Monday, August 25, 2014

Reinventing the First Day of School to Increase Student Engagement

Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I love the first day of school.  Everyone, including me, gets a fresh start, a chance to do things differently.  That first day should set a positive and exciting tone for the entire school year, and I have always tried to take advantage of it.  Unfortunately, many students form an entirely different impression of school on that first day, which I discovered last year when I asked students to collaborate on a writing assignment on their second day about their experiences on the first day.  Each essay discussed how dreary and boring the first day is for them.  They listen to teachers read them the syllabus, verbatim, and they receive their textbooks.  They sit in their assigned seats, in alphatical order, and they are not engaged in anything.  The only difference from one class to the next is that some might have students complete a pre-test on the first day.  

This revelation made me reflect on my own first day.  When I was teaching French, I was acutely aware that I was constantly in the business of selling my “brand” to ensure I had a job.  Since foreign langauge is not required for every student and Spanish is a more popular choice in my geographical area, I worked hard to hook my students on the language and send them home speaking French on the first day.  But as I moved from teaching French to teaching English, had I fallen into the first day monotony?

Yes, I did.  At least a little.  Sure, I still did icebreakers like the toliet paper game or candy introductions, but I wasn’t REALLY engaging the students.  I wasn’t getting them excitted about anything.  I did (mostly) read through the rules and distribute textbooks, too.  

I had some work to do.  How could I show, on the first day of school, the things I value in the classroom?  What did I even value enough to include in this change?  How could I answer yes to “If I were a student in my class, would I be excited about the first day?”  After some reflection, I decided I value humor, collaboration, English class, technology, and most of all, I value my students as individuals.  That’s when I got the crazy idea to incorporte all these things on the first day by planning stations.

I got some fabulous ideas from my colleagues, so maybe the first day isn’t quite as tedious for the lucky students who visit their classrooms on the first day!  Deb Blaz shared her “classroom expectations quiz” activity, where students work together to read through the syllabus and develop quiz questions based on the class expectations, and Kelly Clifford gave me the “Padlet Selfie” idea to incorporate technology and individuality on the first day.  For humor and English class skills, I planned a station using John Green’s Vlogbrothers video “An Open Letter to Students Returning to School” and asked students to summarize the message and either agree or disagree with it.  Finally, one station used a youtube video on the elements of plot and plot diagram to review these terms before asking students to summarize the five elemens of plot in their summer reading novel.

When the first day arrived, my students were shocked.  They were up, out of their seats, and actually accomplishing things.  My first period was so shocked and slow moving that we didn’t quite finish the stations on the first day!  I’ll admit, since it was the first time I’d tried some of these activities, we hit a few glitches with both time and technology.  Fortunately, I had a back up plan, so I ended up delivering a 3 minute review lesson on the elements of plot to one class, and another class posted things about themselves on sticky notes to my blackboard rather than selfies on the padlet.  Overall, the stations were a huge success.  After three days, my students still have energy when they enter the room.  It doesn’t seem quite as boring and irrelevant as most of them find school because I hooked them on the first day.