Planning for the first day of school is like planning a huge party. Except you’re inviting complete strangers. Oh, and they’re teenagers. 120 of them. And they probably don’t even want to come to this party. They’re being forced to attend.
So as the “hostess with the mostess,” you have to be charming, cordial, and cool–the life of the party.
Your challenge is to somehow trick your guests into enjoying this grand event that they already think is incredibly lame. Your organization better be perfect, your decorations better be beautiful, your smile better be welcoming, and your first impression better be ABSOLUTELY IMPECCABLE. If you don’t show your guests that you know you know how to throw a real party, you’ll lose them.
But no pressure.
Okay, so maybe I’m a bit of a dramatic perfectionist, but the first day of school absolutely freaks me out. Planning for it is worse than preparing a perfectly packaged lesson for an evaluation that determines if I score a raise. I’m pretty sure I spent the last month of summer just agonizing over that first day. It’s not that I was dreading it; it’s that I was so freakishly excited about it that I just desperately wanted it to be perfect. Going into year 3, I was determined to personally prove the old “third time’s a charm” adage and set the tone for the best year yet.
To do this, I wanted to do something memorable, engaging, and unique on the first day back. I didn’t want to pass out a syllabus and review my expectations. Sure, it’s necessary, but it’s BO-RING. (I’d save that for the second day). I also didn’t feel like “showing them I mean business” by teaching a lesson and being that teacher who gives out homework on the first day. (I do mean business, but it’s just not my style. If you’re that teacher, power to you. I’m sure this establishes high expectations, and that’s great.) And I just really didn’t feel like doing what I had done the previous two years, which was introduce myself with the old “Get to Know Miss G” PowerPoint and then play an icebreaker to get to know everyone. It was great for the kiddos to get to know me as a human being AND a teacher, which I believe is essential to a successful year. But, a PowerPoint, really? Lame! I could do better than that.
As summer drew to a close and the first day crept into view, I began panicking. I still didn’t have a plan. Maybe I couldn’t do better. I could just settle on the PowerPoint–give it a little makeover and call it a day. My students wouldn’t know any better, and there was always next year to be the extraordinary teacher I wanted to be.
You probably think this narrative is about to climax with an empowering moment: After drought of creativity, discouraged teacher restores faith in herself by giving birth to genius idea!
Although I wish it was, it’s not. This is not fiction. This is reality. It’s 2016 and I am a teacher. I STEAL IDEAS! Take them hostage, if you will. I torture these ideas and make them MINE. I use them and abuse them. By the end, they are not as they once were.
So I set out to hunt and gather some ideas from brilliant, seasoned educators who had more first days under their belts. Naturally, I searched on Google and Teachers Pay Teachers. I crept through my teacher Instagram and scrolled through Pinterest. I got sucked into searching for the perfect idea from behind a screen when little did I know, my inspiration was waiting for me within the bound pages of an actual paper book: Larry Weinstein’s Writing at the Threshold.
In this little gem of a resource, Weinstein describes how students “size you up” and process their first impressions of you and your class on the very first day. From the second they walk in the door, students are processing details–their observations–and forming hypotheses about what your class will be like. Weinstein suggests asking the students to discuss and explain these hypotheses before passing out the syllabus. “Exploit the situation,” he writes (5).
So exploit the situation I did. Well, actually I decided to exploit myself. In the past, I had lamely told my students all about myself so they could get to know me. What a rookie mistake! What good author just straight up TELLS the readers everything? I needed to channel my inner Fitzgerald. (After all, I was throwing a party.) I could go all mysterious Gatsby on them. My student would have to read ME like a book. I wouldn’t tell ‘em a single thing! HA!
This was perfect, because I had just gone on a wild decorating spree, and as I looked around my classroom, I saw bits and pieces of my weird personality in every nook and cranny. They could “investigate” all of the “evidence” around the room in an attempt to get to know their “suspect” (me)! After all, the students would be practicing the very kind of critical thinking we do in English class. They would be analyzing evidence, coming to logical conclusions based on this evidence, and then expressing their interpretations through writing and discussion.
Part of me was anxious that it might flop. Would my juniors think it was lame? Would they take it too literally? Would they refuse to get out of their seats and investigate my room? Would they just stereotype and form incorrect first impressions? Would they sit there mute, looking at me like I was an alien, when I asked them to share their thoughts?
Sure, it could flop. Anything could! But in my experience, that “flop feeling” foreshadows one of two extremes: I was either going to fail magnificently or just absolutely knock it out of the park.
Fortunately for me, it was the latter, but not without some great plot twists. About 5 minutes into the activity, I haphazardly shouted, “Y’all can go through all my cabinets and drawers!” without really thinking about it. The kids were hesitant at first, but I encouraged them to “creep on my stuff” as thoroughly as possible.
Once the cabinets and drawers were fair game, things escalated quickly as I forgot all of the weird items I had stuffed up in there…
-Crusty wigs (from when the football players donned cheerleading uniforms for the most ridiculous pep session stunt ever)
- Fake handcuffs (for acting out “The Crucible,” of course)
- A creepy doll (also for “The Crucible;” it’s the infamous poppet)
- Toilet paper (from a pep session game)
- Fake eyeballs (another pep session leftover)
- Dozens of blankets (awaiting delivery to Riley Hospital)
Oh, and I might mention that I have some odd trap door underneath my desk. I’ve never opened it, but it’s rumored to be dark, creepy, and full of spiders. (Occasionally, I’ll put my ear to the floor and say, “Hey, are ya thirsty down there?” to convince the kids that it’s where I keep the students who plagiarize.)
I also apparently had receipts for duct tape in my cabinets. My students meticulously item-analyzed all of these like true investigators. Most receipts detailed school supplies and books, but the duct tape was a “red flag,” according to my kiddos. So naturally they assumed that I was a serial killer who used duct tape and blankets on my victims before throwing them into the weird crawl space under my desk.
But despite the fact that the leading theory implicated me in murders, this activity made for the best first day I’ve ever had. My students were critically thinking and collaborating. They were active and engaged. They were smiling and laughing. I had successfully tricked them into a little bit of lowkey learning on the party that is the first day of school!
I also learned a lot about myself. Apparently, I am…
- “A shopping alcoholic” (she meant “shopaholic;” HAHA)
- “Expensive” (based upon the receipts)
- “From Kentucky” (I truly cannot explain this one…)
- “From Kansas” (or this one…)
- “Very organized” (Homegirl needs to see my house and then get back to me on this one.)
- ”Cold-hearted” (this was a metaphorical interpretation of the many blankets)
Despite a few wild cards and the murder theory, the inferences were spot on. Many of the responses described me as happy, positive, creative, geeky, and weird. They noted by Starbucks addiction (“drinks too much coffee”), my #MERICA patriotism (“would probably die for her country”), my ridiculous stacks of newspapers (“Hoarder? No offense”), and “Been there, pun that” bulletin board (“may or may not have a good sense of humor…”). They also realized that I “work hard,” “work too much,” and “love school.” Guilty as charged, children!
After reading through all of their responses, I realized that I am an open book. But that’s okay, because I don’t want to be that mysterious or tough teacher who doesn’t smile until Christmas. I just want to be me.*