5 Considerations for the Beginning of the Year

 In Classroom Practice

In preparing for your new class, you may be considering the best ways to include Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing into your classroom. You may also be concerned with how to do so appropriately and respectfully. One important thing to remember is that fully integrating Indigenous perspectives means more than adding Indigenous content to your social studies class. It is important to integrate them throughout your students’ learning experiences. This can start with the setup of your classroom and extend into the types of activities that you choose to do.

You may already know that moving towards a more collaborative and democratic classroom is a pedagogical best practice. These concepts are also important elements of bringing Indigenous ways of knowing, understanding, and learning into your classroom in a holistic way.

Collaboration: The idea that anyone can be a teacher, and that everyone is still a learner, is a central idea of traditional Indigenous education models. Bringing this concept into your classroom can help your learning activities be more engaging and varied, as well as offer your students more agency over their learning. Creating a classroom where everyone works together will allow all your students to benefit from knowledge sharing and will provide the opportunity to be both learner and teacher.

Democracy: Providing students choice and giving them ownership over their learning is another central idea of traditional Indigenous education models. Teachings, especially stories, have the capacity to convey many different lessons. Students hearing a story may take away certain lessons and concepts at one point, and get something completely different from the story when they hear it again in another context. What a student extracts from a teaching will depend on what is relevant to the student’s life at the time. This idea may remind you of the phrase ‘you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink’. This concept is reflected in learning, as a student must be ready to accept the knowledge we are imparting to them. Including your students in decision making can help your students feel that they have more control over what and how they are learning. This provides more comfort in the classroom and makes students more open to learning.

Let’s take a look at some ways that you can set up your class to embody the ideas of collaboration and democracy.

Desk placement

Desk placement can have a huge impact on whether your students perceive that your class will be collaborative and democratic, or not. There are many possible desk configurations, but today I’m going to focus on three popular options. You can place desks in rows, in groups of four (depending on your class size, you may need to adjust your groupings), or in a U-shape. Each configuration signals something different to your students about what they can expect from your class.

  • If your desks are set up in rows, students will expect to…work mostly on individual tasks, not interact with other students much, listen to you speak often.  
  • If your desks are set up in groups of four, students will expect to…work a lot in groups, share experiences and learn with their desk partners, have opportunities to learn from project-style learning activities.
  • If your desks are set up in a U-shape, students will expect to…work in pairs and as a whole class, have many class discussions and collaborate with the class as a whole, have opportunities to learn in a variety of ways.

It is clear that grouping desks or placing them in a U-shape will best create an atmosphere of collaboration. These configurations both lend themselves well to discussions, group activities, and collaborative learning. They also help you avoid falling into the ‘sage on the stage’ role, and instead help to place you in the role of ‘guide on the side’. This will happen as students’ gazes are no longer focused on the front of the room, but on each other. This atmosphere lends itself to a more democratic and collaborative classroom.

Classroom management

It is important to allow students to have a say in your classroom management strategies. The trend of including students in creating classroom expectations has been gaining ground for quite some time. It’s a great way to give your students ownership over their learning environment and to reinforce a collaborative and democratic classroom atmosphere.

Including students in creating classroom expectations can be done in a variety of different ways, but the main point is always the same: you and your students are coming up with the classroom expectations together. When teaching students who have a different cultural background to you, this has the added benefit of providing you the opportunity to learn which behaviours which are culturally acceptable in their community. Having these cultural norms listed in the classroom expectations and visible in the classroom will allow your students to feel comfortable knowing that their ways of being are represented and will be accepted.

We all know that classroom management doesn’t end with setting up classroom expectations. There are so many different and conflicting views, programs and strategies which all aim, with varying degrees of success, to help you create a safe, happy, and calm classroom. My goal isn’t to tell you how to how to run your class, as you will manage it in a way that fits with your teaching style. However, I do want to reinforce what you likely already know, structure and consistency are key.

These concepts may not seem to tie into the goals of increased collaboration and democracy that I highlighted earlier in this post. It can be very challenging to balance having structure and consistency in an open, collaborative and democratic classroom. But this is a balance worth striving for. Structure and consistency actually make these other concepts possible. When you have a strong framework for your class set up, and you apply it all the time, you will find it easier to allow space for collaboration and democracy. This structure will show your students how to be active members of the class in a positive, respectful, and constructive way.

Beginning of the year activities

Beginning of the year activities that help you learn about your students’ strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes, can help inform your pedagogy and tailor the types of activities you choose to include throughout the year. Allowing your students to provide you with feedback early on, opens up the opportunity to work collaboratively with your students throughout the year to create a comfortable learning experience for all.

3-2-1

3-2-1 activities are one of the most versatile activities you can use in your class. For a beginning of the year spin, ask questions that will give you some kind of insight into what your students will enjoy, and what they won’t enjoy. This will show you the types of behaviours you can expect from that student in the coming year. For example, you could ask your students to share three types of activities they liked doing last year, two types of activities they didn’t like doing last year, and one thing they wish their teachers knew about them. From the answers to these questions, you will find out which activities they will be very engaged in, which type of activities students may act out during, and another piece of information which may be very helpful when speaking to and working with your students.

Word of the Day

Learning about your students’ interests is the quickest way to start building a bond. At the beginning of the year, ask your students what their favourite thing to do is, and then ask them to tell you how to say this activity in their community’s language. Continue asking students to teach you their language throughout the year in a ‘word of the day’ activity. You can also set up a bilingual word wall including words, pictures, stories, etc. This type of activity can help build a relationship and a sense of trust in your classroom. This also reinforces that you are a learner as well, and they have much to teach you.

Remember: when completing any kind of ‘word of the day’ activities in a language you don’t know, check in with other teachers in the school to make sure that the words your students are teaching you are the correct words and are appropriate words for a school setting. Many students have robust senses of humour, and nothing is funnier than making a teacher say something inappropriate.

Happy start of the school year!