The Last “First Day of School”

Some people would say I am nuts. First off, I was too caught up in the mechanics of the first day of school of the second semester—taking the roll, issuing books, assigning seats, previewing the semester, and explaining the rules (Two: “Do your Best” and “Respect Other People”) and what they mean and why they are important—to think about how this was the last “first day of school” I’ll ever experience. (Next year, I’ll be a full-time Instructional Coach.) Then, for the students who had been in my class first semester, I was busy going over the final exam and introducing the work of the week: revising an essay they had turned in at the end of last quarter. I hardly had time to catch my breath between the classes.

I’m on a new schedule, too, so my body was adjusting not only to bells again after the long, languid hours of Christmas vacation, where what I was doing could flow from one hour into the next, but to standing on my feet from 7:30 until 11:08 without a break. I had an hour and a half then to respond to email, eat my lunch, check the front office for incoming mail, and get ready for the last push, my final class from 12:40 to 1:35. And then I was done. Done! I’ve never had a last hour “prep” in my entire teaching career (37 and ½ years). I think I’m going to like this…but time will tell if I will be able to stand the standing.

So here’s the “nuts” part. I spent the last hour of the day writing purpose sentences on the whiteboard. For each class, in kid-friendly language, a statement of what we are learning tomorrow. Kids ought to know what the focus each day is upon and what’s so important about it. So say the current education gurus and the administrators in my District Office.

I absolutely agree. (Unless, of course, you’re doing an activity where stating the point ahead of time would kill the learning activity—but that’s a subject for another day.)

In these 37 ½ years, I’ve written lesson plans that I’ve submitted in advance to the principal and lesson plans that I’ve kept for myself. I’ve kept a daily assignment list on the board so kids could see what was coming up. I’ve issued calendars (Thanks, Publisher) for entire semesters on the first day (I did that today, in fact, in two out of three of my classes). Sometimes—especially in later years—I’ve kept personal curriculum maps on my desk, flow charts of what I’d done and what I need to do, and sometimes I’ve just run by the seat of my pants. I mean, I have been doing this for so long that I’ve memorized my own speeches and know by instinct what comes next and what’s after that and what the ultimate destination is. I’ve even managed to use this last (non-) method and keep more or less on schedule. I don’t think my students have suffered; I think that at any given moment they know what we are learning and why we are learning it. I often start class by saying “My goal for today—or for this week—is…” I think they know.

But of course, I don’t know.

I assume it.

But today I wrote purpose statements on the whiteboard during that last period of the day when I was, for the first time ever, “done” at 1:35. I’m experimenting. In response to the mandate for a better evaluation system for teachers, our district is initiating walk-through observations by administrators. My question was this: How will the principal know what I am trying to accomplish? The answer: It should be written on the board, plainly, in kid-friendly language, not just for the administrator, but for the students—so they will know for sure what the learning target (new jargon word in education) is for the day.

So I did it.

Doing so forced me not just to focus my thoughts, but to articulate them.

On the second day of school, I’m giving the students in my senior composition class the multiple choice part of the final exam. Purpose: to assess prior knowledge for each student. Why? So I know what I need to emphasize in my instruction and so that, at the end of the semester, they can see their growth for themselves—at least in this area. It’s a writing class, so the skill set they’ll acquire extends far beyond multiple choice answers to questions about grammar, usage, and mechanics. The purpose sentence for the next day was easy, though: “To determine what you already know and what you need to learn,” I wrote (kid-friendly language).

For the next class, there are really four learning targets: 1) Kids will collaboratively (a whole lot of skills to be taught there!), 2) write a clear, concise, coherent, and correct summary (Deconstruct that if you will!) of three pages in the textbook. (That’s the content part.) 3) They’ll access two separate but complementary sets of instructions on the internet (What? Read and follow directions? What am I thinking?) and 4) submit their responses to me using the Dropbox on our district’s electronic system (new process for some). I put the whole thing on the board. I mean, I want them to understand that there can be multiple goals for any one assignment or activity.

And the third class? This is my freshman Honors class, the students who will be writing essays for inclusion in a book they’ll publish by May. They wrote comparison/contrast essays at the end of last semester. Now I want them to improve upon those essays. Some had weak introductions; others fell down in the conclusion. Some need to reorder their supports, some omitted a thesis or wrote a weak one, some need more support for their supports, some need less plot summary and more selective detail. We’ll have a lesson on introductions first, using as models some of their own paragraphs (I’ve already picked out the ones that I’ll ask the kids to project onto the ENO Board for others to see.) Then we’ll work on conclusions. That’s probably the day after next. Everyone can benefit from seeing exemplary models, but I’ll devote half the period to working with students individually to improve what’s specific to their particular papers.

I wasn’t sure what to write for this class. There’s so much going on. In the end I wrote “Revise comparison/contrast essays to include a strong introduction (and I listed the components of that) and work in class on individual areas for improvement.”

My purpose statements took up half my board space! (I print big.)

So who experiments with teaching strategies on the last first day of school? Me. Because I believe that teaching well is a work in progress. No one is so good she can’t be better. No one does everything right and everything perfectly 100% of the time. We all have room to grow. And if we didn’t, whew! It would be an easy job and our kids would be achieving at levels unparalleled in the world. And we know that neither of those things is true.

So on with the experiment. Stay tuned. I’ll let you know if A) I can keep it up, B) the principal finds it helpful, C) the kids benefit from the explicit statement of the goal, D) it continues to be a challenge to me to focus my thoughts and articulate them, E) all of the above.

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