Don’t Waste the First Day of School

The first day of school is an opportunity. It’s a chance to let students know what they can expect from you and your class. Will the class be teacher centered or student centered? Will they work in isolation or in collaborative groups? Will they be challenged or not?

Unfortunately, many teachers spend the first day of school reading their syllabus to their students and explaining all of the classroom norms and rules. It isn’t that I think this information is unimportant, but the reality is that most students are so inundated with information on the first day of school they won’t remember a fraction of what you tell them. Students are more likely to remember the way they felt in your class…engaged, bored, excited.

This year as I was preparing for my own first day, I realized…my 9th and 10th grade students are perfectly capable of reading, so why would I spent 20 minutes of this precious first day reading to them? So, I didn’t.

10 Questions 

At the start of class, I check schedules and note absences while students tell me about themselves. I do not spend time calling roll. While I silently circulate checking their schedules, students answer 10 questions about themselves on the inside of a big index card. Then they fold the index cards in half and write their names on the front so I can begin learning them.

10 Questions

What’s Your Learning Style Quiz

They move right from the 10 questions activity to an online quiz titled “What’s Your Learning Style?” This 20 question quiz ends by telling students what their learning style is, broken down into three categories: auditory, visual, and tactile. Students love taking online quizzes, so they enjoy the experience and I get to know their learning styles! Once they’ve completed the quiz, I ask them to write their learning style quiz results on the back of their index cards.

Learning Styles

Socrative Pop Culture Space Race

Once students have completed the learning style quiz, I break the class into teams and they compete to see which group can successfully answer the most questions in the pop culture quiz I’ve created. I run the quiz as a space race. Each group is assigned a different color icon (rocket, bicycle, unicorn). I project Socrative onto my screen, so students can see their group’s progress in relation to the other teams.

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 1.00.29 PM

The Socrative space race activity instantly melts away all of the awkwardness and social anxiety that accompanies the first day of school. It always amazes me how quickly students forget to be nervous and just have fun!

Boys at play

Story Time

I end the first day by asking my students to sit on the floor for story time. This always elicits some interesting comments and looks. My students are in 9th and 10th grade, so it’s been a while since anyone read them a picture book.

There is a method to my madness. I explain that little kids love, love, love to read. Yet many of my high school students say they don’t like to read. So, what happens? I’m not exactly sure what changes, but for 10 minutes each week I want my students to get lost in a story. I want them to remember a time when they loved stories. So, we do story time. No doubt this makes for interesting conversations with parents!

Storytime with ponytail

Students will leave your class feeling either excited or drained. We can control how we spend those first precious moments when students are deciding how they feel about our class. We can spend the day talking at them and telling them what to do or what not to do for the entire year, or we can excite their curiosity, encourage conversations between students, and make them feel at home in our classrooms.

At the end of that first day, parents will undoubtedly ask, “What did you do today?” Give your students something interesting to share! “We read the syllabus and reviewed the rules” isn’t going to make it into most conversations, but “We played a pop culture game with unicorns racing against each other and my team won!” might make it into the conversation on the ride home.

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74 Responses to Don’t Waste the First Day of School

  1. Denise says:

    I love this! What books do you read? Any suggestions for ones the students have really enjoyed?

    • Hi Denise,

      My favorite book to begin the year is Odd Velvet by Mary Whitcomb, but I have a ton of favorites. I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll is super cute! I also love The Sandwich Swap, My Forever Dress, Tango Makes Three, Dragons Love Tacos, and Rosie Revere Engineer.

      I also invite the kids to bring in their favorite books for story time.

      Catlin

      • Amy Zimmer says:

        Earrings! by Judith Vorst
        The Seven Silly Eaters (author?)

        We give these away, we buy them again.

