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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Start the Year Off Right: Ideas for Creating a Happy Classroom

My two favorite times of the academic year are the beginning and the ending, and one of the best things about working in education is that we get all summer to recharge. As I gear up to start a new school year, I've been thinking quite a bit about beginnings.

Dennis Potthoff, a colleague of mine, created the following list for teachers to refer to when beginning the new school year:

  • Before the year starts, get ideas for your curriculum by reviewing lessons from past terms.
  • Establish classroom norms, expectations, and procedures.
  • When the year starts, just jump right into the curriculum.
  • Motivate and excite students -- "sell" the class, the curriculum, and the teacher.
  • Work on relationship building (student-to-teacher and/or student-to-student).
  • Preassess your students to gauge their current knowledge, skills, or dispositions.

In the past, I've followed the second, third, and fourth ideas by discussing with the class my goals for the year, sharing my enthusiasm with the students to pique their interest, and jumping into the lessons and activities for the term.

As I share Potthoff's list with you now, I wonder how these ideas sound from the students' viewpoint. For example, would students prefer to work more on relationship building and the reviewing of previous class material? Would additional preassessments help me understand more about where my students stand in the learning process?

What do you think of these ideas? Which ideas would you use, and why? Do you have other ideas to add to this list? I'd like to hear from you!

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Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the fact that it is so wonderful to have the summer to recharge and get ready for the new year! I love the anticipation that builds up inside me before each new year begins. I get so excited for the first day of school, I can't sleep the whole week before. I have too many ideas running through my head that I am excited to try out.

I also agree with you, Stacey, when you say that we are like a family. My class and I always have such a wonderful relationship by the end of the year that I cry to see them go. We become so close and have so many memories together.

Granted, I teach first grade and so that might not be the case for older students who do not always share their sentiments with their teachers. I count my lucky stars each night to have had the opportunity to share in the lives of these young minds. After all, who knows? These kids you spend everyday with might grow up to become presidents, preachers, teachers, or other very important and influential people. How lucky we are!!!

AH's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that your rules are an excellent beginning to the new school year! These things have to be done in the beginning, so that the whole year is not a mess to untangle. Doing these things right from the start enables your year to run very smoothly.

When reviewing lessons from past terms to create curriculum for the present, I would be careful! While it is a great idea to look back and see what worked, you should be careful not to follow the exact lesson plan. I believe that as teachers, we have to recreate lessons year after year. Education is always changing and while one lesson might work for one class, it might not work for another!

Establishing classroom norms, rules, and procedures can make or break your classroom! This is something I hope every teacher does at the beginning of the year. From my experiences, I think you need at least one week to practice these rules and procedures. The children need to be told what these rules are, why they are there, and how they are done. I think that each rule should be taught and acted out in front of the class. This is a good way to get the children to work together at the beginning of the year. I have heard that letting the children establish the rules is a good way to let them know they are an important part of the classroom. I would like to hear your experiences with this! Is this a positive or negative way to introduce rules and procedures in the classroom?

I am not sure I agree with jumping right into the curriculum on the first day. I can see this more with middle or high school aged children, but not with elementary students. They need to know how to act in the classroom community first, and this takes about a week to establish. With elementary children, maybe you could integrate just a few lessons each day of the week. That way, you would be establishing rules and procedures, but you would also be showing them that school is still important!

Motivating and exciting students is definitely a way to keep the students' attention! Making lessons exciting is very important to a student's success. Sometimes, I can understand when my students are bored about something that is not very exhilarating. So, I use an interesting story, picture, or prop to show them that what I am talking about really is important and something they need to know!

Teacher-student relationships are crucial to student success! If a student does not like you, it will be harder for him/her to learn. Even worse, they may not want to learn. You need to let them know that you like them and care about what they learn. You have got to smile and care for them! Teach them not only facts, but about yourself as well!

You have put up a great blog that really got me thinking! Each of these components shows that you really know how to set up a classroom!

Andrea Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a wonderful article because I think that you as the teacher need to have this as priority on your list. Your attitude in the beginning of the school year determines how your year may possibly be for you. The relationship with your students does need to be set from the start. The expectations have to laid out for them. I think that the expectations, classroom rules, and the preassessing of your students is very important. By doing the preassessment will give you a picture of each of your students and provide you a tool that will assist in your initial instructional process. I do think your list is essential because all of the mention items are needed for a successful school year. I do involve my students in the making of the classroom rules. To some extent I may involve them in unfinished decorating of the classroom. I get them to understand that the classroom is ours and their opinions do matter.

This is my first time blogging and I am enjoying this method of communication. This is a wonderful tool for communication, sharing and strategizing between teachers. Looking forward to future blogging.

