Category Archives: Organizational Ideas

Great Start to a New Year

For many of you school has begun, and for the rest of you it will begin this week. It is such an exciting time for everyone. New beginnings! Everyone involved has some level of stress associated with beginning a new school year, parents, administrators, teachers, support staff, students, and yes, custodial staff. I’ve now been out of the classroom for my 3rd year, but my excitement and passion for success for all is still alive. I want to wish you all the best year ever.

If I may, a few points of advice:

  1. Plan, plan, plan and plan some more. Have a Plan A, Plan B, and a Plan C. This goes for everything content and non-content related. I know it’s difficult enough to have a documented lesson plan that’s required by your administrators or your subject leaders that must contain an enormous amount of detail, but having an informal outline, list of resources, and list of questions and activities for your “backups” is a must.
  2. Be flexible and don’t let’em see you sweat. On a school-wide scale, many new schedules and procedures are put into place, be it lunchroom schedule, recess and break schedule, traffic patterns or bus release plan. Show patience and flexibility to handle things when they don’t go according to the desired plan. When working with hundreds of students at a time with many factors in play that can affect the execution of the plan, “stuff” happens. Keep in mind that the students’ safety and well-being is your first priority. Keep a cool head, keep the students under control and happy, keep a smile and everything will work out.
  3. Stay on top of things as they come in. The beginning of the year is a busy, busy time; however, there are critical deadlines that need to be met. This may include the return of student paperwork/information, schedule changes, work requests, parent correspondence, website authoring, setting up grade book, and any required online courses/learning activities.
  4. Give EVERY student a chance. Please, regardless of what you know about your students before they enter your classroom, allow each and every student a clean slate. Provide them an opportunity to make a change if it’s in their hearts. Too often students simply live up to the expectations we set for them. If you truly want your students to live up to their potential, let them start fresh. With that said, I want to caution you on saying one thing to the whole class because it sounds great, but treat individual students differently when others are not around. There’s no faster way to break the trust of not only that one student, but virtually every student you teach and everyone they know. Word will get around that your word is no good, and it will stick with students forever.
  5. Rely on your professional peers and administrators. Ask for help when you need it. Find those peers that welcome questions and discussion. Brainstorm with subject-similar colleagues for instructional and disciplinary strategies. Don’t fall into the pit of the negative talk and gossip. Everyone has problems. Find solutions for yourself and listen other’s problems when they need it. Realize that you should only provide advice to those peers who want to listen to your suggestions; otherwise it will fall on deaf ears and potentially fuel jealousy and animosity. Educators should behave as a team, but as in every team, not everyone is a team player.

I hope this helps you have a great new year. Please send me your questions or concerns. I’m here for you. I can be a sounding board and someone you can brainstorm with. I taught middle school math/algebra for 10 years. I’m happy to help. Best of luck!


Shannon Richards

Back To School Time

Wow, that time has rolled around yet again. Each and every year the summers seem to get shorter and shorter. The funny thing is, I’m not in the classroom any longer, yet I feel remorseful for my fellow teachers having to go back to work tomorrow. It seems like they just closed out the school year! I truly hope everyone had a restful and enjoyable summer break. But if you have to go back, here are a few words of wisdom I’d like to pass along.


(1) Have a Plan!

Have a plan for everything, from how you will greet the students that first time, to how students will interact with one another, to how students will complete assignments, to how you will manage students outside your classroom. Make these plans as simple as possible, with clear language for students to understand. Do not make a plan to simply say you have a plan for something. Make each and every rule, procedure, and routine purposeful and worthwhile. You should be able to justify to anyone why you do what you do, and how it positively affects the learning of your students. The plans you put in place set the tone for your instruction. Have a plan that promotes a positive and safe learning environment for all!

(2) Steal from New and Old

It is often thought that the “veteran” teachers have all the great ideas, the tried and true. I’ve met a few amazing new teachers in my time that are excellent counterexamples to that idea. During pre-planning time, roam the school, peek into a variety of classrooms, both within your content/grade and out. It’s amazing what you will find. Don’t feel awkward about going in and asking those teachers why they do what they do. They are more than happy sharing with you! It’s the best compliment a teacher can get. Any conversation that begins with, “I like what you have done with… How do you utilize that with your students?” It’s amazing what great ideas come out of conversations such as this, for both parties. It’s through this type of sharing and collaboration that teachers get stronger, communities within the school are built, and students prosper. It’s not a competition. Everyone is in it for the same end result….student success! So SHARE AND ASK QUESTIONS!!!!

