Reviewing the syllabus on the first day of school is so common that it’s even earned the first week of classes the name “Syllabus Week” at the collegiate level, and high school is no exception. It’s textbook stuff: The teacher reads through the syllabus and attempts to review all of the expectations that the students will likely forget by the next day. Students spend the entire first day of school just going through the motions like zombies, merely listening to teachers drone on about their specific policies and pet peeves. But it doesn’t have to be this way, at least not within the four walls of YOUR classroom! You can save your students from chronic syllabusitis by NOT going over this document on the first day of school. Before I explain what I do instead, let me briefly explain why I absolutely do not review the syllabus on the first day of school:
1. IT’S BORING!
Reviewing the syllabus is boring for both me and my students. I don’t want to stand up in front of my students and talk AT them the entire day. I want to be excited about the first day of school, and I want my students to be, too! I love teaching, but I also love summer, so one way I get myself “pumped up” for teaching after a relaxing summer is planning lessons that I know will help me remember why I love teaching in the first place. The first day of school is no exception! I want to make a great impression and enjoy my first day lesson.
2. EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT.
I want my class to be different and refreshing for my students, especially on the very first day. I don’t like doing the “same old” stuff that everyone else does. Doing something else helps my class stand out, and the students quickly realize that we will do things differently and creatively in my classroom. The students appreciate a break from the torturous monotony of syllabi on the first day, so being different scores me brownie points with them, too!
3. IT DOESN’T SET THE TONE FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR.
Reviewing the syllabus on the first day of school does not offer my students a glimpse of the type of learning that will go on in my class. I value student-centered, engaging, collaborative, and kinesthetic learning. Why work so hard planning a whole year of active learning, only to contradict it on the first day of school? That’s not my style! I want my students to know exactly what they can expect from my class. I want them to know that they will be thinking, discussing, and moving every single day, so I plan for my first day of school accordingly.
4. I BELIEVE IN RELATIONSHIPS FIRST, RULES/ROUTINES SECOND.
Of course, expectations are important, but I would much rather focus on getting to know my students and building relationships before I tell them what to do and what not to do. Back-to-school icebreakers and activities can really help build a classroom community; they show students that you care about them as human beings, not just as numbers in the grade book. Obviously, reviewing the syllabus on day 1 and building relationships are not mutually exclusive, and this is ultimately just my preference. But I like to think it does make a difference and send a message to the students.
5. THERE ARE BETTER WAYS TO COVER THE SYLLABUS.
Don’t feel like you “have to” complete the chore of the syllabus in this boring way. I was guilty of thinking and doing this my first two years of teaching. I remember telling my students, “Sorry, we just need to get this out of the way,” before I explained everything on the syllabus. Now, I know there are creative alternatives out there. One way that I made my old text-heavy syllabus less boring was by transforming it into a professional, appealing tri-fold brochure. But I also found a brand new way to review it, which you can read more about in the “Day 3” section.
You can check out these syllabus brochure templates, as well as visual/info-graphic syllabus templates here!
But what do you do about expectations, routines, and crucial class info?
This is a common question with a simple answer: I still cover these things, but in a more engaging way and not on the first day. I simply put the rules and procedures on pause for a few days and focus on getting to know my new students. I would rather take some time to learn the 150 new names and faces in my classes because I know that “real learning” can’t happen until I begin to build relationships. It’s difficult to teach when you don’t yet know your students’ names or interests. To me, teaching an alphabetized roster of students whose names I do not know feels impersonal. When I start my first unit, I want to be teaching individuals with dreams, quirks, fears, strengths, passions, and weaknesses, not mere names on a roster.
So here’s what I do instead. What follows is a road map to my first few days of school. I hope this helps you mix things up so you, too, can set the tone for your most amazing year yet!
DAY 1: Investigate the Teacher Activity & Icebreakers
Investigate the Teacher Activity
During the first few days of school, it’s incredibly important for my students to get to know me and for me to get to know all 150 of them. In the past, I used to bore my students with a “Get to Know Miss G” slideshow, but a few years ago, I came up with a much more engaging, student-centered, and kinesthetic activity to replace it! I call it my “Investigate the Teacher” Challenge. Instead of telling them all about myself, I make them to do the hard work of getting to know me by thoroughly investigating my room for clues about my personality, teaching style, expectations, hobbies, etc. This engaging activity forces my students to get moving, collaborating, and critically thinking on the first day of school, plus it breaks the ice and helps them get to know me! It’s a great way to introduce essential skills like observing evidence, making inferences, discussing interpretations, and summarizing conclusions. In other words, it tricks them into a whole lot of learning! Plus, it’s so entertaining to read through their inferences, and sometimes it feels like a bucket filler from all of their kind compliments from their first impression of me! I’ve done this for 4 years now, and I don’t ever want to do anything different on day 1 (and that says a lot, because if you know me, you know that I ALWAYS change things up from year to year). I’ve even done this activity while teaching online, and it was a great way to build classroom community from the start. You can check out my print and digital/distance versions of this activity here!
Icebreakers are essential to building relationships and creating a positive classroom culture. I’ve tried different icebreakers over the years, but here are a few of my favorite ideas:
- Guess Who: Pass out index cards to each student. Instruct them to write their name and three fun facts about themselves on the card. Then, collect all the cards, mix them up in a bucket or some kind of container, and pull the cards out one by one. Read off the fun facts on the card and then ask students to guess who it is.
