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How-To: Get Started

Survive That First Day Cynthia Carbone Ward
Check out Cynthia’s Book, How Writers Grow: A Guide for Middle School Teachers,
published by Heinemann.

I know veteran teachers who confess that after twenty years in the profession, they STILL get the jitters on the first day back. Forget about getting a good night’s sleep; you probably won’t, and that’s okay. Remember this: the kids don’t know what to expect, either, and they are more apprehensive than you are. They really want to please you at this point, and they’re all hoping for a good year.

I have found that the key to getting through the opening of the term is to have ridiculously over-planned. Dead time is frightful -- you’ll feel more confident if you have a steady supply of ice-breaking activities on hand, and then accept the fact that you probably won’t even get through half of them. Be organized and authoritative, but don’t forget to smile and show some humor. Your goals for the first few days are not content-oriented; this is the time to establish procedures and expectations, get to know your students and facilitate their getting to know one another, distribute books and materials, and set an overall tone. However, there’s more give and take to this than you may realize -- every class has its own personality, and a skillful teacher is responsive, flexible, and continually fine-tuning.

Come bearing stories to read or tell. For my sixth grade students, I very much like Sandra Cisneros’ story, “Eleven.” Or share an experience of your own which illustrates what’s important to you and gives some insight into who you are and the values you hope to model. Be human. You’ll find plenty of chances to segue into the nuts and bolts. When you do bring up things like classroom rules and procedures, get buy-in by having the students suggest some -- they eventually pull together the essentials -- and then post them clearly.

Have a stack of index cards on hand and instruct students to write their names, birthdays, parents’ names, and telephone numbers. The information will be useful, and this is a handy way to gather and keep it. You can add notes to the cards as things come up. Bring in popsicle sticks, also, and have each student write his or her name on the end of one. Keep these in a small jar, and whenever you want to choose a student at random, simply pull out a popsicle stick and read the name -- for some reason, kids are intrigued with this system and will often urge you to “use the popsicle sticks” to form groups, assign seats, pick a helper, or call on people to answer questions.

Create student questionnaires over the summer for the kids to fill out in class. You can learn a great deal about your students from these. Include questions such as: “What do you like most about school?”; “What do you like to do in your spare time?”; “What are some things you know a lot about?”; “What are some things about which you would like to know more?”; “What do you think you might need extra help with in school?”; “What kind of books interest you most?”; etc. You might ask a few questions just for fun, but do try to elicit some thinking about academic and personal goals for the year. These are helpful later, also, when conference time rolls around.

My favorite start-the-year activity is one I read about in an article by Martha Johnson of the San Diego Writing Project. Her idea is to have students interview each other. Each student is given five or ten minutes to ask questions and jot down notes before reversing roles and being interviewed. Students then organize a rough draft from their notes and share what they have written with their partners, and eventually the whole class. I have tried several variations of this concept; it can be spun into a more extended writing activity and is a vehicle for teaching several valuable skills. Most important, it promptly gets students talking and writing.

There is also a little game called “People Hunt” which helps students get to know each other in a relaxed (and noisy) way . Copy and distribute a sheet upon which ten to twenty descriptive characteristics have been written, such as “has a brother,” “plays a musical instrument,” “was born in another state,” or “loves spaghetti.” Students have their classmates sign those that apply, but they must try to get as many different signatures as possible within five minutes. Another activity is to have kids sit in groups of four and come up with four not-so-common things they have in common. There are many books of cooperative games and activities which you can draw upon.

I sometimes have students write “autobiopoems” on the first day. This is basically a framework which students complete, beginning with their name, and then: son/daughter of_______; is happiest ____________; loves ___________; fears____________; wishes _________; “believes____________; brings ___________. Feel free to weave in other ideas. It is a custom of mine to take a photograph of each student on the first day, too. These can be displayed with word-processed versions of the autobiopoems.

Kids love “mad-libs,” and you can invent your own to lead into virtually any topic. In case you have not encountered these, they are stories from which key words have been omitted, and students suggest the missing words as you tell them what part of speech each must be. Afterwards, you read the story, using the words they chose for the blanks. Of course, it will be outrageously funny, particularly to the kids who helped complete it. It is also a way to see who knows the parts of speech.

In addition to explaining to your students what they will need for school and what they can expect, it is essential that you communicate clearly with their parents from day one. Make sure you have a letter ready (if you haven’t sent one out during the summer) which gives parents a sense of what’s ahead, lists specific supplies their children will need, summarizes relevant expectations, and invites them to call you anytime with questions, concerns, or suggestions.

There’s a lot of classroom management business to cover before you even get to your curriculum. Don’t try to do it all at once! Ease into things. Have a script, but depart from it freely. And speaking of scripts, remember this: a little nervousness before showtime brings out the best in actors and teachers.


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