The first days of school

A few years ago I gave a brief overview of what I do on the first day of school, but since then I've rethunk and revamped my thinking on how to best organize those exciting/nervous/nerve-wracking first days.

The vision:

  1. The instructional and inter-personal interactions you have with students tell them (either explicitly or implicitly) what things you value.
  2. Your choices for how to spend the first days of school (and really all the days of school) need to align with your values.

My first day:

First, decide on those high value items. You know, the things that you really want students to know about either you or your expectations of them. Two high value items that I want students to understand right from the beginning are (1) I'd like to know each of them as individuals, and (2) I want them to become learners- not just grade grubbers who pick up a thing or two along the way. Then, find or create activities that reinforce those values.

Here's what I did last year:

I want students to understand that I value them as individuals1, so I started with a relatively low-impact ice breaker2:


Pass out half-sheets of paper to each student. You should have a half-sheet of your own. I do all of these steps right along with my students all the way through:
  1. Write one true fact about yourself on the paper (You could probably come up with more specific or interesting prompts. I like the "one true fact" prompt simply because it's non-threatening and allows a very broad range of responses).
  2. Crumple up the piece of paper (This is when you start getting funny looks).
  3. Throw your crumpled paper (The funny looks are coming fast-er and furious-er  at this point).
  4. Pick up a piece of crumpled paper and de-crumple it.
  5. Find the person who the crumpled piece of paper belongs to and write their name on it. Don't let students take their paper from the person who found it and write their own name. When they do this they don't even have to get the other person's name.
  6. When you've found your person and they've found you, have a seat.
I like this because it gets students interacting with each other right away. In addition it allows me to interact with them in a non-talking-head way right off the bat.

Who I Am

Who I Am, 2008
Once the snowball activity has loosened up the atmosphere a little, we move on to Who I Am sheets (a tip o' the hat to Dan Meyer).  They're a little more fun (& visually appealing) than the typical "write three things about yourself on this notecard" approach3, and I really enjoy reading all the students responses. Typically I'll set them aside for a week or two until I know my students better and then look over them all carefully. I also hang on to these sheets. Ideally I hang onto the students' Who I Am sheets until the end of the year and then pass them back to students. I've often forgot, or lost a few of the sheets, or whatever. However, it's a fun time having students look back at their responses as naive first day freshmen.


  • I try not waste class time, even during activities (like these) that could be considered "fluff." Again, it's modeling to students that what we do in class is important.
  • I do go over class expectations with students, though I try not to on the first day. Students are bombarded with class expectations and rules constantly throughout the first day. Why not instead spend the first day focusing on who your students are, then get in the expectations a little later?



  1. It's a little sad that many students are surprised or uncomfortable that I'd like to know more about them than whether they showed up on time and turned in their homework.     (back)
  2. I really dislike ice breakers. Seriously. I'm a bit introverted and can get cranky being forced to interact with strangers. True story. In this instance I get around my hypocritical feelings because this ice breaker doesn't require anyone to be the solitary focus of the large group- and it's short and over quickly.     (back)
  3. In the past I've reversed the snowball and Who I Am sheet. The downside of that is the first 10-15 minutes while students are filling out the sheet it's just awkward silent time. When I reversed the order, the atmosphere was a little lighter while filling out the sheets and it provided some good time for me to banter with students while they filled it out.    (back)

The Story of My (Connected) Life: CECA 2010 Preso

This post includes information and additional resources for my presentation at the Connecticut Educators Computer Association (CECA) conference on October 18, 2010. The full conference schedule is available online, if you'd like to see the other sessions being offered.

[UPDATE: Several people requested information about how to access twitter from school if it's blocked. I added the info in its own section below.]

Presentation Title

The story of my (connected) life: Building your own network for professional learning


Follow one educator's journey from online newbie to a well-networked teacher while exploring and discussing the possibilities for in-time, on-demand professional learning through online connectivity tools such as blogs, twitter, and more along the way. We'll explore how to create your own professional learning network that will allow you to share and connect to other expert educators from around the world.

