What to Do on the First Day

What happens on the first day of school?  The professor who taught my very first grad school course, one year ago, began with that question.  We all listed what usually happens: syllabi are distributed, class rules discussed, and maybe a fluffy icebreaker activity is played.  I list these activities in the passive voice for a reason.  They seem to happen to us, rather than involving us directly.

The hard-core stickler of a teacher may actually try to teach a lesson, or part of a lesson, on the first day.  Students may groan a bit, but it certainly sets the pace for the year; we will work here, so kwitcher lollygaggin'.

Traditionally, my school has scheduled half days for the first week back, but last year, it broke from tradition and started right in with full days.  This meant we would have to teach some sort of lesson.  In most of my classes, I had planned simple, fairly mindless activities for the first day, and I usually took half an hour or more to go over the syllabus and class procedures.  By my fourth class, however, I had had it with paperwork.  When the bell rang, I introduced myself and jumped right into the activity for the day, which happened to be a particularly dynamic and well-planned PowerPoint presentation.

I couldn't believe the difference.  The students were practically jumping out of their seats to respond to my questions; they giggled aloud at the corny graphics I'd chosen to accompany the text on the slides, lapsed into reverie when presented with a thought-provoking quotation, and generally were the most engaged students I'd ever taught.  I wish I could say this enthusiasm lasted all year; it didn't, of course, mostly because I had never taught the class before and needed to adjust the pace as we progressed.  But I hope I never forget the memory of that first day, when anything was possible.

So it came as no surprise when my professor told me we should teach our very best lesson on the first day.  It was one of those rare and delightful convergences between theory and practice: I knew it was good advice, because I had inadvertently followed it already.

I'm still struggling about what to do for the first day this year, though!  Stay tuned . . .