Starting Strong

Even now, after almost a decade and a half of teaching, the first day of school is still exciting and more than a little nerve-wracking. But I’ve come up with some activities that help me set a tone that supports taking risks and working hard, which I feel are the core values needed for effective learning.

Students’ first assignment is a set of six questions that are on the dry erase board as they enter the room. There is a stack of scrap paper on the cart in front of the room. When I have one-sided photocopies that I ran incorrectly, I cut them into quarters and use them for passes and assignments like this one. This helps students realize that I’m looking for brief responses.

The instructions on the board say:

Please answer each using a complete sentence, including correct capitalization and punctuation.

  1. Your name
  2. Your favorite color
  3. A food you like
  4. A song or musical artist you like
  5. A movie or television show you like
  6. The poster that is the most interesting/confusing and why

While students work on their responses, I pass out copies of handouts that they will need: a student-friendly version of the state standards, the syllabus, their pass log, and our first student survey. What the students don’t know is that this little piece of paper is going to be our first “presentation.”

I go first, and then before I have students present their papers, I let them know that if they volunteer, and I don’t have to call on them, they get 10 bonus points and a piece of candy when they bring me their paper. Only very rarely do I ever have to call on anyone!

It also helps that while each student is presenting, the rest of them are filling out their surveys. So when they’re up at the front of the room, the only one staring at them is me.

Finally, I pass out a print copy of the article “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar.” We read this round-robin style. Each student must read at least one sentence; they may read up to three if they would like. I emphasize to students that they must give any unfamiliar words or names their best guess for pronunciation – if they pronounce “Shakespeare” as “Shacks-pair” that’s fine, but don’t expect me to believe that “Smith” is your best guess!

This reinforces the idea that mistakes are okay, because they can help us learn. I emphasize to students that if they sail through class without any difficulty, it means they aren’t being challenged – and that means they’re not learning much. This particular article also illustrates how the things we work on in English class are important out in the “real world.”

What are some things you do on your first day of school? What do you like about them?

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