Written by Sarah Stecher published 2 years ago
It’s that time of year again. You know the one. It smells like bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils and expo markers. You’re equal parts nervous and excited. It’s time to go back to school!
Every year we get the chance to share that excitement with a new group of students. The first few days of school set the tone for the year by inviting students to reimagine what it means to do math. This is our chance to build classroom community and to begin developing strong math identities through creative problem solving opportunities.
So what should we be thinking about when we’re planning the first week of school? First, we need to establish our goals.
Establish a culture of care and build trust: We know from neuroscience that feeling safe in an environment is essential for learning and risk taking. Throughout the school year we will ask our students to share ideas in their rough-draft form, to present ideas to the class, to give and accept feedback from peers, and to leave their comfort zones to wrestle with challenging content. All of these have some level of social and emotional risk associated with them, and we can not expect our students to engage in these ways if they do not first feel safe, cared for, validated, and a sense of belonging.
Signal a change in how we will interact with math in this class: Students come to us with a wide variety of experiences in math classes and unfortunately not all of them are positive. Many of our students have come to us expecting math class to consist of receiving information in the form of a lecture, doing practice problems, and then memorizing as much as humanly possible the night before the test. A lot of them come to us as dependent learners that expect their role to be passive in the classroom. A primary goal of the first week of school is to establish the class as a thinking class where students engage in the messy, non-linear, idiosyncratic process of problem solving. For more on this, we recommend Peter Liljedahl’s fabulous book Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics.
With these two goals in mind, let’s make a plan!
First Week of School
On the first day of school, we have students sit in assigned seats in groups of four. Not knowing where to sit or having to choose a seat without knowing anyone in the class is a weighty and anxiety-inducing task for some of our students. Even high schoolers deal with nerves on the first day of school, so we want to eliminate as many potential threats as possible to make students feel safe and excited for the school year.
We generally start with a quick (5-10 minutes) get-to-know-you activity. We share a little about ourselves to establish trust, then we quickly turn to having students introduce themselves to their group members. Try to be as explicit as possible with what information you want them to share, and avoid any questions that might be triggering or too personal. The goal here is not deep connection, but safety and rapport. Here are some of our favorite ice breaker questions.
Next we jump into a problem solving task. While these tasks do tend to be mathematical in nature, these are not curricular tasks, i.e. we’re not starting the first unit of content yet. These are low-floor, high-ceiling tasks that promote discussion, offer multiple solution paths, and encourage collaboration. These tasks should be highly engaging and propel students to want to think. The more non-traditional, the better, otherwise students will be inclined to revert back to old patterns and conceptions about what math is and what math class will look like. Here are some of our go-to resources.
- NRICH Short Problems: These are especially great for the first week of school because they can be completed in 10-15 minutes. For students just starting to work in groups, this is an appropriate amount of time for collaboration. Here's our version of the NRICH task Newspaper Sheets.
- Jo Boaler’s Week of Inspirational Math: This is a collection of tasks and videos to build a growth mindset and foster collaboration. You can search by grade level, topic, and resource type.
- 100 #s Task by Sara Vanderwerf: A great task for teaching group work norms, also available in a distance learning format.
- Peter Liljedahl’s Numeracy Tasks: We adapted his Summer Olympics task to include some questions for student reflection. Specifically, we used this task to teach students how to disagree respectfully and how to come to group consensus.
- Skill builders from Stanford University: These tasks, while not specifically math related, help students label and practice various group norms. One activity we like to use with our students is Lots of Dots, which fosters the norm that everyone participates and gives information.
Days 2-5 continue in a similar manner, with a short community-building activity and then jumping into a task. We use tasks to teach about group norms and class norms. While we do have to make time for some school-wide initiatives like PBIS and pre-testing, we try to fit these around the other tasks we’re already doing.
When do we talk about the syllabus?
We generally don’t spend more than 10 minutes talking about the syllabus (and not before day 3!). Many of the items on the syllabus can be shared on a need-to-know basis as we get closer to the first test, start assigning homework, etc.. Students are being inundated with grading policies and rules in all their classes at this time of the year, so memory of these conversations tends to be low, and many things are not immediately applicable.
Is it worth spending time on non-curricular tasks?
As high school teachers, we know that the standards are many and the minutes are few. While it’s tempting to dig into content as soon as possible, we are convinced that spending this time up front to establish class and group norms and to set the stage for the deep thinking we will be doing all year is absolutely worth it. In our experience, students are much more willing to engage in our EFFL lessons, share their thinking, and get to work quickly, after having these first week of school experiences. We have to go slow to go fast!
- Building Thinking Classrooms: Conditions for Problem Solving (Peter Liljedahl)
- Cultural Responsiveness Starts with Real Caring (Zaretta Hammond)