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Getting Back in the Groove

The first days back to school are always an interesting mix of kids who behave because they are not sure what kind of teacher you are and kids who misbehave because the summer norms of behavior do not go away quickly. In either case it is good to start with some energy rich activities that get the year of to a positive start.

The key for me is to make sure what I ask the students to do in the first few weeks of school matches my values and objectives for the year. I want kids to take a more active part in being responsible for their own learning and I want them to learn science and be able to argue from evidence on the big science ideas. So, my first of school activities have to focus on something larger than name tags and the students have to be responsible for some important aspects of the work.

I know that the getting to know you activities are important but they should serve a larger purpose. I like to create a visual map of places and ideas. Then, I give students post its to place themselves in different communities on the map. I let the kids define the communities. These can be, sports community, working community, river life (some of my kids are displaced by the floods), techno community, drama community, deep thinker community (I hope some live here), and well you get the idea. The communities are organized around interests. If there is an active skateboarding group that will probably be on the map. What you get from this activity is a visual of the range of interests, some good conversation as the kids discuss what to put on the map and where they reside and a good big picture activity that introduces thinking visually.

I keep a box on my desk that has some 3×5 cards beside it and ask the kids to submit “advice to my teacher”. This can be what to do to help someone learn, what not to do to keep frustration at a minimum, or even room organization tips. I have even had some amazing technology tips out of this. The box remains there through the first month and then comes back for the last month of school.
I try to make sure there is a lab in the first week. The one that seems to produce the most stellar results is the Lego procedures lab. I ask the kids to construct a free form sculpture out of 10 Legos. Then, they are to describe how to put it together without using any visuals, only written words. They then give the instructions to a partner and that person has to construct the same sculpture from these directions. The result is often a bit frustrating. The kids learn how to describe steps more clearly. This is a good technical writing skill and helps make them more precise in their lab reports. They also figure out how powerful visuals are in science. So, we all agree to use photos and drawings whenever possible in our lab reports and discussions.

The office always sends out a ton of forms to fill out and we get this done. I do try to spread this out so we do not waste an entire period filling out forms. I have my forms on the computer and ask the kids to come up sometime in the first week and put in their information into my database. They can do this online on the class wiki or Google docs if you would rather. That information is then there for me to use to fill out any forms I might need. I ask for the usual contact information, college plans, twitter, e-mail, health questions, siblings, homeroom, schedule and level of access to technology at home. This is a huge time saver.

I like to take a group photo of the kids on day two and use that as a seating chart. This helps me learn the names and faces of the 130+ kids I might see each day. This is a great way to help get the names down quickly and help you recognize the kids outside of class in the hall or other activities.
Lastly I introduce the class journal. This used to be a spiral notebook that a selected student (the job rotated) wrote in each day. They recorded the assignments, what we talked about and any important reminders. This was really valuable for absent students. Now, we keep this online and two students each week get the duty for recording. I load this up on the class blog and any student can refer to the day by day log to see what we did in class.

There are a thousand ways to start the year. If you are new to teaching it is important to begin archiving these good ideas. Some will work excellent with specific groups of kids. Likewise, when one activity is not successful you will have a basket of alternatives.

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