Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways to Get the New Year Off to a Good Start -- Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 13, 2012 11 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series. You can read Part Two here and Part Three here)

It’s that time again, so last week I asked the first question “kicking-off” this blog’s second “season":

“What’s your best advice on getting the new school year off to a good start?”

In addition to resources I’ve gathered at The Best Resources For Planning The First Day Of School, I’ve asked several guests to respond to the question. I’ll be sharing their responses over the next week, and invite readers to contribute their ideas, too. I’ll include them in Part Two of this series on Friday.

Today, I’m lucky to have two of the best thinkers and writers on education issues today, Rick Wormeli and Roxanna Elden, responding to this week’s question.

Response From Rick Wormeli

Rick Wormeli
is a well-known author, workshop leader and educator. His book, Day One and Beyond by Stenhouse Publishers, has much more information on what to do the first weeks of school to make sure the rest of the year goes well for both teacher and student. He welcomes further conversation with readers at rwormeli@cox.net:

Learn your students’ names. Use memory tricks, name tent cards on their desks, move students to different seats each day so name recall isn’t just situational, and practice in the hallways and cafeteria, but learn their names within the first week of school, and use them a lot. Incorporating their names daily is proof to students that they exist and they are worth having their names remembered by respected adults. This creates affinity that lasts the full year.

The first day of school is often swamped with forms, lists, seats, and procedures. In many schools, this first meeting is only 50 minutes or less, and there’s little time to connect with students. Instead of trying to cram all foundations and connections for future success into the first day, it makes more sense to focus on the first week or two of school to establish both elements.

In addition to using students’ names early, there are a number of principles and practices applied during the first weeks of school that create student-teacher success throughout the year. Let’s identify ten of them:

1. Set the academic expectancies high. Every day that first week, even in the first meeting, teach something substantive in the curriculum. Make it something that is brand new, not something reviewed from the previous year. Students are hungry for intellectual engagement after a summer off, and they want to think great thoughts and do great works. They also want a clear sense of these new subjects, and they want to see our personal enthusiasm for it. Focusing on serious academics in these first hours of the year sets a clear expectation for students that they are capable, this subject is worth the energy spent on it, and their time will not be wasted while in this classroom. Teach from the very first day.

2. Balance. Mix academics with administrative and Get-to-Know-You activities. It should be about 50-50: half engagement with interesting academics, half focused on forms, announcements, or activities meant to build classroom community. Keep the ratio: students will grow impatient and disillusioned if too much time is spent on get-to-know-you activities. It sounds weird, but most students are not looking for continued summer camp experiences so much as they are seeking confidence and engagement.

By the way, if we’re on a middle school team, we can spread the administration among classes - one of us does the interest surveys, another does multiple intelligence surveys, someone does locker assignments, and another collects emergency care cards, bus forms, and students rights and responsibilities booklets. At a later meeting, we can all help process those forms.

3. Belonging. “Do I belong?” is one of the biggest concerns students have in almost every grade level. Let’s give students proof every day that this is the right class and teacher for them. We can put elements on our classroom walls that reflect students’ culture outside the school. We can use examples from their daily lives in our instruction. We can have them set up personal accounts on the school server, create stylized presentations, and participate in on-line communities in the first week. We can identify something specific in their statements that helps our learning in class rather than just nodding and thanking them for sharing. We can give students tasks that really matter such as assisting in lesson delivery, doing P.A. announcements, operating technology, distributing supplies, participating in leadership/planning committees, building display areas, inviting guest speakers, preparing instructional materials, and leading new service projects.

4. Daily Poem(s). Seriously, this works in all classes, not just English class. It sets a positive tone, and it often stretches thinking for our class and the whole day. Keep each poem’s length reasonable, topic meaningful, and expression enjoyable, or at least engaging. Yes, there are poems with great relevance to all subjects taught k-12, and if you can’t find any, choose poems related to growing up or modern culture, or read share the lyrics of powerful songs of any generation. For a typical year, we need about 180 of these poems, so start collecting them today! Several weeks into the year, of course, students will bring new ones to class unsolicited by us. It’ll be that important to them.

5. Tour the School. Most schools provide this opportunity to incoming students during the week prior to the first day of school, but if not, we can take students on a tour of the building. It relieves anxiety, builds ownership, and opens students’ minds to other possibilities: “Wow, I might want to take that class,” “The library looks better than my old school library - maybe I’ll go more often,” and, “Guitars? Maybe I could learn to play one.”

6. Explain the Schedule. Students of all ages want to know the big picture, what is expected of them, and how not to look foolish. Let’s remind them of the class periods start and stop times, passing time, and if we’re on a block schedule, the larger picture of block schedule over the course of a full week repeatedly. Just because we post the schedule on the board during the first hour of the day doesn’t mean students will remember it throughout the day or week.

