New Teacher Tips · Organization & Workflows

Classroom Organization: Teacher Workflows

My last post was about how student workflows and organization occurs in my classroom but probably an even bigger struggle was figuring out my own workflows. It took me a solid 4 years to figure out how to organize myself and I’m sure these systems will continue to change and refine. But the one thing I have found with all organization systems: Less is more.



I pretty much have 2 types of handouts, which I think is the case for most teachers: worksheets and assessments. And I have unique storage systems for each.

The Filing Cabinet: My filing cabinet is pretty much for assessments only. I have a couple of folders for generic forms (KWL charts, goal sheets, etc.) and some district paperwork but the majority is summative assessments. I tried putting everything in here but it just got too messy. Again, less is more. I organized my filing cabined using the templates and directions from this 30 Minute File Cabinet Makeover and I’m in love with the results! It looks great and it’s so easy to find the test or project sheet a student needs because of the big colorful tabs. I color coded the folders: green for generic forms, purple for unit assessments, and blue for district paperwork.

The Binder: All of my day to day worksheets are stored in The Binder. I have a divider for each unit, for which I used the same tabs from the file cabinet makeover. Then I use sheet protectors to hold the daily worksheets and/or quizzes. I have the answer key in the front of the sheet protector, and 5-10 blank copies behind it. The worksheets for each unit are organized chronologically so I just turn the page to get to the next day. Now we have 1:1 iPads, so most of my students just download the worksheet from our LMS and do it in notability, but I always like to have some paper copies for kids with IEPs, tech issues, or who just prefer paper. However, in a non 1:1 classroom this could still work to hold master copies.

One thing to note: I know a lot of teachers use file cabinets to hold worksheets but that just didn’t work for me. It was too messy and hard to find things. This way each sheet protector is devoted to a single worksheet, and it’s easy to flip through and find what you need.

Papers to Grade and Common Forms

I’ve tried a couple of ways of organizing papers to grade, but I think this file box from Target is my favorite. It’s pretty, sturdy, has a handle so I can easily carry it home, and has plenty of space for papers! I added some colorful tabs to divide periods 1, 2, and 4, and use manila folders within the dividers to hold papers “To Grade” and “To Return” for each period. I also keep a stash of teacher forms in here (time sheets, referrals, grade changes, etc.). I pride myself on having never lost a kid’s paper because I keep everything secure in here unless I’m actively grading it.

Manipulatives and Other Stuff


Card sorts and models from craft supplies are some of my go to teaching tools as a biochemistry teacher and I needed a way to easily store those. Over the years I have collected these file boxes from Ikea, Michaels, and Staples. I make 18 kits of each card sort or model (I have classes of 36 usually so this allows for groups of 2) and put each kit in a ziploc bag or envelope. Then I store the class set in a manila envelope labeled with the name of the manipulative (you can see one hanging out on the bottom shelf in the photo). Then I take all the manipulatives for each unit and put them in a box. I have one box for each unit.

So there you have it! My “less is more” organization system! I’ll write another post on my less is more digital organization later!

Classroom Management · New Teacher Tips · Organization & Workflows

Classroom Organization: Student Workflows

Okay, so it’s taken me like, 5 years and 12 different systems to get my classroom organized but I think I’ve finally hit on a winning system (for me at least). In all of the different systems and Pinterest ideas and everything I have tried, I’ve found that the less organizing I try to do, the better. The more complicated the system is, the harder it is to maintain. So today I share what has finally worked.


For the past few years I had always been the keeper of supplies. Expo markers, calculators, periodic tables, etc. were all stored in folders and baskets in my cabinets and I would have to pass them out every time they were needed. Then I noticed my colleague had bins on her desks with all that stuff in them. No more need to pass out materials and collect them over and over again.

At first I started with all of the materials in tote bins. But then the kids kept moving things between tables and stuff would go missing because one table was hoarding all the expo markers or periodic tables. Then I got colored dots and gave each table a color. That way we could easily spot if something didn’t belong.


