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Engaging Every Student

August 23, 2019

Back to School: Building a Harmonious Classroom Community

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Pear Deck Team

Illustration of a band performing on stage with a conductor

Welcome to the third installment of our three-part back-to-school series. Follow along as we help you conduct your best class ever!

Ah, the first day of school. The quiet halls suddenly erupt with student voices, ringing bells, clanging lockers, and the choppy voice of the principal over intercom. Along with the clamor comes the crescendo of emotions students feel during those first few days; excitement, anticipation, trepidation, fear, embarrassment.

As teachers and administrators, our first job is to help every student feel safe, welcome, and wanted. Each member of our orchestra should feel they have an important part to play.

When students meet us with apathy or aggression or rudeness, it’s natural for our own hackles to be raised. We might feel defensive, or we might quickly label students in our own minds (“bad behavior,” “checked out,” “doesn’t like me.”) But as our minds start applying labels, we must resist! Instead, it’s our job to try to see beyond those shields our students our erect and find out who is underneath. Just as simple black-and-white notes on a page make beautiful, complex music, first impressions of people rarely tell the whole story. We try to anticipate the awesomeness in each child and then proceed to figure out how to make that awesomeness sing. To start uncovering the secret talents and interests in each student, it pays to spend some extra time at the beginning of the year getting in tune as a class.

We’ve created some back-to-school templates to help you anticipate the awesome in each student and to build a harmonious classroom community that knows and cares for one another.
Here are some examples:

Opening measures

First, start broad: what are your students interested in? It doesn’t have to be related to school or your class at all. Just start by showing them that you are interested in them. Plus, knowing these interests can help you draw students out later in the year, or help connect students with similar interests. With a little time and effort, we can help solo students form duos, trios, and quartets!

Pear Deck draw slide with question "What's one thing you really like to do?"

Knowing your soloists

While you might have each student’s file and have read their accommodations, those documents don’t always show students’ full range. A great source of information is the students themselves! You can use this template to prompt students to think about what kind of learner they are. Maybe they want to tell you that they are pianissimo but paying attention. Or maybe they want to tell you that they get fidgety and do better when they can doodle. When you learn your students’ “playing styles,” not only will you be showing your students you care about them as individuals, you’ll also be encouraging metacognition, self-awareness, and agency.

Pear Deck draw slide with question "What do you think I should know about you?"

Setting the key of your class

Creating a great classroom culture starts with you, the conductor. But! Your students also have a part to play in making it great, so it’s important to be explicit about that early on. Setting classroom norms is a great way to signal that responsibility. Each one of you brings something different to this classroom. You each have different interests, different strengths and weaknesses. We can all learn from each other and help each other. So let’s agree on some norms—some normal things we will do to treat each other with respect, to challenge each other, and to help each other.

If students aren’t sure how to answer, you can prompt them with more specifics like:

  • What could we do to make it easy and normal for people to ask for help or clarification when they are stuck?
  • What could we do to make it easy and normal to disagree with someone in a respectful way and debate?
  • What could we do to make it easy and normal to celebrate each other’s successes?
Pear Deck Draw slide with "Classroom Norms"

The overture

Another important part of the first few days of class is helping students know what notes you’ll be hitting this year. You can give them a class preview while also learning about each student’s interests. Gather up all your passion about your subject as you describe for them the major units or projects you’ll be covering. Then let students indicate which unit they are most excited about and which they are most unsure about. Now you’ll have an idea as you head into each of these units who will be most engaged and a potential helper—who will naturally play first chair, and who will need more support.  

Cross-reference this with the answers from the slide about what students are most interested in. When you have students who are particularly disinterested or apprehensive about a unit, try to make assignments or projects related to other things they really like to do.

Pear Deck Drag and Drop Slide with "The topic of our class is:" and 5 options related to Earth Science

Back-to-school, whether you or your students love it or dread it, is a time of dynamic energy and emotions. As you head into these first few days and weeks, find ways of getting to know your students that will set the tempo for a challenging, compassionate, and student-empowered learning community where each of your learners feels welcomed, valued, and seen for who they are.

You can find the Building Community Templates in the Pear Deck Sidebar in Google Slides and the Pear Deck template library in Microsoft PowerPoint Online, or download the templates here.

Illustration by Kate Moore

This week's blog post was written by Pear Deck Chief Educator, Michal Eynon-Lynch.

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Pear Deck Team

Helping teachers deliver powerful learning moments

Pear Deck

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