Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Starting Up Strong

Even though I am 5 years into my career as a teacher, and I've gone back to school on a yearly basis since kindergarten, the first day of school still carries that same nervous excitement I felt at 5 years old, standing in front of my house, waiting for the bus, wondering if Mrs. Minton would like me.  Only now, I find myself on the other side of the equation, and that nervous excitement is manifested in making sure my learning space is perfectly arranged, reading over my class lists, and trying to picture a fresh batch of seventh graders wandering into my classroom. 

It's obvious that those first days of school are imperative in terms of establishing routines and procedures and setting the overall tone of the classroom.  In years past, my focus has always been not only creating and practicing a procedure for just about everything, but also setting the tone by making sure my students knew that I was in charge.  My classroom door was adorned with only my name, room number and the class I taught.  When the students entered on the first day, I had the desks in rows alphabetically.  I read lists of rules, and tried my hardest not to smile. I had to make sure they knew that MY students need to follow MY rules in MY classroom. 
I have to admit, though I continued to start the year this way, it felt unnatural and unwelcoming. I found myself stumbling through the first days of school until I could get to that point in September where I could become my real teacher self.  So, I decided to try something different this year.  My teaching philosophy has evolved as I've learned more about being a middle school teacher, and my goal was to make sure my students' first days of school fit well with my mission of creating an inclusive and empathetic community of students. 

Door Deco
All year long, I change up what my door looks like.  It's one of my favorite features of my classroom. I wanted this to be a part of my identity as a teacher from the start. So, Instead of starting the year with my door displaying only my name, classroom number, and the subject I teach, I tried this... 

The Power of Pronouns
A pronoun can make all the difference in the world. I'm not just saying this because I'm an English teacher.  While looking over my class expectations document, I couldn't help but notice how many times I used the words: I, me, my, you, yours, etc.  From day one, I was already sending the message that it was me against them. The classroom was my classroom. You were responsible for bringing a pencil to class everyday.  In an environment where I was trying to encourage community, I felt like I was already tearing down the bridge I'd hope to build between students and teacher.  I wanted them to know that we are in this together, and that my responsibilites as a teacher are similar to theirs as students. I wanted them to know that this classroom belongs just as much (if not more) to them as it does to me. So, I infiltrated my expectations to send the message that we are on the same side, and we are working together to achieve success.  I changed the I's, my's, you's, and your's, to we's and ours. My expectations document used to open with classroom rules.  Now, the opening looks like this...

Starting as a Team
Teamwork is a huge a focal point in my classroom, and seating alphabetically by row on day 1 seemed counterproductive to establishing this important pillar of my philosophy of education. So, instead of standing in the front of the room explaining the different procedures and routines, to rows of students, I placed them in groups right away, and sent them on a scavenger hunt where they worked together exploring the classroom for answers to my questions. I've decided also to rename my daily objective to "Today's Team Goal", and to emphasize throughout class that we need to bring our individual best to the table to be collectively successful in achieving this goal.

Although this was experimental, I am really happy with the sense of unity and community that seems to already exist in my classroom seven days in. I hope that by constantly reinforcing that we are a team, and that we are all here to help each other achieve success.

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