Planning for Classroom Shifts

by Ashli Breit & Cheryl Bledsoe, 6th Grade Teachers

While contemplating how to best meet the needs of students, we read Shift This: How to Implement Gradual Changes for Massive Impact in Your Classroom by Joy Kirr.  The ideas seem so simple, yet are far-reaching and exciting for the possibilities in the classroom.  Five small shifts were selected to begin the year: the Daily Question, virtual space, no homework (combined with choice boards) and feedback.  These shifts were incorporated into the plans, rooms were rearranged and syllabi have been updated.  Let the year begin!

The Daily Question will set the tone for the classroom: I am interested in you as a person and what you think matters.  Some of the questions are low investment (what is your favorite ice cream topping), while others ask the kids to be more introspective (Which do you think would be the hardest to live without: eyesight, hearing , smell?).  ‘What percentage (of your waking hours) did you spend outside this weekend?’ provides insight into who the student is outside the classroom, and ‘How many tries will you give yourself before you give up trying?’ provides a window into the work ethic being faced in the classroom.  This small shift will take minimal time as students enter the room, placing their magnet on the answer, but can have significant impact on relationships built within those four walls.

In a perfect classroom, students would have complete choice and voice in what they learn each day and how they learn it; in a world of high-stakes testing, this may merely seem a pipe dream, but it doesn’t have to be.  Homework and choice boards seem like a logical place to begin shifting our mindset about student learning.  As we prepare learners to be college and career ready, we must reflect on our own experiences in those realms.  When we walk out of a college class, professional development, staff meeting, project meeting, etc., we determine what we do from that point: file the information, explore the topic more, or study and ponder what we have heard.  Why have we been unable to allow students that same choice in their own learning?  Assigning no homework seems an easy step in that direction and is another small shift being implemented.  

Joy is right, “Everything is worth a second glance.” When I read the section in chapter 4 about creating/updating your class website, the only thought I had was ‘been there, done that’. We had made multiple classroom sites to put on our district page. Parents looked at them the first week of school and that was about it. I’m glad I didn’t stop reading because of my bad experiences in the past. Everything is worth a second glance, and we are very excited about the shift that Joy inspired in our classroom sites.

The main job of sites this year will be to help us communicate with our parents. We will be including our mission, curriculum, standards and videos just like Joy encouraged us to. Our hope is to allow students to be the curators of the class calendar and photo pages as the year progresses. Right now our sites are at the beginning stages. We have a lot to add, and I’m sure a lot to tweak, but we are hoping that this shift in the role of our classroom site will be a bridge between our classrooms and our parents.

Nightly reading (with reading logs) has been assigned 5 nights a week every week in our classrooms, but we had to consider the actual effect of this homework.  Too often, students were not completing the reading and it was frustrating to them and to us.  It was decided that we would give the students a choice to read and participate in the classroom reading challenge, or not to do so.  That being said, there are still required reading projects (student selected novel) every quarter and students are responsible for deciding when and how to accomplish the reading to complete those tasks.  This small shift gives students power over their learning, while modeling real-life skills such as time management and organization.  

Along with that, is more student choice in what they do in the classroom as well.  There are standards that must be taught and even a curriculum map to guide us, but within that map are multiple opportunities for students to complete work in a manner of their choosing.  Choice boards have been developed to guide the process in some areas, and Genius Hour will be used to tap student interests in a long-term project about a topic they select.  This inclusion of student choice fuels engagement, lets learners shine in areas we may not otherwise see, and gives them a unique voice in the classroom.

All throughout the last school year, we worked tirelessly to give our students feedback on their writing assignments. We stayed up late and got up early to make sure that every student had comments made on their assignment. We thought we were really helping our students. There were only two little problems with our strategy. One, students weren’t reading our comments. Two, some students didn’t understand the changes we were suggesting. We hadn’t built in the time to discuss our feedback with the students so that they could truly grow as writers.

