The First Day Wiki

How Did This Happen?

Never thought I’d append “wiki” to a post, but here we are. Here, approaching the dead center of August, I’m getting Google hits along the lines of “first day geometry lesson” and I don’t have content to show for it.

So I’m posting some of my first day procedures, which are by no means authoritativeTruthfully, the first year I taught I was pretty relaxed, nonchalant even, about the first day of classes. But every year since it terrifies me more and more, nevermoreso than this year.. The comments section of this post seems an inadequate container for all the first-day wisdom you all have, so I’m going to encourage you to add on to The First Day Wiki.

Here’s my contribution, both for general ed and for math classes:

General Ed

If you’ve gotta do a syllabus, do it different from their other classes. Six classes of the same six-page packet detailing the same rules, expectations, and standards has gotta numb a kid by the end of the day. Hell, it numbs me.

So sketch out what you want to talk about on one page. Omit crucial words or numbers and then let them fill ’em in. Nothing earthshattering, certainly. You’re still talking but they get to build a document, which is different enough to count.

Example here:

and then what I read from:

After that, I go through several, get-to-know-you activities. One, the students tell me about themselves. The other, they find out about each other.

You can have some good times mid-year by showing student self-portraits to the class and asking them to identify the student by her roughly drawn outlines.

Math Classes

You buy some styrofoam cups. Lots of ’em. After you have the class organized so you and they are comfortable (after seating arrangements but before any syllabus discussion) you get ’em in groups with those around them.

You say, how many stacked cups would it take to reach the top of my head? You hold one up.

You take bets from the groups. Betting is fun. You write down the bets. You make sport of the groups who wager only one above the previous group’s wager.

You say, alright, we’re gonna figure it out now and if anyone gets close to the answer, we’ll cancel homework for the first night. Of course, you weren’t planning any homework anyway, but they go nuts.

(Depending on the age, there’s also a great discussion to be had here about how “close” is close enough. 5% error? 10% error? What does x% error even mean?)

You pass out a ruler and three cups to each group and you facilitate. You wander around. Ask them how they’ll do it.

They’ll ask you how tall you are. (Big helper: use centimeters.)

Many will find the height of the cup and then divide it into your height. Have them stack that many cups and watch as it doesn’t come close. Have them discuss why.

The question to ask is: if you add one cup to the stack what happens to the height of the stack.

You should hover your group interaction around the idea of slope and y-intercept. The slope here is the lip of the cup: how much the height increases every time you add a cup. The y-intercept is everything that isn’t the lip (the base). Your equation is:

You don’t need to take them into detail on the equation. This project has been done — first day! — with younger crowds.

At the end, you actually stack the cups high and see who was closest. Maybe pass out candy. Cancel the imaginary homework assignment. Maybe hold up a different brand of cup, one with a thinner lip and ask what would happen.

So you’ve collaborated, done some project-based learning, tackled a challenging problem together, joked around, become acquainted with some students. The syllabus, the rules, the standards, you can always go over those another day.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. You mean, “who I am”? Sure. I’ll get that up once I’m home this afternoon. It’s AppleWorks, though, which I’m pretty sure no one uses any more. Maybe I’ll roll the dice with a Microsoft Word conversion and see what happens.

  2. Hmm, did I miss something or is your second image (“what I read from”) identical to your first? I was sort of hoping that I’d know what those cryptically numbered boxes were for…. or is this something that only Mac users can magically see? ;-)

  3. What a post of beauty. I won’t even student teach until next year, but I’ll be using some of these ideas (reformulated elementary style) for my two remaining “placements.”

    Perhaps this year, you’ll just post every single thing you do, eh?

  4. Hello, Dan,

    All the getting to know you stuff is great, but I always preferred to start in immediately on the first day with work.

    On the first day of school, students spend all day in their other classes doing the same thing over and over: get the books, the syllabus, the icebreaker, and then, time permitting, something mildly academic.

    By getting right into the meat of your class, you establish the working rules not through lecture, but through example. By your choice of lesson/choice of approach, you can create the opportunities that let students begin to experience the tenor of your class.

    Then, when you give them the syllabus/expectations, you can cover them in a fraction of the time because you have already established a context in which your expectations make more sense.

    More content, less words. Never a bad thing.



  5. Bill, that’s awfully tempting. You do academic stuff while everyone else is running fluff and you run fluff while everyone else is heavy into academics.

