Why All Schools Should Have an Orientation Day to Begin the New School Year

When I was a bit younger, and had hair on my head, I remember being so excited for the release of a new CD from a band or artist I enjoyed listening to.  I was so disappointed when my parents wouldn’t let me go to the midnight opening of our local record store to purchase the new Smashing Pumpkins double-disc Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness because it was a school night.  Even in college, I took time out of my hectic schedule to purchase new CDs from bands I loved on the day they were released.  I just couldn’t wait to listen to new music.  I often felt like a kid at Christmas time, barely able to wait to rip open the decorative paper covering the gifts with my name etched upon the wrapping paper.  Then, I grew up and became an adult.  Being an adult is hard work.  Who knew that adults had so many worries and tasks to do on a daily basis, including paying bills, going grocery shopping, filling the car with gas, vacuuming the house, plunging clogged toilets, and changing light bulbs.  All of this stuff leaves very little time for thinking about new music, and so, as the years progressed, I stopped getting excited about when new music was being released.  Tuesday was just another day in the week for me, until, that is, I found out through a delightful app on my smart phone that one of my favorite metal bands of all time was releasing a new album.  After not releasing a new record in a few years, Slipknot had gone back into the studio to record their new album We Are Not Your Kind.  I had the opportunity to read about the new album and how it was going to be very heavy and hard like their first two records.  I even heard the first single from the album Unsainted.  Wow, it sounds like the Slipknot I fell in love with back in college, I thought when I first heard it.  As soon as I found out about the release date, I was pumped.  I felt like I was back in high school again, waiting for new music to come out.  On the release day, I went to a big box store only to find that they had sold out of the CD.  Luckily, my town has a phenomenal little record store.  So, I called them, hoping they still had a copy remaining on the shelves.  With fingers and toes crossed, I waited for the clerk to check.  Sure enough, they had two copies left.  I had him hold a copy for me, as I safely but quickly made my way to downtown Concord.  Luckily, I had 10 cents for the parking meter.  I ran in and grabbed the CD.  The owner was nice enough to unwrap and open the disc for me after I purchased it, as he could see the glimmer of excitement in my eyes.  He knew that I was running back to my car to listen to it.  And indeed, I did just that.  You know that feeling you get when you’re scratching off a lottery ticket, hoping that you won something, and then you see that you matched three numbers to win $20, that’s how I felt.  Goose pimples covered my skin even though it was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside.  I had the windows down and blared my new CD like I didn’t have a care in the world.  It was amazing!

As a teacher, I am fortunate enough that I get to experience a similar excitement every August when school begins.  The first day of school is filled with fun, joy, excitement, and a bit of nervousness, for me and the students.  The students come to school all dressed up in new clothes and brand new sneakers or shoes with a fancy new backpack on their back like they are ready to take on the world.  It’s so much fun to begin a new school year.

One of the many things I love about The Beech Hill School is that we don’t start school like most every other school in the country with full days, jam-packed with classes and work.  No, we ease our students back into school with a purpose.  We have a half-day orientation program for all students on the Wednesday prior to Labor Day Weekend.  It’s all about getting the students excited for the start of a new school year along with the opportunity to meet their new classmates or hang out with old friends.  The schedule for the day is very low-key and stress free.

In the fifth grade, I started our morning with a fun name game before sharing the fifth grade ways with my new students.  I talked about upcoming field trips and the always exciting Marble Jar and Marble Parties.  The hit of the morning, of course, was meeting our class pet, Beans the hamster.  We then played another game before I introduced the students to the Dialogue Journal.  I talked about this cool new tool I’m using in the classroom this year.  It’s a great way for me to learn more about the students in a more informal, ungraded way.  The first entry they completed in class yesterday was their introduction to me.  I wanted them to tell me anything and everything they thought I should know about them as students and people: How do you learn best?  What are your hobbies?  What’s your favorite subject in school?  What’s your least favorite subject in school?  What’s your favorite movie and book?  They really got into this activity.  One student wrote almost two pages, and would have continued had we not needed to transition into our next task.  Today, I responded to their journal entries with a letter back to them.  It was so much fun reading all about what they had to tell me.  I have an amazing class filled with thoughtful, creative, and excited students.  We are going to have an awesome year together!


