Getting Off to a Good Start

Teaching Ideas to Begin the Year

As another school year begins, teachers once more confront the problem of establishing a productive and creative classroom environment.

Rethinking Schools has solicited from classroom teachers and educators some hints on how to get off to a good start. Whether you are a new teacher or an “old hand,” we hope this exchange of ideas will be helpful.

Asking Students What the Year might Hold

A week before school begins, I send postcards to the new children, telling them how much I am looking forward to meeting them.

When school starts, I take the time to talk with them about their expectations: “What do you think kindergarten will be like?-” “What do you hope we will do?” “What’s scarey?”

I use one bulletin board to involve the children immediately. For example, I might post a yellow school bus and have each child draw a picture of his or her face to put ift the bus or have a large clown on the board ready to hold balloons, print each child’s name on hisAier favorite color balloon, and place the balloons on the board.

Joan Janus
Benjamin Franklin Elementary School
Franklin, Wisconsin

High Expectations and Cross-Cultural Role Playing

I will be spending this school year teaching in London on a Fulbright Exchange. I am uncertain exactly what I will do, but I am certain that it will include “get acquainted” activities, perhaps cross cultural role playing. For example, I might assign a child to describe what s/he thinks it would be like as a 10 year old in December in Milwaukee, Modesto, or Miami. They could then assign me a role to describe and we could discuss each others’ answers.

What I have found works best for me is to have high expectations and communicate them to the kids; be fair, firm and flexible and indulge in massive doses of humor on a daily basis. We will set clear, positive classroom rules with the students’ help.

I use a deck of playing cards with each child’s name written on a card with a grease pencil. This forms a fair and impartial way to select students-for groups and assignments. After the cards are shuffled, I have one student cut the deck. Each child thus has an equal chance to be chosen, and there is no squabble over the “luck of the draw.”

Jim O’Grady
10 and 11 year olds
The Firs,

Individualizing Curriculum Goals

During the first week of school we spend our time getting to know each other… lots of human scavenger hunts, values clarification, team projects, etc. Teachers spend the whole week drawing out-and listening to the stories of student lives. Where do they live? What happens in their lives on a regular basis? Are they in gangs? Are they in love? What was school like for them last year? How do they feel about themselves?

Only after this thorough investigation do we meet as a staff to plan curriculum on goals for individual students. We find that each year our ‘Student body (25 students) brings with it new and different contradictions that must be resolved.

Students, by the way, enjoy this week and find that they have plenty of time to relax and get to know each other instead of disrupting classes by talking anyway. 

Ellen Smith
Turning Point
8th and 9th grades

Learning Groups

I have students from their learning groups. After a couple of weeks when they know each other, they have a chance to regroup if they want to. The learning groups stay together throughout the semester. These groups work together in activities such as skits, compositions, projects, worksheets, exercises-and quizzes. Work receives a group grade, so each member shares the responsibility of making sure everyone does a good job.

This is a cooperative education/peer tutoring technique which makes students feel more comfortable in class, encourages them to be-freer to participate and to express their feelings and needs, and makes them more capable of success.

They share actively, with the teacher, the responsibility for their learning. There’s no place for passivity under such conditions! I find that cooperative techniques are more democratic and give students an opportunity to participate in classroom management. It also establishes a less threatening classroom environment and fosters creativity.

Mayra Besosa
San Clemente High School
San Clemente, California

Active Math from Day One

This will be my first teaching assignment. after some occasional subbing last year. Goals are easy to establish-ways to get there are more difficult!

I intend to shake up my students from their last school experience and to demonstrate the difference in this classroom. For instance, I want to plan two or three outdoor math-related activities for the first two Weeks of class.

It is important to establish and communicate a climate of mutual respect. I will find out something personal about each student during the first week and let students know something about myself. I also hope to help students to learn something personal about themselves through a non-threatening classroom activity, such as a left-handedness/right-handedness ratio measurement test.

