July 15, 2016

13 Teacher Hacks to Save Yourself Time and Money When Setting Up Your Classroom


     Happy Back-to-Schooling! 
As you creep back into your classroom to scratch up the newly polished floors and place more adhesive over the adhesive that didn't come off the walls last year, I have a few teacher hacks to help your set-up go a little smoother and certainly cheaper this year. Whether you are Type A (get your do-to list, flair pen, and highlighter ready) or Type B (save this blog to an area on your device you will forget to access later), there is something listed that you can apply to your classroom. 

1. Use a PAPER Monthly Calendar
This has been an amazing time-saver in my classroom. Granted, if you are primary, you may need/use those adorable calendars that you piece together one day at a time to help your little ones learn about time, date, weather and the like. However, if you teach upper elementary and have been stuck in perpetual calendar hell, this will forever change the way you feel at the end of the month when it's time to change the calendar.

When you use a paper calendar, you can write on it; because at the end of the month it's going in the recycling bin anyway. (Type A's will coordinate their calendars by event using different fonts, stickers, and colors. Type B's will grab whichever writing utensil is handy to make additional notes as the month progresses)

Yes, yes, yes, I've used those write-on wipe-off calendars and I can honestly say that I didn't know which was more annoying: trying to pry the numbers off to create the next month (I learned to love March because of this) or the wipe, wipe, wipe required to get all the ink off. 

A desk calendar will cost about $5.00. Or, you can go whole hog and buy a wall calendar which can run up to $30.00. Either way, do yourself a favor - buy a paper calendar. Your bulletin board will thank you.

2. Color Code Your Curriculum
If you have the capabilities, I highly recommend you color code your copies. 


There are several ways to approach this. 
A. Color code by subject area.
B. Color code by practice versus assessment.
C. Color code by "title". For instance: I teach NYS/Eureka Math. Problem Sets are pink, Homework is white, Exit Tickets are green, etc...You get the picture.

The copies on the left are color coded and then stacked by lesson. I grab the "rainbow" I need for the day and teaching begins!

Type A's have already been doing this. Type B's are just happy to find the copies they need. But, lessons and life are so much better in color. And, your "work to grade" basket will thank you.

3. Put Tennis Balls on the Chairs
This one trick has several benefits. Type A's will jump on this tip. Type B's will get to it either over the break, or next school year.

It significantly reduces the amount of noise that is made when chairs are being pulled out or pushed in. It makes it easier to actually move the chairs by creating a smoother surface against the tile. And, it protects the floor. It's the least you can do after scratching up the new wax. 

I usually asks student to bring in a can of tennis balls (even used ones will work). So, talk to your high school (if they have a tennis team) or a local tennis club. If they have used balls they no longer need, offer to take them off their hands! The dollar store also sells dog toy tennis balls. Super cheap and they do the same thing.

Tennis balls will last for a couple of years, so you won't need to request them every year. But get them on your chairs - the sooner the better. Your custodian will thank you.

4. Binder Clips for Your Mailboxes
If you use an individualized mailbox system, do yourself a favor and use binder clips to label the slots. Using binder clips instead of adhesive labels is so much easier for more than one reason. 


A. They can be moved. You can move the names around in the event, say, oh, a student is added to your roster the day before school (after you have already labeled everything in the room). New student? No problem. Just move the clips. 

B. At the end of the year it is soooo much easier to pull the labels off the clips rather than the plastic/wood/cardboard that separates the slots. 

C. The mailboxes won't be as "beat up" from repeated adhesive throughout the years. They may have an indent where the clip was, but at least you won't be systematically breaking the material down year after year.

D. If you are Super Type A, you can move clips during the year when your roster changes and keep your mailboxes in alphabetical order with minimal effort. (Unless, of course, you use class numbers too. In which case, good luck with that.)

Binder clips have made the start of the year "mailbox labeling" and end-of-year "stripping task" a lot less annoying. Use the clips. Your mailbox will thank you.

5. Use What Walmart (or any store) Stores the Stuff In
If you are anything like me, you will buy class sets of certain items before the school year starts: notebooks, composition books, spirals, folders, etc... When you do, grab the entire container the items are sitting in. Think about it- it will be the perfect size for whatever you are buying because it was designed to hold that specific item. 

When you get it to your room, throw some contact paper around it to make it pretty. (This step is optional.) All Type A's will do it. Type B's will vow to do it "when things slow down"; but in reality the cardboard will break down to be recycled before a Type B actually puts the contact paper (sitting in a cabinet in its original shrink wrap) on the box. It's OK either way. The point is you have just fashioned yourself a free container to hold classroom supplies. 

And, the store won't care if you take the box. Trust me. It's one less item they will need to break down and put in their own recycling bin. Grab the container. The store (and your wallet) will thank you.

