Classroom Must Haves: Tools, Books and Resources We Can't Picture Ourselves Teaching Without

You know that question that asks, "If you were going to be stranded on a deserted island and could only take three things with you...?" 

Well this is sort of like that.

Except it is the teacher version. 

The bloggers here at Upper Elementary Snapshots have teamed up to bring you some new ideas, book suggestions, resources and other "must haves" for your classrooms. Each of us is sharing a FREE RESOURCE we have created and have found to be useful in our own teaching. We are also spotlighting three of the things we can't picture ourselves teaching without.

Visit each of our blogs to grab a total of 13 FREE resources and learn about all our favorite classroom tools, books to read aloud to students and printable resources.

Classroom Management Made Easy - 6 Tips to Get You Started

This post shares 6 Tips for Managing Math Workshop

Classroom management is essential throughout the school day, but it is especially important during math workshop. With planning and consistency, your classroom will “run itself “ and your students will be focused and on task even when you are working with a small group across the room.

Here’s how to get there:

1- Determine the procedures and routines that will be effective for your classroom.

The key to classroom management is establishing clear procedures and routines within an organized and structured environment. This is especially true for Math Workshop. 
This post shares 6 Tips for Managing Math Workshop

Before the students arrive you’ll need to think about your classroom layout and your vision for how your workshop will run. I recommend putting your procedures into writing. This will help you be consistent, allow you to tweak your routines, and provide clear expectations to substitute teachers and parent volunteers. 

Offer lots of verbal praise and recognition as students begin to show mastery of the routines. Look for model students and have them help those who are struggling with the procedures. Don’t be afraid to make changes if something is not working well.

2- Establish a signal for alerting students that Math Workshop is about to begin and that they need to transition to the whole group area for your mini-lesson. I use wind chimes in my classroom. They are loud enough that they are heard and the lingering sounds ensure that all students will hear them. Also, they are not intrusive which makes for a calmer transition. Whenever my students hear the wind chimes they know that signal means to come to the rug.

This post shares 6 Tips for Managing Math Workshop
3- Use hand signals in your classroom. I have my students use hand signals when they raise their hand in the group. A pinky signals, “I have a question.” A closed fist means, “I have an answer.” Fingers curled into the shape of the letter C means, “I have a comment.” 

I also have the students use hand signals throughout the day using a number system. For example, one finger means “May I use the bathroom” while three means, “I need my pencil sharpened.” These hand signals are crucial to the workshop because they eliminate the need for students to disrupt my teaching. I can simply nod to acknowledge their request.

4- Assign seats for the whole group meeting area. By creating a seating plan in the meeting area you will...

  • eliminate the rush to get to a choice seat
  • ensure students are sitting next to peers that are positive choices for them
  • place students who may need to leave the room for services in an easy exit location enable you to meet individual needs for attention, behavior, vision, hearing, etc. save precious minutes by not needing students to change seats
  • provide students who need trunk support or a defined space with a chair 
5 - Establish expectations for class discussions. Assign talking partners for “think, pair and share” in the group area when you pose questions. Ideally, this should be a neighboring classmate. Keep these partnerships in mind when assigning seats. 

6 - Teach your students what it means to be an “active listener.” Take some time to read about Whole Brain Teaching and how it can be used for mini lessons.

This post shares 6 Tips for Managing Math Workshop

Top 5 Organizing Tips for New Teachers

Organization for new teachers can be very difficult. In this blog post we will identify the top 5 organizing tips for the school year if you are a new teacher. By no means are these the only five, but they will get you started on having a great year.

  1. Make a list...
    A teacher's best friend can be a list. Make sure to start making lists of items you need to buy to decorate your classroom and things you want to do once you are in your room. If you are a new teacher, you will want to make your classroom your own. This would involve making a list of the decorations that you will choose to use for the school year.  Your list should also have the supplies you will need to get your classroom up and running. Click here or on the picture below for a free checklist that you can use to get started in your classroom.

