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Creating Systems for Intentional Practice Right from the Start by Kimberly Fox

There’s really nothing like the start of the school year. The crisp new pens, the To-Be Laminated piles, and of course hope for a smooth and powerful year. As a teacher, I have always loved the back-to-school season for many reasons, but mostly because I love systems! The beginning of the year is a perfect time to revise old systems, create new ones, and ditch those that no longer serve us. But more than anything, I love how systems let us shape the classroom community we hope to create for our students. We want them to try new things, enjoy messy learning, develop new ideas, and discover topics they are passionate about. We hope to foster intentional risk-takers, collaborators, and learners who are willing and able to share their processes along the way. The structures we put into place at the start of the year communicate so much about what we value and how we want our classrooms to work, so I have put together some ideas for how to start your year with intentionality.

One of the first tasks we often have with a group of students at the beginning of the year is to create rules and expectations. This is the perfect setting to articulate our intentions and hear from our students about what their hopes and dreams are for this school year. These rules or expectations often have two major goals: safety, that of our students and the physical space of the classroom, and productivity. Of course, we want to be safe, and we have big goals for the work we’ll do this year. Sure, we could simply tell kids to keep their hands to themselves and follow directions the first time, but we know that when kids understand WHY something is a rule, and how they themselves will benefit from it, they are much more likely to internalize it. When possible, create agreements WITH children and discuss why these boundaries benefit all of us.

In terms of productivity, this process is a great time to get kids thinking as risk-takers. We can tell them that this year, we are all going to try some new and sometimes hard things, and our class is here to support us as we take on this big work. As a community, we want to set a foundation for intentional risk-taking. That means we, as learners, are working to be aware of our own process, even when, or perhaps especially when, what we are doing isn’t working the way we expect. We try something, study how it goes, and if needed, try something else. And we talk about it along the way! If our objective in writing workshop is to get kids to be able to study their writing, set goals for themselves, and talk about next steps with a partner, we need to make these intentions clear now. Below is an example of a classroom agreement that seeks to create safety and productivity, but also explicitly sets the tone for the kind of risk-taking students will take on in the coming months.

As the year begins, keep process in the forefront of your conversations. Intentional focus on process, as opposed to the product, will help kids grow academically and beyond, supporting their social-emotional development as well. We can discuss these concepts during reading, writing, and math, of course, but also after kids come back from lunch, after a fire drill, and really any transition! While you support your students trying something new or different, give feedback centered around how kids are responding, and focus on a few characteristics you want to highlight across the year. For me, I tend to use language around flexibility and problem-solving. I know that these traits are valuable in all learning spaces, so I want to tune kids into these concepts early and often. Kids can be flexible during a fire drill when they suddenly have to stop what they are doing and line up. They problem-solve while packing up when they look for their sweatshirt in the surrounding area when it’s not on its hook as it usually is. After these transitions, reflect! Discuss how kids worked through challenges, ways they helped each other, and how kids made things smoother or treated their classmates with kindness and patience. This emphasis on process will help kids be mindful of the strategies and behaviors that help their classroom community work well, but it will also translate to academic areas, where the value is placed on process—the HOW—not simply the finished product.

Another great way to set kids up to think about process work is through texts in which characters experience something difficult or new. There are so many amazing books focused on growth-mindset work. Ish by Peter Reynolds shares a story about a character who wants to draw things perfectly, but comes to realize that his drawings don’t have to be perfect and that it’s more important to make his drawings that feel powerful even if they aren’t perfect. Other books are about how characters process challenging situations, and work well in conversations about working through new and sometimes difficult experiences. Tia Isa Wants a Car by Meg Medina is about an aunt and niece who work together to save enough money to buy a car. There are moments of doubt, and even family members who say it’ll never happen, but the two persist! Another favorite is Big Red Lollipop, by Rukhsana Khan. In this book, the main character has to overcome many obstacles and has some very big emotions around her friends and family. Her experiences are sure to engage kids in conversation around how she responds and what they might do in the situation themselves. Each of these texts, and others of course, support kids in thinking and talking about how characters get through situations. Some characters or topics will resonate with certain classes more than others, but the goal is to immerse kids in conversations that highlight challenges many of us face and how we work through these moments. After a read aloud, we can have conversations connecting the lessons of the book to our classroom community. One of my go-to questions at the end of a read aloud like this is, “How will we live differently now that we’ve read this book?” Our ultimate objective in these read alouds is to have the discussion, to bring books and characters into our lives, and learn from them.

We can plan to have conversations around how to approach difficult situations or tasks into structures we already have in place in our classrooms as a way to give value to this time and these discussions. Morning Meeting is a great time to set the tone for the day by setting goals for ourselves or discussing ways we might work through something together. You might start the session with a question, asking students, “When you reach a word in your book you don’t understand today, what can you do?” or “If you can’t find something today, what might you try?” Listen as they respond and highlight strategies that show independence, thoughtfulness, and collaboration with peers. Remember to also model your own goals: perhaps you are working to coach kids to solve problems on their own or stay calm in stressful situations. Talk candidly about your own process! Then, during Closing Circle, you may choose to share out moments or individuals who worked hard at something during the day. Ideally, kids can even contribute their own observations of moments when their classmates worked through something difficult! Creating space to have these conversations helps kids see that this work is important and of value in this classroom community.

Perhaps the start of the year has us excited. Or overwhelmed, or maybe a few feelings at the same time! Many of our students probably feel similar. Setting the expectation that this class will value process over product is a way to help our students feel safe and valued, so that they are willing to take on the responsibility of reading and writing this year. We will expect them to write every day, spell words that are unfamiliar to them, elaborate in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Every day, they will read increasingly difficult texts, develop knowledge of new topics and experiences outside of their own. At the start of this year, we can create a foundation to support our students in taking on this big work! We want our students to understand that school is a place where we can feel safe trying new things.

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