The first week of school is a hectic one. No one is quite used to the new routine, everyone is still half in summer mode, and you’re busy trying to welcome and connect with a whole new group of students. There’s a lot of advice out there on those first few days, and people hold quite a few philosophical or practical approaches. With the second week of school underway, I’d like to share what I do in the beginning of a new school year. I’ve brought in new activities over the years, and have modified my approach to align with my evolving beliefs about education, students, and creating a classroom culture. I firmly believe that our community of educators is overflowing with phenomenal ideas and have certainly made use of them, especially in those first few days. Many of the things I do are ones I’ve heard about from other teachers, and have adapted them to fit in my own classroom.
The big questions
The first thing I do with my sixth graders is answer some very important questions; the ones I know are on all of their minds. In my district, sixth grade is the first year of middle school, so it’s an unfamiliar environment and students have quite the adjustment coming in from elementary school. So I start off by addressing their concerns in the form of these questions:
- When can I go the bathroom? (Anytime, just sign out & grab the pass. No pass means wait until it’s back)
- When is lunch? (7th period, always. Time might change, but class period won’t!)
They’re simple really, but I know all the kids are concerned about it. They’ve come to a completely new building, with brand new teachers, and are still figuring out just how everything works. By acknowledging these questions and answering them, I alleviate a little bit of the anxiety they’re having about the new everything, and open the door for further questions they might have. We spend time discussing the things on their mind, and we’ve already begun building a classroom culture of support and respect.
Many classrooms have expectations for students, mine included, but before I ever get to those I do an expectations activity… for myself. I write on the board “Great teachers…” and then I have 3 categories:
- Do not
- Are not
As a class, we fill out each section and effectively set the expectations for how I can be a great teacher for my kids. We talk about the positive components, the things I can do to help them learn and grow in my classroom. But we also talk about things to avoid, which can be a huge vulnerability—for myself and for them. When they share a negative, it’s usually because they have an experience with that. Some students will share it, freely. This provides me with a window into their educational past, and lets me see some of the fears my students have about me, my class, or teachers in general. It also gives me a place to develop connections with my students. When they share about a negative experience they’ve had, I can chime in with a similar one of my own if there is one.
I love doing this with my kids. It sets the tone for the year, right up front, and really demonstrates to them why I am there. It cultivates the culture of holding ourselves accountable for our actions, and setting expectations in a legitimate way. By the time we get around to expectations for them, they have ideas and are ready to discuss how our classroom should look.
One of the biggest sources of anxiety for my students is the fact that they go from 1 or 2 elementary school classrooms to 6 or 7 different teachers, all with different classroom set-ups. That’s a lot to navigate, and a lot of people’s preferences to remember. Not to mention, keeping track of where I get supplies I may not have or ones I’ve forgotten in a bunch of different classrooms.
So, I do a classroom tour, reminiscent of the ones you see on HGTV as renovations are revealed to the lovely couple who bought the fixer upper home. I animatedly walk around my classroom, pointing out the different components that are important to my students. I do my very best Vanna White, and show them where to turn in papers, where to find extra copies, the supply center for borrowing items, and more. I incorporate time for questions at each “station” and ensure students are aware of all the different moving parts. This activity helps drive our classroom culture because it shows students how to fully participate in the concrete aspects of our room, and it helps them get more comfortable in the space.
What should school be?
On the second day of school, I always ask my students this question. I invite them to think about what they’d like to get out of their student experience, especially during middle school. I don’t offer a ton of guidance on this, other than really considering the meaning behind the question and the purpose of education. That is deliberate—I don’t want to sway or muddy their own opinions on the matter.
Because this can be a more personal opinion, I have students write their answers on colored sticky notes. When they finish writing it out, I invite them to stick it on our first anchor chart of the year. Their answers always astound me. The insight my kids have into what they want the environment and the culture of their school to be is truly incredible. We display the anchor chart proudly in the hall, for passersby to see and consider. Putting it in black and white, in such a prominent location, allows other students and adults to see it too. Then, we can work to build it together.
Our shared interests
One of the major components to my teaching philosophy is letting my students see me… as a human. I’ve written about this topic before, but essentially, I believe that in order to build relationships with students and have a positive classroom culture, they have to know you as a person.
I start this in the first week of school. I keep it light and show them pictures of my cat and husband, so they see a little bit of my family. I talk about my LOVE of donuts and the fact that I eat them nearly every weekend, and my equally strange love of Jewel-Osco brand coffee cake. I show them my Yeti coffee mug and tell them about my nasty habit of setting it down and leaving it around the building, while pleading with them to return it if they ever see it. I share stories from my own student experience, specifically in my content area, by discussing with them how I dreaded writing until I started this blog to do it for fun. I talk about my reading life, my favorite books, and never fail to share that I used to wait in line at midnight for the new Harry Potter BOOK to be released. While doing this, I invite students to share their own similarities, stories, pet pictures, experiences. It gives us a common ground, helps my students see me as a person, and begins building a positive relationship with them right from the beginning. It’s simple, but it works. It usually leads to conversations about what we have in common, or a good old debate on cats vs. dogs. Either way, the foundation for our classroom culture of respect, kindness, and valuing one another’s experiences is being built.
My class library
I open my classroom library on the first day of school. For some students, they have not had access to new books all summer. That’s 3 months of little to no reading, through no fault of their own, but because they could not get their hands on books. Even for students that do have access, opening the library early is still important. Getting books into the hands of my kids is a huge success in any circumstances, and I love opening my library and doing book talks and/or recommendations right away. I go through the logistical components as well, like how to check out a book and take it home, as well as what to do if a book just isn’t working for you. We discuss the variety in my library, and the effort I make to provide as many perspectives as I possibly can. We talk about the books we’ve read and loved, we take time to check out, and then… we read.
Fostering this reading community and appreciation for literature is a massive part of my language arts class. It’s only right that I begin that work on day one.
The first few days of school are vital for connecting with kids, laying the groundwork for your classroom culture, and starting the year on a positive note. I focus mainly on building relationships and alleviating the stress that comes with starting middle school, while weaving in some of the core components that need to be discussed on those first few days. It’s a balancing act, and it changes in my class every year. But these few activities stay the same. They work for my students and they set the tone for our year very well. But in my opinion, there isn’t one right way to start the year off well. As long as the kids feel valued and loved, you’ve done exactly what you need to do.