Quick Tip Tuesday: The first day of school

August 11th, 2009

The first day of school is just around the corner and this week Rick Wormeli, author of Day One and Beyond, has some tips on how to keep the excitement and momentum of the beginning of the school year going, while also getting to know students and creating an atmosphere of learning.

In the first class on the first day I ever taught, I learned one of the biggest lessons of my middle school teaching career: the students are out for the teacher’s success just as much their own. On that Tuesday after Labor Day, I called roll.

“Brown, William?”


“Cavelletti, Antonio?”

“That’s, ‘Tony.’ And, here.”

I crossed out “Antonio” in the attendance book and wrote “Tony.”

“Thank you, Tony. I made the correction.”

Then I came to the third name. The last name was D-U-C-H. The first name seemed Cambodian or Vietnamese, so I didn’t think that the name was pronounced “Dutch.”

“Okay, this next person’s last name is pronounced ‘Duck,’ I believe,” I started with the class, then paused. I stared at the first name. No, it couldn’t be. I looked again. The first name was spelled “P-H-U-C.” If I said that phonetically, I would be calling the name of “Fuck Duck” (phonetically) in the middle of a group of thirty young adolescents. I naively plowed ahead. 17

 “Phuh [using the short ‘u’ sound] . . . Phuh . . . Phuh,” I started again. The room was getting warmer. My cheeks burned. Great, I’m making a fool of myself on the very first day, I thought. I can’t do this. Suddenly, the class called in unison, “It’s ‘Foo,’ Mr. Wormeli, ‘Foo.’ The ‘c’ is silent.”

I exhaled in relief, smiling sheepishly. “Thank you,” I mouthed. The students grinned back at me. “Foo Duck?” I called phonetically (pleadingly, too).

“Here,” Phuc said, and we continued with the roll call. We were going to be okay.

The biggest fears I had before that first day of school were how to plan out the year, whether or not the students would like and respect me, whether or not I knew enough about my subjects to teach them, and most important, what I was going to do with that first day and week of school. Once I was up and running, I thought I could handle it. “Just get me started,” I pleaded with the teacher gods.

It turns out I was barely ahead of the students in terms of learning the material that first year, and the planning for the rest of the year went well thanks to the patience of my colleagues, who tolerated twenty questions a day from me for that first quarter. My students seemed to respect me and, I hoped, enjoy my company, but I found out later that respecting me and enjoying my company weren’t the main goals of good teachers. It was the list I maintained of what I would do differently next year that kept me sane and hopeful that I’d make it as a teacher in the middle school world. The following year, I made those changes, especially in how we began the year, and it has made a tremendous difference every year since.

Mixing Academics with Get-to-Know-You

A sad thing happens to novels when readers have to stop after every chapter and write a summary or analyze literary devices: the story is killed; it’s no longer engaging. One of the worst things you can say to a language arts or English teacher is that a child learned to hate the subject as a result of his class. It’s the same with teachers of other courses.

As teachers, we are “selling” our subjects to our students as worthy of their pursuit. We are convincing them that they can be competent regarding our subjects and even find meaning in them. At the same time, students enter classrooms in September with the inclination to do well, to think in a scholarly manner, and to produce great thoughts and works. Really, they do. They are a grade higher, they reason, more advanced. Things will be challenging, and this is a fresh start. As their teachers, we need to ride this momentum wave as far as we can. The expectancy and ability are there; all we have to do is get out of the way.

With each period of nothing but endless forms, get-to-know-you activities, and reviewing classroom protocols, we kill that excitement. Students grow increasingly disillusioned. We miss a golden opportunity for them to dive into the subject material with neurons firing on all thrusters. It’s probably the most significant time of the year to hardwire students’ minds to embrace our subjects; we don’t want to lose it. Yet we still have to get to know the students, ask them to fill out those school forms, and teach them classroom protocols, such as where to turn in papers and where to go during a fire drill. So how do we do all of this and keep the fires burning for our subjects at the same time?

Through balance. Each day, make sure students learn something brand-new in your subject area, not just something they are reviewing from last year. Add to this one or two new forms to complete, one get-to-know you activity, or one or two new classroom protocols and you’ll have a pretty good period. Give academic homework on the first day of school. It sets a tone of serious study and responsibility. They may never admit it publicly (though many have privately), but after two months off from anything cerebral, students welcome the mental engagement. They’re doing something purposeful. Teach from the very first day.

