School starts for students on Monday. Today was our Open House. For the past 21 years for me, this has been a day on which families came through to learn who their child’s teacher will be and to visit the classroom. They could also visit the school library, music rooms, art rooms, gym, and more. It is usually a one-hour to four-hour window. It is also usually chaotic and exhausting. It usually just means kids have time to say hello to their teacher and look around the classroom a bit. Parents get a brief chance to chat with the teacher as well. I’m always glad to meet my students and their families and get something of a sense of what our year will be.
My school decided to do something different this year. Our school has between 900 and 1,000 students in pre-K through 3. It’s huge. Having that many families come through is definitely chaotic, even if you have a long time period for it. So we opted for Listening Conferences instead.
Every family got a link to a sign up for a 15 minute session between 9 and 12 or 1 and 6 today to meet one-on-one with their teacher. The goal of the conference is for the teacher to learn about the student from the family. We asked questions such as:
- What is your child good at?
- What does your child enjoy doing in their free time?
- What kind of environment does your child feel most comfortable in?
- What is hard for your child?
- How does your child handle frustration?
- What are your biggest hopes/goals for your child this year?
I had Listening Conferences with 17 of my 23 students and their families. Many came with siblings. The kids had time to wander our classroom and check things out. Some students jumped in during our discussion. Others seemed to prefer checking out the room over talking with us. I have copious notes about my students now. I have some sense of their strengths, both academic and not. I have a picture of who they are and who their family is.
Most of my students will be at our school all year. As we have between and 30% and 40% mobility rate, that is no small thing. I feel exceptionally lucky to know that I will get to work with most of these families and students all year. I’m already attached to them.
My school is still very new to me. I didn’t know the second grade teachers families and students referred to in our conferences. I couldn’t answer what our birthday protocols are for the mom who asked as her child’s birthday is the first day of school. (I have checked on that and will email her tonight or tomorrow.) I definitely don’t know the lingo and acronyms of the military. I have much to learn and I am excited about it all.
from Flickinpicks Flickr and totally me all day today.
I realized today I have a love/hate relationship with the start of the school year. It’s only the 22nd start of the school year for me as a teacher, so I feel like I’m on top of this. (Also, I think I have similar feelings about the end of the year.)
from Joakim Jardenberg’s flickr
Things I love about the start of the year:
- anticipating all the positives of the year – as I set up my classroom I’m thinking about how the space will be used, as I type my students’ names up for various things I’m thinking about how wonderful they’ll be
- rethinking our classroom space
- meeting new colleagues
- thinking about the read alouds we’ll do early in the year
- getting rid of stuff I packed up back in June but that I can let go of now
- looking at my students’ pictures in our district software and marveling at their individualness and fabulous smiles
- having a fresh, blank slate
Things I hate about the start of the year:
- the crazy dreams that start two weeks before kids arrive
- anxiety about ways in which I can fail to meet the needs of the kids in my care
- the overwhelming feeling of the impending deadline of the first day of school
- anxiety about my own daughters’ school years
- questioning why I continually bite off more than I can chew
On the whole, I really do love the start of the school year. And the middle. And the later pieces, as well. None of them are perfect, but I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.
(Tomorrow I get to have short, one-on-one meetings with my students’ families. Out of 23 students on my class list, currently, 17 families have signed up for times. The chance to sit down and really listen to families as they share about their children and their dreams for them is a gift. I can’t wait.)
For most of my teaching career my classroom library has brought me great pride and joy. It has grown and it has evolved in ways that I think truly serve children. I can picture, in my first few years of teaching, the corner of my trailer that was my classroom library. The two or three bookcases that held all our books.
When I began setting up my classroom this year, in a new school and completely new space, where all those books will live was second only to our classroom gathering space. I usually have a corner still that I think of as our classroom library, just as I did in those early years. This year it is really all along the back wall of our classroom.
There is a bookcase along the far wall, under the bulletin board. Two bookcases back to back near the far pink/purple chair. The small white bookcase in the right hand corner. Perpendicular to it are two more bookcases (out of view here). But when I did the math, comparing this bookcase space to last year’s, I knew it was falling short.
