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Start of the Year: Setting the Tone of What Matters to You

by Tess Timmons 2 months ago in teacher · updated about a month ago
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A Lesson Plan for the first day of school (no matter the age of the students)

Photography courtesy Kenny Eliason via Unsplash

The first day of school sets the tone for students to know who you are, and what you value. This article is designed to spark ideas for what you want your students to learn about your values. You can use my exact lesson within this article. There is also an "answer key" which showcases my reasoning, national standards, and theory behind its creation. This article is for teachers of any grade level from elementary teachers to professors.

Who am I? I've been teaching middle school and high school for ten years. I've also taught elementary school. Principals from five schools: private, charter, public, and title one have watched how my lessons challenge students. In my first year of teaching, I built the English Department for a new charter school and won teacher of the year in Placer County, California. Companies such as PreAP, and ERWC along with WASC committees and BTSA instructors have watched me teach. Stanford University professors and the Department of Education leaders from various states within the United States have watched my lessons during Covid to see how to engage students. Professors and student teachers from the University of Reno and Sierra College in California have used my lessons. These lessons match standards-based practices. I take pride in the creative process behind building my own courses.

I want to help teachers tap into their own creativity so that their lessons are enjoyable and challenging for the students and the teacher. I love seeing a loud classroom where a variety of learning is happening. I also enjoy a focused, silent classroom where keyboards are pounding and thought process is rapidly growing. I want this for you. I want you to enjoy teaching. I want you to be in this profession that pulls at your heartstrings and lights you up; waking early, wanting to be in the classroom. I know this feeling and I want you to have it too.

Below is my lesson with the "answer key" or reasoning behind it. Following this is the lesson in a ready-to-print format for you to use.

Guidelines for the Year: Group Discussion

Student Instructions: Read over the following questions silently. This sheet is for your thought process to develop in preparation for a class discussion. In ten minutes, we will move the desks out of the way and form a circle with our chairs to talk about the topics below. Bring this sheet with you. Ms. Timmons will call on students at random to participate. State your name first and then give your ideas on the following questions.

1) In our classroom how do you share items among fellow classmates? What can we do to keep the classroom items shared easily and equally? Is the teacher’s desk a place you look for items? Why do students need to use the same concepts for sharing in the classroom, in places outside of the classroom, such as the lunchroom and the bus? Answer Key (answers are always written in italics)

Students usually answer that we should share all items.

First I focus on explaining items in the classroom. I walk over and show them a huge bookshelf filled with paper, binders, crafts, staplers, scissors, glue, pencil sharpeners, etc. I let them know these items are theirs and they are responsible for their upkeep and organization. I walk over to another small table by the door and show them where the hand sanitizer is found, the tissues, the paper towels, the wipes for the desks, and the trash cans. I tell them all these items are for them as well. I then walk over to my desk and show them my trashcan and tell them I don’t want their tissues or food in this can, as I don’t want to breathe it in. I also don’t want them using my desk items due to germs and that they are mine. It’s stated with a matter-of-fact tone. There’s nothing upsetting about this. It’s nice to showcase rules right away so we can get along. All managers are going to have a different way of getting along with employees so it’s important for them to learn this about me and with me on the first day of class.

Next, I walk up to a student and act out this scenario with them. I ask them if I can borrow their Chromebook charger. They always say yes. I then state that I will want to use it again tomorrow…will they let me? They usually say yes. Then I request to use the charger again, the day after tomorrow, will they loan it to me? They say yes. I then tell them I walked out of class with their charger and I left it somewhere throughout my day but I can’t recall. I tell them the library will charge the replacement cost to them not me. Then I ask "should we always share?"

We then get into a discussion about them being high school students (this also works for any grade level). I state that responsibility is important. It’s also a state/national standard to come to class prepared. If I show up to work and my client from Hong Kong is waiting for me to project the presentation and I forgot my computer, what would happen? I would lose the sale. High School students enjoy it when I talk to them in terms of business as most of them have part-time jobs and appreciate being treated as part of a workforce (and for the professions they want later in life). I can also say, "Would you show up for football without your helmet? What response would you get from your coach?"

Depending on the school I add this last piece (I would revise this and it can still work in a large city). I talk to them about how we are a small town and that when they are not on campus they are still representing our school, their parents, and our town. That people in town know them and see them whether the teens notice or not. That this isn’t to scare the students but it’s helpful for them to be aware. We also move into a discussion about sports teams traveling and how they are representing our town, school etc.

Then I end with this last piece:

I want you to ponder this last question in silence. I won't be taking answers. When no one’s watching and your parents will never find out…who are you?

2) In order to open our eyes and learn about the world around us we need to be free of stereotypes. What does stereotype mean? How can having a stereotype affect our learning in the classroom? What can we do to avoid this? Be careful here, I do NOT want an example of stereotypes. I’m looking for a definition. We aren’t trying to offend each other through giving an example.

Students typically give answers that have to do with stereotyping each other. I also gear the conversation gently (not obviously) that we miss out if we are the person stereotyping.

