Bringing the school community together

We recently visited the Albert S. Hall public school in Waterville, Maine, to see how they used the video School Play at the beginning of the school year to bring together the community for a year of teaching and learning together. We are well into the school year now, but it’s worth remembering how we started out the year.

The school is also the home of Stenhouse author Jennifer Allen (A Sense of Belonging, Becoming a Literacy Leader). She also talked about the impact the video had on teachers.

Add comment October 3rd, 2012

Back to school: Jessica Shumway

We close our back to school series with thoughts from Jessica Shumway (Number Sense Routines). We hope that you had a chance to ease back into your classroom and into the community of your school by now and that your teaching year will hold many triumphs, special moments, and real learning and exploration with your students. Today is your last day to leave a comment to be entered to win a free Stenhouse book. Happy teaching!

Jessica Shumway

One of my favorite beginning-of-the-year rituals is arranging classroom furniture, spaces, and materials (both before students arrive on the first day as well as along with students as we begin to inhabit the space together). On the surface, this sounds like a typical, mindless endeavor that has to be done. However, as any teacher knows, the arrangement of classroom furniture, spaces, and materials reflects the teacher’s and students’ vision for the school year.

Although I know that the room will change and transform with our collective vision, there’s something exciting about dusting off the writing table, getting the books out in a visible place waiting to be organized by curious students, “hiding” math tools that will be explored through guided discovery, and making the space a welcoming place for students as they enter their new classroom. The process of arranging the furniture, spaces, and materials brings together my summer reflections on my new hopes and dreams for the coming school year. It guides me to reflect on my beliefs about teaching and learning and how to implement my yearly-revised vision.

(Practical note: In the last few years, I reread my favorite excerpts from Debbie Miller’s book Teaching with Intention for inspiration during this process!)

2 comments September 5th, 2012

Back to school: Kimberly Hill Campbell and Penny Silvers

Graduate students are students too, right? Two authors, Penny Silvers (Many Texts, Many Voices) and Kimberly Hill Campbell (Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay) share how preparing for a year of teaching older students has the same rhythms as teaching children. Leave a comment and be entered to win a free Stenhouse book at the end of our series.

Penny Silvers

For me, back to school always means building community, sharing interests, and learning about each other’s areas of expertise. We always ask students what they are wondering about, what they have read recently, and what they would like to learn more about in the coming year.  That way, we can make curricular connections based on student interests and set up inquiry opportunities for them to pursue their wonderings and questions.  This leads to inquiry groups, reading and writing workshop, and many digital and visual explorations (multiliteracies).  This is the same for first graders as well as for graduate students.

Kimberly Hill Campbell

Although it is difficult to give up the less-structured days of summer, I love the opportunity of a new school year–a fresh start.   I prepare by first focusing on new school supplies.  I love being in the store surrounded by a mix of kids and parents with their school supply lists.  On my own list is a new three-ring binder for each course I teach, a spiral notebook to use for my classroom notes, observations, and in class writing; new post-it notes, and some colorful pens.  Once again I will work to be the organized teacher researcher I dream of being.  Perhaps this will be the year.

And then I pop the popcorn and settle down for my annual viewing of Dead Poets Society.  I know it’s not a realistic picture of teaching.  I know that Mr. Keating is not the teacher I want to be or want my graduate students to be.  But the movie is a tribute to the power of poetry and why it matters.  And the movie reminds me that I teach because reading and writing help students find their voices.  This needs to be my focus.

2 comments September 4th, 2012

Back to school: Julie Ramsay and Katie Keier

Do you use the summer — especially August — to reflect on what worked during the previous year and what changes you need to make in your teaching? This week Julie Ramsay (“Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?”) and Katie Keier (Catching Readers Before They Fall) talk about how they rev up their preparations for school and why they appreciate the clean slate they are given each September. Leave a comment to be entered to win a free Stenhouse book at the end of our series.

