You’ve probably already heard this before, but setting the right tone at the beginning of the school year is very important. For me, it’s important to create an inviting and safe classroom, establish expectations and routines, develop a reading and writing culture, and build a place of community trust. None of this could be possible if I didn’t invest the time and energy specifically the first few weeks of school. (And as veteran teachers know, you continue to reinforce those expectations throughout the year.)
Here are six things that I do, within the first two weeks of school, to set the right tone for the school year.
I take my class roster, a clipboard, and a pen and stand in the doorway. Students cannot walk into class without passing me first. I introduce myself with a big smile and ask their name. If it’s pronounced different than it looks on paper, or a student goes by a nickname, I jot that down next to their official name.
Not only does it help me know exactly how to pronounce their name, it helps with any sort of embarrassment on me or them later on. I started this about five years ago when in May, a sweet young woman in my class told me I had mispronounced her friend’s name all year. Apparently the student was too shy to tell me. I can’t tell you how ashamed and embarrassed I felt mispronouncing her name every day for 9 months.
Try to avoid discussing the syllabus on the first day. Not only will you help ease students back into school, but you are letting the students know that while school is important, they matter more. You are taking precious time out of the school day to get to know your students, for them to get to know you, and get to know each other. This helps create an inviting and safe classroom. Spend a little bit of time talking about yourself, your hobbies, and sports you play. Students will see you as more than just their English teacher.
It seems every year I change up what I do on the first day. Sometimes it’s a BINGO of sorts, getting to know other classmates. Sometimes it’s Two Truths and a Lie, sometimes stand-up sit-down. This year, I am trying the One Word Project. (You can find information about it here and here.) I’m really excited about this one and think it’ll be a great way to start off the year.
Every day my students are reading and writing. The second day of class I have them complete a letter to me. There’s a variety of things they can talk about in their letter and I really leave it open-ended. They just need to start it out with a salutation, tell me about themselves, and end with a valediction.
This serves two purposes. One, I get to know each student on a deeper level. Favorite activities. Future plans. Things they like and dislike. And two, I get a chance to see their writing strengths and weaknesses. It’s these letters that help me establish what areas of writing needs work. An example of what I do is here– Write to Me.
I’d be remiss not to ask this of students. Usually the third day of class (I teach 45-minute periods) I pass this out. Wow is it an eye-opener! Really helpful feedback on the reading and writing habits of my new students. I make lots of notes to myself as I read their responses. You can find the handout here.
If you haven’t tried portfolios yet, you’re in for a real treat. In my class, students keep all major writing pieces, projects with their independent reading books, and large class assignments in a manila folder. It sits in a green hanging file in a milk crate all year. I pass out the folder the second week of class and students write their name on the tab. Then, as the year goes on, when work is passed back it is filed in their portfolios.
Periodically, whether they just received back an essay or it’s the end of a grading period, they complete a reflection sheet, looking through the folder to help guide their thinking and processing. It helps students see mistakes and create a plan to work on those problems the next writing assignment (or in reworking that particular essay).
It’s also a great end-of-the-year assignment. Students are pleasantly surprised to find how much they grew as readers and writers from September to June. If they didn’t keep their work and pull it out at the end of the year, they would miss this wonderful experience. I love seeing the smiles on their faces, sometimes the chuckles, at where they began and where they ended. Great way to end the year.
2/3s of what my students read in the school year are books of their choice. For some students, finding a book to read the whole way through isn’t easy. For others, it’s finding books outside their favorite genre. We spend a whole class period speed dating. Many students walk out excited to read some of the books they began.
The next day, we go to the school library to check out a book. Some use the books in my classroom library. Regardless, all students have a book to read and we then begin our next unit based around their choice books. You can find more information about speed dating with a book here.
What do you do to set the tone for the beginning of the school year? I’d love to hear it!