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Finding It for Free

Savvy educators' tips on scoring no-cost classroom resources.

Found in: Advice & Support

It came from catastrophe. In 2008, the Cedar River overflowed, flooding 10 square miles of the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Amid the ensuing damage, many schools found themselves short on classroom supplies and without the funds to replace them.

So a group of enterprising educators, together with the Cedar Rapids Education Association and a local credit union, opened the Teacher Store, a place where teachers could get free supplies for the classroom.

Staffed by volunteers, the store solicits donations of goods to "sell" from area merchants and accepts overstock items and damaged and seasonal goods. Inventory includes everything from paper, pens, and glue to learning games and instructional supplies. Teachers pay with “teacher bucks,” which they earn through CREA by participating in local activities or by doing business with the Linn Area Credit Union.

“The key to the success of a store like this is finding the right partner,” says Tammy Wawro, Iowa State Education Association Vice President and CREA President.

Fortunately, the Linn Area Credit Union had contacted CREA prior to the flood, looking for a way to partner with them on a project. The Association had learned about the idea of a teacher's store at a conference and decided it would be an ideal project on which to work with the credit union.

The Teacher Store is just one example of how creative educators around the country stock their classrooms when tight budgets leave little money for supplies. We asked your colleagues for their tips on finding free materials for the classroom. Read on for their ideas.

Get Support from the Community

As the Cedar Rapids educators discovered, sometimes the best resources are right next door. Many local grocery stores, superstores, restaurants, and community groups offer freebies or discounts to educators.

“I’ve reached out to local restaurants and built good relationships with them. They often give me free gift cards to give away as prizes to students who I reward for special achievements,” says, Monica Bueno, a Graham, North Carolina middle school teacher.

Patricia Shirley, a fifth-grade teacher in Yelm, Wisconsin, has also had success reaching out to local clubs and churches. A river education organization funded field trips for her class and provided educational materials that she uses in her lesson plans. And churches and community groups have helped purchase classroom supplies and donated backpacks for needy children, she says.

“One local fast food restaurant let us come in and serve food throughout the day as a fundraiser,” says Shirley. “The restaurant gave part of the proceeds of the meals purchased to be used in our school.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

The worst they can say is “no,” Shirley reminds. “If they say ‘no,’ follow with the question, ‘do you know anyone who could help with this?’ You never know where your need will be met,” she says.

Indiana elementary school teacher Jason Hubler approached local stores to stock his classroom with free comic books. They can use the donation as a tax break, he says.

Hubler also doesn’t limit his asking to his hometown. “I’ve gotten computer and electronic equipment donated by writing to companies. For example, I wanted to do a virtual fieldtrip for my class and I thought it would be neat to have virtual reality goggles. So I emailed some companies who sell them, and one was willing to send me a pair,” he says. When asking for materials, he uses this strategy:

  • describe the school population
  • tell them what you want to use the item
  • ask if they give a discount or would be willing to make a donation to schools.

Consider Donor Sites

While you're asking, think about taking your requests online. At iLoveSchools.com, educators register for free to receive an easy-to-use Web address to promote their classroom and create “Wishlists” for the items they need. Donors can then pay for as little or as much of a WishList as they choose. After the items are paid for by one or multiple donors, iLoveSchools purchases the items and ships them to the schools.

“Our school was very privileged to be matched up with a donor who sent us at least 30 binders within three to four days,” says Gwendolyn Thomas, an elementary school teacher in Louisiana. “The binders have been put to very good use as a means for organizing classroom instructional materials.” The site also has a “DonorOffer Board,” where donors (including teachers) can offer up new or used items in good condition to other teachers across the country. Often, the only additional cost is shipping.

DonorsChoose operates in a similar manner, allowing teachers to post their requests, from colored pencils to laptops, to be funded by a contributor. Nearly two-thirds of all projects posted on DonorsChoose receive full funding, even those that cost up to a few thousand dollars. Contributors have a little more interaction with teachers; they receive photos of their money in action, a cost report of how each dollar of their donation is spent, and a thank you letter from the teacher or all the students, if the donation exceeds $100.

Take Advantage of Discounts

Donations are always appreciated, but you'll still probably need to purchase some items for your class. Many thrifty educators look for Teacher Appreciation Days at office supply stores. Kelly Eddy, a high school humanities teacher in Livonia, Wisconsin, notes that at certain times of the year, teachers can get supplies for as little as a penny. “Certain stores also offer teacher rewards programs where teachers can get cash back for their purchases, which really helps with the classroom budget throughout the year,” she says.

