As a new teacher years ago, I knew by instinct and training that students would learn more, and with more joy, if adults from their home lives shared in their school lives. I wanted to welcome families into our first grade classroom in ways that would engage them and allow them to appreciate the children’s accomplishments. Figuring out how to do so, though, took years of not-quite-right experiments.
In addition to open houses, I tried the familiar holiday parties and seasonal celebrations many of us use for welcoming families. The parties and celebrations had their benefits, but they didn’t fully achieve the purpose I had in mind. I kept searching, asking myself: What’s the most important thing our classroom community can share with adult visitors? The answer I arrived at was “our learning”—which is, after all, the heart of all we do at school.
Now, as each quarter draws to a close, the students and I plan a learning celebration. At these events, each child spends ninety minutes guiding an adult guest through activities, class displays, and samples of their own work that showcase what we’ve been doing in the past few months. Here’s what a learning celebration looks like:
As their guests arrive, children greet and introduce them to me, then escort them through a series of activities that includes some “must do’s” and some choices. (See a sample itinerary below.) Together, each pair examines displays of recent student work on the classroom walls, peruses the child’s portfolio, and reads a book together. They also visit centers set up around the room, where students demonstrate favorite learning activities from the past quarter. The room hums busily as children explain their work to their guests, adults react with delight as children show off their skills, and everyone explores and experiments together.
The experience energizes the children, drawing them deeper into their learning. And the adults leave with increased understanding of the academic and social learning their children are doing at school.
Tips for organizing learning celebrations
Learning celebrations are most effective when the children are given real responsibility and are set up for success. Here are some tips:
Draw on skills the children have mastered
I make sure our learning celebrations draw on skills the children have mastered. From the start of the school year, I use Responsive Classroom practices such as interactive modeling and Guided Discovery to teach the children how to manage themselves, interact respectfully with their classmates, and handle classroom materials. This means by the time we have our first learning celebration, they know how to choose a center to work at, ask for help when they need it, and complete multi-step activities.
Also, the activities featured at learning celebrations are all familiar ones the children have worked on during the past few months. I give some activities a new twist, but I limit the materials and concepts to those every child has handled successfully. I also sometimes add to or modify activities to make sure everyone will be able to show off their best work.
Involve the children in planning
I ask the children to help decide what we will share with our guests at each learning celebration. I start by introducing learning celebrations a few weeks into the school year. “Four times this year,” I tell the children, “you’ll get to show a grown-up guest how much you’re learning.” I stress two things in these early discussions. First, I’m confident everyone will learn and grow each quarter, so everyone will have something to celebrate. Second, everyone will have a say in choosing which activities will be featured.
Throughout each quarter, I keep notes on which activities the children enjoy most. (Once we’ve held our first learning celebration, I also set up a suggestion box so the students can tell me what they’d like to do at the next one.) Then, a week or so before each event, I use my notes and their ideas to guide us as we consider which activities to showcase. “What things were you most excited to learn?” I ask. Also, “What are you proud of?” and “What activity would you like to do all over again?” We chart and categorize and add to our list for a couple of days. Then, during a class meeting, we choose two or three centers and several displays to feature.
Practice how to be good hosts
While we’re planning the content of our celebration, I work with the children on their hosting skills. We review and practice skills such as giving friendly greetings and introducing people to one another. We also talk about and practice how to make our classroom safe and comfortable for visitors.
The day before the celebration, the children clean and organize their desks and cubbies, help each other tidy up the common areas, choose books to share, and preview their portfolios. I set up the centers and print instructions for guests.
Make sure each child has a guest
To make sure each child has a guest, I start talking about learning celebrations (including giving approximate dates) at the very beginning of the year, at our school’s open house. I send materials home to families who didn’t attend the open house and follow up with a phone call. With both groups, I emphasize how important learning celebrations are in the life of our classroom, and how important it is for each child to have an adult guest. I explain that the guest doesn’t always have to be a parent – an aunt or uncle, grandparent, or family friend could come instead. I also explain that I will match their child with an adult visitor, such as a school administrator or community member, if no one from home can attend.
About a month before each celebration, each child takes home a written invitation with an R.S.V.P. date. Once we’ve passed that date, I begin lining up volunteer guests for children whose families haven’t responded or cannot make it.
Stay in the background on celebration day
On celebration day, I stay in the background and let the children show how capable they are. I’m thrilled when I hear a child confidently tell an adult guest, “OK, now we’re going over here,” or “This is the way we learned to do it.”
Being in the background also lets me observe the children. This precious time often gives me insights that help me teach more effectively. At a first celebration, for example, I observed Julio chatting breezily with his guest, which led me to consider how I could help him feel more confident about talking in class. When Jenna’s grandmother exclaimed, “Well, now, where’s that picture of Ms. Weaver’s dog you keep talking about?” I made a mental note to talk with Jenna about her interest in dogs. And as the noise level rose a bit too high, I knew we’d need to work as a class on using “inside voices.”
The children love learning celebrations. They love sharing their learning and introducing adults to the special world of school. But the true value of our learning celebrations outlasts those special days. In the weeks that follow, the children save work they’re proud of in their portfolios and tell each other about what they’ll share next time. In this way, learning celebrations make learning meaningful and exciting for children all year long.
Leigh Weaver teaches first graders at Highland Elementary School in Highland, NY.
A Sample Learning Celebration
- Introduce guest to teacher
- Show guest your portfolio
- Share learning goals with guest
- Read aloud with guest
- Literacy Centers: All usual centers open; share work-in-progress.
- Shaving Cream Spelling Test: In shaving cream spread on tray, use fingers to spell words the guest chooses from Word Wall.
- Five Senses Game: Recall and write names of senses. Then, child wears a blindfold as the guest chooses objects and suggests senses the child might use to identify them.
- Rainbow Science Experiment: Recall and write facts about light, colors, and rainbows. With adult help, add drops of food coloring to milk; observe color changes.
by Leigh Weaver
Tags: Celebrations and Holidays, Family Night, Working with Families