Reimagine your role in the classroom in service of creating more opportunities for authentic learning.
Although it’s a different building, it still feels like home, the place where I spent the first six years of my teaching career. As I am buzzed into the main entrance, I see students filling the hallway, getting ready to leave for the day. I sign in and take the stairs up to Room 209, Ms. Cunningham’s room. I’m excited to see my former colleague, who has been teaching here for eight years.
Her classroom is decorated with flags, posters of student work, and the desks are grouped in quads. The large windows are a breath of fresh air after teaching in a building with no windows, and I joke with her about the increase in Vitamin D. After a brief catch up, we started talking about how Ms. Cunningham’s teaching practice has changed throughout the years, defining what authentic learning means, and how her role as educator has shifted to teacher as facilitator.
Ms. Cunningham: I think authentic learning really relies on the students and what they bring into class, showing them that their experiences are what make this class. It’s not that I have any preconceived notion of what they need to learn or what they need for education, it’s that they’re bringing their passions with them. I’m just here to kind of bring that out. And in doing so, I bring that out of every student.
Did you always have this mindset?
Ms. Cunningham: I think for the first half of my career, I was very much of a control freak about my classroom and what I was doing. At the time, I felt like if I was leading things and I knew what I was teaching was what was aligned to the curriculum, I could have “control.” After attending the Stanford Hollyhock Fellowship, I began to question my role in the classroom. My classroom is not about me. Before, I was the source, and now, I'm a facilitator. I think that has inspired me to do a lot more group work with students, more individual conferencing, and more conversations in general rather than looking for a product. Even today, we sat in groups; in my first three years, I could never imagine seating my students in groups, but by adjusting my role as facilitator, I showed them that I trust them more and that they have power in their learning.
What do you think has been the most noticeable change in your classroom practice?
Ms. Cunningham: Fostering curiosity. It should be the students bringing forth curiosity and interest; the teacher is there to aid in that, not necessarily just fill them with what they think students need to know. Am I coming into the classroom with a notion of giving the students what I think they should know, or am I coming into this classroom genuinely getting to know these students as people and then navigating how they want to interact with their learning? Ultimately, I decided that what really means more to me is giving students the space and opportunity to be curious. Learning does not come from me. Learning comes from the students, and they should guide their learning; I'm just here to help out. My role as a teacher is to help them make the map or point them in the right direction. Students tell me where they want to go, and I hope that I can get them there.
The mindset shift
There are a few things that really stood out to me during my conversation with Ms. Cunningham. The first was that this new teaching philosophy was encouraged through a mindset shift. She questioned if she was the source of knowledge, leading her to question the idea of knowledge as a singular term. This is not an easy task — demonstrated by the word “knowledges” being underlined in blue as I type this article — but being the courageous educator that she is, Ms. Cunningham challenged what she had previously learned about the role of a teacher. One person should not be the “keeper of the knowledge”, and students all bring their own knowledges to the classroom, knowledges that should be welcomed and validated.
The curriculum shift
As we continued our conversation, I asked Ms. Cunningham for examples of how she enacts this mindset shift in her classroom. She talked about starting new units with notice and wonder protocols, allowing students to ask their own questions about the information provided. These questions guide their exploration throughout the unit, prompting reading choices and potential final reflection questions. Through these student-led explorations, she provides resources, suggestions, and teaches the students skills they need to master in order to answer their questions and communicate their findings. Rarely will you find her at the front of the classroom.
The classroom space
This leads to the physical classroom space; Ms. Cunningham has arranged the desks in quads on this particular day, encouraging students to discuss their ideas and explore together. There is a couch in the reading corner, complete with several bookcases. Students are welcomed to use the space as they need, moving desks or sitting in the reading corner when they want to get some independent reading done. This classroom setup invites students to use each other as resources and can mutate to fit their needs. Without flexibility of space, mindset and curricular shifts wouldn’t be enough to make this teacher-as-facilitator role possible.
As the sun starts to set, I thank Ms. Cunningham for inviting me into her classroom and sharing her work with me. Her shift from teacher-as-knower to teacher-as-facilitator is inspiring and by no means easy. It requires educators to do what we want our students to do; question what we know, build new knowledge, and enact positive change.
