I love the first day of school, and the whole beginning of the year, for that matter. I find the freshness, the sense of possibility, the coming together of people and ideas inspiring. I also enjoy the way that details play a heightened role in the beginning of the year, as we work to set habits that embody our vision and purpose. So what do you do on the very first day and why? A number of people have asked me recently how I start out the year, so I’ll begin by sharing my thinking about day one.
1. Less is more. I’ve taken a big step back from feeling like I need to rush toward anything on the first day of school. I want to have plenty of extra room in my plan for teaching transitions and practicing them as needed. I want to feel comfortable greeting and helping the student who comes 20 minutes late due to a scheduling snafu, and I want to include time within my lesson plan for students’ voices to actually be heard. This doesn’t mean I can allow endless time for everything, but I’ve learned not to over-plan or make plans overly complicated. Students are taking in a lot of stimuli on the first day of school, so I want to focus on what’s most important and do so in a way that we can all walk away feeling good about what happened.
2. Introduce students to the overall shape of a class period. On day one, I want students to get a sense of how a class period will flow—this may be more important than any other objective. Structure is calming, and my structures support everything else I want to accomplish, so they are top priority.
I want students to learn the structure of the class by experiencing it, though, not by me just telling them about it. I don’t go over a bunch of procedures written out on a worksheet, for example. I plan each procedure into the lesson, and I make sure to be clearheaded myself about how I want them to go and how I will communicate them. Below are some points about the format of the class that I want students to grasp on day one.
- How to enter the classroom.
- Where to sit, and how to know what to do when you get there.
- How much time we take on the opening activity, how to get help, and how they will know time is up.
- How to view the agenda and aim for the class period.
- How to transition to the meeting area—this is a physical structure in my classroom that you may want to try. Here’s a video tour of my classroom, where you can see it. The meeting area is where I generally lead mini-lessons, whole class discussions, and later, some small group work. Students can also choose to read there.
- How to participate in the meeting area lesson or discussion.
- How to transition back to desks/tables to begin independent, group or partner work.
- How to find the homework assignment.
- How we end class.
- How to leave the classroom.
On the first day, everything takes more time than usual, and I’m upfront with students about this. For example, we usually don’t end up with much workshop time, if any, on the first day, so I put it on the agenda with "(if time)” next to it. I have the activity prepared, but for today, it’s not essential. I let students know there would normally be independent or group work time following the meeting. I do make sure to have time for students to transition back to their desks from the meeting area for a smooth closing of class. The idea is for them to have a visual and physical sense of how class runs. One more example of a structure I don’t get to on day one is their English notebook. We set this up with a table of contents, and it takes too much time for the first day. We can’t do everything day one, but the basic shape is there.
3. Jump into one important piece of content selected for the beginning the year. At the same time that I keep my plan simple and focused on routines, I need to have meaningful content around which we can experience the flow of the class. The first day is a chance to make an impression, and I don’t want to waste time with anything fluffy or random. There are many possibilities for meaningful content to kick off the year. For many years now, I’ve been starting with a short unit based around the concept of community, and especially our classroom community. I realized that all of the routines, procedures, and rules I’ve set up are really to create a learning community. How we treat one another within it can make or break a class, so this is something I want to put front and center for students. There are so many opportunities for students to practice critical thinking as they consider how each thing we do or don’t do will impact the classroom community. We use our classroom, previous classroom and other community experiences, as well as some texts to explore this concept over about two weeks.
For day one, my opening activity is asking students to do some writing—in any form—on how they feel as they begin this year. Later we discuss “how does this connect to community?” I want students to notice that we are each coming in with our own experiences, and I want to highlight that there is a space to share their experiences and stories in English class.
After the opening activity, I lead students in transitioning to the meeting area. I ask, “How is this space different than the tables where you were sitting before? What kind of learning activities is this space good for?” Students discuss. Then I introduce the procedures for participation in the meeting area, guided by our one classroom rule, “Harm no one in word or deed.” We discuss what this one rule means and why it’s really the only rule that is necessary. Everything else is a routine or procedure to help us follow that rule while learning in a community.
My point here is that the first day is a time to both teach routines and emphasize values. Students are very receptive at this point, so no need to overwhelm them with an overview of the whole year or with filler material. Jump into the good stuff, a little at a time.
There are many wonderful ways to begin the year. Please share yours!
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