Bright ideas for tech-savvy educators, right to your inbox

Teacher Deals, Classroom Makeovers, Building Community, and More: The Teachers’ Ultimate Guide to Back-to-School Planning

Monday, July 24, 2017 -- Sarah Cornelius

Have you spotted the first back-to-school supply displays yet? Whether you’re anxiously awaiting the return to the classroom or happily soaking up every drop of summer you can, the first day of school is right around the corner. We know all of you educators are putting plenty of thought into what you’ll do to get the new school year off to a great start. To help you rock those first weeks back in the classroom, we’ve rounded up some of our best resources on classroom organization, classroom management, and teacher deals!

If your classroom needs a makeover…

More and more educators are recognizing the power of flexible learning spaces, and there’s no shortage of innovative ideas aimed at reimaging classroom design for 21st century learning. The goal is to create an environment that foster students’ personal growth in communication, collaboration, creativity, and leadership skills. This year, break out of the traditional mold by making use of these four elements of 21st century classroom design.

Try a flexible layout

Going hand-in-hand with the push for personalized learning, the driving concept behind 21st century classroom design is flexibility. Students’ days are full of choices that empower them to decide how they learn best, and they need an environment which supports that. An agile space also gives teachers the ability to respond to different students’ needs. Incorporate some version of a group gathering area, provide multiple seating options, or create a flex zone that can be adapted for more unique learning activities. This kind of flexible layout makes it easy to try a greater variety of grouping formats and lesson types that take into account students’ widely varying learning styles. 21st century classrooms are driven by student’s interests, and open, flexible spaces allow students to come together to share, collaborate, and create.

Buy furniture for utility

Lots of schools are already getting rid of standard desks and replacing them with a variety of different seating options. To allow for maximum utility of your classroom space, look for portable furniture options like yoga mats, cushions, and exercise balls, in addition to more creative large pieces like kidney tables, standing tables, sofas, and floor tables. On average, children spend about ten hours of their day sitting, so classroom furniture should accommodate for their natural need to move. Giving students options that allow them to rock, bounce, and rotate while they are sitting provides for enhanced circulation and concentration throughout the day—and all the learning benefits that come with. The right furniture can also make your classroom more functional for students by lowering whiteboards, making materials easily accessible, and providing more space to spread materials out.

Integrate technology

Technology—whether it’s multi-media devices, mobile apps, or online programs—is becoming an increasingly important part of students’ learning experiences. Technology puts information at students’ fingertips and can motivate them to research and make discoveries. By integrating it directly into your classroom, you can help students stay engaged and progress at their own pace. Try creating several technology stations throughout your classroom—maybe it’s an interactive whiteboard in one corner with some portable seating to support group work or a quiet nook for several desktop computers where students can work independently. It’s also important to think about how students will typically be using devices in your classroom. For instance, if you have a 1:1 program, it will be important that students have a designated place (like a cubby or shelf) to store their device when they’re not using it.

Let there be light

Believe it or not, lighting is an incredibly important part classroom design. If possible, replace bright fluorescent lighting in your classroom with more natural and incandescent light through the use of windows and lamps. Not only does this make students more comfortable and reduce headaches, but studies have shown that student learning rates improve between 7 and 26 percent in classrooms that are exposed to adequate natural lighting. Flexible lighting options are also beneficial as students use technology more frequently, since dimmed lights make screens easier to see.

If you’re trying to stretch your budget…

Did you know that the average teacher spends $400 to $500 or more out of their own pocket on classroom supplies each school year? That’s a hefty chunk of change,  especially when you’re getting your classroom ready for the new school year, it’s easy to find your wallet growing light. Check out these tips and tricks for thrifty teachers before you embark on your back-to-school shopping spree!

