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From the Classroom: Three Things to do in the First 48 Hours

By Tricia Ebarvia

Glance at almost any education focused website, blog, or Twitter feed in mid-August and you’ll find no shortage of first-day-of-school activities. In one of my education-related Facebook groups, someone recently asked for suggestions on how to spend the first day in class. Others asked about how much time to spend on community building activities versus how soon to jump into the curriculum. Not surprisingly, opinions varied, as they should.

As for me, I’ve spent less time reviewing the syllabus each year and more time on doing things that will get us reading, writing, and talking more quickly. My goals for the first two few days of school, then, include the following:

  1. Give students a general overview of the course
  2. Set up the classroom environment
  3. Learn about student preferences and interests

1. AN OVERVIEW OF THE COURSE

Last summer I revised the syllabus I give my AP Lang students and made it into an infographic. I wanted to do the same for my 9th grade world literature course, but that syllabus was three pages long and figuring out a way to distill that into a one-page infographic seemed daunting. So last week, I took the time to revise my world lit syllabus. I asked myself, what did kids really need to know on this document? What message did I want to send? Is this course really about just policies and procedures (hence, the previous three page syllabus)? After giving it some thought, I managed to get everything onto one page.

BEFOREOld World Lit Syllabus

AFTER

New World Lit SyllabusIn the revised version, there’s still a lot of text and not quite the infographic my other syllabus is, but I’d say it’s a big improvement over my old one. With the addition of larger headers, color, and a more conversational tone, the syllabus feels more welcoming. I also added a section on independent reading. To the “What You Need” list, I added curiosity and open-mindedness, among other things. Instead of framing the course syllabus as a list of dos and don’ts, I tried to keep it more positive. The exception, unfortunately, is the “late work” section, which is still a practical necessity. And instead of taking class time reading and reviewing the syllabus, I’ll send it home for students to read and annotate. We can then spend just five minutes the next day going over any questions.

This year I am also sending out a letter to parents describing our independent reading endeavors this year.

2. THE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT

One of the practical tips I picked up from Atwell’s In the Middle is the scavenger hunt activity she does on one of the first days of school. I can’t tell you how many times 15-year-olds still ask where the pencil sharpener is in May. In the past, I’ve generally pointed out specific spaces in the classroom as they come up. But I’ve never really allowed students time to explore the classroom.

IMG_1128 (1)When I was in my classroom last week, I noted the key spaces that I want students to know about. Then I compared my list to the one Atwell uses in In the Middle to come up with a final scavenger hunt that students can complete in pairs. Some things that ended up on my scavenger list are practical matters—where the extra pens and pencils are, the homework board, the class staplers and hole punchers. Some items are procedural—where to go and what to do to turn in late work, where to find extra handouts when they miss class. But I also included items in the scavenger hunt I hope will facilitate the learning and thinking students will do this year.  For example, I want students to get browsing the classroom library early and often.  I want them to know where to go if they need to find a specific title, but also where to go when they need a suggestion. To see the entire list, click here to see the Google Doc (feel free make a copy and drag into your own Google Drive).


3. GETTING TO KNOW STUDENTS

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want to find out as much about the young adults sitting before me, and as quickly as possible. To do that, I ask students to complete a reading/writing inventory online within the first few days of school. In particular, I want to get a sense for what types of reading students have enjoyed in the past—genres, specific titles—because this data will inform the booktalks I’ll do during these first few weeks. As Kelly Gallagher wrote in Deeper Reading, our past reading experiences motivate our future ones, so my hope is that by introducing students to books that are connected to titles they have already enjoyed that they will be encouraged to grow their “reading branches.”

Click on the image to see the entire survey.

Click on the image to see the entire survey.

___

As we approach September, I’m feeling myself grow both anxious and excited about the coming school year. It’s also usually around this time that I think back to last year’s students through rose-colored glasses, wondering if this year’s group can compare. But you know what? They can’t. Instead, they’ll have their own personalities and quirks. I’m excited  to meet them.

