Welcome back to school! Bonne rentrée ! If you haven't returned to school yet, I wish you a happy return to campus when you get there! In either scenario, I hope you will find some inspiration from this post. Below are some thoughts I have on what we should include on the agenda during those first days with our learning community. Of course, the wonderful thing about life as an educator is that we can achieve these types of goals in numerous ways.
1. Determine what you want your learners to be able to do at the end of the course and create an opportunity to work towards that goal on Day One.
On the first day of school, my main objective is to engage my learners in a little bit of conversation in French since we speak the language 90% of the class period on most days. Even students who are brand new learners of French practiced greetings, small talk, and farewells first thing after the tardy bell rang. As a world language educator, I feel that the expectation regarding spoken language should be expressed through immediate use before we do anything else in the classroom. I want them to leave their French studies with a practical skill that can be transferred to real life.
2. Celebrate learning in an intentional way.
The day before students came through the threshold of my classroom, I got out three boxes of cake mix (I bought them on sale along with the icing!) and made two 13x9 and two 8x8 cakes in disposable foil pans. Then, I topped them with cream cheese icing and used a red one to write "Welcome Back!" in French. I hadn't baked box cakes since I was either a teenager or undergrad! Anyhow, cursive writing came in handy when writing on the cake -- just a practical tip that I learned the hard way.
After we spoke to each other in French in groups for a while, it was time to celebrate the happy reunion (or first meeting) as well as the learning opportunities that we are going to have over the course of the year. At my school, we are free to incorporate food into our classroom experience as much as we like, and let me tell you how fortunate I feel because I know that there are hoops to go through or no-eating-allowed policies at many schools. If you can't, or don't want to, celebrate learning with cakes or other goodies, find another way to recognize the importance of what you will be doing together over the course of the semester or year.
3. Build community from the start through team-building tasks.
This year, my dear friend, MaryAnn (@maryannsw,) advised me on maker faire ideas for my classroom. In her role as a district technology learning specialist here in our city, she put together a maker faire for educator participants during one of their professional learning days. (Here's her blog post on it: http://lifeisamakerfaire.com/2014/08/18/mini-maker-faire-road-trip/ ) I loved what I saw and thought that I should call her up and see what she would suggest. Side note: It is a good idea to seek inspiration from colleagues and friends who aren't members of your own department, and vise versa. We can learn so much from our friends in other disciplines! Thank you, MaryAnn!
It must be noted that this was not conducted in the target language on the second day of school, but I felt that it was a worthy team-building task that could not be done with deeper understanding if attempted entirely in French. Our national association recommends 90% target language on a daily basis with the other 10% being reserved for tasks that cannot be completed in the language. We certainly could have tried to do it in French in the upper-level classes, but it would have been more about language barriers than the real objective.
Back to the task at hand! MaryAnn suggested that my French learners build a Solo cup tower in small groups. I loved this idea because it's quick and I had a feeling that this would appeal to teenage groups. For the most part, I do not bring competitions (or games) to the classroom because it promotes behaviors that I like to leave out of the equation, but I thought it would be okay to have a little friendly competition in this case. In fact, I told each class that there would be a prize for the highest tower and that the winners could decide what they would do with the prize. I poured enough Jolly Ranchers for an entire class into a sandwich bag so that each student could have one if the winning team shared. Luckily, each group of champions gave candy to all of their peers. I mean, I would've forced them to do so if they hadn't. Hehe.
To get started, I projected brief directions on the Smart Board:
1. Get in groups of 2 or 3.
2. Build a tower with as many cups as you can. You have 100 of them.
3. You have 5 minutes!
4. The highest tower wins! A prize will be awarded.
5. Keep your structure standing until a photo is taken at the end of the competition.
After the timer went off, I quickly went around the room to take a photo of each tower. Sometimes, students took photos of themselves standing by their work. Then, I asked them to stack their cups and place them in the jumbo zip-lock bags I gave them. Next, they had to talk about the following questions in their groups and record their answers, using markers and poster paper. When they finished, I taped their work on the white board so that we could see their responses for discussion.
Post Maker Task Questions:
1. Were you risk takers? Or did you play it safe? Why?
2. How did your communication with other group members help you build the tower? If it fell, why?
3. What could you have done differently?
The overall discussion in each class was enlightening to some and interesting to all. If ALL teenage learners are listening and/or contributing to a discussion on the importance of collaboration, risk-taking, creativity, learning from failure, and the need to stand out among our peers, I call that a win-win!
Here's the highest tower of all of them throughout the day! I teach 9th through 12th grade students, and this was done by young ladies in the 9th grade. Impressive!
What do you do to both celebrate learning and build community during the first days of school?