Talking about the First Day of School

I keep changing my mind. Students begin next Monday, and I cannot decide what we should do first.

In years past, I copied the syllabus and various other “need-to-knows,” and students sat with blank stares and asked a few meager questions as we read through them together.

“Let them know on day one how difficult AP English is,” a colleague advised me several years ago. “That’s what I do. I let them know what they are in for.”

Before I knew better, I thought that was a good idea. Be firm. Be serious. Let them know that an advanced English class would take a lot out of them. Leave ’em shaking in their Converse.

How dumb. Imagine attending a professional development session where the instructor put on this show. We’d laugh — or leave — wouldn’t we? (I would. My friends already know how difficult a time I have sitting still.)

Shouldn’t our first day of school be inviting?

Think about elementary school, how kind the teachers were, how much they wanted us to feel welcome and special, beginning on Day One. I remember Mrs. McBee (1st grade), Mrs. Nelson (2nd), Mrs. Smallwood (3rd), Miss Dallas (4th), Mrs. Holland (5th) — every one of them smiled and laughed and made me feel important on the first day of school. They set a precedent for every day to come.

I want to be that kind of warm.

One year I thought I had less chill. I prepared my room by piling high-interest books on each table, and after a brief introduction, I told students my plan to help them love reading. I explained my expectations for their reading lives. They chose a book and read for two minutes, chose another and read, chose another and read. They did this reading carousel for several rounds, and I asked them to choose their first independent reading book. They did. I thought Day One a success because 7/8 of students left with a book that day.

They also thought I was crazy. Distant. Cold. Unapproachable. They told me this much later.

I realized my mistake. If you look at that paragraph above, you’ll see it:  all those “I’s” and “they’s”. Everything my students did on the first day of school had to do with what I wanted for them. I did not invite them to think, to explore, to discover, to talk to me about how they learned, or how they need to be taught.

Shana refers to “the language of control prevalent in teaching narratives” in her post Just Let Them Write: Boys and Autonomy.

I eat the language of control for breakfast, and rely on it for power all the way to dinner time. How dumb.

If I want my students to feel welcome, invited, inspired, to want to engage in the complex learning in our classroom, I must create the atmosphere and culture that welcomes, invites, inspires, and engages the moment they walk in the door. And I think it starts with conversation.

The first day of school — I think we are just going to talk. conversation bubbles various

We’ll probably read a poem, or two, and talk.

In the introduction to Dawn Potter’s new book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, she reminds us of the value of talk:

“[Conversation] combines so many different kinds of reactions — wonder, worry, curiosity, opinion, delight, memory — and all work to expand confidence, emotional connection, intellectual growth, and civil engagement.”

Isn’t that the kind of community we want for our students this year — one that builds and sustains confidence, emotional connection, intellectual growth, and civil engagement?

I do.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015


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10 thoughts on “Talking about the First Day of School

  1. […] wrote this post Talking about the First Day of School in 2015. Funny because I’m in the same canoe this year, wondering about how I will welcome […]


  2. Randall Williams (@Mr_Randy1114) August 8, 2017 at 6:00 pm Reply

    I absolutely love this idea! What poems did you go with on day 1?


    • Amy Rasmussen August 8, 2017 at 6:28 pm Reply

      “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska is a great poem to write beside. “Creed” by Meg Kearney is another. Both are good for students to imitate, which crafts a fast track for me to get to know them.


  3. Randy Williams August 8, 2017 at 5:44 pm Reply

    I absolutely love this idea! What poems did you end up going with on day 1?


  4. […] Amy’s post on inviting students to just talk helped me simplify the structure of my first week of lessons.  I strove to make our first days together as inviting as possible–as laid back, relaxed, and caring as I could.  Students were drawn to our classroom library with an invitation to check out whatever book they’d like.  They were intrigued by an invitation to write daily–nulla dia sine linea, in the words of the inimitable Donald Murray–as we set up our writer’s notebooks.  I invited students to just read for pleasure, to just listen to a poem to enjoy it, and to just write for fun. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nuzzyanne August 17, 2015 at 2:03 pm Reply

    Thinking of you today, Amy! How did it go!?!


  6. […] Rasmussen reminds us that the most important thing we can do on the first day of school is talk with (not to!) our […]


  7. cmadeleine0816 August 15, 2015 at 10:24 am Reply

    I love it. My biggest question is – what do you do if they won’t or don’t talk? Do you just let everyone stare at each other. Because of my personality, I’m fine with this at any point during the school year, but I feel like it would zap energy on the very first day. Maybe I just need to try it and see what happens.


    • Amy August 15, 2015 at 1:59 pm Reply

      I let kids sit where they want on day one. Most usually know at least one other person. Helps with getting kids to talk. I also like to get them to talk about topics that provoke. We have many in the news right now. I’m still thinking….

      Liked by 1 person

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