Teachers: Try This Your First Week Back
As one of my followers on a social media platform reminded me yesterday, not all schools start and end at the same time during the calendar year. Having gone to high school in Toronto and then attending prep school in Ohio way back in the day, I am well aware of that. I apologize in advance to anyone who ends up reading a few more blogs about summer break if you are somewhere in Kansas or Georgia or Florida or anywhere else where school has already started. I am also sorry if June rolls around and you end up reading something about things to do in June, and those things pertain to my actual last month in school and not your summer break. I usually write about what I am experiencing in real time. That typically keeps my narrative, commentary, and guidance accurate and authentic. Suffice it to say, let me step into my hypothetical time machine and think forward to a few weeks from now — the first week back to school — and offer a few things that teachers can try during this first week back.
As I envision my first week back, I know that one of the most important messages that I want to foster within my students is that our classroom is a space where everyone has the potential to excel. No hierarchy of learners based on test scores and participation. No caste-like system based on the type of personality said teacher prefers. It sounds cliché, but on that very first day it is important to employ a variety of pedagogical strategies that serve to create a safe and validating atmosphere. That sounds great Matthew, now how the heck do I do that?
Slow down, let me lay out the importance of creating a space that maintains an expectation of inclusivity, validation and community. Students learn best when they feel capable of learning. I’m sure I could back link a hundred studies that prove this, but the logic is basic: if you feel important, validated and included, you are more confident — in everything you do. And we do have ten months to cover the curriculum, so before we crack open the textbooks and multiple choice tests, it is a good idea to create an atmosphere that students enjoy and can relate to. That is simple and plain. Creativity doesn’t spew out of dull grey cubicles; it comes from the drama-centered midday game activities and bright-colored, strangely refreshing spaces, like Google Headquarters.
So how do we do it? First off, be yourself. Yes, yes you always are yourself when teaching. Sure, but I am talking about connecting with students akin to the way an uncle or aunt would connect with a nephew or niece. Allow your students to own the space and lead the dialogue in the class. Share some stories about your personal life, nothing is wrong with that. Obviously and of course, there are many simple “ice breaker” camp-style games that are great for the first day so that students can get to know their peers and teachers get to know their students. That first week is about creating connections. Dialogue and subsequent authenticity of dialogue is the most expedient way to create these much-needed links.
Secondly, creating community in the classroom is vital to classroom synergy and learning. In fact, when you takes steps to remove your classroom from the traditional school-styled dictatorship or the individualized, everyone-for-themselves form of environment, it helps students see themselves as agents in their own learning which in turn creates ownership of said learning. And one way to get to that “Utopian state” is to provide students the opportunity to see their ownership of the classroom. Students come to school and are told to sit at a desk and not write on it because it is not theirs, put their things in a locker but make sure they bring a lock which, ultimately, can be broken off whenever the administration deems necessary, and handed textbooks with class-coded numbers that they must return at the end of the year. And we then wonder why students feel foreign in certain schools?
This year, during that first week, I am going to make a baby step to try and create ownership of learning through community. I am going to start with a brainstorm session with my students regarding their ideal classroom and throughout the week we will work to re-arrange our shared space. I guess it works to my benefit; I am not particular to how my classroom is arranged. Heck, I don’t even roll with a desk (dang, I bring that up too much). Allowing students to share their ideas and actually bring their visions of their classroom to reality starts the year with a sense of ownership of learning. Creating the classroom may be something many students couldn’t care less about or perhaps never even thought of. But the simple fact of allowing them to provide their thoughts to a space that has always seemed so not theirs may just bring the students together on a deeper level.
I would continue on with what else I envision doing during that first week, but I think the brief examples and follow-ups may actually take me through those first few days. And actually, I think I just “blogged out” my first day lesson plan.