Pedagogy, teaching

Avoiding a Hobbesian First Day of School

As I’ve been following my Twitter stream in this last week before school stars back up, I’ve noticed a lot of posts about what to do on the first day of school. Many of these comments talk about ways to engage or connect with students in unconventional ways on the first day; other posts talk about ways to harness social media in an innovative manner on the first day.

Reading through a few of these has encouraged me to reflect on my own first day of school experiences the past six years. In each of these years, the first day of school has been a half-day, meaning that each class meets for roughly 25 minutes instead of the regular 45 that holds true for most days throughout the school year. As a result, I’ve treated the day in a pretty business-like manner, viewing it as constrained in such a way that I’m really only able to charge through my syllabus, explain my expectations and policies to students, and briefly discuss what I’d like them to do for the next day in class.

However, I should note that I also use the day for a very specific vocabulary-building purpose: teaching the students the words “sycophant” and/or “obsequious”. Before I begin reviewing the syllabus I go around the room and have the students introduce themselves, talk about their summers, and briefly explain what they’re looking forward to in the next school year. Inevitably, in each class period on that first day I engage in a conversation that goes more or less like this:

Me: Student X, go ahead and introduce yourself.

Student X: Hi, I’m Student X, and I’ve been here [the school] since 3rd grade. This summer I went to camp, where I was a counselor, and, uh, what else do you want to know?

Me: What are you most looking forward to about this upcoming school year?

Student X: Definitely being in this class, Mr. Kogan. [Chuckles, looks at friends, smiles, generally exudes a sense of self-satisfaction derived from a comment perceived to be particularly clever.]

Me: Hmmm. That’s interesting, thanks for your response. However, your comment does bring to mind a particularly apropos vocabulary word. [Moving toward the board] Is anyone familiar with the word “sycophant“?

Student Y: Yeah, it means to be a brown-noser.

Me: Well, yes, although I imagine there’s more polite ways to put that term. I imagine that you’ve picked up on why I’ve brought this word up at this particular moment, so we won’t dwell on it. And now that we’ve done some unanticipated vocabulary building I suppose we can get back to the introductions and reviewing the syllabus…

So, although this relatively humorous and diversionary interaction occurs each year, the opening day nevertheless remains a fairly didactic and teacher-centric one.

However, I think that this approach doesn’t set the tone that I’d ideally like to establish for the entirety of the school year. Rather than trudging through the syllabus in a Leviathan-esque manner (yes, I guess that first day really does have the potential to be “nasty, brutish, and short”), I thought I’d try something new this year. Instead of me simply going through and essentially reading to syllabus to the students, I thought I’d introduce the key issues of the first week — historiography, reading sources, understanding perspective in authorship — by having the students read the syllabus as a historical document.

The cover of Thomas Hobbes' *Leviathan*. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I’m thinking that a good introductory question would be to ask the students to work in small groups and read the syllabus with particular attention to elements they found that they expected to find in a history syllabus and elements they found that they didn’t expect to find in a history syllabus. Although I imagine that my students don’t invest a whole bunch of their free time reading syllabi for fun (although there are plenty of good resources that will allow you to do so), I hope that this question will be a nice segue into addressing their understandings about what they think history is and what they think it is not.

As I’ve done in previous years, I tend to include a lot of discussion of historical habits of mind and broad intellectual skills that one can develop by studying any particular era and by reading any set of documents. Hopefully, they’ll begin to pick up on this (perhaps unexpected) emphasis on the process of doing history rather than on memorizing the facts of history and particular historical eras. I hope that this discussion can serve as a profitable launching pad into our discussions throughout the week about (the pursuit of) objectivity in writing history, how historians use and regard different types of sources, the purpose of history and why it is worth studying, and the goals and ethics of the discipline. Ideally, by framing the first day through this inquiry-based examination of the syllabus, the students will both read through and get a sense for my expectations and goals for the course, while simultaneously beginning to dabble in what historians do — something that will be a major emphasis throughout the course of the year.

What other start of the school year activities do teachers use to engage students in their discipline and its methods? Do other history teachers (or teachers in other subjects) have tried-and-true approaches that really engage their students on the first day and help set a productive tone for the year?

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2 thoughts on “Avoiding a Hobbesian First Day of School

  1. Western Dave says:

    With my 9th graders, I do a little syllabus going over and then ask, “what would we need to know to write a complete history of the last five minutes in this room?” They start with the syllabus, then we start adding things like the weather, the buzz of the lights, the eighteen internal monologues, how everybody came to be in that room in the first place and so on. Eventually we get to the point of the lesson, “history is the process of leaving things out.”

  2. I start off with a short questionnaire from which I hope to gauge learning styles, interests and past experiences when I start my college classes each semester. From that point I try to emphasize how a historian collects and presents information and set the stage for further action in the class. I like the idea of treating the syllabus like a historical document, though, and direct students to hunt through the source to answer questions. I just posted my blog about what I do, in a general way, during the first class/week.

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