One of the most important things I do in the first days of school is get to know my students, especially their names. My father, a pastor, is great with names. I’ve never really asked him what his secret is. Maybe it’s a gift. I feel like I’m pretty gifted too with learning names. My only downfall is that if I learn a name wrong early on, there’s a chance the incorrect name will stick. A student in my 5th hour is named Ryan, but I kept calling him Nick on the first day of school. I corrected myself, and I think I’m on the right track now.
On the first day of class, I gave my creative writing students time to compare notes in their groups on who their favorite author, book, and book series was. As they did this, I walked around the room to check in with each student–how to pronounce the first and last name and if he or she used a nickname. This is less embarrassing than calling roll in front of the whole class right from the start. After I visited with everyone, I went to the front of the room and called roll, and each student had to say one of his or her favorites. This worked quite well, and the hour flew by.
In my advanced creative writing class, I already knew each student, but they didn’t necessarily know one another. I had them tell me something I didn’t already know about them while calling out the roll.
I’ve already forgotten exactly what I did in English 2 on the first day–I think I just broadened it from favorite book or author to favorite anything. I also had students get in order of their birthdays in sixth hour, but my seventh hour students groaned at this challenge because they had done it all day in their other classes. On the fly, I had students vote with their feet to four corners of the room on our school mascot: Keep it as Antlers or change it to the Alligators, Bucks, or Ducks. I know Alligators is absurd, but I was feeling wacky. I was the only one who voted for it, but the class divided into third for the other three. The first day is always a whirlwind!
On the second day with students I still wanted to get to know them. They need to feel comfortable with one another and form a good vibe and community before any real learning can effectively take place. For my first hour creative writing class, I tried something I dubbed Inner Outer Circle. I had students write down a list of at least 10 pairs: cats or dog, Pepsi or Dr Pepper, book or movie, Paris or London, etc. We moved the desks to create some space, and half the students formed a small circle. The other students formed a bigger circle around them. To make things even, I joined in. Then I had one circle walk clockwise while the other circle walked counterclockwise. I hummed a tune and then said stop. The students had to find the nearest partner and trade one of their questions with one another. After a minute or so had passed, we rotated again. This kept us moving and talking for the rest of the hour. Once it seemed like we had talked to everyone, a student had a smart idea to have every other pair swap places, so that we could talk to new people. It was lots of fun! I had to modify this activity for my other hour of creative writing because one of my students was on crutches. For this version, one line of students remained stationary, and another line of students rotated down the line until they talked to everyone. I called this game Down the Line.
On the second day with advanced creative writing, I tried a game called Spotlight. Students made a list of 10 questions to ask their classmates. They were lighthearted and funny questions–even ridiculous (“Would you rather have teeth for eyelashes or eyelashes for teeth?”). Then we stood in a giant circle, and one student (a volunteer) stood in the middle (the spotlight). The student faced a classmate for a question, but didn’t answer it yet. The student then faced 2 more classmates (3 total) before deciding which question to answer. The student whose question was chosen then moved into the spotlight. Everyone gets a turn in the spotlight. If a student’s question gets answered who has already been in the spotlight, he or she got to assign who goes into the spotlight. My students were very creative with their questions, which were normally very entertaining and amusing. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in a long time, and my students were laughing too. It set a good tone for the whole year. Just as the bell rang, I remembered to take a class picture with my selfie stick, which I later posted to Instagram.
I tried versions of Down the Line and Spotlight with my two English 2 classes, but they weren’t as successful that time. We still got to know one another better, and I got to listen and learn names and personalities.
One thing I thought of after these activities was how it’s kind of a pain for students to have to rearrange desks. I normally use groups, but on the second day, we pushed desks all the way to the edges of the room. On days of quizzes and tests in English 2, I need to use rows. Then it hit me: Put some duct tape on the carpet to indicate where the center of each desk grouping belongs. I also added some tape cut into triangles to indicate where the two desks go that are in groups of five instead of four. I have yet to train students how to use the tape, but I hope it makes for easier and faster desk rearrangement later this school year.
What about you? How do you get to know your students at the start of the year? And do you have any tips for how your train students to rearrange desks into different arrangements?