Best. First. Day. Ever.
August 11, 2011 11:58 PM   Subscribe

Teachers of Metafiilter: Give me your first day/week of school hacks. Also for non-teachers: What are your best first day of school memories? When you think of your favourite classes in high school, what stands out?

I've been a classroom teacher (HS, ELA) for many years, but the first week ends up being mostly procedure and thus boring. Typically, we read the syllabus, talk about expectations, and do a writing assessment. I really like the idea of starting with something more fun - after all, this is their first impression of me, and if they're 9th graders, of high school. I think first impressions matter.

I have a thematic "fun" lesson for the first day. But what do you do in the first week that sets the tone? Or for the non-teachers, what do you remember your teachers doing that stands out to you? Activities, demonstrations, vague ideas, and even half-remembered things from your own student experience are great.

Metafilter, please hope me!
posted by guster4lovers to Education (32 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know... first impressions are very important. If you do something unexpected, it may be confusing, and, depending on the students, anything could happen.

As a teacher I've always found it best to start with the basics, and work up to more complicated and creative activities.

(I'm basing this on a really terrible first-lesson experience... Until you know the class, it's just not a good idea to switch things up)
posted by KokuRyu at 12:12 AM on August 12, 2011

Syllabus quiz (with candy prizes)! My 8th graders loved that. I also gave them the opportunity to get to know me by writing two questions (appropriate only, or they wouldn't be read, obviously), that I would answer in front of the class. The kids thought this was hilarious, it sparked some neat conversations, and it also gave them an idea of things we might have in common. We learned a lot about each other doing that, and I thought it was well worth the one period it took. :-)
posted by I_love_the_rain at 12:13 AM on August 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

I always start with a hard quiz on stuff they haven't learned yet (vocab, for instance). I lie and say it's part of their grade--they're all in a hole and have to dig out. I also use it to reinforce what they should already know: they have a shit ton to learn.

I do the quiz before I even introduce myself. I like to start off with a mood of intensity and challenge.

(I teach high achieving kids with big ambitions. This may not work for everyone.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:31 AM on August 12, 2011

High School, 1982....first day back from Spring Break. The American History teacher, who was a real master, timed the class on the outbreak of WW1 for that Monday, waking us right out of our teenage slumber, with all the gory parts and assassinations and excitement, and then with the Serious History Questions
posted by thelonius at 1:48 AM on August 12, 2011

This is not based on any experience in my own schooling, but I'd think that using Sporcle (or other time-based quizzes akin to it) would've made learning the list of presidents, states, elements, etc, a heckuva lot more fun. I'm sure there would be some things in ELA that would be applicable.

I can't remember a single thing from my first few days of any of my high school classes, except for the time I accidentally started sitting in on the wrong math class on day 2. So... making sure the right kids are in your class could be beneficial.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:04 AM on August 12, 2011

Will the kids in the class know each other's names? Do you? It's worth doing some sort of exercise that will end up with everybody knowing everybody else's names.

Go around the room getting pupils to name themselves and then throw a ball around - each person calls another's name and then passes the ball to them; repeat the process until everyone knows everyone's names.
posted by alby at 5:19 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a mother of a rising high school freshman and senior, I would say no homework the first week of school. It is a challenge to go back after a summer off just getting into the routine. They wake up way earlier than they have been, sit in a desk all day with all new teachers and often new students, have to navigate in unfamiliar places (in 9th grade), and adjust to a lot of new things. Mine come home exhausted that first week, then still have hours and hours of homework.

I think it would make a huge impression on them if a teacher understood all of this and took it easy on them for just one week (and, in turn, it is a lot easier on the parents too!).
posted by maxg94 at 5:26 AM on August 12, 2011

I'd skip as much of the administrative stuff as you can for day one - they'll be getting it in all of their other classes.

Give them something they can sink their teeth into, so when (if) their parents ask them what they learned today, they might have an answer for them.
posted by davey_darling at 5:29 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I always liked when my teachers decorated their classrooms not just with subject-related stuff, but personal interest stuff too. I had an English teacher who was a huge Alabama fan, and had Alabama school paraphernalia throughout the classroom. It sparked some fun, good-natured jabs between her and some of my collegiate sports fan classmates. One of my math teachers had UGA stuff all over his trailer. It just gave you a taste of his personality.