After reading chapter 7 of Shift This, a light bulb went off. We weren’t giving quality feedback to our students. We thought we were, but we weren’t. Then, the brainstorming began. How can we make this shift? How can we give students feedback that is meaningful to them? We decided on a two-step plan. First, we will give students time to collaborate and give each other feedback. We will model what quality feedback can look look like and give our students feedback starters like Joy suggested. Second, we will build in small group time where we will give skill-directed feedback and allow time for students to work on making corrections. Our hope is that not only will these shifts make our students stronger writers, but they will show our students that we truly care about them and helping them through the writing process.

Change 8.13.17Change is hard, but can be very effective.  Is every shift going to make a positive difference?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Will there be stumbling blocks and adjustments?  Probably. But the shifts will certainly move the classroom in a direction that is engaging and productive for students.  We are excited for our shifted class to begin!


Capturing Student Interest: Problem-Solving on the First Day of School

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed. & NBCT

Take a moment to think about this: what do most students experience on their first day of school in your school building? What is the first day of school in your classroom like for them? After years of spending that first day going over the classroom rules, expectations, and procedures, I decided it was time for a change. I needed to do something to liven up the experience and make it more engaging for my students and me.

I’ve turned my first day of school into a problem-solving activity. I’ve tried to find different ways of doing this. For example, last year my family and I took a cross-country trip. As we traveled, I purchased postcards at various locations, and I took a few minutes to write welcome postcards to my incoming sixth graders. Along with a welcoming message, I asked them to bring the postcards to the first day of school. To increase the percentage of students bringing postcards, I posted a note on my classroom door, reminding students to bring postcards, so that when they toured the building at schedule pick-up, they and their parents would see the reminder. I  also bought a few extra postcards, so that those who forgot could still be involved in the activity.8.6.17 blog post graphic

On the first day of school, I had a map of the United States hanging on my board. After checking the roster and making a quick run through names, I gave students their challenge: they needed to take their postcards, and using any information they had on those post cards, they needed to figure out where I had been, and when, with a goal of identifying my travel route. I didn’t give them any other instructions.

It was fascinating to watch the students work on the challenge. At first there wasn’t much organization. Some just sat and read the postcard again. Others approached classmates to see where their postcards were from. Eventually, the class began to organize itself. Students got into groups based upon where their postcards were from. Then they began to notice other thing about the post cards, such as the postmarks. From this, they began to sort out travel dates.

Ultimately the class needed a little bit of help, but they figured out the travel route. They gained some time interacting with each other, using their reading, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. I gained a wealth of knowledge about my students. Observing them showed me the leaders in the class, and those who were content to sit back and let someone else take their postcards and solve the challenge. I saw how they handled disagreements. I also saw who could work well together, and who quickly moved off-topic when working together. The knowledge I gained in the first day was valuable as I began to organize the class for a project-based learning activity. My students were engaged in the work, and a couple even commented that the class period had flown by far more quickly than they would have expected of a 70-minute class period.

As you begin thinking about ways to launch your year with your students, I challenge you to consider this: what kind of hands-on, problem-solving activity could you use? What could you challenge them to do that will show you their communication and critical thinking skills? Try it out! See what you might learn, and how it might set the tone for the year ahead.

Need ideas for problem-solving situations you might use? Consider taking a “mystery” approach, whether it’s to share something about yourself or your class.


Journeys: Vacations and School Years

by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed.

Summer often includes vacations for many of us, and in the past few weeks, I’ve been gearing up for our own family vacation. Today, as I worked on packing, I realized that preparing for a family vacation isn’t that different from the preparing for the school year. It takes reflection and planning to fully prepare for vacation, just as it takes reflection and planning to prepare for the school year.Travel

Lists: Preparing for vacation often requires making lists. A few weeks ago I started making the packing lists, ranging from the clothing we’ll wear to the recipes and groceries we’ll need at our destination. This isn’t all that different from what we do in preparing for the school year: we consider materials we’ll need as we begin gearing up for the coming year. It also takes reflection. For example, as a family, we’ve learned through experience that the weather in the valleys can be vastly different from the weather in the mountain passes. This means we have to pack for a range of weather conditions. Similarly, as we educators continue in our career, we learn that there can be a range of needs and considerations we must make in preparing for our school year.

