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Set Up for Success

pencilsIt is just mid-July, but I’m already starting on getting myself organized for the start of the new school year. I thought I’d share a little bit of what that process looks like for me. I’m entering my 11th year of teaching, but each year it changes just a bit. As a fourth grade teacher, you may find some of my procedures to be a bit “elementary.” Please feel free to use what you can and I would love some feedback and suggestions as I move forward. Each school year is certainly a new adventure. Just as my students enter a new phase of their academic careers with anticipation and excitement, I approach the new year with fresh goals and personal expectations.

1. I choose a theme. I’m not a fish or teddy bears or apples kind of girl. I try to pick a theme that will help build cross-curricular connections. This year my overall big idea is “Healthy Living.” Many of our activities will revolve around this concept. For example, we will be tracking our steps using pedometers and be “walking” to different places in our home state and stopping to study them as we get there. We will be learning about different kinds of exercise and I hope to expose children to things like yoga, pilates and kick-boxing as ways to stay fit. Another health issue we will be tackling is stress. Throughout the year we will explore different ways that stress affects us (both positively and negatively) and ways to deal with that stress.

2. I write my parent letter. Maybe it’s just an elementary thing, but I start each year with a parent letter that outlines expectations for the classroom, explains my procedures and can serve as a general introductory letter. I start fresh every year. I used to recycle and edit, but I find that I keep my ideas fresh and new if I don’t rely on pulling out aging files. This year my classroom “rules” are (1) Take care of yourself (2) Take care of others (3) Take care of business. I don’t set up my classes for external behavioral rewards. I believe that the enjoyment that comes from learning and exploration is its own reward. At the same time, I don’t set up a check list of “Gotcha” consequences either. I deal with each incident and each child on an individual basis. I haven’t had to make more than phone call in 3 years. I think I’ll stick with that process for now.

3. I review my Digital Citizen Contract. This is my first year creating this contract that will guide participation on our class’ wiki, blog and other forms of digital media. I have a section of the contract for me (and my student teachers), my students, and their parents/guardians. We will review this contract in the first week together and each student will be expected to sign it. At our first parent meeting, I will review these expectations with the parents/guardians and they will be expected to sign them as well. I want the chance to engage parents in what we are doing, why it is so important and to offer them the opportunity to ask questions if needed.

4. I organize my resources. I make sure I have all my state and local standards organized, up-to-date and handy. I bookmark all of the textbook supplements that I can find on my computer and begin organizing the bookmarks that I already have to supplement them. I sketch out the first grading period on a calendar (gasp, I know, I use paper and a pencil). I make any changes to my file cabinets that I need (I keep them in order of the curriculum that I’m going to be teaching them). I decide what major projects I am going to tackle and start sketching them out in my head. For example, I can’t wait to resurrect the WI-NC Project with my friend Tammy’s class in Wisconsin!

5. I check my calendar. What days to I actually have available to prepare for the year? I make sure my personal calendar has all of the start of the school year events marked on it. I block out days for faculty meetings, in-service trainings and team meetings. I hate to feel stressed and rushed at the start of the year, so I am one who always gets into my classroom early to put up bulletin boards, rearrange furniture, etc. It helps me to feel much more calm and relaxed.

6. I set up the digital resources that I am planning to use consistently through the year. Here are a few of my favorites that I will be using regularly this year.

  • Spelling City: I love Spelling City! As a teacher, you can create a free account. All you have to do is type in your weekly spelling list, and the site will generate review activities, engaging games and even assessments for your words. Students just go to your class’ profile page, and all of the spelling lists are listed there. I don’t release them ahead of time, but I do leave previous lists up for students to review. They love it, and it is always my review station on Thursdays before our spelling tests on Fridays.
  • Edmodo: I started dabbling with Edmodo last year, and I’ll admit that I didn’t use it to its fullest potential. I am looking forward to making this incredible “walled garden” a place for students to engage in Twitter-like discussions and expand and challenge their own thinking. Look for blog posts throughout the year as I challenge myself with this medium.
  • Class Webpage: While this is somewhat of a static page, I will be updating it daily with information, homework assignments, important files, etc. for parents. You can see my Digital Citizen Contract and Parent Letter here. It is also the portal to host our class podcasts and video files. Our website host has also included wikis this year. I have traditionally used PBWorks for my wikis, but I want to try out ours first. We shall see. You can see last year’s wiki here. It was my first one, and there are elements that I am very proud of, but there are also many ways that I would like to see it evolve this year.
  • Class Blog: This was my greatest personal classroom accomplishment last year. I watched this blog come to life and saw the transformation in my students’ abilities to reflect on their own thinking, the ideas of others and more abstract concepts. Even outsiders noted the increased maturity and growth in writing abilities of my students, and they asked my secrets. I attributed much of it to our blog. I am excited to see the direction the blog takes this year because it is truly student driven. While I will start with some initial ideas for reflections, I love that the posts take on a fluid quality. This year I am hoping to allow students to be guest posters, who can generate the topics of conversation for their classmates and our global visitors.
  • Discovery Education Network: Some wonderful changes have come to the format and resources available at the Discovery Education Network, and I would encourage you to become a DEN Member right away. Don’t worry – it’s free! There are so many things available to educators as a way to learn, share and expand the opportunities for your students. I use the resources here for my personal learning, as well as supplementing student interactions with the resources here. Students and teachers, alike, will find information here that will surprise and challenge you in the best ways!

