Start the Year Simply with Routines and Relationships

Keep it simple with routines and relationships!

It’s the beginning of the year, and we all know that the start of the year is usually anything but simple. So I want to share with you a different mindset that is helping me feel less overwhelmed and helping me focus on what’s really important.

How do you feel during the first two weeks of school? This is my 15th year teaching, and each year you’d think that I’d be calm as a cucumber, but I’m overwhelmed. I got 15,000 things going through my head and it just seems like there’s so much to do in so little time.

It’s a hectic, anxious, exciting time of the year. So what I’m trying to grapple with and trying to figure out is how can I feel better, how can I be more at peace during the start of the year. 

Let’s flip the switch and talk about your students. How do your students feel during these first two weeks? If you have kids or you can remember back to your own school days, there’s a lot of stress at the start of the year. There is so much unknown – where to go, what to do, new people, new friends, new teachers, new subjects; and it can cause a lot of anxiety, disappointment, and fear in the midst of the excitement.

So while you’re trying to create an environment where you’re in the right mindset as a teacher, you also want to create an environment where your students are in the right mindset so that everybody can be successful. So this can be a lot, for everybody! 

So how can we make the beginning of the year better? 

If you think about it, the start of the year can be compared to a paper airplane or a locomotive.

Sometimes people start like a PAPER AIRPLANE. When you shoot off a paper airplane, the fastest that paper airplane goes is right at the beginning, to put all this effort in it flies and it goes super fast and then it slows down. But we really should not be like a paper airplane.

The beginning of the year should be more like a LOCOMOTIVE. Imagine an old time movie where the people are standing on the train platform and the train is going out. They’re waving out the window to their loved ones. Think about this massive, heavy machine that has got to get going. It’s slowly churning, moving forward. Finally it gets a little bit of speed, it gets moving, but it takes some time to get the momentum to get this huge massive machine up and running. That’s how I see the start of the year, it is like pulling and pushing this huge massive complicated machine to get moving and get going so that we can actually make some ground, and we can actually get somewhere. 

COVID helped me to simplify my life. I had to take out so many things that I realized later, I didn’t have to add back in. So I looked at the beginning of the year and wondered, why am I so stressed out, what really do I have to do in these first few weeks?

I came up with two things that I can do. Just two!

Those two things are ROUTINES, and RELATIONSHIPS.

That’s it. Those should be your goals for the first week, first month. You want to establish your routines, and you want to develop relationships. These are two huge foundations to getting that locomotive up and running and going. Keep it simple… (stupid, as the saying goes)

So you need to think about, what routines do I need? How can I teach these routines to my students? Then how do I hold them accountable? I have to teach my students how to be in my classroom, what being in my classroom is like in a practical way.

I’m not talking necessarily about the content; I’m talking about how they enter my class, how they turn in work, what they  have for supplies, how they answer me. There’s so many things that involve us all working together as a team in this classroom. You have to intentionally teach your students how to be students in your class, and the younger that is the more you have to teach them.

How do I get them to do that efficiently, effectively, and not in chaos something very specific to CI is choral translations or comprehension checks, how are you going to check comprehension quickly, efficiently so you can keep moving? How are they going to show you that they understand? Even student jobs, what will you have them do, when and where – to keep things going. This is the part of the practicality that can really mess you up if you don’t take the time to teach kids what you want them to do. 

With that, comes the need for accountability. Everybody wants boundaries, even if it doesn’t seem like your students do. You have to have expectations and reinforcement. Think about how you can quickly, efficiently communicate to students when they are doing something correctly; or when they need to change something that they’re doing, but not making it demotivating, not being super negative about it. One way that I do this in my classroom is by using a point system.

I learned this from Annabelle Allen and it’s really simple. The class gets points for something they do right. I get points if they didn’t do it correctly. Their job is to beat me by points, and rarely have I had a class not beat me. I make it so they beat me. Just keep it simple. They don’t have to know all the details, and you don’t have to come up with all the details. For example, I do not keep count of these points from class to class. It’s erased after they leave and I never remember it again. I don’t tell them how many times they have to beat me to get whatever reward that they’re going to get. A lot of times it “just happens” that right before a break or something, I decide they’ve beat me enough times and now they’re going to have 15 minutes of free time on the iPad or whatever the reward is. People often feel like if you put in a system, you have to use it every single day, all year long. You don’t. If this works, you’ve already trained them, there’s no reason to then use it when it’s not needed.

