More on Soft Starts

I’m thrilled to see so many teachers trying soft starts or planning to try them.  There have been questions floating around that I am hoping to answer in this post.  

Know that last year was my first year trying soft starts.  I have asked the same questions and am asking more of my own.  I hope we can use this as a space to share our ideas, questions, challenges, and successes.

Why Soft Starts?

Students deserve to be invited into learning, not forced into it.  

Soft starts are an invitation into the day.  Think about the mental, emotional, and social demands on our students on a typical day of school.  When we provide a soft start, we are inviting students to prepare their brains to meet those demands.

When thinking about mental, emotional, and social states of our students, there is not an equal or balanced starting point.  This is the importance of offering choice and space.  

Soft starts allow students to practice mindfulness and habits of well-being that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Launching and Growing

Don’t worry if your school year has already started!  It is never too late to start something new.  Even students who rely on routines and consistency will be open to a change in the schedule if you include them on the purpose and involve them in making decisions.

Soft starts can be started on the very first day of school.  On our first day, I spread the most exciting materials around the room, greeted kids at the door, invited them to unpack and make a choice.  

Our morning schedule looked like this:

  1. Morning jobs
  2. Morning choice
  3. Meeting (this was quick – for announcements, shares, community discussions, stories of growth mindset or problem solving)

I kept this routine for a few weeks, changing out materials occasionally.  Then, I stopped putting things out and invited students to get out the materials they needed.  This gives them complete ownership of this time.

Students will share new ideas for morning choice and ask to use new materials.  Name new choices as they arise from your students, not from the start.  Naming choices from the start limits possibilities.   During meeting, add new ideas on a class chart via interactive writing.

Things I found helpful:

  • Students will be disappointed when morning choice is over – giving a few minutes of warning allows students to wrap up important work or make a plan for the next day.
  • Provide space for students to save their work for the next day.  We used windowsills, empty cabinets, mailboxes.
  • Let go of the focus on minutes, and focus on the work of your students.  There will be days when the best decision you can make is to let morning choice go longer.  
  • The more natural this can be, the better.  Students don’t need to sign up for choices or stay in one choice the whole time.  Students will be curious about what other students are doing.  I teach kindergarten, and even five-year-olds needed little to no support getting started each morning, even on the first day.

Open-ended thinking, Inquiry, Choice

Avoid offering materials that do the thinking for the child, instead provide materials that require open-ended thinking.  Here’s a great list for a Donor’s Choose Project: http://wildflowerramblings.com/kids-play/best-toys-for-open-ended-play/.  Kids in upper grades love many of these things too!  There are tons of lists of open-ended toys and materials on Pinterest.  

Don’t underestimate what can be done with cardboard boxes, recycled plastic caps, masking tape, straws, and glass tiles.  We have a “Beautiful Things” closet on our floor with recycled materials.  Students post signs around the school asking for these things.

When thinking about things students can engage in, I make sure resources are available for:

  • Art (white paper, crayons, watercolors will draw kids of all ages)
  • Building (Legos, Magnatiles, blocks, play-doh, connectors, will also draw kids of all ages)
  • Technology (blogs, research, news, reading, writing, Kathleen Sokolowski of Two Writing Teachers recommends students add to digital reading wall on , create  , and go on Dreambox. Share other APPs and resources in comments!)
  • Reading (partner reading and book clubs will emerge, students can read books outside their level, audio books)
  • Writing (lots of paper choices and blank full page books, open-genre independent writing projects, letters, blogs)
  • Math (games, math tools)
  • Science (tools for experiments, access to non-fiction resources)
  • Games (board games, games students invent)
  • Talk (make cozy spots for kids to talk around the room, I love using battery candles to make spaces more inviting)
  • Movement (we keep a body break chart to use in our hallway)
  • Mindfulness (a cozy corner with tools and strategies)

Students can pursue collaborative or individual inquiry projects.  Listen for high-interest topics and questions to come up during soft starts or in other parts of your day, and invite students to explore these further.  The inquiry process starts with a wondering in the form of a question, then leads to research and interviewing experts, and finally revising and confirming information.

Collaboration

As our soft starts grew, so did collaboration.  Students began using this time to teach each other how to do things or make things, build things together, write and read together, and invent games.  

Collaboration, however, should not be forced.  Many of our students are introverts, which our typical schedule is not suited for.  Let students be alone at this time if it’s what they desire.

Limitations

Any limitation you set will put a wall on creativity and thinking.  Problems will arise.  Any problem is an opportunity to strengthen your community.  Use meeting time to address problems, make new agreements, and define appropriate limits.

Teacher’s Role

Like any independent work time, I conferenced, coached, and led small groups.  I taught into the inquiry process, research skills, using technology, growth mindset, social-emotional skills, and content-specific skills.  I let the work of my students be my guide in this teaching.  As this learning happened, we charted it together, and students taught other students at meeting or as other students became interested in the same work.

Soft Starts in Subject Blocks

Many teachers are curious about what this looks like in 50 minute subject blocks at the middle-school and high-school level.  If you are lucky enough to get the whole school on board, instead of having a 15 minute soft starts, perhaps students have 5 minutes at the start of each block for soft starts, focusing specifically on mindfulness.  Even better, could independent or group projects take up the first 15 minutes?  Within a specific content area, could students choose to journal, research, collaborate, invent, investigate?

Read more about how Tara Smith, a middle school teacher, includes soft starts and soft closings in her classroom:  Why I love soft starts and what I hope for soft closings

Things I am Still Thinking About

I began using things my students were doing at morning choice in other parts of our day – to launch new units, share strategies.  I want to keep thinking about how the work that is happening at morning choice can be more fluid with the work we are doing in content areas.

I’m thinking about how I can have soft starts for new units, new routines, content areas, especially at the beginning of the year.

I’m wondering if we can have a soft end to our day as well.  Could the soft end of the day set up work for the soft start of the next day?  Thinking about all the places students go after school, I think they need this space and choice and mindfulness at the end of the day as much as they do at the start.


What else are you wondering?  How have soft starts been going so far?  Have you found colleagues to try it with you or convinced others at your school to get on board?  Comment below!

If you haven’t yet, you must read Smokey Danielson’s, The Curious Classroom:  http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08990.aspx   Smokey shares how numerous classrooms set up soft starts.  Smokey also helps us put curiosity and inquiry at the forefront of curriculum.  You can access a free study guide here:  http://www.heinemann.com/shared/companionResources/E08990/CuriousClassroom_StudyGuide.pdf

Thanks for sharing this article, Smokey, on Twitter, about a teacher who uses soft starts in Finland:  https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/08/how-finland-starts-the-school-year/497306/

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