21st Century, Creativity, Inspiration

The Power of Starting With A Fresh Slate

A Fresh Start: People

One of the things I love about being a teacher is that chance to start afresh each year.  I explained this idea to my incoming class via the introductory letter I sent out on Friday:

I have been teaching for 16 years and every year, I begin the school year as a different person. I decide on that first day and then every day thereafter, who I am as a teacher. What is important to me. What I want to accomplish. What I want my students to see when they come to school. I choose that. I don’t let other people tell me who I will be and I don’t just be who I think other people want me to be. I read, I think, I write and then I decide.

Who Will You Be? (This is a big question – take your time to think about this!) Will you be the kid who has brilliant ideas? The kid who loves math? The kid who looks to help other people? The kid who……? Fresh start. Clean slate. We all get one (that includes you!) and we all get to begin fifth grade as the person we want to be.

To some people that may sound cheesy, but to me, I think it is worth emphasising – for my own benefit and to make it explicit to my incoming students.  I teach in a small school.  My classroom door and the fourth grade classroom door are at most three yards apart.  If I were in the fourth grade, I would be assuming that the teacher in fifth knew all about me and if I wanted to change but didn’t know what that meant or how to do it, I might need someone to explain it to me.

Last year, there were two classes at my grade level and while I knew the kids in the other class, I didn’t know them super well.  One kid coming in appeared to have had a bit of rough year previously so I began the year in a similar way for his benefit, my own and the benefit of the class:

“I am excited you are in our class.  I don’t really know you all that well and I don’t really know the specific details about events that happened last year, but I do know there seemed to be a lot of drama and distraction and negative energy – three things I have little tolerance for.  When I say that you can have a clean slate, fresh start, I mean it.  Because of your behavior last year, your friends will take longer than me (perhaps) to fully warm up to you.  I encourage you to keep making good choices, come to me if you feel things are happening in a way that upsets you so that I can help you move forward, and to always focus on who YOU are, who YOU want to be and the work YOU are doing.  I think this year is going to be awesome and I hope you want to be a part of that.”

I won’t put it down entirely to that ‘speech’ but that combined with fantastic parents, loving classmates and individual determination meant that this kid had a killer year.  He nailed it.  Was he sometimes a pain?  Sure, but aren’t we all?  The point is, he embraced the opportunity to depart from his usual ways, try something new and see where it took him.

A Fresh Start: The Way to Get Unstuck

What if we were to apply the Fresh Start Philosophy to our planning.  When I Imagine a School, here is one of the things I see:
Is that the type of school you imagine? If the answer is no, why not?  Because you worked really hard on that activity to go with your Solar System unit?  Because you have half a file cabinet of worksheets already printed and stored in month-by-month hanging files? What would happen if you did decide to start fresh(ish) each year? Even if they were the best activities or worksheets EVER, are they what your new students need?
Seth Godin uses the ‘how to fasten your seatbelt’ monologue that all travelers are familiar with to describe a situation that is stuck.  He then goes on to suggest how one might become unstuck:

One approach to getting unstuck is the clean sheet of paper. Dictate that the speech before flight is going to change, that the menu will be redone, that the qualifications are going to start over, from zero. ~ Seth Godin


And the person doing this?  YOU!  Seth believes that, “Change gets made by people who care, who have some sort of authority and are willing to take responsibility.”  I would argue (I can’t believe I am arguing with my hero – he is clearly a great teacher in the art of ‘ruckus making*) that possessing any one of these qualities qualifies you to make the change.  If you see something happening that you don’t like, ask yourself:

Do I care?

Am I in a position to do something?

Will I take responsibility for this? 

If the answer to any of these questions is “YES”, then bring on the change! 

I work in an IB PYP School – an inquiry-based, open-ended learning, student-focused environment. One of the key selling-points of our curriculum is that each year, things should look different.  In fact, the work inside two different classes at the same grade level should look different.  After writing a Central Idea (Big Understanding) for the unit of work, deciding on your lines of inquiry which are concept based and figuring out what you would want a student to do to demonstrate their understanding of the idea and the lines of inquiry (therefore, planning the assessment criteria) everything else, I would argue, should be up for grabs – some of which you as the teacher should grab and the rest, left for the students.

I am not suggesting that every six weeks (about the average duration of a unit of inquiry) that you drop a Central Idea and leave.  What I am suggesting is that you consider the power of the blank planner. If you were to front-load with your students, giving them plenty of time to play, experiment, read, watch, listen, make, do, create, question, talk, visit and listen, I believe that they would be better equipped to ask deeper, more meaningful questions that would lead into deeper more meaningful inquiries and a much deeper and much more meaningful understanding of the Central Idea. Plus it makes school interesting, unexpected, and focused on the areas of interest brewing within each child.

And isn’t that worth it?

*I define “Making a Ruckus” or “Ruckus Making” as the sound your brain makes when it is challenged to be creative, thoughtful, inquisitive and world-changing and it is a beautiful sound.

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