August 18, 2022
What do you do in your first class of the year? What do students do for their first homework assignment? (How) do these early experiences reflect your values as a teacher?
Some teachers have beloved rituals they use to set the tone for their class on opening day and others have an annual panic attack that ends in logistical karate: “let’s review the syllabus, get oriented to the LMS, and brainstorm the class contract in forty-five minutes!” In my experience, opening days of school can be as challenging for teachers as they are for students, so having a plan heading into them can be a big win, especially if that plan lives into your values as a teacher!
For me, it always helped to take a step back and think about how I wanted students to feel after the first week of being in my classroom—not just what I had to get them to do to “start” my course. Whether my students were six or sixteen years old, my goals were the same: I knew I wanted students to feel seen and known as human beings and learners. I also wanted students to feel my humanity—I’m not just a grade-spitting robot!—and begin to develop trusting relationships with each other and me. I hypothesized that the former (making students feel seen as individuals) was a prerequisite for the latter (developing class community), so I prioritized that on Day One. Thanks to some off-the-cuff advice from a favorite Department Chair, I found my way to a ritual that was a little old-school, not especially efficient, and 100% effective.
I asked each student to write me a letter, a real, dig-deeper-than-an-ice-breaker-and-surprise-yourself-with-your-own-insights, letter. I anticipated that to Gen-Z students the concept might be mindboggling, so I bookended the ask with a model (I wrote the class a letter of my own) and a promise (I would write a letter in return to each student). Year after year, the kids loved it.
The upsides? By giving them a scaffold to reflect on, I got an unearned insight into every child’s mind and heart, fast. By reading and responding to each letter individually, I established a direct line of communication—and some inside jokes—with each student… and showed them I took them seriously. This exchange also created an artifact of our shared aspirations that we could refer back to, together, throughout the year.…