One more bookcase at the other end of the room with math supplies and math-specific books. But still not enough space for our library.
So I added the two bookcases back to back on the left when you first enter the room. We’ll also put books on the built-in counter on the right-hand side in the back. That comes close to the space I had last year.
It also made my almost-16-year-old remark, “Mom, most classrooms have a classroom library. Your classroom IS a classroom library.”
I decided I’m totally okay with that.
I have always taught at schools with fairly high mobility rates. I’ve always had to say goodbye to kids. If not in the year they’re with me, then it could easily be in another year before they leave the school. I don’t usually get to know how those stories end.
My new school is in my same school district, but is on an army post. In a district with a mobility rate between 10 and 15%, my school has a mobility rate between 30 and 40%. That’s a lot of kids who won’t spend the full year with me. And a lot who’ll show up at some point throughout the year.
That’s a lot of stories I’ll only know a part of.
I have to believe I can make something of a difference in their lives in the time they are with me, whether that’s a full year or only a piece of it. I also have to make every day count.
At my previous school, on the last day, we have a luncheon all together. Groups of teachers make themed baskets and everyone puts their name in to try and win one of them. (You pick which one you want to try and win.) Last year there were baskets with a BBQ theme, book theme, movie theme, and so on. This one was a Back to School themed basket and I won it. It has been sitting in our bedroom for two months. Bringing me joy every time I see it.
Look at all those goodies! I finally took it to school and unpacked it and put everything away. I’ll use these things all year, pulling out a fun shaped post-it note or grabbing a Kind bar for a snack, and I’ll think of my former colleagues and be, again, grateful for all they taught me and gave me. This basket full of treats is a physical reminder of so much more.
I hadn’t planned to change schools. It happened surprisingly quickly and, looking back, in a bit of a blur. I worked with so many amazing, brilliant, thoughtful, generous, kind colleagues there. I am lucky enough to already know a few of my colleagues in my new school, having worked with them in the past. But the depth of friendships and the trust in colleagues that I had for the past few years will take time to build in a new place. I have no doubt I will find myself missing people on a daily basis for quite a while.
Change is hard. Even when it is positive and exciting. It is still hard. This basket makes it just a little bit easier.
This corner of my classroom makes me happy. It took some serious effort to get the star and cloud where I wanted them to be. And I managed to break a small mirror in the process…
I made the cloud three years ago. Almost exactly, as this memory showed up for me on facebook today.
The cloud in that picture was created by a teacher at Constructing Modern Knowledge that summer as a part of the large water cycle project a group of us created. I loved it and wanted to take it home but couldn’t figure out how to take it on a flight. So I had to make my own. (I don’t think mine looks anywhere near as good as this one, but it works.)
The cloud and star hang from the ceiling a few feet behind this, which is right inside our classroom door. The lamp, sign, and little tree are sitting on top of a shoe storage piece. That way kids will be able to store their shoes if they want to be shoeless in our classroom and the little tableau here welcomes everyone to our room.
I hope families will visit us often. Twenty-five or so kiddos and I will be here day after day. Having the space feel warm and welcoming for all of us rather than institutional is a high priority for me.
Two things here:
- I love the way the shadows from the stars on the window look on the floor. I didn’t even notice it when I took the picture but it brings me joy every time I look at it.
- The next to bottom drawer of that art cart is broken and catches on the bottom drawer so that it won’t open (at least not separate from the other drawer). I was determined to fix it today so that every drawer will be usable and it was a struggle. Eventually I managed to get the drawer out. I’ll go to school for a bit in the morning and one of the reasons is to take a hammer and nails and make that drawer work!
It’s been a day of sitting in the passenger seat while my 15 year old drives me everywhere and I am exhausted. The two things above both bring me much needed joy.
My classroom is now at the point that I don’t feel like crying when I walk in it. (For several days there were so many piles of things waiting to be dealt with that I couldn’t focus when I first walked in.) It’s not done (and won’t ever really be done) but it feels comfortable, welcoming, and warm. Good enough for me!