I then help them see that we might stereotype literature or articles we read and the places we are learning about. Depending on the district I’m teaching in, I also talk to the students about how we need to feel free of being locked into a role we had in elementary school now that we are in high school. That every student at the start of each year has the right and opportunity to be something new. That a class clown can turn academic and serious. That a band student might want to be in sports. That we might not want to date anyone for a while, although we used to. We might switch friend groups but it doesn’t mean we hate the people we were previously friends with. That just because a student wet the bed in third grade, it really doesn’t matter anymore. That each day we grow and change. That each day we should allow our friends and co-workers to show that growth and change.

I tell them that I’m first generation American. That you can’t see that in the color of my skin (this is important with some of my student populations). That my grandmother and her eight children are all immigrants to America. I help them learn that stereotypes are harmful and that stereotypes hold the word assume. I spell assume on the board and underline the first three letters of the word. I help them understand that assumptions don’t allow us to grow deeper in thought. That it’s actually wonderful to not “think you already know” and that true learning can come from questions, eye contact, listening, vulnerability and sharing.

3) “I suppose you have heard of the term alpha male? Among wolves for example….”. (Allende, City of the Beasts). What does the term alpha male mean? Give one positive and one negative example of alpha male behavior.

I separate this question out when looking for answers in the crowd, so I can call on more than one student as I’m learning their names and faces; I need the practice.

After a student defines Alpha Male, I pound on my chest and act like a gorilla in the classroom moving between them. Can I be an alpha? I’m female but can I be an alpha?

I then ask a different student for a negative example. I might call on three students to give one negative example each. Then, I move into acting it out with those three students. I pretend we are working on a project and I am the fourth student.

As the fourth student, I say, "Alright Alejandra, you work on the Works Cited page and the biography page. Alexis, you work on the videos for the presentation. Lucy, you need to complete the awards page and the cover page. I’m going to share the document with all of you now and I’ll be turning it in so I make sure to get a good grade on this."

"Does anyone want to work with this person?" I pose to the students, back in my teacher role.

After a pause, I say, "I sure don’t. Raise your hands and tell me why?"

Then I call on three different people to tell me the positive aspects of an alpha.

I move into acting again. (Remember that I’m trying to learn names so I pick new people each time).

"Seth, what part of this project speaks to you? Nina what would you like to do? I’d like to find the videos and since that job is fun, I’ll also take on the Works Cited page since that one isn’t very fun, but necessary. This project isn’t due until Monday. How do you guys work towards deadlines? I personally will finish my part by Friday as I don’t like weekend homework. What date and time should we check in with each other before the project is due in order to support each other?"

"Would you work with this person?"

"I would too. Why?"

4) In the novel Paper Towns by John Green, Quinn meets a girl named Margo. Although they eventually become friends, at first Quinn doesn’t believe Margo’s ideas and thoughts. Quinn learns how to suspend his belief system in order to understand Margo. What does suspend a belief system mean?

Most students don't know this answer. I’m going to call on about five to seven students trying to see if someone does have the answer. If around seven students' answers don’t work, then and only then will I give a response. If a kid says “I don’t know” I will press. Especially on the first day of school. “It’s ok if you don’t know but what is your guess?” I will wait and lock eyes with them while smiling. This is really important to me. I want everyone to know upon first working with me that “I don’t know” isn’t good enough in my classroom. That we are open to speculation. That it’s ok to not know but it’s expected for each student to try... to think... to articulate that wonder.

Moving into storytelling I expand on what suspending our belief systems means. The next few paragraphs contain my script.

There’s this man Wade Davis. He worked for National Geographic traveling the world studying ethnobotany and working with Shaman. Who knows what ethnobotany is? What about Shaman?

When he was in Haiti he watched voodoo priestesses dancing. The priestesses spun in circles in white dresses (I begin to spin) and they took hot coals attached to sticks and placed them on their tongues. (I stick out my tongue and slowly act like I’m holding a stick with hot coal touching my tongue. I slowly lock eyes with many students while doing this). Wade was fascinated because the coals didn’t burn their tongues. In fact, no one was harmed by this. There were no scars, no burn marks, nothing. Next, the voodoo priestesses walked over hot coals on bare feet, and again (I hold up the bottom of my foot after pretending to walk on coals) no scars, no burn marks, no injuries.

Since we are American, our minds would probably think this is impossible. We would immediately think this was a trick or not real. If we witnessed this and tried it ourselves we might get burned, if we are allowing our own cultural beliefs to hold strong in our minds. But these Haitian priestesses deeply believe that they are cast into a spell and that spirits have entered their bodies. They can’t feel the hot coals and the hot coals can’t hurt them because of their belief system. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense to an American, scientific, "logical" mind. It’s their belief, not ours.

What beliefs might be different in our classroom?

What beliefs might we read and learn about in class this year?

Why is it important to honor different beliefs?

5) As a class we may have different beliefs than each other. We may have different talents than each other. What five guidelines do you feel our class needs in order to work productively this year? Explain how these guidelines work and how we should use them.

I write their answers on the whiteboard and then we find patterns to these guidelines. We work to narrow it down to five agreements. I circle them and take a picture with my phone. I tell them that tomorrow a poster will be created merging their top five guidelines and the rest of my classes' top five guidelines. ( I currently work with six classes. I only want one poster in the room so I’m pulling from the collective). This poster will be the first thing I share with each class tomorrow (the second day of school).

