Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The First Days

Sorry I've been on radio silence for a little bit. Our school year started and I'm about a week in at this point. I just wanted to dash off a quick list of things I did. This is one of those posts that is for me so I can check back next August and remember what happened.

Here's my first day. To get a mental picture, all of my tables are in groups of 4 but pushed to the sides of the class. The chairs are in a circle in the middle. It stays like this until the teacher that teaches during my prep gets sick of it.

1. We start off with the Cohen writing assignment on stereotype threat. I'm doing housekeeping stuff during this time and walking the middle of the circle trying to memorize their names. (5 min)

2. I spend a few minutes introducing myself, but start off with defining "active listening." I show some pics of last year's students in group and whole class situations. What are some signs that someone is listening? This year we came up with Sitting up,  Looking at the Speaker and Being Able to Paraphrase (they said "repeat", I amended it) as signs you're listening. That's pretty standard.  The AVID kids are taught SLANT so usually they can also come up with Asking Questions and Nodding. I didn't get that this year so I'm thinking the 7th grade AVID teacher let that one go. (3 min)

3.  I give them a quick bio of me. This year I made a Keynote using a countdown as a gimmick. I let them know they'll be asked questions about it when it's done.
5 = number of years I've been at the school (I showed pics of my first group graduating from high school in June and gave a brief "You want to be there" pep talk)
4 = age of my oldest daughter
3 = my main hobbies (rock climbing, surfing, doing backyard science stuff—I showed a clip of a potato cannon I built and launched)
2 = room number of my wife who teaches kindergarten at one of the feeder elementary schools
1 = age of my youngest daughter
100 = I left this one undefined until the next day where Surprise! that number is the percent of students in this class (because even though that's never happened before this is the special class and we can do it together) that is going to cross the stage in June. (maybe 10 minutes)

4. The signs of an active listener are reviewed.  Because they listed paraphrasing as a sign of active listening, I let them know that I'm going to ask them to paraphrase what others said. I give them a sentence frame to help them out. I also ask them to name the student because I really want all my students to know each other by name. This is a BIG thing for me.

"_______ said ________. One more thing I remember about Mr. Buell is _______"

If they didn't hear what the person before them said, they're supposed to ask them to repeat. If they can't remember a name, ask the person directly. Then I just go through and cold call like crazy. I let them pass on adding something but not on the paraphrasing. If they pass I let them know I'll come back to them. I introduce the quiet signal and again, cold call/paraphrase1 to see if they've got it. (10 minutes)

5. Next we launch into a handcuff activity I also picked up from AVID. I let them know that everything they need to know to succeed in this class is in this puzzle. The gist is that each student has a rope that's tied into handcuffs. They link together in partners with the handcuffs on their wrists. They need to try to get out. I do this crazy contortion thing to demonstrate, which of course sets them off on the wrong path. (8 or so minutes)

6. I stop them using the quiet signal to practice. Then I ask for a really brave volunteer to show us something that didn't work. They demonstrate and I thank them for helping move us forward because now we know one thing that definitely doesn't work (this is a recurring theme). I let them go for a little while longer and then again take a volunteer. (10 minutes)

7. Last we get seated again in our circle. The first key to success they'll need: Their failures are valuable. We learned not to "insert whatever crazy move the kids demonstrated." Now tomorrow, when we try again, we know not to do that.

Days 2 and 3 look similar. I tell them a little more about myself. I showed a slideshow of last year's promotion ceremony. I introduce a routine. I reinforce the paraphrasing and knowing student's names. We go back into the ropes. On day 2 I emphasize persistence, because inevitably someone will solve it. I ask them how they figured it out and they always say something like, "I went home and worked on it for an hour with my sister."

On day 3 again, more about me. I did a 9 truths and a lie thing. They voted and a few justified (cold call/paraphrase). They made 4 truths and 1 lie then did a Mix Pair Share.2 Back to the ropes again. I emphasize that it's never over. They can come up to me at anytime and tell me they've solved it and I'll pull out the ropes and let the class have a go. For some reason, this always happens around November. I never tell them the answer. They say they want it. But I tell them it's like training all year for a big game. They show up to the game and they win by forfeit. Sure it counts as a win, but it's not the same. The joy isn't in knowing the answer, it's in figuring it out (or not figuring it out, which isn't as fun but can be just as valuable).

This week I've been emphasizing the growth mindset stuff. We watched the first 12 or so minutes of Common Miracles: The New Revolution in Learning which was the video shown in a Joshua Aronson study also regarding stereotype threat. We read and discuss the fake magazine article [pdf] from Dweck on how the brain grows when you learn new things. I've introduced the whiteboards. I've mainly used it for summaries to help them get used to discussion in the circle. I've got a BBC show on reading that also emphasizes how the brain changes but I'm not sure if I'm going to show a clip from that yet.

Last year we did a Don't Eat the Marshmallow bit but I think I'm skipping it this year. I don't spend enough time on strategies for delaying gratification for this to be helpful.

