2. Four Activities for the First Day Back to School in Middle School ELA

Listen to four activities to make your first day back to school in the middle school ELA classroom a success!  We will cover everything that you need, including what to do when students first enter your room, which rules and procedures work for us, two fun and creative icebreakers, and a first day writing activity that your students will love!   Be sure to view our shownotes after listening to print free resources mentioned! 

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Happy Teaching!  Shannon and Tammy

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Organizational Tips for Teachers to Save Your Sanity

We will share two of our favorite tips that help keep us sane throughout the school year!  You can implement these simple and effective ideas into your classroom today!    Read our shownotes at www.elacoreplans.com.  

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4 Four Tips to Make Grading Easy in the ELA Classroom

Learn four ways that you can make grading easy in your ELA classroom.  There is so much to teach in ELA, and this often means too much to grade.  As ELA teachers, we simply cannot grade everything.  We must work smarter, not harder when it comes to grading! 

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3. Five Ways to Ruin Your Middle School Classroom Climate

Listen and learn what NOT to do when creating a positive and welcoming middle school classroom climate.  We will discuss five ways that your classroom climate can be ruined and discuss strategies and ideas to implement in order to have a safe, happy, and positive climate for your classroom!  

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1. Three Tips for a Successful Back to School Open House

Are you wondering how to make your middle school back-to-school open house run smoothly?  Walk away with three tips to create a successful back to school open house for students and parents.  We’ll share with you fun and unique ways to make you and your classroom unforgettable! 

Head to the show notes: https://elacoreplans.com/three-tips-for-middle-school-back-to-school-open-house/

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Organizational Tips for Teachers to Save Your Sanity

As a teacher, you know that organization is not just important. It is essential!   We have two organizational tips for teachers to save your sanity.  We have used these for years, and they work!

Our first organizational tip for teachers is to color code supplies in your classroom.

We color code just about everything in our classrooms, and it starts with folders that our students use for bell work. If you don’t use bell work, it is a lifesaver when it comes to classroom management, check out our blog post or podcast episode five where we talk about the bell work we use.

In our middle school ELA classrooms, we use two bell ringers, Core Chomp and Daily Grammar Minutes.  As our students enter our classrooms, they pick up their folder that houses their bell work papers. We don’t let our students take this work out of the classroom because we have found that this prevents issues with students losing them or forgetting them, and this is where our first color coding comes in to play.   We color code these folders, using green for  first period and red for last period because green means go and red means stop, of course.  For our other classes, we use blue or yellow. Organizing these folders by color makes it visually simple to grab a class set and give out the right ones, espeically if you teach multiple classes in a day. Using primary colors is what works for us because those colors are easy to find. 

In addition to our students’ color-coded folders, we  have our own teacher color-coded folders for each class too.  In our green teacher folders, we keep the bell work that we use to go over it for first period daily as well as a copy of the key and any other papers needed  that day for that period. 

Our classroom labels are color coded as well.  For example, drawers used for students to turn papers in are labeled with green, blue, yellow and red. In Google Drive, a color-coded folder is used for each class.  This is great for saving emails, spreadsheets, or anything related to a student in a certain class.  

 Even paper clips can become a color-coded organizational tool. If the office gives you papers that need to be given out first period, grab a green paper clip. You can use a paper clip or a magnetic bookmark to mark the pages in your class novels. If you are like us, each period does not get to the same place in the novel that you’re reading. So, for example, if first period ends on page 20, and third period ends on page 25, mark those pages with a green clip for first and a yellow one for third! The next day, you know where to begin.  

Color coding works! 


Our second organizational tip for teachers is to use Popsicle (craft) Sticks, color-coded of course!

