Scavenger Hunt: Get Kids Talking on the 1st Day of School

Relationship building needs to start on the first day of school if teachers are going to cultivate a community of learners willing to take risks and engage with one another. That said, building a community can be challenging, especially in those early days of the school year when students are feeling shy, nervous, and unsure of themselves.

One of my favorite icebreaker activities is an offline scavenger hunt. I pass out paper copies of the scavenger hunt pictured below and ask everyone to grab a pen and stand up. I explain that they will have 20 minutes circulate around the room meeting their new classmates. I tell them that the goal of the activity is to complete as many items on their scavenger hunt list as possible. (In reality, the goal is to break the ice, connect with classmates, and have fun.)

Feel free to make a copy and use this with your students!

Over the years, I’ve fine-tuned this activity to make it more effective. I explain the following rules before we begin:

  • Conversations must happen one-on-one. Students are not allowed to form small groups to ask several people a question at one time. The goal is for students to get to know one another, and that is easier to do when they engage in individual conversations.
  • Each conversation must begin with an introduction. Each person should start by saying his/her name. This seems like it should go without saying, but teenagers tend to be awkward, so I have to remind them to start with their names.
  • They are only permitted to ask a person three questions before they have to move onto the next person.
  • If the person they are talking to answers “yes” to a scavenger hunt item, they must write that person’s name in the box next to the item and answer any questions associated with that item. For example, if a student says they visited an amusement park, then the person asking the questions must find out which park their classmate went to and which ride was their favorite. They must answer these additional questions on their sheet of paper to get credit for that scavenger hunt item.
  • The student asking the questions must write their partner’s name and details on their paper. They should not hand their paper to the person they are talking to and ask them to write their name and information. Again, this should be obvious, but some students try to cut corners to speed up the process.

I hope this will be a fun activity that teachers can use at the beginning of the school year to break the ice and get kids having conversations. Investing time to build relationships at the start of a school year is crucial to creating a community of learners who can work together all year long!

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Grading Less in a District that Requires a Minimum Number of Grades

In a blog post I wrote titled Ask Yourself, Why Am I Grading This?, I encourage teachers to think about the purpose of the work students are doing and evaluate whether it makes sense for them to invest their time and energy grading that work. It’s not realistic to expect that teachers will grade the majority of the work their students produce. I’m not sure how this unrealistic expectation became the norm in education. How is one teacher supposed to grade all of the work that 150+ students complete? When? For what purpose?

When I facilitate training sessions or coach teachers, I encourage them to shift feedback and assessment into the classroom where student progress can be an ongoing conversation. Too often, teachers assign work that students complete in isolation. Then they collect that work and grade it in isolation. They pass back that work and students are often left to digest the grade and feedback in isolation. In this traditional workflow, where is the opportunity for a conversation about that work and the learning happening?

Several teachers have reached out to lament that they love the idea of grading less, but they work in a district that requires a specific number of grades be entered into the online gradebook each week or grading period. So, I wanted to share two strategies for grading less in a district that a minimum grade requirement.

#1 Grade Individual Skills & Enter Those Assessment Scores Separately

When teachers are required to enter two grades a week or twelve individual grades each grading period, they often equate one grade with one piece of work. However, when I started to rethink my grading practices, I embraced a standards-based approach to grading. If my students wrote an informative paragraph about a topic or issue, I would evaluate that paragraph for specific standard-aligned skills. I would enter one score for the quality of their textual evidence or research and another score for their depth of analysis. Those are two different skills, and entering them as two separate scores made it easier to create clarity about what students had done well and what they needed to work on.

When I was coaching a science teacher who was shifting to blended learning, we explored using the same strategy to assess her students’ work on Newton’s Third Law. She asked students to apply this law and design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects. The students were evaluated on the model they designed and on their explanation. Instead of wrapping these two parts of the assignment into a single grade, the teacher entered a separate score for each part of the assignment–the model and the explanation. The best part was that she designed a station rotation lesson and used her teacher-led station to have students present both their model and explain their process in class, so she was able to assess their work with them sitting right next to her.

If teachers assess individual skills and enter those assessment scores separately, they will have more grades in the gradebook while grading fewer pieces of student work. I would argue that entering scores for individual skills as opposed to holistic scores that reflect an average of multiple skills will make the gradebook more user-friendly for students and parents.

#2 Let Technology Help You Do the Heavy Lifting of Grading

Technology can help teachers manage the daunting task of assessing their students’ knowledge and skills. If teachers are required to enter a specific number of grades, that doesn’t mean the teacher has to do all of that grading by hand. There are learning management systems and online programs that teachers can use to administer assessments that are graded automatically. I’m not suggesting that all assessments happen online, but technology offers teachers other avenues to assess student work efficiently.

Programs, like NoRedInk, make it possible for English teachers to give students a diagnostic to assess their current skill level in relation to grammatical concepts. Based on their performance on the diagnostic, the teacher can assign personalized practice. Once students have had the opportunity to practice online and offline, teachers can administer assessments on NoRedInk.

Teachers using a learning management system, like Schoology, can create quizzes that grade themselves and deliver quick assessment data. Similarly, Google Forms can be set up to run like a quiz.

Teachers need to work smarter, not harder. We work hard enough Instead of running ourselves ragged trying to put points on every assignment students complete to encourage compliance, we need to be thoughtful about what we provide feedback on and what we choose to assess. If we focus on assessing specific skills and use technology when appropriate to make collecting assessment data easier, we can still meet minimum requirements that are set by districts while spending more time on the aspects of our jobs that we enjoy.

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Using Computers in the Classroom: Shifting from Consumption to Creation

In the last few months, I have read several articles about increasing pushback against the use of technology in schools. The Atlantic published a piece called “The Backlash Against Screen Time at School,” The Guardian published an article titled “Children are Tech Addicts – and Schools are the Pushers,” and The New York Times published “Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good.” As a technology and blended learning enthusiast, I’ve thought a lot about why there is growing concern about the use of technology in schools. In part, I can understand the fears articulated in each of these articles because I see some serious problems with the way technology is being used in schools.

#1 Technology is often used to isolate learners.

I want educators to use technology to foster collaboration and encourage exploration. Just because a school is 1:1 and every child has a device does not mean they need to work on that device alone. I realize computer programs and adaptive software are extremely easy to use and allow teachers to personalize practice for students, but we cannot neglect the importance of human interaction in the learning process. I wish I saw more scenes in classrooms like the image below.

#2 There is a lack of balance between online and offline work.

Quite frankly, too many kids spend too much time staring at screens and not enough time engaging in social learning with their peers. I have been an observer in classrooms where the computers are always open. All of the information students need to complete tasks is posted online. All of their work is submitted digitally. In the rare moments when students are working offline, computers remain on desks and are obstacles to interaction.

#3 Too often computers relegate students to a passive, consumptive role instead of encouraging playful learning and creation.

In a piece titled “Computer as Paint Brush: Technology, Play, and the Creative Society,” Mitchel Resnick talks about the need to reimagine the ways in which we use computers. People view computers primarily as information machines, but Resnick makes the point that computers should be used “less like televisions and more like paint brushes.” I could not agree more. Computers can be powerful tools for play, exploration, experimentation, design, invention, and creation. Students should be encouraged to learn playfully using computers as creative tools.

If technology was used to encourage social learning, foster collaboration, and nurture creativity in the classroom, I believe more people would be excited about and supportive of technology in education.

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