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This is going to be a great episode because I look at this as my opportunity for a do-over. 😊
I will never forget my first day of teaching because I was SO proud of myself for having created a welcome newsletter for my students and their parents, but then I saw entire packets being handed out to students in other classrooms, and I was like, what?
What is all of that stuff? What am I supposed to be sending home that I have NO idea about?
I’m a bit of a Type A personality and I hate feeling like I’m behind the 8-ball so this was DEFINITELY something that really bothered me.
I don’t know if you’ve had your first “school nightmare” yet, but they usually start a few weeks before the beginning of the school year and they go something like this:
In your dream, you wake up late – your alarm didn’t go off, and somehow, in this crazy parallel universe, you realize that it’s the first day of school and you are not prepared at all. Somehow, you’ve forgotten that school is starting today.
You don’t have your classroom ready, you probably don’t even know where your classroom is, and you have NOTHING prepared for the students to do, your classroom isn’t even decorated, and of course you get to school all frantic and frazzled, coffee mug in hand (that’s never left out, no matter how bad the nightmare is), and of course, you’ve forgotten to put on pants or you’re still in your pajamas, and you have to walk by your principal to get to your classroom.
Right? Have you had this nightmare yet?
Because I think I had that same nightmare or some variation of it for weeks before my first day of school, and even for weeks after the first day.
I think that it’s because we know, in our bones, how important it is to always be on the top of our game or those adorable little creatures we call children will become Gremlins (if you’re too young to know what Gremlins are I highly recommend you Google it).
Basically, kids become adorable little monsters who will take over when they have nothing to do and when we aren’t prepared and don’t have a plan.
So, it was some version of this nightmare become reality when I saw a student pull out a fancy packet, all color coded and perfect, from another teacher’s class at my grade level on the first day of school, and I suddenly became terrified of everything I didn’t know but probably should have.
“What was I supposed to be sending home today that I had no idea about?"
In what new, fresh, way was I able to screw up again this time?”
That seemed to be a common theme for me in my first year of teaching, no matter how capable I thought I was until I started teaching elementary school.
So today, I want you to know that you don’t EVER have to ever experience that nightmare as reality, because I am going to share with you everything that I wish someone would have shared with me, and exactly what I learned to include in my back to school packet – not just newsletter – but my fancy packet, for my students on the first day of school. 😊
By the way, if you want to make sure that you aren’t leaving anything out – just ask one of your grade level team members to please share their version of their first day of school packet as well!
(If they don’t have a packet, you’re going to look just a little bit like a superstar. I’m just saying. 😉)
All right, so here are the six things you will want to include in your back to school packet for your students to send home with them on their first day of school:
I would recommend that you send home a newsletter every month (not every week - that's WAY too much to keep up with), and on average, I would keep your newsletters to one page.
Your first newsletter, however, needs to include more information about how you will be doing things in your classroom and grade level, and to tell what parents what they can expect. It’s also a great opportunity to begin to set your boundaries and expectations for the year.
I’ve included a template you can download for free and customize for your grade level and individual situation (just scroll down to grab your copy now)!
Here’s what you should include in your back to school classroom newsletter:
Again, you can download an editable Back to School Newsletter template here by scrolling down this page.
Just one more thing: I would save all of your information about your homework and discipline/classroom management policy for Meet the Teacher Night because the parents of the students you are teaching are going to be hit with a boatload of information and forms on the first week of school – it’s best not to add in too much extra for now!
Now of course, every school is different, but at the school I taught at for ten years, we had a no-exceptions policy about reading at home every single night – for every child – not just in 1stand 2nd grade.
I sent home very little other homework throughout the year. Reading at home was my primary focus because I knew that if my students became strong readers, they would excel in all other subjects.
Research indicates that once a child falls behind in reading, they have very little chance of ever catching up with their peers, and instead spend the remainder of their school careers falling further and further behind.
This is the reason that I focused my PhD work on innovative strategies for reading, and specifically, animal-assisted research interventions – but I’ll tell you more about that another time! Yes, I studied how children experience reading and writing with a dog, and I received national research funding and international acknowledgement for this innovative research. SO much fun! 💕
We are going to have a LOT of fun in upcoming episodes once we get into literacy-specific ways to inspire and motivate your students! I LOVE reading and writing, and I can’t wait to dive into this with you later on.
For now, let’s stay focused on what we’re doing here - let me just say that helping your students to become strong, motivated readers should be our primary focus in elementary school, and as I mentioned earlier, not only in 1stand 2nd grade.
When I taught 4th grade, my intention to get my students focused on reading for pleasure every single evening intensified as I saw my students begin to struggle in all subject areas as a result of not having foundational reading skills.
I became very intentional about creating a home reading program for my students, and supporting my students to read at home throughout the year. I’ve included templates for you that you can customize to send home to the parents of the students in your classroom to explain how you can do this, as well as samples of how I set up the program and recorded what students were reading.
I also want to mention that these were not all my ideas. I was so fortunate to have the help, guidance, mentorship, and assistance of two other fantastic teachers who had decades of experience between them – Alison Chinn, and Anita Grant - both of whom have since retired – who shared their templates with me to help me to get started.
