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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

3 Educators Offer Their Best Ideas for Starting the Year Off Right

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 25, 2023 11 min read
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I’ve published 12 previous posts with tips for starting the new school year strong. They are filled with good advice, but I think the pandemic era might call for a few new ideas.

‘Your Voice Is Important’

Renee Jones is the 2023 Nebraska Teacher of the Year. She teaches AVID and 9th grade English at Lincoln High School. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeJonesTeach:

The first few weeks of your semester, in my opinion, can have a large impact on your time spent together. During this time, together with your students, you are building relationships, establishing routines, and laying the groundwork of what to expect for the remainder of the semester.

Each semester, for every class, I begin completing two things before the end of the first week: a collaborative activity where the students are actively out of their seats and talking with their peers and the building of collaborative classroom norms.

Establishing classroom rules and expectations are important to creating your learning environment. Additionally, encouraging students to actively participate in an activity that builds these normative expectations is a way of saying I see you, your voice is important from the first moments you are together.

In my classroom, I facilitate an activity that encourages each student to reflect on what success in the classroom looks like for them. I then invite the students to write down three tangible actions that support the success they just described. Anonymously, I ask the students to write these three items on sticky notes and place them on the white board. As a class, we read each note and create the classroom norms we need to be successful in our classroom. I post these in our classroom and acknowledge and reflect on these norms throughout the semester.

Additionally, with intention, I build a movement and connection activity early into the semester. I want my students to be active participants, to know the names of each of their peers, and to feel comfortable taking risks. I believe that by asking my students to do this, in small increments, at the start of our time together, it eases the tension as the tasks become more difficult—such as being asked to present a five-minute speech in front of their peers. I want my students to know that, in our classroom, we move around and frequently talk and share ideas with our peers.


‘Community Building’

Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona has been an ethnic studies, social studies and theater educator for 23 years. She is dedicated to developing critical curriculum and culturally relevant artivism to transform the world by fusing community cultural knowledge with a focus on autobiographical counter-narrative:

During the first two weeks of school, I spend a lot of time facilitating cultural energizers that connect to the content of the course while setting the tone that the class must be a sacred safe space for all.

Building this sense of community in the classroom is essential to establish a positive learning environment for every student. When students feel comfortable and valued, they are more likely to engage in learning and take social and academic risks. It also fosters positive relationships among students and the teacher, which can lead to an increase in collaboration, cooperation, and cultural respect for one another. Additionally, it allows teachers to understand each student’s unique strengths and needs, which can inform instructional practice, content choices, curriculum planning throughout the school year.

In these two weeks, I teach the Mayan Indigenous concept of InLak’Ech, which has been captured in the poem of the same name by Chicano playwright Luis Valdez.


You are my other me

If I do harm to you

I do harm to myself

If I love and respect you

I love and respect myself


I also teach the critical concept of Ubuntu, an African term that captures a worldview that is centered on community solidarity. This philosophy uplifts dependence and interdependence as permanently linked. Justice in this worldview is not achieved by punishing the offender, rather, justice is achieved through reestablishing feelings of responsibility and connection within the community.

These philosophies are culturally relevant because they come from the ancestral knowledge of the population of students in my classroom. If I taught a different demographic, I would incorporate a culturally relevant philosophy similar to the universal notion captured by the Golden Rule that is captured by those students’ ancestral communities. For instance, when I have had Pinay/Pinoy students, I have also incorporated Isang Bagsak, which literally translates to mean “one down.” This is a practice that promotes unity that was used by the movement for national liberation and democracy in the Philippines during the anti-martial-law movement against the Marcos dictatorship and is still widely practiced today.

In the first two weeks, students develop a deep understanding of the history and community ethics of the philosophies that are centered in the classroom. I achieve this by introducing the students to the philosophies, allowing them to critically read and analyze them, and creating the cultural energizers that reinforce them.

For example, I like to do a cultural energizer I adapted from theater educators called cultural mapping. This can be adapted to any content utilizing a prompt related to the course being taught.

