Last year I wrote a piece called Rethinking the First Day of Class. Its premise was pretty simple: Humans are more open to changes in perspective, behavior, and motivation in moments that mark a “fresh start” (more on this “Fresh Start Effect” here) and the second students walk into our rooms, they begin doing the calculus concerning the value of our class, and how valuable they find it matters a great deal. Put these two together and the first day of class is incredibly valuable real estate–real estate that is far too often squandered with taking role and reading off of a syllabus.

The post goes on to discuss how my first day has shifted from logistics and boilerplate icebreakers to something closer to that of a hook in a piece of writing that both piques the students’ interest and establishes the key themes of my class.

This year though, much of what I normally do on the first day won’t work, as my school has decided to go remote for at least the first six weeks. This has me thinking a lot about my question of this week:

What Should My Distanced First Day of Class Look Like?

Like the other posts in this series of questions, I don’t have all the answers, but I wanted to share the voices that are guiding me and what I’ve got so far in the hopes that it might help others to plan their own first days. Also, I recognize that some have started school already and many readers will be doing blended learning or distanced in-person instead of remote. For those fellow teachers, I have tried to design this post to have lots of good stuff for you as well. Ok, onto the post about what I’m doing my first day…

Part I: The Pre-Introduction

Normally, I don’t do much communication with students in advance of the school year. If possible, I like their first interaction with me to be walking into my classroom on the first day because that allows me to carefully craft the introduction of my class when the fresh start effect is at its freshest.

This year though I plan to do something different. If the emails I’ve already received from students are any indication, a great many of students are currently burning with a thousand questions about what this year will look like. I worry that if the air on that first day is too thick with uncertainty, my students will struggle to engage with my plan until I answer all of their questions and concerns, which could take the whole block.

With that in mind, I plan to send my students two things before we start class in the hope that by preemptively giving them answers, they will be more able to engage with the first day. They are…

  1. A short and friendly video opening welcoming students, introducing myself, explaining why I teach the course, and outlining my vision for the year. This is an idea I got from Dave Stuart Jr. (who got it from established online educator Michelle Pacansky), and it is such a wonderful way to make the classroom a more human place from the very start.
  2. A beautiful, clean online space for the year for both students and the parents/guardians/others who will potentially be working with them at home. The idea of creating and maintaining two distinct pages on my site, one for students and one for those at home, is another one I got from the Distanced Learning Playbook, and while it will take a little extra time, my hope is that it will make things easier on students and parents/guardians during a hard time and save me time on the backend by not having to field as many parent/guardian questions. Before school, I plan to populate both pages with the introductory video, an FAQ section about the year, and a weekly and monthly calendar outlining where the first weeks will go. I also plan to take a little longer in setting them up so that they look really nice. Normally, my advice when it comes to formatting anything from bulletin boards to slide decks is to not go too far into making them look perfect, as any hours spent finding the right font become hours that we can’t spend planning lessons or providing meaningful feedback. Considering the site’s role in my first impression to students and those at home though, I think in this case it will be worth a little bit more effort up front to make it look really nice.

Part II: The “Introduction”

On a normal first day, I walk around the room, ask each student’s name, and then personally introduce myself and say hi, using their name, to every single student. This is always a bit awkward, as they don’t know me yet, but it establishes an important theme of my class: I want to get to know about them and hear their stories, starting from the beginning.

This year I plan to effusively welcome students as they as they enter my Zoom classroom, but the I won’t use their names right away because I won’t know the names they prefer to go by or how to pronounce their names right. These things might not seem like such big deals–we’ve all likely been a part of plenty of classes where a teacher messes up a pile of student names on the first day–but I deeply believe that getting a name and its pronunciation right the first time is a big deal when one considers how deeply connected names can be to our families, cultures, and personal stories.

With that in mind, after a quick hello to the group, the first thing my students will do will be to write about and share the story of their names. Here is my prompt for this:

For a pdf of this slide, click here

Before students write on this prompt, I will model it with my own name, discussing where it came from, my family connection to it, and how I feel about it. The students will then write, which is key. The writing is where students will generate the interesting stuff concerning their names and it establishes that in this class we write every single day for a variety of purposes.

Once then five minutes are up, the students will share whatever they want about their names as the class applauds in whatever way makes sense to them (Zoom has some fun ways to do that). Further, after each student shares his/her/their name story, I will welcome the student, pronouncing their name correctly, as a way to underscore that they and their story matter in my class.