The Slide Deck

The Rules

  1. Learn.
  2. It's about relationships.
  3. Jump in. Play around.
  4. Figure it out as you go.
  5. Share. Don't be shy.
  6. You don't need to read it all.
  7. Be patient.
  8. Reply. Converse.
  9. Follow people of interest.
  10. You don't need to do it all.
  11. There are no rules.


RSS & Google Reader

Resources mentioned

Accessing Twitter from school (if blocked)

First, I recommend trying to get Twitter unblocked. Many times it's blocked by default without anyone really thinking over the benefits of leaving it open. These are all options I've used at one time or another, all with varying degrees of success. Many I haven't used in a long time, so your mileage may vary.

  • Tip #1: Use FireFox
    • Mozilla FireFox is a web browser that lets you add "plugins" that give it additional features. It also tends to work better than Internet Explorer. I've been able to convince my IT people to download FireFox on my school computer without too much effort1.
    • Add Twitter Plugins to FireFox
      • TwitBin or TwitKit
        • I've used both, though I tended to like TwitKit better. Even though Twitter was blocked it was able to update the twitter feed- though the twitter user's images never showed up.
  • Tip #2: Use HootSuite
    • If you can't download anything, you might try HootSuite. HootSuite is a web-based twitter application that has a nice set of features. Though Twitter has been blocked at various schools where I've tried, often HootSuite isn't. If it's not blocked, then you can get to your Twitter stream. HootSuite does require you to create an account, but it's pretty easy to do.
  • Tip #3: Go big.
    • This option might be frowned upon by many IT people & administrators, but from what I've heard it works exceptionally well. Of course, there is a price to pay (literally). WiTopia is a program that allows you to circumvent internet filters. It's primarily designed for those living in areas with a censored internet (i.e. China), though I've heard it works quite well at schools as well. The downsides are a) it costs $50, and b) it requires a download, which you may not be able to do on a school computer.

Please don't use any of these tips if they'll really tick off your IT people or violate state, federal, or local laws. 🙂

