The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Building a New Community, One Day at a Time

Today was the first day of school for my newest crop of fourth graders. (I’ve had two days of district training and have been working in my classroom for the past two weeks in order to get ready for today.) Even though I have technically been at work for two days, I continue to feel like the year doesn’t really start until the first day of student attendance. So today was, for me, the start of my fifth year teaching at Wiley, my eighth year teaching professionally, and my nineteenth year teaching. (Yes, I started teaching at the age of thirteen when I taught my Sunday School class for six months.)

Each year I have done something different on the first day of school. I come up with general plans for my day, but I allow the dynamics of the class to really guide what we do. I don’t do this every day, of course. I absolutely make plans for each day, based on my understanding of where my students are at, what they need to learn, and how they best learn.

But the first few days of school? I am building a new community of learners and that happens one day at a time. Day one was spent on an overview of what to expect for the year, setting classroom expectations, and writing. A lot of writing, actually. Students worked in small groups to come up with lists of what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like when they are being safe, respectful, and responsible in the classroom. We used these lists to come up with our classroom expectations:

  • Be Safe
    • Keep Hands, Feet, and Other Objects to Yourself (KHFOOTY)
    • Walk with a Purpose
    • Give Others Space
  • Be Respectful
    • Listen to the Speaker
    • Use Kind Words
    • Ask for Help
  • Be Responsible
    • Help Others and Work Together
    • Use Appropriate Volume
    • Do Your Own Work

Toward of the morning we did our first independent writing activity of the day. I shared this video (which I downloaded in order to avoid advertisements) with my class and then had the students think about what makes a day “the best day” in one’s life. Each student then wrote about his or her own best day, thinking about when it was, what they did, where they went, whom they were with, and, of course, why it was so wonderful. This will serve as a baseline sample of writing. As the year progresses, my expectation is that each student will improve him or her writing dramatically, referring back to this initial sample as a gauge of how far they have come.

After lunch we had our first read aloud of the year: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson (with illustrations by E.B. Lewis.) I also shared this story with my class last year.

I love this story because it reminds us that we all have opportunities to undo an unkindness, but sometimes we waste those moments until it is too late. It is a powerful lesson for students on the first day of school: they can choose to be kind or they can choose to be unkind, but they can’t choose the outcomes of their actions. After discussing this briefly, we talked abut what Ms. Albert meant when she said that each kindness can make the world a little bit better. Then I shared another video with the class that supported this theme of kind actions and their ripple effect.

We ended our day with one final composition activity. Using Each Kindness as a prompt, the students were given time to think about a time that they performed a simple act of kindness for another or a time when someone did something kind for them. Then they either wrote about it in an open-ended haiku format or they drew a picture. (Some students chose to do both.) The poems and pictures will go on the bulletin board outside our classroom in time for our school Open House on September 3.

I know today was just the first day of school and that there will be many challenges ahead of us as we move forward, but I also know that we had a great day of building community in our classroom. Tomorrow will be a day with more community building as we establish routines and procedures, rehearse them and practice them and get to know each other better.

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