Glance at almost any education focused website, blog, or Twitter feed in mid-August and you’ll find no shortage of first-day-of-school activities. In one of my education-related Facebook groups, someone recently asked for suggestions on how to spend the first day in class. Others asked about how much time to spend on community building activities versus how soon to jump into the curriculum. Not surprisingly, opinions varied, as they should.
As for me, I’ve spent less time reviewing the syllabus each year and more time on doing things that will get us reading, writing, and talking more quickly. My goals for the first two few days of school, then, include the following:
- Give students a general overview of the course
- Set up the classroom environment
- Learn about student preferences and interests
1. AN OVERVIEW OF THE COURSE
Last summer I revised the syllabus I give my AP Lang students and made it into an infographic. I wanted to do the same for my 9th grade world literature course, but that syllabus was three pages long and figuring out a way to distill that into a one-page infographic seemed daunting. So last week, I took the time to revise my world lit syllabus. I asked myself, what did kids really need to know on this document? What message did I want to send? Is this course really about just policies and procedures (hence, the previous three page syllabus)? After giving it some thought, I managed to get everything onto one page.
In the revised version, there’s still a lot of text and not quite the infographic my other syllabus is, but I’d say it’s a big improvement over my old one. With the addition of larger headers, color, and a more conversational tone, the syllabus feels more welcoming. I also added a section on independent reading. To the “What You Need” list, I added curiosity and open-mindedness, among other things. Instead of framing the course syllabus as a list of dos and don’ts, I tried to keep it more positive. The exception, unfortunately, is the “late work” section, which is still a practical necessity. And instead of taking class time reading and reviewing the syllabus, I’ll send it home for students to read and annotate. We can then spend just five minutes the next day going over any questions.
This year I am also sending out a letter to parents describing our independent reading endeavors this year.
2. THE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT
One of the practical tips I picked up from Atwell’s In the Middle is the scavenger hunt activity she does on one of the first days of school. I can’t tell you how many times 15-year-olds still ask where the pencil sharpener is in May. In the past, I’ve generally pointed out specific spaces in the classroom as they come up. But I’ve never really allowed students time to explore the classroom.
When I was in my classroom last week, I noted the key spaces that I want students to know about. Then I compared my list to the one Atwell uses in In the Middle to come up with a final scavenger hunt that students can complete in pairs. Some things that ended up on my scavenger list are practical matters—where the extra pens and pencils are, the homework board, the class staplers and hole punchers. Some items are procedural—where to go and what to do to turn in late work, where to find extra handouts when they miss class. But I also included items in the scavenger hunt I hope will facilitate the learning and thinking students will do this year. For example, I want students to get browsing the classroom library early and often. I want them to know where to go if they need to find a specific title, but also where to go when they need a suggestion. To see the entire list, click here to see the Google Doc (feel free make a copy and drag into your own Google Drive).
3. GETTING TO KNOW STUDENTS
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want to find out as much about the young adults sitting before me, and as quickly as possible. To do that, I ask students to complete a reading/writing inventory online within the first few days of school. In particular, I want to get a sense for what types of reading students have enjoyed in the past—genres, specific titles—because this data will inform the booktalks I’ll do during these first few weeks. As Kelly Gallagher wrote in Deeper Reading, our past reading experiences motivate our future ones, so my hope is that by introducing students to books that are connected to titles they have already enjoyed that they will be encouraged to grow their “reading branches.”
As we approach mid-August, I’m feeling myself grow both anxious and excited about the coming school year. It’s also usually around this time that I think back to last year’s students through rose-colored glasses, wondering if this year’s group can compare. But you know what? They can’t. Instead, they’ll have their own personalities and quirks. I’m excited to meet them.
How do you begin the school year? If you have any ideas, please share.