      • Jean says:

        I was excited to look up your book recommendations but then got terribly sad. It feels like you are brainwashing these children with your books about two mommies and daddies. Some of your students will feel that acting on homosexuality is a sin. They should not be made to feel that they are somehow bad for not agreeing with a beautifully illustrated story with heartwarming words of acceptance. It should be treated like the child who can’t do the groundhog day craft because they are Jehovah’s Witness. Please reconsider your choices.

        • Jean,

          I do not believe in censoring literature. I believe students should read a wide range of books and come to their own decisions about the issues in those books. It is not my job to tell students how to think, quite the opposite actually. At the high school level, my job is to expose them to lots of ideas and allow them to decide how they feel. Students are welcome to their own beliefs, religious or otherwise.

          The word “brainwashing” is extreme. I’d be careful about how you phrase comments to people online. Brainwashing implies that I am making students adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible pressure means. That’s a pretty serious accusation to make based on the fact that I read one book for story time that you disagree with. I assume you are referring to the book Tango Makes Three, which is a story based on actual events that took place at the Central Park Zoo. I read that book when we discuss censorship. It is one of dozens of books I read in a given year on a wide range of topics.

          Catlin

          • Karen Rinehart says:

            I hardly ever post replies to discussions but this one talked to my heart. I still cringe when I think about my 8 years as a fourth grade teacher in the 80’s when I stood and delivered MY rules and expectations to 9 year olds for about an hour! Ugh! And I will never forget my nephew’s comment to my sister after his first day of kindergarten 20 years ago: “Mom, all we did was sit all day!” Now as a sophomore in college, he talks about taking biology field trips! His bio profs “get it!”
            As a retired teacher/administrator after 35 years I just needed to write to tell you that you are helping to redeem the negative perceptions that the public has of education! Please keep going with your passion for children and education! And please do not listen to the negative feedback you are receiving! Listen to your STUDENTS! They’ll let you know if you are connecting with them or not, both verbally and no verbally! Don’t ever stop creating student centered classrooms! Somehow I don’t think you will!

          • Thank you, Karen.

            I appreciate you leaving this comment! I too used to spend time reading my syllabus to students that first day and cringe at the memory. So much of the time I had with students was wasted in those early years when my teaching mirrored how I had been taught in high school. When I started to rethink my role as a teacher and focus on putting students at the center of learning, everything shifted for me. I find my profession so much more rewarding now, and my students definitely appreciate that they get to move, discuss, question and create.

            I promise to continue creating student-centered classrooms!

            Thank you again for the kind comment!

            Catlin

          • Dawn Estrada says:

            Great explanation, I see nothing wrong with the books ypu chose to read. I will be doing the same thing with my 5th graders. Surprisingly, they don’t get much story time either!

          • Thanks, Dawn! My students absolutely clamor for story time!

            Catlin

        • Ben Brown says:

          What a worrying comment. I would imagine that those who are horribly morally offended by the notion of two mommies and daddies are significantly less at-risk than those who are unsure of their own sexual identity and need to know that it’s more than acceptable to be gay.

      • Antonella Garcia says:

        Well said, Catlin.

  2. Joan Scheuerman says:

    Hi, love this, and as an early childhood special educator I’m wondering what book you read on the first day? There are so many beautiful, engaging and meaningful picture books! “What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada is really pretty awesome and my kids, who are teenagers, both liked it! If you want any ideas, let me know!

    • Hi Joan,

      My favorite first day of school book is Odd Velvet by Mary Whitcomb! It is such a sweet book with a poignant message!

      I’d love any suggestions you can pass along! I typically bring favorite books I’ve read with my own children.

      catlin

      Catlin

  3. Paul says:

    Great… Except for the learning styles bit. Research shows that learning styles, especially these very simplistic categories, are pretty much bunk.

    • Hi Paul,

      Even if the quiz isn’t totally accurate, I enjoyed getting the results. I took it myself and felt like they were pretty true to how I learn. I use that information to group students occasionally. That said, I use lots of grouping strategies.

