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Setting Up for a Year of Literacy

By Danielle Mahoney on September 7, 2010
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

As the summer days are coming to an end, I'm looking forward to the change of season and the fresh start of a new school year. Here in New York City, teachers are officially returning to their classrooms today. Whether today's your first day back or you've been knee deep in lesson planning for weeks, you know that an effective behavior management plan, along with a few key resources, will get your students ready for a busy year filled with literacy.


Class Rules and a Behavior Management System

Effective behavior plans and a system for classroom management need to be in place before we can dig down deep into reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Many years ago, right before I stepped into my own classroom for the very first time, I was given the book The First Days of School to get me started on my way to becoming an effective teacher.


What an amazing resource. It is packed with ideas on how to set up your classroom for a year of high expectations through effective classroom management. I’ve tried out many of the suggested strategies. Here are some ideas that have worked really well. 

Make the Rules...Together!

Start off by creating the rules together with your class. Read-alouds on the first day with books like Chrysanthemum, No, David! or Officer Buckle and Gloria are great ways to begin discussions about good behavior and the rules they need to work successfully in a classroom setting.  


After your read-aloud, start a conversation with your students about their previous experiences in the classroom, in order to come up with new rules that will work for everyone. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What are some of the rules that worked well in your classroom last year?

  • Was there anything you would change if you could?

  • How can we make this year even better?

In your mind, have a few major rules laid out. These rules should be stated in a positive manner and can be an umbrella for the million things you DON'T want your students to do.


Our Classroom Rules

Here are the three basic rules that have really worked well for my students:

  • Be a good listener.This really means "follow directions the first time; talk when it’s your turn to speak."

  • Respect the people and materials in class.This is code for "take care of books, manipulatives, classroom supplies, and each other." Oh, it can also be code for "no hitting, biting, yelling, fighting . . . "

  • Do your best! This rule brings it all together. I can refer back to it often, keeping my students on track during any task. For example, if a student isn’t focused on her independent reading or isn’t working cooperatively in a group, I can get her back on track by asking, “Are you doing your best?”

Posting the rules up on chart paper or on sentence strips in your classroom along with your management system will keep kids working towards best behavior.


Management System: The Classroom Heart

I've seen traffic lights, pocket charts, tally marks, checklists, and even cups filled with marbles used as effective behavior management tools. The right system to have in place is the one you know you'll be consistent with.I've tried many methods and found one that is easy to manage, is understood by my students, and gives me the best results: The Classroom Heart. How does it work? Much like the traffic light, this system has three categories in which your students can be placed. (Sort of like "three strikes, you're out!") 



  • The heart is the place where your students should strive to be. All students begin the day inside of the heart. This is the place where students who are following the rules and displaying great behavior are "parked."

  • A square much smaller than the heart serves as the "yellow light." Here's where a student is placed after they've already received a verbal warning and have chosen to continue the inappropriate behavior. With improvements in behavior, students who have broken a rule can move back into the heart.

  • A much smaller square serves as the "red light." Point out that there isn't much room on it. No one should ever get to this square!

I use pieces of felt for the heart and squares, as well as star-shaped calendar cut-outs to represent each student. By placing a velcro dot (hook side) to the back of each star, the names of the students can be easily moved from place to place. It's important to give your students opportunities to get back on track and remember to acknowledge students who stayed in the heart all day.

You can change the shape of the system according to your class theme or personal taste. Regardless of the colors and shapes you decide on, having a solid system of behavior management in place from day one will set the expectations high for best behavior throughout the year


The Discipline Plan or Contract

Having a discipline plan in place that supports the classroom rules is KEY! Drawing up a contract that states the rules, the consequences, and the rewards will set up clear expectations for the students and their parents. Here is the contract I use with my students. Notice that a parent’s signature is required as well. We need parents to be partners in our work. Get them on board the very first day!


Job Application (A Quick Assessment)

Asking students to fill out a job application during the first few days of school is a great way to sneak in a quick assessment of their writing skills. Once you decide on the different jobs needed to make your classroom run smoothly, explain the roles and the responsibilities to your students and ask them to apply for the job they feel they are best suited for.

