Celebrating Birthdays Without Sweets and Treats

Unpopular opinion: I hate celebrating birthdays in the classroom.

Okay, that statement isn’t entirely true. I love celebrating my students, but I cannot stand the mountains of cupcakes, cakes, ice-cream treats, jello, and candies that are inevitably brought into the classroom.  One student even brought in a pot of spaghetti on the morning of his birthday.  I wish I was joking.

Celebrating elementary school birthdays in the classroom without sweets and treats.  – Poet Prints Teaching

While I do believe that birthdays are a great opportunity to celebrate each individual student, the sugary treats and unanticipated meals can make our day quite difficult.  Have you tried teaching 30 third-graders who are very hyper on cupcakes with mile-high-icing?  I have, and it is not easy.  Then multiply that by 20-30 different birthdays in the class… it’s a lot of sugar.  And when students spontaneously bring in a lunchtime item to share (spaghetti, hot dogs, pizza, etc.) there just often isn’t time to pass it out and eat it before the lunch bell rings.  At our school students get 20 minutes to eat lunch and passing out ‘special birthday lunch’ without notice means that students forego their outside playtime.

I also have a handful of students with a restricted diet (allergies, family preferences, naturopathic suggestions) and days with food treats just end up making many students feel left out.

There are so many other great ways to celebrate students and their birthdays without sugary treats. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Plan a game or activity for the class.  Bring in a soccer ball, parachute or any group game and have students play something together.

  2. Bring an in-class activity. I’ve had students bring in a small drawing project, an outdoor game, or a quick STEM challenge

  3. In lieu of cake/candy, families are welcome to bring in a small toy or pencil

  4. Do something different – last year we decorated an 11x17 piece of paper for each student.  In the center of the paper, I wrote “Happy Birthday Joe” in large letters.  As students arrived they wrote a short encouraging note on the paper.  Then, the birthday student took a picture holding the sign and wearing a birthday hat.  This was a great keepsake for the student and the picture looked awesome on a bulletin board. 

Don’t have time for a celebration like this at every birthday?  Try picking one day per month to celebrate birthdays!  Students love knowing that a celebration is coming and I like to be able to plan ahead of time for these activities.  Plus, it allows all monthly birthdays to participate, even if their family has not sent in a game or activity!  

I’d love to know how you celebrate birthdays in your classroom.  Does your school have any rules about sugary treats?  Let me know in the comments below or find me on Instagram! (@poet.prints)

Celebrating elementary school birthdays in the classroom without sweets and treats.  – Poet Prints Teaching
Rachel PoetkerComment
5 Things to Do Before School Starts

Can you believe that some schools are mere weeks away from Back to School time? Are you one of those teachers who is winding down their summer and starting to think about Back to School? I’ve never been one to really ‘unplug’ from school altogether over the summer, but I do use the time to make/create things for my classroom that are fun for me.  (Like a good DIY or cute classroom signs). Whether you are a new teacher or returning after 15 years, there are always a handful of things that need to be done before school starts again. Some are just decisions that need to be made, and others are small projects that will make the first weeks much easier.

5 things that every teacher should do and decide before school starts! - Poet Prints Teaching

1. Figure out what to do with supplies

Does your district have students bring in supplies on the first day of school? Do you buy them yourself?  In my school, we do a combination of both. On the first day of school, students arrive with backpacks full of school supplies.  You’ll need to know what you plan to do with these! Are you having students store all of their supplies in their desks? Will you keep some of their supplies in a cupboard/drawer to be distributed throughout the year? Will you gather some up as communal supplies? Decide your preference and think through what you will do with the supplies as they arrive.

2. Decide what you will do with student work

This one goes along with #1. Do you plan to have students store all of their notebooks and pronged folders in their lockers/desks? Will you keep them separate and sorted by subject area on a classroom shelf? This is important to know ahead of time as it will help you to stay organzied in the first few weeks.  If you plan to keep all of their notebooks and folders separate then the first days of school are the perfect time to collect and label all of these books.  I blogged about how I store student work over here.  


