Sunday, August 19, 2018

First Day of School Activities: From Low Risk to High Risk

    Many years ago I went to an in-service presentation about Lions Quest, the character education program funded by the Lions Clubs. Although many parts of the presentation have faded from my memory with time, the presenter had a piece of advice that I still consider every August:

"When planning group-building activities, always remember to start with low risk activities. Don't ask participants to share too much at once."

   The idea is simple, but deeply meaningful. We must be careful to structure our group building so that students aren't asked to share too much before they are comfortable doing so. 
     Over the course of our two-day session, the presenter practiced what she preached. The very first grouping activity was based on something that we had for breakfast that morning, with prescribed choices offered. Pretty low risk, right? Revealing that I had eaten cereal for breakfast did not give away too much of myself in an awkward new group. It wasn't until the very last activity of the last day that we did an activity called "Rare Birds", in which we shared something about ourselves that made us stand out from the crowd.

First day = low risk activities

    Keeping this principle in mind, I make sure that my first day activities are low risk. This is not the time for sharing important truths or deep ideas. While we are coming together as a class, I make sure that our first activities do not put students on the spot.

    I am a pretty reserved and quiet person myself. In new groups, I much prefer to sit back and watch what's going on before I contribute. Many students feel the same way....and my first day activities need to reflect this.

     There will be plenty of opportunities for students to get to know each other on a deeper level. Right now, I want to help everyone to feel comfortable. And this means not asking questions that will make students feel distressed. We keep our conversations rather light and superficial on the first morning of the first day. 

  • What is your favorite color?
  • What books in the classroom look interesting to you?
  • Which classroom plant is your favorite?
  • What part of the classroom do you like to sit in?

    I also like quick and easy games, such as:


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Start the Reading Year: Lesson Plans for those First Days of School

There are very few times when I will reuse lesson plans. In fact, sometimes I write plans that I don't even use an hour later! I'm always working on building new things and trying out new ways to teach.

However, there are times when a trusty set of plans is helpful. For me, the beginning of the school year is one of those times. I need the comfort of what's tried and true!

As I was looking through my files to clean up some items and improve them, I came across these lesson plans. I first wrote them in 2011 and have slowly added to them over the years, but hadn't used them since my move to sixth grade.

When I read them I felt my anxiety about the first few days of school just decrease. I can do this! (I've done it before!) I added some new features, like the Reading Interview and the Double Entry Journal, and now all I have to do is make some photocopies and my first few days of reading class are planned.

Here is a sample snippet of the first lesson and activity. What lesson plans do you use over and over again?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Setting up a classroom for collaboration

    It's that time of year again...when pictures of perfect classrooms start to show up on Pinterest and Instagram! It's also the time when anxious and perfectionist teachers start to feel very, very badly about themselves.

    But setting up collaborative classroom actually means learning to let go. It means that as teachers, we can let go of key routines and processes that should be in the hands of students. It means that we can let go of perfectly pretty bulletin boards and having every square inch of the room filled with themed posters. It's actually quite freeing!

Materials stored and labeled for student use

    I am so lucky to have a classroom with lots of drawer space. I make this usable for students by labeling the drawers and providing students with free access to them. It always takes some time in the first weeks of school for students to become used to this!
    Of course there are some materials that I don't like to leave out, tragedy of the commons and all, and these I simply store in a higher cupboard.
    Do the drawers ever get cluttered and messy? Of course! Around December, a few enterprising students always undertake the task of organizing the marker drawer or fixing up the colored pencil drawer. It's just one more way to put tasks in the hands of students.

Browsable book bins

    These are so helpful for students to be able to find and return books on their own. In the first days of school, I put the bins around the room to facilitate browsing. I love how flexible this system can be!

Student-led routines

    Instead of a moon phase bulletin board, I have a place on my board for "Today's Phase" and "Next Phase". The student astronomer will be in charge of checking out the phases and placing the posters accordingly.
   In addition to the moon phases, I also have a dry-erase board set up for the meteorologist to fill in each day. Planning for these routines before the start of school helps them to have a place in the physical arrangement of the classroom.

Leave some things un-done

    My recess games cabinet is a bit messy right now, but that's okay with me! On one of the first three days of school I like to spend an hour getting everything out so that kids can see what the options are. Then, students decide how to organize the cabinet so that the games and materials they like the best are the most accessible. Students are much more likely to keep up with an organizational scheme that they have created.