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This list sounds great so far. I have found out that the number one thing that either gets students right from the start or doesn't is the relationship you have with them. I have found learning their names is huge to them and makes them feel so much more comfortable in the classroom. If I remember right, it is pretty scary walking into a brand new classroom. One way that helps me with their names is labeling all their books, notebooks, and workbooks previously. I hand out each pile of books, such as all the math books, by calling out each child's name. This way I am putting a face with the name over and over. This is very time consuming, but there is nothing more important to a student, than their relationship with their teacher. Rules and procedures also need to established from day one. This way they get away from that summer free-lance and into procedures right away, the sooner the better. I have found it to work and not work with the rules being a democratic process. I think it really all depends on the students you have and the age group. If they are younger you can suggest a list and then discuss them and have them discuss as a group what they think is the most important, what they would like to change, etc.
I am not sure about jumping right into the curriculum on the first day. You can do so many other academic things on the first day, but you don't necessarily have to jump into the book work. One activity that the students really like to enjoy is reading from the library. I have found the library in the classroom is one place they are so eager to explore. They really like the new books in the room and really like to get started reading them. Another academic thing they find fun and exciting is playing a math game. Review the math activities from the previous year by playing a game with them. I feel you should touch on the reading and math subject at some point throughout the day, especially in elementary school.
Lastly, the students are really eager to learn about you. As you are also very eager to learn about your new students. Give some time for open discussion between you and the students. I have found this also to be very helpful with the students who are new to the school.

Hopefully this information will help everyone in their many more years to come.

mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kelly, I tend to agree with you and the others who express uncertainty about jumping right into the curriculum. I am a French as a Second Language teacher, (grades 4-8), and in addition I teach Music, Drama, Dance and Visual Arts in the Primary Division, daily. Although we have a fairly rigorous curriculum to get up and running, and first term reports go out the beginning of December, I prefer to spend the first day (40 minutes per class) finding out about the best/worst of their summers. I think it is important to have each child speak, so I would go around the class for this. If they seem to have forgotten how to behave, I remind them, and that would be where the rules begin, but they're usually great. I would also meet any new students. For the intermediate grades, I have begun using a 'reflective learning journal'. The first work I would assign, to be written in English, would be "Outline your personal goals for this new school year. Include grades you plan to achieve, teams you hope to make, and accomplishments in and out of school."
Although I read with dismay that some of you are expected to pre-test, I prefer to review first to activate their memory and confidence. I am a little concerned that results from pre-tests without some review would create false 'lows', and as a result, inflated 'improvement' stats.
In addition, I think I would design my teaching strategies keeping in mind their strengths and areas of weakness, which would become evident in the review activities.
In a way you could argue that this is jumping into the curriculum, as it is curriculum focused, but it is not the new curriculum, not yet.

Janine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is important to build a sense of community in your classroom from the very first day. I have found, that when I bring my students together from the beginning, we learn and grow together as the year progresses. We become a "family", and as such, we support one another through our successes and failures. Toegether, we sink or we swim, depending on how we work as a team. This process helps to motivate the students and sets up expectations and routines. This is why I include many climate building activities in my lesson plans for the first few weeks of school. Along with this, I jump right into the curriculum, because the studnets are ready to start learning - if you bore them with "fluff" at the start, you will lose their interest. All this, and assessing their current academic ability levels, makes for a very busy, but productive start to the school year.

Katherine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kudos to you for teaching your students how to interact well with each other like a functioning family. I teach a small special education class in Memphis and circle/morning meeting on a daily basis and celebration/culminating activities at the end of each week helps us to remember to respect each other. We try to deal with conflict rationally and praise each other for accomplishments like a family should. Thanks for your insights.

tony burcham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my e-mail address.Write me if you know me cause im not sure if this is Corinth(Kossuth) Rhonda. If it is be nice and just send me something. Kinda like to catch up a little. If this is not who im lookin for you can SHUU UPP

Jessica's picture

I agree with those who don't recommend jumping right into the curriculum. Especially with young students (I have first graders), the first days of school are a crucial time to work on learning norms, routines and procedures and developing relationships with the teacher and their classmates.In fact, there are actually some curriculum writers who have taken this into account (such as the Investigations authors) and they actually build in time at the beginning of the school year to develop norms and procedures in class. When those things are established, the assessments and the presentation of the curriculum runs much more smoothly.

Katina Bitlloch's picture
Katina Bitlloch
6th grade EFL teacher , Durazno, Uruguay

Thank you for your ideas! I quite agree with them all, even with your "jump" into the syllabus. I'm about to start school from scratch because the school starts this year... I don't want not to take advantage of being in the process of creating the school... I appreciate your comments...

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