The first days of school

A few years ago I gave a brief overview of what I do on the first day of school, but since then I've rethunk and revamped my thinking on how to best organize those exciting/nervous/nerve-wracking first days.

The vision:

  1. The instructional and inter-personal interactions you have with students tell them (either explicitly or implicitly) what things you value.
  2. Your choices for how to spend the first days of school (and really all the days of school) need to align with your values.

My first day:

First, decide on those high value items. You know, the things that you really want students to know about either you or your expectations of them. Two high value items that I want students to understand right from the beginning are (1) I'd like to know each of them as individuals, and (2) I want them to become learners- not just grade grubbers who pick up a thing or two along the way. Then, find or create activities that reinforce those values.

Here's what I did last year:

I want students to understand that I value them as individuals1, so I started with a relatively low-impact ice breaker2:


Pass out half-sheets of paper to each student. You should have a half-sheet of your own. I do all of these steps right along with my students all the way through:
  1. Write one true fact about yourself on the paper (You could probably come up with more specific or interesting prompts. I like the "one true fact" prompt simply because it's non-threatening and allows a very broad range of responses).
  2. Crumple up the piece of paper (This is when you start getting funny looks).
  3. Throw your crumpled paper (The funny looks are coming fast-er and furious-er  at this point).
  4. Pick up a piece of crumpled paper and de-crumple it.
  5. Find the person who the crumpled piece of paper belongs to and write their name on it. Don't let students take their paper from the person who found it and write their own name. When they do this they don't even have to get the other person's name.
  6. When you've found your person and they've found you, have a seat.
I like this because it gets students interacting with each other right away. In addition it allows me to interact with them in a non-talking-head way right off the bat.

Who I Am

Who I Am, 2008
Once the snowball activity has loosened up the atmosphere a little, we move on to Who I Am sheets (a tip o' the hat to Dan Meyer).  They're a little more fun (& visually appealing) than the typical "write three things about yourself on this notecard" approach3, and I really enjoy reading all the students responses. Typically I'll set them aside for a week or two until I know my students better and then look over them all carefully. I also hang on to these sheets. Ideally I hang onto the students' Who I Am sheets until the end of the year and then pass them back to students. I've often forgot, or lost a few of the sheets, or whatever. However, it's a fun time having students look back at their responses as naive first day freshmen.


  • I try not waste class time, even during activities (like these) that could be considered "fluff." Again, it's modeling to students that what we do in class is important.
  • I do go over class expectations with students, though I try not to on the first day. Students are bombarded with class expectations and rules constantly throughout the first day. Why not instead spend the first day focusing on who your students are, then get in the expectations a little later?


  1. It's a little sad that many students are surprised or uncomfortable that I'd like to know more about them than whether they showed up on time and turned in their homework.     []
  2. I really dislike ice breakers. Seriously. I'm a bit introverted and can get cranky being forced to interact with strangers. True story. In this instance I get around my hypocritical feelings because this ice breaker doesn't require anyone to be the solitary focus of the large group- and it's short and over quickly.     []
  3. In the past I've reversed the snowball and Who I Am sheet. The downside of that is the first 10-15 minutes while students are filling out the sheet it's just awkward silent time. When I reversed the order, the atmosphere was a little lighter while filling out the sheets and it provided some good time for me to banter with students while they filled it out.     []