Leading With Learning On The First Day Of School To Build Class Culture

Rather than going over the syllabus, rules and expectations for the class on the first day of school, Wessling asks students to engage in a complex learning task. (Teaching Channel)

High school English teacher Sarah Brown Wessling admits that she used to think about the first day of school as the time to lay out class rules and expectations. But after years of teaching, she has come to a different understanding about the best way to use this crucial time.

"Over time, I've realized I want them to walk away with an experience where they understand what learning is going to feel like in this space together," Wessling said in a Teaching Channel video. "So I've given myself this challenge to teach on the first day."

She gives students three clues and asks them to tell her what the class is going to be all about. During the class period, students share ideas with one another in pairs, but also to the whole group. Wessling takes them through Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," reading it out loud to them because she knows tone and inflection make a difference for comprehension with text this difficult. As they slowly move through the text, she models some of the habits of good readers.

"Plato is perfect for complex work, but I also know if I were to say go read this tough essay on your own and then tell me what it's all about, that it would be counterproductive," Wessling said. "It really has to be a community effort because that's part of what I want them to understand about who we're going to be as learners."

Wessling has learned that starting with real learning on the first day, does a lot more to set the tone for the year than a laundry list of rules. She's demonstrating right away what it looks like to be part of a community of learners.

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"When I think of my overarching goal of leading with learning instead of presenting a lesson, I think that this particular lesson really helps to achieve that because it creates an opportunity for us to do work together. Students aren't sitting and getting. They're talking to each other; they're listening; they're writing; they're reading; they're doing so many of the skills that we know they're going to have to do throughout the entire course."

What may not have been clear from that video is that Johnston High is in its first year in a new building where teachers roam between classrooms, sharing space. This was an adjustment for Wessling, who had taught in her own classroom for 19 years. She had to think carefully about how to transport the materials and tools she finds most important between classrooms, as well as shift her mindset about what it means to be a learning community.

"I don't want to be defined by a traditional classroom anymore," Wessling said. "We will be a class and we will be a community wherever we're at. And that the people are far more important than the walls that will define us."

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