Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Settling In

Our start of school calendar was organized very differently this year. Most years, our first week of school comes right after Labor Day. Teachers arrive on Tuesday, 6th graders are oriented on Wednesday, and then on Thursday everyone attends school for two days. This first week always had a rhythm to it. Thursday and Friday became about rules and syllabi, and students spent inordinate amounts of time in their homeroom reading student handbooks, attending assemblies, and getting more information about more rules and syllabi. Kids were squirrely since sitting for six hours hadn't been part of their routine for months. By the end of that first week everyone was exhausted and ready for the weekend. Those two days are a big part of the reason why I dislike the first days of school. Those days feel artificial. They feel like a waste of time. My students and I end up too busy waiting for school to really begin when we begin this way.

This year, due to Jewish holy days, things were organized differently. 6th graders attended a full week last week. 7th and 8th graders came for four days starting Tuesday. Homeroom time was spread out over four days, and classes were almost as long as they will be on a normal day. This forced us to rethink things and really reflect on how we wanted this year to start for our students. Instead of the usual introductory slide show, we spent time talking as a group, introducing ourselves, mingling, and sharing reading choices. Instead of telling students the rules, we had them work in groups to create presentations explaining the importance of rules. We were up, we were active, and students were running the show by day two. Instead of wasting time treading water, we jumped right in to the deep end, and our kids all swam! We used that first week to set a tone that our classroom community is one where we work together. One where we solve our own problems instead of relying on the teachers to solve them. And one where you will be held to a high standard. 

We still have a long way to go this year, but I can already feel how this different start is going to make all the difference. By the end of last week I already knew the names of about 85% of my students. I know who the natural leaders in each class are. I know who is willing to take big risks, and who my shy students are. I know who will need more support in managing their time and who will need more support in the social interactions that make up so much of the classroom experience. In short, I already know my students in a way that I never would have on our old schedule. And the best part of the whole week was that by Friday I was energized instead of drained. I couldn't wait to jump back in this week and continue to build on those first experiences.       

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

First Impressions

Yesterday I had a chance to meet all four of my new classes of seventh grade. Even though I had been working in school for nearly a week, the new year did not become real until that first group of students walked through the door.

By the end of the day I was completely exhausted, the strain of being "on" for so long after a summer of being "off" coupled with a barrage of new and challenging names had my brain completely overloaded. And my feet were hurting something fierce by about noon! But, we all survived, and had a lot of fun.

Each class definitely had its own culture, and each group seems very different. I know that finding the style and flow with each class is going to be one of the best challenges of this year. This group left some strong first impressions, and there are some things that I want to remember to think about this year as we move forward.

Period 4 has a gentle, go with the flow kind of feel. Students were willing to participate, a few were eager, but none showed that first day energy that warned me that there was a personality that might need to be molded a bit to fit the community. This group will be great to help test out new lessons and to set a pace for the rest of the day.

Period 7 is a class that I am really excited to teach. The majority of the class are not native English speakers and there is a very varied level of English proficiency. This class already has a culture going, many of the students have already bonded through the shared experience of being in a new school where we speak a new language. This class will force me to slow down and focus on skills. They will need more intentional vocabulary and writing mechanics instruction- two areas that I normally gloss over relying on student's prior knowledge. All four sections will benefit from this intentionality.

Period 8 is a wild bunch! Yesterday we saw five or six kids trying to outshine one another. They have energy, but they are also supportive. It's hard to chide a student for calling out when they're shouting supportive comments to their peers, right?  These students will challenge us to always keep class interesting, to keep them engaged and motivated in fun, active tasks. We'll have to be creative to keep up with them. If we can do that, I think we'll be able to direct all of that energy towards a really fun and productive community.

Period 9 is challenging. It's the end of the day, and it is our most heavily needy population. Luckily, we have three teachers to support our students. In this class I can already see a great diversity of skill. It's amazing how a skill as minor as reading procedural directions on the first day can throw up red flags around a student's skills. I think this class may have a few non-readers, but they seem to be a class of workers. They will "do" as long as we make sure that every one of them knows how. This class will probably need a less exploratory approach than we're used to, and structured differentiation will be our friend.    

I can already see how developing lessons and curriculum to meet all four groups where they are is going to take a lot of work, but it will be beneficial. Each group has strengths and some challenges, but I believe that the approaches we will take to meet those challenges will benefit everyone. I think it's going to be a great year!