I just had THE BEST first day of school of my entire career, and it had nothing to do with my circumstances. And I don’t just mean that the quality of my first day of school notched up slightly above other starts. I mean this was off the charts amazing! Like Takeru Kobayashi smashing the world record for eating 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes, when the previous record was 25, kind of amazing!
Okay, I’ll get on with it.
But before I jump in, I need to make something clear upfront: not much has changed about my circumstances from last year to this year. Last year, I was teaching . . .
- 3 sections of English IV ERWC (with a per class student count of 36, 37, 36) and
- 2 sections English II Honors (with a per class student count of 27, 27)
This year I am teaching . . .
- 4 sections of English IV ERWC (with a per class student count of 36, 36, 36, 36) and
- 1 section of English II Honors (with a per class student count of 36)
Never mind the high numbers in my classes, I want you to notice the similarities. Same courses, with just a few more students. The caliber of students under my care isn’t significantly different. So what made this start so much better?
When I started teaching, I was a nervous wreck. I would get my syllabus in order, making it as legally air tight as I could in the event that I might appear before a judge to give an account of a policy decision. The first day of school, I would put the highlights on a PowerPoint slide (my first year of teaching, I used an overhead projector) and I would would go through it bullet point by bullet point, ending the day with sore throat.
Over time, I began to save the syllabus chat for later, and opened my year with get-to-know-you mixer type activities. Things went much better when I made that shift. Students were smiling and seemed at ease. I was content to continue in this practice for the rest of my career.
I came across two important resources this past summer. One was the Snowball Toss demonstrated by Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men on Edutopia. The other was Positive Identity Index Cards presented by Dave Stuart Jr. in his new book These Six Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most.
What you see in the note card is a shining example AND it was also the norm! The vast majority read like this (though quality of handwriting certainly varied).
Here’s the lesson plan I wrote for myself on a post-it:
- Introduction (brief)
- Prompt about anxiety
- Snowball toss activity (discuss and share out)
- Positive Identity Index Card
- Nuts and bolts
I gave every student a piece of paper with this sentence starter written on it:
WHEN IT COMES TO THIS ACADEMIC YEAR IN FRONT OF ME, MY #1 SINGLE BIGGEST SOURCE OF ANXIETY IS . . .
I explained that “academic year” was the time frame, that they are so much more than students, so this could include anything from their lives between now and June. Then I told them my biggest source of anxiety, how my wife is pregnant and due to deliver our fourth baby sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I explained all the ways babies have impacted home life in the Frieden household, that they are so good but can cause unforeseen tensions. Then I let them answer the prompt on their paper, keeping it anonymous (no names).
After about 90 seconds, I had all the students stand up and make their way to the perimeter of the room. They balled up their paper into a snowball. Then they tossed it across the room (to change it up, later in the day, I stood in the middle and let my students throw the paper at me, since I was going to be one of their sources of anxiety at some point). Next, they picked up a random snowball and read it. I had them share with one another in groups of three. Finally, I called on people at random to share with the class.
The students were vulnerable, and a few took it deeper than I expected (like one student who said they were worried because this was the first day at a new school, wondering if the year would be spent alone without the emotional support this person used to have). When someone anonymously expressed an anxiety on another student’s behalf, I asked students to raise their hands if they had ever felt that way. Typically, at least half the class would raise their hands, and I would say, “See, you’re not alone!”
Positive Identity Index Cards
Eventually, the students took their seats and they were given a 3 x 5 card and told to write their name on the blank side “large enough to be read at 15 feet.” I also encouraged them to include a pronunciation guide if they wanted to ensure their name was read correctly (it is a small way that I can show them that I care on day one). I also told them that I would use the cards to rearrange their seating for the next week, and at key points in the future.
I had the students turn the card over and write a response to a prompt on the back. Here’s where the magic happened. I posed a short question: WHO do you want to be? Now that’s a loaded question, so I unpacked it like this:
How do you want to be known, remembered, and talked about by friends and family. The most concrete way to think about this is that you have lived a long and fulfilling life and you’re filled with happiness on your final days. After you pass, what do you want people to say about you? What kind of mark or impact do you want to leave on the world and in your community?
Think about the roles you’re going to play in life. What kind of son do you want to be known as? What kind of daughter? What kind of mother or father? What kind of aunt or uncle? What kind of employee or boss? What kind of brother or sister? When you’re not around, what do you want others to say about you?
Then I gave them a couple of minutes to write a response. And what came back had a deep impact on me as their teacher.
I have attended trainings and keynote addresses where the speaker proclaims that we are teaching the future of our country. For me it had pretty much always been a notion that ringed hollow. But when I read these cards my students had written, I felt like the future was in my hands. And I was the most motivated that I have ever been to play my small English teacher part in helping these developing persons become the best version of their future selves.
Let’s circle back to where I started this post. The courses I am teaching had not changed, the age of the students I am teaching has not changed, and there is no significant change in the ability level of my students from last year to this year. What changed were two activities and the teacher’s level of vulnerability on the first day of school.
I realized that this was within all of my former students as well. The only difference was that I had finally found a way to unwrap it. 13 years of experience in the classroom, years of training in leading small groups for church, and a couple of timely strategies lead up to the best first day of my career. And I am really pumped up about the year ahead!
One final thought: this experience is not limited to the first day of school. Any teacher, who is willing to be vulnerable, can do this at any point during the year. If you’re reading this after the start of your school year, figure out how you can work it in. Then prepare to be impressed by the young people under your care.
Consider joining me in reading the amazing These Six Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most by Dave Stuart Jr! At the time of this writing, I have only read part way into chapter 2, and you can see that it is clearly having an impact on my teaching. I can’t wait to uncover all the teaching treasures hidden in the pages of this book.
QUESTION: How do you get to know your students? What activities can you recommend for greater student connection?
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