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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: Starting the New Year by ‘Building Relationships’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 08, 2016 20 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today’s contributors are Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Anabel Gonzalez, Karen Nemeth, Kristina J. Doubet, Jessica A. Hockett, Stephen Lazar, and Timothy D. Walker.

Response From Jeryl-Ann Asaro

Jeryl-Ann Asaro loves her job as an eighth-grade English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book, Classrooms that Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education. She has taught at four levels -- elementary, middle, high school, and post-graduate, but she has found that teaching adolescent-aged students is her true calling:

Don’t smile until November!

Hogwash! Smile and be yourself. Since kindergarten, 55-years ago, September has been special to me. It’s the beginning of the school year. I can use the eraser, remove the past, and start anew. I liked school back then, and I love it even more now. From the first day forward, students should feel safe, respected, challenged, engaged, and always welcome in your classroom.

These strategies that have worked for me.

  • Look the part. Fair or unfair, your clothing choices can equal credibility and authority.
  • Prepare a welcoming atmosphere before the students enter. Think of it as having company. Get the house ready for the guests.
  • Be ready for instruction prior to students flowing into the room. Confusion leads to problems and then misbehavior.
  • The door is your friend. Guide students to meet your expectations from the minute they approach your room. “Hi! Please come in, find your seat, and read the board. Get busy!”
  • Write a short agenda on the board. Include a “Do Now” activity. The agenda creates the pace of the lesson. It shows you mean business.
  • Speak softly and in a relaxed tone. Never shout over the students. Be structured, without being loud or unkind. Force your students to listen to your words.
  • Introduce, explain, practice, and use a focus technique. Find one that works and be consistent. I say softly, “If you can hear me, clap once. If you can hear me, clap twice.” Trust me; we never go past three!
  • Use a discipline plan. At the first sign of difficult behavior, do not be tempted to “let it slide.” Students need to predict consequences with 100% accuracy. No student has the right to interfere with the learning of another student.
  • Set-up routines; explain and practice them. A well-managed room is one where students are learning.
  • During the first three days, get to know your students and have them get to know one another. Use ice-breaker activities. My students work in cooperative groups, but their first homework assignment is a series of questions about them.
  • Quickly, let the classroom that starts as YOUR room, transform into THEIR room. Have students create something personal for Back to School Night. Last year, we created mock-Twitter pages using a Presentation template.
  • Get parents on your side and gain their trust. Impress them with the materials/website/emails you send home that first day, and Back to School Night to gain their confidence. Parents can be your advocate!
  • Don’t EVER hold grudges. If you realize you were too hard on a student, don’t be afraid to apologize either privately or publicly if you embarrassed him or her in front of peers. We teach children. They learn from us.
  • Praise, commend, and admire. When the students do something you appreciate, or they exceed your expectations, let them know how pleased you are, and email parents too. You don’t always have to use words with the students; a wink can go a long way.
  • Be patient. Kids are kids. They don’t always listen the first or second time. You’ll likely need to explain instructions twice, and in different ways. Face it! If you lose patience, students will become fearful of you.

Remember, you are not alone. Working with parents, teaching staff, paraprofessionals, counselors, and most importantly, the students themselves, will help you transform your classroom into an area where students feel confident while being engaged and learning.

Enhance your teaching by including student-centered strategies. Take your group of students, from varied backgrounds and academic levels, and turn them into involved learners in a well-managed classroom.

In that first hour together, students enter your world. Welcome them while exuding commitment, competence, and confidence. Count to five! Relax and SMILE!


Response From Anabel Gonzalez

Anabel Gonzalez began her teaching career as a Business Education teacher in 1996. Since 2012, she has been Secondary ESL teacher for the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, serving English learners in grades 7-12 of various languages, cultures, and English proficiency levels. She is also a trainer with NCDPI’s ELL Support Team. Follow her on Twitter, @amgonza:

I love the newness of the beginning of the school year. New clothes, new shoes, new school supplies, freshly painted walls and newly waxed floors. All are wonderful reminders of our opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again. If you are like most teachers, you may be tirelessly preparing for the first week of school and the to-do list seems never ending. But as we ready ourselves for the kickoff, let’s keep in mind the reason we teach.

The start of a school year has to be about building relationships. It’s a time to establish an atmosphere of cooperation and support so that significant learning can occur. Aside from imparting knowledge and skills, educators have a tremendous responsibility to lead young people on their learning journey. As they learn the rules to follow and the content they’ll be taught, students need to familiarize themselves with the those who will be on the journey with them.