To figure out what to offer them academically and administratively in that first week and month, go back to your planning for the year. Give yourself three to four weeks to teach all the classroom procedures, do the get-to-know-you activities, and fill out the forms. Don’t cram it into the first week or two. You’ll never have time to grab the students with your subject. Just make sure you complete the forms that let students get their lockers first!

Each day for the first two weeks, I do about 50 percent academics and 50 percent “administrivia.” This works pretty well. By the way, don’t forget your teammates if you’re on a team. One person doesn’t have to do all the forms. Spread out the responsibilities for completing forms across all subjects on the team so one subject isn’t always associated with paperwork. It’s wise, however, to have one teacher who collects all the forms from students. At a meeting later, all teachers on the team can help process them.

 Getting to Know Students as Individuals and as Learners

If we want to be successful, we have to know our students as individuals and as learners. Often these overlap, but they are not the same dimension. Choose a balance of activities that elicits both types of information. Let’s take a look at three effective get-to-know-you activities appropriate for any subject:

 “The Best Way for You to Learn” Cards

When students enter my room on the first day of school, they find an index card on their desks. Students are asked to describe on the cards how they best learn. The prompt can be something like, “What will it take for you to learn well in this subject?” or “In what ways do you best learn?” or “Give me advice on how to be the best teacher you’ve ever had in this subject.”

It’s amazing how insightful students are each year. I get comments like, “Give me a lot of examples. I don’t get ideas without examples”; “If you write it on the board, can I get a copy?”; “I need to see it, don’t just tell me it”; and “Speak slowly, I get confused with a lot of noise and speed.” Many young adolescents are beginning to know and advocate for themselves as learners. What they offer in these cards is invaluable. To get the full picture, I send parents a card and similar prompt to complete on that first night, referring to their child’s learning. Between the two cards, I have enough information to make some early decisions about lesson design, grouping, and interacting with students. I reference them all year, and I sometimes ask students to complete them again in February to see if things have changed over the course of the first few months.

Interest Surveys

Interest surveys are one- to two-page polls that ask a variety of questions and give students an opportunity to express sides to them that don’t otherwise get revealed. The prompts or questions must not be invasive, of course, and students always have a right to pass if they don’t feel comfortable. Information that might be requested includes:
a favorite book from childhood
the farthest point you’ve traveled away from home
a recent movie you enjoyed and what you liked about it
your favorite place to be and why
your favorite food
your favorite kind of music
your favorite sport
organizations/teams/clubs to which you belong
someone you admire and why
two common activities you do after getting home from school
a responsibility you have
a wish you have for someone else
what you want to do for a career
something about which you daydream
something about which you are curious
the title of a book about your life
some advice you would give yourself if you could go back two years ago
a description of yourself as a friend
a description of your best friend

Learner Profiles

Learner profiles include any information about a student that affects his learning: six schools in as many years; divorce; ADHD; Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; learning disabilities. They also refer to those surveys/assessments/instruments that students complete in which they demonstrate their proclivities/strengths/preferences for how they best learn. There are many instruments available to middle school teachers, some costing money and some not. Ask around, as there are probably some in your building already. Many publications about multiple intelligences and learning styles have instruments free for your use. If you’re using an Internet search engine, I highly recommend the Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Inventory, Anthony Gregorc Scales, and Myers-Briggs Personality Type indicators. There are also many good Web sites and publications with multiple intelligence surveys. Students can often do the assessment as well as its analysis with direction from you, so don’t worry about analyzing the results of 150 student assessments. You just have to read the results and incorporate the information into your planning. No small job, I know.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Quick Tip Tuesday

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. V  |  August 11th, 2009 at 9:09 am

    I always love hearing about ideas for the first weeks of school. This year my partner teacher and I decided to do some activities together as a middle school group (a couple of team builders and go over procedures together). We though to doing it this way because they will hear the uniform middle school expectations at the same time from both of us and realize that we are on the same page as a team. Then we will both have a little bit of time in our classrooms with both of the grades to get started on introducing our academics.

    I appreciate this post. It will give me one more lens to look through as I skim over my plans for the first two weeks (the idea of 50/50). My partner teacher and I can also review the three suggestions together.

  • 2. Lana  |  August 11th, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Thanks for this great tip! I am going to pass it along to the middle school teachers in my building. I esp. liked the What Ways Do You Learn Best cards. .. another great way for the students to take ownership of their learning and to have input in the teaching.

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