Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Checking in

Howdy campers, I’m gearing up for a new year and a new life as a theatre teacher, and I’m hoping you can help me out with a dilemma I have about checking in.

We checked in at the start of every class period this past year. I enjoyed it very much, and it helped me learn all the students’ names in record time. It allowed kids to brag about accomplishments, and it let them vent about problems at school or home. It provided a forum for themselves, and I think it made a big difference in my class. My uberbitch principal warmed to the idea, even when my kids put her on the spot during my annual appraisal by forcing her to check in with the rest of the class.

However, I have doubts about checking in with my new job. Everyone tells me that middle school kids need more structure and discipline that high school kids. Harry Wong’s The First Days of School insist on seating charts, especially with rows of desks, and checking in really only works with a circle and no assigned seats. I’m also worried about the time constraints. My previous school had 75-minute class periods. My new school has 50-minute class periods. Checking in usually took about three minutes, but it would occasionally take 20 minutes if a kid had a problem to discuss. That would amount to almost half the class, and I just don’t know if I can allocate that much time to checking in.

I’ve discussed this with one or two of you over e-mail, and I’m still undecided on the issue. I worry that a middle ground—starting with a seating chart and introducing the circle later—would seem like the worst of both worlds rather than the best. Checking in gives each student a voice from the first day, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it worked for me. Plus, I don’t want to have to introduce a concept and procedure for the start of class each day if I’m hoping to abandon it as soon as possible.

Should I just go for broke and try checking in? Harry Wong would tell me not to. He’d say it’s easier to eliminate previous parameters rather than set new ones partly into the school year. It seems illogical to try something the experts would warn me against, but it just feels right to me. I’m not the kind of person who is used to accepting things on blind faith, so I’m struggling with what to do. Any suggestions?


At 9:48 AM, Blogger Emily said...

You CAN check in with rows of seats. Just pass it down the line like a snake instead of around the circle.

My sixth graders last year LOVED check in, my seventh graders abused it. I plan to try again this year with more boundaries (and a different group of kids will help - my class last year were little pricks).

Try it. If it doesn't work, stop doing it.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Shakespeare Teacher said...

I hate to say this, but sometimes the experts are wrong. I say go with your gut. I jumped in and tried it all last year, even with the classes that most said could not handle it. Granted I had to retreat to desks for one of my classes, but that class began to see check in and check out as a privilege and something that they wanted to keep. Because of that they actually would behave better in order to keep it. You can always start with quick, simple instructions and time parameters (even Kevin had his way of telling you your time was up)and as the year progresses introduce them to the more open, free form that we are used to.

I agree with Emily. Try it! You can scale back and it won't hurt the class.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Meg O'C said...

I think the key with younger kids and checking in is to give them a very specific prompt: check in by telling us..."if you were a color today, what color would you be?" or "if you were a meal" or "a cartoon character." sometimes in the past I've just had my kids make a sound and a gesture to check in- no explanation needed. You can limit it in a lot of different ways, (and we can probably generate a great list on this blog with input from everyone) but your new students will need some sense of the parameters--too much new can be overwhelming and inhibiting rather than freeing. Your goal is to set them up for success. With younger or more inhibited kids, sometimes as a teacher you need to metaphorically peel half of the orange for them and then let them choose how to finish it so they can say "I did it all myself!"
I remember my early love of Harry Wong, and yes, he's great in many ways, and right about a lot, but his insistence on order and structure is what Shake&Co's work is trying to turn upside-down. Harry's not in your room, so trust your own judgment and feelings about what kind of world you want your kids to walk into. Sometimes I got the sensation that Harry was talking to teachers much younger and much dumber than I who could not afford to step off the path. But you're clever and old, so Trust yourself!

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Holbrook said...

Thanks for the advice. I think compiling a list of check-in prompts is a great idea.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Emily said...

My 6th graders loved to create their own prompts. At first, they'd ask for one they liked (Movie title, photograph), then they'd invent their own and come to me before class with it. I always made sure to pepper a "traditional" check in throughout - about twice a week - to make sure we remembered where we came from. I would also have kids coming to me at the beginning of class to ask if they could "start check in." It usually meant they had something to say. =D

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Holbrook said...

Is there a trick to getting them to understand the difference between "what movie title are you?" and "what's your favorite movie?" I don't want 30 kids just saying "Friday" all the way down the line.

At 12:04 AM, Blogger Meg O'C said...

I'd hazard that it's all in how you set up the purpose of the exercise. Even among the adults at NITS and sometimes with my high school kids there was confusion--seeing check-in as "my chance to be the center of attention" and not "say what you need so that you can bring yourself fully present into the work." A check-in for younger kids could be described as "a way to let other people know how you're feeling today." But again, you'd want to tie this explanation back to WHY it matters in theater to tell people how you feel. And yeah, some kids will always just tell you their favorite movie (or any other safe answer based on the prompt), either because they have not developed skill in abstract thinking, or they are not ready to take a bigger risk, and that's okay! Kids will participate at vastly different levels in middle school because developmentally, they are all over the map. Love them for where they are. I haven't taught middle school theater in three years, so I'll defer to the local experts, but I tried always to steer them away from pop-culture (which is important to middle schoolers because it's how they enforce identity and conformity) to more abstract thinking- colors, food, shapes, weather. Again, it's all in how you set it up. Discover Why you've decided that this is an important exercise, and that will lead you to your own answers on how to set it up and and run it.


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