Julie Ramsay

When summer break begins, it takes me a while to “come down” off of the pace that the conclusion of a school year brings. I enjoy days of no alarm clocks, flip flops, and yoga clothes. Once my mind clears, I find myself finding time to really dig into some fun, personal and professional reading. One book that I always return to each  year is Harry Wong’s First Days of School. I have a few sections of that book that are dog-eared, highlighted and notated. I like being reminded of some basic practices and procedures that become invisible by the end of the year and could be easily overlooked when the school year begins with a new crop of learners.

As the beginning of school approaches, I find myself spending more and more time reflecting on my teaching practice from the previous year. I think about what worked, what didn’t work, and what I could improve upon for the upcoming year. Although I reflect all year, I find the summer is the time where I can calm the chaos that usually fills our minds as teachers and really evaluate changes that I want to make. One thing I miss during the school year is being able to spend time outside enjoying the day. Some of my best ideas come to me as I’m hiking, meeting friends for lunch at a local cafe, or enjoying a cup of coffee outside on my front porch. These times give me the opportunity to recharge my batteries and prepare for the epic adventure that my students and I will set out on together each year.

Katie Keier

The start of a new school year is full of possibilities, excitement and reflection for me. I start thinking about the new school year soon after the prior year ends. I reflect on what worked well and what didn’t work well. Writing down my thoughts while they are fresh in my mind helps me as I start to map out the new year in early August. We start school after Labor Day, but much of August is spent reading and rereading professional books, looking at bookmarked blogs and Pinterest sites, going back over my reflections in my notebooks and looking over my school notebook from the prior year. It also includes a trip (or two) to Ikea, Target, the local bookstore and many clicks on Amazon, as well as long conversations and emails with friends and colleagues. As I go on my long runs, I visualize the new room, the new year and my new students. I start a new notebook and jot down thoughts and ideas for the upcoming year. I make an “All About Me” book to share with my students on the first day. I carefully choose the first read aloud book I will share with my class. The excitement builds daily!

If I’m lucky, I can get into my classroom a week or so before the year starts. I really like to take my time and mentally visualize my classroom space as I create the basic structure. I spend a lot of time sitting and thinking about what will be happening inside these four walls. My walls are always blank – ready to be filled with the work and learning of our new class – but I do like the furniture and space to be thoughtfully and purposefully designed to reflect the vision I have for our year together. I imagine our room filled with children who are curious, passionate and excited about learning. Then I set forth to create a space that will nurture, support, and allow all children to thrive.

How lucky we are as teachers to have a fresh start every year. To be able to reflect, refine, imagine, dream and create a space where children will learn, laugh, play and enjoy school. I have the best job in the world!

2 comments August 31st, 2012

Back to school: Mary Shorey and Brad Buhrow

What are your students passionate about? What have they learned? What do they wonder about? These are the questions that Brad Buhrow (Ladybugs, Tornadoes, and Swirling Galaxies) and Mary Shorey (Many Texts, Many Voices) ask at the beginning of the school year. What do you wonder about as you begin the year? Leave your comments to be entered to win a free Stenhouse book at the end of our back to school series.

Brad Buhrow

The Curiosity rover made it to Mars after an eight month space voyage.  I was fired up to watch the landing events online, and even more so because I was able to see the launch while I was in Florida last November.  For some reason I was curious and wanted to see the launch in person, with my binoculars in hand.  Maybe I’m lucky, that as an adult, I’m still curious and wonder about our world.

What about you. Do you still have a sense of wonder?

“The more we learn the more questions we have”, John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project scientist, said during an interview after that landing.

Learning, questions and curiosity, the kids and mine, is how I begin the year with our new second graders. If there is one thing that I need to begin the school year, it is for me to bring a sense of wonder. It is energizing. The kids pick up on it and run with it. They want to observe, talk, draw, write and read to understand.

Guess what? All you need are a bunch of compelling nonfiction books filled with photographs, or some real stuff, some markers and post-its and a clipboard.

The kids take off drawing, and writing what they learn and wonder!

Use a language frame, I learned_.   I wonder_?, to help them get started writing.

The kids become passionate readers and writers in the process. They can’t help it.

So what are you waiting for? Grab some post-its, markers and a clipboard. Let them have at it. Stop and notice with them as they bend down to the crack in the sidewalk to get a closer look at the ants crawling from their colony, and look up to the sky to watch the clouds move and the sky change. Let them make their curiosity and wonder about their world visible to all by writing and drawing. And best of all, it’s fun!