In the right-hand, bottom corner of this picture there is a white table with fabric hanging on it. That’s our standing table, ready for kids who would rather work standing up. No matter what grade I’ve taught, I’ve always had kids who wanted to stand up to work, at least sometimes. Usually that means they push their chair back and stand. Then their chair is in the path of others. A standing table is a nice option for them. They can still stand at other tables, if they so desire, and this table sends the message that standing when you work is a totally fine option.
As an added bonus, under the table is storage space. In my previous school I stored all of our county-provided science kits there. This school has space to store those for us so this space now holds all our indoor recess stuff.
It’s easily accessible there but still, mostly, out of the way. The fabric is velcroed to the underneath of the table. (Full disclosure, my sister sewed this fabric. I don’t have the skill set for that.)
The students and I will spend a lot of time in this classroom space. I believe it is important that it isn’t cluttered and chaotic, at least as much as possible. Having this fabric skirt on this table minimized the visual busyness of the room. (I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time in this classroom so I definitely need it to be a space that doesn’t make my brain hurt.)
I wrote recently about reading Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse and how it could be a wonderful read aloud for this school year. Now I’ve got another I’m considering. Breakout was published last year and I purchased it when I had the chance to see the author, Kate Messner, and get it signed for my class. It took me until now to read it however. (I have a problem with reading books I own. There is no due date on them as there is on library books so they don’t get prioritized. I have even been known to check out books I own so that I actually read them. I have issues.)
Breakout is a phenomenal read and offers so many possible lines of discussion. The story is told through letters, text messages, the school’s morning announcements, CNN articles, and more. The premise is that middle school students in a small town in upstate New York are writing letters and collecting artifacts for a time capsule. It starts off pretty typical but very soon two inmates escape from the large, maximum security prison in town. There are three girls who really tell the story. The first is the daughter of the head of the prison. She wants to be a journalist so she is all over this opportunity to report and tell the story. The second girl is her best friend and her pivotal role in the story shows up quite late in the book and was, at least to me, really unexpected. The third girl is brand new to town. She and her mother moved there because her older brother is an inmate in the prison.
Based on their life experiences and the roles their families play around the prison and the inmate escape, the three girls have very different perspectives on things. The multi-genre aspect of the book is fascinating and definitely would add to interesting discussions for a read aloud. It would also make it a really fun mentor text if kids are willing to try telling stories through multiple genres. The issues around race and rural vs urban life would also make for thoughtful questions and talk.
The book is long and that’s one thing that makes me hesitant about it as a read aloud. Especially given how challenging it would be for third graders, we would be committing to this book for quite a while. I think it could be worth it but it will be something I’ll have to think about how to tackle very carefully. Read alouds that go on too long can lose kiddos.
Thinking about these two books and how best to approach them to read with my students reminds me of how much of what I do is internalized these days. After more than two decades of teaching, my thinking about read alouds (and many other things) isn’t always conscious. A lot is happening in my planning process that I don’t even notice. I want to be a bit more deliberate about this sort of thing this year as I think it will be helpful as I work with colleagues. Two members of my team are first year teachers and several others are just a few years in. Sharing why I make the choices I make in my classroom is important to me.
When my oldest and I walked into my classroom this morning it looked like this. She was with me when we left it Friday afternoon, but was still shocked at the chaos. (There were two huge boxes with bookcases in them that were not there when we left.) This is the part I hate so much. Emptying boxes, putting things away in the cabinets, getting rid of stuff. And, especially, going through all the stuff that was left in the room by the previous teacher – things that belong to the school and I should have as well as just random things left behind.
On the plus side, those two big boxes with bookcases were such a gift. They’re gorgeous and they have wheels! I really, really want more of them but every classroom got two (which does seem fair).
I organized a ton of books today. I have a table full of stuff to get rid of. I’m at the point where the stuff that’s laying around is what needs to be dealt with (aside from the classroom library and that’s a whole other topic). My room will be organized soon and I’ll be able to wrap my head around other things. I’ll be able to think about what I can do to make sure students feel welcome there. I can plan for how to help them know the classroom is their space, they have ownership of it, and make sure that’s how we proceed through the year. Setting up the classroom matters to me because I’ll spend a lot of time in it over the next year. But I also have a lot of other things I want to focus on.