Week 1: Dipping the Toe

Standard

Tue: Locker Night

I planned to attend. I overslept and didn’t. A great tradition in the middle school, though. It’s an evening meeting where new students and their parents can have a quick orientation to some of the more quotidian concerns of adjustment to the middle school: the schedule, the facilities, etc.

New students are given their locker assignments and given a chance to try out their combinations. They get to wander around the school and find out what rooms their classes are.

This year our new director of the middle school asked several students who were already attending our school to volunteer to help and guide and befriend the new students.

Wed: Registration Day

The first day of school is really a half day spent almost entirely with homeroom advisors. New students are given another welcome by the head of the middle school. Students then gather in their homerooms and collectively rotate through several stations, taking care of administrative tasks: selecting fall sports, turning in Technology Acceptable Use policy forms, receiving locker combinations and academic schedules, posing for their ID photographs.

At the end of the day, the students have a picnic outside as their parents come by to pick them up.

Another great day to buffer all the annoying things that occupy the first days of school.

Thur: First Classes and All-School Assembly

Classes officially start. There’s a traditional morning assembly where all the students in the entire school gather to hear the headmaster’s welcome and his theme for the year.

What did I do?

I had assigned seats for students to sit in as they came in. I arranged desks so that I had five clusters of four desks spread throughout the room. Within each group, I asked to students to learn each others’ names and then discuss a series of “Would you rather…?” questions as icebreakers. I tried to think of scenarios that were directly relevant to the themes and essential questions we’d be addressing all year. The 7th grade, for example, has a geography focus with the theme “People in Places,” and I asked them to consider if they’d rather stay at a 4-star hotel in Philadelphia for a week or take a road trip across the country. As they were sharing their preferences and their summer experiences, I passed around prepared index cards to random students around the room.

After a few of these discussion questions, I had students rearrange their desks in “test formation.” I was a little frustrated last year the amount of time students took in rearranging their desks for tests, and so I decided they needed explicit practice doing so this year. I gave little direction except for a picture of how the desks had to look at the end, so this little assignment also became an exercise in teamwork and collaborative problem-solving. It was interesting to see, for example, which students took charge and started moving others’ desks around and which students turned their own desk around and then sat down as they waited for others to rearrange their desks around them.

I then asked students to move five desks away from their original location, which became another group puzzle. Depending on the time, I then asked the class to get back into the original cluster arrangements (with their new seats) or go straight into another icebreaker question.

It was clear by now to the students that I was going to move fairly through a lot of planned stuff. I was keeping them on their toes. I had the students line up against the wall to pose for a few class photos.

When they were finally seated, I related an anecdote about first impressions that I read in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. I talked about how crucial first impressions were and how I was going to use these first few weeks to evaluate students’ inclinations socially and academically so that I could come up with effective seating assignments — permanent seating assignments.

I think this was an effective transition; it let them know that the stakes were high and that I wanted them to be serious. It made my fairly lighthearted presentation of my three class rules still carry some gravitas.

My presentation of class rules might have been a little talky — my wife constantly complains that I’m longwinded. But I was hopping around the class and no one was yawning.

At the end, I asked students if they had any questions. Only one class actually had any of their own questions for me. The other classes figured out that the index cards I handed out had all the banal but important concerns that every student has to figure out about each of their teachers: What do I have to do to go to the bathroom? How do you feel about me getting up to sharpen my pencil? How do I get in touch with you about a late assignment? etc. etc.

Having these planted questions allowed me to talk about my personal preferences and pet peeves without diluting my “rules,” which I like to keep down to a potent two or three.

I was surprised that for most of my classes I actually finished a few minutes early, which allowed me to introduce the class wiki and blog and ask students to fill out the survey I prepared for homework.

Fri: Year’s Themes

We had a morning middle-school assembly on Friday in which the director of the middle school introduced herself and told her story of “Crossing the River” which would inform the rest of the middle-school year.

As for my classes, I started class with a screencast giving specific directions on how to send their summer reading assignments to me via e-mail. It turned out to be a great idea:

  • Students were really captivated by the novelty of the screencast. Some students even looked back at me in disbelief as if to see if I was throwing my voice from the smartboard.
  • It clued students in to the importance I was going to place upon technology this year.
  • It drove in the importance of taking detailed notes. I emphasized the importance of getting several persnickety details (like how to name your file) just right.
  • At the same time, students were relieved and appreciative when I said that the video was going to posted on the class blog for them to revisit if they ever got confused.
  • Having a screencast arrangement like this seemed to settle some of the anxieties and the million requests for clarification that inevitably accompany tech instruction.

From that I launched into a keynote lecture on the theme for the year in the class and the essential questions that were going to inform our analyses of the literature throughout the year. I tend to be much more of a stickler about the theme and the essential questions than my colleagues — I appreciate the focus and unity they give to me personally as I plan the year out, and I feel that they help give the class a stronger sense of purpose and spiraled instruction.

I ended class with another screencast. I kid you not, the kids cheered. This time I stepped through logging in and editing a page on the class wiki. I gave them a simple assignment of adding their name to the wiki to indicate which summer reading book they plan to do their creative project on.

Unlike Thursday, Friday’s classes ended right on time.

Meetings

The week ended with planning meetings with my 7th and 8th grade co-workers. We nailed down what we wanted to do for the rest of the trimester. These practical meetings tend to be super-productive and super-valuable. I like our no-nonsense, let’s-get-our-expectations-straight camaraderie — it reminds me of the streamlined Red Team in the Millenium War Games anecdote in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

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