If you are not using popsicle sticks in your classroom, trust us on this, you should! They are simple and effective.  There are a lot of digital options available for calling on students, and we have tried those, but we always return to our faithful popsicle sticks.  These sticks are super simple to use and work for so many things you do daily in the classroom.  You can find a pack of multicolored Popsicle sticks at Walmart or a craft store.  Simply write each students name with a Sharpie on both sides of the sticks, and you’re set for the year.  Along with everythibng else, we color code our sticks as well.  First period gets the green sticks.  Last period gets the red ones, and the classes in between are assigned blue and yellow.  When we are ready to go over bellwork in first period, we grab the green sticks, and begin calling on students.  

Popsicle sticks can be used in many ways.  In addition to calling on students, here are a few more ways to use them. 

  • For rewards, you can pick a popsicle stick to give a quick treat to a student who is on task. This means a lot to the kids, and it is fast and random. It’s a great motivational tool for keeping kids focused and on task.  Also, if you are working through a lesson, you could ask a question and say “Okay, I’m going to pull a stick. If you get this right, you’ll earn a high-five or a piece of candy.”
  • Use Popsicle sticks when you need a student to run an errand. If you need a kid to go to the office, of course they all will want to go. Pulling a stick makes the choice random and quick.
  • Use popsicle sticks to call on students whenever you want them to answer.  We use the sticks everyday as we go over the answers for bell work, but we also use them throughout the class for other questions.  This helps us to call on everyone, not just students with their hands up. Calling on kids in this way keeps students engaged; they never know when it will be “their turn” to provide an answer.
  • Use sticks to keep up with absences.  As we use the sticks to call on students for bell work, we keep a separate “pile” for anyone who is absent.  This is a visual cue for us to take attendance and to sort any work that will need to be made-up.
  • Use popsicle sticks to group students. Sometimes, you have to plan your groups ahead of time strategically and decide who needs to be with who.  But there are other times you just want to quickly group students. So if you need to put students in groups really fast, you can say,  “All right, we’re going to use popsicle sticks. Stop telling me who you want to be with because I’m in charge of this.” Then, just pull sticks and lay them out to create groups. With a glance, you can switch them around as needed, and your groups are done!  It’s a super easy and fast way to put kids in groups.
  • Use the sticks to tell students where to go in the classroom. We have “special spots” that students enjoy using. For example, Shannon has an area that has carpet and cool little chairs where students all want to do group work. So to make it fair, she says, “Alright, I’m pulling a stick, and that person’s group gets to work on the carpet today.”

Popsicle sticks just work, and color coding them makes things easy!

Three Reasons Using Bell Ringers in the Middle School ELA Classroom Makes Sense

We want to share with you three reasons you should use bell ringers in the middle school ELA classroom! First of all, what are bell ringers?  Some people call these “warm-ups” or “Do-Now,” but essentially, a bell ringer is a short assignment that students complete as soon as they enter the classroom each day.  After a few minutes of working, the teacher goes over that day’s assignment, allowing students to change their answers if they got them wrong. 

The first reason you should use bell ringers in the middle school ELA classroom is because they provide a routine for students. With a bell ringer in place, your class will begin with a focused structure each and every day, and with this structure in place, problems with downtime will be avoided. Students will know to enter the classroom, sit down, and begin working on that bell ringer right away, which helps eliminate behavior problems.    It is best to require students to be quiet when they enter and start their bell work so that everyone can concentrate and think because we all know how much energy it requires to quiet a classroom full of middle schoolers.  If you start that expectation early in the year, it will save you time, energy, and sanity!   With this routine in place, even when you have a substitute, students will know what to do when they enter the room. 


Organization of Bell Work

 We keep our bell work in folders that stay in our classrooms.  This eliminates problems because students won’t lose them.   There are benefits to digital bellwork, but for us, we prefer to use the paper and pencil type.  This way, we don’t have to worry about a device not being charged or a student not having a device. We don’t have to wait for chromebooks to turn on either.  It’s simply come in, grab the folder, and begin working. 

