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Syllaboom or Syllabust

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Giant conversational Jenga for a first day ice breaker.

The air of an empty classroom vibrates with excitement the days before the first bell rings. Polished floors gleam, new composition notebooks sit stacked evenly, crisp bulletin boards stand brightly against cinderblock walls. The energy feeds over into the freshmen who see my classroom for the first time. This is one of the things I love most about this job—the cyclical process of reinvention, the ability to start fresh and new for both us as teachers and them as students.

I do not start my class with reading the syllabus for this exact reason—syllabi, oftentimes stuffy and long, don’t nurture the charge of possibility. Too often they stifle it. No matter how many times I condense, rewrite, and inject personality into them, between the required plagiarism description and the cell phone policy, I am afraid I come off as a jail warden.

Because of this, I wait until the second day of school to review the syllabus and instead fill my first day with low stakes, community-building activities. Last year I felt pressure to kick off the year with a summative assessment to assess the baseline writing skills of my students. I felt pressure to keep up with my colleagues, so I’d bumped up my plans and jumped straight in the first week. Instead of spending time fostering exploration and growth, I focused on individual final products, forgetting the organic process of building up an environment that praised the formative process.

I focused less on establishing their writer’s notebooks and more on ensuring students had three polished pieces within the first quarter. Number-wise it felt like a success—I could back my curriculum and process with hard numbers; my assessments aligned with many of my colleagues, but my classroom atmosphere lacked the supportive community we had worked so hard to establish the year before.

The classroom is ready for our first day of school!

The classroom is ready for our first day of school!

This year I’m returning to my “old” ways—focusing on the need for consistent quickwrites, notebook work, and small group and whole class sharing to promote trusting relationships among my students. Based on Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset, I’d rather give my students the time and space to make mistakes and struggle through their writing.  This year, our first day won’t involve immediately reviewing our new standards-based grading policy. It won’t require students to write their first paper by Friday. Instead, our first day will be full of giant conversational Jenga where students simply talk to one another. We’ll learn each other’s names in methods that DO NOT involve finding an adjective that rhymes with our first name. We’ll have workshop time to establish the individuality of our notebooks with collages of paint, pictures, tape, and stickers. We’ll share our favorite reads, listen to spoken word poetry like “What You Will Need in Class Today” by Matthew Foley, write, and speed date with books.

Instead of focusing on the rules, the assessments, the end, we’ll praise the process, the journey, the beginning.

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3 thoughts on “Syllaboom or Syllabust

  1. […] completed process papers based on The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a […]

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  2. […] these questions through writing intimidates them. In turn, one of the first activities we did this year to establish classroom culture involved designing and decorating our writer’s notebook covers. In the past I had students create […]

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  3. Amy September 4, 2015 at 6:33 pm Reply

    OMG, Jackie. Did you really make a giant size Jenga?? I think I need one.

    I love your thinking here, and like you, I’ve started the year in a much more friendly and relaxed way — even a one-pager syllabus on the third day of school. I’ve loved it because the kids are loving it, and they are realizing that we are in this reading and writing gig together.
    Awesome.

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