Sunday, October 22, 2017

Managing the Halloween Candy Problem

One problem I always have around Halloween (and other major holidays involving candy) is students sneaking candy into the classroom. Since I have a science classroom, students know eating food and candy in class is a safety concern, especially on lab days. Not only that, but they drive me crazy with the sticky tables and wrappers they leave behind. It’s an annoying battle I waged every year until I found a solution.

Have you ever heard of the saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”? In a way that’s what I do. (Although I make sure not to plan any labs on or near Halloween so there aren’t any safety concerns.) My students are allowed to bring candy to class on and around Halloween IF they give me a piece of their candy before class. Once class begins they aren’t allowed to share their candy with anyone else. This reduces the off-task behavior associated with students begging each other for candy and under-the-table candy passes. I let students know that if I find any candy messes or catch candy sharing the candy privileges are off. The students take care of their candy sharing before learning time and when it comes to the wrappers and messes they cleanup after each other.

With this little trick, the students are happy they get their candy and I’m happy I don’t have to monitor the students for something so silly. My classroom remains a positive learning environment where students want to be. I’m always amazed at how well this works. It reduces my stress, gets me some nice candy to snack on, and builds up my student reward candy stash.

Another way I manage the holiday candy problem is to include it in a lesson. Around Halloween I always teach physical science to my seventh graders. In that unit we learn about heterogeneous and homogeneous mixtures. Learning about mixtures is the perfect time to incorporate candy into a lesson, so I made a candy sorting activity. Students sort various candy into piles of heterogeneous mixtures and homogeneous mixtures. They discuss what makes a candy heterogeneous or homogeneous, and they debate when a candy is particularly difficult to classify. Using candy as part of the lesson increases their interest and understanding of mixtures. Depending on the timing and layout of my unit, I use the candy mixtures activity as an introduction, practice, or review of the two types of mixtures.

One more easy way I’ve included candy as part of a lesson is to teach qualitative and quantitative observations. Each student gets one piece of candy. They then use all of their senses to write as many observations as possible and classify their observations as qualitative or quantitative.

Happy Halloween! I hope these tricks help you manage your students’ treats.

If you’re interested in the Mixtures Activity, take a look below. It comes with many ideas of how to use it successfully in your classroom and has both a Halloween version and a version you can use all year long.

Heterogeneous and Homogeneous Mixtures Candy Activity

Saturday, May 6, 2017

How to Make and Use a Question Ring Booklet: A Fun Get to Know You Tool

During sixth grade my favorite teacher would periodically invite a student to sit on the teacher’s stool at the front of the room for a short interview. Peering up from her clipboard of interview questions, she would ask something silly, like “What brand of toothpaste do you use?” or “Did you have any dreams last night?” The class looked forward to the interviews, which for us never happened often enough. Looking back now, I realized my teacher did these interviews as a way for everyone to get to know each other, build and maintain a positive classroom environment, and fill the occasional leftover minutes of class time. (You can read more about that teacher’s fun strategies here.)

How can I use this activity in my classroom?

Recalling how much my classmates and I loved those interviews, I was inspired to do something similar in my own classroom. Instead of a clipboard with questions, I created a little booklet using a spiral notebook of index cards. On each page, I wrote a random question and a number. More and more questions were added every year. I use the booklet in two ways.

The first way is a simple get to know each other activity for the beginning of the school year. Each student answers one question.  The questions and answers create a lot of laughs and quickly get everyone comfortable with their weird teacher and new classmates. 

The second way can be used throughout the year to fill the minute or two of extra time at the end of some class periods. For this method, I get out the booklet of questions and ask my students to raise their hands if they want to participate. Usually, almost all hands go up. (I wish I could get that kind of participation with content related questions...) The student I call on tells me a number between 1 and 120, which is the number of questions I currently have in my book. Then I read the corresponding question from the book. After we listen to the student’s answer, I call on to a different student. Sometimes multiple students answer the same question, other times I have them choose a different number.

What types of questions should I ask?

I ask a variety of questions in my book. Some questions are silly and others are more serious or basic. The students like the randomness and not knowing just what kind of question they are going to be asked. I avoid questions that might cause a student to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. I also allow students to skip a question if they prefer.