We copy eight bell ringers to a page, front and back, so that we’re not making copies every day. Once that eight are completed, we take that page up and grade one day’s bell work at random.  We tell our students, “You never know which one we’re going to grade so you better pay attention when we go over the answers.” Spot checking like this saves us time, and it ensures that students pay attention when going over it, and all students love the fact that they can earn an easy 100 each time the bell work is graded.


 The second reason that bell ringers make sense in middle school ELA is because, if used strategically, standards can be spiraled in small pieces every day. There are a lot of bell ringers out there, ones that are fun and cute and full of fluff, but the ones that we use stick to the standards and spiral them throughout the year.   One bell ringer that we use is Core Chomp. We created this bell ringer knowing that we would need to hit standards over and over for our middle school students to truly learn. We named this bell ringer Core Chomp because each day the quick assignment takes a small bite, if you will, out of the Common Core State Standards.  Every chomp includes a few questions to answer, and they also include reading passages from stories, poems, and informational texts.  We built our Core Chomp around a rotating five-day pattern. Students  read a poem on day one, a complex fiction passage on day two, and an informational text on day three. Days four and five address writing, research, and language.  We designed the exercises in Core Chomp so that by the end of the year, students will have read, comprehended, and been asked to provide evidence of their analysis of a wide variety of literature and informational texts. In addition, we created this resource so that students would spend time thinking through the writing and research process.


The third reason why you should use bell ringers in your ELA classroom is because it helps you fit it all in. We all know as English teachers that there is so much that we are required to teach our students, and that’s why we use two bell ringers each and every day.  The second bell ringer we use is called Daily Grammar Minutes, and it helps us teach the language standards.  If you teach grammar in bite sized, bellringer form, you can hold students’ attention.  With our grammar bell ringer, we start with the basics and build from there.  One of the seventh grade language standards is that students have to know is the functions of phrases and clauses and types of sentences. Students can’t jump in and do that standard until they know so many prerequisites. They have to know what the subject is, what a verb is, what phrases and clauses are.  And, I don’t know about your students, but ours don’t come to us knowing or remembering those things.   Daily Grammar Minutes takes a spiraling approach to teaching grammar, and it incorporates easy-to-learn language that students can understand.  In fact, many new teachers have used this resource and commented that this is how they learned grammar themselves.  The easy to understand lessons and repetitive practice helped them learn right along with the students.  


How Much Time Does Bell Work Take?

People always ask,”How much time do you spend doing bell ringers?”   At our school, our teachers use Core Chomp and Daily Grammar Minutes in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. So, for our eighth graders, students are used to the routine, and it goes quicker. But if you’re new to using these bell ringers,  it will take between 10 to 15 minutes, some days less.  If you wanted to use Core Chomp alone, it could take from five to ten minutes. Of course, as students work, you can walk around the room to make sure they are working and to help them if needed.  

Even if you don’t use our bell ringers, we strongly suggest that you go find one that you like and that you feel good about covering the standards. If you’re interested in Core Chomp and Daily Grammar Minutes, the best way to see if they will work for you is to try them for a few days in your classroom.  Click the links below to download ten free Core Chomps for each grade. We are also including  a sample of our Daily Grammar Minutes.  

Sixth Grade Core Chomp Sample                                                 Sixth Grade Daily Grammar Minutes Sample

Seventh Grade Core Chomp Sample 

Eighth Grade Core Chomp Sample

Make Grading Easy in the ELA Classroom

Four Tips to Make Grading Easy in the ELA Classroom

There’s so much to do in ELA, as you know, and that means a lot to grade! In order to make our lives simpler and to stay sane in the process, we have to find ways to make grading easy in the ELA classroom.  This means working smarter, not harder.  

1.  Use Google Forms

Make Grading Easier in the ELA classroom by Using Google Forms or another self-grading platform.  Google Forms saves so much time. You can use a Google form for an exit ticket, to find out how your kids are feeling about something that you’ve just covered, to replace worksheets, or for tests.  A lot of times teachers feel like Google Forms is only reserved for tests, but it’s not.  There is no reason not to use Google Forms, especially because it saves you precious time grading, time that can be spent planning more effective lessons!