Use it when you need it, and when you don’t, just forget about it and they will forget about it too.

But it is nice when they can come back after Thanksgiving break and it’s Christmas and everything’s different, everybody’s excited, you can bring the point system back out to keep everybody back on track. If at some point student teachers are teaching in their classroom and they’re acting out of sorts, or you’ve been out for the week and now are coming back, bring the points back and put the system in place. Then put it away as needed to make it really simple. If you want more information about this, check out this blog where I observed her. The point system is simple, direct, and it provides efficient feedback. So establish those routines!

Relationships are a foundation in a classroom. How will you build trust, and create a safe space for everybody? So I think about how I can get to know my students, how they can get to know me, and how they can get to know each other. This is so important because as we move forward, we’re going to lean on those relationships not only for content, but also to create together and be together.

To make this machine work we’re going to have to work together and to do that we have to establish relationships. 

This is where Comprehensible Input comes in. There are three steps. This first one is TPR. If you don’t know what TPR is you can go here and I explain it a little bit more. For me, TPR has become the unsung hero of classroom management in teaching routines. It is a very easy way for me to teach action words that I’m going to use for classroom management, so that I can stay in the target language.

(Also it has a complete other side of the language acquisition that I sometimes forget about and Jon Cowart explained it during a conference this summer and it just clicked for me.) When we’re learning a language, even our first language, what we hear sounds – a glob of sounds, gobbley gook. Our brain knows it’s got to take that language and it’s got to start to divide it and figure out where all the little parts are. Every language is like this and if we’re young, we may not know we’re looking for a subject or a verb , but our brain does. Our brain knows it’s going to take that language, it’s got to break it apart, it’s going to put it back together, it’s got to figure out what this gobbley gook is. The way to do that is to have lots of the language that it understands so they can categorize it. TPR does this beautifully because it trains their ear to hear Spanish, just like ear training in Music. We are training the ear to hear Spanish, to understand it and their brain to be able to start to organize it in a way so that it can understand the different pieces, the different words, and start to put things together. TPR does this beautifully because they’re not talking, and they are physically responding to these. So all of a sudden, I’m training their ears, I’m teaching them how to be in my class, and teaching them how to stay in the target language. I’ve started that language process already by establishing meaning, and they’re not talking. They’re not doing forced output, it’s just input. 

The second part is PQA, which is Personalized Questions and Answers. If you don’t know what that is, you can check it out in this post. This involves getting to know these kids in a compelling way. You don’t want to ask questions that either they already know, or aren’t really that fun. I rarely ask where they went or what they did over the summer, because I know all their other teachers are going to ask this, so I don’t. You might want to, but I ask other questions, like what’s your favorite song, what’s your favorite food, or what’s your least favorite food, what’s the last movie you saw, did you like it, what’s your favorite book – all kinds of questions to get to know them. When you do this you’re not just building relationships, you’re also doing routines because, as you structure the conversation you’re teaching them a routine of having a conversation in Spanish in class, how you want them to function, holding them accountable for listening, and how they’re to respond to you. You’re also getting them used to listening to you in the target language.

One of the things I love to do with PQA is making a record of the conversation in some visual way. So either sticky notes, making a bar graph, or maybe it’s writing down on the board and tally marks. Maybe it’s having them draw something and showing it, it’s good to have a concrete visual for it. The other thing I like to do is have follow up questions, so then you’re getting more input. Then follow up with a write and discuss.

This brings us to the third step: Connections. Now, you take an informational text, a movie talk a story and do a write and discuss, which you can find more about here. Write and discuss is where you write down a summary of your conversation and then you read that content. You’re basically creating your own content within class with this conversation and now you’re reading it. 

So these are kind of the three things that I focus on at the beginning of the year because they really help with routines and relationships now starting your first unit, your first unit.

