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Answers To “What Do You Do On The First Day Of School?”

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In this piece, I’ll be sharing lots of great ideas that readers shared when I put a call out for people to share their first day plans. First, though, I thought I’d share what I typically do (though it might change as I consider “stealing” some of the ideas people left), along with some other additional resources.

This is the latest in my series of What Do You Do? posts about issues teachers face in the classroom.

Previous posts in this series have included:

What Do You Do When You’re Having A Bad Day At School?
What Do You Do To Keep Students (And You!) Focused Near The End Of The Year?
What Do You Do On The Last Day Of Class (Part Two)?
What Do You Do When You Have A Few Minutes Left In Class? — Part Two

Here is what I typically do on the first day of one of my classes (this plan I’ll be sharing here is for my “double-block” mainstream ninth-grade English class):

First, I greet students at the door and refer them to a seating chart that is displayed on the overhead projector (at first, I make seating assignments just to ensure ethnic and gender diversity).  On each desk is a simple questionnaire, which I ask them to start working on as soon as they sit down.

When the bell rings, I ask students to stop working on the questionnaire for a moment and to give me their attention. Once I have it, I welcome them to the class, explain that this is a college prep class, and by the end of the year they’ll be able to read anything. I go on to say that I have a specific system about how we do work in the class, but the key rules to keep in mind are:

* When I say “Can I have your attention?” that means I need everybody to stop what they’re doing and look at me. I like to do a lot of small group work, and the more I feel I can get your attention when I need to, the more small group work we’ll do.

* Be respectful — to each other, to me, to my stuff, and other student’s stuff.

* We start class three minutes before the bell rings, so please be here on time. I’m excited to be your teacher, and I hope you’ll want to be here in this class. I’ll be sad if you’re not here.

* Eating can be a distraction, so I ask that you not eat food in the room. You’re more than welcome, though, to come here during lunchtime to eat. As long as I don’t see it or hear it, I usually don’t notice if people are chewing gum.

I keep that to a very short time.

Next I have students quickly introduce themselves to a person they’re sitting next to — their name, what school they went to the previous year, what they like to do for fun, where they live, and if they have any brothers or sisters (those questions are posted in front). After doing that for three minutes, I have them do it again with a different student near them.

I then quickly review a short syllabus that students need to bring home to have their parents sign.

I then quickly review my classroom management system, and emphasize that I hope to stop using it within a few weeks, if not sooner, as students show me that they are the responsible students that I expect them to be.

Then, students can go back to working on their questionnaire, making a simple “nameplate” that they can put on their desk for the first few days to help me remember names, and write their name on a piece of paper they tape on a binder where they will be keeping their papers during the year. I reuse the binders each year. During this time I circulate and began to have short conversations with students about what I see they’re writing down on their questionnaire.

After about fifteen minutes, I pass out “Book Pass” sheets, which is an idea I learned about from Janet Allen. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the file with the sheet I use, but it’s quite simple — one column for the titles of books, the next column for the name of the author, and the third column is where students rank them — 1 means they are not interested in the book at all; 2 for being “sort of” interested; and 3 for being definitely interested.

Prior to class, I have developed a stack of about one hundred of the most popular books in my classroom library. The idea behind the Book Pass is that each student gets some books, looks them over for a minute or so, records and ranks them, and then passes them to the next person. After everyone has gone through all the books, they decide which one they want to check-out.

Prior to the distribution of books, we have a discussion about what you look at when you have a minute to review a book.

Usually in the middle of the book pass, the bell rings for a break. When they return, the book pass continues for another twenty minutes or so and students pick their books. Again, I’m circulating to see who is ranking which books high and low, and having brief conversations.

I then give a more formal introduction of myself, modeling what each student will be doing over the next few days.

We make a schedule for introductions beginning the day-after-the-next-day,and then students use the remaining classtime to work on their introduction posters. I take that time to continue having brief conversations. My goal is to have a short individual conversation with each student about their interests by the end of the first day.

So that’s what I do.

In addition to the wealth of ideas I’ll be sharing from readers, here are a few other resources about the first day of school you might want to explore:

How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment offers specific advice for those teaching English Language Learners.