6. Cereal Boxes are Your Friend
As with the tip shared up above, cereal boxes work too! I use these as "book bins". I ask each student to bring in one LARGE cereal box. I cut angles into the box for the students to have easier access. 

I apologize to Type A's who cannot use this tip due to the various box heights, lengths, and widths that will come into the room and cause your left eye to twitch. However, I do offer an additional tip that may help you overcome the need for uniformity: wrap these boxes in contact paper as well. They may be different sizes, but at least they will all look the same from a distance.

A cereal box "book bin" trumps the black hole of a desk where nothing can be found with efficiency. It will keep the books better organized and reduces the abuse the books will encounter while swimming in the sea of papers, folders, eraser chunks, and pencil shavings that are found in student desks. Your classroom library and school librarian will thank you. 

7. Make Whisper Phones
These handy devices blew into the teacher world a bit ago and companies have been making oodles of money off of teachers who clamored to buy class sets of them to help their auditory learners better access information and text. 

Companies charge as much as $5.00/piece (outrageous!) to $16.00/dozen (not as bad but still a crazy profit) for these little plastic devices. I have a solution for those of you with big hearts and small wallets: you can EASILY make your own.

You will need:
4" of PVC pipe
(2) PVC elbows
Duct tape (optional for Type B's, required for Type A's)

I bought the PVC pipe in longer lengths and had hubby cut it down. If you do not have someone handy with a saw around to cut it, ask a friendly sales associate at the store to cut it up for you. If you are buying from Home Depot or Lowe's they are usually pretty good about that sort of thing. If they seem hesitant, play your teacher card. People love to help teachers; and by extension the students in their class. 

Once you have 4 inch pieces, place an elbow on each end. Voila! Type B's are done. Type A's, you will now cut duct tape to stick around the handles so that all phones match, cover up the factory markings, and look pretty. Type B's will live with the industrial markings until students' sweat wears it off of the handle.

For about $0.42/phone you have provided a valuable resource to your students. These are a very popular item in my class. The students love to use them and I love the added value of them being able to hear what the are reading while keeping the volume in the classroom to a minimal. Additionally, we use them during writing. Students who hear their writing are more likely to find the mistakes that need editing and revision. 

Make some Whisper Phones, your auditory (and other) students will thank you.

8. Level Your Classroom Library
Your classroom library will be one of the most used, often abused, sections of your classroom. Students will use it to scan dozens of books as they seek out their next great read. They will ponder: what should I read next, what level is this book, how many points is this worth? 

Save yourself hours and hours (and hours) of time and energy by labeling every book you own. Do it. I don't want to hear: "But Nancy, I have so many books I have no idea where to start!" "I can't possibly get it done, so I'll just let it go." "I've never labels my books before, why should I now?" Allow me to articulate why you need to do this.

Students who are using a "book level" system to choose their next novel can be navigated to the correct section for them. You will notice right away if a student is hunting and gathering in a level that is too hard for them. You can gently guide them into an area that will have an assortment of novels that won't put them over the edge when they attempt to independently read.

Students will become proficient at choosing the right level for themselves when they understand the process and the books have the levels already on the books. They (or you) won't need to waste time finding a level online to determine the level of the book. (Side note: my students become experts at locating book levels and it's a bit comical when the turn a school or public library book to find a level that isn't there!)

When a book has your name on it, you exponentially increase the odds of you getting it back. Most people are proficient at this part of labeling. But, I am throwing it out there to remind you to do it (even your professional books) and to invite you to take it one step further in putting the level and point value on there, too.

If you don't know where to start I'll give a starting point; begin with the new books you just bought. Once you open that box of little blessings, get your name, level, and point values on them before they even hit your shelves. This applies to guided reading group/literature circle books too. You never know where they may end up. 

It's not enough to label your books- label your shelves/bins too. It will not only help navigate students to the correct area, it helps students to know where to put the book back once they are done! 

This hack is of the utmost importance: label DIRECTLY ON THE PAGES. Not on the back of the book, not inside the cover. On the pages. Repeat after me: on the pages. When you label on the pages, it won't wear off (as it can on shiny materials), it can't be covered over with a sticker label (as it can with labeling on inside covers), it can't be removed (as can happen with a sticker label), and it is readily seen with a quick turn of the book.

In an effort to give you full disclosure, the book labeling bonanza did not happen in my room for years. It was completed a handful of years ago by a diligent parent volunteer that asked, "What job do you need done that hasn't been tackled yet?" So, if you're not quite sure what to do with a parent volunteer, give them this job! Your books will thank you.

9. Protective Sleeves and Packaging Tape are Almost as Good as Lamination
Do you lack access to a laminator? Did you make or print something that you want to use but can't stand the thought of little fingers smudging it up before you have time to get to the laminator? I would like to introduce you to Protective Sleeves and Packaging Tape.

