It’s the start of the school year, and you have the ultimate opening class for your students. You begin by having students get into their seating charts so you can learn their names, then hand out a paper copy of the class syllabus and go through it word by word, making sure you don’t miss anything. You establish and reinforce the rules that will guid class, then demonstrate the proper way to utilize the textbook. You end with a quick quiz on the summer reading and then assign the first chapter of the text.
It’s a perfect opener – perfect if you want to immediately suck the life out of your class, set the stage for boredom and monotony, and open the year with a whimper. You know your students will come home to the question “How was your first day of school?” You don’t want the answer to be “Well, Mrs./Mr. So-and-so’s classes is going to be worse than dental surgery.” As teachers, we need to remember that we only have chance at a first impression, so those first days of school are incredibly important. We want to demonstrate what’s going to go on in our class, possibly highlight different aspects of our curriculum, learn about the students as individuals and as a collective group, let kids know a little bit about us, and have kids and be active right away after not being in school for a couple of months. Most importantly, we want them coming back for more – right?
There are a ton of great first day activities that people post online – Glenn Wiebe has a few here, and Peter Pappas wrote about a mystery idea a while back,. My favorite of the last 25 years has been a back to back combination of a collaborative Breakout and an individual Pop-Up Museum. These two activities set the stage for our (Laurie Walczak an me) combined American Studies curriculum, let us know a lot about how our students interact with each other, allows us to get to know our students as individuals, writers, and presenters, opens up involvement for parents and families, and hooks kids for an exciting year-long dive into America’s story.
Our breakout is actually a break in – a launch of our curriculum, some major highlights of the years, and an introduction to us and our style of teaching. We divide students into two groups, split them into our two rooms (connected by a central door), and have the teams compete to open a box with six locks. The clues all deal with aspects of our curriculum in American studies – a historical timeline, a literary timeline, our Washington DC trip, and more. Once one of the groups has opened the locks, it leads them to another set of clues in which both groups will collaborate. Those clues continue with the American studies theme. Once the entire large class cracks the code, we celebrate and then debrief about what they learned and experienced. It’s a great way to open, as the activity gives us an idea of which students are leaders, who likes to stay on the sidelines, and a little bit about the culture of the class. Plus, it’s challenging, requires risks, and is simply fun. And … it gets loud!
Once the break in is complete and debriefed, we demonstrate our second class activity – our America’s Story Pop-Up Museum. The museum has become a staple since I first saw it presented at NCSS in 2014. It is an incredibly versatile, easy and potent experience for us as teachers and for our entire eighth grade. Students bring in artifacts that help them tell their view of America’s story – either something about them or something they feel is important about American history. The students are in combined classes with larger numbers, and we set it up as a gallery walk with student presenters in front of their work. The entire activity offers us an immediate glimpse of how each students writes, presents, interacts, and thinks, and we also get some great stories that we can refer to throughout the school year. We give parents advance notice in an email the week prior to school in order to get the ideas generated at home, but also to invite them. Opening the doors to our class so early in the year reaps great benefits!
Side note #1 – I/we do have a syllabus for our course, and I do have classroom principles (not rules) that are guidelines for behavior. Students can read the syllabus on their own, as I don’t want to insult their intelligence. If they don’t read it, it’s their loss, because it’s kind of fun! In reality, the syllabus is more for parents – students will be in class every day! As for classroom principles and rules, those are embedded within the activities that we do early in the school year. Since I’m fortunate to discuss law and government at the beginning of the year, I can throw in the difference between rules and principles pretty quickly. I’m pretty sure that no student wants to hear a lecture about classroom rules first thing after over two months “freedom”. Plus, if you treat kids with respect, they’re going to treat others with respect.
Side note #2 – We do not use a textbook … I haven’t used one for seven years, and I don’t see myself ever returning to the dark side.
Side note #3 – I do similar activities to open my methods class as well. Check out some tweets in the next few weeks for examples. College students love these experiences too!