Skip to main content

Smart Start Your School

     Jim George’s now infamous quote - “It’s not how you start that’s important, but how you finish” - has been lauded by many as almost a foundational philosophy for life. However, for those of us who are responsible for starting the school year each year for millions of students, we may want to flip that line of thinking on its ear. Seems that how we start the school year might have more to do with how we finish than anything else.
     In all my years as a classroom teacher, program advisor and site leader, I worked hard to make the first day and week of school was engaging, inspirational and motivational as possible. But no matter how hard I, and many of my colleagues, tried, it seems that the institutional expectations took over and the emphasis became less about student engagement and more about rules, expectations, syllabi, policies, contracts, books and academics. That’s right. After all, does it seem reasonable that the earlier we start academics, the more academic success we would have?
     Well, as I suggested earlier, maybe it’s the exact opposite. Turns out a happy accident showed me what I always had known and tried to create. And that is, if we focus on anything but academics to start the school year - such as culture, opportunity, creativity, relationships and the “why” - we may actually produce a more academically successful student and school year. This happy accident was as the school year opened in the fall of 2008 when then brand new Minarets High School prepared for the first week of school. As our luck would have it, our new school buildings and campus were not going to ready or inhabitable that first week.
     Indeed, we were going to have to bus our new student body of 9th and 10th graders to an off campus location and mimic what would seem like the first week of high school. We fortunately found a lakeside conference center that would serve as our campus this historic first week. But instead of classrooms and standard presentations about the aforementioned scripted rules and policies, we would be forced to meet as a large group in the conference room and then peel off in small groups for intimate sessions on varied topics. It’s this conference environment that inspired us to completely scrap the standard first day/first week jargon and reinvent the first week of school. And ultimately, this is what would later be dubbed as SmartStart by my colleague and co-conspirator Jon Corippo.
     Our first week of school focused on all students getting to know one another, as well as every teacher and staff member. We shared lessons, activities, talks, simulations, challenges and guest speakers on things such as success skills, technology, relationships, careers, project ideas and more.
     We had several goals (deliverables) in mind for this first week. They included, but were not limited to every student knowing whom every staff member was, how our school and their experience was going to be different, how we cared about what students thought and wanted, how they need to engage and produce in productive (but personalized) ways, how they now had good friends the first week of high school and how learning could be relevant and fun.
     This first week of school, SmartStart, became a tradition that was improved, expanded and redesigned each and every year. It became a collaborative effort where all staff submitted lessons and presentations that were shared and commonly implemented. It expanded into tech integration and project management where all of our students (even when we had 500 students) would produce a video, a podcast and a presentation the first week of school. In addition to culture building and school wide lessons, we modeled that all students could and would produce high quality work.
     Topics for SmartStart sessions can almost be anything. Here are some examples we focused on each and every year:

School wide activities, challenges, culture building
School wide messaging - i.e. digital footprint
School wide skills - i.e. presentation
School wide technology lessons - Google, other
School wide forms, formats, rubrics, work flows
School wide life lessons, professional lessons
School wide products, sharing, showcasing, exhibiting
School wide guests, professionals, experiences

(Sample Schedule Here)

     SmartStart, or some derivation of the same, continues today at Minarets High School. And many other schools have been doing something similar. These have included school wide design challenges, learning expeditions and service learning experiences - all with the idea of emphasizing everything but academics in order to build the skills and culture conducive to academics.

"How we start anything - a lesson, a project or even a school year - might be the most important thing in terms of what gets finished or the end result." 

     Each year, some teachers and staff members struggled with the concept. They fell the traditional pressure of “getting started” on schoolwork. We continuously had to remind them, and ourselves, that it was the student and staff culture we built that first week of school that would make high level student work and academics a reality throughout the school year. Indeed, we knew whatever we created, or didn’t create, that first week of school, would indeed define the year. We also knew that whatever good things were born during SmartStart that they would have to re-visited, nurtured, refined and modeled throughout the school year by staff and students.
     Additionally, when one enjoys success based on some innovation or departure, such as SmartStart, it also influences and creates other innovations. We continued to take our SmartStart philosophy to other aspects of the school year that needed a redesign or boost. For example, any day before a long vacation (Thanksgiving, Winter Break and Spring Break) became an opportunity to not only re-visit our school culture and climate priorities, but engage students in new ways through service learning or career activities that would be a departure from the typical class schedule and non-productive days before vacations. Even our year-end activities became giant celebrations of culture, performances and recognition - instead of the last day of school being another lost day. These final days before breaks are often now called Lame Duck Days. We turned them into SmartStart or SmartReboot days. These last days before vacations became giant intercessions where both teachers and students go to pursue specialized and unique topics, lessons, careers or volunteer work that was outside of their normal course and school work or experience.
     This is the power of SmartStart. How we start anything - a lesson, a project or even a school year - might be the most important thing in terms of what gets finished or the end result. Let’s not only rethink how we do school, but how we start school. Here are some additional resources for SmartStart:

Project of How

Global Cardboard Challenge

1,000 + Design, STEAM Challenges on Pinterest

100 Engineering Projects For Kids

Genius Hour

Introducing #20 Time

The Future Project

35 Service Project Ideas For Kids

Lame Duck School Days

10 Team Building Activities For First Week of School

Design Thinking Challenge New Tech High


Popular posts from this blog

Evolutionary Education - 5 Things That Could Be Extinct Soon

It has often been uttered, that “only the fittest survive.” But when it comes to education, it seems things that might not even be that fit have continued to survive. However, just like in living species through time - dinosaurs, saber tooth tigers and the wooly mammoth just to name a few - even things that have lived on for a long time eventually go extinct. So, with that in mind, it seems educational evolution is occurring too and extinction might be inevitable for a variety of standard educational pedagogy, tools and practices.
Textbooks/Single Source Curriculum: (this includes ebook textbooks too). Regardless of whether they are digital or not, depending on and surviving on one text as the foundational source of information and context - regardless of course, age group and purpose - seems almost prehistoric at this point. Information changes daily and resources are born every minute on line. Anyone doing serious academic wor…

If We're Banning Phones, We Won't Connect Our Students To The Future

For those of us that follow the news, especially education news, we don’t have to wait very long for an educator, or educators, to give us the excuse for a blog post. This week’s winner goes to the principal and staff at Korematsu Middle School in California’s East Bay Area.
     They were recently featured, and apparently heralded, by an article in Ed Source ( for their recent compliance and control upgrade that bans students from using their cell phones at lunch and during their free time.
     According to principal Matthew Burnham, they tried to let the 7th and 8th grade students use their cell phones last year during these times and it was, according to them, an abysmal failure. The school claims that due to the students being “glued” to their cell phones, no one was talking and interacting with one another. And after watching the movie “Screenagers” and drinking from that proverbial firehose of biased information, this school was trying to …

21st Century High School Student Bill of Rights

Since I began teaching in 1990, I have repeatedly heard the term “reform” with regards to our educational system. And as someone who has always believed in and practiced teaching that worked to be real world, relevant and student-oriented, I can still get excited about the “possibilities” of real change. However, even with all of the classrooms, schools and some systems that have embraced new standards, new technology, project-based approaches, democratization/student voice and more, it’s almost appalling how little has changed in many of our nation’s high school classrooms. They are still dominated by outdated pedagogies, resources, activities and learning environments. Many still live and die by the lecture, low level note taking, and low level quizzes and assessments, as well as teacher/administrator mindsets not in line with anything related to 21st century workplaces or careers. 
     This lack of overall progress has lead me to be more anxious, adamant and even angry about t…