"An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child."
— Carl Jung (1875 - 1961)
The New Kid
I attended four schools during my elementary career. For three years in a row, I enrolled in a new school each fall and became the "new kid" in class. I remember feeling nervous, wondering if the work was going to be hard and if the other kids would have learned things I hadn't, making me look stupid. And of course I wondered if they would like me. Thankfully, I'm naturally outgoing, had pretty good people skills, made new friends wherever I was, and had something else going for me — I spoke English!
Nevertheless, I think this experience has always made me empathetic to the "new kids" in school, and especially ELL students who may also be new to the country and may have few English language skills.
I remember that on the first day of fourth grade, the teacher had an activity that required every kid to stand up at the end of the day and say the first and last names of their classmates, say their own name and nationality (the teacher was big on geography), and spell their nationality. Most of my classmates had attended the same school for four years and knew each other, and the majority had Norwegian, Swedish, or German backgrounds.
I stood in front of the class at the end of the day and had to recite 32 new names (and if I may so myself, I actually did surprisingly well with that challenge) and spell my heritage country, Czechoslovakia. Needless to say, I didn't think much of that "get to know you" activity.
Starting a new school year positively is very important, and many teachers work very hard in the weeks before school starts to get their classrooms and materials ready. Unlike 30 years ago when I was in fourth grade, it is likely that most teachers will have newly enrolled students in their classrooms, as well as students who do not speak English as their first language. For this reason, there is a lot for teachers to think about as they start the new school year.
I consulted with some of my teaching colleagues, and they offered the following recommendations for things to do before the school year starts.
Back-to-School Tips from Teachers
1. Get some rest
Many people think that teachers do nothing but relax and hang out at the beach during the summer, but the reality is that many teachers do special educational projects, teach summer school, or travel, and the summer months fly by quickly. It is important to find some time for yourself, wind down, and get some good sleep. When the school doors open, the days will fly like Warp 10 on Star Trek!
2. Get in touch
- welcome the families
- let the children know that it will be a fun year and describe a couple of activities they will get to do
- provide the date and time of the school Open House if it is coming up soon
- let the families know you are available for questions and give your contact information
- provide the contact information of a bilingual staff member if you do not speak the language of the family
- include a list of school supplies or other items that the students might need
Even with all of this information, keep the language simple and the letter as short as possible. Also, try to get the letter translated for bilingual students — print English on one side and the student's language on the other. This requires some extra work, but the benefits can be huge in starting the year on a positive note. Some teachers include something students can redeem for a prize when they attend the Open House at school, such as a puzzle piece they place in a puzzle, or half a quote they may match up with the other half when they visit.
3. Do a home visit
Many of the schools in my district have started to do home visits before the first day of school. It is a volunteer activity for teachers and other school staff, and it is done as a door-to-door check-in. This has been a very important connection builder, especially in our low-income/high transition neighborhoods. The Principal sends out postcards to families and lets them know the date and time the school staff will be in the neighborhood visiting. On that date the school staff meets at the school, divides up lists of students, and goes out in pairs to knock on doors.
Teachers may not meet all of the students in their classes, but they will be able to answer any questions families may have, offer information that can be shared with other parents, and relay questions to the appropriate teacher. Teachers stay for just a brief time and may leave a brochure, bookmark or magnet from the school. More importantly, they leave an impression of enthusiasm for starting the school year with the student.
4. Have a back-to-school celebration
It is becoming increasingly common to hold the school Open House prior to the beginning of the school year. This allows families to come together in a more social atmosphere and have an opportunity to meet teachers before the first day of school to reduce any anxiety a student may feel about entering a new classroom.
At my children's school we usually have an ice cream social with music and games. Students can also go to their new classrooms, meet the teacher and see where they'll be sitting and what their daily schedule will be. It has really been a fun way to re-connect with the school and staff and express collective enthusiasm for another great year.
5. Create a student packet
At the Open House, provide families with "Welcome Kits" that include information regarding their child's classroom. It may have a variety of items such as a Free and Reduced Lunch form, the daily schedule, a "back-to-school" supply list, descriptions of any special activities or fieldtrips the class will take during the year, a student questionnaire to be turned in on the first day of school, a short explanation of the curriculum or academic expectations, etc…. Again, if you have bilingual students try to provide a translated copy if possible.
6. Get your classroom ready
Prior to the first day, it is important to decide how the classroom will be organized, and how you can make it as welcoming as possible. Where do you want desks? How will assignments be turned in, corrected, and returned? What jobs will students be responsible for? How will attendance be done? Try to think through an average day and what steps you will need to take to make smooth transitions. Keep in mind that some of your students will not speak English fluently so you will need to consider how you will communicate with them.
As you think about classroom set-up and student files, you may find this ELL Teacher's Back-to-School Checklist helpful!
- Simple language: As you introduce the classroom activities to students, be sure to break down directions into shorter statements and model what you expect the students to do. This will add extra support for ELL students who are trying to understand the English explanation.
- Mailboxes and Files: Use a "mailbox" system to communicate with students. Students put assignments in the teacher's mailbox and check their own mailboxes daily for messages and returned assignments. Another option is to use a "file" system to exchange assignments and hold student project information. This can be a milk crate with each student's name on a file folder.
