I know that there are really two lasting things I want to do in my classroom: 1) help every student become a life-long reader, and 2) help my students build a community. With my freshmen especially, I really work on this second one. There are only a couple teachers they all have, and I’m fortunate enough to be one of them. They also are going to be with each other for 4 years, so they should work from the outset at making those 4 years fantastic.
So for the first week, I have them sit somewhere new each day, helping them just get to know each other a little bit. I put their directions on the screen for when they walk into the room.
Day one: “Without talking, seat yourselves in alphabetical order.” I don’t tell them if I mean by first name or last name. I don’t tell them where to start (my room is in table groups, so this is a hurdle to them). I don’t tell them how to communicate. I also don’t remind them that all of their names are inside their agenda books which they received the day before at orientation and are required to bring to every class.
Because we have students come from many different schools (of our 28 freshman, the largest number from any one school is 6), they have to find ways to communicate. Something pretty cool happens when their voices are taken away. They don’t just go to those whom they know. They’re all in this together, immediately.
Day two: “Sit with the person you got to know for HW. Didn’t get to know someone? You have until the bell rings.” Their HW at the end of day one is to find someone they didn’t go to school with last year and find out 4 things: their name, where they went to school in 8th grade, their favorite book of all-time, and the last book they read and enjoyed. I purposely don’t give them class time for this. It’s up to them to find someone and talk with them in the halls, at lunch, or exchange e-mail addresses or phone numbers.
Our students live far apart (up to 50 miles away from each other), but they also are going to be friends and study partners for the next 4 years. They have to find ways to make this work. Also, when we then do quick introductions the next day, I get the information I want: what books do they like, and have they read any good ones recently? The student who says their favorite book is one that came out in the past year is a reader. The one who says their favorite book is The Very Hungry Caterpillar is either testing me about picture books, the class clown, or hasn’t read a book in years. Perhaps all three. Regardless, this is good for me to know, and also helps them connect as a class.
Day 3: “Sit with someone who’s read your favorite book or whose favorite book you have read.” This gets them thinking back to the previous day and the favorite book conversation. It forces them to talk, and to connect about books. One of my classes even went so far as to move tables together so they could all sit together, as they found they had so many books in common already. Yet in no class had they all read any single student’s favorite book.
This also ties into the grammar instruction I like to sneak in for the first couple weeks: apostrophes and possessives. Pronouns get weird with these concepts, and I want to help my students avoid who’s/whose and it’s/its confusions in their writing.
Day 4 this week was different. Every quarter, my school does what’s called “Stop and Drop.” “Stop and Drop” is a half day for the students where they focus on test prep. We do things like take practice ACT/SAT, have a couple classes about specific skills for those tests, or anything else that doesn’t fit into our normal curricula. For the freshmen, they had quick lessons on note taking, test taking, and stress reduction techniques.
We had a few extra minutes in one of my sessions with them, so I asked them what they liked about our school so far. One of their answers made me wonder if all the community-building I put into our first week was really worth it:
“I like how when we got on the bus on the first day, we didn’t just sit there in silence because we didn’t know each other. Whenever people got on, everyone said ‘hi’ and smiled and we all got to know each other.”
I asked if that was the case on the other bus (we have two buses). They said yes, it was.
These kids get it. It’s going to be a great year :-)