smooth sailing

School doesn’t start back until after Labor Day for us here in New York (sorry to make you jealous!), but of course I’ve already started planning ahead. I’ve teamed up with a fantastic group of teacher bloggers to share ideas for making the start of the school year easier AND give away some great prizes.

Let’s start with the tips and tricks. One major challenge during the first week of school is organizing all the supplies that kids bring in and teaching them how to store everything away appropriately. I used to ask my third graders to put the communal supplies (like Kleenex and printer paper) in a designated spot on a table, and then put all of their personal school supplies away “neatly” in their desks. I’d get distracted by all the other first day of school tasks and find myself peeking in the kids’ desks a week later to find bits of crayon wrapper, balled up pieces of paper, and mountains of broken pencils piled on top of crooked stacks of books.

“Does this look clean to you?” I’d ask. The kids would stare at me blankly, move some things around, and then show me a desk three seconds later that looked only marginally better. And that’s when I realized that MY expectations for a clean desk were completely different than the KIDS’ expectations. And it was time I figured out a way to get us on the same page. I drew this clean desk diagram and hung it up at the front of the room:

teaching kids how to organize their school supplies

I then introduced my expectations in a mini lesson which taught students how to use the diagram to clean their desks and check to see if their desks were clean. I encouraged them to figure out the reason why each aspect of the diagram was included and how it would help them to find and care for their materials more easily.

After the introductory mini lesson, I’d conduct periodic desk checks. These weren’t done in a crazy drill sergeant way–they were actually fun for the kids because I’d made cleaning up into a game, and the kids were anxious to see if their desks would match up to the diagram and pass inspection. We had a lot of fun with it!  The first desk check I did was usually later the same day that I taught the mini lesson so students’ desks were still fairly neat and it wouldn’t take long. I modeled how to do a desk check by reading each element and checking a student’s desk to see if it matched, narrating my thoughts as I went: “Let’s see…#1…two pencils and an eraser…nope, I only see one pencil, so let me get another out of the supply box. Okay, now #1 matches.  #2…all supplies in the pencil box which should be on top of the books or between the stacks, yep, got that…#3…” and so on. Then I gave students about one minute to read each element on the diagram and check their desks in the same way.

The clean desk diagram worked wonders in terms of making sure kids understood exactly what was expected. But of course, the kids didn’t automatically keep their desks clean just because I’d shown them how! They needed reminders and practice opportunities all throughout the year. I usually conducted desk checks once a day at the beginning of the school year and once a week for the rest of the year. The good news is that the “desk checks” became quicker and more efficient as students become familiar with the clean desk criteria and begin to internalize it.  As students learned how to care for and organize their belongings, they realized their supplies lasted longer and were easier to find. My hope is that students will continue to see the value in organization and carry those skills all throughout their lives.

clean desk diagram

(If you’d rather not draw your own Clean Desk Diagram, you can download the one you see above, which I created in conjunction with the fabulous Ashley Hughes of The School Supply Addict. The download includes 8 printable versions of the diagram with different “clean desk criteria” on them, as well as a two page mini lesson that gives you ideas for what to say when introducing the diagram to your students. Click here to get it for $2.)

The Cornerstone Book

That’s just one of hundreds of ideas for classroom management that I share in my eBook The Cornerstone: Classroom Management That Makes Teaching More Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable. The eBook uses photos of my classrooms through the years, forms, and dialogue examples to guidesyou through each step of communicating and reinforcing your expectations for all types of classroom procedures and routines. 

The Cornerstone has 500 PAGES of resources in eBook form for only $15! The entire first section of the book provides tips on starting the school year right, including classroom set up and organization, planning for the first few weeks of school, and creating a phenomenal Open House/Back to School Night experience for parents. Check out the Table of Contents to see what else is covered in the book, or learn more about the difference print copy/eBook options available for purchase on my site.

To help you get ahold of The Cornerstone and other great back-to-school resources, I am giving away FIVE $10 gift cards to TeachersPayTeachers! Your entry via the Rafflecopter below will also qualify you to win The Grand Prize: a collaborative  product giveaway where one winner will get nearly $300 worth of intermediate (grades 3-6) products for back to school, including an eBook copy of The Cornerstone AND a Clean Desk Diagram. Enter to win here:
a Rafflecopter giveaway



Be sure to stop by the blogs featured above: you’ll get more great tips and you can enter to win $50 worth of gift cards from each of them, as well: every giveaway you enter not only qualifies you for that blogger’s gift card prize, but puts you in the running for the collaborative  product giveaway, too! The contest ends Saturday, August 2nd. Good luck!