For example, you may ask, “What are some of the things you do at home to help your family?” “Can you use those same skills here in our class?”  Once the applications are complete, look them over with the class and decide who would make the best line leader, office monitor, etc., based on their responses. They’ll be invested in the process and take the assigned job seriously. Be sure to rotate the job responsibilities each month so that everyone has a chance to work.

Here is an example of a job application I created for my classroom. Edit it according to your grade level and job types to make it your own.Jobchart

Using a tree to organize the jobs in your classroom is one way of displaying the chart. Leaves with the names of the students can be easily manipulated with a dab of Fun-Tak on the back. The students who are “on vacation” can place their leaves inside an envelope on the side of the chart. They will certainly look forward to working in the months ahead.Now you have your classroom helpers set up, as well as a quick assessment of their writing abilities.

I'd love to hear how your first few days have unfolded. What systems do you have in place that work best for you?  Remember, the behavior management plan that you can use consistently is the one that's right for you. I wish you the best in setting up your classroom for a year of literacy! Check back for future posts on booklists, favorite authors, Reading and Writing Workshop, ideas to strengthen listening and speaking skills, informal and formal assessments, planning for small group instruction, scaffolding partnerships, and much, much more!

Comments (12)

Hi Rebecca!

I agree! The First Days of School, is just FILLED with wonderful ideas that can be used by first time teachers as well as veterans. (I look back at it every year, too!) I'm happy to hear that No, David! was loved by your third grade students! Thanks for stopping by to comment!

=) Danielle

Danielle, Thanks for all the great ideas! I teach third grade and I too love the book The First Days of School. I revisit it every year to brush up on what I want my year to look like. This year was the first year I used No David! to teach my students how to make up rules. I loved it!

Hi Jen! Thanks so much. I've seen your room and your classroom management. If that contract has a little something to do with how well behaved your students are, then everyone should be using it!! =) And yes, I agree. I think having parents on board right away makes all the difference. Here's to a great year!

=) Danielle


I have to say that I love the discipline contract. I have been using it ever since you told me about it years ago. It is a great way to keep the home school connection going. Parents have insight into the classroom and your behavior management system. You always have such great ideas.


Great, Irene!

While you're getting your classroom jobs filled, you'll gain a little insight on each student's writing ability. Have fun with it!

=) Danielle

Love the job application suggestion, will try it next week... Thanks

Hi Kelly!

On demand writing pieces can be scary! (And BRAVO to you for starting off the year by getting to know the strategies your new 5th graders are using and what they need to know!) Without prompts or coaching, kids can forget all of the good things writers do. Then, add in the fact that they've been away from school for two months. ARRRRRGGG!

As far as your memoir unit goes, have you used the narrative continuum to help you assess their on demand writing and go forward with planning your mini-lessons? It's a great resource.


I'm sure that your students are better readers and writers than you think. With your support, they will amaze you. Hang in there!

=) Danielle

Hi Shobana! Thanks for the comment! You've taught literacy through the arts in my classroom as a teaching artist, so you know how important a good system of behavior management is! I'm glad you like the job application. Now you know how my students came to love and respect their roles in the classroom! =) Danielle


Great suggestions! I especially like the job application idea. It makes it so much more meaningful for the students instead of the usual "raise your hand if you want to be the paper passer!"

Also, the First Days of School is a must-read for any new teacher! I was given this book right before I started teaching and it was a valuable resource my first year of teaching especially.

I think that we as teachers can be just as anxious as the kids for the first day of school. What are our kids going to be like as readers and writers? I had my students write an on-demand small moment today and I cringed at what they handed back to me. What I got from my 5th graders today was so disappointing. I have no clue how I am going to get through memoir for my first writing unit!

What happens over the summer that our kids come in as if we they have never been taught any reading or writing strategies before? I am nervous as I think ahead about running records over the next few weeks.

I love teaching reading and writing and I am excited to follow your upcoming posts on literacy in the coming months!

Danielle:: Great suggestions, especially the job applications!

Dear Denise,

Thank you! You must be so excited to meet your new students! Good luck trying some of these ideas out in your own classroom. I just finished reading an article in Instructor that I think you may find helpful as well. It offers "new twists" on some back-to-school traditions.


I can't wait to hear about your first day!

=) Danielle

I love the first day information you have provided. i am going to try some of your ideas in my class and will let you know about the experience tomorriw. thank you

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