Research: In preparing for vacation, we often take time to investigate the activities and sights we might want to enjoy while on our travels. We’ll check out web sites for various attractions, noting hours, activities, and costs. In preparing for the school year, we’ll also often research options. We may look at changing various lessons or units to make them more effective. Perhaps we want to use some new materials; this, too, may be require some research so that we’re making wise choices. We’ve learned through experience as traveler and educators that a little bit of research can help us use our time more efficiently and enjoy it more.

Planning: Preparing for vacation includes planning out the route. How will we get to our destination? What are our options? What might we stop and see along the way? We need to refer to maps or GPS to ensure we’re on the route to our destination. Similarly, preparing for the school year requires planning. We refer to our standards, curriculum maps, and past experiences to lay out the path we want to take to help our students learn, grow, and master the skills and concepts they need.

Packing: After all the preparation, it’s finally time to pack for vacation. We carefully follow our lists make sure we have our research notes and maps. We are ready to head out, anticipating a wonderful time of rest and relaxation with family and friends. Similarly, after all the preparation, it’s about time for the school year to begin. We have our materials, and we have our research and plans to help us focus our work with our students.

Just as vacation travels sometimes require adjustments and even detours, our progress through our school year will inevitably require adjustments. Most of the time, we have a number of options for how best to reach our destination, so we can switch routes if necessary. Having a plan, knowing our resources, and being flexible means we can still reach our destination, whether it’s vacation or the learning targets we have for our students. With a little preparation, we can have an enjoyable, rewarding vacation . . . and school year.

Resources in Action: NewsELA and Analyzing Arguments

by Tricia Ebner

Like many teachers, I spend a bit of time on my winter break working on lesson preparation for the time ahead. I’ve learned that good planning for the first weeks back makes the days easier for everyone. This year, as I looked over my plans for January, I saw that I had one of those situations I’ve come to dread: a one-day “gap” between units.

After looking at possibilities for shifting activities around, I decided to live with the one-day gap and use it as an opportunity for a review and preview. A look through my plans suggested that a focus on argument, specifically reading and analyzing another’s argument, could be a good goal for the day.pablo-37

With this in mind, I turned to some of my favorite text resources. While I love the text sets and mini-units on Achieve the Core, most of those take more than a single 50-minute class period. CommonLit had some possibilities, too, but since it is a tool new to my students, I suspected that the fascination with a new site would overshadow the review I wanted my students to do. So I turned to NewsELA. There I found a Pro/Con text set on the feasibility of self-driving cars. This was exactly the kind of resource I needed. Neither text was long, and NewsELA had them paired together into a single document. A brief four-question quiz followed the paired texts. Furthermore, since the set was on NewsELA, I could use the texts at different reading levels to more specifically address my students’ needs. It didn’t take me long to arrange my students into smaller groups for the purposes of our reading and discussion.

My next step was to find a good way to review the elements of argument. I started by pairing two pictures on a Google slide. One was of two birds sitting on a branch, with one hunched down and the other squawking at the first, wings outstretched. The second picture was a courtroom scene, with a lawyer addressing a judge and jury. The title of the slide was, “Which picture best represents the kind of argument we use in language arts?”

Then I searched for a brief video overview of the elements of a strong argument. I found one through XtraNormal, a computer-generated animation site. I knew the animation would keep my students’ attention, and the dialogue between the two characters, a teacher and a student, would provide the kind of “cobweb-clearing” review we needed before reading the text.

I used this lesson with my eighth graders last week. They had just finished a cold-read assessment the day before, taking the skills and standards we had been focused upon during our reading of A Christmas Carol and applying them to a passage from Tuesdays with Morrie. The paired photo slide generated some chuckles and comments, with a few students telling the class that they wished argument meant the kind of “discussion” going on between the two birds. Our brief discussion and comparison of the two photos set the stage for our work for the class.

