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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

Don’t Waste Instructional Time at the Beginning of the Year

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 31, 2023 14 min read
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It’s possible to love teaching, as I do, and, at the same time, not look forward to summer vacation ending, as I am not.

Whatever the case is, it’s probably time to begin thinking about the new school year, and this series is geared toward helping us all do just that.

‘Be Authentic’

Leah Porter is the 2022 Michigan Teacher of the Year. She is a 3rd grade teacher at Wilcox Elementary, in Holt, Mich.:

The anticipation of a new school year never changes, no matter how long you have been teaching. The time spent in the classroom leading up to the first day is electric with wonder and possibility. Yes, there are simple tasks: organizing materials, writing out birthday charts, and moving furniture. But the real fun begins when you start to visualize the possibilities of what is to come. How spaces will be used for learning, what materials and experiences you want to introduce in those first days, and how you will plant the seeds of curiosity and potential in your learners.

Often, educators will sit in professional development in the days leading to the start of school, and it will be reiterated that the first days of school should be used as a time to build community, set expectations, and get to know students. All those things are true, but those routines are much more than a checklist. The first two weeks of school are an outline for an epic novel: the thought, time, and planning you put into those two weeks will lay the foundation for the story ahead.

There is no right or wrong way to introduce a class to their learning environment, but having a plan and framework for how things will go will be essential. For me, these are the most important.

1. Decide your do’s and don’ts and STICK TO THEM - Every year, I spend time thinking through the routines and daily classroom structures I want to develop with my students. I want to ensure I know exactly what those systems will look like from the first moment students walk into class so I can model clear expectations. This seems straightforward, but taking the time to really process through your classroom routines will ensure you are clear in both your modeling and teaching of these skills.

2. Find your “hook” into learning - Students’ response to learning always depends on how the teacher presents the task or content. What do you want your students to feel passionate about? Showing passion and joy in the content will be infectious for students. They will want to do it, too! No matter what you teach, showing passion for that level of learning will make students naturally excited about what they are doing.

For example, I want to ensure that my students develop a passion and love for reading. I want them to be motivated to read every day. I cannot accomplish this by just saying it to them. I need to show them my love and passion for reading. I need to pick a class read-aloud that will hook them on a series or genre of books they want to read independently. I need to commit to promoting passion every day, and that starts on the very first day and needs to be embedded in your practice every day after that.

3. Provide multiple opportunities for community building - Over the first several weeks of school, I prioritize team building in many ways. I start with something simple, like having groups of students create some art together. This provides opportunities for listening, sharing, compromise, and teamwork. Over the following days, I will do activities that help students get to know each other, work together, succeed and fail together. These team-building activities are only powerful if you provide processing time after the activity has happened. This helps students understand themselves and their role in the collective community. It also directly connects to social-emotional learning practices and essential soft skills that will be used throughout the year in the classroom.

4. Do not feel rushed to transition into the curriculum - After a few days, you may feel pressured to jump into all aspects of the curriculum. Find the balance that is right for you. It will be important to introduce learning structures while knowing that the time you take in the first weeks of school will benefit your structures and routines throughout the rest of the school year.

5. Be authentic - Students know immediately if you are being real and genuine with them. Do not be afraid to show your students who you are. Be vulnerable, own your mistakes, and process your thoughts when things feel frustrating or overwhelming. Talk about your own successes and failures. All these things will provide opportunities for your students to feel connected with you and see you as a human being who feels similar emotions they feel.

So my question to you is, How will you write your story?

Building your classroom community will be some of the most valuable time you will spend over the school year. Be intentional to create supportive experiences that develop relationships and structures. Your classroom story could quite possibly be the tale that a student will remember and cherish forever.


Practicing Academic Language

Chandra Shaw is a seasoned educator with more than 25 years of experience in literacy instruction. As a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers, Chandra specializes in designing and implementing effective, evidence-based literacy programs that meet the needs of diverse learners. If you’re interested in learning more about Chandra’s work or connecting with her directly, follow her on Twitter @CShawR10 or YouTube:

The first couple of weeks as a teacher can be both exciting and extremely daunting. For most teachers, it’s all about establishing your rules and procedures while trying to get to know your students, as well as navigate the litany of new school initiatives and mandates that come with each new year.

At the secondary level, add in the chaos of schedule changes and class leveling and … well you know … teenagers, and you have the potential for those first two weeks to be treated as “wasted” noninstructional time. That’s why I strongly encourage teachers to treat those early days as some of the most important to your “instructional” foundation for the year and explicitly teach listening, speaking, and thinking skills that will help build relationships.

In today’s data-driven testing culture, there’s a lot of pressure for teachers to hit the ground running early on in the school year. Often, the expectation is from Day 1 of school. Many find this expectation unrealistic, but I always looked forward to using this time to get to know my students and establish our norms through the teaching of those standards and skills that are often skimmed over or never explicitly taught because they aren’t “on the test.”

Many of those listening, speaking, and thinking skills are prerequisites that can lead to critical thinking and greater engagement and participation throughout the school year. These process skills can easily be integrated with SEL strategies that can build relationships between teachers and students and facilitate student-to-student connections.

For example, many teachers have some version of the Getting to Know You survey that’s given to students to complete in some form. It contains a list of basic probing questions about students’ favorites and interests. I liked to develop my students’ speaking and listening skills during those first weeks by using those questions. I place them on cards and put them in the center of tables, allowing the students to interview each other and responding in complete sentences and asking clarifying questions. At the end of a two-minute round, students switch partners and interview another student.

