education, teaching

The first day of the semester

I recently added a Teaching page to my website, and in the coming months I’ll be populating it with links to blog posts related to teaching. I figured, where better to start than the first day of class? Here is how I handle it:

The First Day of Class

Opening class

The first day of class can be boring, so I try to open in an unexpected way to get them paying attention. I begin by asking, “What do you think we’re going to do today?”  Usually someone says, “Go over the syllabus?” I say, “Yep!” and then write “Syllabus” on the board. Then I ask, “What else?” Usually someone else says, “Introductions?” I say something about how great they’re doing already, then write “Introductions” on the board.

I tell them that every day, I’ll write an agenda on the board like this one that lists what we’re going to do in class. I say that I like to consider their input on things when I can, and ask “Which of these do you want to do first–syllabus or introductions?” Usually they pick introductions (but not always!). If the room allows it, I then ask them to move their desks into a big circle, where we stay for the remainder of the class.

What’s on the board will look more or less like this:

  1. Introductions
  2. Syllabus

Introductions

I write a numbered list on the board from 1-5. Next to number one, I write “preferred name + pronouns.” Next to number two, I write “year + major.” I turn back to the class and say, what else do you want to know about each other?

Students will often name things they’ve probably had to share in other courses, saying “where they’re from?,” “why they took this class?,” or “what their hobbies are?” (Yes, most of what students say at this early point sounds like questions–I don’t think they’re used to having a say in the class from the first moment.)

I write what they say on the board. Usually, by number five, we’ve gotten a less common one in there, often a “favorite” of some type. I know doing introductions this way takes more time, but students tend to seem more engaged when I do it like this, and there’s usually a playful, comfortable air in the room by this point.

What’s on the board will look something like this:

  1. preferred name + pronouns
  2. year + major
  3. where you’re from
  4. hobbies
  5. favorite food

I clarify what I mean by preferred name: “I’ve noticed that every semester, a few weeks in, after students get to know me and feel more comfortable, a few in every class will mention that they actually go by a name that’s different than what’s in Canvas. Whether it’s a nickname or a middle name or they plan on legally changing their name, they do not want to be called what’s listed, but they didn’t feel comfortable saying it on the first day. Well, I want you to share the name you prefer on the first day! We are going to have group discussions and interactive class exercises regularly. I want to learn all of your names, and I want all of you to learn each other’s names, and it’s important that we learn the names you actually like and use.”

Off to the side of the list on the board, I write “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” “they/them/theirs.” I say something along the lines of, “Most people use one of these three sets of pronouns, but some people use other pronouns I haven’t listed. We might be tempted to think that we can tell if someone uses ‘he’ or ‘she’ just by looking at them, but if our guess is wrong, they might find it hurtful or offensive. When we do introductions, I’d like you to share which pronouns you want us to use for you in class, if you feel comfortable doing so. This will allow us to treat each other respectfully, and our class is welcoming to everyone.”

(I’ve had students share their pronouns three semesters in a row now, and I’ve tweaked the way I introduce it a little bit every time. Recently, I came across this site about pronouns, which could be useful if you’re deciding if/why/how to broach the subject in your course.)

In my professional communication courses, I usually add a little more about pronouns in the workplace. I reiterate that the purpose of the course is to prepare them to communicate effectively in a professional setting, and that they don’t want to get off on the wrong foot by accidentally offending someone after starting a new job by incorrectly assuming their pronouns.

After explaining what I mean by preferred name and pronouns, I sit down and say, “I’ll go first. I’m Jay Summer, and I like for my students to call me Jay. If that feels too casual for you, call me Ms. Summer. I use she/her pronouns. This is my fifth year teaching at USF. I am a Visiting Instructor. Before that, I was a graduate student here. I hold a BS in psychology, and masters degrees in urban planning and creative writing. I’m from Chicagoland. My hobbies are reading and writing. I like food too much to choose a favorite, but I especially love Thai and Indian food.”

Then, we go around the circle, with each person introducing themselves. I try to give introductions a conversational feel by occasionally interrupting to ask questions (“You’re from Brazil? What made you decide to come here? What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between home and the US?”) and to draw connections among students (“Well, three people have named tacos as their favorite food, so maybe you should start a study group where you go out to eat together”). I know it’s sort of hokey, but I think it helps make the overall atmosphere more comfortable instead of stilted. After a few introductions with me asking questions, other students will usually begin chiming in here and there as they recognize commonalities (“I’m from Orlando, too–what high school did you go to?”), and I will smile with glee because organic conversations are happening on the first day.

Syllabus: Policies

I pass out hard copies of the syllabus and note that the syllabus is also in Canvas. I begin by saying, “I know going over a syllabus can be boring, but we have to do it. Hopefully this is the most boring our class will be all semester. We’ll skim most of the syllabus instead of reading it word-for-word, but I encourage you to read all of it on your own.”

I go through the syllabus section by section, spending only a few seconds on some sections, and minutes on others. I try to speak conversationally rather than just read in a dry manner. I emphasize policies and school resources, and only briefly overview course content. The students will encounter the course content week after week, but the policies are what might slip by them, and what they’re most likely to argue about later.

There are two policies that I think are extremely important to emphasize on the first day and repeat in subsequent classes: the attendance/tardiness policy and the late work policy. I’ve changed these policies over time, and don’t use the same policies for each course I teach, but I’m sure to repeat whatever the policy is, multiple times, on day one. I always do so with a smile and a friendly tone, rather than one that sounds strict.

