Beginning of the Year Activities for the Active Learning Classroom

Community Coach and AZ educator Nicole Mercurio shares how she begins the school year for a collaborative and productive classroom of critical thinkers.

After attending sessions and presenting at HIVE 2021, I left feeling energized and enthusiastic for the upcoming year. The energy in the zoom rooms was contagious and we were all excited to start our school year off on the right foot. 

During my presentation, I discussed my experience using Open Up Resources 6–8 Math, where I saw the need to set up my classroom as a positive learning environment. 

Open Up Resources 6–8 Math is a problem-based curriculum that provides a lot of collaboration and productive struggle opportunities. In order to guarantee that my class is set for positive learning and to support critical thinking, I start the first week of school building community and co-creating norms with my young mathematicians. At HIVE 2021, I was honored enough to share my first week of school successes and collaborate with teachers all around the world to gain resources and design ways to help our first week be purposeful. 

At my session, I shared my experience prior to utilizing Open Up Resources 6–8 Math curriculum, where I would throw in activities and lessons that I now see were meaningless and had no purpose. After starting the curriculum, I realized I needed to start making use of intentional activities to set up high expectations for a classroom of students who view themselves as mathematicians and critical thinkers.  

After some self-reflection, I came to realize that I needed to provide activities that allowed students to self-discover what a classroom sounds like, feels like, and looks like when collaborating. In order to make certain that students were set up for success, I took the initiative to compile activities that promoted the opportunity to co-create norms:

Day 1:
Get to Know You Activities

The first day of school is pivotal. Teachers need to use this time to build trust, relationships, and a sense of belonging. Each year I use different activities depending on the grade level that I'm teaching to get to know my students and understand their personalities. This starts to build trust between everyone and creates a place for students to start formulating an identity in their math classroom. 

One example of such an activity is called 3 Facts. I give an index card to each of my students. Their expectation is to write two general facts and one specific fact about themselves. After collecting the cards, we get to see what we have in common. Everyone in the classroom stands, including me! I read the first fact, and we stay standing if the fact is true for us. As I read down the card, the clues get more specific, and less students remain standing. I love how students can see their similarities, and I get to begin the year with conversation starters for each unique student on my collection of cards!

Day 2:
The Right Family 

On the second day of school we start to establish what a classroom of mathematicians looks like by using the Right Family activity. The intention behind the Right Family activity is to establish why a classroom being too loud is not conducive to learning. The Right Family activity is when students get into a circle and pass an object to the left or right when they hear those words (“left” or “right”) from a passage I read aloud. This can become chaotic in the classroom, but that is the purpose of the activity. Once the passage is finished, students go back to their seats and I ask comprehension questions from the passage. Most students struggle to answer the questions and that is when we start the process of co-creating norms. I ask students to reflect on why it was hard to focus and I record their responses on chart paper that we reference throughout the week.

Day 3:
Broken Squares 

Once we establish that a loud classroom does not provide a successful learning environment, we then move into the Broken Squares activity. The purpose of this activity is to establish that a silent classroom also does not provide a successful learning environment. Students are broken into groups of four and given the task to reassemble four broken squares. The caveat to this is that they cannot talk to each other or touch each other's pieces. Students then reflect after this activity and come to the realization that this task would have been much easier if allowed to communicate with their group members. From this we revisit the norms we started the day prior and modify or add onto them. Read more here.

Day 4:
100 Numbers Activity and Four 4’s Challenge

By this time, students should start to see a pattern of what a collaborative classroom sounds like and does not sound like. The next activity we use is from Sara VanDerWerf, known as the 100 Numbers activity. From this we start to solidify why group work is beneficial and continue to construct our norms to build an effective learning community. If time allows after this activity, I like to use the Four 4’s Challenge from YouCubed to have students practice the group work norms.

Day 5:
 Build It

After a week of collaboratively determining our norms, Friday is all about putting them into practice and finalizing them. In order to demonstrate and put our norms into place, I use the Build It activity. In this activity, students are in groups of four and given six clues to build a structure. Students are only allowed to read their own clues to the group. Once they have read their clues, they work together to build their structure. Students start to put the norms we have created together into use and realize that they can productively struggle and collaborate in a math classroom where they helped develop norms.

This first week of school structure not only sets my students up for success, but also the learning process and math identities to be built throughout the year. To conclude my session at HIVE, educators formed groups and added to a Padlet of community-building activities for the school year. Check out the collaborative page here, and add your own favorites! We are better together.

Nicole MercurioNicole Mercurio currently lives in Tempe, Arizona, where she teaches 6th Grade Math for the Tempe Elementary School District at Gilliland Middle School. Nicole has six years of experience teaching math in Pre-K, 3rd grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, and 8th grade. She has spent all of her time in the classroom fostering the love of math to her students in many states, including North Carolina, Arizona, and Massachusetts! Nicole loves to create resources for making math enjoyable and attainable for everyone.