The video worked well. At first, some students focused more upon the quirks of the computer animation, but by the end of the video, the students remembered the elements of argument. We had a brief discussion about a couple of points within the video, and then I handed out the text pairs. Students read individually and then answered the four questions. Then they gathered into the small groups I had organized before the lesson, and they worked to answer seven questions I had posed for them:

  1. What is the claim of the pro article?
  2. What is the claim of the con article?
  3. What are the reasons used in the pro article?
  4. What are the reasons used in the con article?
  5. What evidence is used in the pro article?
  6. What evidence is used in the con article?
  7. Which of the two texts is the stronger argument?

As I circulated among the groups, I heard students debating finer points of the texts, especially the qualities of the evidence. One of the strongest ideas generated by several groups was that the evidence for the text in favor of self-driving cars tended to be weaker, because there simply aren’t enough instances of self-driving cars yet. The class as a whole decided that because there are specific examples of self-driving cars failing, the con argument is stronger. One student noted that as testing continues, stronger evidence supporting the value of self-driving cars may become available. I was pleased to hear students not only analyzing the qualities of the two arguments, but also considering how the quantity and quality of evidence available will continue to grow as tests and experiments with self-driving cars continue.

I was pleased with how this one-day lesson worked. The integration of photos, videos, individual questions, small group discussion, and whole-class discussion provided good variety. My observations of the students at work confirmed my thinking that students needed to refresh their understanding of elements f argument. The results of the four-question “quiz” also showed some interesting results that I will be considering as I continue preparing for our next unit, which will focus on argument.

When faced with this situation again, I will take similar steps. Using texts from a variety of sources gives me a broader range of options. NewsELA worked beautifully for my goals in this particular instance; the next time I have this kind of situation, however, I may want to focus on standards that could be better addressed by texts offered by other resources, such as CommonLit or ReadWorks.

Using readily-available resources, like NewsELA, made it easier for me to plan and use a single-period lesson geared toward my students and their needs.

How have you faced a lesson-planning challenge? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Five Favorite Apps for ELA–and More

by Tricia Ebner

This year it happened: one-to-one computer access became part of my school district in grades 8-12, and computers became more easily accessible for other grades as well. In all three of my assigned grade levels (6-8), my students now have daily access to computers. When this was announced to us last spring, I was thrilled. This easy accessibility was going to make technology integration so much easier for me. Then reality struck: I needed to find technology-based tools that could help me more easily do what I wanted within my classroom.

pablo-31I’ve been keeping my eyes open to other teachers’ favorite apps and web sites, often checking out recommendations on Twitter. When I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve attended professional development sessions devoted to sharing apps useful for classrooms. My focus throughout this process has been on finding tools that will be useful for my students and me as we continue to learn and grow. My foundational principle has been that the app or web site must help us toward our goals; the technology is not a goal by itself. Then I consider three additional factors: privacy protection for my students, cost, and ease of use. When an app meets these criteria, I will try it within my classroom to see how successful it is with my students.