(3) Get Organized

Take the time to think about what will be coming in, going out, and staying. By this I mean anything from papers (both from students, parents, and the school office), textbooks and resources, and classroom supplies.

  • Consider color coding the categories you have defined as the most frequent. I remembered that my system consisted of student related materials were in yellow file folders, administrative materials were in red, and parent documentation was in green. These certainly were not the only categories I had, but they were the most prevalent. Take the time to clear out a file cabinet, or even just a plastic file bin, to help to get the organization system under way. I recommend investing a few extra dollars in the box of 5-color file folders. Only use these for such organization, and not for other projects….that would defeat the color coding system.
  • I would also recommend a single manila file folder, one per student, labeled by last name, per class period, to store any documentation that may need to be collected. This could involve signed documents from parents, grade reports, discipline notes, and student work. These are amazing resources to have during a parent conference.
  • In addition to a single file folder per child, I would create a single parent contact sheet per student you teach, organized either by class period or by last name. This sheet should be populated with parent contact information, including names of parents/guardians, phone numbers, and email addresses. These can be easily stored in a small binder. Each time contact home is made, it should be recorded on that student’s sheet. This allows a running log to be kept throughout the year. Once a week, I would recommend making 3-5 additional positive phone calls to student’s parents/guardians randomly selected from the binder. This helps build that bridge between home and school for many students.
  • (These are just a few…keep posted for new entries to this section. I could write a book on just this aspect of teaching)
(4) Assign Seats
       Some may disagree with me on this one, but I did teach middle school. Seating charts are an absolute must for more than 3/4 of the school year, and in some cases the entire school year. Yes, they are a pain, especially if you don’t know your students just yet. Alphabetizing students the first few weeks does make learning names and accounting for all of your students easier, but realize that your peer teachers may be doing so as well. Your students may get quite familiar with each other sooner than you anticipate, thus increasing the chance of classroom disruptions. Consider an alternative method that makes things just as easy on you. Computer grading systems that can be set up to take attendance that has an editable floor plan capability are a great help, especially if these floor plans can be printed with the students’ names in the “furniture”. Other plans can be less-tech with the use of blank floor plan layouts and writing in students names, or with the use of post-it notes with student’s names on each so they can be moved around accordingly. (I’d suggest the super sticky ones!)
I’m going to pause here for this entry. I will be adding more details to these ideas soon.
You really can’t make a second first impression. How you begin the first 3-5 weeks really sets the tone for the whole year. Yes it’s difficult. I won’t lie. I encourage you to stay strong throughout the beginning-of-the-year period, stick to your plan, procedures and routines.
Please post your comments, questions, and suggestions. I’d love for this to be a community and a network where teachers are free share ideas and ask questions as needed. I wish you all the best as you prepare to welcome your new group of students. Good luck!

Lesson Plan Map

Every July when I was a teacher, anticipation would begin to bubble up inside me with the start of the new school year just weeks away. This usually was invoked by the sights and sounds of back-to-school sales. Nothing got me more excited than the dollar deals at Target and Walmart, not to mention the penny deals at Staples. Oh how Staples misses my business.

In addition to my fetish for new school supplies each year, I was also addicted to meticulously planning out the next school year. This interest was usually sparked by summer workshops/trainings I was fortunate enough to attend. These activities always got my brain spinning on ideas of new activities, instructional techniques and the sequence of the curriculum. You would think not much would change from the year before; however, in all of my 10 years of teaching, I only once experienced back-to-back years where the courses I taught and the curriculum I used remained constant. All other years, I basically had to recalibrate my brain and my resources based around the grade and course I was going to teach. This included a curriculum map for the entire year. I would start with a blank printed copy of each month, and I would then pencil in the mathematics standard, objective, and even the chapters/sections in the textbook, along with all known activities I could use to teach that objective. This was not something I completed in a few days. This usually took me the better part of 2 weeks per course that I taught to complete, keeping a separate file per course.