The dots really helped for when things got mixed up but things were still getting mixed up and it was hard to tell at a glance if something was amiss. In browsing Pinterest I saw a lot of elementary teachers using these sectioned caddies for pens, pencils, markers, etc. Elementary teachers have the best organization and I love taking those ideas and applying them to my high school classroom!

I found these caddies on Amazon for just under $10 for a pack of 6! They look great and so far my kids really like how organized they are. I use the large section for periodic tables and other reference sheets that we use all the time. One of the small compartments perfectly fits four TI-30 calculators, and the third compartment holds expo markers and erasers, highlighters, scissors, and rulers with room to spare.

Turning In Work

A lot of our work is done digitally, so I don’t collect a ton of paper. Those that I do collect go into a cardboard cubby. I have one for each class period. I use the other shelves for paper supplies (scratch paper, lined, graph, plain, blue books). I used to walk around to each table and collect their work, or have them bring their work to me. This is much easier. I keep it at the back of my classroom to avoid traffic jams. I’m also getting a stapler to put on top of the box for things that need to be stapled.


Generic Forms/Worksheets


There are a couple of generic forms and worksheets that my scholars use a lot. These include Warmup Forms, Test Correction Forms, Article Summaries, and Review Packets for scholars working on relearning previous content. I used to keep these all in my filing cabinet but then I would have to retrieve them for the scholars whenever they were needed. Now I just keep them in a small bin for scholars to get themselves. Much more efficient.


Classroom Management · EdTech · New Teacher Tips · Organization & Workflows

My Apple Watch Makes Me a Better Teacher

If you’re a teacher and looking for an excuse to buy an Apple Watch, look no further! I’m about to drop all of the ways my Apple Watch has improved my teaching practice.

I originally purchased an Apple Watch for running and it’s definitely been useful for that. I have the Nike Plus edition with GPS. I still run with my phone but I can keep it tucked away in my running belt and can easily check my pace, distance, and control my music from my watch. But that’s not what we’re here for. Let’s look at some ways to use the Apple Watch in the classroom.

Starting Class

Here’s my routine for starting class:

Alarms for starting class
  1. I greet scholars at the door
  2. Scholars have 7 minutes to complete their warmup (more on this later)
  3. While scholars complete their warmups I take attendance and hand back any graded work
  4. After the 7 minute warmup time is over I draw 3 popsicle sticks and ask these scholars to share their answers

I have alarms set to go off 2 minutes before each period starts. We don’t have bells at our school so this helps me keep track of time and makes sure I can get to the door with enough time to greet my scholars as they enter. I also snooze this alarm so it goes off again 7 minutes into class when warmup time is over. This helps me keep a consistent routine and prevents too much time being spent on warmups and becoming off task time (which was an issue I used to run in to).

Pacing, Pacing, Pacing

Some of the preset timers. Or you can just say “Hey Siri 5 minute timer”

I use the heck out of the timers on my watch! The presets are great: 1 minute for a think-pair-share, 3-5 minutes to work a more challenging problem or for quick rotation activities, 10-15 minutes to work a groups of problems or longer rotations, 30 minutes to finish a lab or project. Timers help both me and my scholars stay on task. What’s that quote, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools?” Something like that. Anyways, the quickest way to an off task group of scholars is to give too much time for a task. You can always add more once time is up, but I like to give a short amount of time for my scholars to tackle something and the Apple Watch timers help me with this. I can quickly glance at my watch and give a “time remaining” reminder too. Even if most or the entire period is work time, I will always set a timer to end 5 minutes before class so I have enough time for cleanup and closure.

Digital Hand Raise

Probably the coolest thing I have set up my Apple Watch to do is a digital hand raise. My classes consist of a lot of work time and coaching rather than lecture and notes so it’s important for me to be able to get to my scholars who need help. Enter the digital hand raise. Here’s how this works:

Here’s what the digital hand raise looks like on the watch
  1. A scholar needs help so they type their name into a simple Google Form that lives on my LMS home page called “Help Me!”
  2. The Google Form has an add on called TheFormBot which is set up to forward any form responses to the Telegram App which I have installed on my watch.
  3. I get a tap on my wrist and see who I need to go to next within 30-60 seconds of the scholar submitting their name.