  2. Have a calendar/planner...
    If there is one thing that a teacher cannot live without, it is a planner. This is your lifeline to what is happening in your classroom and building. It houses meetings, conference dates, student birthdays, and most importantly, those days you don't have to report to school! There are many different forms of planners that teachers use. In this digital age, many colleagues use online calendars such as Microsoft Outlook, or Google Calendar. But, if you like having something that you can page through and carry with you, the old-fashioned planners work just as well. Some like weekly calendars, while others like daily. It is all up to you, but you must have one to keep all the different events easy to find.
  3. Make sure rosters are ready to go...
    You will be collecting a lot of paperwork the first few weeks of school. There are forms that parents have to fill out, and you may be having students complete easy activities as well. Having class rosters available so you can track who has and hasn't turned in assignments or forms is a huge time-saver. It allows you a quick glance as to who still needs to turn in the papers. It also helps you spot early patterns of students who have difficulty completing work on time. It is better to catch this early in the year, then to wait until mid-year to try and correct it.
  4. Establish a routine...
    This is more for you, then for your students. Teachers tend to be creatures of habit. Anything that changes in a teacher's daily routine can be unsettling. So, we tend to follow the same routine every morning before school, upon arrival at school, and getting home at a reasonable time. If you know that there may be a before, or after school meeting, adjust your routine appropriately to fit in what you normally do. Yes, that may mean waking up earlier, but it will provide sanity for you in being able to follow your daily routine.
  5. Join Scholastic Book Club...
    Being a new teacher your classroom library is probably tiny or non-existent. Scholastic Book Club is a great place to start to build your own library. It would be a great idea to talk to some veteran teachers in your building who are already using Scholastic. They may have a coupon that you could use to get started that could give you bonus points towards ordering books. Once your students start ordering, you will be able to obtain some free books and your bonus points total will start to grow. Then you can use these points towards ordering books. In no time at all, you will be adding quality literature to your classroom library!

If you liked this blog post,, you will want to check out The First Year Teacher eBook with 29 pages of helpful tips for beginning teachers. This is a comprehensive and easy-to-read resource that will help any beginning teacher have a successful school year.
First Year Teacher eBook

You will also want to check out our companion guide: The First Year Teacher Resources which contains 40 different resources (printables) you can use your first year of teaching!

First Year Teacher: Resource Guide

Thanks and here is to a successful year of teaching!

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The Importance of Student Self-Assessment

We know that "assessment" is a buzz word that we can't get away from...we talk about standardized testing.  About rubrics.  About standards-based assessment tasks.  About--YOU fill in the blank.

One of the often under-used assessment strategies is SELF-assessment.  This can be something as simple as a "thumbs up" if a student understands but can be far more involved and useful.  Interested in some of the brain research on this?  Check out this GREAT article by Jo Boaler!  Today I want to talk about some of the issues related to self-assessment--and to give you some suggestions on how to create a culture where students will be able to make the most of the opportunities you provide them.

Culture for honesty and risk taking

One thing I have definitely discovered is that if students don't feel "safe" in our classroom environments, there is no way for them to open and honestly assess themselves.  It's hard to admit that you don't understand when the culture stresses speed, accuracy, and competition.  The more we can strive to develop a "team" feeling of collaboration where we, as teachers, can model risk taking, how we handle mistakes, how we assess ourselves, and so on--the easier it will be for students to be honest about their own struggles.  We should CELEBRATE mistakes in our classrooms!  The research supports this.
Making mistakes can actually grow the neural connections in our brains.  ADDRESSING the mistakes makes them even stronger.  Teach your children this!  Make it not only safe, but DESIRABLE.  Consider doing activities where mistakes are inevitable.  Ask students to share which problems were most challenging and how they tackled them.  Ask students to share errors they found and how they went back to find the mistakes.  All of this can contribute to this culture of collaboration and learning.  I recently wrote a blog post that goes into more detail if you are interesting.  Just click the image below.

Give them the language

If we DO want students to participate in a classroom culture such as this, we need to give them the language to do it.  Providing sentence stems and other anchor charts that give them phrases to use to help them communicate their level of understanding can go a long way.  This can be more "general" information for them like a list of accountable talk stems like..."I'm not sure I understand" or "Could you explain that again?".  Sometimes we might want to be more specific to the content we are studying.

If we truly want students to be able to honestly assess themselves, they need to know what it is that they are trying to accomplish!  It needs to be more specific than "I can multiply big numbers." or "I can comprehend what I read." What does that look like?  In what contexts?  We need to get better at breaking down these huge ideas for students so they can do a better job of monitoring their own progress.

One area where this is particularly challenging is in those more "behavioral" elements of our classroom life....reading habits, partnering skills, and so on.  In math, there is a whole set of standards geared toward getting teachers to more explicitly teach these "math behaviors" to help students be successful.  That being said, it's sometimes easy to attach ourselves to the easy words in these standards--words like "accuracy" and "precision" and "perseverance".  If you do a deep dive into these standards, you will see there is much more to them than that!  I've spent a lot of time breaking down reading and math into these small, measurable goals for students that make it easier for them to talk about and measure their own progress.  Early in the school year, I focus more on overall behaviors.  We brainstorm what they are, we talk about them, we share examples of them, and then we practice self-assessing them.  We use these checklists multiple times and really try to make the language in them a part of our daily conversation.

student self-assessment
As the year goes on and I start to dig into the other more complex standards, we do the same thing.  Rather than tell students that they need to "Use Appropriate Tools Strategically", I think it's important to break that down with them so they really know what that means.  Since taking the time to do this, I have seen a DRAMATIC improvement in students' reflectiveness AND skill level!  It is worth the time investment!  
math practice standards anchor charts
I hang these "focus charts" up when we are really digging into one of the standards but then students keep a copy of the self-assessment checklist so they always have access to it.  We can pull those out to review at any point.

