I’m in the middle of a project right now. I’m creating a birthday calendar in my classroom… that includes every student in my school. There are over three hundred students in my school, so this is a bit, uh, time-consuming.
I decided I wanted to do this on the first day of school. Not before the first day of school, which would have been convenient. I would have been able to spend hours on it before kids ever showed up. But I didn’t have the idea until I actually saw bodies in the seats.
So that’s one thing.
Another thing is that time always seems to be at a premium. We only have so much time in school to accomplish so much. Only nine months to meet all the standards. Only nine weeks in a quarter. Only five days in a week. Only seven and a half hours each day. Only fifty or ninety minutes for this lesson. And only fifty or so minutes to plan and prepare and grade and record and meet with your team in each day.
There’s a certain pressure to work quickly, get things done. Often, the tasks a teacher does are time-sensitive. Grades aren’t meaningful feedback unless they make it back to the student quickly. We need to meet to plan our lessons for the whole week. I need these copies for next period. I know this pressure isn’t exclusive to the teaching profession, either. There are many industries where working quickly is the norm. There are industries where working as fast as possible is the basis for that industry.
But me? Given a choice, I like to do things slowly.
I can do things quickly. I just don’t like to. I get up early so I can wake up by lingering over a cup of coffee. When I don’t have other plans, I stay late and work at school, because then I don’t have to worry about when the next bell rings. I’ve taken to walking to school instead of driving as often as possible, because even though it takes five times longer, there’s something I just like about moving slow.
I would not do well in a rat race.
So I’m working on this birthday calendar. I wanted to display it for several reasons:
- Once it was up, I could mostly leave it up, updating bits every so often. But not changing it entirely through seasons. This is valuable to me because I am not into seasonal decorations. Also, putting up decorations on walls in my lab is tricky business that usually involves being on top of the same tables as the computers. I usually wait until after school to do this because I don’t want kids to see me do something that they would get into so much trouble for doing themselves.
- It would make it pretty easy for students and teachers to double-check birthdays pretty quickly, which is important in the lab because student birthdays are part of their usernames. (It’s a little shocking how many of our students don’t know their birthdays.)
- It would make it pretty easy for students who help do morning announcements to check for birthdays, even if I’m not there.
I had started a version the first week of school. This is the version I originally had up:
This was the “good enough… for now” version. I wanted to get something up but I knew my idea was not perfect. But, knowing the way my creativity works, my idea would not be perfect unless I tried a version out first. I rarely have a great idea that works perfectly off the bat. I try something, I reflect on it, and I revise it. I frequently need to test drive an idea to see what works and what doesn’t. This is not something I like about the “fast as possible” pace I sometimes fall into. When you’re trying to work as fast as possible all the time, reflection gets skipped and revision suffers for it.
My original birthday calendar had all 12 months, birthdays represented vertically underneath. I didn’t want to do calendar-style posters because I did not want to buy 12 posters, nor did I want to make them. I instead hand-wrote student names (first name and last initial), birthdays, and homeroom teachers on little index card-sized slips I had printed out, then cut.
You’ll notice that there’s not a lot of uniformity in how I arranged them. That was admittedly a rush job. I put the birthdays in chronological order, with the ones early in the month at the top and the ones late in the month at the bottom. I intentionally left spaces and gaps based on days skipped. I also wanted there to be room to add more students in when kids inevitably transfer in during the school year. (Similarly, I wanted them to be easy to remove, if students moved away. We have a fair bit of this in our district.)
But the arrangement wasn’t very informative, graphically, though I did try to arrange them with some sort of… artiness. So quickly after that version went up, I decided to start working on a new version. First, I created a birthday spreadsheet. This was actually pretty easy, since I already had access to student usernames… and since birthdays are part of student usernames, I also had access to student birthdays. And a spreadsheet is something I could work on in short bursts over several days without losing momentum.
Working on a tedious, repetitive spreadsheet is a little like taking a shower. It’s a monotonous task during which your conscious brain can coast on autopilot, freeing your unconscious mind up for some creative flashes. While working on that spreadsheet, my brain stormed, trying to decide the best way to display birthday information in a way that was meaningful to students.
For some reason the phrase “frequency table” popped into my head. I didn’t quite remember what that was, so I looked it up. It was not a good fit for my graph. But it did lead me to dot plots, which then led me to line plots. A line plot! This is something I know comes up in our math curriculum!
So I decided to make a sort of line plot for each month. It wouldn’t be exactly like a classic line plot should look, but it would convey the information in a way that was easily understood. I went to Teachers Pay Teachers and found some label templates I didn’t hate. (Perhaps I hate decorative talent because I do not possess any decorative talent. The green-eyed monster mocks the meat it feeds on.)
I printed, I laminated, and I used the paper cutter. I used only one prep period to do this, but only because I stayed several hours late last Thursday and Friday working on this as well. Even then, I actually only have finished up through June. I intend to get July through December up this week, hopefully Monday and Tuesday.
But I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done so far.
I printed out color-coded month name labels. I printed out black and white numbers for dates (there were many more of those, I didn’t think they needed to be in color). I used a yardstick to help me measure and align these directly onto the wall. The yardstick was light enough that I even stuck it to the wall as I worked. Once I got all the dates in the month up, I filled in all the birthdays.
So check out January. There are several dates in January with no birthdays at all. But some dates, such as the 28th, have multiple birthdays. You can’t quite see it in this photo, but the slips all give the same information my handwritten versions did: students’ first names and last initials, birthdays, and homeroom teachers. The only thing I would change about them at this point is, I would have made the font bold so it was easier to read from further away.
The template I used was one with ten labels per page, so the birthday slips were about one inch tall. So I left about five inches of space between rows of dates. This is because, when I consulted my spreadsheet, the date with the most birthdays (out of all 366 possible days) had five student birthdays on it. So congratulations to you, April 22nd! Visualizing data is fun.
So, I think this is much more interesting, and useful. It doesn’t look like a line plot, but students could use this calendar to create their own line plots. This, in addition to being able to quickly find their own birthday (for their username) or current birthdays (for morning announcements). It leaves room for adding new students (as long as they weren’t born on April 22nd!). I can also pretty easily remove students who leave without needing to shift other days on the calendar.