Notes on the Start of the Year

Today was my first day with kids. I can’t tell you how terrified I was to be back. I had about a zillion normal reasons (the standards: do i still remember to teach? so many kids names to learn and i’m terrible at it! what if I totally suck?). I also have a lot on my plate right now, a few of which are out of the ordinary, which have put me in a weird headspace. #cryptic #sorry

However I had a really good day today. I saw my advisory and two of my four classes. I even went to some of the varsity volleyball game after school!

This post isn’t about my kids or my classes. It’s going to be about some things I’ve done at the start of this year.

(1) Inclusivity. I read a book about trans teens this summer. We had a lot of conversations about pronouns last year. We as a school have taken gendered pronouns out of our mission statement. Last year I included this in my course expectations:

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But this year, in my get-to-know-you google form that I give to kids, I asked for their pronouns.

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Chances are, I probably am not going to get any different answers that what I expect this year. But I’m not including this question for the majority of kids. I want to be ready when that first kid gives me pronouns that differ from what I may expect. I want that kid to know they can find comfort (not just safety) in our room. And I want all kids to know things that I value. And I think this question sends that message — no matter who the kid is.

That’s the idea behind it. Who knows if my intention is how the kids will understand/interpret it?

(2) Mattie Baker and I were working at a coffeeshop before the year started, and he showed me his class webpage, which had this video (which I’d seen before) on it front and center:

I loved how *real* this video felt to me. Not like something education schmaltzy which makes me want to roll my eyes. I then went searching for a twin video that explicitly talks about the growth mindset. I had a dickens of a time finding one that I felt would be good for students to watch, but didn’t seem… well… lame. I found one:

So as part of the first set of nightly work, I’m having kids watch these videos and write a comment on them in google classroom. (So others can read their comments.) As of writing this, one class has already had two kids post their comments (even though I don’t see them until next week). I read them and my heart started singing with happiness. I have to share them:

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Two videos aren’t a cure-all. But having kids realize how important having a positive can-do attitude, and how important it is to look at math as a skill to be developed (rather than something you’re innately born with and is fixed) is so important to me. I have to remember to be cognizant about how important this stuff is, and how important it is to reinforce daily.

(3) In both of my classes today, one student said something akin to “I first thought this, but then I talked with Stu (or listened to the whole class discussion) and I changed my mind.” I stopped both classes and made a big deal about how important that was for me. And how those types of statements make my heart sing. And why they make my heart sing. So they should say those sort of things aloud a lot. Okay, so I said it once in each class. How can I remember to say it a lot more? In any case, it was a teacher move I was proud of.

Oh oh another teacher move… I saw when one student was sharing their thinking with the class, but not everyone was facing the student. And I remembered Mattie Baker and Chris Luzniak’s training from this summer (on dialogue in the classroom). I told everyone they had to face the person that was speaking. I need to remember next week to make this more explicit — and talk about (or have kids articulate) what they should look like when actively listening to someone. And why it’s important to give this respect to someone. They are sharing their thinking — which is a piece of them — with us. They took a risk. We need to celebrate that. And try to learn from their thoughts. Doing anything else would be a disservice to them and to our class. (Okay, clearly you can tell I’m thinking through this in real-time right now by typing.)

(4) Robert Kaplinsky has created a movement around opening classrooms up. I personally hate being observed. Before someone comes, I freak out. Of course as soon as I start teaching, I absolutely forget that they are watching. Totally don’t even recognize them as an entity. In fact, I think I often teach better, probably because I’m subconsciously aware I’m being watched so I’m hyperaware of everything I’m doing.  But leading up to it is horrible. And I also hate the idea of “surprise visits” because… well, who likes them?

That being said, I know that getting feedback is important, and I know that in my ideal school, classrooms wouldn’t be silos. So I joined in. Not for all my classes… I need to dip my toe in gently. But I posted this next to my classroom door:

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Next week or the week after, I’ll probably put this up as a “do now” and ask kids “what do they notice/wonder?” about it. Then I’ll tie it into a conversation about growth mindset and the videos they watched.

(5) For the past two years, I’ve been teaching only advanced courses. (In fact, because of that, I asked to teach a standard course… I have taught many, and it was weird to not have that on my plate for two years.) And I heard from someone that a few kids were nervous about having Mr. Shah because “he teaches the really hard courses? will he be able to teach us?”

I know that my first few classes with these kids need to show them that I am different than they expected. I also was proud of this paragraph I put on the first page of their course expectations…

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(6) I met my advisory for the first time. Seniors. The thing is: we’re ramping up our advisory program to be more meaningful. Advisors are going to be with their advisees for four years. We are going to be the initial point of contact for many things. And we want to be there to support and celebrate our advisees in a way that we haven’t been able to in our previous set up.

But for all this to happen, I need to form relationships with my advisees. Relationships that go beyond pleasantries. In our training for our new advisories (amazing training… I think I should write a post to archive that thinking before I forget it… done by the Stanley King Institute) we did an exercise. We found someone we didn’t know (I found a new teacher at our school). We had to think about something meaningful to us, and something real (not something like our favorite sports teams… sorry sports fans)… and then talk about it with our partner for EIGHT MINUTES. Anyone who has been a teacher knows that speaking about anything for eight minutes straight is tough. It feels like eternity. While that person is speaking, the other person is actively listening. They can say a few words here and there, like “oh yeah…” or “totally,” but it wasn’t about having a conversation.

