Assessment Opinion

Simple Ways to Hold Students Accountable for Bringing Materials

By Ariel Sacks — November 18, 2016 4 min read
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It’s the start of class, and the opening task is to read quietly. “Can I go to my locker to get my book?” a student asks. I give a disapproving look, because she should have her book with her, but I say yes. I have no extra copy to offer, and I don’t want her to spend the period unproductively. Another student asks to get her book from her locker. I’m irritated, but I say yes.

One of the students returns quickly with her book. The other student goes to her locker and finds the book is not there. She stops in the bathroom to fix her hair and has a conversation with a student from another class. She comes back and tell me she thinks the book may be at home. I quickly come up with an alternative assignment for her to do.

Meanwhile, while most students are quietly reading, one student is walking around the room. There seems to be some chatter everywhere he goes. “James, return to your seat,” I say. “I’m looking for a pencil,” he replies in a tone that suggests he is doing nothing wrong. (Could all of the chatter really been about this? Though totally unnecessary, yes, it could.)

After reading time, I tell students to open their notebooks. “Can I get my notebook from my locker?” someone asks. “Me too?” another student adds. Sigh. I tell them to take notes on loose leaf paper for now.

As I write this, I’m chuckling to myself, because after 12 years of teaching, some version of the above scenario has happened way more times than I’d like to admit. Really, it’s all quite normal, except there is an underlying problem: students are regularly arriving unprepared for class. Some years, some classes don’t seem to have much of a problem with it, and my non-defined policy of allowing or not allowing students to get missing materials with no real consequence works okay. Other years, it can go too far and become muddled up in general organizational and behavioral issues.

I’ve never really made it a priority to solve this problem, but I’ve half heartedly tried different things:

  • putting a student in charge of holding and distributing extra materials like pencils and paper
  • not allowing anyone to leave the room and having a default plan for what to do if you’re missing materials
  • factoring preparedness vaguely into an overall participation grade.

Nothing has really held up... until now. Finally, I have cracked the materials riddle! This summer, in a productive reflection and planning session with my ELA colleagues (a teacher initiated and school-funded summer opportunity) I came up with my new plan. I let students know on the second day of school how it would work.

I had no idea IF this would actually work, but I took a shot in the dark and mustered up my most convincing tone as I told them the following:

Everyone will begin the marking period with a grade of 100% for preparation. This will be one of a few grades in the “participation” category of the grade book. Any time you are missing a required material--such as a writing utensil, notebook, reading book, handout from yesterday that should be in your ELA folder, etc--you will be allowed to get it in your locker or borrow from a classmate or me, but you will simply lose one point from that initial 100%. At the end of the marking period I will enter your resulting preparation grade, and you’ll start over again in the second marking period.

Miraculously, this has truly motivated my 8th grade students to bring everything they need to class, and it has NOT been difficult for me to track!

For students, this means they need to work out, with a bit more effort, what they need to pick up from their lockers between classes during locker times. They aren’t allowed to go between every class, so they have to plan ahead.

For me, this policy means I need one place where I simply keep a tally of anyone anyone found without a needed material. I don’t actively look for this, either. Usually it comes to my attention when a student asks to go to their locker or needs an extra copy of something.

I no longer give a disapproving or frustrated look. I can, in a friendly tone, say, “No problem, I’ll just mark it down,” while I go and record the tally. We all understand this to be fair, so there is no more tension about it. If anything, I now detect some students’ own disappointment in themselves when they forget something (which tickles me a little bit, because it means they are really trying).

As I entered grades for first marking period earlier this week, I realized that the lowest grade for preparation was a 93. Most students got between 97 and 100 percent. I wondered if I had miscalibrated... maybe I made it too easy. And then I remembered what it used to be like! I hadn’t made it too easy--it had just been an effective motivator, and the students had done the work to stay organized! They deserved these grades, and hopefully they will continue to do the work.

Ideally, paying some additional attention to preparation will help my students develop the habit so later, they won’t need the grade to motivate them. For now, though, I’m thrilled to have eliminated a logistical headache I’ve lived with as a teacher for far too long.

What’s one fix you wish you had figured out sooner? Please share!

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.