off their freshly prepared classrooms and highlight all the nooks and crannies where they have hidden away teachable moments to be found later in the school year. Many are the types who have adopted the new teacher fad of going without a teacher desk (it robs the room of valuable instructional space), and Pinterest is filled with their free printable owl-themed filing cabinet labels or bulletin board characters.

Yeah. I'm not one of those ladies. I tried to do that whole no-teacher-desk thing one year. I just ended up commandeering a section of student desks instead. I teach middle school. We don't do bulletin boards and we definitely don't have room themes.

But I worked my butt off on my classroom this summer, so I'm gonna do a classroom reveal, dangit!

It's not quite finished yet. I'm waiting for payday so I can buy a few more organizational tools and possibly spring for some more laminating. But I figure my teacher friends back home would enjoy seeing my current classroom. If you found this post from a middle school classroom management google search, I've bolded the tricks I use that I think work best for middle school minds.

This is the view while standing at the door. I took these shots right before the parents arrived for Open House, so I had my introductory powerpoint up on the screen already.

This is the view while standing on the other side of the room at the student workstation. I use the workstation as a student hub of craft supplies and such.

 In my first year of teaching, students were constantly taking things from my desk because it was the only place in the room to store things like tape dispensers and staplers. It was harmless pilfering at first, but then all my writing utensils went missing, even the ones that were buried under the ubiquitous piles of papers on every middle school teacher's desk. So I have dedicated a corner of my classroom to the student workstation every year since. It has multiple staplers, tape dispensers, 3-hole punches, scissors, and all the other supplies students could need. That way they have no reason to go to my desk.

I always try to have a mirror somewhere in my classroom. It's a trick I learned in college. Ninety percent* of middle school bathroom visits are because the students want to check their hair or reapply lip gloss. So I put a mirror in my room and it really does reduce the amount of bathroom requests. Thanks to our school's strict policy on phones during the school day, the amount of checking-my-whatsapp bathroom visits has also diminished this school year.

*I just made up that percentage. It's probably closer to 95%, but the studies haven't concluded yet.

Also on the workstation are the WYWOs. These are an organizational tool I came up with while I was in Saudi Arabia. Student absence was a really big problem, and I was constantly being swamped by returning students at the beginning of class wanting to know what they had missed the day before. I was proud of them for being responsible and finding out about their make up work, but their timing was horrible. A middle school teacher has about a bajillion things to do in the first 5 minutes of each class period, and mentally replaying what we did yesterday in third period (which is usually different from what we did in first and fourth period thanks to the ever changing needs of middle school students) is not one of them.

So I created the WYWO (while you were out) form and I assigned the job of filling out that form to a different student each week whom I call The Go-to Guy/Gal. That way absent students don't come talk to me at the beginning of the day, and if they have any questions about the WYWO, they ask the go-to guy and I'm left to input attendance as well as put out the 50 other fires that start during hectic transition times.

These are the student desks. They're in groups of 6 kids (though they are rarely completely full) and I call them "pods." Each pod has a pod pack, a gold star board, 2 trash cans, and a parking lot. See my ugly permanent bulletin board display on the right? I told you. Middle School teachers don't do bulletin boards.

I don't have a close up of the pod packs (they're the soup cans attached to the wall in the picture above), but they along with the trashcans are LIFE SAVERS!! Another problem I had in my first year of teaching was the vagabonds. The kids who found every possible reason to wander even though I tried my hardest to work physical movement into all my lesson plans. They needed a pencil sharpener, they needed to borrow a pencil from a friend directly across the room, they needed to get a tissue, they needed to throw away their snotty tissue. So I eliminated the wandering by putting all those things at their desks. The pod packs have pencils. I use tiny golf pencils with crappy erasers; the kids HATE them, but beggars can't be choosers. The pod packs have sharpeners, a ruler (a new addition in the straight-line obsessed Middle East), erasers, and a pack of tissues. There are two of these ikea trash cans attached to each pod so the water-cooler-meeting style rendez-vous at the trashcan is a thing of the past.

Throughout high school and college I had jobs that were centered around customer service. I was expected to go out of my way to make sure my customers didn't lift a finger unless they had to. My most used phrase was "I can do that for you."

When I started teaching, it was hard to turn that impulse off and I spent my first year running around like a mad woman! "Don't get up! I'll hand out ALL of these graded homework assignments while ALL of you watch me." My instinct was to be a servant and my students were bored and antsy as a result. There was no sense of community in my room, just panic as I tried to spin all the plates.

So ever since my second year I've had classroom jobs whenever possible. Back in Nashville I had about 8 different jobs and my students LOVED chipping in! I don't know why I didn't realize that students like to feel useful and needed, especially when in a high poverty population. I was finally able to have some one-on-one time with students because my Operator could answer the classroom phone for me. My Manager knew where to locate the day's handouts and could distribute them quickly while I had a disciplinary conference with a student in the hall. It was GREAT!

