Because many of us are approaching a new semester, I’d like to reflect on “first day” rituals. As a section leader, instructor of record, or professor, how do you begin the first day of class, and why? This year, I’m the section leader and grader for an introductory American Studies course. Prior to this appointment, I’ve been an instructor of record for composition and literature courses for a number of years. In this post, I offer some reflections on my own first day rituals in smaller, discussion-based courses in the humanities that service a variety of majors.
Reviewing the syllabus. I view the syllabus as a contract, and thoroughly reviewing its terms is an important first-day ritual for me. In the past, I’ve distributed a paper copy of my syllabus and have reviewed all of the policies by asking students to read sections out loud. This can be a lengthy activity; however, an in-depth review is necessary to some extent, particularly for courses that involve a number of assignments or projects. Recently, I’ve shifted away from this practice (at least in my upper-level courses). For instance, I make the syllabus available electronically in advance of the first day, and I ask students to read the document thoroughly before coming to class. I still review parts of the syllabus; however, I spend less time educating students about course policies and more time discussing course goals as well as the rationale behind our reading/assignment schedule.
Calling roll. On the first day, I don’t call roll at the beginning of class. For many semesters, I’ve taught mostly freshmen who often have a hard time navigating our very large campus. Because I expect to have late-comers on the first day, I delay roll call for at least 10-15 minutes. I do, however, make a note of tardy arrivals for record-keeping purposes; a late arrival on the first day sometimes is the beginning of a trend.
Participating in an icebreaker activity. In recent semesters, I’ve combined calling roll with an icebreaker activity. In fact, I think the best icebreakers are not related to the course but rather ask students to reveal something personal—but not necessarily private—about themselves. To put students at ease, I share my response to the icebreaker first. Icebreaker activities allow students in smaller classes to become comfortable with one another (and not to mention you, the instructor). Establishing camaraderie—or at least planting the seeds for it—will ensure that future activities, particularly those that require dialogue among students, unfold more easily. Of course, icebreaker activities potentially are cringe-worthy, but a well-designed prompt can be both memorable and fun.
Completing a learning activity. In most instances, I’m dead-set against designing a first day that does not include a learning activity in which students work on something that is connected to the course; I especially like activities that ask students to work in groups as well as individually, perhaps on an informal writing assignment. Because I teach discussion and skills-based courses, I feel it is important to emphasize that my classroom is an active space that involves teamwork as well as independent exploration. A learning activity accomplishes these goals nicely. While students may balk at participating in such an activity on the first day, I’ve found that, done right, it eventually gets students excited and curious about what lies ahead.
What strategies have you used (or maybe altered or abandoned) on the first day of class, and why? I’m especially interested in hearing about icebreaker activities you’ve tried.
UPDATE, 1/5/12: Since December 2011, GradHacker also simultaneously publishes on Inside Higher Ed. My post on first day rituals at Inside Higher Ed received a number of interesting comments, especially regarding icebreakers (inappropriate or helpful?) and the kind of information a syllabus should include. Check out the comments for more first day tips and to jump into the debate.
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