Planning for the First Day of School

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As a teacher, there’s a lot of pressure to have the perfect first day of school. After all, this is the day you make your first impressions on your new students, and it’s the day you set the tone for the rest of the year. If you’re like me, the first day of school also the only specific day of the year you have nightmares about.

It’s no wonder that one of the best-selling teacher books of all time is called The First Days of School (co-written by Harry and Rosemary Wong, the book is now in its fourth edition and has sold nearly 4 million copies).

I spend more time planning my first day of school every year than any other day because I know what’s at stake and because I know how anxious I will inevitably be on that day each time a new group of 25-40 students walks through my door for the first time that school year. As a student teacher four years ago, I was lucky enough to observe five different teachers’ first day lessons and found the experience invaluable in planning my eventual first first day of school. So, in today’s blog post, I want to offer you a glimpse into my first-day routine and the way I approach planning for the big day.

First, context. I teach multiple periods of college prep sophomore English (“college prep” is the non-honors level offered at my high school–the default class, basically, for students who lack the recommendation for or interest in an honors-level English class). I also teach IB senior literature and will be adding AP English language & composition this year, but I’ll focus just on my sophomore class in this post. This will be my fourth year of teaching sophomore English at the same school.

When I approach the first day of school lesson, I consider 4 major questions:

  1. What do my students want to know about my class on the first day of school?
  2. What information, skills, or routines do I want my students to know on the first day of school?
  3. What do I want my students to feel about my class? What do I want my students to tell their parents and friends about my class later that day?
  4. Are there any regrets I had at the end of the previous school year that I can try to begin to address on day one of the new school year?

 

Let me take you briefly through my answers to these questions as of this summer; I encourage you to think about how you would answer them for your own class(es).

1. What do my students want to know about my class on the first day of school?

My students want to know if they’re in the right class and where they sit.

My students want to know what I’m like: am I nice or mean? Am I easy or difficult? Am I strict or lenient? Do I care about them? Will I treat them fairly?

My students want to know the rules, grading policies, and content for this class.

2. What information, skills, or routines do I want my students to know on the first day of school?

I want my students to understand that I have high expectations for their learning and behavior, and I want them to believe that they can meet those expectations.

I want my students to know that our class will demand a lot of reading, writing, and collaboration; I want them to know that they should expect to work hard every day.

I want my students to know from day one that I’m picky about procedures. They should know the basics of how to set up a heading in MLA format, how to turn in on-time and late work, and how to start and end class each day. (These are lessons I learned from the frustrations of my first year of teaching.)

3. What do I want my students to feel about my class? What do I want my students to tell their parents and friends about my class later that day?

I want my students to feel comfortable in my class. I want them to go home and tell their parents that I seem friendly but maybe a little tough. I want them to be excited about my class and what they’re going to learn this year. I do not want them to tell their parents that they went over yet another syllabus (I’ll leave that for day two, and I’ll keep it brief).

4. Are there any regrets I had at the end of the previous school year that I can try to begin to address on day one of the new school year?

I received several negative notes from substitute teachers about one class in particular. I want to train (it’s an abominable word to use when discussing students, but it’s appropriate here) my students to follow our routines and be courteous even when I am absent. I can lay the groundwork for this on the first day, but I can’t make it stick yet.

 

With this question-and-answer routine done, I begin to plan my first day of school, keeping what I liked about last year’s first day and changing what I didn’t. To keep this post from going on for too long, I’ll close by summarizing my first-day routine for this year.

First, I use a Google Slides presentation to keep myself on track and to provide a helpful set of visuals for my students. The presentation provides much needed structure to one of the most important

As students enter my room, I greet them at the door and hand them a playing card from a deck, inviting them to find their seat by finding the matching card. Their card will match its mate, which is taped to the table in front of their assigned seat. This is an engaging way to randomly assign seats on the first day (assigning seats makes learning names easier and prevents them all from sitting with old friends, which discourages meeting new people and encourages distractions). As I do every day, I have music playing during passing period to keep the environment upbeat and welcoming. On the first day of school, it’s the Jackson 5’s “ABC.”

After we get started, I make sure students are supposed to be in Mr. Hershberger’s English 2 class and then give them five minutes or so to fill out an index card with their name, a song they love, something they’re obsessed with, clubs/teams they belong to, career goals, and anything else I need to know about them, including learning needs or health issues. They’ll complete a more detailed learning survey later in the week, but this is a quick-reference card I will also use to call on students randomly all year. I use the songs they write down to generate my playlist of songs for passing period.

After covering quick housekeeping (about a 30 seconds about emergency procedures, basically), I take roll, pausing after each person to look them in the eye and tell them how glad I am to meet them and to have them in my class. (I’ve got about 20 different ways of saying this prepared beforehand).

The last thing I do before getting into the more interesting part of class is I go over the most important policies and procedures that can’t wait until day two: cell phone policy, bathroom policy, and start- and end-of-class procedures. I try to save most of the boring syllabus stuff until after day one because I don’t want “syllabus reader” to be their first impression of me.

Next, I give my students a few minutes to walk around the room, examine posters, furniture, and other artifacts, and ask them to make inferences about me. (Great opportunity to teach the concepts of inference and deductive reasoning, as well as an opportunity to stress the importance of supporting assertions with evidence.) I then show a quick slideshow of pictures of me and my interests to give them some more information about who I am.

I end class with a writing prompt. It may seem cruel to make students write formally on the first day of class, but it serves three purposes, the first two of which I let the students know: (1) it gives me an idea of my new students’ writing ability (pre-test); (2) it allows me to get to know my students better on a personal level; (3) it shows students that I am serious about them doing work from the get-go and writing in class every day.

My writing prompt is thus. I give students the following quotation from comedian Simon Pegg: “Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never playing it cool about how much you like something.” I then guide them through an extremely brief discussion to make sure they understand Pegg’s comment, then I ask them to write me a short essay explaining what they are a geek about, insisting that even the coolest person in the world can be a geek in some way (note that I’m continuing to build my classroom culture here). Some students will resist this, so I will also allow them to explain why they are not a geek about anything. I help students set up their papers in MLA format to establish another norm for my class.

At the end of class, I teach students our procedure for passing papers, I assign them no homework, and I dismiss them just as the bell is about to ring. In about 50 minutes, I hope to have set clear and high expectations, gotten to know my students a bit, allowed them to get to know me, and gathered valuable information that will inform my teaching for the next few months.

There are a wealth of first-day-of-school lesson ideas out there, some extremely creative engaging, others quite traditional. My first day of school may be quite different from yours. I’d love for you to share what has worked for you, what you’d like to try this year, or what you think of my first day routine. Please sound off in the comments below, and feel free to include a link to your or others’ great first day of school ideas for any and all grade levels and subject areas–we can all learn from one another!

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