First Day Jitters, Redux

So, this is basically a follow-up post to both my last post and the session on constructing a first tutorial that I attended on Tuesday. I want to spend a bit of time elaborating on a strategy that came up during that session: working backwards.

    Thinking about it:

When I was in high school, I didn’t have a ton of confidence in my math abilities*. I was never completely certain that I understood a problem until I could start with an answer and work a problem backwards. The logic of this is pretty simple: the solution always contains all of the parts of the question**. More simply put: once I knew where I was going, reading the map was easy. With a bit of modification, this principle can also apply to tutorial planning (and, I expect, lecture planning, but I’m not sure): figure out where you want your students to get to, and then build them a map.

    Before you start:

First: come to terms with not getting as much done as you’d like. This is true for all tutorials, and especially true for the first. Second, realise that above all else, the first tutorial sets a tone for the term. And, while it is not impossible to rectify any bad blood, or to alter your students expectations/their engagement with your expectations of them after you’ve set the tone, doing so won’t be easy.

    Doing it:

Start by figuring out where you want your students to get. Decide what kind of tone you want your classroom to have, and how you want your students to feel about your tutorial. My goal is to have my students leave feeling a combined sense of excitement and urgency about the class (this stuff is important, and I get to help figure it out!). I also want them to feel accomplished (in this class, we get shit done!). Finally, I want to model the dynamic energy and quality of participation that I hope to foster- ideally, they with a pretty good idea of what future tutorials will look like.

There are some things you’re going to have to do, like taking attendence and handing out your syllabus. Spend some time thinking through how these pseudo-mandatory activities can help you get to your destination. For example, having your students do an icebreaker that allows them to move around the class will set a very different tone than calling out names off a list and checking them off. Even the way you word your syllabus can have profoundly varied effects on your class. Generally, I think it’s positive to avoid the temptation to either rush through these two activities super quickly (which makes them seem unimportant), or to spend the whole first fifty minutes going over the syllabus (which is hella boring). Budget some time for each, and be sure to save yourself at least fifteen minutes to DO A THING with your class (I leave myself thirty minutes, and try to do things, but to each their own).

I really advocate for DOING A THING on your first day. It can be, within the limits of law and common decency, any sort of thing, but it should relate directly to the set of expectations you want to build in your students. Here’s a list of things you might try, with a detailed explanation of the thing I normally do under the cut.
*bring in a short bit of text from the course (a poem, a paragraph, an image, etc), and practice doing close reading together
*bring in a short bit of text and have students write discussion questions about it in pairs or groups
*spend the remaining time making a participation contract as a group
*brainstorm a list of ways that your area of study can impact on everyday life
*bring in an example of a metaphor, and have students re-write it groups or pairs. Encourage them to question the uses of metaphor.
*have a low-key, casual discussion on a topic loosely related to your class (eg: why study literature? why is this book more famous than that one?)
*jump into the course material- have students come up with discussion questions about their most recent lecture.
*bring in a passage that describes a setting or character; have students draw the thing being described. You might even have them draw on the board!
*split the class into halves and have them try out an informal debate.

If you have additional suggestions, leave them in the comments!

I always spend fifteen minutes trying to foster excited, dynamic participation. I ask my students to move their chairs away from their desks (desks are boring) and to orient themselves in front of this image:
20130913-115301.jpg. First we summarize the picture (there’s a hand! And a phone!), then we analyze it (maybe the person is angry! Maybe anger is why they are slamming the phone!), and then we talk about how similar summary and analysis can be, and why it is important to think about the difference. I highlight that in their essays I expect them to do both, but that they will need to know how much to summarize (not too much), and should be able to identify when they’ve switched over to analysis. My dual goals with this activity are: 1.) I want them to talk (I sometimes ask each person to come up with and write down one point of summary, and then ask them to tell us their point, even if it’s been said alread), and 2.) I want them to realise that they can practice important skills outside of class discussion and lecture; that they can do analysis, and as a team. After they’ve finished, I have them do a writing sample, in which they are encouraged to practice summarizing and analysing. Again, there are two reasons for this: 1.) I want to drive home that things I ask them to do in tutorial will always be a form of skill or knowledge building that is directly related to the class and the things expected of them therein, 2.) I use the writing sample to give them a benchmark “grade” (I put a faux, non-recorded grade, plus some concrete feedback onto the thing before handing it back) for the course.

*I sometimes got Bs in math, which meant I felt like I was *terrible* at it.
**This is true for the kinds of math I was doing, anyway. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule.

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