I know that they would both be THRILLED that I am passing on their great work and ideas to you!
Okay, so here’s how our Home Reading Program was set up:
And yes, I would engage the help of anyone I could to help me to exchange their books.
Thankfully, I had some very committed parents who would often stay for a half hour after dropping off their child to school who would come and sit in the reading corner and exchange books for me as the rest of my class was doing their morning work.
I got a great system set up for this which I will tell you all about in next week’s episode about Meet the Teacher Night – you’re going to love it.
Other times I exchanged the books myself throughout the day. And when I had a student teacher, this became part of her daily routine.
When I was teaching in upper elementary, I went into much more detail about our home reading program, including giving the parents additional suggestions for how to keep their child engaged and involved in reading, such as:
Again, all of this information is included in the editable template for you to send home to parents.
This is how we would keep track of what children were reading each day in upper elementary. This record sheet would be too involved for the primary grades, but it worked really well to track what my students were reading (and how often they were reading) in division two.
The reading record sheet is a small form that includes information for my students to fill in (not their parents, but with the help of their parents if necessary), including their name and date, the book title, and the type of material they are reading (is it a book, a comic, a magazine, etc., and if it was a book, what kind was it? Drama, mystery, joke, non-fiction, etc).
Then there is a space for the student to write a short response to the book, like telling what their favorite part was, what bothered them, why they liked it or didn’t like it, or what they might change as the author.
Next, the students would rate the book, and finally, there is a space for the parents to sign. This was a fantastic way to track what kinds of books my students were reading (or not reading) every week, and believe me, there was a direct correlation between students who read at home for pleasure every day and higher test scores.
It’s also important to note that I didn’t often send home novels with my students in upper elementary because usually the books my students took out of our school library was enough to keep them reading for the entire week.
And again, I collected a lot of really cool prizes for consistent readers that students could choose from in our class store – and again, I’ll tell you more about how I stocked our store next week when we talk about Meet the Teacher Night.
Now, I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the information I sent home about my home reading programs, but this is one of the foundational pieces of my classroom, and it’s something I will re-visit at Meet the Teacher Night.
You do not need to feel overwhelmed by any of this – I have provided templates for you to edit and use to create your own Home Reading Program for your class. And I promise you that you will not regret doing this with your students. It makes a HUGE impact when both parents and students know that they are accountable to you to read every night, and that you are tracking this every day in your classroom.
There are always some forms that your school will require your students submit. If you aren’t told about these forms at a staff meeting before school starts, just ask your school secretary or principal what you are responsible for collecting from your students.
Some of these forms may include:
Just be sure to ask the other teachers at your grade level which forms you will be responsible for submitting for the students in your class.
Okay, time for a deep breathe and a sip of coffee.
Yes, the beginning of the year can be a little overwhelming, but you’ve got this.
Knowing that all of this is coming AND knowing that you are going to be so well prepared to handle it all is going to put you light years ahead of where many beginning teachers are.
I hate the expression, “How do you eat an elephant?” but I do like the principal of it so I’m going to change it and ask: “How do you run a marathon?” “One step at a time.”
One step, my friend. Just one step.
All right, so we’ve created our back to school newsletter, we’ve explained our home reading program, and we’ve gathered all of the necessary school forms that we will need to send home with parents.
There are only two more things I would highly recommend you send home with your students on the first day of school, and these are pretty easy to put together.
Now, if you’ve been following along with me in this podcast and you’ve been doing the work to get ready for your first year of teaching, then you will have already created your weekly timetable that gives an overview of when each subject will be taught on each day.
Sending a copy home with your students will help everyone to get clear about what each day will look like, understanding, of course, that the only thing constant when teaching elementary school is change.
I would also include and highlight on your timetable the day that library books are due and exchanged each week so that parents can remind their child to bring their books back on that day each week.
Finally, the last piece of information you may want to send home on the first day of school is a copy of the school calendar, noting important upcoming events like Meet the Teacher Night and holidays.
One final piece of advice I have for you is to also post all of these forms and pieces of information on your class website if you have one and keep it updated.
Also, keep at least 5 extra copies of this packet on hand because inevitably you will get a new student after the first two weeks of school AND at least 2 of your students will somehow lose the entire thing.
You may decide to send all of this information home BEFORE school starts, addressed to the parents of each student.
As you can already see, the first week of school can be pretty overwhelming for parents – they get SO much information thrown at them - so anything you can to do streamline this process for them and make the information you are sending home more easily digestible, the better.
All right, it’s time to take a break and for you to go ahead and grab the free and editable Beginning of the Year Newsletter Template I’ve created for you AND the Home Reading Set-Up Guide.
Remember, just because you are a beginning teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one.
I’m here to help you every step of the way to navigate your first year like a pro.
And in that spirit, don’t miss next week’s episode where I will show you How to Prepare for Meet the Teacher Night & Set Up Your Entire School Year for Success.
I really don’t want you to miss it, because it’s going to be a really good one!
I hope you have a wonderful week.
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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