One of my education professors used to stress the importance of keeping students focused in relation to classroom management. She used to say, “If you don’t have a program running, put on a commercial or the students will air their own show and it’s guaranteed to be a drama.” I very quickly learned she was absolutely correct, and the time of the day students were most likely to get off track was the beginning of class.
It doesn’t matter which subject or grade I am teaching, it doesn’t matter if it is first or third period, the first few minutes of class are always some of the busiest and most chaotic. The best way I’ve found to deal with this, and to prevent my students from starting with drama straight away, is to have a very regimented program for them to follow. This was never more true than the year I taught a self-contained middle school class for beginning English language learners. Teaching middle and high school is rough when class starts badly, but at least it’s generally limited to 40-55 minutes and then you get a reset. On the other hand, elementary teachers know how hard it can be to get through a full day of school when things start off on the wrong foot. By the time I taught the self-contained middle school class, I had been away from the elementary model for well over a decade and had forgotten some of the more important routines. I’d become lazy about things such as bell ringers and some classroom procedures. It only took a week or so to remember why they were so important and I quickly hit the reset button, developed a whole new set of routines and procedures, and spent a week teaching them to my students. The one that I spent the most time on was our morning routine, bell work being the cornerstone of it.
I settled on a standard list of tasks students needed to accomplish every day. Students could choose the order in which they did them, but all needed to be completed by a specific time, usually about thirty minutes after the start of school. The next thirty minutes we spent going over various parts of the work, as I’ll describe below. Since I was teaching all subjects, I used this time as an opportunity to practice foundational skills (most of my students had large gaps in their education) and vocabulary. Our standard list consisted of:
- Math Fact Practice: I used the free version of XtraMath for this. Students had to complete their daily practice, which the site personalized to them based on their initial assessment and previous work. As students progressed through the various fact families and skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), we tracked their progress and they earned rewards such as extra screen time, alternative seating choice, and homework passes. I could access their progress and participation reports at any time online, making my job a lot easier.
- Math Vocabulary Practice: This was a journal I’d printed and students kept in their math folders. Each week had a single vocabulary word as the focus. Each day the students would complete a single problem related to the target word. The vast majority of the problems were word problems, which gave further review of math vocabulary, and much needed practice with word problems in general. I started out using the seventh grade version, but the gaps in my students’ education were too great to complete the problems independently. I quickly switched to the third grade version, allowing them to do the work independently and fill in some of the gaps we weren’t able to address during our regular grade level math lessons. During our thirty minute work review session, one student would be responsible for going over the day’s problem. This meant that if a student made a mistake, or didn’t understand the problem, he/she had the chance to correct it, or copy it, from the board. As students were discussing the answer, I observed to be sure students weren’t consistently doing nothing and simply copying the answer every day. Every Friday I’d collect the journals and do a quick spot check to be sure they’d completed that week’s work.
- Language/Grammar Practice: This was a half sheet of paper I’d place on their desks before they arrived each morning. I made a full week’s worth of copies each Friday, usually from an Evan-Moor Daily Language Review book. One student (different from the math vocabulary student) would be responsible for going over the answers to each day’s review sheet. That student was also responsible for collecting the papers and placing them in our “I’m finished” box for me to do a quick check later. Once again, I observed and walked around the room making spot checks to be sure students were making and effort to complete the sheet and not simply waiting to copy the answers from the board.
- Reading Practice: This was another sheet I placed on their desks each day before they arrived, and again I generally copied it from an Evan-Moor book, this time Non-Fiction Reading Practice. Occasionally I’d use a different text from NewsELA or CommonLit, something specifically related to what we were learning in science or social studies, but not always. Once again, a different student was assigned each day to go over the answers to the comprehension section and collect the papers for me to look over later while I made spot checks of student work.
- Writing Prompt: Even though it almost never changed, I always listed the daily morning tasks to be accomplished on the board. The one part of this list that changed daily was the writing prompt. Students had their own personalized journals (notebook paper folded in half and stapled inside wallpaper covers) in which they wrote their responses. Each Friday I collected their journals and looked over their entries, giving quick feedback on specific grammar, punctuation, or other writing conventions we’d been discussing in our ELA lessons.
- Academic Vocabulary: On Monday students would receive their graphic organizer for the week and I’d put up the first word’s card. Each day I’d add a new card to our vocabulary clipboards (half page clipboards located next to our word wall). Students were responsible for copying the definition from the display card, reading my example sentence, and writing one of their own. During our work review time, I’d randomly call on several students to share their sentences and we’d discuss the day’s word, adding its card to our word wall. Each Monday, at the end of our review time, students would complete the vocabulary quiz for the previous week’s words.
This routine ensured students knew exactly what to do upon arrival to my classroom each day and got our days off to a positive start with an immediate focus on learning. An hour of each day (30 minutes to work, 30 minutes to go over the daily checks) seems like a lot of time to “lose” on morning/bell work, but it was far from wasted. Students reviewed a lot of important skills, worked to fill in gaps in their academic knowledge, and practiced leading a group and speaking skills. I had the opportunity to take care of things such as attendance, get in some student conferencing, and answer a lot of questions about various subjects. During work time, I also made sure to meet with each student who would be going over the answer(s) to either the math vocabulary problem, language/grammar practice, or reading practice. This ensured he/she was confident in his/her answers, and would give the correct answer(s) to the rest of the class. Being the person in charge of of going over a particular item was a highly sought after thing, and students would often argue over who got to take someone’s place if he/she was absent. My principal was always impressed at how smoothly things went and how confident my students were in front of a group, despite their low proficiency with English.
When I don’t teach a self-contained class, I still start with some type of bell work. Almost all of my classes do the academic vocabulary work, and the others vary based on class focus. Some classes focus more on writing, others on reading, and still others on grammar. No matter what the focus, even the shorter time (usually 10-20 minutes) yields the same benefits. I would highly encourage any teacher, no matter the subject or grade level, to consider what type of “assignment” would make a good start to your class. Happy teaching, everyone!