The Timer Trick: a management tool

The back story (If you’re interested or want to commiserate):

This year (how is it only November?!) has been really tough for me. Things happening at my school, district and community are all contributing to This Perfect Storm, but that is on the periphery and largely out of my control. However, behavior within my own classroom is horrendous and has been staring me square in the face for the past 3 months. Now, you should know it’s not all my classes. My Heritage Little Darlings are fabulous and sweet. I love my AP Little Darlings so much, this is our 3rd year together and we are having a lot of fun! My Spanish 4 Little Darlings are deeply invested in the drama of Gran Hotel.

But my Spanish 1 Little Darlings… (Shudder) There are a few darlings in the mix, but for the most part, they act like feral beasts. This year alone, in my little portable, we’ve had kicking, hitting, fighting, shoving, throwing of projectiles and humans, drugs, vandalism, more drugs and some very, very, very naughty things on a school issued Chromebook. That in addition to swearing outbursts, refusal to participate, whining, lying, crying, blank stares, eye rolling, arguing, outright defiance, and disrespect with a heaping side of apathy. It’s like, come on guys, save that for your Math teacher…Spanish is supposed to be FUN! But we are not having fun. Not them. Not me. I would not say I am at I am at the end of my rope…there’s no rope left. The rope is long gone. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, perpetually falling down in the rabbit hole. So, that’s how Spanish I has been going for me. How are your Little Darlings behaving this year?

The Timer Trick:

About 2 weeks ago, as I was taking back full control of my Spanish 1s from my incredible student teacher (and former student!), I knew we needed a hard reset, because I was not going to make it though the year, if every class period was 90% managing behavior and 10% Spanish. We brainstormed together what motivates them…and our Spanish 1s are really engaged (let’s be real here, only engaged) when we’re playing a game. So, we decided that had to be the motivator. No more free games- if they want to play, they have to earn them. So we hatched a plan at lunch and put it into place a few minutes later.

I started out class explaining the new system: I’d set a timer for 7 minutes. If I could teach for 7 minutes, and if they could focus and participate appropriately for 7 minutes, they’d earn 1 point. Once they’ve earned 5 points, we’d stop everything for a game break.

If you’re interested in the verb ending posters above, check them out here!

Now here’s the really awesome part that makes it SO EASY for the teacher! Open up this video, hit play, then carry on with class. They don’t have to see the timer. Put up your Slideshow or Movie Talk or whatever previously scheduled programming you’ve got lined up. At the end of 7 minutes, you’ll hear a nice chime, which will signal that you all survived 7 minutes, and all the teacher has to do is mark a tally on the board and keep teaching.

But to make it even better and even easier: Before you start the timer, right click on the YouTube video, and click Loop. As soon as the video ends, it will start over again! There’s no need for you to open that tab and restart the video when the timer chimes. YouTube will do it for you!! Be sure that The Little Darlings know the timer will automatically restart, so they don’t worry about it.

Picture this: you’re teaching away, and they’re behaving (because behaving for 90 minutes is hard, but behaving for 7 minutes is more manageable!), the timer chimes (and they cheer- sometimes I tell them to give someone nearby chócala), I give them another tally mark on the board and keep teaching. My student teacher overhead a student say, “Thank you” to a particularly squirrely freshman boy when the timer chimed- Ha!

Here’s where I track 4th period and 6th period’s points

Try it right now! Take the timer video, turn on the loop feature and press play. The come back to reading and you’ll totally forget about it…until it chimes! Warning: be sure to test the volume on the video…you don’t want the chime to be blaringly loud- it will scare everyone! You want it to be noticeable, not terrifying and distracting! Don’t adjust the overall computer volume, just the volume on the YouTube video.

Now…what if it doesn’t work? What if kids start screwing around or not paying attention or blurting inappropriately or kicking each other? (A few weeks ago, I literally said, “We don’t kick in high school, after the THIRD student kicked another student in the SAME class period! 🤦‍♀️) Calmly walk over to your screen, open the timer tab, and restart the video at 7:00, and carry on. It’s especially painful when they see that they had almost reached the chime. Sorry, not sorry, you trolls!

Now, when you first try this, you have to follow through! You have to, at some point during the first class, restart the timer. Even if their behavior is much improved, you’ve got to show them you’re serious, and you’re going to follow through. Because, after you restart the timer once, the next time, all you have to do is move towards your computer, and they’ll quiet each other down. Don’t be afraid to do it. You’ve got to, because you want peer pressure on your side!

Caution though, it’s a fine line to walk…you need to build momentum. You need to get a few tallies on the board, so it feels attainable, so you’ve got their buy in. If they never get a tally, because you have to restart and restart and restart the timer, they’ll give up and it’s not going to work.

For me, even when the timer is running, I’ll still do our quiet signal when they’re getting loud. If they refocus right away, I’ll keep going without touching the timer. If they can’t refocus and pull it together, I’ll restart the timer.

Of course, when 5 points is achieved, STOP EVERYTHING! Thank them! Celebrate! PLAY! If I have a game prepared that we would have played anyway (if we weren’t doing the Timer Trick), like POP UP or The Lucky Reading Game or Scrambled Sentences or Quick Draw or Reverse Charades or…that’s what we play. If not, we’ll play something quick and easy for 5 minutes, like Blooket or Quizlet Live or Gimkit, or ¿Dónde está la araña? or 20 questions. Then erase the tally marks on the board and start over.

