Sunday, September 15, 2013

Best First Day of School Ever!

Preparing for the first day of school has always been difficult. I want my students to know a little bit about me as a person, I want them to like my class, but my psychological need for rules and structure makes it difficult for a fun experience.

Philosophically, I believe it is important to begin as you want to proceed. About 18 years ago, I changed our first day to include a collaborative “get up out of your seat” activity that incorporated a “scavenger” hunt that had students going around the room in teams, finding information for a worksheet that included the expectations for behavior, required materials and how assignments would be done. I wanted the students to know that this class would be different (and hopefully more fun) in terms of process, but that I still follow rules and regulations. For the last few years, I quite frankly was bored by that activity and had wanted to change it up, but until this year, I had not found a suitable alternative.

It took me a total of about an hour and a half before the first day of school to assemble all the supplies I would need for the first day. And it was worth every single second of prep time! When students arrived, I had their box of materials on the desk and a note on the board not to touch them until I gave specific instructions. I greeted each student at the door with a “Welcome” and a handshake (it’s a habit I use all year long) and a reminder to read the board in the front of the room. I used some drama and greeted the class several times with a loud or soft “good morning!” and expecting a similar greeting in return.

To start off the actual lesson, I said, “Please find the neon markers in your box and choose one that you like.” Students are quietly saying things like “These are cool”, “Which color do you want?”
Next, in a quiet, casual voice I directed them to write their name and period directly on the table. Their response was louder, at this point. “You mean on the desk? There’s no paper. Shouldn’t there be paper? I can write on the desk?? I have never been told to write on a desk before!” 
Next, I said, “Take out a container of play dough and roll it around on your desk to make sure it is soft.” Some students are pretty freaked out by this time, because many of them have not played with play dough in school since the first grade. 
"Your job is to create something with the play dough that represents something about who you are.” You cannot imagine (or maybe you can) how loud the noise level is by this time. I repeated the instructions and then told them that I was going to finish doing roll and check some things on my desk and then I would be coming around to check on their progress individually.

The timing was pretty good on this activity. I got around to speak to each and every student and find out a little about everyone, using the play dough sculpture as a prompt for discussion. I told each one a little about myself, related to the conversation, so we could begin to find some commonality. I have several inexpensive digital cameras and I directed one person in each work group to take pictures of the sculptures, including the name of the person in the photo. So I now have a record (and a momento) for each student that attended the first day of school in my class.

Some students finished their sculptures before others and I just told them to introduce themselves to the peers around them and show off their work a little. Near the end of the period, I went around and sprayed some cedar and sage cleanser on each of the desks and had the students clean their workspace with shop rags so that the next class coming in would have no idea what was coming when they arrived. I reminded them that their experience was probably not repeatable in other classes. I made it clear as I told them “What happens in Mrs. Diver’s class, stays in Mrs. Diver’s class!” Writing on the desks is forbidden elsewhere. Playing with play dough is just generally not done anywhere but early elementary school.

I got my ideas for this first day from a nexus of sources. I read “Teach Like A PIRATE” by Dave Burgess- a must read for any teacher who wants to create a learning adventure in which kids will gladly want to participate. The play dough sculpture is his first day activity. I heard about the use of neon expo markers from someone at a Discovery Educator's Network workshop I attended at the beginning of summer. I learned about the archival use of digital cameras from a CUE session I attended back in the spring. Here are the links to these awesome resources:
Dave Burgess
DEN- Community
Computer Using Educators

The synergistic effect of these blended activities created a huge positive impact for the first day of school. My students walked away with a fun experience and looking forward to coming back the next day. There was all kinds of animated chatter about the sculptures and neon markers on the way out the door. Better yet, I had a great time! I was so excited when the day was over, I couldn’t sleep in just reviewing what had happened. I actually spoke to EVERY SINGLE student the first day of school. In 24 years of teaching, I have never done that. 

I would have to say it was my BEST FIRST DAY EVER!