February 25, 2014

New Teachers: Building Strong Class Culture All Year Long

At the beginning of every school year, I spend several weeks building classroom agreements in collaboration with my students. Every year, when I ask them what kind of environment they want in their classroom, they almost always say “fun,” “nice,” “respectful,” and “interesting.”

Then, I ask, “How do we get there?” Thinking backwards helps students come up with our classroom agreements. If we want our class to be respectful, we think up agreements together, like “one person talks at a time” and “listen with your whole body.”

The same backwards design process I use with students can help new teachers, too. Start by thinking big, and from those dreams set several big class culture goals to work on in September and October.

To walk you through the process, I’ll share my three big goals and how I worked towards those goals both at the beginning of the school year and beyond.

Big Goal #1: Joy

I hoped to create a joyful classroom. I wanted my classroom to be a place where students were excited to come each morning and a place where I truly wanted to be.

What Did I Do in September? I made sure to plan a bunch of fun activities for the first few weeks of school. The beginning of school can be filled with the teaching of lots of routines, so I wanted to mix it up by planning at least one activity per day that I was really excited about. In this video, Galeet Cohen reminds us of the importance of incorporating humor into the classroom. A little laughter can go a long way towards creating a joyful class culture!

Looking Forward: As the year goes on, you’ll likely be more and more immersed with teaching content. As the demands of the school year pick up, make sure to make room for fun. Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, bring in an activity that makes you feel excited to be in your classroom. Your excitement is contagious and will be a beneficial energy booster for everyone. Don’t hesitate to occasionally spend time reading your favorite storybook aloud or doing a fun art project. The first step to helping students love school is to model it yourself.

Big Goal #2: Routines

I wanted my classroom to run on routines that created structure and a calm environment.

What Did I Do in September? As I mentioned above, I began by working collaboratively with students to create classroom agreements. These agreements were essentially the “rules” of our classroom, but they felt especially sacred because they were created together.

Regardless of how you come up with them, it’s essential that students develop a deep understanding of classroom expectations during the first month of school. Watch how preschool teacher Jennifer Hawkins uses classroom expectations to build strong class culture.

In this video, middle school math teacher Marlo Warburton addresses my first two goals as she describes the essential ingredients that help her class to run smoothly: love and order.

Looking Forward: Even after students develop an understanding of classroom expectations, don’t forget to revisit them. Build in regular time to reflect together with your class on how they’re meeting or struggling with the classroom expectations. As the year goes on, you may find that you need to add new classroom norms to your list. Use the same process that you did at the beginning of the year, engaging students in thinking about how they want their classroom to be and what needs to be done to get there.

Big Goal #3: Collaboration

I wanted students to work together, learning from the diverse perspectives in our class.

What Did I Do in September? I laid the groundwork for collaboration by having students learn to actively listen to each other. Before working together in more complex ways, students needed to be able to truly hear each other.

Second grade teacher Laretha Todd created a great routine that I think is just perfect for September. She had students “share who said that” as a way to get students actively listening and learning from each other during group discussions.

Looking Forward: Gradually increase opportunities for students to collaborate with each other. Begin by having students learn to attentively listen to each other. Then, have students work with a partner on a simple project before having them engage in collaborative group work. Throughout the year, try to create a balance between projects that require students to work individually, in pairs, and in small groups.

What are your big class culture goals? After thinking big, consider how you can begin to tackle those goals in September.


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