Tuesday, August 18, 2009

First Day of Class Coming Up? Some thoughts...

I saw a few comments in my blog reader on first day activities over at dy/dan, First Day Wiki ('07) and This New School Year ('08). I loved his ideas. I have a few of my own you all might like if you're headed back to teaching. (The sabbatical work I'm doing is marvelous, but I am going to miss teaching!) Dan taught high school and I teach at a community college; perhaps that has some bearing on what we do differently first day, but there's lots of overlap.

• On my last first day, in January, I put this on the board: “My ideal math class is a learning community. My goal is to help you become a community of learners." I also asked them to each add something to their choice of one of 3 lists on the board: 'Something I know in math', 'something I don't get', 'something I'm curious about'.

• I have them fill out 3x5 cards with their name, phone, email, and maybe a question or two about their math background. I ask them to leave a space for their photo. I'll use the cards to do attendance and call on people. (In the future, I'd like to jot notes on the cards: things they say and do, so I can remember.)

• I think it's important to try to call on people as equally as I can. (See Failing At Fairness for research that shows how much more boys are called on than girls, and how differently they're responded to.) I tell them the first day: I don't want to intimidate you, so you can always say 'pass' if you don't want to answer. But if you want to be brave, you shouldn't pass just because of not knowing the answer. You can say "I don't know", and I'll ask you easier questions and we'll work back up to the original question. I still end up asking questions to the class as a whole sometimes, and when the same 3 people raise their hands all the time, I start telling them I'll wait for other hands, in order to ‘spread the wealth’.

• It's vital to learn your students' names, but I have a bad memory. In recent years, I've brought my digital camera, and taken pictures. I found it used up too much time if I took the pictures, so now I get a volunteer to be the photographer. They can do a photo of 3 people at once, and afterward I organize in iPhoto, copying and cropping, so I have head shots of each student. I print and have the students put their names on their photos during the next class. Then I get to cut them out and use a glue stick to put them on those 3x5 cards. That work with the photos helps me get started with learning the names.

• I send around a sheet of paper with my name, phone number, and email. I suggest they add theirs to the list if they want, and tell them no one has ever had problems from it that I know of. Then I copy the list, and give it to them. I talk about how studies have shown that students who work in groups do better.

• I offer ‘donut points’ for catching me in mistakes, so that they’ll question what I’m presenting, instead of assuming it’s right just because the teacher said it. After the class has caught me 30 times, I bring in donuts.

• I use ‘thumbs up-down-sideways’ to find out the level of understanding. (And have found out that it’s important not to ask people with their thumbs down to elaborate, or else fewer people will use their thumbs at all.)

• I ask them if they think you need a good memory to learn math. Most think so. I tell them about my terrible memory and say it's all about connections and understanding why things work. I made a poster that says: ‘Real mathematicians ask why’. It's in my classrooms and my office.

• Last year I was working way too hard to have time for correcting homework. They have answers in the book of the book, so they don't need me to correct it. They just need me to give them credit for doing it, so that it gets high enough in their priority lists to get done. So (I learned this from a high school teacher at Middle College High School which is housed inside our college. Thanks, Eric!), I stamp their homework. (Buy a self-inking stamper for this.) If the homework is complete, or close to it, they get two stars. At least halfway there gets one star. They turn it all in at test time, and I record the number of stars. I can do that while they're taking the test.

• Some classes get the math autobiography assignment. Lately, though, I've gotten tired of it, and just offer it as extra credit.

• College textbooks are outrageously expensive - generally over $100 for math texts. My goal is to use the textbook as little as possible. So I told my beginning algebra students that they didn't have to get the official textbook, but could buy any Beginning Algebra text. I changed my homework sheet to show the topic names, and told them to pick 10 problems from their book on the right topic. Lots of students have tried to come to class with no book, because they couldn't afford the $100-plus. Now they didn't have an excuse to have no book. We discuss where used bookstores are, and online sources for used books.

Here were some ideas I heard at a Great Teachers Seminar that I liked and hope to try in future:
• Send email before semester begins. 2 days before gives them a day to get their book.
• Put students in the position of teaching what they’re learning.
• Ask at end of class: ‘What’s the most interesting thing you learned this week?
• Ask: What are you curious about? (What are they already interested in?)
• Have a question for them each time you walk into the classroom.
• One teacher pairs students up and has them fill out a form which starts "I am my brother's and sister's keeper. I will help my partner succeed. I commit to..." Then there are 3 blanks, and th pair discuss how they can help each other. If one is absent, she'll ask the other about it.

• The Math Students' Bill of Rights is included in my syllabus for all lower level classes. [Added on 8/25]

[Note to self: Dan's First Day Wiki has a great stacking cups activity. He posted a different cup stacking activity here.]


  1. Sue - Great stuff here. Thank you for sharing.

    I do a nerdier version of the index cards. I have the kids print their name, large, on a 5x8 card with a marker. Then I snap individual pictures and make the set of photos from each class its own album on my phone. My only complaint is there's no way to really randomize. I just go to the thumbnail screen and try to stab it without looking. That's my randomization process.

  2. I don't know about nerdier, but you are way techier than me. (I still use a date book made out of paper. But with all I'm learning online lately, I guess I've lost my luddite credentials.)

  3. My physics professor in college did the "donut points" as well, and we loved it. I tried it last year, but had trouble keeping track of the points.

    I like the "thumbs up thumbs down" idea. Much better than just asking "Does everyone get it? Yes? Okay, let's move on". I think I'll use this in my classes.

  4. Students will use their thumbs like clock dials to show their level of understanding - it's pretty cute.

    I have never heard of anyone else doing donut points. I must have stolen the idea from someone, but I sure don't remember who. Where is this physics prof?

  5. @Alison: I should have said how I keep track of them. I put the donut points on the board as little hash mark during class. At the end of a class, I transfer them to my main class folder.


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