7. I do something fun and totally non-school related! The weekend before the madness of teacher workdays, meetings, and flying bulletin board paper begins, I always try to get away. It may be a day at the beach. It may be a concert with my girlfriends. It may just be a night or two “off the grid” with a great book. Even though I’ve had my toes in the waters of school all summer long, like most teachers do, I need that last little break before I dive in head-first.

Good luck with your start of the school year. I’d love to hear what you do to get the year off to a good start and some of your favorite resources for an efficient and productive year.


12 Responses

  1. You have some great ideas and you express them well. I’ve added your blog to my Google Reader.

  2. Kelly,
    I appreciate so much the way you share everything you do! We can learn so much from each other as educators if we make our walls transparent! I use many of the tools you do (dabbled with Edmodo last year too!), and we are going to be trained on our new SchoolFusion accounts. Have you used SF a long time and do you have any tips? Also, looked at your fantastic blog from last year. Do you give the kids credit for responding, or grade them in any way when they comment on the posts?
    Thanks again for sharing! You give me energy to keep exploring and preparing this summer!

  3. Thanks so much. It’s very rare that I take time to read blog entries thoroughly, but this gave great information, and I will be tagging it for a return visit. Even though, I really don’t want to think about this phenomenal summer coming to an end, I know that if I begin making some plans now, it will make that transition in August so much easier. Thanks for being organized for those of us who don’t want to face reality yet.

  4. Scott,
    Thanks so much! I look forward to learning with you!

    SF has really worked to add a lot over the past months and I know that they have a lot in the works. We started with SF this winter and it’s been a pretty quick learning curve. I love the podcasting. It has a RSS feed and it allows .wav uploads instead of having to convert to mp3. Woo hoo. As you are approaching the transition, I’m happy to help out in any way that I can. My classroom blog has no grades/credit attached. The kids so looked forward to the writing that they were always eager to write. By trying to keep it “non-academic” (hee hee- they had no idea), the students were so engaged. It was truly a joy for me to watch them explore and express themselves with it!

    Thanks so much for coming back 🙂 I try not to work tirelessly during the summer, but after a few weeks, I’m ready!

  5. I love the idea of the theme of “healthy living” for the year. Some of our staff members talked about having an overall school theme, but we didn’t get anything decided before last school year was finished! Thanks for the great ideas and I hope you have a fun new school year.

  6. Kelly, great post, and one I’ll come back to myself. Despite having a few (ahem) years of teaching experience, it’s great for me to see how other teachers plan for their year, and I like to put something new in for myself so that it stay fresh. I like your rules, in particular. They will work well for my situation, and I think I may steal them–er, um, borrow them, I mean.

    Would you be willing to post a copy of your Digital Citizen Contract? I’m certain there are many people who’d be interested in seeing it.

    I’m also investigating DEN for myself for this year, and I’d be interested in hearing more about what you’ve gotten from it and how you use it in your classroom.

  7. Thanks for the comments Gerald & Judy! I have gone back and linked to the Digital Citizen Contract & my parent letter. Please feel free to remix/use. Would love to chat about DEN if you are interested – maybe it could be a whole other post 🙂

  8. I like how you have the theme of Healthy Living! It’s so important to show our students that to be at the top of our game, we need to have a healthy body! I also like that you are discussing your wiki and blog. I am also going to delve into these realms in a bit more depth this year so I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences 🙂

  9. Kelly,
    As always, your post has inspired me to think about my own practice 🙂 and now I feel a bit more excited and ready to think about the upcoming school year. I love the theme of Healthy Living as well and have recently been doing a lot of reading to find ways to incorporate exercise/fitness/health across the curriculum. I also enjoyed reading about the successes with student blogging. Thanks again. 🙂

  10. Kelly,
    I think your post is going to quickly become an “evergreen” resource because the information is presented so clearly. The ed tech community is really going to appreciate this for a long time. It might even inspire some of us to be more conscious of our “lazy” blogging habits. 😉

  11. Excellent post. I have added you to my favorites. I am an elementary teacher as well.

    Have a great school year.


  12. Have a great year. Your organization sounds great. Tell us what more we can do for you and other teachers.

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