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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

Want to Start the Year off Right? Teachers Share Their Best Tips

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 02, 2023 12 min read
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Here’s the final post in a three-part series on starting off a new school year.

Good luck to us all!

A ‘Class Contract’

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education and reading teacher in Connecticut with more than 20 years of experience in education. She shares her passion and love for working in the classroom at her blog from Room A212 (www.annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:

After more than 20 times beginning the school year, I have experimented with many ways to use the first two weeks. At this point, I have my start-of-the-school-year activities down to a time-tested list. However, I am open to reevaluating and reflecting on this list.

The first few weeks back provide a valuable opportunity to hear new ideas from my colleagues I can use to tweak, add, or change my start-of-the-year activities so they best address my goals. The key goals during this time period are for students to get to know me and what kind of teacher I am, for me to get to know them, for them to get to know each other, and throughout all of these activities, for me to assess their reading, writing, executive function, and attention skills so I can start planning lessons for the year.

To help my new students get to know me, I share a Google Slides presentation that highlights things about myself, my summer, and my family, which I hope gives them an introduction to me as a person. I sometimes follow this up with a Kahoot or Blooket game I have made about the Slides presentation to switch gears, gauge their preference for these platforms, and assess their skill level with technology. We discuss what we want the class to be like, the characteristics of great classes we have had before, what we need to do to create that kind of class, and what the consequences are if members do not follow these expectations. Our answers to these questions are used to create a class contract.

A written copy of the contract is printed, posted, and used through the year as a visual reminder of our promises to each other. My hope is that this lesson gives students a sense of my approach to the class, that I value their ideas and my desire to give students a voice in the classroom.

Another way I show students I value their experience and let them know what kind of teacher I am is spending class time going over our classroom environment—such as where they can find lined paper, pencil sharpeners, and other supplies—so they feel a part of this new space. I like to make them feel comfortable in the classroom and help them settle into common procedures, such as trips to the water fountain and borrowing pencils.

To help me start to know my students, early on I assign an autobiographical poem in which they list their likes, dislikes, and significant people in their lives. It gives me a chance to assess their use of various Google applications and their level of independence in completing an assignment. Another way to get to know them is through written questionnaires about what they do in their free time to how they feel about school. At the same time, I assess their ability to write in complete sentences and their vocabulary skills.

To help the students get to know each other, I give plenty of class time for icebreakers and games that give us a chance to readjust to being in school again after the summer. These activities are chosen to be low stakes in terms of academic challenge, which gives the students less reason to resist, avoid, or show learned helplessness. I also contact parents right away to introduce myself, listen to any of their concerns or questions, and open the lines of communication for the year ahead.

Together, these activities help me get the year off to a good start. I find that, as the year goes on, the choices made during these early weeks have a significant impact on the quality of my instruction and the rapport I develop with my students. My hope is to build the capital needed in this time to make the rest of the year successful.


‘The Danger of a Single Story’

Kelsey Pycior is a history teacher at Manville High School in New Jersey. She spends her free time with her daughter and husband, entertaining them with Disney World and Hershey trivia:

In the first two weeks of the school year of U.S. History 2, I focus on building rapport with my students. We spend the first day of school going over who I am and learning about our classroom. Students contribute to our class expectations for the year, which allows them ownership of the space and accountability for their actions.

I then have students practice submitting an assignment to Canvas (our online classroom); they complete a survey in which they tell me who they are and ask me questions about myself. The content of this conversation stays private and acts as a springboard for developing our student-teacher relationship, which is a vital part of facilitating learning.

We follow it up with introductory lessons to our content and watching and discussing the Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” which helps us recognize our own biases and publishers’ biases as we dissect our historical content for the year.


‘Building Rapport’

Kyle Lawrence is a middle school teacher and student-activities director in Memphis, Tenn. He has been teaching for 15 years:

Building a positive learning culture and rapport with my students are my primary goals the first two weeks of the school year. I send out postcards to my students in the middle of summer letting them now how excited I am to have them in class. This way, when the school year starts, I can set expectations and boundaries appropriately because they know I value their presence in my classroom.

One of the key activities I do the first two weeks of the school year is to create a “class charter” with my class. The students create and sign this charter, and we hang it in my classroom for all to see. This allows the students to feel empowered and like they were a part of the process. When I have to refer to the charter, they feel a sense of pride knowing they came up with them.

