Friday, August 9, 2013


Lions on their seats
Today was the first day of classes for my youngest son, who is very excited to start fourth grade.  He's already met his teacher and a couple of days ago, we all went to his classroom where he found his assigned seat and got himself all set up with his school supplies.  His teacher went over a couple of things regarding what to expect when you start fourth grade in her classroom.

This is important.  Whether you're starting a new fourth grade class or a new semester in college, making your students comfortable on the first day is important.  They need to know how to find their seat and know that they'll be okay there.  And they need to know what fun they'll have in the classroom.

Most lions and tigers in a circus act go through the same process.

First, a lion is coaxed into the arena. They feel safe in their dens and don't really want to go out and explore. I know we think they just can't wait to escape, but they're usually terrified of getting out of their safe haven.

If the lion doesn't have a good time during their first time in the arena, it will be hard to get them to go back. Luckily, they've already met the teacher.  He or she is the one who has been feeding them, caring for them, spending time with them, and talking to them.  The next thing is show the lion his seat.  That's the pedestal assigned to him (and only him).  Just like in fourth grade.  It's a "home away from home" in this new place.

For lions, we coax them up onto the seat.  A gentle nudge, some soothing verbal coaxing, a tidbit of meat . . . and the lion is on his seat.  We say "Seat!" or "Platz! [place!]" or something like that.  So that the lion gets conditioned to the signal to go to his assigned seat.

Then we coax the lion down from his seat.  Partly so we can then say, "Seat!" and get him back onto his pedestal. Such repetition is needed for learning, right?  But it's partly to get him out exploring his new "classroom."  Just like on fourth-grade back-to-school night when my son and all his classmates were excitedly exploring their new classroom.

Thus, a lion gets comfortable with the arena--both the parts that belong to him and the parts that are shared.

It's also a good opportunity to see what the lion likes to do when he plays.  Is he scared of that big barrel or does he try to get it to roll?  Does he like climbing on props or does he prefer slinking under them?  Does he instead seem to like jumping over them?  This knowledge will be used by the lion tamer to figure out what kind of things each lion will excel at, or at least how to get him interested in learning new behaviors.

Also, we learn what things the lion is kinda scared of.  So we can be more careful with those things that might cause some initial fear.

Likewise, a teacher can get to know a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of new students by chatting with them as they explore their new classroom.

When called back to "Seat!" the lion also learns which behaviors are acceptable while seated and which are not.  Turning around is not good.  The lion tamer needs the attention of each animal pretty much all the time.  Also, turning around to face the audience could be frightening to the circus patrons!  Laying down and snoozing (a favorite pastime of lions): also not good.  Jumping down from the pedestal without being called down by the tamer: really bad.  Distracting the other cats: not acceptable.

Another crucial element during a lion's first experience in the arena is how to get out quickly, safely, and comfortably.  Usually, the command is something like, "Go home!" or "House!" or something along those lines.  Usually, it's accompanied by the additional cue of the exit door rattling.  This is important.  Not only to get everyone out in an orderly way.  But if something bad happens, like a fight or attack or a fire, then all the remaining cats can be evacuated before they get hurt.

So what are some practical applications of these ideas?  Consider these practices to help your students get comfortable right away?
  • Be conscious of the fact that nearly all of your students will first enter your course with some hesitation.  
    • So making an effort to be particularly soothing and welcoming can be very effective.
  • At the first opportunity, encourage students to roam around and explore.
    • For example, in my biology courses I want students to play with the models and specimens.
    • Chat informally with students before the first class and get to what they're excited about and what they're afraid of.  
    • The first thing I do, is break my students into small groups and ask them to generate a list of questions they have about my course.
      • Then I give them the syllabus and let them explore that and try to find their answers.
      • While this is going on, I'm strolling around and informally chatting with them.
  • Consider meeting your students ahead of time.  
    • That way, they're already comfortable before the first day.
    • Try getting word out that you want students to drop and introduce themselves before the first class.
    • Try hosting an "open house" in your classroom before classes start.
    • Post some information about yourself online (your faculty webpage, for example).
  • Teach them to "Seat!" properly
    • You might consider assigned seats, at least to start out.
    • If seating is open, then be sure to let them know which behaviors are acceptable and which behaviors are not
      • What's your policy on asking/discussing during class?
      • Are mobile devices allowed?
      • What about bathroom breaks?
      • Snacking OK?
      • Interrupting or distracting other learners?
  • Teach them about exiting safely.
    • Be courteous and don't loiter in the doorway as classes change.
    • Where to go in a fire, tornado, or other emergency?
Getting off to a good start is critical to success throughout the course!

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