- Toss and Talk: Get a big inflated ball (you can find them at Walmart for around $3) and use Sharpies to write fun get-to-know-you questions on the ball. Toss the ball around the room and have students answer the question closest to their right thumb!
- Get-To-Know-You Speed Dating: This unique activity is a twist on typical icebreakers, because it uses get-to-know-you questions to engage every student at the same time! It’s like a more interactive version of the “Guess Who” and “Toss and Talk” games. During this activity, students rotate through different partners and discuss answers to fun get-to-know-you questions. You could do a few rounds of this in a few minutes, or easily extend it to last an entire class period!
A simple Google or Pinterest search of icebreakers will yield tons of fun results. You shouldn’t feel guilty about doing some fun icebreakers instead of teaching a full lesson, because the time invested in building relationships will pay off later on. It’s worth it, I promise!
DAY 2: Back-to-School Learning Stations
As you can see, I pushed back my syllabus and expectations to Day 3. It made sense this year, because we started on a Thursday, so I thought Monday would be the perfect day to introduce all of this. But I still refused to read through this important information as I stood in front of my class, because I realized there was a much better method: learning stations!
I’ve been obsessed with learning stations for a few years now (and I’ve blogged all about their benefits, how I create them, and how I facilitate them), but I’ve never used them at the very beginning of the year. I don’t know why I waited, because these stations turned out AMAZING! Here’s what I planned:
- Station 1: Syllabus: This year I created infographic syllabus brochures, and I wanted students to actually READ through them (and appreciate that I made them and folded 150 of them – HA). At this station, students had to read through the syllabus, answer essential questions, and discuss what they thought were the most important expectations.
- Station 2: Goal-Setting: My school is transitioning to standards-based-grading (SBG), so I had my students rate themselves and set learning goals on a 1-4 scale for each of our power standards, which we call “Essential Learnings.” You could do this with any kind of standards of skills, or you could make this into a more general academic or subject-specific goal-setting station. I appreciated this station because it gave me informal data to inform my instruction, and it will allow students to measure the progress on their individualized goals for each focus skill.
- Station 3: “One Word” Creative Activity: This activity was designed to infuse some creativity and get students thinking about how they wanted to define their 18-19 school year. Students had to choose one word to guide the upcoming year, and I provided cute templates and coloring supplies for them to represent this word. The finished creations will double as some decor for my blank chalkboard that I will rarely use!
- Station 4: Student Survey: My favorite way to get to know my students is simply through interacting with them, one on one, but as a high school teacher with 150 students, it’s difficult, at least in the first few days of school. During this time, I could have a full conversation with a student and genuinely forget half of what he/she said, simply because my brain is on overload mode. I like to use a survey to collect some info on my students so I can refer to this throughout the semester and use it to inform my instruction. I do this through a quick Google form so I have their responses in my spreadsheet forever (and I can’t lose that spreadsheet). This information helps me get to know my students and connect with them much more quickly.
- Station 5: Padlet Selfie: This is another great way to get to know your students! I originally contemplated during a Flipgrid video introduction for this station, but I thought students might be more hesitant to film themselves on day 1, so I opted for a simple selfie instead. Students had to upload a selfie and some fun facts to Padlet boards I created for each class. I did this because I hoped they would enjoy it and I knew it would help us all get to know each other better, but the real reason was this: My school switched our LMS platform over the summer, so there were no student photos uploaded in the system. I wanted a way to associate their faces with their names and fun facts so I could get to know them better. Mission accomplished!
You can find editable print AND digital Google Slides versions of these stations here. In my classes, I also included a station for flexible seating. This station was comprised of materials such as my overview letter, expectations, and flexible seating contract. You can find all of these materials in my Flexible Seating Resource Bundle.
DAY 3: Personality Test & Reflection
After the get-to-know-you games, syllabus, and expectations, I use Day 3 as a chance to get to know my students on a deeper level. To do this, I have them take the 16 Personalities Test and complete a reflection activity. The reflection challenges students to be introspective as they think about their strengths and weaknesses, ability to work with others, approach to school/work, and more! In addition, the online test provides great practice at reading, summarizing, evaluation, and reflecting. I love doing this activity at the start of a new year because it helps students think about who they are and how they can have their best year yet. My personality test reflection activity is complete with a print version, as well as two different digital options for virtual/distance learning (Google Slides & Google Forms). You can check it out HERE.
If you’re reading this post and feeling guilty because you have done the boring syllabus stuff on the first day, rest assured that I have done the same, too. The more you teach, the more you learn. You make mistakes and you find creative ways to fix them in the following years. It’s all a part of the process. I know that I am less stressed and anxious for the beginning of the year when I am excited about the first few days. Luckily, these activities get me PUMPED to return to school. But it took me 5 years to get to this point!
If you’re a brand new teacher who is overwhelmed about the start of the school year, remember to plan lessons that get you excited about the year. Chances are, when you do that, you will be exciting and engaging your students, too!
Here are a few other ideas that I just have to mention, even though I didn’t use them this year!
- Building Book Love’s dictionary page craftivity! My across-the-hall teacher BFF @literatureandlattes110 on Instagram did this activity this year and the finished products double as adorable classroom decor!
- My “Interview Challenge” activity. I originally designed this for my journalism classes, but I’ve always wanted to do it at the beginning of the year because it’s a) a great way to learn more about each student and b) a perfect writing sample.
What other ideas do you have for making the first day of school one to remember? I would love to hear about them in the comments!