I like this method of hand raising because it keeps things equitable. Scholars who are uncomfortable raising their hands might be more likely to type their names in an anonymous form. I can help scholars in the order they need help rather than attending to the noisiest requestors first. Just make sure to go over etiquette (not submitting other people’s names as a joke) before implementing.

And there you have it! 3 more reasons to buy an Apple Watch as an educator!

Classroom Management · New Teacher Tips

A Simple, Quantitative Trick for Measuring Student Engagement

At the end of the day I can tell in about 10 seconds how engaging my lesson was. Obviously there are the usual methods of measuring engagement: observation, surveying, looking at student work, etc., but with this method I can tell at a single glance I can get a pretty good assessment of how engaged by students were.

Here’s what my bathroom sign out looks like on a day with decent engagement. 

What’s my tool? The Bathroom Sign Out.

My bathroom use procedures are pretty standard. One person at a time, sign out, and take the hall pass. I use and expo marker and the back window of my classroom as the sign out board. Here’s what I’ve noticed: the more engaging my lesson is, the fewer students leave to use the bathroom, maybe 7-10 across all of my classes. If my lesson is not engaging then the board will be filled. Obviously there are some other factors besides engagement that influence bathroom usage, but the correlation is strong.

Engagement is not to be confused with fun. Sometimes a fun lesson isn’t super engaging and sometimes the most boring lessons are more engaging. Engagement has more to do with the urgency of learning.

Based on my observations, here are examples of lesson styles where the students are the most engaged:

  • Straight lecture. As much as I try to avoid this type of lesson, sometimes I fall back on a lecture to deliver content. I’ve always been surprised how often students ASK for a lecture, and how students almost never leave when one is being delivered. That said, I’ve only done about 3 lectures this school year and I don’t intend to do more any time soon.
  • Stations. I have a few theories on why stations are engaging. The activities are short and numerous, students are moving and learning in different ways, and there tends to be a time limit so they need to be focused and work quickly.
  • Labs. No explanation needed.
  • Project Based Learning. This refers to true, real world, interdisciplinary projects with an authentic audience. These projects have a level of urgency not found in most school assignments.
  • Creative projects. I’ve noticed my students tend to be more engaged if the project task is creative, for example making an infographic or a stop motion video.

And here are some lessons with the lowest engagement:

  • Seat work. Any time I have a lot of seat work students have pretty low engagement. My kids are really good and the majority of them are focused but the work is not urgent enough to keep them really engaged with the content. And unfortunately in Biochemistry we tend to do a lot of seat work, problem sets, practice, etc. My goal as a still fairly new educator is to use different strategies and formats to make these tasks more engaging.
  • Reading/writing tasks. This might be an avoidance thing as these tend to be the most challenging for students in our school and the thing they hate the most.
  • Project work time. This one may be surprising. These are in-class projects such as research projects, not interdisciplinary project based learning. There are a few caveats. There is low engagement in the earlier days of the project then extremely high engagement in the last day or two of the project. This points to some procrastination on the students’ part but also a lack of urgency for the projects. And as mentioned above, creative tasks tend towards higher engagement.
New Teacher Tips · NGSS · Project Based Learning

Grading Competencies

Okay in my last post I said I would talk a little bit more on how me and my teaching partner are writing and grading assessments for our competencies so here goes.

I have struggled a lot with how to define and assess competencies. There were so many questions. What is a competency? What is the best way to assess competency? What represents the different levels of competency? What role does DOK play in evidence of competency?

My first year, the assessments given were almost exclusively tests and if a scholar did not meet competency (a grade of 2.5 on a scale of 4), then they would have to retake a second version of the test after completing revision procedures. From a teacher standpoint it was easy to manage (test are easy to grade compared to other assessments) but never quite sit right with me as I find tests to be restrictive in the amount of creative thinking and problem solving they allow.