Remember that the first day/week of class is kind of like a first date--you're trying to put your best foot forward, and make a really good impression. You might only be showing the very best of what you have to offer. But you shouldn't mislead your students about your methods or your intentions. If you're going to be tough on them, start off tough. If you have certain expectations of them and of the class, make sure to get those explained explicitly and immediately.
posted by litnerd at 5:44 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do the Getting to Know You fun and games first. Name-learning, perhaps games like Bobby's World, things like that. Administrivia can wait for another day....
posted by MShades at 5:47 AM on August 12, 2011

If I had had a teacher in high school or college who didn't read the syllabus aloud during class, and instead realized that we were all capable of reading it quietly to ourselves, THAT would have been the best first day ever.
posted by coppermoss at 5:54 AM on August 12, 2011

I also liked teachers best who went right into the subject material. I really hated it when we had to spend time learning people's names or going over a syllabus.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:13 AM on August 12, 2011

Well, what are your goals? Do you want to establish a positive classroom community? Would you like your students to dive into the material right away? What is the primary text you'll be reading over the course of the year?

I liked teachers who said, "I expect you to read the course syllabus tonight, and we'll review some of the basic necessities. Let's talk about what [insert subject] means to you. Quickwrite for 10 minutes about what you know about [insert subject], what you'd like to know, and what kinds of projects you like most. Then be prepared to share at your table with your peers, because you're going to talk about what you each said to the class at the end."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:01 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I started (12th-grade English, pretty rough school) with a name game. First kid says his name and something about himself. Next kid says his name and something about himself, and also the first kid's name and the thing about that first kid. I went last and used this as a sort of segue to talk--very little--about myself. Good way to break the ice and it's great for you to know who's crazy, who's shy, who's going to give you hell all year, etc.

Oh, and don't be weird. Robin Williams could only jump up on desks because he was at an all-boys school in the fifties and they would just get their asses beat if they laughed. Especially if you have little bastards who are cruel; please stay on the conservative side or you risk their merciless teenage mockery, the kind you will later dream of murdering in the parking lot. I always felt for teachers who wanted to be a dead poet or bond too much with everyone. Don't tell them you have fifty cats or like to party or anything that's not normative (relative to teenagers, of course).
posted by resurrexit at 7:03 AM on August 12, 2011

I give an exam on the first day. It shows them I'm not messing around, and that they will have to work hard in my class. (Teaching low-level university mathematics)
posted by King Bee at 7:11 AM on August 12, 2011

I work in higher ed (not a faculty member) and facilitate a particular institute every summer that includes students from all different campuses. There are several activities we do to get the students warmed up, get them to know each other, and get silly and relaxed. This may or may not work in your classroom setup.

Name Aerobics: Everyone in a circle. Everyone has to think of a word that describes themselves that starts with the same letter of their first name. So, the first person is "Jumping Jack"...but while he introduces himself he has to do an action as well (obviously this would be a jumping jack or jumping up and down). Everyone in the circle then repeats "Jumping Jack" while doing that action. Second person introduces herself (Leaping Leah), then everyone in the circle repeats "Leaping Leah", THEN repeats "Jumping Jack". Keep going around the circle until you get back to the beginning. Once you've completed the circle, you can try to do it faster (instead of everyone introducing themselves, just go around and name everyone/do the action), go around the circle backwards, change places with someone, etc. It helps everyone learn names, and leads to some nicknames for people as well. You have to start this one out by encouraging everyone to get relaxed, have fun, and take off their "cool caps" in your classroom. The buildup to this is what's important...if you just jump right in they won't loosen up.

