Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lessons from the Limb #5 - Houses are in the ... um ... HOUSE!

The biggest lifesaver we have had this year is the organizational system we put in place to keep the students and their stuff organized. Most of the time it doesn't feel like we have that many more kids than normal, but when dealing with logistics 40 starts to really feel like 40 ... or 50 ... or 60 (they are pretty young, those firsties). We use "houses" and color-coding to keep our students organized. We would like to share with you how this manifests in our classroom.

We have a bird theme so we have four "bird houses" (Get it??? Heee heee!). Each bird house has a color: red, yellow, green, and blue (color-coding!!!). We use these two organizational tools in a myriad of ways. Come along and take a look ...

"Bird House" Home Table

Our double classroom is split into two sides. One side is primarily for whole group or larger group instruction. That's where we have our large rugs and our focus walls for Language Arts and Math. The other side of the classroom is set up for small-group instruction and independent work. Of course, nothing is set in stone; students can work independently on either side and small-group instruction can take place on either side, but we have organized the flow of our room in that manner. On the independent work side we have 6 rectangular tables where the children can choose to work. Four of those tables have a bird taped down to the middle of the table.

Red birds' table with their name tags and a turn-in bin
These tables serve as a "home base" for each house. The students pick up and drop off their name tags here. They put their H.A.W.K. binders here every morning. They are basically a quick way that we can have the students gather or leave materials organized by house.


We expect our children to wear their nametags at all times in the classroom. This is not because we do not know their names :) or because we enjoy continuously asking them to stop fussing with their name tags (insert eye-roll here). We want them to wear their name tags because they are still learning each other's names, because some of them are still learning how to spell their own names, and because we are in the process of putting into place a partner system and an asking for help system (we will blog about this in the future - we know, we know ... the suspense is killer!) that require them to wear their name tags. Each child's name tag has their name, a bird in their house color, and their number.

These name tags are from Lakeshore Learning.
We use a number system to organize materials in our classroom as well. We decided instead of numbering the children from 1-40, we would number them by house. So there are four #1 students: red 1, yellow 1, green 1, and blue 1. This decision has a few advantages. For example, we can group them by number or by color. We can have them line up quickly in number order by house so we can check that they are all present during a field trip or an emergency drill.

Cubbies/Student Supplies

The children do not have their own desks to keep their supplies so we use our classroom cubbies as a place where the children will store the majority of their supplies. Each house has their own cubby and they are located on a certain side of the classroom. To reduce traffic flow, we put the green and blue houses' cubbies against the far wall of one classroom, and the red and yellow houses' cubbies against the wall of the other classroom. This helps keep the children from getting backed up or squished on top of each other as they try to reach their supplies. We are still teaching the children the systems and routines of the classroom and work times so their cubbies are not full yet. We will blog at a future date about the exact way we organize the students' instructional supplies, but right now we will give you one tidbit. We like to use the "camel model" (we made that up, can you tell?) with our students. That means that they have a Book Box where they keep their supplies for Reader's Workshop, a Math Box where they keep their supplies for Math Workshop, and a Writing Box where they keep their supplies for writing. The idea of the "camel model" (hee hee) is that the children's materials are in a constant "grab 'n go" state (oh wait, that's good too ... maybe we should call it the "grab 'n go model" ... hmmmm ... anyway ....). Since the children are working all over the classroom in flexible and ever-changing ways, we wanted to keep their supplies contained and easily mobile. Ok, we've disgressed a bit here. We will blog more about this in a future post, pinky promise!

Cubbies for the red and yellow birds' materials

Since we have a double classroom with two doors, we decided to take advantage of that and assign each house to a door. Since the green and blue houses have their materials in one classroom, that classroom is their entrance/exit door. The red/yellow house enter and exit through the other classroom. This is particularly useful in high-traffic times, such as pick-up and drop-off as well as going to recess and lunch. It's an essential tenant of our classroom that the children feel as though they are one class at all times, but in these moments it makes much more sense to break into 20 just for logistical purposes. Each of us takes one door, and we switch it up constantly, so we are able to dismiss at drop-off or lead the line if we are going somewhere. When we are all walking together somewhere, one of us leads the first two houses out in a line and then the other links up behind the first line so that we are all walking together. 

