I first learned the term “soft start” in one of Sara Ahmed’s books. It refers to easing into the school day with gentle choice activities–reading, writing, talking, playing, making. No rigorous academic work to remind kids that school is supposed to be hard. No mindless busy work to get kids quiet and compliant. Kelsey Corter describes soft starts as “an invitation into the day,” and what students are invited into are the habits and routines of creation, connection, reflection, curiosity, and independence that school should ideally be about.
I wish I had known about soft starts when I was a high school teacher. I intuitively knew that my students needed a soft start to the week, and so Monday was our reading day–a whole class period devoted to reading the books of our choice. But how much better every class period would have been throughout the week had I included five or ten or fifteen minutes for students to pursue their interests, to settle themselves into the routines of the classroom and become present, to check in with me and with each other, to read and to write, at the beginning of each class.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with soft starts at the beginning of my own days. Instead of waking up and immediately getting on my to-do list, checking email, writing lesson plans, or grading student work, I make my coffee and head upstairs to my office. I leave my laptop and phone behind. If they’re safely downstairs, I can’t be tempted to open them and fritter away my morning scrolling Facebook or responding to emails.
I settle into the chaise by the window. Yesterday, I watched the snow fall. My notebook is handy if I decide to write, but most mornings, I’ve chosen to read. Mornings are cold in my drafty old house, and before long, I have a blanket of cats keeping me warm. It’s a soft start for them too. Panda and Oliver snuggle together on one side. Toast, needing the barrier of my legs to hide her view of that distasteful Oliver, settles on the other side. Chipotle has the prized center lap space, at least until Smudge arrives and climbs right on top of Chipotle to claim the prize for himself. They wiggle and elbow each other and slide this way and that way and curl and re-curl until each is satisfied, and then they fall asleep too.
They sleep, and I read or write. There is something luxurious and indulgent about starting the day this way–cozy with cats, full of words. Even if the rest of the day is a rush, there is a different quality to a day when it starts this way. There is a different quality to me when I start this way.
It’s hard to take time for a soft start when there is so much to do. Ironically, the things that are most necessary to our happiness and health are often the easiest to set aside when we get busy or behind. That’s as true inside the classroom as out. When we already feel so pressed to cover all we need to cover, it’s tempting to set aside the soft start. But I suspect those ten or fifteen minutes in the classroom work for students much as they work for me. Paradoxically, starting the morning by doing less means that I do more with the rest of my day. I am more intentional, more productive, more focused, and ultimately more accomplished throughout the day when the morning starts soft.