Ah, the joy of newly-purchased school supplies!
Who doesn't remember their own childhood back-to-school shopping and all the creative promise that we imagined would flow from markers, pencils, scissors, and glue? Supplies are truly the tools of the elementary education process. As such – like all tools – they must be respected and handled properly.
I've learned a few things about managing elementary school supplies over the years, but the biggest lesson is this: Most classroom supplies don't belong in student desks.
Community student supplies
Allowing each child to keep a full set of markers, scissors, colored pencils, glue, etc. in their desk is like stocking a little toy chest for students to play with all day long. Toys are much more interesting than teachers!
It’s trouble… trouble you don’t need when you are working to achieve great classroom management. So, let's stop this problem before it gets started.
If you have the chance, insert a note into the school supply list to advise parents to not put their child’s name on any supplies they send to school. It’s best to set the expectation right up front that supplies become community property.
By the way, I also don’t ask parents to send very much. Personally, I think schools should be providing free classroom supplies, which are simply the tools for learning. But kids do love their back-to-school shopping, so plenty of elementary school supplies arrive every year, regardless.
How to corral supplies
Step one: Get some little buckets from the dollar store. Twelve should do. You’ll need two or three for each type of supply. Label them:
- colored pencils
Step two: If you can, ask a classroom parent to stay for a few minutes after the first bell and help with the avalanche of supplies. You'll be very busy with other tasks, and this can be a first-day lifesaver.
Then, on the first day of school, all backpacks are emptied of classroom supplies, and all items are sorted into the labeled buckets.
These are put away on shelves for use when needed. You may decide later that you prefer a different approach, such as combo buckets that mix some or all of the supplies, but at least you’ve gotten them out of student desks and organized. That’s a good start!
Video tips: managing student supplies
Setting school supply expectations
Expectation number one: The teacher gets to say when supplies can be used. All students have to do is ask politely.
Expectation number two: Nothing stays in the desk after a project. Back into the buckets they go – properly sorted – and the buckets go back on the shelf. Model this the first time supplies are used.
I always explain the difference between tools and toys. Markers, glue, etc., are tools, and I let the kids know that, if they become toys, I’ll take them away because the school rules do not allow toys in the classroom.
One of the first-day-of-school stories I like to share is the Tale of Travis. Travis made a weapon out of a ruler and a pair of scissors, with which he threatened me one day. That’s when I learned the danger of allowing students to have distractions in their desks! This story is highly amusing to students, but it makes the right point.
By the way, it was easy enough to disarm Travis by saying, “Hey, that looks cool! Can I take a look at it?” He proudly handed it over, at which point I confiscated it.
Supply separation anxiety
Sometimes a student will not be able to part with her special pencil box or other items that she brings on the first day of school. Children can be uncertain that they’ll ever actually be able to use those beautiful supplies they spent time picking out.
If it becomes obvious that this is causing her distress, I make her a deal.
First, I have her share at least one item (usually markers or scissors) and allow her to keep something, such as colored pencils. Then I let her know that we’ll try it out, and if the box of classroom supplies distracts her from learning or comes out of her desk at the wrong time – even once – it will go home to stay.
Once students see that they actually do have access to the community supplies, they become much more willing to part with their own markers, especially when they start taking up too much room in their desks.
You will also need to find a spot for some very critical items:
- hand sanitizer
- disinfectant wipes for cleaning desks
These are student supplies, just like markers and scissors, and they are super-critical during cold and flu season (which seems to last all year!). I even work the hand sanitizer into my weekly student jobs. The student assigned as “Squishy” gets to pump out the hand sanitizer before we head off to lunch.
Personal clipboards and whiteboards
One of the most effective student learning tools available is the lowly clipboard. You will never be sorry if you can get a clipboard for every student in your class. Nothing fancy; I'm talking the basic hardboard, brown clipboard.
Why? Because kids with clipboards can take their work anywhere. This can be handy when you allow them to work in nooks and crannies around your classroom, but it is particularly useful when they are gathered in your main teaching area. Having clipboards available in your teaching area means that they can work through examples on their own while you are teaching your lesson.
Personal whiteboards, the size that can fit across a student's lap, are also great educational tools. In fact, I really couldn't teach without them. They're perfect for working math problems, and after the problem is finished, the kids can hold up their boards so you can see exactly what they did. You can use felt squares, baby socks, or little squares of leftover carpet for an eraser.
