The Syllabus Can Wait! A Day One Strategy for Fostering Student Ownership

Despite the best efforts of teachers nation-wide to freeze their calendars and squeeze in as much family and pool time as they can, the school year is fast approaching.  As we begin to transition back into educator mode the plan for the first day of school begins to crystallize in our minds.  For the past several years I have utilized this activity to get my students communicating with each other, receiving invaluable guidance for myself, modelling a skill we utilize repeatedly, and setting the tone for our entire course..

After a standard intro and icebreaker I write the following prompt on the board:

“Describe an effective teacher.”

Since I have taught freshmen four of my six years in the classroom, I am keenly aware of the importance of explaining EVERYTHING.  As much fun as it is to hear a student say “no homework” as if they are the first to come up with the joke, I immediately ask students what the mission of a teacher is.  

As they come to their consensus I break up the class into groups of three.  I task each group to collaborate and develop four criteria to judge whether a teacher is effective or not, keeping in mind the mission of a teacher.  After 3-5 minutes of conversation, each group shares out their list of four.  As they share I write down every response on the board.  Normally we end up with a list of between 10-15 characteristics, since I do not write down repeat suggestions.

My actual list from the first class I tried this activity with!

Next comes voting.  Each group is given 3 minutes to choose their top five characteristics from those listed.  I keep tally marks on the board as each group shares their choices.  After the first round of voting I eliminate those characteristics that received one or fewer votes.  If there is a clear consensus for any specific criteria, I circle it and cement it as the class’s choice.  We continue having rounds of voting until a final list of five is selected.  Each class ends up with a unique set of criteria, and I type up and display each class’s list for the entire year.

I follow the “effective teacher” criteria development with a second prompt.  “Describe a successful student.”  We go through the exact same process, eventually culminating in a completely student generated understanding of what it takes to be successful in the class.  I also display these lists for the remainder of the year, providing me with something to refer to when a student comes up to me in February asking why they have a 62% in class.

As the year progresses we use this criteria development process multiple times.  Who makes the Enlightenment Hall of Fame?  What makes an idea transformative?  How will we decide who makes the future textbook chapter The Digital Age?  Again and again we come back to this method to develop a common, student-generated set of criteria to judge historical merit.

This first day activity also provides me with a capstone for the year.  When I hand out teacher evaluations to my students as the year draws to a close, my rubric only has five categories: the exact five characteristics of an effective teacher we developed together on day one.  As a young teacher I used to just go over rules, procedures, and the syllabus on the first day of school.  I’ve found this to be much more energizing, inspiring, useful and thought-provoking.  

Please share in the comments any opening day of school activities you use!  

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