2.  Don’t Be Afraid to Give Everyone a 100 on an Assignment

The second tip for making grading easy in the ELA classroom is not to be afraid to give everybody 100 at times.  When you give an assignment, and you’re walking around the room, watching your students work and know they’re working hard, you see what they’re doing the entire time. They may turn in something to you when they’re done, but since you have monitored the process the entire time, and you know everybody worked hard, don’t spend your time going through grading; just put the 100 in the gradebook, stamp that 100 on their paper, give it back, and be done.  If there are one or two students who you know did not work hard, grade only those.

3.  Grade Writing as a Process

When it comes to grading writing, keep in mind that it is a process that you must teach.  You should not grade an entire essay until you have taught the entire process and practiced it.   It may be after Christmas break or even in the spring when you finally grade an entire essay using the writing rubric, and that is fine. In the meantime, grade only what you have covered in a mini lesson. For example, your mini lesson might be on writing grabbers or hooks in introductions. Even though your students might write an entire essay, you’re only going to focus on those first few sentences because you’re only grading their hook.  This saves you time, and it focuses your energy and gives the kids meaningful feedback for what they have covered right then in class. Also, don’t be afraid to teach writing using a process approach.  Teach  introductions, and then only write introductions for a while.  Don’t even have them write the body of the essay. That way, when you grade those, you’re only grading that small portion.  Once students have mastered introductions, have them write an introduction and only one body paragraph.  When they’re done, you only have two paragraphs to grade instead of an entire essay.  

Using Google Docs in Google Classroom can also save you a ton of time when you’re grading writing.  When you assign an essay, attach a blank Google Doc to your assignment in Google Classroom.  Once students start writing, use your computer to go in and watch them write.  You can go from paper to paper and watch students type in real time.  This allows you to move quickly as you monitor what you have taught them.  If you see a student who is lost or off track, you can go straight to their desk to help them, or type them a comment right in the Google Doc and then move on.  This saves time in grading too because if you’ve helped with the process as they are writing and read each student’s introduction as they go, you can put that 100 in the gradebook immediately because you know what they’ve done.  There will be no reason to go back through and grade anything. 

When it does come time for you to grade an entire essay, there is a feature on Google Docs where you can add a rubric. This is very efficient because you can create a rubric and then reuse that same rubric again when you assign another essay. Plus, using a rubric allows you to speed up the grading process.  To set up this rubric,  go to your Classwork page on your Google Classroom. Find the assignment that you’ve already created. Click the three dots to the right beside the assignment, and click Edit. Then you’ll see the choice to create a rubric.  Click Create Rubric and put in your categories to be graded. For example, you might put introduction worth 20 points, body paragraph 1 20 points, body paragraph 2 20 points, body paragraph 3 20 points, and conclusion 20 points. After setting up the rubric, when you click on each student’s essay, you will see this rubric to the right of the Google Doc.  You can fill in their points, and when you return it, the students can see where they received their points and where they missed points. Creating a rubric in Google Docs is a wonderful way to save you some time.

4.  Use Spot Checking Instead of Grading Everything

 Spot checking is another easy way to make grading easy in the ELA classroom. Spot checking simply means grading a potion of something rather than the whole thing.  We use this method with our bell work.  We use Core Chomp as bell work every day.  We copy eight Core Chomps on the front and back of one page, and when all eight are complete, we take up the page to grade.   Instead of grading all eight, we choose one on that page to grade.  The one we choose is at random, whichever we feel like grading when we sit down.  Grading one at random keeps students on their toes because they never know which one will be graded. Since we have gone over the answers to the bell work each day, this is the perfect grading method to use because if students were paying attention, they should all make a 100.  Spot checking can be used with journal writing or really any activity that you do. Anytime you have students working on a big task, instead of grading all 10 of the activities, grade one portion of it at random. 

