- Be authentic: For me, this means that I will smile and I will engage with them. While I will be clear about expectations (I always open the first day with the three things that are most important to me in my room), I will not dwell on them or "act" harsher/stricter than I really am. Also, it is not my style to stand in front of the room and talk at them, so I make the syllabus/procedural part of the class as brief as possible (usually around 20 minutes), and I have an interactive question/answer activity that they do afterwards to get them up and moving and talking to each other.
- Get to work: In my experience, most students are dying to get past the awkwardness of that first day, and they are sick of the trance-like state that things like hours of syllabus lecturing places them in. They want to know what you expect, and then they want to start practicing how to meet those expectations.
- Be clear: Just like adults, kids want to do the right thing, and in order to do that, they need to know what the right thing is. More than any other day of the year, I do my best on that first day to be clear with all directions and to state precisely what I want and expect.
- Be a real person: I used to be reluctant to tell students about myself because I worried that they would not respect me as much or would see me too casually. Frankly, I worried about it because of the advice that other people gave me those first couple of years. However, I quickly learned that if I wanted to get to know my students as people, I had to show them that I was a person, too. I had to make myself vulnerable and take the first step to build that relationship if I wanted them to take those steps. In line with that philosophy, as soon as I go over the few expectations/procedures that I have to address on day 1, I show them pictures and tell them about my family and what I like to do. I'm always amazed by how much of that information they remember, and it's nice because they start telling me about themselves right away. I have NEVER found that taking those risks has caused students to respect me less or made it harder to have clear guidelines.
Okay, so that was a long explanation about some of the factors that I consider that first day. Still, even after establishing those things as part of my first day procedures, I have continued to struggle with what to do for the rest of that day. Last year, we started the year with Veronica Roth's Divergent in English 9, so I jumped right into predictions and inferences, and we analyzed the front cover and read Chapter 1 together. (For more information on teaching Divergent, check out this post.) However, this year, I am beginning the year with Romeo and Juliet, and I couldn't quite bring myself to begin the year with "Two households, both alike in dignity," so I continued debating what to do instead.
The words of the freshmen from last year kept echoing in my head. They were proud of the letters that they wrote at the end of the year, and they had thought long and hard about what things they wish they had known about high school. (For information about the original assignment, see this post. The entire assignment was inspired by the awesome book The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finnyfrock, which addresses how difficult ninth grade can be for students.) Students asked, "Are you going to show them our letters? Are they going to read what I wrote?" (Some of the freshmen said more demanding things like, "You should MAKE them read EVERY ONE of these letters because we spent A LOT OF TIME writing them." Ah, the irony of those kinds of statements...). I wanted a way to share that advice with the new students.
I finally settled on a four part plan for the advice/goal setting part of the first day. First, I had students write three questions and/or concerns that they had about the upcoming year. (I'm glad I did this because I've had a chance to respond to their questions and concerns after they turned in their work.) Then I passed out enough letters for each student to have one to read. They read the letter and selected at least one piece of advice from it to record and reflect on. Once they were finished with the letter, they switched with someone else. They switched until they had read at least four letters. They pulled advice from each one of them, using both paraphrasing and direct quotes from the letters to record the advice.
After they had reviewed the letters and found advice, they shared out some of the things that they read with the class. We then transitioned into goal setting. The students reflected on their strengths and weaknesses in English class. Then, they set three specific goals for English class this year, and they established the steps that they would take to reach those goals.
Finally, as their exit slip, students wrote a paragraph about the connections between the goals that they set and the advice that they were given. They wrote about how following the advice could help them have a more successful freshman year. Many of them said that the advice letters gave them more confidence and made them feel that they were not alone. They also said that the advice impacted them and made them reconsider what was important (such as studying and doing homework, which some of them didn't do much of in middle school).
I wasn't sure how that assignment would go--I was especially worried that because I didn't know them yet, they would be dismissive or see it as a waste of time. Despite my initial uncertainty, I was quite pleased with the results and wound up being glad that I took the risk. What they wrote has given me insight into their worries and their perspective, and the activity made them feel more connected to the school community. The goals that they set were targeted and clear, and they give each student a particular focus as s/he moves forward into the first unit. They also gave me some insight into where the students are coming from and how I can help them.
As far as what happened to the letters, after the students finished their assignment last spring, they put their letters in a big binder and created a front cover. They also made signs with quotes from the letters and placed those signs around the room. Some of those signs are simple (there's one that simply says, "STUDY, STUDY, STUDY") and some are eloquent. Others are hilarious. As far as the advice itself, there were certainly some patterns that emerged: (1) Get involved (people talked about clubs, sports, musical, band, and lots of other options). (2) Do your homework. (It's surprising to me that this isn't self-evident, but lots of students had to discover the hard way how important homework can be in some classes.) (3) STUDY. Students wrote lots about how they wished they had studied more routinely to eliminate some of the stress they had experienced. (4) Be yourself. Lots of students wrote about relationships, drama, friendships, and bullying. They talked about recognizing that friends change and they recommended avoiding conflicts (which they call drama) whenever possible. I loved the letters when I read them in the spring, but I found them even more powerful and courageous when I saw them through the (somewhat terrified) eyes of the new freshmen.