By Michael Yell posted 08-15-2011 12:45:23 PM

Many years ago, around our familily dinner table, we were discussing the first day of school with our children (now all out of their respective university programs and into their professional careers). When my youngest child was asked how his first day of middle school was, he breathed a sigh and said “oh, it was like every first day in every class; we just made rules and went over a syllabus.”

I have not begun a first day of my class by setting rules or explaining a syllabus since.

Rather I begin by engaging students in our first “timeline,” saying a few words about the class (essentially I give them my three guarantees; you will explore a lot of history this yearyou will enjoy history, and you will never, never, do a worksheet-online or on paper), and then spending the remainder of our time (we have 45 minute periods) with a class building and then team building activities.

After the students have seated themselves (the desks in my class is arranged in groups of four), I tell them that we are going to put together our first timeline. For this timeline, they are told, “you will have six minutes and 35 seconds (I like random times), and in that time you must line yourself up along the walls in perfect order of birth month and day. There are, however, two rules; you cannot talk and you cannot write anything down.” The online bomb timer ( is set on my Smartboard and I hit start.

After the timer “explodes” we go from person to person to see how the class did, and then I seat them in groups of four (I have no prearranged seating order developed, I just go down the rows and in order assign two boys and two girls to each group). We then go over the guarantees (which are basically all I say about the class unless, or course, they ask questions). Although I have taught every social science discipline in every secondary grade, I now teach seventh grade world history, hence my use of the work history in my guarantees; but substitute any discipline, the guarantees would remain the same. Explore? The word explore is in the first guarantee because I work to build inquiry-based lessons in which students do indeed explore the past. Enjoy class? Certainly when you have a variety of active, engagingstrategies that make class lively and interesting, even antsy middle schoolers will enjoy coming to class. No worksheets? None, although my students soon learn that this does not mean that there will be no writing in my class; indeed they write a lot, but it is a different type of writing. I am really not interested in seeing if they can transfer information from one source to another (say from the text book to the worksheet), nor am I interested in end-of-chapter questions. Rather, I am interested in open-ended writing where they infer, react, and work out their thinking. An empty notebook page is best for that.

Why not give rules the first day as is customary? My question is “why give, or have students create, rules that first day?” When my students come to class, they are twelve years old; twelve year olds know how to act, how to behave. In over 40 plus year of teaching I have yet to hear a teacher having a problem with misbehaving students say “if only we had created more rules that first day!” And how many students, do you imagine, has run into their home proclaiming “we have the coolest rules in ________’s class!” No student ever.

Might not creating rules that first day create a management problem? In my experience the answer is no; the key to classroom management is engagement and thoughtful lively lessons, not a few rules stated that first day.

Finally, for my classbuilding activity my current preference is for an activity where groups figure out what are called Whatzits (sometimes called rebuses). An example would be the word Wear above a line and the word long below the line. The answer to the Whatzit would be long underwear). Groups must work quietly to figure out the twelve I show them and at the end of the period they learn the most likely answers. I have posters made of each whatzits; I have twelve slides that I show on my SMART Board each with a teacher in my house (the House of Avalon) holding a different poster.

On September 10th, I will meet my 2018-19 students in the first day of class. There will be no rules given, no syllabus stated, but there will be engagement, interaction, and thinking. It is a good introduction to a class, and the students leave at the bell knowing that something different is going on here. The next time they return we launch right into our first unit with an engaging set of inquiry-based strategies.

The first day is important for setting the tone, the expectations for your class. Make it a day that will stand out so that when students talk about their day, they will not say “oh, it was like every first day in every class; we just made rules and went over a syllabus.”

Mike Yell, NBCT
Middle school social studies teacher
Former president NCSS