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Promising practices that can help nurture confident, capable student writers.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
The beginning of the school year is a powerful time for setting intentions and establishing expectations. As a former classroom teacher and professional development coach, I understand the importance of making sure students feel safe in their writing environment, so that they feel empowered to put pen to paper. Using the beginning of the year to create a culture of writing can help cultivate a sense of community, boost students’ confidence, dispel some of the myths that exist about writing, and strengthen students’ skills and strategies.
How then, can we create this culture and community?
Creating the environment
As Dan Kirby writes in Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, “…there should be some obvious indications that you believe that the physical environment is important, and these touches need to be present even in a rather sterile classroom setting…the fact that you’ve done something to your room is a signal to students that you care about the writing environment.”
Teachers should create a space where they want to be, as chances are that the students will feel comfortable, too.
Teachers can use questions such as:
By asking and answering these questions, it can inform and inspire the ways in which you design your classroom, as well as what materials or resources you might need or want. Perhaps you want to have a writing corner, or a gallery space for finished pieces. Think about all the spaces in the room — whether it’s a specific bulletin board, the walls, the ceiling, outside the classroom — where and how will writing be honored and celebrated?
When it came to my environment, I recognized the importance of a quiet, comfortable space for students to write. I wanted to have inviting spaces around the room where students could choose to sit, whether it was on the carpet, with a pillow, a large bean bag, or in a comfortable chair near a window. In addition, I would turn off the lights when we wrote and play soft, classical music. This routine, over time, helped signal to students that it was time to write. It set the expectations that when we write, it's quiet and calm. You might be thinking that this can or should only happen in an elementary classroom; however, I have seen it used in middle and high school classrooms, and it was very well received by the students.
I also had a writing center in my room, where students could go to gather paper, pencils, highlighters, and post-its to use for their writing. There was a basket for them to drop writing that they wanted or needed me to read. This empowered students to take ownership of their writing and build their independence as writers by providing them with common resources and tools they could access on their own, as needed.
Establishing rituals & routines
The second promising practice for creating a writing culture is to consider meaningful rituals and routines that value and encourage writing. Rituals and routines involve necessary actions that create purpose and organization, and when done frequently, they become innate. Below are some of my favorite rituals and routines.
I encourage you to start the process of creating a culture or writing by identifying what you are most passionate about, what you are most excited about, and use that information to inspire the ways in which you create your space and establish your rituals and routines. If you have a passion for writing, like me, and/or you are a writing/ELA teacher, then I invite you to use the promising practices shared above, as they were very helpful for me and for the advancement of my students as writers!
Small moves that will help you hold on to that fresh teacher start a bit longer.
Literacy & Special Education Specialist
We have all seen memes of teachers beginning the school year versus teachers finishing the school year. The September teacher is energetic, cleancut and almost joyful; the June teacher looks disheveled and desperate. Think Michael from The Office on his best day compared with “Prison Mike.” It’s a funny meme, and relatable perhaps for our students, too.
But the truth is I never really feel that organized and ready for September. While I know I will never be that Pinterest teacher who has everything just so, if I spend a bit of time early in the school year planning, I can create the type of positive and organized learning environment that leads to a successful learning partnership.
Start with community building
This is a non-negotiable. I can imagine you are reading this and rolling your eyes. And frankly, I’m with you. There is nothing more irritating than community building when nobody is into it and the task feels superfluous. But hear me out: in order to have those discussions where students feel safe enough to explore and share their thinking, or feel comfortable enough to ask a question, we have to find a way to help students get to know one another. And we have to start somewhere, even if it's with just a few ice breakers that can be tweaked to fit your needs and the ages of your students. It may feel silly, but explain to your students that in order to do the hard work throughout the year, they need to know who is in the room with them, who their classmates are. Another way to think about this to help your students develop their emotional literacy within your classroom. Teaching students to talk to each other in honest and respectful ways is an ongoing and complex goal, but starting with some type of community building is the way to go.
