How to build community the first days of school

“How has your first day been?”

“Pretty good,” replied my student shrugging. “Pretty boring.”

I watched as she tucked my class syllabus into her binder along with those for the three other classes she had attended so far that day.

“Do we need to keep this?” another student asked, holding up the Get to Know You bingo sheet he had just half-heartedly completed. I replied that he didn’t, and he crumpled it up to throw into the trash on his way out of class.

In that moment, I wished I had a do-over for my first day of school plan. I thought about the fact that these students had to attend seven class periods where they had done some variation of the same monotonous tasks: go over the syllabus, play superficial games, fill out information cards, and survive navigating the first day of school for another year. I decided then and there that I wanted the first days in my classroom to be meaningful and engaging for the students in my classes. I wanted them to leave the first day looking forward to returning the next, and the next, and the next. I wanted to spend those first days building relationships with and among my students.

As the new school year approaches, I am again beginning to plan what those first few days in my class will look like. As teachers across the country do the same, here are some activities that I have used in the past to begin building my classroom community from day one.

Bookstack Bookswap

As soon as my students enter my room, I want them to know that we are a community of readers. I have a decently sized classroom library, and one of the first things that students notice when they enter my room is that they are surrounded by books. By doing this activity during the first few days, I ensure that every student in my class has a book in hand, ready for independent reading. However, it also gives me a chance to informally talk with students about their reading habits, what genres they like, and whether or not they see themselves as a reader. As Jim Bailey pointed out in his excellent post, talking books with students is a gateway to building relationships with students.

How it works: Before each class period, I place a random stack of five books on each student desk. As students enter the room, I tell them to browse the stacks and have a seat at whichever desk they would like. Once everyone is present, I introduce myself and explain to students that before they leave, every student will choose any book in my classroom to keep and begin reading for their independent reading book. I explain the rules of the Bookstack Bookswap: (1) They can exchange a book with any student if they want a book another student has, (2) They can exchange a book with any book on the shelf, (3) Once they have their book, they record their name and book title in my checkout notebook. At first students are hesitant to get up and moving, but once they do, the room becomes a hub of activity. Students are browsing my bookshelves and talking to one another as they exchange books. I use the time to check-in with students, recommend books, meet each student, learn how to pronounce their name, and take attendance.

M&M Venn Diagram

During the first few days, I want students talking and learning more about their classmates. A couple years ago, I came across the M&M activity on Pinterest. This is a fun way for students to get to know a little bit about one another, and it often sparks longer conversations as students discuss their interests. At the end of the year, students STILL talk about doing the M&M activity at the beginning of the year, and I have even adapted it during the middle of the year to be a close reading exercise.

How it works: Before school starts, I buy a couple bags of the fun size M&M packages. I create a handout that assigns a task to each color — red means share what movies/TV shows you like to watch, blue means share a hobby, etc. (There are many examples already created that can be tweaked to fit your classroom.) When students enter the classroom, they each get a fun-sized bag of M&Ms and each table pair receives a blank piece of paper. Each pair takes turn drawing an M&M color and sharing that piece of information with their partner. Together, they create a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts their likes, dislikes, and interests. These Venn diagrams are the first pieces of classwork that are hung on my wall, and they provide talking points for students during the first weeks they are up. Students always walk around, checking out what other people’s information and finding people who have similar interests as themselves.

One Little Word

I love Ali Edwards’ philosophy of choosing One Little Word to guide her as she begins each new year. This was an activity that I once did with my students in January to celebrate the new year and new semester. However, for students and teachers, the “new year” really begins at the start of each school year. I moved my One Little Word activity to the beginning of the school year, and it has been a wonderful experience for students.

How it works: Before class, I go through Ali Edwards’ list of past words (here are words from 2016 and 2017) and create a master list that students can pull from if needed. As students come into class, they each receive an index card that is blank on one side and lined on the other. I explain the idea behind One Little Word and how these words will guide our focus throughout the year. I display the master list of words on the projector. Students decorate the blank side with the word they choose, and on the lined side they write a short explanation of why they chose that work and what it means to them. I collect the words so that I can read the reasoning on the back, then I hand them all on the wall so that they create a patchwork quilt of words on our wall. Again, bonds are created among students as they read one another’s words. They encourage each other throughout the year, and these words help our community thrive as a positive climate of like-minded people.

