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Inspired Ideas

5 Innovative New Teaching Strategies to Try this Back to School Season

By Christina Quarelli, Former Educator and Curriculum Specialist

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: back to school season! As a former educator who now works with educators in classrooms all over the country, I’ve practiced and witnessed so many incredible, innovative strategies teachers can use to kick off the back to school season with a strong start. Here are a few of my favorites — try them out in your classroom this year!

Send a Back to School Warm Fuzzy

This is a prime time to establish relationships and build rapport — not only with our students, but with our parents, families, and caretakers as well! Chances are, we’re going to need a solid partnership down the road when things come up. So, how can you solidify a communicative, positive relationship upfront at the beginning of the year? Try this out: I call it a back to school warm fuzzy.

Take notes on all your students during the first few weeks of school. Learn their hobbies, something fun that happened this summer — maybe they joined a baseball league or they got a new puppy. I also want you to look for something positive that the student does in the classroom in the first two to three weeks of school. Maybe they helped a classmate out, they were well-mannered, or they were willing to be your little helper. Whatever it is, find that one nugget of positive behavior so that you can write parents a warm, fuzzy little postcard or letter. This could be an e-mail, a letter slipped in the backpack, or a postcard in the mail. I have found that these are most powerful when sent early in the school year.

Now you’ve established a positive relationship upfront. You’ve made a conscious effort to see the good in each and every child. That way, if something comes up later down the road and you need those parents’ support, they’re going to have your back.

Foster Expertise in Digital Learning Tools

Most teachers will agree that the first few weeks are the most important of the year. It’s time for you to ground your classroom in routines, procedures, and expectations. I would also suggest focusing on creating digitally savvy learners right off the bat before you get into the content. Have your students become experts and the tools that they will use, such as your online eBook or an online math test. If students can be experts in the tools first, then they’ll feel more confident going into the content. Plus, we don’t want to burden them with learning digital tools while learning the new grade-level content.

So, what can you do to help establish digitally savvy learners right off the bat so that you can launch with confident students going into your curriculum? The first idea is to create a digital scavenger hunt, a daily guided exploration that students can do while learning the various tools. You can also create an expert task group. Give each table a tool to become an expert in, then have them teach the class how to use it. (We remember 99% of what we teach someone else!) You could also do a table jigsaw, where each student can take a tool at their table and then teach their peers in their collaborative group. Building confidence in the tools lessens the burden for our students (even more so for English Learners) and will allow students to focus on the new content coming up.

Hand Out Back Stage Passes to Instruction

As teachers, we typically tend to use the back to school season to focus on the logistics of how our class will run — procedures for simple classroom management needs. While those details are important, consider also giving your students a backstage pass into your instruction. If students know the routines coming up in the instruction first, they can then focus on new grade-level instruction, because they already know how learning will happen in your classroom.

If you have any instructional routines in your curriculum that you utilize, such as a close reading routine, a citing evidence routine, or a collaborative work routine where students follow a set of instructions to do small group work, invite them into those routines first. Instructional routines that ground your instruction provide a nice clear pathway for learners, and if they know the “how” up front, they can then focus on that new grade-level content.

Invite students in to be your learning partner. Give them a backstage pass into your teacher’s edition and pick out some of the main routines you’re going to be utilizing so that they can then be confident learners going into your new instruction.

Make Digital Tools Accessible on Parent Night

Back to school season almost always entails a parent night, curriculum, or orientation night. The night where you share with parents the materials and the instruction that your students are going to be learning from you this year can be quite nerve-wracking. As teachers, we can talk in front of students all day. But when it comes to parents, it can cause a little anxiety! So, what can you do to help break the ice so that you feel cool, calm, and collected in front of your parents?

Parent night newsflash: they’re nervous too! Allow them to be a digital learner. Set up your students’ accounts with their laptops up on the tables. Let parents log in as the student. Let them play with the tools and the digital platform. Maybe it’s a single sign-on, or maybe it’s your reading program. Let the parents be the students. This will break the ice a little bit. It’ll make things a little more casual, but it will also teach them about the tools that they’re going to be using to support their children.

Get to Know Students with a Collaborative Seating Chart

Back to school season always entails establishing that dreaded seating chart, when we get our roster and we’re looking at how we can organize our students. At the beginning of the year, you won’t know your students that well, so establishing a set seating arrangement for a specific grading period is next to impossible without making changes. It’s okay to have it be fluid and make changes along the way, but at the beginning of the year, try fun activities to establish table groups. For example, have students line up tallest to shortest or by birth date — anything you could think of where they must collaborate. Try a new activity each day.

These activities not only establish how students will sit for the day, but also give us a chance to observe them. Who are your leaders? Who is sitting back and who is taking charge? In this way, you’re getting to know students to establish a stronger seating chart moving forward. Establish that rapport between you and your students, and then you can figure out that permanent seating. You’ll gain valuable insight into how they’re going to be learning, listening, and how productive they’re going to be in your classroom.

Christina Quarelli is a K-8 Curriculum Specialist at McGraw Hill. Christina, a former K–8 teacher of 18 years, specializes in gifted education. She holds a Master of Education degree in Educational Counseling and has worked as both a teacher mentor and instructional coach focusing on best practices for engagement and maximizing learner potential. Christina is currently a K–8 curriculum specialist for McGraw Hill and resides in Phoenix, Arizona. Most recently, Christina has created teacher supports and resources for those transitioning to teaching their core content remotely.

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