Plant the Seeds You Want to Grow

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by Howard Pitler

Plant the Seeds You Want to GrowI love touring schools in the weeks just before teachers and then students come back in full force. Hard-working staff have scraped countless wads of chewing gum from underneath desks, cleaned and waxed the hallway floors to a bright shine, repainted lockers, and stacked textbooks for distribution. Seeing a school come to life after the summer break is like watching a wheat field begin to grow after a year of laying fallow. A walk down the “back-to-school” aisle finds countless excited children seeking just the right backpack and notebook for the first day of school. I especially enjoy seeing the pure joy in the eyes of children who are just about to start kindergarten or first grade.

Teachers echo the excitement easily observed in students who are getting ready for that first day of kindergarten, too. For many teachers, the excitement has been growing for weeks now. Just recently, one of my former elementary students, who is now a kindergarten teacher, posted on her Facebook page from a teacher supply store: “Seeing 20% off signs and smelling a warm laminator just doing something for me J.”

To help teachers start the year off well, here are a few tips.

  • It’s about relationships! If possible, get your class list and pictures of your students so you can welcome them by name on that very first day. Trust me, it will blow them away.
  • Smile! Regardless of anything going on in your life outside of the classroom, be sure you smile. A smile sends a clear message that you are glad you are there with them. Remember that for some of your students, the classroom is their one safe and protected place.
  • Collaboratively develop clear expectations (phrased with positive language) with your class. Kids are more interested in following rules they helped to develop.
  • Once you establish the expectations, have students model for peers what each would look like.
  • Share about yourself first. Let your kids know you are a person, too.
  • Yesterday is history. Start every student with a clean slate.
  • Remember that teacher language is important. Keep instructions simple and direct. Always be respectful and expect your kids to also be respectful.
  • Use logical consequences. If a student’s actions or words do break the class expectations, the consequence should be connected to the action. If a student knocks over another student’s blocks, he or she should rebuild that tower. If a student hurts another student’s feelings, an apology and appropriate action (note, picture, etc.) can help rebuild the relationship. Never punish students by making them write a report or do a math worksheet. Writing and math can’t be linked to punishment in students’ minds.
  • Build in time for reflection for yourself and your students. Reflection is key to growth. Create time during that first day and every day for reflection. Students will need help with reflection. A simple protocol like the 3-2-1 strategy can be useful:
    • 3 things I learned (discovered)
    • 2 things that interested me (made me think)
    • 1 question I still have

Another easy reflection strategy is the give-and-get strategy. Have your students number a page from 1 to 10 and individually and silently think about what they just learned. Ask them to write down three things they learned or found useful on lines 1 to 3. Then, have them go to different students in the class and compare. They should get one and only one new thing from another student and move on until they have filled in the 10 lines.

The first day and week set the tone for the year. If you want a caring and thoughtful learning environment, start that from day one. I reject the notion that teachers should start off hard and then ease up as the year progresses. Those seeds you plant on the first day are going to grow. Be sure you are planting the right seeds.

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Howard Pitler is a dynamic facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach with a proven record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at hpitler@gmail.com or on his website.

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