You can use sleeves to protect and store any 8.5" x 11" inch piece of paper that you want to use before you have time to get to the laminator. In my case, the laminator is in a separate building and its use requires an appointment. So, my trips to laminator-land are few and far between. Happily, protective sleeves have been my go-to way to keep my resources clean and readily accessible to my students. Plus, I have the added benefit of being able to store them in a binder. I have enjoyed this process so much so that I have been able to let go of the need for laminating and embraced the easy storing capabilities that protective sleeves has offered. I have fit about 40 game sheets in a 1/2" binder.

For smaller items, get yourself a roll of packaging tape. This has been a great way to "laminate" small items (typically no bigger than an index card). When you trim it, your scissors will get a bit "gummy". But, it's worth it.

The time saved from protective sleeves and packaging tape is worth their weight in gold. You will save time from not needing to go to the laminator as well as the time on task of trimming and cutting the items that come out of the laminator. I do understand that lamination is one of the most satisfying things you do as an educator. The sense of permanence, of completion, of achievement! I get it- I do!! But try one of these alternatives- your schedule will thank you. (Type B's will be willing to try this immediately. Type A's will not attempt it until they are desperate.)

10. Paper Clip Chains
I teach in a state with some extensive fire codes which are continuously checked and reinforced by several different individuals. For those teachers that would like to hang information or student work from the ceiling (yet stay within the fire safety laws) I invite you to utilize paper clip chains.

In NYS, the code requires at least 24" between the ceiling and the "next combustible" material. Thus, using rope, string, ribbon and the like are a no-no. Fashion yourself a chain made from tiny metal fasteners (which can interlock with themselves) and you are now in compliance! 

Type A's will appreciate the aesthetic value these chains will bring (they blend nicely and match everything). Type B's will be grateful to have something up that is easy to interchange and will actually stay in place.

Make yourself some paper clip chains. The superintendent, principal, head custodian, night custodian, head of buildings and grounds, fire code inspector, and insurance inspector will thank you.

11. Make Some Name Lists
This was a hack I learned while serving as a practicum in a kindergarten. I have been using it ever since. Make a list of students in whichever order works for you. Some teachers prefer alphabetical by first name, other will opt for order by last name. You can fit 4-5 lists on a single page of paper. Then, take it to the copy room and make copies. If you are Type A, only make a few (because when your class list changes, you will throw out the current lists, go back into your computer, revise the order, and copy new lists). If you are Type B, make lots (because you will simply cross out and add to the list each time you use it or give it to another adult to use).

Name lists are a great way to help you organize who has brought in required forms, paid for items, completed certain tasks, etc...and I give them to volunteers so they know which students they have worked with (this is especially helpful when projects run over the course of more than one day). Make up some name lists! Your volunteers will thank you.

12. Create/Find a Reading Correlation Chart
This is a biggie. If you work in a district that watches/uses data on a regular and consistent basis, then this is a hack you can't live without. If you don't know where to find one go HERE. Once at this site, you can choose which reading levels/programs you want included in the chart. Then, print and save in a safe place. Type A's will have it laminated, spiral bound, and tabbed by the end of the hour, twice. In fact, they may even make a set for your whole team. Type B's...don't be Type B about this. Get it printed and at least stored in a folder that you usually know the location of.

For me, I have mine taped on the front of a folder I use to store grades, AIS data, and the like. It has been handy to have when working on report cards, while meeting with parents, or when sitting in CSE meetings. And it's even handier when I get a new student coming in from a district that uses different reading inventories. It's much faster to refer back to the chart than to look it up online.

Print and store a correlation chart. Your future self will thank you.

13. Keep Former Sticky Notes in Your Copy Folder
First, if you do not have a copy folder- get one. This is accomplished by finding a folder and writing your name on the front.

Second, once the school year gets rolling, you will develop a pattern of the kinds of copies you need to make (front-to-back, 25 copies, staple, etc...). Many teachers will place sticky notes on the copies that need specific instructions. Once you have made the copies, keep the stickies! Put them inside your folder and then the next time you need that kind of copy made, simply place the correct sticky to the correct copy. It will save time on re-writing "25 copies f-to-b" over and over again.

This is a great hack if you send your copies to a place in the building where someone else is making the copies for you. It also helps if you send your copies with a parent volunteer. If you make your own copies, this is still a great hack. However your copies are made, keep your sticky notes. 

Type A's will do this. Type B's will have enough of challenge locating their copy folder (if they ever make one). Don't worry Type B's, I love you all just the same. No judgement, just love. But if you can manage this, your planning time will thank you.

I hope this Baker's Dozen of Hacks is helpful to you as you set up your classroom. Thank you to the Type A's for your diligence with careful reading and note-taking and thank you to the Type B's who actually made it this far down the blog.


Have an AMAZING year!

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