Every year, I tell myself, "I'm going to stay within my time limit this year!" And every year, I run out of time. For those of you who missed it, or if you'd like to see it again (with a little more time to process), here is my Back-to-School night Presentation. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section or contact me directly! It was great to see everyone!
One of the most important jobs for the students in the first few weeks of school is to work towards creating a set of norms for the classroom. Norms are a set of expected behaviors for the class...one could think of them as rules, except rules tend to be established by the teacher, while norms are generally worked towards and agreed upon by the class as a whole. They are an agreement by the classroom community (both teacher and students) about how we will treat one another.
Our process for creating norms began in the first week of school. One of our first activities was for the students to reflect on their previous school experiences and to create a map of their classroom from last year. On this map they had to place three symbols: one that represented something that was fun or enjoyable; one that represented something that was difficult or unpleasant; and one that represented something that they would like to get better at in fifth grade. Once the maps were completed, students would gather in pairs to discuss their maps and talk about their symbols, with these conversations eventually turning to their hopes and dreams for this coming year. Towards the end of the first week of school, we had a class meeting to brainstorm what kind of class the students wanted to make this year an "awesome" year.
A classroom map, tagged using ThingLink
The next step was to start thinking of what we all needed to in order to make the ideas on the list of hopes and dreams a reality. The students gathered together in groups to generate a list of ideas and then to narrow that list down to no more than five main ideas. After the small groups generated their lists, we came together again as a class and recorded each group's list of five ideas. After all the ideas were recorded, we took the next few days critically examining that list to see if certain ideas kept repeating or to see if anything was missing. Out of this discussion we were able to hammer out the following five norms:
Creating these norms was a great success for the class, but we weren't finished yet! As the second week of school came to a close, the students once again broke into small groups and rotated in a "carousel" among the five norms and wrote down ways and examples of how we could demonstrate them in class. As we begin the third week of school, we are now in the process of "practicing" these norms in our class, and seeing how they affect our behaviors. It's important to note that these norms are living thing in our class, and that the job for upholding them lies with all of us, not just me. We came to the realization today that our number one challenge with these norms will be "helping each other learn and stay on track." We spent Closing Circle on Monday discussing strategies for how we might make that norm work better for us. We will continue to practice the norms this week and then, if all goes according to plan, begin to live them and become responsible for them in Week 4! I'm extremely proud of the work the students have done with this vital aspect of our classroom, and I'm looking forward to seeing these norms create a positive and caring classroom environment!
"Mr. Ullman, when are we gonna start..."
This is a common question I get in the first few days of school. In my classroom, the academics are eased in slowly over the first few weeks of school. This is not to say that there isn't any learning, though. Quite to the contrary, the lessons that we learn in these first few days together are some of the most important ones of the entire school year! I call it "going slow to go fast." If we take the time now to learn these important things, then we can spend the rest of the year moving at a brisk pace.
So what do we do? Here are some of the most important things that go on in the first few weeks of school:
Building a Community
It's important that my students learn about each other, not just as faces in a room, but as people with interests, skills, and hopes for the year. They learn early on that we are a team, and that while a team doesn't have to be all best friends, they will all respect each other and help each other work towards a common goal. For example, one of the first activities we do on the first day of school is creating "extended name tags." The students create a name tag that includes not only their names, but illustrations in each corner that represent things they enjoy doing or someone who taught them something. The conversations that arise from sharing these name tags help the students learn a lot about each other!
Establishing Classroom Norms
When the students enter the room for the first time, they notice a poster titled "Classroom Norms." They also quickly notice that it's blank! This is not to say that my class has no rules, but that we will take the time to establish them as a class together. We spend a lot of time in the first few days reflecting on what about school has worked for them in the past and what has not. The students create maps of last years' classrooms that include symbols indicating these things. As the students share these maps with each other, they talk about the ways that they want their classroom to be. We gather as a whole class and discuss what their hopes and dreams are for the school year, or, how I put it this year, "how can we make this year your best school year ever?" After initial surface suggestions such as " I want a classroom where we write a lot," or, "I hope we get to use a lot of technology," the suggestions become more profound: "I want a classroom where it's OK to be different," and "I want a classroom where we help each other." The results of this discussion will help us construct three to five classroom "norms" that we will all be accountable for.
Promoting Empowerment in the Classroom
When I want to get my class's attention, I call out, "Give me five!" The students learn the "five" refers to:
-Eyes on the speaker
-Ears listening to the speaker
-Bodies ready to listen (still, hands empty)
-Brains engaged on what the speaker is saying
We practice this a lot in the first few days of school. But soon after making my students familiar with "Give me five," I give them the power to use it, too! This is one of the ways in which I begin to give them control in the classroom. I tell the students that it is their classroom, and that they will have a say in how it is run. As the first week goes on, students become more comfortable with this, calling out "Give me five!" to ask for help from (or offer help to) the class, or to point out an idea they've had, or to remind the class of something.
I anticipate working in more content in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, we have been learning a lot in these first few days that will be lessons for the rest of the year. Going slow to go fast is an investment that will pay dividends as the year continues. As the class becomes a community and is able to hold itself accountable to norms that they establish for themselves, we will be able to do so much more. I am looking forward to seeing what develops!
5th grade teacher in Princeton, NJ. Passionate about education, technology, and the New York Giants!