Special Edition: Adventures in Efficient Classrooms!

“For every minute organized, an hour is earned.”

– Benjamin Franklin

How do I get my students 100% READY and on track in the first minute of class, every day? Plain and simple. Startup routine. I’ve been responding to requests from fellow teachers to share this and decided a special edition Adventure may work better. It’s not in the SPECTRUM Acrostic and instead an easy-to-use checklist. Please leave your feedback and helpful comments below!

Here are THE five simple steps I use every day which waste ZERO time getting students ready to learn. I do this startup routine exactly the same way every day. For us science teachers, I’ve added how I use the second minute of class to engage students in phenomenon-based cooperative learning, accountable talk, and equitable calling strategies for full activation of schema.

Step #1 Line Up

Quite possibly the most effective management strategy I initiated this year! Having students line up at the door, giving a quick pre-announcement, and then quietly entering single file gives a message of purpose. I call the doorway the “science frame of mind,” as they enter. I have my after lunch class sit down first, and have a community circle if needed. If a class is not successful for any reason, we leave the classroom and start again. It’s important to not make starting over a punishment, but a “let’s try again” team effort.

Step #2 Start 

As the last person enters, I or a student presses start on the 1-minute timer embedded in my slide (top right). Like with most functions, we vote on which timers to use and, due to the limited selection of timers on YouTube, use this timer with a fun drum beat. For instructions on how to embed YouTube videos and useful timers into Google Slides, see this link.In the first minute, students see the same screen format to follow the instructions and set up their tables or materials using codes in the “Ready” section. For instance, Binder (T) means binders on tables, where (C) is counters. Roles by suit correspond to their seat/table number and are posted with the codes so they know who does what. In this example, hearts will get their Table Folder, spades will help students by reading the objective, clubs will get new Agenda pages for students if needed, and diamonds will get the accountable talk stems placemat. If they need a pencil they get it from the community mugs around the classroom.

Among the many benefits of this method, the main one is intangible; I don’t have to do anything, including speak. I can circulate for special updates to students, setup my own table for last-minute improvements, or simply watch and admire students running their own classroom. My students know I like my space and respect their need for space. I usually use the routine to take a calm moment to focus on me before I help them.

Step #3: Pencils Up! Organization Prize

Right as the minute timer ends, I call “Pencils Up!” and inspect all tables for their correct setup. If the whole class did the setup and started the activator correctly, I give an Organization Prize, or chainlink for a growing paper chain (the first class to reach a certain distance means EVERY person in the class receives a small piece of candy). Once I forgot to say “Pencils Up!” and was doing something else, then turned to find 30 silent students ready with their pencils in hand like wands. Power of routine!

I give the announcements with goals for the day, and ongoing project notes I’ve included in the Checklist for Success. I ask for a Thumb Time rep (or have one assigned on the board). This person will help me 4 minutes before the end of class to get ready for dismissal. See my Dismissal procedures for information about Thumb Time.

Step #4 Phenominute

Originally the “Accountable Minute” or “Phenomenal Minute,” Phenominute is how I start every lesson with phenomenon, structured accountable discourse, and equitable calling strategies. 

Students look quietly at the daily image for 20 seconds (while I take attendance), and are then given an inquiry-based prompt, “What do you think the buildings are made out of and where do THOSE materials come from?”

For another 20 seconds, they talk at their tables using an Accountable Talk placemat, and diamonds lead the conversation using chosen stems from the daily category on the mat (below). 

I created this strategy to respond to the call to action of incorporating phenomenon in every lesson, as well to combine a Think-Pair-Share with accountable talk and equitable calling strategies, and I needed them to do something quiet so I could take attendance.

Then we have 20 seconds or so whole class share out by Table, specifically calling table numbers and not names. “Table 1, what do you think?” “Table 5, we need to hear what they said.” “Good observation Table 7, the towers do have wide bases and skinny tops.”

The Accountable Talk Placemat is stored in their Table Folder. While this is an incredible strategy for learning and engagement, it’s also a backup plan if an administrator walks in for unannounced observations. It’s why I created Phenominute 😉

On a side note, I normally choose natural phenomenon showing interactions of organisms in nature, particularly because they may have limited access to beautiful nature photography. Today’s example was buildings since we’re introducing them to engineering through architectural STEM careers. Phenominute is very flexible!

Phenominute is even more effective because it’s durable and promotes daily practice of accountable talk and full activation of schema.

For the record, here are some other examples:

A note about transparency. Another intangible to Phenominute is being able to disclose why we start class in this format. The changing-gears primes students’ minds as though stretching before a workout. It may be a longer lesson (aka cardio) or a sequence of shorter lessons (tabata yoga), so doing the same start routine helps prime them for the day to come. I explain “it is scientifically proven that you learn better if you do this format to learn science, so you need practice shifting gears with me.”

Step #5 Random Table Prize:
Structured transition with sequenced instructions.

Finally, the most structured time of our lesson arrives. I structure the transition to their daily work with a sequence and a cue. For ideas on transitions, check out our Facebook Group SPECTRUM Classrooms Book Club, where I’ve included strategies from Engaging Practices by Dr. Crystal McGil. “When I pull the random table prize, you’re going to do this but don’t do it until I pull the prize. When I pull the random table prize, you will put your homework in your binder, make sure your Agenda has the homework assignment on today’s date, and put your binders on the counter because we need clean tables for the STEM challenge, and be seated with empty tables and closed mouths. Today’s table prize goes to…..”

