Harry and Rosemary Wong, CNN's School of Thought, August 16, 2012
Like a great lead to a favorite novel, the beginning of the school year gives the promise of the "plot" of our year of learning together. The first few days and weeks of school forge the foundation of expectation, joy, and real world reasons for learning. And like a compelling lead, my hope is that these first few days keep my students hungry for more.
While there are so many things - literally - we have to take care of at the beginning of the school year, I try to keep my mind first focused on people. In other words, I try to not put all my energy in August into opening and unpacking all the boxes clogging the front door of my room or moving all the furniture I need to reorganize. To keep my mind more people focused, I keep a question I heard Rex Brown share years ago as my compass: "Can any learning occur if it is not in a relationship of unconditional love?" Knowing my answer, I strive to put at least some of my time and energy into thinking about the lead of my school year - the invitations which convey to my students my infinite care for them (even without knowing them yet) and the formative assessment interactions which will help me get to know them quickly.
Because I really do want to get to know my students and because I passionately want to paint a portrait of possibilities for our literacy studies, in my first lessons during those first few days or weeks, I ask students to explore questions such as the following with me:
- What can we read? Can we read without a book?
- Why do people/we read?
- What can we write?
- Why do people/we write?
- How can we best create our workshop/classroom community so that we want to think, learn, read, write, and grow?
- How can we take care of each other as co-learners?
- What are your passions?/What do you like to do when you have free time?
- What are you curious about? How do you answer your wonder questions?
- What do you like to read?
- What do you like to write?
- Does this child understand what he is hearing? (Or, does he seem to be a bit accustomed to not understanding or seem to be young in engaging in conversations about learning, read alouds, shared experiences, etc.?)
- Does this child understand what she is reading?
- How do I see this student working to understand what he is reading?
- How do I see this student working to be understood as a writer?
- What questions might this child be trying to answer by bringing books/texts into his life?
- Does my classroom library give students windows and mirrors - opportunities to see themselves in the texts and opportunities to learn about people different from them (or those they perceive to be different from themselves)? Are there any additions I need to make to expand my library?
The ALOUD, ALONG, and ALONE rituals of our workshop model beautifully illustrate the Wong's thoughts (above). They give us a road map. They chart the geography of each day so that my students can transition easily into each experience and they help me to be more focused (A chief need throughout the year but one which I especially treasure in the midst of so much new in my life at the beginning of any given school year.). Our workshop rituals and routines give students the predictability they need while offering them generous flexibility as, over time, we craft these learning-teaching rituals in response to our students' strengths, needs, passions, and wonder.
As many of us have discussed recently and reflected on individually, classroom rituals and routines help to make our classrooms edifying learning settings for our students. Consider the first and early procedural lessons your students will need to help them become a community of learners and immediately see the relevance of your literacy instruction. Key to early lessons are not only how we can share and establish norms and expectations WITH students but also how we can help them find early success and connection to their learning and to their new learning setting.
One way to accomplish these multifaceted goals is to leave at least some of the decisions and design work to figure out with your students. As you consider procedures such as where students will put their independent literacy wells (their "in progress" reading and writing texts, folders, tools, etc.), generate a few ideas to offer students so that you all can make the final decision as a community.
Exploring another example of co-constructing your classroom rituals and setting with students, organizing some (or more) of your classroom library with students' help. I have even left books in boxes and enlisted my students to unpack and problem solve the best way to organize and store books in our classroom. By doing this, I witnessed how much more my students "owned" our classroom and cared about creating not only a homey, living room style to our classroom but how invested they were in maintaining a fairly :) orderly environment, too.
And invite students to be architects and interior designers. Ask the kids to visualize their favorite setting and talk about what they love about these settings. Then, ask them to think about how - and why - to utilize their favorite settings in building your classroom environment. I have often asked my own students to draw pictures of their dream classrooms. "What would your favorite classroom look like to help you do your best, more energized and excited learning? What should we have in our classroom to help you as an individual learner and to help all of us be the community of learners we have talked about (often from books we read together? (You can find lists of these texts in my previous and future blog postings!)." It's delightful how the kids' drawings can lead to rich and authentic conversations about norms and routines.
As you start your new year, be gentle with yourself as you work so diligently to make this year fabulously edifying for your students. Self-care is critically important right now! And take in Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen's wise words, "Human being is more a verb than a noun. Each of us is unfinished, a work in progress." I am cheering you on!