Looking Ahead to Next Year: The First Day of School

Photograpgh by Jeff Woodward.
As the school year draws to a close, you’re probably thinking about ways to keep students engaged in their learning during the last weeks of school. But now is also a good time to reflect on the successes and challenges of the school year and consider how you’ll begin the next school year.

The start of the year is such an important time for students, the time when we help them see that school is a safe place where they’re valued, a place where learning will be engaging, challenging, and fun. It’s the time when we set the foundation for fruitful learning all year long. And it all begins with that critical first day of school.

As you think ahead to next year, here are some ideas from the new edition of The First Six Weeks of School to help you make the most of that important first day.

Setting Goals for the First Day of School

On Day One, we want all students, at all grade levels, to:

  • Feel a sense of belonging, significance, and safety. 
  • Start to learn each other’s names and begin to connect with each other.
  • Learn a few key routines needed for the first day—and for every day that follows.
  • Experience a sense of excitement and competence about the academic work and learning ahead.

Meeting First-Day Goals All Day Long

Thinking about the beginning, middle, and end of the school day will help you meet these key goals. What will you do when students first enter the classroom? What might be a first lively activity or lesson? How will you support children in having a safe and enjoyable recess and lunch and help them transition to the afternoon’s learning? How will you close the day on a positive note?

Thinking about the flow of the day like this gives you a basic structure on which to build your day’s teaching. The following pages start you off with one key idea for each of these three major parts of the day.

Beginning of the Day: Teach a Signal for Quiet Attention

For the classroom to be safe and orderly, children must respond quickly when you indicate that you need their attention. They should stop what they’re doing, get quiet, and look at you. Here’s how to teach and model an effective signal—whether a soft chime, a raised hand, or a clapping pattern.

Explain the importance of the signal. To a K–2 class, you might say, “In this class, lots of times I will need to get your attention. Let’s play the Freeze Game to learn about this. You’ll color and chat with your tablemates. Then I’ll ring the chime. That means stop coloring and chatting and look at me. I’ll show you how that should look.”

To older students, try, “I know that you’re pretty experienced at ‘doing school’ and have learned about quiet signals from other teachers. But these signals are such a big part of helping our class run smoothly that I want to go over how I’ll use them in this class, this year. Let me show you how I’ll use a chime to respectfully get everyone’s attention without raising my voice.”

Model responding to the signal. In advance, prepare a student volunteer to help you model. Then begin the modeling by saying, “OK, Mai, I’m going to pretend to be working away. You count silently to three and then gently tap the chime.”

When Mai rings the chime, stop what you’re doing, and turn to face her.

Ask students what they noticed. As needed, prompt for specifics on what you did with your voice, body, and eyes: “Did I keep talking? What did I do with my hands? Where did I look?”

Have everyone practice. “Let’s try it. Everyone turn to a partner and talk.” After three or four seconds, ring the chime.

Provide feedback and reinforce students’ efforts. “Wow! Our class got quiet in seven seconds. We’ll keep practicing and see if we can break our record.” Throughout the morning, do some quick playful practices.

Interactive Modeling

The modeling technique described on this page is called Interactive Modeling. This simple yet powerful Responsive Classroom technique goes beyond simply showing children what to do by also:

  1. Engaging them in noticing for themselves the details of how a routine or skill looks and sounds in action
  2. Getting them practicing right away
  3. Providing immediate teacher reinforcement of their efforts

These three elements in combination enable students to learn more deeply and remember more of what they’ve learned.

For more information, see The First Six Weeks of School, 2nd edition, and other resources available online from Responsive Classroom.

Middle of the Day: Support Children During Lunch

Lunchtime offers children a chance to relax, refuel, and socialize. But it can also be an anxious time on the first day of school. Here are some ways to make sure that it’s safe and enjoyable for everyone.

Tour the school. Plan an early-morning school tour to get children acquainted (or reacquainted, for older students) with school spaces, including the cafeteria. For younger students, take time to teach and practice basic lunchtime procedures.

Assign lunchroom partners. This eliminates students’ worries about whom they’ll sit with. Younger students will benefit from having assigned partners for the first few weeks of school. Older students may be ready to choose their own lunchtime companions after a week or two.

Be sure, though, to give them this freedom and responsibility only after you’ve taught them how to choose partners respectfully and inclusively.

Review lunchtime expectations before leaving the classroom. For the youngest students, you might say, “Remember what we practiced this morning about lining up to get your lunch? Who can tell us one thing we need to do?” Older students may need just a brief “Remember our cafeteria procedures.”

Provide conversation starters. Students don’t always know how to make conversation with partners or tablemates, so give them a few ideas (see box).

Stay with your class. Even staying for just a few minutes enables you to solidify expectations for lunchroom behavior, bond with students, and learn more about them by floating from table to table, chatting and checking that students’ conversations are respectful and inclusive. Pre-adolescents, for whom social pressures are building, especially need lunchtime support on the first day. Your presence will help them feel more secure.

As you float, offer reminders and reinforcements: “Table 2, inside voices in the cafeteria,” or, to older students, “I’m hearing lots of inclusive conversations. That helps everyone have a pleasant lunchtime.”

Lunchtime Conversation Starters

What’s something you like to do outside of school?

What’s your favorite animal, book, or movie?

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?

What’s one superpower you’d like to have?

End of the Day: Closing Circle

A closing circle, in which the class gathers for five to ten minutes to reflect on their day together, helps end the day on a calm and positive note. It also strengthens the message that each student is a valued member of the community. It’s helpful to begin this routine on the first day of school so that students leave that all-important day feeling valued and upbeat.

Invite positive sharing about the school day. Support younger students by giving a couple of suggestions and taking your turn first: “Here’s what I liked best about today: Spending the day getting to know each of you a little bit. Maybe you liked using crayons best, or doing our math activity, or eating lunch with new friends. Let’s go around the circle to say one thing we liked about today.”

Close with a lively, low-risk activity. A simple group cheer, such as “Hurray for the Room 1 learners!” works fine for younger students. Or try a simple activity like Pop-Up Number: Name a number from one through ten (say, three). Going around the circle, students count from one to three, and every third student “pops” to their feet as they say the number and remains standing. Continue until everyone has popped up.

Older students benefit when we nurture their motivation by building excitement for the next day’s learning. Try closing with a preview: “Tomorrow, you’ll each get your own writing journal, and we’ll take a look at some of the awesome math we’ll get to do this year.”

A Worthwhile Investment

Deciding how you’ll support students in the morning, at midday, and as the day ends helps structure your teaching and also helps you set a positive tone on the first day of school. That positive tone will have a lasting impact on how students feel as they leave school—and on how they feel when they return to school the next day and every day that follows.

First Six Weeks of School


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Tags: End of the day, First Day of School, Getting Started with RC, Transitions

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