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Monday, September 12, 2011

My First Days of School

My first day schtick has changed quite a bit over the years. The first year or possibly two I drank the Wong kool-aid because I was terrified and I had no idea what else to do, and also my school gave us all the Wong book for free. That didn't work. It probably works for the Wongs but it didn't work for me. I felt like a pretend drill instructor. (Wong. Wong-wah-wah-wong-wong.)

Then for a while I got kids to fill out a sheet about themselves that I stole from Dan Meyer. I had hopes these pieces of paper would capture the essence of each child, and had every intention of perusing them leisurely with loving tenderness. In reality, I just scanned the "Anything going on you want me to know about?" section so I'd have a heads up about all the imminent divorces and cancers and then I threw them in a drawer. Since that only took about ten minutes of day 1, I would just start in on a lesson for the rest of the period. Giddy up!

This year is the first one I feel I started out semi-competently. The cluebird is circling and coming in for a landing. My only measure for this is the proportion of students that will make eye contact when they talk to me.  I considered what I actually wanted to achieve from the interaction (imagine that): I want them to know they can be successful. I do want to start getting to know them, but just as importantly, I want them to know that I want to know them. I want to know who has the tech in their pocket that we can exploit for the learning. I want them to think about what they want to improve about themselves as students, and I want it to dawn on them that it's in their power to change whatever that is. I want them to feel comfortable in my room, to not feel trapped and helpless, at least know some of their classmates' names, know that I expect them to work hard but I'm pretty darn reasonable, and to tell me where funny things are on the Internet. Okay I'm going to stop with this paragraph now because it's getting out of control and was obviously was too ambitious for 43 minutes with 121 strange kids. Ahem.

Phase 1: Snowball Icebreaker
(I saw this on somebody's blog but I can't find where. Speak up and I'll happily give you credit.) Everyone gets 1/2 sheet of paper and writes three distinctive (you will have to give examples of distinctive vs non-distinctive) characteristics about themselves, but not their name. Everyone crumples up the paper, and we toss them around the room (suggested verbiage: "My biggest rule is that you show respect for each other and for me. If you can do that we will get along fine. So there will please be no whipping your snowball at anyone's face. Now, all together, let's pick a direction and gently fling our snowballs.") Everyone picks up a snowball and uncrumples it. Their job is to find its owner and write his/her name on it, and be prepared to introduce this person to the class. Their job is also to facilitate being found. As soon as they do both things, they sit down in the closest empty seat. (Suggested verbiage/modeling: "This is what I don't want to see: (hold up sheet in someone's face) 'IS THIS YER SHEET?!' (pause for giggling.) This is what I do want to see: 'Hi! My name is Kate. What's yours? Audrey? Nice to meet you! Tell me, Audrey, are you allergic to wheat? No? That's too bad. Although fortunate for you, I suppose. Ok, is there anything you'd like to ask me?")

Once the dust settles, start asking kids to introduce each other. This was great fun, because I kept asking for more details that would let them show off a little and/or amuse us all.
"This is James. He works at Wegmans and plays guitar."
Me: "Cool! I wish I could play guitar. What is your best song?"

"This is Angelina. Her brother is a pilot who lives in London."
Me: "How old is your brother?"
Angelina: "30"
Me: "Is he single?"

So that all took 15-20 minutes. I liked it because it fit one of my goals for this year: everything we are doing is for a reason, and we will follow up on things and not drop them without processing them and assessing you and making sure we all got the point (more on my lofty '11-12 goals in a later post.) It also hit several of my goals for day one: some kids learned some other kids' names, it was low-stress and all the chatter made the room feel inviting, I got to learn a little about them and they saw me being interested.

Phase 2: Distribute Books and Collect Data
Then I passed out my heavily modified Who I Am sheets, and the kids worked on them while I passed out textbooks and made smalltalk. This exercise felt different than previous years, because they weren't filling them out all scared in stony silence, but there was productive chatter and informal sharing and it just felt nicer.

Since I asked them questions I actually cared about, it was no drudgery to take all their filled in sheets and read them thoroughly and enter them in a spreadsheet. I sort of had the idea that analysis would yield some interesting things but I don't know what I was thinking. There are six days a year where three of my students have a birthday at the same time...that's kind of neat. I got a roughly even mix of math-likers and -haters:


And we have mixed opinions on whether Mathematics is invented or discovered:


And I suspect that some of the kids who claim they like math, don't know what it is, and like it for all the wrong reasons:


But we will see what we can do to change that.

Phase 3: Some Blah Blah
I spent the last 5-10 minutes telling them about supplies they need and what to do if they have to use the bathroom, that sort of thing. We didn't do any math. I don't feel bad about it. I feel better about the way this year started than I ever did. I'm excited about how we're learning, too. More soon.

17 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great first day! I love the "snowball" activity. I'm already in week 5, but I'll be sure to use it next year!

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  2. Hey you know, your kids still probably don't all know each other. I plan to do a different quick icebreaker every time we change seats.

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  3. Love the snowball idea. I think icebreakers are important at the beginning of the year if you want the students to feel comfortable enough to talk to each other once you start pairing or grouping them. I've noticed a difference since I've started using icebreakers. Have a great year!

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  4. Awesome post. I felt the same way you did about the first day of school, and about the Wong book. Their suggestions never did feel like the right fit for me; glad to know I'm not alone. And the snowball idea is really fantastic.

