Before diving in to the academics of the school year, prioritize learning more about your students as the full and complete people they are. All students come to our classrooms with full and complete lives comprised of many aspects that should be both appreciated and celebrated. Their experiences, interests, and backgrounds need to be fully seen and celebrated if they are to feel like valued members of the classroom community.
Taking the time to really get to know your students will build their trust in you, deepen your relationship with them, and enable you to better make decisions about language to use, books to seek out, and so much more regarding reading instruction. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, when you get to know and celebrate your students for the people they are, they will feel more comfortable and confident in celebrating themselves and each other.
Classroom Practices to Better Learn ABout Your Students During the First Weeks of School
- Start your school days with a morning meeting, or as I like to call it, morning circle, where we all sit in a large circle facing each other. Pose questions for students to consider and verbally answer to get to know them (*note- it’s also important to allow students to pass. It takes some more time to feel comfortable speaking in front of the whole group, and this should always be respected). Also, in addition to you getting to know students, this will enable students to learn more about each other. Choose a question or two each day that applies to all students. Avoid questions about material possessions, vacations, and anything that would not equitably apply to all students. Some questions to get you started might include:
- What is something you enjoy doing with your family?
- What is a favorite food you like to eat at home?
- What is one activity you like to do outside of school?
- What is something that makes you smile?
- What is one special thing you’d like to share with all of us?
TIP: Also be sure to share your answers to these questions as well. Students are more likely to share their lives with us when we also share our lives with them.
- Prioritize conferring from day one. If you’ve read this blog or any of my writing before, you know that conferring is the most trusted tool in my teacher toolbox. A conference is a one on one conversation between two people. It can be instructional or just informational. Contrary to what some might say, there are no required steps to a conference, especially to a conference with the purpose of getting to know another person. A bonus of engaging in casual conversation conferences during the first couple weeks of school is that doing so will also build students’ comfort level with conferring when instructional conferences begin. To start beginning of the school year conferences, simply sit beside students one at a time, ask if you can join them for a minute or so to chat, ask a thoughtful question, and listen. Students should do most of the talking. A casual conference can start with
- How are you enjoying school so far?
- What has been your favorite part of our first couple school days together.
- Do you have any suggestions for our classroom?
TIP: After the short conversation, end the conference with a celebratory statement. A simple, “I am so glad we chatted and am so glad you’re in my class this year!”
- Give students lots of time to chat with each other. One of the best ways to get to know students, and to help them get to know each other and find comfort in the classroom, is to offer multiple opportunities throughout each day for them to chat with each other. While they are chatting, listen in to learn more. But, be sure to listen rather than talk so they are the ones setting the tone and topics for the conversations. Here are a few simple ways to do this within the first days of school:
- One thing: In table groups, or in small groups of 3-5, ask students to find one thing they all have in common outside of school. Encourage students to start by simply asking each other basic questions– How many siblings do you have? Do you play or watch any sports? Do you enjoy music? etc. I’ve been doing this activity for years, and I can safely say there is no other activity that provides nearly as much information about students in a short amount of time! As students do this, I roam around the room and listen in. When groups have found one thing, ask them to find another. Students of all ages absolutely love this activity as it gives them a safe space to share their lives and get to know the lives of their classmates.
- Free choice time: Providing students with free choice time a few times within the first couple weeks of school enables me to learn their preferences in activities, listen in to authentic student conversation that naturally occurs, and allows me to see whether students prefer to work with others, independently, or a mix of the two. During free choice time, students may choose to read, draw, write, play/build with blocks, play games, work on puzzles, and more. They may choose to do things with others or independently. They are also free to change their minds and try something new!
TIP: Free choice time does not mean unstructured time or a free-for-all. Prior to the first free choice time, sit down with students to co-create a set of norms for this time. A co-creation of norms is a community builder within itself as it gives students voice and choice in classroom procedures.
At the end of the first two weeks of school, sit down before or after school one day to list three outside-of-school asset-based facts or celebrations you’ve learned about each of your students. Doing this not only solidifies your learning about your students, but it will also show you which students you will still need to learn more about. The first step in building any community, reading or otherwise, is learning about and then celebrating its members. Dr. Gholdy Muhammad reminds us, and I strongly agree that, “It is our job as educators to not just teach skills, but also to teach students to know, validate, and celebrate who they are.” Once you celebrate your students as the people they are, it opens up space for them to celebrate themselves in the classroom community. There is nothing more important in education.
Up Next in the Series: #2: Make Use of Browsing Boxes From the Start. All posts in this blog series can be found linked here. To learn more about making the effort to get to know your students in order to build a reading community, pages 10-15 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading offer more practices and methods.