First Day Must-Haves shares some tech-related ideas for beginning activities.

This is a classic that John Norton recently shared: Discipline Tips from a Teacher-Survivor

The National Education Association also has a good first-day resource called Best of the Icebreakers.

Teaching Tips: The First Day

And, now, for the real good stuff! Here is what readers shared:

Amy Deschamp

I try to do something that shows the skills of a historian along with the kids finding out about me and me finding our about them. In the past I have brought in artifacts from my life, had them take notes with their own conclusions and then write a poem about who they think their teacher is.

shellterrell

I teach to several age groups so I will let you know what I have done for each age group. All these classes are at the beginner to intermediate level of English proficiency.

Children- I wear a big smile and say Hello and introduce myself in English and in their language. Then it is straight to game playing!

High School- I wear a big smile, say Hello, introduce myself, and give them a one page syllabus with their first homework assignment to email me with whatever they want to say for a free 100. I also collect index cards with their personal information. I have each student share some information of themselves with the class such as name, country they are from, and their hobbies. With more advanced classes, I do this as a pair interview where the partner introduces the student. I give my speech that everyone starts off with a 100 and clean slate in my class. We also learn vocabulary about the school and do a tour with each student acting as a tour guide the second time around.

Adults- I wear a big smile, say Hello, introduce myself, and start with this question game. One student is in the hot seat and the others must each ask the student one question beginning with the Wh question word I wrote on the board. This activity has been very successful in breaking the ice!

hcmurdoch

In my high school world history class I go over the syllabus and do all the typical first day stuff, then we start right in on the history! I have a handout on which students guess when and where common objects (toothbrush, bra, spas, sun glasses, etc) were first used. We talk about their guesses and why they made the choices they did. The next day they each get a post it with the answer to one of the objects on it, get in a chronological circle and go around sharing the right information. I tell little stories about each object. The information is from the book The Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati.

Kelly Hines

On the first day of school, students read letters from last year’s 4th graders about “How to Survive in Mrs. Hines” class. That’s always a lot of fun and loosens things up. We also review classroom expectations and rules, as well as setting up a basic calendar of things to expect. This year we will be starting on our overall yearly theme of “Healthy Living” with a lifestyle pre-assessment.

Briana Bancroft

I like the paper bag ice breaker. Before school starts I send out a letter asking the kids to bring in 3-4 items (small) that are important to them in a brown paper lunch bag (unmarked) and when they get to class on the first day of school I collect them. Then when they are gone to a special I pass out the bags in random order and have the students unpack them when they get back. They are allowed to walk around the room and look at the different things and then they have to try to guess who belongs to each bag. I have each student stand to show what is on their desk, make their guess as to who they think it belongs to, and then the person who brought them in will explain why they chose those particular things to bring in and show. With elementary students it is like a giant show-and-tell and then I don’t have to do it anymore for the rest of the year!

sanmccarron

This is a demonstration I do on one of the first few days of school. I get a local fast food joint burger (actually, I buy 5 because I have 5 classes). Before I reveal it, I have the students define what a quality burger is (it has meat, bun, pickle…etc.) Then I set it on my demo table and unwrap it. I ask if it is a quality burger. Then I smash it with a rubber mallet. While I am smashing it I am talking about the paper that is due the next day and how it is grabbed from the printer minutes before running out the door and slammed into the backpack and other books smashed on top of it.

Then I ask if it is still a quality burger. It has all the same parts. But it is a mess. And I expect to see tidy papers turned in.

They don’t forget the quality burger very quickly.

Natalie Wojinski

The first day of school is always hurried. Our classes are about 30 minutes each following a homeroom (with students that I will not have in class) period of 60 minutes where we hand out schedules. I always greet students at the door, check their names off the roll sheet and assign them a desk. Once the bell rings, I double-check that all students are present, then repeat their names again asking if there is another name they wish to use in class (i.e. nickname, middle name, etc.). I also stress the importance of them correcting my pronunciation if necessary. We review the syllabus and go over the recommended supply list. If it’s an AP class, I collect the summer assignment. At that point, I usually have time for a quick activity/demonstration. One of my favorites is to show them an overhead of a world map that has been cut into four pieces. The first view is centered on the Atlantic Ocean (which they are used to seeing), but then you move one of the pieces to the other side of the map to create a different view. We talk a little about our perceptions of what the world looks like and how sometimes we just need a different view to understand things better. If I had a full class period I’d add in a mental map of the world. It’s great to watch students’ maps progress over the course of the year.

