Photo Credit: Edenpictures via Flickr, CCL 2012
How do you start the school day with your students? Are they greeted and welcomed into the classroom by name? Do they have an opportunity to say hello to their classmates? Do you value the cultural climate in your room and spend time adjusting the “emotional thermostat?” Do you engage the children in meaningful thinking and learning from the start?
As I mentioned in my post on Managing Teaching Time, for the first few years of my teaching career I started my school day with seat work. (“Morning Work.”) I started doing this because everyone else was doing it. I kept doing it because it gave me at least 30 minutes of quiet time in the morning to gather my thoughts and organize for the day. I stopped because I finally faced the fact that 30 to 40 minutes of seat work and review first thing in the morning was, at best, a boring and tedious start for my students and, at worst, a complete waste of time.
Let’s approach this from the issue of general human behavior. What is natural and healthy? How do we (as teachers) like to be treated? What if our principals instructed us to come into faculty meetings silently, put our things down, and immediately get to work on pencil and paper work without any socialization. What if the work itself was dull and uninspiring? (i.e.- Read this article about the Common Core Standards and answer the questions below.) Yuck.
It’s just not a natural way for a group of people to come together. When we gather, we want to say hello and chat with our peers. We want to ask them how they are doing and follow up on prior conversations. We want to be welcomed into the group and feel that our presence is noted and valued. Then, when it’s time to get down to work, we want to be engaged and inspired. We want to feel that our time is being used wisely. This is not just an adult need- it’s a human need!
Around the time I was coming to that instructional conclusion, I found The Responsive Classroom. I read two of their books, Teaching Children to Care by Ruth Sidney Charney and The Morning Meeting Book by Roxanne Kriete. I spent the summer reading, thinking, and planning the changes I would make to my daily plans.
The following year I launched my new daily schedule, anchored by Morning Meeting at the beginning of the day. There were four main components:
1- Greeting: Children participated in a greeting activity in which they said hello to their classmates. “Naming” was an important part of many of our greetings. It was a way to say, “I see you and am glad you are here.” We acknowledged children who were absent and sent them good wishes by whispering into our cupped hands and then blowing the happy thoughts their way. I began collecting fun greetings (songs, chants, foreign language greetings, etc.) and will share some next week on this blog.
2- Share Time: Each day students had an opportunity to share something with the group (an object, a story, an important piece of news, etc.) and take questions and comments. This was one of the most powerful parts of our day. I wrote a post about effective use of share time here.
3- Group Activity: During this time, the class participates in a brief activity designed to build energy and create a sense of teamwork. Examples include singing a song, reciting a poem, playing a quick game, movement breaks, etc. I have some favorites that I will be sharing next week. Some teachers I know infuse academics such as calendar-based math, daily problem-solving exercises, current events, etc. However, it is very important to keep this brief and not allow the activity to drag on. (Spending 20 minutes on calendar math is too much.) Be very intentional about the activities you choose for your morning meeting, keep them upbeat and energetic, and make sure they address the needs of your students.
4- News and Announcements: To close the meeting, we would review the schedule for our day, noting any special events or changes. I found that spending a moment on previewing our day really helped some of my children who struggled with change and transition. (Everyone likes to know what to expect from their day- including us grown-ups!)
The whole meeting lasted around 20 minutes. By the end, we had established a fresh and purposeful start to our day. Children who came in the door bearing stress from a rushed morning had been given a chance to “re-start.” (It’s hard to stay grumpy while singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”) I was able to tally up the attendance and lunch order data from our sign-in sheet and lunch board during Share Time, and we were ready to launch our academic content. It was a tremendous improvement over my previous morning practices. Best of all, the children loved it!
But I am going to make a confession. That first year, right after Christmas, I started to feel the pressure. You teachers know what I mean. It’s that nasty little inner voice that hisses, “You don’t have time for this! Look at all those standards left to teach! The test is coming! You’d better buckle down and spend all your time on academics!”
I’m sorry to say it got the best of me. Toward the end of January, I started shortening our Morning Meeting to 10 minutes (cutting out the Activity and Share Time- much to my children’s dismay) and then to 5 minutes (“We just have time for a greeting today!”) and by late March the whole thing was gone. The minute the kids walked in the door I was dumping reading and math on their heads. I’m ashamed to say I even started giving them “test practice” workbook pages on a daily basis.
Side Note: Before I ignite a “test practice” workbook argument, let me make my position clear. There is a time and place to practice for a standardized test. Certainly, it is of value to show students the way a test will be formatted and teach them some “test-taking” tips (such as the importance of reading all the answer choices before marking one.) The key is to do this sparingly. Our time is so tight. Should we spend it teaching what they need to know on the test or teaching how to take the test? I like the way Rafe Esquith, award-winning educator and author of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, frames his “test-prep” activities. Instead of having his students bubble in “test prep” worksheets, he engages them in creating the kinds of questions they might find on a test. For example, he will write a math problem on the board and say, “OK- there are going to be four possible answers. What might they be?”
Students then think on a higher level like test-writers themselves. One answer will be the right answer. They record it on the board. One answer will be for the kid who forgets to “carry the one”- so it will trick him. They record that choice on the board. One answer will be for the kid who subtracts instead of adding. They record that choice. See the difference in the kind of thinking they are doing? Not only are they learning about how to take a standardized test, but they are also thinking deeply about math and the process of writing a test question. Brilliant!
OK- back to my Morning Meeting story. I abandoned it. It was a rough spring. I was stressed. The kids were stressed. They weren’t getting along. Recess was full of conflict. The girls were fussing. The boys couldn’t agree about the soccer game. I started telling people things like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with this class. They are falling apart!”
It wasn’t until the following summer that I realized what had happened: when I took away our Morning Meeting, I took away our sense of family and community. I lost my compass and the kids lost their sense of direction. No wonder we had a rough spring! There are some things in life that just have to come first. You can’t be an effective teacher of academic content until you are an effective teacher of children.
From that time on, I made Morning Meeting a top priority in my classroom. Nothing is more important than starting our day the right way by acknowledging each other and charting the course for our journey together.
P.S.- Middle School Teachers: Don’t think this doesn’t apply to you! The Responsive Classroom has published a modified “morning meeting” model for older students. It is called “CPR: The Circle of Power and Respect.” Adolescents need this just as much (if not more than) the little kids. Here is a PDF with information about the structure of CPR. Check it out!
Videos featuring some morning meeting ideas on the Responsive Classroom website