The instructional and inter-personal interactions you have with students tell them (either explicitly or implicitly) what things you value.
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:
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).
Crumple up the piece of paper (This is when you start getting funny looks).
Throw your crumpled paper (The funny looks are coming fast-er and furious-er at this point).
Pick up a piece of crumpled paper and de-crumple it.
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.
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
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?
Frank Noschese's "Subversive Lab Grouping Game" is another great way to get students talking while accomplishing something valuable. Consider it added to my repertoire.
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. (back)
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. (back)
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. (back)
Mix the three together. Make the students separate them. Even better, make them figure out how to separate them before beginning. This is how I spice up an otherwise quite boring section on types of mixtures.
The content covered
Compounds and elements (Which substances are elements? Which are compounds? How can you tell?)
Physical properties (What are each substances' properties? How does knowing that allow you to separate them?)
Types of mixtures (Are they mixed heterogenously? Homogenously? How can you tell?)
Good lab practices (How can you work to recover as much of each substance as possible?)
Calculating percent composition
Once students write out a brief procedure of how they might separate the sand, salt, and iron from each other¹, I give them the lab procedures, go over proper filtration, boiling, and scale techniques, then have them complete a short pre-lab activity. The goal of the pre-lab is to go over proper laboratory techniques and how to calculate the percent composition of a mixture.
During the lab
Students receive a sample of the mixture, mass it, and then use a magnet wrapped in clear plastic wrap to take out the iron filings. They mass the iron filings then toss them. The students then add water to the remaining sand and salt mixture in order to dissolve the salt. Then using a funnel and filter paper, they filter out the sand. At this point they have wet sand in the filter and salt water in a beaker. They break out the hot plates in order to boil off the salt water (leaving the salt residue) and heat the sand to dryness. Once they mass the dried sand and salt, they're essentially done save for calculating the percent of the mixture recovered and the percent composition of the mixture.
We break out the laptops, put our data into a spreadsheet and go over how to make charts using Excel. For most freshman, this seems to be the first time they've officially been taught how to do this. We go over their findings, and they turn it in.
It's not an overly difficult lab. It is complex. There are a lot of steps. Most freshmen students haven't had much lab experience, and as such their lab skills aren't too advanced. Many students this year didn't get very close to the actual composition of the mixture. A few ended up with more mass at the end than at the beginning (probably didn't drive off all the water in the sand or salt). Given their inexperience in the lab, these results aren't surprising, but I want them to improve their lab techniques as the year goes on. I have to keep reminding myself to be patient with them when they make bone-head moves².
This. lab. takes. for. ever. It took my freshmen about 150 minutes to complete it. It can take 40 minutes simply to boil off the water to extract the salt. That comes down to a lot of time watching water boil. I used 150 mL beakers this time around, but perhaps if I used a larger beaker (400 mL, perhaps) the water would vaporize more quickly.
For all my attempts to spice up the mixture section, students complained sitting and watching water boil wasn't that interesting (big surprise). Next time I'll give them less of the mixture to separate and use larger beakers.
Is it worth my time to teach them how to graph in Excel? This first time through, students were all over the place. Some had never touched a spreadsheet before. Others were decently experienced. Some were done in 5 minutes, others took 40. I'm torn on whether I should spend the time teaching them this, yet I always seem to come out and do it. As we use Excel more, the difference between novices and the experienced gets smaller, which is one of my arguments for keeping it in.
¹ I require students to write a procedure on how they might separate all three and then weigh the recovered mass of all three dry solids. The dry part throws them a bit sometimes.
² Exception: If they're compromising safety rules, it's a slightly different story. Learning how to properly filter a mixture is something that understandably takes some practice. Learning to not touch the hot plate while it's on doesn't.