7. Share your grading and homework policies. Let’s remove anxiety early and be transparent with these policies from day one. We can place our policies in a quick-reference for students and parents to read and sign, but we need to make sure we’ve had two or more colleagues, including an administrator, read through them first to make sure they can support them. This pre-printing review then disseminating the policies the first week will prevent miscommunication down the road.

In our quick-reference, we describe specifics about how we will handle the following: late work, homework, re-doing work/assessments, formative versus summative assessments, grading calculations (if mathematically calculated), definition of mastery versus almost mastery, extra credit (or not), zeroes on any size scale, descriptors for A, B, C, D, F (or whatever symbols your scale uses), reporting effort/work habits, on-line parent view of grades, location of standards/outcomes documents specific to our subject, what students should do if they are struggling, and specific contact numbers/addresses for students and parents to use if they need to contact us.

8. Use the ELL Mindset. If our students are new to our school (9th graders entering high school; 6th graders entering middle school, for examples), it’s helpful to think of them as English Language Learners, new to the country, not speaking the language or knowing the customs. We can empathize: What would we feel like if we were the ones that didn’t understand the rules to the game that everyone around us knew and followed so well? We’d want someone to break everything down into explainable steps and give us the time and tools to take those steps. We’d want someone patient with our repeated questions, and someone who assured us that he knew we were intelligent despite our silly mistakes. Let’s be that person with our students.

9. Point out the opportunities, not just a litany of rules. Tell students what new opportunities and freedoms they now have instead of just listing rules and the consequences for breaking them. It’s pretty disheartening to be so excited for a new journey only to face two or more hours of what we can’t do. For every three rules/responsibilities declared, let’s identify one new opportunity or invitation to try something new. There’s hope here, not mere compliance.

10. Demonstrate a sense of humor. “Don’t smile until Christmas” is one of the worst pieces of advice new teachers receive. Effective teachers know better. Students want to be assured that we are part of humanity and that they will be accepted for who they are, mistakes and all. Humor is a great way to build camaraderie - that we’re in this together, and we can relax when things get tough. Humor allows helps messages to get through minds encumbered by emotional angst. It makes us feel connected, and boy, connection is what students crave in the first days of school. So let’s laugh at ourselves in front of students, include a fun comic strip in a presentation, wear a silly hat or include a ridiculous prop for a portion of a lesson, or crack a pun or two during a lecture. It puts everyone in good mindset for learning.

Instead of reading declarative statements from a policy manual for an hour, effective teachers use thoughtful practices over the course of the first weeks of school that not only sell students on their subjects, but they build students’ capacities for learning and relating to one another. More importantly, they build hope. Good teachers realize that these are the most influential moments of the year for establishing mutual investment, students in teachers and teachers in students. Truly, we don’t learn to swim by talking about swimming strokes and staring at the water. Let’s make these first few weeks one big invitation: Come on in, the water’s fine!

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is a National Board Certified Teacher in Miami, FL. Her book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, is widely used for teacher training and retention:

Plan for interruptions. Your main goal the first day is to set a serious tone so you can teach with minimum drama the rest of the year. This can be harder than it sounds because teachers often have to meet, greet, and seat existing students while new kids show up at the door and the PA crackles with last-minute office requests. For this reason, the first day of class should be the most structured day of the year, not the most exciting. Your first day lesson plan should be more like a checklist, and should include plenty of quiet activities that students can do at their desks without much help. One possibility is to have students make flash cards with their names, seat numbers, and one identifying detail so you can learn their names while they are working. You should also include a backup activity in case your lesson ends early. Take any steps you can to minimize first-day surprises. Any materials not in your room the Thursday before school starts won’t be there on Monday - unless you put them there on Friday.

Plan for paper. You know your students will turn in plenty of papers once the year starts. What you may not realize is you’ll also get lots of paperwork from your school early in the year - including some things you may not need to look at until May. Set up a box to file papers such as inventory lists that you don’t need to fill out now but can’t afford to lose. Otherwise, these can quickly turn into a tower on your desk that covers more urgent work. A detailed filing system is described in the Piles and Files chapter of my book, but you can start off on the right foot by having a clean file box and hanging folders ready to go inside it. You’ll also want a box in your classroom closet that says “ideas for later,” where you can put the binders, folders, and workbooks full of potentially awesome teaching ideas from professional development sessions and colleagues. Then, be ready to turn your attention to grading students’ work. Get at least two grade into your grade book the first week... and every week after that. Otherwise, ungraded papers can pile up and lead to a crisis when your first set of grades is due.

Plan for sleep. There can be a macho culture among young teachers regarding the number of hours put in - “for the kids.” After all, don’t kids deserve someone who will work tirelessly to make sure they reach their full potential? Sure they do, but they also deserve a mentally healthy adult who wants to be in the room with them. A teacher sleeping three hours a night and making up for it with a double-dose of energy drinks is not that person. Work hard, but also set a teacher bedtime for yourself and stick to it - “for the kids.”

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including suggestions from readers in Friday’s post.

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 selection of ten published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for Part Two of this series on Friday, and Part Three next Wednesday!

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.