When I got a new teaching partner last year we went full swing in the opposite direction, trading in tests for more creative and engaging projects. A little bit more to grade from the teacher side but the richness of learning was worth it. However, we ran into the problem where it was difficult to assess and maintain competency on some of the more basic skills of the content.

If you don’t know, I teach chemistry and learning chemistry is akin to learning a new language. There is a whole new alphabet (the elements), writing (chemical symbols), combining letters to make words (chemical compounds), and combining words to tell stories (chemical reactions). It’s great to have creative projects but can you really consider a scholar competent if they aren’t fluent in the basics of the language?

To address both the basics skills and creative problem solving, we have moved towards two-part assessments of each competency: a basic skills test and an investigation.

First we outlined the core competencies of our course as a competency statement. These were based on NGSS as well as our professional judgement based on our course content and the 4-year context of our science curriculum.

Then, we wrote 20 question basic skills tests around the low DOK (1 & 2) learning goals of the competency. Finally, we designed investigations to get at the heart of the competencies. These investigations necessarily include the Science and Engineering Practices. This might be creating and explaining a model via screencast or writing a lab report around an experiment that they planned and carried out or creating an infographic to share information about nuclear technology.

These assessments are then graded and the scholar receives a grade on a 4 point scale based on our Bump It Up board, which I adapted from Madly Learning. The levels on the board are roughly based on DOK levels. If a scholar passes the Basic Skills Test then they are at a level 2. To earn a higher competency level they must complete the investigation to the specified criteria. A level 3 shows integration of science and engineering practices with the content. A level 4 goes beyond with more challenging subject matter and a deeper dive to find the real world connections to the content.


New Teacher Tips · NGSS · Project Based Learning

Our Take on Competency Based Grading

When I was interviewing for my current position, I was provided with a copy of the school-wide grading policy and asked what I thought about it and what challenges I might foresee in adopting this grading policy in my class. Our school has adopted competency-based grading, similar but not the same as standards-based grading. Here are some highlights of our grading policy:

  • Grades are based only on summative assessments. Formative quizzes, drafts, quick-writes, homework, etc. do not affect grades. Work habits do not affect grades. No deductions for late work and no extra credit. Grades are strictly based on what you know not how you get there.
  • If you don’t pass the first time, you just don’t know it yet. You can attempt to pass a summative assessment as many times as you need. Until you pass you receive no grade, entered as a No Mark (NM). Passing is considered a 2.5 on a scale of 4.
  • You have a total of 3 grading terms to pass all assessments (current term and 2 following terms), basically an additional 6 months after the term has ended. If ALL summatives have not been passed by then, you receive an F.
  • Grades are not calculated. We give grades based on trends in performance rather than percentages.

Competency Based Grading in Practice

Here’s how that philosophy has played out at our school. Teachers design summative assessments, which we call competencies, for their course. Competencies take many forms: tests, essays, presentations, projects, etc. Most classes end up having 10-12 throughout the year. Students complete the competencies, usually at the end of a unit. They are graded on a 4 point scale, usually based on a rubric of some sort. All students that get below a 2.5 receive a NM and have to re-do the competency, whether than is revising an essay or retaking a test or whatever.

Challenges and Concerns

When I was sitting in that interview, I voiced my concern over the nature of competencies. I was fresh out of a Universal Design for Learning course and was very concerned that this grading policy, while positive in progressive in many ways, could fall down a slippery slope if not executed right. What if a teacher only assessed using tests? Students like me who were good test takers would excel but another student with test anxiety would perpetually struggle. I flashed back to high school where we had “Standards,” tests in each class we could retake that, if passed, guaranteed at least a C in the course but if failed, guaranteed an F. Or what about lowering standards to make sure everyone passed. The benefits of our grading policy were great, but in my 4 years living in this system, there have definitely been some pitfalls and learning experiences.

What is a competency?

