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'Hacks' for Teachers

(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best "hacks"—small but effective actions you take for things you have to do as a teacher—that save you time?


We teachers can always use more "hacks," and contributors to this series offer a number that can save us some time.

Though the responses to this question were written several months ago prior to school closures, many—if not most—are adaptable to an online environment, and the accompanying podcast talks specifically about the challenges offered by COVID-19.  Those that only apply to the "normal" physical classroom can be kept in mind for future reference.

This column will return next week to continuing a 25-post "blitz" that began on Aug. 1 supporting teachers as we enter a pandemic-fueled school year.

You can see all those posts from this month, as well as the 60 from the spring, at All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Today, Jennifer Orr, Dr. Alva Lefevre, Laurie Manville, Serena Pariser, Julia Thompson, and Douglas Reeves offer their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Laurie, and Serena on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. A new season of the show will begin in late September.

Students doing more

Jennifer Orr is a national-board-certified elementary school teacher in the suburbs of Washington. She is a mother of two and an obsessive buyer of children's books:

Years ago, I visited a friend and former colleague in her kindergarten classroom. She had previously sworn never to teach kindergartners but took the job that was offered. I was curious to see how it was going. The thing that struck me most was that her students ran the classroom, in the most positive way possible. I was there on a Friday, and we left when the students left because everything was ready for Monday. Her students had set up the calendar, the classroom jobs, the materials, and more. They took care of it.

One of my goals is to not do anything my students can do in our classroom. I teach 3rd graders, and they run our morning meeting, take care of our classroom library, and get our room set every morning and afternoon. This requires some effort at the start of the year to establish these routines, but then I can step back and focus on things only I can do. Throughout the year, I reflect on the things I do, especially things I do daily, to determine if it is really something that must be done by me. I am still surprised to find that there are things I could turn over to students. Not only do I have less work then, but the students feel a stronger investment in our space and our community when they are responsible for it. 

Assessments have always been a challenge for me as they can be time consuming to create and grade. For the past few years, I have worked to create quick exit tickets for many units. They take the students only a few minutes to create and an equally short time for me to score. I also enter the data on a spreadsheet quickly. That data, over the unit, helps me plan remediation and enrichment as well as to modify my daily instruction based on their needs. Not only does this save me time, but I feel I have better knowledge of their understandings and skills than an end-of-unit test would provide. 

Outside of the classroom, there are things I do to take care of myself. I know how critical it is that I eat healthy every day and how challenging it is to pull together breakfast and lunch regularly. Instead, I take an hour on the weekend and prepare my breakfasts and lunches for the week. This allows me to just grab them in the morning and go. If I didn't, there would be many days in which I would stop for fast food for breakfast on the way to school and eat microwave popcorn for lunch. My physical and mental health benefit greatly from the time I spend on the weekends. 

No matter what I do, I know that this is a job that will take more than the 37.5 hours a week for which I am paid. I can live with that, but I also want to be sure that the time I spend on work is as beneficial as possible.

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"Automate and delgate"

Dr. Alva Lefevre has been a language teacher, administrator, university professor, and teacher trainer for almost 40 years.  She is passionate about working with English-learners and finding ways to apply educational research to the classroom.  In her spare time, Alva enjoys traveling, gardening, and art.

Laurie Manville is an ELD teacher and instructional coach at Brookhurst Junior High in the Anaheim Union High School District in California. She enjoys helping her students figure out what they are meant to do in life and guiding teachers in lesson-design creation. In her free time, you will find her backstage (or near a stage) assisting with line memorization, costumes or concessions, analyzing a screenplay, or at home journaling or mastering PiYo.

Dr. Alva Lefevre blogs with Laurie Manville at L&M Educational Consulting on their Facebook page and their new website, Educators in the Know. 

AUTOMATE AND DELEGATE are our best all-time hacks. The hacks are individually small, but when taken all together, they create a huge time-saving element.  Start with a LIST of all you do within a class period and some of the things you do outside of class.  The ones that ONLY you can do come down to attendance, parent communications, and grading. The rest can be automated and delegated to individual students or groups of students.

  • The first hack is to get our class to work in COOPERATIVE GROUPS.  When working in groups, we have the THREE BEFORE ME RULE—meaning that if a student needs to know what page we're on or what we need to do next, they have to ask three people in their group before the WHOLE group raises their hand for my assistance.  This is written on the whiteboard or on the bulletin board so that I can point to it until the students have internalized the idea that they need to be responsible for their own learning.

We also train our students to do PEER EDITING—corrections so that the writing we get has already been looked at by two other people for basic corrections, like spelling and basic punctuation.  With more advanced groups, we have them work on improving sentences and helping with adding details.

