Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Review: The First Days of School

When I was getting my undergrad, this book (and accompanying VHS tape) were referenced constantly during my classes. So when I saw it at the half-priced book store, I picked it up immediately, and it has forever since sat on my bookshelf. Finally, now that I have a class to prepare for, I decided to actually read it.

And boy, was it a bore.

You see, The First Days of School was written in 1991, at which point I assume it was groundbreaking. And the trouble is, twenty-two years have passed since then, and all of that groundbreaking information is now commonplace. Honestly, since it was referenced so much in my undergrad program, I didn't actually learn much from reading at all.

I did take notes on a couple of things, however, so I'll share them now. Interestingly enough, they're all from Chapter 24, "How to Get Your Students to Work Cooperatively," one of the last chapters in the book. Again, most of this isn't new knowledge, but it is written succinctly and comprehensibly in a way that I like.

p. 246, Compete Only Against Yourself. 
The message to your students is this:
-There is only one person in the world you need to compete against, and that is yourself.
-Strive each day to be the best person possible.
-Your mission in life is not to get ahead of other people; your mission is to get ahead of yourself.
-But while you are competing against yourself, you are expected to work with everyone else in this classroom cooperatively and respectfully.
-You are responsible not only for your own learning but for the learning of your support buddies as well.
The illustration accompanying this is of a classroom with a sign on a bulletin board reading "Cooperate with Each Other. / Compete Only Against Yourself."

p,252, As students become more skilled in working together, they can practice more sophisticated skills, such as these:
-Asking for and giving help
-Showing that they are interested in what others are saying
-Talking about several solutions before choosing one
-Criticizing ideas, not people
-Asking questions to try to understand another point of view

p. 257, The Four Basic Elements Needed to Make Cooperative Learning Work:
1. Positive Interdependence
2. Social Skills
3. Individual Accountability
4. Group Evaluation
And specifically about Social Skills,
The basis of cooperative learning is social skills that help students share leadership, communicate effectively, build trust, and manage conflict. Generally, the students do not come to the classroom with those skills; the skills must be defined clearly and taught in much the same way that academic subjects are taught.
Lots of verbal face-to-face interaction, explaining, arguing, resolving of conflicts, elaborating, consensus-forming, and summarizing will occur and should be encouraged.

p. 258, How to Get the Students to Work Cooperatively on an Activity:
1. Specify the group name.
2. Specify the size of the group.
3. State the purpose, materials, and steps of the activity.
4. Teach the procedures.
5. Specify and teach the cooperative skills needed.
6. Hold the individuals accountable for the work of the group. 
7. Teach ways for the students to evaluate how successfully they have worked together.
Specifically, I thought the teaching of group work procedures was interesting, because I rarely see it done. There is an accompanying illustration of a sign on a bulletin board reading:
Procedures During Group Work:
1. You are responsible for your own job and the results of the group.
2. If you have a question, ask your support buddies. Do not ask your teacher.
3. If no one can answer a question, agree on a single question and appoint one person to raise a hand for help from the teacher.

On page 262, there is a sample assignment that is quite lengthy--definitely more appropriate for a high school class than my group of third graders. It begins with a discussion on groups, which in my opinion is a better verbal discussion. Perhaps it was meant that the verbal discussion would occur at the beginning of the year and each group assignment would be written out in this fashion to remind the students why this is done. But again, that's unnecessary, in my opinion. Nevertheless, because it's well written, here is how the sample assignment begins:
In this activity you will be working in support groups of four. Your teacher will choose the members of the support group. The reason you work in support groups is because when you discuss new ideas with your classmates, you understand the ideas better.
Sometimes you will work with your friends, and sometimes not. No matter who your support buddies are, your responsibility is to help one another and complete the activity. This is why you are called support buddies.
Your teacher will explain what jobs need to be done. Either the teacher will choose or you will be asked to choose who does which job.
You need to work together and talk about your assignment so that each member of the support group understands what your groups has done and why. When it is time for your support group to report to the class, your teacher will call on only one member of your group. That member will explain the support group's results, so make sure that you all know what is happening before you get called on. When your support group looks good, you look good!
It continues on to explain the assignment and give the group jobs, their definitions, and their specific tasks throughout the activity.

Finally, saving the best for last, p. 264,
There are teachers who spend five to seven hours a day advocating a competitive, individualistic approach, telling students:
"Do your own work." "Don't talk to your neighbors." "Don't share; don't help." "Don't care about each other." "Just try to better yourself." "Think for yourself."
Conversely, there are teachers who spend five to seven hours a day saying:
"Help each other." "Share." "Work together." "Discuss the material in groups." "Explain things to each other." "Figure it out together." "Put your minds together." "You're responsible not only for your own learning, but for the learning of your support buddies as well."
Wow! This type of thing looks like it was written last week, not twenty-two years ago! To be fair, Wong was referring to how what teachers say to their students reflects on how well they collaborate with their own peers, not, obviously, what to say to be an innovative teacher in the age of collaborative learning and open source knowledge, as one would be if they were to write this today. But regardless, I was still surprised to see it, and it stands to serve that this information, while pertinent in 1991, is possibly even more important in 2013.

In summary, The First Days of School may have been groundbreaking when it was released in 1991, but don't waste your time today. Everything in it is now taught in teacher college, thankfully. If you come across it at the book store, it may be beneficial to spend a few minutes flipping through Chapter 24, the one on cooperative learning, but it's not a necessary addition to your collection.