As students arrive first thing in the morning, I’m stationed in my customary position at the door, ready to greet each one. I offer Chase our usual gentle double fist bump and a “Good morning, Chase. It’s so great to see you. How are you this morning?” She replies, “Uh . . . I’m okay,” clearly less bubbly than usual. I make mental notes on how I’ll follow up with her and possibly make small adjustments in our day to support her. Then Brendan bounces through the door with his cheerful “Good morning, Mr. H!” and adds, “It’s going to be an extraordinary day!” I reflect his enthusiasm with a smile, a high-five, and a “Yes, Brendan, it most certainly is!” And so it goes, student after student, some up, some down, all sharing vital information in the very first moments of our day together.
I have learned, throughout my six years of using the Responsive Classroom approach, that building community starts the moment students enter the room. That’s why every morning I make sure to greet each student at the door. I use that greeting and the minutes before class begins to connect with students and lay the foundation for a positive teacher-student relationship. So much can be done in this short time to help students start their day in a positive way and feel like they belong to a real community.
I’ve found that my arrival routine falls naturally into two phases. In Phase 1, I greet and quickly note students’ moods; in Phase 2, I connect a little more deeply and plan small adjustments to the day’s routines, if needed.
Phase 1: Greeting—I’m Glad to See You.
Given that we all have lives outside school, it can be tough to predict what kind of mood students will arrive in. Some may have missed breakfast. Some may have been hurried or had an otherwise challenging morning.
I have found that a simple and heartfelt greeting has a positive effect if an earlier scenario has left a student feeling a bit upset or grumpy (one reason why the greeting is such an important part of Responsive Classroom Morning Meeting). So when each student arrives, I welcome them to the classroom. I greet them by name; offer a high-five, hug, or fist bump; and tell them how genuinely glad I am to see them. And I look for signs of how they’re really feeling—do they bounce in, head up and eyes bright, like Brendan? Or do they drag along, looking down or away, like Chase?
Phase 2: Gathering a Little More Information
A lot happens during the short time my students and I are away from each other, so my morning routine doesn’t stop with welcoming them at the door and noting their moods. After greeting each of them, I informally gather a little more information.
As the children put away jackets and backpacks and settle into their morning routine, I make my way around the room, asking each student about their morning, their evening, or both. I offer a comment, noticing a new haircut or new sneakers while further assessing students’ moods and catching any preoccupations. Following up on Chase’s reply of “Uh . . . I’m okay,” for example, I give her a chance to say more if she’d like. “So you’re just okay?” I ask. “What’s up?” She then informs me that she only had an apple for breakfast because there wasn’t enough milk for cereal and they were running late. I make a quick trip to the cafeteria to nab a bagel and cream cheese. Potential crisis averted.
I find that during these arrival time check-ins I frequently become aware of problems that could affect the children’s learning. I have heard nervous stories about mom or dad going away on a trip. On a few occasions, I have learned about the death of a family member or a pet. These are things that impact students’ daily flow or focus significantly.
The situations aren’t always that deep, of course. Some children just appreciate the chance to tell about a funny thing that happened the previous evening. Some may want to share about something special they’re looking forward to later that week. Arrival time check-ins are also a perfect time for “frequent sharers” to satisfy their need to share informally, leaving more time during Morning Meeting for “infrequent sharers.”
Adjusting Plans for the Day if Needed
I use the information I gain during arrival time to adjust our Morning Meeting greeting, sharing topic, or group activity, as well as plans for the rest of the day if needed. A particularly sad student, for example, may not be ready for a high-risk sharing. But that student may need a one-on-one conversation with me to get something off their chest. Or they may need a “Mix-It-Up” day at lunch, where they expand their social circle by sitting next to someone new. The noticing and connecting I’ve done helps me make this determination.
Making Space for Learning
Understanding students’ moods and their level of openness to sharing or expressing themselves requires skills that I’ll be honing throughout my teaching career. But I’ve learned that simply caring enough to ask “How are you this morning?” in a genuine rather than a rhetorical way can make a huge difference. When I ask this question of students during arrival time, they know that I will be waiting for their real response—and really listening.
I’ve learned, too, how important students’ need for belonging is, and how a simple arrival time routine can help them feel that they’re important members of a community and that their teacher cares about who they are and what’s going on in their lives. Each day, our arrival time routine adds more bricks to the foundation of a strong and meaningful community. Most importantly, it clears away some of the mental “clutter” that keeps students from focusing, allowing space for true learning to happen.
Earl Hunter II, a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher, teaches third graders, and previously taught fifth graders, at Echo Horizon School in Culver City, CA. He also taught third, fourth, and fifth graders at 68th Street School in South Central Los Angeles, CA. He has a special passion for making connections with his students and building community.