First Week Frenzy

Preparing for that first week of school is no small task.  There are so many things to consider!
As teachers, we want all students to feel safe, welcome and valued.  We want to set the tone for how our classes will operate, and work to build a community of learners that collaborate, create, and problem solve.  We want to model respect for self, the space, and for others and do all of this while building relationships, promoting curiosity and having a little fun.  A tall order indeed!  

In spite of being in the business for more than two decades, this start-up process remains incredibly hectic.  Classroom teachers scramble to secure the appropriate number of tables and chairs that were moved out during summer cleaning.  Cords to technology, remotes, and whiteboard erasers need to be relocated.  Devices, textbooks, manipulatives and whiteboard markers must be counted and distributed. Rules, procedures, and policies are revisited and clarified so that staff share a common vision . Staff changes mean you may have different courses to teach, different partners to collaborate with, and different administrators in your corner.  Beyond the school walls are the school communities to consider.  Connecting with families and sharing your hopes, expectations, and enthusiasm for the year ahead is yet another essential item on the things-to-do list.

In order to navigate this first week frenzy with my sanity intact, I have always attempted to checklist my way to readiness.  Once my physical space is organized, technology tested, student files perused, Letter to Families updated and course summaries reviewed…Whew!  I revise and ready my list of first week activities.  While I often test out something new every year, there are a few tried and true lessons that always make the cut.  Here are a few of those favorites and why I love them so much.

My super fun name tents!

Welcoming Students

When students arrive that first day they may be nervous.  Behind that too-cool-for-school exterior, is often someone uneasy about being in the wrong spot, not being with their friends, and not having a seat.  My solution:  I try to greet students at the door, list in hand for confirmations.  I have another large class list on my door and assign seats inside with name tents.  Everyone has a designated spot and can confirm quickly that they are in the right place.  

Now let me talk about the name tents!  I use to create math-y versions of student names.  Just type in a name and download the image.  This is time consuming if you create them for multiple classes but the response I get from students makes it so worthwhile! On the inside of the name tent I have tried different things.  I think my favorite is the student comment/teacher feedback idea from Sara VanDerWerf found here.  It can really help you connect with individual students daily that first week.  Here is my template.  I usually print these on cardstock in bright but readable colors.  Easy for me to get to know student names and easy for students to find their seat.  While the prompts on the inside often change, name tents are a must for me every single year.

When students get to their seat they often have a welcome letter to bring home to their families, a student information sheet (contact information, strengths and challenges, interests and hobbies, etc), a few copies of their schedule (one for their binder, one for their locker, and small one for inside their phone) and a bunch of other forms from the office.  Having something on the desk to look at seems helpful for those students that may not have a friend in the class.  They can busy themselves with shuffling through the contents while waiting for their teacher to begin.  Students often tell me later that they could tell right away that I was organized – a good message to send right away too!  I try to make my room a colorful but calm space.  I post schedules, a calendar, and my learning targets. I write the agenda for the day including times on the whiteboard so students can see when they get their lockers, when they may have specialists, and exactly how long they can expect to stay with me and precisely what we will do. (In junior high we often have a different schedule those first few days to allow for extra time with homerooms). I also list daily what supplies students need for my class.  That way I can start one routine right away by saying, “I see some students have noticed my Be Ready List and have only what they need on their desk.  What a great way to get started!  If you haven’t noticed yet, please look over here and take the next 2 minutes to get out just what you need.  I have extra supplies here in case you need ‘em.”  This gives me the time I need to do attendance.  I usually circulate through the class and check student names off my class list on my clipboard instead of reading off names in front of the class.  That way I can confirm preferred names, double check pronunciation and pronouns and avoid making mistakes that may embarrass or offend. I am hopeful that these few little measures help students feel considered, safe, and welcome.  Next we start the get to know you process…

Getting to Know Each Other

Introductions and Setting Norms
I often begin with a slide deck to introduce myself, and highlight just a few items that are really important.  I talk about what I need from them in order to do my best work as their teacher:  basically I outline my expectations.  Then I ask them a few prompts so I can find out what they need from me and from each other.  I use post-it notes – about 3-4 for each student.  I ask, “What is something Mrs Sandford can do to help you be successful?”  Another prompt is often, “Everyday our class should be…?”  I ask, “What can your classmates do to help you be successful?” and “What is something you wish your teacher knew about you?”  These prompts consistently help me learn what students value, what they believe worked (or didn’t work) in the past and what they are hoping for (or dreading) in terms of class climate.  I have also asked questions like how they like to celebrate their achievements, and their favorite class appropriate treat, but these two could be better as prompts inside the name tents or as part of my student information sheet.  The post-its I collect on a poster board giving students a chance to get up and move around a little.  Later, I use the main themes to create a list, drop them in a slide deck and open with them on day two.  I ask students if there is anything we should clarify, add, or subtract.  We edit and pull it together to make our class expectations.  Once finalized, I write ones we have endorsed on my thought bubble post-its to create a poster to display in class.  Creating our expectations as a group really helps to bring us together as a class.  