I Wish My Teacher Knew…

After I have built community and trust during the first few days, I end my week with Kyle Schwartz’s “I wish my teacher knew…” activity. I save this for the end of the first week so that students can have a sense of trust with me, trust that they can share with me and I will not judge them.

How it works: Each student receives a lined index card. They write their name on the top of the card and simply complete the sentence, “I wish my teacher knew…” I tell them to complete it with something that they feel I need to know about them. I am the only person who sees these cards. They provide insight into students lives and personalities, their past experiences and future hopes. It is the perfect way to end the first week with my students.

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As you begin your new year, I encourage you to examine the focus of your first day activities. Building your classroom community in an invaluable use of time that pays dividend throughout the year.

The Girl with the Green Face: Creating a classroom community for all students

In third grade, I authored a story called, The Girl with the Green Face. I remember being so proud of the story I wrote. It took so much time to think of an idea, write the first draft, and we were even fortunate enough to be able to use the word processor to type our story out. I also remember how careful I was with the illustrations. I felt like a real artist and could add the details the way I wanted them. I remember paying attention to all the little details too, like words on labels and doors, adding speech and thought bubbles. That was 27 years ago and I still remember the emotional and physical experience of writing that story.

Fast forward 5 years ago cleaning out my parents’ basement and I came across the story. I was so excited to open it up and read it again because again I remembered the emotional and physical experience of writing my first “real” book. As I began to open the cover and read each page with laser sharp eyes, as a way to somehow transport myself into the experience once more. I didn’t feel excitement but rather extreme sadness.

My family lived in a small town at the time in Illinois. We were one of two African-American families in the town and the only non-white children in our school. In fact, this was mostly true for me until my junior year of high school.

The story I wrote was about a girl named Kelly who was a cheerleader with brown hair, brown eyes, and peach colored skin. She believed that all the other cheerleaders were beautiful because the got to put this “green mud” on their face but Kelly’s mom wouldn’t let her. Ultimately Kelly decides to use it anyway when she gets to school. Unfortunately for Kelly the “green mud” won’t come off and her face is green. She begins to try everything to get it off and makes up excuses and devises plans to explain why her face is green. In her last effort to get the “green mud” off she tries her mom’s most special cream. But this cream was worse in her mind…”It didn’t make her beautiful at all. It just made her face dark brown.” In the end Kelly went to her mom and she took her to get a facial and she was back to “normal”.

As I stood there in complete silence and utter sadness, I recognized what I hadn’t allowed myself to process. That I, at a very young age, recognized myself as “other” and measured myself against the majority without even having words or the understanding to articulate what I was feeling. The characters in my story were White and I am African-American. In fact, I fully expected to open my book and see African American characters.

In the story Kelly was searching for something to make her “beautiful” like the other girls. Kelly was a cheerleader…just like I was in third grade. Kelly did things she wasn’t supposed to even after her mom told her not too…just like my younger self.  Kelly’s mom’s actions and phrases resembled my mother exactly but she didn’t look like my mom. Her dad in the story traveled like my dad did but he didn’t look like my dad.

This story was my story. As I relived this experience recently by sharing it with a friend I began to question. What was it that stood in my way of telling my story? A story where the characters looked like me and felt like me. Did I feel connected to the classroom community? Could I see myself on the walls, in the talk, and the stories that were told day-to-day in the classroom community? Was there someone in the classroom community to affirm that beauty isn’t prepackaged or look one way? And ultimately, in the story Kelly concluded that the worst possible thing to happen was her skin turning dark brown, which as the author of the story was the color that mirrors my own.

How do we as educators work each day towards a classroom community where students feel free and safe to not only write their story but be their story? How do we work towards my story not repeating itself in classrooms across our world?

First it starts with us. We as educators must take inventory on our own lives and our own experiences in order to step back and view the community in front of us. This happens even before the students step foot into the classroom.

Mariana Souto-Manning in her book, Reading Writing, and Talk: Inclusive Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners K-2, offers this, “The inventory must start with yourself and with your own practices…teaching is not culture-free. Nor are curricula. Teaching practices should be (re)centered to both honor children’s cultures, languages, and identities and to foster academic success.”