When making your own question book, you can ask these types of questions:
An example card from my ring booklet
  • Favorites: What’s your favorite kind of candy? What’s your favorite movie genre?
  • Would you rather: Would you rather be able to talk to animals or time travel? Would you rather eat a stick of butter or drink a glass of ketchup?
  • Have you ever: Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean? Have you ever accidentally walked into a wall?
  • Opinion: Should students get paid for good grades? When should kids get their own cellphone?
  • Random: What would you do if your lovely grandmother made you a special meal and it tasted terrible? What musical instrument do you wish you could play?

How can I make my own booklet?

If you want to try this in your own classroom, there are a few ways you can make your own.

  • Use a clipboard with questions: This is the easiest, quickest, and least expensive option. You can type the questions on the computer and save the document. It’s easy to add questions throughout the year. One drawback is it has the highest chance of getting lost or beat up with repeated use so you might need to reprint occasionally. Plus, it just isn’t as fun.
  • Make a booklet using spiral bound index cards: It’s a bit more expensive and time-consuming, but it looks nice and holds up well. You will have to write the questions by hand unless you want to print them out and glue them. One drawback is the limited space. If you keep adding questions, eventually you’ll run out of room in your spiral book.
  • Hole punched index cards, cardstock, or laminated paper held together with a metal book ring or string: This is definitely the most time-consuming option but also the most versatile. You can write the questions by hand or type them with a computer. You can customize it with colored paper and fonts. You can rearrange, remove, and add as many questions as you’d like. For some teachers, this might be a fun summer project.

I like the idea, but I don’t have the time to write all of my own questions. Where can I get a premade set of questions?

In my Teachers Pay Teachers store you can make your own ring booklet with all 120 question cards I use in my own classroom. Take a look at it here.

 Big Pack Ring Booklet

Asking those silly questions and hearing my students’ answers and laughter is something I look forward to. I don't bring out the booklet too often, maybe once every other week, but it is always a fun time for the entire class and helps maintain a positive classroom culture. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

10 Things Teachers Should Never Do

All people make mistakes. Teachers are no different. Here are some teaching mistakes I've made and learned from or have seen other teachers make.

  1. Punish the whole class for the mistakes of a few:  It may seem like the entire class was acting up, but that is rarely the case. Punishing the whole class will cause you to lose the support of the students who were making good choices and likely won’t eliminate future misbehavior.
  2. Avoid getting help when it's needed: Most teachers don’t have a perfect classroom, and if they do it certainly didn't get there immediately and without work. If you sense a problem area in your classroom and don’t know how to fix it, ask for help. Have a conversation. Other teachers and administrators can observe your class and offer suggestions for improvement. 
  3. Assign a project prior to creating the rubric: Trust me on this. Your students won’t learn what they should, and it’ll be a grading nightmare.
  4. Plan a lesson that isn’t aligned to the learning objective: When planning, always keep in mind what you want the students to understand or be able to do by the end of the lesson. It can be easy to get lost in planning a fun and engaging lesson, but if it’s not meeting the objective then your students won’t benefit from it like they should.
  5. Grade every assignment: You’ll drive yourself crazy. Choose only the most important assignments to grade. I learned to aim for two or three assignments per week.
  6. Delay or skip parent/guardian contact: It can be intimidating and uncomfortable to have certain conversations. Calling a student’s home about misbehavior or an unfortunate event isn’t the most fun thing ever. However, parents and guardians need to know what’s going on with their child. They are usually a huge asset and can offer helpful insight and work with you to reduce and eliminate problems. (And be sure to call about the good stuff, too.)
  7. Not making time for themselves: You’re a person with a life outside of teaching. There will always be things you need to do as a teacher, but you have to take care of yourself. Make time to do the things you love and spend time with your friends and family.
  8. Not having a backup plan: Sometimes your lesson will run short. Sometimes students will find concepts easy and speed on through. Class time is limited and precious, so always have some sort of backup plan to enhance the lesson or build a positive learning environment.
  9. Be inconsistent with rules and consequences: Letting rules slip and allowing students to get away with misbehavior is all too easy to do. It only takes a few times of doing this to completely sabotage your classroom management plan. You’ll save yourself from lots of frustration by enforcing the class rules and consequences every time with every student. (Need ideas for effective classroom rules and consequences?)
  10. Not being open to learning new things: Find new strategies. Try new teaching methods. Read up on best practices. Observe other teachers and learn from them. Strive to be the best teacher you can be for your students.
What are some other things teachers should never do? Add your ideas in the comments section. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

