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First Day of Class: Beginning the Marathon


By Judith Ross-Bernstein

The first day of class. On your mark, get set, go?  I struggled for years; what is the best way to spend the first day of class? But who doesn’t struggle facing down a fourteen-week marathon. It’s overwhelming at best. All the background reading, planning, decision-making, designing, tweaking must move aside, the time for just do it, is now. But what is it I want to do? I have too many its. How to prioritize? There is only one first day and I do want them to know what’s expected, have the content be motivating, set the semester tone, on and on and on…

May I publicly disclose years of first day angst and frustration? It  can seem intuitive; take attendance, learn the student’s names, announce office hours, CHECK! Go over the syllabus. CHECK? That usually put my students to sleep.  Reviewing the syllabus was torture, the words meant nothing to my new students and I knew it. But I thought that is what I should do and faithfully shouldered that missive until I could no longer bear it. I wrestled with myself; could I not go over the syllabus?  Could I design one active experience  for students that would engage students with the course material, discover prior knowledge and ideas about course topics,  and uncover their personal connections to course ideas instead?

After trying a variety of first day activities I settled on one that worked, which I’ve adapted several times over the years.  Twenty-five students enter the classroom, I welcome them and say, “I’d like to tell you about our class, but instead of telling you, I’d like you to tell me. Can you trust me enough to begin the semester in this way?” Most students nod their head and giggle. A few are quiet and scowl softly. I then say, “Thank you, please take out a blank piece of paper.” Oh no, now everyone scowls!

“On this piece of paper I’d like you to write three things you are sure of about young children. And then I’d like you to write one thing that piques your curiosity.” A thread of panic runs across the classroom, is she testing us? Resolutely, I add, “These three things are your tried and true beliefs and they can’t be wrong. For instance, I believe that young children like their foods separate on their plate.” With an audible huge group exhale, most think they can do at least this, and trust that they are released from succinctly rattling off something reminiscent of Piaget’s theory.

By the way, in addition to verbal instructions I provide activity directions on powerpoint (link). I am familiar with the challenge to nervous students; hearing and responding to something unexpected and unfamiliar is difficult. After students write their responses, I ask them to walk around in silence, reading as many of the ideas of others as they can. Next, I request that they pair up with a peer (or make a foursome) whose responses are interesting, and discuss their ideas together for 2 more minutes. All in all, I invest 10-15 minutes of first class time in this active experience of writing, reading, questioning, walking and discussing.

Now for the magic, the activity debrief. While I do this differently each year, I may begin with “Can you say something about the experience?” From here I dig into deeper questions. It may look like this:

  • Why would I have you do this?
  • How do you know what you know about young children?
  • How do you learn? How do young children learn?
  • Can you think about the prerequisites to participating in this activity? What are the developmental competencies you bring? What do children bring to learning?
  • What intrigues you about young children? Why?
  • What have I missed? Do you have other connections and reflections?

The activity debrief is magic; or I should say that is feels like magic to me, because the room bubbles with chatty students. It’s a kind of smart chatty; if given the opportunity to engage, be motivated and curious, they do. The conversation is rich and goes both ways to and from me to them and them to me. In a small amount of time, a learning community is established.

A student volunteer records the main points of our conversation. These points become our point of departure for child study and grow to become our learning principles. These intentional lessons are student generated; shaping the tone of the semester to propel us forward. For brevity’s sake, here is the potential short list of first day take-aways:

  • In seminar, there are clear expectations for engagement
  • Engaging with the material, children and one another: talking, moving, reading, writing- is how we (and children) learn
  • Peers are your greatest resource- they see things differently than you do
  • Diversity is our norm
  • Sequences of action and reflection are mainstay learning processes for adults and children
  • Children and adults bring their unique knowledge, competencies and needs
  • Purposeful actions lend themselves to learning
  • Students (adult and child) motivation is key, explore what interests you

With these guiding principles established, recorded and posted to our LMS, I often feel a stable ground under me to begin the marathon. Eeeek!, What about covering the syllabus? At the end of the first day I ask students to read the online syllabus carefully and post questions on FORUM to address on the second day of class. I leave them with a prompt to come to class prepared to discuss how we can clarify course expectations.

On your mark, get set, go. What have you found to be engaging and successful on your first day of class? Why do you do it?


Carnegie Mellon (2011). Making the most of the first day of class. Retrieved from

Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology Little Ideas for Teaching

Retrieved from

Lyons, R., McIntosh, M., Kysilka, M. (2003). Teaching college in an age of accountability. Boston, MA: Allyn &Bacon.

Povlacs, J. 101 Things you can do the first three weeks of class.

Ross-Bernstein, Judith (2014) Beginning active learning activity

University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Building Rapport Retrieved from

University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Learning students names


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