by Andrea Siefert
In August I started a new year, in a new grade, at a new school. With that much change in only my second year teaching, I wanted to make sure I grounded myself in what I want as a teacher. I made a list of all the things I want my students to feel in my class.
I want my students to feel loved, cared for, and appreciated.
I want my students to feel excitement over learning new things.
I want my students to feel determination when facing new challenges.
I want my students to feel a sense of togetherness with their peers.
At the beginning of the year I was lucky enough to attend a professional development course where I was introduced to the concept of creating an ‘Us’ Classroom. The whole idea is that a classroom should feel like a family. Everything done in the class should pull the students together and make them feel like a team. Many successful teachers have written about this strategy, but I love the power of tying that great idea to the word ‘us’. Us is such a powerful word, it brings everyone together. When I look back at my list, I know all of those feelings can be accomplished by creating an Us Classroom. In this post I will be sharing a couple of the tools that I use with my kindergarten students.
Every morning I pull the students to the carpet for calendar and the start of our day. I use this time to remind my students how much I love them. I tell them how much I have loved every second of the 51 days of school. We celebrate a full attendance sheet. I tell them that I missed them over the weekend and that I am so excited it’s Monday. Since our calendar time is quickly followed by shared reading, both of which take place at the carpet, I needed a quick and purposeful body break. Without saying a word I turn on an encouraging song like “Best Day of My Life” or “Keep Your Head Up” and that is the cue for my students to stand up. They walk around the carpet greeting each other using sign language for good morning and giving high fives and hugs. It really is a beautiful sight. They are always so happy to see each other and it gives them a small moment to build those ever important relationships. I am usually right there in the thick of it, getting bombarded with hugs from all angles. Sometimes though, I have a small 30 second window to grab our shared reading book that I probably left in a bin. Of course when I do that, I have a trail of little ducklings all with their hand at their chins ready to sign good morning. I so look forward to this time.
In this day and age we are asking so much of our kindergarteners. We are pushing them to expand their knowledge and I strive to encourage them to face those challenges. One thing I borrowed from the Quantum Learning model is a call and response that excites the students at the idea of a challenge. Anytime I say something is a challenge the students respond, “Bring it on!” while holding their hands out flat and pulling their fingers in. As if to tell the challenge they are ready to do whatever it takes. This has been so effective in all subject areas and it really energizes them for the task. I love seeing all those little faces full of determination. We also use another call and response that was created by chance when I asked the students if they could handle a change in our schedule. I explained the change and asked them, “Can we do it?” I was expecting this to be rhetorical but one of my students looked at me with a face that I can only describe as a “Duh Miss Siefert” face. She gave me this look and said, “Yeeeeah” with the perfect amount of attitude. It quickly became another call and response we use frequently.
Encouragement and Recognition
Kindergarteners need to know that they are supported and that their hard work is recognized. A lot of our shared instruction involves students coming up to the Interactive Whiteboard to show their learning. Of course at the beginning of the year many students were hesitant to share in front of their peers. I needed something that was supportive but not distracting. One day the student at the board looked back for support and another student gave him a thumbs up. It was so simple and so sweet I encouraged all of my students to do the same. Now when anyone comes up to the board the whole class gives them a thumbs up. All it takes is for me to remind the student, if needed, to look back and see that all of their classmates are rooting for them. We keep that momentum going to recognizing hard work. Before we discuss if the answer is right or wrong we always give the students two claps. It’s quick and effective without slowing the lesson down. After a student participates I say, “Give ____ two claps.” We then quickly move on. For bigger triumphs we have classroom cheers. The student we are honoring gets to decide how they want to be celebrated and they are always left beaming.
Even though my students are five and six years old, they can be effective problem solvers. I knew I wanted them to approach problem solving as a team so I created a call and response that helps with that. Anytime someone has a problem they announce to the class, “I have a problem.” then the class responses, “We can help!” After this call and response the person explains their problem and I take suggestions on a solution from the class. It opens the lines of communication and allows them to collaborate on an issue that before might have just been handled by me. We use this a lot during our day. Anytime we try a new procedure I always ask if anyone had any problems. This was especially helpful when we started establishing our guided reading and math stations. All of the students benefitted from hearing the problems and solutions and I noticed a huge decrease in students interrupting my small group with problems. I also use this call and response when there is a sudden change in plans. I tell them what the problem is and ask if they can be flexible with the change. They are always so willing to help.
I am constantly striving to find more ways to build an Us Classroom. This sense of togetherness has been so effective and so rewarding. I know that my students are gaining confidence and friendships that will continue year after year. How do you create an Us Classroom? What strategies do you use to bond your students and help them face the day with determination?
Andrea Siefert is a 2015 graduate from the ECE program at Illinois State University. She now teaches kindergarten at Blackwell Elementary in Schaumburg, Illinois.