I saw an aspen tree for the first time about seven years ago. Within an instant the aspen’s white bark, simple leaves, and movement in the wind tugged at my gaze. The aspen is a gorgeous tree. I later discovered the aspen tree is so much more than itself. There is really no such thing as a lone aspen. One aspen is actually part of a bigger organism, the root system of the aspen extends over a large area and produces multiple aspen that connect to each other. I just oversimplified this amazing organism, but it is fascinating that aspen are not independent trees, but a community that thrives together. We should be so lucky to be connected like the aspen are.
I have many goals as an educator, but when I begin a new school year the primary goal is building a community of learners. I want the classes I learn with to feel like a stand of aspens. My hope is that all of us will be better learners because we connect with each other. And hopefully these connections will move us toward a common goal of being empowered learners and more active citizens in our school and community. The work I expect to do the first month of the school year will be difficult, but I know it is vitally important if we are to progress as learners.
The Commitments I Make During the Beginning of a School Year.
Listen, listen and then listen some more: Years ago I was fortunate enough to learn from Max Brand when I did my year of training to become a literacy coordinator. The learning was intense, but incredibly rewarding. One of the major concepts that was repeatedly reinforced that year was to watch the students and listen to the students. Over time I have become better at using the idea of “kidwatching” to refine my practice. While you should always be willing to listen to your students, there is no more important time than the beginning of the year to commit to listening to your students. Let them have some voice in the room, it will pay off later in the year.
Find ways to learn more about my students: I work hard at the beginning of the year to help establish some norms for classroom discussions and independent work time. During the time I work to help establish the norms, I often chose activities that allow the students to share about themselves. Specifically their lives outside of school. I used to use a lot of surveys and checklists. You probably know the ones I am picturing now; a sheet of paper with 10-15 questions like “what is your favorite movie” or “how many people are in your family.” I still sometimes will pull together something like that if I want to know very specific things about my students, but now I do most of this information gathering in different ways. Informal questions like, “What is the best movie ever?” turn into prompts for when we are working on building norms for classroom discussions. Or they turn into quick-write prompts for when we are working on building norms for independent work time.
Intentionally plan community building time: Even though I know time is precious in a middle school, I know I need to plan specific activities that on the surface may seem like they have nothing to do with language arts. Every year I look for new community building or team building activities that help students connect and work together. Sometimes these activities look like something that you would expect to find in a science lab (paper airplanes and egg drops) or an art class (heart maps and personal logo design), but the point of these activities are to help the kids work together and learn more about each other when we begin the school year. I know based on the research and work of Neil Mercer, Brian Cambourne and others that creating classroom conditions where students can help each other learn from each other as much or more than they can learn from me is a key to success. It is hard to get to a place where we are a learning community if we don’t know each other well.
Actively seek the thoughts and opinions of my students: It took me a long time as an educator to seek out the opinions of my students about how the learning was happening in the room we shared. I am not sure of the root cause for not asking for student advice, but for the better part of 10-15 years it never occurred to me to genuinely ask for feedback from my students. Now it happens many times a year. During the beginning of the year I ask for feedback about the room enironment. I ask questions like, “Are the desks and tables arranged well?”, “Are the norms for learning helping you learn?”, and “Does the classroom library need any updates?” When I ask for feedback it can hurt a little, but then I remember that student learning is really not about me, it is about them. And if there are little things that I can do to help make the environment for learning better, then I should do them.
Remember that to get to depth in learning we need to be ready to learn together: During the first weeks of the year, it is hard to dig deep into content for many reasons. Yet, I will still find myself getting nervous when I hear colleagues sharing stories about being on their second writing project or they have already had three formative assessments completed. Whenever I make the mistake of pushing curricular goals ahead of community goals, the learning later in the year suffers. It is not like the students are just sitting around doing nothing, but I need to remind myself that focus is on the kids and the community those first few weeks.
Choose kind: The beginning of the school year is difficult. As teachers, we can be overly tired and stressed. Our students may be having difficulty adjusting to new schedules and expectations. This is why I commit to choosing kind in the classroom. It is easy when you are not at your best to lash out at someone for something you don’t appreciate. I know I have barked at students in the first few weeks, days or maybe even minutes of school. I am sure it will happen again because I make mistakes, but I do commit to choosing kind and when I make a mistake I will work to correct it and make amends with the student. It is difficult to establish a learning community in a classroom when the lead learner acts in ways that are detrimental to the concept of community.
“The smartest person in the room is the room itself” is a quote from author/technologist David Weinberger that I have heard many times. I truly believe that Weinberger is correct. However, in his book, Too Big to Know, Weinberger also wrote, “Even if the smartest person in the room is the room itself, the room does not magically make all those who enter smart.” In his book, Weinberger focuses on the role of rapidly evolving role information and technology in our society, but I think the notion that the “room doesn’t magically make all those who enter smarter” is a good thing to grasp when thinking about the beginning of a school year. We can’t expect a community of learners to magically appear. We need to help cultivate our communities, by taking time and doing some work.
Remember the aspen I shared at the beginning of this post? Another interesting thing about the aspen is its extensive root system can lie dormant for decades before producing trees. It will only produce trees under the right environmental conditions. We all start the school year with dormant communities in our rooms. Whether they blossom or stay dormant will depend on the right environmental conditions emerging.