Goal of improvement

I think what taking the time to really dig into these standards--whether they be content standards or "practices" standards--allows students to start to set some realistic, attainable goals.  When a child is reading below grade level and we set their goal to be reading AT grade level, that is pretty daunting!  But if we can set their goals to be more attainable...perhaps it starts with something like:
Similarly, by always including a part of the assessment where students can express what they did WELL as well as set a growth goal, it forces them to acknowledge where they are strong in addition to identifying areas where growth is needed.

Interested in the checklists shown above?  Just click the image below.  My reading goal resource can be found by clicking HERE.
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7 Basic Writing Lessons Every Teacher Should Teach

Analyzing writing curriculums, planning writing workshop and teaching writing lessons can be overwhelming.  You might think, how am I going to fit everything in and produce successful writers? Where do I start?  What skills do they need?  This post will share the 7 BASIC WRITING LESSONS that every teacher should teach! With this basic knowledge, students will be able to perform other writing assignments more effectively.

The following skills are not only effective in upper elementary, they are often needed at the middle school level for review or the primary level for differentiation.  So yes, every teacher should teach them! If you start with these 7 fundamental skills, it will set the expectations for your writing lessons and assignments throughout the year!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the basic skills and what order should I teach them?

Sentence Structure

1.  Complete Sentences 
2.  Fragments
3.  Run-ons
       Lesson for run-ons

Paragraph Writing

4.  Topic Sentences
5.  Relevant Details
6.  Transition Words
7.  Closing Sentences

How much time should I dedicate to teaching these fundamental skills?  
I recommend one day for each skill.  If you spend a whole writing block for each skill, students will benefit from the practice.

How do I teach each skill?

First:  Start with an anchor chart explaining the skill.  (See each lesson link above for effective anchor charts.)

Second:  Provide examples.  Students can share examples too!  

Next:  Students should take notes.  I love using Interactive Writing Notebooks to take notes. Research supports the use of interactive notebooks through studies on multiple intelligences, the brain and note taking.  Here are a few videos to Set Up Interactive Writing Notebooks.

Click photo for the Upper Elementary Version.  A Primary Version is also available.

Then:  Identify the skill.   Provide practice sheets and task cards for students to practice identifying the skill in sentences and paragraphs.

Last:  Apply the skill.  Students should have the opportunity to write their own sentence or paragraph to apply the particular skill.

What if I can't fit the lesson in one writing block?
If you can't extend the days to complete them, there are other ways to get the whole lesson in. You can put practice sheets or task cards in a center, or you can have students apply the skill for homework or morning work the next day.  

What if my students, some of my students, or absent students can't do interactive notebooks?  
Make a small anchor chart to put in their notebooks with the same information!  If you don't have a printable poster, take a picture of the anchor chart you used in class and print them off!

I hope you found this post helpful and your students become successful writers this year! 

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Using Take Home Folders for Parent Communication

Even in the middle of the summer, I still find myself thinking about the upcoming school year and what I can do to make it even better than the last. Today I thought I would share one of the routines that I use that keeps me in constant communication with my students' parents: Weekly Take-Home Folders!!!

Take-Home Folders have been such a valuable tool for me ever since I started teaching. They serve as a way for me to communicate with my students' parents throughout the year. They allow me to share their children's work habits, behavior, and grades on a weekly basis, while also sharing important school and classroom information. I prep them every Friday, send them home every Monday, and ask for them to be returned before the end of the week, so they can go home all over again!!

Here is how I use them in my classroom....

On the LEFT SIDE of the folder, I include graded tests, assignments, projects, etc. Attached to the top of these, I staple a Weekly Progress Report to share students' work habits and behavior. On this side, I also include any important papers that need to be filled out or signed (permission slips and such!). I ask parents to go over their children's scores and progress reports, and then sign the progress report to show that they have seen everything. This comes back to school in the folder.

On the RIGHT SIDE of the folder, I include routine classwork and homework assignments and any school flyers that need to be sent home. Everything on the right side should be kept at home.

People are often surprised that I put the time and effort into putting these folders together and sending them home each week. But for me, the benefits definitely outweigh the effort it takes to keep up this routine.

First of all, parents always know how their children are performing. There are NO SURPRISES come parent conference time. Also, it gives parents a chance to have important conversations with their children about their work habits, behavior, and even about what they are learning in school. Lastly, it keeps me accountable for grading and reporting, and provides a record for me when I sit down to do report cards and conference with parents.

If you would like to download the labels that I use for my Take Home Folders, as well as a copy of my Weekly Progress Report for FREE, visit my teacher shop by clicking on the cover pic below!!

This routine is a MUST for me each year! Paired with a weekly group e-mail, this is my main form of communication with parents, and it's been a HUGE success every year!!!