How do you begin the school year? If you have any ideas, please share.

 


Tricia EbarviaTricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She can also be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia or on her website at triciaebarvia.org.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kelly Soto #

    I really appreciate how much thought went into forming this “back to school” routine. Reading and writing seem to be intregal parts of these activities, which is wonderful for a lot of reasons. Two that I can think of are:

    1.) Students ease back into the first reading and writing tasks of the year with easy to read and respond to material.

    2.) The teacher assigning these activities will have a base-line assessment of students’ readiness levels in both reading and writing, although the reading of the syllabus in this case may be more informal. The scavenger hunt, however, could be a good recorded excericse. Reading student responses could be a non-intimidating way to test reading comprehension.

    Additionally, I love the clean lay out of these documents. Sometimes breaking things down cleanly really helps (I know it still does for me!)

    I also appreciate the few fun questions on the preferences questionnaire (dogs or cats, Wizards or Jedis). Providing students with answers that they can’t get wrong is often a good way to help them get comfortable answering other, “higher stakes” questions (a good way to utilize this in a reading discussion could be “did you like or dislike the text, and why” because students can all be correct in their opinion before moving onto more concrete, comprehension based questions).

    Like

    September 28, 2015
  2. Hello Tricia –

    I love this post and I think it would be good for (1) college students as well as high school (for the most part) and (2) is full of useful tips that are applicable to other disciplines. We have a blog about college teaching pedagogy – especially for freshman and general education types of courses. It’s here: http://blog.mywebtext.com/ Do you mind if I re-post your post there? I would be happy to link back to this site, publish your bio, etc.

    Like

    September 16, 2015
    • Hi John – No problem. Feel free to share with your audience if you think it will be helpful! – Tricia

      Like

      September 16, 2015
  3. Emily McDonough #

    Tricia:

    I love the idea of using an infographic in lieu of a traditional. FANTASTIC! I also feel validated having started my year with these exact three things rather than diving right into curriculum related materials (as some of my colleagues have done). Students need to feel part of the classroom before learning can really take place.

    Have a wonderful year!

    Like

    September 5, 2015
  4. Christine Soring #

    Hi Tricia,

    I am so inspired by your post. I, too, teach Honors World Lit and for the past 2 years I have implemented the independent reading. The students love having the choice to read a book they’re interested in and I really think that with this we can foster the love of reading again for this generation. Too often is reading only done as a requirement rather than a choice. Thank you for your ideas! I look forward to seeing more great ideas you have throughout the year!

    Christine Soring

    Liked by 1 person

    August 31, 2015
  5. Tricia,
    Hello! You are also my inspiration — as noted in my email, I wanted to redo all of my syllabi after reading your post and your syllabus. Your syllabus is aesthetically appealing and also includes all of the important information in a clear and engaging fashion. As Gabija notes, you always put the students at the center and this makes all the difference.
    Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    August 26, 2015
  6. Samantha Horchos #

    I really like that you decided to downsize your syllabus and make it more welcoming and friendly. We all know what its like to receive a fifteen page syllabus filled with every project description and assignment due. Though high school and college syllabi differ, I think the way you set yours up gives students what they immediately need to know without overwhelming them, which I love. I also enjoyed hearing that you used different modes of instruction, from printed syllabi to online questionnaires. I feel like this can get students to really jump into the swing of things, but again without too much pressure. You have some greats ideas and tips!
    Have a great year!
    Sam Horchos

    Liked by 1 person

    August 25, 2015
  7. Gabija Fischer #

    Your thoughtfulness has always inspired me. What I love most is that you always put the students first. It is so easy for teachers to print out the same forms and handouts year after year. I love your willingness to reflect on student needs and revise not only your handouts, but also your pedagogical practices. You’re my teaching inspiration! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    August 25, 2015

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