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August 6, 2013 Five Easy Steps for Getting Your School Year Off to a Successful Start By Genia Connell
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    Every year when the calendar flips from July to August, I suddenly feel myself getting just a little bit nervous. I begin worrying that I’m missing a huge sale on markers or glue sticks somewhere. Buying those very first school supplies always makes me smile, because, truthfully, I haven’t changed much since I was in the 3rd grade. I still love getting ready to go back to school!

    From years of experience I know teaching isn’t just about what I do in the classroom from September until June. The key to a successful year involves a great deal of planning well before the first bell rings. This week I’m sharing the five most important things I do in order to get off to a successful and organized start each year.


    Reach Out to Parents and Students Before the Year Begins

    Getting to know my students can take longer than I like at the beginning of the year. Therefore, shortly before school starts, I prepare separate welcome letters for all my students and their parents. After introducing myself and giving them an idea of what to expect in the upcoming year, I ask parents to respond in writing with information about their child’s interests, learning styles, strengths and challenges, along with anything else they think I should know in order to create an effective learning environment for their child. The responses are usually honest and perceptive and always heartfelt. Each letter gets a personal response from me which helps foster a friendly relationship with the family early on.

    The student letter includes a mini homework assignment with detailed instructions on how to write a letter back to me. I also ask each student to bring in a favorite picture of themselves that we use in different ways throughout the year. These first pieces of student writing provide a great window into the thoughts of the students coming my way. They also let me see whose parents do their homework for them!

    While I start with the same basic letter, I personalize it as much as possible, especially if I know the family or the student. Making a connection early is vital for me and establishes with parents how important open lines of communication are to a successful year.  You can adapt my letter to fit your grade level and customize it with contact information or simply use it as a starting point for your own letters. I always file the letters away and enjoy pulling them out throughout the year as reminders of how much my boys and girls are learning, and how insightful their parents were. 


    Get Organized With an All-in-One Binder 

    After the letters are sent, gettingi myself organized is next on the agenda. Every year I put together a single binder that holds nearly everything I need. I used to carry a lesson plan book, grade book, and folders for this and that. Because I am on a never-ending quest to make my life easier, I discovered that putting everything together in one place is a great time-saver.  Now at the end of the day, I only have to grab my binder before I walk out the door, which leaves me plenty of time to look for my car keys!

    To put together my organizer, I print divider pages and put them into a sturdy three-ring binder with a plastic overlay. This year I am using new polka dot dividers, but I’ve also included last year’s blue and green dividers if you prefer that style. The cover sheet goes under the plastic, and I laminate the other sheets before adding them to the binder. The order of the pages is definitely your personal preference. The last pages of the binder pack include half sheets and smaller cards. The half sheets make great notes to send home throughout the year, and the smaller size frames work well as labels, name tags, or mini-notes for the kids.

    The fun part is filling up the binder. I’ve included some of the files I use if you would like to try them too. Look for more to come as the year progresses. Of course you will have to play around with my forms to make them suit your style and your class, but I hope you find them as helpful to your organization as I do. Below are some binder fillers to start the year:


    Prepare for a Substitute Teacher Before You Need One

    Is there anything worse than coming back after you’ve been out of the classroom and having your class greet you with, “You won’t believe what happened yesterday!” When you leave your children in someone else's hands, you want that person to be well prepared so the day goes smoothly and successfully. Being organized for a guest teacher is vital to your students' ability to learn in your absence.  When I have to be out of the classroom, I leave a comprehensive folder on my desk, along with my plans, to hopefully answer every question the substitute may have, or at the very least direct her to someone who can. You never know when you may unexpectedly be absent and being well prepared can certainly help avoid those next-day horror stories.


    Take Away the First Day Jitters

    When I was in elementary school I could hardly wait to get to school on the first day. I realize, however, that for some students the transition to a new grade can be scary. They’re not thinking about the joys of learning on day one, they are wondering who is in their class and if their teacher is going to be nice. Because I want my students to feel happy, safe and comfortable from the first moment they enter the room, I always follow a few simple guidelines on the first day of school. Much of what I do during the first few days can definitely be attributed to the wisdom of teacher and author Harry Wong, whom I heard speak at a reading conference years ago. His book, The First Days of School, should be on every teacher’s must read-list.



