Learning Environments

3 Elementary Classroom Hacks

A teacher explains strategies she once used with first graders, with updates from her current perspective teaching fourth grade.

Children in a classroom raise both hands in the air during a movement break.

In my first year of teaching in my own classroom, I learned that teaching first grade requires a lot of creativity. It was also pretty clear from the beginning that customizing any classroom for teaching efficiency and student engagement could easily cost a lot of money, so I started to explore and practice the amazing and amusing art of classroom hacking. The video below shows some of my hacks, and now that I teach fourth graders, I’ve updated my original post with some comments about how the ideas in the video work with older students.

The Keyboard Station

Several years ago, I didn’t have computers in my first-grade classroom. Since I wanted my students to gain the skills necessary for the technological world they’ll be part of, I figured they should learn the keyboard. My key realization was that the keyboards didn’t need to be attached to a computer—our IT department had some old keyboards, and they cut the cords off for me. My advice? Just ask. School IT departments, family members’ workplaces, and computer recycling places are usually inundated with keyboards and are happy to give some away—especially to help students.

When I introduced the keyboard station, the kids were excited. The time they spent with the keyboards paid off once we finally got computers. The kids felt like rock stars because they knew where all the letters were.

I teach fourth grade now, and every student in grades 3 to 12 at my school has a Chromebook, but the keyboard station is a hack that I still share with any teacher who has limited or no access to computers in their classrooms.

Organization Aprons

This hack I stole from Pinterest. My first-grade students’ organization skills were lacking, resulting in more lost or broken crayons and pencils than I knew what to do with. As a simple add-on to the back of each chair, pocketed aprons provided a home for all the little stuff students need to have easily accessible and unbroken. At 77 cents apiece, the aprons are much cheaper than customized chair backs. I was delighted to teach my students organizational skills while keeping my sanity.

I use a modified version of this hack with fourth graders: Each group has a three-drawer rolling storage cart. Work to be turned in is placed on top of the cart. The top drawer has any materials students may need access to (tissues, stapler, glue stick, highlighter, eraser, etc.). The middle drawer is for trash (emptied by the last class at the day). The bottom drawer is full of materials (worksheets, flashcards, writing response questions, etc.) that students can use if they finish a task early.

Academics in Motion

I’m a huge advocate of getting my students moving as often and in as many ways as possible. I think it’s silly to expect kids of any age to sit in their seats and stay focused on their work when most adults are unable to do that (and aren’t expected to). Movement in my classroom comes in various forms and across subject matter.

Along with dedicating 15 to 20 minutes for movement activities, either all at once or broken up over the course of the day, I tried to incorporate movement in other ways with first graders:

  • I typically introduced new math skills with a song that involved movement.
  • For new spelling words, we got out of our seats, raising hands for consonants and hitting the floor for vowels.
  • We practiced our counting with either jumping jacks or toe touches.

I’ve found that incorporating any form of movement, even in two-minute spurts, helps kids stay focused, engage more in their learning, and remember academic things because they’re also remembering when we had a dance party in the middle of class.

I’d suggest providing variety and some very clear ground rules for maintaining safety. I was nervous about including movement at first, due to some behavior and personal space issues. But all it takes for most students is one time sitting out for not having a “safe body,” and they learn what is and isn’t acceptable.

We had a floor covering of foam rubber tiles. Each student had a square that they could move for exercise breaks—during which they had to stay within their square. The tiles are also handy for helping the students understand personal space during small-group work and independent reading time.

With my fourth graders, I’ve tried to provide more opportunities for movement in the classroom. For example, our district has adopted Eureka Math, and the fluency practice at the beginning of every lesson provides a wonderful opportunity to get the kids out of their seats while practicing math concepts.

The BIF Student Experience Lab partnered with the Hewlett Foundation to produce a free online space for educators to discover and share creative ways of repurposing existing resources to give students opportunities for deeper learning. Go to School Hackers to find more school hacks or share your own.