Start at the Beginning

I owe this post to my dear friend and phenomenal educator, #elemchat co-conspirator, Greta Sandler. Greta’s an outstanding, passion-driven educator, the ideas and strategies she shares make her an exceptional resource. Her kindness, generosity, her consistently positive and supportive nature have made her much more than a treasured PLN gem, she is a true friend. As a great friend and colleague, Greta has been encouraging me to blog more often so Greta, this one’s for you!

Every year I start the school year with ice breaker activities designed to get to know the students and to begin to create a community of learners where everyone feels safe and respected. Typically, I read aloud “On Wings of Love”, a child’s version of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. We read the book, and then discuss the fact that with each right comes a responsibility and discuss what that responsibility might be. We then move on to creating our own classroom rights and responsibilities.

This year, I decided to take things one step further and ask the students to discuss, in detail, what these big ideas look like, in practice. We’ve taken the time to really get to know each other and to truly define what our community of learners will look like.

I began the school year by reading First Day Jitters (J. Danneberg), a story about Sarah Hartwell, who is reluctant to go to school. Throughout the book, Mr. Hartwell must practically drag Sarah out of bed, to breakfast, and to school as she expresses some of the fears she has about starting a new school. The twist comes at the end of the book, when the readers discover that Sarah is in fact a teacher in a new school. The conversation sparked by this book was incredible. Apart from the fact that the students were surprised that teachers get first day jitters too, students immediately began to open up and share some of the other things that make them nervous. We have several new students this year, and yet the group was very forthcoming and willing to share something as private and personal as fears. I could feel the jitters evaporate as they talked and recognized themselves in each other.

Another activity we did entitled “How would you like to learn it?” (from Strategies for Differentiating Instruction by Julia L. Roberts and Tracy F. Inman) involved putting up four large pieces of chart paper around the room. The papers were labeled 1 (novice/beginner) to 4 (expert/proficient). I asked the students to consider their mastery levels with respect to, say, playing tennis, and to go to the corresponding chart. They were then to discuss what they would need to improve their tennis. Students at the 1-novice chart wrote things like “learning the rules” whereas students at the 4-expert chart had suggestions such as watching footage of themselves as they played to improve technique. Then, I asked them to consider their mastery level with respect to baking a cake, playing an instrument, bargain shopping, hair dressing, etc… and each time, there was laughter as the students moved from being a 4-expert to a 1-novice, or somewhere in between. When we debriefed after the activity, the conversation was extraordinary. The students really started to show an understanding that different people have different needs.

Another activity, “Graphing Me”, (from Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom by Tomlinson & Imbeau) was to have students create a visual bar graph of themselves in various areas (template here). Students considered how proficient they are with respect to areas such as reading, writing, math, but also sports, being a friend, etc… and colored the graph accordingly. Without putting names on the graphs, we put up the graphs and then, students as a whole group, made observations:

  • “Nobody’s graph is the same.”
  • “Nobody is perfect at everything, or “bad” at everything.”
  • Nobody drew a straight line across and said they were the same at everything.

Based on this, the following activity, inspired by extraordinary educator Edna Sackson, involved developing our Essential Agreements. In small groups, students considered the question: If this class is going to work for all of us, what will it look like? It was important that students work in small groups in order to ensure that all voices be heard. When we met back again as a whole group, all the ideas were combined into a single text, used to create a Wordle.


Students studied the wordle looking for ideas that seemed to be important to everyone. From this, they generated our Essential Agreements:

Our Essential Agreements
In this class…

  • we will learn many new things
  • we will work with everyone and help everyone
  • everyone works hard
  • we respect each other and be polite to one another
  • everyone gets small group and individual help when they need it
  • we ask for help when we need it
  • everyone is respectful, friendly and helpful
  • we put our “game face” on and give a friendly smile to everyone
  • we respect others’ work and their learning

Taking things one step further, students then used this template to come up with specific systems that they felt would support our Essential Agreements. This is the extra step that I haven’t taken in the past, the results of which were fantastic. For each critical element in our classroom, they came up with “the teacher will…” and “the students will…” statements to decide exactly how our classroom would function. Students decided, for example, that if students needed to work with the teacher in small groups, that it would help others if: students could be grouped with other students with similar needs (their words, not mine!); other groups be given written instructions to refer to in order to avoid having to interrupt someone else’ “teacher time”; and, if they got really stuck, rather than interrupt the teacher, they could write their name on the board and work on a different, anchor activity while they wait, as a way of showing respect for the learning of those who are sitting with the teacher.

I truly believe that the level of commitment given to building a constructive community of learners will, hopefully, pay off throughout the year. Other activities have included inventories such as this Interest Inventory, sharing “mathographies” and memories of learning to read as connections to Thank You Mr. Falker (Patricia Polacco), identifying their Inner Critic and Inner Coach, writing a letter to their Inner Critic indicating that they will no longer be held back nor be afraid to express themselves!

It’s been a wonderful first week of a year-long journey.  Admittedly, I don’t yet know which students know their basic facts, but I can tell you which ones love soccer. I can’t yet say who can write a topic sentence but I can tell you who wants to know everything there is to know about outer space. I can’t yet tell for sure who needs help with reading comprehension, but I can tell you about the students who already feel the pressure to achieve from their parents.

Though we haven’t even begun the “academics” yet, I hope to be able to harvest all year long, the fruit of what we’ve sown this week. The rest, as they say, is yet to come.

2 thoughts on “Start at the Beginning

  1. What a great start! I am sure that you WILL “be able to harvest all year long, the fruit of what we’ve sown this week.”

    Thanks so much for the lovely mention. The great thing is that we all extraordinary educators learning from each other. I love the way you started from our idea and developed it into something even better! Will save it to share with my teachers at start of next school year (Feb 2012 for us).

  2. Loved your post Tania! Seems like you’ve had a wonderful start. Thanks for sharing all the great activities and resources.
    Thanks for the mention too. I’m so honored. You’re a true friend to me. Love learning with you & I’m really grateful for your friendship and support. It means a lot to me. Looking forward to continuing learning together.

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