Keep in mind, this regimen was largely due to my OCD tendencies, but in the end, it sure did make for an easy year. With that said, I won’t lie. I was never able to stick to it exactly, but it served as a road map for the year and kept me focus on what needed to be accomplished. After about year 7, I began to construct this file using Word, strictly for the purpose of sharing with fellow teachers. When I taught in South Carolina, it was a requirement to submit typed lesson plans each week, and post these to our website each week for parents and students to access. Looking back now, and after becoming an avid user of google docs, I really wish I had created a “one-stop-shop” for anything dealing with my lessons. This would include notes, activities, and assignments. Of course, it’s not until I stop teaching that I thought of this and have the time to create an excel file, in conjunction with google docs, to accomplish this task. Funny how things happen.

The file Excel Lesson Link is a template to use to map out your curriculum for the year. This file is actually accessed via my google docs page, as a shared file, hyperlinked within this file. In the Excel Lesson Link file are two other files that are linked to my google docs page that illustrate the capabilities of the file. One is a lesson plan and the other is an activity I used with my algebra students, already link to this blog. When you create your weekly lesson plans, all you have to do is upload them to your google docs page, as a shared document (anyone who has the link can view), and copy the link into the excel file as a hyperlink. In the excel file, clicking on “Insert” and then “Hyperlink” will allow for you to choose the text that displays in the file for the link you are sharing. You can attach all the files you need for each week, or per day, in the colored portion of each day on the calendar. The white section for each day can be used as the descriptors and content information, like the standard and objective and the textbook information. This document can be used in any capacity you so desire. Keep in mind, the goal of this file is to have it act as your one-stop-shop file. You could access it from any computer and pull up the files you need for your lesson. In addition, files and information is so much easier to share with fellow teachers, parents and students.

A few notes about goggle documents:

Google documents is a tool within gmail. If you do not have gmail, you would need to create an account. There may be another functionality out there similar to google docs that I’m not aware of. I will only speak of what I know for this post’s purpose.

I would create a structure of file categories and names per your class structure before uploading any files. This may consist of a main file of let’s say, “8th Grade Math”. Then I might break it up into chapters or content areas, class periods, or maybe even semesters or 9 weeks categories. The number of files uploaded may be very high, so creating subcategories will be very helpful for when you need to find a file. Creating the shell of an outline will prove to be very helpful in the end. Be sure that you “share” each file, requiring the link in order for a person to access the file. I would not make any of your files public. Lastly, it is in your best interest to pdf you’re the file before you post it. Otherwise, your files may be altered without your permission. That’s just not a situation you want to find yourself in.

I hope this resource helps you get organized for the year, if not for anyone but for yourself. If you’re unfamiliar with google documents, please play around with this before trying to utilize the excel file. It IS a great resource and DOES make your life easier. Like always, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions .I truly want to help make your teaching-life easier.

It’s always my pleasure!

Files for this post:

Lesson Plan Map Word File

Lesson_Plan_Map Pdf

Excel Lesson Link Excel 2007

Lesson Plan Map 97-2003  Excel 97-2003

Additional Binder Item

Last time I spoke of how to help students stay organized through the use of a binder and folder system. In addition to the items discussed for the binder, I create one extra item over the summer months to give the students at the beginning of the school year. I take a basic sheet protector, usually found in boxes of 50 or 100, and attach a pair of sticky velcro circles between the two plastic sheets. It needs to be at the top and in the center of the sheet. The purpose of this item is for students to keep their foldable or other content frames created in class. The velcro keeps these items from falling out. Many of these items are difficult to punch holes through and store in the notes section of their binder. In addition, keeping them easily accessible within the sheet protector will allow students to use these items as they were intended, as well as keeping them in nice condition. You can have students store this in the front binder, in notes section or in the back of their binder, whichever you prefer.

Here are examples of these supply items you will need to create these for your students.

Sheet Protectors


Helping Students Stay Organized

The following are two organizational tools that I have students create for my class. One is an overall semester binder. The letter attached is what I provide to my students to place inside their binder as their first sheet. This explains how to divide the binder into 5 sections and what belongs in each section. It follows a typical Explicit/Direct Lesson Plan (EDI format) of Do Now (Warm Up), Class Notes, Assignments, Quizzes/Tests, and Vocabulary/Standardized Test Practice. It usually takes about the first nine weeks before students are able to go on auto pilot on this procedure.

