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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: Ways ‘to Launch a Successful Year With Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 07, 2016 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series)

This week’s question is:

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

Though the District where I teach doesn’t begin school until September 1st, I know most other educators and students head back a lot sooner. So I’m interrupting publishing my annual series of thematic collections to share this four-part series and hope it will provide some timely help.

Usually, these “Response” posts also include a ten-minute interview with guests on the topic. I didn’t have a chance to pull that together this summer, but you can listen to my hundred previous BAM! Radio Shows here, and can count on many new ones when the fall gets rolling.

In addition to the advice contained in this year’s series, you can also read suggestions that have been previously offered by contributors to this column at Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year.

I’ve also created a related collection at Answers To “What Do You Do On The First Day Of School?”

Today’s contributors are Roxanna Elden, Dave Stuart Jr., Ekuwah Moses, Matt Wachel , Pam Allyn, and Kevin Parr.

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. This year, she created the School Year Starter Kit, a free, 3-day email series to help teachers cut through information overload and prepare for the first day of class:

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. 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 grades 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.

Response From Dave Stuart Jr.

Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) is a high school teacher who also writes and researches about literacy instruction, character strengths, and teacher flourishing. His blog is read by over 35,000 people each month, and he gives keynote speeches and workshops around the country. He believes that all students and teachers can flourish, and he hopes his work helps you toward that:

In the first month of school, my aim is to establish a beachhead from which to launch a successful year with students in which we accomplish more together than any prior year of my career. I go into the year expecting that bad or insane or tragic or frustrating things are liable to happen at any moment, and my job is to faithfully steward the people, time, and potential that I have been entrusted with. My success doesn’t depend only on the first month, but the first month does have special strategic importance.

With that said, here are the basic objectives I want to meet in the first month of school.

  • Finish a unit. In each course, I want us to complete a unit. This gives students a sense of progress and me a sense of keeping to a schedule (I’ll have the end dates for every unit set before school starts) and where each student is academically.

  • Establish the normality of each component of the Non-Freaked Out Framework. By the time a month is over, my students should see that, just like the poster at the front of my room states, “We are all about becoming better thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and people.” Toward this end, there are a few consistent practices and ways of thinking that I want my students to be familiar with (the remaining objectives).

  • Establish the routine of Think-Pair-Share. Eighty percent of the speaking my students do this year will be with a partner using Think-Pair-Share. I need to know that every time I present a question and release it to pairs, quality work is taking place. Here’s how I establish that, and here’s how I’ll occasionally modify it into the “Conversation Challenge” to keep pushing student growth.

  • Establish that their education is theirs. I’ll start the year with an index card activity that teaches purpose, both so that I can understand a bit more of what they’re after and, more importantly, so that they can understand that education is about way more than GPAs and credits -- education is about becoming the people we always hoped we’d be.

  • Establish a class vocabulary about procrastination. I haven’t done this before, but I’m excited to get the Instant Gratification Monkey labeled in the first month. Here’s how I’ll do that.

And that is the super-macro version of the first month of school for me this year, God willing.

Response From Ekuwah Moses

Ekuwah Moses is currently a Family and Community Engagement Project Facilitator in Las Vegas, Nevada and works for the Clark County School District. Previously, she served as an Instructional Coach, Literacy Specialist, Learning Strategist, and elementary classroom teacher. Moses is a published author and has presented internationally. Follow her on Twitter @ekuwah or Facebook at “Cues from Ekuwah Moses":

Challenge: Do the best you can, with what you have, where you are. A considerable investment in the process of forging long-term relationships is the best way to start a school year. Relationships with colleagues, students, parents, administration, and community are essential to ensuring student achievement.

Colleagues. As soon as grade level teams and classroom assignments are announced immediately exchange phone numbers, visit each other’s classrooms, follow each other’s professional social media accounts, and get to know each other’s strengths. Set a time to meet each week and establish a purpose for meeting. This partnership will be invaluable to saving time throughout the school year. Early relationships between teachers yield exponential benefits in planning, preparation, and problem solving.

