For the first week of school, our primary focus is on building a sense of community amongst the children and the adults they will be working with. The quote below is from “Starting the School Year Right” by Thomas Guskey in The School Administrator, August 2011 (Vol. 7, #68, p. 44)
“The first two weeks are the most important time in the school year for all children … What happens during this critical period pretty much determines how the rest of the year will go.”
It is important that the children have time to get to know their new classmates and to explore and develop relationships. They need to feel safe in their new environment in order to learn. They need to trust and respect the members of their learning community so that they can develop as risk takers and experimenters. Throughout the year they will learn with and from each other as they conduct their individual and group inquiries. Time spent now building a strong learning community and developing a culture of collaboration will stand us all in good stead as the the year progresses.
We talk about how we are all different, with different interests, styles and strengths. The students draw self portraits of themselves, using mirrors to look closely at their own faces.
We read The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown
This is a wonderful book for helping children to think about what makes them “them”. Once we have read the book, the students sit knee to knee with a partner and share some of the things that they think are important for other people to know about them.
Then the children go off to write. The Principal, Mr Dolesch, joins us for this session. The children see that he is also part of our learning community. Everyone writes for around thirty minutes, after which we all gather on the carpet to share the writing. As the children (and Mr Dolesch) share their writing, those in the audience make connections (we call these “text-to-self” connections) to their own lives.
Eric suggests that we display the writing with the self portraits that we did yesterday. Inbar and Sophie think that we could ask people outside our class to try and guess who the portraits and writing described. Our learning community is growing!
Some students are wondering about how we should decorate our classroom. So far the walls and display boards are empty. Everyone has ideas. I suggest they record their ideas so that we can revisit them over the coming weeks. The children use a mixture of pictures, diagrams, words -even a collage- to help explain their ideas for the classroom.
The students’ ideas open the door for mini group inquiries and authentic reasons to write. Ayden thinks we should have a fish tank, with three clown fish and three goldfish. This leads to a discussion about whether the fish would need warm or cold water, fresh or salt water. We conclude that we needed to do some research. We wonder where we could get a fish tank. Maximilian thinks we will need money to buy the tank. A small group of children are planning to write a letter to Mr Dolesch to ask him for some money. Shameer chooses to read a book on how to write a letter during reading time so he can guide the letter writing group
Sophie, Gawan, Dilara and Yunha think we should have plants in our classroom. Several children take action by bring some plants from home to decorate the space. We will develop these ideas further at our class meetings to decide on some next steps for organizing our learning space. Some children have already started a to-do list which includes photographs and special birthday calendar.
As the children get to know each other and begin putting their mark on the classroom, they are developing ownership of the space and of their learning. As they share about themselves and about their ideas for the classroom, they are taking risks and finding their place in the group. As they discuss and negotiate, as they listen to the ideas of others and refine their own ideas, as they rethink and reshape their ideas in the light of new knowledge, these children are developing relationships with each other and with the space that will be the foundation of much of the learning that happens in class this year. It is tempting to start the year with a ready made classroom, walls decorated and bulletin boards already up. There is often pressure to go over the rules, give out notebooks, and get straight down to “work”. But time spend on establishing a learning community, and the ownership, trust, acceptance and respect for ideas which that entails is likely to have a deeper impact on learning in the long run.