The First Day of School

I’ve never really written about what we’ve done on the first day of school before. Usually my excuse is that I’m too busy with everything that needs to get done in the first days of school. Then I read Tracy Zager‘s post about her daughter’s experience on the first day of school. After reading Zager’s take on first days of school, it made me think about how special educators handle all of the things that have to get done when classes start. Last night it was even the topic of the bi-weekly twitter chat for teaching math to students with disabilities, #SwDMathChat.

Needless to say, “There will be no talking;” “You may not work together;” and “I can not help you;” are not part of my first day of school lesson plan. In the past we have done engineering team-building activities such as The Marshmallow Challenge and The Cup Stacking Challenge. This summer during the first Mini NYC twitter Math Camp conference, teacher-educator Nicora Placa introduced me to the book, Designing Groupwork and the task, Master Designer.

Master Designer is a great beginning of the year task, because it highlights the following three groupwork behaviors, “Helping students do things for themselves;” “Explain by telling how;” and “Everybody helps.” These groupwork behaviors set a very different tone than “There will be no talking;” You may not work together; “and “I can not help you.” These three groupwork behaviors relate directly to math classes of all kinds. In my class, we want students to be trying math problems on their own, at least at first. We also want students to be able to explain how they solved (or didn’t solve) math problems. We also want students to see their classmates as sources of information and not solely relying on the teachers in the room.

Here’s how it went…

We introduced the activity by asking students what they thought it would entail based on the title alone.

“We’re gonna make clothes!”

“It’s about being the best at designing!”

Some students saw the pattern blocks on another table and inferred based on that, “We are going to make shape designs!”

Next, we presented the steps of the Master Designer process. This led to a whole group fishbowl style modeling of the task by my assistant teacher and myself. The students stood around the table as one of us played the role of Master Designer and the other teacher played the role of other group member who had to replicate the design. As the students suggested descriptions for how to replicate the pattern block designs, the teachers intentionally took each description literally, which also allowed us to highlight the value of making mistakes. Even I couldn’t help but be excited to see if my assistant teacher had made the correct design based on our explanations and I knew he was intentionally trying to make mistakes on the first try!

Once the students took over as the master designers and replicators, the teachers were able to walk around the classroom and assess students’ visual-spatial processing, receptive and expressive language, executive functioning, and fine-motor skills. All of these pieces of information are just as valuable to a special educator as knowing whether they have their multiplication facts memorized.

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After a couple of rounds, we came back together to introduce the three groupwork behaviors (PDF) and discuss their daily relevance to math class. Using the concrete example of the Master Designer activity, the intensely abstract discussion of successful groupwork behaviors was very positive. Students were able to see that one can work in a group, but do work on their own at the same time.

Finally, we introduced the role of the observer (PDF). Drawing on this concrete example allowed students to share moments when students explained how they made their designs as well as moments when students helped other students. In special education, presumption of competence and self-advocacy are often over-looked in favor of overscaffolding and fill-in-the blank activities. Students are rarely held up as founts of knowledge in special education math classes. Our class is an exception and Master Designer helped us get there!



6 thoughts on “The First Day of School

  1. This is such a beautiful look into your classroom – I appreciate the rich description!

    One thing I love about the complex instruction tasks is that it helps us operationalize ideas about status, stigma, ‘smartness,’ and competence by looking for low/high status students in the classroom (either because of social dynamics, income, prior success, shyness, etc.) and being really intentional about using tasks/activities like Master Designer to position students as competent on genuine grounds (you DO have something important to offer), not just vague and empty praise. Students can tell the difference! And meanwhile, the latter doesn’t do anything to shift the status dynamics in the classroom.

    I also appreciate how you’re taking every advantage of what I call “teacher spying.” 🙂 Using every opportunity to assess how students are working, what they find problematic, and what they’re doing really well, so that we can design with those skills (and goals) in mind.

