Beginnings Matter: Start The School Year Off Right

Learning, Learning Design, Smart Teachers

“Pay attention to the beginnings and endings of things,” I frequently remind my students.

Usually, I am referring to the power and punch of the sentences and paragraphs they read and write. But this is the time of year when I find myself thinking about how this relates to teachers and the relationships they will be building with students for the next nine or ten months.

I also think of how schools begin their work with teachers and how important this moment is for setting the right tone for the year ahead. As you begin the school year, what is the message you really want to send?

Walk Your Own Walk

We’ve gotten pretty good at saying the right things about engaging students through projects and provocative questions, forming relationships through empathy and making time for reflection. So why do we start each new year with endless “sit and git” sessions that numb both our minds (just like our students, our attention spans die in eight minutes) and our behinds (we all need more physical movement to spark our learning).

If we want to emphasize design thinking, inquiry and individualized learning, why do we resort to the disseminating too much boring information and passive intake on Day 1?

Avoid The Same Old Thing

Here are some ways to avoid the same-old same-old pattern and rethink the opening of school.

  • What can your teachers or your students build or make by the end of the first day?
  • One of my best experiences for opening the year involved designing a “genius” professional development day for faculty to learn and create something new to share with colleagues by mid-afternoon. The projects were both inventive and inspiring — and the led to deeper thinking about the creative experience we hoped to design for our students.
  • Students sitting in pods can begin to design and build a receptacle for a collection of shared tools.
  • How can your teachers or your students collaborate to solve an authentic problem by walking through a series of “beautiful questions” together? For example, what if the students could set up the classroom learning space? How might teachers work together to create and put into practice actionable goals to support one another throughout the year? (Or use this list.)
  • What about all that information that needs to be disseminated? Why not divide and conquer by having teachers or students take ownership of the information to create videos, podcasts or websites to serve your community more effectively?
  • If you want to encourage reflection, start on day one with the practice of creating a reflection journal. Use an app like Penzu or 5-minute Journal, or use plain old index cards as exit tickets for questions that matter: How do you learn? What is your greatest hope for the year? What is your strongest fear or worry? Who can help you grow? (Be sure to give enough time for this! Don’t just cram it in the last few minutes before lunch!)

What Is Your Digital Handshake?

But wait! You’ve already had a “first day” with your audience, and it was probably online. You sent out emails full of instructions and “to do” or supply lists. You established a summer reading program and warned about the accountability that would be assessed at the end of the summer. You’ve started that numbing process before you even realized it.

If you could back up and do it again, how might you engage your audience more effectively?

  • Whether you are an administrator or a teacher, take the time to update your web page as an inspiring and personal “handshake” with your digital audience. This is probably your first point of contact, so set the tone you wish to establish with your readers and invite the kind of interactive and sharing environment you hope to nurture throughout the year.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you create an original website that would engage you — not a dumping ground for all of the information you need to share (a digital version of your “sit and git” or your syllabus). At least not on the first page. Instead, think of what will give a fresh introduction to your readers. Take a risk. Be real. Relate what’s on your mind. Share something fun.

In particular, create a “landing page” that is personable; organize what you have to share into folders or sections rather than piling it onto one page; move the practical stuff to separate pages for easy reference or come up with a FAQs section. (And remember to schedule time in your calendar to update your website on a regular basis.)

  • I used to write a physical “open letter” to each member of my advisory before the beginning of school. What if you did this in the form of a video about how you learn that could be shared on your website? What if you invited feedback or asked questions to start a conversation about learning? What if you invited your viewers to submit their own videos in response — as many online courses do to begin? (The “My Story” feature of Snapchat or Instagram Story is an easy tool to use for this — just remember to download your “story” video before 24 hours is up.
  • Why not create a blogging community about summer reading and other learning to create a greater sense of immediacy and empathy? To make room for voice and choice? (Here are a number of online tools for creating an interactive learning space.) Have students make a 60-second book talk or an infographic to share something about their reading?

Build In Time to Play

If you’ve taken this advice to heart, now you need to build in time (more time than you think you need) to mess around — with ideas, with a new digital tool, with one another. Too often, in our rush to move forward, we forget that we just need time to play. By making some mandatory fun part of your program or lesson, you are also sending a message that play is important — to our relationships, to our creative process, to our learning. And, by the way, play is important for adults too.

I’m not talking about the highly structured “play” that is often disguised as team-building or ice-breaker lessons. You know, the group activities to build something out of marshmallows and pasta. Sorry, I always hated those. The point about play is that it’s less structured and more individualized. It may involve several clearly defined options, but should always include choice. I’m a word-nerd, so give me a word game and I’m hooked. Others may happily go build something with marshmallows and pasta.

Here are some ideas:

  • Start with do-overs. What are you inspired to change or do-over based on your day’s learning or earlier experiences? Spend some time on this while your creativity and motivation are high!
  • Brainstorm a list of games that you could play only using what is at your disposal in your classroom or presentation space. Have half your group choose a game and connect with at least one partner who is a newbie. (Model brainstorming here for a bonus!)
  • Have an app smackdown and create ad hoc groups to play with how to use the app for learning.
  • Use someone else’s crazy idea list for education (or create your own) and choose one idea from the list to apply to your first day’s particular focus.
  • Debrief and report back about what you learn from play, whichever approach you use.

Follow-Through

Most importantly, let the things you value most about learning be at the heart of everything you do. Don’t let yourself get sucked back into the old patterns that don’t work. Let these first lessons and encounters be the beginning of the change you want to see in the classroom and in your profession. Every day. All the way to the end.

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Susan Lucille Davis

Susan Lucille Davis

Susan Lucille Davis is an educational consultant in Fort Worth, Texas. Follow her on Twitter: @suludavis.

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