My Favourite Ways to Start the Year: Part Three

Blog badgeAfter my initial “warm up activities” (see previous posts), I’m ready to start into the curriculum.  I always start with non-fiction, as it provides an opportunity to give students interesting and relevant texts to read.  As the semester progresses, we will move on to poetry and Shakespeare, things they find “intimidating”, so I like to begin with texts that they find more accessible.  That way they can build their skills and gain confidence before we move on to the more difficult work.

So, to that end, we start with a topic that everyone in the room can relate to: Education.  We begin with a discussion of what they feel is working in the school system and what they feel needs to change.  We always have an amazing discussion because they usually have a lot to say!  I preface the discussion with a warning that they must not point a finger at any specific teacher, so the discussion stays general and focuses on issues, not people.

Then, we spend a couple of days reading/discussing a selection of poetry and non-fiction that is critical of various aspects–and players–in the education system.  We also view several videos that always get a great reaction.  My favourite is this one, a TedTalk from Sir Ken Robinson:

Education Unit coverFinally, after we have looked at the system from many angles, I assign “The Ideal School Project”.  Students work in groups to design their version of the ideal school.  They look at courses, extra-curricular activities, etc. and create a presentation for the rest of the class.   They are always very thoughtful and creative, and presentation day is one of the best all year!

If you would like more detail on this, you can click on the image and download it for free on TPT.

Check out my other favourite ways to start the year here: Part One, Part Two and Part Four.



My Favourite Ways to Start the Year: Part Two

During my first class, I set the tone for discussions with our Rights Balloon exercise (see previous post), hopefully impressing upon the students that it’s ok to see things differently than others. Then we move on to an essential question that will guide our discussions during the year: How do you know it’s good? How do you make a judgement or evaluation of an idea or a piece of literature?

Music-Free-Vector-Abstract-457629To get them thinking about this concept, I come armed with a playlist. It’s a mix of classics and one-hit wonders. I instruct them to write down numbers 1-10 (the # of songs I have) and that I will play the first part of each song to them. They are to write down their answer to the question: Is this good music? They simply write G for good, B for bad and N for neutral. I tell them not to discuss it, comment or even snicker. I want their gut reactions, ones that are not influenced by their peers. We start with Mozart, cruise through Bieber and Black, The Stones and The Beatles, U2 and The Back Street Boys.  My grand finale is the Barney theme song.  Once we’ve been through all of the songs, we discuss their reactions.  I ask “Is it good music?” for each selection.  I start with Mozart and will get a mixed reaction.  Several will say it’s baaaaad.  But then I ask how old it is, how many instruments it takes to create the music.  We have a discussion about what the word “good” means.  If you don’t like it, but it’s been around for hundreds of  years and many, many people listen to it, isn’t it good music?  Is it better to say, it’s good, but it’s not my thing?   The Barney song is a good example of this too–teenagers usually groan when it starts to play, but a class of five year olds would get up and dance–it’s good music for the age group it was created for.

Next, we start to compare the classics to the one-hit wonders: will people still listen to John Lennon’s Imagine thirty years from now? Probably.  But what about Rebecca Black’s Friday?  Not likely.  So the next question is this: What makes something a classic, and something else a fly-by-night hit?  In other words, what makes it good?  Great discussion usually ensues.

Once we discuss all of the music selections, I move on to reading an essay with them called, “How Do You Know it’s Good”, by Marya Mannes, the inspiration for my lesson.  It’s dated, and somewhat challenging to read, but I use it for two important reasons:  it delivers the message I want my students to get, and it’s a good resource to model active reading.  Before I begin, I ask them if they have ever read an assignment, actually gone through the whole thing, and not have a clue what they read, either because they didn’t understand it, or because they were actually thinking about something else the whole time?  Many agree that they have.  So we discuss that your presence is not all that is required when you read; you need to actively engage with the text.  If you get to the end of a passage and don’t understand it, reread it.  Reread it again if you need to.  If, after several attempts you still don’t get it, make a note and ask someone the next day; write down questions.  If you don’t know a word and can’t figure it out from the context, look it up.  And, if the author causes you to think of something, or question her points, write those down as well.

After this discussion, I read the essay to them, modelling the process I would have gone through the first time I read it.  I highlight passages that I think they might find difficult and break them down.  I stop and ask them questions as we go, building their understanding of Mannes’ points.  Finally, I want to make sure that they get her point: in order to make good judgments, you need experience.  She states that that the more you read and see and hear, the more equipped you’ll be to practice that art of association which is at the basis of all understanding and judgment.  She concludes her essay with this advice: deciding whether a piece of literature or a work of art

              is a decision which only you, on the basis of instinct, experience, and association, can make for yourself. It takes independence and courage. It involves, moreover, the risk of wrong decision and the humility, after the passage of time, or recognizing it as such. As we grow and change and learn, our attitudes can change   too, and what we once thought obscure or “difficult” can later emerge as coherent and illuminating. Entrenched prejudices, obdurate opinions are as sterile as no opinions at all.  Yet standards there are, timeless as the universe itself. And when you have committed yourself to them, you have acquired a passport to that elusive but immutable realm of truth.  Keep it with you in the forests of bewilderment. And never be afraid to speak up.

