Classroom Solutions > Mary Blow > Is That a Notebook or a Hero Sandwich?

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Is That a Notebook or a Hero Sandwich?


Each year, I look at a sea of anxious, wide-eyed 6th graders who are entering middle school for the first time.  Some students will acclimate to middle school without any problem; others will find it more challenging.  Incoming middle school students will tell you that the most difficult challenge is unlocking the combination lock on their locker or getting to the next class within three minutes.  However, I have observed that these are short-term challenges. In reality, the most challenging hurdle for 6th graders is accommodating so many bosses: a teacher for each subject. 

(This post contains a flip book.)

Put yourself in their shoes. They have five core teachers and numerous exploratory teachers  each teacher with his or her classroom expectations and academic goals.  Having that many bosses can be overwhelming for an adult, much less an 11-year-old.  The 6th grade team of teachers at my school decided it would be well worth the time to engage in a middle school orientation that would prepare 6th graders to succeed in middle school and the real world.

To start, we identified the habits and skills of our most successful students. Each year, during the first week of school, we explicitly teach these skills to our students:

1. Utilizing Student Planners Planner_inside

Lowville Academy Middle School provides each student with an academic planner from School Mate.   Every teacher posts daily assignments on a homework board, and the students are responsible for writing daily assignments in the planner.  For the first few weeks of school, I do this as my bell ringer, reinforcing this new responsibility and making it a habit. The planner serves as a parent communication tool as well.  If a student does not hand in his or her assignment, the teacher highlights the late assignment.  This informs the parents that the homework was not completed.  Once it is handed in, the teacher initials the highlighted assignment, so that the parent(s) knows that it is completed. 

2. Organizing a Locker

Many middle school lockers have been described as the Black Hole.  Once something goes in, it never comes out.  I bet you have seen a few of these lockers in your day.  One way of managing the chaos is to have the locker inhabitants create sections in their locker for morning and afternoon, or top and bottom.  If possible we encourage the students to color-code school supplies by content area to help them organize.  For example, science may be green, and math, red.  They are encouraged to keep all similarly colored materials together. When they access their locker, they can just grab all the green materials, and they are prepared for science class.  Organized lockers help to alleviate the stress of making it to the next class in three minutes.  When five-week reports and report cards are sent home, each student cleans out and reorganizes his or her locker for the next grading period. 

3. Organizing Notebooks

My English students use a three-ring binder, and it is shared with the reading teacher, reinforcing the idea that the two subjects, which are taught by two separate teachers in two different classrooms, should not be segregated. For many, this is their first experience using a binder, tab dividers, and loose-leaf paper.  Imagine my shock the first year I taught when I discovered they were putting filler paper in upside down and that their tab dividers were out of sequence.  I quickly learned how explicit I needed to be with incoming 6th graders.  Below is a flip book, made using the free service issuu, that illustrates how I teach my students to personalize and organize their notebooks.

Often, the ticket out of my classroom is filing all materials correctly in the notebook. This teaches them to put materials away before leaving the classroom, preventing them from getting lost in the Black Hole.  Throughout the year, notebooks are graded to foster accountability and responsibility.  It is the first grade of the year.  Thereafter, the ELA notebooks are graded periodically — every five weeks or so. 

4. Communicating With TeachersStudent_message_board

It is important to show my students that I trust and respect them.  However, I have an average of 105 students coming and going from my room on a daily basis, and I am accountable for them.

Each student is taught that if he or she is going to miss my class, it is the student's responsibility to touch base with me.  The first week of school, I share my schedule with them, so they know where and when to find me. 

Because I respect their time as well, I have a student message board.  All passes, student handouts, and parent letters are posted for students who miss homeroom or English class.  The morning is especially hectic.  Homeroom students often have business to tend to before school.  Even though they verbally touch base with me, I have them sign out on the message board, so I can take accurate attendance.  With some training, the student message board becomes an effective communication tool.  Students begin to feel respected, trusted, and accomplished, as their ability to communicate with teachers develops.

