Sunday, August 2, 2015

The start of a new year - breaking the ice.

Tomorrow is the official start of the 2015-2016 school year.  Right now, at this unique moment, anything is possible this year -- all goals are within our grasp.  With the right mindset, the potential is astounding.

There are many small things that I do during the first week of school that pave the way to our struggles and successes along the way.  First, I believe that every child is important.  Every opportunity is one from which we can learn.  Second, I have to teach my students to believe in the same ideas.

Below is a quick snapshot of some of the things I do:

I always begin the year with pictures.  I bring my digital camera, and work quickly through the room on one of the first three days to capture every student.  I usually have them approve quickly and move on -- there are several ways I use these photos.
     1.  A copy goes up on the bulletin board in the front of the room.  After all, in our homes we keep pictures of our family, my school family deserve the same respect.  Being a member of the class earns you family status.  I add additional photos throughout the year, but kids are drawn to their pictures all year long.  I love the conversations we have centered around the photos.
     2.  The pictures are used to create flashcards for me.  This helps me learn the name of each child and 1-2 important facts that I learn about them from the first three days.  Not only does it build rapport when students realize that I care about the things they think are important, but it helps later in the year when I have a guest teacher.  It gives the guest teacher an immediate visual.  Most of them really appreciate it.
     3.  A copy of the picture goes on our first project.  All 8th grade ELA teachers have the students write an "I Am" poem about themselves.  After instruction, they write an "Eloquent I Am" poem which has the same meaning, but none of the same words.

"I Am" Poem
As mentioned in the picture section, students are asked to write an "I Am" poem.  Not only does this give me insight into who they are, but I get to see how they attack a challenge in the process.  The students write their "Eloquent I Am" poems using the same ideas, but none of the same words.  The use of creativity and a thesaurus really are important.  Instead of a basketball player, one becomes a hoop loving athlete, a cheerleader becomes a spirit inducing crowd instigator, an avid video gamer becomes a world saving super hero.  The key is to get them to have fun with words and to encourage kids to dig deeply.

*"I Am" Poems can also be used from a literary perspective later.  Have students write them from different points of view in a piece and share with the class.  It's simple but powerful.

"Spheres of Significance" (*modified from Creative Confidence by the Kelley Brothers)
*First day activity
Students are given a sheet of paper with 30 circles on it.  They have 3-5 (up to you) minutes to come up with as many symbols as they can in the circles; however, each object must represent them.  Minimal instructions are given, as this is just a way to garner ideas, get kids sharing, and learn about their personal approach to class assignments.

Post-it notes
There is something special about a handwritten note to a student.  I send them via snail mail as well as in class.  For many, it becomes a treasure because it's proof that you SEE them and what they are doing well.  It is important because kids need to know that they matter.  In a middle school classroom, there are many times when a child feels invisible.  This is one way to counter that.

Meeting them at the door
It's important to greet every student every day.  Again, I refer to the pictures the first few weeks of school and keep general notes to be intentional in my greeting.  I note things like sports, books, siblings, being new to the area, etc.  Sometimes it's a random connection, but those connections are important.  Kids need to know that you see them, that they matter.

Differentiation Activity
Along the lines of 4 corners, I put up Expert, Pretty Solid, Intermediate, Novice signs in the corners. (I change the wording a little.)  I have kids move around the room with different topics to allow them to get to know each other for their strengths (after all, everyone is an expert in something).  Topics may include things like baking, video games, theater, individual sports, etc.  The conversation we then have is that everyone in the room has strengths, and everyone (including me) has areas where we turn to others for help.  This gives students who struggle in traditional academic subjects a chance to shine as an expert.  Furthermore, what every child needs in the class is not equal.  Therefore, sometimes it will look different.  (For example, an expert football player would need different lessons to move forward than someone who doesn't know anything beyond the fact that football is a sport.) I take pictures to remind myself of the groups for future assignments. It helps me call on experts throughout the year. 

We have a duty-free lunch period of 25 (or so) minutes.  During the first few weeks of school, I join students that I have in class in the cafeteria.  We can talk about many things - and they start to understand that they are more important than a person sitting in a chair in my classroom.

Three Sentence Life Stories
Today I decided that I want to try a suggestion from #sunchat (specifically @mssackstein) of having them write a three sentence life story.  Not only will it give me perspective on what is important to them, it will give us common ground to move forward in building relationships.  Additionally, it will give a glimpse into writing ability.  The potential here excites me as an educator.

I Smile . . . a lot.  I laugh. I'm serious. I let kids see what is important to me.  I let them see when I make mistakes.  I listen.  I correct quietly.  Sometimes I dress up. I get dramatic. I tell students that they are important. I try to see different perspectives of each child sitting in the room.  When one is struggling, I try to figure out what is motivating that struggle. 

My goal at the end of every year to make every single student feel like he/she is my favorite.   The truth is -- every one of them is.  I will care -- forever.

I'd love for you to share your opening ideas and activities in the comments.  Together we are stronger!


  1. Great post. I love your ideas and will definitely be using 3 Sentence Life Stories & Spheres of Significance. Just so I am getting it right - the "Eloquent I Am" poems - they write their first copy of the I am poem. Then, they write a second copy but with all new words, just same ideas? Is that correct? I have my 6th graders write I am poems for their All About Me books, but this adds a challenge like you said.

    1. Yes, our goal is to have them explore with words. When we display them, there is the "I Am" on one side and the "Eloquent I Am" on the other side of the paper. Then we put their picture in the middle. It's a valuable lesson.

  2. Amy, these are such wonderful ideas to connect with your students and to help them reflect on who they are.I look forward to adapting many of these for my own students. I honestly wish I were a student in your class! Thanks for sharing these!

    1. I'd love to have you there . . . anytime! :)

  3. These are great ideas, Amy! I also love using pictures. Good luck to you as you start a new year!

    1. Thank you -- I hope your year is awesome as well.

  4. Great suggestions Amy! Definitely stealing a couple.

    Thanks for sharing!


  5. Amy, great ideas for getting to know your students and building a positive classroom culture. I love the twists on "I Am" poems and 4 corners. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Such great ideas here! Thank you for sharing! Love the 3 sentence life stories, and the differentiation activity, which I'm going to adapt for a PD session I'm doing friday. Thank you for sharing! :-)