“Hi, nice to meet you. I am Ms. Berry. Have we met before?”

Whew….I knew this was going be hard to keep up, but the expression “haven’t come up for air yet” seems apt for the first few weeks of school. I drafted a post about the night before the first day of meetings, then meetings happened and it no longer seemed honest. I drafted a post about orientation activities, and then was on a three day hike with no internet access. I drafted a post about some ideas for the first day of school, and then I did something different. I know. Lame. Excuses.

Here I am. Block 1X, Tuesdays 10:30-11:50. An 80 minute block reserved just for this little blog. Every Tuesday practice “reflective teaching”….before I get to each lunch (I, like my dog can be motivated by food).

This semester I am teaching 63 students. Nearly half of them I have taught before which poses some interesting observations about how the introductory week goes (they already know I prefer the latte to the apple) I am wary of referencing past classrooms with them too much, as it is not inclusive to the new students; yet I am excited they remember things from last year! So much of the first week is about establishing expectations, classroom norms, and the students ascertaining just exactly how they should behave. The students who have had me before go through this assessment much more quickly than those who are new to my classroom. Yet, there is something about the rebirth of a teacher and a student that happens in September that merits consideration. This is a new group. A new year. A chance to start fresh, start with, quite appropriately, a clean slate. I am a different teacher than last year. The process changes you. One more year of experience has changed me. Most notably, the intense two weeks at Klingenstein in June, and a summer of thinking about teaching even as I fell asleep, changed me.

Last year I was full steam ahead in the first week. This was based on a belief that I had so much to do, might as well dive in head first. This was problematic. I have slowed the pace a bit this year. In AP US, for example, we are taking our time to focus on the work they did in the summer. Last year, the assignment included four historical monographs, they had to pick one and compose an essay. We (the two AP US teachers) tried to use these monographs and the students knowledge throughout the year to make it relevant. Unfortunately, by the time it came to talk about Martha Ballard, the book was not fresh in their minds that were full of fear of failure in an AP, stress, wanting to prove themselves on Varsity X, disappointment over not making Varsity X, the boy/girl sitting next to them. The kids who wrote excellent essays a month earlier couldn’t access them easily.

This year we had them read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, and answer a DBQ question about American Exceptionalism. Check it out below, or here. The Gilded Age is a complicated time, and a challenging period for students on the exam. With a chronological approach, it often falls in January. Which in New Hampshire is cold and dark, and did I mention cold? I think it is also challenging because it is the convergence of so many different themes/narratives. It is not just about industrialization, it is not just about corruption, it is not just about progressivism, populism, or monetary issues, it isn’t just about imperialism, or dealing with the legacy of the Civil War and reconstruction, it isn’t just about the beginning of a “modern-looking” America-it is about all of these things. All periods are complex, but the Gilded Age is harder to distill into clear content objectives you can count on your hand. So we thought, let’s have them focus on it in the summer and spend a week discussing it; establish some basic level of skills and introduce the expectations of the course.

Jury is still out. But I am optimistic, I can use this unit and summer work again.

It is day three of AP US. Check out the backwards planning (Understanding By Design style with a Performance Based Assessment: thank you #ksi14 ) for the unit here,. Today they discussed a set of multiple-choice questions (I wrote feverishly last night, trying to use the new AP language)  in groups, and then as a class. Through observation I was able to see their different personalities, what prior knowledge of US history they bring to the class and how well they played with others (they had to come to a group consensus). As it was a long block, they then looked at feedback on their summer essays and drafted an action plan for revision.

It seems greedy to steal a week from our already limited time together (ahem 90 class meetings to prepare them for the AP yikes), but I learned so much about them as current students (not who they were last year) from today’s observation. Tonight they are facing some short answer-style questions on the same sources, but individually.

Questions I still have:

  • Will they remember this in January? Will it be useful to them?
  • Do the few who do not have a good base of prior knowledge feel under-prepared for the class? They shouldn’t. It is early.
  • Is this (relative) sacrifice of a week worth it?

Other notes on the first few days:

  • Senior electives are fun! I had students write a “positionality” essay considering how their experiences and identity influence the way they think…my favorite papers to read all year. Check out the introduction to the prompt here. More on how this is going next week.
  • Bringing local history into my Research Methods class. I was worried students would find it boring. Got an email on Saturday night asking to see more local pictures. Too early to pronounce victory, but, cough. Victory!

Question for the Blog-o-sphere: 

How important is the first week to establish the norms, expectations of a classroom? I am introducing myself as Ms. Berry, but what does that mean in September of 2014? It is different than September 2013.