Establishing discipline procedures and not allowing classroom behavior such as inattentiveness and doodling to turn into discipline problems is essential. One of my goals is to me every minute count — don’t waste time — have something students can start on on their own before class officially begins. I am resolved not to tolerate interruptions and irrelevancies that are not positive, and so I will be prepared with an extra pile of books and pencils. “I forgot my book” will not be an acceptable excuse.

I think it is also important to bring something to your subject area that is exciting to you and that you can explain to your students in a non-technical, interesting and challenging way which allows them to share your enthusiasm.

Jeff Falk
Cochrane-Fountain City High School
Fountain City, Wisconsin

Easing in, Eavesdropping and Generating Themes from Students’ Lives

I, like every other teacher, no matter how long s/he has been teaching, get anxious when the new semester is about to begin. I really want to do my best, and I want to set up a warm working relationship with the students. At the same time, I want the students to have a warm working relationship with each other.

I spend lots of time and effort reviewing old agendas, readings, student papers, class plans and notes–boiling it all down and focusing on the courses I am going to teach. I reflect on how successfully various techniques and activities have been in the past: How have students responded to the various invitations and interventions which I have tried? What has been the most productive; what has been the most unproductive?

I try to anticipate various problems-the nitty-gritty and day-to-day things that may come up—what makes things move and what clots things up.

I get to school early in order to allow myself the chance to calm down from the craziness of commuting-to situate myself calmly in a very hectic environment.

When walking the corridors, I eavesdrop on student conversations, attempting to learn what students are talking about By listening in the hallways, or by finding some relevant topic in the news the day before class begins, I try to enter the classroom prepared a topic which I can discuss casually in order to create a transition from everyday life to the classroom situation: “Did you hear about…?” “Did you see that..?” “Do you know what I heard…?” In that way I get the students thinking and speaking and it makes it easier for them to talk.

I begin by having the students interview their classmates, after which they report what they have learned and I take notes and ask questions. We all try to see how many names we can remember. All this is an attempt to make the students feel that I am really policing who they are and that I am interested in them, and to humanize and personalize the classroom experience from the very beginning, as much as possible.

After answering any questions which the students may have atout the course, I am prepared with an activity diat gives the students a chance to interact together around the subject matter of the course. Following a period of writing, they’ll read their papers to each other and we’ll have more discussion. I might* ask them to suggest themes they may want to talk about, or list the questions or words that are most important to them. I ask them to take these lists home to use as a reservoir for themes.

By this time the class is over, and we have gotten through the first day or two, which is a great relief to me and everyone else.

I might add that it helps-to show enthusiasm for doing the subject and to express a hope that, having enjoyed doing it in the past, I look forward to doing it again.

Ira Shor
Writing Skills
Community College of Staten Island
New York City

Getting Down to Business

Each fall, as my own children have begun their school year. I’ve followed along with the usual parent’s questions, wanting to find out about the new classes and teachers. Last year, at the end of the first week, my daughter’s remarks led me to believe that her teachers had spent their summer in a classroom management workshop.

“All they did all week,” she reported angrily, “was yell at us about their rules. They all seemed to be mad at us, and we hadn’t even done anything yet.

I’m prepared to discount her complaint a bit, knowing how teenagers use the word “yell.” But her generalization probably did reflect a pattern of emphasis during the first week on presentations by teacher of their procedures, rules, grading policies, etc.

This sort of emphasis is what a certain line of research about management recommends. It is called “getting off to a good start,” and it is quite in vogue.

My daughter also reported one teacher’s failure to follow the pattern. Her Latin teacher simply began, on the first day, to teach Latin. An anxious student asked him about his grading policy.

“We’ll get around to that later,” the teacher said-eager to get back to his introduction to the idea that Latin is an inflected language.

My daughter thought he was the one teacher who got off to a good start, and I am glad she thought that It shows she had an idea about what school should get started with as they seek to get it started well.

Richard Weston
Curriculum and Instruction
Supervisor of Secondary Level Student Teachers
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee