Monday, August 19, 2019

Hitting the restart button at the start of the school year

There are so many things weighing us all down these days. Our brains are overloaded with negativity. For me, I need to refocus as I head into the new school year... and focus on the kids. That's what this is all about, and that's what gets me back on track and back into a positive mindset. And one of the cool things about the summer vacation is that it's like we get to hit the restart button every year for us and our students.

But that doesn't mean it will always be the best start it could be. In a recent issue of the Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall writes:

"In this article in AMLE Magazine, teacher/consultant/author Rick Wormeli bemoans the fact that students’ eager and receptive frame of mind at the beginning of each school year is often deflated by the endless succession of going-over-the-rules, filling out forms, and stale getting-to-know-you activities. “Students grow increasingly disillusioned,” says Wormeli. “We’ve missed a golden opportunity for them to dive into the subject material with neurons firing on all thrusters. It’s probably the most significant time of the year to hardwire students’ minds to embrace our subjects, and we don’t want to miss it.”

He recommends mixing mandatory stuff with lively activities, so students learn something new about your subject every day."

I love his idea of making sure we grab their interest at the start of school, but I would add a couple of other goals to my list of the three things I want my students to take away from the first few days of school:

  1. Piqued interest - As Wormeli recommends, I want to hit the ground running the first day with high-interest, challenging and content-rich activities. Earlier this summer, as I was planning this year's Science Project Block I asked myself, "What are the most interesting topics in biology that can be tackled with a simple hands-on approach?" I want to make sure the first day they are diving right into that.
  2. Success - When I ask myself what these kids need most, the answer is confidence. The students I work with are all in dire need of a feeling of competence and success. This is true for all of us. When we feel successful at something, we will not only be interested in it, we will tend to become more successful at it. And the opposite is also true, which is why school failure is a downward spiral.
  3. An expectation of hard work - At the same time, I want them to be in the zone of proximal development--not overwhelmed, but challenged. Expectations are key, so I also want them to expect to work hard every day.
So what does this mean for the first day/first few days? It means I need to provide learning activities that are:
  1. Inherently interesting.
  2. Easy enough to ensure success.
  3. Challenging enough to require help.
In the case of Project Block, this year we'll be trying to raise trees from seed and cuttings in order to help fight climate change. The first day, after introducing the idea of climate change and the "Trillion Tree Solution," we'll go right out into the woods to look for tree seeds that we can bring back inside for the next steps. We humans have a natural interest in living things, and while I am sure they will all be able to find seeds, I also think it will be challenging.

If I can infuse success into these kids, then I've succeeded. Success here could restart their whole lives, and that's what this job is about. It's not about all this other stuff that's going on in the world or in education these days. It's about these kids and their futures. It's about what we can do to help them.