Once school supplies hit the shelves of my favorite department store it’s hard to turn off my teacher brain. I start thinking about last year’s students–their personalities, their needs, their successes, their struggles. Then, I think about myself as a teacher–my personality, my needs, my successes, my struggles. I’ve learned over the years that my most honest reflection leads to the creation of my best ideas. One thing that has been on my mind recently is how to provide my students with a novel learning experience on Day 1. I know I have to review expectations, procedures, and content, but how I do so is up to me. Here are two back-to-school activities I am using to engage my students on Day 1.
English 11 1st-Day Lesson
I have used this activity with 11th grade students, but could easily see it working in younger grades, too.
I ask students to form groups of 3 or 4 (or I will assign them into a group, depending on the grade level and age) and pass out an envelope to each group. Within each envelope is a scenario that they must act out for the entire class.
- Give students 7-10 minutes to read their slip and prepare a short skit that includes all the details.
- The teacher is in the middle of going over the warm up and a student walks into the classroom. They allow the door to loudly slam shut, walk to a desk and slump down into a seat. Their earbuds are so loud everyone turns to look. The student fidgets on his phone with no regard to the rest of the class.
- Two students are having a personal conversation while they work on an assignment. The teacher tries to get the class’s attention to go over the assignment, but the two students keep talking to one another.
- The teacher gives directions for students to complete an exit slip. Some students finish early, turn it in, and stand in front of the door to wait for the bell. Other students can’t focus due to the noise and movement.
- The class is discussing an important issue and a student contributes his perspective. Once the student stops sharing, another student replies, “Are you serious? That’s so stupid!” Before the teacher can react, a third student says, “Hey! Cut it out. That’s not cool.”
- The class finishes an assignment and the teacher is calling on volunteers to go over answers. A student shoots his hand in the air. The teacher thinks they are going to give the answer for #3, but really, they say, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
- Have groups perform their skits one at a time.
- After each skit the teacher leads a class discussion by using the following questions:
- What was the problem behavior in this skit?
- How should a teacher handle this behavior?
- What should the student(s) do differently?
You probably noticed that the majority of these scenarios highlight inappropriate or annoying behaviors we sometimes see in our students. This activity allows me to review classroom expectations and rules in a positive way, without the sit-and-get nature students expect.
1st-Day Lesson AP Language and Composition
Super Gorilla Argument
Most students come to class with very little knowledge or experience with argumentation. As a result, I spend the first few days training them how to think about argumentation–that there is more than being right or wrong or being on this side or that side. Arguments are nuanced and deserve careful consideration to be fully developed. To prove this to them, I like to give them a wacky prompt to debate on Day 1.
- Each student gets a copy of the following prompt (borrowed from Chuck Klosterman’s HYPERtheticals):
- Genetic engineers at Johns Hopkins University have developed a so-called super gorilla. Though the animal cannot speak, it has a sign language lexicon of over twelve thousand words, and an IQ of almost 85, and most notably a vague sense of self-awareness. Oddly, the creature (who weighs seven hundred pounds) becomes fascinated by football. The gorilla aspires to play the game at its highest level and quickly develops the rudimentary skills of a defensive end. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson speculates that this gorilla would be borderline unblockable and would likely average six sacks a game (although Jackson concedes the beast might be susceptible to counters and misdirection plays). Meanwhile, the gorilla has made it clear he would never intentionally injure any opponent. You are commissioner of the NFL: Would you allow this gorilla to sign with the Oakland Raiders?
- As soon as the looks of confusion wear off and the giggles quiet down, I give each student 4-5 minutes to free-write their answer.
- Then, I have students move to opposite sides of the room that represent whether they would allow the gorilla to play. (If you’re not a football fan, you may feel uncomfortable discussing that aspect of the prompt. Most likely a student can explain, but the gist is that the Raiders have not won a championship since 1983 and have not had a winning season since 2002.)
- I ask students to form small sub-groups of 3 or 4 to debrief and prepare to debate. Then, as a large group, I ask them to form an opening statement.
- Each group delivers their opening statement, and then I allow them to debate for 10-15 additional minutes.
- Once we’re finished I write the following acronym on the board:
- $ (economics)
- E (ethics)
- E (environment)
- I (international)
- T (technology)
- T (time
This acronym ($SEEITT) is one of the most widely used strategies I use with students to help them develop their arguments beyond “because I said so.” (I often pose it in the form of a feedback question, “Do you $SEEITT?) Once it is written on the board, I ask students if we discussed any of the listed categories in our debate. One by one students begin to volunteer examples that fit into each category. Most likely our discussion has covered every single aspect of the $SEEITT strategy, and students see that our debate is be the beginning of a well-developed argument.
Elizabeth Matheny has taught high school English for Washington County Public Schools since August 2007. She began my teaching career at South Hagerstown High School for where she taught grades 9-11 and served as SGA adviser and a member of the AVID site team. She has taught at Smithsburg High since 2011 and serves as both the yearbook adviser and the English department leader. You can read her blog at www.mrsmatheny.com.