    Greet your students before school on the first day

    Our students line up outside in front of the building so I always head out there about ten minutes before the bell rings to meet and greet my new class. I introduce myself to each student in the line and welcome them. A big smile, a few kind words and a handshake or hug from the new teacher goes a long way in dispelling anxiety. 


    Label your classroom clearly with your name and grade level.

    In our building, moving to 3rd grade means going to a completely different side of the school. Every year on the first day I see it: a new 3rd-grader walking down the hallway, eyes darting left and right, not quite sure if they should pick the door on the left or take what's behind door number two on the right. Having a clearly labeled door takes away the fear many students have of walking into the wrong classroom on the first day of school. Making sure my students know they are in the right place takes away a lot of those first day jitters.


    Assign seats on the first day.

    Before the start of school I place a name tag on every desk. When students arrive, I ask them to hang up their backpacks and find their seats. Having a seat assigned automatically takes away any worries a student might have about where or by whom they should sit. I normally have students sit in the same spot for a couple of days, which gives me a pretty good idea of personalities, and who should or shouldn’t sit by each other. It’s at that point the name tags get taped to the desks permanently, and I make my first real seating chart.


    Put them to work right away.

    On every desk there is a sharpened pencil along with a word search titled "Who is in Room 14?" For some reason on the first day, students seem to wander in over an extended period of time. The boys and girls who are there keep busy solving the puzzle and excitedly discovering who their classmates will be this year. I use Puzzlemaker to create my word search, then copy and paste my puzzle to a Word document so I can change the puzzle size and the fonts.

    The second piece of work they do is titled "My First Day of 3rd Grade." Students fill these worksheets out and then table share what they wrote. This activity is a quick way to visually assess their writing abilities and see if they know basic information like their address and a phone number where they can reach a parent or guardian. I collect and file these papers, and the next time they see them is on the last day of school when they get passed back right after they finish a similar sheet, "The Last Day of 3rd Grade." Students absolutely love seeing how they wrote nine months earlier.


    Provide an icebreaker.

    Getting students out of their seats and purposefully talking to each other is a great way for new classmates to make connections.  One fun icebreaker I made is called "Autographs, Please!" It’s filled with activities that students may have done over vacation. Students try to talk with every member of the class, including me, in order to get a different signature in each box.

    Before this icebreaker begins, we discuss conversation skills such as introducing yourself, making eye contact and responding to a question. Every year, this activity seems to have an immediate impact on the classroom environment as students laugh and chat with each other in their quest to fill their sheet. These short conversations are often the start of new friendships in our room.


    Let them know what your class will be like.

    For the past ten years or so I have made treat bags for my students to give to them on the first day of school. As soon as they walk in the room students see the bags tagged with their names and the words "3rd Grade Survival Kit." Excitement builds through the day and they can hardly wait to find out what is inside. Each bag is filled with everyday items that symbolize some aspect of our year. Shortly before going home, we take all of the items out of our bags one by one and discuss their meaning. The items I have chosen for the bag let the students know they are in an encouraging environment where we will all look out for each other and where effort is expected and rewarded.


    Send a mini-newsletter home on the first day of school.

    Students aren’t the only ones with fears on the first day of school, and a mini-newsletter can do a lot to help parents know you will keep them in the loop throughout the year. This note lets parents know when our specials are, what time lunch is, our snack policy, etc. I also ask them to send me their e-mail information so I can quickly switch over to electronic communication.

    Hopefully some of these ideas will be helpful to you in your classroom as you start a new year. I find putting a little extra time and effort in at the beginning saves me a lot of time as the year goes on. Now, as long as I have been teaching, I am constantly looking for something fresh and better to try. I hope you’ll share a few of your ideas on how you start your year in the comment section, so I can learn from you! Next week I will be writing about books I use to get my school year started. What are your favorites? 




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