5 things that every teacher should do and decide before school starts! - Poet Prints Teaching

3. Determine your attention-getters

In elementary school, routine is key!  Decide what method you will use to get students’ attention and start practicing this on day one.  When you are consistent with one or two attention-getters, your students are able to respond quickly… freeing up a lot of time for you! Here are a few of my favorites: call and response, lights dimmed, hands up high, counting down from 5, a silent hand-gesture that signals it's time to pause and listen.

4. Start a substitute teacher document

I know what you’re thinking… school hasn’t even started yet and you think I should already be planning for a sub?  Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. A couple of years ago I had a medical emergency on the second day of school and was out for two weeks.  Boy, do I wish I had written down my classroom procedures, expectations, and expected routines ahead of time. Even just an interim document can be a lifesaver in case of unintended time off.  Check here for my 5 things that you’ll definitely want to include in your sub plans.

5 things that every teacher should do and decide before school starts! - Poet Prints Teaching

5. Find something to do for the first few days

This one might seem obvious, but you should have the first few days of school totally planned before you head back into school.  This is a great time to introduce some fun theme-based lessons as you get to know your students and assess their learning needs. There are lots of ways to kick off the year.  You could theme your lessons around a book, start with some engaging STEM, or jump right in with your regular schedule. No matter what, I definitely suggest having some quick-activities on hand in case a lesson is interrupted or just doesn’t go to plan.  I created this booklet to help me quickly assess student learning styles and get to know my new students a little bit better.

Did I miss anything? I’d love to know your must-do’s before school starts!  Send me a message or sound off in the comments below.

5 things that every teacher should do and decide before school starts! - Poet Prints Teaching
Rachel PoetkerComment
4 Resources for the First Week Back at School

Anyone heading back to school soon? Although I still have 6 weeks until I’m back, I have a hard time really resting each summer until I’ve squared away the first week back.  Once I have a rough outline of what I’m going to do and teach those first few days.  I’m hopping on today to share a handful of the resources I’ve created in the past that were designed especially for the first week of school. I’ve used them all in my classroom and plan to start the year with them again!

Back to school resources for the first week back in third grade - Poet Prints Teaching

Back to School Workbook (with a twist!)

This little booklet is my absolute favorite resource for the beginning of school.  Although it’s filled with puzzles, games, quizzes and writing activities… they are all designed to help teachers assess basic student skills, learning styles and preferences.  I use the information gathered to plan out my next few weeks of lessons, review, and our yearly group projects!

The best resources to make the first week back to school a breeze - Poet Prints Teaching

All About Me Spinning Craftivity (FREE)

Learn a little bit more about your students with a cute craftivity.  (Grab it here!) We brainstorm together on the planning pages and then create cute spinners that let students share about themselves.  Best of all, this one is totally free!

4 resources that are perfect for the first week back at school in elementary! - Poet prints Teaching

Back to School Flipbooks

4 resources that are perfect for the first week back at school in elementary! - Poet Prints Teaching

After the All About Me Craftivity, my students transition into more writing-based work.  I have used these flipbooks in First-Fourth grade. They help students to reflect on their summer and transition into the year ahead.  I like to use them as a quick gauge of students’ ability to work independently and see what their writing abilities and needs are.

‘We Fit Together’ Bulletin Board

Once my class is settled (there’s always a few days of shuffling students in my district) I start on lessons and activities that build classroom community.  The whole year runs better when the students in my class learn to respect each other’s differences and work together as a big family.  One of my favorite bulletin boards is this one!  Students each create a puzzle piece and then we fit them together to make one diverse puzzle bulletin board!

