First Days of School

Is there anything scarier than the first day of middle school?   Probably not in the lives of most 11 year old kids.   Will I be able to remember where to go?   Will I get lost?    Will my teachers be nice?   Will I be able to manage 6 different classes with 6 different teachers who all want something different from me?   Will I have any friends in my classes?   Will I have anyone to eat lunch with?   Will I be able to do the work?   Will I fit in?   Will I be able to put on a brave face so that nobody knows I’m scared because I’m in middle school now and I don’t want anyone to know I’m scared?

These “not quite little kids anymore” and “not quite teenagers yet” arrive looking a little bit like deer in the headlights and leave utterly exhausted.   For most of them, it takes three or four weeks before they finally feel at home.   Given the high level of anxiety, I really want the first days to set a tone that is welcoming, accepting, and engaging.

Building a Growth Mindset  

  1. A Picture Book with A Dose of Girl Empowerment on the Side  Rosie Revere, Engineer tells the story of a second grade girl who secretly constructs great inventions out of rubbish.    She hides her inventions away because she is afraid of failure.   One day, she has a life-changing visit from her great-aunt Rose (nice reference to Rosie the Riveter included).   Her great-aunt shows Rosie that a first flop is something to celebrate because it is a first step toward success.   The idea that an initial “failure” (or mistake) is the beginning of the road to success is something that I want to impart to all of my students.   I like the idea of sharing this idea with a picture book because it’s a lot less like preaching and is a nice tie back to the normal events in an elementary classroom (maybe making this new place seem a little less foreign).  I also love that the protagonist is a female.  I want both my male and female students to see it as “normal” for women to be engineers and scientists.
  2. The First Penguin – Hooray For Mistakes  Randy Pausch, a former professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, always gave an award to the group in his virtual reality course with the most collosal failure.   In his book The Last Lecture  , he explains that he wanted his students to realize that we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.  He wanted his students to realize that being willing to take risks and make mistakes is an important part of the journey.    After sharing the story, I will introduce the class to our “First Penguin Award”.   When someone in class finds an error in someone’s work/thinking and can help them “fix” their thinking, both of the individuals will get a piece of candy because they both helped to move thinking forward (the “fixer” in finding/fixing the thinking and the “error in thought” in allowing everyone to examine his/her thought and think a little bit deeper).
  3. Lure of the Labyrinth – Powerful Problem Solving Hiding in a Video Game – Lure of the Labyrinth, a video game developed by MIT’s Education Arcade, engages students in rich problem-solving as they play a video game in which they go on a quest to save a pet.   The tasks are challenging and require a lot of perseverance.   My goal is to help students to grow a growth mindset by growing problem-solving skills.

Building Interdependence – Broken Squares with a Twist 

I want students to recognize their interdependence.     To accomplish this,  I give them a somewhat challenging task to accomplish as a group and then I give each group member a limitation that makes the task even more challenging.   The limitations ensure that the task can only be accomplished if they work together.

The Task

A group of four students are given a set of five envelopes.  Each student gets one envelope and the fifth envelop belongs to the “table”.   Working together, the group must build five equal-sized squares using the pieces found in the envelopes.  No group member may ask another group member for a piece.   (Members may give a piece to another member).

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The task is taken from A Handbook of Structured Experiences for Human Relations Training.    You can download the files for the square pieces here 

The Broken Circles task in Designing Groupwork is very similar and is based on this Broken Squares task.

The Limitations (The Twist)

I want students to experience the need for interdependence and to recognize that each person has strengths and weaknesses.   Each member of the group is given a role that he or she must play as they complete the task.

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The group member with the “See No Evil” card, must complete the task while blindfolded.   The group member with the “Speak No Evil” card must complete the task without speaking.  The group member with the “Look Ma, No Hands” card must complete the task without using his or her hands.   The group member with the “Mean Girls” card does not appear to have a limitation.   However, he or she must take on a “mean girls” persona, using only put downs in his or her communication.

The Ground Rules

Groups may begin working on the task when I say “go”.   Oh, one more thing.   The task is a race.   The group to complete the task first is the winner.

The Debrief

After a team has won, everyone looks to see how they did it.   Then we talk about what happened.   I usually begin by talking to the winning team about their process.   What did they do that helped?   Then I ask other groups what they found helpful.   It becomes really clear that they had to work together, to fill in the gaps for each other, in order to succeed.  From there, we talk about what didn’t work.   At this point, the impact of the negative talk always comes out.  We wrap up the activity by talking about the implications for our work as a community.    We document this in a circle map on “Good group work”.

Building Relationships

  1. Circle Maps – Getting To Know You and Learning a ToolAt my school, we teach students to use Thinking Maps across all content areas.   Each week, one of the content areas is assigned a different Thinking Map to introduce.   Math is assigned to teach the Circle Map (which defines something in context) during the first two weeks of school.   I teach this tool as a “getting to know you” activity.  A Circle Map consists of two concentric circles inside a rectangular frame.   The center circle is the topic being defined and the outer circle contains the things that define the concept.   The rectangular frame is a frame of reference.   For this activity, students will put their name/photo in the center circle and then define themselves in the outer circle.  The circle map will tell me a little bit about each student and will be a way for students to get know each other a little bit.  It will serve as the cover for the student’s portfolio.
  2. Math Survey – Each student completes a survey telling me how he or she feels about math and what makes a good math class.   Because affect is such a big piece of math success, I want to know how my students feel about it.
  3. One Thing –  I take a few  minutes to have everyone tell one thing about themselves.   I try to start with something a little silly like “my secret super power is that I can wiggle my ears and convince small children that I am an elf”.    The next day might be something like “‘Oh Lonely Peas’ is my theme song.   It is all about peas left on a little kids plate because she hates them.   That is exactly how I feel about slimy squishy peas.”    Asking an 11 year old for a super power or a theme song seems to open up windows that a language arts teacher might see in a student’s writing but that are a little less obvious in math.

Assessment – An Elephant Never Forgets

While this is not something I would choose to do with my first days, it is something that I am required to do.   To lighten this up a little bit, each student is going to pick a stuffed elephant to help them out, because “elephants never forget”.     I stole this idea from one of my friends.   The students would put the elephants on their heads (or their desks if they prefer – but most chose their head) to help them remember.   This will be my first year trying this, so we’ll see if I can carry this off.

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