Terri Harton

I spend time not only on the first day, but the first few weeks community building in the classroom. Taking the time to build community in the classroom from the very first day of school sets the tone for the rest of the year. Norms naturally emerge and relationships form that allow for productive cooperative learning. The students take complete ownership of the classroom, their own behavior, and their classmates’ behavior.

I also assign lunch groups and a topic of discussion. The groups sit together at lunch and report back the next day in class. Topics range from finding 3 unique things the group has in common to something that helps them to reflect on a previous day. We have 5 feeder schools that filter into our middle school and for sixth graders the lunch groups help to settle the anxiety that naturally emerges in regard to that time of the day. I only assign lunch groups for the first two weeks of school, but the students tend to continue sitting with each other throughout the year.

Mona

If it’s a new group, I of course want to know their names and a little bit about them. However, I know I don’t like boring introductions, so I’m guessing they don’t either. That’s why during the first meeting I sometimes ask “different” questions, like: “Do you have a nickname?”, “What book is on top of your shelf?”, “Who would you invite to an imaginary party?”, “What are you most proud of?” etc. These unconventional questions get them to open up and it’s always a fun class, especially since I too answer the same questions. Also, this type of getting-to-know-each-other exercise sets the ground for a good collaboration.

With groups with which I plan on using technology, I’d probably adapt the questions and ask stuff like “When was the last time you read a book/webpage?”, “When was the last time you received a letter/an email?”, “When was the last time you browsed an encyclopedia/wikipedia?”.

Heather Mason

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. By the time they get to me, they know most of the rules, so I go over them QUICKLY and pass out a supply list. Then I take any “I must know or I’ll die” questions, but I put off all the class info stuff until the next day (when all of the other teacher aren’t doing it).

We write the first day, usually a fun assignment and never a graded assignment. Last year they wrote an essay entitled, “What I Did This Summer” but the weren’t allowed to tell the truth. The crazier the better. They they shared with a partner and a few shared with the whole class.

This year, I think we will write a poem using the mini-whiteboards I have. Each student will write a word that describes school, then I will video the word while they say it and post the video to my website. If there’s time, we will do the activity again, this time with a word describing what they wish school was.

I want kids to know right off the bat that this class isn’t about listening or being quiet and following directions (although those are important skills), it’s about doing.

cthumphreys

Last year I taught 3rd grade, and I wanted the focus of my first day (and many after that) to be the cultivation of community. I showed pictures on the Smartboard of my husband, our dog, and from a trip I had taken to Argentina that summer. I let them ask lots of questions (they especially wanted to know all about the trip to Argentina because I had worked with kids their age). The purpose of this was to let them know that I wanted them to know me– to really know me, and this helped set the tone for the rest of the year. I shared my life with them, and they shared theirs with me.

We then played a game called “Connections.” I used a big piece of butcher paper and wrote all our names around the paper at the edges. Everyone sat behind their name with a marker, and we started the game with one student sharing something about himself. If a student found a connection with what he said, he drew a line connecting their names. They also wrote what connected them on the line. At the end, when the paper was a barely legible mess of lines and words, we drew conclusions about what this game taught us.

Dave

I teach fifth graders and have been doing this activity successfully for the past 29 years. After everyone is seated, I ask the students to look around the room to find THE most valuable item. I tell them it is not in a drawer or a closet, and that they can walk around and look if they want. After a few minutes I ask for what they believe is the most valuable object. Computers and stereo and ipod and TV and Smartboard are often mentioned. Sometimes it’s the artwork or books. I recognize that it IS valuable, but not THE most valuable. Eventually someone mentions the students and I concur… but add that it’s not only the students, but any person in the classroom, and I will not allow any damage to occur to the most valuable item(s) in the classroom. We refer to this lesson throughout the year as the first lesson they were taught in fifth grade. They don’t forget.