4 resources that are perfect for the first week back at school in elementary! - Poet Prints Teaching
4 resources that you need to make back to school in third grade so much easier!  - poet prints teaching
Rachel PoetkerComment
Organizing Student Work

Keeping track of student work can be a headache in most classrooms.  In the schools I’ve worked at, I’ve seen a lot of different ways to organize work.  Some teachers let the students keep all of their work, some store it all on shelves in the classroom, others do a hybrid of both.  I don’t think there’s any “right” way to do this, but I do know what has worked best for my students and me.

How to keep student work organized all year long! - Poet Prints Teaching

I have always chosen to keep most student work in labeled ‘buckets’ on the shelf.  It’s not that I don’t trust my students to keep their own work organized, it’s that many of them simply haven’t learned that skill yet.  

Technically, these are laundry buckets and I get them from the local dollar store.  I keep them in the same place and use dollar store labels to create one for every subject/topic we are covering.  Before we start something, 3-4 kids grab the bucket and hand out the work to their peers. After the work is finished, each student is responsible for putting their work back in the correct bucket.  I find that this step helps to build a bit of independence. Students learn that their work needs to be put in the proper place or else it won’t be marked.

This isn’t a fix-all to student work organization.  Some students will still put their work in their desks or backpacks, but eventually, they learn how to pause and check for where it should actually be.  I’m trying to build independence and responsibility at an age-appropriate level.

When it comes time to hand-in work, I place a mini-checklist beside each bucket.  As a student hands in their work, they also check off their name. It’s a quick way to see who has forgotten to hand in their work.  

My favorite part of the system - I can just grab a bucket and take it home to mark!

How to keep student work organized all year long! - Poet Prints Teaching
Rachel PoetkerComment
Third Grade Math Manipulative Must Haves

One of my favorite parts of my classroom is the math manipulative shelf.  I try to keep it stocked with a variety of materials that can help students build concrete models of all sorts of math problems.  

Bingo Dots - a must have math manipulative in third grade - Poet Prints Teaching

We have a rule in my class: if you can’t solve a math problem on your own you must build it before asking for help.  So much of third-grade math is abstract: the perimeter of imaginary places, the area of imaginary floors and walls, fractions of abstract objects, imaginary money being exchanged between two people, etc.  These can all be tricky concepts to visualize mentally.

Our school has never provided any math manipulatives, but I have slowly gathered a set of must-have manipulatives for third grade.  Check them out!


My students love counting bears.  They are easy to grasp and can help to model addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. These come in especially handy as students are learning to multiply and divide.  

Must-have math manipulatives in third grade - Poet Prints Teaching

Bingo Dots

These are a particularly inexpensive manipulative.  Along with our bears we use bingo dots to make physical representations of most addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems.  One of my favorite ways to use bingo dots is during our first multiplication lesson of the year. We build arrays with bingo dots.  It's a quick and easy lesson that is super hands-on!  


Fraction Pieces and Magnets

I always introduce fractions with manipulatives.  Having students build fractions really helps them to develop a concrete understanding of how you can have a fraction of an item. Although there are many cut-and-glue fraction sets, I prefer to use store-bought ones. I just find that when students cut them out their pieces are not always exact, and this leads to confusion when trying to compare fractions.

Must-have math manipulatives in third grade - Poet Prints Teaching
Must-have math manipulatives in third grade - Poet Prints Teaching


Play money is a great manipulative to add.  In third grade, we spend a lot of time counting counts and subtracting money.  I have a handful of students who prefer to count physical money and this is great for them!  When doing word problems about ‘buying something at a store’ my students know how to role-play this in pairs and use play money to find their answer.


Teaching time (especially quarter-to, quarter-past, and half-past) is such a tricky part of third-grade math.  I always teach the first time lessons with each student holding a clock.  Then, as they get to these questions in their homework and independent practice they are able to return to those clocks to physically create each time (or elapsed time) that is needed.  I love how using a clock really helps to cement this concept for most students!