For your Classroom:

  • Look for inspiration online

Nearly every household object can be repurposed or crafted into something totally different with a few hot glue sticks and some burlap. Turning paint chips into login cards for computer stations, making glue mess-free with sponges, or reusing old hand soap bottles as paint dispensers—the possibilities are endless. And thanks to the marvelous Internet machine, chances are someone has already figured out a cheap and easy way to make the classroom hacks you’re envisioning come to life and posted the instructions online in detail…for free! All you’ll really need to do it is gather your supplies and go.

  • Shop around

Don’t feel compelled to do all of your shopping at once. Back-to-school sales start around mid-summer and many retailers will try and suck you in by offering a great discount on one item in hopes that you’ll take care of all your shopping in one trip—but in reality, this will hardly save you any money. Instead, buy the items on your list as you see them go on sale. If you need help staying organized, there are plenty of back-to-school shopping apps to help you keep track of what you need and what you have, so you don’t end up buying the same thing twice. Websites such as coupons.com are also full of back-to-school saving coupons and sale announcements.

  • Go in on it together

Another great way to save for those die-hard penny pinchers is to buy in bulk. You’ll always save in the long run by buying in bulk, and if you and your fellow teachers split your finds, you can end up saving a lot more (because honestly, were you ever going to use 200 glue sticks before they all dry out?) Try teaming up and buying with teachers of the same grade-level—sharing supplies could also help with coordinating lessons and class projects. Check out Blu School Supplies or Amazon for great bulk options and share the savings!

For your Closet:

  • Get thrifty

Secondhand stores are a great way to pick up a few closet staples without having to spend an arm and a leg. If you aren’t sure where to start looking, do a quick search of the thrift and consignment stores in your area with the help of thethriftshopper.com. Believe it or not, some thrift stores even have their own back-to-school sales and events. That being said, make sure you cull through your own closet before heading off to the consignment store—it will give you a better idea of what kind of clothes fit you, what you like to wear versus what you like to imagine you would wear, and if your wardrobe is lacking in anything. Keep in mind, though—buying clothes at a thrift store is a learned skill, and it’s not always going to be a fruitful trip. Don’t feel compelled to buy anything just because you need clothes and you’re at the store. If you don’t love it, you won’t wear it.

  • Go in for the sales

Ah, the seasonal sale. These babies are always your best friend when it gets down to the wire. Nearly every store has one, you just have to know when to strike. Some stores will have better “end of summer sales” while others will focus more on back-to-school savings, so head towards the one that suits your needs best. It would also be wise to look up if your state has a tax-free weekend, and see what items will be included and when it is. Finally, keep an eye on ads in your local paper, sign up for email updates from your preferred stores, and follow them on social media to hear about sales first.

For Anything and Everything:

  • Take advantage of teacher discounts

Hey there shooting star, someone has noticed how hard you’ve been working to keep that classroom in order. Turns out there are more than a few companies and businesses that offer an educator discount. By showing off your school I.D. a little more you could be earning discounts on books, clothes, storage containers, lunch, or even a new car. Check out Brad’s Deals for discounts organized by category, My Education Discount for deals organized alphabetically, and United Federation of Teachers for even more!

If you’re looking for fun first week activities...

For many teachers, the first week of school is for housekeeping tasks and icebreakers. The objective with the latter is to foster a feeling of community in the classroom. The problem is that a lot of students start off the week quite shy—especially if asked to speak to the whole class. There are ways to build a sense of community and keep everyone comfortable. If you’re lucky, the students might even learn something. And remember: even though these sorts of icebreaker activities get a bad rap sometimes, they really are important to building community and a philosophy of teamwork in your classroom.

Venn diagram

Have students pair up arbitrarily—for example, by birthdays or alphabetically. Every pair draws a Venn diagram and tells one another about themselves. Encourage them to talk about their likes, dislikes, favorite activities, families, and other basic get-to-know-you topics. Then, have each pair list those facts in the appropriate places on the diagram. Finally, each student introduces his or her partner to the class using the diagram. Note: if you have an odd number of students, one student gets to partner with you based on the same arbitrary grouping.

