I used to run the first day of my classes according to how I thought a teacher was supposed to run the first day of classes:

  1. Say hi.
  2. Take role.
  3. Go over the syllabus and rules.
  4. Maybe do a quick icebreaker, if time.
  5. Dismiss the students and begin with real learning the next day.

I now do something quite different.

The students come in and before we do role or rules (actually my rules now come several day later; more on that in a bit), I welcome them and then pose a question:

The students then get out something to write with and something to write on. I make sure to have paper and pens handy for the students who came unprepared on the assumption that they wouldn’t do any writing the first day. The students then answer the prompt for five minutes. If they try to stop after one minute, I nudge them to go further and write more by encouraging them to think about how writing may intersect with their lives and reminding them that the best ideas are often buried under our initial ideas.

Once the five minutes are up, the students share their ideas with those sitting next to them and conclude by sharing what their partners said with the class.

This opening activity might not seem different or revolutionary enough to warrant its own blog post, but I’ve found that it establishes some really important things that my previous opening day activities didn’t:

  1. By leading with the teacher listening, not talking, it establishes listening as a key part of the class. I have come to believe that one of the most powerful and important things that we can do as teachers is to just stop and listen sometimes.
  2. Posing the question “Why does this matter?” to students also establishes the class as one that will focus, at least in part, on seeking answers to questions that matter for them. As the teacher, I have standards to hit and a curriculum for them to follow, but my question is a nod to the notion that a big and important part of the curriculum is them.
  3. I’ve written on this before, but when students explain the value of writing instead of me, it makes it more likely they will see that value and connect it to their own lives.
  4. Daniel Coyle in The Culture Code makes a convincing argument that the best organizational cultures in the world share three traits: safety/belonging, the ability to be vulnerable, and purpose. This sets the stage for all three. It encourages students to feel that this is their classroom as well as mine, my giving the mic to them on the first day models vulnerability, and the prompt itself is rooted in seeking purpose.
  5. Lastly, it establishes that in this class we will write every. single. day.

I should also mention that every single time I have done this, it has acted as a remarkably effective ice-breaker, potentially because it is a meaningful question. While students always start by discussing the standard reasons that writing is important–college apps., grades, standardized tests, and jobs–they also tend to bring in personal goals and connections, largely because that is what they spend most of the five minutes writing about. Last semester, I had a girl say that she didn’t want people to judge her harshly from her text messages anymore. Another girl said she wanted to advocate for sea grass as a career, as apparently it is disappearing at a rapid rate. And one boy beamed as he said he needed to write well because he wanted to start a fashion blog.


When I reflect on the orthodox opening to class listed at the start, I can’t help but think about the opportunities missed. Humans judge situations and people in as quick as 30 milliseconds, which means students are judging our class’s value and our credibility as a teacher from the first syllables we utter. If that is the case, why don’t we hold off on role till a few minutes into class and hold off on rules until day two or three, and fill those crucial early seconds with thoughtful messaging about what matters to us and why the class should matter to them?

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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4 thoughts on “Rethinking the First Day of Class

  1. Hi Matt, your Virginia Beach colleague weighing in. I agree that students make quick judgments about their teachers based on the first day. I agree that having students write the first day of class does set the expectation for daily writing. I agree that rules can wait until the second week of school (except for the cell phone policy). I like how your prompt pushes students to think about the “WHY” of their learning. The first week of school should be about discussing the value and purpose of writing. I like how students become engaged with each other and with the teacher in this process. For me, the first day also must include some community building and movement. Perhaps students could do a walkabout discussion and put ideas on chart paper that they could use during a whole class debrief.

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    1. I love that! Ours are super short classes on the first day (meaning I might have to wait until day two), but I think that whenever one can build in community building and movement, it is a plus. The silent discussion could be an interesting twist too. Really, the whole idea is less about the specifics of what I do and more about approaching those first days as what they are: a massive opportunity to establish the tone and community of the classroom. Thanks for commenting, and best of luck on the new year! When is your first day?

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      1. Hi Matt–We begin our teacher workdays this Thursday and continue the following week. Our students start on September 3. In the words of the master of optimism SpongeBob, “I’m ready!” I look forward to reading your reflections and ideas and sharing my own thoughts.

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