Create or systematize the days of the week
As much as you can, of course. For instance, perhaps every Friday is a discussion day or a day to read and discuss current events, with the ask that your students connect it to your curricula. Perhaps every Tuesday and Friday are homework collections days, so students know what to expect and you can plan accordingly. You can make changes as the year progresses, but begin the year with a system to make your life and your students’ lives more predictable. My colleague Ashlynn Wittchow refers to this concept as making a plan for material management.
Sketch out the year with the end of marking periods in mind so you have a strong sense of the perimeters of your curriculum. Look at weeks where there are no breaks and consider planning a field trip or asking a speaker to visit during those long stretches. The more you can sketch out your year and plan specific events in your classroom, the less anxious you’ll feel. I say this as a compulsive list maker, and Harvard Business Review will back me up on this. Again, your schedule or plans may change, but you can start plotting different elements of the year as a way to frame your backward planning.
The beginning of the school year can be overwhelming — new procedures and mandates, the mental and physical preparation of getting your room ready — and there are always new people to learn how to work with and get to know. But there is so much possibility at the beginning of the school year, which acts as a clean slate for teachers and students. Starting the year by building community, creating systems and structures, and determining a few key dates in the timeline are small moves that will help you hold on to that fresh teacher start a bit longer.
Replace antiquated advice with new norms that value your humanity.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
Don’t smile until Christmas.
Never let them see you sweat!
Fake it ‘til you make it.
Advice to new and returning teachers about how to start the school year is as ancient as the Greek and Roman myths that start with Chaos and bring forth Zeus, Poseidon, and Athena. But these gods of lightning, storms, and war have little place in the 21st century classrooms. And many of these words of so-called wisdom are from a time when the culture valued a teacher-centered dominant force in the classroom.
But we know better now.
Now, we know that students learn best in an affirming environment that becomes rich with diversity, dialogue, and shared decision-making with students. Research shows that students become more engaged in their learning experiences when they can use their voice to cultivate their agency. This happens when they are given the opportunity to reflect and discover their opinions, share their perspectives with the people and structures in power, and when the system incorporates these new ideas to create change.
The major shifts that come from centering students — rather than centering teachers — change how we structure our classroom spaces and how we show up in that space together.
Teachers are culture creators and everything we do, especially at the beginning of the year, sets the tone, the mood, and the rhythms that eventually become the core of our learning community. How we show up has a major influence on whether that space is helpful or harmful. If we choose to let go of the ancient myths, we can replace them with new norms that help us invest in our students and in ourselves.
"Don't smile until Christmas"
Old myths focus on behavior and compliance, rather than ways we can leverage learning. Yes, we need students to follow common school structures, but good behavior doesn’t mean increased learning or engagement. If we can move away from compliance and refocus our energy on creating a culture of learning, we’ll get something better than compliance: collaboration and engagement. But what does that look like?
In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle breaks down the concept of “belonging cues.” These are the small verbal and nonverbal ways we interact with people to signal to them that they either belong, or that they don’t belong. These cues are powerful in peer group dynamics, but they’re even more dramatic in power dynamics such as classroom spaces. When the teacher leads interactions with signals of belonging, it makes students feel like they’re in a welcoming and affirming environment, which lessens anxiety, increases openness, and clears a pathway for connection and learning.
There isn’t a magic list of belonging cues, but a few easy to implement strategies can include:
"Never let them see you sweat"
The idea that the teacher is the sage on the stage and the holder of all knowledge is impossible to uphold — and presents a false notion that knowing everything is something to strive for, much less something that’s possible.
When students buy into the myth that their teacher knows everything, they can feel insecure because they know how much seems unknown. This dynamic creates a sense of helplessness and sets up a fixed mindset that positions knowledge and intelligence as something that someone is born with, rather than something they work hard for.
We can disrupt this myth by being our authentic selves, and by talking with our students about what we know, and what we don’t know yet — especially if they’re posing questions that we don’t really have the answers to! When we encounter something that’s beyond our knowledge base or skill set, rather than pretending to be cool and never letting them see you sweat, we can be honest with our students that learning is a process that never ends, and the smartest people know how to learn.