Students. Reach out to students before school starts. This could be sending postcards or friendly letters. It could also be as personal as a phone call or home visit. These efforts will set a positive tone for the first day of school.

Once school begins, establish consistent daily routines from the first day. Use your eyes and ears to acknowledge something positive to as many students as possible throughout the day. Greet students with a smile at the door or the pick-up line. Periodically, distribute interest inventories and short surveys to get to know all of your student’s strengths and interests. Incorporate student names and interests in word problems and relevant academic tasks. Write little sticky notes of specific feedback and place them on desks or inside notebooks. Immediately start digital or paper portfolios of student-selected work, pictures, or projects that will eventually go home at the end of the year.

Resist the urge to cover your bulletin boards and walls immediately or before school starts. Simply cover the bulletin boards with solid paper and prominently display an open-ended question (“What will we create this year?”) or the subject. A black paper background is exceptional for using a silver Sharpie to sentence-stalk and curate a graffiti board. “Math is Everywhere” is another open-ended title for a board that could be co-created throughout the year. Inform concerned students, parents, or administrators that you will be co-creating a meaning-making journey with the students. Strive that everything displayed on the wall will be co-created or created by students. The environmental print is for student access and the brain seeks personal relevance.

Parents. Parents need clear, concise, and consistent communication. Introduce yourself before school starts via newsletters, postcards, or phone calls. Create a positive phone call home calendar that lists a few parents to call each day. Establish a classroom website, a social media account, and a personalized corresponding tool (like Seesaw) for projects, videos, and assignments. Voluntarily, invite parents to special “parent-child workshops” in your classroom after school. Use interest surveys to learn about special talents, careers, and hobbies that parents can support in the classroom. Set up a volunteer schedule and calendar to organize guest readers, reading buddies, chaperones, and assemblers. Plan ahead and send home requests for classroom supplies and materials. Again, call home and tell parents a positive comment. Parents need and appreciate reassurance.

Community. Make it a priority to collaborate with the community to enhance opportunities for learning and civic participation. Look for and share community events that would be academically beneficial for students. Do not overlook non-profit organizations, cultural institutions, universities, community colleges, social service agencies, healthcare organizations and others with a proven track record of success in child/family education that are willing to freely share their time and expertise in the classroom or virtually. These partnerships or donations could help offset a tight budget or use of personal funds.

This sounds exhausting, but these actions are crucial to sealing the teacher-student bond. Students perform better is classrooms where s/he feels noticed, connected, valued, and appreciated.

Response From Matt Wachel

Matt Wachel has been a kindergarten teacher, early childhood director, principal and is currently an assistant principal in the Park Hill School District in Kansas City, MO. He is co-author of the book Having an Impact on Learning and is an ASCD Emerging Leader. Connect with Matt on twitter @mattwachel:

As summer winds down and the start to school begins in a few weeks for many students and schools, starting the year on a successful note is essential for a year full of learning, memories and experiences. There are three ways educators can prepare for a successful year.

First Day

On the first day of school, don’t talk about rules. Students typically come to school the first day on their best behavior eager to see what their new teacher and room have to offer. Instead of spending hours and hours talking about ways to be safe, respectful and responsible as well as how to sharpen a pencil or where to put your folders (which are very important - just maybe not on the first day of school), inspire your students. Bring your best and most engaging lesson to the classroom on the first day. Have your students leave the school on the first day excited, eager and looking forward to day number 2! Let them leave school on the first day wanting to come back on the second day with more zeal than they had on the first day.


If the answer is seven, what could be a possible statement? 4 + 3 = 7? 12 - 5 = 7? There are seven days in the week? The possibilities are endless. How often do educators offer choice to their students? Educators should design their lessons and intentionally plan with specific learning objectives in mind; however, they should be flexible and offer students choices as to how they will demonstrate their learning. Maybe it is by writing a poem, creating a short video or building a model - students will flourish and exceed our expectations when they are given choices. Give the students the choice and let their individual personalities, passions and talents shine!