Over the past 4 years using competency based grading, I keep coming back to the same question: What is a competency? If you asked the students, they would probably tell you a competency is a test or essay or project. And therein lies my biggest concern about how we think about competencies. When I think of a competency, I think of it as a clearly defined bundle of knowledge and skills related to the content. However, the line between the competency and the assessment has become blurred. A display of competency shouldn’t be tied to whether a student passes a particular test. Is there another way to show competency? Honestly by talking to a student you can generally tell if they are competent or not. What if I have a conference with a student and they clearly understand the main ideas and skills but struggle to convey that on a paper-and-pencil test? Should they get a 2.5? Or is the bar held at whether a student can do it on a test? If that’s the case what is really being assessed: the knowledge or the ability to take a test? To quote Alfie Kohn,

“Tests mostly test how good you are at tests.”

Some Parting Words for Pursuing Competency Based Grading

For those interested in competency based grading, I’d like to offer some advice.

  • It’s best to have the support of the school. One of the key pieces of this system is the extension of time. Sometimes it takes a particular student takes longer for the content to click. They just don’t get it yet. Being able to extent beyond the current grading period is crucial.
  • Clearly define your competencies, and make sure the assessments line up with those competencies. Maybe it’s a bundle of learning objectives, or maybe it is one overarching statement (I prefer the latter).
  • Consider multiple ways of assessment. Be careful that the competency doesn’t become about the assessment. Keep the focus on the competency.
  • Have good retake/revision procedures. Give good feedback but also have ways for students to monitor themselves and each other.
  • Have a good rubric. Generic for use across multiple assessments or specific for each competency. I’ll write more on this later.

So there’s an overview of my experiences with competency based grading. I will share more specifics on how any why competencies have evolved in my class in a future post.

New Teacher Tips · Project Based Learning

Peer Review Protocol for Teamwork

One problem every teacher is bound to run into is work distribution with group projects. It seems inevitable that one person does all of the work and one person does nothing and it’s just doesn’t seem fair for all parties to get the same grade. How do you handle this situation? It’s so hard to tease out who did what (although revision history in Google Docs helps with this) and it doesn’t really solve the problem of unequal work distribution.

Enter the Teamwork Review Protocol

What is it?

The teamwork review protocol is a peer assessment tool that I’ve creating by adapting a critical friends protocol and combining it with a teamwork rubric I found online ages ago and really liked. Essentially, each group member is evaluated by their teammates by following a 4-step protocol which allows all parties to hear and be heard. The steps are as follows (printable version here):

Step One: Reviewee Self-Score (3 minutes)
Who Can Talk: The person being reviewed
Who is Silent: The rest of the team
Using the teamwork rubric, reviewee describes what scores they think they deserve in each of the 5 categories and why, giving specific examples. DO NOT WRITE ON RUBRIC.

Step Two: Probing or Clarifying Questions (1 minute)
Who Can Talk: Everyone
Who is Silent: No One
Team members ask questions about the reviewee’s contributions if needed.

Step Three: Team Discussion (3 minutes)
Who Can Talk: The rest of the team
Who is Silent: The person being reviewed
Team discusses if they agree with self-score and why, giving specific examples. Scribe uses highlighter to give score to the member. Reviewee is silent, taking notes

Step Four: Reviewee Response (1 minute)
Write the date at the bottom of the rubric and 1 sentence describing a teamwork goal for next week based on team’s feedback. Your goal should be a specific behavior you want to change.

How I Use It

I generally use the teamwork review protocol during our 4-week interdisciplinary projects. Every Friday the four-person teams go through the protocol for each teammate and mark their scores for the week. I color code each week so the students can see their growth (or sometimes breakdown) of their participation as a team member and only enter their final teamwork score into the gradebook. It can be done more frequently depending on the length of the project but I recommend it be done more than once. It’s incredible to see the honest feedback, self reflection, and growth that happens during this protocol. In addition, by following the protocol most of the shallow feedback that students give each other is eliminated as each statement made must be supported by specific examples. AND, our students become better participants in group projects.

***A word of caution: sometimes the process can be emotionally charged. I have had students yell, cry, argue, and friendships tested during this protocol. Embrace it as part of the process and ensure that before running the protocol you have built a safe and trusting classroom culture and have gone over constructive feedback. I recommend looking into restorative practices if it’s not something you’re already doing.***