Saturday, August 13, 2011

New Beginnings

The power of teaching is no more evident than at the start of the school year, when our classrooms fill with scrubbed faces full of fear and hope about what the upcoming year will bring. As the leader of the class, we have the power to make it a year the child will remember until adulthood or, conversely, the ability to define the child as a troublemaker or “slow learner” and begin a hatred of school that could last a lifetime.

It’s an awesome amount of power.

But it’s also one reason I love those first weeks of school, as exhausting as they are. As a classroom teacher I saw it as the opportunity to help kids define school as an engaging, safe place where I expected them to treat each other well and think outside the box. For many kids, this was a different way to look at school from their experience thus far. It took a few weeks for them to understand they couldn’t just sit back and play it safe or mistreat their classmates like they always had. The constant vigilance I held, to establish routines, watch for and praise new behaviors, prompt deeper thinking, and redirect negative behaviors, was exhausting. But it paid off in the connections we built as a community as the year progressed.

When I taught first graders, I learned a technique from another teacher for helping them become more independent and to feel ownership of their learning. I spent some time telling them the parable of the fisherman who, rather than give the poor man a fish, taught him to fish so he might eat for a lifetime. I really fleshed out the story, described the characters, and built up to the climactic ending. And then I made the connection to our own classroom. I explained that my job was like that fisherman – I wasn’t going to give them fish, but I was going to teach them to fish so they’d be self-sufficient for a lifetime. From that day on they learned not to “give each other the fish” when helping a classmate, but instead to teach them to fish by giving clues or hints that helped their teammate learn. When they struggled with reading a word at home, parents told me they’d hold up a hand and say, “Don’t give me the fish!” and they’d work to figure it out themselves.

Common experiences and “inside jokes” like these serve to bind a group of students together into a community of learners. One 5th grade teacher I work with, Debbie Bagwell, showed the video below to her students and has made “the power of words” the theme of her first few weeks of school as she establishes community with her all-boy classroom.

The power of words is reflected in the power we hold as teachers. We create the nature of the community that makes up our classroom. How do you establish your community in your classroom?

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