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Four Things to Visualize as You Set Up Your Classroom for the First Day of School

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It’s been 17 years since I started teaching, and I still get anxious before the first day of school. Every year I have the same dreaded dream: I thought I had another week before the kids come, and then they unexpectedly show up. I’m unloading cardboard boxes and wiping the grime from stacked desks, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, when 25 seven-year-olds march in with their bright backpacks and shy smiles, ready for their first day of 2nd grade. I experience pure terror. Barbarians at the gate!

In the dream, I always mask my dread with a frozen grin. Inside, I’m dying. I gather the kids at the rug, where I improvise a halting, rambling introduction to my class. Then I have them go get a book to read, wondering how I can possibly fill the six unplanned hours ahead.

I don’t think that dream will ever go away. Neither will the nervousness. The only cure I know for transforming that crippling anxiety into growing excitement is the annual ritual we all perform: getting the classroom ready for the kids’ arrival. So for any of you who, like me, would rather face the arrows of Genghis Khan’s galloping horde than a new class of unknown children, I offer this shard of wisdom on setting up your classroom: Visualize.

I realize that might sound cryptic, but hear me out. The mistakes I make when setting up my classroom are the same mistakes I make when planning my first day: I completely forget the messy, chaotic, physical reality of the 25 seven-year-olds who will inhabit that space.

The week before they arrive, they’re abstract. That’s part of what makes them so scary—I don’t know them yet. I imagine them like little blank-faced mannequins, hands neatly folded on their desks. I forget the chaos they can wreak just by being their glorious little selves. I forget how much stuff they bring, way beyond the parameters of the supply list—favorite action figures and well-worn stuffed animals, giant pencils the size of billy clubs, Trapper Keepers in neon animal-print designs that I thought died out in the 1980s along with perms and Ms. Pac-Man.

Here are four things I try to visualize to make sure I get the room right, from the perspective of those unknown children whom I’ll love deeply by October but don’t know at all right now.

1. Movement

Is there room at the rug area for all 25 kids to stand in a circle? Are there clear paths for the kids to stampede from their desks to the door when it’s time for a bathroom break, lunch, or P.E.? Once they’re seated, will there be room for them to back up their chair and stand up without slamming the kid behind them or getting their fingers pinched between the plastic seats?

Most of my students have spent way too much time in front of screens all summer, but they have also gotten used to the freedom of motion: riding their scooters, swimming in the pool, chasing each other with squirt guns or water balloons. They have forgotten how to sit still for any length of time, so that first day and week, they’ll need to move around a lot with songs with motions, “get to know you” mixers where they mingle like adults at a cocktail party, and lots of transitions from their desks to the rug and back again.

Visualize all your students in motion in your own classroom. Visualize the paths they’ll take during transitions, or walk them yourself.

Make sure they have enough room to move.

2. Materials

How easily will your students be able to access whatever materials they need that first week? Will all the kids in a table group be able to reach what they need without belly-flopping across the desks or squabbling like seagulls fighting for the last Cheeto in the bag? If the materials they’ll need will be closed away in the pencil box in their desk, visualize a desk that looks like the apartment of a hoarder. When the kids clean out their desks each month, I’m always amazed at how many crumpled papers, splintered crayons, and squashed juice boxes they have somehow managed to accumulate in that time.

Go ahead and admire the neat, aesthetically pleasing assortment of markers and glue bottles you have prepared at each table like a floral arrangement, but visualize eight hands grabbing for it at the same time, too. Let yourself imagine what that supply tub will look like after 30 hours of hard use that first week. Don’t underestimate the capacity for disorder residing in 25 children and their 250 fingers.

Look at everything from your tubs of math manipulatives to the books in your class library from the kids’ perspective—will they be able to reach everything? Will the table captains or supply monitors be able to pass out what the groups need without too much sitting around and waiting?

Make sure your kids have the stuff they need for the day in easy reach.

3. The Walls

Visualize what the walls will look like at the end of the first day and week of school. They should be covered with student work.

That work doesn’t have to be elaborate or polished. Kids can draw pictures of their families, or the most fun thing they did this summer, with crayons or colored pencils. When they come back from lunch, have those drawings taped up on the wall. It sends the immediate message that their work matters and the classroom belongs to them, too.

The first day of school, after I read Where The Wild Things Are to my 2nd graders, they make their own Wild Things by cutting and gluing construction paper, and I put them up on the wall the moment the glue is dry. As the weeks go by, plenty of student writing and math will begin to grace the walls, too, but that takes some proofreading. There’s no way to mess up a Wild Thing—the crazier they look, the better.

Make sure to balance all the teacher-made anchor charts and commercially produced posters with some authentic student work, straight from the children’s hands and minds to your classroom walls.

4. The Books

Visualize your students’ faces. Look beyond those faces to their experiences, their memories, their culture, and the language they speak at home. Now look at the books in your class library. Will the children you teach see themselves reflected in those books?

Do you have enough books featuring children of color—not just as a sidekick, but the protagonist? (The picture book Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña is a great one.) Do you have enough books where girls are the heroines of the story? (I love the four Get Ready for Gabí chapter books by Marisa Montes.)

Do you have some books about children living in poverty (like Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting), about lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender children and families (George by Alex Gino or Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman), or how hard it is to learn English (Marianthe’s Story by Aliki)?

Literature can be a window—even if all your students are white, they need books about children who are different from them. But it should also be a mirror. As William Nicholson said, "We read to know we are not alone."

Make sure your students can see themselves in your class library.

The Only Way Out Is Through

For me, those first-day jitters will probably never go away. Around this overwhelming time of year, I fall back on a familiar mantra: The only way out is through.

Through the work of getting our classroom ready. Through the hours that will carry us like a river’s rapid current beyond that first day of school and the dread that often precedes it. Across the anxiety and into the euphoria waiting on the other side, once we meet the individual students who will shape our days this year. Very soon, we will begin to know and love them, starting the moment they meet our gaze and their faces light up with smiles of joy and relief.

Until then, bring some good music and a roll of paper towels to your unfinished classroom, take a deep calming breath, and visualize. I’ll be doing the same.

Photos provided by the author.

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