Green and blue birds enter and exit through this side of the classroom
Red and yellow birds enter and exit through this side of the classroom

Turn-In Bin

Each house has their own turn-in bin. We do not have the children do that many things that requires a paper to be turned in, but when we do this is where the paper goes. Having the turn-in bin organized by house allows us to quickly sort through each house's papers to ensure that every children has completed an assignment. Let us tell you, it is much easier to sort through and organize 4 groups of 10 papers then try to organize 40 papers.

Turn-In Bins for each house

Class Check-Off List

We have our class check-off list organized by house so that we can easily see who is missing what and from which house. Again, as we stated above, organizing 4 groups of 10 is much easier than trying to negotiate 40.

As an aside, we have these really cool clipboards so you can slip a piece of paper inside and then use a whiteboard marker on them. That way you can reuse the paper time and time again. Cool, huh!

Work Completed Files

In order to keep our paperwork organized, we have a work completed file for each child where we file their work and then send it home in their H.A.W.K. binders on Mondays. We have two different crates with a drawer underneath that we use to file their papers. Each child has a hanging folder in their birdhouse color and they are organized in number order. Since our turn-in bin is already organized by house, we are able to quickly put the papers in number order (it's a breeze since there are only 10 per house), check the papers, and then either put them in the drawer to be filed later or file them directly into the child's folder.

Files for work completed and ready to go home 
House Walls/Response Cards

Our classroom has precious little wall space, particularly because we requested a huge gaping hole be cut into one of our longest uninterrupted wall spaces in order to combine our classrooms as fully as structurally possible. We wanted to have a place where student work could be displayed while being cognizant of the needs of wall space for instructional space and instructional support materials, and also cool decorations :). We came up with the idea of House Walls where each house would have their own space to display completed work. Next to their entrance/exit door, each house has their own bulletin board space delinated by paper in their house color. This is convenient for parents as well who can see their child's work as they are dropping them off or picking them up because they are right by the door. Right now there is wire hanging across each space where student work can be displayed. There are also Response Card posters, which we will blog about in the future, where the children respond to formative assessment questions on post-its and then stick them over their number on the poster. We will be adding buckets to each wall as we implement the Bucket Filler system we will be trying this year. We will also be adding a "brag board" where the children from each house can hang things they are proud of or trophies they have won as a house. All of these things are coming as we move farther into the year; can't add too much all at once!

The Yellow Birds' Wall
Response Cards with a space for each student to record an answer and place it over their number
Recess Buddies and Walking in Line

Since are students are so young and legion, we quickly realized that it was difficult to be sure that all of them made it back to line after recess and lunch. We also realized that is was inefficient to try to go down the roll list while out on the playground. Ms. B came up with the brilliant idea to assign each child a recess buddy within their house. Recess buddies have two jobs. They walk together in line, whether we are going to recess/lunch or an assembly. They also line up together after snack recess and lunch is over. This way we can quickly go down the line and see if someone is missing their buddy. This lets us know quickly if anyone is missing from the line. Having them walk with their recess buddy in line helps us keep our line from become longer than an Amtrak commuter train. Seriously, between 40 kids and the daydreamy-slow walkin' nature of first graders, it's like a train crossing if any other class has to wait for us to go by. Since we have them walk with their recess buddies, it makes our line half as long; we still get the day-dreamin' and the slow-walkin' but at least it's not stretching out over a quarter mile, for pete's sake!


We have been really lucky with our pull-out schedule this year because all of our students are at a pull-out at the same time on Monday through Thursday. For example, half the class is in Music on Mondays while the other half is at Motor Skills and then they switch on Tuesday. We decided to send the children to their pull-outs by house to keep it simple to divide up the students when we are lining up after lunch. Here is our pull-out schedule:

We made sure that the Monday/Tuesday pull-out houses are different than the Wednesday/Thursday pull-out houses. This means that on Monday/Tuesday red and yellow attend pull-outs together and so do green and blue. Then on Wednesday/Thursday, red and green attend pull-outs together while yellow and blue go together to their pull-outs. We are always trying to keep the houses mixed up so the children have as much time as possible with a mixture of their classmates.

The students don't always remember which pull-out they have when, but it's so simple to have them split up based on house because they all know their house color and to line up with their recess buddy. On Fridays only half of our class has Dance (the other half will have it during the second trimester) and we decided to use that time as sort-of split reading time so we divided the children up based on targeted reading needs. Fridays really bring home for us the ease of which our house system allows us to split them for pull-outs on every other day because on Fridays we have to individually split the children into two lines and invariably someone gets confused, is in the wrong line, or faithfully following their recess buddy into the wrong line. It takes twice as long to get the children organized to go to Dance then any other day.

