Thursday, September 4, 2014

Do what you can....Thursday Throwdown Version!

I have a poster on my podium (which I'm not using this year, so I need to relocate the poster) that says this:

I kind of like that saying.  I thought about it this week as I started in with my 16th batch of new 7th graders.

Last year, my colleagues and I totally re-purposed and/or recreated everything we did during the first three months of school. I'm on our district ELA Lead Teacher Team, and my school colleagues and I had volunteered to be a pioneer team anyway, which meant/means that we were/are willing to shift our curriculum to inquiry based units of study at a much quicker rate than other teams in the district (we have six middle schools.) And last year, we felt the brunt of it. It was way overwhelming and tiring and mind-bending, but it was also exhilarating and fantastic and worth it.

This year, it is SUCH A RELIEF to go into the first month with only tweaks!!! I have been up late the past few nights working on PPTs because we wanted to introduce the Habits of Mind right away this year. Robin (my special ed co-teacher) and I learned about them mid-year at one of our co-teacher co-hort meetings run by the district and began seeing possibilities right away. We also realized things like, "Hey...we don't use Cornell notes much in English because we don't give many traditional notes!!" So instead of busting it to teach Cornell notes, we are leaving it to the science and social studies teachers (and AVID, of course, which hits it huge!) We like Cornell notes, just didn't use them after we had the kids learn them with an article last year.

We decided to change up our first day activities based on what we wanted the students to accomplish.  Last year, we had kids group and discuss a LOT more than ever before, so we decided to roll "how to get along with your classmates and hold an inspired discussion" into the first month of school.

We've done "Find Someone Who" before and while I like FSW, I've also noticed that students end up shoving their paper in someone's face and instructing them to write their name. Not the intended process :)

So this brings me to my Thursday Throw Down as well as why I was thinking about my poster.

Instead of the regular Find Someone Who...we decided that instead of writing in the boxes and having students roam for a while, we'd make it a more directed activity. Our purpose? We wanted students to stop and think and learn about the person they were connecting with for a little longer than "Here, sign my sheet." And, we did a Cell Phone Buddies activity on Day 2 where they scheduled 10 partners (1-9 and 0) so in the future (today) we can say things like, "Meet up with your #1 cell phone buddy and discuss the following..." We wanted to give the kids a chance to scope out who was in the class before they had to commit to someone they'd be working with on in-class activities.  The third reason we thought it was a good idea to run an activity like this on the first day was because--my Lord!!!--it was a rude awakening for ME last week, sitting and listening for several hours at teacher workshops, and I guess I was feeling empathetic

So what did we do? I named it People to People, which was the name of a game I used to play at camps, although I'm pretty sure it WASN'T this game. We handed out a People to People sheet to each student & instead of a grid with prompts, there were 9 summer icons (sun, flip flop, popsicle, etc.) with an empty box below each one. Three icons/boxes to a row, three rows. So it still looked quite a bit like a FSW sheet. 

Then we had kids group into threes, and when they were in groups, we showed the icon on the SMART board along with a question that they needed to discuss with the group.  Carly and Cathy had the kids write their partners' names AND their answers; I just had my classes write their partners' names and talk about the question.

Each icon had a different question i.e "What is your favorite summer food and why?" "What is your favorite season, and how would you describe the perfect weather?" "If you were a shoe, what type would you be? Think brand, color, type..." (Comment section....what would you be?!)

Once the groups discussed the question, we said PEOPLE TO PEOPLE and had them regroup and form a different trio. They had to write the other kids' names in the square and then I'd move to the slide (on the board) that had the icon they were on and the question that went with it.

It was interesting to see how students grouped, whether or not the girls and guys were willing to mix (really, how long it would take them to mix) and to see how they did in general.  I took the role of observing. I didn't intervene much, only if we had someone who needed a group (twos or fours were fine, too...not all classes are divisible by 3.) There have been times during activities like this where I have intervened and encouraged kids to be inclusive and actively helped kids to find groups, but this time I wanted to just observe and help minimally.  When Robin was in (we co-teach two classes, and I have three that I teach alone) she was more active in helping some of the kids who really struggled to interact.  Carly and Cathy took a different route with their kids and really worked the group, encouraging them to move into their trios, and making sure that there truly new partners each time.  It's fun to run things in slightly different ways and see how it goes.  Some days, I run activities differently from class to class (slightly...) to see what seems to work or to accommodate the class that is there at the time.  Of course, there isn't one way that is "right"...just different ways of doing things with different results :)

Anyway, all this had me thinking of how I've started the school year differently over the past 15 years. Way back in 1999, I got the kids into their seats, and then I would go kid to kid, asking what they wanted to be called, and having them answer a short question, usually "talk about something interesting that you did over the summer."  Then I'd go over the guidelines for class, talk about what we'd be covering over the course of the year, etc. For a good number of years, I'd also start in with a bio-poem assignment. I'm sure many of you know what these are and most likely have assigned one at some point.  I liked it because although I disdain form poetry, it gave kids an easy way in, especially at the beginning of the school year. And it's pretty easy. I'd assign it, give them class worktime, and it was always due that next Monday. Kids had to type it up, attach a photo of themselves as a baby or toddler, and decorate the page. It was a good way to see 1) Who handed in work on time; 2) What type of effort kids generally put into their work; 3) How cute they looked when they were little! I'd grade them and get them up on the wall for parent night, and they were always a ton of fun for both parents and students to look at.

Last year we decided to nix the bio-poem assignment (we can always pass it on to homerooms!) We wanted to jump right in and not add any "filler assignments," which the bio-poem kind of was.

Have you ever thought about how things have changed in your classroom? How the purpose for your activities has shifted? When I went kid-by-kid to get their names and a short bit of information about them, the rest of the class sat disengaged, bored out of their minds. What was my purpose? Could I get their nick names and learn about them in another way? Yep. When we did the People to People this year, what purpose did it serve?

Actually, the final slide after the nine icons/questions was a reflective discussion page. When we finished, we had a brief whole-class discussion with questions like Why would we do an activity like this on the first day of school? What skills did you have do use to do an activity like this? What was difficult about this activity? What was easy about this activity? I think that's the key--to identify and understand your purpose, make sure it's clear, and make sure it makes sense. We wanted the kids to start building community, to start getting to know one another, especially since they would be picking discussion partners the next day. I've read about and heard about building classroom community since I was in college, but the importance has really hit home as we integrate more interactive activities into our daily work, Socratic Seminars, small reading groups, etc.

The who-are-you-and-what-did-you-do-this-summer activity didn't serve much of a purpose. Now I get to know their nick names and likes/dislikes by observing during group discussion time or asking them when they have independent work time, and it seems to work much better. do what you can, with what you have, where you are, right?  :)

How do you start the school year? Do you spend time creating community or do you jump right in? A combo? I'd love to know!!

Happy teaching!