10 Things the Best Teachers Do

When I think about the qualities of the most effective teachers I know, either from my own education or from colleagues I've had the pleasure of working with, these are ten things they all have in common.
  1. Be fair and consistent
  2. Communicate regularly with parents and guardians
  3. Have rules and enforce them
  4. Differentiate to meet the needs of all students
  5. Care
  6. Make the most of every class period
  7. Be willing to learn from others and try new teaching strategies
  8. Have a routine that students can count on
  9. Connect learning to real life
  10. Make time for themselves

What are some other things the best teachers do? Add your ideas to the comments section.

Read the 10 Things Teachers Should Never Do.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Odd One Out: A Strategy to Get Students Thinking Critically in Any Subject

Example Odd One Out Problem
Have you ever played the game Two Truths and a Lie? It is generally used as a simple and fun icebreaker activity where each person gives three statements about him or herself and others guess which one of the three is a lie. “Odd One Out” is a lot like that except it can be used as a way for students to think critically about a topic. I first learned about this strategy at a science team meeting several years ago. I am not sure of its official name, but Odd One Out seems appropriate. Odd One Out problems consist of a circle divided into four equal parts. Each quarter lists a word or phrase from a related topic. One quarter’s topic does not quite fit with the others though.

How to Make and Solve an Odd One Out Problem

To make an Odd One Out problem, choose four words or ideas from a related topic and arrange them in the four quarters of a circle. One of those parts should be just a little different than the others. Take the topic of colors, as seen in the example above. All four parts contain a color, but one doesn’t quite fit. Know which one?

Once you identify the odd one out, circle or shade that quarter. Then explain your answer. An explanation might sound like this, “Red, yellow, and blue are primary colors. Orange is the odd one out because it is a secondary color, meaning it is the result of two primary colors mixing.”

When I assign Odd One Out problems to students, I require them to write a sentence explaining why their chosen quarter does not fit. Their explanation is the most important part of the problem because it shows whether or not they truly understand the topic. Also, in some cases, an Odd One Out problem can have more than one correct answer causing the explanation to become even more valuable. This can promote student discussion and build even stronger critical thinking skills.

Odd One Out Problems with Multiple Correct Answers

Consider this example with actors. What answer would you choose?

Who is the odd one out? Is there more than one correct answer?

You probably picked Jennifer Lawrence because she is the only female listed. But can there be another correct answer? If you know a little more about these actors, you might realize all but one of them are American. Therefore, the Australian Chris Hemsworth could also be a correct answer. In fact, there are a number of correct answers to this problem. Knowing more about a topic can lead to a greater variety and depth of answers.

Answers that Are Not Really Answers

Sometimes, you might have students whose explanations cannot be considered correct. For example, in the above problem about actors, you might have a student with an answer like this, “Clint Eastwood is the odd one out because he’s the only one whose name begins with a vowel.” Yes, technically this is correct. However, it has nothing to do with the topic of these actors. To avoid getting answers like this, remind students that their answers have to do with the topic at hand.

Use Odd One Out Problems in All Subject Areas

One of the awesome things about Odd One Out problems is how versatile they are. They can be relatively easy to solve or provide quite a challenge. Students can use their understanding of a topic to make their own problems to test their classmates. They can be used for a ton of different ages, ability levels, and subject areas.  Look at the examples below from each of the core subjects for ideas to start using Odd One Out problems in your classroom.

Example of a Completed Odd One Out Problem Set

The Elements, Compounds, and Mixtures worksheet below is available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store along with a number of other science related Odd One Out worksheets

Example Odd One Out Problem Set

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

11 Tips to Reduce Grading Time (and Make Grading Less Painful)

It was around this time of year during my first year of teaching when I got completely overwhelmed with my grading load. My main problem: I felt like I needed to grade EVERYTHING. Until speaking with other teachers about how much time I spent grading, I did not realize grading everything was unnecessary and impossible to sustain. Right then I decided to change my grading habits.