Personal Learning Network (PLN) Info

Education/Science Blogs I Read

  • 2¢ Worth
    • David Warlick's blog on educational technology. Warlick has been blogging about educational technology longer than I've known blogs existed.
  • Action-Reaction
    • Frank Noschese is a high school Physics teacher in New York. He blogs about his adventures in standards-based grading and physics education.
  • Always Formative
    • Another member of the standards-based grading borg, Jason Buell teaches middle school science in San Jose, CA.
  • Apace of Change
    • By Damian Bariexca, an English teacher turned school psychologist who also happens to be quite savvy with the instructional use of technology.
  • apophenia
    • Written by danah boyd, one of the premier thinkers/researchers on the subject of teens' use of social media.
  • Bridging Differences
    • A back & forth exchange between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch on education, policy, and reform.
  • Deborah Meier's Blog on Education
    • As advertised. Meier is on of my personal edu-heroes.
  • Digital Ethnography
    • Written by Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropology professor at KSU. He studies how we interact in and through online environments and is an amazing educator in his own right.
  • Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
    • Scott Elias, now a middle school principal (& Apple Distinguished Educator) shares his thoughts on leadership, education, & technology.
  • Drape's Takes
    • Darren Draper is a director of technological services at a Utah school district and (if I'm not mistaken) is working on a Ph.D focused on teacher professional development.
  • dy/dan
    • Dan Meyer has taught math in CA and is interested in using digital media (among other things) to create meaningful learning experiences for students. He's gotten a lot of recognition lately, including a stint on Good Morning America & an interview on CNN. Currently a doctoral fellow at Stanford.
  • Educational Insanity
    • Jon Becker is an assistant professor at the Educational Leadership Department at VCU and knows a lot about school law, educational research, school policy, and the founder of the "data-is-a-plural-noun" posse.
  • Ideas & Thoughts
    • Dean Shareski is a digital learning consultant at a school division in Saskatchewan (easy to draw, hard to spell) and teaches at the University of Regina. He was awarded the 2010 ISTE Award for Outstanding Leadership in Technology and Education, which is kind of a big deal.
  • ijohnpederson
    • John Pederson is an Educational Technology Liason in Wisconsin who shares short, interesting, and sometimes quirky & irreverent bits of knowledge.
  • in education
    • A creative-commons licensed online educational journal that explores "our connective educational landscape."
  • JoeWoodOnline
    • Joe Wood is a teacher and instructional technologist from California. He's done quite a bit of work with Google Earth and helping teachers maximize the technology they have available to them.
  • Mathalogical
    • Sarah Cannon teaches math in South Dakota. I believe she might be currently working on an advanced degree in education policy.
  • Megan Golding
    • Megan Golding is a math teacher from Georgia who shares her thoughts and ideas on math and a variety of other subject.
  • Moving at the Speed of Creativity
    • Wes Fryer has been blogging, podcasting, and presenting about education for a very long time. He shares tools, tips, and insights into education and technology use.
  • Nashworld
    • Sean Nash, a biology teacher from Missouri, shares thoughts on teaching, pedagogy, education, and technology. Typically very insightful & interesting reading.
  • Non-Inertial Teaching
    • Brian is a physics teacher in Ohio who blogs about teaching physics and implementing standards-based grading (a system I switched to this year as well).
  • Open Thinking
    • Alec Couros is a professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. He's tweeted more times than any other one person I follow on twitter and is a education rockstar in his own right.
  • Practical Theory
    • Chris Lehmann is the principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a progressive, inquiry-driven high school in Philadelphia. He's an inspiring leader and advocate for children, learning, and schools. I'm really not sure how he fits everything he does into a 24 hour day.
  • Quantum Progress
    • John Burk teaches physics at a private school in Atlanta. He's a standards-based grading aficionado.
  • /Re:thinking/
    • OK, I don't really subscribe to this blog (because it's mine). I post irregularly on science education, reflections from teaching, standards-based grading, and whatever else strikes my fancy.
  • Science Teacher
    • Michael Doyle is an ex-pediatrician now teaching high school science. His beautifully written blog shares his thoughts on life, education, and living (among other things).
  • Stager-to-Go
    • Gary Stager (who happens to be the CECA 2010 keynote speaker) provides his thoughts on education policy and reform as well as articles written on computing in the classroom. He's been using technology in the classroom since I was just wee child.
  • Teach Paperless
    • Shelly Blake-Plock shares his vision and work to create student-centered, technologically advanced classrooms that empower students to take charge of their own learning.
  • Teaching|Chemistry
    • Ms. Bethea shares her thoughts and experiences from the chemistry classroom. A member of the standards-based grading borg.
  • The Edge of Tomorrow
    • Ben Grey does a lot of thinking about what schools and instruction should look like given the resources that are available to us. Good deep thinking shows up in his posts. Also, don't utter phrases like "media literacy" in his presence.
  • The Line
    • Dina Strasser is an all-star English teacher. She's one of my favorite bloggers- she knows her stuff and loves to share her experiences.
  • Think Thank Thunk
    • Shawn Cornally is an ultra-super-duper standards-based-grading enthusiast who teaches physics, calculus, and some programming. An excellent educator who focuses on learning before all else. His writing style (and links and hover text) is irreverent and awesome. He's from Iowa. He might turn into Cornally-Hulk if I forgot to mention that.
  • WCYDWT-Science
    • Inspired by Dan Meyer's (see dy/dan above) "What Can You Do With This" method of instruction, this is a group blog of science teachers posting videos and images that might be useful to spur student inquiry. Started up by Eric Brunsell.
  • Weblogg-Ed
    • Will Richardson has been a visionary thinker in the educational use of technology for a very long time. He's a super-blogger who will often get scores of comments on his blog posts. He provides plenty of food for thought.
  • (worthlessness and wit)
    • Daniel Agins teaches middle school social studies in Connecticut and is one of the few members of my professional learning network that I've met. There are a lot of good thoughts and ideas coming from his direction.

