Math = Love: Life by the Timer

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Life by the Timer

I've already written about my new semester resolutions.  In real life, I've never actually kept a new year's resolution.  Ever.  This semester, so far, it's been different.  First, I didn't make these resolutions on January 1st.  I think I made them on January 6th.  The perfectionist in me hates this.  But, it's okay.  I'm fighting against those perfectionistic tendencies.

I'll post more about how my resolutions are going later.  But, today, I wanted to talk about a little change I made to help me achieve one of my goals: Start Demanding Respect From My Students.

Interactive notebooks are time consuming.  There.  I said it.  I love them, though.  And, every second spent on them is worth it.  Some days, though, my students have a tendency to dawdle.  They take forever to get their notebooks out.  They expect me to move at their pace of choice.  And, that pace is incredibly slow.  Frustratingly slow!

I mean, if you already have a glue stick and your notebook on your desk, and I pass out a sheet of paper for you to glue in, it should take you no more than 1 minute to label the page and glue in the paper.  One minute.
Part of respecting me includes respecting my time.  I only get 50 minutes a day with my students.  And, I need to make sure every single one of those 50 minutes counts!  So, I've started setting expectations of how long it should take my students to get certain tasks done.  When they walk in the room, there is a box on the Smart Board that tells them all the supplies they need for the day.  It is there job to get their supplies and get seated BEFORE the bell rings.  I'm saving time there.

Recently, my Algebra 1 students started Unit 6 - Linear Functions.  I handed out a table of contents to be glued on page 57.  Students were responsible or labeling their table of contents with the unit number and title and gluing this page in their notebooks.  I set a timer for 1 minute.

Smart Board Timer
Panic ensued.  We can't possibly get this done in one minute.  Actually, I think you can.  I believe in you.  You already have your supplies out.  If you use your time wisely, I think you will be able to get done in time.
A few students didn't finish in time.  Usually, I would pause and wait for them.  This time, I didn't.  If I wait until every single student finishes, the timer will become meaningless.  Instead, I went directly to the next slide.  When students protested, I told them that those around them had written down the title already.  They were going to have to get the title from somebody else.  Harsh?  Maybe.  But, I've got to teach my students to value my time.  I have to teach them that actions have consequences.  I think maybe that's what I've been missing in how I run my classroom.  Consequences.  

On the second and third days that we celebrated Universal Letter Writing Week, I gave students five minutes to compose their letters.  If I let them, letter writing would consume the entire class period.  As important as letter writing is, my main job is to teach math.  So, I must prioritize my time accordingly.  When the timer went off, I gave them one additional minute to fold their letters while I passed out materials for the day.  Those who were not done would have to finish their letters on their own sometime during the class period if time allowed.    

Letter writing Timer
My Algebra 1 students have actually done remarkably well with the timer.  They don't complain much.  They just get to work.  My Algebra 2 students, however, are a completely different story.  You would think having a timer on the screen was the equivalent of me performing the most heinous crime against them.  They complain.  And, they complain loudly.

I am good friends with our school counselor, and her son is in my Algebra 2 class.  Last week, I was sitting in her office, and we were talking about how our days had gone.  Suddenly, she asked, "What is this that I hear about you and a timer?  My son keeps complaining that you set a timer for EVERYTHING."  I had to laugh.  I told her and the other teacher in the office about my new semester resolutions.

After explaining how I set the timer for how long it should take students to complete a task, and I move on to the next task when the timer goes off, they thought it was a brilliant idea!  It keeps me on track.  It keeps the class focused.  It lets students know exactly what I expect of them.  The other teacher expressed interest in using the strategy in her own classroom.  And, the counselor?  She told me to use the timer every single day.  I was doing a good thing by timing my students, no matter what they thought.  It reminded her of the parenting strategy of "If you're not in the car in 5 minutes, I'm leaving without you."

I never thought such a tiny timer would create such an uproar.  I'm learning, though, that respect is something my students must be taught.  They don't enter my classroom knowing how to respect me.  I've got to teach them respect.  Eventually, respect should become internalized.  But, until then, I will teach it.

All those teaching books I read before I started teaching are starting to make complete sense...


  1. very well said.

    I think timers help us as teachers too. When we say "you have 3 minutes" it really means 3 minutes!

    Great post!
    Hodges Herald

    1. I think the timer is as much for me as for my students. They see it as a punishment. I see it as a tool. It keeps me focused. It keeps them focused. Maybe they'll come around some day...

  2. Oh my gosh! You have summed up my classroom life in this post. Respect is one of the hardest things I try to pull out of them (ahem Algebra II... okay and Geometry too... I'm talking to you!) and the timing idea was my exact same New Semester Resolution! Our new semester started today though (I know it's weird, but there you have it) and I'll be starting the timer next week. (I decided to be nice and give them a warning... and give myself the opportunity to figure out how long everything actually takes). One of my mentor teachers back in the internship days used timers all the time and she was the Gainesville Teacher of the Year. I think we might be on to something here...

    On a side note, Thank You so much for for posting! I really needed to read this sort of thing. My motivation and general desire to do good things (that take much time) was beginning to lag a bit toward the end of Quarter 2. Quarter 3 though... here I come!

    1. You have no idea how good it feels to be reminded that I am not alone in this battle! You'll have to keep me updated with how your students respond to the timer. Mine still hate it. I didn't use the timer once today, and they were SO excited. They're going to love me on Monday! :)

  3. You have motivated me as well! As give me lots to think about! I need to figure out the timers for my Smart board. I've been meaning to do it, but it just keeps getting put off. Now is the time. Thanks for kicking me into gear.

    1. Thanks! If you need any help figuring out the timers, let me know!

  4. Keep it up - you're doing great! I think algebra 2 students (like my German 2 students) and more resistant to change than algebra 1 (or German 1) because they've had more time to get comfortable with their old bad habits. You just have to be more stubborn than them, and eventually they will get with the program.

    1. Thanks! And, I think you're right about the Alg 2 students being more comfortable with bad habits. Part of me says they should act better because they should be more mature. But, I think (like you said) it has to do more with habits than maturity. Old habits are hard to break. But, they're not impossible. So, I will press on.