In order to create and maintain a healthy classroom community where students are free and safe to be themselves and love themselves, I offer that it first starts with us. We must take inventory of who we are and recognize the power these identities have in the classroom community.

Secondly, building classroom communities is about allowing students to see themselves on the walls of our room, the conversations that happen, and as a valuable participant in the learning community. What if at 8 years old I looked around the room in my third grade classroom and saw brown faces like myself? Or books that had stories of many kinds of people that weren’t just about struggle?

Allowing students to fill the walls with their stories, their thinking, their learning process, their faces encourages them to use their voice in conversations, problem solving, and day-to-day happenings in the classroom community. Which in turn hopefully gives a sense to each child that they are a valuable piece of the learning community.

Lastly, it’s committing ourselves to understanding a culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally relevant teaching is a mindset that puts the classroom community as the most powerful agent in learning. Where students use their experiences to connect with the content in order to learn with each other, from one another, and the community as a whole. How do we commit ourselves to this kind of pedagogy each day so that our classroom communities are thriving with students who know and understand that they are valued and their experiences are legitimate?

I often wonder what I would say to “me”  in a writing conference as the teacher after reading the book that I had written? I’m not sure what words I would say. One thing I know is that I would be reflecting on what I missed. I would be asking, what space in my classroom did I not allow for this child to feel free to write their true story? What kind of community do we have where students are not seeing themselves? I would be questioning and reflecting a lot.

My life experiences have taught me that as educators we have to pursue our profession with reckless abandon to do what’s right for children. Classroom communities start before students walk in the door. They are cultivated the moment the first child enters, and are fostered all year-long. What we do matters. How we listen to children matters. Honoring all community members matters. How will you create a classroom community for all students this year?

Building Relationships as a Principal Through Reading

Six years ago I decided to leave my 5th grade classroom that had been my home for eleven years to become principal of the building.  I was excited for this new learning journey and challenge.  I couldn’t wait!  Then the job started, and I was miserable.  I was overwhelmed with paperwork and found myself stuck in my office more and more.  I would go days without having a meaningful conversation with a student.  The first question people would always ask me was, “Do you miss the classroom?”  I would reply, “Yes.  It is quite a bit different but I really am enjoying the new challenge.”  It wouldn’t have been appropriate to share my real thoughts. Yes, I miss it.  This new job sucks!  I spend the whole day filling out paperwork, listening to boring webinars, and attending three-hour meetings that could have been four line emails.  I spend the whole day on the phone listening to vendors pitch their stupid, test prep software or parents complain because they had to wait three minutes in the drop off line because someone got out of their car.  I spend the whole day managing the building instead of leading it.  I spend the whole day away from kids.  This new job sucks!  I had made up my mind, I was one and done as principal.  However, I had to find a way to survive the year.  I thought back to what I loved about being a classroom teacher.  It was the students and the relationships we developed over the course of the year.  The relationships I formed with my students always started with books.  It was time to apply that principle to being principal.  

Reading with Students

One of my favorite parts of the day as a classroom teacher was free choice independent reading.  I would spend the majority of the time conferring with students, but always set aside time at the end to read with my class.  I wanted them to see me as a reader and this provided a great model.  Also, I knew I needed to read a lot of books if I was going to make recommendations for them.  I decided I was going to start doing this as principal.  I blocked out 20 minutes on my calendar every day to read independently during the school day.  We added two big, comfy chairs in front of the office and some days I would use these to read.  Other days I would find out when a class was doing independent reading and ask if I could join them.  The practice immediately paid dividends.  The first day a student came up to me and said, “I saw you were reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.  That is my favorite book.  Did you know there is another Joey Pigza book?”  We spent the next 5 minutes talking about our love for Joey Pigza.  At that point, it was my favorite five minutes as principal.  