Here are some of my favorite activities to help build classroom community.

Icebreaker Bingo

Every student is given a bingo sheet. Each square contains a question and students must find classmates who can affirmatively answer a question and sign the corresponding square. Because students cannot sign more than one square, kids must circulate the room and talk to many different classmates in an effort to cover five in a row or even the entire sheet. Here’s a sample.

Let’s Break The Ice

Developed by Shelly Sanchez Terrell, students are given a list of questions, and for a period of one minute, pairs of classmates will interview each other and answer a given question. After a minute, they find another classmate and move to the next question. The game ends when all questions have been answered. This activity will help find commonalities. Students are often surprised to find how much they have in common with those they perceive to be most different. Afterwards, I ask students to reflect on the results and write a blog post. Read more about it here.

Digital Vision Boards

Using the presentation tool of their choice, students create a collage of images that represent a vision of their future and then share them with their classmates.

I Wish My Teachers Knew

A lesson plan developed by Kyle Schwartz and featured on national news networks, it was first implemented with third graders as a sentence starter. I adapted the lesson for my secondary English learners and use it as a blog post prompt. Students are asked to compose a paragraph and share any information they deem essential to their learning. It can be implemented with any student population and can help with differentiation.

As we embark on the new school year, let’s remember the words of Dr. James Comer,

“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” Learning about our students and helping them learn about each other helps develop significant relationships that should, in turn, maximize their learning experience.


Response From Karen Nemeth

Karen Nemeth, Ed.M. is an author, consultant and advocate focusing on early childhood education for ELLs/DLLs. She has leadership roles in NAEYC, NABE, and TESOL. She hosts a resource website at www.languagecastle.com:

For young dual language learners, starting a new school year often means they are also being in a school environment, separated from family, for the very first time. Supporting them through that transition couldn’t be more important. Teachers often ask me how to get young DLLs to respond appropriately to classroom rules or early language screening attempts. I remind them that nothing can happen until that little child feels safe and comfortable at school. Working on that goal in the first weeks of school outweighs the importance of any other learning or assessment goal. With a brief investment of time to get the year off to a great start, all of the teacher’s other goals will be easier to achieve. Try these ideas:

  • Invite families in for personal tours with their child before school starts so they can help you prepare their child for the transition.
  • Post videos on the school website showing families what to expect during important routines such as fire drill, lunchtime, pickup and dropoff.
  • Post a clear schedule of the day with photos to help the child see that time is passing and he can know when it will be time to go home.
  • Learn a few key words in each child’s home language to help her feel more welcome and comfortable from the first day.
  • Make time to have individual interactions with each child in the beginning days of school. Even if you don’t have the language to talk to each other, sitting side by side to build a block tower, or paint pictures together, or play catch on the playground can go a long way toward building that critical connection with that child.
  • Don’t expect a newcomer to calmly show you everything they know and can do on a screening tool. Instead, focus on your opportunities to play with and interact with the child to form an impression about his developmental level and his language needs.
  • Learn something of each child’s interests and use them as images for classroom displays. Instead of making a bulletin board of children’s birthdays when they can’t yet read them, imagine the reaction when children see pictures of their favorite soccer team or the park they like to visit in their neighborhood.
  • Read stories or play recorded stories in each child’s language in the first few days at school so they will know that at least part of every day will be accessible to them as they try to also learn the new language, too.

With strategies like these forming the focus of the first few weeks of school, early childhood teachers generally find that they are able to get all of their students involved in the learning goals they postponed for that time. This is a great way to to help each and every child make a great start to their entire school career.


Response From Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica A. Hockett

Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. (@kjdoubet) is a professor of middle, secondary, and mathematics education at James Madison University. Jessica A. Hockett, Ph.D. is an educational consultant based in Evanston, IL. Together they have co-authored the book Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners (ASCD), in which all three of the following strategies are discussed in more detail. They work with practicing teachers of all grade levels—nationally and abroad—on the topics of curriculum, assessment, and differentiated instruction. Follow them on Twitter @DIY_Diff and on Instagram @d.i.y_di:

Most teachers begin the school year with mixed feelings of excitement and dread. We welcome the chance to “re-set” with fresh faces and high hopes. But the pressure to make sure all students master rigorous standards is daunting, and it’s no secret that the clock starts ticking on day 1. Our students, too, are both eager (“I get to see my friends!” “Maybe I’ll ‘get’ math this year!”) and anxious (“What if I’m an outsider again?” “What if I never understand this English stuff?”). Accordingly, the best course of action for beginning the academic year - for teachers and for students - is to allow excitement to propel us through angst. We can accomplish that through the following four practices.

