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How to Communicate Expectations for Excellence

Students with special needs thrive on consistency.  They can excel socially and emotionally when provided with a routine and a set of procedures that applies in most situations.  On a day-to-day basis, a good special education or inclusion teacher can craft a classroom environment that is productive, safe, inviting, and engaging.  So what happens in these great classrooms after routine breaks, such as weekends and holidays, or surprise breaks, such as illness, family travel, or snow days? 

In the best of cases, nothing happens!  However, I’ve found that I can’t expect my students to come back from breaks in routine ready to learn and interact with adults and peers without a little work on my part.  With a little help from our Grades 3-5 Scholastic Teacher Advisor, Angela Bunyi, I decided to use the idea of “New Year, New President, New Expectations” to craft some lessons for this week that would reaffirm expectations I have of my class, expectations they have of me, and expectations we ALL have for our about-to-be-inaugurated president, Barack Obama. 

On Monday, I began our day with a conversation about expectations that I modeled after Angela’s Aug_expectations_2chart, found in her highly useful post on Management Based on Trust.  We talked about what exactly an expectation is, and I reminded my students of just a few expectations I have for them in class (I kept it to three because I wanted them to generate the rest by themselves). I invited them, in groups, to create lists of expectations they had for each other in the class, expectations they have for me, and to add to the list of expectations I started of them.  Finally, I shared my New Years resolutions with my students, and they created a personal one and an academic one of their own for homework. 

On Tuesday, the students shared their resolutions.  Here were some of my favorites, for various (usually obvious) reasons: no more tardiness/absences, read for fifteen minutes more per evening, stop global warming, stop fighting with my classmates/siblings, write in my journal every day, and my personal favorite: learn how to fly a spaceship (we talked about realistic vs. dream resolutions, but I loved how that student was ‘reaching for the stars!’). 

After our conversation about resolutions, we talked about the upcoming presidential inauguration.  My students are very familiar with the election process, but I taught a lesson encompassing the mechanics of the changeover and how the period between the election and the inauguration is a time for the President-Elect to appoint and meet with his advisors to begin to shape a new direction for our country.  I reminded students that citizens have to take an active role in government in order for it to be successful, and I invited them to compare their process of personally making New Years resolutions to President-Elect Obama’s process of making national ‘resolutions’ to make positive changes for our nation.  For homework, I had my students read a current events article in a print newspaper, watch the news, or check out ScholasticNews.com and use that information to think about their perspective on our nation’s new priorities and goals for the next year and beyond.

Yesterday, my students and I shared a discussion about their priorities and goals based on what they learned about in terms of current events.  I was interested, although not terribly surprised, to learn that my class thinks that global warming, pollution, and healthcare should be President Obama’s top priorities.  We talked again about the role of citizens in the government, and my students correctly observed that as citizens, we have to persuade the government to focus on particular issues by giving evidence that supports our point.  My students were primed and ready… it was time for some music.

Everybody knows the song “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”  It’s almost a rule that every kindergartner MUST learn it before moving to first grade.  Therefore, at the risk of embarrassing myself beyond all possible belief, I stood up for a rousing performance of “Heading, Greeting, Body, Closing (Signature)” to teach my students the parts of a friendly letter.  Students headed for their desks armed with a couple of laughs and a cool way to remember the proper format for this kind of writing. 

Today, we worked more on our drafts and I held writing conferences.  As I was walking around doing informal check-ins, I was really happy to hear the increase in accountable talk that discussing expectations seems to have generated.  My students’ reward for turning in quality work that earns a 3 or 4 (top scores) on our writing rubric: those students will actually get to SEND their letters to the White House upon Mr. Obama’s inauguration. 

By being aware of the consequences of a routine break for your students and making some accommodations by including active management instruction combined with academic purpose, you can definitely motivate your students to start the New Year successfully academically and socially.  I think focusing on expectations for yourself with resolutions can easily lead you to converse with your students about what you expect from them in a low-pressure and reciprocal way.  From there, it seems a natural next step to discuss your expectations for our nation’s new leader.  I was impressed by how much my students and I seem to have in common there, and I look forward both to seeing what President Obama will do to address these concerns and (hopefully) to his reply to my students’ letters!


Dorit Sasson

All in all, it sounds like you had a great lesson. I love the take on "headings, greeting, body, closing!"

I love how you weaved the lesson with current events without making the lesson too political. I think that is what good teaching is all about - how to to bring applicable and relevant information down to the students' levels.

Dorit Sasson
The New Teacher Resource Center
"Helping You Become a More Successful and Confident Teacher in 2009!"


learn how to fly a spaceship (we talked about realistic vs. dream resolutions, but I loved how that student was ‘reaching for the stars!’).

It seems to me that the wish might be fulfilled by visiting a flight simulator set up to teach space flight. Certainly it's not flying a real space craft but in terms of realistic vs dream it, I'd rather disappoint with my suggestion than yours.

Alyssa Zelkowitz

Hi, Dorit...

Thanks for your feedback! I agree that making information timely and pertinent is a huge aspect of teaching... students are so much more likely to be engaged in material they feel actually matters to them. I've found that my student really love current events, and I will definitely be posting some strategies for addressing current events in your classroom in the near future. Is current events a big part of your classroom? Please feel free to post your strategies as well!


Alyssa Zelkowitz

Hi, Sam,

What a great suggestion...I will be sure to see if I can find a space simulator to use in the computer lab! I agree that it's very important not to squelch children's dreams, and offering realistic steps they could take to approach that goal is a great way to be supportive while providing the scaffolding students need before taking their dreams to the next level. I definitely wanted to emphasize to my students that in this assignment, they were focusing on something they could achieve within the course of THIS year, but I love the idea of letting their 'out of this world' dreams guide another sort of learning experience.

As teachers, it's important for us to remember what huge role models we can be for students, and our enthusiasm or lack thereof can have a large influence on our students' self-perceptions of what they can achieve. It's always a challenge to guide them to ambitious but realistic goals, but it's something all teachers should be aware of.



Great ideas! I too loved your "head, greeting, body, closure" tune! How awesome! Keep up the great work!

Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

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