Dilemma: How to Set the Tone at the Beginning of the Year?

by Tricia Ebner

pablo (5)The old adage “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” holds an awful lot of truth when it comes to starting the school year. I felt that most keenly as a first-year teacher, facing my first class of 42 seniors in college-prep English. I wasn’t at all concerned about the seventh grade reading class I would see first in the day; I had student taught in seventh grade, in the fall semester, and had a very good sense of how I was going to begin the year with them. It was those seniors–many of whom were just  three years younger than me–that had me nervous. I knew they were going to scrutinize every single detail of the day: would I make their senior year in English easy, or a nightmare? I wanted to make a good first impression. So I outlined a syllabus, prepared a list of 10 classroom rules, and planned to spend the first period going over rules, expectations, and then hand them their first writing assignment.

I’m pretty sure many of them decided I was a nightmare.

Since that first day of that first year, I’ve changed a good deal about how I launch a year with my students. Yes, I want them to know and understand the rules and expectations. I want them to get the sense that we are going to work hard and learn lots. I also want them to recognize that I care about them, not only as learners but also as people. Finally, I want to start getting an idea of their personalities, likes and dislikes, and where they are in their learning. It’s a tall order for a first day of school.

There are a couple of strategies I use to help set  the tone for our year. First of all, I go over the rules and expectations, but just briefly. My list of class rules is now limited to just three:

  1.   Be on time and prepared for class.
  2.   Be responsible and do your best.
  3.   Be courteous and respectful to your classmates, classroom guests, teachers, and yourself.

I realized a few years ago that my list of 10-15 rules really just boiled down to these three, and I haven’t had issues with these. I give a couple of examples of what each of these means, spending about five minutes on these. Then I provide them with a “tour” of the classroom, so they know where to find the “emergency paper” (i.e., they ran out of paper last period), the golf pencils for when they’ve lost or forgotten theirs, the place where we turn in work, the books they are welcome to check out and read, and so on. I also practice the routine of filling out the student planner with them.

After those “housekeeping” issues, I ask them to complete a reading survey. This gives me a bit of an idea about their perspectives on reading, how many books they tend to read, and their favorite kinds of reading. It’s not really all that exciting, necessarily, but it helps me begin the process of getting to know reading skills and strengths. The anecdotal information I gather from the survey, along with data I have from previous district and state assessments, starting filling in the snapshot of each student’s skills so that I can make decisions about what additional information I need.

We finish the class with a “snowball fight.” The snowball fight requires a piece of notebook paper and a pencil. Students write down three interesting facts about themselves that they think no one else in the class knows about them. Then they crumple up their paper. Once everyone is ready, we hurl our “snowballs” across the room toward each other, and after a time of this, we stop with the paper we have in our hands. Then we take turns reading the papers and try to figure out which snowball belongs to which student. It’s a great way to get to know students and get them out of their seats a bit on what is sometimes a long first day of school.

Giving careful consideration to how I start off the school year has made a positive difference in the tone I set for the year ahead. I’m not sure I would’ve been brave enough to try the snowball fight activity with those 42 seniors on my first day of teaching, but I have learned that finding a balance between the “housekeeping” and engaging activities gives students a glimpse into our class. When those students leave my room with smiles on their faces and cheerful, “Have a good day!” and “See you tomorrow!” statements, I know we’re on the start of a positive adventure together.