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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cues for Settling In and Starting Class 
by Surviving Social Studies

If you've ever faced a group of middle school students before then you know that they know when you’re struggling.  They can sense it in the same way a dog can smell fear.  Middle school students are at just the right age where they’ve seen enough teachers and have been in just enough classes to know if you’re justifiable.  Because of this, I knew I needed a hook.

The hook that got my students’ attention on my first day of teaching almost 17 years ago was me greeting the students with a, “Good morning students!” as I leaned up against the table in the front of my classroom.  The table apparently didn’t have the pin that secured the leg fully because it collapsed down about two inches on one side causing me to fall that two inches, plus the remaining distance to the floor. 

First class.
First day.
First minute.
First failure.

However…I did have their attention. 

I wasn’t going to be able to fall off a table every day, so I needed to come up with a different, less humiliating way, to start class.  Over the years I’ve found that my students (and I) do better when I start class with a consistent, established routine.

I teach 8th grade United States History and start each class by taking attendance and then projecting my online timer on the screen, which is counting down from 10 seconds.  This visual cue gets students to quiet each other down without me having to talk over them while they’re settling in. 

Once the timer goes off, I switch my screen over to “This Day in History” on  This is a 60-second glimpse as to what happened in history before our present time.  Kids really like it when it is their birthday and they can see what else happened in history on the date they were born.  Sometimes kids ask questions about what they saw, which helps them engage their brains through curiosity.

By this point kids have already managed each other’s behavior, had their visual and auditory senses targeted by This Day in History, and are ready for the next step.  Mind you, we are only two minutes into class. 

I, then, flash this LifeSavers image on the screen, which, like Pavlov’s Dog, gets their salivary glands activated.  They know that if they can accurately guess “The Phrase of the Day” they will win a mint.  Although this is an extra cost, as a teacher I’ve doled out thousands of mints over the years: for getting the Phrase of the Day correct, for random act of kindness, for a kid who needs something positive in his or her life, or sometimes just as a thanks for coming to class.  The benefit, definitely, outweighs the cost. 

The Phrase of the Day is then pulled up on my PowerPoint and students are shown a famous phrase on the projector screen that has some letters missing.  I call on five students by drawing their names from a stack of note cards I have with their names on them.  I allow seven guesses and as soon as a student accurately guesses the phrase I throw them a LifeSaver and ask them to take a guess how they think the phrase originated.  

An example phrase of the day is, "Saved by the Bell." I tell them how it may have originated with the fear of being buried alive.  I then explain where the phrase may have come from.  I’m a big fan of phrase origins, so I’ve got a full year’s worth of these.  

This may seem like a lot to start class, but the kids enjoy it and so do I.  This activity takes about four minutes of class time.  On days where I’ve felt a little rushed for time and have skipped our daily routine, it only takes kids a few seconds to say, “but what about This Day in History and our Phrase of the Day?”  This has taught me the benefit of routine and that connecting with my students is worth the cost of four minutes of class time.  Yes, there are lessons to get through, standards to meet, and activities to enhance learning, but there is, also, the humanity portion of teaching that can get muddied by over-assessing everything.  When people ask me what I teach I always respond with “I teach kids.  We learn about history along the way.”
Fridays are a bit different.  Instead of This Day in History and The Phrase of the Day, students see the 10-minute, uninterrupted, educational, and entertaining CNN Student News with Carl Azuz.  This is fast-paced and geared toward middle and high school students.  CNN Student News airs every day, but we only view it on Fridays.  I encourage students to watch this when they wake up in the morning to find out what’s going on in the world. 

After the news, students spend two minutes reflecting on three questions in a CNN STUDENT NEWS NOTEBOOK:

  1. If you were a news reporter for CNN Student News what would be three good follow-up questions you’d ask about today’s main story?
  2. What struggles do you see people being faced with in the news today?
  3. What made you feel good about the world based on what you saw today?

Sometimes I’ll have students write in each other’s notebooks so they can see what their classmates wrote about the previous week’s story.  This activity is great for Fridays because kids look forward to it all week and sometimes come back on Monday with more information to share about some of the stories they saw on Friday.  It is a great current events connection. 

I have a different free current events activity that I’ve used that you can check out in my TpT store:  Current Events Article Assignment 

Another way I’ve started class that has worked well in the past is by using a “deli-style” system for finding out information.  How this works is every student is handed a ticket when they walk into class.  I, then, pull up my “Deli-Style” PowerPoint (which actually has a bell sound like at a real deli) that lets students know they have five seconds to stand up and share once their number is up. Kids love it!  

Questions might be:

  • What are you doing this weekend?
  • What is a goal you have for this quarter?
  • How were you helpful yesterday?

The possibilities are endless with this one.  30 kids in class, 5 seconds each, takes only 2 – ½ minutes to get kids up and sharing a question they can easily answer in a safe environment that is fun and fast-paced.  It hasn’t failed me...yet. 

Hopefully this gives you some new ways to start your class, manage your classroom, and have fun with your students while doing so.

If all else fails, fall off the table. 

As owner of Surviving Social Studies, my Teachers Pay Teachers store has over 200 products that I've used in my classroom over my 16 year career teaching middle level social studies.  This was done in between raising a family, chaperoning students to Washington, D.C., serving nine years as vice-president for my city’s organization that puts together the Veteran’s Day program and Memorial Day parade, and running a small woodworking business called Along the Ridge.  I also once got stuck under a fence while playing little league baseball when I was 10.