Nothing is more powerful than the relationships built between a teacher and her students and their families. Educators can spend the first week sharing with their students their own passions, interests, and learning. Take the time to learn about the students - what are their interests, concerns, hobbies, and passions. Continue the relationships beyond the first week through the Friday Five. Each Friday, make a phone call home to five families and share something truly special about their child. Through the Friday Five, educators can continue to develop and nurture relationships throughout the school year.

When you first meet someone, your opinion is generally formed about that person in the first ten seconds. Think about that. It takes only ten seconds to form an opinion of someone. How do educators make an impression in only ten seconds? The answer is making sure that those ten seconds count - in words, in body language, in a handshake, in a smile. In short, we have to think about how we present ourselves to people. Starting the year off strong will allow educators the opportunity to have a year full of success and memorable learning experiences.

Response From Pam Allyn

Pam Allyn is the Executive Director and founder of LitWorld, a global organization advocating for children’s rights as readers, writers, and learners, and the creator of “World Read Aloud Day.” . Pam is the author of many books including Your Child’s Writing Life (winner of the Mom’s Choice Award), and What To Read When: The Books and Stories To Read With Your Child-And All The Best Times To Read Them (winner of the National Parenting Magazine Award). Most recently, with Ernest Morrell Pam co-authored Every Child a Super Reader - 7 Strengths to Open a World of Possible (Scholastic):

Five Super Reader Commitments to Make the School Year Unforgettable

The time is now to make a commitment to turn every child into a “super reader,” to give them a sure way to become truly ready for the 21st century world and to experience the joy, pleasure and exaltation of an empowered reading life.

We can do this, first, by depathologizing the reading experience. We have “medicalized” reading instruction so that we are in a constant state of diagnosing children: leveling them, intervening with them, “pushing in” or “pulling out.” The language we use to describe how we teach reading can be negative for children, and our methods for instruction can feel more like treating a disease than raising readers. At LitWord, I work with children across the United States and the world, and see children yearning for a positive reading experience, longing to join the literacy “club,” and striving to become better at something they know will change their lives. The negative language of low expectations and intervention is inhibitive. It has prevented them from seeing themselves as super readers, from becoming aspirational in their reading goals, and from being bold and fearless in taking risks as readers. It has denied them a place at the reading table.

I’m recommending five commitments we can all make, as teachers, families and administrators to create a Super Reader Community Zone--a place where all children have the opportunity of a lifetime: to see reading as a fundamental, joyful part of their everyday lives.

1. Use a strength-based approach to reading instruction.

My most recent work, which culminated in Every Child a Super Reader, a book I co-authored with Dr. Ernest Morrell, focuses on creating a positive foundation to build capacity in every reader through what we call the 7 Strengths. From belonging to courage, from confidence to hope, the 7 Strengths provide an escalating framework that helps bolster a child’s authentic learning muscles. The strengths are designed to build resilience in our readers, for them to flourish in a community where their natural strengths are valued, and where they can practice taking risks as readers in a safe way. Use the 7 Strengths to build a supportive reading culture, to help children become “Reading Friends,” and to foster a community of goal-setting, where children get in the habit of saying, “I am the kind of reader who...” or, “I am becoming the kind of reader who...” Starting off the year, the 7 Strengths can build capacity in your students for the “soft” skills that will make them stronger readers each week.

2. Affirm small steps of progress.

Don’t wait until later in the year to reward and affirm reading progress. Take time each day to honor those small steps. “Today I loved how Pedro read for nine minutes; yesterday he read for seven!” Or, “I appreciate how Sarah took time today to help Janelle select a new book in the library.” Help your children discover strength-based language too, so that they can also praise each other’s small steps as readers. Post on- and off-line the strength steps your students take each day as readers, from how they build stamina to how they stretch to try new genres.

