Dream vs. Reality: The First Day of School

I have dreamed of this moment for seven years. A fantasy from 11th grade still replays itself in my mind with crystalline clarity: My first day of school as a teacher. I’m wearing all professional black clothes with my hair slicked back in a bun. I’m stricter than I need to be because I want my students to take me seriously. I’m cool and aloof and ooze authority and respect. I talk about learning and brain growth and the value of hard work until we suddenly have an inspirational “Dead Poets Society” moment. The students leave, backpacks slung over one shoulder, talking about how they can’t wait for tomorrow. They jump, fist in the air – and freeze frame!

My real first day was nothing like that.

When I realized that baseline data must be collected before I could implement any learning community activities as per my goal and research this year, I immediately accepted the fact that my students’ first day of class with me would be… unorthodox. I stood at the door as they walked in, asking each student to say their name as they wrote it down so that the first time I heard it would be the correct way to pronounce it. The first thing they saw upon entering the room was a sign saying, “Welcome to Physics! Grab a baseline survey from the Pick Up station (near the door) then take a seat and begin the survey.” Once the bell rang, they had seven more minutes to complete the survey before I gave my two minute introduction to myself and to the course. The rest of the class was spent doing a Group Juggle with squishy bird shaped toys in order to start getting the students comfortable and familiar with each other.

Collecting Baseline Data: An Abrupt Start

Norms and expectations are easiest to establish at the beginning of a group’s existence. That means that the best time for me to introduce the notion of a learning community was the first day of school. So, as unorthodox and abrupt as it sounds to have the students silently submit a ten-question survey about learning communities as soon as they walked in on the first day, it was a necessary action in order to get the least biased baseline data that I could. Well, if I had been more zealous in my quest for unbiased data, I probably could have covered up our giant community calendar and “Welcome to Our Physics Fiesta!” decorations but I put a lot of trust in the students being slightly too overwhelmed by their first day of school to be so analytical of the wall decor.

The baseline survey consisted of two free response prompts and eight Likert scaled prompts that asked students to circle a number between one and eight where one implied that they “strongly disagree” and eight meant that they “strongly agree”. Heather had given me some advice and information about the benefits of using more versus fewer and even versus odd numbers on the Likert scale. I decided upon a scale of eight quantitative points because an even number denies the students an opportunity to respond with a true neutral. I also chose eight points on my Likert scale because it would allow me more clarity into the differences in the students’ choices than a smaller number would while still remaining mangable for me to record by hand. With the prompts, I tried to tease out what students knew about community oriented learning and how they felt about it.

The Part With The Numbers

To record the data, I created a Google Sheet in which the columns represented each survey prompt and the rows represented each student’s responses. I included their name or initial in my Google Sheet so that I would have the opportunity to compare a student’s responses throughout the year. I made a separate page for each class period as well as one total group page. Google Sheets was helpful in that I was able to include a cell for each prompt that calculated the class averages and the grand total averages for that prompt. The prompts and their all-class averages are as follows:

  • What the phrase “sense of community” means to me: (free response)
  • I have experienced a sense of community in previous classes. (4.78)
  • I like feeling a sense of community in my classes. (5.5)
  • I learn better when I feel like I am a member of my classroom community. (5.48)
  • I am familiar with the term “learning community”. (4.62)
  • What “learning community” means to me: (free response)
  • I feel confident in my ability to learn physics this year. (5.50)
  • I feel confident in my ability to pass the physics course this year. (6.04)
  • I believe that having a sense of community will help me succeed in the physics course. (5.88)
  • I believe that participating in a learning community will help me succeed in the physics course. (6.09)
  • I feel a sense of community with the people in this class. (4.71)
  • People in (our school district) have a shared sense of community. (5.41)

Reflections and Analogies

I’m still processing the information. I’m still figuring out what the data implies and how the averages compare across the class periods. I’m still interpreting data and sorting through rumours of remarkably high failure rates last year and re-takers this year. I’m still hearing and reading comments from students who are terrified of physics and have a wide range of confidence in their abilities. While I’m chewing on my data like a cow on its cud, life in our classroom has moved forward at lightning speed. In the last two weeks, we’ve discussed the traits of a learning community; we have drafted, finalized, and displayed our top five community agreements; we have learned each other’s names; we have developed routines with daily greetings and exit tickets; we have helped each other review mathematics concepts; we have run through the halls in a particularly fun pursuit of problem solving; and yesterday, we decided to believe in the power of “yet” by turning around each sentiment in which we express doubt in our abilities. Gone are the days of “I can’t do math”, there is only room today for “I’m not good at physics yet.”

I, too, am taking on the power of yet. I’m on a steep, but manageable, learning curve when it comes to my lesson plans and preparing materials. While each day of class so far has left me in love with my new job and with the communities we’re building, I’m not quite at the level of preparation that I’d like to be… yet. I will get there, I know it. With practice and experience, I will leave behind twelve hour (or more) days at school. There will come a day when I have nearly everything for the next week planned and printed the Friday before. So too will the day come when I will write these blog posts when I mean to write them instead of a week later like I did with this one. I’m not too worried and I’m not letting any of these current slips or shortcomings overwhelm me with personal disappointment. Heather and I have talked about this project being my “lizard’s tail”- the thing you never want to drop, but can lose if necessary to survive. I’m nowhere near needing to drop my “lizard’s tail” but I’m glad to feel secure in my plans and priorities.

New teachers and veterans, what is your “lizard’s tail” this year?

What is your yet?

First year teacher – passionate about community and equity