Then, after the students wrote in their Dialogue Journals, we took a short break for snack.  During this time, the students chatted with one another as they learned about their classmates and some of the things they have in common.  Many of the students love animals and talked about their various pets.  Following snack, the students decorated their super hero capes.  Quick back story on this activity.  I wear a teaching cape and refer to my students as super heroes, as they are super in every way.  So, each year, I have them decorate super hero capes that they can wear in the classroom if they so desire.  Last year, I had one student who wore his cape at various times throughout the year.  So cool!  The students brainstormed their super hero name, symbol, and power, as they transformed a plain cape into something super awesome.  They had so much fun sharing their thoughts and ideas with their peers as they creatively decorated their capes.  Super hero theme music played in the background while they worked.  After the students finished decorating their capes and cleaning up the classroom, I had each of them share their super hero name and power with the class.  I then wrapped up the day by reminding them of what they need to bring with them on Tuesday, our first official day of school, and fielding any final questions they had.  All of my students left the school that day excited to return on Tuesday and happy about being in the fifth grade.  It was amazing!

That’s what the first day of school should be like for all students and schools.  Every school should have an Orientation Day that gets students excited for the year to come without the stress of working or listening to teachers and administrators drone on and on about the rules and expectations of the school or classroom.  Imagine if every school began with a short Orientation Day that left students feeling super pumped to return for the first full day of school.  Wouldn’t that be something?  While I realize that different schools have different ways of doing things, a fun Orientation Day just makes sense to me.  Start school early if need be in order to fit the day in.  Provide students a chance to get to know their new classmates and teachers and get excited about school.  Talk about some of the cool activities and projects the students will be doing in a fun and stress-free manner.  It’s a short day that doesn’t require much of our students.  If you’re reading this entry and your school doesn’t begin a new year with an Orientation Day, talk to your administrators and try to bring about a change for next year.  You won’t be disappointed, trust me.

Click here to learn more about Dialogue Journals.

Click here to view more pictures from Orientation Day in my fifth grade classroom.

Staring at the Sun: Reflections on my Summer Work

My parents had a very long “Don’t Do This” list for me growing up: Don’t talk to strangers, don’t stick your tongue on metal in the winter, don’t stare at the sun, don’t listen to music with Parental Advisory stickers (I’m still a little angry at Tipper Gore for making that craziness happen), don’t go swimming right after eating, and don’t shower during a thunder storm.  While some of their demands were reasonable, I mean, who wants to lose part of their tongue or get struck by lightning in a shower, others were just plain silly.

“Why can’t I listen to the new Guns ‘N’ Roses double album?” I asked my parents in complete dismay.

“Because it includes inappropriate lyrics and has a Parental Advisory sticker on it,” my mom said, all matter of fact-like.

This ridiculous rule forced me to secretly save my allowance for a few weeks, which was really hard to do as I loved spending money right away back then.  But, I did it anyway.  I saved my money until I had enough to buy both Use Your Illusions I & II.  Then, when my parents when shopping at Ames, I went over to Coconuts, the record store in our town, and bought both albums on cassette tape and shoved them into my pockets.  My pockets were too small to hold CDs.  I met my parents back at Ames like nothing devious or evil had just occurred.  I got away with my crime, and I do believe that it made the songs on those two albums sound a little bit sweeter.  They forced my hand.  I had to covertly purchase those two albums, as they changed the musical landscape of rock music.  I couldn’t possibly live my life without ever hearing November Rain.  That would be sacrilegious.

Once I was finally freed from the controlling wraith of my parents and went off to college, I was filled with thoughts of rebellion.  Freedom tasted like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, at first.  I stayed up way past my bed time, listened to music with curse words, and went swimming while eating.  It was awesome.  However, this freedom did come at a bit of a cost, as I began to realize that the rules my parents set up for me were done so to keep me safe and healthy.  After several days of staying up very late and waking up early for class, I grew very tired.  I ended up having to skip a few classes to get caught up on my sleep.  Then, when I stared at the sun, my eyes burned for days afterward.  That was so not fun.  While I was unhappy having to live within the confines of the cage my parents built for me, it was exactly the cage I needed.  It just took a few bad experiences for me to see this.

