I have taught eighth grade science for seven years. As rewarding as this
profession is, certain things got under my skin. For example, it frustrated me
how many students didn’t come prepared with basic materials. I assumed that
eighth graders would have developed enough skills to remember to do this on a
daily basis, yet typically there were several students in each class who forgot
one or more items, causing delays and lost instruction time.

This year, I
set a new goal: All students will be prepared for class. I planned a course of
action before the year started, determined to make this goal a

Clear expectations
I knew it was important for me to
remember, “Assume nothing, model everything.” I carved out time for modeling how
to enter the classroom on days one and two. I was careful to demonstrate for
students how to keep quiet and safe, and made a point of showing them that I was
carrying everything required: agenda, black- or blue-ink pen, pencil, textbook,
science journal. After modeling, I informed students that prior to each lesson
we would do a quick “materials survey.” All would be expected to display each
item on their desktops, and I would keep track of how we did each

Accentuate the positive
It was up to me to follow through
with this plan. At first, I kept a running record on the board of the percentage
of students who had failed to come to class prepared. I soon realized that this
was the wrong way to go about it; I was focusing on mistakes. The percentage of
failure varied from 5% to 30% each day, and after a few days the routine took on
a negative connotation. So I began instead to record the percentage of students
who were prepared. This made a big difference in the students’ attitude toward
our goal. To them, talking about and celebrating a 94% success rate was much
more fun than celebrating(?) a 6% failure rate!

Improvements began
almost immediately after the switch. Spontaneously, we started cheering and
congratulating each other! Many classes soon hit 100%, and we now hit perfection
on a regular basis in all classes. Positive peer pressure took on a life of its
own. If a student had to leave to retrieve a forgotten item, his peers were
respectful, but there was a slight sense of disappointment in the air. It really
felt like the group cared, really wanted to be 100%. I soon noticed that if
someone forgot something on Monday, she rarely forgot again that week!

Here was the clincher: When I introduced the
materials survey idea, I told the students that as a teacher I had to continue
to learn about teaching, and I asked for their help with my “homework.” The
daily materials survey was, I explained, part of a project I had developed
during the summer, and by participating and doing their best, they were helping
me learn as much as I try to help them learn. I also asked them to remind me if
I forgot to start class with the survey. We became a team.

It seemed that
framing the initiative as collaborative helped them become more invested. They
clearly saw how it benefitted them, and they also wanted me to be successful
with the project! Other methods I’d tried in earlier years were completely
missing this teamwork-based approach, and those methods turned out to be far
less successful and more stressful.

Invite broader

Next year, I plan to ask other eighth grade teachers to
join this effort, both by reminding their advisory groups each day to bring
materials to class and by conducting a daily materials survey in their classes.
This should reinforce the importance of bringing necessary materials to all
classes and also have the side benefit of making trips to lockers during passing
period more businesslike. Sometimes fixing the little things—like bringing
materials to classmakes the big things seem a little more doable.

will also talk to teachers in the younger grades and see if we can have them do
something similar. Eventually this rigor around responsibility for materials
could become a school-wide initiative, giving younger students a leg up. Our
students would carry these new habits (and supplies!) with them for the rest of
their lives!

Terence WIlson teaches 8th graders at Wilbraham Middle School in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.