Fun Facts (you might have to edit these for appropriateness): Everyone puts in two or three fun facts about themselves that others might not know about them on small pieces of paper (no names). The slips of paper gets jumbled up in a bowl, and one is drawn out and read to the class. Then everyone starts guessing whose fact it is. Once someone guesses correctly, that person usually has to explain the fact, which can lead into some good stories and discussion. Then that person draws out of the bowl and the process starts again. The great thing about this is that you don't have to go through the entire bowl in one keep it and pull it out when you have a few minutes left before the bell rings. People look forward to learning weird stuff about each other, and it builds a sense of community.

In both of these, the teacher has to participate as well in order to reinforce the community building aspect of things.
posted by MultiFaceted at 7:18 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a seating plan for when they walk in the door. They complain but I find it sets the tone that I'm in charge and after we are settled in for a couple of weeks I'll change the seating plan or let them sit where they want (if they are the kind of class that can handle that).

I have a cool game I play to get to know each other. Everyone gets an index card. They write their name in the middle on the front and their birthday in the middle on the back. On the front in each corner they write down the answer to 4 questions. 1. What is your least favourite food. 2. what is an accomplishment or experience you have had that you are proud or stands out to you (could be a trip, winning a baseball tournament, moving to this country, getting an A on a math test...). 3. What is your dream job? 4. If you had a million dollars (and you can't keep if for yourself or give to family) where would you donate it. When they are done filling out their cards I tell them they have 5 minutes to learn the information on everyone's cards. I set the timer and tell them that when the timer beeps there will be a quiz. I allow them to take notes to help them remember. I collect the cards and quiz them. So, pick a card randomly and say "this person hates mushrooms and wants to be a race car driver, who is it?" Who ever answers correctly gets a prize. I give out fruit leather, others give candy. I do about 10 on the first day but usually finish them up over the next few days mostly because the kids love it and ask to finish the pile of cards everyday.

I disagree with the don't be weird advice. I'm weird and I share stuff with the students that they think is super strange all the time (I have no TV, I love to knit..). But that's because that is who I am and it works for me. Be yourself. If you are weird and like to laugh and share stories with students and hear their stories do that. If you are super conservative and that stuff makes you uncomfortable, don't force it. Just be yourself.
posted by sadtomato at 8:05 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

The teachers who were ready for us - had materials already printed out, were ready to walk us through our books, appeared composed - were the best way to start the year off right.

Weird didn't matter if they were organised.

Setting expectations on both sides on day 1 was hugely successful.

Good luck & thanks for teaching!
posted by batmonkey at 8:12 AM on August 12, 2011

After you introduce yourself and tell them whatever you need to tell them, ask them each to write for the rest of the period. Their assignment is to introduce themselves. They can do this by writing about themselves directly or by writing about a person, thing, idea, performer, sport--anything, really--that they care about. At the end of the period, you'll have baseline writing samples and the goodwill that comes with showing an interest in someone else's passions.
posted by TEA at 8:15 AM on August 12, 2011

Second the seating plan. I have them sit alphabetically for the first few weeks as it really helps me learn their names (key for classroom management). I also hit them hard with a big fat assignment of "Things You Should Know" (from the previous year in math). It helps a great deal with weeding out the kids who need to drop down a level (always a major issue in academic math). I'm also big on making my classroom expectations very clear (lateness, etc.) and I have them fill out info sheets including their parents' e-mails (best way to talk to parents as then you have everything in writing and on file), extracurricular activities and such not.

I kind of dig the anonymous question thing--might find a way to work a bit of that in as well. Overall though, it's best to start in a very strict manner. You can certainly become more relaxed with the kids as the year progresses, but you can never really get stricter. Set the tone on the first day.
posted by Go Banana at 8:15 AM on August 12, 2011

The only first day I can remember was for my high school calculus class (we already knew and loved this teacher from Algebra II, so ymmv). He started off by telling the story that when he first became a math teacher all these years ago, he said, "I want to teach the highest level of high school math! That's my goal!" But of course, he had to start out teaching Math I or something really lame, and had to patiently wait for the more senior teachers to retire to slowly move up to better and better classes. Finally, after decades, he made it to the top, and got to teach Calculus! This very class! We were like his tenth calcuclus class, and we were fulfilling his dream of teaching the best class in the world! It was adorable, and I'll never forget it. Then, we skipped the syllabus crap and dove right in to the math.
posted by gueneverey at 8:36 AM on August 12, 2011

The best teachers, in my experience, were the ones who skipped the cutesy games that were supposed to teach us one another's names. I always appreciated being treated as a person capable of speaking to my classmates on my own terms.

