Sunday, August 14, 2011

First-Day Must-Do's

Okay, quickly, here are a few must-do’s for the first days of class:

Introduce your classroom: You could always pretend you’re a realtor showing off a hot new property or just a considerate host helping your new guests find their way around your spacious mountain cabin. “Here’s where you recycle plastic and aluminum, here’s the trash, here are the books you can sign out, that’s the bulletin board honoring all my students who grew up to be teachers, there’s where you turn in late papers,” and all of that.

Introduce yourself. Tell them who you actually are (as far as you know), why you got into this business, where and how you were educated, and how you happened to wind up at this particular school. If you find yourself saying things such as, “Then when things started getting a little dicey in my third marriage … ,” or “At this point, of course, I chose to increase my medication,” you know you’ve gone too far. Also, if you take 15 minutes, that’ll encourage them to do the same and you won’t get to the syllabus until mid-quarter.

If you’re a young new teacher, I strongly advise against making statements such as “I don’t know any more than you guys, so we’ll all learn together” or “This is my first year, so I’m sure I’ll learn just as much from you as you’ll learn from me” or “I thought it might be fun if we all made the syllabus together.” Why not just go ahead and say, “There is no authority in this room. Let the anarchy begin!”

You are not just one of them. You are the authority figure. You know (sort of) where the class is going and they don’t. You know more about learning than they do.

I would even let them call me “ma’am” or “sir” (whichever is more accurate) if I were you and if your students were so inclined. Too many young teachers resist that, complaining that it makes them feel old. Tough luck! You’re the teacher! You are older, and “ma’am” (or “sir”) is not a curse.

Introduce themselves. You can’t get to know 25-35 people in one class period, but you can get everyone well underway into learning each other’s names. There are numerous ways to do this, but you can always have them write a little blurb about themselves in which they respond to such prompts as “I’m the one who _____” or “What you need to know about me,” along with questions they have about the course. One of the ancillary benefits of such activities is that they model ice-breaking, small-talk chat sessions. Kids their age are often horrible at this, especially the introverts, who, let’s face it, are never going to be much good at it without pharmaceutical aid.

One way – and there are many – to melt the social ice cubes is to play a little something I’ve heard called the “Name Game.” Pick a student at random and ask her to give her name and something short and pithy about herself. At a teaching workshop once, the facilitator asked us to “share something no one knows about you.” Really? I’m going to tell a room full of strangers about my recurring dream of driving a wheelless car with a broken GPS through a house cluttered with pine-tree limbs? Such prompts just beg for smart-ass responses, no responses or mumbled fake intimacies.

If the student can’t think of anything to go with her name, ask if she has a Golden Retriever. She may have one, and even if she doesn’t, several other kids will, and they’ll suddenly become interested in this game. Once the first student has told you her name is Secky Nipfast from Donforth,Pa., and no, she doesn’t have a Golden Retriever, but does have a calico cat named Oswald, you ask another student to give the previous kid’s name (it’s Secky, in case you’ve forgotten already), her own name, and if she has anything resembling a Golden Retriever. The last person to be called on, of course, has to try to give everyone else’s name.

Several good things come out of this activity, if you don’t let it go on too long, perhaps the best being that you can go around the room and give all their names and, in so doing, earn your first round of applause of the semester.

However you choose to do it, you really must learn their names as soon as possible. Before age stole my short-term memory, I knew all of my students’ names at the end of the first day. Even now I have them down by the end of the first week. Some teachers brag that they don’t know all their kids’ names till Thanksgiving. This is inexcusable unless the teacher is suffering from dementia. For discussion classes in particular, names are essential: You need to know their names, they need to know each other’s. No one likes it when a student says, “I agree with the girl over there.”

* Introduce the course’s content and methods. Pretend you’ve been given 12 minutes, including student input, to teach your entire course – a micro teach, if you will. As a literature teacher, the best way to do this is to discuss a very brief poem. If it happens to be by Emily Dickinson, for example, you can go over it almost word by word, so that here, on the first day, they learn or review how to perform a close reading. They learn what kind of thinking is expected in this class. They start seeing the difference between opinion and analysis. They see the importance of tying their comments back to the poem or how the basic rules of grammar can dictate interpretation. They see how much this subject interests you and how interested you are in their responses.

If you can find for this exercise something even mildly interesting to teenagers, you may find yourself in the rarefied air of an ideal learning environment. Given the current atmosphere in public schools, this will be one of the few times you can witness and be a part of learning for learning’s sake. You can hear young people asking, analyzing, arguing and pondering with the specter of exams and grades deleted from the process. You get to tell them names of things because they matter right now, not so they can memorize for a test next Thursday. Unless the class is a real dud (and I’m afraid these really do exist in nature), this mini-lesson evolves into a lively, informal, thought-provoking conversation. Actually, it’s one of my favorite times of the year.

I cannot remember who encouraged me to do the micro-teach on the first day, but whoever and wherever you are, Sensei, thank you!

I recommend doing both the “Name Game” and the micro-teaching before going over the syllabus. It’s easier to introduce the Herculean labors ahead to people you’ve just made laugh than to a roomful of potentially hostile strangers. In most high schools, unfortunately, schedules aren’t set for a couple of weeks, so there will be plenty of time to get through the course requirements.

The fact is, if students like what they see during the name game and the representative slice of your course’s subject matter, they’ll want to come back for more and will resign themselves to doing whatever it takes to succeed in a class that is this lively and this friendly.

Stay tuned for more on the first day and a great not-quitting story. But for now, in the words of Oprah Winfrey, “We’ll be right back. We’ll be right back.”

1 comment:

  1. I'm awfully proud of myself right now because this is almost precisely what I had planned! For my micro-teach, to use your terminology, I'll be showing my students John Green's "An Open Letter to Students Returning to School" ( and will be discussing the effectiveness of his argument. It's no Emily Dickinson, but it will certainly get them thinking! Thanks for this, Doc.