Mary Shorey

As I begin another school year, I smile as I think about all the children I have taught…all the lessons I have learned. I am reminded of the challenges and the many rewards that are inherent in my chosen profession…and the responsibilities I have. I pray that I will be able to encourage and inspire these young minds. The curriculum is my road map, but the paths we take are unchartered. My students and their needs will determine them.

So I’m inspired, and it’s time to begin to build community.  I look for things the students can do to help organize the classroom for the year. Together we create the birthday chart, the job board, and classroom rules. We make a list of things we’d like to explore and learn about. We record our favorite books, authors, and genres, and create our “expert chart.” I always ask my students about the routines, activities, lessons they liked in second grade that we can continue in third. We interview each other. I provide “choice” time so I can see what peaks their interests (i.e computers, books, art supplies, writing materials, math manipulatives)…and soon we’re off and running!

4 comments August 30th, 2012

Back to school: Rose Cappelli and Jennifer Allen

How do you “grow your spirit” — and your students’ — as you begin the school year? Rose Cappelli (Poetry Mentor Texts) and Jennifer Allen (A Sense of Belonging) share their inspirational thoughts. Don’t forge to leave a comment for a chance to win a free Stenhouse book at the end of our back-to-school series.

Rose Cappelli:

I love starting the year with picture books!  As I begin to meet with my small groups of struggling readers and writers, I like to think through books with them that illustrate the kind of work we will be doing together in the kind of environment I hope to create. Many are books I return to every year, and those students who may have heard them before greet them as friends and recall the lessons learned. Sometimes they make new discoveries, as if suddenly understanding what it all means. Some of my go-to favorites and the ideas within them are:

How Rocket Learned to Read  by Tad Hills– We will learn how the letters and words go together so that we can share lots of stories again and again and


Reading Makes You Feel Good by Todd Parr – There are lots of reasons to learn to read, but especially because you can do it anywhere.

Wolf! by Becky Bloom – Learning how to read requires practice and feedback. We will help each other do our best and do lots of reading.

Regina’s Big Mistake by Marissa Moss – It’s fine to share ideas because we all learn from each other. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – we learn from those, too.

What If? by Laura Vaccaro Seeger – What are the possibilities? Problems generally have more than one solution.

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and James Dean – “…because it’s all good.”

And for me? Just as my pink petunias begin to fade, I pull out Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden by Edith Pattou to remind myself that we all have different needs, and that everything and everyone requires patience and nurturing in order to grow.

Jennifer Allen:

I know it sounds cliché but I always look at the beginning of a school year as a fresh start, as another chance to refine the art of teaching. I think what excites me the most about the upcoming school year is the renewed opportunity to inspire and spark the inner passions of the teachers that I have the privilege of working with. I recently came across this quote in the book, It’s Not about the Coffee: Lessons of Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks, “Leaders have an obligation to grow people’s spirits for the good of the organization and for the good of the individual.”  What inspires me is working with passionate educators and helping grow spirits.

4 comments August 28th, 2012

Back to school: Tim Gillespie and Cris Tovani

Welcome back to our back-to-school series! Today Tim Gillespie (Doing Literary Criticism) and Cris Tovani (Talk to Me) share about how they prepare and spend the first day of school with their students. Don’t forget to share your back-to-school rituals or ideas. Five commenters will be picked to receive a free Stenhouse book at the end of the series.

Tim Gillespie:

Opening day in September: Heart thumping, period after period, I’d stand at the door to my high school classroom and shake every student’s hand before he or she entered, accompanied by a stream of welcoming banter: “Hey, how are you doing? I’m Mr. Gillespie. What’s your name? I’m looking forward to working with you. We’re going to have some heavy-duty learning happening in here this year, right? I’m happy to have you in our class.”

