Happy first week back to school! This past Tuesday marked the beginning of my 9th year of teaching and I still feel a little bit like a newbie. Like many, I struggled with falling – and staying – asleep on Monday night.
Every year I think that it will somehow be a little different and that I will get used to the feeling of the first day of school for another year, but I haven’t so far. Being at a new school this year, I knew that my students were probably wondering about me and feeling just as nervous about our first few days together. As with any new encounter, I tried to stick to three things this week: observe & listen; get to know names; and engage.
Observe & Listen
I’m learning more and more that there is great power in pausing, observing and actively listening. This is true in many areas of life but especially when working with students. On our first day together, we participated in the cup challenge where students use string and an elastic band to build towers out of plastic cups. While I could have walked them through all of the steps to successfully build their tower with ease, it was really powerful to stay back and observe as the activity demanded that they use problem solving to succeed. And they did it! It was so refreshing to see as teams graduated from not knowing how they were going to build their towers without hands, to asking for the next challenge. I listened and stepped in when I knew that a group was just bordering on frustration to offer a little advice. During this activity, I saw some of my more introverted students speak up to offer their ideas whereas in larger groups, they may not have been so bold. I also observed a couple students who were quiet on the sidelines for a few minutes observing what was happening and excitedly jumped in with a solution. When we debriefed at the end of our challenge, students spoke of the skills that they used to accomplish the task – perseverance, respectful speech, compromise and teamwork – and how these skills would help us in being successful this year. Being a facilitator in the classroom rather than the sage on the stage has afforded me the opportunity to learn with and from my students. As an educator, I need to keep in mind that when I pause, observe and listen to my students, I’m able to notice what they say and also what they don’t say which sometimes speaks much louder.
Get To Know Names
Day 1 is always a challenge for me. I strongly believe that our names are a part of our identities and should be honoured. Not knowing how to pronounce a name or calling a student the wrong name is something that I worry about doing. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no shame in a name tag for our desks – at least for the first couple of days. I decided that this year we would do a STE(A)M Challenge that I saw online. Students were asked to create their name tags with the following criteria:
- Had to stand up
- Had to be visible from 4 meters away
- Have a movable part
- Describe 2 things about themselves
I was inspired by what students created and the interplay between fun and learning. From pulley systems to wheels and items that popped-up, my students got creative and it was a great way of connecting to how they wanted to be identified. I posted our work on Twitter and I was amazed at how many other teachers gave the challenge a try with their students. No two name tags were the same and it spoke to the uniqueness of each of our students. I think it’s imperative that we engage students in activities that allow for who they are and what they enjoy to come to life.
How do you plan to fully engage a group of students who you have never met and whom you know nothing about? You select a variety of appropriate tasks, get them building and watch it unfold. During the first week of school, I always enjoy working on STE(A)M Challenges with students. I find that they help students to consider and use the Global Competencies: Critical Thinking & Problem Solving; Innovation, Creativity & Entrepreneurship; Learning to Learn / Self-Aware and Self-Directed Learning; Collaboration, Communication; and Global Citizenship.
Present a problem or a challenge and it’s amazing to see how students engage in the problem using these skills. With our challenges this week, I asked students to consider:
- How did you complete the task?
- Did the task become easier after some practice? Why or why not?
- What did you and/or your group struggle with? How were you able to overcome?
- What skills did you need to make this activity successful?
Although we met with some failure in our challenges, I would say that I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to work with an amazingly reflective group of students who realized that even though they struggled initially, they showed collaboration and resilience while problem solving.
While I feel as though the first week was a great success, I know that there are areas that could have gone better. I look forward to trying again tomorrow as we begin a new week and reconnecting with students.