Monday, July 8, 2013

What to do at the beginning of school year?

They say "rules are meant to be broken..."

When riding a bike we learn a few things. First, we learn how to ride. Then, we learn where to ride!
Education is to "make men both smart and good." Aristotle 
    It is far too dangerous to learn to ride a bike on a busy street.  Many of us learned to ride on an empty parking lot, up at a school parking lot or a quiet cul-de-sac.  After we had the basics down, we were ready to learn the "rules of the road."  It was the procedure of riding a bike that we learned first. Then we learned how to ride on the street.  Watch out for cars was something we did normally but riding in traffic took attention to detail.  We learned both the procedures and rules together.

     Similarly at school, there are things in class that we must do to successfully operate like procedures and routines in classroom.  There are also expectations and rules that we choose to abide by to ensure success and civility. Foundational to success are clearly establishing these components together as a group or class.  Stories that illustrate their applications are effective at instilling these characteristics for each class.  Addressing these very early in the school year establishes working relationships, connections of trust and a high standards.

     Let me illustrate with a story about us loading up a bunch of high school students, traveling 4 hours on a school day to attend Six Flags over St Louis.  We had to leave at 5am to arrive at the park when it opened at 9am.  This trip was the culmination of a year of struggle and stress through the At-Risk math classes I was teaching. All my students were invited and about half paid the admission fee to attend.  Other colleagues mentioned my trip roster looked like I was taking "ISS on the road!" since most of those students had spent at least a day in In School Suspension. On the big day, I'd show up at 4:50am, asked for a volunteer to help load a few items onto the bus and everyone wanted to participate in loading.  Anyone of those students would do anything in their power to accommodate my request.  Not because I had power over their grade but because I had a relationship with them.  They did not care how much I knew but could see how much I cared and wanted to help.  Interestingly, only my current students were allowed to attend.  Friends of students were not allowed simply because they did not have the connection or trust necessary to work in this type environment where procedures were established and freedoms were imparted with appropriate responsibility.  In class, we had procedures for everything from passing in and passing out papers to speaking.  Of course the students expected procedures from traveling 250 miles across the state!  These trips were always incident free!  These trips were fun but these trips were front loaded and preparations made ahead of time.

Idea/Hint/Optional Suggestion:
     This year consider spending a bit more time on procedures early in the year.  Even if it seems artificial and contrived, students appreciate the attention to the detail.  Work with students to determine the best way to do things in the classroom.  Discuss how you might attend to daily events such as attendance, seating charts, addressing each other and other vital details that establish a safe environment where students feel comfortable taking those educational risks necessary to learn.  Don't forgo content but don't expect to accomplish too much.  A pretest or student data sheet, survey or something to send home and bring back along withe the syllabus may be sufficient the first day.

     The curriculum and rules will always be there.  Scores will always need to go higher!   Expectations will always look about the same.   They will have components of treating self, others and things but often times, the memorable teachers have good procedures.  Everyone knows it is important to talk nice to others, but not everyone knows how to request to use the restroom.  Take a bit more time early and make up plans on how to address the details. Then watch to climate of the classroom shift to tasks, goals and accomplishments.  Students may even surprise us!

Rules are made to be broken...

...but procedures are to be followed!

Special credit and thanks to many professionals like Harry Wong and Hal Urban for articulating similar ideas in their works.

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