Teachers share the best tips, strategies, and shortcuts for starting the new school year.
The First Morning: The Formation of a Community
How one elementary school teacher establishes authority while putting her new students at ease
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
"Last year, right after lunch on the first day of school, a mother walked into my classroom with her son, Everett. He didn't come to school that morning because his mother didn't think it was very important." Teacher Minty O'Brian is describing an incident that forced her to realize that by the first afternoon of the first day her class had already become a community.
"Because Everett arrived in class a few hours after the other children, he became 'the new kid' when he showed up that afternoon. That's how powerful the morning's learning experience is for my students."
Minty has taught every grade in her K–5 school. "I want to know where they've been and where they're going!" she tells me. Her procedure for the first morning of the first day is the same — with minor variations — no matter what grade she's teaching. She sets a tone of respect and decency that gives students structure and comfort. She establishes routines with her students. "When you assume the best motives for your students — and when they know what it is they are supposed to do — you can almost see the anxiety of that first morning vanish."
How Minty O'Brian Gets Her Students Off to the Right Start
After the children are settled at their desks, Minty begins teaching them nonverbal signals that she uses with consistency throughout the year.
She models how to sit "comfortable and tall" — which eventually becomes "comfortably tall" as the year progresses. "If you need to be reminded to sit comfortable and tall I will tap your shoulder." She does, and every child sits up. Nonverbal clues are a respectful way to remind students about procedures they might have forgotten. Such signals diminish the teacher's voice as an enforcer and make for a much more peaceful environment.
Moving her chair is another nonverbal signal that Minty repeats daily. "When you see me pull my chair over to the side of the room and sit down, that should be a signal for you to come up and sit down. Please cross your arms in front of you and place your whole body so that you can see me." When the children are seated "comfortably tall" Minty reads them Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault, illustrated by Lois Ehlert) or another story or poem that requires choral reading or responses from the class. "Chick-a-Boom/Chick-a-Boom Boom Boom. . . " they repeat with obvious delight.
This procedure allows for differences in learning. Students who are able to move ahead by themselves are free to begin; they are not held up with questions that have little meaning for them. Those who need more attention learn to ask the questions that will help Minty guide their learning.
Raggedy Ann Is My Best Friend
Raggedy Ann is my best friend
She's just so relaxed
Just watch her bend
First from the waist
Then from the knee
Her arms are swinging
Oh, so free
Her head rolls around
Like a rubber ball
She hasn't any bones at all
But Raggedy Ann
Can stand up tall.
Minty taps her shoulder, reminding the class to stand tall. "Listen to the poem and watch Raggedy." She twists and turns the doll, letting it flop around. She moves her limbs and body in a loose and easy way. She's obviously enjoying herself as she repeats the poem. "Now it's your turn," she tells the students. Even the most shy have now joined in. Everyone loves being silly.
A Step-by-Step Morning Routine
She greets children warmly. "You can sit wherever you want to right now." Minty greets each student as they enter the classroom. She modulates her voice to maintain a soft and relaxed tone. "Later I'm going to change the seats." Minty reserves the right to place children in seating patterns, but she makes that information clear to the class right away.
- She uses nonverbal cues. "You are able to sit longer and to pay attention if you center your body in your seat."
- She allows for differences in learning styles and pace. "You may go back to your seat and write a story. Or you may stay on the rug and ask me a question." Minty begins to model the routine that will follow their coming together. Beginning the next day she will use this time to teach a mini-lesson in the writing process and introduce a concept in math. Those who have no questions are free to return to their seats and work on the open-ended problems in writing or math. Those who have questions remain on the rug.
She establishes herself as the authority. When many children appear to have finished their first assignment Minty says to the class, "See if you can find a space in the room where you can stand without touching the furniture or one another. Make sure you have room to move your arms." Minty models for the class. Soon they are all stationed around the classroom. "Make sure you can all see my eyes." This time she establishes herself as the authority.
- She introduces a fun activity. When every eye is on her she picks up a large rag doll. "I'd like to introduce you to my friend, Raggedy Ann."
- Good posture indicates respect. "Do you remember how you were supposed to sit?" Can you return to your seats and show me?" Minty has brought the procedures full circle. She tries to seat the doll, but Raggedy slumps all over herself. "Why can't the doll sit 'beautiful and tall'?"
The children offer several reasons. Minty focuses on two: It doesn't have a brain. It has no bones. Minty uses this discussion to reinforce the ideas that we're different from Raggedy Ann, because humans use a brain to think and because they have a structure in their bodies that supports good posture.
It's time for lunch. Minty has used this first morning in a carefully sequenced way to introduce the experience of being a member of a caring community. She has also prepared students for their afternoon science lesson on the human body! As the weeks continue she will add additional procedures. Each will be taught deliberately through modeling, demonstration, practice, and validation.
Other Procedures to Practice During the First Weeks of School
- Bathroom routines
- Moving to partner or group work
- Getting paper or other materials to begin task
- Walking through the halls
- Solving a problem without first asking the teacher for help
- Caring for pets, plants, and materials in the classroom
- Putting books and materials away after they have been used
Excerpted from Nancy Letts' book, Creating a Caring Classroom