It’s the first day of school. Students you’ve never met are nervously milling around the classroom. Some are getting frustrated and barking orders, some are clustered together chatting about their summers, while others are disconnected and trying not to be noticed. Rather than intervening, you are silently watching, pointing to the board.
Sound like a nightmare? It certainly resembles my dreams that start in early August and always include my inability to gain control of various situations.
However, this is what the first day of school has looked like in my classroom for the past three years. After reading Teaching Secrets: Get to Know Students Through Seating Challenges by Sandy Merz, my colleague Kate and I decided we would give seating challenges a try with our eighth graders. We chose several of the challenges in the article, tweaking some to make them work in our classrooms, and wrote lesson plans that included a challenge for the first five days of class.
Why would I choose to begin the year this way ? There are plenty of benefits for both students and teacher.
Giving a group challenge helps the students begin to get to know one another from the very beginning. Often times in middle school we assume students know one another. However, I find that they rarely know each other well enough to fully participate in an effective learning community. Needing to immediately work together means that there is no settling in period. Students do not have time to be shy, nor let the naturally outgoing students set the climate for the year. I find that students are often surprised by what they learn about peers who they’d thought they knew well.
Seating challenges also put me on the fast track to learning about my students. As I observe the group attempt the tasks, it is easy to spot the leaders, the followers, the gregarious students, and the shy ones. A personality of the class begins to emerge. I’ve found it interesting to see that some classes do not have natural leaders, some have too many, some easily work together, and some argue the entire time. Watching students as they struggled through each task helps me begin to understand students’ ability to follow written directions, communicate effectively, and cope with frustration. The tasks help to set the tone of my classroom by placing value on cooperation, communication, problem-solving and grit.
Processing daily with the students is the most valuable part of the entire experience. First they write in their think books about how they felt while they were doing the task, what helped their class to be successful, and what things they wish they had done better. Then during a group discussion, we set goals for the next challenge-including time, and cooperation, and communication goals. These conversations naturally flow into setting year-long goals for the class.
Throughout the years, I’ve learned a few strategies to make the process run more smoothly. Timing the class as they complete each challenge creates a sense of competition -something that adolescents love. I usually begin posting times on the board the second day. This creates healthy competition among my classes and helps focus groups who then want to beat their previous times. I’ve also learned to prepare blank seating charts and post-it tags with student names, so that I can quickly create a seating chart to help me learn names and take notes during the rest of the period.
Giving students a physical copy of the instructions, in addition to posting them on the board, helps the shyer students who would rather figure out what needs to be done in the ‘safety’ of the back of the room. Carrying a clipboard and taking notes about what I observe sends the message that there is much to be learned from the activity. I always share my observations and provide feedback. The students appreciate that I am learning about them, and noticing all of them. The clipboard also allows me to walk around the room. Proximity, even without talking, helps students stay on task.
Even though I know how valuable these challenges can be, I still find it difficult to watch students flounder and not try to help them. Allowing a group of students I don’t know have free range of the classroom still give me bouts of anxiety. More than once, Kate has had to reassure me that the students will figure it out. In the end, they always do. And even though these challenges take 15-25 precious minutes of the first periods of school, the relationships which are formed, and the insights gained, justify the time spent.
My eighth-graders really like starting with seating challenges. I can’t imagine starting the year any other way. I hope you try it. Good luck, I hope you have a great beginning of the new school year.