I wrap up the lesson with my message, very similar to Mannes’:  I want you to read and think and evaluate, but most importantly, I want you to always be willing to speak up, to tell us what is on your mind.   It’s not an easy thing for some teenagers to do, so we need to try to cultivate an environment where it’s safe for them to express their ideas.

If you’d like a structured version of this lesson, you can find it here.

Check out my other favourite ways to start the year here: Part One, Part Three and Part Four.


My Favourite Ways to Start the Year: Part One

I’m sitting here at the cottage, looking out at the water, and while I greatly appreciate this gorgeous spot, my mind is already on back to school.  It’s crazy that our teacher heads are never that far from the classroom.  Must be a sign that we love our jobs!

I often mix things up, try new things or a different order of events, but I always start with a few activities that are designed to get my students’ heads in the game.  It’s a game I want them to play all year, one that has them engaged and open to new ideas.   I want them to think and to express their ideas freely, and I want them to be able to respectfully challenge the ideas of others.  Now, I’m not living in Utopia: I don’t always have a class full of  eager, vocal students–but at least I try to create an environment where they can be.  Over the years I have come up with several activities–or borrowed them from others–that I feel are good ones to start the semester, and I’m going to share them with you over the next couple of posts.

Rights BalloonThe first exercise I use is called The Rights Balloon game, an activity that I learned about at a conference years ago–I would give credit, but I can’t remember the guy who presented this wonderful idea.

This is how it works:

Instruct students to write the numbers 1 – 10 in a column on a piece of paper.  Project this picture and tell them that they need to use their imaginations, that they are alone in a hot air balloon, crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  The basket of the balloon contains ten very heavy boxes, each containing the ten rights listed on the screen.  So, one box has the right to vote, one has the right to a clean environment, etc.  All of a sudden, they realize that the balloon is going down and the only way to keep it in the air is to start throwing boxes over the side.  But there is a catch: once a box is removed, they will never have it in their lives again.  Ever.  If the right to vote goes over, they will never have that right again.  The game is this: they must quickly decide which boxes/rights they can most do without, and which ones they will hold onto until the bitter end.  Give them 60-90 seconds to decide.

Tell them not to bother writing down the rights, but just to record the order that they would throw out the boxes–if the right to vote would be the 7th box, they will write 7 beside #1, etc.  Remind them that #10 is the box they could do without the most; #1 is the most important one to them.

Once the are finished, tell them to quickly locate the first three boxes to go and have a discussion.  In my experience, they will almost always choose the right to vote, the right to paid holidays and  the right to equal protection before the law.  This isn’t a surprise in a North American classroom.  Most of them would never have had paid holidays, so they would be easy to give up, I point out.  However, if their parents did the same exercise, would they throw that away?  Not likely.   And what of the right to vote?  Again, most will never have had it–but would their parents throw it away?  Maybe…we tend to take for granted rights like that (voter turnout rates show us this).  However, I have had refugee students in my room, children whose families came to Canada to escape persecution in their native country.  Do they throw out the right to vote and to equal protection before the law?  Nope.  They are the last boxes to go.  We discuss these things:  does this mean Canadian teens/adults are spoiled and entitled?  Maybe.  Is one choice right and another wrong?  Hmmmm… What it means for sure is that our experiences taint our choices.  We believe things are important–or not–because of our experiences.

Next we look at the boxes that they held on to until the end.  Usually there is a smattering of interesting choices, but almost always, the class is divided between the right to food and water and the right to love and affection as their #1 box.  I have them put up their hands for a visual and ask the food and water people why they chose that one–and they look at me like I’m crazy.  “Isn’t it obvious?” They ask.  Well, then, I say, are the rest of these people crazy or incredibly stupid?  No, the love and affection people respond–if they can’t have love, they don’t want to live.  Ahhhhhh….. Again, we discuss the idea of our choices and values.  If all laws are being followed, there is no clear cut right and wrong.  We see things differently.  That’s a fact.  And it’s a fact that I want everyone to remember in my class so we can have discussions where everyone’s idea and beliefs are respected.  It’s a concept that often needs to be revisited, but all I have to do is remind them about the hot air balloon and they know that I want them to remember that we are all different.  And that’s ok.

If you want the powerpoint that I use, click HERE.

Do you have any favourite activities for the first of the year?  Leave me a comment if you do!

Check out my other favourite ways to start the year here: Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.

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