The Most Important Things to Work on in the First Week of School

Note taking? Grammar? Close Reading? The elements of good writing? Nope. All of these are skills we will definitely get to, but they are not the most important ones to work on in the first days of school.  Instead, you should plan activities that create an environment for the learning that will happen throughout the rest of the semester.

Three most important things to focus on in the first week of school
You are about to spend a whole year or semester with the teens who will walk through your door on the first day. You are going to ask them to stretch and grow, to work to their potential -- and to work together to be able to do so. For that to happen, your room needs to be a place of mutual respect and trust, a room where kids know they can go and make lots of mistakes on the way to real learning.

No, I'm not suggesting you create your own little learning utopia, but I do have a few ideas for how you can get off to a good start. And I know there's curriculum to cover and things to get crossed off the list, but I firmly believe that any time spent at the beginning of the year to build a learning environment, will buy you more time later.

1. Be very deliberate in modelling and expecting classroom behaviours. 
If you have a rule, make sure you follow it too. No eating or drinking in the class? Don't be sipping from your own coffee cup. If you want them off their phones, don't be constantly checking yours. They can spot hypocrisy a mile away, and the surest way to lose their respect is to not walk the walk.

I don't have a lot of "rules" in my classroom, but I do expect that students will try their best, think critically and to participate in class discussions - even if that means just listening carefully and contributing when called upon. Not every student likes to speak up, some like to dominate, and many like to give short answers with little thought behind them. Because we will do a lot of discussing throughout the semester, I choose some "hot topics" for us to chat about in the first few days -- and then I set the tone for how I want the discussion to happen.  One thing I really work hard on during these discussions is the depth of thought that goes into answers. For example, if a student says "I agree with her", I don't let it go at that: "Why do you agree?" I'll ask. I may have to keep prodding, but I will keep asking questions until I get a fully developed answer. They soon learn that they won't get away without thinking ;). Getting them all involved can be hard, but it's worth it to put a focused effort into that in the first weeks of school. I've posted before about how I try to get kids involved in the discussion, and you can read about it here.  

Also, because there's so much discussion in my class, it can be hard to get them to settle when it's time for individual work. Therefore, those first few days are very important for establishing that transition.  If they are still chatty when it's time to read or write, I will point out that there is lots of time to chat in my class, but I expect quiet (within reason) when it's time to work independently.  

2. Choose highly engaging, low-risk topics and activities. 
I think this is one of the most important things you can do.  In high school, we ask our students to deal with some complex tasks.  Some will dive right into them, but many are reluctant. If we start with Shakespeare or poetry or any topic that can be seen as "dull", they will drag their heels. However, if we can sneak some really good skill development into engaging topics, students will be far more likely to engage and learn. Once you have them interested in coming to your class, and you have developed a good rapport with them, your students will be more likely to engage when you ask them to do things like analyze a poem or read Shakespeare.One activity that we will do in the first week is my Ideal School Project (which you can grab for free).  I love doing this project with my students because the topic is one they can easily relate to, and it gets them thinking critically and working on a lot of the skills they'll need for the semester.  You could also get your students to create a class policy for e-device use in your room.  Have them read articles about the pros and cons, discuss these with each other, write personal responses and/or present their ideas to the class. In one short project, they've worked on all strands of the curriculum - and they've likely maintained interest. Similarly, during the first few days of reader's workshop, we will focus only on finding books of interest. I will wait until they are engaged in their books before we do any analysis.

3. Think about what you want your environment to be like and then use activities that will demonstrate that environment.  
As I've already said, I like to find some good fodder for discussion in the first few days because I want to demonstrate what it looks like when they are thinking critically and contributing to a discussion. I also want my students to do a lot of collaborating on the work they do throughout our time together.  To get them to trust each other to do that well, I start with a low-risk, fun activity that get them talking and working with each other. The first day, I will be using my Back to School Learning Stations; one of the stations asks them to work together to make suggestions for activities we will do as a class. Another has them developing a class code of conduct. As they work on these things, I will be circulating to not only get to know them better, but also to keep them focused and working in a way that I want. I'm A-OK with off topic chat, for example, but only if the task is complete.  We will also spend some time in the first few days talking about formative assessment and the importance of failure -- two things that I believe are very important for learning and that I put a lot of emphasis on in my classroom.

So, that's what I will be doing during that first week of September (and in February for second semester). My focus will be entirely on building a rapport with my students and an environment where they are interested in learning. It won't, by any means, be a utopia where every student rushes to the door, eager to get at it. However, by investing the time at the beginning of the year, I know I will have more of them still with me at the end. 

Have an amazing year with your students! And, if you'd like more ideas and strategies for creating a climate for learning in your classroom, I have a new digital course that will offer you just that. Doors open for the course once again in early August, so sign up here to get notified - and to get early-bird pricing!

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