Smart Start: Crafting the Opening Days of School

August 22nd, 2018

by Regie Routman

“You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.” It turns out that old saying is true. Those first days in our classrooms and school can impact students’ sense of well-being, confidence, and resilience well beyond that first week. So we want to carefully craft those early days to ensure all students feel valued, excited about learning, and eager to participate. Unlocking the potential of every student begins on Day 1.

Here are five ways to create a welcoming, emotionally and socially safe environment, which serves as a foundation for a learning culture that is collaborative, invigorating, equitable, and joyful.

  1. Create a climate of kindness, trust and respect.

Deliberately begin bonding with students by making sure everyone feels welcome—through our choice of words, greetings, body language, eye contact, and inclusive actions. Let students know we will treat them fairly, will support their efforts, and do everything we reasonably can to help them succeed. One crucial first requirement is to pronounce all students’ names correctly, an important sign of respect. Tell students we need their help to ensure we say their names correctly. Two outstanding picture books for reading aloud, honoring students’ names, and helping students come to terms with their names are Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Zeal (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018) and Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, with illustrations by Yuyi Morales. (NY and Boston: Little Brown, 2016.)

Connect with families early on. An early, positive comment about the student via a text message, tweet, Facebook post, email, postcard, and so on goes a long way to establishing trust and is more likely to make a parent respond if/when we contact them with a concern. Such a comment could be as simple as “I’m enjoying getting to know your son. . .”

  1. Set the tone of the classroom as “ours” instead of “mine.”

Share the power; demonstrate inclusiveness even on the first day. For example, consider letting students know that at least some bulletin boards and charts will be co-created, that students will have an opportunity to help organize at least a part of the classroom library with your guidance, and that you/they will be honoring and including their favorite authors and genres. Also, if you are comfortable doing so, at least initially, permit students to sit where they like. As well, you might solicit some suggestions for room design.

Encourage students’ voices to be heard and welcome questions. When students believe it’s safe and, in fact, encouraged to ask questions, raise a concern, or voice their opinions and ideas, they feel more relaxed and can put full energies into learning. With that in mind, consider holding off on establishing “rules” for the first couple of days. Instead, you might demonstrate and talk about what it means to learn in a respectful, trusting classroom. After a few days, co-create norms and expectations through a shared writing, perhaps titled “our norms and expectations”, “respectful actions,” “our rules for optimal learning,” or whatever else students might suggest—subject to your final approval.

  1. Tell stories. Let yourself be known.

Tell a riveting story on Day 1. It could be reading aloud a great picture book, one that lends itself to thoughtful discussion for students of all ages. It could be a personal story, a simple and inclusive one. For example, for younger students, I might tell the story of the tiny spider who has joined my husband and me for breakfast the last couple of days and how we’ve been fascinated watching it rapidly escalate up and down an invisible thread above our kitchen table. Then, after many round trips the spider rests for many hours on the ceiling. I would tell how I used to be afraid of spiders but now am fascinated by their ingenuity, energy, and majesty as web weavers. For older students, I might tell the story of how I recently reconnected with a friend with whom I’d had a painful falling out. Stories are the glue that bond people to memories and to each other. Stories humanize us.

As a way of beginning to get to know students better and have them get to know us, sharing and writing about “What are you good at?” is also a surefire way to acknowledge and celebrate students’ strengths—what they can do well and/or are persisting in learning to do well–for example, fixing breakfast, playing basketball, bargain shopping, telling a joke, researching a topic of interest. See two related stories in Literacy Essentials, “What Is He Good At?” (pp. 30-31) about seeking and using the strengths of a fidgety kindergartner to help him become part of the classroom and “Making Fruit Tarts” (pp. 147-148), my personal story of how making a fruit tart is akin to seamless teaching. Students’ stories on what they are good at can be compiled into a favorite class book that becomes part of the classroom library. 

  1. Demonstrate yourself as a reader and writer.

Share a favorite book or two you read over the summer and why you loved it. Discuss your reading habits, for example, how you choose books, why you might stick with a hard book, abandon a book, or reread a favorite book. Let students know they will have sustained time to read books of their choice and to share and discuss those books with their peers and/or you. Especially at the start of school, use stories and writing to get to know each other.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer do consider publicly writing, thinking out loud as you write, and projecting that writing so all students can see and hear your thinking process, revisions, vulnerability, sense of humor, flexibility, and more. One powerful topic for demonstrating yourself as a writer is: “Here’s what I want you to know about me.” Or “Here are the most important things(s) you need to know about me.” Then, after having students talk about what they noticed you did as a writer, have students write privately to you on the same topic, and use those written pieces to enhance how and what you do to reach and teach your students.

Use personal stories to spur students to write their own. For example, my story about spiders might be used to encourage students to tell and/or write about something small they’ve noticed or something they fear. Or, my story about a lost friend reclaimed might also be used to encourage students of any age to write a story about an important friendship and, perhaps, how it went awry and got repaired–or not.

  1. Incite the intellect.

Set up the classroom for curiosity, passion, and taking risks. Strongly consider adding “Genius Hour” to your schedule so students have a weekly or monthly opportunity to explore their interests and burning questions through designing their own learning. It’s all about priorities. The “must-do’s”—such as establishing rules, test prep, and the non-negotiable items—must not crowd out the “would-love-to-do’s,”  which with our support can give students the energy, determination, and equitable opportunity they need to learn and thrive.

Finally, attempt to “see” and begin to know each student, so many of who feel invisible or inadequate in our classrooms and schools. Above all, try to ensure that at the end of the first days and weeks, students feel hopeful and excited about learning. For many students, what matters most to them is that they know they matter to us. A smart start to the school year can make that possible.

For more ideas for the first days of school, see this 6-minute “Heart Start” video.

Regie Routman is the author of Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for all Learners (2018).

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matt Renwick  |  August 23rd, 2018 at 3:16 pm

    Such helpful information here, Regie. Thank you for sharing your time-honored and classroom-tested ideas. Every teacher would benefit from this advice.

  • 2. Sheri Austen  |  September 1st, 2018 at 1:16 pm

    Such good ideas for the year start

    Thanks for the reminders.

    Here’s hoping for a great year

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