Oh and somewhere in there we created our Don't Break the Chain list. We haven't started creating the chain yet. I'm not officially supposed to do anything for a few more days while the rosters get settled. I'll blog it when I get the thing actually started but so far it's been a positive experience. The kids really got into it when I asked them to drill down further than "Be organized" or "Pay attention." I saw quite a few light bulbs go off. For me it was a real eye-opener to see how hard it was for kids to figure out what "Paying attention" or "Working together" looks like. 

At this point you're probably looking at what I did and you're saying to yourself that I'm planting the seeds for when I introduce standards-based grading. This is wrong.

This is wrong because I haven't aligned my philosophies with SBG, SBG fit my existing philosophy. That's why I'm such an advocate. I no longer have a huge disconnect between what I say (your mistakes are valuable, we) and what I do (I'm going to average in all of your previous failures even though you get it now).

If you've made it all the way down here, you should reward yourself for your persistence by submitting a post to the carnival. Good assessment posts of all kinds are welcomed.

1: The paraphrasing thing is new but I'm loving it. There's the obvious bonus of preventing a kid from zoning out when another student is talking but I think as a speaker it makes the students feel more valued when they know someone else is listening besides the teacher. Eventually I hope to transition paraphrasing into asking questions or elaborating. I have no idea how to do that.
2: Mix Pair Share - I play music. Students wander around the room. Music stops and they pair up with whomever they are closest. They then do the truths/lie thing. Music starts and the cycle repeats.


  1. I love this. Can you post the exact assignment you used regarding the stereotype threat?

    If I had seen this 3 weeks ago, I would have thought about how to make a bunch of these ideas work in a college setting. (Bookmarking as 'day one', for next semester.)

  2. The exact wording is in the supplementary documents if you want to read it:

    There a list of values to choose from (they're in the supplement, I changed a few to make them more appropriate for my kids). "Read the list of values below and choose two that are the most important to you. In a few sentences, write why these values are important to you. It might help to think of times when these values were particularly important to you. Focus on your thoughts and feelings, and don't worry about spelling, grammar, or how well written it is."

    My list:
    artistic ability
    doing well in school
    being in a club or team
    relationships with family
    religious values
    being environmentally conscious
    sense of humor
    athletic ability
    relationships with friends

  3. So the assignment never mentions stereotype threat or race? Did you say you were going to read them? What did you say you'd do with them, and what did you say the purpose was?

    The percent improvement mentioned in that article is impressive. It's worth publicizing this more if it really makes a difference.

  4. Yeah, the research study is pretty impressive sounding, frankly it borders on unbelievable. But every little bit counts right? If you combine that with the similarly impressive Dweck results and I'm pretty sure my kids should be completing phd's by the end of the year.

    The kids are used to these kinds of "getting to know you" things on the first days of school so I've never had a kid ask me about the purpose. I'm not sure if I explicitly stated I was going to read it but they did know they were turning it in.

    No, no mention on race or stereotype threat itself. On a similar vein, there's been some positive work in studies on using role models. I went to a presentation by Joshua Aronson and he said that the very presence of a female math teacher boosts female math scores. I *think* I also remember a writing intervention specifically designed for African American GRE takers but I'm hazy on the details. That's trickier to do in class, unless you've got 100% of some type of population, although it does suggest the value in a diverse study of scientists/mathematicians.

  5. Jason,

    I enjoyed reading your post. I was wondering if you have any video or just a more detailed explanation of the handcuff/rope activity?

    Also, thank you for your posts on SBG, they were very helpful as I designed my system for this school year.

  6. Here's a link:

    For the ones that get it I use the ropes again. They do this one solo. The challenge: Lay the rope on the table. Grab the rope anywhere with each hand. (It's a full grasp, like holding a soda can, not just with the fingers). Tie a knot in the rope somewhere between where your hands are placed without letting go of the rope.

    My admittedly weak efforts at Googling it didn't turn up a link. I can make a video if you want.

    Answer: Start with your arms crossed, grab the ropes. When you uncross them the rope will knot. Nobody has figured that one out yet.

  7. Thanks Jason. The link is more than sufficient.

  8. Just wanted to thank you for a very well put together site. I've been using SGB for awhile across different age ranges. You blog opened my eyes to a very clear way to communicate it our learners.

    I am currently using SBG in a college level course. It's going great!


  9. Thanks for sharing this-- I like the thoughtfulness and attention to detail!

  10. You'll notice that I've just found your site, since I'm finding lots of good posts to comment on!

    It sounds like a lot of your first days are spent in creating student expectations in your class, and generating buy-in. We've found this to be really important when we're using interactive techniques in college science classrooms, since students aren't used to participating in conversations, for example, in class.

    Would you say that's part of what you're trying to accomplish? Are you explaining to students why you're having them do certain things (like engaging in discussion), that those things will help them learn? Or do you just do it as a "let's try this because this is what we'll be doing this year" exercise?

    For people who are interested, we have a sample "spiel" that we give to students when we're using clickers in class, and other videos, at

    (ps., I'm a rock climber too!)