“Embracing the New School Year” – Juli Ryzop
Juli Ryzop is a member of the Primary Knowledge Curriculum (PKC) team at the Knowledge Schools Trust
Following two disruptive years of schooling, across the country pupils have settled into their new classrooms; teachers have immersed themselves with this year’s curriculum; and senior leaders have meticulously organised their schools, ready to take on this year’s challenges.
With fewer restrictions now in place, pupils have begun re-engaging themselves in team sports, educational visits, and musical productions. In the first few weeks of term, class teachers have diligently been learning and absorbing all sorts of information about their new pupils. It’s such a great feeling seeing primary classrooms, once again, filled with chatter, laughter, and lots of opportunities for support.
At this time of the year, once things have settled and routines been established, I am often left with two questions at the forefront of my mind: how am I going to maintain a classroom culture that is conducive to learning? And, how am I going to deliver the curriculum this year so that it is even more effective, impactful, yet accessible, to all?
Classroom Culture: A Sense of Belonging
Any teacher knows that creating the right classroom environment is a fundamental prerequisite to good teaching and learning. In our schools, we believe that every child can succeed within a learning environment built upon trust, self-discipline, and high aspirations. Each year, right from the get-go, I explicitly tell my students that we are a team. I believe that creating this sense of belonging, and collective responsibility, allows my pupils to know that we work together within this shared space.
Often, I would joke that we would spend more time together in the classroom with one another than with our own families (although this might not, in fact, be a joke, and may actually be true); as a result, it is important for everyone in that room, to feel comfortable, valued, and respected.
After reading Tom Bennett’s book ‘Running the Room’, it became even more apparent that I needed to be the force behind building, setting and maintaining the right classroom culture. At the beginning of a new school year, rules, routines, and expectations are set, and it is my job to explicitly teach the pupils what good behaviour looks like: from good manners to compliments, from knowing how to ask questions to knowing how to respond, from listening and offering support to our peers when they are in need, to knowing what to do when those around us make a wrong choice.
Pupils need to be taught behaviour, not just told. They need to know that showing respect does not only happen through our words but also through our actions: through being on school on time, lining up in an orderly fashion, holding doors for one another, handing out resources, picking up any rubbish of our floors, or by helping our friends when they fall.
Creating these classroom ‘norms’ means that when a child does misbehave, or not follow our direction, then this falls outside of our ‘norm’, outside of what is desired by our collective team. Bennett highlights how often pupils will look to one another for social cues about what is considered the acceptable behaviour, and so as teachers it is important that we promote and assert the behaviours we wish to see.
Reflecting on my experience as a classroom teacher over the years, I have not always got things right. But what I have learnt is that repetition, reinforcement, and periodically refreshing my classroom expectations, allows the culture in the classroom to remain consistent. With this consistency, the pupils know what to expect as they enter the room each day: they know that they are safe, that they are there to learn, but most importantly that they belong.
Curriculum Implementation: A Sense of Purpose
Once the routines are set, expectations understood, and the pupils feel secure, my focus will shift to delivering the curriculum.
Hopefully (or maybe ideally), many school leaders have made pragmatic, thoughtful and considered decisions regarding the curriculum content through a strategic and whole-school approach. Ideally, school leaders would have specified what needs to be taught in a well-designed, well-sequenced manner so that, as teachers, we are freed to focus on ‘how’ to impart that knowledge in our classrooms.
Understanding the curriculum content ourselves is fundamental to good delivery. At PKC, the team has worked hard over the years, not only to develop a knowledge-rich curriculum, but also an abundance of resources to support teachers with their implementation of it. In particular, the unit rationales which accompany each lesson series, outline any prior learning the pupils would have had exposure to.
As a classroom teacher, within minutes of reading this document, I know that in Yr1 our pupils learnt about the Magna Carta, they built on this in Yr3 through our unit on Law and Power, learnt about Athenian society in Yr4, so now in Yr6 when we approach our unit on the First World War, and introduce the ‘Representation of the People Act’ I know that the pupil’s will attend that lesson with an array of prior knowledge of the term ‘democracy’.
Through our curriculum, the pupil’s schema is activated in an abundance of ways; even as a teacher this is the case, and with the vast range of PKC resources to help, I can focus on closing gaps, clearing misconceptions, and enabling successful learning. In lessons, my focus is on guiding my pupils to ensure they are thinking about the knowledge goals in deeper ways. During planning meetings, instead of all the faffing, and hasty searches on TES for resources that date back to 2002, I can instead focus on the analogies, stories and diagrams that I wish to share with my pupils, in order to vividly bring the learning to life.
What we want is for our pupils to love coming into school, to love learning and to leave our care knowing that the knowledge we disseminated to them during their time here was valued and deliberately chosen.
When reading and researching for this blog, I came across this quote which I would love to share:
“For, if the culture of our schools affects the character of our pupils, and the character of our pupils eventually shapes the culture of our society, undoubtedly what we teach our pupils does make a genuine difference to the world around us.”
(Simon Virgo, from The Power of Culture. pg34).
Through immersing our pupils in so many varied, and important, concepts such as democracy, liberty, equality, and by exposing them to the richness of the human experience, we can continue expanding our pupil’s intellectual horizons and independence of mind, enabling them to shatter many future glass ceilings.
Find out more about the Primary Knowledge Curriculum here: www.primaryknowledgecurriculum.org