Figure Me Out
In my introduction slide deck I have a slide or slides that asks students to Figure Me Out.  This requires that students do some math but offers choices in that they could start at any section they like and may not have time to get to all of them…that’s ok!  Students learn a little more about me and we can review a few math basics along the way.  I learn a few things too by noticing who volunteers to answer and who doesn’t.  I notice whether or not students are used to just giving an answer or are accustomed to also explaining their reasoning.  Then I ask students to create a similar page about themselves.  This could be a slide in a class slide deck, but I usually stick with paper on day one.  Chromebooks are often not ready for student use, and logins and passwords may or may not be remembered.  In this case, paper has been easier.  I may challenge students to use multiple operations, fractions and decimals, and showcase some math terms as they share some facts about themselves.  Facts range from lucky numbers to number of broken bones, provinces visited and number of pets.  It is amazing how creative students can be when given lots of choices.  Students pass these in and I use them for warm-ups (or cool-downs) for the next week or two.  I ask students the day before if they can host the warm-up.  We review the two or three prompts that they like the best and make sure the answers are what they expect them to be.  On the day they present I project their prompts using a document camera or by taking a picture of their work and dropping it into a class slide deck.  It becomes a low stress, fun, and personalized activity that gets students presenting and up in front of the class early in the year.  These Figure Me Out prompts come in handy when you have an extra 10 minutes here and there to fill as many students don’t mind presenting at a moment’s notice, especially when they have confirmed their answers in advance.

One of my Figure Me Out prompts

Venn diagrams
This is a fun activity to get students up and talking at the whiteboards.  I randomly create groups of three set up at a whiteboard with a marker per group.  There they create a Venn diagram with a student representing each of three circles.  They try to find entries for each section of the diagram.  Maybe everyone loves pizza but only two students have pets, etc. Later we circulate to see the work from each group and hopefully learn a few new things about each other:  what we share and what makes us unique.  This activity gets students up, moving, and talking.  It serves as a way to introduce a group work method that will happen frequently in my class but is not stressful in terms of content.  I usually take pictures of each diagram so I can save it and take a closer look later.

Modeling Group Work

I can’t say enough about this amazing activity by Sara VavDerWerf.  Not intimidating and highly effective.  This link provides the how to and the print-out required to complete the task.  Take the time to read it all.  I’ve seen this done well and not so well and reading the post makes all the difference.
Read more here:

Trust me…you will love it!

Highlighting Persistence

Dividing into Squares
I do this activity during my first grade 8 math class every year.  It requires persistence, multiple attempts, lots of erasing, etc.  It highlights for students that mistakes are expected and can be a welcome path to satisfaction.  I engage students with this activity after gifting them a fun eraser and talking about the importance of making (and being open to making) mistakes.  Their new eraser in hand, we begin.  Check out my explanation video and find the handout I use here.

Tangram Challenges
I love using tangrams.  Students have a chance to engage with an area of math that does not require formal calculations or number manipulations. Puzzles often showcase the math skills and reasoning of a different set of students.  I use images and solutions from to create a slide deck.  Advancing then backspacing quickly can flash the answer on the screen for a hint when or if you feel the persistence is wearing thin.  Tangram puzzles are engaging and appealing.  After testing this activity with hundreds of students I rarely have anyone reluctant to participate.  I love that students have math to hold in their hands.  This activity requires persistence and getting to a solution is intensely satisfying. When I travel with one bag to school, my personal class set of tangrams is always included.  It is my go-to math activity when I am covering a class unexpectedly and a welcome change during those predictably hectic times during the school year (first week, week of Halloween, week before Christmas, etc).  Here is one of my many slide decks that I use to engage students in solving tangram puzzles.

Solved it…yes!

Promoting Organization

As mentioned, I make sure to post a schedule, agenda, learning targets, and materials needed each day.  At the start of the year, I also try to assist students in organizing their binders.  Organization comes naturally to some students but must be taught and retaught to others.  I usually give students some options, knowing that there isn’t one best way to do things, but stress that finding a way that works for them can really make a difference in their success.  One thing that students really seem to like is the coloring sheets I offer as subject dividers.  Found here, I print them on white cardstock and hand them out as part of the set-up process.  We may take some time to color them…we may do a little here and there during the week as time allows.  I love coloring…and it is great for reducing first week jitters.  

Wouldn’t this make a great divider or cover page?

Accepting Feedback

The last thing I will highlight today (or I will never get this post posted!) is the appreciation I get for asking, accepting, and acting on student feedback.  Aside from the back-and-forth comment/response given by the name tents mentioned earlier, I administer quick exit tickets (electronic using google forms or just a scrap of paper) that ask students simple things: What went well today?  What should I or we do differently tomorrow?  What was the most important takeaway message from today?  Is there something you are unsure about?  Is there something else you think I should know?  I share a few common themes the next day and discuss what I might alter or try in response.  Once students see that their opinions are seriously considered, the responses become more detailed, relevant and helpful.  This goes a long way in students believing that we are in this together and that their voices matter.

I know this post is a little scattered and I am sure there is a lot I am forgetting.  Like every educator at this time of year, my mind is busy with ideas, checklists, and other concerns.  I’ll try to look back on this entry and keep revising as I learn and remember ways to start the year off right.  As for my first day today…it was amazing!  I had the chance to reconnect with some of my former students, now in Grades 11 and 12 at Millwood High.  I have welled up with pride and excitement so many times today seeing incredible young people enthusiastically starting off a new school year.  Students were happy to see me…yay!  They shared their hopes and fears, dreams and plans. We chatted…we laughed.  My heart is full.  My students have positive memories of our time together back in Grade 8 – I can’t ask for much more than that. 

My advice for educators?  Take deep breaths.  Drink lots of water – but not too much!  Remember you can’t really go to the bathroom whenever you want.  Don’t be too concerned with covering content just yet.  Select a few meaningful activities. Find ones that build relationships and showcase how you operate. Choose those that highlight what you value and help reveal what matters to your new communities.  Hopefully there is something here that might take the frenzy out of your first week.  Have a wonderful start to your year everyone!

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