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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Giving Students ‘a Place to Belong’ When Starting a School Year

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 11, 2016 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here ; Part Two here; and Part Three 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.

Jen Schwanke, Kevin Scott, Pia Lindquist Wong, and Otis Kriegel provided their ideas in Part Three.

Today is the fourth and final post in this series. In it, Tricia Ebarvia, Maia Heyck-Merlin, Debbie Diller, Erik M. Francis, Jennifer Orr and Maggie Beattie Roberts write about their experiences and recommendations.

Response From Tricia Ebarvia

Tricia Ebarvia currently has been teaching high school English for the last fifteen years at Conestoga High School in Pennsylvania. She also serves as a co-director for the PA Writing and Literature as well as 2016-18 Heinemann Fellow. Connect with her on Twitter @triciaebarvia or on her website, triciaebarvia.org:

Even though I’ve been teaching for 15 years, as September approaches, I still get that same feeling of nervous excitement that I had my first year teaching. In fact, it’s the same feeling I had as a student, too. I don’t think I will ever forget what it was like to be 14-years-old--a new student transferring from a small parochial school to a large public high school, from a class of 28 to a class of 200. Particularly vivid are my memories of those dreaded extended homeroom periods during the first week of school. As everyone else exchanged tales of summer vacations, I stared at my shiny, laminated official school folder and read the lyrics to the school’s fight song over and over again.

As I begin another school year, I try to remember my 14-year-old self--her awkwardness, her fears, but also her hope. The hope for new friends, caring teachers, and a place to belong. I think it’s because of my 14-year-old self that I try to start each school year by identifying the students who may need a little more than a warm-but-generic welcome back to school. Too often, in the busyness of daily teaching, I’ve been guilty of asking “how are you?” but not really listening for the answer in a way that honors the question--or the person--as I rush to answer emails or make copies.

So what’s the best way to start a new school year? The answer to that question must always start and end with the students--with making them feel welcome and giving them a place to belong. To do that well--especially if you are high school teacher with 130+ students like I am--requires that we resist the urge to dive into content or read the syllabus or review late policies or everything else that doesn’t directly and tangibly tell us something about who they are and who they can be in our classrooms. (That said, there is a place for all of that, just not the first place).

What does this look like? As an English teacher, I ask students to begin writing on day one, to reflect on their interests and passions, to discover the writing territories that we return to throughout the year. And then we share--always share. I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of simply turning-and-talking with the person next to us. I also invite students to tour our classroom space using a teambuilding scavenger hunt so that we can take care of questions like Where’s the pencil sharpener? or How do I borrow a book? and focus on learning and each other. And most importantly, I survey students on their prior reading and writing experiences. The sooner I can get a sense of each student’s relationship to reading--the titles they’ve loved, the books they’ve hated--the sooner I can get the right book into the right student’s hand.

In a few short weeks, dozens of students will pass through my door. I look forward to welcoming them with a listening ear and an interested heart.

Response From Maia Heyck-Merlin

Maia Heyck-Merlin is the author of The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized and Save Time! and the recently released The Together Leader: Get Organized for your Success - and Sanity! She founded and leads a consulting practice focused on helping educators plan, prioritize and protect their time and works with many top school districts, charter organizations and nonprofits in the country. She lives in the Washington, DC, area with her teacher-husband and two children:

In my line of work, I obsess about the results and the routines teachers need to pull off their enormous jobs! The best way a Together Teacher can start the school year is by designing an Ideal Week that fits in everything you want to accomplish professionally and personally in a given 168-hour period. Planning, grading and data analysis - as well as exercise, sleep, leisure and meal preparation - all hit the page to help you determine what your ideal balance looks like.

After you have this, you can track your time for a few weeks to see how close you are to living your ideal. Ask yourself tough questions like, “What do I wish were getting more of my time? What could be shortened or cut altogether? When do I find myself procrastinating? When is my energy the highest and lowest?” Your answers will drive you to shift how, where and on what you’re spending your time. Using the data from this road test, create a strong Weekly Plan (free resources here www.thetogethergroup.com !) that accounts for both your time and To-Dos. Then find a partner to help with accountability. The work of teachers is never-ending, and burnout is real. We will always work incredibly hard on behalf of our students, and we need to have both an ideal and real sense of our most precious resource - time!

