Since classes begin in less than a week, for the benefit of both experienced and new faculty, we thought it would be useful to have a few posts regarding things we deal with on the first day(s) of the semester. We hope to tackle some of the regular issues instructors deal with and provide examples of varied tips, techniques and activities that might be useful in the early semester classroom.
On the first day of class, I walk in ten to fifteen minutes early, carrying my backpack and wearing something casual, such as a t-shirt and shorts (fall) or a casual shirt and jeans (spring). I pick a seat somewhere near the back of the class, ensuring that I will be behind most of the students (which is easy to do unless the seats are in a circle or rectangle).
Then I wait and observe, watching the students as they enter, pick seats, talk among themselves, and wait for the instructor to show up (since they assume, due to my location, that I’m a student too). If I’m there well ahead of time, I may pull out the syllabus and/or one of our books and look at it. Sometimes, friendlier students introduce themselves to me, or someone asks to look at my syllabus/book, or a student asks for information or says something funny that I respond to, so I might be talking to some of them for a bit.
I usually give it a couple of minutes past the time class is supposed to start, to give late students a chance to arrive, and to get a sense of who the impatient and/or fidgety students are. Then I stand up and say something like, “Well, I might as well get us started.” As people turn to stare, I add, “Hello. I’m the guy who has been emailing you and will be inflicting myself on you for the rest of the semester. Welcome to [insert name here].” And the students start laughing and talking as I walk over to the front of the class, sometimes pausing to say something to a student I overheard, such as, “Since you were wondering—yes, I am male. And I’ll tell you how to pronounce my name in just a minute.”
If I’m really lucky, as has happened a few times, I’ll be reaching the desk when someone runs in, sees me nearby, and blurts out, “Hey, man! Is the teacher here?” At which point I get to put my things on the desk and say, “Well—I am now!” which usually causes the rest of the class to utterly lose it.
Background: It’s been a long while, but I believe I started doing the above in my third or fourth year of teaching, because I’d heard a couple of colleagues say they’d love to do something like that but had never dared try it, and it seemed like a good idea to me. It has worked so well that I’ve done it ever since whenever I could (rarely, timing or circumstances get in the way) and will do so again in a week’s time. The receding hairline and lines on the face are making it harder to pull off, but being a short, weedy guy in shorts does make up somewhat for it, plus most students assume that if you’re sitting among them you must simply be an older student.
Benefits: The reasons I begin the semester this way are manifold. As the title of this post indicates, this approach utterly breaks the ice, which is my intent. Students are instantly rendered alert, active and in good humor, which is a combination I try to maintain throughout the semester. I also use this opening as a teaching moment, mentioning to students in the first few minutes afterward that this should be an indication of something my course will do—ask them to think critically about their unexamined assumptions. I have consistently received positive feedback from students about this approach, personally and in end-of-semester evaluations, which indicates that it provides the effects that I want, which is why I continue using it.
Negatives: Like virtually all such exercises, this one would not work for all instructors, and I have heard multiple teachers consider this a horrible idea (admittedly none of whom had tried it). The primary negative to this approach would be that it (even if temporarily) removes the barriers between teacher and student, which many would not be comfortable with. It is certainly easier to begin the semester by emphasizing the distance between instructor and student and then diminish it over time to the degree that one is comfortable with, rather than taking the approach I described. On a related note, there is the possibility of authority issues, with students having too casual or informal an attitude to the instructor. Hence, if you have any concerns about such issues, I would recommend not trying such a tactic. I should note, however, that I virtually never encounter authority issues in the classroom despite beginning the semester this way (and doing many things to maintain a similar atmosphere, blending comfort, informality and professionalism). In my estimation, students are far too acutely aware of the teacher’s position for such an approach to erode it.
Other options: Rather than taking such a radical approach to breaking the ice on the first day of class, there are a large number of other methods one can utilize. A simple one is to simply go around the classroom and have students share a little about themselves, which I also do on the first day of class. I usually begin by introducing and sharing some information about myself and then go around the classroom, asking students to tell everyone their names, what they would like to be called in class, why they are at MSU, and one interesting thing about each of them. Another small thing I usually do is have students take a sheet of paper, fold it in half, write what they’d like to be called on one side) and hang it off the front of the desk. It’s a minor activity, but students seem to find it amusing, it makes it easier for me to learn the names (I have them do this for the first couple of weeks), and it raises the chances of students addressing each other by name, which is something I want. These and other first-week activities, for me, serve to emphasize the idea of the classroom as a community, one where students should be comfortable and which they will be eager to attend (wishful thinking, perhaps!), within which they will be expected to be alert and engaged, both mentally and physically.
Hopefully, the above provides a useful (or, if not that, at least amusing) example of what is possible on the first day of class. Please share any comments or questions about it. I’m also interested to hear what first-day activities you may have tried (or plan to) and to what end.