5 Ways to Ruin Your Middle School Classroom Climate

Classroom climate is really important, and especially in the middle school.  We want our classes and our classrooms to feel safe, to feel engaging, respectful, welcoming, and supportive.   In order to highlight what it takes to create this type of environment, we want to discuss five ways to ruin your middle school classroom climate.

1.  The first way to ruin your middle school classroom climate is to nitpick your students. 
Another way of describing nitpicking is “fault finding”.   Teachers do this when trying to catch their students doing something they shouldn’t, or looking for any little thing to stay on them about.   Instead of staying on students about every little thing, we need to be mindful of watching for students doing the right things.  We certainly have to address issues in the classroom, and there are times when we need to say something to a student for doing something that is distracting to others, but we can say or do something in a way that doesn’t come across as “nitpicky”.  Imagine a kid who is tapping his pencil all the time and about to drive you crazy.  If you look at him every five minutes and say, “Stop tapping your pencil!” he may end up doing it more and more.  Imagine instead of telling him to stop, you say, “Put that pencil in your desk for now.”  This way, his behavior is redirected and changed completely. Later on, when you can talk one on one with that kid, say, “Thanks for putting that pencil up when I asked you to.”

At other times, just ignore it. You’ll be surprised at how this will create such a better atmosphere than staying on kids about small things.  We really have to pick our battles.  We don’t want to let the small stuff become the only stuff.  Sometimes, teachers too easily make small things their focus.  If a kid doesn’t have a pencil, just give him/her one.  Don’t make a big deal out things like this that can be easily solved.


2.  The second way to ruin your middle school classroom climate is to handle problems in front of your entire class.

We all know that handling a problem with a student in front of an audience does not work. We don’t want to call a student out in front of everyone because that student may retaliate. Then, you may retaliate, and before you know it, you’ve got a battle going on in front of everyone. There are better ways to handle a student who is causing problems.  For example, if there’s a kid who’s talking when he/she shouldn’t be, I might just look at that student, put my finger to my lips with my teacher-look that means business.  I might walk over there and just simply put my hand on the desk, and that takes care of it.   We also don’t want to use sarcasm. Sarcasm makes kids shut down. It makes them feel stupid.


3.  The third way to ruin your middle school classroom climate is to keep your class boring and “stiff”. 
If you want to ruin your middle school classroom climate, keep it boring. Do the same thing day in day out for the entire school year. That’s going to create a place where your students don’t want to be. For your classroom to be positive, you want them to be there, to look forward to coming to your room. Think about times when you can add games so that the kids get excited and pay better attention. Some of the ones online right now that are so fun for the kids include Gimkit, quizzizz, Blooket.  If you haven’t yet, check those out.  You can get a free account for those.
Learning platforms like Nearpod, where you can make sure all of your students are engaged are also great for your classroom climate. Nearpod allows you to see all of your students’ responses in real time and allows you to incorporate fun activities in a lesson.  If you’ve never tried using Nearpod, I encourage you to do so.  It is a game changer when it comes to teaching and keeping students engaged!

Other ways to avoid monotony in your classroom are to incorporate storytelling into your lessons, let students work with partners and in groups, use videos, bring in humor every single day. Take the time for a few minutes to focus on a funny thing that a you or a kid did or said. And just for a few minutes in that instant, you’ve made your classroom happy. You’ve brought that little bit of joy in there, and it makes your kids want to be in your classroom.  Just make sure to change things up from time to time.

Watch out for your class feeling too “stiff” as well.  Sometimes we feel that in order to have good classroom management, our students have to be silent, sitting face forward with their hands folded nicely on the desk.  We sometimes need to lighten the mood in the room, not too much, because that can lead to a chaotic environment, but just enough so that it is a fun, positive place for students to learn.   Little things like giving a student a high five when he/she does something good, or having another student give that high five. Or if a kid sneezes, say bless you.  Even that simple little gesture can lighten the climate of a classroom.


