“It’s like they haven’t even been here before. It’s like they forgot everything I taught them!” These were cries of frustration I heard last week in the teachers’ lounge. I could empathize with her frustration.
In preschool it can be even worse. This moment formed the kernel of this blog post. I started thinking about what I was doing with my 3-year-old students as we roll into what I call the long half of the school year. I also started looking at one of the most important parts of education that is misunderstood by those outside the classroom, the classroom culture. What I have realized is that accomplished teachers often, and sometimes unwittingly, organize the classroom for student success along the same lines described by the architecture of accomplished teaching referenced by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Often this culture begins to fray after an extended period of time away from school. This is how I get my culture back on track.
1. Expect imperfection. Often we spend the first several weeks of school establishing expectations, behaviors, and procedures. These steps become almost second nature for teachers and students.
Then winter break comes.

Many of my students spent the break in day care situations with different school rules than our class. Other students stayed at home or visited family they rarely see. In the life of a young child two weeks is almost the voyage of Odysseus. Many of our school expectations and rules have been forgotten on the long trip.

2. Reconnect with students.

We spent the first couple days just getting used to being around each other again. We listed things that had changed. Talked about experiences and developed student language through informal discussion. These may not be the most obviously productive days of the school year but they form the foundation for the relationship that will lead to success.

3. Go back to square one.

We started off reteaching every daily routine that we had built from day one. I assumed mastery of nothing. This way I was able to provide a more equitable framework for success. It also enabled me to informally assess for student understanding of our classroom culture and expectations.

4. Assess student learning.

This is the time of year in our class when we really buckle down and start developing academics. I have been checking with my students for the last week if they understood concepts of print, rhyming, and engagement with print. Now that I know what they know I can plan.

5. Revise course.

Based on our assessments I have made some key decisions about the nature of the learning in our class. Now that my assessments have shown nearly all of my students are ready for some more academic experiences my assistant and I have started a long term project. Each student will be creating an alphabet book. As the students get used to this routine of knowing what to expect during small group times with my assistant I will be building language activities based on key math words and engaging literacy experiences.

6. Connect with parents.

This week I will be connecting with parents at a Family Literacy Training held at our school.  We will teach parents literacy home learning activities. We will also be scheduling home visits for later this month. I have found parents are often relieved to be contacted with news their child is doing just fine. It also helps because they have been recently reminded for two weeks how fun and hard being with kids all day can be.

7. Move forward.

As we get started on our grand plans it is important to introduce some new and more challenging material and activities. Each day this past week I have taught a new song all day. Today we started the Alphabet of Nations, a They Might Be Giants Song that teaches students the names of 24 nations around the world. At the same time we revisit, through student interest and choice, some “classic” stories, songs, and activities so that students can see how far they have come. It is the final step in solidifying the classroom culture because culture depends on shared history.
I am always learning and I would love to hear of ways other teachers, at all levels, find success in the long half of the school year.

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