Sure you get a few students who come into your class with papers hanging out of their notebooks, so they look like overstuffed hero sandwiches.  When this happens, we stop and start over, reinforcing these behaviors until they become habits. Eventually, most students develop the skills that help them to become successful learners and successful employees. Of course, there are also things we explicitly teach, such as study skills, time management, and tolerance. For these, I recommend Overhead Teaching Kit: Study Skills by Michele Goodstein, which offers lessons and activities to address the following areas:
  • Setting goals and priorities
  • Getting organized
  • Managing time
  • Reading & note taking
  • Planning projects
  • Taking tests

I am interested in hearing from you.  What skills do you feel successful students exhibit?


  • #1 Mary Blow

    Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 06:34 PM

    Hi, Mike. I have a white board, or I should say I HAD a white board that I used in the same way. I have a new classroom, so I am pondering how to do this now that I lost my whiteboard. I also post a hard copy of my student lists on the wall by my door in case of an emergency. We have electronic attendance, so this is handy during a fire drill.

  • #2 Mike

    Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 06:13 PM

    I love the color code idea, I'll have to try that one! For parental communication, I find the most effective is using the parents email and our class website. In terms of students that are missing class/or out of class for any reason, I have a small whiteboard with a marker & eraser taped to it next to the door and students that exit my classroom for ANY reason (office, ESL, resource, band, Title I, bathroom etc.) must sign their first names on the white board, so at a glance I know exactly who is out and where. This is extremely important in emergencies or during fire drills/code blues.

  • #3 Mary Blow

    Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 11:43 AM


    Thank you for your kind words. Part of the fun of networking with teachers K-12 is knowing how much our students have grown and to ensure that we are preparing our students for the advanced grades. I am constantly seeking words of wisdom from my colleagues. Last week, I just requested information from them on their public speaking criteria at 11-12th grade level, so I we can vertically align our curriculum in this area.

  • #4 Nancy Jang

    Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 10:03 PM

    Your organizational tips are golden. I'm going to use some of them with my second graders. Hopefully by the time they reach sixth, they will be well organized and the only sandwich they have will be in their lunch!

    Nancy Jang

  • #5 Mary Blow

    Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 06:44 PM

    Ronica, we, too, have a homework slip that is similar to your purple slip; however, it is filled out before homeroom. All handouts are clipped to it, and then it is sent to the office. If a parent calls, our awesome secretary copies it for them. The problem is that sometimes, plans are change. What if you have to reteach or there is a fire drill and you didn't cover content, so you didn't assign the work. I like your procedure better.

  • #6 Ronica

    Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 05:06 PM

    Wonderful job Mary! Our 5th/6th gr team has a purple slip that one student carries around each day and the teachers fill in the missing homework,quizzes, test, make up work and any work for students who are absent. Teachers also clip papers to the purple sheet. Then homeroom teachers have students work on it asap at study hall time.

  • #7 Mary Blow

  • #8 Brent Vasicek

    Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 09:52 AM

    I love organizational tips. Thank you. Keep them coming.

  • #9 Mary Blow

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010 at 11:01 PM

    Nancy, I think some of the best teacher I have ever met borrow from other teachers. Please take it and use it! FYI--our PTO buys a student planner for each student who is enrolled in middle school. We have fabulous parents who support us.

  • #10 Mary Blow

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010 at 10:59 PM

    Allie, as I was writing this, I thought of all the kindergarten teacher, who put just as much effort into helping 5-year-olds to acclimate to school. We share a lot in common.

  • #11 Allie Magnuson

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010 at 04:55 PM

    Wow Mary - I really enjoyed this blog. I know how hard it is to: number one - going from an elementary school to a middle school and number two - how hard it is to keep track of all your belongings. You do an awesome job at helping these young people become responsible students that will help them for the rest of their school years and hopefully for the rest of their adult life.

  • #12 Nancy Barile

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010 at 04:33 PM

    Mary, you have to be one of the most organized teachers ever - and it is wonderful to see how you help students with these skills. I believe organization is half the battle towards academic success. I'm stealing all your ideas, and I've got day planners up on donorschoose!! Thanks for the good advice!

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Mary Blow
Mary Blow
Glenfield, NY
Grades 6-8
Special Interests:
Interactive Whiteboards
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