A friend just called to tell me about a problem he was having with one of his classes. After an activity last week, he found that it did not go as planned because students didn't seem to work well with one another. This description is kind of vague, but it gets at an experience many teachers feel when our classroom feel like chaos and no one is getting along. I admitted in our conversation that this was a good problem to have because it allows us as teachers to start over and reflect on the choices we make on a daily basis. And it shows how much we care about the environment we construct within our classrooms knowing that teaching is more than content. Teaching is about relationship building.
There is a clear difference between building trust between the teacher and student and helping students develop a positive rapport with each other so that real collaboration can take place. My own research about this topic reveals that the connection begins when teachers view youth as humans and avoid pre-conceived stereotypes about adolescence. By flattening the inherent hierarchy of teacher-student found in schools, educators can challenge power structures by developing trust through reciprocity and listening. Inspired by Paolo Freire, I try and remember that all humans are always in the process of becoming and it is our unfinishedness that should inspire continual reflection and learning. We constantly have the chance to see each situation as a possibility and not a pre-determined event.
Here is a great summary that exemplifies my belief in Culturally Responsive Teaching that enables teachers to make connections with students at the personal level.
But my friend's need revolved around helping youth see each other as collaborators and members of a community. I recently found a great PBSLearning plan developed by NOVA called: The Design Process - From Idea to Solution. This unit, which would take a few days to accomplish, focuses on design thinking and strategy mapping. And while the purpose of the unit is to engage students in activities that focus on a problem-solution model, without collaboration and communication, the lesson will fail.
I started to look for some ways that teachers can help students with team building and found an article called "Ultimate Guide to Team Building Activities that Don't Suck." I teach AVID and these team building activities are the heart of our program. Unless students trust one another, they will never be willing to share mistakes or ask difficult questions. Sometimes the activities seem trivial or a waste of time because they don't have anything to do with content; however, classroom environment is one affective filter that can make learning possible.
Tasks where students are expected to plan for success can teach about the different roles we take in collaborative groups. This type of communication is a skill that needs to be practiced so that when students are outside of the classroom, they have the ability to adapt to new situations. Finding success at the end of trial and error is an experience that introduces us to the processes of innovation and collaboration. How often to students get to practice what teachers do everyday: plan for success, adjust when necessary, and reflect on outcomes?
It is this messy kind of learning that is truly valuable. And yet some teachers are reluctant because it requires a certain amount of control to be relinquished. Desks don't have to be in rows (I abandoned desks a couple years ago and not have tables that seat 8). Students don't have to stay quiet. Teachers don't have to deliver content as if it were a gift of knowledge. My topic seems to be shifting as a write. Helping students build trust with one another required a pedagogical approach where student-centered learning is paramount. Students need more opportunities in using content to address real and relevant problems. But that's a topic for another day.
A couple weeks ago, I came across an article titled, "The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester" and was inspired to rethink the first day of school. For the last few years I have used an introductory activity to practice historical thinking skills. The idea behind the activity was to empower students to practice being historians from day one. They are presented with an artifact and must use what they know to build a back-story, predict certain facts, and ask appropriate questions. Here is the basic plan:
I am the Teacher Technology Lead on my campus and starting writing monthly newsletters last year. My first newsletter is all about this same topic. Here are the recommendations I made to try and change up the first day in order to avoid the boring "go over the syllabus" lesson:
#4 really got me thinking. I think I might try sending my students out onto the school campus to find an artifact they think someone uncovering our school in 500 years. They will take a picture and then provide an analysis of the image (similar to the Historical Thinking Puzzle questions). I would also challenge them to consider how someone might mis-interpret the use and have them come up with some alternate explanations. Still mulling around the idea. They can easily share the images through Google Drive and we can create one giant Google Drawing document with the artifacts and commentary.
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: my students will not be sitting for long; they will not hear me talk very much; and, they will definitely have to develop their own set of questions. One of my primary tasks over the course of the year is to help students develop the ability to ask questions. Therefore, that is what we will do on day one.
Please share some of your ideas in the comments section. I'd love to get some new ways of re-thinking the first day of school.
I'll admit it. 33 Day Challenge: Fail. This is not to say that I did not spend the last month avoiding anything having to do with learning, schooling, reading, or thinking. Instead, I found that I was so involved in my vacation that I did not find time to write. So instead of feeling bad or guilty or incomplete, I will press on. More chapter reviews to come.