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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

Response: Begin the New School Year With a Positive ‘Mindset’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 10, 2016 14 min read
Image of a teacher in a classroom working quietly at desk.
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

This week’s question is:

What are the best ways to start a new school year?

In Part One, Roxanna Elden, Dave Stuart Jr., Ekuwah Moses, Matt Wachel, Pam Allyn, and Kevin Parr shared suggestions on how to get the school year off on the right foot.

Part Two‘s contributors were Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Anabel Gonzalez, Karen Nemeth, Kristina J. Doubet, Jessica A. Hockett, Stephen Lazar, and Timothy D. Walker.

Today, Jen Schwanke, Kevin Scott, Pia Lindquist Wong, and Otis Kriegel provide their ideas on the topic.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders (ASCD). Schwanke began her career as a language arts educator and is currently a principal for the Dublin City School District in Dublin, Ohio. A graduate instructor in educational leadership, she has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications and blogs about her experiences in learning and leading at jenschwanke.com. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke and Instagram @jenschwanke:

It’s not just the students. At the start of the school year, we all feel a twinge of something--a complicated mix of nervousness, anxiety, trepidation, and excitement. Teachers feel it, parents feel it, and the principal certainly feels it. It’s there in the air for the whole school community. There are so many unknowns at the beginning. Everyone is privately wondering, What kind of year will it be? There’s no way to know, but there’s only one way to find out: Jump in. All in. Body and mind.

I start every school year with a mindset. I begin developing it in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, when I’m managing the flurry of things to take care of. I try to keep my mind focused on creating a positive experience for the students so that every decision I make, from developing a schedule to distributing furniture to overseeing supply deliveries, is done with an eye to the students. I ask myself, over and over again, “Is this the best for students?”

When the buses actually pull up on the first day, I don’t relent. I double down on my commitment to my mindset. I try to greet every child individually on the first day, first by meeting the whole group, en masse, when the doors open; then, I visit every classroom in the first couple hours of school. I mingle through every lunch session, every recess, every study area. I utilize any chance that I can to see the students.

I walk a lot on the first day of school. It’s exhausting.

But then, I do it again the next day. And the next. I block off my calendar so that almost every moment of my time in the first few days of school are spent being visible to students. And I do it with a big grin on my face, projecting that I’m happy to be there and I’m happy they are there. I’m relentlessly welcoming. I’m the cheerleader. I’m the confident, encouraging, optimistic leader.

In short, I’m there--in mind and in body. Just like I want the students and staff to be really present, I make myself present.

Within a few days, of course, the extensive responsibilities of my job take over, and I’m not able to mingle with students so much. But the groundwork has been laid and the attitude has been set: We’re all here, together--and it’s going to be a fantastic year.

Response From Kevin Scott

Kevin Scott is director of member engagement at ASCD and works with members and constituent groups to increase awareness and action for educators. He spent seven years in Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools as a middle school history teacher and has been a director of education and membership manager at other associations in Washington, D.C. Connect with him on @Edu_Kevin_:

My parents were both teachers and when I first started teaching my dad told me, “don’t smile until Thanksgiving.” I was a little shocked at this advice and it epitomized an antiquated and authoritarian approach to teaching. Yet, being firm and fair is a pragmatic approach to beginning the year. Simple things make a big difference--greeting students at the door, challenging yourself to learn their names quickly, and learning about your students learning styles and personalities as soon as you are able is key. One of my colleagues used to give himself three weeks to learn all of his student’s names. As a middle school teacher with 150 students, that’s tougher than it sounds. If he messed up a kid’s name after three weeks, that student got a Kit-Kat. Yes, this probably broke a school and district policy, but it demonstrated to the kids that he was serious, and I don’t remember him ever having to give away the candy.

Let your students know more about you. Some teachers put their guard up about their personal lives for valid reasons, but share you’re about to spend the next nine months with these students--tell them about why you became an educator, what drew you to the profession, and your experiences that lead you there. The more you open those doors, the more you’ll see both students and parents treat you like a human being rather than just a teacher. Tell stories, make it fun, and if you can pull of getting your students to laugh along side you in the early days, while bringing students back when they need to focus, you’ll find that the connection to students will pay off all year long.

