Activities for the First Day of School

Here are three activities that I have done on the first day of school in the past couple years:

1. 20 Words/Phrases

Purpose: Co-construct the math classroom with our students. See students’ prior beliefs.

At the beginning of every course, I have my students come up with 20 words/phrases associated with their typical K-12 math class. (More specifically, I say “Don’t give math content like ‘Pythagorean Theorem’ or ‘shapes’ but rather, how were the teachers? How were the desks arranged? What did a typical homework assignment look like? Throw in some emotional words.”) The reason I do this is to have an insight on their previous mathematical experience and to show that they have a voice in this classroom. This also sets up the opportunity to think about what kind of teacher they want to be.

Here is an example of what one class said:

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At the end, I ask my students what they think the United States is ranked out of the 72 countries that took part in PISA 2016. We are actually in the bottom half, which surprises some, and I tell them that if these 20 words/phrases reflect a typical classroom, we need to change something, because it obviously does not work.

I then ask the students, if you were to take something out, what would you put in? Keep doing this until you have an ideal classroom. When they exchange something, I ask them to critically think about *how* we can exchange it. 

Here’s what they exchanged. (We could have kept going but we were running out of time):

  1. Enjoy it
  2. Approachable teacher
  3. Positive, Growth Mindset
  1. Exit tickets
  2. Student-centered
  3. Give options for HW

12/14. Give partial credit

  1. Receptive teacher
  2. Interactive learning

When we are done, I take a picture of the revised list and use it to develop the rest of the semester.

I chose to do this activity on the first day because I believe that we need to talk about mindset and understand the importance of collaboration before doing any math. In addition to these activities, I tell my students that we are all on the same team. I think that that is important to state explicitly. I tell them that I want to make them the best mathematician they can be, so please be transparent with me if you are struggling, or if you want me to slow down, etc.

2. 5 qualities

Purpose: Getting students to think about what it means to be good at math.

I taught a 4 week summer school class (intermediate algebra) this past summer and implemented what I’m going to call “5 qualities” on the first day. A colleague told me that the passing rate for this class last summer was 11%, so it was a surprise that this year, my class passing rate was over 50%. I highly attribute this to mindset and the constant reflection of what it means to be good at math. 

I asked my students to think of someone who they personally know that they think is great at math. Then talk to a partner about 5 qualities that this person has that makes them great at math. My students came up with this:

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During this time, I try not to interject unless there is something that I firmly believe is not a big factor, such as memorization or speed. I tell students that all of these 5 qualities can be practiced, and notice that none of these has to do with genetics. Everyone can be a mathematician. Throughout the course, I remind my students of the 5 qualities of being good at math, and if we have been practicing these qualities. 

When I did this with my future elementary school teachers one semester, we got these qualities:

3. Quick Math Conversations

Purpose: Getting students to have conversations with multiple students while talking about math/structure of our math class/pedagogy.

I didn’t want to call this “Speed dating” so I’m going to call it “Quick Math Conversations.” I want my students to get to know each other as quickly as possible, so I give students a question and give them 4 minutes to talk about it with their group members (each group has 4 students). 

Some questions that I have used before are:

  • What is your favorite math memory?
  • How do you feel about math?
  • What does your ideal math classroom look like?
  • Why is math important?
  • How can we create a safe environment for you to learn?

After each question, we reflect as a whole class, then I tell my students to thank their group members, stand up, and sit somewhere else to introduce yourself, and we repeat the process several times until class is over.

Overall, in these 3 activities, I emphasize mindset. Mindset is important in our classroom because we need to understand our motivation and at least have the right frame of mind of what being good at math is. Additionally, I love getting student input. It shows that they have a voice in our classroom and that I respect their thoughts. After all, if my goal is to humanize our math classroom, the first step is to honor my students’ voices.

Thank you for reading.