With school beginning next week, I’m filled with excitement and joy, like when I first listened to the Guns ‘N’ Roses Use Your Illusions I & II albums, minus the feeling of betrayal.  I can’t wait to meet my new students and jump into the school year.  I’m looking forward to trying lots of new games in Math class, bringing real substance to our Morning Meetings, and completing a real-world project for my community unit.  As my summer vacation is coming to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on the work I completed over the past two months.  Did I accomplish what I had set out to do this summer?  Am I fully prepared for the upcoming academic year?  Is there more that still needs to be done?  How’d I do in meeting the professional goals I set for myself back at the close of the past school year?

  • Goal 1: I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom– I feel as though I totally rocked the house on this goal.  I put a lot of time, effort, and energy into transforming my room into an educational oasis of sorts.  I reorganized my Maker Space to bring more order and accountability to the space.  I hung the tools on the wall and labelled them all so that I can quickly and easily see what tools are still in use or have yet to be returned.  Plus, every tool now has a specified place.  I like that.  I also added a Tech Space to my Maker Space so that students can learn to code, create video games, or research a project they’re creating in the Maker Space.  I set up the Raspberry Pi computer that I built last year to a spare monitor that had no use last year.  I’m excited about what the students will be able to do at this new space in my classroom.  In addition to the Maker areas in the classroom, I also had one wall painted blue and thought carefully and logistically about the posters I hung on the wall.  I made sure that each poster was directly tied to the curriculum in some way or provided the students with thoughtful words.  I attempted to remove the clutter and disconnected and distracting posters from the wall.  I’m very pleased with what I do have hung up.  I also tried to mount the posters to the wall in a more professional looking manner.  I wanted to make my classroom look more like it was put together by professional classroom designers rather than by a 42-year-old man who doesn’t even match his socks.  I’m also thrilled about the curtains I added to the library area to make it more of a fun and inviting reading cave.  I believe the students will thoroughly enjoy this new touch.  My wife is also in the process of making valences for the windows in my room.  I can’t wait to see how they inject fun and whimsy into the space.  So, mission accomplished with goal one.
  • Goal 2: I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units– While this will be an ongoing journey of mine for this new school year, I haven’t quite met this goal.  I am looking to change some of my Science and Social Studies units, but I haven’t fully realized them yet.  I have been working closely with the Hopkinton Town Administrator to enliven Our Community unit with an engaging and real-world project.  He’s brainstorming some possibilities as I type this entry.  I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.  I also want to complete some sort of unit on civics and the upcoming presidential election.  I’m not exactly sure what this will look like, but I want to teach the students about how the election process works while they learn about the candidates in the running.  I’m hoping to have the students complete some sort of debate for this unit.  Other than that, I will have to assess the completion of this goal at the close of the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Goal 3: Determine if I will use Classcraft as a tool in my classroom– After much research on the program and time spent pondering my approach to how much screen time my students have on a daily basis, I’ve decided not to utilize Classcraft in my classroom for the upcoming school year.  While this tool may work for some teachers and students, I really want my students to be focused on the entire classroom community rather than themselves as individuals.  I worry that the program would instill a sense of inappropriate competition within the class and force the students to focus too much on approaching school like a checklist.  I want my fifth grade community to operate in a free and organic manner.  So, no Classcraft for me this year.
  • Goal 4: I want to jazz up my Math class a bit– I devoted much time this summer to this one goal.  I researched various math programs that other teachers and schools use.  I read several studies on how to help students see Math as fun and engaging rather than difficult and unnecessary.  I am going to begin the year in my Math class by having the students play a series of math games to help them see the subject as a class on problem solving instead of a class that is problematic for them.  I made use of the numerous resources on the Mathforlove website.  I am going to use  pieces of the curriculum for mini-lessons and fun games in class as well.  I really want to make Math class something the students will look forward to instead of something they will dread.  I can’t wait to see how things go with Math this year.  I’m filled with hope and excitement for what is to come.  Mission accomplished with goal number four.
  • Goal 5: I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year– All you have to do is revisit my entry on the first professional development text I read this summer to know that big changes are in the works for our daily Morning Meetings in the fifth grade.  I have the first two weeks of Morning Meetings planned and ready to go.  I can’t wait to get my students sharing, caring, and playing as we build and foster a strong sense of community in the classroom.  D for done on this goal too.

