Embrace the Weird

Middle School Classroom

It’s sometimes hard to not equate teachers with that Charlie Brown monotone one. You know who I mean! The one who, at least from Charlie’s point of view, definitely didn’t seem to enjoy her job very much.

A goal of mine in blogging is to help teachers enjoy their careers. Catering to middle school teachers in this goal makes it quite easy because teaching middle school can be described best by using one word: weird. Who doesn’t enjoy a little weird?!

If you teach middle school, I know that I’m not telling you anything new about the endearing quirk that comes with the territory. And, you know what I’ve found helps middle school teachers thrive most in their careers? They embrace the weird and they have fun with it!

I love my job because I have fun with my kids!

Many teachers think that whenever they allow their students to “have fun” by getting up and moving, creating loose-expectationed projects (yes, that’s a thing!), and even throwing parties during class, that their head will explode from the kids being so wild and so SUPER weird.

Don’t be afraid of it. I’ve found the complete opposite happens. I’ve found that the more fun activities I plan for my kids, the most fun I have in the classroom, and thus, the most I enjoy my job. And, it’s really a big circle of awesomeness because when I’m enjoying my job and my students look forward to coming to my class, they learn a lot more from me in turn. I’d hope (crossing my fingers!) that none of my students equate me with Charlie Brown’s teacher!

I love to embrace the weird in my classroom. This morning was certainly no exception. Whenever my chain competition ended (you should check out the blog for my chain competition at this link: https://mrsmiddleschool.com/2019/03/18/my-very-best-whole-class-behavior-management-strategy/) my 1st period won by 2 points! Usually I guide my students in letting them pick their own reward. I find that whenever you let the students choose, the reward ends up being way more fun and it builds up your class culture so much instead of the teacher planning it.

In order to help your middle school students plan their own reward party, first help them compile a list of themes. Themes are key for ultimate weird-good-ness for a middle school class party. In my 1st period, we came up with a bunch of ideas, and the following ideas were our top three voted for:

  • Sloth party, where we would walk and talk really s—l—o—w
  • Beach themed party where we would all dress up like we were spending the day at the beach
  • Breakfast buffet where we would bring in breakfast goodies to eat
Yes, this is a sloth print out taped on my shirt. Yes, that is a beach towel around my neck. And yes, I did actually wear this during class. The whole class, actually. 🙂

Instead of voting for the best idea, we decided to combine them. Again, I let my students decide, and I would highly suggest you do the same! Talk about ultimate weirdness–in the best way possible!

For the party, my students and I brought in juice, donuts, cookies, muffins, scones, poptarts, strawberries, nutella, waffles, a toaster, and syrup! We wore beach themed clothes, we listened to steel drums and Hawaiian music, and we walked and talked slow, like a sloth. Kids brought in beach towels to lay on, and another student printed out a bunch of sloth faces that we pinned to our outfits. Some students even danced to the beach-themed music!

You know the best part? The kids also worked on finishing their essays while we “partied!” That’s great multitasking! If you check out that Chain Competition blog I linked above, you’ll see a little explanation as to why I wasn’t worried about losing some class time with this class, anyway.

So, next time you’re looking for a fun way to bond with your students or reward them, try to embrace the weird and plan a themed party. Comment below if you have ways that you embrace the weird and have fun with your students in your very own middle school classroom. I’d love to hear them!

How Mini-Lessons Changed my Classroom

Language Arts Resources, Middle School Classroom

During much of my career so far, I’ve fit into the traditional teacher model, where the span of my unit usually fits in some way into the following setup: I deliver content up front through an example, I complete a model with my class, I let my students pair up and work on it with someone else, and then I have them try it themselves. During this last step, hopefully I can assess their learning.

The last days of this model are dreaded to me, as either one of two extremes happens: I either am bored out of my mind, begging students to ask me for help, or I am swamped with questions because my students realize at that point that they don’t quite get it yet. In this latter case, usually the questions are the same over and over again. Perhaps you’re in the same boat.

