Please Stop the Morning Work

Today was a crappy day.  

As educators, no matter what is going on in our personal lives, or with our health, we have to muster up everything we’ve got to give to our kids.  

Realistically, we are all humans.  With relationships, families, friends, health, finances that aren’t always as picture perfect as our social media profiles appear.  

We are humans, who sometimes have crappy days, that make it seem impossible to face the world, but we do it anyways because +/-27 little lives depend on us.  

Our kids are humans too.  They may not be adults, with adult problems, but they live with adults who have adult problems.  Worse, some are facing adult problems.  

Back to my crappy day.  I had a graduate class tonight.  They started the class like many teachers who follow Morning Meeting do.  We had an icebreaker where we shared about our summers.  We played a team-building game.  We were told our objectives for the day.  Then we jumped into work – a lecture followed by a group project.

You can empathize with how I felt listening to everyone else’s amazing summer stories.  You can relate to how much I didn’t feel like playing a game.  You can guess how much I learned from lecture.  You can imagine how hard it was for me to concentrate on our group project.

What did I need in the first 15 minutes of my graduate class?  Space and choice.  Space to be independent and choices to make to get my brain off of my crappy day and ready for learning.  For me this would look like mindfulness, reading, starting an authentic conversation that wasn’t dominated by a list of questions we had to ask each other.  

Are we providing this space for our kids?  Do they have these choices for how to prepare their brain for the big day ahead?  Or are they spending their first 15 doing a worksheet at their desk?  Are they sad, listening to their peers’ great adventures from the weekend with their happy families?  Are we asking them seemingly not, but actually really sensitive (and trivial) questions like: What did you have for dinner last night? What is your favorite television show?  What is your favorite iPad game?  Where did you travel over the summer?  What camp did you go to?  What emotions are we causing our kids to have by being forced to answer or listen to other kids answer this questions?

This leads me to a topic I feel especially passionate about.  The most powerful and important 15 minutes of my day – not a stellar mini-lesson or a rockstar conference – the soft start that kept my kids running out of their doors and into my classroom every morning.  

Here’s what a typical soft start looked like in my classroom:

 

I greet kids and families at the door.  Kids are literally running into the classroom to unpack so they can get started (some don’t even waste time to take their coats off).  A group of kids sit in a group on the rug, telling stories.  At the floor table, kids huddle around a book that someone has brought from home.  One friend works independently on his hybrid dinosaur creator, built from magnatiles.  Other friends gather around the table, drawing and painting.  A friend asks to lay down in the cozy corner because she didn’t get enough sleep last night.  Another friend is crying after departing from his grown-up, and gets comforted by friends.  In the library, kids are using books and iPads to continue their Subway inquiry.  Kids teach each other how to make things.  They read together, write together, play a game.  Snacks are available for kids who didn’t get breakfast.  Work is engaging and productive, cross-content standards are being met, and for this fifteen minutes, conflicts are rare.  I can read the energy of my kids and plan for more body breaks or community building if necessary.  Kids have opportunities to do things that they would not have in any other part of our day.  On many days, the work my kids are doing amazes me, and I let it last a little bit longer.  I take minutes out of other parts of my schedule, like the meeting time that follows, because I know what they are doing is more important than anything else I have planned.

Finally, we meet as a community on the rug.  Our meetings always look different and are typically run by the kids.  Someone might have a new agreement to propose or problem to address.  Someone might ask to share and get feedback on a project they have been working hard on.  Sometimes we tell stories-stories about growth mindset kids used, peer problems kids resolved, stories about each other and things that happen at home.  We talk about our day – any changes that we need to make, any goals we hope to accomplish.

 

You may have read my previous post about flexible schedules.  As you are thinking about the first thing on your schedule, consider starting your day like this.  Stop printing mindless worksheets.  Know that some kids had crappy nights or crappy mornings and won’t be ready to be social.  Morning meetings have benefits (which can also be found in soft starts), but aren’t right for every child.   Take the pressure off of yourself to teach from bell to bell.

