I live in upstate NY where summer months are marked by the “Saratoga season”. It’s an exciting time here; thousands of locals and tourists get excited about the short racing season, the air is electric with anticipation, fans show up in the trendiest clothes, papers and programs, kids and coolers slung over shoulders. I’m a people watcher and get excited for that more than the horses – to see people become so intense, engaged, and enthusiastic over a single mission is really exciting. It’s novel each year, it’s exciting, and the same things are always new.
Saratoga season marks the time where I come out of my self-imposed classroom “hiatus” and begin to think about a similar excitement and engagement I want to create when school begins. The commercials are starting and bathing suits and sunscreen have been replaced by aisles of school supplies. We are all VERY aware that the year will be here soon.
As I reflect on the huge successes of last year, I think about creating the same experience this year. Since I haven’t been in my room yet to share pictures, I’ll dive right in to how I’ll set the tone for our room. Every year, I always give myself permission to have a 5-10 day window of really working on community & “self” building, and much less focus on academics (which can be tough!) – if the kids don’t have trust in me, our room, and each other then I believe deep learning, intrinsic motivation, and trusted teamwork can’t happen.
For a few years I have begun each new “season” with the foundation of The Seven Habits of Happy Kids by Sean Covey; it’s our guide through the whole year. Our school has a different Character Education program that I also use, but I have found that Covey’s habits are more applicable to our learning community. It is certainly NOT that long list of “dos and don’ts” and I’m not a “rules” poster – if the kids don’t have “buy in”, it’s not worth the paper the rules are written on. Each habit has a short story, with recurring characters, to go with it and questions and suggestions at the end of each story/habit which are helpful to get us off the ground. After a habit or two, the kids generally will begin to question and apply the habits on their own. The 7 habits Covey includes are: Be proactive (You’re in Charge of You), Begin with the end in mind (Have a Plan), Put first things first (Work First, Then Play), Think Win-Win (Everyone can win), Seek First to Understand (Listen before you talk), Synergize (Together is Better), and Sharpen the Saw (Balance Feels Best). I’m not a “fill the walls and hang every cutesy poster and rule and guide” kind of girl, but I ALWAYS have sacred space for posting each habit as we learn about it. They’re the focus and we talk about them each day and how they have applied to life in our room, our school, and outside of school. Generally, I give a few days’ focus on each habit before moving to the next. Out of these habits, the kids quickly develop the guidelines to live by in our room. The habits move to their permanent home, but are ALWAYS a focus for us throughout the year. Although Franklin-Covey has a curriculum, I choose to follow my kids’ lead; I don’t want to get caught up in a curriculum or the tchotchkes that come with it, but move forward with the authenticity of building the “buy in” and of seeing where my kids take it.
Again, those 5-10 days can be challenging with the “pressures to produce”, but I am pretty adamant about keeping those days dedicated. We really work on fostering community and teamwork - a few years ago I ditched the desks (including mine!) and only use tables (called a “home base” because it’s where their pencils/pens are, but not necessarily where they work) which was the best decision I ever made! Learning in teams, seeking out peer help, finding answers, and supporting each other needs to be developed and fostered. With competitive sports teams, solitary activities, and busy schedules the kids aren’t used to working together with the mindset of true team success WITHOUT a score, recognition, or praise.