Building a Successful Learning Community in the First Weeks of School

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The first weeks of school offer educators the powerful opportunity to support students through the transition back to school and set them up for a successful year of learning and growth. During these first weeks of the school year, our goals for students include establishing classroom routines, setting expectations, nurturing positive relationships, and developing a shared sense of purpose. However, this emphasis on positive community and effective management doesn’t preclude a focus on engaging academics.

In fact, The First Six Weeks of School (2015) is set up to include academic work, and it is intentionally designed to introduce and scaffold skills in developmentally appropriate ways that allow students to build comfort and confidence in the classroom and with their peers. During the first weeks of the school year, students can build meaningful relationships with one another and become familiar with classroom routines, with academic work integrated into the program.

The classroom community we build is for the purpose of learning. Creating a strong classroom community takes intentional and thoughtful planning, and the foundation built in the classroom ultimately allows for deeper academic learning. Our efforts during those first weeks show children that the purpose of our classroom community is learning and growing together. We are not just building a safe and joyful environment, but rather a safe, joyful, and engaging classroom. Students begin the school year learning how to set academic goals, building an academic mindset by persevering through tasks, and acquiring the tools needed to reflect on the process or content. As each week passes, students are building their stamina with the amount of work they are completing, allowing them opportunities to interact with all classmates, and increasing the rigor of classroom expectations.

For students to be successful in school, they must take both social and academic risks, and in order for students to be willing to take those risks, they must feel physically and emotionally safe in their classroom environment. And for this new school year, it will be especially important to build a safe and joyful learning community that will create the foundation for successful academic work. We can plan our academic work to stay on pace and support the needs of our students by keeping in mind the goals of the first six weeks:

  1. Create a climate of warmth, inclusion, and safety.
  2. Teach classroom routines and behavior expectations.
  3. Help Students get to know and care for the classroom and school environment.
  4. Establish expectations for academic work. (Center for Responsive Schools, 2015, pp. 3-4)

If we expect students to behave in certain ways, then it is our responsibility to clearly teach those expectations. Taking the time to explicitly teach expectations in meaningful ways will help students understand the purpose of and, consequently, spend more time engaging with their academic tasks.

Academic routines to teach early in the year should include:

  • Moving Safely to different areas of the room
  • Raising their hand to share an idea
  • Turning to talk with a partner
  • Caring for classroom materials
  • Finding a partner

Academic activities should include:

  • Exploring math manipulatives
  • Brainstorming writing ideas
  • Using read-alouds to prompt partner discussions
  • Beginning work with books and journals
  • Organization and purpose of content materials

When implementing these routines and activities, try the following:

  • Use Interactive Modeling and Guided Discovery to teach routines and procedures, social and emotional skills, and/or academic skills to help students clearly understand expectations. Then open up these materials for classroom use.
  • Use Academic Choice to allow students the opportunity to plan, work, and reflect. Build stamina through increasing the choices and rigor of work.
  • Use interactive learning structures to provide ways for students to be both active and interactive during lessons.
  • Keep in mind the natural learning cycle when planning lessons to increase the opportunities students have to generate goals, work, and reflect on their process.

As you prepare these activities and routines, ask yourself the following:

  • How have I started to build meaningful relationships with my students?
  • How have I provided opportunities for my students to build relationships with each other?
  • Do my students understand and believe that this environment will support their learning?
  • Do all students understand how to care for our classroom materials?

After the first week of school, there are many opportunities to plan lessons and academic work in ways that can reach the goals of each week. One of the most powerful ways to do this is by finding different ways to group and use interactive learning structures to set goals for each of the first six weeks.

As you plan your goals, ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what ways am I increasing the opportunities for my students to interact together?
  • How am I supporting my class to build deeper relationships?
  • How can I increase the rigor of the choices provided when using Academic Choice?
  • How can I continue to build interactive learning structures in my content areas?
  • Am I providing students with activities and energizers with an academic focus?
  • Do my students understand the expectations for quality work?

My journey over the years as a Responsive Classroom practitioner has helped me understand that this approach is designed to be used throughout the entire school day. It has helped me to focus on my priorities and stay true to my beliefs about how children learn. I begin each day with a Morning Meeting in order to build strong relationships, blending SEL and academic skills. There are two books I go back to frequently: The Power of Our Words helps me understand how to use my teacher language to support deeper learning, and The Joyful Classroom guides my implementation of interactive learning structures for my students and lesson planning.

When we are proactive with the physical classroom space and our expectations for learning behavior, it allows us to have high standards for learning right away. There is positivity and purpose behind the way we build success in these first six weeks of school.

Sarah Scavone is currently a third grade classroom teacher in Charlottesville, Virginia and a consulting teacher for Responsive Classroom. She taught third, fourth, and fifth grades and also served as a K–5 reading specialist. She has served in the field of education since 2001 and was recognized in 2015 with The Golden Apple Award for her leadership and excellence in education. Sarah is originally from Saratoga Springs, New York. She received her bachelor of arts from Alfred University in 2000 and went on to pursue her master of science in reading education.