First Days of School

It is difficult to find words to describe the first year of teaching. The fear and anticipation of a class full of kids...a picture would do better at explaining what I wanted to do as day one approached:

The first day of the first year of school is at once on of the most memorable, exhilarating and miserable days of my life. Luckily, it only happens once. After that first year, my first day of school experience became something not worthy of fear but rather an opportunity. Just like I was so glad that the first day of my first year only existed once, I now regret that I only have one first day each year. I started to change my perspective after reading The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong; unfortunately I waited until my second year of teaching to read the book!

As a teacher at the high school level, my job is both to teach the content knowledge (History from the Italian Renaissance to modern times in one course and government civics in the other) and to teach skills. This is what Common Core wants educators to work for, although the system is flawed in all kinds of ways.*

* If we are to differentiate and personalize our teaching for each student as much as possible, why do we then judge students based on a single standardized test? Shouldn't student goals be based on improvement, not getting to a set goal no matter where an individual entered a grade?

Teaching skills and content knowledge requires us to change the way that we think about the structure of the classroom. Classroom pedagogy has been developing over the years away from a teacher-centered classroom towards a student-centered classroom. Technology, as well as the opening minds of administrators and teachers across the country, have helped push this change along. I am pretty stoked to be at a school that is implementing a 1-to-1 technology initiative with administrators that are generally excited and positive.

The first day of school allows me to set the tone for the entire year. Be honest and think back to your time in school. You could tell real quick how a class would be based on the habits of the teacher. Does my body language give away that I'm pissed that summer is over or do I show excitement when kids show up? Am I scrambling when the kids come in or am I calm and ready? Do I show fear or do I show confidence? Do students remember their first experience with me as their teacher? Do I make them think about an issue or question a belief? Are they challenged?

These are all questions that I try to consider throughout the year but they are intensely important on the first day. It is always easier to make class less rigorous, less disciplined, less thoughtful, less organized. The first day has to set a high standard in all of the categories just mentioned. I like to save the boring syllabus talk for a few days into the year. It's important, but it isn't a good first impression. My first day, I set up an argument and make kids take a stand. 

Good 'ol Socrates. Not to assume,
but I doubt he had a six pack...
A good argument is anything that can legitimately be argued from both sides, so there isn't a single one that works. I have two favorites, both of which are centered around the Socratic definition of utility and good. A lot of this is taken from my fantastic professor from William Jewell College, Dr. Gary Armstrong.

We start with a theory - everything has best purposes that makes it good. A screwdriver may be used to hammer in a nail, but that is not its best purpose. Screwing in screws is what a screwdriver is meant to do best. That and creating something new. These are the two goods of a screwdriver. Dr. Armstrong loves to use soldiers and argues that their ultimate good is to protect civilians and also to win battles. I like to use school. All of these have dual goods. A screwdriver that is used to screw in screws and murder someone cannot be good because it only fulfills one of the goods of a screwdriver. So the theory goes. 

Once I get students - usually one that I choose to pick on a little - to accept the premise of the theory, it's on to Socratic questioning.* I guide the students to define the good of school as learning knowledge and skills. Once they accept this first good, then we discuss if a student can be a good student if they only satisfy this one good. What is the second good of a student? I propose that it is to learn knowledge and gain skills and to get good grades. This addresses a key argument of many high schoolers - that the assignment may not be that important because they already learned the information.

*This is the first of many times throughout the year I will do this with my classes. The first time is a short day and by necessity is a bit more guided than the rest. I have a thought process I want them to achieve and only around 25 minutes to get them there. 

After their first 25 minutes in my class, I hope that I've achieved two goals. The first is convincing the kids that in my class, they will have to think critically and analyze different points of view. They will have to defend what they say and hear what others have to say as well. And yes - they will have to speak in front of the rest of the class. 

The second goal is to get the students to think a little bit about why they are here. This is good for the 11th grade Government class, but it is especially good for the 9th graders who are brand new to high school. They have a lot of decisions to make in the near future. I hope that this first day gets them on the right track both as a student in my class and as a person. I hope that they realize that grades, while not the end-all and be-all, are nonetheless still incredibly important. 

What does your first day of school look like? Share in the comments section below and we can discuss! Thanks for reading.

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