Climbing into the School Year

Mission Mountains from the National Bison Range, Montana, photo by Tricia Ebner

by Tricia Ebner

If I said I always race whole-heartedly, headlong into the coming school year, I wouldn’t be completely honest. By the time students walk through my classroom door in mid-August, I am excited and ready to see them. But at this moment in early August, I’ll admit sometimes I’m casting a few longing glances backward at the calendar, wishing I could turn the pages back to June to relish just a few more weeks of leisurely mornings and relaxing evenings. There are moments when the school year appears much like the photo above: it’s a dark, foreboding mountain, with the peak hidden from view behind a layer of ominous clouds. The problem I face in those moments is how best to get myself back into gear.

Getting back into the school routine involves both practical, hands-on work and some analytical, reflective work. There are three general aspects that I tackle in my preparations during these early weeks in August.

  1. Setting up the classroom:  This is sometimes my best starting point. It’s hands-on, active, and very practical. Our custodial staff does an amazing job every year of getting our building into top shape for the coming school year. Part of how we make their jobs easier is by packing everything up so that our rooms can be emptied, cleaned, waxed, and made fresh and new, and then everything is returned. That also means I have boxes, tubs, and totes that need unpacking. Books need to be returned to shelves. Posters need to be put up on the walls. While the process of getting the physical classroom environment ready for students and our learning takes a bit of thought, I’ve also found that simply setting up those physical elements of the classroom helps me get my brain better focused on the year to come.
  2. Reflecting and analyzing the previous year:  Reflecting on practice is a daily activity for me throughout the school year. After a few relaxing weeks in summer and some distance from the year, I find it useful to reflect across the previous year as a whole. What went well? What do I need to improve? I’m not necessarily looking at individual lessons or units. Instead, I’m thinking about my practice on a larger scale. I take time to think through the standards for my content area and classes. Which ones am I addressing thoroughly? Are there any getting too much attention, so that others are being neglected? Late last spring I tested out an online plan book, and one of its features is tracking how much time is devoted to various standards. This summer I took a look at those results, knowing that the information isn’t a complete picture since it encompasses only six weeks of the school year. Still, it was interesting for me to see where our focus was as the year wrapped up. With all this in mind,  I take some time to review the Instructional Practice Guide. Although this tool is often used in reflecting on single lessons, I’ve also found it to be useful when I think about the bigger picture of my year. It helps me keep a good focus on what I need to be doing as I begin mapping out the year ahead. These are resources I will continue to utilize as the year unfolds, so that I can make corrections and adjustments along the way. I also review the previous spring’s released test items, if they’re available, so that I can see what kinds of questions were asked, how they were phrased and worded, and read through the answer keys and explanations. Taking time to do this allows me to consider what additions or changes I might want to make in the coming year. Embedding questions written into a similar style within our classroom work and assessments allows me to routinely expose students to the format and style of questions they’ll see on state assessments, and it eliminates the need for any kind of dedicated test prep work. I like using the mini-assessments and text-dependent question resources on the Achieve the Core site. Taking time to reflect and analyze last year’s work, as well as the assessments, helps me focus on the targets we are aiming to hit with our work in the coming year.
  3. Learning about my students: I take some time to consider what I already know about the students who will be in my room. I take a look at test scores from local and state assessments to get some ideas of what might need attention and what may be areas of strength. I don’t devise entire lessons, units, or intervention plans on what I observe in the data I review, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. Taking time now to become familiar with results from last year can help me as I begin making my own observations once the school year is under way. When observations and the data I collect is consistent with the previous year’s information, I can quickly and easily plan instruction and activities to meet needs. When the results of my observations and assessments show a discrepancy, then I know that much earlier who might need different kinds of support, intervention, or more in-depth assessment, so that I can plan the most appropriate, targeted work to help those students grow as much as possible.  
Visa in Glacier National Park from Going-to-the-Sun Road. Photo by Tricia Ebner

Though the process of beginning a new school year may seem a bit like a daunting, overwhelming climb up a foreboding mountain, by breaking it into steps, the process can begin. Before we know it, we’ll be underway with our students. There will be moments of struggle, where we feel a bit like we’re struggling up a steep rock face. But there will also be moments of incredible views, where we see a glimpse of how far we’ve come already. The climb through the school year is well worth it. We simply have to begin with those first steps.