Monthly Archives: June 2014

Thinking about the first day of school…or not

Just maybe, over the summer, sitting on the patio, paddling in a canoe, relaxing in a deck chair, watching the sunset, running, or whatever it is you do, you might think about school.  I always find that my mind drifts there every once in a while, and often a lot of my deep planning gets done—the ideas that anchor me.

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, try thinking about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!).

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “What is all the math you can think of to do with this box of smarties?” Or, “If our whole school joined hands would we be able to go around the whole building (and then try it at the end of the week)?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Check out these sites for some great problems: or or
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students? Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (we don’t have flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.

I will reprint this blog at the end of August, but I thought that just maybe you might give the first day of school some thought before then…or not.  Enjoy your summer.

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Classroom environments can support an inquiry approach

As the year winds down, mostly you are thinking about July.  But, should September creep into your thoughts at all, certain environmental changes to your room may help shape your practice to be more inclusive, more collaborative, more community-based.

  • Think about starting the year with the desks in groups.  When you start with groups as an expectation of how we do things, as opposed to a reward, you are sending a different message to your students.
  • Think about moving your desk, or maybe even getting rid of it altogether.  How you position yourself in the classroom can say a lot about how you view your role.  Are you an authoritarian or a facilitator?  Where is the space where you usually work?  Is it separate from your students or among your students?
  • Think about how you will set up for student movement.  Will it be easy in your classroom for students to move about and work with others or will everyone have their regular “spot”?  Can you easily change things in your room so that students can sit in a knowledge building circle?
  • Think about how you will organize supplies for students.  Do you get tired of students asking for pencils all the time?  Is paper available?  How are your books organized?  How do students access technology in the room?
  • Think about your guided learning table.  Can you sit at it and see the rest of the students?  Do you have supplies nearby that you will need such as little whiteboards, pencils, scrap paper, magnets, math manipulatives etc?  Do you have a spot to keep some assessment data close by so that you remember to keep anecdotal notes when you are working with small groups?
  • Think about the bulletin boards/walls in your classroom.  How will you use them to best scaffold student learning?  Store-bought posters tend to quickly turn into wallpaper.  If you have a poster up in your room right now that you did not refer to on a regular basis this year, likely it is not useful to your teaching practice.
  • Think about how you will communicate learning goals to your students.  While we do not want the learning goals to be a secret from students, we do want learning to be inquiry-based and exciting.  Think about how you can uncover learning goals with the students and make learning an adventure.  Learning goals can be visible in your classroom in many different formats:  co-created anchor charts, checklists (Good readers…/Good scientists…/Good athletes…/etc), exemplars, questions, inquiry-boards, rubrics.
  • Think about where you will be in the classroom at different times.  Could you sit among your students during lessons and sharing?  How could you organize groups of tables so that you can easily join them?

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Inquiry as a pedagogical stance, not a thing

Inquiry is the new “buzz” word in education.  I don’t go to a single meeting where it isn’t mentioned.  And I hear a lot of schools say, “We’re doing inquiry”.  I think it is a little more complex than that and it may be worth thinking about.

Inquiry is not a thing we do.  Inquiry is a way of engaging students (or engaging staff) in the learning process.  Inquiry is a belief system that guides our teaching practice, that influences our planning and assessment, that provides our students with voice, and that promotes critical thinking.  As we are changing our approach to student learning, we may feel more successful at using inquiry at some times than at others.  We may, as we try new things, return to the relative “safety” of more traditional approaches at times.  However, if we really want to take an inquiry-based approach to learning, we have to believe certain things about how people learn:

  • We need to believe that given the right conditions and supports, great things are possible from all students.  That doesn’t mean that the same great thing is possible for all students, but that we have high expectations for all.
  • We need to believe that learning is a social process.  It is important to learning that we think, talk, reflect, try things out, assess and try again.
  • We need to believe that knowledge in a curriculum area builds upon itself and that everyone brings something to the table to begin with, it just may not be the same something.  As we find out what students already know, we can help them to learn the next new things.
  • We need to believe that students like to be challenged and that given the right circumstances, will meet that challenge.
  • We need to believe that learning is about thinking not about knowing.  The process of learning may be more important than the final product.  We need to allow students the time and opportunities to think and process.
  • We need to believe that it is our responsibility as teachers to differentiate our program to meet a wide variety of needs in order for students to meet the challenges we set.

As we delve into inquiry, small group instruction, workshop environments, and collaboration, we learn a lot about our students and ourselves as teachers.  Since inquiry-based learning is a stance that we decide to take, it does begin to influence everything we do.  And if we want our students to take risks with their learning, we do as well.  In teaching, it would be nice just to get it “right”.  Whew, done.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Learning and teaching are both growth processes.  The best we can do is to continually reflect upon how our students are learning, and try something that we think might work even better.  That is our inquiry.  When we bring that risky, messy belief system to the classroom, our students begin to do inquiry as well.

Professional development isn’t about getting something right.  It isn’t about “doing” a new practice.  But it is about thinking about one’s practice in relationship to one’s students and trying something new that you think might work.  Something that might reach students you haven’t been able to reach before.  Something that might engage or ignite passion.  When you try new things you will find that some work well, some need tweaking, and some you will never try again.  But you should always try something new–no one will die and everyone will learn something.


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