If you’re using a CI curriculum it will fall beautifully into this. If you’re using Somos, or ¡No me digas!, which is my curriculum for K through two. You have TPR, you’re starting pretty quick with PQA, and then you’re starting to do a story or something else. It’s perfect with Somos, you can just do this with your very first unit. But let’s say that your first unit isn’t all that compelling, there’s another option. What if you pick just one thing, one subject for ALL your classes.

Now stick with me. What if you chose for the first week or first two weeks to talk about one subject, with all your classes, or a group of your classes. Maybe it’s something current, maybe something I’m passionate about, maybe it’s something they want to talk about, maybe it’s something that happened during the summer, maybe it’s the trend right now like tick tock or BTS or something like that. You can talk and compare across classes because now you’re not only finding out the information about this class, you can tell this class about that class and this class about that class, and you all are talking about the same thing and it’s kind of camaraderie thing but also, it reverses your preps. So the first two weeks, when you’re overwhelmed, you’re doing pretty much the same content in every class you’re just differentiating a little bit based on your learners. I’ve done this before with Pokemon Go, where we did TPR to throw and capture and run, and different things that we describe the Pokemon. Then we talk about how you play Pokemon Go, who is your favorite Pokemon, have you ever seen Pokemon. If you could pick a Pokemon, what does it look like? Then we read informational texts or a movie talk of playing Pokemon Go. The year I did that was the year that it just exploded during the summer and so it was really easy for me to pick that and run with it. Then it gave me two more weeks to settle in, teach our routines, talk about something fun and compelling. So they know that we’re going to do fun things in Spanish class, and then I can move into my content. Now I have the ability to do that because my time is not constrained like some people are in middle school, in high school. But you don’t have to do that, you could just use it with the unit you’re going to. 

If you’re going to create a mini unit for three or four classes or one or two weeks, plan the unit around that one topic.

Start with your goal – do you want to do a movie talk, are you wanting to write an informational text about this, maybe you are headed towards a story.

Using PQA, find your subject.

Then the TPR is the last thing that you plan because you’re going to plan your TPR normally on routines on this subject.

So let me give you an example, I love BTS. So the first thing I’m going to do is figure out is what I want to show them that I can talk about BTS. Maybe it’s a movie talk about one of their music videos. I might write a description about one of the members, what he looks like, what he does in the group, etc. As we discuss, I am going to write up some of the discussion that we have. I might look to see if there is anything out there that somebody has already written, or if there is an authentic resource that I could use that would be comprehensible.

You don’t have to make it really complicated, and it doesn’t have to be a huge resource that you create, it could just be very simple. Then I’m going to go into PQA. What questions can I get about BTS – do you love BTS, what’s your favorite BTS song, who’s your favorite, who’s your favorite member of BTS, if you don’t like BTS, who do you like. What kind of songs do you like? For TPR I would probably use sings, raps, or dances. I’m going to do some of those things that I know we’re going to cover with my informational text or whatever movie talks I’m going to talk about.

So that’s how my year starts – ROUTINES and RELATIONSHIPS.

I do that through TPR, PQA, and then going into my content. I hope that gives you a little bit of a mindset that simplifies the year focusing on teaching them how to be in your classroom, being together, and setting that foundation. Watch the video at the top for more details and explanation.

If you have any questions, comments, thoughts, aha moments, or things that wouldn’t really work, what would you do here, comment below, and then maybe we can think about it together and figure something out.

If you have a great idea for a mini unit, something very popular, or something that you really want to share, share with us down there and maybe what resource you’re planning to use. Also check out my free resource in Teachers Pay Teachers that goes along with this.

It’s free, you can go and download it there.

I hope that the beginning of your year is very simple and calm, and maybe this year, you can be less overwhelmed and just enjoy it.

2 comments

  1. Hola, Anne Marie! You have absolutely fabulous ideas…your “No Me Digas” curriculum is amazing. I teach 3 year olds through 5th grade in an independent school. One thing I am excited to do: last year my first and second graders wrote and illustrated their own books through story asking. I made actual plastic bound books and the students illustrated each page in their own books. I took photos of some of their pictures and put them in a google doc. I will project them and we will be re-reading our stories to start the year. Almost all of my students are returning, and will get to see their artwork as we read. Can’t wait to see how this goes….

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