Author: Heather D.

Teacher Tips for Getting Your School Year off to a Great Start

Are you a new teacher? A veteran? Somewhere in between? No matter how long you’ve been teaching, you probably approach the new school year with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

Some of you warriors may have already started your 2018-2019 school year, some of you may not start until after Labor Day. To help ease you into the year, we asked some seasoned teachers questions about their beginning-of-the-year routines. Here’s what they had to say.

What is your number one organizational tool or technique for getting ready for the new school year?

My number one organizational tool for getting ready for the school year (and for staying organized throughout the year) would definitely be lists. I make lists for everything! From student information, to upcoming to do’s in my classroom, and even planning outfits for the first week of school- there is a list for it! They help to keep me on track and there is nothing more satisfying than checking something off my to do list. — Heather Planchon, 4th Grade Teacher

My number one organizational tool is my teacher planner. It holds the key to all my days! Finding the perfect layout is very important for lesson planning and daily planning. I also have a desk calendar to hold all my important dates; so I never miss anything.
— Meghann L., Kindergarten Teacher

The most important organizational tool is numbering my students. This allows me to file their work, assessments, and any other paperwork that needs to go home very quickly. Their cubbies, materials, and anthologies are also numbered, which makes it very simple to match students to stray materials. Their homework folders are numbered, so I can put them in order at the start of the day to see who has not turned in their homework for that day, or simply forgot to get it out of their backpack. I can also quickly scan their cubbies at the end of the day and quickly tell who has not grabbed their homework out of their cubby.
— Tara Rojas, 1st Grade Teacher


What’s a go-to trick that you use to help remember your students’ names those first crazy days of school?

I give them each a name tag to wear when they first come in. They also have a name plate on their desk. I take attendance on the first morning by saying “Good Morning, ___________.” and having the students say, “Good Morning, Mrs. Rojas.” back to me. This helps them remember my name as well, and they do not call me “Teacher” all day. In addition, I play a couple of name games in the morning of the first day, which serves two purposes. First, the name games serve as an ice breaker since first graders tend to be shy/nervous on the first day. Secondly, it helps me learn their names, and to learn each other’s names. — Tara

I’m not sure this is necessarily a trick to remembering names, but I try my best to remember first and last names of students before they enter, that way I can quickly match a face to each name. It helps to remember who will be walking through the door before they even get there! For students to remember their classmates’ names, we do lots of name games and activities in the first few weeks. — Heather

My go-to trick for learning new student’s names is pictures! I take several photos on the first day of school (birthday photos, first day of school photo, class group, etc.) , and that is a way to constantly put names to faces. I also try and call on them as many times as I can! I may not always get them right the first day or even the second, but the more I expose myself to calling them by name, the better I am at learning them quickly. — Meghann


Any back-to-school rituals you do with the kids to preserve memories of the first day?

The back-to-school ritual I enjoy doing is a photo! I like to take their photo holding a “First Day of Kindergarten” sign or I have also seen signs with “My favorite color, My age, etc.” and that would also be a cute idea. I also have the students draw a self-portrait the first day and write their name. This is done again on the last day, too, and it is always rewarding for them to see how far they have come! Any task like that makes a great keepsake for parents! — Meghann

A few years ago, I started taking a first day of first grade picture with a “frame” I made. [see photo below] This year, I am going to make a cute picture frame from craft sticks, put their first day picture in it, and give it to them at the end of the week for surviving the first week of first grade. I also have them do a tear art self portrait on the first day. There is an “All About Me” writing frame that goes with the tear art. I save this for the first page of their writing/art portfolio that I bind together for Open House at the end of the year. 

The first day is always such a whirlwind, especially when I taught kindergarten! To make sure we had a fun memory of the first day, we took a first day of K picture using a fun giant frame that I made using foam board, paint, and cut out letters. We paired it with a fun first day interview and hung them up outside of our room for back-to-school night, before sending them home. We also drew a self portrait and practiced writing our name on the first day and then did it again on the last day to see how much we’d grown!
 — Heather


What are some beginning of the year tricks that help you stay sane during those first hectic days of school? Share in the comments!


Follow these teachers!

