It’s the first days of school for many of here in the northern hemisphere education world. Students are back, glowing from their summer holidays and excited to be back with friends and familiar surroundings. As teachers, we have been setting up shop again, getting things in order and thinking about how to start the year off right.
This year, I moved to grade 4. I won’t say down to grade 4 because every grade is a challenge. I’ve never taught grade 4, and I’m excited. The students are definitely younger. They’re quite different than the 5th graders I sent on to Middle School. These kids are still hanging on to their teddy bears. They’re excited to play in the sandpit at lunch. They can’t sit still too long before they’re poking each other and rolling around on the floor.
I decided to start the year, though, in a similar way to last year by thinking about what kind of classroom I want. How do I want the classroom to function throughout the year? What kind of learning do I want to take place? What do the kids need to feel in my classroom?
That was my first thought. I want a classroom of active inquirers. I don’t want to talk, talk, talk and for them to listen. I want them to feel safe to think, inquire and discuss. So, setting up a safe classroom was a priority for me. How to do that?
- Ask their opinion.
We spent several days thinking about how we wanted our classroom to look. Stolen from another teacher, I decided to do a Y chart with a “Sounds like,” “Feels like,” and “Looks like” for our classroom. Each student has a big art journal and drew what they thought our classroom should look, feel and sound like. They got a chance to draw or write words or both, on their own. As they worked quietly, I got a chance to talk with each of them about “What makes them say that?” a nice visible thinking routine that gives me some insight into their thinking. From their illustrations, I then had them write statements with the title: “A learning classroom is one that…” With some modeling, they were able to write statements based on their drawings and their own thoughts. They had some nice thoughts. Here’s an example of what one girl said. Another boy mentioned that he wanted a classroom where people came over to you if you were hurting and asked if you were ok. I love that. I compiled them into a classroom: Learning Classroom document. So far, we haven’t written out expectations of our class, but this could follow. Based on how they want their classroom to be, what do they need to do. We discussed how a safe, respectful classroom could happen. They said people would need to listen to each other, to correct each other’s mistakes and to not laugh when they said things to each other. I think that’s a good start. We’ll slowly go through our other ideas about a learning classroom.
I like what Edna Sackson says in her blog, and I feel like we’re on the right track.
- Get them into some visible thinking routines straight away.
I put up a compass points routine and explained I wanted to hear about how they were feeling about grade 4. What did they “Need to know.” What were they “Excited” about. What were their “Worries?” And what were their “Suggestions” for our classroom. They wrote these out on sticky notes and then we went over them as a group. I tried to answer some of their questions and address their worries, but also explained that it’s an ongoing process.
Personal and passionate
I also want a classroom where students know each other. It’s part of feeling safe to share their opinions. I also want to know where their interests are. The first week, students interviewed each other and came up with adjectives about each other that were positive. We took photos and plastered them on the outside wall. Then, students all brought in a bag or box of things that represented them: something from their summer, a photo, a favorite book, a symbol of them. We practiced good listening while everyone shared. We talked again about our learning classroom. I got to find out about the students and what 4th graders are like (this is where I learned about their teddy bears and toy trucks they still enjoy).
I think teaching routines is still really important. I want students to feel comfortable in our class. I want them to know they can go to the toilet when they need to, that they need to come in close for a read aloud, that they can work in any place where they feel comfortable and work best. It takes a while to set up these routines, and it makes a difference.
Things that didn’t work
Jumping into our unit…I read them a provocation about the rainforest and asked about meaning or concepts. Maybe it was the morning, or the way I went about it, but they weren’t overly engaged. It felt like more of an exercise, a jump into content. Still reflecting on this one, it could have just been the morning.
I think it might have been rushing things though. Trying to push through too much stressed me out, and it probably did the same with the students. We’re all just getting used to routines and waking up and really thinking.
On reflection, I need to just keep taking it slowly.
How do you start the year?