Response From Debbie Diller

Debbie Diller, a national consultant and author of many books for teachers, is celebrating her 40th year as an educator! Her goal is to help teachers organize and use what they already have in their classrooms to maximize instructional time and space-- and meet the needs of all students. Debbie has been called “the teacher’s teacher.” She spends time with teachers and students every week in her work in elementary schools across North America:

Time spent planning and preparing before the school year starts, especially if you work with colleagues, proves to be a wise investment. As I wrote in my recent book, “Growing Independent Learners,” “Setting up a classroom thoughtfully lays a foundation for the work we will do with our students there. When every space in the room is oriented toward instruction, we find ourselves being more intentional about our teaching. We are able to focus on kids rather than searching for our stuff.” (p. 21)

Instead of “decorating” your room, design your room for instruction using my “map and move” process. Work with colleagues and draw a map of your classroom on large white paper, noting the location of all the nonmovable features you’ll have to plan around--cabinets, doors, windows, cubbies, etc. Then think about every important learning space and what is needed for each one. Jot down each area on a sticky note and manipulate those on your map to decide where everything will go. Start with the following areas, in this order, for the best fit:

  1. Whole group area - Plan to place your word wall (pre-K-1) or vocabulary wall (grades 2+) nearby so you can refer to it throughout your lessons.
  2. Small group area - View every inch of space in the room from here to ensure clear sight lines.
  3. Classroom library - Your library should be the focal point of your room, the first thing kids see.
  4. Writing station - Place this near a board or cabinet doors where you can display anchor charts, writing samples, etc. It’s ideal to have the writing station near the word/vocab wall, too.
  5. Math corner - This is the space where you can keep math manipulatives and math stations (in tubs).

Continue in this way until you’ve planned for major spaces. I’ve found that setting up desks (teacher and student) last, not first, always works best! The desks always fit. Be thoughtful about tables; many classrooms have too many of them. Make your spaces serve double-duty. For example, a countertop might be a listening station. Your small group table may also be your teacher desk. My book Spaces & Places can give you many more ideas, too.

Declutter your classroom to help students focus. Purge things you no longer teach with (dried up glue, crayon nubs, old workbooks, etc.)! Choose 2-3 colors for your entire room. Green and blue are calming; black and white works with any pre-existing cabinet or wall color. Limit bold patterns, such as big florals, plaid, chevron, and polka dots. They may be fun, but bold patterns can distract kids from what you want them to pay attention to! Cover all bulletin boards with one color and use one simple border on all your boards. This will visually expand your room, making it look bigger. Beware of themes--they can unintentionally lead to everything focusing on owls, rather than on learning!

Work with colleagues to organize each other’s storage spaces, too. Put like things together in appropriate-sized clear, lidded containers and stack these. Label containers and shelves so you can find and return items quickly. Put things you use often on your desk area and label these, too.

After your room is organized, you’ll be able to breathe and think better (and so will your students). Now begin planning for instruction with your team. Begin with the end in mind by starting with your state’s standards. Choose a few standards that you’ll focus on during the first few weeks of school. Map out how you’ll teach those standards within your school or district’s curriculum and how kids will practice those. You may find it helpful to use the team planning tool found throughout my newest book, “Growing Independent Learners,” from Stenhouse.

Have a great school year! Please follow me on Facebook at //www.facebook.com/dillerdebbie. I’ll be posting before and after pictures of the work I’m doing in classrooms around the country in the month of August! Feel free to share your photos, too.

Response From Erik M. Francis

Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the author of Now THAT’S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning, published by ASCD. He is also the owner and lead professional education specialist for Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development on teaching and learning that address the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards. He also provides consultation on the development, implementation, and compliance of academic programs funded under policies and provisions of the Every Students Succeeds Act:

Ask students -- particularly, students who have experience with schooling -- to describe and explain the subject you are teaching. For example, in English language arts, ask students, What is English language arts? Why is it called English language arts? What is the relationship between reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language? In science, ask, What is science? How does science explain natural phenomena and events? Encourage the students to share their perspective and thoughts and use examples.

You could also have students write a academic autobiography about their experience in the subject you are teaching. Ask them about their experiences with the subject, what kind of student they are in the subject, why they like (or don’t like) the subject, what excites (or frustrates) them about the subject you will be teaching them, what is the greatest experience or memory in the subject, and, most importantly, what should you - as the teacher - understand about them as a student in this particular subject and how could you possibly support them in learning this subject.

Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr teaches kindergartners at a public, Title I school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader, blogs at jenorr.com, and is @jenorr on twitter. She feels lucky to have a job she loves:

The start of a new school year is both an exceptionally exciting and promising time and a time that requires great thoughtfulness and preparation. How a school year begins sets the tone for the coming months and it can be very difficult to change if it is not a good start.

The most critical thing to remember in the beginning of the year is that teaching is not about the content but about the students. Planning and pacing guides, testing schedules, and collaborative team meetings all conspire to put our focus on the content we teach. But the start of the year must be about building relationships, getting to know your students, and letting them get to know you.

Give yourself permission for the first two weeks of school to hold off on content and build community. It will pay off throughout the year and you’ll gain that much time back, at a minimum. Play games, create artifacts about yourselves, work on puzzles, whatever it takes to ensure everyone feels comfortable and valued in your space together.

It’s possible to do this community building and getting to know one another through content, as long as your focus doesn’t shift. It’s a great way to review previous learning. Students can work together to create posters, books, videos, or other items to share learning from past years. These can be done with the intention of sharing them with other classes or grades, which gives them an authenticity that helps make that work more meaningful. Games can be played using prior learning. This helps students feel confident (as long as it is learning they have truly mastered) and bonds them together.