So far, I’ve discovered a number of apps that help my students and me with our work. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Padlet:  This free app allows me to set up virtual “bulletin boards” where students can respond to questions or post ideas for consideration. It’s a great springboard for class discussion. Sometimes I’ll use it to start class by posting a question or thought-provoking quote, and then individual students post their responses. At other times, I’ve used it after students have discussed a question in pairs or small groups. The groups craft a responses to the question, and then we can look at the various ideas when I project the page on our interactive white board. By keeping my Padlets secret, so that only those who have the link can participate, I am able to maintain student privacy.
  • Backchannel Chat: This has revolutionized certain activities in my classroom. I learned about this tool at the NCTE Convention in November, and since then I have used it with both sixth and eighth grades. In fishbowl discussions, this app allows those students in the outer circle to participate in a silent, virtual discussion, while those sitting in the inside circle conduct their verbal discussion. I’ve also used it while showing a video. When my eighth graders watched a filmed version of A Christmas Carol, I was able to pose questions encouraging them to consider why the director selected particular camera angles, lighting, or how an actor’s delivery of certain lines impacted the meaning of the words. We had these discussions in our Backchannel room, without interrupting the flow of the movie. One of my favorite features of this tool is that students who are normally reserved and quiet in whole-class discussions will often share terrific insights in the Backchannel. There is a free version, and the paid version ($15/year) provides some excellent additional tools to help manage the chat, including the ability to “mute” individual students and download a transcript of the chat.
  • Edulastic: This free tool provides a huge range of questions and question formats, making it a great way to design and use computer-based assessments. There are question banks aligned to standards, so that teachers can select items aligned to standards students have been addressing in their work. Teachers can also write their own items and note which standards are being addressed. There are four levels of privacy for questions, too, including private only to me (teacher), school, district, and public. This tool is being used more and more often for common assessments in my school. The question types available include tech-enhanced options, such as drag-and-drop and multiple-part questions. This is a great way to give students more regular experience with these kinds of assessment items, reducing the need for focused, dedicated test prep work around technology tools, because students are seeing these kinds of questions on assessments throughout the year.
  • PearDeck: This tool allows teachers to create interactive slide decks. It has revolutionized how I use slide shows, such as PowerPoint or Google slides. I can share information, ask questions, and even embed videos. Now I can present a skill or idea, and then I can have students practice it, so that I can conduct in-the-moment, real-time formative assessment that helps me decide upon next steps. There is a free level, which allows limited use, and a paid subscription level. (There is another tool available, called Nearpod, which has similar features and also includes a library of lessons for use, with free and paid membership levels.)
  • EDpuzzle: This free tool provides the ability to embed questions within videos. It makes watching videos more interactive and helps me see what students understand–and don’t understand–about video segments we watch. There are lessons available for use, and I can also make my own. It’s a great option for flipped instruction and self-paced activities because students can watch independently, and I can still track how well they understand what they understand the video and its information.


It’s worth noting that a none of these tools are focused exclusively on English language arts. These could be very useful in just about any class and subject. Using these tools has streamlined work in my classroom, making certain activities more efficient and giving me feedback faster. For example, I used to have students complete a paper chart comparing the Christmas Carol movie to the novel. Then I would take time to read through each chart and note individual student understanding. This year, with Backchannel Chat, I could ask questions and track student understanding in the moment. Tools like Peardeck and EDPuzzle make multimedia presentations much more interactive and engaging. Having regular one-to-one access isn’t a requirement for using these; there are creative ways of using these tools in a variety of settings. If you’re looking for technology tools to make work more efficient in your classroom, consider trying one of these.

Do you have favorite apps you use within your classroom? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Challenge of What Next

by Tricia Ebner

Even though it’s not the true middle of a the school year when the semester ends in mid-January, I’ve always viewed winter break as the midpoint in the year. I’ve found that this is a great time to pause and reflect on what my students have learned so far, and what we need to address in the coming months. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the big picture of what students need to learn and be able to do by the end of the school year when we’re working on the more detailed parts of skills like research, reading informational text, and writing arguments. It’s not a good feeling to return to school in January wondering, “Are we working on the right things?”pablo-29

Taking some time in December and early January to reflect on what we’ve done so far and what we still need to address is critical. I have several resources to help me reflect on what my students have learned, where our demonstrated needs are, and what I need to be sure I address in the coming months.

  • Lesson plans: I use a lesson planning web site for writing up my weekly plans. This site enables me to access my plans anywhere, and it also allows me to conduct an “audit” of the standards I’ve focused upon. This helps me ensure I’m not overlooking standards.
  • Student performance on assignments and activities: Looking through student work samples and my anecdotal notes also gives me information about what’s going well and what needs attention. I often ask students for their thoughts, too, and they are usually honest about what they know and what they don’t know. Occasionally they will surprise me and say they don’t really know a concept or particular skill, when their work suggests they do. That tells me they aren’t yet confident, so I need to give them more opportunities to work with that and increase their confidence.
  • Progress monitoring information: I also use information from the benchmarking & progress monitoring assessments we use in my district. I appreciate having this “outside” perspective to provide another look at how my students are performing on particular skills.


