What to do on the first day of school

I’m looking for suggestions on what to do with students on the first day of school. I’m starting my first year teaching science at a middle school.
—Shelly, Illinois

Put yourself in the students’ place. On the first day, they’re subjected to six, seven, or eight  teachers reading the syllabus, describing their grading system, and going over laundry lists of class rules. By the end of the day, everything blends together, and the following day students won’t remember who said what. They might appreciate a break from this scenario.

Save your syllabus discussion and safety contract for another day in the first week. You could start with a brief description of the purpose of the science course, including any big ideas that serve as a theme or organizer. Rather than going over all of the rules, describe the overall expectations on which the rules are based. For example, I would tell students that respect was most important in my class—I would respect them, they would respect me, they would respect each other, and we would all respect the learning process. (One year after I said this in an elective class, a student got up and left the room. The other students stared at him, and one remarked, “I guess he wanted a class where he could be disrespectful!”)

Depending on the length of your class period, you could then use an activity to get to know your students’ personalities and interactions. (However, until you have their safety contracts on file, avoid any activities in which students use chemicals, flames, projectiles, or heat sources.) In a recent  discussion on the NSTA members–only email list, several teachers posted some examples:

  • Franklin W. suggested the marshmallow challenge. Students have 20 pieces of spaghetti, one meter of tape, one meter of string, one marshmallow and 8 minutes. Working in teams, they have to build a structure to get the marshmallow as high off the desk as possible. They then measure to the top of the marshmallows and the highest wins.
  • Ryan R. asks students to arrange themselves in alphabetical order by first names or chronologically by birthdate and then sit in the corresponding numbered seat.
  • Karen D. gives her students a deck of cards (or some index cards) and asks them to build a structure.
  • Dave D. groups students and gives each group a “secret” object. Their goal is to write a list of observable characteristics so other groups can identify it.

As students do an activity, you’ll have a chance to observe their thinking and problem-solving skills. You can start to identify the leaders, organizers, followers, thinkers, disrupters, class clowns, and bystanders.

If time is an issue, you could do a brief demonstration to get their interest. You could also try a formative assessment probe from the Uncovering Student Ideas in Science series of books from NSTA. Try a different one in each class to get a cross section of previous experiences and/or misconceptions. You’ll also get a writing sample from the students.

There may be some required housekeeping tasks expected of teachers on the first day. When I taught in a large, two-story middle school, my principal wanted us to check attendance to make sure students found their way to their classrooms. I dutifully called names, but I usually mispronounced a few or called students by their full name rather than a preferred nickname. Although the students often found this hilarious, I was embarrassed. So I started asking the students to introduce themselves. I could annotate my list with a phonetic spelling or nickname.

The first day of school is exciting, stressful, busy, and a little scary for students (as well as their teachers). As a teacher you want to set a welcoming tone for your students and communicate your passion for science and your interest in helping them learn.


Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kacey3/1263403799/

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