- Jobs: Create a jobs board and have students rotate through the different jobs, such as line leader, attendance delivery, librarian, clean room checker, etc…
- Cozy corner: Create a "casual corner" or some comfortable area in the room that gives students a place to relax and read or work on special projects. You may want to have pillows, stuffed animals or slippers as a fun, relaxing part of this area. Sitting in this area can also be used as a reward for good behavior or achievement.
- Decorations: Make the room colorful, but not too busy. Put up posters and bulletin boards. They may reflect the first units you will be working on, or they could have a "star student" focus, or any other interesting connection you may want to make.
- Student Ambassadors: Develop an Ambassador program and train some students, especially those with bilingual skills, to be an Ambassador to newly arriving students throughout the year. The Ambassadors can wear special buttons that signify the work they are doing when introducing a new student to the building. Make sure the Principal and other staff in the building know about the program so they understand why the student may be in the hallway during class time, or visiting the office or nurse's office.
7. Create visuals to support learning
Back in the "old days" of teaching (about 10 years ago), I created visuals by looking through magazines, cutting out relevant pictures, pasting them to construction paper and laminating them. I then used the pictures to teach new vocabulary, give visual support to a new concept, or have the students do matching or writing activities. With the explosion of internet resources, it is easier than ever to find visuals, download them on computer, and print them, or to show them in your classroom with an LCD projector.
However you decide to do it, visuals are an important support for ELL students to make sense of instruction. Take some time to identify visuals that will support the units you'll be working on and think of ways you will use them to provide support for ELL students. A very helpful resource that your school or district may subscribe to is "Nettrekker." This is a website designed for educators that has "filtered" websites by topic and when you search it comes up with educationally appropriate resources. It also has many unique features such as a "readability" rating, and an "ELL" filter that finds websites appropriate for students learning English. I saw a demonstration of "Netrekker" at the AFT QuEST conference in July, and I thought it had a lot of potential for assisting teachers and learning. I know there are other similar websites or services, so you may want to check with your district Instructional Technology department to see what is available to you.
8. Connect with other staff
Meet with the other grade-level, mainstream, content, and special education teachers at your school, as well as any aides who will be in your classroom. Go over your expectations for student learning and outline the standards you will address in the first weeks of school. If possible, look for areas where curriclum themes overlap. Talk with your principal about setting aside some time for regular collaboration time so you can continue to coordinate your instruction throughout the year.
9. Ice-breakers for the first day
There are literally thousands of ideas for ice-breakers on the web. I have included some links in the hotlinks section, but you will need to decide what will work best for you. Take into consideration that you want it to be an easy, friendly activity that will allow for success for all of the students.
- Students get a piece of paper with four squares on it.
- In each square they draw something different, such as: Where I live, What I like to do for fun, A place I'd like to visit, Something I'd like to do when I grow up.
- Once the students have completed the chart, the teacher has them get into groups based on their answers.
- Students who have similar answers get together and share more information about their experience. If a student has a picture of swimming at the beach and other students have swimming as well, then they are a group and they share their experiences.
10. Contact the parents during the first weeks of school
It is important to establish a positive connection with the parents of your students in the beginning of the year. When contacting the families, let them know what you enjoy about their student in the class and that you are available to answer questions. If you do not speak the same language as the family, please find a bilingual staff person who will call on your behalf, and if you do not have bilingual support, call the family anyway.
There is often a family member who speaks English, and it would be good for you to identify that person and find out when they are available and if they have a cell phone number where you can reach them. If you are calling an ELL family without bilingual support, just keep the message very simple and direct:
"Hello. I am _________'s teacher. He is a good student. You can call me at ____________ if you have questions. Thank you."
You may also want to have a simple English and bilingual message on your voicemail as well for families to communicate with you during the year. The more you reach out to families, the more comfortable they will be in contacting you and participating in activities in school — don't let language be a barrier to developing a positive, supportive relationship.
I hope you will take a moment to browse through the links I have provided in the Hotlinks section — there are many interesting ideas and lesson supports available to make the start up of the school year easier. Also, the Colorín Colorado ELL Starter Kit has some great resources for the begining of the school year. Whatever you do to start the school year right with your students, remember a smile says the same thing in every language, and students will understand that you are there to support them and help them achieve academic success.
These resources for teachers just getting started include strategies, advice, and lots of ideas!
Learning the Language is a blog sponsored by Education Week. The blog tackles difficult policy questions surrounding English-language learning, explores learning innovations, and shares stories about different cultural groups.
Larry Ferlazzo maintains an award-winning educational blog and free monthly newsletter where he disseminates links to innovative Web sites for teaching ESL.
The free hELLo Newsletter, produced by the Big Deal Book, is available by email subscription and online. It specifically targets K-12 and Adult ELL educators, program directors, and media specialists by providing access to imaginative and interactive Web environments and free materials.
A wealth of links to creative first day activities, including ideas such as an "I Can't Funeral" and "Dear Me" letters.
This website has many original "first day of school" ideas submitted by classroom teachers, and many are grade level specific.
First day of school ideas submitted by teachers, categorized by grade levels and subject areas.
This is a very popular book that can be found in many new teacher orientation programs to help teachers get off to a good star in the new school year. This link goes to the book's Amazon page.
On About.com's Secondary Education website, you can find many icebreaker ideas for starting the school year and new classes. Many activities can be used for the elementary level, as well.