The First Days of School: Laying the Groundwork for a Year of Rich Conversation

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
― Stephen KingOn Writing

The First Days of School. The endless possibilities stretch out before us, the days ahead lined up like neat little packages, waiting to be opened. Even if we are returning to a room full of children we already know well, who they’ll become under our guidance in this new year remains to be seen. There is so much to do in the year ahead. We have so many plans, so many ideas we’ve tossed around all summer long. So why, when faced with an empty plan book opened to the first weeks of school, does it seem we have to spend so much time covering “basics” before getting to the real work?

Some popular start-of-the-year agenda items include:

  • Tours of the classroom (or school)
  • Getting-to-know-you activities or ice breakers
  • Debriefs about rules, procedures, and expectations
  • Setting up and organization of materials
  • Sharing of agendas and/or syllabi
  • Introductions to subject-specific content

All of the above serve a purpose in giving students information they need at the start of the year. However, the way in which these agenda items are presented goes a long way toward laying the foundation for the ways in which our students will participate in the classroom community. Will they be bystanders, waiting to be ushered into the day’s plan, or will they be participants, actively engaged in constructing the ways in which they will behave, learn, and think?

It goes without saying that kids learn just as much from how we say things as they do from what we say. When giving introductions and presenting rules and procedures, we must consider the way in which we present them. Is our language inclusive or exclusive? Are we using first classroom experiences to establish ourselves as the authority figure, or are we using them set up a community of co-learners?

Below are five tips (and one bonus tip) for orchestrating whole-class conversations at the beginning of the school year that build community and lay the groundwork for more rich conversations to come.

  • Begin with authentic questions. Whether you are a classroom veteran or novice, you likely have some ideas about the way in which you would like your classroom to run. You know which rules and procedures feel particularly important and you would like to establish an environment in which these rules are respected. It’s likely that your students have some ideas about classroom expectations and norms. Before launching into your expectations, why not ask students how they think an ideal classroom should be organized? You may find that many students already understand what is expected of them without you having to tell them, and you may find that you get some new ideas after hearing theirs. Most importantly, when students help to author the expectations for the class, their investment in them will increase exponentially.
  • Let students lead. Although it is so easy to default to that standard way of running a discussion, hands raised, teacher calling on one at a time (often the same few), there is magic that happens when we say to students, “put your hands down. I’m not going to call on anyone. Just speak when you have something to say.” Doing this sends the message that your students’ voices are just as valuable as yours, and that you trust that they can participate without shouting all over each other. Of course, you will also be conducting a kind of informal assessment. You will find out right away whether students can listen to each other, take turns speaking, connect their ideas to previous ones, or whether they need more guidance from you about how to conduct an effective discussion. It may well be that your students’ stamina for this kind of conversation is at about five minutes. If this is the case, keep in mind that marathon runners must train their way into their levels of stamina, simply make a note, and use the experience as valuable data to plan your teaching.
  • Encourage listening. The single most effective way to encourage your students to listen to each other right from the start is to listen to them. One way to model that you are listening is to repeat parts of class conversations in a way that shows you are really trying to understand. “So what I hear you saying is…” This simple phrase carries so much meaning. Its subtext is, “I am listening. What you are saying is important, and I want to understand it.” It is a phrase that will hopefully become integral to your classroom culture as your students learn to say it to each other in an attempt to truly understand.
  • Shift your focus from content to skills. As teachers, of course we must plan with learning outcomes in mind. We bring to each interaction an agenda: “Today I will cover X, Y, and Z.” However, there is power in letting go of some of the content outcomes and shifting our intentions to some of the skills outcomes that will serve students well no matter what they are learning. One such outcome is that they learn to use talk as a way to explore ideas, to question their previous thinking, and to ask, “what if?” Approaching discussions in this way can be incredibly effective whether the topic is how to organize a social studies notebook or who instigated the Boston Massacre.
  • Teach connective language. The Common Core State Standards for Opinion and Informational Writing highlight the use of words and phrases to link ideas and information. A perfect place to practice using these words and phrases before practicing them in writing is in talk. The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has long suggested using “thought prompts” to help students make connections between ideas in conversations and in writing. These thought prompts, including phrases such as: For example… This is important because…, On the other hand…, and What I’m starting to realize is…  are taught as part of early essay work as a way to connect ideas and help kids to grow their thinking through writing. (You can see examples of these phrases in action in the 4th Grade book Personal and Persuasive Essay, part of the new series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing.) Teach students a few simple phrases early in the year to help them to connect their ideas to those of others in conversations. Making these prompts visible in a chart such as the one below and referring to them often will ensure that these phrases become an ingrained part of the way students talk, and eventually, the way that they think.

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And the bonus tip:

  • Establish a place for humor. The old adage that teachers shouldn’t smile until December has long been retired. And what a better place to show that a little bit of humor is ok than in conversations about  rules and procedures. True, that may seem counterintuitive. But letting students see that it’s acceptable to laugh at ourselves when we make mistakes (or when we even talk about making mistakes) will show them that you are all in it together, and that your plan for the year is to, as Donna Santman, author of Shades of Meaning, has said, “love your students into being.”

Welcome back to school! I look forward to sharing thoughts, tips, and stories with you this year about classroom discussions and building literacy skills though talk.

Anna