Friday, August 9, 2013

On the First Day of C̶h̶r̶i̶s̶t̶m̶a̶s School


At this moment in time I am planning on doing the same thing for the first day of school in my fifth grade class for what would be the third straight year. This is unlike me, and therefore maybe worth sharing.

The first day of school is a magical time. Everyone is eager, well behaved, awake, happy to be there, and convinced that they can learn anything. I feel fortunate that in my classroom, for the most part, this is relatively true on the 78th day of school, but I still appreciate the specialness of that first day.  If we could all have 180 first days of school, teaching would be a breeze.

So for the sake of humanity and all that is holy or holey, I've never wanted to waste that special first day pixie dust on discussing rules, brainstorming expectations, going over the syllabus, making textbook covers, or giving a pre-assessment. When I was a student (at any age), there was nothing more disappointing than showing up excited to a new math class with nothing but possibility and hope in my mind, and not actually doing any math.

That said, I learned after my first couple months of teaching that rules and expectations are in fact important. Dilemma, dilemma.

So for the past couple years, this has been my solution. As students come in, I introduce myself warmly, find out their name if I don't already know them, hand them the below sheet on colored paper, and ask them to find the table that matches their color and get started.

Then I try and go as long as possible without saying anything else. Inevitably, students will ask questions.
"Is this a code?"
"Are we supposed to figure this out?"
"Is this random?"
"Is this in English?
I can typically get away with a shrug and a smile. Although I am not talking, I am working. Working hard. Remember, first day pixie dust. I am busy trying to remember names (something I struggle with). I am busy watching how people are working. Who's working alone? Who's working together? Who created a table? Who's mentioning words like cipher and substitution? Who's looking at punctuation? Who's thinking about potential contexts? Who's dominating conversations? Who's not saying anything?

In the past (I've done this activity a number of times, but only two years in a row), I usually finally intervene and ask for their attention for one of three reasons. Either one group is hitting a wall, in which I will ask specific groups for specific strategies or hints and then have them get back to work, or everyone has the general idea figured out and has reached the laborious point of decrypting, or we're running out of time. In the latter two cases, I interrupt to name all the great things that I saw.
"I love that A and B were helping each other without taking away each other's 'Ah ha' moments."
"C, you had a great strategy to focus on one letter words."
"D, E, and F: thinking about punctuation was brilliant."
"G and H, it was great that when you made a mistake and saw that your guess didn't make sense, you didn't give up."
"Take a look at this great table that I and J made to keep track of the letters they figured out."
"K, it was great when you asked your group if they thought this code had something to do with math class."
"L, M, N, and O: deciding that you could stop once you'd figured out every letter shows that you considered the process of figuring out each letter to be more important than the answer of the decrypted message."
"P, I appreciate your hard work in decrypting the whole message because knowing the answer can often be really nice."
"Everyone, you just made great progress on something hard. You did this with few instructions. You did this with a limited knowledge of how to solve this problem. You did this through effort and perseverance. Congratulations, and if you work like this for the rest of the year it's going to be quite a year."
You get the point. In all, I try and hit on some of the important aspects of my class. Oh yeah, and the decrypted message is my "First Day Letter" talking about expectations for the year.
    Some logistics of how this was created:
    • Type out your "First Day Letter" and save it.
    • Save a second copy as something like "First Day Letter Code"
    • Select everything and use the "change case" functionality (in the Font menu in my version of Word) to change everything to lowercase.
    • Create your code. I did this by writing A through Z in one column and THE QUICK BROWN FX JMPD V A LZY DG in the second column.
    • Use the "find and replace" functionality with "match case" checked, to replace each lower-case letter with the encrypted upper-case letter. For example, you will find all the a's and replace them with T's. Make sure you're always replacing lower case letters with uppercase letters.
    • There are also programs that will do this, but I wasn't able to find one that kept my formatting.