First off, congratulations as we end the first month of school this week. You have probably spent the past three weeks building classroom community and building relationships with all of your students. If not, it’s not too late to set the foundation for the rest of the school year. I know this because, for the last 11 years, I have always been that person that wanted to be teaching content on the first day of school. It always seemed like a race to teach content on the first day and some principals praised this idea. However, I have found that with a positive culture students take more risks, have better attendance and misbehave less.
So what can you do to build this culture? First, imagine yourself as a 10-year-old walking into a room of 28 new people that you have never met before. Would you rather walk into this room and immediately start taking assessments and talking about author’s purpose or would you rather walk into a room and complete a highly engaging challenge/activity? As a teacher, I would personally want to walk into a room where students are engaged in a challenging cooperative activity. During the first three weeks we, as a fifth-grade team at Watson Lane, have intentionally set a goal to learn everything about our students that we possibly could, reaching well beyond the traditional standards. An integral part of a positive culture is knowing your students!
As educators, we have 175 days to teach content and to make an impact on our children’s lives. In my classroom, I have 24 boys and 5 girls and every child has unique gifts and challenges that I embrace and celebrate. Celebrations are key to showing the students we care. As Rita Pierson states in her Ted Talk session, “Students don’t learn from people they don’t like.” I take that a step further and explicitly say that, “students cannot learn with classmates they don’t like.” The reason is the class has to genuinely care about each other and share a common goal. Students know when you and others are “faking” it. Pierson’s presentation should be shown in every school. I caution new teachers that Pierson does not want you to be friends with students rather she believes they should be academically stimulated in a caring classroom.
So how do you build this culture of trust and collaboration and why should you believe me? During my first 11 years of teaching, I approached learning as a competition and less of collaborative adventure. Sure my students did projects and we celebrated the best ones. But this summer, after reading Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, I planned to approach this year with a celebration mindset where we celebrate the completion of assignments and students have to present their work. Within the first few weeks, there have been fewer tears from not being able to complete the work and more praise from peers. Grading assignments have been a breeze and students have been able to build on early projects to extend their understandings. In general, my students seem happy and more accepting of peers during group work.
How did I flip from a strong competitive classroom to a more collaborative classroom? The answer is I started the year by using more team building activities. Here are two of the challenges that we used at Watson Lane to start this year.
During the first three days of school, we promote the idea of collaboration, conversation and the mantra of “We can’t do it, yet.” For the marshmallow challenge, you need 20 spaghetti noodles, a yard of tape, a yard of string, a marshmallow and 18 minutes. Total cost for this challenge for our entire fifth grade $5.
For this activity, students had to stack six cups in pyramid without touching them with their hands. They used a rubber band tool and their minds to move the cups from a tower into a pyramid. If any student was pulling too hard or without enough force, the rubber band would not open properly. The challenge started as a five-minute challenge to see which groups could build the cup pyramid. The kids decided to use their wellness time, since it was raining, to experiment with how many times they could do it in twelve minutes (our class record was 7). Total cost for the entire fifth grade? $6.
My challenge this month is that you tweet me (@morrisonsclass) or @jcpsforward with pictures of your classroom doing a highly engaging activity that made your students excited to be at school. Building a positive culture doesn’t need to begin with an administrator, but rather it can blossom within your classroom and spread. Be the teacher leader we all know you can be!