Let’s (Re)Start at the Beginning

The first days of a school year have always been a little nerve-racking for me.  Not because I’m scared of young adolescents, but because I’m a little nervous about my ability to do all the things I want to do and set up all the expectations and impressions I want.  Most (if not all) teachers agree that the first days of school are the one chance you get to set the tone for the entire school year ahead.  There’s a just a bit of pressure there.  Because of that, there have been countless articles, books, lectures, workshops, and trainings created just for the purpose of helping teachers–old and new–succeed on their first days of school.  I’ve been to these trainings, I’ve read Dr. Wong’s book, and I follow this blog with care and attention. And then I spend weeks preparing.  It’s never been the same thing two years in a row, and it will be different this year as well.

I’ve already mentioned that I want to use Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Package because it includes community building activities and lessons in addition to the digital theme.  It’s not enough, however, so I want to list some things I’ve never tried before or things I have tried before but have added or deleted something.  Feedback is very, very welcome here, since I’d love to hear experiences with the items in the list or new ideas that may work even better.  There are several ways to give me that feedback underneath this article!

Formal Introductions First 

In the past, the first time I was introduced to my students was during the initial roll call.  I tried to pronounce a name and looked for the hand in the air.  Then, I wrote what the student preferred to be called next to the official roster name before quickly moving on to the next name.  And that’s what my students were at that point: names.

What if I were able to look at all of my students as I talked to them for the first time?  I’m thinking of having them wait outside my room against the wall so that I can shake each hand, introduce myself, and hear them introduces themselves.  That way, I know the name, the face, and the nickname up front.  I might even have a couple of people next to each other introduce themselves to each other.  This idea could also be done in the classroom, as I move table to table, so I will need more time to consider each scenario.  Please leave a comment with your ideas!

Either way, I believe this will achieve an important effect: every student coming into my class will know that (1) I know who they are from that point on and (2) every one of them is important to me.

The Old “Answers On an Index Card” Trick…Digitally

Is there a teacher who hasn’t used a variation of the get-to-know-you method of having students fill in answers to trivial questions on an index card and turning them in?  What if it were digital?  I’m currently creating a Google Docs Student Survey that my students next year will complete on their digital devices during the first few minutes of class.  Then, I would like to create a digital survey where students can select responses to question that are related to community building.  This will open up early discussion and, hopefully, the creation of a learning community.

I think I will leave off the favorite food and color questions.  We’ve got to keep something open to talk about!  Actually, one of my brighter students last year asked why I needed to know what they all like to eat.  I finally faced the truth that I didn’t need to know that and that I was simply filling a response space.  That’s a bad habit.

Get Them to Collaborate…Like, NOW!

I will find a way to get groups of students working together on the first day.  I hated listening to my teachers drone on for most of the block on the first day about procedures, rules, schedules, grading policies and scales, discipline, their kids and pets, and how they can be bribed by chocolate/coffee/cold, hard cash.  I also don’t really like being the teacher who drones on about those things (and I totally don’t take bribes).

So, this year, I will ask my students to find the items in that list as a collaborative team and prepare a short discussion to share with the class.  This will get my students started right away using the technology and each other as important tools.  I would like to see it also open several discussions so that we may further get to know each other.

Assign Homework

I know what you’re thinking: “Real original there, Nielsen,” and “That’s a great way to get them to like you.”  I love irony, too, so thank you for sharing!  Anyway, I want them to get geared up for the global learning experience I have been building, so I want them to work as a global student.  I will start simple by having them comment on a blog post, an online discussion, or other collaborative effort.  I want these students to be comfortable sharing their ideas and creativity with other people, and not just the people in the classroom with them.  Pretty soon, they will be creating their own blog posts and online documents.  Get ’em started early!!

What Else?

Give me some more ideas that have worked for you.  Let’s share!


About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

5 Responses to Let’s (Re)Start at the Beginning

  1. Anna B says:

    I also have students fill out a Google Docs Student Survey on the first day of class, and I ask their parents to fill out a Parent Survey as well. Then, I merge the two spreadsheets together and have all of the information in one place (one row per student). I then use subsequent blank columns to record interactions having to do with that student (phone call home, discussion with a learning specialist or tutor, etc), although I’m hoping to be more consistent about this next school year.

    In terms of formal introductions, what about shaking their hand and exchanging introductions as they walk into the room? That way, you don’t have a big group of kids hanging out in the hallway waiting for you to get to them. Just an idea… thanks for sharing your thoughts! I love the idea of having them do things on the first day that emphasize what’s important in your classroom (collaboration, discussion, community). I always try to have some sort of math activity going on the first day so that it’s actually similar to what they will be doing the rest of the year. I think it’s one thing to tell them how your class is going to work, but much more effective to just show them and let them experience it for themselves, starting from day one.

  2. RC says:

    As a part of my student teaching (still a pre-service teacher, though), my mentor required me to greet and shake the hand of every student at the beginning of every class period. At the high school level that’s a lot of hands to shake everyday! It was awkward at first – the kids didn’t know me and I didn’t know them and many of them thought it strange for me to do this. It became second nature, though. They would call me on it if I forgot. Many would come up to me hurt or annoyed if I had accidentally missed them or was busy as they were walking in the door. It creates and instant, daily bond with the student that I would have never found otherwise. Plus, I could instantly read the mood they were in and catch any inappropriate ways to enter the classroom without calling them on it in front of the class (hats, saggy pants, etc.) At the end of my student teaching, many of the students included in their notes that shaking my hand meant a lot to them and they liked that I greeted them every day.

    One of my best memories of that experience was when we stood at the busing doors one morning and shook hands. We had to wait for a student to get off the bus and walk him to a class. While waiting – she instructed me to stand at the other door and start shaking hands. The beginning was awkward but by the end I was beaming with all of the compliments and ‘good mornings’ I heard from high school students. Some even started a line to have their hand shook. It was the best way to start the day.

    I know I’m naive in this whole teaching thing (2 more semesters of experience, then off to the real world!) but I know that I will be shaking my students hands for my entire career.

    • Kris Nielsen says:

      That was one of the best stories I’ve heard in a long time! It’s amazing how some teachers have lost that personal touch and want their students to just hurry up and get seated so they can get down to business. Even in middle and high school, these are still kids who really want to know that someone during the course of their days respects them and is happy to see them. Great post, and thanks for sharing!

  3. Pingback: No Objectives; No Standards « Middle Grades Math Focus

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