Beginning the year is fun and intimidating, exciting and daunting, full of possibility and potential, and fraught with road bumps that we haven’t even foreseen. I find that if I can set my classroom up with the right atmosphere and environment, and my students with deliberate routines and habits, the school year will be better for it.
Below are a few things I’ve prioritized in the last couple of weeks in order to help ensure a smoother school year.
- Anchor Charts
I have a few posters I like to hang in my classroom for students to reference on a regular basis. The Book Head Heart poster comes from Disrupting Thinking, one of the most useful professional texts I own. Even though we are only five days into the school year, my students have already started to reference the questions that are listed for each of the three categories. As they have read different memoirs, I have asked students to respond to their reading by choosing the questions they find relevant, and responding in their reader’s/writer’s notebooks. It’s been great reading over their shoulders and listening in on their conversations as they decide which questions and categories are most relevant to respond to.
The fiction and nonfiction signposts are also essential in my classroom. These posters come from Notice & Note Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction, also by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. When I ask students to annotate texts, these are the best go-to ideas for students to annotate. After they have practice with these types of annotations, students start to personalize their annotations and figure out what works for them as individuals. But this is one of the best scaffolds I’ve found that helps students make their thinking transparent.
I also included a new anchor chart this year. It is inspired by Writing America, a book I picked up over the summer in preparation for teaching AP Lang. These particular questions refer to Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue, but I generalized the questions and I think they are probably good for all levels and a variety of texts.
2. Reading Agreements
This is technically another poster, but I think the purpose is different enough that it deserves its own category.
I had all of my students, grades 7, 11, and AP Lang, copy these agreements into their reading/writing notebooks on the first day of class. If they didn’t have a notebook, they wrote the agreements on paper, and then pasted that page into their notebooks later. It’s important for students to start to internalize these agreements right away so that we can get that good momentum rolling.
3. Book Talks
Students should feel like the reading agreements are realistic before they can internalize and believe in their ability to follow the agreements; it’s my job to ensure that students feel capable and confident. So on the second day of classes I took all of my students to the library, one class at a time.
I had been in the day before and pulled different stacks of books from the shelves, organizing my stacks roughly by grade level. I pulled some that specifically were geared toward middle school students, and then some for my regular eleventh grade class, and another stack for my AP Lang students. But some of the titles can move from stack to stack, class to class, student to student. I don’t worry about Lexile levels or AR levels or anything like that. I just look for high interest books for a wide range of readers. And then I talk to my students about them.
Students brought their reading/writing notebooks with them to the library and wrote their Next Reads Lists as I presented the books. The books were passed around so that each student got to hold, feel, peruse, read, and look at each one. After about thirty minutes of being inundated with a variety of genres, levels, topics, and types of books, students were instructed to check out at least one book they were willing to start reading.
Many students chose books that I had book talked, but many of them went to the shelves and found something else. By the end of each class period, my students were reading their new books, which was the goal, of course.
Now that they have had the “book talk jump start,” they can begin to authentically work on staying true to our reading commitments.
4. Classroom Library
I’m at a new school, teaching new classes, new students, in a new country this year. This means I’m also building a new classroom library. My new classroom was a blank slate when I walked in on the first day, which meant I got to get creative and have fun with it.
One of the first things I got to do was visit our school’s book room. Together, with colleagues and coworkers, we made a plan about how to respect what other teachers want to do with the books that are there as far as whole-class-novels and shared texts, but we also made a plan to distribute the underused books from the book room to our secondary English Language Arts classrooms. This quick process didn’t cost any additional dollars, respected the work of the teachers who have been here and had made plans for the school year, and also made it easier to get books into the hands of our students.
I placed the books on the edge of the shelves so they are easy to see and reach, and used small white boards to display titles more prominently. I’ll rotate these displays regularly. The captions I write on the white boards come right off of the books’ covers, so I don’t have to reinvent any wheels in order to try to drum up some interest in these titles.
None of these priorities will be a magic pill or a silver bullet; there is much more work to be done. However, I do believe that these four priorities work. They are strategies and tools that I have used in the past, that others have used, and that students have admitted themselves that they have benefitted from them.
What are some of your “must dos” in your classroom at the beginning of the year? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.
Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie