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Response: Several Ways Teachers & Parents Can Start The New Year Well -- Part Two

(NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Three here)

It's that time again, so last week I asked the first question "kicking-off" this blog's second "season":

"What's your best advice on getting the new school year off to a good start?"

In addition to resources I've gathered at The Best Resources For Planning The First Day Of School, I've asked several guests to respond to the question. I'll be sharing their responses over the next week, and invite readers to contribute their ideas, too.

Part One
in this series included guest responses from author educators Rick Wormeli and Roxanna Elden. Today, I'm sharing ideas and reflections from teachers Neil Wetherbee, Marsha Ratzel,Jessica Lahey, and Robyn Shulman (who shares her suggestions for parents).

Next Tuesday, I'll be sharing my own advice, as well as suggestions from two special guests, plus comments from readers.

Response From Neil Wetherbee

Neil Wetherbee (@engaginged) teaches fourth and fifth grade at University Preparatory Academy in Detroit, Michigan. He is the co-founder of Engaging Educators LLC, a partnership driven on bringing teaching and learning into the 21st Century. He lives outside of Detroit with his wife and three young daughters:

The beginning of a new school year is always exciting but also a little scary--so much rides on the decisions made prior to the year starting and the first few days after the children arrive. In today's world of standardized tests, teacher contract disputes, and many other distractions, it is sometimes hard to remember what school is about and why so many of us became teachers.

School is about children. School is about children learning and growing and having fun. The new school year needs to focus on relationships--student-teacher relationships and student-student relationships. It is through these relationships that trust and confidence grows. A safe learning environment with a teacher who truly cares is the most powerful classroom possible. Once the relationships have begun to grow roots, the learning and growing can occur.

I am a strong supporter of Responsive Classroom and their methods for starting the school year and each day going forward. Teachers need to help students figure out their hopes and dreams and use those to develop classroom rules or expectations. Each day of the year, starting with the first, should begin briefly with some kind of positive social interaction.

Many schools jump right into curriculum those first few days to give students maximum time to prepare for standardized tests, but failing to develop positive relationships and classroom culture will ultimately lead to less success going forward. Take the time to learn what your children are passionate about. Learn about their families. All of this knowledge will help throughout the school year. As class sizes continue to grow, this becomes more difficult; however, this isn't the children's fault, and they still need all the help and support they can receive in their quest to learn and grow.

Response From Marsha Ratzel

An 18 year middle school teacher of math and science, Marsha Ratzel still loves the start of every school year. Her blog, which details classroom challenges and victories, can be found at Reflections of a Techie. Marsha also contributes to Middleweb:

The start of the year mixes excitement and nervousness about what's to come. Many teachers will fill the first days going through rules, syllabi and talking. With so much talking and not much doing many students would tell teachers that this is a sure-fire way to put them to sleep. Missing out on a golden opportunity when students are most receptive to learning. I wrote a blog post that details how to find the perfect blend of content and getting to know each other in my math classroom. Everyone has to find that blend for their room using what they know about their own personality, their teaching style, their students and the curriculum.

This year I'm trying out an activity I found through my PLN called Mrs. Ratzel by the Numbers where I share 9 important numbers in my life. Then students share their important numbers with the class. so we can get to know them. A quick, non-threatening way that links our math class to real life...and builds community.

Finding momentum for your content is huge. Can you really think of anything that is less engaging than reviewing? Instead of taking three weeks to go over what they've already learned, start off with something new. Something that will grab their attention and say "Hey, this is going to be a wonderful learning place for the next 10 months. Get ready." You can still work in the review, but shift it to "just in time" mini-lessons or "On the Bell" activities.

Learning is a very social act, which means that students learn in community with the teacher and each other. Use what we know about building community to make sure that the first weeks of school aren't be boring. Lead with your very best relationship builders and content hooks to set the tone for an exciting school year.

Response From Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey teaches English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy in Lyme, N.H. She writes about education and parenting for the New York Times' Motherlode and The Learning Network, the Core Knowledge blog, and at her blog, Coming of Age in the Middle:

My most productive time is in the early morning hours, when the house is dark and blissfully silent. I spend the first moments of my day in meditation, allowing my brain to wander untethered, connecting ideas and tasks as they float through my consciousness. In these warm mornings of August, my thoughts inevitably stray to the first days of school, and the classes that will set the tone for the year. As I teach my students for three years in a row, (Latin 6, 7, and 8, English 7 and 8, composition 7 and 8) most of my students know what to expect from me, and I can relax into the joys of their first day.

But the real challenge of the first day lies with the sixth graders. They hover in the safety of their gathering numbers near the middle school entrance, cast one longing glance back at the relative safely of the lower school, and venture into the middle school building. They have heard horror stories: there's not enough time to get from one class to another, they will get detention, Mrs. Lahey is strict, Latin is hard, what with all those endings, declensions, and conjugations. Yes, I am strict, and yes, Latin can be hard, but in their first moments of middle school, that's not my job. My only task on that first day is to reassure them that the wide-open spaces of higher education can be exhilarating.

I make eye contact and smile. I compliment first day of school outfits and haircuts, ask how their older siblings are doing in high school. I help them organize their lockers, and show them how to make those flimsy shelves they bought stand up to the weight of their textbooks. The first day of school is my favorite time of the year; it always has been. It's full of promise, hope, and the perfume of newly-sharpened pencils. There will be ample time for hand wringing, constructive criticism and tough love in the 179 days to come, but all of that can wait. When I greet them at the middle school door, it's as a broody hen greeting her chicks with soft heart, warm breast, and with ah! bright wings.

Response From Robyn Shulman

Robyn Shulman is an Illinois ESL teacher. She emailed me a link to a blog post she wrote at Chicago Now offering advice to parents, and I invited her to contribute a short summary:


1.The New Teacher: Be positive about your child's new teacher (do not share negative feelings or thoughts based on neighborhood gossip).

2.Prepare Both Mentally and Physically: Move bedtime up now and practice waking up earlier to promote a calm morning.

3.Read: Require 20 minutes of reading daily (provide reading choices to encourage love of reading).

4.Refresh: Practice basic math facts.

5.Set Goals: Let your child set 3 goals for the school year (academic and social).

6.Talk: Let your child know he/she can come to you with any issues, without being judged.


Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I'll be including suggestions from readers in next Tuesday's post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of ten published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for Part Three of this series next Tuesday!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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