    In my methods class last week I had some students problematize a 3-act task we were working on because they found it challenging themselves, and thus concluded that it wasn’t universally designed or even reasonable to pose to 3rd grade students (I just posted a blog about it). One thing we’re going to talk about in this week’s class (as we do another 3AT together) is how we can use group roles strategically to (1) position low-status students competently as authentic contributors while (2) meeting the needs of students who need additional supports to make sense of the mathematics represented in a situation. I hope to write about it later this week, and get your feedback on how I could do a better job in the future. I know you’ll have valuable insight to add!!


    • Hi Charlotte,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

      I’m interested in what your students thought about 3 acts and universal design. Did they question the structure of 3 acts in general or the content of act 1 or the questions/math introduced in act 2?

      I have made a couple of 3 act tasks and I would love to get the opinion of you and your students regarding their universal design.
      Can’t wait to hear more from you and your students!


      • re: your question. TBH, I wish I knew! The comment, “this was NOT universally designed” that I heard one student say after class was not one I could unpack in that moment. I THINK that what she essentially meant was, “that was too hard for me,” or perhaps, “I didn’t get adequate support to learn what I needed to learn today.” If what she meant was the former, then I think the question becomes one about productive struggle, and whether it’s ok for us as adults to struggle with ‘little kid stuff.’ If what she meant was the latter, then I think the question becomes one about what supports would allow for her (or other students) to make sense of the problem without reducing the mathematics to something flimsy.


  2. I believe master design is a brilliant first day of school math activity. It provides students with the idea that math is fun, engaging, and is not a chore. This activity not only shows the teacher what type of mathematicians their students are, but teaches students how to be observant and to trust their peers. My favorite component about master design is that it is completely student based. The students run, observe, and participate in the activity. Students will learn from this lesson that there are many different aspects that play into learning math. Math is not only equations and numbers, but it also consists of problem solving, observing and peer teaching. One aspect of master design I could see being challenging for students is the communication skills for students. Being the first day of school, students do not yet know much about their peers and their is a lack of a classroom community. When the master designer is explaining the design to other students, some may get frustrated and confused and not know how to express their feelings and emotions. Although this may be raised as an issue, it will also act as a strong first day of school team building activity that can be beneficial for building a strong classroom community. One question I have is: How can the teacher implement themselves during this activity without overpowering students. Should they not be involved at all and just observe students, or should they scaffold students as they complete the activity?


  3. Hi Andrew,

    I truly enjoyed reading about your experience with the “Master Design.” I did one of my practicum placements in a first grade classroom, where we did something very similar to this, and it was interesting to see how your students were able to take this on the first day, and their experiences with it. My students were more comfortable with each other as it was almost the end of the year, but I am glad to hear that this activity can be utilized on the first day.

    I believe that this is an important activity to do on the first day during math, as it allows students to become more comfortable in the classroom, and the subject itself. Often times, students do have math anxiety, or math “horror stories” because they are not given the right resources that they need to thrive in the classroom, and enable them to do their best and WANT to do their best. We do not want out students to be scared of math. When a teacher has math anxiety, their students follow along with them and learn to dislike math, instead of being able to recognize the useful tool that it actually is. By doing this activity, we are providing students with the resources that they will need to succeed in math. Their peers are going to be their most important resource throughout their entire lives, and by telling them that they “can not work together” tells them that they should no be collaborating or helping each other learn. Students often learn better from their peers than they do adults.

    One issue that I could see occurring with this activity is the students being unable to see how beneficial this may be to them. Because they do not understand the true meaning of why we are doing it as teachers, and that it will help create a stronger community and a more comfortable learning environment, they may be turned off to the idea of doing this. I know that when I observed this in a first grade classroom, they were not all giving the same amount of effort which causes the whole activity to fall apart. Is there any way that you feel you could make your students more aware of why they are doing this activity?

    Thank you for this activity and your post, and I look forward to using it in my future classroom!


  4. Pingback: Beginning the School Year with a Productive Disposition | The Learning Kaleidoscope

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