Ed. Note: Today we have a guest blogger. Please welcome our dear colleague Colleen O’Brien, an Instructional Coach from the Cherry Creek School District in Denver, CO. We think you’ll love her thinking. – Cris & Sam
A question all teachers ask at this time of year is, “How should I begin a school year worth coming back for every day?”
Let’s set the stage: Thirty sets of wide-eyes dart around the room studying the walls and watching the teacher’s every move. Necks crane to see the papers on the teacher’s desk and to see who is across the room. Unuttered questions are spreading in student brains like wildfire: “Will this class be interesting? Can I do the work? Who else is in the class? Will this teacher like me? Where will I sit? Will I be a star in this class?”
The quiet electricity in a classroom in the first ten minutes of the first day of class could power the florescent lights that are suspended from the ceiling.
What to do with this student energy?
Choice A: Pull out the syllabus, read what you wrote, explain classroom rules, assign seats, play a name game. Message to students: Teacher does all the talking. Teacher sets all the rules. Teacher does not need my participation. This class is just like all the others. This class will be boring. I have already done this before.
Choice B. Ask students to read, write, and talk about a controversial and timely content- based question. Ask them to do the real work of scientists, artists, critics, citizens, and mathematicians including asking questions, formulating ideas, offering opinion, strategizing with classmates. Message sent to students: The world is interesting. My opinion counts. The teacher thinks I am smart. I have to read, write, and talk to learn. There is more than one answer. Asking questions is a good thing. My classmates need me to participate.
For the first time in twenty-one years and with bittersweet feelings, I am not preparing for the first days of class. Instead I am coaching fifteen first year teachers to get ready for their students on Monday. I asked teachers to read Chapter 4 of Intellectual Character (Ritchart, 2002) entitled “First Days, First Steps initiating a Culture of Thinking”.
Here are some of the big ideas we are discussing in our planning meetings this week…
1. Ponder big ideas: Pose big questions about your content on the first day of school and allow students time and resources to begin to answer them. Are you a Democrat? A Republican? A Tea Partier? Are Babies Racist (Newsweek, 1999)? Is DNA destiny? Do all stories need a beginning, middle, and end?
2. Celebrate student thinking: Ask students to write their thinking about the big ideas. Write back to students before the next class and give them positive feedback on their thinking. Hang student work on the wall before they come back to class the next day next to their pictures. Share highlights of student writing with the whole class.
3. Read a great piece of text: Current, controversial articles are everywhere. If I were teaching this year I would begin my class with an article from Entertainment Weekly about the movie The Help (August 12, 2011) that poses the question “Who should tell the story of the Civil Rights movement?”
4. Study your students: Intentionally plan your lessons so you have time to study your students. Watch them as they read, write, and talk. Before entering the classroom each morning, ask yourself, who am I going to learn about today? Pick a few students and snoop a little, learn about who they are as readers and thinkers. Find out who their friends are and what makes them proud. Find out what worries them and what makes them laugh. Find out about their families and ask them to tell you a story about their lives. Look into their eyes and at their noses. Knowing students deeply will help you choose engaging texts and help you to create learning situations that motivate them to know more. This yearlong study of students begins on the first day of school.
Are you still unsure if you will choose A or B on the first day of school?
One more thought. Think about the first staff meeting you sat in this school year. Did it give you energy to start a new year, or make you long for summer? Did your leadership team choose A or B?
Choice A: Message to staff: Principal does all the talking. Principal sets all the rules. Principal does not need my participation. This school year is just like all the others. This school year will be boring. I have already heard this before.
Choice B: Message to staff: School is interesting. My opinion matters. The principal thinks I am smart. I have to read, write, and talk to learn. There is more than one answer. Asking questions is a good thing. My staff needs me to participate.
Have a great first week with students! Thanks for all your hard work.
— Colleen O’Brien, New Teacher Mentor/Coach, Cherry Creek School District, Denver, CO