I pause the timer during the game. No need to earn points while they’re playing. If their behavior gets bad during the game, give them a warning and the next time you’re unhappy with their participation, pull the plug! Stop playing. If it’s a game you already prepared, use the reading or sentences or whatever and turn it into not-so-fun input, like translating from Spanish to English! But…while they’re translating or reading or Write and Discussing or whatever, reinstate the timer. They can earn the game again. Redemption is always an option! Additionally, points roll over from class to class. If they’ve earned 2 points when class ends, they’ll start the following class with 2 points.

There might be a reason you don’t want them to keep earning points (Like, for example, class is almost over, and they’ll earn the 5th point and you’d have to stop and play but you really need to finish something before the bell rings,) you can sneakily hit the mute button on your keyboard. (Usually it is above the numbers at the top) That will mute your whole computer, so while the timer will keep running, no one will hear it. They will have no idea! Use this hack judiciously though, because if they catch on, you’ll lose all credibility and your ship is sunk!)

The results and a pep talk:

We’ve done a few classes this way, and so far, so good! My fingers are still crossed and we’re not out of the woods yet. I waited a week to write this post. I was so excited to share, because I know that many, many teachers are struggling with classroom management right now, but I had to make sure it wasn’t some wild fluke!

The first day I implemented The Timer Trick, I took a big sigh of relief…It felt so good to be actually teaching and they were actually engaged and understanding and responding to my input! It felt like the Good Old Days! My Student Teacher (who’s has had a front row seat to the horrors of Spanish 1 was flabbergasted. Who are these people and what happened!?) And glory of glories: students are noticing that Spanish class isn’t actually that bad…Señora Chase, it turns out, can be kinda fun, when everyone is doing their part and not acting like maniacs. I’m really hopeful that we’re changing the class culture and we’ll make it through the year together. Thank you, Jesus, and please help us!

Now, this is not one of those Guaranteed to work or your money back situations. My kiddos are super motivated by games, so they’re real motivated to try real hard to be real good for 7 minutes. If you’ve got an apathetic bunch of lumps, they probably won’t care about playing a game as the reward. Maybe there’s something else that will motivate them? Ask them! Give them a few options and discuss. My colleague, who’s trying to get her upper levels to stay in Spanish, wants to modify this to discourage excessive English. 7 minutes without English earns a point! That could be a cool competition between classes.

It’s possible that Timer Trick won’t be the thing that turns around your classes. But try it, and then try something else, and keep researching and and experimenting until you figure out that thing. That’s the best part about teaching, every day can be a do-over. You don’t have to wait until the start of a new semester, or the beginning of the year to implement something new. Oh, and in the meantime, in case you missed it, here are 4 ways to encourage calm in your classroom, because we all need more of that and here are a few lessons learned about classroom management.

Wishing you all the best during this really challenging year! And Happy Veteran’s Day to all our veterans and especially to my favorite, my dad! (Doesn’t he look like he’s ready for Top Gun!?)

15 comments

  1. This is going to work immediately on my very competitive gang of 7th-8th graders. They haven’t been at the level you describe, but they did make a sixth-grader cry the other day. They’ve had a sub for almost a week while their regular teacher is out for surgery, and today we have our first real snowfall, so the excitement and rowdy behavior is going to be over the top. Thank you, thank you!!

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  2. Thank you so much for this idea – I’ve been at my wit’s end with some of my freshman! I think this is a great way of laying down boundaries with a positive reward that is achievable. I can have so much fun with my other classes that it doesn’t feel like learning and then my 7th hour rolls around…and I get exhausted just thinking about what’s coming.

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  3. This has been one of my favorite posts from you! And I usually love all your posts!
    First, I relate to your frustration with the behavior… I feel like students forgot how to show respect! It HAS been a tough year, ehem… Quarter and a half.

    I will try this!

    Be well and keep sharing your wonderful insights and ideas.

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  4. Dear Señora Chase — I have been stalking your blog for a good long while, but never commented before. Thank you for sharing your ideas, games, and enthusiasm for teaching. I feel like you are a kindred spirit, because you care so much about those Little Darlings, but sometimes it is just SO HARD. Thank you for all these posts, please know that they really help save the sanity of your fellow teachers ❤

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  5. This is very similar to what I used to do when I was teaching a squirrelly class in my Lycée in France. We didn’t always have a computer on hand in the old days, so one of my students was the timer, being allowed to use his phone. The goal was not to speak French during the English class and I asked the worst offender to be the timer. It worked out beautifully, because without him getting them going, the others weren’t as tempted, and he was so proud of his job that he actually got mad when anyone spoke in French and we had to reset the timer. Their reward was to be allowed to watch the film we were working on without stopping. 🙂

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  6. I have been waiting to hear how this went for you, and I will keep my fingers crossed that the charm holds for you. You deserve it. How oblivious these stinkers are as to the gem of a teacher they have standing before them…. I know, because I have read your blog forwards and backwards. Dream of pura vida! It’s coming, ojalá.

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  7. Thank you for this great post! I was struggling tonight as I thought about a particular class of freshmen! I felt like a failure in maintaining class discipline. I have tried so many ideas. Thank you for the honesty you shared.

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