The pressure to begin

Tuesday was our first day of school with the kids.  Unlike last year, I have not looped with these students. This year, everything starts at the beginning. And that is most definitely an overwhelming prospect when we teachers begin to think about what routines need to be taught. When I prepare for those first days, the burning question is “what do I want this to look like in our classroom at the end of the year?”

So much of this first week is not academic; it’s procedural. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Many education experts advocate for building the classroom culture over the first six weeks of school. However, the pressure to start academics weighs on all of us – administrators and teaching staff. When assessments are scheduled for the first month of school, there’s an implication that the academics have become the focus fairly early in the year.

In the Daily 5, reading stamina – the amount of uninterrupted time students read with focus – is built one minute a day, one day at a time.  Starting at 3 minutes, I need 27 school days (5+ weeks) to build reading stamina to 30 minutes daily (a minimal goal for fourth graders).  And when I take a shortcut to get to this goal? Well, that’s when some less-than-ideal behaviors pop up. Building purposeful habits can’t be rushed.

So if all these culture-building steps create a safe and vibrant classroom environment for kids, why don’t we just do it?

The pressure to start curriculum too soon is strong. Even experienced veterans start to feel the nagging pressure to be at a particular spot in the curriculum by a date carved into a calendar.  Am I trusted to assess my own students’ needs, design and deliver the instruction to take them from their entry point to where they need to be at this grade level?

I’m not sure I am.


Music To The Rescue

In a past life I was a musician and a music teacher.  While I lacked the talent and drive to become a professional musician, music has always been something I’ve enjoyed.

In our classroom, when students need to complete a transition from one activity to the other – for example, universal breakfast clean up to Morning Meeting – we play music. We began the year with Pachelbel and are working on Bach at the moment.

My students love to talk – usually to me and all at once –  they talk a LOT. And while I understand and encourage this as part of their processing and language acquisition, it can get pretty loud. When we’re in Writing Workshop, there are definitely times I want them talking out loud, but there are times when I’d like them “talking” with their pencils and pens.

One day this week, as I was preparing to release my students to their writing tasks, I started explaining to them that I would like to begin experimenting with background music during Writing Workshop.  As I write – even now – we have classical music playing in the background so why not?  This was, as many things about teaching are, unplanned.

It was not an instant success — it took a couple of starts before I could convince my students that they didn’t need to try to talk over the music. But over the course of the last three days, the background conversations – the ones that were not about writing – have been replaced so that Writing Workshop is most definitely a more focused work period.

Yesterday, one of my friends approached me in amazement saying “we wrote quietly the whole time!” And so they did.  Music to the rescue.

Start Up

The first days of a school year always challenge me. Often, I feel like I’m not, you know, getting anywhere. Last week (northeastern Massachusetts schools often begin before Labor Day unlike many districts inside of Route 123), was no different. As my students came into the classroom I came to the panicked realization that they weren’t even aware of the expectations for arrival routines!

What to teach that first day when there are so many critical and essential things to be taught when there are so many essentials? As an enthusiastic Daily Five fan, applying the 10 Steps to Independence to basics seems natural — we’ve applied it to walking in the hallway, to getting started on the day and closing off  a good day’s work, even to fire drill practice.

We’ve got a long way to go before the day moves seamlessly. But we are well on the way to student independence, to building an environment in which I can trust students to make good choices about their learning – an in which my  students can trust me to guide them when needed.

Where to begin…..

The first weeks of school, as every teacher will tell you, are spent setting up and refining routines.  I find our school’s decision to use the principles of the Responsive Classroom provides lots of guidance and reminders on building a classroom community.

This morning, I watched a refresher on one of the most basic of routines: moving through the hallway. This video of Caltha Crowe talking, modeling, and practicing transitioning in a hallway reminds me of the essential teaching that takes place those first days: watch here.

Teaching students acceptable routines for behavior in school (and out!) is an immense undertaking. Explaining the reason for the rule, engaging students in the rule’s creation, modeling and practice-practice-practice — all is exhausting during those first weeks when we, too, are getting used to a more structured routine.

Is it worth the time and effort? I believe it is. Whenever a class routine disconnect happens, I can usually trace the problem back to the source – me! I wasn’t explicit, I didn’t provide adequate modeling or practice.

And the process will begin next Tuesday at 8:30.