Then we can engage together on the journey to answer the open questions, explore a new line of inquiry, or use our resources to check our understanding and accuracy. We can say things like:
"Fake it 'til you make it"
Imposter syndrome is a well-documented phenomenon that can become overwhelming to anyone who’s learning on the job. At the beginning of the school year, or when starting a new role, this syndrome can hit hard. In the past, the remedy for imposter syndrome has been the myth fake it til you make it! While it’s important not to let our fears and insecurities paralyze us from moving forward in our work, it’s counterintuitive to think that the antidote to feeling self-conscious about our skills is to go it alone and not talk to anyone.
Everyone needs a network of support, and not just when we’re struggling. We can curate our networks with mentors who’ve walked the road before us, peers who are able to walk alongside us, and even with folks who are novices compared to us. This might be a formal network that meets regularly, or an informal list of people you reach out to. It’s easy to fall into the fixed mindset that we’re either good or bad at our job, but this is false, and frankly, toxic. Teaching is an art, a craft, a science, and practice — it’s not magic.
No one has it all together and the best teachers are the ones who ask for help, learn from others, and pay it forward.
There is a time and place to tell tall tales from the age of yore. But as we push into the third decade of the 21st century, let’s be clear that some of these myths aren’t just outdated, they represent a harmful and dysfunctional way of working. They distort the truth about the challenges of teaching, and they can perpetuate feelings of isolation and fears of failure for teachers and students.
These new norms for starting the school year are about making an investment in the humanity, validity, and inherent worth of each person because we learn better — and we teach better — when we can be our whole selves.
BY ASHLYNN WITTCHOW
Planning for the school year as a new teacher can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances, let alone during the third year of pandemic learning. Many teachers are returning to their classrooms for the first time in over a year, and for early-career teachers, this presents unique challenges. New teachers, particularly those who completed their student teaching in entirely virtual settings, may not know what to expect as we move back into in-person spaces. The added uncertainty of quarantine protocols and potential returns to virtual learning may make this first year seem even more daunting.
Though it may feel intimidating, we believe that it is still possible to plan for success as we continue to navigate unprecedented times. With these realities in mind, we can help you plan for an effective and meaningful first year of teaching.
Arranging the physical space
In the fall, many first-year teachers are stepping into physical classrooms for the first time. While virtual classrooms present their own unique pedagogical challenges, the return to in-person spaces may be a challenge for many students and teachers alike. Breakout rooms and chat boxes have radically changed how we conceptualize discussion, collaboration, and class participation. What do these look like in our physical classroom? Though we may be relieved to see our students in person again, we can’t just mute all mics when faced with a rowdy classroom, as tempting as it may be.
In our physical classrooms, the arrangement of the space can significantly shape our culture of classroom discussion. We have a ton of options when it comes to arranging the space — rows, small groups, pairs, horseshoes, etc. — and each arrangement comes with pros and cons. Rows may seem too regimented and teacher-centered, but groups may become chatty and difficult to manage. While I love a good horseshoe configuration, I’ve been in classrooms where the physical size of the space makes them a challenge, if not an impossibility.
As we move back into physical spaces this fall, you may also be contending with the challenge of creating seating charts and arranging desks to maximize instruction, while also adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols. As much as we may wish to place our students in small groups, this may be a challenge given social distancing requirements. Even if we’re in the same physical space, we may need to fall back on remote discussion strategies in order to remain safe.
In all cases, it’s important to have a plan, but be flexible. Remember to let the space work with you and your lesson, not against it. In my own classroom, my students learned to expect new seating arrangements depending on different instructional goals. When we were focused on Socratic discussion, they might walk in to find the desks in a horseshoe. When they collaborated on inquiry projects, they could be found in small groups. They might be partnered for writing workshops, or they might be in rows for standardized testing. (Over the years, I became very quick at rearranging desks between classes and my students came to expect the unexpected.) When it comes to arranging the physical space, find a plan that works for you and your students!
