Ideas for the First Weeks of School ~ Getting to Know Your Students and Creating Community

Leading up to the first day of school always gave me the jitters, and many dreams. Dreams which were borderline nightmares because each one woke me with the terror of being disorganized and unprepared, which equaled chaos! There I was, in the middle of my classroom, looking around at boxes of materials, no manipulatives, and a room that had cobwebs and a filthy floor. I had shown up in my classroom with my nightgown on and no shoes. The list of possible fears and nightmares was endless and it did not matter how much I worked tirelessly on getting the classroom ready (inside and outside) for 24 little people, I still had the dreams and worried until the first day was done!

The excitement I had for my first day of teaching kindergarten had been an answer to a dream of mine for a very long time. In fact when I finally did become a “real” credentialed teacher and my placement was in kindergarten, which continued for 11 years, I was elated! I did not become a credentialed teacher until I was 39 years old. I had already been married for 20 years, a mother of three for 17 years (17 year old, 9 year old, 6 year old), and during those 20 years I was mom first and part time worker second to help support our growing family. I took on all kinds of different types of jobs, from newsletter editor of UCSB Family Student Housing, to Resident Coordinator of Family Student Housing, to Program Advisor for Santa Barbara City College, as well as bookkeeper for Million Manufacturing Company which my father-in-law owned. I was the type of mom, who always had hands-on activities for my children to do and believed strongly that connecting them to the outside world and nature were as important as brushing their teeth and giving them a good healthy diet of curiosity and a love for learning! I was always immersed in caring for children from a very young age and began “baby-sitting” at the age of 12 years. I loved being with children of all ages! I was so thankful for the early years of learning with young children and the countless hours of joy I experienced alongside them!

My early years as an adolescent and young adult were consumed with learning about early childhood education. I read extensively about a variety of different pedagogies and was particularly interested in the pedagogies that supported children to learn about their world through play and hands-on learning. I was committed to bringing my passion for play-based learning to my teaching practice and to finding ways to create learning environments that provided children with rich opportunities for learning that touched every part of their being, which for me meant that students needed to be able to incorporate all their senses in their learning process. You may be asking yourself how does one do this in a traditional public school, where there are great expectations for meeting benchmarks and attaining learning targets that are not always developmentally appropriate? How does one teach standards and at the same time make the learning relevant and engaging? How do you bring the outside in and connect it to the curricula you need to teach? How do you create critical thinkers? How do you make learning fun? These were some big questions that I was excited to try and answer!

I hope that you will come along with me on this journey so that I can share with you some of the ways I tackled some of these big questions, and how I went about creating curricula that was engaging and hands-on for my students. The creation of this site is a vehicle for me to share my thoughts on education, and lessons of study/units that are standards based, hands-on, and connect children to their place of learning.

The Ethical Trinity ~ A foundation for building a Caring Community

The Ethical Trinity evolved through a collaboration between my master teacher and myself. I had the great fortune after my teacher credential program to become my master teacher’s teaching partner and we shared one classroom and two classes of students. We wrote an article about our work together, which was over 15 years ago, but I still think that there is a lot of relevant information in the short article (It is included in this post if you are interested in reading it). It was a very special opportunity and one that I cherish still to this day! The first year we taught together, I was the AM kindergarten teacher and she was the PM kindergarten teacher. We both knew how important it was that the students felt positive about where they came to learn each day and that they were empowered to be in charge of their actions. The motto “take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of this place,” became a positive way for us to engage students in developing the concept of what “care” meant and how it looked in their actions. We could observe children doing these things everyday and we emphasized the positive impact it had on the whole classroom community. Often we would hear students say, “Mrs. Million, I am taking care of Andrew, he needs a bandaid.” Or we might overhear a student say to another student, “You are not taking care of this place when you do that. I will help you.” Referring to a student who was throwing away their litter or not playing with the toys in a safe way. These practices became refined overtime to be known as the simple principles of the Ethical Trinity. In later years it became the ethos for all who came to learn in our classroom, whether inside or outside in the classroom without walls. I am often thrilled when I go and visit a classroom of one of my newly credentialed teachers to find the saying on their classroom wall.

Every morning my kindergarten students and I walked into the classroom together and we made our circle around the perimeter of the area carpet. We recited the following saying and we also used body gestures that we did along with each of the phrases. See the video link that shows you exactly how to make the gestures for each line. The children soon learned that this was all we needed to learn how to do so that we could have a safe and caring learning environment.

  • Take Care of Yourself
  • Take Care of Each Other
  • Take Care of This Place
    • insert Video link of how to do this

Building a Community of Care

The Sunflower Activity – Every Floret Makes a Difference is a wonderful activity to do at the beginning of the school year. Using the analogy of being like a floret, which is just one of the many small flowers of the sunflower which is a composite of them all. The children are like the florets, all of them make a difference in the classroom and they all have a place to shine and grow. Please see the photos attached on how you can construct the floret for each child to cut out and then you can place their photo in the center (I have blackened out the photos of my students in the example). I have also included the template for you to use with your students. One of the books that I always loved reading at the beginning of school, is Sunflower Sal by Janet S. Anderson. The story is about Sal, who is a very big girl and she can’t sew a quilt like her Gran can. She eventually finds that her skills lie elsewhere.

This sunflower activity also segues beautifully into expanding the children’s appreciation of Sunflowers and provides a curricula opportunity to begin a lesson study about sunflowers while integrating other content areas. More to come in the next blog 😊

Ethical Trinity
Bulletin Board Example

Author: Colleen Million

I am a recently retired elementary school principal and school teacher of 21 years. As a principal I implemented a restorative approach to discipline, school-wide empathy practices and parent education classes on English language acquisition, health, food/nutrition/gardening, empathy, and restorative justice. As an elementary school teacher I was intentional about designing units of study for students in grades Kindergarten-6th grade that focused on developing healthy self-esteem (SEL) through a thematic project-place-based constructivist learning approach with an emphasis on the Ethical Trinity, “Taking Care of Yourself, Taking Care of Each Other, Taking Care of This Place.” The Ethical Trinity became the guiding principle in the work that I did with students and families, which supported the values and modeling that I expressed in my interactions with children and thus created a safe place for learning. Whether students were out on Ellwood Mesa coastal bluffs exploring the natural habitat of the flora and fauna or back at the school site, tending the Monarch butterfly garden, feeding the worms, collecting eggs from their chickens, or harvesting crops in the garden, the ethic of care was intentionally woven into the instructional tapestry. I also dedicated years of service to land preservation, which culminated in the Saving of Ellwood Mesa, an overwintering site for the Monarch Butterflies in the school’s backyard on the Ellwood Bluffs in Goleta, CA. I recently retired as the Co-Director of Teacher Education at Antioch University, Santa Barbara, where I supported and mentored teacher candidates, taught social science methods, and nature-based early childhood curriculum courses.

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