Binder Composition

It’s important to emphasize throughout the transitions during instruction where students should be in their binder. For instance, at the beginning of class students should be in the front of their binders for their warm up, or do now, problems. However, during your instruction you’ll want students to record notes from the lesson, so they will need to be in their “Notes” section within their binder. If students choose to have loose leaf paper out of their binder to do these activities that would be fine. Be sure that students have ample time at the end of class to place these papers in the appropriate sections to insure the organizational structure is maintained.

Within the Assignment section of the binder, I provide students an Assignment Log. This too has been included here, but in two different formats. This has evolved over the years at the request of my students. Initially I had intended for students to utilize this as a means of creating a table of contents to what was stored in the assignment section of their binder. This included the assignment number, date, description and points earned. Over time, students requested that they be allowed to record their other grades for projects, quizzes, tests and the like. I approved and thus modified this to be the Grade Log Sheet. By doing this students can calculate their overall grade in the class faster since I have always done a point system. Students kept a running sum of points earned and points possible. With each grade they were able to see the changes in their overall average for the class. In addition, they were able to see the impact not completing an assignment did on their average in the class. Providing students almost instant access to their grade will instill a sense of ownership and motivation to achieve on the next assignment, quiz, test or project.

Assignment Sheet2


The second organizational tool I have my students create is an Assignment Folder. This does not house all of the student’s assignments. That is what the assignment section of their binder is for. This is simply to house only the assignments associated with the particular unit we are studying. This could be the assignments that are practice for the up and coming quiz or test. I have had students keep a simple three-prong folder as a means of making it easier for students to transport their study materials from school to home and back. Taking home a binder and textbook home almost daily is quite a challenge, especially if your school does not allow backpacks.


Within this folder should be all of their practice problem from their assignments, with the corrected solutions to the ones they missed. For every question they got incorrect they were responsible for re-working the problem show how to arrive at the correct solution, the one I gave them in class. This put the responsibility on the students to some of the error analysis work in understanding, and correcting, their mistakes. I also encouraged students to create 5-10 question self-quizzes daily from this folder as a means of keeping their skills sharp. They were allowed to keep current notes in the pocket of their folder to help them in their studying, including any instructional aids such as foldables or content maps. It is important to remind students and provide sufficient time after each unit to place these items in the appropriate places within their binder. It’s one thing to say to stay organized a certain way, but if reminders and time in class to do so is not provided, chances are the binders and folders will become an ultimate failure.

I would pick up their folders for a folder check the day of the test or quiz. I would assess their completion of their assignments and corrections and assign points accordingly. Each assignment ranged from 5-10 points depending on their complexity and each unit had 4-8 assignments, so this could equate to hefty points if not completed.

In the world of math if students do not practice a variety of problems within each unit, they will not be proficient. With that said, if there is no plan for you as a teacher to assess student work, students probably won’t do it. Therefore, it’s important to have a plan and a procedure in place for students to be aware of in advance with regard to a folder grade. You as a teacher will see on a daily basis who did their assignments and who did not. You may agree that so long as students have all of the work completed, checked and corrected by the time the folders are collected you will take full credit in terms of the points for their grade. Others may keep track on a daily basis and assign a check, check minus and 0 in terms of completion per student and make the necessary phone calls  home to inform parents. Other consequences may be to keep students in from any free time they may have, including lunch in order for their work to be completed. Morning or after school tutoring sessions may be required as well. It’s important to understand that not every child will complete every question on ever assignment. As the teacher you need to determine where your procedure will be if it is not done to your specification and what time limit, if any, will you allow for it to be completed. Many administrators will not allow you to fail a child based on not completing homework, if he/she is passing test and quizzes with good marks. The goal is to assess what students know and are able to do. Homework is simply the formative assessments that take a snap shot of what the students know at particular intervals.

Ideas for Keeping Students, and Yourself, Organized

I will share some strategies for keeping students organized in the classroom, note taking strategies and study skills. I will also share some tips to keeping your sanity when it comes to the daily classroom occurrences.

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