And then I had a checklist for that first hour of our 180-day relationship. During our opening encounter, I wanted to make sure the students: wrote something of consequence (often a quick account of their joys and frustrations with English classes in the past), talked about their expectations and worries and hopes for class, read something short and powerful (usually a poem), and had an opportunity to laugh. The messages I was hoping to convey with these start-of-school rituals: I’m excited to be here, I want you to be excited, I want you to succeed, you will be listened to, we will be doing a heap of writing and reading and thinking together, and laughter is not incompatible with intellectual rigor.

Cris Tovani:

I love do-overs and for me that’s what the beginning of the school year brings—a chance to re-do another year of teaching a little better and a little smarter.  As school draws near, my rituals and routines rarely waver. The dining room table is transformed into a collection center for new books, articles, and ideas that I have gathered over the summer.  I have found my beautiful, blank conferring notebook that will hold notes and important observations I learn about my new students.  I will have been to Target stores all over the city purchasing dirt-cheap composition notebooks so my students can begin setting them up as reading response logs the first day of class.

At home, I will have cajoled my daughter and husband into articulating their learning goals for the year because the first day of school just isn’t about me starting over.  They get to start over too!  My tiny, messy closet will have gotten an overhaul.  I will have picked out outfits for the first week school, knowing full well that I will change my mind multiple times. I will scour Office Depots and Staples to find markers, sticky notes, highlighters, and other various and supplies that I have to have.   I will have my first read-alouds ready to go and new books organized in baskets so that kids know right off the bat they are in a classroom where lots of reading gets done.  I’ll be sure to clean out some old files to make room for new ideas.  I’ll have my bulletin boards designed and a new floor plan for my classroom ready to be arranged when workweek begins.  Glancing at the calendar, I realize that I have a lot to do.  I better get busy.

3 comments August 27th, 2012

Back to school!

We are starting a week-long series today centered around the issue that must be occupying all of your thoughts these days: back to school time!

We asked several Stenhouse authors about  their back-to-school rituals — whether it’s selecting reading for the first day of school, laying the groundwork for building a community of learners, or stocking up on supplies.

Share your back-to-school rituals in the comments section during the coming week and five commenters will be selected to win a free Stenhouse book.

Let’s get started today with Erik Palmer, author of Well-Spoken and the upcoming Read & Watch book, Digitally Speaking. Here is how he gets to know his students:

When my sixth-grade students walked in on the first day, all the desks, tables, chairs were pushed into a jumble in the middle of the room.  From kindergarten on, the first day meant coming into a beautifully organized room, looking for the neatly lettered name card that identified their desks, and fitting into the system the teacher had created.  I wanted to break that mold.

When students came in, they were asked to stand around the sides of the room.  I introduced the three class rules and the only three rules: Be ready, be respectful, be responsible.  I explained.  Be ready includes having all your needed supplies as well as being ready to learn.  Be respectful of each other, each others’ belongings/beliefs/styles and so on.  Be responsible for your actions and behaviors.  Everything fits in to these three.  Do we need to raise our hands to talk?  Yes, that is part of respect for each other so we don’t just blurt out and cut off others.  Do I have to turn in homework on time?  Yes, you need to be responsible for doing what you are supposed to do.  Do we need to raise hands to go to the bathroom?  I respect you enough to let you make the decision about when you have to go.  I will only step in if the rules are not followed.

“Now that you know the rules, set up the room in such a way that they are not broken.  Should you sit with your best friend?  Can you be responsible for controlling the urge to talk?  Would you do things that might distract others and not be respectful of their chances to learn?  Should you sit at the back of the room?  Is that a place where you can be ready to learn?  Should our room be in rows?  Table groups of 4 desks together?  A circle to create more interaction?  All of the decisions are yours.”  And then I’d sit back.  You learn a lot about your new students watching the discussion.  Who are the leaders?  Who are the good friends?  Who are the risk takers?  Who are the students who always want to know the “right” answer?


2 comments August 24th, 2012

Poetry Friday: The Circle of Summer

This week’s poem is from Carol Frey, a life sciences instructor from Baltimore Lutheran School.