Classroom Book Talks

I noticed right away when I was reading in the chairs in front of the office that every class that went by was always checking out the book I was reading.  It didn’t take long for students to come up to me during lunch or recess and ask if they could have the book next.  They wanted to read the book I was reading.  I wanted to expand on this so I started asking teachers if I could visit their class to book talk a recent book I read.  The teachers were thrilled and the students ate it up.  My blessing on a book was golden.  The students were fighting over who got to read it first.  I always left my copy of the book and told them to return it after they were finished.  I was surprised when a student returned Amulet only one week after I gave a book talk.  I expected this to be a very popular book that would be shared by a lot of students.  I didn’t expect it back for a month or two.  I asked the student, “Oh, you guys are done already?  The class didn’t like it?”  

“Are you kidding?” he replied, “we loved it.  We checked out two copies from the library and a couple students bought it from Barnes and Noble.  Everyone has read it already.  Oh yeah, we need Mrs. Bugbee (our librarian) to order more copies of the rest of the series.”  I took my lunch to the cafeteria that day and ate with their class and talked Amulet during their entire lunch.  At that point, it was my favorite lunch period of the year.

Principal’s Bookshelf

This is an idea I first heard from the amazing Sue Haney (principal at Parma Elementary).  Sue has a principal’s bookshelf in her office that students can use to check out books.  Based on the conversation about Amulet, I knew it was time to try this idea.  I scheduled time in each classroom to explain my principal’s bookshelf.  I didn’t want it to be over-complicated or time-consuming (remember I still had a lot of three-hour meetings to attend).  The idea was pretty simple.  I put a bookshelf stocked with my favorite books outside of my office.  The check-out system was a simple black marble composition notebook and a pencil.  I told students I trusted them to check out books and return them.  All they had to do was write the title of the book and sign their name in the composition book.  They should return the book when they finished it and cross off their name.  Also, I told them when they finished a book on my bookshelf I expected them to find me sometime during the day and tell me how they liked the book.  The bookshelf was as much for me as it was for them.  I was craving book conversations and time with students.  No single practice has helped me form meaningful relationships with my students more than my principal’s bookshelf.  My bookshelf grows every year.  I have been lucky to receive grants to help fill it.  Last year, students filled three composition notebooks with books they checked out.  I talk to students every day about books they have read off the shelf.  Each year some books get lost or go unreturned but that’s fine with me.  As Donalyn Miller says, “I would rather lose a book than lose a reader.”  

These practices started the turnaround for me.  It doesn’t matter what position you hold in education, it all starts with relationships.  Once I started looking at principalship through that lens everything changed.  Education is about the students and you can’t make a difference in a student’s life without having a meaningful relationship with them.  I still get overburdened with paperwork and get lost in my office from time to time.  However, those days are few and far between now.  I simply changed my lens.  Now I can honestly answer when someone asks, “Don’t you miss the classroom?”  “Yes. I do, but I love being a principal.”

Learn Their Names, Learn Their Story

In fifth grade, my teacher was firm, but loving. She played the harp, had emerald green eyes, and read aloud Tuck Everlasting to our class. We rapped about rainforests, memorized the Fifty Nifty United States, and kept chameleons in aquariums (except for the one that escaped, making for a frantic morning search around the classroom!). I loved being in her class, but every day, the whole grade switched to different teachers for reading. Despite being an enthusiastic reader at home, I dreaded my reading teacher’s class from the beginning, all because of one thing. She refused to learn my name.

My name is Aliza.
It is derived from Hebrew.
Depending on the etymology, it means “joyful” or “oath of God”.
There are not many of us. I have only met one other Aliza, in person, in my life.
My name is pronounced “ah-LEE-zah”.
It rhymes with (The Leaning Tower of) Pisa and (The Pyramids of) Giza. Caesar, if you’re from Boston.

My entire life, I have heard my name pronounced incorrectly. Alyssa, Alisa, Alizay, Elise, Azalea, Aliva, Liza, Allie, Eliza (thanks Hamilton!). I empathize with the harried baristas, well-meaning teachers, and hopeful telemarketers as they bite their lips and take a stab at my name out loud. If it’s wrong, not to worry. I say “Thank you. It’s ah-LEE-zah.” (Although the telemarketers get some version of “I’m sorry. Eliza isn’t here right now. She’s out with Angelica and Peggy at a revel with some rebels on this hot night.”)

