I know that school starts at somewhat different times in different places, but wherever I’ve lived throughout my life Labour Day has signaled the end of summer and the beginning of school. Today is the day that those yellow buses start rolling. Today is the day that the university students are suddenly everywhere, out and about in our town with its 2 universities and 2 community colleges. It’s always a special time of year as far as I’m concerned, more like the start of a new year than New Year’s, but this year is special. This is the year most places are starting the school year in the hopes that – fingers crossed – COVID is no longer in charge. There may be some masks remaining, but students are in school, with their friends and their activities, just as it should be.
As I watched the school buses rolling today, I remembered back to my excitement of starting a new grade when I was a kid. As I watched the university students arriving, many feeling their first taste of independence in their lives, I remembered when my parents dropped me off at my residence as I left home to start at McGill that first year, and when I started as a graduate student away from home years later. In each case filled with a little trepidation and a lot of excitement. I thought back to when I started teaching computer science to first year university students a very long time ago. I felt the same sense of trepidation and excitement! And each subsequent year, for all those years, as the new school year started, I felt the same combination of trepidation and excitement to be back in the classroom. Trepidation that everything would go all right and excitement to meet the new students and take the journey of the semester with them. … And now I’m retired from it all and I just watch and remember!
Recently I’ve read posts from fellow bloggers that I wished I’d been able to read while I was still teaching; I would have loved to use their ideas. The first of these posts that inspired me, by former teacher Natalie Webster, was entitled Midlife Mud and Metacognition. Doesn’t sound like a post about teaching, does it? This is how it started:
Metacognition was one of two vocabulary words I’d teach my second- and third-graders the first week of school. The other word was persevere. These words established the norms for our classroom. Thinking about one’s thinking — and not giving up — set the stage for each year of learning.
I should point out that Natalie was named National State Teacher of the Year for Ohio in 2011; maybe this is a hint as to why she was so recognized. I was blown away by the idea of introducing 7- and 8-year olds to a word and concept as “grownup” as metacognition. But, of course, treating people of any age with the expectation that they can (and will) absorb a concept at a high level is a sign of respect. We rise to the challenge when given encouragement and positive reinforcement. I just thought to myself, “Why didn’t I ever think of doing this with my students?!” And persevere. What a great discuss for a first day of class, for any age whatsoever.
The second paragraph in her post explains how it worked:
Using the Frayer model for learning new vocabulary, young students would write examples and non-examples of metacognition. Their examples included “explaining how you got the answer to a (math) story problem.” Non-examples included “copying your answer from somebody.” One of my favorite examples was “trying to explain to (the school principal) what you were thinking when you hit (a classmate).”
A few weeks after Natalie’s thoughtful post, another fellow blogger, Crystal Byers, posted her reflections on her first day back at school as a teacher of high school English and creative writing, entitled Every Day is a New Day. Once again, I wished that I had read this while I was still teaching. Among several inspiring thoughts on her first day back teaching, she included this description of what she had the students in each of her classes do:
They folded printer paper into thirds like a brochure and wrote their name on one side where I could see and call on them. On the inside, they wrote a goal for themselves before they graduate and one piece of advice for me.
This took me back to those years in my classes. I also had my students fold a piece of blank paper into thirds and write their name on one side, so I could call them by name and get to know them. My sign looked like this:
I told them that they should write whatever they preferred to be called, as long as it wasn’t rude. This worked really well for getting to know my students. But, gosh, I wish I had thought to ask them to think about their personal goals and write one down. Just to get them thinking intentionally about having goals is an important step, regardless of age. And I sure wish I’d thought to ask for a piece of advice from each of them. Those responses would have been valuable. And intriguing!
Our students come to school to learn, but also to grow as self-confident individuals. Learning to think things through, learning to understand ourselves and what motivates us, is a lifelong process. Having good teachers and a healthy learning environment is an important part of that process.
The past few years have been challenging for everyone, and few more so than our teachers, from junior kindergarten to upper-year university. They have had to adapt within a matter of days to teaching their students remotely. They have had to try to engage students remotely. They’ve had to try to be there for their students remotely, knowing that many of their students were falling through cracks. When back in classrooms, they’ve had to worry about their students falling ill, masks or no masks. It has been very a stressful time for all concerned.
Here’s wishing all teachers and their students a COVID-free year of fun, learning, and personal growth.