If you are thinking, How can I fit this into my day? do yourself a favor and read this post by Kristine Mraz: https://kinderconfidential.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/fitting-it-all-in/

I’d like to end with one of my favorite quotes by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels in The Curious Classroom:  

“A fifteen-minute soft start is an investment in the overall seven-hour outcome.  Kids will accomplish more ‘net learning’ if they start that day in the driver’s seat.”  

UPDATE:  Check out my new post about launching and growing soft starts here:  More on Soft Starts

Teach middle school or high school?  Teach within a specific subject block?  Check out this great post!  Why I love soft starts and what I hope for soft closings


Thank you to Kristi, who first introduced me to soft starts.  I am the luckiest to have administrators, Adele Schroeter and Nekia Wise, who support soft starts and kid-centered decisions.  Thank you to Smokey Daniels, who devoted a chapter to soft starts in The Curious Classroom (which you should read immediately, if you haven’t yet).  You can get it here: http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08990.aspx


37 Comments Add yours

  1. Pamela Holguin-Brown says:

    I totally agree! I begin my day in first grade with a soft start. Some are building and testing paper airplanes, some are reading, and some students are eating breakfast as part of the breakfast in the classroom program. When we finally begin structured work, they are ready. I wouldn’t start the day any other way!

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    1. kelseycorter says:

      That’s so great to hear! So important in every grade. Also, what is it about testing paper airplanes that never gets old?? A constant in my classroom as well, lol!

      Like

  2. I was able to do a soft start in my 3rd grade last year. I loved it. This year, my kids go straight to PE after the pledge/announcements, then to Spanish, then straight into math. They’ll get about 10 minutes in the morning to unpack, read or whatever, then off we go. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what it will be like without that time.

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    1. kelseycorter says:

      That is tricky! It does seem like a lot for them to jump into first thing in the morning. Not sure if you can afford the time before math starts, but I can imagine they would need that break after gym and spanish before starting math. I also wonder what schools can do to make time for this for kids who get to school early. Can rooms be open for kids to start their day with a soft start before the bell rings?

      Like

  3. Shauna Badgley says:

    Totally agree. I’ve been teaching summer learning , and I’ve given these little people time to ease into there learning. Just a few minutes of choice, and they are ready to dive into learning. The soft start is dedicated to bonding, caring, and sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kelseycorter says:

      This is so great. I will pass this along. I hope other teachers at your school follow in your steps! You might even consider putting a tub of similar materials at each table and let kids choose. That’s how I launched soft starts at the beginning of the year. Later on, kids get out the materials or launch inquiries/projects. Good luck!

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  4. humbleswede says:

    Completely agree with you. I’m ordering Smokey’s book, too

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Maura says:

    This is awesome. I purchased Smokey’s book based on this post. I’m trying to imagine soft starts in a 3rd grade room. My kids come from very teacher directed rooms in earlier grades. Any ideas for options to start by offering. They don’t really have a frame of reference for this kind of work and will need more guidance in the beginning

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    1. kelseycorter says:

      Hi Maura! I am so happy to hear you are considering soft starts for your third graders! Have you checked out my newest post? https://wordpress.com/post/smallsteps.blog/1092 I share some ideas there that I think can be used in any grade. I would say in the beginning offer choices for all of your content areas + art and building that provide open-ended paths – high-interest books, blank writing paper for any kind of writing, math games, technology if you have access, non-fiction resources, white paper and paint or crayons, cardboard boxes and masking tape, legos. I think you will be surprised how quickly your 3rd graders will take to these choices and do amazing things! Start by putting out these choices on tables, then let your students start getting them out after several weeks. Ideas, inquiry, curiosity and thinking will grow! Good luck!

      Like

  6. Jenn says:

    Sounds like Montessori!