Part III: Get Them Talking

Once we share our name stories, my plan this year is to get students talking and engaged with each other from the very start. I have a hunch that on the first day students will be desperate to talk with others about the new reality we are all facing and compare notes. It is, after all, a likely (and hopefully) once in a lifetime experience. I figure as a teacher facing students who are desperate to have a conversation about something, I have two options:

  1. Try to nudge them back on track while they quietly text/chat/snapchat/email/etc. each other about how distanced school feels anyhow.
  2. Give them a chance to talk about it, and channel that interest into productive places.

Unsurprisingly, I am going with the second option using a carefully framed discussion based on the National School Reform Faculty model. Here is how it will go:

  1. I will get the students into their pods for the first time (if you don’t know about student group pods, see this post). My hope is that talking about how they feel about distanced school is a great way to start building that pod cohesion that I will rely on later when they do deeper and more critical work together. Having pod time also gives everyone a chance to talk and be heard on the first day, which is really important.
  2. The questions I will ask will all be ones that, if I listen, will start to give me a sense of where my students are at (see below for my rough draft of these questions). Chris Emdin states in For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too that teaching works best when we “[meet] each student on his or her own cultural or emotional turf,” (26) and hearing students discuss these questions on that first day will hopefully help me to start building an understanding of that turf for each student.
  3. Once the pods are done, each will then share out key ideas with the whole group, with me playing the role of active listener. In the book You’re Not Listening (one of my books of the summer), Kate Murphy makes a compelling case that what most of us want more than nearly anything else is for someone to truly listen to us. My hope is that when students see me doing more listening than talking on that first day, it will help them to see that in this class I will be truly listening and valuing them.
For a pdf of this slide, click here

Part IV: The Private Conference

The final part of my lesson will be a short survey, which is another idea I got from the same Dave Stuart Jr. post on humanizing our distanced classes I referenced above (out of all the posts out there about preparing for the year, it stands out as worth the time; here is a link to it). This survey once again puts me in the position of the listener, but this time it is a venue for students to quietly and privately share key information. The way I am looking at it is that it is sort of a digital equivalent of me pulling a student aside for a moment to make sure everything is going alright.

This survey will be their exit ticket and the last thing we will do before I digitally hand them the letter I discussed in my last post and let them go on their ways. Here is my rough draft of the survey so far:

I have no doubt that my first remote day will look and feel wildly different than any other first day in my career, but my hope is that it will accomplish the same things: get students interested, start establishing the value of the class, and introduce the themes that will lie at the heart of my teaching this year: the importance of one’s story, the elevation of student voice, the essential role of active listening as we communicate remotely, and, if I guide the conversations well, the joy we will get from learning and interacting with each other, even if it is at a distance.

Thanks as always for reading, and for those whose first day is next week, best of luck. Break a digital leg.

Yours in teaching,


If you liked this…

Join my mailing list and I will send you a thoughtful post about finding balance and success as a writing teacher and a list of curated reading suggestions each week. Also, as a thank you for signing up, you will also receive a short ebook on how to cut feedback time without cutting feedback quality that is adapted from my newly released book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

8 thoughts on “What Does a Distanced First Day of Class Look Like?

  1. Hi, Matt! We’re on the same wavelength when it comes to how we want to start our school year (maybe with the exception about asking students about videos on or off – I’d like to have each of my classes collaborate together on how to approach that one). Just an idea… I noticed in your form you asked, “I plan to leave you some audio/video feedback… is that okay?” I’ve done this before. My students didn’t know how to respond. I’d wait on that particular question. Provide the audio and/or video feedback (which really is the best way to go – I use LOOM for this), and then, a couple of pieces or weeks in, ask them then. I’ve had two students each year (out of about 70) opt for written feedback. It’s much easier to remember who doesn’t want the video feedback, and every student gets to see what it is you’re talking about before deciding. 🙂 Have a great – and safe – 2020-2021 school year!


    1. Thanks, Joy! The idea of having a class conversation about how they’d like to receive feedback is a really good one! As much as I love feedback, I’ve never really thought about doing that! The post is just my rough draft thinking on everything, so I might have to think about a way to do that. This is the perfect year to do that too. I hope you have a great and safe start to 2020-2021 too and that everything is going well!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s