A Fresh Start Leads to Learning

Last year’s class, my twenty-third, was the most challenging of my teaching career. Most of the students were quite young for fifth grade, and several had a history of severe behavior problems. The result was a classroom like a popcorn popper—one student’s outburst would set off a flurry of others. A schedule that kept us in the classroom for three-and-a-half hours straight before lunch only made things worse.

I’d started the year by teaching classroom routines, opening areas of the room gradually, and using Guided Discovery to introduce materials. We’d created classroom rules together, and I referred to the rules often in the course of our days. But for this class, none of that seemed to help.

By November, I was tired of driving to school every day with my stomach in knots. I was sick of feeling angry and frustrated, and of the scolding tone of voice I frequently heard myself using. Finally, late on a particularly frustrating Wednesday afternoon, I looked around at our rules on the wall, the children’s overflowing desks, and the jumbled mess of our classroom materials, and I said to myself, “This isn’t working. We’ve got to start over.”

Starting over in November

The next day, I stood at the door and welcomed the students as if it were the first day of school. When the children entered, they saw that the room had been transformed back into the clean, bare space they had started out with in September. We gathered in our circle, and I explained that we needed a fresh start, a new beginning for their fifth grade year. I was careful to say this in a tone that was calm and optimistic, rather than angry. I didn’t know quite what was going to happen, but I knew that if the children felt they were being punished, it wouldn’t work.

That day, just as I had on the first day of school, I introduced the basic routines we’d be using daily in our classroom. Of course, as soon as I began with a familiar procedure—carrying one’s chair from a desk to the rug—a child said, “Ms. Smith, we already did this!” Another groaned, “She really means it. It’s just like the first day of school.”

But once we started re-learning other routines, such as taking attendance and managing the class’ shared supply of pencils, the children started to get into it. I was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastically some of them participated in modeling, and by the careful attention they gave to watching and describing what they’d seen.

A new sense of responsibility

The “starting over” period continued for several more days. We didn’t go back and re-do academic work, but each day’s lessons were punctuated with review and practice of classroom procedures. We also re-created our classroom rules, revising and simplifying them. And, we considered what those rules might look like when applied in other school spaces, such as the cafeteria, the hallways, and the playground.

Throughout our discussions about rules, I noticed that students seemed more engaged in the process this time. The ideas they shared showed they were really thinking about what would make our classroom feel safer and more kind. I believe the change had to do with the fact that I’d presented starting over as an opportunity, rather than as a punishment. Because they were treated respectfully, the children took the opportunity seriously and felt more invested. I also think taking time to go back helped them understand the importance of the work.

Now, when I think back on this class’s first six weeks of school, I can see that they needed more time for practice, reflection, and community-building than I had given them. At my school, testing takes up many days at the beginning of the year. I’d devoted much of the remaining time to teaching routines, introducing materials, and creating classroom rules, but by mid-October, I was feeling pressured to stop that and focus solely on academics. I shifted my focus prematurely. One of the biggest lessons I learned from this experience is that the process of laying the groundwork for learning during the first weeks of school cannot be rushed. I resolved to take the time to do it right from now on.

An essential component: Ongoing reminders

I also realized that I’d compounded the problem by not insisting that the children live up to the expectations we’d set. “Why should I keep reminding them about how to line up?” I’d thought after a few weeks. “They know how to do it.” For this class, though, consistency was crucial. While starting over in November was dramatic and improved the children’s behavior in the short-term, it was my use of proactive reminders more often and more effectively that made the changes stick. I didn’t make a big deal out of it, and I kept it short. For instance, before recess on a rainy day, I said, “It’s been a while since we’ve had indoor recess. Who can remind us how that works?” I’d take answers from volunteers, adding details and clarifications as necessary, and then send them off. We also reviewed our classroom rules after every weekend, taking a few minutes during Monday’s Morning Meeting.

Taking time to review expectations had added benefits for children who struggled with confidence or self-control. For instance, one student who rarely spoke actually started participating by answering my “Who can remind us . . . ?” questions. Apparently, hearing them asked and answered so often helped build up her confidence about speaking. It was a safe way for her to participate.

I believe that this year, as sixth graders, many of the students from this class will still benefit from extra structure, practice, and review. I’ve shared this with their new teachers, and I am hopeful that the children will continue receiving the support they need.

As for me, I will not forget what I learned from them: the importance of taking ample time early in the year to teach and practice routines, and then reviewing expectations continuously. It’s a powerful combination for bringing out the best in individuals and classroom groups.
Gretta Smith teaches fifth grade at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School in North Haverhill, New Hampshire.

Tags: Guided Discovery, Middle of the Year