Think innovatively about back to school night. As a dad and a former teacher myself, back to school night can be a real challenge. As a teacher you want to convey as much information as possible, but as a parent I want to know who my kids are spending their days with from September through June. Again, teachers should tell parents why they got into education, their journey to teaching, and who they are beyond the classroom. I can read about the curriculum, school policies, and other items can be summarized in an email or newsletter, but I can learn so much more about a teacher when they speak from the heart, not a script. This is among the best advice I received from my principal when I was a beginner teacher and I stuck with this throughout the years.

Response From Pia Lindquist Wong

Pia Lindquist Wong is a professor in the Teaching Credentials Department at Sacramento State University. She has been a teacher educator since 1995 and focuses on urban teacher preparation. She is active in local education politics (co-chaired a successful bond campaign for a local school district) and state educational policy-making (she is on the Board of Directors for the California Council for Teacher Education and is also co-chair of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s Committee on Accreditation.) She has co-authored two books, one on Paulo Freire’s tenure as Secretary of Education for Sao Paulo public schools (Education and democracy: Paulo Freire, education reform and social movements) and another on urban professional development schools (Prioritizing urban children, their teachers and schools through professional development schools). She also publishes in such academic journals as Teacher Education Quarterly and Journal of Educational Policy:

There are countless ways to start a new school year and every teacher probably has his or her tried and true approaches. I’d like to share a story based on the work of a former student teacher and then use it to suggest a set of working principles for the first days of school.

The setting is a fifth grade classroom of 28 students. About one month before school started, the teacher wrote an introductory letter to his students and their families, telling them a bit about himself and providing a preview of the school year. He then created a large puzzle of an eagle (the school mascot). He mailed the letter and a puzzle piece to each student on his roster, asking them to put the puzzle piece in a safe place and to remember to bring it to school on day one. He told them they would be doing something really exciting with the puzzle piece on the first day of school. (The teacher created a second puzzle and matched names to pieces just in case a child forgot. He had extra border pieces just in case new children enrolled in school after the welcome letter was mailed).

On the first day of school, his children filed into his classroom and took their seats. After the usual roll call, brief introductions and having students greet their table mates, he assembled the children in front of a blank wall and gave them instructions on how to construct their puzzle, which would end up being a kind of mosaic for their classroom. Each table had to create a plan for how to put the puzzle together (how to get started, how to figure out who had which pieces, etc.) Then, each table group presented their plan, as they did this they also introduced themselves to the class. The teacher recorded each plan (the basic steps) and then the class as a whole discussed each plan and which one they wanted to use, making modifications when needed. In reality, the groups only generated 3 basic ways to get started, so the consensus process was not so difficult to implement. Similarly, the modifications students wanted to make were small and overall agreement was not hard to achieve.

Once the process was identified, the students organized themselves to implement it. The one rule the teacher required, besides following the agreements, was that when talking with each other, the students had to use each other’s names. This slowed down the process as names had to be repeated and remembered. But, as one can imagine, other aspects of the classroom culture accelerated as a result! The puzzle was assembled within about 45 minutes and the teacher asked the students a few follow up questions including what the point of the activity was, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like and what, if anything, it had to do with 5th grade. The teacher then led a discussion, during which time the students shared mostly positive reflections and comments. The teacher shared his rationale for the puzzle activity and then let them know that they would be doing much of their learning in this style - using critical thinking, linking their work to meaningful tasks (beautification of a classroom is valuable), and working collaboratively. He also added that it would not always be the case that he, as the teacher, would select or create the focus; sometimes students would be the ones deciding what to learn about.

