The First Weeks of School: The Beginning of the Story Your Students Will Tell
By Mike Anderson
Tell a story that you would want your students to tell about your class at the end of the year.
This compelling challenge was posed by Bena Kallick on a recent video interview I had with her and Allison Zmuda. She challenges teachers to take on this thought experiment during the summer to help prepare for the coming year.
What’s so powerful about this challenge is that it sharpens our focus as we head back to school. It lends a sense of purpose and urgency to everything we do. Even seemingly mundane tasks such as teaching routines or deciding how to refer to our students can be part of the beginning of this story.
I thought I’d play around with this challenge myself a bit and consider some key elements of the story that I would want my students to tell. Then I considered how I might help get that story going during the first weeks of school. Here are a few thoughts that came to mind.
A Community of Learners
All students look for connection. They want to feel a sense of belonging with others—both teachers and classmates. My first few years teaching, I knew the importance of building a positive sense of community in my classroom, but I often tried to get there by playing lots of ice-breaker activities and goofy games. While those can be okay, they usually don’t have much to do with academics, and since we’re going to spend the year learning together, I eventually realized that I needed to build a community of learners. This means that much of our community-building time needs to happen as a part of academic work—not instead of it. Here are a few examples…
• In reading, have students share about their favorite authors, genres, and books. Play games that help kids make connections as readers. For example, pull names out of a hat to get students into random groups and then see how many commonalities kids can find with each other about their reading preferences.
• Create a bulletin board of students instead of content. Have students each get a designated spot on a class display where they share things like their favorite subjects in school or their academic strengths and talents.
• In writing, begin the year with personal story-telling. Whether it’s a full unit on personal narrative, autobiography, poetry, or blogging, make the initial focus about helping students get to know each other’s stories.
• Share academic goals. In a high school class, you might have students share with each other about why they signed up for a class or what they hope to learn during the semester or year.
When your students look at themselves in the mirror, what do you want them to see? How do you want them to feel about themselves? Students’ motivations and behaviors are shaped, in large part, by their sense of identity. One of my primary goals early in the year is to help students begin to see themselves in ways that will enhance their ability to learn for the rest of the year.
• Identify the qualities you hope students feel about themselves. Then help them get there. Do you want your students to feel successful? Have them share about successes from the previous year. Do you want them to feel independence in the classroom? Teach and help them practice the routines of the room, so they can navigate the learning environment well. Do you want them, to feel welcomed and loved? Greet them with a genuine smile and take time to get to know them.
• Consider how you name your class. How often each day do you get the attention of the class? (“Okay, everyone, it’s time to transition to math.”) It may be dozens of times, and each one of these is an opportunity to help shape students’ individual and collective identities. While sometimes generic naming is appropriate (everyone, class, students, etc.), there are many times you can name them in ways that reinforce how you want them to feel. You might try calling students “mathematicians”, “musicians”, “learners”, or other positive descriptors. There are also some you might avoid. “Boys and girls” reinforces gender unnecessarily, and though often used with younger children, names like “kiddos”, “little ducks”, and “cuties” may feel demeaning to some and certainly don’t reinforce a sense of independence, strength, and maturity. (For more about this topic, check out Chapter 4 of What We Say and How We Say It Matter.)
Though they likely wouldn’t use the word themselves—I want students to feel a sense of co-creation. By the end of the year, I want students to have had a major role in shaping their learning experience. In the first weeks of school, this begins right away but slowly.
• Don’t give much choice at first. When students arrive on the first morning, I have name tags waiting for them at seats so they don’t have to worry about where to sit. There are hardly any supplies available at first. This keeps options limited, which feels safe. Give choices about books to read, but don’t open the whole class library at once. Begin slowly so as not to overwhelm.
• Introduce choice slowly. Increase the number and complexity of choices as students are ready. Later in the year, you’ll get to richer and more complex differentiation and personalization. Early on, give students choices about using markers or colored pencils to create name tags. Or, they might choose the kind of paper to use when drafting their first pieces of writing. Even this small amount of choice offers students some autonomy and power. Importantly, we also need to go beyond simply giving students choices. We need to teach them how to choose well.
• Begin talking about co-creation right away. “Pretty soon, we’re going to start creating our rules for the year….” “We’re going to do some really cool research this year, and you’re going to get lots of choices about what you learn and how you learn.” Sprinkle in previews of how students will have voice and choice early and often.
• Ask for input on some routines. While some routines are straightforward and can simply be modeled, others might offer the chance to ask for students’ input. “When we line up as a class, where should our line go?” you might ask. “What do you think would be better—to head back straight through the class or to hug the side of the room?” Now, instead of routines feeling like logistics you just have to get through, they can be opportunities to help students learn that their voices matter.
• Co-create rules/norms. Begin by asking students about their hopes and goals for the year. What do they want to learn? How do they want the class to feel? Next, have students generate ideas for rules or class norms that will help everyone reach for those goals. Take the long list generated by students and narrow them down to a few. By having students co-create the rules of the room, you allow them to become emotionally invested in the climate and culture you’re all trying to create.
“It’s My Daily Mood that Makes the Weather.”
Perhaps you have seen this powerful quote by Haim Ginott: “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”
We must keep in mind that the emotional energy we bring to the classroom, especially in the first few weeks of school, has a powerful impact on how students feel. Are you grumpy about having an unusually large class this year? Make sure you don’t let little comments slide out about it. Are you still a bit groggy from the summer? Pretend to have the energy you don’t yet have–fake it ’til you become it. Keep your demeanor positive and cheerful. Remember that we’re the one who sets the tone for the class!
Mike Anderson has been an educator for more than 25 years. A public school teacher for 15 years, he has also taught preschool, coached swim teams, and taught university graduate level classes. He now works as a consultant providing professional learning for teachers throughout the US and beyond. In 2004, Mike was awarded a national Milken Educator Award, and in 2005 he was a finalist for NH Teacher of the Year. In 2020, he was awarded the Outstanding Educational Leader Award by NHASCD for his work as a consultant. A best-selling author, Mike has written eight books about great teaching and learning. When not working, Mike can be found hanging with his family, tending his perennial gardens, and searching for new running routes around his home in Durham, NH. This blog post was originally published on Mike’s website, https://leadinggreatlearning.com/