To change this, I’ve started offering Mini-Lessons in my classroom. These lessons are always review topics on something we are either practicing now or something that we’ve been building on this year that some students might still not have down yet.

You can download a copy of my mini lesson request forms at the following link on my TPT store for just $1! https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Mini-Lesson-Request-Forms-4492079

As an example, my students are currently writing an essay using evidence from the text. Because many of the students are working at different spots and different paces, today I offered these two mini lessons (shown above) so that they could receive help from me in a small group. We learned the graphic organizer yesterday, and we’ve been building on that thesis statement all year. It’s interesting to see that not many needed help on the more recent thing we’ve learned–the graphic oraganizer–but more needed help on the bigger monster, AKA their thesis.

I have students sign up for the mini-lessons on my whiteboard so I can gain an understanding of what topics are needed. If one fills up the entire way, I will usually deliver more whole-class instruction on it before holding the mini-lesson. (I can guess that it might then be a fault of my own that so many students still need help.) I also always tell my students that if they didn’t originally sign up, but then decide they could use the help, they are always welcome to just join us without officially writing their name. While I deliver the mini-lesson content to the students who sign up, the rest of the class is working at their own pace, quietly.

During the mini lesson session, I usually break out small white boards that I can show the group of students examples on. The mini lessons are totally unscripted; I don’t prepare worksheets or extra work for the kids. I simply talk with them and do an informal review presentation to them, specific to their concerns.

For the lessons, we usually just sit on the floor in a circle together. I sit, too, and I like that this shows I’m down on their level and approachable. For some classes, of course, I’m not able to do this as I need to keep a better watch on some of the kids for behavior reasons. You’ll know when it’s a good idea and when it’s not. Sitting at another table so you are more elevated can eliminate any of these concerns.

So, why do I think this mini-lesson system has changed my classroom?

  1. It helps my students with their retaining skill. Middle school students in general have a short attention span, but we also need to consider our students with specific educational needs regarding attention. When you think about all of the instruction that they receive throughout the day, it’s clear that they learn A LOT and expecting all students to just pick up from where they left off the day before (AKA maybe 9 classes prior) is unrealistic and almost unfair. Some students are able to jump right in, but for some, having 5-10 minutes to review with the teacher can help them drastically.
  2. No matter how friendly or approachable you think you are, some students are still afraid to ask you questions. I’ve circulated the room over and over again and somehow missed (once for 2 days!) that one of my quieter students was stuck on something and was afraid to ask me for help or accept my help when I asked if she needed any. Because she was stuck, she was unable to complete the assignment on time. Whenever you offer specific sessions, it allows kids to just sit and process the information again. This requires very little bravery!
  3. They create “positive peer pressure” where students are able to see that they’re not the only ones who need help. There’s something cool in middle school about joining in with the group, and I love to see the “cool” thing being getting extra help from the teacher! Using the sign up’s or seeing the circle of students form makes other students want to join in. I love this!
  4. It challenges my class to think more critically. For those days or periods that I was swarmed with questions, many of my answers ended up being either questions in return (trying to get them to figure it out on their own) or helping to point them to resources that I’ve given them that could assist them in figuring it out. Whenever I’m not circulating, and instead am giving mini lessons to small groups, it seems that many of my students back at their desks rely more on themselves to solve their problems by quietly asking a neighbor or checking their binder resources instead of always defaulting to me.
  5. I feel rejuvenated enough to make dinner, hang out with my husband, and play with my dog! On a serious note, I used to come home drained from answering 500 questions in one day (many of which were the same question over and over), so much so that when my husband would ask me what was for dinner, he would either receive a frowny face or a “is there a place you can find this information?” Not cool of me. Now that I can answer questions once with a small group of students all hearing the answer, I feel like I have the energy to still be a human. And that’s honestly important.