Since moving to the Middle East I've decreased the number of classroom jobs I use. My current students are used to being waited on by adults and are often opposed to being assigned a job in the classroom other than to sit and absorb their surroundings. They don't get to opt out of performing their duties, but I have eliminated jobs like the Trash Collector and Street Sweepers that I had in Nashville.

I have put job descriptions above the job assignments because terms like "manager" don't seem to be a part of my Middle Eastern students' regular vernacular. When I first introduced the job here I said, "What do you think a manager should do?" and I was met with total silence. "Ok...Bobby*, what does a restaurant manager do?" ....nothing. They had no idea!! They either didn't know that was a job in the real world or they were playing stupid!

So now I can just point to the job descriptions when a student asks "I'm this week's Gopher. What does that job do?"

*names have been changed to protect the naive.

This is the most unfinished part of my classroom. I snagged some of the old teacher mailboxes from the office when they were changed out last school year and they make an awesome storage space! I just need to get some plastic bins so all my craft supplies aren't just hanging out for all the world to see.

Those green and white beauties on top of the storage are student mailboxes that I MADE! I got an idea from Pinterest, but didn't have pizza boxes or USPS shipping boxes like the inspiration sites suggest. So I jimmy-rigged them using the tops of the cardboard boxes our reams of copy paper come in! They aren't all that pretty to look at but I pretty darn proud of them! I have the class mailman retrieve the graded work from the outboxes (the silver trays on top) and deliver the "mail" so I don't have to run around and waste class time passing back graded papers--a task that I put off so much in my first year of teaching that it often took a whole class period to purge all the stacks of graded work from my desk. Since I teach about 120 students this year, the "addresses" are the kids' seat assignments. Each seat has a pod letter (A pod, B pod, etc) and a number. They write their assignment in the top left corner of all their work and the mailman places it in the corresponding mailbox.

The messy box of tissue paper is a Next Activity option for the kids. Next Activities are short assignments the kids can work on if they finish classwork before we're ready to move on with the rest of the lesson and I need to assist other students. Instead of just talking and distracting their classmates, the kids have 4-5 rotating choices of activities they can do instead. The stained glass window that has gotten started behind the mailboxes is one of them. I modified an idea from (surprise) Pinterest and it's serving two purposes. The kids are LOVING that they get to glue paper to the window and not get in trouble, and the fly-by wavers and hand signalers that were constantly distracting my class last year are being blocked from view! I love all the natural light the windows let in, but they provided the perfect frame for kids "going to the bathroom" who wanted to flag their friends down to let them know it was time for their 11:25 appointment in the john.

Other next activities I use are coloring pages, reading a book (which my students this year actually do without my having to force it!), create a crossword puzzle using the unit's current vocabulary, play with (censored) magnetic poetry, test their trivia knowledge using Brain Quests, and puzzle packs with mazes and word searches.

One of the things I started new this year is my reward system. I've struggled with a reward system that I could maintain for years! I was raised in a household where you weren't rewarded for doing the things you were supposed to do, so it's not natural for me to shower my students with stickers or treats when they sit in their seats and do their work. But I modified found this idea found on Pinterest and it is working like magic on my sixth grade students.

Throughout the class period I divvy out "gold stars" to the pods. I tried to find a feasible way to use actual gold stars, but it just didn't work out. So I have attached a small dry erase board next to each pod and when a student or the whole pod is behaving exceptionally well, I make sure to call out the desired behavior as I add a tally to their gold star board (or I have a student do it if I'm across the room). The pod with the most gold stars at the end of the class period gets to choose a reward to add a letter to on our reward board. They're hard to see in the photo above but the kids have the choice of brownies, class snacks, gum in class, or a lunch party. We add one letter each day and the reward that gets filled up first is what the whole class gets.

I was afraid the kids would find the whole gold star thing cheesy and lame, but they have really latched on to it. I'm not sure if it would work as well in a 7th or 8th grade class, but as long as I'm teaching 6th grade, this will be the reward system for me.

There are lots of other areas in my classroom I would like to show you, but I think I've rambled on enough for one day. My apologies to non-teacher readers who find all of this mundane and elementary. Thank you for allowing me one post where I get to nerd out on all things teacher-y. If you're a teacher and you have questions about anything you see if the photos, please let a comment and I'll get back to you.

Vicariously yours,


  1. Amber, your hard work has paid off! Looks great! One of these days, I'll actually come see your room in person.

  2. I was catching up on posts from you while I dried my hair this morning. :) I LOVE the color in idea for the rewards. I'll have to keep that in mind next year...or next semester. Or something. :)