The Circle of Summer
Summer is ending – and it’s only early August.   (!)
Days of freedom shorten once again;
Promised projects are scratched off one by one from a list kept on the kitchen table since June;
Last languid lunches are spent with friends before the yearly gerbil wheel renews its spin.
Yet with this loss comes hope – new faces, new subjects, new adventures to be had.
Their youthful energy jump starts the year for all of us.
Their curiosity, their creativity, their enthusiasm gives all a fresh perspective on the year ahead…
…and now there are only 180 more school days until summer break!

1 comment August 14th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: The first day of school

The first day of school is just around the corner and this week Rick Wormeli, author of Day One and Beyond, has some tips on how to keep the excitement and momentum of the beginning of the school year going, while also getting to know students and creating an atmosphere of learning.

In the first class on the first day I ever taught, I learned one of the biggest lessons of my middle school teaching career: the students are out for the teacher’s success just as much their own. On that Tuesday after Labor Day, I called roll.

“Brown, William?”


“Cavelletti, Antonio?”

“That’s, ‘Tony.’ And, here.”

I crossed out “Antonio” in the attendance book and wrote “Tony.”

“Thank you, Tony. I made the correction.”

Then I came to the third name. The last name was D-U-C-H. The first name seemed Cambodian or Vietnamese, so I didn’t think that the name was pronounced “Dutch.”

“Okay, this next person’s last name is pronounced ‘Duck,’ I believe,” I started with the class, then paused. I stared at the first name. No, it couldn’t be. I looked again. The first name was spelled “P-H-U-C.” If I said that phonetically, I would be calling the name of “Fuck Duck” (phonetically) in the middle of a group of thirty young adolescents. I naively plowed ahead. 17

 “Phuh [using the short ‘u’ sound] . . . Phuh . . . Phuh,” I started again. The room was getting warmer. My cheeks burned. Great, I’m making a fool of myself on the very first day, I thought. I can’t do this. Suddenly, the class called in unison, “It’s ‘Foo,’ Mr. Wormeli, ‘Foo.’ The ‘c’ is silent.”

I exhaled in relief, smiling sheepishly. “Thank you,” I mouthed. The students grinned back at me. “Foo Duck?” I called phonetically (pleadingly, too).

“Here,” Phuc said, and we continued with the roll call. We were going to be okay.

The biggest fears I had before that first day of school were how to plan out the year, whether or not the students would like and respect me, whether or not I knew enough about my subjects to teach them, and most important, what I was going to do with that first day and week of school. Once I was up and running, I thought I could handle it. “Just get me started,” I pleaded with the teacher gods.

It turns out I was barely ahead of the students in terms of learning the material that first year, and the planning for the rest of the year went well thanks to the patience of my colleagues, who tolerated twenty questions a day from me for that first quarter. My students seemed to respect me and, I hoped, enjoy my company, but I found out later that respecting me and enjoying my company weren’t the main goals of good teachers. It was the list I maintained of what I would do differently next year that kept me sane and hopeful that I’d make it as a teacher in the middle school world. The following year, I made those changes, especially in how we began the year, and it has made a tremendous difference every year since.

Mixing Academics with Get-to-Know-You

A sad thing happens to novels when readers have to stop after every chapter and write a summary or analyze literary devices: the story is killed; it’s no longer engaging. One of the worst things you can say to a language arts or English teacher is that a child learned to hate the subject as a result of his class. It’s the same with teachers of other courses.

As teachers, we are “selling” our subjects to our students as worthy of their pursuit. We are convincing them that they can be competent regarding our subjects and even find meaning in them. At the same time, students enter classrooms in September with the inclination to do well, to think in a scholarly manner, and to produce great thoughts and works. Really, they do. They are a grade higher, they reason, more advanced. Things will be challenging, and this is a fresh start. As their teachers, we need to ride this momentum wave as far as we can. The expectancy and ability are there; all we have to do is get out of the way.

With each period of nothing but endless forms, get-to-know-you activities, and reviewing classroom protocols, we kill that excitement. Students grow increasingly disillusioned. We miss a golden opportunity for them to dive into the subject material with neurons firing on all thrusters. It’s probably the most significant time of the year to hardwire students’ minds to embrace our subjects; we don’t want to lose it. Yet we still have to get to know the students, ask them to fill out those school forms, and teach them classroom protocols, such as where to turn in papers and where to go during a fire drill. So how do we do all of this and keep the fires burning for our subjects at the same time?