(And maybe this was my irritable teenage self, but I hated being asked what I wanted to learn this year. How could I possibly answer that question?)
posted by corey flood at 8:40 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

My wife teaches elementary, so this may not apply much...

Over the years she's found that she really has to set the tone for how she expects the year to go. If she's a hard-ass for the first week or two she can lay off of them for the rest of the year except for when they're out of control. If she lets them get out of hand in the beginning it's hard very hard for her to rein them in later on. Set expectations early, you'll thank yourself later.
posted by togdon at 9:03 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your query made me really think back. I was a fairly ambitious student; took lots of notes, was always trying to suss out key material that would be on tests, etc. I enjoyed the first day or so, because I could just relax and listen to the teacher. I knew stuff wouldn't be blowing by that I'd be forced to retain.

And this meant two divergent impressions:

1. passionless teachers who seemed robotic and scripted....whose first days I'd view like a bad show on tv I was too lazy to switch from, and

2. impassioned teachers with genuine love for their topic and for teaching in general.

Re: Type 1, I would mentally set myself for grinding rote learning. I wouldn't be particularly listening, I'd be culling for key elements I'd need to regurgitate later. I viewed these teachers as less than human; sort of flesh-and-blood textbooks. I often zoned out, knowing they were just going thru the motions and I could just as easily get the information straight from the textbook.

Re: Type 2, I'd have a completely different attitude. I treated them as a fascinating documentary. I'd listen carefully, and think about what they said. These were actually harder classes, in a way, since they seldom paralleled the textbook, and I knew I'd ALSO need to master that material (i.e. I had two different streams to take in). But I didn't mind, because my curiosity was stirred.

The only problem is that there's a sub-type of type #1: these are passionless, robotic, scripted teachers who really really want to come off as impassioned and fascinating. I saw through them in about one second. You really can't fake it.

So if you want to be type 2, the first day is about performance. It's exactly like being a public speaker. It's about a genuine, spontaneous, and somewhat revealing personal perspective on the subject. Don't do it because you want to "arouse my curiosity" or "make an impression", or "be thought of as a special teacher". That casts you immediately into group 1 (it's cliche, and kids have a keen nose for cliche). Do it because you mean it! (But: also keep the dynamic range neat and tidy; kids are skeptical of and weirded out by over the top performances, unless they're really really funny at the same time.)
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:46 AM on August 12, 2011

Boil down: you can't stir their curiosity by trying to stir their curiosity. You've got to be interesting and fresh and spontaneous and honest, and let curiosity stir as a byproduct of that.

Great Banksy quote, which applies in a parallel sort of way: "Doing art to get famous is like eating a delicious dinner so you can take a shit" (that's a paraphrase, but it'll do). I.e. don't try to be everybody's favorite, best-remembered teacher. Just pour yourself into teaching and let that stuff sort out itself.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:50 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm with roomthreeseventeen: I always hated syllabus-reading, name-sharing, ice-breaking, expectation-setting crap. I was ready and excited to learn! Why did we waste our first week doing lame administrative and get-to-know-you tasks? It was high school. It was supposed to be serious and difficult and educational. I wanted to start learning right away.

But then, I always was a huge overachiever.
posted by ootandaboot at 11:00 AM on August 12, 2011

On the first day of my tenth grade history class, which was also my very first day of high school, as we were reading the syllabus, a young English teacher from a classroom down the hall barged in and threw a fit about a missing textbook. He and my history teacher yelled at each other, he shoved some things off her desk and stormed out, and she asked us all to fill out incident report forms.

Then we compared the twenty different accounts of the incident, learned what the Rashomon effect is and its implications for the objective study of history, and then the English teacher came back in and the whole thing had just been pretend and we had a good laugh about it.