That's a lot of blogs (see Rule #6).______________________________

  1. Even though I didn't have the ability to download programs on my school computer, it did let me install FireFox plugins. If that doesn't work for you, I'd recommend talking to your IT people about changing some settings around.      (back)

Artifacts #2- Chemical reaction primer

Part 2 of the Chemical Reaction Artifact series. Part 1 describes what an artifact of learning is and why I use them.

I'm not someone who really enjoys being the center of attention. I don't enjoy talking for longer than 5-10 minutes a time during class and yet I found myself being the center of attention talking much more than I would've liked during my classes. I had had enough. The dissonance between how I operate best and how I was actually operating led to the following project.

The idea

Students go through the unit on chemical reactions creating a different artifact for each of the three sections in the unit. The artifact must clearly communicate their understanding of the required content. They were free to choose whichever format they felt most comfortable using- most students gravitated towards a wiki-page, PowerPoint presentations, or some form of a newspaper/textbook document.

Documents given to students on day 1 of the project:


I decided early in the planning phases that I would avoid the perhaps more typical model of teaching the material traditionally (notes, lecture, review, etc.) up front, then having students work on a project as the assessment. I wanted the learning process to be wrapped up in the process of creation. However, I needed to support the students' learning. I couldn't just give them the rubric and tell them to get busy- they needed (and desired) some support. I decided to implement two support structures in order to help students while still keeping much of the onus of content learning on them.

Quick & Dirty Overviews. I did a brief (10 minutes max.) explanation of the required content broken down into three sections based upon how I broke down the content in the rubric. In addition to this, on the wiki-page for the project, I embedded an old presentation that I had used several years ago as notes for this section. I explicitly told students that these overviews covered only the bare-bones basics. It was their job to flesh these ideas out, provide examples, images, diagrams, and really show that they've mastered these ideas. These overviews served as a safety blanket for many students. The artifact was big and scary, and the overviews were just a touch of that style of teaching they'd grown used to over their schooling career.

Collaborative Groups. I placed students randomly into groups of three. At the conclusion of each day they worked on their artifacts, they met in their collaborative groups. Their requirements in the groups were to: (1) show each other what they have done of their artifacts so far, (2) help each other find resources for information/images/video, (3) check that everyone is citing their sources appropriately, (4) check that each others' information is correct.

Students were somewhat resistant to meeting in their collaborative groups. They wanted to keep working on their own artifacts, not waste time seeing what other people are doing. Students didn't do a great job of sharing useful links with each other and the thought of (in the future) getting students to use common tags in delicious or diigo crossed my mind. However, I'm unsure whether the time required to get students up to speed on social bookmarking would be worth the possible benefits. What was a major success was simply getting students to see what each other are doing. Getting to see how other people used images, organized their information, cited their sources, and so on seemed to be very helpful to many students.


It'd just be wrong to not have a couple labs when learning about chemical reactions. This section included two labs.

Exothermic and Endothermic Reactions. Students create two chemical reactions; one exothermic (adding yeast to hydrogen peroxide) and one endothermic (dissolving ammonium nitrate into water- it's not really a chemical reaction but it does get very cold).

Types of Chemical Reactions. Five reactions that demonstrate the five basic types of chemical reactions. Clicking the following links takes to you photos taken of the reactions as students performed them:

In the end

Students will upload their completed artifacts to the class wiki for all to see. At the time of this writing, students have completed their artifacts, but the upload process will happen this Monday (12/8). When they're all up I'll be sure to share.

My goal is to begin using the class wiki somewhat like a portfolio for student work. Each student will have a page on which they post their artifacts and other assignments completed throughout the year. I'm starting a little late on this for the current semester, but I hope to improve the practice in the future.



Part of the Chemical Reaction Artifact series of posts:


Image Sources: