Slow Jamming the Start to the New School Year

I first saw the quote above while attending a pre-conference about the Roosevelt Innovation Academy. I was reminded of it after reflecting on how I started my first three weeks of school this year. Let me explain.

I wanted to think big this year for my 7th grade Geography classes, think in ways that would make me approach the teaching and learning I had control of 180 degrees differently than I had before. I didn’t create a list (maybe I should have) but thinking about it now, I probably had around three big ideas: I wanted to create a deep learning environment; I wanted to use space differently; I wanted to go mostly gradeless.

Now wanting to do big things and actually doing them are two very different things. The time we have is finite and the effort we can put in is limited by the world we live in. My big ideas? I didn’t have time nor the wherewithal to work on them over the break — I was traveling through Peru and also had to deal with the loss of our beloved dog. Big ideas. Meet reality.

How far did I get during my inservice days before the kids arrived? About 50% through 1/3 of the big three: I spent the better part of my three planning days creating new learning spaces in my new classroom. Honestly, I was a little nervous.

We usually start the year on a Thursday with a full 8 class schedule, and repeat this schedule on Friday. Then on the following Monday we start our normal Mon-Thurs A/B block schedule, Friday all 8 classes. In my opinion, it makes the start less intimidating for both teachers and students.

However this year the administration decided to start with A day Thursday, B day Friday. Instead of an easy, low threshold start, we jumped right into “school” mode. Meaning most teachers jumped right in too. Syllabi, class rules, grading policy, curricular goals, procedures…you know, the Harry Wong approach. The school seemed to think we just needed to step on the gas pedal and off we’d go.

I didn’t. Not that I didn’t think about trying to. But I just wasn’t there. Couldn’t get there. And was confident enough to be ok to not be there. It turned out better than the start of any of my other 6 first back-to-school days.
 What did we do instead? We watched a weird video where I asked them to watch, listen, and then make links to what they think Geography is.
 We defined Geography using an ideation strategy that will be part of our toolset this year. Afterwards we wrote the definition on the window (gasp, “we can write on the windows in here?!” said the 7th graders).

We came up with as many questions as we could about Geography and then sorted them between Googleable and NonGoogleable questions, a key skillset we want to develop. We put our NonGoogleable questions out in the hall for everyone to see.
 We had a “snowball” fight to get to know each other. We talked about our vacations; I told them about me. They got to ask questions and I told them about the sad story of my dog dying over break.
 By the end of the third block together we hadn’t talked once about grades, rules, procedures, etc. I hadn’t planned further than the day I was in. And the walls didn’t burn down. Just the opposite.
 I was trying to think big! But reality kept pulling me back down. So how I did I start the year? Slowly. Very, very slowly. I knew I wanted to do things differently, but I hadn’t had time yet to enact the changes. So instead of hurrying to put together course syllabuses, backwards design my first unit, and make meaningful lesson plans to “get me through” the first two weeks (all advice I received as a beginning teacher), I didn’t do any of it. I wouldn’t have been happy with any of it anyway.
 Instead, I stumbled head first into the second part of the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation quote: start small.
 By the end of the third day, I noticed that they all kept wanting to talk about the Olympics with me, and each other. Was I watching? Oh, did you see the injury where the guy broke his leg? Did I see Bolt (with the dap for emphasis)? How about Simone Biles, she won like all the records? Did you know I am from Brazil? Excited 7th grade energy buzzing around me every day on something that was real and relevant to them.
 Maybe if I was a smarter and better prepared teacher, I would have made this connection before school started. But since I am not, when it finally hit me, I knew it: the Olympics are the perfect introduction to Geography.
 We couldn’t continue slow forever. Now I needed to move fast and create a pathway to harness their genuine interest in the Olympics. What I didn’t do though is quickly sit down and backwards plan from my assessment to my standards; I didn’t use my curriculum mapping software. Why would I? I didn’t know yet where we wanted to go together with this. Go back to starting small.
 So we created a map of all of the cities where both the Summer and Winter Olympics had been held, and answered basic geography questions based on our findings. We read a short history and current issues article about the Olympics. We watched short Claro Olympic videos of the day. Piquing their interest while front-loading new knowledge and new questions.

By the time Back-to-School night came around, we were over two weeks and 5 full blocks into school, and knee deep into picking topics to write our first real killer blog stories on, when I realized I had better make a syllabus and figure out my big grading ideas before the parents arrived that night at 7 pm.
 I tried to start small and move fast at the same time. I created a rough framework of Geography themes and topics to guide us through the year (we’ll see if they last), and a rough idea of what “gradeless” might mean for us. I gave them a syllabus, talked about how we are going to use our ePortfolios to document our learning journey, create knowledge artifacts for feedback, and have quarterly “grade” meetings. They said I should start a revolution and get the other teachers on board.
 That night, I was honest with the parents: I said I think middle school is the perfect time to emphasize learning over grades, that I was going to experiment 1st quarter, that I will keep them updated, and I hope they are all on board. Not. One. Single. Objection. Think big. Start small. Move fast.
 Where are we today? Last Friday we talked with Will Carless, a friend and investigative reporter living in Rio de Janeiro, about the Olympics and how to write a good story.

Today we made visual thinking maps of our stories and are getting ready to write our first draft. Hopefully we will get our first drafts completed and ready to publish soon. I will also try to give my first round of feedback soon.

I am still trying to think big. I am still way behind on the normal teacher tasks of organizing and planning. But I have learned that starting small and moving fast is probably the best way to make the big thinking obtainable.
 I also realized I am not alone in thinking that slowing jamming the start to the new school year might be a good thing. A great The Atlantic article came out recently that highlighted the Finnish approach to the new school year: slow and easy. I also just saw today an Education Week article that “talks back” to Harry Wong’s approach to the first days.
 I’d like to say this was all planned and based on deliberate action. But it wasn’t. And maybe that is the point. I fell head first and ended up sticking the landing. But hey, I’ll take falling head first into a philosophy where the Finns have my back. Who wouldn’t?

Originally published at on August 30, 2016.

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