Through balance. Each day, make sure students learn something brand-new in your subject area, not just something they are reviewing from last year. Add to this one or two new forms to complete, one get-to-know you activity, or one or two new classroom protocols and you’ll have a pretty good period. Give academic homework on the first day of school. It sets a tone of serious study and responsibility. They may never admit it publicly (though many have privately), but after two months off from anything cerebral, students welcome the mental engagement. They’re doing something purposeful. Teach from the very first day.

To figure out what to offer them academically and administratively in that first week and month, go back to your planning for the year. Give yourself three to four weeks to teach all the classroom procedures, do the get-to-know-you activities, and fill out the forms. Don’t cram it into the first week or two. You’ll never have time to grab the students with your subject. Just make sure you complete the forms that let students get their lockers first!

Each day for the first two weeks, I do about 50 percent academics and 50 percent “administrivia.” This works pretty well. By the way, don’t forget your teammates if you’re on a team. One person doesn’t have to do all the forms. Spread out the responsibilities for completing forms across all subjects on the team so one subject isn’t always associated with paperwork. It’s wise, however, to have one teacher who collects all the forms from students. At a meeting later, all teachers on the team can help process them.

 Getting to Know Students as Individuals and as Learners

If we want to be successful, we have to know our students as individuals and as learners. Often these overlap, but they are not the same dimension. Choose a balance of activities that elicits both types of information. Let’s take a look at three effective get-to-know-you activities appropriate for any subject:

 “The Best Way for You to Learn” Cards

When students enter my room on the first day of school, they find an index card on their desks. Students are asked to describe on the cards how they best learn. The prompt can be something like, “What will it take for you to learn well in this subject?” or “In what ways do you best learn?” or “Give me advice on how to be the best teacher you’ve ever had in this subject.”

It’s amazing how insightful students are each year. I get comments like, “Give me a lot of examples. I don’t get ideas without examples”; “If you write it on the board, can I get a copy?”; “I need to see it, don’t just tell me it”; and “Speak slowly, I get confused with a lot of noise and speed.” Many young adolescents are beginning to know and advocate for themselves as learners. What they offer in these cards is invaluable. To get the full picture, I send parents a card and similar prompt to complete on that first night, referring to their child’s learning. Between the two cards, I have enough information to make some early decisions about lesson design, grouping, and interacting with students. I reference them all year, and I sometimes ask students to complete them again in February to see if things have changed over the course of the first few months.

Interest Surveys

Interest surveys are one- to two-page polls that ask a variety of questions and give students an opportunity to express sides to them that don’t otherwise get revealed. The prompts or questions must not be invasive, of course, and students always have a right to pass if they don’t feel comfortable. Information that might be requested includes:
a favorite book from childhood
the farthest point you’ve traveled away from home
a recent movie you enjoyed and what you liked about it
your favorite place to be and why
your favorite food
your favorite kind of music
your favorite sport
organizations/teams/clubs to which you belong
someone you admire and why
two common activities you do after getting home from school
a responsibility you have
a wish you have for someone else
what you want to do for a career
something about which you daydream
something about which you are curious
the title of a book about your life
some advice you would give yourself if you could go back two years ago
a description of yourself as a friend
a description of your best friend

Learner Profiles

Learner profiles include any information about a student that affects his learning: six schools in as many years; divorce; ADHD; Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; learning disabilities. They also refer to those surveys/assessments/instruments that students complete in which they demonstrate their proclivities/strengths/preferences for how they best learn. There are many instruments available to middle school teachers, some costing money and some not. Ask around, as there are probably some in your building already. Many publications about multiple intelligences and learning styles have instruments free for your use. If you’re using an Internet search engine, I highly recommend the Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Inventory, Anthony Gregorc Scales, and Myers-Briggs Personality Type indicators. There are also many good Web sites and publications with multiple intelligence surveys. Students can often do the assessment as well as its analysis with direction from you, so don’t worry about analyzing the results of 150 student assessments. You just have to read the results and incorporate the information into your planning. No small job, I know.

2 comments August 11th, 2009

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