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  5. And I suspect that some of the kids who claim they like math, don't know what it is, and like it for all the wrong reasons: [chart of "likes math / invented or discovered" joint distribution]

    I'm totally on board with this, but is there a reason that sentence was followed by that chart? Are they related? I feel like you're driving at something, but I can't figure out what it is. :(

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  6. Hi Kate.

    My name is Del, math teacher from Singapore. Thanks for the Who Am I word file...

    Umm, could you share the Excel file too pls? I like the way we can use the Excel graphs to mathematically show patterns in the students' interests... It could subconsciously make Math appealing to these kids.

    If it's not too much trouble, you can email me at : delras78[at]yahoo.com.sg

    Thanks!
    Del

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  7. The excel file with all the kids' personal info in it? No, I can't. Also...I entered the data in Excel, but I actually used Fathom to make the charts.

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  8. Hi Aaron - Sorry for being obtuse. I meant, I'd like to see that kids who like math think it's invented. But more kids who like math think it's discovered, which indicates they perceive a fixed body of knowledge, and probably like it because they are good at memorizing procedures? Typing that out, I'm realizing that it sounds a little bizarre.

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  9. Typing that out, I'm realizing that it sounds a little bizarre.

    Not at all. I get where you're coming from. Perhaps part of your concern is that these are kids whose world is gonna get rocked in your class. They like math as a set-in-stone kind of thing. They having long lists of rules to follow.

    And one of your missions is to push them beyond that. And that's going to be a challenge.

    The ones who think about math this way but don't like it; they're going to feel relieved and liberated.

    But the ones who like math and think it's discovered can present some challenges.

    This tension reminds me of the one Skemp was writing about back in the day-two different types of understanding. Always worth a read or re-read.

    And what a lovely first tone you've set on day 1. Keep us posted on how it plays out.

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  10. I love your statement "I want them to think about what they want to improve about themselves as students, and I want it to dawn on them that it's in their power to change whatever that is." I agree that children have the ability and power to change and grow. It's very important for children to understand their brains and their ability to grow as learners if they want to. Have you ever read the article "Don't Weigh the Elephant-Feed the Elephant?" It's a great article!

    I love the snowball idea. I think I may do this activity with my students in the future. Movement and conversations are really important to me.

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  11. Any tips for attracting the cluebird? Should I leave some seeds in my classroom?

    But seriously, I really like your question on invention vs discovery. Perhaps some of the kids think math is an infinite body of knowledge, discovered in small portions? I might have to steal that for a journal entry.

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  12. I think the cluebird just likes to take his sweet time.

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  13. Is it just me or was the parenthetical ending to the first paragraph an old school Busta Rhymes reference?

    Great Ideas. Even at Week 5, I might use the WhoIAm document. My students definitely know their neighbors, but get iffy about working with anyone else in class, aka NOT the person they sat by on the first day.

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  14. Kate Nowak: I meant, I'd like to see that kids who like math think it's invented. But more kids who like math think it's discovered, which indicates they perceive a fixed body of knowledge, and probably like it because they are good at memorizing procedures? Typing that out, I'm realizing that it sounds a little bizarre.

    christopherdanielson: Perhaps part of your concern is that these are kids whose world is gonna get rocked in your class. They like math as a set-in-stone kind of thing. They having long lists of rules to follow.

    I'm a little mystified by the conflation of "thinking math is discovered" and "thinking math is a long list of rules to be memorized." I mean, if most of the kids in your class who like biology said they thought new species are discovered rather than invented, I wouldn't be particularly worried, and I wouldn't take their responses as a sign that they see biology as a long list of Latin names to be memorized.

    I think maybe part of my confusion comes from an ambiguity in the way we use words like "math" and "biology." If you read straight from the Greek, "biology" means something like "the study of life"—the ever-growing body of ideas and techniques we use to understand the living world. If you think of biology like this, it's clear that new species are invented: a "species" is a rather arbitrary grouping we impose on the grand continuum of life in order to make it a little more comprehensible, a little less overwhelming.

    The word "biology," however, is also used as a metonym for the living world itself. If you think of biology like this, it's clear that new species are discovered: a "species" is a kind of life so weird and startling, so different from anything ever seen before, that it deserves a name of its own.

    If I were a biology teacher, and I wanted to find out how badly my students had been misled about what biology is, I wouldn't ask them whether new species are discovered or invented: hopefully, the preceding paragraphs show that someone who's got the spirit of biology in them could believe either or both of those things. Instead, I would point at a tree and say, "Go do what a biologist would do if she wanted to know more about that tree." Then I would count how many people immediately headed for the library.

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  15. OK so what would you ask a student to determine if they think that Mathematics is something that one does or something that is all already done and one just learns about?

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  16. I understand what you're getting at, teaching-theory-wise, but this is actually the edge of an incredibly deep series of questions first brought up in the (in)famous Platonism/Formalism debates over a century ago.

    A strong distinction must be drawn between two different meanings of "discovered" or "already done". Most professional mathematicians are functional Platonists, who would say that mathematical truths all "are", even if nobody knows them. We as mathematicians discover them. In practice, even if someone knows a mathematical truth you can still discover it for yourself.

    The danger is in believing that mathematics has all been done by someone, and all that's left now is learning and memorizing an existing body of human knowledge. In this sense, believing that mathematics is discovered is a bad thing.

    The problem is that I'm not sure we can tell from the question as it's posed which version a student who responds "discovered" actually believes.

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  17. Yes. What John said. Thank you for articulating that so clearly.

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