At the beginning of each school year, I make a concerted effort to emphasize the following four priorities in my classroom. I have learned that giving these areas the time and attention they deserve pays off in a big way later in the year for my students, their families, and myself. (If you are interested in more information about how to bring these priorities to life in your classroom, check out The First 30 Days, my new $1.99 PDF that’s available only on my website, www.stevereifman.com.)
1. Establish procedures, routines, and expectations so students know how to function efficiently and effectively in our classrooms.
2. Build a cooperative classroom culture through ice-breaking and team-building activities so students feel safe and comfortable and see one another as friends and assets, not rivals.
3. Establish a sense of purpose in our classes so students understand why it is important to come to school each day and work hard.
4. Communicate with students’ families about the new year. Build a sense of excitement, optimism, and possibility as we share our plans for the coming months.
In this post I share a story from my second year of teaching (I am about to begin my nineteenth) that connects to the second of these priorities. On that day I led my first graders in an activity designed to help establish the type of environment I wanted us to create in our classroom. Though I began with the noblest of hopes, things didn’t quite go according to plan.
With my students gathered in the front of the room on our class carpet, I stood at the board and asked everyone to think of all the ways they NEVER wanted to feel while at school. After giving them a few minutes to brainstorm some answers, I called on the first student, who said, “Bad!” I wrote the word on the chart paper I had attached to the board and chose another child. Her response: “Mad!” Once I recorded the word, I selected a third volunteer. “Sad!” he announced. (Apparently, my students were in a rhyming mood that day.) I tried to elicit a variety of other responses at this point, with limited success.
Then it was time for the big moment. I looked at the chart paper that now had about five (mostly rhyming) words on it, turned my attention to the kids, and then glanced back at the paper. I boldly declared that we were going to take these feelings that we just said we never wanted to feel and get rid of them once and for all! Forcefully, I reached for the chart paper, grabbed it off the wall, and crinkled it into the tiniest ball I could.
All eyes were on me as I dramatically carried the ball over to the wastebasket and threw it down as hard as I could. I wasn’t done. The best part still remained, the finishing gesture that these kids would remember for the rest of their lives. I looked back at my kids and then looked at my shoe. I lifted my leg as high as my work clothes would allow and stomped down HARD on that poor ball of chart paper. The feelings written on the chart were gone, and they would never come back. My students cheered, and I was all set to declare victory.
That all changed when I couldn’t get my size elevens out of the trash can. My foot was stuck. I tried to appear as if this was all part of the act, but my subtle efforts to remove my foot from that wastebasket were fruitless. Out of graceful options, I reached down and did what I needed to do. The kids laughed and cheered, and I began to wonder if the stories they would tell their families later that night would include any mention of the bad feelings we decided we never wanted to feel at school.