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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

Classroom Routines: 5 Simple Hacks

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

There’s no feeling quite like when you discover a small classroom routine that makes your life easier. I remember wasting a whole class period at the end of a unit to collect books, return work, and give a quiz on the new unit. It was chaotic and loud, but not in a good way. Almost no learning happened. Over the years, I would do little things differently here and there to maximize the amount of time students spent learning and minimize the time spent on the other stuff.

Here are 5 small routines to help your classroom run smoothly:

1. Collect work in bundles

Instead of collecting daily individual assignments, I now try to bundle as much classwork as possible so I can grade and return the work all at once. I can still check on their progress by walking around the room. This reduces the amount of time I devote to returning work, and opening my dreaded grade book. The purpose of classwork is to help students perform on a final assessment, so in theory they should need that work to help them study. I also give a very limited amount of homework, so that’s another opportunity to waste class time collecting and distributing work.

2. Hand back gradeless work from your desk

I used to run around the class like a madman returning work to each individual student. I got in my steps, but it was a huge waste of time. I used to put grades on assignments, so I thought it was best to hand each assignment back for privacy reasons. I stopped putting grades on major assignments with written feedback so that students would stop comparing grades and focus on revision. Grades for informal classwork function mostly as a check to make sure students are interpreting evidence, and not for extensive feedback. They can find their grades later on that evening, but they see it in the context of their entire quarter grade, which might prevent some students from worrying about the calculation. So instead of running around the classroom, I read the student’s name out loud, drop the work on my desk, and the students get up out of their seat to collect their work. It only takes as much time as it does to quickly read twenty-five names. And since I bundle work, I only take this small amount of class time to return work every few weeks.

3. Be flexible with time management

I once had a student teacher ask me what I do when a small group of students complete their work early. At first, I wasn’t sure what to tell her, because my habit was unconscious. She was actually asking me a larger question about how to manage time in general. A minute here and there really adds up, and if you want to have a homework free classroom, it’s important not to waste time and then expect students to make it up at home. After teaching for a while, you’ll generally figure out how much time activities will take, but it always surprises me how often students need less or more time than I planned.

There are a few reasons why I walk around the room a few times during an activity. I like to have conversations about the text, ask questions that might steer the conversation in a more meaningful direction, help with any difficult parts of the activity, and sometimes encourage a group to pick up the pace if they are behind or not focused. If a group is ahead, I might challenge them to consider other questions or problems. If a group works really hard and finishes early, I might stop and chat about whatever – sports, after school activities, an assembly, what’s for lunch, the news, the weather. These conversations are just as meaningful and important as conversations about what we teach: our content area often spills over into their lives in unexpected ways.

But the main reason to walk around the room during an activity is to figure out the general pace of the class and to set a stop time when everyone should be finished. I might start by saying, take twenty minutes, but I might change that after ten minutes pass and say, it looks like everyone is almost done, take five minutes, or it looks like everyone could use some extra time, take another twenty. I will then remind them when there is ten or five minutes left to complete the work so they can catch up with the rest of the class. Another approach is to say, it looks like most people are almost done the first page. This may create some level of stress for students if they work independently, which is why I usually give them the option of working with one or a few other students of mixed-ability level. Ultimately, it’s not about going as fast as possible, it’s about giving students the appropriate amount of time to understand the material.

4. Keep due dates to a minimum

I often think about how many dates and times students have to keep track of at the secondary level. This includes not just tests, quizzes, and homework, but extracurricular activities, work, family responsibilities, and hobbies. It’s a lot to juggle. I typically keep due dates and reminders on an online calendar, and on the board at the front of the class. I also will start and end class with a verbal reminder of upcoming due dates. I typically have one date every three to six weeks to submit an in-class essay and classwork, and then reading notes from the next text we will study on the following day. I only have to create one repeated assignment online that I can copy over multiple dates: to read the assigned text by the due date.

5. Give short, simple directions

Let’s be honest, listening to a long description of directions can be boring. Students tune us out if we’re not talking about the interesting content in our curriculum. Printed directions can help, but generally, my handouts (guided notes) contain one simple sentence like, “read the passage and take notes”. In class I might give verbal directions or write short directions on the board like, “create a poster with interpretation of at least five quotes and include at least one visual image” or they might have to answer one simple question related to the topic. I might show examples of mind maps, sketch notes, or one-pagers from model work completed by my former students. My formal assessments are one sentence questions, sometimes with a quote that functions as food for thought. I then specify what texts or sources they can use to answer the question. Because I keep my one checklist simple, my students know my expectations from the beginning of the year. Lengthy and confusing directions and rubrics can stifle creativity and independent thought. It’s also important to give students the opportunity to express themselves and their understanding of the material (in any subject area) in a variety of ways, like podcasts, short films, video essays, poetry, letters, journals, and short stories.

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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