For example, I might say, “10% is deducted each day work is late,” then pause for an unusually long time, until all the students are looking at me, wondering why I’m not talking anymore. Then I’ll repeat, “10% is deducted each day work is late.” I might ask questions, too, such as, “So, what happens if you don’t realize an assignment is due, then you turn it in a week late?,” or “If an assignment is due Monday by midnight, what will happen if you turn it in at 1 AM?”

Sometimes I repeat a policy so many times that the students are laughing, and I say something like, “Can you tell students have tried to argue with me about this policy in the past? What do you think will happen if you try to argue about it?” That seems to drive the point home.

I am transparent about my policies, and tell students why I have chosen the policies I have chosen. If attendance counts for 10% of the grade, for example, I might say something like, “This might feel like a drag to you, but it actually helps you quite a bit. You can get 10% just by showing up, which could bump you up from a B to an A without much effort. I tried teaching this class with no attendance policy one semester, and students’ grades dropped. When attendance doesn’t count, students miss more classes, and the less you attend class, the less well you understand the material, and the more likely you are to forget due dates. That’s why I reinstituted an attendance policy. It’s not to irritate you; it’s to help prepare you for the working world where you have to show up every day, on-time, and to help you earn a higher grade.”

I also discuss how I want students to message me, which is with a greeting and closing, always, and correct capitalization and punctuation, always. I make sure they understand that I don’t always check messages on nights and weekends, and that it might take me a day or two to reply when I’m very busy, which means last minute questions the day an assignment is due should be asked in person. (Almost all of my due dates are class dates.)

I say that I don’t have a phone/device policy, because they are adults and need to learn to manage their smartphone use. But, I remind them that I can see them when they pull out their phones and I find it disrespectful, and depending on my mood, I might ask what they’re using a device for if they have one out for more than a few seconds at a time that device usage is unnecessary.

Sometimes I ask, “How have your other professors handled smartphones in the classroom?,” partially because I’m curious, and partially because I want the students to talk and feel engaged, because by this point I have just said a lot and they’re probably getting tired.

When I’m done going over the policies, I usually ask if there are any questions, if everything makes sense, and if everything sounds fair.

Syllabus: Student Resources

Surprisingly, talking about the university’s resources has become one of my favorite parts of the first day. I begin by saying, “You were all intelligent and hardworking enough to be accepted to this university, which means you are all intelligent and hardworking enough to succeed at this university.”

That usually gets their attention.

I continue, saying, “In my years of teaching, I’ve noticed that when students do not get As in my courses, it almost always has nothing to do with their ability to understand the course material. It has to do with something else: physical illness, depression or anxiety, family problems, death or grieving, romantic or relationship issues, addiction or drinking problems, etc. Sometimes students are tempted to think their grades reflect their intelligence, when often grades actually reflect other things–how much you sleep each night, how well you’re getting along with your family, how solid your financial situation is, etc.”

I tell the students about free resources available on campus to help them deal with issues they might face. I then go over the Counseling Center, Students with Disabilities Services, the Center for Victim Advocacy & Violence Prevention, Title IX, the Writing Studio, the Office for Multicultural Affairs, and the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement. I also briefly mention Student Health Services, the gym, and student groups. For each resource, I ask if there’s anyone particularly knowledgeable about the resource–sometimes I find there are students who feel comfortable explaining the resource to the class.

Of all of those resources, I spend the most time on the Counseling Center and Students with Disability Services. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly comfortable with the students, I openly tell them that when I was a graduate student I went to the Counseling Center regularly to help manage anxiety, and there is no shame in it. I often make a joke about how, after they graduate, they might seek therapy one day and realize what it costs and kick themselves for not taking advantage of it when it was free. Ever since I began saying this, I’ve had at least one or two students every semester come to me at some point and thank me, saying that they now go to the Counseling Center because of my comments and they find it helpful.

When explaining Students with Disability Services, I emphasize that students may get accommodations for any mental or physical health issue that might affect their coursework or their ability to attend class, even if they don’t consider themselves “disabled.” I usually give two examples. I say, “If you’re thinking ‘I don’t have a disability,’ but you have a severe food allergy that could make you miss a week of class if you accidentally ingest the wrong thing, then it might be worth it to have an accommodation, just in case. If you sometimes have panic attacks during times of stress that could make you miss class, having an accommodation in place might result in your professor excusing your absences rather than not.” I emphasize that most professors, including myself, feel more comfortable being lenient with students when they have an official accommodation from SDS for their illness.

(I’ve gone back and forth about how to discuss SDS over time, and this is what I’ve settled on for now. I don’t know if it’s the best way. I do think it might encourage students who don’t need a true “accommodation,” such as extended test times or assistive technology in the classroom, to go to SDS for paperwork. That said, I do genuinely believe that most professors are more lenient about things like attendance and due dates when students have official accommodation paperwork, even though the paperwork can’t dictate anything related to attendance or due dates. I know I feel more comfortable being flexible when SDS is involved, and my students have anecdotally shared that other professors do as well. I could probably write a whole post on this alone, and maybe, eventually, I will.)

Finally, I ask if there any questions about our school’s resources. I tell them that I leave time for questions every class, and that I do not stay after class to answer one-on-one questions. They can ask questions during the designated class time, or, if they have a question that truly needs to remain confidential, they can come to my office hours or send me a message to ask their question. Then I wish them a good first week of school.

Thoughts? What do you on your first day of school?

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