*Also if at any point students start to talk and whisper to each other while I’m talking, I will stop and lock eyes with them. When they stop talking I will make a statement, "I need you to pay attention when I’m talking so that you gain directions and insight. Does that work for you?" I make sure I don’t have a passive-aggressive smile on my face. I make sure to say thank you. It’s important on the first day of school to showcase why I need them to not talk.

I also explain the following, "The first day of school is heavy on me speaking during this lesson. It’s not a usual thing for me to speak for over 20 minutes in class. Today I know it’s a long time to sit still and listen to me. Usually, in this room, students are speaking to each other and working together. But today, I need you all to work with me. I understand sometimes what we talk about brings up an idea you might want to share with a person sitting next to you or perhaps you didn’t hear what I said and are asking someone. I totally get that. Today, since it’s the first day of school if you need me to repeat something raise your hand and ask me instead. Thank you. Also, if you want to stand up you can, it's a long time to sit. As long as you are paying attention I’m ok with it."

6) When your own family is going through a struggle, how can that affect you at school? What can we do as a class to help each other rather than add frustration at times like this?

The students answer the questions.

Next, I bring up counseling, the bathroom pass, and our Wellness Center. I tell the students that if they are sad and can’t focus they can take the bathroom pass and go take a lap and walk it off. They can also go to the counseling center. They can just walk up to me and say "counseling" and head out. They will need to have the counselor email me within 5 minutes to show they went there. The same is true for the Wellness Center, within 5 minutes they would need to be there and have that counselor email me upon arrival. The passes to those destinations are on the wall by the door.

They never have to ask me to take the bathroom pass. It’s on the wall near the door. They can just grab it and use it. However, they have to be back within five minutes as I have 30+ students in the room and other people need access to the bathroom. I talk about how I value other people. That it’s a sign of maturity to understand that others have needs just like you. I also explain that I won’t ever let two people leave the room on the pass and I’ll never let someone else leave without the pass here. So it’s a contract they need to form with each other in respect of each other. That this is not my responsibility to control.

I also take this opportunity to teach them about bereavement time within employment. That if they experience a death of a person, pet, etc., or a hardship like a house fire, a divorce, or excitement like a newborn baby in the family, etc. they can let teachers know and we can work with them on due dates. Herein the teacher can also repeat the school rules for vacations as our school still holds due dates since it’s a one-to-one computer school with wifi access. If a student goes on vacation beyond the holiday breaks, it’s their responsibility to have wifi and get their work completed. I can also speak about how a student should never ask for more time the day an assignment is due; why that is and what is more acceptable/ responsible.

****

What values do you want to discuss on the first day of school in your classroom? Take the time right now to write them down.

Next, you will find this lesson again. It is a copy that is ready to be placed on the printer and immediately taught.

This is a sample chapter from my soon-to-be-published teaching book. I have a student currently working on my website (for volunteer service hours). When it's ready, I'll connect it to my articles so we can correspond. My website will also showcase conferences I'm speaking at if you'd like to meet in person. I'd love to know what lesson you created for your classroom after reading this. If you taught my lesson what adjustments did you make to have it fit your personal stories and values?

***

Guidelines for the Year: Group Discussion

Student Instructions: Read over the following questions silently. This sheet is for your thought process to develop in preparation for a class discussion. In ten minutes, we will move the desks out of the way and form a circle with our chairs to talk about the topics below. Bring this sheet with you. I'll call on students at random to participate. State your name first and then give your ideas on the following questions.

1) In our classroom how do you share items among fellow classmates? What can we do to keep the classroom items shared easily and equally? Is the teacher’s desk a place you look for items? Why do students need to use the same concepts for sharing in the classroom, in places outside of the classroom, such as the lunchroom and the bus?

2) In order to open our eyes and learn about the world around us we need to be free of stereotypes. What does stereotype mean? How can having a stereotype affect our learning in the classroom? What can we do to avoid this? Be careful here, I do NOT want an example of stereotypes. I’m looking for a definition. We aren’t trying to offend each other through giving an example.

3) “I suppose you have heard of the term alpha male? Among wolves for example….”. (Allende, City of the Beasts). What does the term alpha male mean? Give one positive and one negative example of alpha male behavior.

4) In the novel Paper Towns by John Green, Quinn meets a girl named Margo. Although they eventually become friends, at first Quinn doesn’t believe Margo’s ideas and thoughts. Quinn learns how to suspend his belief system in order to understand Margo. What does suspend a belief system mean?

5) As a class we may have different beliefs than each other. We may have different talents than each other. What five guidelines do you feel our class needs in order to work productively this year? Explain how these guidelines work and how we should use them.

6) When your own family is going through a struggle, how can that affect you at school? What can we do as a class to help each other rather than add frustration at times like this?

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Tess Timmons

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  • Tess Timmons (Author)2 months ago

    When you leave a comment tell me what grade you teach, and where you teach. THANK YOU!!!! Gooooo Teachers!

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