To help enhance your mini lesson system, I also provide my students half sheets in order to let them request what they want to learn during these mini sessions. Again, this helps my quieter students have a way to get the help that they need, and it helps me assess where my classes are at. You can pick up a digital download of this on my TPT for $1 by clicking this link! https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Mini-Lesson-Request-Forms-4492079

Mini lessons have changed the way independent work is completed in my classroom. I hope they help your classroom too! ❤ Mrs. Middle School

Movement in the Classroom

Language Arts Resources, Middle School Classroom

How do I get my students up and moving during instruction? How do I ensure that all of my students are engaged and learning? How do I make learning more fun?

Yesterday, I was the sub for gym class during one class period, and it opened me up to a whole new world! We played hockey, and while I’m still not completely sure that I understood the rules, I had a whistle, so I had a load of fun!

Because the kids were running, moving, talking, racing, and competing, they were so engaged in this hockey game. It blew my mind! They were all working so hard, yet having so much fun. What better way to learn! I truly believe that middle school students need to move in order to best learn. While sitting at a desk period after period can make your students easily become bored and lose focus, movement enhances their learning experience so much and makes what they are learning memorable.

While many days there might be more information that I need to get across in my classroom as compared to a gym class, my ultimate goal is to have my classroom be a space like what I saw in the gymnasium: we might get a little loud, but we laugh, we have fun, we compete, we move, and we are so engaged. I want these elements so that my students can be learning to their best potential, and I’m guessing that you do too!

There are several activities I do in my classroom to get my kids up and moving. Here are my top three favorites:

Station Rotation– Whenever I see a worksheet coming, I instead create questions on separate pages to post around my room. Because I have my students practice skills at stations so often, I have numbers posted on my walls around my classroom. This makes it easy to manage because my kids know exactly where to go when I declare that it is station time. My kids lovingly refer to this activity as “the whirlpool game” because whenever I want them to switch stations, I yell “whirlpool!” Who doesn’t love a swimming reference?! See this freebie on my TPT store, where you can download my pre-made station numbers: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Station-Numbers-Freebie-4477703

Punctuation Pilates– Okay, so I know that this one is ELA-specific, but it could totally be modified for any multiple choice activity in your classroom, regardless of the subject area. In my Language Arts classroom, I wanted a fun game to get my students up and moving while practicing punctuation skills. I taught my students some “Pilates” poses that represented different punctuation marks that would be missing in the sentence. In the game, when I post a sentence on the board that is missing a punctuation mark, my students show me what mark should be inserted in the sentence by representing the mark with the pilates pose. My students were stretching, dancing, laughing, and most importantly learning! Plus, it was an easy way for me to quickly assess my students’ grammar progress and understanding without having a pile of papers to grade! I’d love for you to check out this activity on my TPT store here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Punctuation-Pilates-Game-4478792

4 Corners– This fun activity is great for any subject. Many times, I allow my students to work on an assignment in their table groups. But, because I think it’s important for them to talk with other members of the classroom and get up to move, I simply count them off by 4 and then instruct them to go to the four different corners to talk with different classmates about their answers. While they might only be up and moving for a couple of minutes, those minutes are truly important and beneficial to my antsy middle school students. Whenever it’s time to bring them back together, they are always ready to re-focus since they got a break from their desk!

Movement in the classroom is so crucial to student learning. What other ways do you get your students up and moving? Share below!

How to Handle Late Work

Middle School Classroom

I open my mailbox, and out falls my electric bill onto my porch. As I pick it up, it makes me think–my students should really learn to “pay their bills” on time in my classroom. After all, I think all teachers are in education for more than just the subject that they teach. I imagine, if you’re anything like me, you’d much rather have your students remember that they’re important, that respect is of utmost value, that learning is lifelong, and that kindness and hard work can get you really far in life.

So, whenever my students used to ask me to turn in assignments late, I would usually take them, followed by saying “…but, just so you know, you’ve already lost quite a few points on this because it was due last week.”

