The start of each school year is a very special time. I always feel that it is a better, fresher, newer start than January 1. On New Year’s Eve, we toast best wishes and make personal promises to be better people. We make resolutions about new beginnings–like starting and using a gym membership or eating healthfully.
Similarly, on the eve of the first day of school, we wish ourselves and our colleagues best wishes on a successful year and make promises to be better teachers. Often these resolutions involve helping all students succeed and maintaining our sanity.
I find two practices particularly helpful to start the school year with a better track record than I had with my last resolution (staying in shape)–it was just too cold last winter to go the gym!
As I look forward to a new school year, I know that it is a new beginning and a chance to try again. I am a little more experienced and hopefully wiser. And though I’m looking forward to a new year, I have to begin by looking back. I have to reflect. Reflection on past units, past teaching, past behaviors and past outcomes is my first recommendation for a successful year. Here are a few ways that I reflect:
•Look at my past planning book: I like to remind myself of school meetings and testing dates, as well as the timing of lessons and units.
•Review notes I made on units: Throughout the year, I make notes to myself about the things that need updating on lessons including note sheets, mentor texts, and timing.
•Revisit relevant texts including professional literature: Often during the school year, I’ll read professional texts and place post-its at parts I like or want to re-read. At the beginning of the year, I revisit these sections because I can implement new strategies better at the beginning of the year.
•Enjoy keepsakes from past students: It has become a habit of mine to keep thank you notes from students in my writer’s notebook.
While much of my reflection at this point in the year is personal and based mainly on my teaching practice around lessons, I’ve realized that I can plan as much as I want to for my classroom, just as I planned to go the gym; however, plans cannot be carried out without modeling.
Modeling expectations is another way important way to begin the year. For example, a workout buddy could have helped me get to the gym–modeling is inspiring. Likewise, a lesson on expectations for notebook setup can show students the habit of daily work in their writer’s notebook. In the first weeks of school, I model all expected behaviors. I will not hesitate to tell you that I model everything from what entering our classroom looks like to what good readers do while reading.
But I didn’t always model expectations. One particularly poignant example of this failure happened mid-year after I attended a writing workshop. I left the workshop excited and armed with great teaching language like, “Write what needs to be written.” In class the next day, I told the kids, “take some time to write what needs to be written.” I also added that I would write while they wrote. Sitting down to write, I realized I had twenty-five students staring at me. One hesitantly raised his hand and asked, “What should we write about?” With a bit more explanation, they wrote, but the outcome was stilted and weak. Little writing was produced, and it had little value in terms of genre and topic. I realized that I needed to model what this work could look like in our classroom.
Now, I start the year with these explicit lessons:
•Notebook setup – pages, labels, table of contents, etc.
•Writing strategies (Interludes and Strategies for Generating Notebook Entries)
•Reading strategies (choosing books, reading expectations, thinking work)
These lessons help my students to see expectations, achieve excellence, and consider opportunities. They also begin to build a framework for later work in my classroom. Early in the year, students’ work will generally resemble mine in length, topic, and form, but with more practice and more modeling, their work becomes individual, useful, unique, and skilled. They quickly realize that not everyone’s work looks the same. Modeling classroom expectations has helped my students become more successful and independent.
Considering how I use modeling and reflection in my classroom, I want to transfer this success to my gym resolution with the start of this new year. I am going to go to the gym when there are scheduled classes. My reflection on my past attendance shows me that I do well when things are planned and part of a routine. I do better with these classes because an instructor models a good workout. With continued practice this year, my teaching and my resolutions will be more successful. I also realize that the nice thing about these recommendations is that it’s never too late to start. Reflect today and model tomorrow.
Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.