5 Student-Focused Tips to Prepare for the School Year

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Laural Matthews, teacher and former instructional coach in Canada, reflects on her transition back to the classroom and the tools she uses to prepare for a year of teaching.


t's often a funny thing how, before the current school year is over, we begin to plan for our next year as educators. We're reminded of our successes, reflect on how to fine-tune the lessons that we'll never do again, and think through all the experiences and teachings we want our students to have. I'm convinced we never stop reflecting on our students and we're forever in a constant cycle of change.

Transitioning back to the classroom

Lately, I've been going through a transition that has resulted in a massive change to my professional role. I was an instructional coach for our elementary system and am now heading back into a classroom this fall. It was something I hadn't expected and, to be brutally honest, something I am still grieving the loss of.

Coaching was this challenging gift where I collaborated with educators in the realities of their classrooms for five weeks during cycles. We reflected on what was working, what wasn't, and shared our vulnerabilities in the hopes of trying something new. Collaboration is a powerful thing and having instructional coaches in our education system working alongside educators has a tremendous impact.

But like anything in this world, change is inevitable; it's the only constant in our lives. So as I transition into a new position among the intermediate grades, my mind has exploded with all the exciting possibilities like:

  • How do I apply all of the great knowledge that has been built up over the past six years through instructional coaching and make it work next year?
  • What will I spend time and energy on to have the most impact on my students?
  • How will I make learning meaningful and engaging for my students?

Prepping for a new school year

Planning lessons and a year-long scope and sequence is something I truly enjoy; I find great pleasure in thinking creatively about why, how, and what I'll be teaching. In fact, not only do I take pride in thinking creatively about the work I do, I also enjoy sharing my processes with peers as well.

Here are a few of the questions and thoughts I work through to plan effectively for a new school year!

1. Student learner profiles

Student learner profiles are (in my personal opinion!) the one and only aspect of planning that truly matters; it's the hinge-point for all that occurs in your classroom. These profiles include test scores, projects, likes and dislikes, and barriers to learning, among others, that help a teacher grasp a full understanding of a student they work with.

To begin, ask yourself:

  • How will I get to know my students so that I know what they need to achieve and succeed?
  • How will I identify gaps in learning so that I can fill them?
  • How will I find time to get to know who they are and what they hope to become?

At the beginning of my career, I can state that I built lessons and units first and then, hopefully, adapted the learning to the students during the lessons. As I reflect back on this approach, I should've thought about my students first, identified their barriers to learning, and used their interests to plan more effectively. After all, it's my job to understand my learners and plan accordingly.

I highly recommend taking the time to look into Universal Design for Learning as the theories, strategies, and insights are highly useful for planning with intention. Also, make an effort to collaborate with other educators, dig into your student records, and involve their parents or guardians in the process so you know all you can about each individual learner.

2. Organizational tools and calendaring

Setting yourself up with organizational tools and structures is important for starting the school year off on the right foot. They allow us to hit the ground running and instantly get behind being overwhelmed with planning, marking, and facilitating learning. It's important to spend time creating a way to record and plan your lessons.

Pro tip: keep clipboards or ways to document the learning in your classroom so when it's time to write reports or share with your families, you have what you need to communicate effectively about each student's learning profile.

Laural Matthews using a calendarLaural Matthews with a different calendar

The next thing I do is print off a calendar on a large sheet of paper (there are tons of online tools) to plot all the holidays, professional activity days, provincial testing, and responsibilities for the school. This is an important move to think forward because, despite our need to be responsive in the classroom, you must have an overall plan for the curriculum content areas and strands within.

Also, consider the learners in your classroom and their backgrounds, cultures, and possible celebrations. Taking the time to honor your students is a critical piece to building effective relationships that are built on respect and trust. Ten months may seem like a long time, but in actual fact, before we know it, we're at the end of the school year wondering where time has gone.

3. Knowledge and depth in the curriculum

Laural Matthews using a planner

Our Ontario Curriculum documents are a wealth of information to plan for a well-thought-out year for our students. Often, I revisit and immerse myself in the content and annotate the document with post-its, pens, and highlighters.

Another great place to start to think about the curriculum is in certain subjects, like science and social studies.

These content areas often lead to big idea questions that can be the umbrella to which we blend and integrate the learning of all other subjects. For instance, I often consider what strands of science and social studies make sense, and in what months they would be best suited or most appropriate. This can also lead to things like better field trip planning as well!

4. Collaboration with other educators

Collaboration is one of the key instructional practices we must engage in, yet it's often the hardest to find time for. As I write this, I am thinking of the educators who will share in the teaching and learning of the students in my classroom next year. More importantly, how will I plan effectively and link the responsibilities of their curriculum expectations with those who I teach?

Carving time out to collaborate with other educators is important to me because I don't want my students to think that learning is created in subject silos, but that it's cross-curricular and meaningfully integrated. I want my students to see collaboration among the educators and understand that we care enough about their learning to sit down and plan purposefully together.

5. Classroom components for students

The ongoing, non-negotiable items for me this school year are listed below. I wanted to share components of my classroom that I believe are important for the success of you and your students.

  • Meaningful communication with families: for instance, Twitter, classroom newsletters, blog posts, etc.
  • Community circle: time for the students and I to share, think, and reflect on how we communicate with each other and get to know one another.
  • Reading and writing workshop: a model based on the work of Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Nancie Atwell (among others).
  • Diagnostics, conversations, and observations: tools to document the learning of my students and understand their learner profiles.
  • Embedding mathematical manipulatives: students will engage in learning to develop conceptual understanding of mathematics.
  • Number talks: regular mental math talks to enhance the student's operational sense (Sherry Parrish).
  • Daily physical activity: a commitment to expose students to a life of fitness, health and emotional well-being.
  • Universal design for learning: planning with purpose using the strategies and ideas from www.cast.org.

Wrapping Up

Despite all of these planning efforts, it's also important to remember that we must be responsive to the students we have in front of us and let go of the control we often want as educators. What we plan for the day or week may have to change on a dime. We must assess, make observations, and have conversations. We cannot be too rigid in our long-range vision as our students may not achieve at the speed with which we have planned.

It's a messy and complicated process, planning for a class full of unique individuals and a myriad of subjects. Be kind to yourself and know that, what works one day, week or year, may not necessarily work again the next. This is the challenge and beautiful thing about education!

As I round out my thinking in relation to planning (which I am sure will change as soon as this is posted!) I ask you what are your beliefs about learning and how will you keep them at the center of all you do for your students?

About our Guest Blogger

Laural Matthews is an educator in Kingston, Ontario. Outside of the classroom, she maintains a professional blog called The Mobile Educator.

Follow Laural on Twitter @matthewsl2014!

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