4.  The fourth way to ruin your middle school classroom climate is to yell at your students and give them commands without explanations. 

Yelling is not effective in today’s classroom.   It’s just not worth it.  Use a firm “I mean business voice” when you need to, but don’t yell.  Also, when we give commands to our students, it is so helpful to tell them why we want them to do what we’re asking them to do.   You will be so surprised at how much better a student will respond to what you need them to do if you give an explanation for it.  For example, I could say “I need you to be quiet.”   Or I could say, “I need you to be quiet because we’re about to read. And when I read, if somebody is talking, I can’t concentrate, and I keep rereading the first sentence over and over again.”  I promise that students will respond better when they have that explanation.

Another tip I’m going to throw in here, because I’ve found it really works, is to change up the way you ask students to be quiet or to sit down or whatever you need them to do.  Students hear the same thing all day long from all of their teacher.  They constantly hear “Be quiet.”  “Stop talking.”  They hear these so much that they sometimes stop paying attention to them.  If you can change the way that you say those things, they will listen and respond better.  Here’s an example. Instead of saying, “Stop talking,” try this. “If you’re talking… stop.” Then follow it up with your reason behind it.  “If you’re standing, I need you to have a seat because I’m about to give you some instructions, and I want all eyes on me.”   You’re going to be amazed at the difference that will make.


5.  The fifth way to ruin your middle school classroom climate is to show no interest in who your students are as people.  
The last, and probably the main way that you can ruin your middle school classroom environment is to show no interest in who your students are as people. It’s important to become interested in things your students are interested in.  It’s important  for your students to know that you are an adult that they can come to if they have a problem.

  • Set up T-Mail in Your Classroom

One simple thing you can do is to set up a T mail (not e-mail) station in your classroom.  T-mail stands for Teacher Mail.  Make a space in your classroom for a  basket or a box where your students can drop you a note.  Just make sure other students don’t have access to it.  You could also do this digitally using a Google Form or Google Doc once a week or month, or however often you wanted to.   Take the time to read these notes and respond to them. So many kids are just so shy and timid that they’re never going to say anything to you, especially in front of anybody. But when you have that place set up… that safe place, they’re going to feel comfortable in even asking a question about content. This also provides a way that they can talk to you about some of the students who may be bothering them in your middle school class; something you haven’t noticed.  Sometimes students need our help, and they’re not sure how to get it. T-mail provides an easy and non-threatening way.   This will do wonders for your classroom climate because it will show your students that you see them as people, and in turn, they will see you as a person…one who cares!

  • Making speaking personally to each student intentional

Another thing you can do is to  get a calendar, and each school day on that calendar for that month, write a different student’s name. On that day, that name will remind you to go speak to that kid personally and ask them something about his/her life, something like, “How’d you do in your game last night?” or “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

  • Use the Ten-Two Strategy

Or you can do something called the 10 to 2 strategy.  This is especially beneficial for any student that you’re having trouble with in class.  Here’s how it works.   For 10 days, spend two minutes with that student one on one, asking him/her questions or talking to him/her about things that he/she is interested in. That’s why it’s called 10 to 2.  Ten days, two minutes. You will notice a tremendous difference in that student’s attitude and behavior because he/she is going to realize that you really care about them as a person.

  • Start a “Secret Shout-Out Program”

And one last thing you can do is to have a year-long “Secret Shout-Out” program with your students. This is somewhat like Secret Santa. Each student is assigned to another student in the class, and they are responsible for providing secret shout outs throughout the month or throughout the nine weeks. Provide notecards to students and tell them to write compliments or quotes to inspire their secret shout out person.   They turn these cards into you, and you will deliver those, keeping everything anonymous. Stress that students should keep it a secret. This is really a wonderful thing to do to build your classroom climate because kids love getting these, and they enjoy making cards for others as well. They will always look forward to receiving their personal “shout out”!