  • PEER TEACHING/COACHING also occurs within the groups so that reteaching is usually necessary only when the whole class needs additional time.  Besides the time-saving element, there is value in giving students voice and opportunities for meaningful participation and for developing caring student-to-student and teacher-to-student relationships.
  • Making the classroom inclusive takes a lot of teacher time unless built into classroom activities.  In PAIR-SHARE, for example, when we ask students to pair up and discuss/share something to bring back to the group, we ask them to share what their partner said.  They have to mention their partner by name and tell what the partner has told them. This encourages students to really listen to each other and gets them to know each other, and it validates the ideas of shy students who would rather not speak up or, when they do, don't want to appear "pushy". It also gives us a lot of information about our students.
  • CLASSROOM PROCEDURES Picking up and returning papers is done by students on a rotational basis. Bulletin boards can be assigned to groups, and they must provide me with a plan for what is to be done.  Charts are what we work on in cooperative groups, and they line the walls for review purposes (no need for expensive, cute posters).
  • We develop and train our students in all classroom procedures with the acceptable time frame. Each AUTOMATED PROCEDURE has a name, such as Collab Groups, Pair-Share, Lab Day Groups, etc., and students know what needs to be done to get to work right away.  This is done by introducing one at a time, by name, over the first few weeks.  Some of the long-term jobs also have benchmarks that need to be met.
  • STUDENT-LED CLASSROOM JOBS. Most of the work done by students is carried out on a rotational basis so that all have the experience of leading, following, and cooperating.  There are some jobs that are not part of the rotation; and, for those, the students must apply.  This is part of the bigger picture where we work with our students to develop a working resume.  All classroom "jobs" have action verbs tied to them, and the students keep track of what they've done and the skills that are required to do it. Tying all the classroom processes and procedures to real-life applications gives the students a sense of relevance and motivates them to excel.  These practices include teaching students to ask questions to encourage critical thinking and dialogue (especially around current social issues); making learning more hands-on by using participatory individual/group evaluation strategies; and employing cooperative approaches (such as cooperative learning, peer helping, cross-age mentoring, and community service).

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Seating charts

Serena Pariser works closely with student-teachers at the University of San Diego and also consults with schools. Her Corwin Publishing 2018 best-selling book Real Talk About Classroom Management is now sold across the country. It has also been made into a self-paced Skillbuilder online video series for new and experienced teachers. She can be contacted at s[email protected], and her blog can be found at www.serenapariser.com:

There's really one hack that is the godfather. It's not really a hack, but if you do it correctly, it can help your classroom management tremendously throughout the year. 

A well-designed seating chart based on academic history. I learned how to do one in my third year teaching. I couldn't believe how it worked to promote collaboration, critical thinking, and create a community of learners- especially in a class with all different types of learning styles and abilities. I go into it in detail in my book Real Talk About Classroom Management, but in a snapshot, you do these steps:

  1. Seat your students with IEP's (spread these students around, not in the front of the class (unless they need to sit there).
  2. Seat your EL students (spread them around—really spread them around) 
  3. Seat your GATE (Gifted and Talented) students (spread them around them!) 
  4. Seat your General Education students (spread them around).
  5. Seat your students with 504 plans—same idea

Did you notice something? As much as we need to foster connections with students, the seating chart is based on academic ability, learning style, and academic history that students come to you with. Why is this so important? When we take personalities out of it, we are focusing on the academics. No matter how well Ricky and Consuelo may work together, if they are both beginning English, they should probably each naturally pair with somebody that can academically help them on certain assignments. This prevents learned helplessness in your classroom as well, because students are already seated for academic success in your classroom. They are all sitting next to someone that can help them and that they might need to help. They are pulling each other up- forming academic bonds that hold your classroom together.

The issue is that when we don't create a community of learners, we might not be preparing our students for the real world. Top employers are looking to hire people who can collaborate, solve complex problems, manage emotions, have high self-esteem, stay motivated, and can listen. These are skills our students get when they are sitting with students they might need to help or that can help them academically.

Now, here's the real deal: When students feel academically successful in our classroom, they will feel good about themselves, they will feel like they belong to the learning community, and they will be more open to fostering a deeper connection with us. Research shows that teachers who have a strong connection with their students have 30 percent fewer behavior issues than those that do not. Setting our students up for success and believing in them are the basis of any healthy teacher/student relationship.

A well-designed seating chart proactively fosters a strong community of learners. I recommend making one by Day 3 of the school year. 

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The three-column rubric

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReeves and can be reached at [email protected]:

I use the "three-column rubric" to save time and accelerate the pace at which I provide feedback to students.  I've seen this used from 1st grade to graduate students.  It's always the same format.  The left-hand column is the explicit expectations for the assignment in student-accessible language.  The middle column is the student self-assignment.  To make this work, teachers must be clear and consistent:  I don't take work that does not include a student self-assessment attached to it.  The right-hand column is ONLY where the teacher disagrees with the student self-assessment. 

When I started using this, it cut the time it took me to grade papers by more than half and, more importantly, helped students to become more reflective about their work.  I didn't waste time telling them what they already know and I focused on helping them to become clear about the quality of their work.  It also forced me to be much more explicit  and less ambiguous in the content of my scoring rubrics.

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Thanks to Jennifer, Alva, Laurie, Serena, Julia, and Douglas for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

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