Organize yourselves

The game is simple. You call out a fact that can be used to organize students—like different languages spoken or places lived—and then students simply have to arrange themselves. At the end of each category, have a little chat about what has been revealed, and then move on to the next qualifier. With some brainstorming beforehand, this activity can easily last a full class period.

Informal debate

This activity gets used in a variety of settings, including classrooms and conferences. Pick an inoffensive (and superficial) topic—like dogs vs. cats, fall vs. spring, Gryffindor vs. Slytherin, or Batman vs. Superman—then have students move to the side of the room that corresponds with their viewpoint. This helps students find out that they aren’t alone in their beliefs, no matter how trivial they may be. Then, really break the ice by asking several students from each side to give a short statement on their reasons for picking that side—just make sure to avoid letting anyone get too carried away.

The toilet paper game

A lot of teachers use this game. You stand at the door with a roll of toilet paper, welcoming students into class. Ask each student to take as much paper as they want without explaining what it’s for. When everyone is seated, the students write one interesting fact about themselves on each square of paper. Noteworthy fact: outgoing students will often take a lot of TP, while shy students will only take a few squares, so no one should feel too out of place.

If you want to focus on build classroom community from day one…

Kids spend a huge amount of time at school. And, the experience of going to school is about much more than learning new concepts and mastering standards—it’s also a primary opportunity for social learning. The classroom is one of the main places where kids get to know themselves, where attitudes and values are formed, and where skills are built to interact effectively with others. That being the case, building a strong community atmosphere in your classroom is one of the most valuable things you can do as an educator. Not only will a strong sense of community help your students feel more at ease, but it will also help them focus on learning and improve achievement. Try these seven tips to prioritize relationship-building with and between your students!

Create a classroom constitution

This is a great strategy to start the year off with everyone on the same page. Gather all of your students as a group, and ask what is most important to them in a learning environment. Maybe it’s setting the expectation to accept others’ ideas, to be outstanding listeners, or to offer each other compliments on good work. Help your students decide on four or five guidelines and write them down as a “pledge” which everyone can sign. Make sure it’s displayed prominently in the classroom as a reminder to students of the expectations they set for themselves.

Establish regular routines

We’re all creatures of habit, and that’s why some well-established classroom routines can make such a big difference for you and your students. Routine breeds comfort and familiarity, and deepens shared experiences—all of which will help to build a strong feeling of community in your classroom. Consider starting class with a similar “bell work” activity every morning, incorporating a regular mindful practice to help students reset after lunch, or celebrate a week of hard work every Friday afternoon with a fun hands-on activity. The options are endless; what matters is consistency!

Help your students connect

It’s natural for everyone to gravitate toward certain people—usually those that seem most similar to ourselves. This phenomenon is certainly true in the classroom, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. However, when kids only interact with a select few of their peers, they’re robbed of the critical chance to learn how to effectively work with others—not to mention the possibility of new friendships. So, try to create frequent opportunities for students who may not typically gravitate to one another to work together and get to know one another. You will probably encounter some rocky moments, but use them as learning opportunities to help the students understand one another and work through their differences. Once students realize that this is the norm in your classroom, they’ll stop fighting it and look forward to the next time they can work with yet another one of their peers. You’d be surprised how far this simple strategy can go toward developing open, accepting mindsets in your students!

Prioritize communication and student recognition

Communication is key to effective relationships, and the classroom is no exception. By building clear, regular lines of communication between yourself and your students, you can ensure that everyone is on the same page and working toward the same goals. Try creating a class website to post classroom news and resources, and serve as a forum to display student work and celebrate achievements. Or, hold regular all-class meetings where students have a designated chance to offer feedback on topics like what they would like to learn about, what lessons they have or have not enjoyed, and any concerns they have. Practice accountable talk strategies by offering suggested question and statement starters to help students learn how to best express their feelings. It can also be helpful to establish clear guidelines for students to offer one another feedback through peer-review rubrics. 