I’d say that I had quite the productive summer as I worked to meet the five goals I set for myself back in June.  I feel confident, inspired, and excited to meet my new students, create a strong sense of community within the fifth grade, have fun, and learn lots.  After this lengthy summer break, I say, bring on the students and let’s get this educational party started, without any sort of Parental Advisory stickers, of course.  Smiley faces, scratch-and-sniff, and motivational quotes are the only kinds of stickers that will be allowed in my classroom.  So, although Axl Rose probably wasn’t talking about a new school year in the song Locomotive, I feel as though it totally relates to this new journey all teachers and students are about to embark upon in the coming days and weeks: “Let it take you where it may, we live and learn.”  See mom, Guns ‘N” Roses do have songs filled with inspirational and thoughtful lyrics.

Summer Time is Learning Time: Part IV

Last night, as I stood next to my wife dancing away to the music of the Goo Goo Dolls and Train, a sense of true happiness and love washed over me as if I were a pebble in the ocean of positivity.  While thousands of other music fans sat quietly or stood motionless listening to great live music, I felt the music and was moved by it, literally.  The music took me on an amazing journey as I wiggled, danced, moved, or whatever you’d like to call what I was doing, to some of the biggest pop songs of the past two decades.  I danced like no one was watching because I lived in the serenity of the moment.  I didn’t think about people snapping videos of me on social media or what others might think or label me as, I just danced and enjoyed the evening with my phenomenal wife.  It was one of the best night’s I’ve had in a while.  I allowed my emotional thoughts on the music control my body.  I listened to my soul while ignoring the social constructs that tell me to stand still or bob my head slowly to live music.  I was like a flame in a beautiful fire.  I moved like a work of bad art, and I didn’t care what anyone thought.  It was legendary.

Like my reckless dancing from last night, our emotions have immense power over us and our actions.  While I was in a controlled setting and realized that no real harm would come to me or others because of my radical dancing, aside from a neck cramp, sometimes, our emotions or feelings hijack our sense of right and wrong or what is socially acceptable.  Being self-aware of our emotions and the pull they have over our actions is crucial for success and happiness in life.  We need to find that balance between what our emotions want us to do and what our prefrontal cortex realizes we should do.  Learning self-control is one of the many keys to being an emotionally intelligent human being.  The opposable thumbs isn’t the only difference between us and monkeys.  We feel and react before we think and decide what the most effective course of action is.  However, with training, practice, and the power of redos, we can learn to be thoughtful, empathetic, and kind in how we respond to challenging or emotional situations.

Although I struggled to get through my final professional development text of the summer due to the intense density of the book, I learned much from Daniel Goleman’s seminal resource on emotional intelligence.  Sure, it could have been pruned down to about 100 pages, because like most scientists or great thinkers of our time, Goleman loves to spend pages and pages repeating the same thing over and over again using different words.  Aside from the density and repetition of the text, it reminded me of the huge and important responsibility we as educators and adults have to help teach future generations of students how to be emotionally in charge of their lives.  It’s possible that many horrible crimes and even lesser offenses in which other people were hurt either emotionally or physically may have been prevented had those involved individuals been more emotionally intelligent.  Stop, recognize, and reframe is a great strategy for being able to respond instead of reacting to situations.   When we push the pause button on our emotions and actions, and realize that we are feeling a strong emotion, we can then begin to change our thoughts and choose the best recourse to solve issues or situations in more thoughtful and caring ways.

While all great educators already realize the importance of teaching students how to be emotionally intelligent people, it’s valuable to hear it constantly repeated in books, articles, or discussions with colleagues.  Now more than ever, a resource like Emotional Intelligence is just what we need to be reminded of the huge job we have as teachers, parents, and caregivers.  We need to be sure that our children learn how to be self-aware, empathetic, and thoughtful human beings.  This text hit that point home like nothing else.  Despite the fact that it reads like a college psychology text for graduate students, the core message is meant for everyone: Think before you respond or act.  How simple is that?  But, wow does it make sense.  Imagine how many issues or disagreements we’ve all had that could have been handled more effectively had we not allowed our emotions to take over and drive the mother ship.  A lot, right?  It’s so very easy to allow our feelings to hijack our prefrontal cortex or the more modern portion of our brain, while it’s much more difficult to control our emotions and respond thoughtfully without reacting in an out-of-control manner.  This book reminded me of how important the social and emotional learning curriculum truly is.  We can’t expect our students to learn when we haven’t addressed their basic needs including safety, shelter, clothing, and food.  I can’t wait for the school year to begin so that I can help my new students to be the best possible and emotionally intelligent versions of themselves.