When I would conference with parents, they’d ask how their students were doing, and I had to break it to them that their last essay score was a low C, not because they didn’t understand the concept, but because they turned it in 9 days late.

I felt proud of myself. I was teaching them responsibility, after all.

But, I was neglecting one of the most important parts of my job: encouraging students to learn (and yes, especially those students who may not have a great support system at home to check their assignments and work on homework with them, as it was mostly these students who wouldn’t do their work on time)

Plus, was it even fair that some students were nearly failing because they turned assignments in late? Aren’t grades about learning? That’s just how it always was when I was in school…

I was stuck. I wanted them to love learning and of course I wanted them to complete assignments. I didn’t get any joy out of taking letter grades off of their work for it being late, but I also pictured many hard working students up (as I would have when I was a kid) until 9:00 working on that essay after baseball practice to get work done. It just wasn’t fair. I didn’t feel like students who didn’t do their work should just get a free pass. Plus, I do believe there’s some “cost” to “not paying your bills on time.”

But, what if I let the electric bill blow away, and so I didn’t pay it… then whenever I tried to call them to pay over the phone past due, they told me that I had two options: to either not receive electricity anymore, or pay the late fee of an extreme $400.

I’d be devastated. After all, we all make mistakes, right?

As I’ve been working on the craft of teaching, I’ve found a solution to my dilemma (and maybe your’s too): a Responsibility Grade.

A responsibility grade is its own column in my grade book.

Here are the rules for my Responsibility Points:

  • Because I expect my students to be responsible, I give each student 10 points at the beginning of the marking period.
  • Students can lose points, but cannot gain them back once they are lost.
  • To keep all of their points, they must submit everything on time, have their book everyday, and complete their warm up at the beginning of class. (You, of course, could have your own rules. Regardless, I make mine about effort and the responsibility surrounding that.)
  • If a student makes a mistake once (or rarely), I usually overlook it. I try to give my students the respect I would expect.
  • If they are a repeat offender, they begin to lose points. For example, if they turn their essay in a day or two late, they would lose a responsibility point. If they forgot their book for the second day in a row, they would lose a responsibility point. I continue to take points off until the issue is resolved.
  • I don’t really “advertise” this, but, for example, if they are ten days late on handing in a project, I don’t take all of their 10 points away. Again, I try to give them the respect I’d wish for.
  • Their responsibility points go back to 10 at the beginning of the next marking period.

This has worked wonders for my classroom for several reasons.

First, it encourages my students to continue handing in late work (and thus LEARNING) because they know they can still earn 100% on whatever they are handing in. They are okay with losing some responsibility points in the separate grade column and understand the fairness of the consequence. Plus, losing a couple responsibility points doesn’t tank their grades, and keeping all 10 points for my hard workers is an extra little boost for them.

Also, whenever I am giving feedback at meetings or with parent conferences, I can now speak confidently in their actual progress and knowledge on the topics I taught them. On a similar note, if their overall grade is lower than expected because of their responsibility points, this can also be a talking point about transitioning in middle school, etc.

Lastly, whenever I include elements such as bringing their book to class or completing their warm up, it makes my students more accountable during class, too, not just outside of class. I use a LOT of positive reinforcement with my students during class, but some kids just need a little harsh reality sometimes that if they aren’t going to complete their work, they won’t be getting the credit for responsibility points today. This usually helps me with my classroom management in more extreme situations.

If you try this grading system in your classroom, comment to let me know how it goes! How else do you handle late work in your classroom?

My Very Best Whole-Class Behavior Management Strategy

Middle School Classroom

There are times throughout the year when it seems like your classes just aren’t going right. You are working hard on your lessons, thinking of engaging applications, and even trying to add choice into assessments… but somehow it seems you can’t go a few minutes without your classes interrupting, being distracting, or neglecting their work. I’m guessing if you’re here, behavior in your classroom is hindering your ability to get what you need to complete.