Normally I’d roll my eyes at something like this. But at the end, I felt like I got to know this new person at our school pretty well… actually, considering we only had eight minutes, amazingly well… and we bypassed all the initial superficial stuffs. That stuff, like movies and books and stuff, we’ll get to later. Yes, it was awkward. But yes, it worked.

So here’s how I adopted it for my advisory. I met with them today to do a bunch of logistics, and then I took them to a different room. I had cookies, goldfish, crackers, and a cold drink for them. And I explained this exercise. And I said: “I want to do this with you. I want to get to know you.” And so I took out the notecards I prepared, and I shared stuff about my life with them. And they were rapt. I told them about stuff going on in my family that was exciting and stuff going on that was tough, I told them “things I wish my students knew” (this is such a great way to flip “things I wish my teacher knew”). I told them my total anxiety for the start of the school year and why I had it, and I told them my total excitement for the start of the school year and why I had it. I even said: “I never feel like I’m a good enough teacher.” When I was saying that, I wondered how many kids think “I never feel like I’m good enough.”

A photo of my index cards are here… but I only used them as launching points. I didn’t want to be rehearsed.

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I’m a guarded person, and I made sure never to cross the line between personal and professional, but when I finished, I sensed some (all?) of them were processing that a teacher opened up to them in this way. A few thanked me for sharing with them.

I wanted to set up an initial connection, and send the message I want you to know that I’m not an advisor in name only… I’m opening up to you because I want you to believe that when you’re ready, you can open up to me. They’re seniors. They have a lot figured out. But I hope they know I’m here for the stuff they don’t have figured out.

In the next week and a half, I have 10 minute meetings with all of my advisees individually. I told my kids they are going to talk to me about what’s meaningful to them for 8 minutes. I acknowledged it would feel awkward. I told them they didn’t need to open up in any way that made them feel uncomfortable. But I wanted them to speak about whatever is meaningful to them. We’ll do favorite books later. Now I’ll get to know them on a more personal level. [1]

(6) As you might have noticed from #4 above, I’m trying to be better about formative assessments. I want to make sure I know what kids are thinking, and where they are at, and use that to refine or alter future classes. I haven’t tried this out yet (today was just our first day!!! I only saw two classes!!!), but I made a google form for exit tickets.

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This is a #MTBoS sample version, so feel free to click on it, and fill out fake feedback to get an idea of the form.

Pretty awesome idea, right? I didn’t want to have a bunch of pre-printed slips (something I knew I wouldn’t actually do).

(7) I took a page from Sara Van DerWarf’s playbook. I didn’t do this on the back of name tents, but I have a separate sheet that they’re filling out. For my two classes today, I asked them to share something about themselves that would help me get to know them as something other than a kid in our math class. Some kids gave a lot, some a little, but I learned something about each one of my kids. As I’ve mentioned, I’m terrible with names. But what’s nice is on this sheet I created, I put photos (they’re in a school database for us to use) and knowing something about them is helping me remember their names. It’s odd and unexpected and lovely. Kids interested in arts/photography/social justice/sports/debating-arguing/nature/etc. I liked writing that little note back to my kids. I don’t know what question I’ll ask next. I may ask them “Math is like…” (like James did). For the penultimate one, I should definitely take a cue from Sara and ask them to ask ME a question.

I have a few more ideas for posts percolating. I hope that I get the time and motivation to write them. But it’s nice to be back!!! SCHOOL IS IN SESSION!

***

[1] This is what I included in my email to my advisees:

I know it may feel awkward, but when you meet with me during this meeting, you’re going to speak for 8 minutes about things that are meaningful to you. So something more than a listing of your favorite books/movies. If you need help thinking about this: what makes you tick? what makes you gasp? what are your thoughts about senior year and the future? what could you not imagine doing? what are you feeling? what keeps you up at night? These are all questions that might help you find things that are truly meaningful to you. I found it really helpful to have an index card of things when I was talking with you, because I was nervous. I suggest doing that!

 

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9 comments

  1. I also added pronouns to my get to know you sheet. Many students asked what are pronouns (and then were asked by their classmates “Aren’t you in AP English?”) and one student told me she was glad that I had it there. I don’t think I got any answers that I didn’t expect, (well, one person said to use “dude”) but it seemed to send a good message.

  2. Thank you for sharing so deeply and caringly of all of us (I don’t care if that is not a word, it is an Amy word). I am inspired to think more deeply by WRITING down my intentions, just not thinking of them as I drift. I haven’t put my “#Observeme'” notice on my door yet, but it is made. I have been going to the Gay/Straight Alliance meetings so the kids know they have a safe place. One of my favorite students, born with a very feminine name, now has chosen a very masculine name, but only lasted 2 weeks before she was committed to get help for self-harm. Pronouns and acceptance is critical.

    I hope you have an amazing year, and that all of the cryptic stuff works itself out and makes room for more joy, relaxation, and time for whatever makes you tick-tock.

    xo

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