      Catlin

      • Jane Bute says:

        I like the idea that students see that the teacher is working at getting to know their learning style – even if you don’t base your teaching on the results, it makes them think about how they learn and that it makes a difference in how you teach.

    • Jess says:

      Thanks for mentioning this Paul, I think far too many educators jump on this bandwagon, and it can actually be harmful. Because of how popular it has been for at least the past 10 years in education, lots of students get the message that there is this one way that will some how magically affect their ability to learn. While it is important for us as educators to vary how we present information simply to have varied activities and avoid monotony, students say things like, ‘well I’m an auditory learner and Ms. Smith had us read silently and that doesn’t work for me’.

      Whether we find truth in our personal results doesn’t matter, confirmation bias is far too prevalent to take that as any kind of indicator.

  4. sheri says:

    Thank you! I was looking for something different to do on the first day with my students. My situation is somewhat unique in that I have the same students from year to year. I don’t have to do the customary “getting to know you” activities, but these are a wonderful way to kick off the year!

  5. Sue mraz says:

    Do you have a copy of the Culture Race you used. It sounds like a great idea. Would love to use it with my 6th Graders.

  6. Michelle says:

    Great article! I was wondering instead of Story time what else would be appropiate for 9th grade Math Class?

    • Have you ever checked out YummyMath.com, Michelle? There are some super fun real world challenges that would be fun for kids to tackle in collaborative groups!

      Catlin

      • Marisol says:

        They are a little harder to find. But there are math themed picture books. Sir Cumference and the First Round Table… Or Math Curse would be fun…

    • Amy Zimmer says:

      Try Fawn Nyugen’s visualpatterns.org,
      Try the WODB.ca
      and Estimation180

      There is also a math photo challenge going around try, “math photo challenge 15)

      Yummy is great too, the above are less involved and can be covered in 10-15 minutes.

      Have a great start.

  7. Nancy Faraday says:

    Catlin,

    I enjoy your blog, and have incorporated many of your ideas into my teaching practice. I am disappointed that you have added to the dissemination of the myth of learning styles in this blog. You have weight in the teacher community, and your casual use of a standard that lacks scientific basis has an adverse effect on the people you hope to inspire. I direct your readers’ attention to http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html

    • Sorry to disappoint you, Nancy. I did not write an argument for or endorsement of learning styles. I shared a quiz I thought was interesting. If it gives me even a small window into how my students “feel” they receive information best, then that’s interesting to me. If you choose not to use the quiz on learning styles, that’s your choice.

      Catlin

      • Christine Peterson says:

        Here we are a couple of years later, but I still wanted to reply anyway. I LOVE this activity for starting up high school classes. What a brilliant way to introduce yourself to the class without the usual droning that kids are hearing in every other class that first day.

        A couple of comments on the comments:
        1. If you’re personally opposed to a reading selection, select something else. Freedom!
        2. If you don’t like that learning styles quiz, select something else. Freedom!
        3. It was generous of Caitlin to provide a link to her Socrative pop culture quiz, but, really, we teach high school–we can’t design a few current pop culture questions on our own? Really? I mean, you don’t have to know whether or not Kylie is currently dating Tyga and you don’t have to follow T-Swift on IG, but I’m nearly 50 and I think I could come up with 10 pop culture questions. 🙂

        Overall, I think it’s up to us to use our judgment to see the spirit of this first day of school design. Great job, Caitlin.

  8. Maggie Walters says:

    Read oh the places you will go and then have then go around the school finding different places. Great ideas

  9. Joyce says:

    I am totally in agreement about ending the endless drone of classroom procedures and rules on the first day of school! You’ve come up with some creative ways to shake it up – thanks for the ideas!

  10. Sandra Vera says:

    Love the idea, do you know of any suggestions of good Spanish/English picture books, or websites to use for my 9/10 graders? I will appreciate your help!

  11. Amy Zimmer says:

    Great post, timely! Thanks for sharing all that you do.