You’re not alone. I think I can speak for middle school teachers (and all teachers) everywhere and say that we’ve been there, too.

I find that most times of the year go smoothly and that there is a pattern when these behaviors surface. Perhaps it is a lingering break (winter break, spring break, or summer) that has them all jittery. Maybe it is a busy time of the year due to field trips or fun school events. Or, if you’re me, spring fever has hit, and the kids seem to come out of their very own hibernation, hungry for a chance to push the class limits.

Instead of fighting these “seasons” we go through in our classrooms, I try to embrace it and use it to my advantage. My thought is if we can learn to transfer all of that potential negative energy into something more productive, it could go from a near-dreaded time of year to our favorite time of year.

My Solution: The Chain Competition

If you’ve been following me for some time, you’ve probably heard me mention this before. In my classroom, the chain competition is pure MAGIC.

The chain competition improves behavior and class culture by allowing students to be responsible for their own environment and encourage each other.

Rules of the Chain Competition:

  1. If the class does well that day and requires little to no correction from the teacher, they earn a chain. This even applies to individual re-direction of students.
  2. Each class can only earn one chain link a day.
  3. Chains can not be taken away for misbehavior. Once they earn it, they’ve earned it.
  4. The longest chain by (you set the date, 3-4 weeks from now) gets a prize.
  5. The prize at the end is usually some sort of fun free time for that class, such as bringing in books, games, and snacks for half of the class period.

Steps to Implement the Competition:

All of the products listed below can be found for sale on my tpt store by using this link: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/My-Best-Behavior-Management-Strategy-Chain-Competition-4471126

  1. Post an announcement or project the announcement on the board to signal to the students that the time has arrived!
  2. Ask the students: “What are we doing well in the classroom that we should continue doing OR what do we need to improve in our classroom in order to ensure that we earn the chain?” I ALWAYS have the students reiterate the rules THEMSELVES because this is where the magic happens; when the classroom management is taken from the teacher correcting behavior to the students correcting behavior, the classroom becomes amazing. The magic happens when you allow the students to be the spokesperson for a specific quality of a happy classroom. I personally allow my students to write up on the board what they want to see happen. Then, I leave these comments up on the board as reminders to them throughout the first week or two.
  3. Add a chain when the class goes well; I tell my classes that if I can continue teaching or helping groups or working one-on-one with students and spend much less time correcting behavior or giving reminders, they win. If I have to remind them, they won’t get a chain. I tell them that reminding each other is the key.
  4. Watch the magic happen!

The above pictures are comments that my students wrote on the board this year when prompted, “What should we continue doing well OR what should we improve to make our classroom better and earn a chain everyday?”

The magic comes whenever the students can be responsible for their own behavior. I’ve seen this all-class behavior management program work really well for students who tend to behave poorly because they don’t want to be the reason the whole class misses the chain. On the other hand, many students take on leadership roles during this time because they remind students around them to get out their materials, complete their homework, stay on task, etc. It’s amazing seeing them work together as a team to build this up!

Another one of my favorite aspects of the chain competition is that if they didn’t earn a chain, I ask them what they need to improve for the next day. This part is great because I can stop lecturing them, and the kids can hear from their peers what aspects of the class want to improve.

By the end of the competition, my classes’ behavior has improved dramatically, we’ve gotten much more time to be productive, and the classroom culture has become a place where students are taking ownership for their own environment. I also don’t have a problem losing a class period (or a half of a class) as a reward for the winning class because they would have worked so much harder and saved so many minutes during the weeks of the competition that we actually have the time to do this!

You might think that your kids want to act up or want to avoid their work, but I’d argue that they actually much prefer a classroom where everyone is respectful of each other, trying their hardest, and having a positive attitude. Whenever you give them this opportunity, most of the kids truly run with it in the best way possible.

What behavior management has worked well in your classroom? I’d love if you would comment below!