Completely unforgettable, educational and weird and fun.
posted by milk white peacock at 11:12 AM on August 12, 2011 [15 favorites]

"When you think of your favourite classes in high school, what stands out?"

I was very bright and always did well in school, but I was overweight and unpopular and very insecure. My perspective of the world was different than most of my peers; I always just had a different way of thinking, seeing problems and issues with a slightly different angle, which I still do to this day.

I was better at Math and Science than I was at English or History, but I was on the Honors/AP track so I was in advanced classes for all of them. To make matter worse, I had minor clashes with my Freshman English teacher, and then major clashes with my Sophomore English teacher, who was the worst teacher I ever had. Junior year was better,; I was probably a thorn for the teacher, but she handled it much better, and it was still my least favorite subject. So, when I started my Senior year, I didn't have high hopes for AP English. The teacher was notoriously tough, and I was not looking forward to it.

On the first day, she gave us one of those getting to know you quizzes, asking about our favorite book, how much we read, etc. The big question I remember was "What are some of your favorite words?". With my perspective, I took this question figuratively, and listed some of my favorite quotes and sayings, one of which was Thomas Wolfe "You can't go home again". The next day we all turned in our papers, and then I discussed it with my friends after class. I was shocked to learn they had taken the question literally, and all wrote down their favorite words, onomatopoeia or sparkle or whatever they thought sounded good. I was devastated, and sure that since I had made such a stupid misjudgement, I was going to be spending the year butting heads with another English teacher.

Luckily we didn't review the sheets in class, we didn't have to stand up and introduce ourselves and read our answers, so I was spared the embarrassment of being different. Class went on, and it actually wasn't that bad. We did a lot of reading, but there was a lot of discussion around the books, with all viewpoints welcomed, so I actually enjoyed it. I was able to catch some themes and motifs and symbolism that others missed. But the kicker came a few weeks later. I think we were discussing The Great Gatsby, about Jay and Nick growing up in the area, then leaving for awhile, and had now come back to West Egg. I made a point about how they were coming back to a different place than they had left as different people, both the area had changed, but so had the men. The teacher said it was a good point, looked at me and said "You know the saying, 'You can't go home again' ", then she smiled and went on.

This was my most profound moment in all of my schooling. The fact that she noted my different perspective, remembered it, and appreciated it, had a huge impact on me. Looking back, I'm sure that part of it was that I was probably better behaved for her than my previous English teachers, because I didn't feel so ostracized. That class, that teacher, single handedly turned me around, not just on reading and literature, but on school and education. I did well in her class, took the AP test, and ended up with a 3, which is better than I ever would have expected before the year started.

So Mrs. Ward, if you ever read this, you were the greatest teacher I ever had. Thank you, thank you so much.
posted by I am the Walrus at 11:17 AM on August 12, 2011 [18 favorites]

Change things up. I have taught a two-year New Media diploma in a polytechnic for the last decade, and in the first semester I like to alter between "fun" and "work" in an organized fashion. I think the keys are (as mentioned above) being prepared, consistent presentation of information, and adding fun moments in a way that the students can sometimes anticipate, and sometimes will be surprised by. Those moments function as a break from the standard teaching mode while still (ideally) being learning opportunities.

So, to start - we have an orientation day a week before classes begin. There's a long, boring period of introductions, handing out schedules, etc, before a teacher-led tour of the campus that usually takes an hour. This year, I plan to have Air Swimmers that the students can fly remotely through the atrium of the central campus building during the tour.

In the first class, I make expectations very clear, for both the students and myself. I encourage them to take out their cellphones / smartphones and enter my contact information. There's about an hour of firm, even scary information. I introduce them to my blog, emphasising that the core of the information I impart in class is replicated there, so they can review and study at their own pace.

In the second class, I'll have students who have successfully transitioned to the second year come in to speak to the 1st year students for an hour, while I am out of earshot. This allows the 1st year students to ask questions of their peers that they may be too intimidated to ask of the faculty, and reinforces the fact that "Yes, Professor X really does know what he's talking about, and yes he really will kick your ass if you don't contribute the work that is expected of you."

