"When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad"
Excerpt of Favorite Things by Julie Andrews
One of my favorite movies of all time is The Sound of Music. A favorite scene from that movie is when all of the Von Trapp children come running into Maria’s room during a thunderstorm in search of comfort and safety. She quickly shifts their attention away from the thunderstorm and fears by breaking out into a song about a few of her favorite things. It’s all about a shift of perspective and choosing to focus on the things that make us happy rather than what makes us sad. Why is that? Why does focusing on our favorite things have such a powerful correlation to our feelings. Our favorite things say a lot about who we are and what we are passionate about. They can hold memories or connections to special people in our life or, reveal our dreams and the things we hold close to our heart.
When I read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess 4 years ago, I was greatly inspired and realized I needed to rethink the first days of school. Instead of diving into syllabi and procedures, why not first dive into the things that we are most passionate about and take time to establish a positive environment where students feel safe and supported. Let me tell you, making this shift has made a profound difference in how I’ve connected with students. Instead of overwhelming them with information, I focus on connecting with them individually by learning about their favorite things. Let me share with you how my first two days of class unfold:
As students walk in, I have Sound of Music’s “Favorite Things” song playing with instructions on the screen to sit down anywhere they would like and write their 3 most favorite things on their stainless steel tables with dry erase markers. When they are done, they share with the person sitting next to them. I start class by sharing a slideshow of my favorite things that reveal the things that I am most passionate about. Then, I ask them to do something that they aren't expecting. Inspired by an idea from Teach Like a Pirate, I open up 3 large tubs of freshly made, brightly colored Play Doh and tell them they are going to sculpt one of their favorite things. They can choose as much or little dough as they want and any variety of colors. I tell them they can spread out and find a comfortable place to craft their creation. As students are sculpting, I am walking around having conversations about their sculptures and what they are making. It didn’t take long before creations were taking shape and all participants were immersed and engaged. They love talking about their creations and I find that asking simple questions about what they are making lead to more involved descriptions revealing a lot about them. Some share things that are personal, some are more surface level but they all enjoy the process. Lots of laughter and chatter ensue as classmates share about themselves in a non-threatening and fun way. After their creations are complete, I have them record a Flipgrid video sharing their name and explanation of their Playdoh creation so I can remember learn names faster and use them as conversation starters in the weeks to come as I got to know them better. I keep these videos private so I am the only one that can see them to alleviate any fear or stress of other classmates seeing these videos.
The next day of class, I take the favorite things to the next level. I measure out enough ingredients for 8 teams to make Rice Krispy Treats. As they come in, epic adventure music is playing and I have them line up down the center of the room by birthday; January on one end, December on the other. I count off from Red through Silver (my kitchen colors) until all students have a place to go. I send them all into the corresponding kitchens and reveal the Rice Krispy Challenge. I explain that they will be making Rice Krispy treats, but there is a twist. Instead of making the standard Rice Krispy Treats they are used to, they will be shaping them into something that all 3 team members have in common. It can be a combination of each team member’s favorite things, or something entirely different that they discover they have in common. I set out some specialty ingredients that they can mix in too, such as candy eyes, spray glitter, sprinkles, food coloring, etc. to give a little bit more opportunity for creativity and artistic flare. I love that now students are not only thinking about their favorite things, but how they relate to those of others in the class. They are getting to know their classmates and connecting to the things they love. While students are collaborating on making their creations, I circulate the room encouraging dialogue and learning their names. When the creations are complete, I take a picture and mirror them to my Apple TV. When students finish cleaning up, we all gather and I have each team introduce themselves and explain their creation as I share it on the screen. This allows us to hear everyone’s names and learn something new about each of our classmates.
It’s amazing how taking a few days to focus on passions and relationship building completely changes the tone and feel of the class. When students are given an opportunity to tap into their passions and share in a non-threatening way, they feel more relaxed and comfortable to talk and get to know each other. I love the laughter, silliness, and conversations. Student’s personalities begin emerging much sooner than they would otherwise and the level of enthusiasm and excitement for what’s to come is tangible. Syllabi and rules can wait, relationships come first.
Tech Integration Specialist in Southern Oregon and author of Make Learning Magical. I'm passionate about finding innovative ways to transform teaching and create unforgettable experiences in the classroom.