"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!