My first year I was teaching English to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Since every class had two spelling homework assignments and a spelling test every week, the easiest way to reduce grading was to cut out redundant, practice assignments. My first grading change was to only grade one spelling homework assignment per week. I was still grading a ton of assignments, but just that one little change substantially reduced the time I devoted to grading. Since that first year, I have learned many more tricks to reduce grading time. Here are some of those tricks.

  1. This one is probably the most obvious: limit what you grade. Whenever possible, I limit myself to two or three assignments per week. I feel like this is enough to give students, parents, and teachers a clear and accurate picture of the students’ understanding of each topic and overall effort. I can see their understanding with each assessment grade and see their general effort levels reflected in whether or not they finish their homework completely and on time.
  2. Prioritize the most important assignments or parts of assignments. Choose what will give you the best picture of student understanding and grade that. If you have a lengthy assignment, pick only a few sections to spend time on and give a completion grade for the rest.
  3. Occasionally give completion grades. When totally swamped with teaching duties, this can save your sanity. If students complete all of an assignment, I give them 100%. If they only do half, they get 50%.  I limit this to homework assignments and try not to do it too often because it doesn’t reflect student understanding. However, when I have more pressing teaching duties that will have a greater impact on my students’ learning I think this is acceptable.
  4. Have a no name policy you can handle. I used to post no name papers on the bulletin board (most remained unclaimed) and did detective work to figure out which paper belonged to which student. That took a lot of time and was not something I felt should be the teacher’s responsibility. After a couple of years of this, I decided my seventh-grade students should be responsible enough to do something as simple as writing their name on their assignment. Consequently, I communicated this to my students and made it my class policy to throw out no names. Whatever no name policy you decide to implement, make sure it works for you and doesn’t add more time and effort than it deserves.
  5. Limit late assignments. I used to take late assignments all quarter long (at a 25% grade reduction). This resulted in a deluge of assignments from students who waited until right before grades were due. It generated a ton of work for me when I needed to be wrapping things up. I had to remember how I graded each assignment, which was time consuming in and of itself. Cue a new late assignment policy: assignments are accepted no later than two weeks overdue. This policy makes it so I can still easily remember how I graded something and also keeps my grading duties at a reasonable level, even when the gradebook is almost due.
  6. Don’t let the assignments pile up. This can happen quickly and become overwhelming. Try grading in little spurts throughout the week so you never end up with more than a week’s worth of accumulated assignments.
  7. Have student helpers. Most students enjoy helping the teacher with little tasks. I often have students organize my ungraded papers so they are all neatly stacked, facing up, and paper-clipped by assignment and class period. The time saved really adds up.
  8. Let students grade their own assignments or swap papers with a classmate. This gives students quick feedback on how they are doing with a topic and where they can improve. You can discuss answers as a class and clear up problem areas as soon as they present themselves. When grading this way, I usually don’t add the grades to the gradebook because the students already know exactly how they did and it’s too easy for students to cheat.
  9. Always use a rubric when applicable. This sounds so important and obvious. But, let me tell you, there have been times when I was so overwhelmed with teaching that I didn’t have a rubric when I assigned the project. This is a huge no-no. Without a rubric, the students don’t have clear expectations. You will end up with all sorts of projects and no fair, consistent way to grade them. It becomes a time-consuming mess to grade. Trust me—always use a rubric.
  10. Design exit tickets with ease of grading in mind. Since all of my exit tickets go in the gradebook, almost all of them are short—between four and five questions long—and are mainly multiple choice. If it is important to see the depth of student understanding, I might add one question that requires students to answer in sentences. By sticking to this general format, I am able to whip through grading exit tickets. (If you teach middle school science you might be interested in my Exit Ticket Package, which contains a bunch of exit tickets designed this way.)
  11. Make peer reviewing part of projects. During big projects, take a little class time for peer reviewing. When students evaluate their classmates’ work, they learn from each other and learn to think critically. The peer review can be something as simple as providing one thing they liked about a project and one way to improve it. You could take it further by printing extra rubrics and having students grade each other that way.  If you include some form of peer reviewing once or twice before students turn in their projects, you will receive higher quality work which requires less grading time from you.