3. Every day, hold 20 minutes of Structured Independent Reading.

I can’t stress this one enough! Twenty minutes a day of Structured Independent Reading will change your kids’ lives. While we know from the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading ReportTM that one-third of children ages 6-17 (33%) say their class has a designated time during the school day to read a book of choice independently, only 17% do this every or almost every school day. Giving students opportunity to make choices about what they read and to provide them with book boxes (or a personalized file online) for their curated reading experiences helps them to see themselves as dynamic and ever-growing readers. No one should feel stuck in any one level at any time, though plenty of our students do. While I think leveling has a place for instruction, it is not a natural way to read. Every day I read above, below and at my level; and even as an adult, I am always learning how to be a stronger reader. Structured Independent Reading time helps our kids explore options across a wide variety of texts and build engagement and motivation.

4. Read aloud every day.

There are several important studies showing the many benefits of reading aloud to your students, including the development of vocabulary skills, grammatical understanding, and genuine connection to texts. It is hard to believe how rich its benefits actually are sometimes because reading aloud is so much fun. Kids should be read a wide variety of topics and genres based on their interests and passions. There are enormous benefits to reading both simpler and complex texts aloud to children. The benefits of the simpler texts include how we value the act of rereading books we love, being able to talk about the text in higher-level ways, and modeling the pure joy of reading. The benefits of reading complex texts are the immersion in advanced vocabulary and grammar, and complex ideas, and introducing children to the idea that no text should be one to fear.

5. Forge new literacy connections with families.

This is a new era for relationships as a whole. No longer should we be using Back to School Night as the main way to connect with families. Technology gives us many ways to be in touch with our kids’ families, to honor them as full partners along this journey of raising super readers. We can create weekly messages for our families, complimenting student growth as readers. We can set up class blogs and sharing sites to showcase students’ work as readers. We can invite parents to virtually experience a reading celebration, or to join a read aloud using Skype or Facebook Live. We can invite parents and caregivers to share their family stories in the same kinds of ways.

Let’s make the 5 Super Reader Commitments to make this year one we will never forget. Our children deserve it. And the time is now.

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a fourth grade teacher in Wenatchee, Washington and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:

The importance of the first days of the school year can not be understated. Teachers and students need to get to know each other, learn to work as a team and begin the year’s learning in a short amount of time. Here are a few ways teachers can accomplish this:

Let kids ease in: Teachers understand the importance of creating strong relationships with their students and therefore want to learn as much about their students as soon as possible. Although some students are eager to articulate all of their likes, dislikes, dreams and other rather personal information immediately upon entering the classroom, others are more reserved and need to establish a little trust before they do so. By giving kids a little time to feel comfortable, teachers can often get more valuable information than they would on day one. Teachers also need to keep in mind that not all summers are created equal. Asking students to write about what they did over the summer might be welcomed by those students fortunate enough to have summers filled with family vacations or camps, but disheartening for less fortunate students.

Focus on community and teamwork: Perhaps nothing is more important to student learning than feeling comfortable with their community of learners and having the skills to work with them productively. Teachers need to begin the year by modeling and practicing these skills with students. An effective way to begin is through non-academic activities like design challenges or teambuilding games. In this way students can focus on the necessary collaboration, communication and decision-making skills without worrying about additional complicated academic skills.

Start with a Bang: Students come to school every fall excited for a new year. Our job as teachers is to harness and build upon that excitement; not ruin it. Instead of filling the first weeks with administrative tasks and pre-assessments, it is important we get students involved in a meaningful, real-world project as early as possible. To truly set the tone for the year we need to show students the type of thinking, learning, assessing and reflecting they will be doing throughout the year. It is much easier to build pre-assessments and administrative tasks into an engaging project than it is to make those tasks engaging.

Thanks to Roxanna, Dave, Ekuwah, Matt, Pam and Kevin 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.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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