I already missed last year’s students as I led my first-hour class from the gymnasium to my classroom on the first day of school. I was nervous about facing a whole new class of eighth graders. I longed for the comfort and ease of the students I knew so well after a year of working together. Just then a student called out to me at the front of the line, “We’re your favorite class, right?”
In that moment my shoulders relaxed, my nervousness lifted, and I was reminded of what I know to be true about middle school students: They just want to be liked. They do not want anyone to know their deepest desire, nor will they admit it is true, but it is true that acceptance is their greatest need.
Feeling a sense of belonging is the foundation for all the work I ask students to do in reading and writing workshop throughout the year. Students need to feel safe before they are willing to take the risks necessary to grow as readers and writers. I begin intentionally building a community in which all students feel noticed, appreciated, and accepted from the very first moment I step in front of the class.
“The most important rule in this classroom is . . . ,” I almost whisper. These are the very first words I speak to them as a class on the very first day of school. They honor the implied importance by leaning in like football players in a huddle. “If you ever feel the need to vomit, grab the garbage can and go,” I finish my sentence at full volume. They sit back, exchange looks, and begin to grin.
Of course, I follow up the most important rule with the story of how this rule came to be. It involves a student who stood next to me waiting for my attention during read aloud not quite making it out the door in time, followed by my hand on a slippery classroom doorknob. The main point of the story is that although I care deeply about the well-being of a student who is feeling nauseated, the last place I want him is anywhere near me.
However, vomit avoidance is not the only reason I begin the school year this way. I start with this lesson as one step toward showing students I am real. This classroom is a place where students can be real, too. It does not take a story about vomit to make this point—just some unexpected humor and a genuine story.
Once I have broken the ice, I pass out a survey for students to complete. While they work on the survey, I begin taking attendance and learning names. A teacher once shared with me that she learns names by individually, quietly talking to each student to avoid embarrassing them by mispronouncing names. Although I ask students to pronounce their names for me to avoid embarrassing mispronunciation, I do so loudly, in front of the entire class. I want to send the message right away that names are important for everyone in the class to learn, not just for me.
I make sure students know they must correct me today if I get a name even a little bit wrong. I am learning today, and if I’m not corrected, the wrong name might stick all year. I make notes about pronunciation on my class list. The name Bre’Anna becomes bree-on-uh in my pencil scratches. After 90 names in one day, I cannot count on my memory. I let students know that I will be attempting to recall their names when I see them in the hall. I tell them not to rescue me by providing me with their names, but to correct me when I am wrong.
I apologize in advance because I know I will be wrong at least half the time. I explain that this is how I learn. In addition to communicating to students the importance of getting names right, this is the beginning of building a classroom culture in which it is okay to make mistakes. For the next five days, I will begin class by practicing first and last names. When I am able to go around the room successfully, I ask for student volunteers. Brave students take turns attempting to name their classmates, sending the message that we are a community of learners who know each other by name. This is a skill that comes in handy later in the year when we work on discussion techniques and students are asked to refer to one another by name.
By the time I am finished initially learning names and practicing a few times to help them stick, most students have completed their surveys. The final survey item prompts students to record a question for me. It can be a question about the class, the classroom, or just me. I do not allow students to get away with leaving this section blank when turning in surveys, because I use these questions as a means of introducing the class and myself. If they have not written a question, I hand the paper back and say something like, “I have all these questions for you and there is nothing you want to ask me?” It is a small gesture, but it lets students know right away that I notice their work and that their voices matter to me.
Generally, the questions cover things like Is this class hard? How long have you been teaching? Are you married? Will we have homework? What do you do for fun? What is your favorite book? Often more than one student asks the same question, so I try to do a quick sort as I collect papers or before I begin speaking. Rather than just talking about all of these topics, I read the student questions and answer them. That way, I know that at least one student in the room is interested in what I have to say at any given moment, and I know at least one thing I said was of interest to each student. It feels more engaging than beginning the year by going over a syllabus or list of expectations, but allows me to cover a lot of the same information.
The last thing I do on the first day of school is assign homework. I hand each student a Bag O’ You assignment on a half slip of paper, and a paper lunch bag. I go over the assignment and give some examples. Students are required to bring items to share with the class, show-and-tell-style, that represent each of the following:
- something you enjoy doing in your spare time
- something you really dislike
- the best part of summer vacation
- something you would like to learn
- something you are looking forward to
- a memorable event in your life
- a talent or special ability that you have
- something that makes you proud
I remind students that they cannot bring items that would demand disciplinary actions according to the handbook (such as a pocketknife), but clarify that items they are normally required to keep in lockers would be allowed (such as a cell phone). I explain that if students do not have actual items, cutting out, printing, or drawing pictures of items is also allowed. Lastly, I explain that this assignment will not go away if they choose not to do it by the following day. Students who do not show up with items will still have to present, but they will not have the benefit of entertaining and distracting us with items to look at. We will simply be focused on them as they speak in front of the class. Generally, that persuades students to fill the bag.
Before students share their bags with the class, I make sure each student has a notebook. We leave the first page of the notebook blank for decorating with personal ephemera to build ownership. On the second page, each student creates a chart to fill in while listening to the presentation of the bags. As students come to the front of the room to present, they are required to write their complete names on the board behind them for the rest of the class to copy onto the left-hand side of their charts. On the right-hand side, students write down one interesting fact about each classmate. When all of the presentations are over, I solidify that every student matters by going around the room and asking for three facts about each student. Every student hears his classmates recall interesting details about him.
I believe it is one of the most important things we do as a class. Nobody goes unnoticed. Everybody feels liked and accepted.