Eight years ago, the very first post that I wrote for this blog was about the beginning of the school year, and with school starting all over the country during these next few weeks, I thought I’d revisit this topic, since what that beginning is like for students sets an important tone for the rest of the year, if not beyond. Particularly for young students, a thoughtful, healthy start to the school year can impact how students view school more generally.
I really appreciate those teachers that start the year with just the right mix of big and little picture – as I said in that first blog post, addressing both the forest and the trees. It’s perfectly reasonable and important that teachers get some of the nitty gritty done on those first few days. Procedures for the classroom need to be established, pieces of paper need to be collected, stuff needs to get filled out. But how do you balance that side of those first few days with, for example, sharing the wonder of the topic to be studied or getting to know each other in the classroom?
My friend Bobby Thym, who teaches English at Columbia State Community College in Franklin, TN, wrote that
I remember getting a copy of that book First Days of School, whose writer really hammered the idea that the first week sets the stage for the rest of the year. At a community college there is an expectation to address the syllabus on the first day to let the students get an idea of how much reading and writing they’ll do, and there are procedures in place that are created to address certain problems that might arise (plagiarism, sexual harassment, emergency situations, etc.). I think reviewing the syllabus is great because this act does create a sense of order and premeditation; however, I used to work with a very good teacher who knew the students were being bombarded with a thousand rules on the first day, and he would immediately get his students free-writing to “send the message” that he took the acts of reading and writing seriously. In this stage of my career, I try to synthesize both approaches.
And here’s what I heard from Jessica North Macie, a middle school English teacher at DC’s National Cathedral School:
There are two things I always do in the first days of school: (1) I ask my students to tell me a story about their name. It could be a story about what their name means, where it comes from, how they got a nick name, etc. They tell the class and me the story of their name. (We use serial testimony, which is a technique from the National SEED Project.) From that activity, I make sure I am calling them by the name they want to be known by and pronouncing it correctly.
(2) I ask them to remember a time when they felt they were really learning – when they were feeling “in the groove” of learning. I ask them to close their eyes and remember what was going on in the room at that moment, the sights, sounds, and sensations of that learning moment. Then I ask them to throw out on a big brainstorm map those things that contributed effectively to a great learning environment. From this brainstorm we will generate norms for the classroom – expectations of self, peers, and teacher to establish and support a great learning environment.
Lastly, Dan Ryder, Education Director of the Success and Innovation Center at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, Maine, has his students create a personal users’ manual during those first few days of school:
After reading an article about how helpful these have been in corporate settings, I decided to have my students design user manuals that will help their classmates and me better understand how to best work with that individual. The manual includes things like their strengths, their worries, their feelings about working in teams, their core beliefs and principles, and those things that make them smile and that annoy them.
A great way to get to know your students – and I bet that Dan’s already created his own manual, so that his students get to know him also.
Teachers: What do you do that first week? Parents: What have you seen done that really resonates with you and your cherubs?
I got the school bus photo here.