Marie

I am going back into the classroom after 10 years out so my main aim for the 1st day is to survive!!
I have a questionaire to hand out to the children. Although I already know them I hope this will give me more of an insight into each of them and make it easier to tailor my lessons for this class. It will also make it a bit easier to connect with each of them during the year. I will also spend time community building where we will discuss our expectations and how we all feel the classroom should be run (rules, consequences etc)

Dave

I introduce myself and tell the students a little about me and my background, hobbies, and interests. Then I have each student introduce themselves and tell about their hobbies, interests, or something interesting about themselves. I then talk briefly about the class and what we will be doing and what they can expect. They get a copy of the syllabus on their way out.

I teach high school physics, so I have grades 11 and 12.

I hand out the textbooks and go over class policies and procedures on the second day.

Thanks to everybody who contributed. Feel free to share more ideas in the comments section.  I’ll be announcing the next question in this series within a week!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

14 Comments

  1. Question: What do teachers find the most effective way to get class attention when they are busily working in groups? I am in middle school and I am looking for options. I have used the raised hand and others in the school have used a sound. Thanks for the ideas.

    • I teach middle school and use one of these http://www.ebay.com/itm/NEW-Flashing-Light-Up-Rave-Party-Toy-Spinning-LED-Wand-/190729033787 to get my class’s attention. The student’s love it. We call it Blinky McBlinksmith and some of the students even develop other endearing nicknames for it. The students know that when they see it light up and start spinning they should 1. Stop talking 2. Face me 3. Raise their hands. I have them raise their hands for those who are facing away from “Blinky” and don’t initially see it. It’s worked great for years. I even get reprimanded by the students if I don’t use it to get their attention!

  2. I found this lesson years ago and I have used it many times on the first day of school, especially in classes where I have not met many of the students. I’ve been told it is a good lesson regardless of how well you know (or as you’ll see how well your students think they know you) your students. After they have settled, tell them they are going to take a test. Once the grumbling about a test on the first day has died down, tell them it is a test they cannot fail. Have the number a piece of paper from 1-20 (plus or minus). Now begin to ask them questions about you! “Where did I graduate from high school?”, “How many siblings do I have?”, etc. When they have completed the “test” return to the beginning and help them fill in the blanks. It is a unique way for your students to get an inside look at you.

  3. I teach at a small middle school of 180 students. The students see me for two years in a row. Because of this I start the 8th graders out with a quiz on the symbols for the elements in the periodic table so that they know I mean it when I say that “everyday builds on the last day and every year on the last year”.
    I show them where to find information that will help them in the coming year. My homework page, science hints, my blog, how to check their grades. I remind them that science is fun and hard and terribly interesting and that it impacts their daily lives. I share with them my point of view on science education, that it is interconnected to them socially, morally, physically, and historically. Then I give them homework.

  4. I put student names on sticky notes at their seats and have a basic questionnaire for them to fill out while getting settled. In first year French, I begin right away by teaching the expressions for how are you, what’s your name and a couple of possible answers. Students then walk around the room completing an introductory activity that includes picking a job they’d like to have that uses French, guessing meanings of some cognates and looking a Tour de France site and guessing either a general gist or picking out words. Upper levels also interview partners. Lower levels ask the same two questions to one another. I model rules right away such as staying on task, using the target language as much as possible and guessing whenever possible.

  5. I clap a rhythm and my students repeat the clap, stop what they are doing and look at me.

  6. Larry,

    I am curious as to why you said in your post that you “emphasize that I hope to stop using it within a few weeks”? If it is truly a management system, why would you want to abandon it after a few weeks or sooner?

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  8. Re: getting students’ attention when in groups, I recommend a train whistle. Check out this blog post for more: http://ginsburgcoachingtt.wordpress.com/2010/01/09/a-tighter-ship-and-lighter-atmosphere/

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  10. Pingback: Here’s to a great New Year

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  12. I love growing the pet TickleMe Plant in the classroom!
    http://www.ticklemeplant.com

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