This year I am seeing some results that have prompted me to consider changing my approach in the coming months. For example, the eighth graders I teach are generally performing well. There are no major gaps in our work so far. However, I am not seeing the kind of growth I want for them. This has prompted me to look carefully at the kinds of activities I’ve used in past years, and I’ve already eliminated one option, a literature-heavy unit, in favor of one that has a better balance of literature and informational text. I am now considering a couple of options I’ve never used before.

On the other hand, the growth I’ve seen in my seventh graders’ reading and vocabulary skills in the past quarter has been impressive. They have been focused on a unit that utilizes text sets and integrates academic vocabulary, reading, speaking, listening, and writing skills in a beautifully seamless way. Seeing how powerful this has been for the seventh graders has prompted me to consider how I might revamp activities in all of my classes to incorporate more text sets..

Over the winter break, I’ll spend time reading and making decisions about next steps for my students. I’ll get some plans sketched out, and in January, as my classes wrap up the second quarter and get ready to launch the third, I’ll continue reflecting on what student work is showing me about what we still need to learn. Taking time now to consider where we are and what we still need to do helps me ensure we’re addressing the standards and students’ needs, supporting their ongoing growth this year. A little time in reflection now can pay off in the months ahead.

For more information on using text sets, check out Char Shryock’s blog post found here.

Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.


What do I do with this data?

by Tricia Ebner

Within the past couple of weeks, the emails started arriving. Our administration was pablo (11)sending out the individual student results for last spring’s Ohio AIR assessments. Naturally I was curious as to how my students performed last spring, so I began looking at those results. Then I received a couple of files for the incoming students. As I looked over columns of numbers, the question raised itself in my head: what do I do with all this data?

I don’t want to sound like consider the data isn’t important; I know that it is. But as I am preparing myself, both mentally and practically, for the coming school year, part of me wants to set the data to the side and look at it “later.” After all, I need to ready the classroom, plan those initial lessons to be very engaging, make sure I have a good handle on how the new computers work, and all those other intricacies and details of the opening day. Let’s face it: it takes time to sort through the information and make some notes about students’ performances on the assessments and what that might mean for the year ahead.

Let’s be honest: it’s time worth taking. There are some really good reasons to study and reflect on this data before the year begins. Rebecca Alber speaks about the value and use of state assessment data in her third point in this blog post from 2011.

When I take a step-by-step approach to this process, it’s easier to manage.

Step 1: Set aside the time for looking at the data. I actually make an appointment with myself to look over the data. Doing this reserves the space and prevents other activities from creeping in on that time I’ve set aside.

Step 2: Look over the data as a whole. I don’t initially focus on my students, whether past or incoming. Instead, I look at the overall picture of the grade level for my district. What was the highest score? What was the lowest? How many in total do we seem to have at each quintile? I’m not observe names or even recording exact numbers of students in each quintile. This gives me a “lay of the land” for how we performed overall, as a building.

Step 3: Look at the results of my particular students from the past year. I look to see who performed exactly as I expected. Who surprised me with a stronger-than-expected performance? Who surprised me with a weaker-than-expected performance? What do I now need to consider about my instruction for the year ahead, and how I might improve my practice?

Step 4: Look at the results of my incoming students. If I can, I’ll print out this information and keep it handy in a binder that I use for data. I know I’ll be referring to it throughout the year, so I may as well keep it handy. I make note of students who performed exceptionally well or rather poorly. I don’t yet make any firm decisions based on this data. It’s only one data point. If time permits, I’ll talk with teachers from the previous year to see what surprised them about student performance and what suggestions they might have for me.  

