Friday, August 8, 2008

Questions to Ask Yourself to Be Ready for the First Day of School

I've been doling out a lot of advice recently, so I thought I would frame this post a little differently. Most books and websites geared towards helping you prepare for the first days of school list questions to ask yourself. As long as you've considered what your answers might be, you're well on your way to being ready for the new year.

I've read many of these types of lists myself, so forgive me if I'm telling you something you already know or sounding like a poor man's version of somebody else. I'll err on the side of caution and say that these are all the well-worn ideas, and I am merely collecting them here for you:

Have you done your summer reading? Here's your abbreviated list (with plenty of time to catch up):
These two books alone will have you better prepared than the average teacher by far.

Where are your students going to sit? After you've decided your seating arrangement and have your rosters***, create a seating chart. Arranging them alphabetically is fine, because it's helpful for learning names, but I recommend starting at the back corner of the room and working your way forward. This way, the kids at the end of the alphabet (who probably end up in the back of every other class) get to sit up front for once. This sets your class apart, which makes it more interesting for them. I find it helpful to put numbers on the back of the chairs (so they won't be easily removed) so you can help students find their seats very quickly (you can post a list with their numbers on an overhead, for example). ***If you don't have your rosters until early the first day, you can quickly make a seating chart and get kids sitting where you want them to by putting their names on post-it notes on their seat-to-be. Having the desks numbered also makes this easier.

How will you find out where your students are at academically? What kind of diagnostic assessment will you use? You may not like testing, but this is the one time of year you can ask a lot of your students with few complaints or distractions. It could be done the second day, depending on your answers to the remaining questions. Giving students a diagnostic assessment immediately (and telling them why you are doing it) shows that you mean business, that you will expect them to work every day, and that you know exactly what you're doing.

What kind of syllabus or course information are you going to give them? You need to tell students what you'll be studying, why you're studying it, and how you're going to do so (briefly, of course). What kind of goals and expectations have you set? You can simply read aloud from a concise handout or make things more interesting by creating a video/PowerPoint, showing examples of student work from previous years, or doing role plays to demonstrate what they need to know and do in your classroom.

What do you need to know about your students to help them be successful? I am a big proponent of student surveys, but you should be careful to ask only questions you need to know the answer to. For example, do you really need to know their favorite color or TV show? Kids can smell busywork from a mile away. Maybe you need their class schedules. If so, do you really need to know the entire thing? Aren't you only available only one or two periods a day? Ask them for the period(s) when you are available, so you can pull them out for conferences or get important information to them when necessary.

How will you encourage parental involvement from the beginning? Consider sending home your syllabus or a parent survey. You can ask them about how their child learns, how they can help in the classroom, and for detailed contact information.

What will students be expected to do every day in your class? Establish your basic routines and procedures. Tell them what to do when they first come in. Where are things kept? What will a typical class period look like? Where will books, handouts and notebooks be? What's your policy for the restroom, tardiness, and absences? You can't cover everything, but you need to emphasize the things most important to you on that first day. Start with the basics and add more each day thereafter.

What are you going to put on your walls and bulletin boards? Leave plenty of space for student work. Their work serves as a model of what you expect and gives students a sense of ownership as well. Limit reference material to stuff you'll be covering soon or referring to often. Rotate those kinds of displays every so often. You might even consider a word wall. Are you going to have a bulletin board with basic school information like bell schedules, school calendars/rules/announcements, and the aforementioned goals and expectations? Is there a bulletin board space to recognize student achievement (like Students of the Week) or where kids can see their grades anonymously? Show them where these things are and explain the significance.

Are you prepared for the unique set of disruptions throughout the first day(s)? The list of disruptions for the first day (probably first 2 weeks minimum) is considerable: students arriving late or having their schedules changed, interruptions by staff, faculty and administrators, and non-stop announcements over the intercom. Relax, it's not something you can control. Just be ready to be flexible and accommodating those first few days. Don't let it stress you out.

What are you going to do with any extra time you have? Do you want to do icebreakers? Teach a mini-lesson? Think of something you can do to build genuine excitement for the rest of the year. Remember that it's better to plan more than you can possibly do in one period than to be left with your proverbial pants down around your proverbial ankles.

Have you thought about your health and well-being? What are you going to do about breakfast and lunch? What time do you need to leave in the morning (depending on when you want to get to school)? How will you keep yourself from getting stressed? Have you reflected upon lessons learned in previous years, or from your outside-of-school experiences?

The better answers you have to these questions, the better prepared you will be for the first day and beyond. Veteran teachers: please share other questions teachers should ask themselves to get ready for the first day. Thank you, and good luck!