A First-Day-of-School Priority

school-1575835_960_720Summer is winding down (or is already over for many of us), and, since your time is limited, I will be brief.

I want to talk to you today about the first day of school. More specifically, what you have planned for your students’ first day this year.

Teachers have a variety of go-to activities and routines on the first day of school. Some play name games or ice breakers with their students. Some stick to a traditional route and go over the syllabus, while others dive right into a content-rich lesson. Still others begin with an exam, particularly if they assigned summer homework for their incoming class.

I’m entering my sixth year of teaching this year, and I’ve done most of the above. Through trial and error, I’ve realized that many first-day approaches can work. Regardless of what your first day plans entail, though, I want to suggest to you that no first-day-of-school plan is complete without one essential ingredient.

That ingredient is love.

For the sake of each students, please, please show your students on day one that you care.

There are so many ways to do this, and I’ll be approaching the first day differently in each of my three English preps. For the first class of a sophomore college-prep course, the students and I will consider ourselves in relation to actor Simon Pegg’s definition of a geek. In AP English lang/comp, we’ll talk about the rhetoric that characterizes our world, and even our actions. And in the senior IB course I teach, we’ll listen to and analyze one of my favorite poems, “Invictus.”

In each of these classes, I will make it a priority to show my students that I care about them.

I offer you three simple ways you can make sure you do that on your first day, regardless of what your first-day plans might be.

1. Honor your students’ identities by getting them right.

Make sure you’re pronouncing students’ names right–insist that they correct you if you’re wrong, and don’t ask them if you can use a nickname. Respect the beauty of every name, no matter how unfamiliar to you. No name is “too hard” for you to dignify with your best efforts.

And make sure you’re using their correct name and pronouns. The roster may say Diana, but your student may identify by male pronouns and use the name Deter. I like to have my students fill out an information card with their correct name and pronouns and then use the cards to take roll. What worse way to begin a relationship with a student than to misgender them? Here are some more tips for providing a safe and welcoming classroom for trans and gender nonconforming students.

2. Let your students speak.

Lecturing the whole first day, giving a silent exam, or taking 50 minutes to read the syllabus sends a message to your students that your voice is the only one in the room that matters. You can show that you value your students’ voices by finding an opportunity to hear them on the first day. Have a discussion, give them a group challenge, or find another way to give them some air time.

One great first day activity I enjoy that also lets students talk is a quick lesson on inferences. I give my students a few minutes to wander around my room to examine my posters, books, and other objects, and then I ask them to make inferences about me and about my class. It gets them thinking, gives me a chance to let them take control for a little bit, and allows me to hear their voices and their thinking–all while reviewing the concept of inference.

3. Set the right tone and expectations.

I’m pretty sure the teaching community has let go of the “don’t smile until December” adage of old, but I think it bears reiteration that many students won’t care to learn from a teacher they don’t think cares about them. This is particularly true for some cultures over others.

Greet students at the door with a smile, handshake, or fist bump. Assure them that you’ll balance your strict grading and high expectations with opportunities for test retakes and essay rewrites. Make clear that your room is to be a safe space for every student, regardless of ability, beliefs, or identity–and mean it.

There’s no one right way to set a tone and expectations that show students you care, but it’s not difficult to do if you take care to do it.

It is important to think carefully about your first day of school–first impressions are difficult to re-do, after all. If you have other suggestions for putting a little love into your first-day-of-school lesson, I’d love to hear about it! Please share in the comments section below, and let me know what you think of the ideas above, too.

Thanks for stopping by, today; have a great first day of school!

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