Hey, it keeps the kids busy and quiet, so it works for me!
I don’t care what the “research” says, it works in my classroom.
So what if that’s a better way, this is working for me!
Yeah, using technology would probably improve it, but what I’m doing is working, so I’ll pass.
How can anyone tell me not to do things that way when it works for me?

We use those kind of phrases a lot to defend educational practices. And to some extent, I agree with them. No one knows your students better than you, their teacher. You’re the one who is in the trenches each day, constantly trying out new things and experimenting with ways to meet each student’s needs.

But I think it’s helpful to ask ourselves what we actually mean by the phrase “it works for me.” Do we mean that what we’re doing makes kids compliant and quiet, or builds intrinsic motivation and gets them engaged? Does it just make the teacher’s job easier, or does it improve student learning?

Is what you’re doing really working for all kids, or just for most of them?

Is what you’re doing centered mostly on what meets your needs or theirs?

There’s nothing wrong with choosing instructional practices that keep an orderly classroom and simplify your teaching. But those are only a few of the many factors to consider when reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

I encourage you to really think about those knee-jerk reactions when you say, “It works for me, so I’m not changing.” Think about your behavior management system, for example. Does it REALLY produce the results you want–independent thinking, self-motivated, self-reliant, responsible students? If you’re complaining all the way until the end of June about how lazy kids are and how you just can’t get them to behave, then the answer is NO, your system actually doesn’t work for you, because it doesn’t really work for your kids.

There is no one right way to teach that will result in success for all students. No tried and true formula for success, right? So we have to stay open-minded and continually look for new ideas. What worked for last year’s class might not work for this year’s class, and shoe-horning a new group of kids into the same old teaching practices just because they’re familiar to you is only going to result in frustration for everyone involved.

As you plan for the coming school year, I encourage you to keep asking yourself: Does this work? How do I know it’s working? Is there something else I could try that might work better?

questions to ask when reflecting on your teaching practices

Be the lifelong learner you want your students to be. Keep reflecting, keep growing, keep trying new things. It can be discouraging when other people question your teaching methods, but it’s EMPOWERING to question yourself.


A bright idea for gently yet firmly saying NO

July 19, 2014
how to tell people no

On my way home from the TpT conference last Saturday, I overheard a random conversation between a JetBlue flight attendant and a passenger. It’s now the topic of a blog post here, so I suppose that’s a lesson to all of us that even our most off-handed words can have a tremendous impact and reach. We […]

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Big fish, little fish, and separate ponds of educators

July 16, 2014
separate ponds of educators

I have never had the option of having a single, tight-knit group of friends. When I was growing up, my dad was in the army. We moved every 3 years, and so did all my classmates. That sounds kind of traumatic, but it was the only life I knew and I enjoyed the adventure of it […]

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The power of social media to connect: #tptvegas14

July 14, 2014

Every time I go to a conference, I say that the best part was connecting with the people I admire, learn from, and care about. I think that was ten times as true for the first TeachersPayTeachers conference held last Friday in Las Vegas. These are the ladies (and a few gents) that I connect with […]

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5 ways to support kids who struggle with student-directed learning

July 10, 2014
strategies for helping kids be successful with project based learning and student direct learning

I mentioned in my ten takeaways from #ISTE2014 post that I wanted to write a bit more about some of the problems teachers are encountering with project-based and student-directed learning. Even though we believe deeply in helping kids uncover their passions, ask and pursue answering their own questions, and take ownership over their learning, the […]

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Follett Classroom Connections: a new set of eBook tools

July 7, 2014
Follett Classroom Connections eBooks

I’m proud to have Follett Learning as a sponsor and supporter of this blog (you might recall my posts on the annual Follett Challenge which awards $200K in tech resources to schools), and today I’m going to share with you their newest add-on service to the free Follett Shelf platform. It’s called Classroom Connections, and it’s a set of instructional tools […]

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My 10 big take-aways from #iste2014

July 2, 2014
#ISTE2014 Atlanta

I’ve always thought the term “re-entry” to our regular lives after an ISTE conference was a bit dramatic, but it really does feel that way this year. 16,000 educators in one building is…intense. Now that I’m back from Atlanta and scrolling through my notes, I’m going to try to condense everything down to 10 main take-aways. These are not necessarily the most […]