    Amy

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  13. Jackie says:

    Our class has a snowball fight on the first day. Students anonymously write down one fear ( 6th graders, first day of middle school) on a piece of scrap paper. The paper is crumpled and then we launch into a snowball fight. After about a minute or so, we stop, everyone finds a snowball and reads a fear aloud which we then discuss. This produces lots of laughs and lightens the first day jitters.

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  15. Ann says:

    I would love a copy of your quiz. This is the PERFECT way to start a new year. Thank you for being so timely! :O)

    • Hi Ann,

      Below is the code for my quiz. You should be able to enter it in your Socrative account and use it. Enjoy!

      Share Quiz: SOC-16989293

      Catlin
      Catlin

      • Chantel says:

        Catlin-

        I read an article from you in EL this past school year and just read your latest book this summer! I am presenting many ideas to our school during inservice from it!! Thank you so much for inspiring and SHARING your ideas. I am using your quiz on the first day – can’t wait! I was just starting to make my own when I saw you shared the one you made – what an incredibly thoughtful thing for you to do!! THANKS!!!

        I look forward to following you from here on out and, as an eleventh year teacher, look forward to updating my lessons. I am leaning on switching to standard-based grading and I am really looking forward to what you find. I hope you share more about that!

        Again, thank you for all the hard work you are doing for your students and teaching peers!

        • Thank you, Chantel.

          I’m thrilled to hear you enjoyed my newest book and that you’ve found my blog useful! I love sharing what I am doing with other educators. It’s nice to know the time I put into designing a quiz or activity can save someone else time. As a teacher with young children of my own, I know how precious time is so I’m always happy to share.

          I hope your students enjoy the quiz! My students had a blast with it. I wish you a wonderful first day. Thank you again for the kind words.

          Catlin

  16. Ann Wilson says:

    Thank you for the quiz. I am not very techie as I haven’t had computers or training for long, but I want to learn. I will follow you regularly!
    Best wishes!
    Ann

  17. Mariah says:

    I wish I had seen your post sooner! I just ordered “What do you do with an idea?” And I really hope it gets here in time for the first day! I teach high school art- and sooo many students struggle with accepting their own ideas as being good ones! I’m hoping this will help to relieve that pressure and anxiety they may feel to make “good art” and realize the validity in their own ideas!! Thanks for the share! Btw- “Stone soup” is another great one that teaches about the importance of community contributions!

  18. Gwrn says:

    Love this article! I read “The True Story if the Three Little Pigs” by A.Wolf. I read this one to show differences of perspective in history. If you have s chance, check it out! 🙂 have a blessed school year!

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  20. Laurie Simpson says:

    Hi, Catlin.

    Thanks so much for sharing your ideas! I use “Journey” by Aaron Becker during the first days with my sophomores to introduce the concepts of frame story and suspension of disbelief. The story has no words. I have six copies of the book so I can break the class up into groups. I get 5 volunteers and together we do a synchronized picture walk through the book.

    And thank you for sharing your Socrative quiz!

    Have a great year!
    Laurie

  21. Miss Barron says:

    Wow. Some really great ideas. I think I’ll definitely break some ice with your Pop Culture Quiz, thanks for sharing the code to that.

    I may also borrow Jackie’s snowball fight idea (perfectly ironic for Southern California students to do).

    I have to say, I’m curious as to the what the 10 questions are, especially with the photo of the answers. =)

  22. TIZIANA ANGIOLINI says:

    Great ideas to be shared and encouraging all the best Teachers to make the first day at school memorable.
    Thanks a lot!
    I saw SIMPLEK12 WEBMINAR today and I really appreciated your work as a teacher, as a guide and as an engaged person loving her job

    • Thank you for the wonderful comment! I’m so glad you were able to attend the webinar and found it worthwhile.