Building classroom culture
Even after years of teaching, I’m always nervous to meet my students for the first time. The first several days sometimes feels like a revolving door of new faces, and as an introvert, it can be exhausting. I want to make sure I remember my students’ names, interests, and quirks — a daunting task when rosters contain hundreds of students. Yet, forming these personal connections lays the foundation for building a strong community of scholars. As Courtney Brown, Director of the New Teacher Network, shared in her article on classroom culture, “creating a positive classroom climate is key to a productive school year.” Taking steps to establish a positive classroom culture ensures that you’re building your school year on solid ground. Check out some of the activities below, which can help spark ideas for how you might approach getting to know your students:
Invite students to share information about themselves via surveys using Google Forms and/or other software. Surveys can be a great way of collecting a variety of data, including gauging your students’ prior experience and level of comfort within your content area.
Write a letter introducing yourself to your students. Then, invite students to write their own introductory letters in response, giving them the opportunity to share what’s important to them, what they’d like you to know, and what a successful school year might look like in their eyes.
Students get to know each other by producing Humans of New York-inspired narratives. After sharing age-appropriate models from the Humans of New York database, you can invite students to interview each other and create a digital Humans of Our Classroom showcase using Google Slides. This will encourage students to move beyond facts about their classmates and find interesting stories to write up and share with the whole group.
Memoir & Poetry Writing
Invite students to explore their identities with creative writing. Consider 6-Word Memoirs and Themed Poetry Collections as ways to introduce mentor texts and writing protocols while simultaneously getting to know your students.
Encourage a growth mindset by inviting students to set SMART goals for the upcoming school year. For an artistic take on goal setting, you might invite students to create vision boards to help them visualize the end in mind.
While we hope one or more of these culture-building activities has sparked your interest, it’s also important to remember to engage authentically with your students. Make sure that your classroom culture reflects your personality as a teacher. What works well for your team leader down the hall might not necessarily work for you, and that’s okay! As G. Faith Little writes:
Ultimately, though each of our classrooms might look a little bit different from the outside looking in, positive classroom environments tend to share certain qualities. When I close my eyes and imagine this classroom environment, I see a space that is warm and welcoming, a space where my students feel safe expressing their authentic selves. I also see a space where high expectations are maintained for all students through differentiation. The ideal classroom is warm, yet appropriately challenging, and it’s important to set these expectations up front, particularly after a year of virtual learning, when many students may have felt particularly isolated and disengaged from school.
Establishing classroom structures
After more than a year of virtual learning, returning to in-person classroom routines may be difficult for many students. It’s important to establish and maintain consistent classroom structures and routines that work across in-person spaces and virtual platforms, while also factoring in possible quarantines and temporary returns to virtual learning. Here are a few things you might want to consider as you plan for the school year:
Plan for Student Behavior
Have a plan to proactively respond to student behavior, and use our Understanding Off-Task Behaviors resource as a guide. There are four types of behavior that have a negative impact on the classroom environment — it’s important to be able to recognize what each type of behavior looks like, as well the motivations behind it, so we can act proactively as opposed to simply reacting.
Plan for Material Management
Make sure you have a plan for managing the materials in your classroom. How will students turn in their work? Will student work be entirely digitized via Google Classroom or another online learning platform? If students are receiving printed materials, how will these be stored and submitted? Having a plan for how materials move through your classroom will save you a headache when it comes to the end of the marking period.
Plan for Curriculum
Some of our classroom structures are linked to our curriculum and planning. Check out a sample curriculum planning template — according to Courtney Brown, “these templates help new teachers thoughtfully organize and plan their curriculum while examining classroom rituals and routines, assessment strategies, and more!”
Though this is just the beginning of everything you may want to consider as you plan for the new school year, try not to overwhelm yourself by overplanning or becoming too cemented into a particular routine. My mentor always liked to remind me to be prepared to modify and adjust, a lesson that I’ve taken to heart in the years since. This year, like the last, will likely demand a great deal of flexibility and ingenuity, so be prepared to modify and adjust, but most importantly, be prepared to give yourself grace!
If you’re interested in learning more about planning with successful instruction in mind, check out our upcoming online course, Designing Coherent Instruction. This professional opportunity is intended to support new teachers in strengthening their instructional core, increasing strategic planning skills, and ensuring that lesson objectives align with instructional methods and assessments. Within each module, we’ll delve into the key competencies of the Danielson Framework, examine the key look fors, and offer promising practices and practical strategies that can be implemented in-person and online.