I’m feeling very “Piratey” these days. School is back after winter break, and my new 8th grade engineering students are completing the trials I wrote about in Teaching Secrets: Getting to Know Students Through Seating Challenges.

On the first day in previous semesters, students would follow up the seating challenge by completing a written survey with questions like, “What do you do in your spare time?” Or, “What would you like Mr. Merz to know about you?” I expected them to work silently on their answers, and we practiced silent minutes until we all agreed on what silence sounded like. Rather, we practiced until they agreed with me about what silence sounded like. As I dismissed them that first day, I’d let them know that we’d figure out our rules as the need develops.

I claimed I was learning about them as individuals. 

The Treasure Hunt Begins

But I’ve been reading, Teach Like A Pirate, by Dave Burgess. Instead of a survey, he has students show, in clay, two things about themselves. And he introduces his one class rule: “Don’t be mean.”

I figured, “If it’s good enough for pirate, it’s good enough for me” and decided to try something new.

The seating challenge on the first day is to sit in birthday order. After they figured that out, I had each class read some slides:

  • “I have one rule, 3, 2, 1….”
  • “Don’t be mean.”
  • “Ever.”
  • “To anyone.”
  • ”Even though it’s not always easy…”
  • “…it’s still the rule.”

Then came a slide with the task: “Use the clay to show Mr. Merz two things about you that he can’t see for himself.”

I passed out the clay and they began. In no time I learned that Johnny likes hamburgers, shakes, French fries and pizza. Anthony likes desert animals and can make one scary scorpion. Many girls like to combine sports and pizza. Alex likes all deadly animals. Marisella loves fish and has an aquarium. Julian is into hunting and all things medieval. Amber likes music and pancakes, but isn’t so fond of insects. Ricky is obsessed with the Alien movies.

The Best Treasure Wasn’t in the Sculptures

But the gold wasn’t what the kids showed about themselves in the clay. Rather, the richest rewards came from watching and interacting with the kids. Following Burgess’ recommendation, I made sure to pass a minute or two with each student individually.

In those conversations I learned that Alex can find an original approach to things, “So, you like deadly animals, what’s the second thing you’re going to show me?” He holds the snake closer. “Mr. Merz, I like orange, that’s why I asked for orange clay!” Several students asked for particular color clay, but only he realized that color could be the second thing.

Laly, a reader, was trying to make a book.

“Laly, you like tacos!”

“Mr. Merz, it’s a book!”

A while later, “Oh, Laly, what a good sandwich!”

“MR. MERZ!!” (Was I breaking the mean rule?)

A while later she had the best clay book on the planet. Would I have learned about Laly’s perseverance in a survey?

I know Argelia won’t do things like mix different color clay without permission, but I learned Darrell will.

Why Clay Opens the Treasure Chest of Collaboration

I won’t go back and here’s why:

  1. The kids weren’t just showing me about themselves, they were showing other students, too. Even though I made it clear they didn’t have to present their sculptures to the class, they all took an interest in what their colleagues were doing, and in the causal setting, were willing to talk about their own work.
  2. I didn’t expect the work to be done in silence, so there wasn’t a set-up for conflict and power-plays. Moreover, the conversations became the best part of the activity instead of something negative.
  3. Walking around talking to the students as they worked was huge. What a novelty that the first interaction they had with a teacher didn’t involve answering a question they might get wrong. Furthermore, the sculpture served as neutral ground that less confident students could use to occupy their hands and eyes as we talked.
  4. I was always very interested in their written answers to the survey but forget by the next day who wrote what. With the clay my retention is much better.
  5. Beyond all that, working with clay is about as far away as you can get from a survey, so most kids engaged immediately.

And remember that don’t be mean rule? This is the friendliest start to a semester I can remember.

Not All is Gold

I would offer a couple of cautions, particularly for middle school teachers.

  1. Have a plan for how you’re going to deal with the boy who sneakily shows his friends the clay penis he made. (I ignored it and it went away.)
  2. Not to put too fine a point on it: In the hands of an unskilled sculptor, there’s really only one thing brown clay ends up looking like, and it will be pointed out.

Over To You
Feeling “Piratey” yourself?  Here are some students I didn’t mention above.  What can you say about them?



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