Instagram: @theprimaryparty

Instagram @coloringincardigans

Instagram @tararojas
Facebook: Tara Chadwell Rojas



STEM Design Process Simplified

STEM projects can sometimes be challenging to incorporate in the classroom. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending the annual CUE (Computer Using Educators) conference. I learned ideas for projects if a teacher has no budget, a low budget, or if they are fully funded. This proved that there are budget-friendly STEM resources available. Teachers can use project-based STEM books to incorporate activities year round. There are also various websites that students can use to help in the researching process.

Many of the sessions at the CUE Conference were full to bursting, and the “Integrating the T into STEM Design Challenges” session was no different.  The presenter was Cari Williams from the Tustin Unified School District.  She has been designing STEM for years, and focuses on grades 3–5 curriculum design, specifically robotics programs. Here is the simplified Engineering Design Process model Cari uses in the classroom:

STEM Engineering Design Process Simplified

Indentify the Problem

Cari mentioned that in younger classrooms, the teacher would define the problem and give specific instructions. Older students should come up with their own problems to solve.


The students should brainstorm without a computer first, as otherwise they will just find pictures of other peoples’ solutions and will make their design just like what they see.  This limits creativity.


Another creativity piece is to have students draw and/or use other art mediums during their design process, thus incorporating the “A’ in STEAM.  It is important for those students who want to give up and might not otherwise have a lot to show for their project.  At least this way they have this component.

Students can integrate the “T” in STEM by doing research online, and this is where programs such as Haiku, a site where teachers can organize their content online, come in handy. The teacher can set up sites all in one place for them to research.  Another program that helps is Simbaloo, a bookmarking site, or even making a wiki page.

The students then develop ideas by sketching with pencil and paper. (They can move on to CAD programs such as Auto Desk or Google Sketchup, if budget allows.)  They then choose the best idea from their group by creating a survey/decision matrix to vote.  This includes the necessary criteria for the project:  can the project be made by the deadline, which one takes the most expertise, which one has the lowest cost, etc.  This is great not only for teaching about how projects are decided upon in the real world, but it’s also good for teaching social skills.  Some students just want their own project no mater what, and this helps force them to think about it from a group’s point of view.

Build, Test & Evaluate, Redesign & Share Solution

Once the project is decided upon, the students build a model or prototype, and then test and evaluate it.  They must write down their process, and this can be done in journal entries in a notebook or online, or using a program like Excel to organize the different trials, etc.  The students then work on improving the design, and can have an online discussion about it, take photos of it, and graph the results.  They must communicate the results in some way, not just by building the finished product.  They also create a presentation for it at the end.

I really liked how technology was incorporated into each project, even when the budget is smaller.  I think as time goes on, more and more resources will be available to teachers online that will be free to low-cost and immeasurably helpful for integrating STEM in the classroom.

Rainy Day Recess Activities

I was once in a teaching workshop with a woman who was raised in Alaska.  I remember asking her if it was hard as a kid to not be able to play outside at recess or after school for so much of the year.  I clearly remember her answer:  “Oh, we’d still play outside until it was 20 below.”  I still don’t think I’ve recovered from the shock of hearing that.

Having grown up in California enjoying bingo for money games and spent most of my teaching career here, I can’t fathom kids playing outside in that kind of weather.  Luckily, we have such mild temperatures for most of the year that the kids can be outside just about all the time.  That being said, we are not well equipped for the more inclement weather that winter tends to bring.  The only protection the schools have are overhangs extending from the classrooms.  The kids eat their lunches outside every day of the school year, rain, shine, or otherwise.  And there’s nowhere for students to go when it rains at recess, except back into the classroom.

When I was teaching, rainy days usually brought eye rolls and emissions of “Ugh” from the teachers.  The kids tended to be positively squirrelly with pent up energy and noise levels tended to increase exponentially throughout the day.  Perhaps that’s why I always thought it was funny that one of my students’ favorite indoor games was Silent Ball.

Silent Ball entails all the students sitting on top of their desks while a ball is tossed from one student to another in random order.  The object of the game is to stay as silent as possible and not drop the ball when it is thrown to you.  Anyone talking must sit down in their seat and is out of the game.  The last person left sitting on their desk wins. The teacher monitors to make sure that all students are getting equal amounts of chances to catch the ball, and to make sure students are staying quiet.  (I never had to monitor that much because students who were already out were happy to point out if anyone else was talking.)  Surprisingly, this game could keep them entertained for quite a while.