In my ethnic-studies classroom, I might ask students to draw the homeland of one of their ancestors (I always make sure to preface that not all of us have access to this information, so they can go back as far as they know or can choose the homeland of their chosen family’s ancestors). Then I either go outside, to the school’s gym or multipurpose room, or remove all of the desks from my classroom. I mark north, south, east and west with somewhere in the room marked as This is Here. Students are asked to place their drawings on the floor to create a simulated map with their ancestral homelands. Then we all move around the room traveling to each homeland with students describing what they drew and answering the prompt. This is a powerful community builder that allows students to learn about one another and to get comfortable with speaking in front of their peers.

Some may consider these two weeks of community building to be wasteful since the content is the center of the planning, but if done well, these two weeks are an investment building a sacred safe space for academic rigor and risk-taking.


‘A New Beginning’

Marie Moreno, Ed.D., is an educator and administrator with over 20 years of experience specializing in newcomer and second-language acquisition. She is passionate about refugee and immigrant education by focusing on social and emotional needs and newcomer programming:

Back to school is always fun, right? A new beginning, new students, and new ideas (materials) are always something to look forward to. But the first two weeks of school are crucial to the foundation you will set for the rest of the year. How you put classroom systems, routines, procedures, and culture will manifest throughout the semester, so planning and not shortchanging your two weeks make it the most important lesson. Addressing these four “teaching” areas will almost guarantee a successful year.

I address each of them as “teaching” because they explicitly need to be explained, modeled, and practiced several times for students to understand the teacher’s expectations. Teachers must also remember that we have many newcomers in our classrooms and that these systems, routines, rules, and procedures are foreign and will need to be explicitly taught. The key is to be clear, consistent, and fair when executing these four areas.


Routines are so important when it comes to working with students. It’s essential to teach them how to get back into a routine so that teachers don’t hear, “What are we going to do today?” or “Can we watch a movie today?” A simple classroom routine that gets students on task instantaneously is greeting students at the door and providing students with a “do-now” or bell-ringer activity. Students are expected to sit at their seats (assigned if needed) and begin working on the assignment. Routines are posted in the room, so there is no question about what we will work on next. In elementary classrooms, set times are set for specific activities and done in a particular order. At the secondary level, teachers can develop routines for instruction and collaboration. For example, after the lesson is taught, students will go to their groups and begin collaborating to complete the independent-practice portion of the class.


Setting clear procedures for students to follow can address unwanted behaviors. Think of strategies to ensure students remain on task and avoid unwanted behaviors. How do you want students to put materials away? Do you have a team leader so you have one person out of their chair or do you want all 30 students moving around? What about turning in assignments? Is this a task at the beginning of the class period or done before they leave your classroom? I highly recommend posting procedures that must be followed consistently so students will have a visual reminder of how to complete the task.



Classroom rules are essential because they set a tone for how we want to treat others. Because we have so many newcomers in our classrooms, I like to keep the number of rules minimum and provide a visual. Some teachers want to create or develop class contracts because the students generate key phrases or expectations that everyone agrees on and holds each other accountable for meeting those expectations. Regardless of rules or a class contract, ensuring students know how the classroom is set up for success is key.


4 – TEACH Community (Diversity)

Students need to know that you care and that your classroom is the safest place for them to learn and grow. Show empathy, smile, and laugh with students. Begin the first few days by letting students know their teacher’s background. Do you have children a dog, or other pets? What are your hobbies? Then move on to learn more about the students. This highlights students’ strengths, backgrounds, and cultures. Students have more in common than they think. Teachers need to provide the opportunity to get to know each other to celebrate the rich diversity our classrooms bring.


Remember, your students will need the routines, procedures, rules, and classroom culture modeled frequently and practiced consistently. Don’t expect perfection from the start; be patient with them and yourself!


Thanks to Renee, Guadalupe, and Marie for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What do you do in your classes during the first two weeks of the school year?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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