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The Importance of the First Day of School

When the first day of school rolled around this year, there was a positive buzz in the air. Kids had been away for three months and were excited to see friends again. There were plenty of smiles and hugs, and the attitude was full of enthusiasm, a bounce in most everyone’s step. Kids were actually excited about school and what their year would look like.

I decided rather than sit at my desk all day which is how I pass most of my days, I was going to go around to various classrooms and see this excitement carried over into the classroom. I would get to see students have their pent-up summer-long curiosity satiated.

I started first with a science class. I thought maybe the teacher would be doing a cool experiment or something of the like to excite kids about science. I was shocked that the teacher was going through a PowerPoint while students passively sat there. What might have made it not so bad was if the teacher were talking about all of the amazing science they were going to be covering for the year or an introduction to their first unit. Instead, it was an hour of going over the rules and guidelines of the class. Mostly what you could not do, should not do, and may not do. There was no interaction, no ownership, and no engagement. I didn’t last more than a few minutes before the alchemy of the class turned the lids of my eyes into lead.

I had to shake this off before I was snoring, so I got up and walked into a language arts class and sat down, a large smile stretched across my face for this was a subject I liked a bit better. I couldn’t wait to hear what books students had read over the summer or what stories they were interested in writing. Instead, students were sitting at their desks being lectured to how to put their binder together. They were instructed which color folders to pull out, what to put on the label that went inside the tab on the folder, and what order to put them in. It was micromanaging at its very finest, and I felt like they were training secretaries rather than working with kids. There was no choice in the matter; students were to follow the directions they were given to a tee.

It continued on throughout the entire first day, guidelines about the bus, expectations in the cafeteria, how to walk down the hall properly, there were even signs in the bathrooms informing one of the proper way to behave in the urinal. The kids went to gym and recess and instead of being allowed to run around and expend some of this burgeoning energy they had brought with them, they were talked at about the rules.

I’m not saying kids don’t need boundaries and I certainly understand the importance of setting expectations on the first day of school in order to have a smoother rest of the year, but at what cost? These kids came to school with an excitement, an eagerness to get back to school and learn, and we sucked the very anticipation out of them. They were begging for engagement and we gave them passiveness. They looked for inspiration; we provided only indignation.

It is tough enough for students to remain stoked about going to school. Why should we beat it out of them on the very first day? Shouldn’t we be providing activities that tap into this, engagement that inspires them to want to learn more, inquiry that makes them curious in order to get the year started on the right foot? This love of learning is way more important than order.

What if, on the first day of school, we don’t worry about the rules and regulations? What if, on the first day of school, we try to get the kids excited about learning? What’s the worst that could happen? Would the school burn down or would there be an insurrection because the students have never before heard of these things called rules? I don’t think so. I am fairly certain that our youth of today have enough of a basic understanding of social norms to behave themselves. It’s not like they have forgotten the rules they learned from the year before.

On my first day with kids, we did a computer simulation called Decisions Decisions that took the entire first week of school. It involved students role playing a person in the simulation. For example, in the Ancient Empires, the four characters were the Trader’s Daughter, the Warrior, the Poet, and the Elder. Students had to learn different things about the situation from their perspective and then share it to the group so that they could make the most informed decision. I had a different one for each grade level spanning from the aforementioned Ancient Empires to the Colonization of a Planet. When students came in, I immediately put them into groups of four and we began the simulation without nary a rule being addressed. And you know what, there was order in the classroom. The students were so engaged with the activity that there was no need for rules because no one was losing focus and doing something they shouldn’t be.

A lot of times in education I believe we put the cart before the horse. We believe we need to establish clear rules so that everyone is compliant so that we can engage them instead of simply engaging them in the first place. The number of discipline problems seems to always correlate with the level of engagement of students. In other words, there are more discipline problems in a classroom where students do not feel engaged as opposed to one where they do. Instead of inundating them with rules on the first day of school, have them do engaging activities. I dare you.

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