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  7. Krista Jacquet says:

    Well that’s all fine and dandy until you have a few who don’t want to start work at all. Then I imagine I would have to discipline soft, too, right?

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    1. kelseycorter says:

      Hi Krista,

      Your use of “discipline” leads me to suspect we may have different philosophies/strategies for supporting challenging behaviors. In my opinion, students who are displaying avoidance behaviors won’t benefit from “discipline” but rather support. This student may be lacking a skill required to do the work, engagement, understanding, or optimism. Learning about and talking to the student can give you the information you need to support him/her.

      Best of luck,
      Kelsey

      Like

  8. Tracy says:

    I think this depends on your grade level to be honest. I agree that forcing paperwork on a child at 8am isn’t really the best way to start their day. However, as a kindergarten teacher, my kids need to be “working” on something successful while I manage my paperwork in the morning such as roll, then roll in the computer, lunch count, parent notes etc. So mine do morning work but it’s the same thing every day. They draw, whatever they’d like, in their journal. They start at their level and build up to writing. This gives me ten minutes to get paperwork in on time and gives them time to sit, chat, and draw with their friends. They can sit wherever they want to and use markers, crayons, pencils etc. Some opt to just chat and wake up and I’m fine with that too.

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    1. kelseycorter says:

      Hi Tracy, Thanks for your comment. I actually teach kindergarten and have some morning paperwork as well. I will say my kids are more independent at soft starts than any other time of day. I like to coach in at this time, but they can sustain productive work independently as long as I need. It sounds like your kiddos have some choice at this time. I think you would be amazed to see how providing more choices and room for innovation and inquiry can make a big impact on your day!

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  9. Laura says:

    I would love to hear any ideas from someone who has tried this at the high school level. I have a few ideas to try… a little worried about the challenges that come with this level, 55 minutes classes, content specific… I teach art photography for 9-12th grade.

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    1. kelseycorter says:

      Hi Laura,
      I’d love to hear your ideas! I think the best place to start is to talk to colleagues who are also interested in getting on board. Try it out, talk about challenges you are seeing, and share what is working for each other. My newest post gives some ideas for upper levels. You can also check out this post written by a middle school teacher who uses soft starts in blocks: https://ateachinglifedotcom.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/why-i-love-soft-starts-and-what-i-hope-for-soft-closings/

      Good luck!! Please comment back with any successes or more questions you have! Others are thinking the same 🙂

      Like

  10. Penny says:

    Thank you so much for this article and for being the voice of reason. Over a decade ago, David Elkind wrote The Hurried Child; I think he would consider what’s happening in education today as ” Kids at Warp Speed”. We are doing our children a great service that may one day have detrimental effects on our society as a whole. Let’s slow it down a bit. They’re just little kids once, they need to enjoy the journey.

    Like

    1. kelseycorter says:

      Hi Penny! Thank you for your kindness. I will definitely be checking out The Hurried Child. I think it would totally fit with my views on soft starts and schedules in schools. I’m excited to learn more about Elkins’s research and thoughts!

      Like

  11. JoAnn says:

    So true!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ally says:

    I love this idea!
    It’s so important to give kids choices. As a fourth year teacher moving into Kindergarten, I’m curious about the behavior management side of things. Do you slowly introduce choices? Do you have any accountability with choices to keep students from wondering around? I feel like a kiddo moving from thing to thing won’t benefit as much as one who makes a choice and sticks with it.
    Thank you for posting such a thought-provoking blog. I’ll be doing some research and would love additional resources if there is a discussion thread!

    Like

    1. kelseycorter says:

      Hi Ally!
      How exciting that you are moving to Kindergarten-my favorite grade!! Have you checked out my newest post? https://smallsteps.blog/2017/08/10/more-on-soft-starts/ I talk about how I set up soft starts (and I’m a K teacher) by setting up choices at first, adding more choices, and then giving them control of getting out materials. I found management to be really easy, because kids were so excited just to come in and get to make this open-ended choice in a relaxed environment. I had a relatively dramatic group of kiddos, but at this time, there were little to no conflicts. Work was so amazing (talk about cross-content standards!) and the energy was grade and it was peaceful-I wanted it to last all day (so did they). I still want to do more with this time so I will be posting new things I’m thinking about with soft starts as the new school year begins!

