Back to School Resources
by Susan B. Curtis
The VlogBrothers offer a funny and ultimately inspiring 4-minute answer to “why bother with school” in this YouTube video: An Open Letter to Students Returning to School (in this case, public school). It can function just as well to further quicken teacher heart rates as schools re-open around the country.
That urge to get moving is often accompanied by a swarm of butterflies circling in teachers’ stomachs. I still remember one of my pre-first-day dreams that featured desks all neatly nailed to the ceiling. Fortunately they weren’t yet occupied by eager eighth graders. Edutopia blogger and 11-year teacher Nicholas Provenzano recalls his yearly bouts with those nervous twitches of uncertainty that hit not long before the school doors open. And he offers four suggestions to banish those butterflies, starting with being prepared and not being a control freak. If you have vivid pre-school recollections (or dreams!), please share them in the comments.
Jessica Lahey, a Lyme NH teacher who blogs at Coming of Age in the Middle, borrows ideas from The Happiness Project to help ground teachers for the months ahead. She suggests students as well as their teachers can benefit from these axioms: be yourself but at the same time act the way you want to feel, be grateful, think more about the moments of learning than the final results, and look to colleagues for help.
Setting the Stage
Transforming that empty space into a room where kids will feel welcome can be fun or formidable, depending upon your view of interior design and the resources you can bring together. Writing a couple of years ago at her Tween Teacher blog, Heather Wolpert-Gawron outlined her nuts and bolts and ant spray regimen for reinvigorating her room. Between the laughs, you’re likely to find lots of ideas to apply immediately. She touches on the pedagogy behind design decisions in a MiddleWeb interview (Question 2) based on her book Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. Scholastic also has lots of ideas in its collection of articles for launching the new year.
Putting Out the Welcome Mat
Who will be coming in your door? Upper elementary kids moving from learning to read to reading to learn? Students who are still thinking concretely? Slightly older kids who suddenly aren’t themselves, sometimes feeling childish and other times wanting to be treated as adults? How you greet them will vary. For students moving up to middle school, their days will likely be radically different. Teacher/bloggers Edna Sackson and Stephen Davis explore the transition from elementary to middle school by drafting imaginary letters from an elementary student to a middle school teacher and from the teacher back to the student. The exchange catches the child’s tentativeness and the teacher’s reassurance, comparing a simple carnival to a more complex amusement park. As another school year begins for kids of all ages, David Ginsberg in his Ed Week blog considers the need to look beyond techniques and technology to the connection between teachers and students. He references several earlier posts on responding to students’ opinions, choosing motivation over manipulation, reacting to mistakes – both yours and theirs, and more.
In Five Practices for Building Positive Relationships with Students, TLN blogger Kelley Clark has suggestions for establishing relationships with high school students. They should work with younger kids, too, starting on the first day of class. She includes ways to put those first-day student surveys to work through the year and techniques to assure students that she is aware of their concerns. Carol Cummings shares detailed suggestions for Bonding and Connecting with students in Chapter 2 of her book, Winning Strategies for Classroom Management. The chapter is offered at no charge through ASCD.
Turning to what students have to say for themselves, the NYT Learning Network blog asked students to share what they’d like for their teachers to know about them. Responses, from kids 13 and older, covered study habits, hobbies, family situations, and more. The central theme was the desire to be seen as individuals with strengths and weaknesses, talents and preoccupations.
Day 1 and Counting
What to do when they walk in the door? Writing in Ed Week, Tucson middle grades teacher August (Sandy) Merz III will get his students into their seats by having them work together. For five days, they will compare heights, birthdays and more to build collaborative interaction and give Merz an opportunity to observe them. Building on what he learns about the group, he will assign permanent seats using what he calls (in a second article) Power Seats and Safe Zones.