When students walk through my classroom door on the first day, I begin making my observations about their language arts skills. When I give our district assessment in late August or early September, I consider how whether each student’s performance matches what they did on last spring’s statewide assessment. Once I have more information about each student, I begin crafting lessons which target various needs within my classroom, using differentiation strategies such as tiered lessons to help me better address the range of strengths and needs within my students. I’m able to do this more efficiently because I’ve been gathering data since it became available, rather than waiting until I have a range of information in front of me.

This approach has worked for me in the past, and I anticipate it will continue working for me as this year begins. By collecting the information as it becomes available, I begin piecing together the puzzle of each student, so that hopefully I’ll have a clearer picture of each student’s needs within the first few weeks of the school year. Then we can maximize our learning and growth throughout the year. A few minutes with data now pays off in large dividends later. It’s time worth investing.

Dilemma: How to Set the Tone at the Beginning of the Year?

by Tricia Ebner

pablo (5)The old adage “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” holds an awful lot of truth when it comes to starting the school year. I felt that most keenly as a first-year teacher, facing my first class of 42 seniors in college-prep English. I wasn’t at all concerned about the seventh grade reading class I would see first in the day; I had student taught in seventh grade, in the fall semester, and had a very good sense of how I was going to begin the year with them. It was those seniors–many of whom were just  three years younger than me–that had me nervous. I knew they were going to scrutinize every single detail of the day: would I make their senior year in English easy, or a nightmare? I wanted to make a good first impression. So I outlined a syllabus, prepared a list of 10 classroom rules, and planned to spend the first period going over rules, expectations, and then hand them their first writing assignment.

I’m pretty sure many of them decided I was a nightmare.

Since that first day of that first year, I’ve changed a good deal about how I launch a year with my students. Yes, I want them to know and understand the rules and expectations. I want them to get the sense that we are going to work hard and learn lots. I also want them to recognize that I care about them, not only as learners but also as people. Finally, I want to start getting an idea of their personalities, likes and dislikes, and where they are in their learning. It’s a tall order for a first day of school.

There are a couple of strategies I use to help set  the tone for our year. First of all, I go over the rules and expectations, but just briefly. My list of class rules is now limited to just three:

  1.   Be on time and prepared for class.
  2.   Be responsible and do your best.
  3.   Be courteous and respectful to your classmates, classroom guests, teachers, and yourself.

I realized a few years ago that my list of 10-15 rules really just boiled down to these three, and I haven’t had issues with these. I give a couple of examples of what each of these means, spending about five minutes on these. Then I provide them with a “tour” of the classroom, so they know where to find the “emergency paper” (i.e., they ran out of paper last period), the golf pencils for when they’ve lost or forgotten theirs, the place where we turn in work, the books they are welcome to check out and read, and so on. I also practice the routine of filling out the student planner with them.

After those “housekeeping” issues, I ask them to complete a reading survey. This gives me a bit of an idea about their perspectives on reading, how many books they tend to read, and their favorite kinds of reading. It’s not really all that exciting, necessarily, but it helps me begin the process of getting to know reading skills and strengths. The anecdotal information I gather from the survey, along with data I have from previous district and state assessments, starting filling in the snapshot of each student’s skills so that I can make decisions about what additional information I need.

We finish the class with a “snowball fight.” The snowball fight requires a piece of notebook paper and a pencil. Students write down three interesting facts about themselves that they think no one else in the class knows about them. Then they crumple up their paper. Once everyone is ready, we hurl our “snowballs” across the room toward each other, and after a time of this, we stop with the paper we have in our hands. Then we take turns reading the papers and try to figure out which snowball belongs to which student. It’s a great way to get to know students and get them out of their seats a bit on what is sometimes a long first day of school.

Giving careful consideration to how I start off the school year has made a positive difference in the tone I set for the year ahead. I’m not sure I would’ve been brave enough to try the snowball fight activity with those 42 seniors on my first day of teaching, but I have learned that finding a balance between the “housekeeping” and engaging activities gives students a glimpse into our class. When those students leave my room with smiles on their faces and cheerful, “Have a good day!” and “See you tomorrow!” statements, I know we’re on the start of a positive adventure together.