Day 1: Subversive Grouping and Marshmallow Challenge

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

Contrary to the dogma of the Church of Classroom Management, I don’t like spending a lot of time on the first day going over expectations, policies, and procedures. I have two reasons for this. One is that in a lot of cases, “classroom management” is a euphemism for “shut up and do what I say.” The other is that I suspect that some teachers don’t really care about it that much anyway; they just want to have an easy (read: mindless) first day. At any rate, I could tell the students my classroom is just like any other, or I could tell them my classroom is not like any other, but either way, they’re not going to believe me until they see it, so why not get right to it?

This year, I borrowed a couple of new things. Inspired by Frank Noschese’s Subversive Lab Grouping Game, I put about fifty different words on about fifty different index cards, almost all of which were related in some way, and gave each student a card as they walked in. After some very short introductions, I had them sort themselves into groups of 3-4 according to the word written on their card. Instant lab groups with far less feet-dragging and a hint of fun.

From there, Marshmallow Challenge. “The game where you put a bunch of marshmallows in your mouth and try to say ‘chubby bunny’?” No, the one where you build the tallest free-standing structure that holds up a single marshmallow. “Huh? How?” A little bit of planning and a little bit of peeping took care of most of the confusion, and the challenge worked wonderfully. They had a lot of fun watching towers collapse once time expired. Teams that tested the stability of their tower at every level were successful, and teams that waited till the end to place their marshmallow atop their giant tower almost always watched in horror as their tower buckled and broke. Our champion tower stood 53 centimeters tall.

Why do we do this? Because science, physics, and therefore my classroom is about success, failure, and risk-taking. It’s about creating, evaluating, and refining. I don’t want them to be scared of failing. I want them to see failure as a stepping stone to success.

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