If you want to be clever, you can have the personal whiteboards double as clipboards by adding a binder clip to one side.
Neither the clipboards nor the personal whiteboards stay in student desks; in my room, they each have their own storage tub. The children get used to filing by in an orderly manner to pick them up or put them away.
Student desk supplies
I allow a minimal number of elementary school supplies inside student desks:
- A ruler
- Two sharpened pencils
- A hand-held pencil sharpener (if they brought one)
- Two folders: “Work in progress” and “Stuff to go home”
- A spiral notebook or composition book
- A speller or other much-used resource
- Up to four books to read
Of course, other items tend to sneak in over time, often creating a mess for untidy learners – and you know that I have a problem with messy desks! A regular clean
out session can be very helpful.
Video tips: student desk organization
The problem with pencils
Pencils are the primary elementary learning tool – and potentially the biggest headache you will face on a day-to-day basis. Believe me: teachers have very strong opinions on this topic! The most commented-on question I have ever posted to my followers is:
“How do you handle pencil sharpening?”
This tells me that every teacher has struggled with the behavior consequence that come from combining:
- Machinery – electric or hand cranked
- Sharp, pointy things
- A round opening that fits any pencil-shaped object, whether it is a pencil or not
What student can resist spending lots of valuable class time hanging out at the mother of all distractions?
For the record, I'm completely fine with small, personal, hand-turned pencil sharpeners (the kind that hold shavings). For many students, however, they are little more than a novelty that doesn't really keep up with the rate at which they make their pencils dull.
So how do we keep a constant supply of sharp pencils for our hard-working writers?
I know from listening to my followers that this area is filled with controversy and different approaches. Choose wisely, but don’t allow kids free rein to do all of their own sharpening, or you will be sorry! Here’s how I do it.
Video tips: pencil sharpening
I have tried a few different methods and have finally settled on sharpening pencils myself. I keep an electric pencil sharpener in my room, and I'm the only person who is allowed to use it. No time is lost to students wandering off many times a day to sharpen pencils, visiting all their friends along the way.
It is the job of the students, I explain, to make their pencils dull by writing. My job is to make sure they're sharp. Dull pencils go into one jar, and freshly-sharpened pencils are available in another jar. If their dulling ever gets ahead of my sharpening, all they have to do is ask nicely, and I'll sharpen a few.
After you get settled into your routine, consider other options, such as having an aide or parent volunteer sharpen, or even testing out some reliable students to sharpen them in batches before or after school. Believe me, a child will be much more motivated to strive for the honor of sharpening pencils than they would ever be by even the largest candy bar!
By the way, mechanical pencils are not a good idea. You’ll forever have kids messing with pencil lead, and they disassemble into pieces that can be easily lost or misused.
Teacher supplies – for your use only!
Teacher-only items are not usually the first topic mentioned when it comes to discussions of school supply lists. However, it’s worth it to note a few important considerations, especially for teachers who are setting up a classroom for the first time. This is not very exciting, but here’s my short list of school supplies for teachers… what works for me and why.
Here is my list:
Personal Set of Whiteboard Markers
I can never rely upon the markers in the community buckets being sharp and ready for such things as fancy writing on whiteboards or anchor charts. I keep a full rainbow of colors for my personal use rather than just the blue, black, and green whiteboard markers the students use.
Very handy for turning regular pages into notebook pages.
Pretty self-explanatory. Sometimes things need a hole!
I like nice, sharp, full-size scissors.
This gets frequent workouts because there are always packets of some sort that must be held together, and a regular stapler is simply not up to the task.
It can be so much handier to do your paper-cutting on the spot rather than running to the school workroom. Of course, the expectation must be set that this potential finger-chopper is for the teacher only. Generally, I put it away in a closet until I need to get it out.
I keep a supply of colored paper for my newsletter. Parents learn that when a particular color spills out of their child’s backpack, it’s something from me that they should read. I can’t rely on the workroom always having this color in stock, so I keep my own supply.
Keeping the right teacher supplies on hand can make your job a little less frustrating… and that means a lot on those days when one more frustration might just bring out a scream!
Kids will round up your supplies for you if you leaving them lying about – as long as you set that expectation.