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Getting to Know Each Other

The Sky’s the Limit

Janis Higley, a first and second grade teacher at Chief Umtuch Primary in Battle Ground, Washington



Credit: Naluwan

As an introductory activity, I have students create their own ceiling posters that say something about themselves. They include personal photos, cutouts from magazines, drawings—anything that reflects who they are. I take digital photos of each student and give them copies  to incorporate into his or her poster. All of the students present their posters to their classmates, and I make a big deal out of taping the posters to the ceiling tiles. I also use the digital photos of the students as screensavers for my class computer as flashcards to help me learn their names faster. The ceiling posters make a very colorful room and display the students’ creativity.

Bagels and Fruit

Barbara Walton-Faria, a science teacher at Thompson Middle School in Newport, Rhode Island

We begin the year with “Bagels in the Basement.” Bagels and coffee are set up each morning in the teachers’ lounge, which is in the basement, giving everyone a chance to meet the new faculty members. Our veteran teachers are encouraged to participate in a “Pineapple Welcome.” They hang a pineapple sign on their door, which indicates they welcome new teachers to come in and observe their class in session. This enables the new teachers to see some excellent teaching and pick up pointers.

Working with Parents

Proactive Success

Yvonne L., a yearbook advisor, art and CTE teacher at Cascade High School in Everett, Washington

My students’ first assignment is to have their parents email me with a greeting and their expectations for their students. I give out an invitation for a free account to parents without email or ask them to contact me via my school classroom phone number. Once they email or phone me, I have easy access to contact them if and when their children need help. I make contact with each and every parent as soon as I have those contact emails or numbers. A missed deadline means an immediate contact from me. I have an open door policy, and parents are extremely confident in contacting me when they have concerns. It takes some time on my part in September, but by December we are all on the same page.

Helping Parents Help Their Child

L. Carvel Wilson, a middle school geography teacher in Syracuse, Utah

Photo credit: MEDIABAKERY

Finding common ground with parents in ways to help their child will help avoid or alleviate problems as the year proceeds. Parent-teacher conferences are critical to establishing this common ground. Usually, my students attend with their parents. During the conference, I ask students direct questions, leading them to explain to their parents what they are doing in the class. This puts the focus squarely on the shoulders of the students, who have ultimate responsibility for their own success. We then talk together about how to set high goals and achieve them or about how to adjust attitude and behavior to achieve success. I let them know the easiest way to contact me (which is through email) and assure them of quick responses.


Establishing Classroom Rules

Teacher Rules

Elizabeth Wimmer, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Spotsylvania, Virginia


Janna Golovacheva

To enforce the notion that understanding and following rule­­s is a lifelong necessity, I allowed my class to write rules for the teacher. They included:

Plan fun lessons.
Treat students kindly.
Listen to students.
Discipline students fairly.

I had to repeatedly remind students that rules couldn’t impede my ability to control the classroom. (The rule about discipline was my contribution!) Still, I feel that the activity helped my students see that everyone has rules to follow, not just children, and that rules are to help us, not torment us.

Simple Rules

Diane Postman, a teacher from Yorktown, Virginia


By Thinglass

I wanted to simplify my classroom rules, and managed to narrow them down to one word: Respect. If you show respect for others, yourself, and property, all rules are covered. I spent the first few weeks of school reviewing what respect means. We also listened to the song “Respect,” by Aretha Franklin. Then throughout the year, when I wanted to remind students of my expectations or let them know that they were stepping over a line, I simply said, “respect.” It was very effective.

Shy Readers

What do you about students who refuse to read aloud?

I teach ninth graders and sometimes when I call on a student to read aloud, they tell me they don’t want to. I usually end up picking someone else who volunteers, but sometimes the same kids volunteer and I want to pick someone else. What can I do?

Kate Ortiz:
I have not required everyone to read aloud but have talked privately with students who consistently “pass” when called on to read, to see if I can understand why they refuse and encourage them. I think it is important that they get comfortable speaking in front of others, but students who struggle with reading should not be required to do so.

Have a reluctant student stop by during lunch and read for you. Then you can determine whether the student has reading difficulties or is just shy. Let them know you will help them if they come across a word they cannot pronounce. Tell them they can read just one sentence, instead of a paragraph. Give them a paragraph in advance of the lesson so they can practice.

I teach high school math, but encounter the same concerns with wanting all students to participate orally. This year I’m using popsicle sticks (one per student, each stick has a name on it, and they are drawn out randomly from a cup). Students pay better attention when it’s not just volunteers with hands up who are called on.  For a truly difficult question, I usually take hands instead of the sticks. I have removed a stick due to a SPED student who doesn’t want to be called on (no one knows). I’m hoping her comfort level will rise as the year progresses.