I have all the seat number cards in a black top hat, including two Jokers which, when pulled, we must stop and take three deep breaths. I put four mints in the cup with their Table # and they take the mints as they leave class. Yes, that’s 4 mints for 4 classes, or 16 mints a day, every day for 180 days of instruction. That’s approximately 19 bags of mints (or small candies), roughly $100 investment for the school year, or $.50 per day, I’ve spent on some sanity. Like all teachers, I stock up when I find stores going out of business or use coupons/sales. Also, any time I see a candy wrapper on the ground, I take away the cups and don’t give Table Prizes for a couple days (while still pulling the winning Table number so they feel the sting).

An intangible benefit to this strategy is tables are quicker to come to attention during the rest of the transitions since they’ve identified with each other at the beginning of class. Also, since I change seats monthly, these strategies help me focus on equitable engagement for all students and build even more opportunities for cultural proficiency. 

Of course it took some time to train all students by starting simple, like entering silently and randomly pulling door prizes then adding more complex tasks like the use of my start timer. But with five simple steps, I have every class READY every day without wasting any time. Also, it’s fun. 

Other tools I added to this year’s toolbox that DRASTICALLY improved my efficiency:

Super Smooth Days and Rowell Restaurant

Part of our Community Agreement is to earn “free time,” or what I call Rowell Restaurant Time. Students earn a number of Super Smooth Days toward a set day of individual choice rewards time. I got the idea from our team PBIS incentives and adapt each 1-2 monthly goal around holidays. I enjoy being in the middle of class and rewarding them spontaneously with a Super Smooth Day. They usually just say “yay” and continue on, knowing they were caught being good.

If they get all Super Smooth Days, they get the whole period. Usually, I just give 2 minutes per super smooth day and make a fun list of stuff to do in Rowell Restaurant. I do not allow free time (but overlook if they use the time to play their own games).

Here’s a link to the slideshow and instructions for quick reference.

Dismissal & Thumb Time

Thumb Time is used at the end of class for giving thumbs up or down on how they feel they did achieving the daily objective and is good informal daily feedback on content-acquisition. I’m still building out this system as dismissal is an area for growth for me. Sometimes I forget since we’re deep in concentration by that point, sometimes I’m intervening elsewhere… Ideas welcome!

Responsibility Prize

I have a bag of emoji erasers and when students come to lunch or do extra time, I let them choose their own eraser. Before doing so, I hold the bag and tell them “No matter who you are on this planet, the more responsibility you take for your action, the more choices you get in life. You are receiving my highest honor, which is to choose your emoji.” 

My favorite Call Back

Instead of a basic call back, I combined the tune of “Shave and a Hair Cut” and their corresponding tune of “Two Pence” with a visual cue. They know they need to stop what they’re doing to LOOK at whatever I’m pointing or holding up. Tiny adjustment for a MAJOR gain in classroom management.

Another system I use is calling classes by their nick name (they vote on) or use their code name (they vote on) to call their attention. “When I say Dragon, you save Wolves. Dragon!…”

Organizational Prize Chain

I teach 6th grade which is an organizational shock to former elementary students, and I do a lot of advanced organization in my general instruction. As each class wins chain-links for correctly organized Table Folders or correct start up, the links grow longer and longer. The first class to get a certain length means each student gets a small piece of candy (this is about once a month or two months). The chain grows through the year and reinforces the value of daily practice toward organization in any topic.

Random Reading Prize

I use a top hat with playing cards to pull for random everythings! From random seat prizes, table prizes, and reading prizes. If students vote on random reading vs. say, independent or assigned reading (they always vote for random reading), I pull the seat number for the corresponding reader. They may pass, but the reader will receive a prize. If the Joker is pulled, everyone must stop, take a deep breath, and continue. 

Community Agreement & Student Voice

Student Voice and accessing the affective domain can be as simple as adding a question on an existing quiz in Google Forms to silent journals to “Housekeeping Days” to peer review of each other’s work. Whatever the strategy, it must be ongoing and give the sense of “if not this time, maybe next time.”

I’m constantly polling my students for their insights and making my thinking visible with progression and comparison over time. Showing my students that I’m learning to be a better teacher because of them has only helped my practice, never hurt.

Finally, in my favorite way to promote calm, color, and culture, here’s a little trick I have for keeping the peace. 

Please join our new Facebook Group and share your path with fellow teachers: Journeys with STEMJourneys.org. See you at the top!

Download & Thanks

In the spirit of creating student-centered classrooms, my goal this year was to create a self-checklist for rigorous science and engineering approaches to learning. Always a work in progress, I made this poster to help students understand how they’re learning problem-solving skills in their daily work. Download the PDF and please leave your feedback!

Did I learn it right PDF

This Adventure is dedicated to my mentoring teachers, Mr. Taylor and Mrs. Hobbs. As though full circle, Mr. Taylor got me started on this journey as a student teacher 15 years ago, and Mrs. Hobbs showed me the path I’m choosing now. Thank you SO much and see y’all at the top!

The mission of SPECTRUMclassrooms.com is to engage teachers as we cultivate student-centered classrooms, one Adventure at a time. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright © 2020 Jess Rowell, learnmore@STEMJourneys.org. All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

Follow our adventures with #thisiswhatstemlookslike #stemjourneys and #powerofroutine.


3 thoughts on “Special Edition: Adventures in Efficient Classrooms!

  1. I love your “Phenominute” slides. Such a great way to get the students engaged and discussing. Are they available for purchase?


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