Here are just a few realizations or thoughts I had on this invaluable resource, all of which I jotted down in the margins.  A book can’t genuinely be digested unless you interact with it.  Reading is, after all, a physical activity.

  • Being able to accurately read the body language and facial expressions of others is crucial to being an emotionally intelligent person.  When we are able to recognize the physical signs of sadness, anger, happiness, or any other emotion, we can then use empathy to validate the other person’s feelings and then respond to the situation at hand.  I want to be sure that I teach my students how each of the big emotions manifests themselves on the bodies and faces of humans.  Much of our communication takes place without the utterance of any words.  While I’ve known this idea for years, it still smacks me in the head like a ton of bricks every time I revisit it.  We say so much without saying anything at all.
  • As teachers, we need to be specific and thoughtful with our feedback to students.  Rather then telling a student that their answer or work is wrong, we need to provide students with kind words while also helping them learn how to grow and improve as writers, mathematicians, scientists, or any other type of great thinker or doer.  While it’s much easier to say to a student, “That is wrong, now go fix it,” feedback of that type only negatively impacts our students.  We need to lift while we climb.
  • I used to think that acting out or role playing traumatic or violent events was harmful to people.  Wow, was I ever wrong.  It turns out that when kids act out or play games that seem violent or inappropriate after having survived a traumatic event, they are safely and effectively processing what they went through.  It’s the brains way of dealing with powerful memories, experiences, and emotions.  I guess the old adage of “never judge a book by its cover” remains true.
  • Our brains are plastic and changeable.  Nothing is fixed, unless we think it is.  We can change our mind, our attitude, and our outlook on life through practice, training, teaching, and sometimes counseling.  Having a growth mindset in life helps one to be emotionally literate.  If we are having a bad day, we need not allow negative emotions impact how we view what comes next.  We can choose to be happy or choose to be miserable.  I choose happy.
  • We need to help students learn how to express and talk about their emotions in effective and meaningful ways,  This can be done through various activities, but it needs to happen in our classrooms.  We can’t teach students about the gas laws if they don’t know how to process the negative emotions they are feeling regarding an interaction they had with a peer in the hallway prior to Science class.  Teaching students how to be emotionally intelligent is far more important than teaching them how to properly use a comma.
  • Many schools prevent students from feeling any sort of negative emotion much like the community in Lois Lowery’s dystopian novel The Giver.  How can we expect students to learn how to process and deal with negative feelings or emotions if we don’t teach allow them to experience them?  We can’t shield students from life.  What we can do, however, is help teach students strategies for dealing with, processing, and responding to emotions.  It is not good to shield students or people from feeling sad, angry, or mad, as then they will never learn what to do when they actually do encounter those emotions.  We can guide, help, and teach students, but we should not try to manipulate or control situations so that students are always in a constant state of happiness.  We need to experience all emotions to better appreciate life in all its magnificent glory.

“And that’s all I have to say about that,” Forrest Gump once said.  Like I did last evening at the concert in which I was an attendee, we need to help our students assess various situations and respond appropriately.  Emotions are wonderful things to experience, as long as we remain in charge of our actions and respond in kind and thoughtful ways.  Dancing crazy-like at a concert is socially acceptable behavior, while dancing at a funeral is not.  Goleman’s fine book reminds us that we need to help our students navigate their emotions, thoughts, and feelings.  Life is hard and fun and silly and unfair and beautiful all at once.  It’s like looking at a Jackson Pollack painting, we feel so many different things all at once, like controlled chaos.  So, to you fine followers of my blog, I say, go dance like no one is watching, as long as you are not at a funeral or a golf tournament.