Implementing even just a few of these strategies will greatly reduce your grading time. Of course it’s impossible to completely eliminate grading so, if all else fails, make the time you have to spend grading as painless as possible. Use fun pens and stickers. Listen to music and light a nice smelling candle. Have a yummy snack and a special drink (or two). Wear comfy clothes and put your dog on your lap. Recruit a friend to help.

What do you do to save time spent grading? How do you make grading a more pleasant experience? Comment below to share your ideas.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Using a Reward System in Middle School

When I began teaching seventh grade science as a Teach for America Corps Member, one thing that set my class apart from others was my use of a reward system in a middle school setting. Prior to joining Teach for America, I had earned two degrees in education plus I already had two years of teaching behind me. By the time I joined TFA, I had my own ideas about classroom management and had begun to implement those ideas. However, one of the main reasons I joined TFA was to learn about different styles of teaching so I could become a better educator for my students.  I kept my mind open to new ideas. One thing TFA exposed me to during our five-week summer institute was the use of a reward system at a secondary level. At first I thought it seemed silly and impractical. Middle and high school students excited about earning little toys? Spending tons of my own limited income providing those goodies for hundreds of students? Huh? After dismissing the idea, I found myself thinking about it and considering how I could make it more practical for my own classroom.  When I began teaching seventh grade science students a month and a half later, I had a reward system in place as a way to decrease misbehavior, increase student engagement and achievement, and create a fun and positive classroom environment.  And what do you know? It worked.

What did I want in a reward system?

I wanted my system related to academic achievement. I wanted students to be individually rewarded to increase their investment. More importantly from a behavior standpoint, I wanted them to work together for class rewards because peers can often influence behavior in ways a teacher cannot. I did NOT want to spend oodles of money making it work. My reward system developed when all of these ideas rolled together.

What does the reward system look like as a whole?

Here is a quick synopsis of my reward system. First of all, it has two parts—an individual reward and a group reward—and both parts involve earning class points. Students earn tickets individually that they enter in daily prize drawings. The number of drawings a class gets depends on how many points a class earns for good behavior. In addition to daily drawings that reward individual students, class points add up for whole group rewards. 

Earning Class Points for the Individual and Group Rewards

How do students earn class points?

Students work together as a class to earn points. They do this by following directions, doing things quickly, participating, being on task, doing exceptionally well on lab days or during lively activities, having a class average of over 80% on a test or quiz (five points each time), and getting good reports from substitutes (fifteen points per day). When the class earns a point, I let them know right away. Letting them know when and why they earn a point is important because it rewards them instantly for their good behavior and encourages them to keep it up.

Do you ever take away points?

No. The students earned the points they received. Many times, most of the misbehavior comes from only a few students. Taking away points punishes the whole class making well-behaved students less invested in earning points because they feel those points can just be taken away by the poor choices of others. The only time I’ve ever taken away points was when a sub wrote a very poor report about a class and the majority of the students didn’t get the assigned sub work done.  (The students who did get their work done were rewarded for their actions.)

How do you keep track of class points?

I have a mason jar with a lid labeled for every class. Each point is represented by a fuzzy thing (actually called pom-poms, but “little fuzzy things” was the name we adopted for them). During class, I put the little fuzzy thing the students earn into the lid. (I want to keep them separate for the individual reward that day.) At the end of class, I count how many points we got for the day to determine how many prize drawings we need to do for the individual reward. Then I add the little fuzzy things collected in the lid that day to the jar to accumulate over time (for the group reward).

Individual Reward Information

How do students get tickets for the individual reward?

Students earn tickets for getting 80% or above on assessments. An assessment includes tests, quizzes, and exit tickets. I always have at least one assessment each week so students have plenty of chances to earn tickets. Whenever a student performs well on an assessment, I attach one ticket onto their paper. When students get their papers back they detach the ticket, write their name on it, and enter it into the drawing where they have a chance win a prize of their choice. Check out a set of reward tickets here.

How many class points does it take to get one drawing?