Establishing routines is another important piece at the start of the year. You need to know what you value and need in your classroom each day. Students must be taught how to turn things in the way you want it done, how to begin each day or period in your classroom, what signals you will use throughout your time together, etc. The more time you spend on establishing the routines you care about, the more smoothly things will run all year.

Starting the year off right is a fascinating challenge. With some thoughtfulness and effort it will set you and your students up for an amazing year together.

Response From Maggie Beattie Roberts

Maggie Beattie Roberts is a national literacy consultant, author and frequent speaker. She worked for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for nearly ten years as a lead staff developer, where she supported teachers, administrators and school districts with literacy instruction and curriculum. Her latest book, DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor and Independence (co-authored with Kate Roberts), is out now:

As teachers, we celebrate New Year’s Eve twice a year. We celebrate the first in the company of millions of people. We count down the last few seconds before midnight on December 31, or watch the iconic ball drop in Times Square. No matter the ritual, it is tradition to hold reflections from the past and hopes for the near future as the new calendar year begins.

Our second New Year’s Eve as teachers happens now. And while there is no nationally televised celebration, there are signs that it’s happening: the back to school shopping sales, beginning of the year emails trickling in, summer camps wrapping up. This second New Year’s Eve--the day before the school year begins--is one of the best parts of our jobs as teachers. Our profession is one of renewal; it offers new beginnings each year and extends an annual invitation for reinvention.

Now, there are lots of ways to start off a new school year strongly. Some people start with lists of new goals, while others start with very few goals. No matter your personal restarting style, here are some overall, transferable ways to ensure the best start of a new school year.

Support Your Goals

I’m a fan of new beginnings and I love making a list. So, I tend to start a new year with a laundry list of goals: exercise more, eat healthier, see friends more often. I start off strongly (I’m one of many in the crowded gym in January). But nine times out of ten, I struggle following through on all the goals I made at the start of the year.

It became clear that this was less an issue of follow through and more an issue of the amount of goals I set for myself. In recent years, I’ve narrowed down my list to one or two goals for the start of each school year, like giving authentic feedback in more timely ways or sharing more of my writing process with my students. After setting a short list of goals, I build in support by scheduling check-ins across the school year. Try setting an alert on your digital calendar, picking a common day of the month, or setting quarterly check-ins for the goals. Lastly, I find a friend to share my progress with or, even better, someone who has a shared interest in the same goal. Working towards a goal in the company of others offers both support and gentle accountability that can lead to a more joyful experience.

Build Community

As one of her New Year’s resolutions, a friend of mine joined her local CrossFit community. By the look of her Instagram feed, she is not only building friendships that will last a lifetime, but she’s taking incredible physical risks. The longer she spends with her community, the deeper the bonds become and the more challenges she tackles. And whereas she didn’t start her new workout routine devoid of rigor and new work, it happened in a culture where community and social support was valued equally.

It’s important to remember the power of community amid the busy start of the new school year. There are routines to cover, mandates to launch, assessments to begin. But all of that goes smoother when the classroom community is nurtured from the start.

Think about the ways you form community and replicate it in kid form. Share favorite book titles, read a powerful poem together:

  • Bring in pictures of favorite places and people to decorate a writing or reading notebook.
  • Do a small community service project together
  • Create a Moth-style (//www.themoth.org/) storytelling series where students share stories from their lives
  • Watch a documentary together and have students lead a discussion
  • Have students interview each other and launch a classroom podcast
  • Coordinate collaborative art projects
  • Lead physical team building exercises

Whatever your style, make the time nurture the bonds of your class community, as these bonds are the foundation for intellectual, academic and social risks. (Pick up A Mindset for Learning: Teaching the Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz (http://www.heinemann.com/products/E06288.aspx) to read with colleagues for more ideas of how to nurture strong, authentic communities.)

Aim for Balance

The life of a teacher is one of extremes--from the extreme busyness of a school year to the extreme abruptness of a holiday break. It’s easy to find yourself running on empty as the school year gets underway, craving the rejuvenation a break brings.

During the school year, try infusing the busyness of the new school year with some essence of summer relaxation. Keep your summer reading going, stay enrolled in that yoga class, schedule (and keep) dates with friends or your partner. I color code my digital calendar with the week’s events: work-related events get one color, social and self-care appointments get another color. This gives me an at-a-glance look at how balanced or (more commonly) unbalanced my week is.

Taking care of ourselves is the important work that provides fuel to keep giving to our students and each other during the school year. Leaning on friends, family members or loved ones helps build in small moments of summertime care, giving us the reboot to keep tackling the demands of the year.

As the air begins to cool and the leaves turn, pause for a moment to celebrate the beginning of the year, both for you and for your students. Wishing you the best start to your new year!

Thanks to Tricia, Maia, Debbie, Erik, Jennifer and Maggie for their contributions!

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