While you could of course implement this chain competition yourself, I figured I’d save you some time by offering all the materials you would need on my TPT store. Check it out at this link: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/My-Best-Behavior-Management-Strategy-Chain-Competition-4471126

Controlling Noise: Voice-O-Meter

Middle School Classroom

You look down at your attendance pad and take a moment to put worksheets into today’s absent folder. It starts with a little whisper at first, almost like a change dropping on the floor. It grows louder and louder, until the moment officially comes: chatter has taken over your class.

I have noticed a pattern that runs itself as the foundation of noise level in the classroom. Are you ready for it?– Kids don’t understand your expectations.

Yes, I am talking to you. When you tell them to quiet down, and yesterday that meant whispering was okay, but today you yell at the class because you actually meant complete silence… it’s not their fault. It’s actually your’s!

So, while attention getters, call-and-response, and seating arrangements have a lot to do with your students using their voices appropriately in your class, so does setting a foundation for noise expectations.

Mrs. Middle School’s Voice-O-Meter

In my classroom, my voice-o-meter has done wonders. I don’t use it everyday. In fact, usually my students’ noise level is okay with me. I believe that all humans need to talk to learn, so I ensure that my kids have times to talk during the class. But, some days I do address which “meter” their voices should be on. I try to do it during my directions for an activity, but it can also be used to change the level of the voices in the middle of the class.

You could certainly modify this idea to fit your style and expectations. I have seen other teachers do similar meters with simply numbers, zero being no talking, and 4 being as loud as it should get. Here is an explanation of my meter, though:

0: Ninja Mode- No talking. No one can hear you. We use this whenever we are taking quizzes, working on independent work, or silently reading.

1: Spy Talk- Shhh…whisper. Only one person can hear you. We use this whenever we are partner reading or working with one other person to complete classwork.

2: Squad Voice- It’s top secret! Only your group can hear you. We use this when we are working on projects or group assignments. I made sure to still make this “top secret” though so that they understand this doesn’t mean yelling. In fact, when we go over these in class, I remind them that they wouldn’t want other groups to take their ideas or answers! (They love competitions and wouldn’t want to give away their secrets!)

The voice-o-meter helps set expectations in my classroom because if students are operating at a squad voice, instead of saying “quiet down” and them not knowing who I’m talking to or what that exactly means, I can ask them to turn into spies! This resonates really well with middle school students.

I have found that whenever I use this system heavily at the beginning of the year, the kids usually understand my expectations in certain situations, so know that we’re ending the year, I don’t use it as much. This is a perk of the system.

Supplies to construct your very own voice-o-meter:

  • hard poster board or poster board with intention to laminate
  • printed words or markers to hand write words
  • bulletin board numbers or stickers
  • fabric or bulletin border to decorate
  • hot glue gun (fun!)
  • chip clip to mark which meter it is on

Good luck crafting!

Notes from Students

Middle School Classroom, Pep Talks & Positivity

One of the most satisfying parts of being a teacher is receiving notes from our students. Sometimes, they thank us for teaching them something new or believing in them. Sometimes, they write us notes saying that we’re their favorite teachers or that they love us! The main reason this is so validating is because it means somewhere along the way, we’ve made a connection with that student. It’s no secret that making those connections with our students make our instruction more effective.

A student wrote me this note last week and placed it in my mailbox–unsigned!

Have you ever gotten a note from a student that you didn’t expect to write you one? Have you ever gotten a note from a student that wasn’t even signed? There is something even more special about these types of notes. 🙂

So, what can you do after you after you receive a note?

  1. Thank the student (if you know who they are.) These thoughtful actions should be appreciated and reinforced!
  2. Write the student back if you have something to compliment them on! This doesn’t have to be immediate, and in fact, will be more genuine if you wait, but it will still mean a lot to them.
  3. Ask the student to stay after class and thank them. Simply ask them what is new in their life or how things are going. Sometimes, kids reach out as a way of connecting, so give them the opportunity to.