A simple activity like this showed students the importance of responding in complete sentences, which allowed them to practice their social and academic oracy, something that is often not directly taught in classes. It also helped to build relationships among students as they began to see the things many had in common.

Providing students with lots of opportunities to practice their academic language during the beginning days of school set the stage for the importance of discussion and developing their own voices by building their confidence in public speaking. In fact, it was my goal each year to ensure that no student left my class without being willing to “take the mic”... literally! I kept a small karaoke machine in my room for students to use whenever they shared their writing with the class. I jokingly told students that “everything sounds better on a mic,” and explained that I wanted them to all learn to speak for themselves because “people who don’t speak for themselves often end up with others speaking for them, and others might not say the things you need them to say on your behalf.”

Of course, some students started off very shy, not wanting to speak in front of their peers. However, I didn’t allow them to use their shyness as an excuse for not sharing their voice. For example, in those situations, if a student didn’t want to share a piece of their writing that I felt would benefit the entire class, I’d simply ask, “Can I share it, because it needs to be heard?” Not once did I have a student say no. The next time I might say, “Will you stand beside me while I share?” Then, “I’ll stand beside you while you share.” Eventually, by the end of the year, every student would feel comfortable taking the mic and sharing their ideas.

I know that this early focus on creating students who are confident in listening, speaking, and thinking from the beginning of the school year contributed to a more cohesive classroom culture. This benefited my students in many ways. My EL students’ language development grew tremendously on their TELPAS assessment, and parents often noted how they felt their students had blossomed during the school year. Starting the year by teaching students to harness their own voices is a great way to help shape them into confident scholars who actively participate in their learning.


‘Help Students Tell Their Story’

Lauren Merkley is a high school English teacher in Utah. She is also the 2020 Utah Teacher of the Year and a Utah Teacher Fellow with the Hope Street Group. Twitter: @lmerkles:

Belonging matters. We feel that every time we go to a party full of strangers. We—at least I—often want to head for the door.

This is not just true for adults. Research shows that a student’s sense of belonging is positively correlated with reducing achievement gaps, increasing motivation and resilience, and improving long-term outcomes. Pretty great, right? That’s why I focus on building belonging during the first two weeks of the year.

School belonging is defined by researchers Goodenow and Grady as “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school environment.” Students who belong at school trust their teachers and feel trusted by them. They feel seen as a whole person. They exhibit fewer behavioral problems. They are more open to constructive feedback.

On the other hand, students who question their belonging at school split attention between assessing their fitness and engaging in academics. This is a particular risk for underrepresented students, who might be concerned about confirming stereotypes—a phenomenon Claude Steele calls “stereotype threat.” They might be hypervigilant for cues that they don’t belong, believe they are the only one struggling, and/or retreat from learning.

Educators often invest time in procedures during the first week. Procedures are important; they indeed help class run smoothly. Investing in building belonging, however, gives a classroom a beating, collective heart. Here are a few ideas for doing just that during the first two weeks:

· Greet students at the door. By name. Every day. All year, starting day one (with the help of a class list). Look them in the eye. Comment on something unique to each—a compliment on their shoes, props on an assignment, a question about a basketball game. These 10-second interactions say: I see you. I know you. You belong here.

· Skip the rules. Embrace class norms. Empower students to craft the environment, not submit to it. Ask students to collaboratively draft class norms for the year. They will surprise you! Last year, my students created norms like: “Changing opinions is a sign of intelligence”; “We foster unity through individuality”; and “Build on others by saying ‘yes, and …’”

· Encourage student sharing. Grant students space to share their identity early. For instance, early in the year, one of my classes began building a playlist after a student asked to play a song as class began. It caught on. Soon, we heard a song every day from a different student, who then explained their choice during the first minute of class. By May, our playlist boasted everything from Bollywood to rap to classical to rock to metal, representing and celebrating each student.

· Help students tell their story. Inspired by my colleague, I adapted the Humans of New York interview model to build belonging and empathy in the first weeks. After reviewing Humans of New York stories, we discussed how to craft questions that elicit a story, not simple facts. Students then interviewed a classmate with an emphasis on drawing out an in-depth, meaningful story from their life. In the tradition of Humans of New York, students shared a quote and photo from their interview (with permission) on a class slide show.

· Emphasize academic supports: Students are more likely to feel belonging if they feel they can succeed. Early in the year, emphasize and model the support you offer: revisions, retakes, study groups, peer workshops, office hours, feedback. Speaking of feedback, one study demonstrated that when criticism was accompanied by a reiteration of high standards and an affirmation of the teacher’s confidence that a student could meet them, African American students were four times more likely to submit revisions. Foster the belief that everyone can flourish in your classroom.

· Normalize struggle: Have students write letters to future students to offer advice and normalize struggle. Pass the letters out in the first week next year. Help students see that they are not alone. Normalize your own struggle, too: Share your messy drafts or calculation errors early. Make mistakes joyfully, often, publicly.

Belonging matters. Make it matter early in your classroom, so no one starts heading for the door.


Thanks to Leah, Chandra, and Lauren 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?

In Part One, Renee Jones, Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona, and Marie Moreno shared their ideas.

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.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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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