What were the principles guiding this teacher’s actions? His welcome letter conveyed excitement and anticipation about being their teacher and it also displayed a sense of concern and consideration - he knew they might feel nervous or anxious about coming to school. He wanted to give them something to focus on and he wanted to provide a little information about himself so that the new teacher variable was less daunting. He communicated a sense of respect and openness to the families. His first communication with them was positive and inviting. He spent the first hours of the new school year building community, creating community norms, and showing the students that they could successfully implement these norms and work together effectively. He also worked backwards from a shared experience to deriving shared meaning from this experience, thereby transferring power and agency to his students over their learning and growth. And, he injected some fun into the process...always good for 5th graders.

While not every teacher has the conditions this teacher had (a current roster, puzzle making ability, etc.), the basic takeaways for the first day of school are - (a) do whatever you can to lower your students’ anxiety about a new teacher, new classroom, new peers; (b) invest time in creating (co-creating to the extent possible) the classroom norms and values you all will operate by for the year; (c) invest time in giving students low key ways to learn each other’s names and get to know each other; (d) respect the students and give them ownership over these norms; and (e) make it engaging (and yes, even fun)!

Response From Otis Kriegel

Otis Kriegel is the author of the new book, Starting School Right: How do I plan for a successful first week in my classroom? (ASCD). Kriegel has taught elementary and middle school students for 15 years. He has taught in dual language (Spanish/English and German/English), monolingual, and integrated co-teaching classrooms:

When I think about the beginning of the school year, my first priorities are routines, classroom guidelines, and including parents in classroom life. Digging into curriculum? Forget it! That comes after the kids and I have developed a sense of trust in one another and the classroom rules are set so we can move forward together. Otherwise it’s chaos!

Let’s start with a few of the basics that will guarantee you get the year off to a good start.

Getting Their Attention

Yelling, “Hey!” or turning the lights on and off is not an effective or fun method to use to get your students’ attention. I like to start the year by introducing my class to how I want to get their attention. I use a call and response method, where everyone stops what they are doing and listens. It is easy to implement, so within minutes you have a way to garner all of their attention rather than sitting helplessly as they chat way, wondering how you are going to quiet down the group of 30 kids that just walked into your classroom.

How They Can Get Your Attention

In most educational environments, raising a hand is the commonly accepted method to indicate you have something to share. Review it. Make sure everyone agrees. It seems basic but these are the routines that we need in place before we can move forward.

Developing this routine in the classroom will make it easier to create others such as how to check books out of the classroom library, using the bathroom, and lining up for lunch.

Classroom Guidelines

What rules do we need so everyone feels comfortable, safe, and respected? I like to break the students into groups to brainstorm and then we discuss all of the ideas together and vote on them. I have done this with 1st graders through 8th graders, and there are always surprises. “No disrespecting people because of their clothing choice.” “No teasing people about their families.” “Even if someone isn’t your best friend, you still need to say, ‘Good morning’”. A pre-printed list of rules on the wall lets your class know right away that you don’t want their input. The kids have great ideas. Use them!

I like to think of my classroom as a “democratic dictatorship”. I want us all to participate in the development of our classroom together. But if it is an issue of physical or emotional safety, I make the call. By developing the classroom guidelines together, they understand this right away.

Include Families

Who knows your students best? Not you! Their families! It is crucial that you introduce yourself to your students’ families and begin your partnership with them. On the first day of school I send a letter introducing myself, including my background, with a direct request that each family send me a story or information about their child. What are their hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, and interests? What went well in the last school year and what did they struggle with? Be prepared to receive notes from the family member who is most available, who sometimes is not a parent but an older sibling, grandparent, uncle or aunt. Find out as much as you can about each of your students. By sending this first letter you have alerted the families that you are interested in them and hopefully you will have begun a successful partnership.

I love the beginning of the school year. It is the beginning of a 10-month adventure. There is so much to do and so much enthusiasm. Be sure to stay rested and get your routines into place right away,

Get even more ideas for kicking off the school year in my new book, Starting School Right: How do I plan for a successful first week in my classroom?

Thanks to Jen, Kevin, Pia and Otis for their contributions!

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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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

If you missed any of the highlights from the first four years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

Classroom Management

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

The Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Brain-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Teaching Reading & Writing

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Author Interviews

Teaching Math & Science

Professional Development

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Look for Part Four in a few days....

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.