I have found that students who do this usually have trouble reading and are afraid to make errors in front of their friends. I occasionally try to get this particular student involved in a debate. That does not require any reading, only in-depth thought on a subject the student is familiar with.

How many adults read aloud on a regular basis? It isn’t a crucial skill. If a child is really reluctant, it can do more harm than good to push it. Find another way to assess his reading.

I teach fourth grade. Most of the time, it’s my shy kids who don’t want to read out loud. My special education children usually have no problem with volunteering even though they struggle. I don’t make anyone read in front of the whole class but they all  have to read out loud in small groups at least once a day. Sometimes students who will not read something from the book to the class, will read what they wrote down themselves or with their group.

I teach tenth- and eleventh-grade English and I am a firm believer that fluency is enhanced by reading aloud. With reluctant readers, I give them their assigned passage beforehand, so they can practice.

I give reluctant readers a section to prepare at home and invite them to review it with me before they have to read it aloud. A little one-on-one time goes a long way toward encouraging participation in a read aloud. Many students are reluctant because they fear pronunciation errors. 

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Classroom Setups that Work


Illustration by David Clark
Mastering the art of arrangement can make all the difference in your classroom.

By Cindy Long

Are you stuck in a desk row rut? Sure, rows are neat and orderly, but they’re old school—a holdover from the days when desks were bolted into the floorboards. It’s time to tap into your interior designer and get creative with your classroom set-up. The right desk arrangement can maximize learning, minimize behavior problems, and accommodate your ever-increasing class size.

Veteran educators agree that the best arrangements allow you to walk freely through the classroom so you can easily answer individual questions, stop to help students, and motivate others to keep working when they see you approach. But you can do much more. Here are some ideas from colleagues. Read more (and share your own) on our discussion board at classroomdesign.

Accommodate different learning styles with classroom centers

Diane Postman teaches preschoolers and kindergartners with special needs in Yorktown, Virginia. She says there are two critical elements of classroom design when working with these students—first, make sure the furniture is low enough so you can see all or most children from most locations. Second, she says, use room dividers to split the space into centers. 

“Open spaces invite running and other inappropriate behaviors, while smaller spaces create centers for small groups of students to interact,” she says, adding that it’s important to have spaces where children can be alone, and that noisy centers should be kept away from quiet centers.

“Centers can be labeled to show the maximum number of people allowed,” Postman says. “This helps to avoid overcrowding, which can lead to undesired behaviors. It also forces students to try different centers and interact with different classmates.”

Don’t let them hide

In most high school classrooms, there are students who like to sit in the back. To address this problem, Dawn Guerra, a Spanish teacher in Jacksonville, Arkansas, developed a classroom set-up she calls the “aisled traffic light,” so that all students have a green light to learning and aren’t stuck at a metaphorical red light in the back of the room.

She arranges each side of her classroom with rows of desks angled toward the front, with only three or four desks per row and a wide center aisle that she can walk up and down during class.

“With the large center aisle and my ease of movement up and down the classroom, no student is at the back,” Guerra says. “Even the kids in the last rows are still ‘green-lighted’ by their location.” 

Make your crowded classroom feel bigger

For Bobee-Kay Clark, an elementary school teacher in Sparks, Nevada, the challenge is accommodating supersized classes—a growing problem all over the country.

“The largest class roster I had was 54 students when I taught sixth-grade music,” says Clark. “I currently teach second grade at a multi-track school built for 850 kids; our enrollment topped out at almost 1,200 a few years back. My clever, creative colleagues invented ways to turn closets into welcoming classrooms.”

She offers this advice for making your crowded classroom feel bigger and more comfortable:

  • Use tables instead of desks.
  • Use chair pockets for storage.
  • Removable stick-em hooks and plastic milk crates make cheap cubbies.
  • Leave one wall completely blank. Yes, blank. Your students are as overwhelmed by all the bodies in the room as you are.
  • Border chalkboards and whiteboards with twinkle lights. When the room gets too noisy, turn off the main lights and turn on the twinkly lights; students will quiet down.
  • Use area rugs. They cut down noise and define tight spaces.
  • Keep houseplants about the room to keep the air fresh.

What’s your secret to the art of arranging? Tell us—or better yet, show us—how you've set up your classroom. Go to for directions on how to access and upload photos of your handiwork on our Flickr page.

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