First class of the year

You have a new group of students in front of you and all you know about them is their approximate level. What do you do? This isn’t a trick question, this is what all teachers face at the start of each academic year and whenever else in between times that they are given a new group to teach for an extended period of time.

Where I work, there are no regular lesson materials for the first two-hour lesson. “Teaching proper” begins in the second two-hour slot of the week. In the first lesson, we have the luxury of time to spend getting to know our students and introducing them to what the AES (Academic English Skills) course looks like. At this point, I have taught a fair number of “first class of the year”s (especially as in January, being a January cohort ADoS, I switch from teaching September starters to January starters so two terms in a row, I get “first class of the year”s).

In my role as teacher development coordinator, I send out regular “bulletins” with links to content to help teachers develop and change up what they do in the classroom. The first bulletin of the academic year (which I have already started working on – I started towards the end of last term and have done a bit this week too – though I don’t start back at work til Monday!) is focused on beginning of the academic year-related content and one section is dedicated to ideas for making the first class of the year a fruitful one. So it is that I have been reading a range of content around first lessons, in order to select suitable links for the bulletin, and, thus, inevitably, reflecting on my own first lessons past and to come.

My “first lesson of the year”s

To me, the most important thing that should happen in that first lesson of the year is that I learn all my students’ names and they learn one another’s names too, as I feel this is essential for a conducive environment for learning: students need to be comfortable working together, so they need to know who one other are.

The activity I always use at the start of a lesson with a new group of students who are going to be my students for a term or more is a variation on the “I went shopping” memory game. Very simple, very straightforward: Student A gives their name and something they like (E.g. My name is Lizzie and I like running), Student B introduces Student A and then themselves (E.g. Her name is Lizzie and she likes running, my name is Bobby and I like football) and so on until everybody has introduced themselves and all the students who have already had a turn introducing themselves. While this is unfolding, I am silently repeating all the names along with the students (and chipping in to help when anybody struggles) so that once everybody has introduced themselves and their classmates (and the one who went first has to then introduce everybody!), I have a go. Obviously, the larger the group the longer this activity takes but I firmly believe it is worth the time taken. Simple but reliable, and the students tend to have a bit of a laugh doing it, which also helps break the ice and relax them a bit.

Once names are in place, I want to know a bit more about them all. In this slot, I don’t always use the same activity. I’ll use any activity that will get them talking to each other, learning about each other and sharing what they learn with the rest of the class, as well as ensuring that I tell them a bit about me and let them ask any questions they might have, which I answer as long as they are within reason. For ideas of such activities, see my Back to school-related links post. I tend to be strict on timing with this one, ensuring it doesn’t run on for too long so that there is still time for everything else I want to do!

Now that I know the students a bit, and they know me, it is time to focus on the course content so that they have a picture of what to expect from their 5 hours a week of AES classes for the next three terms. Each student receives a workbook and in the workbook there is a lot of information about the course. So for this element, I tend to do a workbook quiz i.e. give students a list of questions, the answers to which are in the workbook and have them work together to find the answers. This way, as well as ensuring that they have the information they need, they have the opportunity to practise working in a group. As well as going through the answers to the questions once they have finished (eliciting answers but also giving them a bit of a chance to sit and listen while I elaborate), this then provides an opportunity to get them to reflect on the effectiveness of their group work and how to improve it for future lessons when it will often feature.

In the powerpoint for the first lessons, there are two sentence starters – something like “I am excited about studying here because…” and “I am nervous about studying here because…” Generally students discuss these in pairs or small groups. This stage helps them realise that they are not alone in their feelings and that their classmates are all human too. This time I am toying with the idea of getting them to write their completions on a whiteboard (one board or half of a board, depending on the room per sentence starter) and getting them to identify the themes. With the “nervous about” board, we could look at each theme and brainstorm suggestions to ease those nerves. This time, I would like to perhaps also use this as an opportunity to cultivate growth mindsets: reframe the “nervous about” elements in a positive growth-conducive way. Turn any “I can’t’s” into “I can’t YET” and so on. This article by Chia Suan Chong has other ideas for cultivating growth mindsets which I will be referring back to in my preparation for this lesson and beyond.

Finally, I like to use the first lesson of the term to introduce regular features of the course. So, provided the students are already streamed and good to go:

  • get them registered on the Google+ community for their class, ensuring there is some content already there for them to dabble with.
  • introduce them to Quizlet and Vocab.com, again getting them to join the classes I’ve set up
  • and this time round, introduce the idea of doing a meditation at the start of each class, and have a go at doing one so that students know what to expect at the start of the next class

I don’t want to overcook things, so something like the listening logs, which will become a regular feature, I will leave til the first listening lesson of the term.

I like to finish off the lesson with a bit of fun – “How many of your classmates names can you remember?” (also to review that information and hopefully lodge it more firmly in their minds and mine) – and a preview of what’s to come in the rest of the week (has typically been a listening-based lesson in the second two hour slot and some sentence structure in the final one hour slot, but there have been some syllabus changes so whatever it is that is there) and set any flipped learning content I want them to look at in advance of those lessons.

So, that’s my formula, refined over the terms/years. Each stage has a clear goal and the activities tend to work quite nicely to achieve those goals. I always really enjoy those first lessons, getting to know my new students and getting things set up for an effective term/year of learning for them.

What do your first lessons of the year tend to look like? What are any of your go-to activities?

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3 thoughts on “First class of the year

  1. Thanks for sharing that Lizzie. At NILE in the summer I learnt about doing the sentence starter activity on post-it notes, which means that you can display them on the wall and come back to them at a later date. It worked really well with my tech group in the summer 🙂
    I’ve been reading a lot about group dynamics for the teacher training module, and we’ve added a classroom dynamics session into our induction week. That’s worth investigating if you haven’t already.
    Sandy

    • Nice idea with the post-its! Unfortunately we can’t leave things up in the classrooms, so in terms of coming back to it the easiest way for us to do that would be to do it on boards and take photos which could then be projected at a later date (I like the idea of returning to the sentences too!).
      What articles/book chapters have you read about group dynamics?
      Lizzie

      • Or you could put them on some A3 paper to take away and bring back later.
        For group dynamics, the classic is Jill Hadfield’s Classroom Dynamics. There have been chapters on it in many of the training books I’ve read, including Trainer Development by Bolitho and Wright and Teaching Teachers by Malderez and Wedell. You can find a lot on the internet too if you look up stages of group formation. I think it’s fascinating!

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