Why My Morning Check-Ins Matter So Much to My Students

by | 09.15.22

Chey Cheney is a teacher in Toronto, Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @mrccheney.

As a longtime middle school teacher, I’m a big fan of daily check-in activities. My students have shown me that when they walk through my door, the most powerful thing I can do to promote a day of growth is create opportunities for them to reconnect with me, their peers and our community. I’ve also learned that each check-in activity can encourage my students to invest a little more deeply in our classroom culture – and feel a little more ready to take risks in their learning. 

We educators know we can make a huge difference to our students’ growth and well-being by promoting trust, connection and belonging in our classrooms. We also know that if we equip students to express, evaluate and refine their thinking, we can equip them to tackle complicated problems and master challenges. Since this pandemic began, it hasn’t always been easy to create that secure, supportive culture for our learners, but I believe it matters now more than ever.

I start each day with a check-in activity.  

Check-ins can be as varied as our content, but what’s important is that they get students moving around the classroom and talking with one another. Sometimes, I’ll provide an activity that’s closely tied to content we’ve been learning or new content we’re about to learn. For example, to keep momentum going with our math learning, one day I shared a Sudoku riddle. Another day, I hung up these four pieces of paper titled “Estimation,” “Pencil and Paper,” “Mental Math” and “Calculator,” and invited students to share the processes and experiences that each phrase brought to mind: I vary platforms and participation to make all students feel included. 

Some students love to shout out a reply, while others would rather write it down privately or share it with a small group. As you might have noticed in my math warmup above, some replies are written right on the paper, while others are on Post-its. That’s because I gave students the choice of walking up and adding their thoughts, versus staying at their desks, putting their thoughts on Post-its and passing those forward. Especially at the start of the year, not every student will feel comfortable getting up in front of the class, so I want to show students that wherever their level of comfort is, I’ll meet them there. And because some students feel more confident expressing themselves on digital platforms, I’ll shift to Jamboard or Google Forms for the next day’s warmup. For example, I used this Jamboard activity to get students sharing observations about representations of gender in superheroes, and it was exciting to see how they navigated the virtual space:

I build our check-in conversations into a supportive classroom culture.

Whenever we ask students to share their feelings, perspectives or experiences, we’re asking them to trust us and to be brave. I want sharing to feel empowering for my students, not stressful, and that’s why I use two principles to inform our discussions and our classroom culture: courageous conversations, and safe space vs. brave space. 

a) Courageous Conversations

To define what a “courageous conversation” is, I rely on the work of Glenn E. Singleton. I explain that our class is going to have so many exciting, challenging discussions on complicated topics, because that’s how we’ll learn together – but that means we need to figure out how to share different viewpoints and navigate disagreements. I tell them Singleton came up with these four agreements to make courageous conversations possible:

We discuss what it might feel like to practice each of these agreements during a class discussion, and then I introduce the concepts of “safe space” and “brave space.” I explain that when we’re talking about a tough topic, some of us might feel safe and secure about sharing our perspectives and experiences while others might feel unsafe. I explain that because everyone’s sense of security can fluctuate depending on the topic, we can’t just try to create a safe space – we need to try to create a brave space where students can disagree and still feel supported. That’s what our courageous conversation agreements are for. It’s not always easy for students to grasp how this works, so we start by practicing the four agreements during our morning check-ins. 

b) Tough Talk Thursdays

When it’s time to build more challenging conversations into our rota, I provide a “Tough Talk Thursday” suggestion box and invite students to drop anonymous notes into it, suggesting we discuss topics they’re curious about or concerns they’re having. Every Thursday, we pull out three notes, read the topic suggestions and vote on one to discuss. This can be a great way to start promoting academic skills, too, from constructing oral arguments to researching topics to writing analytically – and because the students choose the topics, they’re invested from the start. Last year, students used their “Tough Talk Thursday” discussions as starting points to enter the school speech competition!

I equip students to navigate challenging experiences together.

By building these gentle warmup conversations into the start of each day together, and gradually introducing more complex discussion topics, I can create a space where students feel empowered to express themselves authentically. I’ve found that if we don’t promote classroom norms that can support tough discussions, or create low-stakes opportunities for students to practice using those norms, they won’t feel prepared to engage and support one another when the stakes feel higher. For example, last spring, when my school community learned that mask mandates might be lifted, I overheard my students sharing conflicted feelings, from relief and excitement to fear and anxiety. I created a quick check-in Jamboard inviting them to share their perspectives. They didn’t all feel the same way about the change, but because they had the chance to process it as a group, they all felt more confident about navigating it.

Just as I would give my students a chance to warm up their singing voices with some scales before a concert, or do some stretching and passing before a basketball game, I want to give my students a chance to renew their sense of community and curiosity before I ask them to dig into deep learning together. By starting each day with a warmup activity, I can make sure my students feel truly connected – to one another, to me, to our shared learning journey and our classroom culture. Every morning check-in brings me an opportunity to support the courage and commitment and creativity my students are bringing to each step of their learning journey, from social-emotional skills to academic progress. And every check-in brings me an opportunity to make sure they know how much their journey matters.

More community favorites