Professional Learning

Tee Up the New School Year with Tips from Connected Educators

August 15, 2012
Photo Credit: foxypar4 on flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Educators who appreciate the value of professional networks have a keen understanding of the old adage, "The wisdom is in the room." For this growing community, "room" means any space -- virtual or physical -- where colleagues connect, exchange insights, and push each other's thinking.

Connected Educator Month, continuing through August, shines a spotlight on spaces where teachers and school leaders are collaborating online. Not surprisingly, there's a wealth of wisdom emanating from these "rooms." Here are a few nuggets that are especially timely for teachers and school leaders preparing for the new school year.

First Six Weeks

As part of Connected Educator Month kickoff events, I had the pleasure of taking part in an online panel discussion about "Connected Education and the First Six Weeks," moderated by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (@snbeach on Twitter).

As participant Susan Curtis (@rsbcurtis) pointed out, the new year prompts us to look back as well as forward. Students may come to school with new backpacks, but they carry memories of previous years. So do teachers.

Panelists and participants shared insights to help teachers, principals, students, and parents capitalize on the fresh start that the new year offers. As Nancy Flanagan (@nancyflanagan) wisely pointed out, a lot of preparation goes into a successful start to the new year. "Day 1 of school is actually Day 80 of planning."

My favorite suggestions focused on three themes: place, purpose, and parents. (Connected Ed tip: Twitter names are included to give you some new colleagues to follow.)


When Jackie Gerstein (@jackiegerstein) was teaching sixth grade, she didn't bother decorating her classroom prior to the first day. Instead, students arrived to find blank bulletin boards and furniture piled in the middle of the room. Their first assignment: Working in small teams, come up with a blueprint for how they'd like to see the room arranged. Teams presented their designs to the rest of the class and then voted on their favorite, which they put into action to set up the classroom. Gerstein calls this activity "Roomination." It's a smart idea for many reasons. Students get to know one another right away by collaborating in small teams. They're active, not passive, from day one. And they discover that their ideas will matter in this classroom. (Find more good ideas for starting the year on Gerstein's blog.

What do you call your classroom? Peter Skillen (@peterskillen) suggested naming the space where you and your students gather to learn. His classroom "brand" is The Construction Zone, which emphasizes the necessity of constructing your own learning and being in "the zone" to learn. He explains more on his blog.

His comment inspired more teachers to share their classroom names: The Brainwaves, The Band Room-Your Home Away From Home, and Collaborative Class, to mention a few.

As an icebreaker activity with a powerful purpose, consider inviting your students to "brand" the classroom with a name that they select.


Giving your classroom a name is just one small step toward establishing a shared purpose and becoming a community of learners.

What's the purpose of your classroom? Terry Smith (@smithtk) suggested thinking of the classroom as both "studio and workshop," where students are makers and doers. "It's also the teacher's laboratory to try out new techniques, evaluate, try more."

A positive classroom culture contributes to purposeful learning, and the first weeks of school are the ideal time to "invest" in culture building. That was the seasoned advice of Brian Crosby (@bcrosby), who promises that the investment will pay off for months to come. As Brenda Sherry (@brendasherry) put it, "Go slow at first in order to move fast later." Jane Krauss (@jkrauss) suggested making one small change in your teaching practice early in the year to improve your classroom culture: Listen more, talk less.

Morning Meeting is a daily routine that gives students more voice in the classroom and also fosters strong relationships. Participants recommended this practice for all ages, from primary grades through high school. To learn more, check resources from Responsive Classroom.

School leaders should capitalize on the first weeks of school, too, suggested Bill Carozza (@wcarozza). "I think principals have more political capital in the first six weeks . . . everyone is fresh and looking for vision." For more ideas, read his recent post "15 Tips for the New Principal" on Principal Lyn Hilt (@lynhilt), who has embraced being a connected school leader, added a thoughtful caution not to neglect face-to-face relationships while making the most of online networks. One of her secrets to building a positive culture costs nothing but pays huge dividends: Smile, and remember why you enjoy coming to school every day. Check out her blog, The Principal's Posts, for more good ideas.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (@snbeach) suggested that the connected teacher-leader's role should include being a journalist as well as an educator. "Blog, share what is working in your classroom transparently."


How might you connect with parents early in the school year?

Instead of traditional back-to-school events, think about hosting "connected parents" events where parents can learn about social media tools that will help them engage with their child's learning. Once they're comfortable using Web 2.0 tools, they can take part in regular events like Parent Teacher Chat (#ptchat on Twitter) or connect with their children's learning via class blogs.

For more ideas about connecting with parents, including information about #ptchat, check out online resources from Joe Mazza (@joe_mazza).

Like many online events, our group discussion about the first six weeks of school came to an end too quickly. Not to worry -- the good talk is continuing at The First Six Weeks Forum. Join the dialogue there and share your own insights about getting the new year off to a good start.

Keep Connecting

Connected Educator Month activities continue through August, including the Learning 2.0 virtual conference from August 20-24.

How are you taking advantage of online and face-to-face connections as you head into the new school year? Please share your suggestions and good ideas in the comments.

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