Back to School Tools: A Shopping List for Faculty

As the fall semester approaches, it’s time to restock my classroom teaching supplies. It occurred to me that other faculty might find useful these inexpensive tools that I regularly use in the classroom, so I’m sharing my shopping list with you here. The items on my list serve the purposes of creating a sense of community and promoting student engagement.

Large index cards. An essential way to create a sense of community in the classroom is to know and use students’ names. Note cards of the largest size (5 by 7 inches) can readily be folded horizontally to make name plates. Different colors of card sets can be used for individual course sections. For the first few weeks, I use these to get to know students’ names and as a way to check roll. I distribute them at the beginning of class and collect them at the end of each class period.

Stickers or colored dots. These can be placed on the index cards to form small groups (according to the dot color). For a senior level course, I try to find graduation themed stickers or happy faces of different colors. Groups can be quickly structured by asking all the orange (and blue and green) dots to get together. Early use of small groups within a classroom helps to create a greater sense of community among students.

Playing cards. This is another tool for assigning students to groups. For short, in-class activities, a standard set of playing cards can be used to set up random group assignments. In addition, children’s playing cards often have unusual faces on them such as animals, career roles, shapes, etc. When a class has an odd number of students, one unusual card (e.g., the Old Maid or Joker) can be included in the mix. The person who gets this card can then choose any group to join. Other groups would consist of those who have the same card.

Wooden craft sticks. It is common to fall into the habit of calling on the same students (e.g., those who raise their hands, those who sit near the front, or those whose names are easily remembered). Making a set of student name sticks for each class is a useful way to call on different students and to keep them engaged. With a permanent marker, print the name of each student on a wooden stick and place the sticks in a container such as a cup or basket. During class randomly draw sticks to call on students to participate.

Small foam ball or ball of yarn. Students can toss a form ball to another classmate to hear their perspective during a class discussion. To create a discussion maze, a ball of yarn can be used to create an interesting interaction pattern and to include more participants. A tool like this makes the class more energized.

Play money. Whenever students are asked as individuals or as groups to evaluate (i.e., select the best solution, decide on the best title, or generate the most interesting question), they can write their response on the back of a piece of play money. Using the money symbolically communicates a sense of value for what the student offers to share and enhances student engagement. I have found that groups of students seem to discuss more intensely as they decide what to write on the paper money, rather than just a piece of paper.

Now it’s time to go shopping. These tools are inexpensive, easy to find, and provide ways to make learning more engaging.

What’s on your shopping list for the fall semester? In the comment box below, please share some of the tools you use to keep your students engaged and organized.

Patty H. Phelps, Ed.D. is a professor in the department of Teaching & Learning at the University of Central Arkansas.