Culture Building Stories for the 1st Week of School

As a classroom teacher for 10 years, I distinctly remember looking at my plan book from the previous year each August, and thinking to myself, “What did I do the 1st week of school last year? I need to make better plans this year.”

Invariably, this never happened- mostly because the 1st week of school is so unpredictable… AND it’s also so important. You can’t get that 1st week back or fix the classroom culture if it all goes wrong.

There are, however, two stories that I never fail to read to my students those first few days as we get to work, learning how we get to work, in Mrs. Ponce’s room. They help to set the tone for the year in two important ways- 1: they open the lines of communication with my students and 2: they begin to foster the trust and understanding we need to make our learning more powerful.

First Day Jitters

by Julie Danneberg

It’s the 1st day of school and Sarah does not want to go. She is dragging her feet getting out of bed, is late to the breakfast table, and whines about getting out of the car at school. I love the twist at the end of this story when my students realize that Sarah is a teacher and she is nervous about the 1st day of school, too.

It’s important that my students realize that I have feelings about the start of the school year, too. I am worried that not everyone will feel safe, that someone may feel left out, or that I won’t teach to my fullest potential. To start this conversation, I like to introduce the students to the story and explain that we will be reading a story about a girl named Sarah and the way she feels the 1st day of school. We talk about the word jitters and what they feel like. Then we brainstorm other feelings students might have on the first day of school. I chart all of our brainstorming and then read the story to the class.

After the surprise is revealed, the class and I talk about how I feel the 1st day of school every year. I explain that, just like Sarah, I’m nervous too. I want my students to know we are in this together from the very beginning and that it’s ok for them to share with me because I respect them enough to share with them. I want my students to see me as human, to understand that I will make mistakes too, and that I care about their feelings as much as I hope they care about mine and each others’. By sharing my hopes and fears first, I believe my students are more comfortable sharing with me. I am always amazed at how far this strategy goes for creating a warm environment those first few days as we all get to know each other.

The Upside Down Boy

by Juan Felipe Herrera

The second book I never miss on the first week of school is The Upside Down Boy. I love this beautifully illustrated book about a boy, new to the United States, and his first days at school. He doesn’t know the language, brings funny foods for lunch, and doesn’t know the routines and rhythms of his new school. What makes this book so special is that Juanito has a music teacher who believes in him and tells him he has a beautiful voice. She is the champion who makes Juanito feel special in his new strange world. It is a good reminder to find something special about each of my students early on and to build upon their strengths.

But the lesson I want my students to take away from this story, is to look out for new students who might not be feeling so comfortable, who need a warm smile and someone to play with at recess. Teaching in a school with a high ELL population and high mobility rate means this story always resonates with my students.

After this story, we talk again about what it feels like to be new to a school and how it might feel if you couldn’t speak the language. We talk about how we know when someone feels lonely and things we can do to make them feel at home. I never have a shortage of volunteers to take my new students to lunch and to make sure they have someone to play with outside. This story is the first glimpse into who my nurturers are in the classroom. These are the kids I can count on to make sure everyone is feeling good about being at school and who will help me identify and soothe kids who need just a little bit more love.

Both of these stories go a long way in opening the dialogue in my classroom and making sure everyone feels cared for, important, and valued. Before I teach one lesson, I want to make sure everyone knows that I am behind them and that we will get through this as a team.

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