Another simple game the students loved was Four Corners.  One person is picked to be “it” and must close his or her eyes. They must remove their pure optical lenses before doing so, to avoid discomfort. The rest of the students choose one of the four corners in the room.  Once everyone is in a corner, “it” calls out North, South, East, or West (or for littler ones: 1, 2, 3, or 4.)  The students in that corner are out and must sit down.  “It” closes his or her eyes again and play continues.  Once there are four students or fewer, they must each pick a different corner.  The last person who is left without his or her corner being called wins, and is now “it” for the next round.

Heads Up Seven Up is a game I loved as a kid, and students still love to this day.  (It seems the simplest ones are always the longtime favorites.)  Seven students are picked to stand in the front of the room while the rest put their heads down on their desks, close their eyes, and stick one of their thumbs in the air.  The seven students each then quietly tap the thumb of one of the students and then return to the front of the room.  Then they say “Heads up seven up!” and the seven students who were tapped have to try and guess who touched his or her thumb.  If he or she guesses correctly, they replace the student who tapped them.  The game begins again once all the students have had a chance to guess.

One game I learned from another teacher didn’t have a name, but is similar to I Have Who Has? in that students have to be listening to cards being read in order.  It requires a few minutes of prep time the first time, but after that the game plays itself.  It’s a great sponge activity as well.  Write out a direction on an index card; have at least as many cards per students in your class.  These can be very simple, such as When the teacher says START, stand up and say GO! The next card read would then read, When someone yells GO, stand up and open the door.  The card after that would read, When someone opens the door, stand up and shake the teacher’s hand, and so on.  Pass out all the cards and then say “START.”  The students have to be listening and observing what’s happening.  One rule I had to institute was that everyone had to wait until the person before them had sat back down in their seat, otherwise it was too confusing to try and follow multiple students doing activities at the same time.  Keep the set of cards to play over again at another time; the students don’t get bored of it!

Most of the above-mentioned games are for younger students, but I was surprised at how much my older students loved the games too.  Of course, rainy days are also a great time to play curriculum-oriented games as well.  If there is a game you’ve played in the past with your students, feel free to bring it back out, even if the subject has already been studied.  It’s great for review!  They may even forget that they’re doing “schoolwork” at recess.

You’ve Been Plutoed

As a publishing company with frequent reprints, we have to update the information in many of our books to stay current.  Our Elections book needs updating with each election, our geography books need to change the names of countries like Burma to Myanmar, our literature guides need to add the date of death to an author’s bio.  Most of the time, our science books don’t need much updating.  The scientific theories remain the same, and while there are certainly new discoveries all the time, most of the activities and specific information in the books don’t need to change.

Imagine my shock, then, when I discovered in August of 2006 that poor little Pluto had been demoted.  I originally found out from an online article by National Geographic, but started seeing more about it on sites all over the Internet.

There was an immediate backlash.  Protests were orchestrated, bumper stickers printed.

Honk if Pluto is still a planet.

Free Pluto!  Equal Gravity for All Planets!

While I didn’t march with a sign or hang an “R.I.P. Pluto” poster in my cubicle, I did take action.  All of our planetary and solar system books had to be changed.  After some discussion, we decided that we would put dwarf in front of each word planet that referred to Pluto.

This isn’t always as easy as it sounds.  Looking through a science book for all the references to Pluto is a challenge in and of itself.  Then there is the problem of layout.  Let’s say Pluto is on a chart that is labeled “Planets.” We have to decide if we are going to change the title to “Planets and Dwarf Planets” or find room in the chart for “dwarf planet” even if there are no other descriptors for other planets.  The same goes for any illustrations, diagrams, and even answer keys that include Pluto.

How do you handle change in the classroom?  Certainly we’ve all had to adjust curriculum to meet new standards, and it’s easy to talk about specific events that have visible outcomes.  But what about the issues that aren’t as easily adjusted in little minds?  As teachers we know that part of the job is to ‘roll with it’, so what does that look like in your own classroom?  [Food for thought:  Imagine if you’d had to be the one to inform your students that the earth was now round!]

Don’t feel too bad for Pluto.  It did end up getting its revenge.  In 2007, the American Dialect Society chose “Plutoed” as the Word of the Year. The society defined “to pluto” as “to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet.”