Reflections on Day 1 – Back to School

Image: nervous hands

nervous hands – photo by by missmoney @ flickr.com

It took some time for me to finally find my way to the classroom, full-time, but I can honestly say I love teaching. Yesterday, I began my ninth year teaching high school English.

For the last few years I have always found myself eager for summer’s end so that I could get back to work. This year the eagerness was tempered slightly by the sense that this summer was somehow considerably shorter than past breaks. Nevertheless, for a couple of weeks, my eagerness to get back to school was starting to coil.

One thing that has definitely endured my entire career is a strange mix of anxiety and anticipation, as the first day approaches. While I have developed a kind of opening routine, I begin considering all kinds of alternative possibilities to tweak and add or sharpen. Sometimes I will conceive some radical departure to what has evolved over the years, as I did this year. Yet, I find myself returning to a set of operations that I know works and provides a certain comfort.

I long ago chucked the first day syllabus routine, outlining all the rules, establishing control, and overviewing the course. Aside from being desperately boring for the students, as well as me, I found early that was overly intimidating and set a bad tone, nothing any teacher desires. Now I try to accomplish only a handful of things in as pleasant and entertaining way I can.

While I have long admired the stand and greet each student individually as they enter idea, it has never seemed terribly practical. The door to my room is at one of the highest traffic point in the school, adjacent to the middle landing of a three story stairwell. Any contributions to an already ridiculous bottleneck have always seemed like an awful idea. Plus, the are only a handful of minutes between classes, not to mention any possible room moves I have to make, that I have resigned myself to the fact that I really cannot pull that off.

Instead, what I do is print a sheet with each student’s name on it, as it appears in the class list, and lay it on an assigned seat, progressing in alphabetical order. As the students begin finding their way to their seats, I try to preemptively address any students needing redirection to the correct classroom, and greet those in the room.

Once the bell has rung, I introduce briefly myself and confirm that everyone is in the correct place, adjusting for any late additions. With a few quick instructions and a demonstration, the sheet with their name on the desk is easily folded into a tent card. This combination between alphabetically ordered seating and the visible tent card, which I ask students to keep and display for the first couple of weeks, are invaluable in helping me begin memorizing student’s names. I explain this to them and assure them that the seating and desk arrangement is not permanent.

Then I go through the class list to sort out any name changes, get proper pronunciations, and take attendance. I always apologize in advance for errors and try to joke a bit at my own expense when I make them and keep things light with humor. I always explain that I am not going to hand out a syllabus, go over rules, or anything of that sort. That can all wait for next week. Instead I tell them we are going to jump right into doing some work.

I do present a limited time for some immediate questions, in an effort to assuage any anxiety or fear. If there is reticence about questions, I will offer a couple of pieces of essential but often overlooked information. For example, teaching freshmen that are new to the school, I have discovered the simple importance of pointing out where the bathrooms are in the building. I try to keep the questions limited, which can be rather more easy than I might like depending on the section.

Then I ask students to complete a one sided questions sheet with a funky design. I explain that they have all known one another for their entire schooling lives, with the exception of recent movers, but I hardly know them at all. In the single community set-up where I teach, it is true that 90+% of my students all know each other prior to entering my classroom. So all of those ice-breaker activities are a bit wasted. They usually chatter with one another about the questions a bit, ask me some of them, and take a few minutes to complete the sheet. All the questions are survey-like, helping give me an initial sense of who each student is.

All of this takes about half a class.

This year my one tweak was I read a poem at the transition point. I am seriously considering using Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 program this year, simply reading a poem to students every class without any demands or discussion, unless they desire. So I read Collins’ “Invitation to Poetry,” the first in the program.

Then we jumped right into a reading experiment. I spend the first month or more of my freshmen sections investigating and exploring the connection between reading and writing. So I simply start the exploration on the first day. I ask them to read a two page short story with a surprise ending. I ask them to read with a pen or pencil, and mark-up the text – whatever that means to them – as well as pay particular attention to what they are thinking as they are reading.

Once they are done, I begin asking a handful of basic questions, surveying the class by a show of hands. For example, since the story has a late twist, I ask what leaped off the page when reading, itemizing a list on the board. Then, I ask them the essential question that sets-up the entire exploration, “Are reading and writing similar?” We only have five to ten minutes for any discussion, so it really becomes a place-setter for the next day.

As often as I consider changing this start, I only ever vary it slightly. This year I began to recognize why. I routinely return to a what is essentially a simple formula. It turns out to have five parts.

  • Begin with a bit of obvious order and a degree of silly humor.
  • Introduce myself and ensure everyone is in the correct place.
  • Attempt to answer any pressing questions that anyone might have without getting bogged down in a lot of details.
  • Honor their presence by placing importance on learning the intangible elements of their names, pronunciation and alterations, as well as get to know something about each of them as early as possible.
  • Dive right into the work of the class, tipping them off to some basic expectations, while encouraging them to speak and help lead the inquiry we are about to undertake, although they are not always as aware that they are determining a lot of the direction.

Fortunately, I met each of my sections on the first day. Meeting all the new students was both upbeat and exciting. Class time moved quickly and there was no time for lulls and automatically limited the amount of time I talked. We ended with a clear sense of what was coming next, which paves the way for a brief recap and return to the established discussion and story. All in all, I felt that it went well and I am looking forward to the new year.

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