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Sortify: a free open-ended game for all grade levels

June 25, 2014
GameUp by BrainPOP

I don’t often talk about my work as the Educational Content Creator for BrainPOP because a lot of what I do is behind the scenes stuff that probably isn’t that blog-worthy. But I absolutely have to share with you this really cool game that I’ve been working on with the GameUp team for months because I think […]

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A bright idea for simplifying differentiation with smart student grouping

June 21, 2014
group work

Do your students hate group work? If so, they’re not alone. Personality conflicts and a wide range of abilities within the group often create results like this: Here’s a strategy to make it easier for you to form effective groups for a project or activity and differentiate the work that students do within their groups: 1) Pre-assess students […]

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“It must be nice to be paid not to work in the summer!”

June 16, 2014
why teachers don

If you had a dollar for every time you’ve heard that, right? It’s amazing how many people are unaware that most teachers spend their summers working a second job, teaching summer school, attending professional development, and/or doing curriculum mapping. And nearly all of us spend at least part of our summers working more unpaid hours preparing for the fall […]

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The Million Page Challenge: how one high school got kids reading for fun

June 12, 2014
John Lodle picture

Remember the Follett Challenge I featured here back in January? John Lodle is chair of the English department at the winning school, Belleville West High School in Illinois, where he has taught for the past 20 years. In today’s post, he’s kindly taken time to share the initiative that earned them the grand prize. The faculty at Belleville worked together […]

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Always a teacher: a reflection (& confession) on 5 years out of the classroom

June 9, 2014
always a teacher

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since I wrote this post about the (hilarious?) adventures of my very first job interview in Manhattan as an instructional coach. I also can’t believe that next June will hold my 20th high school reunion. Time flies and all that. I want to make a confession here. With each passing year, […]

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5 signs your classroom is overdecorated & how to fix it

June 5, 2014
highly decorated classrooms study

You’ve probably read some version of the study that has gone absolutely viral on social media in the last few days: Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning In Young Children. But have you seen the classroom used for the study? The bottom image shows the researchers’ idea of “highly decorated,” which looks like a pretty typical […]

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Join the Awakened Summer Book Club & get re-inspired to teach!

June 2, 2014
Awakened online book club and Bible study

Last summer, over 600 teachers participated in the online book clubs for Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching and The Awakened Devotional Study Guide for Christian Teachers, and I’m excited to run the study again this July! I want to warn you–the format of the book club is pretty laid back, but the […]

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Secrets of teachers who love their jobs: stay in awe of the learning process

May 28, 2014
secrets of teachers who love their jobs: stay in awe of the learning process

Staying motivated at the end of the school year can be tough. I hope this latest post from the teachers who love their jobs series will provide some inspiration! Fifth grade teacher Angela Kiser joins us today to share her tips for enjoying teaching. Thank you, Angela, for taking the time to impart such beautiful, wise words. 1. Tell us about […]

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Entrepreneur on Fire: my journey from classroom teaching to educational consulting

May 23, 2014
Entrepreneur on Fire podcast: Angela Watson shares her journey

I listen to a lot of podcasts while I’m working around the house and exercising, and Entrepreneur on Fire is my go-to when I need a bit of motivation for writing. It’s a daily free podcast which was voted best in iTunes in 2013. Listening to John Lee Dumas interview inspiring people like Seth Godin and […]

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10 authentic ways to hold students accountable for home reading

May 20, 2014
alternatives to reading logs: authentic ways to manage students

Let’s face it: reading logs are boring, and most kids hate writing down the titles and authors of books they’ve read in order to “prove” they’ve done their required 20 minutes of reading time at home. Here are some more authentic ways to hold students accountable for their reading time and foster a love of books. Please […]

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Bright ideas for connecting with kids during the last week of school

May 17, 2014
6 ways to connect with kids during the last week of school

The final days of the school year can feel like a whirlwind, and there have been many years in which I felt like I didn’t take enough time to enjoy my students and give our time together the recognition and closure it deserved. Here are six ideas for grades K-5 to help you connect with […]

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Passionate learners: giving our classrooms back to our students

May 14, 2014
Passionate Learners by Pernille Ripp

I knew even before I read it that Passionate Learners: Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students was going to become one of my favorite education resources and something I would recommend to every teacher I know. That’s because I’ve been following Pernille Ripp’s incredible blog for many years. She consistently cranks out thoughtful reflections on […]

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