Must-have math manipulatives in third grade - Poet Prints Teaching

Drawing Paper

This is the least expensive of all my manipulatives!  I keep a stack of scrap paper in my math manipulative area. I find that it is super helpful when students are able to draw out a problem - particularly when it involves distance (i.e. “A car travels 250 miles…”) or area/perimeter.  Some of my students are super successful when they are able to make a quick sketch and add in dimensions to visualize the ‘whole picture’.

I’m always looking to add to my math manipulative collection.  What works best in your class? Send me an e-mail or sound off in the comments below!


Must-have math manipulatives in third grade - Poet Prints Teaching
My 4 Favorite Activities in a Pinch

We’ve all had ‘those days’ in the classroom.  You know what I mean, the days where it seems like nothing can go right.  The math lesson flopped, the social studies’ guest speaker canceled at the last minute, a child is in tears because their paper is” too wrinkled”… and you are about to lose it.  This is #teacherlife, am I right?

4 quick elementary classroom activities for when you're having 'one of those days'.

I am currently spending a year substitute teaching, and I can’t tell you how many days I have walked into a classroom to a plan that says “Find something to do for reading, writing, math, and PE” or, better yet, walked into no plan at all.  

These days are inevitable, and they happen to everyone.  This year, more than any, I’ve learned to have a handful of on-the-go games ready at any time.  These games can fill a few minutes and allow you to gather your thoughts before you proceed with the day.  Sometimes I use them as a ‘re-set’ after a tough lesson. Hopefully, they can help you as well!

Activity 1: Silent Ball

I always keep a small dollar store ball in my teaching bag for this very game.  In Silent Ball, students sit (gasp!) on top of their desks. Then, a ball is passed to the first student.  The goal of the game is to keep the ball moving around the classroom without dropping it or making a peep. If the ball is dropped or someone speaks the round is over.  You can keep ‘score’ by counting how many passes are done, or timing how long the students can keep the ball going without dropping it. I love this game because it is cooperative and forces students to work together to achieve their goal.  

Activity 2: Charades

Charades for Elementary School - from Poet Prints teaching

I almost always have a deck of charades cards in my teaching bag.  This game is great for almost all levels, and meets some important Speaking and Listening outcomes at the same time. I play charades in a few ways.  First, we play the classic version where students have to act out the card pulled. I also play an alternate version where they have 30 seconds to describe as many cards as they can.  Then, after all cards have been described, students have another 30 seconds to describe the cards using only one word. That one is a lot of fun, and usually draws on students’ memory from the previous round.  I haven’t yet met a class that doesn’t like a charades break!

Activity 3: Go Noodle

Wiggly group? Energy coming out of everywhere?  Go Noodle is my best friend in these occasions. Accounts are free for teachers, and there is plenty of free content to get your students up, sweating, and moving around.  My younger students love “Koo Koo Kangaroo” while my older students prefer “Fresh Start Fitness”. So far, all kids from K-5 have loved the track-and-field style channel “Go With the Pro”.

No internet connection or projector?  Keep a few high-energy, kid-friendly songs, ready to go on your smartphone.  A quick game of freeze dance will have almost the same effect on K-3 students!

Activity 4: Four Corners

This is a classic in-school game and for a good reason.  Students love being able to get out of their desk and try to win in a game of Four Corners.  To play this game, label each ‘corner’ of the classroom 1, 2, 3 and 4. Then designate a student to be “it”.  This students sits in the middle of the room with a blindfold (or very covered eyes) and slowly counts down from 10.  During this time, students must sneak to one of the designated corners. The ‘it’ students then yells out a corner number, and all of the students in that corner are out.  The game continues until only one student is left. To keep things moving, I tend to ‘close’ a corner as fewer students remain in the game. By the end, the final few students are only allowed to choose from two of the corners.

What are your go-to activities for a tough day?  Do you have any favorite classroom games or activities? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

4 quick classroom activities that you need to know - Poet Prints Teaching
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