Pep Talk: Your kids love you. While notes may be few and far between, be patient and thankful when they do come. Think of it as we communicate as adults; when was the last time you called one of your friends? If you’re anything like me, it has maybe been a few weeks! Don’t hold your students to expectations that you can’t even keep. And, when you receive this love, make sure to give it back! Acknowledge whenever your kids do good things, thank them when they are kind to others, and give them a reward when they exceed expectations. After all, the saying goes that it’s better to give than to receive, right?

Feels like a Family

Middle School Classroom

Recently, an educational assistant that worked with a student in my classroom for a period decided to pursue a different route and is no longer working at my school. So, there have been substitute assistants for the last couple of weeks. While sometimes transitions like this can be challenging, it has also been interesting meeting new faces and having new guests interact in the classroom.

Today, an educational assistant that I’ve never seen before came into the room. She circulated around. We smiled at each other, but didn’t have much to say.

During this particular class today, I was a bit frustrated. Over half of this class period didn’t have their work done for our peer conference today. Some of the kids were chatting, although their work wasn’t complete. Another new student has never written an essay, so I was spending a majority of my time working one-on-one with him. On top of all of that, I’m a bit under the weather with a cold.

We’ve all had these overwhelming class periods now and then. When we force a smile and calm tone because we understand that many of our kids didn’t go home to the most supportive houses last night. And because we want to encourage them to be better in a loving way.

What struck me, though, were the two sentences that the educational assistant said to me on her way out the door: “I’ve never seen a classroom or a teacher like this. You can see that you really love teaching, and it feels like a big family.”

Where I sometimes get bogged down with the chaos and even at times would admit dysfunction, I felt so warm and fuzzy to hear someone who simply spent 30 minutes in my classroom say that it felt like a family. Sure, sometimes we don’t all get along. Sometimes we all need different things. Sometimes, we let each other down. But, we’re all still there for each other, and in a way, that’s what truly makes a family a family.

As she finished telling me that, the kids all starting singing me happy birthday–and, in typical family fashion–all started at different times and in different keys!

Discovery Centers in your Classroom

Language Arts Resources, Middle School Classroom

I had been seeing great ideas online about STEM centers in the classroom and was admittedly a bit jealous of the ease of incorporating something like this for a math-science classroom. At first, I had no ideas for how to make an application space like this in my language arts classroom. Once I began thinking and researching, though, it became apparent that regardless of what subject you teach, you could easily make a discovery center in your classroom.

Discovery centers are important spaces in our classroom. They should be an area where students are eager to come and learn something new–no teachers, assignments, or tests involved. Just pure fun and learning! Including an area like this in your classroom shows that you value learning, exploration, and the content you teach. It gives kids another way to connect with the content you teach and I’ve found it’s a good way to reel in those students who seem to want nothing to do with your subject. Think of it like hiding broccoli in a really yummy casserole; with enough cheese, I hear kids will eat just about anything!

For my classroom, I wanted a separate space that kids would feel it was a privilege to hang out. I envisioned it being a place that they would beg to be at; they’d want to leave lunch to eat here and they’d want to spend time here once their work was finished during study hall. So, during the summer, I re-purposed an older oak high-top table into an adorable farmhouse writing center for my classroom. You could definitely use a normal student desk, a small circular desk, or perhaps even create a discovery box or tray that contains materials that kids can unpack like a toolbox.

Here are some basic ideas for what you could put at this discovery area depending on your subject area:

Math: math blocks, cubes, word problems, calculators, graph paper, math card games

Science: building blocks, tinker gadgets (for building things), legos, nature supplies, research articles

Social Studies: news magazines such as Scholastic, trivia questions, maps, atlas, a laptop for research

Reading: Your favorite short stories, vocab flip books, flashcards, word games

Language Arts: stationary, gel pens, story starters, word games, madlibs

When I began to offer this area, my sign-up sheet was full to the brim during the first day! My kids were so excited to work at it, share stories, write letters, and play word games. It made me thrilled to see that taking a hands-off approach allowed them to simply explore, discover, and learn.