  1. Get to know students, let them get to know you, and help them get to know each other. This is not new and it’s not rocket science. Most teachers attempt some sort of activity to get to know students on Day 1. But if those attempts are superficial or simply an “exercise,” they can backfire. Kids at all grade levels can smell insincerity from a mile away. Therefore, choose an activity that you would actually want to complete -- and complete it yourself first to model for your students. Then devote time in class for students to complete and share their results. When students see their teacher’s responses to survey questions - or graph of personal interests, or “primary source” artifacts - they are more likely to invest in return. And if the teacher carves out class time for these tasks, students a) recognize it’s important to the teacher, and b) develop bonds with one another as they work. Further, full-class sharing of responses sets a collaborative tone for the rest of the year.
  1. Set the expectation for flexible grouping. If we want our classrooms to be a collaborative space, then collaboration needs to start early and among all students in the class. Chances are, students will have learning needs, interests, and strengths in common with many of their peers and will benefit from working with them throughout the course of the year. Set the tone by asking students to work in a different grouping formation each day of the first week of school to establish flexible grouping as “the norm.” Here’s a 5-day example:
  • Day 1 - Students line up according to birth date (month/day) and the teacher divides them into partners or trios
  • Day 2 - Students receive a playing card and form “same suit” trios
  • Day 3 - Students use the same playing card (or a new one) to form “like number” quads
  • Day 4 - Students form “four corners” groups by reporting to the area of the room that corresponds to their favorite food: pizza, burgers, tacos, or smoothies; they subdivide into trios or quads
  • Day 5 - Students line up in ROY G BIV order according to clothing color. The teacher “folds” the line to give students a partner from the opposite end of the spectrum

In each grouping configuration, students should have a genuine task to complete with a concrete outcome produced. This sets the stage for authentic community-building, with the “players” working interdependently toward a common goal.

  1. Practice routines and interactive instructional strategies in non-academic situations. Routines for getting into groups, moving furniture, retrieving and returning electronics/supplies, securing make-up work following an absence, and responding to signals for noise control and transitions are best practiced as “dry runs” before being used during instruction. Likewise, engaging students in interactive activities in a “content-free fashion” during the first week of school sets the stage for content-based uses of those strategies in the coming weeks and months. For example, after students move into one of the instructional groupings described in Point 2, they could complete a “matrix” graphic organizer finding similarities and differences among group members. This introduces the logistics of the strategy in a stress-free manner so that groups will have more success when using a matrix to compare and contrast content (e.g., different biomes).
  1. Collaboratively establish classroom rules, norms and routines. With student input, develop a list of guidelines for behavior during in-class group work and independent tasks, as well as for online interactions (both at home and in school). Post these in a prominent place and periodically prompt students to revisit them to see how they are “holding up.” If possible, engage students in a group task before asking them to develop the guidelines. This way, they use their own experience to craft parameters that build on what went well and anticipate or alleviate what went wrong.

Each of these approaches take time—time, a teacher might argue, that could be used for teaching “real” content. But consider this: An up-front investment in a solid start to the year can actually buy back time back later in the year. If students begin the year knowing how to work in groups, expecting to interact with all of their classmates, and being familiar with complex but worthy strategies, they’ll get down to the business of learning more quickly and efficiently than they would if these tasks were dropped on them “cold.” The first weeks of school are the perfect time to set the tone for ongoing, collaborative and worthwhile learning.

Response From Stephen Lazar

Stephen Lazar is a National Board Certified Social Studies and English teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in NYC:

My goal in starting the school year is always to make my class feel engaging, unique and special. In working with high school students in both English and History classrooms, I have developed two different strategies that seem to work every time.

