Celebrate this week: Conversations matter!

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get!

conversations matter

This week I want to celebrate conversations…the kind of thoughtful conversations in which thinking is shared, mulled over, nudged, and encouraged.  The kind of conversation that leads to changed thinking and reflective action.  The kind of conversation that helps us to become, simply put, better teachers.

I began the week thinking about all the “first week of school” business that I need to think through and settle on: the first day letter, supply list items, reading and writing surveys, welcome back letters to parents, assessment checklists, conferring tools of the trade.   My thoughts turned to organizing first day activities, and then settled upon something I’ve been wrestling with ever since I read Harvey Daniels and Sara Ahmed’s inspiring book, Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry – the idea of the soft start.  Here’s how Sara describes such a start to the school day:

When we come in, we have to get in “the zone” right away.  That means our bodies and minds are focused and ready to take on the day. The same way we get ready before a big game or a performance, our actions show we are ready to be our best selves.

I especially valued the “why” of a soft start:

Soft starts create less of a police action for tardies.  No one is standing at the front of the room, itching to teach and playing security guard at the door.  The expectation is that learning has already begun though a series of routines and mutually understood practices.  These routines can be up to ten minutes long and begin with a simple note on the board; a quiet beginning and autonomy.

I began to think about the way I began my morning and afternoon teaching blocks (writing workshop, reading workshop, and social studies – 3 back to back periods, 50 minutes long each) – my kids come in, and we get right to work: mini lesson, inquiry circle, book clubs…whatever it is that is planned, once the bell rings we get to it right away.  My philosophy and justification has always been that we have not a moment of learning time to lose, so let’s get started right away.

But…I loved the way Sara’s soft start  inculcated a sense of autonomy, “so kids know what it takes to create a positive and calm learning environment”, her students “have ownership and agency when they walk through the door”, and they are “centered and ready to learn”.   My sixth graders begin block either first thing in the morning when they are barely awake, or right after lunch when they are in a lunch coma.  A soft start would be the perfect way to ease them into productive learning time, it would also be gentler and simply more humane.  They would certainly appreciate it.  Perhaps it was time?

But…I worried that such a start would not help them in their 7th. and 8th. grade years – when they would be expected to go from period to period, and get to work right away.   Would my soft starts lead to tricky transitions? Would I be setting them up for difficult times later on?

I turned to my Voxer community with these questions. Here are my thoughts, I said, what do you think?  Within minutes, my friend  Justin Dolcimascolo responded with this:

Why not reframe your thinking? he asked.  Could it be something your kids could advocate for themselves in the future?  Could you sow the seeds for something your kids will come to value and then advocate for in the years to come?  If you value this, Justin said, do it…my view is that what comes after, comes after, but what I can do for them at this time is everything I can do for them.

Justin’s advice was echoed by Julieanne Harmatz – it makes a big difference to have that quiet time to read, she said, and I give my kids the option to write as  well; choice leads to a greater feeling of autonomy and empowerment – kids get to make decisions about how to prioritize and attend to their reading and writing work.

Dr. Mary Howard had been listening in to our conversation and pushed my thinking further by suggesting a smooth close to end the day as well – a quiet time to read which would also serve as a bridge between school and home, for this independent reading time would sow the seeds of conversations about books kids were reading and their thoughts about these stories.  You are planting seeds of possibilities...Mary said, good work that will serve as cognitive fuel for the future.

So, what had begun as a tentative exercise in wondering about whether it was time to start new routines morphed into a resolution.   My new sixth graders will be introduced to the idea of a soft start and a smooth close at the very beginning of the school year, and together we will make these routines something that my kids treasure and grow from.  Questions and ideas, merged with wisdom and experience in those conversations…I am a better teacher for it, and I celebrate that!



8 thoughts on “Celebrate this week: Conversations matter!

  1. I love the ideas, but even better that you asked for conversation, certainly a celebration that we learn by listening to others’ thoughts, too. That’s something for you to pass on to students as well. Great to hear this, Tara, will look forward to what you share in a month or so!

  2. And best of all you have allowed the rest of us to be included in the conversation. I have started with a soft starts and didn’t realize it. First thing is math – we are starting with “Where’s the Math?” looking at a picture and discussing it. A conversation that typically leads into our focus lesson for the day.

  3. Although I never called it “soft start,” I always start the block (I have an am and a pm block) with just “get going into your reading” procedures. Students fill out agendas (on the front board), check the purpose, and start reading. It’s so nice. I mingle and chat with students, noting attendance, and read myself. Peaceful!

  4. I heard bits of this conversation about soft start but was unclear until this post what you really meant by it. I am setting a goal today to be more intentional about soft start. Is there music involved? I know a lot of teachers play soft music in the morning.

  5. I love this post about soft starts (which I used to do with a beginning focus on independent reading like Jennifer mentioned). But what I’m most interested in is the smooth close. Are these two events possible in a setting where you have a new group of students every 50 minutes? Somehow, I think they should be.

  6. I was sitting here reading this, just as I was thinking about how little blogging I’ve done recently. My energy level has been high and not as long on reflection. This made me want to start MY own day that way since I’m not teaching any more. I’d sure like to incorporate those soft starts and closes in a classroom. But I think there’s a benefit for all to reap here. Loved listening to your process! Thanks for celebrating it today.

  7. Pingback: Celebrate this week: First steps…small steps | A Teaching Life

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