It makes me think a little about evaluating our students… seeing them learn so much at this area with so little pressure makes me wonder how much more they could learn without our constant assessments. That, my friends, is perhaps for a different post. 🙂 Happy Discovering!

Escape Rooms in the Classroom

Middle School Classroom

My grad school professor and I were recently talking about one of the best ways to engage students: games. As you know, many of our children are going home and spending hours with their eyes glued to their computers, and when you ask them what they did this weekend, “beating somebody at fortnite” is a common answer.

I fully respect and cherish a traditional education system, but I also feel it’s necessary to integrate (and maybe even embrace) elements of kids’ lives that they have fun doing. After all, don’t we wish that every kid was so engrossed in what they were learning in our classrooms that they actually enjoyed themselves? Imagine how much more they would learn!

We play many games in my classroom, but one of my year-long favorites happened yesterday: THE ESCAPE ROOM!

Escape rooms are super popular, and the main concept is that students work together (while sometimes competing against another team) to try to “escape” the room. In real life escape rooms, people would truly be opening locks, but I haven’t messed with these in my room as I hear students can accidentally reset the lock password and locks become unusable easily. In my classroom, the students need to come up with four codes that they will write on a piece of paper in order to “escape.” In this case, escaping meant an awesome gummy snack as a prize!

All in all, you need to think about different puzzles you can include in order to have student produce 3-5 digit codes. After writing a silly situation where one of the characters in our novel needed to escape jail, I also put the materials I made into a brown bag like pictured below.

Here are some of the elements I included in the brown paper bags for my escape room. You could easily take these ideas and modify them for your grade and content area.

  1. A letter written from someone’s point of view, which includes a number. This number may point to a page in the novel, textbook, or webquest that the students can then look for other hints! Tip: This is most fun if you fold the letter and place it inside of an envelope!
  2. A hands on “puzzle” with a secret twist. In my escape room, which was for Tuck Everlasting, I added a water bottle (the everlasting water ooh) with a new label. Under the label was simply written in pencil “why was 6 afraid of 7?” This was the easiest code of them all, but many of the groups never thought to rip off the label and check underneath!
  3. A deck of cards that includes secret digits. When the kids got the deck of cards, many of them counted them, tried to find some missing, etc. Eventually, they would notice that a few of the cards had other numbers taped on them. The idea is that they would realize (after finding a link to a magic card youtube video I put on our school communication website) that the cards needed to be ordered in a royal flush, and the digits on them were the correct answer.
  4. A secret riddle under a desk or chair. My riddle contained things like “clap three times, spin around.” My silly students actually did this! Later in the riddle was a hint to a page number they had to go to. There is nothing better than seeing them laughing while working together to solve these riddles.
  5. Be sure to include at least one {hefty} content element. It is fun to hide codes, have secret materials, and just plain fun riddles, but it’s important to remember to add in a hefty task or puzzle that deals straight with the content you are teaching. In my escape room, I had a magic squares puzzle where students had to answer 20 questions about the novel we were reading to then find the “magic” number that they all added up to.

Escape rooms could be used to discover new content in your subject area, but I’ve traditionally used them as a fun way to review or end a concept.

In order to make the escape room fair, I set a timer for 20 minutes so everyone has the same amount of time. In addition, I allow each group to ask me one yes or no question, which I also promise to follow up with a one-sentence clue. From time to time, I’ll also pass the group and cough *cough cough cough* and nod my head, shake my head, etc to give them a little validation, especially if I see that they are stuck.

My kids loved the escape room, and even though they got to work with half of the class, none of them fully escaped this year! I will be giving the prize to the team with the most correct codes. I won’t lie, planning and prepping this escape room took me hours, but it was well worth it for the engagement they experienced.