      Best of luck! Keep in touch. 🙂
      Kelsey

      Like

    2. kelseycorter says:

      Also, forgot about the kids moving from thing to thing question-which is an important one. So that’s one difference between my “Morning Choice” and “Choice Time” (which I’m calling Play this year). At afternoon choice time, kids pick a center and stay for the duration of the time. I totally agree that staying in a center/with a choice leads to deeper engagement and habits of mind. For soft starts, I think it’s important for kids to be able to move around and make new choices. Some need some time to warm up to socializing-so they may start by reading a book alone before feeling ready to join a group of kids who are designing with legos. I think knowing that you get to pick one choice and have to stay is high-stakes for a kiddo and stressful. Soft starts are meant to diminish stress. Finally, I saw a lot of collaboration with kids being able to move around. I didn’t see too much wandering. Kids generally picked something to get started on and got deeply engaged in it. Others took a little bit to get settled and make a choice. If they weren’t making a productive choice, I’d offer to give them some options, which was typically enough to get them started.

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  13. Cyn Huddleston says:

    This would be my ideal way to adjust to a classroom, when I was little or a few years ago when in college or grad school. And I would really like to be able to start alone and have kids/adults join me as I warmed up. Heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. lynne popiel says:

    This make SO much sense not only in or urban/inner city ares, but I believe stress takes no holiday just because you have money or status.
    School is often the safest and most predicable part of your students’ day. BE THERE for them. Love this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kelseycorter says:

      Totally agree! So much unpredictability happens for kids and adults at night and in the morning. Knowing that you get to come in to a safe space and start your day with joy and choice could make all the difference!

      Like

  15. kelseycorter says:

    Totally agree! So much unpredictability happens for kids and adults at night and in the morning. Knowing that you get to come in to a safe space and start your day with joy and choice could make all the difference!

    Like

  16. Reblogged this on Essence of Child Caring and commented:
    This is how every day should begin with children..every day!!! Thank you!

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    1. kelseycorter says:

      Thank you for the reblog and kind comment Roseann!

      Like

  17. Sibli Gill says:

    This is very similar to the idea of Outputs in the morning. I think it’s vital for kids to come in to school and decompress before learning can occur.

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    1. kelseycorter says:

      That’s really interesting! I haven’t heard of Outputs. Can you tell me more about it?

      Like

  18. Jenny Elliott says:

    I am being forced to teach in a robot box. The whole school is on a schedule. Same time same page. The morning meeting question is given by the principal… We have to have breakfast and meeting done by eight. The curriculum has zero routines built in, dry, and choppy. I struggle with the no nonsense nurturing because there is no time for them to have choices, talk, and figure things out their way. I love this because this is how I think it should be. Built in time for them to get ready for learning. My 7-8 year olds have is long carpet time with turn and talks… followed by a level 0 transition to a level 0-1 independent work….. = off task/ Even cafeteria and halls are 0 level voices. I know why I have behaviors that are not ready for learning but I don’t know what to do about it. Principals come in all the time and check if students are engaged and on schedule.

    Like

    1. kelseycorter says:

      Hi Jenny,

      I’m so sorry to hear this. It certainly doesn’t sound like an experience that’s centered around the child or one that is joyful for teachers and students. It’s important that you’ve realized that and want to make a change! Do others in your school feel the same way? Maybe that would be the first step. Share articles you find (I wrote another one on schedules with some resources in it) and there are others out there too. Share the articles, talk with each other, and bring your findings to your principal. I’d hope he would be open to a change!

      Best of luck,

      Kelsey

      Like

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