So, imagine my experience as a shy, rule-following, teacher-pleasing 10 year old when my reading teacher looked at my name on her attendance sheet, wrinkled her nose, and tried…“Alisa”. Correcting her, “It’s Aliza, with a Z.” She tried again. Man, Zs are difficult! Giving up all too soon, she spoke words that have stuck with me to this day:

“Ack! That’s too hard. I love Charlotte’s Web, so I’m going to call you Charlotte.”

She nicknamed me after one of literature’s most beloved characters, and Charlotte is a lovely name, but there is one problem. It is not MY name. Embarrassed, I cried the whole bus ride home that afternoon. When I told my parents that night, they encouraged me to tell her I did not like that name. It took every fiber of bravery saved up over my entire life to walk up to her soon after, surrounded by her favorite students, to say: “I don’t like being called Charlotte. It’s not my name.” Her response? An eyebrow raise, a smirk, and

“Oh! You don’t like Charlotte? Then I’ll call you Wilbur.”

A pig. A boy.

I suffered in silence, afraid to speak up again, to correct or share my hurt feelings with this adult. Too introverted to take the risk. Too anonymous to overcome my fears of becoming an original human with a name again. So I faded into the background for the rest of the year to survive her class.

Names are more than just words. They are an intangible tattoo of a person’s identity. They represent tradition and heritage, originality and creativity, honor and hope. Our name is the first thing that ever belongs to us in this world. Receiving a name is a ceremony, a rite of passage, in many religions and cultures. Being Jewish, I had a baby naming, where my Hebrew name, Havalah Shira, was bestowed. My Catholic dad chose his confirmation name, Paul. Names are a clue to identity, an invitation to others to learn more. They help cultivate a sense of self and can embody who we are and what we want to become.

Names have stories. They honor family members, here and gone. They reference favorite characters in literature and films. They allude to memories, feelings, places, and inspirations. Years ago, I had a student whose parents named their five kids with anagrams of their father’s first name. If you are like me, your name was chosen because your parents liked it and thought it to be original. The story of your name might just start with you.

Names can change. Whether by force or by choice, they transform and adjust. Names have inherent power and meaning. Name-calling bullies, dehumanizes, and denigrates others. To show respect to others, learn their names.

When you know someone’s name, it is the entry point to knowing that person more deeply. When you learn your students’ names, you acknowledge their existence. You convey to them “I see you. You are important to me. I value your story.” Learning their names is the first step in growing trust, rapport, relationships, and equitable classroom communities.

It’s as easy as:

  1. On the first day of school, ask students how to pronounce their names. Ask them to teach you and insist on taking the time to get it right.
  2. Ask students what they prefer to be called. Do they have a nickname? Does Christopher prefer Chris? Does Jasmine feel comfortable with Jazz?
  3. Have multiples of the same name in your class? Allow Sophia and Sofia, and Jaxon and Jackson to steer a conversation with you about how to avoid confusion in using their names aloud. Will you use last initials? A nickname? And if Jaxon and Jackson prefer their name and nothing else, that is what you accept and honor.
  4. Start every morning (or class period) at the door outside of your classroom to greet your students by name: “Good morning, Dejah!”, “Love that new haircut, Henry!”, “Oooh, what are you reading, Ahmed?”, “Mia! How was swim practice last night?”
  5. Whether through a formal project or stolen moments, take time to ask students about their names: how they were named and what their name means to them.
  6. If it’s your own name that throws the curveball, remember to kindly correct, be assertive, and offer opportunities for others to practice and learn it. I put the pronunciation of my name in my Twitter profile.

Many years later, near the end of summer, I saw that teacher in a restaurant. In the fantasy scenario in my head, I would have walked up to her and said:

To my dad, I’m Leezie.
To my mom, I’m Ali (ah-LEE).
To my nieces and nephews, I’m Auntie Leez.
To my high school softball teammates, I’m Al.
To my coach, I’m Z.
To my Deaf Education professors in college, I’m the hand sign for the letter “A” with a twist on my cheek.
To my students, I’m Mrs. Werner.
To you, I’m Aliza. It rhymes with Giza. Please learn it.

Instead, I walked mindfully into my classroom that new school year ready to learn the names of 22 young people. Pronouncing our students’ names accurately and respectfully is a true welcome into our classrooms. They hear you speak their names and their hearts ignite. Their confidence grows. Their dignity is defended.

Learn their names, learn their story.