In this episode, we are talking all about how we start out in our mastery-based classrooms. We will share how we set up our courses, and some daily activities you can use with your students.

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Show Notes

This week, Katie and I are talking all about mastery-based classrooms, how to start class, and what the opening routines might be. It’s also worth mentioning not only how to start a class, but how to start a course. When you’re diving into it, it’s important to think about how to get students prepared and into the mindset of doing things a little different, and how they can make it work.

It really does take a lit bit more strategizing and thinking about being intentional in your planning as you’re starting out in a mastery-based learning model. And it can take a little longer to dive into content, because it’s getting students used to some of these routines, and the change of direction.

How we start out a course

Rachel gets started with something she calls Unit Zero. It isn’t very long, only 2-3 lessons long, so it only takes 1-3 days, but it’s learning about all of the logistics of the mastery classroom before diving into the curriculum. This includes doing mastery checks, grabbing and watching videos, doing guided notes, etc. – all of the different pieces of her mastery classrooms in a very low stakes way since it isn’t curriculum-based.

Katie takes the first two weeks as a diagnostic time period, since students are still arriving, and with a mixed level classroom, she needs to get better acquainted with their English proficiency levels in each of the different strands of language. Students enter the classroom with a proficiency report that was completed by an elementary teacher (if they are transitioning from Grade 8), or from the Welcome Centre where their language skills were just recently assessed. She has to figure out if those language proficiency levels are accurate, or if perhaps students were nervous or uncomfortable during the assessment, so the results don’t align with their proficiency.

Needless to say, their two classrooms look extremely different – but that’s okay! No two classrooms or teachers will look the same, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Regardless of what it looks like, though, you should definitely include some getting to know you activities. Rachel shares with them a video that they watch that tells them a little about her. She then challenges them to approach and ask one question to get to know her better. She then asks them a question as well. This removes the stress of asking the teacher questions, or approaching the teacher at the front of the classroom, and also has the benefit of letting students see that teachers are human too.

Students also fill out a form that is all about them so that the teacher can get to know them better. And they get the added bonus of seeing themselves move ahead on the progress tracker as they complete tasks!

Rachel then goes on to have students complete mini lessons, videos, etc. that introduce and go over the LMS, as well as other important details about the course. The students get comfortable with the language of the course, as well as the different tasks that they will encounter throughout the course.

It’s a really efficient way to adapt to a mastery classroom!

Katie also tends to spend a lot of time on community building. She works with the students assigned to her class initially, and then ends up doing a lot of mixed and whole group activities across the ESL program. A lot of English language learners tend to be nervous and quiet at first because they are afraid of making mistakes, so there is so much time that is put into making everyone feel comfortable, and getting to know the teachers as human beings.

There’s something to be said about getting students to a point where they are all talking to one another, laughing, joking, and being extremely loud – and all of this across languages and cultures.

She also spends time walking them through the Google tools, such as Google Slides (how to insert images, videos, etc.), Gmail, docs, etc.

It’s also important to get students comfortable and accustomed with their individual STEP levels versus the course code that they are in. In this type of classroom, the students will be working on tasks based on their skill level (STEP level), so if they are at different proficiency levels for one of the strands of language, they will be working at different levels of tasks that reflect their current skills. This means a lot of conferencing and check-ins to make sure the process is transparent, that students recognize where they are at, and to give updates as needed.

It’s also important to do whole class activities to open classes during start up. Some of this may include getting students to think about what they learned last year, to see how much they can recall. Rachel did this with her students, and she was so impressed and surprised by how much they remembered.

She did a GimKit game to get them excited and engaged. If interested, they do have a few free modes each month now that you can play with larger classes. Games can be a great way to make things fun, get to know each other, and also do some quick review and check ins.

Opening routines on a day to day basis

The day to day is going to look different, depending on the course you are teaching and the students in the class.

Katie tends to start by having all of the students sitting in their STEP groups. She’ll deliver a lesson full class, and then break down the expectations for each STEP level, modelling it so that students know what they should be working on. This helps students at lower STEP levels see what they need to do to work towards the higher proficiency levels, and also allows all students to see how each STEP differs in terms of expectations and output. It can be quite motivating!

This has made a big difference for all students, as they clearly see the distinction between STEP levels and the language that needs to be demonstrated to move up, and it decreases the pressure about marks and grading conversations because they know what they need to do to develop their language.

It still isn’t perfect, and it isn’t consistent or easy, but this direction for the program has been significant and has had a great impact. It’s all about slow and steady progress and change – students and families are noticing the differences, and the community has also recognized the shift in teaching practices.

Rachel is a big fan of using thinking classrooms as warm up activities. She doesn’t do it in a traditional fashion, but she takes some of the principles and runs warm up activities. She likes randomized groupings of students, and tends to use Flippity to create these randomized groups. She’ll then put a couple of problems on the board (typically an on-pace or slightly behind pace question), and have students collaborate to complete the problems.

She doesn’t do this every day, as it would become boring if she did, but she mixes things up to keep students engaged. Other activities include demos, whiteboard activities, goals setting or SEL check-ins, etc.

Course structure

Instead of traditional units, Rachel has opted for smaller modules that are made up of a series of lessons. They are shorter than a traditional unit. She’ll then do check-ins at the end of that week’s module to see how students are doing.

Rachel also has a weekly agenda slide that she puts up at the beginning of the class. It shows all of the week’s lessons, what the pacing is, and reminders for important deadlines, dates, upcoming assignments, etc. Once she reviews that with students, she then puts up the progress trackers so that students are aware of the on-pace lesson, and students can track where they need to be.

Agendas and progress trackers are another great way to be transparent in the classrooms, and to ensure students know what they should be doing to stay on-pace with the class. It also helps motivate students to complete work and lessons so that they don’t fall behind.

One resource that we are going to share from the Modern Classrooms is another good resource for opening and closing routines. They talk about accountability groups, and having students meet in small groups to discuss and talk about their goals, what they hope to accomplish that day, week, etc. and how they can support one another. This collaborative learning environment is so different from most traditional classroom settings – often students can feel defensive or feel like it’s a competition in class, so creating this collaborative classroom reduces stress, and opens up opportunities to work with others.

They also have some great ideas for closing routines in this same resource so be sure to check it out!

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