In the third class, depending on the weather, I'll bring a portable whiteboard and take them for a lecture outside in the sun (with shade options for the sun-sensitive).

I'll nominate one class a week for starting, or ending, with something a little different: in the past, I've used five minutes of music, or a poetry reading, or a themed video ("Freaky Robot Friday" was a popular one), or one of my patented rants on an unrelated subject (bacteria, viruses, and the hygiene hypothesis; basic binary arithmetic and the ballooning capacity of hard drives; population and peak oil).

The idea is to compress and expand: make it very clear when work and attention is required, but provide regular opportunities for fun, self-expression, and simply thinking differently.

I've mentioned a few other activities in a previous post, some of which may be useful.

I hope this helps!
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 12:25 PM on August 12, 2011

Something I remember from one of my classes in high school: there was a couch. It helped create a relaxed vibe in the classroom, and all of the students really enjoyed that (being allowed to bring and play musical instruments didn't hurt either). We also played dodgeball a few times in the classroom, using stuffed animals; the teams had to answer questions about the book we were reading to get the 'balls'.

Really, my advice (as a student, not a teacher) would be to give the students time to relax or goof off a little. It's a good change in pace when the rest of the day will be spent sitting down, quietly working.
posted by cp311 at 1:43 PM on August 12, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I've really enjoyed reading your responses!

A little clarification/additional information:
I always do the "draw a number and find that number seat" thing when they walk in the door - as many have said, it helps me learn their names right away. When they get there they flll out some information cards (email, phone, etc.) and then I give them the syllabus. In recent years, I've not spent any time on it (i.e. I gave it to them and asked them to read it at home) - actually, I don't think I even used one last year. That's about 5 minutes worth of material that I've always done and probably always will do because it works so well to get things going.

I like a lot of the name games suggested here. I'm always torn on whether or not to use one - some years, it's awesome. Other years, I feel like I wasted that time and/or it was a difficult adjustment from the fun of that activity to the "real" work. And the years I used them, I'm not sure that they helped the kids learn names...but I could be wrong.

For what it's worth, this is the activity that I planned (the one I mentioned in the post): I teach literature through patterning, so I play a popular song and give them a handout with the lyrics. We look for the repeated words/ideas/rhythms and try to figure out why the songwriter included them. Then we switch over to a short narrative text and I guide them through patterning that and we'll talk about what the patterns mean. Then I'll have them write about it (that will be my diagnostic writing assessment). In the first week I also have them write me letters and I give a short quiz on my expectations/norms. Honestly I would TOTALLY do that fake fight if I thought I could pull it off (I don't know that any of my colleagues would play along...maybe I could get a student to come back and do it...).

I've really enjoyed the stories of memorable first days and experiences. I'd love to hear more!
posted by guster4lovers at 2:01 PM on August 12, 2011

These are so fun to read!

i had a theatre teacher in High School who on the first day of school would let us all come in, put our things down, chat for a minute, etc. She'd get settled, head to the board and say "Welcome everyone! My name is Miss Fitzgerald, but everyone calls me Ms. Fitz. And now I would like all of you to gather your things, go out into the hall and come back in again and do everything exactly the same as you just did it. GO."

That was always surprisingly fun. She had a lot of great ice-breakers that put the game in our hands. Now I'm doing my grad work toward my Med in Secondary Education, and when I start teaching I plan to....

First,I will pass out a quote to each student, some will be poetry, others might be just a single word, or a sentence, some of them might even just get a picture or a piece of artwork-and I'll have them free-write whatever they want (appropriately) about the selection they're given for fifteen minutes. (those are just for me and they'll probably get them back on the last day of school)

Then I will go around the room and have everyone say their name and why they chose the seat they chose "I wanted to sit next to Casey," "I like being by the window" etc. So that gets me some names out of the way, Then we're gonna talk about words.... cause damn it I love words. Someday we'll get to the syllabus....really we will.
posted by billypilgrim at 2:47 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

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