Unpacking boxes of books, sorting construction paper, placing notebooks and pencils on students’ desks, rearranging and updating class libraries: signs of a new school year—signs we teachers embrace and love because we’re gearing up for a new group of students!
This year, teachers in most states across our country will be feeling the pressure of teaching with the Common Core State Standards. The temptation to plunge into curriculum the first day of school will be greater than ever. Shove those thoughts out of your mind. Instead, take five to eight school days to get to know your students as readers, writers, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams. And just as important, let your students get to know you and one another.
During these first days it’s crucial to begin the process of building a community of learners. The first step in creating learning communities is for teachers and students to get to know each other and share routines that can build self-confidence, self-efficacy, and trust. In a community, members bond to each other and feel responsible for each other’s learning and wellbeing.
Here are a few suggestions that you can implement immediately.
- Greet students as they arrive by standing at the door, shake their hands, and make a positive statement about the student.
- End a class period if you’re in middle school or the day if you have a self-contained class by stating two to three positives you noted. These can be about behavior, staying on task, working with a partner or small group, the quality of responses, etc.
- Collaborate with students to create class expectations while students work independently, with a partner, or small group as well as while you coach a group or confer with a student. Positively reinforce expectations to remind students of behavior standards they helped create.
- Develop a positive signal for getting students’ attention if noise levels escalate. I recommend flicking the lights. In my classes, students know that lights flicking means “stop and listen.”
- Note your daily agenda on the chalkboard or whiteboard. The agenda lets students know what to expect during a class or the day (in self-contained classes). Tell students that you might not get to everything on the list, especially if you respond to students’ questions and needs. After the first few weeks, when you know your students, you will be able to create agendas that fit into a class period.
- Read aloud every day before mini-lessons and student practice begins. Reading aloud builds students’ listening capacity, tunes their ears to literary language and syntax, and enlarges background knowledge and vocabulary. Best of all it’s fun for you and your students!
While you’re building community and establishing daily routines, it’s important to have students complete forms that enable you to know them as learners and people. In addition, you’ll want to start students on independent reading the first week of school because research shows that you can accelerate students’ reading achievement if they complete thirty to fifty books during a school year.
Knowing Your Students and Readers and Writers
You can quickly gain insights into students’ reading and writing lives by using “What’s Easy? What’s Hard?” Always start by showing students how you complete the form. Ask them to be honest and tell them this will not be graded. Your goal is to help them improve and knowing areas of reading and writing they find tough gives you topics to scaffold.
- What’s easy about reading? Explain.
- What’s hard about reading? Explain.
- What’s easy about writing? Explain.
- What’s hard about writing? Explain.
Tips for Organizing Independent Reading
Since independent reading is tied to students’ reading achievement, I ask students to complete a monthly reading contract. Independent reading levels are books that students can read without the teacher’s support. Choice is the hallmark of independent reading as long as the book is appropriate for school. Besides books, students should be able to choose graphic novels, magazines, and comic books from your class library. Be flexible. If a student reads an ultra thick Stephen King book or a Harry Potter book, give them credit for three books. Research shows that long texts develop stamina and the ability to focus and concentrate.
For grades four and up I recommend a minimum of three books per month, which in ten months means that students will have read at least thirty books. You cannot monitor every book a student reads. Trust is an important aspect of independent reading.
For assessment, I suggest that students complete a book talk a month. In Teaching Reading in Middle School and in my book Differentiating Reading Instruction, you’ll find book talk guidelines that ask students to do high level thinking; no retelling. If twenty-five students complete a book talk a month during ten months, students are exposed to 250 different titles! Since peers and peer suggestions are highly valued in the middle grades and middle school, this is a topnotch way to advertise books and encourage independent reading.
Independent Reading Contract
I will read a minimum of _____ books by the end of _______________________. If I cannot meet my goal, I will let my teacher know a week before the end of the contract month.
The Principal’s Corner
The more experience I gain as a middle school principal, the more aware I am of teachers’ needs to work in their classroom and prepare for the arrival of students. When planning your meetings several days before students arrive, make sure teachers have time in the morning and afternoon to prepare their classrooms.
Set aside some time during your back-to-school-meetings to find out the kind of professional study teachers need and want. Keep it simple. Ask teachers to list three areas they would like to study during the school year. Armed with this knowledge you can order professional books that address teachers’ interests and needs and organize study groups that meet bi-monthly during the school day or during a scheduled faculty and/or team meeting. You and you assistant principal (s) can join specific study groups or rotate among them. Showing your commitment to professional study by attending meetings sends a strong message about lifelong learning to teachers.
Evan Robb is Principal of Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.