    For the last couple years, I’ve relied on structured fluff to ease kids back into the routine of school. I may open with the meat of the class like you suggest but I’m gonna keep a tight finger on the pulse of things. Is “too much too fast” a valid concern here?

  6. RE “too much too fast” — that was always a concern, and one that seemed connected to the “who am I teaching to” question, herinafter referred to a WAITT —

    WAITT comes up in classrooms where you have students of (sometimes widely) varying abilities, or just about every classroom. So the question becomes, do you teach to the strongest student in the class and risk losing the students needing more support, or do you teach to the middle, or to the lowest, etc —

    Too much too fast becomes a valid concern if you expect your students to actually retain everything you place before them. I view one of the main goals in teaching as creating both points of reference and reasons for curiosity — Establishing trust with your students (trust that you know what you’re talking about, trust that they will be treated fairly by you, trust that you will be consistent, trust that they can make intellectual mistakes and not be penalized) allows you to move quickly and cover a lot of ground, and as a consequence you will create both points of reference (remember when we talked about) and curiosity (I didn’t quite get all of it, but it was interesting).

    Because if kids walk out of your class interested about your subject, as a teacher, you have succeeded wildly.

    Good luck with the first day — I look forward to reading about it.

  7. oooh…I’m liking all of this. What a great idea, Dan.

    I’ve only been out of the classroom for 1 year, but actually have not participated in a 1st day for 3 years! I prepped for them 2 years in a row but its not the same thing as being there, and on top of it all I’m starting a new school, so I am admittedly nervous for this year’s 1st day!

    I like the interactive expectations sheet a lot and plan on swiping that one!

    And Bill – “Because if kids walk out of your class interested about your subject, as a teacher, you have succeeded wildly.”

  8. To Bill (and in relation, to Dan): Agree wholeheartedly with the “start teaching” approach to day one, rather than to hammer home the same ‘ol same ol’ that every other teacher will offer throughout the building. While some parents may be a bit ruffled they can’t go over the syllabus right away that 1st night, within 2 days the kids are a) engaged and b) focused…and complaints go right away.

    As to the too-much-too-fast potential, indeed that can take place. Bill, you make a great point re: teaching for content and curiosity. To that end, what I’ll be doing is posing a problem to my students that requires no previous work in my class (i.e. the literature, the grade level we’re at, etc.). Instead, it puts the kids into solo, small group, and all class debates on a ‘moral’ issue that ties immediately back into every bit of literature we’ll be discussing the remainder of the year.

    While the challenge’s ‘solutions’ will be weighed against each other so that the students feel some sort of resolution as they exit class #1, the real goal of the opening problem-solving exercise is for me as the teacher to see what their instincts are as problem-solvers, to guage how each class works independently and in groups, and to subtly (or not so subtly) let the kids know what I mean by “putting skin on the table” and my own teaching style…without just reading my syllabus and class rules aloud.

    Then, on day #2, we’ll use the previous day’s exercise to as an entree into the larger class issues, syllabus, schedules, rules, opportunities, and attitude…all based on shared context rather than just teacher-talk or rumor.

    I’ve usually done the reverse but after 3 years away from the classroom I have NO time for the kids/I to waste once we’re together. Plus, we need to collectively set the tone with my guidance, and this seems to be the best way to launch.

  9. P.S. And once we do dive into the issue of English 10, I’ll certainly point out that I would NEVER-EVER use “I” as a direct object (as I may have accidentally done so in the previous comment). Sheesh.

  10. To hell with blogging – try writing an email to a parent, especially one with not-so-great news! I spend more time proofing mine than writing them for fear of getting back, “And YOU’RE an ENGLISH teacher?”

    Dangle one participle and you’re marked for life, I tells ya.

  11. I like the cup activity. I am in a very rural school, and the kids already know each other by the time I get them in high school. I was considering an activity using reflections and rotations. Like Bill, I would be jumping into meat using baby chunks that they should remember enjoying from junior high. The cup activity is a good one for opening day in Algebra; I will bookmark it so that I can come back to it.

  12. Do you have a copy of the 1st document on the page (Geometry)? Can you put a link for it like you did the who am I? BTW – I have been teaching Geometry for 5 years now in MS. I love some of your ideas! I will definitely be checking back in with you. I also like the circle thing you did when you were getting gas. That was cool! :-)