by Maria Walther
Today is the first day of my summer break (Woo hoo!) and, like many of you, I’m reflecting on the past year and already rethinking things for fall. What do I want to change, tweak, or keep the same? If you find yourself in the same mindset, I thought I’d offer a few ideas to ponder as you set up your classroom and plan the first days with students.
Take a Peek
Even after 31 years of teaching, I still rearrange my classroom to create the most kid-friendly learning environment. A few years ago, I noticed that the first thing my kids saw when they walked into my classroom was the trash can. Hmmmm! What message does that send? How could I fix that? I did a little rearranging and was able to change the view. Now, the first thing children (and adults) see when they peek into my classroom is an A-frame shelf filled with books—covers facing out.
If you know someone handy with a hammer and a saw, my husband drew up the plans for this easy-to-make shelf and you can access them here. http://mariawalther.com/images/AFrameShelfPlansWalther.pdf
I realize that not everyone has enough room in their teaching space for a bookshelf inside the door. If this is the case, here are some other ways to place books up front. Set up an easel or small shelf outside your door, or simply display book covers of your (or your students’ favorite books) on the door.
Of course, it is important to change the titles throughout the year to make the view fresh and inviting. So, when you walk back into your classroom or teaching space this year, think of ways you can place books up front to invite your learners into the world of reading.
Leave It Blank
I was raised as a teacher long before we had instant access to a plethora of classroom ideas via social media. Because of this, I relied on what I learned from my students to shape the way I set up my classroom. Early on in my career, I realized that no matter what I put on the walls and bulletin boards before my students arrived, they didn’t notice it. Never once, did a first grader run up to me and say, “Wow! That is such a cute bulletin board!” This realization helped me to understand that the items we put on the walls needed to belong to the students. Which, quite honestly, made my before-school preparation easier and allowed me to focus on creating learning experiences rather than making decorations.
Now, as the year progresses, our classroom walls are co-created spaces that consist of anchor charts, kids’ work, and whatever else my students need to grow as thinkers and learners. Is it the same every year? No, the walls reflect the students and their learning. At the end of the year, I roll up all of the anchor charts and raffle them off to the kids. Who knows what we’ll create next year!
Keep It Simple
Over the years, I’ve had many teachers observe in my classroom. Inevitably, at some point during their visit, someone asks, “What does the beginning of the year look like?” To answer that question, I share two big ideas. First, from the first day of school until the last, I believe in keeping it simple and predictable. I’ve learned this from experience and it is echoed by Lucy Calkins when she says, “The most creative environments in our society . . . are [each] deliberately kept simple so as to support the complexities of the work-in-progress. They are deliberately kept predictable so the unpredictable can happen” (Lessons from a Child, 1983, p. 32). From the very first day of school, children know that every day we will begin with a morning message, a read aloud, and a poem.
Also, on day one, I launch either reading or writing workshop (sometimes both depending on my schedule). I choose not to do “cute” beginning-of-the-year projects and, instead, we get right into our regular routine. I’ve also learned not to begin with expectations and procedures instead, I immerse students in the work. Then, once they’ve lived together in the classroom for a while, we develop our shared expectations for learning and behavior. Writing this post got me excited about the possibilities that a new school year offers. But, first, I need to go and enjoy summer!
Maria Walther, who earned a doctorate in elementary education from Northern Illinois University, has taught first grade since 1986. Along with teaching young learners, Maria inspires other professionals by sharing her knowledge through inspiring professional development experiences. The ideas she shares reflect her continued commitment to teaching, researching, writing, and collaborating with her colleagues. Maria has co-authored five professional books and the Next Step Guided Reading Assessment with Scholastic. She is currently working on two books, one for Corwin about reading aloud and one for Stenhouse, with her colleague Karen Biggs-Tucker, about literacy workshop. Learn more about her books at mariawalther.com and follow her on Twitter @mariapwalther.