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Building Culture and Community in the First Five Days, Weeks, and Months

August 30th will be my 30th first day of school. Both as a student and a teacher, the first day of school has always represented a fresh start and the beginning of a new learning journey. I can recall the social trepidation and angst that I felt when first walking into junior high and high school as well as the sense of freedom and excitement when I stepped onto the Northwestern campus to begin my undergrad career. I remember eating popsicles in the shade on a scorching hot first day when working at St. Michael's Country Day School, and the absolute sense of panic that I felt when facing my very first class of students. However, none of those can compare to my first day of graduate school on September 11, 2001. The University canceled classes, and I only remember standing with my new classmates watching the Twin Towers collapse on the TVs in the Library. Only that first day seems to compare with the potential first days that many educators are currently facing this year.

In light of the violence in Charlottesville this past week, I keep thinking about the message that then Dean Andrews gave all of us on my first day of doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins: your job is to go out and change the world.

With teachers across the country either already in school or preparing to start the new year in the coming weeks, that charge can feel more like a daunting platitude than a mission. However, what if we could break it down into manageable objectives. A few years ago, based on an idea from Alan November, I wrote about the First 5s with iPads. This year, instead of talking about devices, workflow, or classroom procedures, what if we focus on how we might develop school and classroom culture, students' global identities, and a community of learners during the first five days, weeks, and months of the school year.

The First Five Days

There is truth in the saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression. The first few days of school sets the tone for the entire year. Think about the type of community that you want to build in your classroom and use that as a vision to drive the first five days of school. Even more important than your ideas, consider your students' beliefs, passions, and needs. As you think about first sets of plans, instead of focusing on procedures, curriculum, or the myriad logistics that we all typically address, what if you tried to make a personal connection with every student? How could you show that you recognize and value what they bring into your class?

According to author James Banks, an effective multicultural educator values the identities of every student and emphasizes ways to transform students into active learners, problem-seekers, question askers, makers, creators, and innovators. Beyond a welcome message, how do the symbols, syllabus, and ways in which you greet or address your students convey that you value them? After several years of teaching, I started addressing my students as "ladies and gentlemen" instead of "girls and boys." From the moment that they entered into my class, they realized that they would be treated with respect and afforded responsibility.

The First Five Weeks

According to Banks (2015), an empowering school culture and social structure is founded on shared norms and values intended to help students develop their cultural, national, regional, and global identities. In the first five weeks of school, do your initial lessons, projects, or activities create moments for communal and cooperative learning as well as individual growth? This goes beyond "group work" and provides opportunities for students to construct new understanding.

Given the current events unfolding across the country and around the world, consider how you might address the broader societal curriculum. Though some educators may argue that current events and discussions of culture may not "fit" in their curriculum, Gay (2002) asserts that all educators can address the images and messages portrayed outside of school that may impact students' cultural beliefs. Even if not directly discussed, teachers can still engage in cultural scaffolding - modeling the desired response to societal events. In the first five weeks, you have the opportunity to create a classroom culture that values the diversity of your students and creates a communal model for student learning.

The First Five Months

By January, think of how your classroom or school culture might ultimately impact your curriculum.  A truly inclusive and multicultural curriculum addresses more than just content and extends well beyond simple tolerance of others' beliefs (Gay, 2002). There should be congruence between the norms of classroom culture and how those norms inform instruction. For example, a culture that advocates for student voice should be accompanied by instruction that also values those diverse voices and allows students to express their learning in a multitude of ways.

This year, more than ever, students need the opportunity to engage not only in cognitive inquiry but also social inquiry (Banks, 2015). They need the opportunity to develop their own voice as well as a deep understanding of the voices of others. To change the world still seems like a daunting charge. However, if we focus on the first five hours, weeks, and months of this school year, think about what might we be able to accomplish by the start of 2018.

References

Banks. J.A. (2015). Cultural diversity and education: Foundations, curriculum, and teaching. (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-116. doi:10.1177/0022487102053002003

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