Laying the foundation for a successful school year

By Christine Burke

What makes a classroom an environment for learning? We’d all likely say something along the lines of strong pedagogy, rigorous learning goals, authentic learning experiences, respectful and trusting relationships, and a dedicated purpose of nurturing the next generation of compassionate citizens. But even the most engaged, skilled, and knowledgeable teachers can find themselves in a space that is not as conducive to learning as it could be. Not surprisingly, a bit of planning can make a substantial impact. We've compiled some of our top tips for structuring routines and procedures below in order to help you lay the foundation for a successful school year.

Planned classroom setups

You’ve been meticulously tweaking, arranging, and designing the layout of your classroom since you became a teacher because you know the physical layout influences student interaction, attention, and experience. Take some time at the beginning of the school year to consider how a thoughtfully arranged physical space can enhance student engagement and focus.

  1. Consider the type of thinking and behavior needed for students to reach identified goals. Do students need to be content creators, collaborators, or critical thinkers? The design of the classroom provides a space that supports and engages students during the intended learning.
  2. Plan a classroom configuration that promotes a positive student experience. The configuration of the classroom sends a message to students about their own role and the role of the teacher in the learning process. A classroom in which all desks are organized into rows facing the teacher’s desk communicates the extent to which they will be active participants in the learning. Other configurations, such as clustered student desks, a wheel, and a U or E formation, send a different message about what the students' role will be.
  3. Arrange classroom furniture and resources in a way that sustains technology initiatives. The arrangement of furniture and technology in a classroom can support different technology initiatives. Deciding on a flipped classroom model or using rotations necessitates different classroom designs. The way in which technology is arranged and integrated can also impact student progress toward and mastery of learning goals.

Predetermined workflows

You want students to be able to focus their mental energy on learning and not on the non-instructional logistics of an activity or assignment. Meticulously planning an assignments workflow — distributing, collecting, tracking, and returning student work with feedback — creates an environment in which students can stay focused on their own learning.

To maximize time devoted to learning and avoid time spent with logistics, it pays to plan and be organized. Seamless assignment workflows don’t just happen, as is true for any classroom routine. It takes time to thoughtfully plan each task or interaction, identify possible obstacles, and find resolutions.

  1. Formalize your assignments workflow.
    • At the outset of an assignment, determine and record the purpose, learning goal(s), specific student-facing instructions, and the digital tools and resources to which students need access.
    • Next, determine how to communicate each of these pieces of information to students as well as how to distribute and share materials, resources, and technology.
    • Identify how students submit their assignment and whether this is the same as or different from the method of assignment distribution.
    • Determine how to track which students have submitted work.
    • Plan how to record and communicate feedback and grades to students.
    • Establish where, when, and how students access their reviewed work.

Structured transitions

Transitions occur every day in every classroom at every grade level. Students transition from one location to another, from one learning activity to another. Whether it’s transitioning out of collaborative group work, moving to the library, or returning from lunch, there are many transitions that occur throughout the day. Each transition can become routine through thoughtful planning, practice, and feedback.

  1. Streamline transitions.

    Streamlining transitions provides additional time for instruction. Consider a classroom with an average of ten transitions per school day. If one minute were shaved off each transition, that would provide an additional 35 hours of instructional time (for a 200-day school year), or approximately one week’s worth of instruction (Teach Like a Champion, 2010).

  2. Establish routines for each transition.

    Established routines for transitions help students focus on learning instead of non-instructional activities. Smooth transitions also decrease opportunity for conflict and disruption among students. No matter the type of transition, approaching it consistently facilitates it occurring smoothly, without disorder or fuss.

  3. Plan and present the transition procedure(s).

    Define expectations for transitions and communicate clearly with students. Talk about what different types of transitions feel, look, and sound like. Describe the pacing and order of operations that need to occur both during and in between transitions. Allow time to really discuss and collectively agree what transitions are as a class. You don’t have to do all of the “telling” here; students can be collaborators in the discussion by modeling examples and non-examples. After a thorough discussion, model procedures and pacing for different types of transitions. Directions for transitions should be short, sweet, and easy to enact.

    To manage the pace of each transition, use a countdown timer and consider ways technology can support this process. For example, if a SMART Board® is being used for the current learning experience or activity, place a stopwatch to indicate time remaining on the board, visible for all students. Using a timer for transitions can also motivate students to “beat” their time from the prior day. A little competition is fun!

  4. Practice transitions.

    Don’t be afraid to devote a great deal of time to practicing transitions up front to form a foundation for tight transitions during instructional time down the road. Students need to learn how to do transitions since they are not inherently known; try to avoid assuming that older students know procedures for transitions. Creating opportunities to practice transition procedures repeatedly until they become routine is incredibly important. Teachers time and again expound on the benefit of practicing routines during the first weeks of the school year. Taking the time to “practice, practice, practice” ensures everyone is on the same page and clearly understands expectations for transition in and out of both digital and non-digital learning activities.

  5. Provide ongoing support and feedback.

    Once the procedures for classroom transitions are discussed and established, ensure they are reinforced around the room. This could be in the form of poster paper, little note cards affixed to individual desks, or a handout in a physical or digital binder.

Continue to guide the learners in and out of transitions through keen observation and specific feedback. A quick shout-out to successful students or a hand pointing to posted procedures are both methods of providing feedback and reinforcing classroom routines. A time for revisiting classroom procedures for transitions and additional time for practice should be made if and when behavior warrants it.

You can continue to model and demonstrate the procedures during your own transitions from one location to another within the classroom as well as in their own transitioning in and out of resources, activities, and technology. Such instances can be used as meta-moments wherein you call student attention to your own approach to transitions.

And a case for community agreements

You have likely encountered specific tips and tricks for establishing a set of classroom norms — a set of behavioral expectations for the class. But what does “norm” mean to students? What image does that term conjure for them, and for us? I recently participated in an engaging session and at the outset the facilitator asked us to collaboratively create “community agreements:” a set of agreements to inform our participation and behavior that were designed to support and nurture the community we comprised. How lovely is that! The slight semantic shift spoke volumes and implicitly informed me that my role in the community mattered, that I was considered a collaborative partner, and that I would get out of the session what I put in, from the very beginning.

How would our students feel if we sent the same message to them?

You matter, you are a collaborative partner in this classroom, and your engagement directly impacts your learning.

  1. Establish community agreements.
    • Involve students in creating and adapting classroom community agreements.
    • Focus on the essentials — a laundry list, it need not be.
    • Frame each agreement as a positive statement.
    • Ensure expectations are clearly and succinctly stated in each agreement.
    • Post the community agreements in visible areas so that everyone can see.

Once a set of community agreements are established, encourage students to practice what each looks and sounds like, and be there to supportively clarify any questions. Modeling non-examples is also a great strategy used to increase students' understanding of and comfort with the expectations. Providing students these opportunities to create and practice the agreements gives them a voice in shaping their learning environment and increases their buy-in of the expectations for classroom behavior. Refer to classroom community agreements daily and consistently enforce them. Consistency is the key to a collaborative, engaging classroom.