Every five class points triggers one drawing. For example, if a class earns a total of ten points they will get two drawings. If a class gets nine points, they will only get one drawing.

How many drawings are typically in one day?

That depends on a few different factors, the biggest one being overall class behavior. In a 90-minute block schedule, I usually do between two to four drawings. In a shorter 45-minute class, the students earn one or two drawings. I’ve had some disastrous classes (haven’t we all?) where students didn’t earn even one drawing. I’ve also had spectacular days (yea!) where a class earned six.

How and when do students submit tickets for the drawing?

If I have any worksheets or assessments to return to students, I pass them out while students complete their Do Now at the beginning of class. Any student who receives a ticket at that time can add it to the class’s bag. I usually send around a student who finished his or her Do Now early to collect the tickets in the bag.

Where do you keep the submitted tickets for the drawing?

I have a gallon-size Ziploc bag labeled for each of my seven classes. When it comes time to do a drawing I empty the class tickets into a bucket so students can select a winning ticket without seeing the name written on it.

When do you do the drawing? Who does the drawing?

I like to do the drawing at the end of every class period. It only takes about two minutes, so I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing class time (especially since we accomplish so much in class when the students are motivated to be well behaved by the reward system). If time is running short, we carry over the drawings and do them at the beginning of the next class. In the past, I’ve tried doing the drawings only once a week on the last day before the weekend, but I’ve found the students aren’t quite as motivated if they have to wait that long.

Students love being involved in this system, so unless we are running really short on time a student will do the drawing. I choose a student at random and invite that student to the front of the room where I am holding the bucket of tickets. Without looking, the student chooses a ticket and reads the name of the winner to the class.

What prizes do students earn in the drawing?

I try to have something to appeal to every student. I have bathroom passes and homework passes. Before school starts, I stock up on the amazing deals that can be found at Office Depot and Staples. There I find folders, pencils, pens, notebooks, and erasers for as little as a penny each. During the summer I go to garage sales for inexpensive books or fun little items I think my students will like. My mom loves to make jewelry, so she provides earrings and bracelets. Many parents love to donate for the reward system, so I always request the most popular items of all: food, drinks, and gum. They go to Sam’s Club to get good deals in bulk. I ask them to keep each item’s cost less than 50 cents.

Where do you keep the prizes for the individual reward?

I keep the prizes in a glass display case with a lock. One of the walls in my science classroom is made entirely of these lockable glass cases and it makes for the perfect way to both show the prizes and keep them secure.

What do you do with the huge number of tickets that are collected but not drawn?

I dump the tickets into the recycle bin each quarter. I do this because some students earn a lot of tickets during that time and others only receive a few. I want every student to have a chance to win and when certain students have a stockpile of tickets it makes that difficult. I also dump the tickets each quarter because some students made poor choices and deserve to start over with a clean slate. The rationale I give to my students is the bag can’t hold that many tickets and students should have a chance to start over and make good decisions.

Whole Group Reward Information

How many class points does it take to get a whole class reward?

One hundred and fifty points seems to work best. On average it gives a whole class reward about once a month. One hundred comes around too often and two hundred drags on causing the students to become apathetic.

What whole class rewards do you use?

I provide a list and let the students vote.  No matter how many choices I give the students, only two have ever been chosen. Classes always vote for either free time with electronics (I give between ten and fifteen minutes) or permission to bring and eat snacks during class. 

When do you count the class points for the whole group reward?

I don’t keep a running tally of the number of points. Instead I have a student in study hall count each class’s points at the end of the week. I announce the total on Monday when we go through the weekly schedule. If at that time a class has reached the 150 points needed to trigger a whole class reward, we vote for what the reward will be and when it will happen.


In summary, this reward system has two parts. The first part is an individual reward. The class earns points to trigger drawings at the end of each class period. The drawing prizes go to individual students who earned a ticket from getting 80% or above on an assessment. The second part of the reward system also involves getting class points, but the whole group works together to earn 150 points and trigger a whole class reward.

This system has helped me build and maintain a positive classroom environment in my seventh grade science classes. Students are excited to come to class and learn. They are motivated to do well on their assessments and be good students in class. Plus, it’s a lot of fun for me.