The First Days of School–a shift

When I was in graduate school, one of my textbooks was The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong. Interestingly enough, it was also given to me on my first day of employment at my current school. Wong’s book is intended for new teachers to help create proper classroom management procedures and routines early in the school year, especially on the first day of school and within the first week.

I loved Wong’s book. It spoke to my need for order in chaos. However, as I began to develop my own understanding of how middle school classrooms should be. I found I preferred to create an environment of controlled chaos. As a result, I began to move away from Wong’s methodology in a few ways. I value the principle of creating routines early in the school, but I chose to do it in a more age appropriate fashion.

Wong’s focus on establishing routines in the classroom and practicing them the first day of school is not ideal for a middle school classroom, or at least not for the entire period. Middle school students need to move and interact in middle school classrooms. I want to ensure that my class is always developmentally appropriate even on the first day of school. Also, if my intention is to establish classroom norms on the first day, then I do not want to create a classroom environment in which I dictate every piece of information to my students. I want students who are engaged, who are working collaboratively, and who are thinking deeply right away. Therefore, I should begin that work on the first day of school. Yes, I do still introduce classroom procedures. I just break them up into smaller chunks over the course of the first couple of weeks AND practice them in more seamless ways. I also introduce them when they are necessary instead of front-loading a lot of information. So, here is what I did my first day of school this year:

After students establish where they will sit (I use several different methods for assigning seats, but that is for a different post), we begin a cooperative exercise. I have my classroom arranged in tables of four (two pairs facing each other). In the center of each table group, I have a ziploc bag that contains puzzle pieces. The students are instructed to COMPLETE the puzzle. As they begin to work, I walk around the room and have formal introductions with each student–a handshake, “how do you dos”, and I write their name on the seating chart.

What the students do not realize is that the puzzle in their bag is incomplete. They only have the corner of a larger puzzle. When students tell me they have assembled all of their pieces, I ask them if the puzzle is complete. Some will say yes. Others will let me know that they don’t have all the pieces to complete it. To whatever response I receive, I ask them if they are sure of their answer. I usually get scrunched faces of confusion to this question. However, after a few seconds, students begin to realize the answer. All of the tables contain a portion of the same puzzle, and they must ALL work together to put the entire puzzle together.

Once the puzzle is complete, we debrief the activity. Debriefing every activity is the key to solidifying the learning objectives. My questions will change based on the dynamics of the class, but below are a few questions that I might ask to debrief:
(if you are wanting to incorporate technology at this point, you can use one of these tools for creating a work space that can be saved: Padlet or TodaysMeet.)

  1. What was easy/difficult about this assignment?
  2. Why were some groups more successful (i.e. faster) than others?
  3. Why do you think we did this activity?
  4. What is the purpose of breaking the activity down into two steps: small group and then whole group?
  5. What is the connection to our content?
  6. What did you learn from this activity?

This is just one thinking routine* that can be established on the first day of school. Do you have any favorites?

*For more on thinking routines, read Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart.

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