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The First Six Weeks of School

An Education World e-Interview with co-author Roxann Kriete

The latest book from the folks behind the Responsive Classroom approach focuses on the all-important first six weeks of school. Careful planning of those first weeks can pay big dividends throughout the rest of the school year, according to Roxann Kriete, co-author of The First Six Weeks of School. Today, Kriete takes time to answer a handful of questions from Education World and to give our readers a preview of the kinds of helpful tips that pack the pages of this new book! Included: Tips for teaching students to be independent workers and chat about the importance of starting the day with a morning meeting and ending it with a brief period of reflection!

Every experienced teacher knows that the tone for the entire school year develops in the opening weeks of school. During those early days, students learn the rules and routines that will remain in place all year long. It's also the time when teachers can patiently instruct students in such skills as working independently, cooperating, and being responsible! The Northeast Foundation for Children recently released the latest book in its Strategies for Teaching series. The First Six Weeks of School has lots to offer teachers -- whether they are looking for a gentle refresher course or a structured plan for those first 30 days. Authors Paula Denton and Roxann Kriete provide day-by-day lessons, including many games and activities, for teachers in the primary (K-2), middle (3-4), and upper (5-6) elementary grades.

Recently, Kriete took time to respond to some questions from Education World. She offers some practical advice and just a slight hint of all The First Six Weeks of School has to offer!

Education World: The First Six Weeks of School offers tons of ideas. The plans across the grades for Week One are very focused on a few goals, including helping the teacher and students get to know one another. One of my favorite Week One activities is the Colored Dot Game that you use in your Grade 5-6 plan. Can you describe that game for Education World readers and explain what Week One goals it aims to accomplish?

Roxann Kriete: In the Colored Dot Game, the teacher places a colored dot -- one of four to six possible colors -- on each child's forehead without letting the child see what color the dot is. Each child, without speaking, must then find classmates with the same colored dot. This is a great icebreaker because it requires playfulness and creativity, yet it's not as intimidating as some drama exercises can be. It requires lots of mixing and mingling and engagement with all classmates, not just one's friends. Quiet children, often very skilled at observing, frequently emerge as leaders in this game. Once people with the same-color dots have found one another, you have four to six randomly formed groups -- which can be useful for activities later in the day or week.

EW: Morning Meeting is an integral part of the day in a K-6 classroom during the opening weeks -- and all year long. That meeting can often run 20 to 30 minutes. How can a teacher who is trying to cover x, y, and z possibly justify devoting that much of the school day to a morning meeting with students?

Kriete: That's an interesting question, one that many teachers ask. Teachers sometimes fear that Morning Meeting will compete with or divert attention from all the subjects they must teach. In fact, we find the opposite to be true. Morning Meeting is essential to helping us teach our curriculum. It helps establish the tone and behaviors we want to see throughout the school day and the school year. It's an arena in which the social and the academic are really intertwined. Students learn to listen, to communicate their thoughts clearly and concisely, and to handle the frustration of waiting their turn to speak and their fear of making a mistake. When students lack those skills, teaching them x, y, and z is tough. Morning Meeting is also a great arena for whole-group learning activities directly tied to our curriculum. We might memorize and recite a Langston Hughes poem; play a category word game, providing practice with the weekly spelling words; or collect and graph data students have collected from class surveys.

EW: In the school you describe in The First Six Weeks of School, a lot of random grouping of students is done. What are the benefits of grouping in that way? What are some of your favorite approaches to creating such groups within a class?

Kriete: In the early weeks of school, we want to give children the opportunity to get to know and work with lots of classmates -- not just the ones they're already comfortable with or might seek out on their own. Random groups open the possibility of new friendships and establish our expectation that our classroom community will be a place where everyone will work with and treat everyone else respectfully and pleasantly. Mixing and re-mixing help accomplish those goals and give us a chance to observe our students' interpersonal skills in many different contexts.

Sometimes when time is short, we use the tried and true counting-off method to make groups. At other times, we use more-elaborate activities, such as the Colored Dot Game described earlier. Frequently, we use categories to create pairings or small groups. "Locate two other students who have the same number of siblings, the same color socks you are wearing, birthdays in the same season, or the same number of letters as your first name." The possibilities are endless. Students enjoy suggesting categories too. We've established one rule about categories: They must be clear, verifiable facts rather than changeable opinions [students] might hold. The reason? Experience taught us early on that, when asked to sort themselves by favorite food or color, for example, students show a remarkable affection for the same color or food as their best friends!

EW: You spend time in the first weeks of school teaching recess. Why -- and how -- do you teach recess?

Kriete: We spend a lot of time teaching recess because it is a time that so affects children's ability to learn. When recess is peaceful and active, children come back to the classroom refreshed and able to focus. When recess hasn't been a time of activity and fun or is full of unresolved conflicts, children come back to the classroom simmering. The spillover keeps them from hearing the math lesson or the read-aloud. That's a big part of the why to teach recess.

The how? This varies a lot, depending on arrangements for recess in different schools. In the school where [Paula Denton] and I taught together, classroom teachers were responsible for recess time, and we actually went out and participated with children, paying the same careful attention to establishing expectations and tone that we did inside the classroom. In schools where teachers don't directly supervise recess, they can work with playground supervision staff to make sure that signals and expectations are consistent. It's also really helpful when phys ed teachers teach lots of active, cooperative games that the whole group can play early in the year.

Back in the classroom, teachers can do quick check-ins with students about how recess went and have class discussions about ways to improve things when trouble spots are reported.

EW: The teacher spends a lot of time in the first weeks of school helping students learn to work independently. How can a teacher teach students independent work skills while he or she is trying to work with others?

Kriete: You're right -- helping students learn how to work independently is one of the most important challenges in the early weeks, worthy of a lot of time and focus. It's critical to managing a room in which different kinds of learning activities and levels of instruction can happen. After lots of whole-group activities and instruction in the first days, we begin working with one small group of students while the rest of students work on their own. We deliberately plan work with the small group that engages them but allows us to keep most of our attention on the work habits of the independent workers. We note and encourage the positive behaviors we see and redirect those that are unproductive. We call this teaching strategy "the paradox" because, although students perceive that we are "teaching" the small group, we are really teaching the larger group even more.

EW: In your plan for the first few weeks of school, special teachers -- for example, the art teacher, the gym teacher, and the music teacher -- come into the regular classroom instead of having the children go to them. What's the intent of that?

Kriete: Well, for one thing, special teachers bring their special areas of expertise into the room with them. We love and benefit from having the art teachers' ideas about decorating nametags or the music teacher's skill at teaching a new getting-to-know-you song at Morning Meeting. It's great for students to see us interacting as professionals who respect and call on one another's knowledge and enjoy working together. It's also helpful for specialists and classroom teachers to agree on and consistently use the same basic management signals -- such as a raised hand that is a signal for silence or a whistle that means "circle up." Letting students see us together, using those signals and expecting the same responses, lets everyone know straight from the start that we are all on the same team, playing by the same rules.

EW: Across the grades, your day always ends with some kind of reflection period. What purpose does that activity serve?

Kriete: Ending the day with some kind of reflection accomplishes several goals. First, it brings everyone together and ends the day on a calm note, rather than the flurry of last minute announcements and hurried scooping up of belongings that can send teachers and students into the rest of their day feeling scattered and frenzied. Second, reflection is such an important step in the process of learning. We learn not just from having experiences but also from reflecting upon and processing those experiences. Third, by listening to our students' reflections, we learn a lot about what's going on for them -- what concepts they understand, what misconceptions they have picked up, and how they're feeling about their days in school. Building habits of reflection is so important for lifelong learning.

Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
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