Friday, August 13, 2010

Laying the Groundwork

The first day of school is absolutely one of the most important days of the year. It is the day when you set the tone for your classroom. We all want to have a smoothly running classroom, but it is difficult when you don't know where to start. You may be feeling that you are groping around half blindfolded with only bits and pieces of information rather than the whole. What you need is a vision of what you want your classroom to look like as a positive learning environment. Then take that vision and use the first day of school to lay the groundwork towards making the vision become a reality. How?

First, before school starts, take some time to sit down and brainstorm all of your expectations. This includes how you want students to behave towards you and each other, how you want the day-to-day activities and transitions to be performed, and how you want your classroom to feel. Within each of these categories, think about different scenarios from your own days as a student and plan out how you would deal with each one. Some questions you might ask yourself include how will students enter the classroom, leave the classroom, turn in homework, work in team situations, work as individuals? Picture in your head what you would like to see happening and then write it down as a statement.

When you've mapped out this information, create a poster of basic classroom expectations for everyone to follow. Your poster won't include every single expectation you have, but the ones that guide student behavior. You'll also want to create some procedures posters for various activities during the day such as entering and leaving the classroom. Write them in a very basic step-by-step method with no more than five steps in each. Post these where all students can easily read them. Once you have a clear idea of how you expect students to behave and what you expect them to do from the moment they enter the classroom until the moment they leave the classroom, then you are prepared to explain these expectations to your students.

Now we lay the groundwork. When planning out your first day of school, be sure to alternate between fun ice-breaker and get-to-know activities, which build a positive classroom community, and discussing your expectations and procedures. You need a mixture of both through the first several days as students can only absorb so much information at once. By alternating fun activities with the practical and serious you give students time to internalize the information. When transitioning from a fun activity into another lesson of expectations or procedures, be sure to review previous information before moving on to the new. For example, you might ask students to show you the quiet signal and explain what it means before moving forward to discuss your classroom procedures.

When discussing your classroom expectations and procedures with students, be sure to speak slowly, get eye contact with each student one-on-one, and pause significantly after each expectation. This reinforces the impression that the information is important and also gives students time to listen, understand, and internalize what you are saying. You also want to practice procedures, such as the quiet signal, entering the classroom, and leaving the classroom, with your students. Continue to practice these throughout the next two weeks. By practicing your procedures and expectations with students during the first day and weeks of school, you are laying the groundwork for your vision and building good habits that will last all year long.

Reprinted with permission from Emma McDonald "New Teacher Advisor" column on Education World.

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