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Surviving the First Day

By Alycia Zimmerman on August 13, 2014
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Does anybody sleep well before the first day of school? Because now, eight years into teaching, the first day still feels like “the very first time.” I have these moments of panic when I’m sure I’ve forgotten everything about teaching. My new, derisively blank plan book mocks me — how will I fill the first six, long, unstructured hours?

Having gone through this many times before, my logical brain knows that once I get over the first-day hump, things will start to fall into place. Routines will carve order out of the chaos, eventually coalescing my new family of young learners. But that’s cold comfort as I’m frantically sucking in calming yoga breaths as the first day approaches.

What is comforting, though, is a plan — a survival plan — practical, expedient, and with back-up contingencies and lots of wiggle room. Some of the activities seem like filler-fluff, but for the very first day I simply need to establish order, put 32 names to faces, and survive, not win super-teacher-of-the-year.

I bet you have some first-day survival tricks up your sleeve too. Please share your tips in the comments section below — this is a hurdle we all have to jump, and we’re in this together!


The First Hour Plan

The first hour of the first day is the toughest for me. Students trickle in, parents linger at the door, and the kids haul in mountains of school supplies. So, I post a welcoming message on the board, with activities that will keep the students busy at their tables while I greet each student, check off incoming supplies, and kid-watch.


Creating beaded name tag necklaces is a low-stress kinesthetic activity for fidgety new students. You can download my template to make your own "Polka Dot Nametags."


We store the name tags throughout the year hanging on sticky hooks on the side of a filing cabinet. Chloe shows off her Wikki Stick glasses creation while wearing her new nametag necklace.

The first-day folders at my students' tables are filled with get-to-know-you activities, puzzles, and word searches. This low-stress busy work rarely makes an appearance during the year so it’s a novelty. The kids chat about their summer adventures while they “work,” and it buys me a much-needed organizational hour. Here’s some first-day folder fodder from Scholastic’s Printables: a Student Questionnaire, a word search, and a maze.

A table set up and ready to go for the first morning. Name tags are laid out on the folders of "morning work." 


Reading Workshop: Celebrating Divergent Thinking with Ish

After the first-hour activities and a class meeting with student introductions, I try to shape the day into somewhat standard “periods” that loosely sketch what our schedule will become. No, I’m not teaching real reading or math lessons on the first day of school! But I plug activities into the framework of a standard school day to give things some structure.

Ish is my favorite first-day read-aloud. It’s short, light-hearted, and sends the perfect message about embracing our individual differences and taking risks. After an open-ended discussion about the book, my students create “Ish” artworks using wax-covered Wikki Sticks. We do a “gallery walk” so students can ponder various interpretations of their creations. I wrap up the lesson by introducing the terms “divergent thinking,” and “convergent thinking,” complete with hand gestures. (We squeeze our hands together to converge, and open our arms wide into a bear hug to diverge.)

For more about my Ish lesson plan, as well as other great back-to-school read-alouds, check out my blog post about "Building the Classroom Community With Picture Books." I also love fellow blogger Genia’s list of "Back-to-School Books that Teach Classroom Lessons."


Library Limits Magazines Only

While independent reading is sacrosanct in my classroom, I don’t begin it on the very first day. I need several days to fully introduce the privilege and responsibilities of independent reading and using our class library — plus I want to build the anticipation. So, my library stays closed until the second week of school.


What about students who are itching to read — and those times when I want everyone to be engaged with a text? During the first week, I set out five magazine boxes filled with categorized magazines. Each day of the first week, I rotate the boxes between my five tables. Students are welcome to read the magazines from their table’s box each day. This works perfectly — it provides engaging quick reads, introduces the kids to a range of magazines, and it’s easier to manage than a whole library of books.


Classroom Democracy at Work: Voting on Table Names

For the “social studies” period listed on my first day schedule, I plan two activities. First, I invite my students to brainstorm and then vote on names for the classroom tables. I sneak in a brief chat about democracy, student autonomy, and voter-privacy. Then I invite each student to suggest a category or main idea for table names. In the past, the suggestions have included dinosaurs, vehicles, time zones, colors, mythological creatures, and marine life. Some students struggle with the idea of coming up with a category rather than a specific table name, but after listening to several examples, most figure it out. (If a student says “jaguars” I will suggest big cats as the category.)

After we’ve narrowed it down to one category through a round or two of votes, we brainstorm another list, this time we look for names that fall within the category. It’s always interesting to observe the students’ creative fluency, as well as the group dynamics during this process. It actually gives me a lot of information about my new students! Last year my class decided on mythological creatures, so after voting, our five tables were named Hydras, Dragons, Unicorns, Merpeople, and Pegasi.


A Patriotic Start: Reviewing the Pledge of Allegiance

For the second half of my first day social studies period, we review the meaning and history of the Pledge of Allegiance. Even if my students have been reciting the Pledge for years, often they don’t know what all of the words and concepts mean. I use this Scholastic Printable about the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance. Then I have the students color this printable Pledge flag to keep as a reference in their folders. I also give the students this page about the Pledge in sign language and we watch this video. Many of them enjoy the kinesthetic challenge of learning to sign the pledge.


Maybe Math?

To be honest, I always massively over-plan the first day of school, but it makes me less nervous to know that I won’t run out of stuff to do. Whatever I don’t get to, I just push over to the next day. So, I write this basic math lesson into my carefully scripted plans, but I rarely get to this on the first day.

As a starter math activity, I prepare lots of Greg Tang’s Kakooma math puzzles printed into packets. The puzzles come in a range of levels, which makes for easy, self-paced differentiation. (Print the free Kakooma puzzles by clicking on “Puzzles and Games” on the left side of this page.)

I model how to solve the Kakooma puzzles on my whiteboard — there is an online demo. Then students have the choice to work independently or with a partner on the puzzles. This is a perfect first-day math activity because it has a low threshold (basic addition), but gets the students’ wheels turning as they try to visualize the solutions. Former Top Teaching blogger Angela Bunyi wrote about Kakooma and math fluency in an earlier blog post.



Teaching Classroom Routines

Of course, the first day isn’t just about icebreakers and read-alouds. There are a lot of routines and procedures to teach, too!

I keep a checklist of all of the classroom routines I need to teach during the first week of school, roughly prioritized by importance, and how long I can wait to teach a routine. Some I want to cover the very first morning, while others can wait a day or two. I keep this checklist close by on a clipboard, and I intersperse a routine “lesson” between each activity and period during the first few days.

Download my "First Week Routines" checklist.

I model each routine, even basic ones like walking to the rug area. Then I ask for student “actors” to demonstrate best practices. Finally, the whole class practices the routine until it’s squeaky clean. Responsive Classroom calls this “interactive modeling,” and I find it helpful to review their seven deliberate steps before school begins each year. Here are some helpful videos of teachers using interactive modeling with their students.


What is YOUR First-Day Plan?

I hope my first-day survival plan has some ideas that may help you. I’d also love to know what you have planned! Please use the comments section below to share your thoughts, questions, and ideas with our community. I am so excited to be back for another year of blogging with the incredible Top Teaching crew and to hear about what’s going on in all of your classrooms — so please share!


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