Model acceptance and inclusion

Kids are consistently more aware of adults’ actions than they get credit for. And, as their teacher, you’re an important role model for your students. So, consistently model the kind of respectful, inclusive behavior that you want to instill in them. If a student is upset, calmly listen to them and validate their feelings. Talk about and celebrate the different backgrounds, interests, and talents of your students. And always address bullying up-front by explaining how it makes others feel. This can be difficult when you feel like you’ve been putting fires out all day, but capitalizing on these teachable moments can go a long way to reinforce a positive classroom community.

Experiment with classroom design

A comfortable, engaging physical environment can have a huge effect on students’ emotions, and in turn, their behavior. Bright colors, interesting wall décor, and varied seating all make an impact. Experiment with different seating arrangements, offering students different options outside of the traditional rows of desks. Try setting up some tables for group work, a comfy library with couches or pillows for independent reading, or some raised tables that students can stand at.

Randomize your name-calling

This may seem obvious, but it’s a tried and true strategy. A system to randomize the way you call on students during class, such as popsicle sticks or cards with students’ names, is a simple, powerful tool to make sure that everyone is getting the opportunity to contribute. There will always be those kids whose hands shoot up immediately, but the ones whose hands rarely rise have just as much to say—and everyone will benefit from the chance to work on speaking and listening skills.

If you want to have a data-driven classroom…

Between assessments and online programs, teachers have plenty of student data at their fingertips. That data can be an outstanding resource to inform and guide effective instruction in the classroom, but it’s important to go in with a plan. Here are four best practices to embrace data in your classroom this year, and make the most of it to drive personalized, student-centered instruction.

Make sure that your lesson and assessment goals are aligned

Sometimes, it is tempting to give assessments as a simple spot check to see who was paying attention in class on a given day. However, this is not the most effective use of assessments. In order to gain meaningful data, it is critical to make sure that any assessment you administer aligns with the central purpose of the lesson it follows. This is the best way to ensure that your students are gaining the knowledge they need within the context of relevant standards. It also will provide you with the most meaningful information to drive future instruction and determine your most (or least) effective teaching practices.

Be transparent about assessment goals and scales

The point of assessments isn’t to trip up students with “gotcha” questions. They should know exactly how they are being (or will be) assessed throughout the course of a lesson. In fact, they should be able to tell you how successful they will be before you even administer an assessment.

Let’s use a golf analogy. There is a standard called par. Everyone knows this going into a round. During the course of a round, most golfers know their standing in relation to par. Nothing comes as a surprise, especially when they find out how they did at the end of the round. Each lesson should have a “par,” and students should be able to keep track of their learning in relation to it at any point in the “round.”

Use your data to plan your lessons

Many teachers get upset when assessments reveal that students have not learned as much as expected. It’s easy to feel frustrated at the prospect of having to reteach information or to be intimidated by the situation of simply needing to move on and risk students falling behind.

However, the point of gathering data is to formulate a course of action. Every assessment, both formal and informal, should be given with the possibility of having to reinforce learning. In fact, view it as an opportunity for 100% student success. This article from ASCD goes into much more depth about corrective instruction and giving students a second chance at success.

Talk to your students about their data

Students aren’t ignorant. They know what their scores have been on the big tests. Yet, assessment scores remain a taboo topic in some schools and classrooms.

Be forthright and take the opportunity to sit students down, study their recent data with them, and get their opinions on how recent assessments have gone. Discuss what they found challenging, as well as areas where they excelled. Continue this dialogue throughout the year—these conversations can be just as valuable as the data.

Want to find out more about how Edmentum’s flexible, proven online programs can provide tools to help your classroom run smoothly? Check out our comprehensive suite of solutions for individualized learning, intervention, online courseware, practice and preparation, and classroom assessment!