english, language arts, middle school, motivation, routines, teacher

7 Routines for the Middle School Classroom

Routines are what makes a teacher’s world go ’round. I know they’re not going to set the world on fire, but maybe it’s like putting the world up to a nice, scented candle that permeates the room and makes everything smell cozy and safe.

In my previous post, I detailed the routines in my household and how they maintain a certain level of sanity for me and my family. I feel the exact same way about routines in my classroom. I only have one rule — “Anything that hinders learning and instruction is not permitted” — but I have many routines. If effective routines are in place and consistently followed, behavioral issues will be at a minimum, and if they do occur, then they are more easily dealt with.

Before school starts, especially if you’re a newer teacher, it’s definitely worth checking over routines and seeing what worked last year, what didn’t work, what needs to be added, or what wasn’t necessary. As a teacher, routines allow me to be more of a neutral figure in the classroom. If students don’t follow the routine, there is usually a natural consequence that will come from that, and if I have to step in, it’s more the attitude of, “This routine wasn’t followed, so this consequence is going to happen.” I don’t have to insert my personal opinion, I don’t have to talk about the student personally, it’s just a discussion of the action itself. Since middle schoolers can be prone to self-righteous defensiveness (I mean, what? They’re little angels!), this is key to not making anything anything more of a situation than it has to be.

I only teach the ones I absolutely need to at the beginning of the year, and the rest I address as the need arises throughout the rest of the year. The following are some of my most important routines:

1. Starting Class: 

When my students come in, I allow them to sit or stand near their assigned seat and chat with students nearby. Then, when the bell rings and I’m ready to start class, we pray together. This simple act quiets and focuses the class, and helps us start our time together as a cohesive group. After that, I launch into our agenda for the day and we get down to business.

I used to start with bell work, which students would immediately work on once entering the class, but I changed that for a couple reasons. First, my students sit in small groups, often with people they don’t normally hang out with on a regular basis. I want them to be able to get to know each other and check in with each other since the last class, since they very well may not have spoken since then. Since language arts can involve sometimes intense and personal discussions and writing, I want them to feel comfortable with each other, and for our class to form a little community. Second, their days are jam-packed. I want them to be able to relax a little bit, recharge from their last class, and get a little bit of a brain-break before starting mine.

Even if a teacher is not able or doesn’t want to start with prayer, a moment of silence or a reflection on a quote or photograph can fulfill a similar purpose.

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2. Participation Points: 

In college and some high school classes, students will receive participation points as part of their overall grade for the class. I don’t require that they need to answer questions or comment a certain number of times, as many upper-level classes do, but I do give a small number of participation points for each class of mine they attend. This includes working productively with their small group, listening to my instruction, taking notes, asking questions when needed, and listening to other people who have permission to speak. If they are distracted, or asleep, or talking while someone else is talking, that is not respectful participation, and they will lose a point every time there’s an issue. I make little tally marks next to their name on my attendance sheet if needed.

This is how I deal with the issue of inappropriate talking or behavior. Very rarely do I need to say anything to an individual student, and even more rarely do I have to give a disciplinary consequence for behavior. I mostly just look at the student(s) in question, and write something on my clipboard, and they know what’s going on.

Joe Delaware and Millie Elephant need to get it together.

In ELA, teaching the practical use of language and communication is important — not just talking, but also listening and observing what’s around you. I feel that it’s appropriate for me to give points for this component that takes up so much of our actual class time, and is, arguably, the very heart of effective communication.

3. Restroom or Drink Break:  

I don’t allow students to leave while I’m in the middle of instruction, but otherwise they can use the restroom or have a drink pretty freely. My school gives each student a hall pass that teachers can sign, and I tell them to bring theirs up with them when they ask to leave. I also have a hand code — a “peace” sign — for students to ask when I’m in the middle of something or talking to another person.

peace sign

4. Turning In Work:

I have a drawer for each class to turn in their work themselves. When it’s time for students to turn in an assignment, I usually have where to put it on the board, both as a visual reminder and because I see them for two different classes, so I want it to be very clear which drawer the work goes in. I then use an “assignment tracker” or cover slip, which was an idea I found at the blog Fifth in the Middle, to quickly check off who turned in and who didn’t. If there’s time, I do this while the students are working in small groups, and if someone didn’t turn in a paper or there’s no name, I can catch it right away and see what’s going on. If someone is absent, I mark “A;” if it’s late, I mark an “L.” Later on, I will enter the grade in the right and use that list to enter my grades online.

5. Turning In Missing Work: 

Most teachers have a system for turning in regular work, but receiving late or absent work can be a little trickier. For the sake of ease, I have the same system for both types of work, even though they will be graded differently. Before I will accept and grade an assignment, I require that a “pink slip” be attached to the work in question. The slip lists the student’s name, reason why the assignment was late or missing, and a signature.  I will then put the date I received/graded the work and my signature, and then I proceed to grade. I keep the pink slips in an binder with alphabetized sleeves so if I need to, I can see how many late assignments a student has and what the reasons were for each one. If there’s a pattern, then I need to do more follow-up.

6. Returning from an Absence: 

At my school, students have one day to make up their work for every day they were absent. I am usually a stickler about this, although if someone was very sick, or there was a lesson I needed to make time to teach them, I am flexible on the days.

It is the students’ responsibility to see what instruction and work they missed while they were gone. If they missed a quiz or test, it is also their responsibility to schedule a time to make it up with me. If they don’t do this, they will not receive a grade. When I enter in the rest of the class, I will mark that the absent student has more time for completion, but I will put a date I need the assignment by. If I receive work after that date, it turns into a “late” grade.

I used to seek out students about the work they missed while gone, and I quickly found out it was putting too much on me, especially with a task middle schoolers are fully capable of handling themselves. Also, if I forgot to talk with them, then it would be “my fault” that the work wasn’t handed in. It is much better for them to take care of themselves all around.

7. Privacy:

This is such an important concept for middle schoolers, and it goes a few different ways. When students are assigned their seats for the first time, I tell them to try to make it work for a week, and then if things are not okay, they should come see me privately.

If they have a problem with me or something about my class, they should also come see me privately. And if I need to tell them something of a sensitive nature, I tell them I also will speak to them privately, not in front of the class.

I want them to know that we need to be able to control our emotions and not broadcast our frustrations as we feel them. People are a lot more willing to listen to criticism if they feel their dignity has been considered and respected.

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What are your most important routines for your classroom? What do you make sure to address at the beginning of the year?