Get 10 Free Things a Month

Everyone has their go-to sites for education materials, but if you lack the time to look for the latest free stuff on the Web, check out NEA’s 10 Free Things page. Each month, you'll find a list of free things on the Web beneficial to educators. This month check out Johns Hopkins' Best Evidence Encyclopedia, which presents reliable, unbiased reviews of research-proven educational programs; a National Parks program that sends park maps, resource guides, activity sheets, and stuffed mascots to participating schools; and Engineers, Go For It, an interactive site that lets visitors explore the world of engineers, including aerospace, electrical, ocean, and computer engineers.

Use No-Cost Tech Tools

Sure, we all use Google for searching the Web, but if you’re not using the Google Apps Education Edition, you’re missing out. The package includes:

  • a talk function to let teachers and students communicate with their counterparts around the world
  • a calendar to organize schedules and test dates
  • an easy way to create a class Web site without needing to know HTML or programming languages
  • the ability to create documents and presentations and then collaborate with each other in real time via the Web.

Zoho Show also lets students create documents and spreadsheets but includes the ability to make quizzes and surveys as well. It can also be used for online collaboration and offers more editing options and templates than those found in Google Presentation.

One of the better free programs for easily creating slideshows is Animoto. Students simply select the images and music they want to use and click go. Animoto does the rest. Registering for an education account lets students create videos longer than the 30 seconds allowed in the basic free account. 

Educators skeptical of using the anything-goes YouTube in the classroom can turn to SchoolTube--every one of its 35,000 videos were screened by a classroom teacher before going live.

To get started, simply “register with an email address, then let your students do the rest,” says co-creator Carl Arizpe. “Once they create and upload their videos, you’ll receive an email notice. After logging in to review it, you can approve a video with the click of a button.”

Recycle, Recycle

Sometimes, all it takes is channeling your inner MacGyver to transform those everyday materials to meet your classroom needs. For example, laundry detergent boxes can be used to make portable file boxes or portfolio cases, writes Carleen Drozda, a family and consumer science teacher in Perry, Ohio. A 16.43 lbs box is “exactly the right size to house hanging file folders and other portfolio covers sized for 8 ½ x 11-in. paper.” Drozda decorates the case with contact paper and uses it to carry curriculum guides and other necessities. “My students enjoy making these cases to use at home too,” she says.

Nancy Christy, a language arts teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, gets students in on the recycling act. When students clean out their lockers at the end of the year, she rolls a cart up and down the halls, asking them to donate any usable supplies. “I never have to buy crayons, markers, or colored pencils for hands-on projects,” she says. “In addition, when the new school year begins, I always have some kids whose families are unable to fully supply them with the materials they need. . . . To save kids from embarrassment, I offer to let kids 'get what you need to use until your folks have time to get to the store.'”

Becky Sido, an elementary school teacher in Kinnelon, New Jersey, saves all of her old dryer sheets from the laundry she does at home and brings them to class to use as white board erasers. “It helps to teach kids about recycling and a hidden bonus is that it makes the classroom smell great,” she says.

You’d be surprised how much money a little bit of out of the box thinking can save on your supplies.

Advice Is Free--And You Should Take It

You may not immediately think of it as a classroom resource, but when it's needed, good advice from veteran educators can be a professional goldmine.

Works4Me is a collection of practical classroom tips written by teachers for teachers. Its online community regularly share what works for them via an online discussion board, and the best ideas are sent out weekly to subscribers in an e-newsletter (sign up here).

If you need help with a classroom management issue, check out our Ask the Expert discussion board. Just post your question and our expert Kate Ortiz, a retired teacher from Chariton, Iowa, will answer—along with a growing community of your colleagues. Since the site started late last summer, teachers have asked for advice on everything from how to calm an overly talkative to class to how to deal with chronically tardy students. The discussions are open to all, so you can share your own ideas with struggling teachers.

It’s not always easy finding those no-cost resources, but it helps to keep a positive, proactive attitude, advises Jeremy Merrell, a kindergarten teacher in Danville, Pennsylvania. “At the end of the day, remember who you are ultimately working for--your students,” he says.  “Your goal as a teacher is to provide the best learning experience and resources possible for them.”

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