Once students find seats, teachers can unpack their favorite activities to acclimate them to their new surroundings. In response to a question from the Powerful Learning Practice blog, commenters suggested introducing kids interactively to Skype, Twitter and Edmodo, hosting collaborative table-top construction with easy-to-access materials, and more.
In lesson plans especially for upper elementary kids, the NCTE’s Read Write Think suggests having students recall events in their lives — younger kids concentrating on summer and older ones on previous years. RWT provides a graphic map so kids can record their memories and feelings about them. Another RWT lesson plan by Lisa Storm Fink welcomes kids back to school by having them work together to collect ‘getting to know you’ themed poems to build classroom community. NCTE also offers a collection of lessons and activities for middle grades students at RWT. At Scholastic, Nancy Letts highlights some good practices from teacher Minty O’Brian as she introduces kids to nonverbal cues and movement interspersed with conversation and writing to build a sense of competence and provide the security of structure on the first day.
Teaching eighth graders for the first time last year, Marsha Ratzel shared her plans to avoid setting up boring rules in her math classes on day 1. For the first time, she intended to start with a quiz on important numbers in her life and go on to the students’ important numbers. Then she would pair the kids as they use last year’s text to review, giving her an opportunity to see how they learn. At KQED’s MindShift blog, Tina Barseghian has assembled several of its tech posts for teachers to ‘boost your game’ in the new school year. At her blog TeachBytes, Aditi Rao, a school technology resource specialist, points out 10 tech tools to involve students right away: personal Pinterest boards and word clouds, online comic strips, SurveyMonkey, and more for kids with class-wide access to the internet.
Leading the Way
Principals have that high energy beginning-of-the-year experience, too. Scholastic offers a detailed check list to be sure the numerous details are covered. Thanks to Karen Potter and Les Potter for assembling a point-by-point overview. At the Connected Principals blog, NH elementary principal Bill Carozza offers 15 Tips for the New Principal. Though targeting newcomers, his list should also be a useful go-to post for veterans across the middle grades. Once you land at Connected Principals, you’ll find other posts catching the challenge and excitement of the new year such as 8 Principal leadership tips for the new year… by Justin Tarte.
It’s a New Year for Parents, Too
Catch parents’ attention by having them write ‘1 Million Words or Less’ on what they would like for you to know about their children. You can get a view of the range of parent responses and variations on the theme from a MiddleWeb Classic conversation. The 2002 listserv chat was populated by a group of insightful folks, many of whom had tried the Million Words tool in a variety of different school settings and contexts.
When it’s time for Parents Night, visit Marsha Ratzel’s detailed essay on preparing for and staging the event. And if you need strategies to make your first one-on-one (or two) parent conferences successful for you and for parents and guardians, see this Educational Leadership article by two Syracuse University professors. They describe an effective conferencing model and provide guidelines and suggestions. (Responding to a parent whose child is being bullied is central to the essay, so helpful specifics for conferring on bullying are included.) You might want to look over teacher Robyn Shulman’s post for parents, Setting Your Child Up for Success. And practical get-kids-ready suggestions for parents are available from USA.gov.
Lots from Larry Ferlazzo
Last year Larry Ferlazzo brought together educators and authors to consider How Can We Get The New Year Off To A Good Start? at his Ed Week blog, Classroom Q&A. His series included ideas from Rick Wormeli, Roxanna Elden, Marsha Ratzel, Jessica Lahey and more. He also linked to his collection of Best Resources for Planning the First Day of School at his Websites of the Day blog. In 2013 Ferlazzo has added Ways to Start Off the New Year on a Positive Note at Classroom Q&A.
A Click Away at MiddleWeb
For resources useful to new teachers and veterans alike, visit MiddleWeb’s ‘New Teacher 911.’ And we also recommend this MiddleWeb Classic – Newbies:A Week with Rick – resurrected from our old website. It’s a week-long chat between middle grades author Rick Wormeli and a group of teachers, filled with practical advice about nitty gritty topics like pencil sharpening, homework, grading, and seating arrangements.