In English, my strategy is simple: begin the class with an highly engaging and accessible novel that introduces the big ideas and themes we’ll be discussing through the beginning of the class. I’ve had the most success with “Everyday” by David Leviathan and “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell. These books share many common factors: they are relationship-focused page-turners written in an engaging manner that is accessible to all nearly all of my diverse readers. They both feature protagonists that span gender, race, and class perspectives, giving most of my students someone they can identify with. They’re also both books that can be read quickly, leaving plenty of time for the denser texts that follow. Everyday’s focus on different perspectives anticipates the work students will do to step into the shoes of a German soldier in “All Quiet on the Western Front"; while “Eleanor & Park’s” inquiry into what makes relationships work, or not, between very different people anticipates some of the discussion we have when reading “The Color Purple” soon after. By removing much of students’ cognitive load from the act of reading at the beginning of the year, we have have more rigorous conversations on big ideas and themes that transfer to our discussions of more challenging texts where more of my work with students needs to be on basic comprehension.

In history classes, I always try to begin the course with an immersive simulation. My favorite simulation, developed by my mentor Bil Johnson, called the “Conference in Rico Futuro” is perfect beginning for my US class where we start with the Constitution. Students spend a week developing a constitution for a fictional South American country, representing various provinces like “Krow-Ney” and “Griviani” (note the anagrams). Little do most students realize that the situation the delegates to the conference in Rico Futuro find themselves in is identical to that of the framers at the US’ 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia. While students experience their first week of my class engaging in debate and politicking, they’re also learning about all the key questions the were debated in 1787, making it very easy for them to then learn and remember what really happened soon after. For my global classes, I developed a simulation where students find themselves on a new planet and have to create a new civilization there as a means to introduce the various terms and concepts that will define their study of ancient and medieval civilizations. Like the beginning of the English classes I teach, both these simulations take the cognitive load off of reading and content acquisition, and instead places it on the deeper conceptual understandings that will underpin the larger inquiries of the course.

What matters the most, though, is that these experiences are engaging for students. Too many teachers begin the year with the most banal: rules, syllabi, and review. By providing students with highly engaging texts at their level or immersive experiences, not only am I making students look forward to their time in my room, I’m also laying a rigorous intellectual foundation for the work we’ll do throughout our time together.


Response From Timothy D. Walker

Timothy D. Walker is the author of Teach Like Finland and an American teacher living in Finland. He has written extensively about his experiences for Education Week, Educational Leadership, and on his blog, “Taught by Finland.” He is a contributing writer on education issues for The Atlantic. He lives in Helsinki:

In my two years of teaching in Finland, I started the new school year the same way I used to start it in American classrooms: I focused on community-building.

My favorite strategy involves playing human bingo. What I love about the game is that it’s a fun, active, zero-stress way of strengthening relationships in the classroom--and it’s an activity that can work at any grade-level. While the rules of human bingo vary, here’s the simple way I’ve learned to play the game:

Each student (and teacher) receives a bingo card, but instead of numbers each square contains short descriptions, such as: “I’ve traveled to Europe” or “I’ve ridden a horse.” Then a timer is set for 10 or 15 minutes, and the players circulate around the classroom with their cards in an effort to check-off off as many bingo squares as possible before the time expires.

Each player works like a social scientist and treats their bingo card like a survey. In order to check off as many bingo squares as possible, players must ask each other questions that correspond with descriptions on their cards, such as: “Have you traveled to Europe?” or “Have you ridden a horse?” Once a player finds another player who matches a bingo square description, the square can be checked-off with that player’s signature.

Before playing, I give my students a few rules. You can’t sign your own card, even if you match some of the descriptions. Second, you can only collect one signature from each player.

After the time expires, I’ve found that it’s valuable to debrief the experience. First, I recognize the effort of the students by asking a series of progress-related questions, such as: “Anyone find more than one match? More than two matches?” and so on until there are no longer any hands raised in the air. Second, if there’s time, I’d ask my students to reflect briefly on what they learned about each other: “Did anything surprise you?”

While it’s easy to find ready-to-print human bingo cards through Google, I prefer to make my own in a spreadsheet, allowing me to make something perfectly-tailored to my students. Since human bingo is the first thing I do with my students, I want to make a great first impression. In Finland, for example, I wouldn’t use a card with the description, “I’ve traveled to Europe,” but I might use “I’ve traveled to America"--and if I’m playing the game with beginning readers (kindergartners, first graders, and second graders), I’d probably choose to substitute word-based descriptions in the bingo squares for simple pictures, which I can briefly pre-teach before the game begins. Have fun!


Thanks to Jeryl-Ann, Anabel, Karen, Kristina, Jessica, Stephen and Timothy for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this 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.

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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 Three 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.