I also utilize the Facing History and Ourselves identity and community unit. As a social studies teacher, it is important to me for my students to have a sense of pride in their identity and who they are but also understand that they have a vital role as an individual in the community that is created by our classroom. We watch videos about building community from the movies “Remember the Titans,” “Wonder,” and “The Ron Clark Story.” We discuss the clips from these movies and how we can apply them to our classroom.

We also spend time creating bio poems that I will post throughout the room. The poems have a place for students to say “My name is Blank, not Blank.” This is especially important in my very diverse school because we have names that are easily mispronounced and could lead to students feeling like they don’t belong because of this. Students then do a Gallery Walk and can see each other’s bio poems.

The last thing I establish is routine. In my classes, I put a sailor’s hat on, and we also start with History Fact of the Day, then I put a cheesehead on, and we have a “Cheesey Dad Joke of the Day” before we begin the academic portion. This gives the students something to look forward to, and they do not want to miss it. They make sure they are in class on time to hear these. This is a silly but fun way for the students and I to connect but also for them to see that I care deeply about the social and emotional side of their well-being as well.

The first two weeks of school are so incredibly important as it pertains to creating boundaries, community, and setting expectations for both how we are going to behave in a classroom and also how we are going to treat each other in and out of the classroom. Building rapport and community allows for me to challenge the students academically and help them grow in every capacity.


‘Identity Portraits’

Mike Kaechele is a middle school teacher and PBL/SEL consultant who believes in student-centered learning that gives kids authentic opportunities to do real work with local community partners. His recent book, Pulse of PBL: Cultivating Equity Through Social Emotional Learning, demonstrates how to develop ALL students’ SEL skills through a PBL framework:

Every teacher begins the year building classroom culture and routines. As a project- based learning teacher I focus on establishing a combination of collaborative skills and social-emotional-learning competencies.

On the first day of class, students are wondering two things: “What is this teacher like?” and “What is this class like?” Therefore, I avoid the boring activity of going over a syllabus and model the interactive nature of my PBL classroom. So, my first day is dedicated to a team-building activity. I like to use the 5 Square Puzzle because this silent challenge demonstrates how difficult it is to work together without communication, but any team challenge works well. [A side benefit of the 5 Square Puzzle is that I learn about some of my students’ personalities: Who jumps in and takes over? (leaders) Who loses focus quickly? Who sits back and analyzes? (philosophers).]

Team-building activities are not just for fun and getting to know one another. A post- activity debrief is critical. I lead a whole-group discussion focused on collaboration and how difficult that is without communicating. Next, I display a slide of the CASEL competencies. I ask students to silently reflect on which skills they needed to be successful in the 5 Square Puzzle. We then discuss how SEL skills are central to any well-functioning team. From day one, my students are practicing and reflecting on SEL skills.

Later, when we start our first PBL project, I can refer back to this activity when a group is struggling to be productive. I remind them, “Remember with the 5 Square Puzzle how hard it was without talking? I think your group needs to pause and discuss your next steps right now. Would you like me to help facilitate that?” My goal is for students to take ownership of their groups and eventually solve group disagreements themselves.

The second thing that I do is to introduce students to the PBL framework and some of its processes with mini-projects. I take anything that students need to learn and turn it into a one-hour project. For example, we use Google Docs, so I launch with a driving question of “How do we share using GDocs?” and spend 2-3 minutes generating need-to-know questions from students. I don’t explain how to do anything but give students about 40 minutes to complete the bullet points. Students help each other, and I coach as needed. We end the hour with 30 seconds of sharing their documents. This models the PBL processes of inquiry to create a final product that we will use throughout my class.

Another focus at the beginning of the year is getting to know my students and building community with each other. I do this through identity work. I like to use Shana V. White’s Identity Portraits activity to have each child reflect on who they are and then share with each other important aspects of their identity.

Next, I place students in random triads, and they share a story about how one of their identity factors forms who they are today. It is important to be clear to students what parts of this will be public vs. confidential so that they only share what they are comfortable with others knowing. Identity work is part of the SEL competencies of self-awareness and social-awareness as students reflect on themselves and learn about each other. I have found that this leads to close connections as students find similarities even with those that they may originally assume to be different.

By team-building exercises and modeling PBL, my students are introduced to the structure and procedures of my class. Through identity work and practicing SEL skills, I establish a community of respect and growing together.


The new question of the week is:

What do you do in your classes during the first two weeks of the school year?

In Part One, Renee Jones, Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona, and Marie Moreno shared their ideas.

In Part Two, Leah Porter, Chandra Shaw, and Lauren Merkley added their suggestions.

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.

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

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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.


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