      I’ve found that I also enjoy the first day of school so much more now that I don’t spend it reading a syllabus and reviewing rules 😉

      Catlin

  23. Veronique says:

    This is very cool! I’m just wandering how to adapt this to 3rd grade?????

    • Hi Veronique,

      I think you could still use the 10 questions, but I’d rewrite the language and tailor it to their age group. My daughter is in 3rd grade and she took the “What’s Your Learning Style?” quiz and didn’t have a problem, but you’d need access to devices (iPads or computers?). The Socrative quiz is fun for kids of all ages, but I’d make one for your students that doesn’t focus on pop culture. Maybe you could design a “Name That Movie Line” with movies they have probably seen. Story time works for all ages!

      Good luck.

      Catlin

  24. Christine Peterson says:

    I LOVED this…tried it out today with my ninth graders. This was, by far, the best way I have ever started a school year. Here’s what works for me: the students in our high school have been in the same buildings with each other since 5th grade, so they already know each other, at least by name. They didn’t have to do any name games for the teacher. I loved that they had a task that was high interest while I could go around and touch base individually with each kid, and I loved that most of the rest of the period was focused on themselves, their interests, and having a chance to work with their groupmates on a non-academic task. The only thing I changed up was that I read a short story from Jim Trelease’s great classic, Read All About: Great Read-Aloud Stories for preteen and teens. And the kids were hooked. Best praise of the day was overhearing a kid in the last period say, “This class is going to be the best way to end my day!” High praise and now they’ve raised their expectations for me, too.

    Thank you so much for posting and sharing this. Fantastic work!

    • I’m thrilled that both you and your students enjoyed beginning the year this way, Christine. That student comment is exactly what I want my kids to be thinking when they leave my class too. I love when they leave class excited and smiling.

      I’ll check out that story too!

      Have a fantastic school year.

      Catlin

  25. Krista says:

    It is great to hear there is still someone doing read aloud with their students even when they are older. There are so many benefits for students participating in read alouds, educators should not stop doing them because of an age.

  26. Jennifer Gomez says:

    Hi Catlin! I am in love with Socrative as well- thank you for sharing all of these great ideas! I am presenting at the CUE technology conference in Palm Springs in March and am wondering if I can use your pop-culture quiz to start my session. I will be happy to reference you and give you a shout out! Keep up the good work 🙂

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Unfortunately, my Socrative “Pop Culture 2014 Quiz” (SOC-1694621) is outdated now. I used it last year, but I have my students for two years so I created a “Name That Movie Line” Quiz (SOC-12339252) this year to mix it up. You are welcome to check out both using the share codes above.

      Good luck with your presentation!

      Catlin

      Catlin

  27. J. Gomez says:

    Thank you for your help!!!!

  28. Dawn Davis says:

    Catlin,
    I want to return to the topic of your story time. Brilliant!! I read aloud to 6th graders. They LOVE it. And regarding your “queer friendly” book, the CCSS Framework encourages (requires?) us to help LGBT students see themselves and their families in literature and history. We are obligated to help that marginalized group feel safe and seen. And why not? “Traditional” families are represented at every other turn. Kudos to you.
    I look forward to the next first day and whatever innovative plans I come up with. Thanks to educators like yourself.

    • Thank you for the comment, Dawn!

      I agree that it’s important for educators to help our marginalized students feel accepted and loved.

      Enjoy your summer and good luck planning your first day for next year!

      Catlin

  29. Debbie says:

    I can’t wait to use story time with my 6th grades…loved reading to elem students when taught those grades. I would definitely select books by VanAllsburg, Polacco, and Bunting…they are fun! Graeme Base too; his stories are unique!

  30. Ann says:

    Do you have a new Socrative Quiz for this fall? And I really love your ideas above. They will make my class different from day one adding interaction among the students and best of all a chance for me to get to see their minds in action. Thank you.

  31. Ann says:

    Thank you. I learn much from you! Have a fantastic school year! :O)

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