Who Do You Want to Be? Setting up your classroom for culture-focused learning

Changing first-day questions can help elevate classroom culture for the remainder of the term.

We all know that the first week of classes is commonly and comically referred to as “syllabus week.” It stems from the likely time spent reading the syllabus as a class, or what is more likely: to the class. There is nothing wrong with sharing the syllabus in the first week, but what if we challenged ourselves to make the first week about culture and let the syllabus be a part of it.

One of the best things we can do for our students is to see the first week as onboarding, much like a new employee at a company. This means preparing a welcome packet, having plans to engage and interact to build relationships, and providing an opportunity for feedback.

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to justify taking an entire class session or more up explaining the syllabus. It isn’t that I don’t believe the document is essential, but it also could be better served as a living document that has co-construction involved with it in the first week. So let’s think: what could I do differently to make culture a priority from the start?

Here are three ways you can respond to that question. Choose to use them all, some or one, but no matter which you choose, it will help center culture in the first week of class.

Change the questions you plan to ask.
  • Instead of being antagonistic and asking: why are you in this class (and getting “because it is required” as an answer), try and ask what interests you about [course topic]?
  • It is a pretty straightforward ask of students to respond to what would you like to be when you grow up? Students have been asked this question for years at this point. Instead, try to get them to answer who do you want to be when you grow up? Rather than asking about a future job, this question asks students about their values and how they want to be seen.
    • If you are looking for a quick first-week-of-class read, I strongly suggest Austin Kleon‘s Steal Like an Artist. He helps contextualize the difference in these questions.
  • It may be tempting to do the name/major/hometown combination and move on, but maybe try shifting to a four-corner or line exercise to allow students a more prosperous, more connected introduction. Here’s how to do that.
  • Close out the first day of class by asking students to introduce themselves to you individually in an email. I also use this to discuss email etiquette (and my response policy). Here are some questions I ask students to share via email:
    • Name/Major/Hometown (yup, those)
    • If I didn’t ask who do you want to be in class, then this is a priority question in the email.
    • Describe your experiences with writing.
    • What is the best way for you to receive feedback?
    • How do you learn best?
    • How can I help make your learning experience lasting (i.e., do you have barriers to learning I should know about, are there ways to help motivate you, or how might you internalize content?)?
Provide space for student agency

The first week of class can be a time to give students a chance to set the rules for the class or at least a creed for what they value and want to abide by as a group. Here’s a post on how to do that.

It is also a unique opportunity to allow students to suggest readings, examples, or ideas for the syllabus. Whether students are there because they are required doesn’t mean they haven’t thought about what the course might mean (or have heard what others thought about it previously).

  • When you give the students the syllabus, give them a chance (before the second class session) to review the topics and readings and offer suggestions.
  • While not all ideas are guaranteed to be included, students will appreciate the opportunity to have their suggestions included as required or optional readings.
  • As for some of their suggested topics, they may be about ideas that you might not have thought about before. They could be really worthwhile additions.
  • I’ve also encouraged students to bring current events to class each week that reflect the course content. Students will send them in advance for me to post on our class website or LMS, but they also have time to share them in class when we get to discussing content.
Establish teams

I don’t know about you, but oftentimes when it comes to group work, it takes way too long for students to get into spots or to decide who exactly to work with. To fight the future me annoyance, I use the first day to break my students into three groups, with a fourth oftentimes coming at the midterm and a group project. Here are my groups:

  • Trivia Group: This grouping helps students make friends. Five classmates make a “bar” trivia team they work with at the beginning of each class to gain extra points that can be redeemed for future absences, assignment extensions, stickers, or even a grade bump. I detail my trivia strategy here.
  • Color Group: This is a random grouping of students, usually including three people. Each group is assigned a color. I make sure to give colors easily found in various software and online programs. This way, when I make slides or documents for sharing and collaboration, I can use the colors to signify where students should work.
  • Shape Group: This is a random group of students, usually including four people. Each group is assigned a shape. I make sure to give shapes that are easily found in various software and online programs. This way, when I make slides or documents for sharing collaboration, I can use the shapes to signify where students should work.

Given that these groups are different sizes, I denote certain group types when I plan activities, and students pick up and move to meet their needs. This is also easy to call in class, even if you aren’t prepared for a group activity. Students will grow so accustomed to the process that they’ll quickly shift and move around the room, thus saving you time and creating ample opportunities for students to create lasting bonds.

Create the “fun” for fundamentals

I’m a sucker for arts and crafts, so it isn’t uncommon for me to integrate them at the top of the semester. I also am not as great at quickly remembering names. Part of what I then do to learn names, and personalities, is something I’m sure many of us do: have students make a nameplate.

Part of this exercise is about students expressing their personalities as they decorate the nameplate. Give students crayons, markers, and colored pencils to verbally represent their name and visually represent their identity. Then have students keep it in front of them each class–which can help you and students use one another’s names. Collect them at the end of class so they don’t get lost in students’ backpacks.

As an aside: it also can help with easy attendance tracking. If a student doesn’t pick up their nameplate, it helps identify if they are absent.

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