House Points

We have an individual classroom management system in place with our behavior birds (Behavior Tree Blog Post), but we also wanted to have a system where the children were working together to earn something. We came up with House Points (and yes, we wish we were in Harry Potter sometimes, ok, we admit it!). Here are our House Point containers ...

We bought these at the Container Store. It's hard to see but they're little houses!!!
Right now our children earn House Points when they bring their H.A.W.K. binders back, when they remember to bring the snack and lunch bins back after recess, or when the entire house does something great. The kids are really focused on our individual system of the behavior birds right now so that's our primary focus, but we will be continuing to expand our house points system as the year continues. We want them to have the experience of working towards a common goal as a smaller group. In a few weeks, we will provide a list of rewards that they can "buy" with their house points and the entire house can enjoy. They will be non-material based rewards, such as lunch with the teachers or an extra 10 minutes of recess or free choice time. Since there are two of us, it is logistically possible that we could provide a reward of an extra recess while the other person continues on with the class.


Students hang their backpacks outside the classroom every morning and outside they stay! The reason we chose this approach is that we need to use the cubbies inside of our classroom to organize the students' curricular materials since they do not have desks where they can store individual supplies. There are hooks hanging on the outside of both of our classrooms. The green and blue houses hang their backpacks on the classroom wall of their entrance/exit door and the red and yellow houses hang their backpacks on the other classroom wall. This helps keep the backpack traffic flow organized and helps them find their backpack amidst the sea of 40 backpacks along our combined walls.

Red and yellow birds' backpacks in front of one classroom with their lunch bins

Snack/Lunch Bins

Each house has their own snack bin and their own lunch bin. The bins are marked by their color bird. Their snack bin is located on top of their house cubbies. The lunch bin sits outside in front of their backpack wall. Keeping it separate helps the students locate their snack or lunch more readily since they know immediately which bin to look in. That efficiency means more recess for them and more break time for us :)!!
Water bottle bin and snack bin for the green birds
Lunch bin for the red birds
Class Jobs

Class jobs are organized by house as well. There are four jobs that each house has every week. They are snack bins, lunch bins, librarian, and leader. Recess buddies share the responsibilities of snack bins, lunch bins, and librarian since it takes more than one student to carry the bins or wheel the library basket. We have not yet begun our leader job. We also have a plan to give each house an area of the classroom that they are responsible for keeping organized and clean every week. We have a "House Responsibilities" board where we will organize those tasks. We have not implemented that yet, but it is in the works for the future.

Each house has jobs for the students to do every week
Building a Smaller Community

A final component of the house system that we really like and are just beginning to capitalize on is that they create smaller, more manageable communities within the larger community of our classroom. For example, we do a Morning Meeting every morning and an important piece of Morning Meeting is the greeting of every student. We were initially doing this with all 40 children but it was taking FOR ... EV ... ER!!!! We decided to break into two smaller groups for the greeting part of the meeting (hey, that rhymed - it's the little things in life :) Each week we have two different houses together for the greeting. This allows the children to get to know each other and their classmates names instead of sticking to the comfort zone of the friends they know. We are still hoping to eventually do Morning Meeting greeting whole class, but until we get faster and more efficient at it, the two smaller groups are fitting the bill nicely.

Phew! As you can see from this novel of a post, our houses have been instrumental in keeping us organized. We don't have everything organized by house. For example, our supply caddies can be used by anyone or the children can work with anyone in the classroom or sit where they choose on the instructional rug, etc. With that said, the house/color-code/number system does provide a very important organizational tool for us and a system that we constantly fall back upon and build upon to keep our classroom running smoothly and efficiently.

The FLY AWAY of our lesson is that while we certainly are not saying that our system is the only way to do things, we also cannot overemphasize how critical a strong organizational system is to have in place from minute one in a combined classroom. There is nothing like logistics and transitions to make 40 children really feel like 100 children, particularly in the beginning of the year when they are young and still learning the expectations of the classroom. Being organized instills confidence in the parents, a sense of security and orderliness for the children, and provides efficiency and structure to the classroom that can be reaped all year long. So in conclusion ... give me an O - "Oh!" - give me an R ... just kidding :)

From the limb,

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