Control the Classroom from Day One

Avoid the beginning-of-the-year scramble by having a strategy for the first few days of school.

By Elijah Ammen

Russian nesting dolls
To be completely honest, the first few days of school are my least favorite. The new faces, the changes in scheduling, and the lack of meaningful class work is just frustrating. Even as a child, I never liked the "getting to know you" games and the lazy atmosphere to kick off the year. The first week is the key time to get to work and set the tone for the months ahead. To waste it on pointless activities (or worse: endless pre-testing) seems counterintuitive. 
It seems like a waste, because these first few days are where you set the tone for the rest of the year. A lax classroom environment at the beginning of the year can hurt you months later. While it is important to go over rules and procedures early on, you also need to have meaningful activities that set your class up for success. In the end, rules are not what most effects classroom management—it's having meaningful and engaging content.

Reflect and Set Goals

The individuals in your classroom are not blank slates. You are just the current point in their educational journey, which has gone on long before you, and will continue after you. Like in Sandra Cisneros' short story "Eleven" all of our previous years are with us, like rings on a tree or Russian nesting dolls.
Use the beginning of the year to reflect on last year's successes and failures. Have groups talk about the differences between last year and what they expect for this year. This is especially powerful for learners making big transitions, like between elementary and middle school, or middle school and high school. Focus on cause and effect by having each person write down the good and bad things from last year, and what caused each of them. Too many times we see students repeat the same mistakes because they didn't take the time to think through the problems their actions caused. 
Take their reflections and set goals—academic and behavioral—and put them somewhere they will see them all year. They can go in binders, on posters hung on the walls, or on index cards so you can pull them out later in the school year. Goals aren't worth anything unless you come back and see how you are moving toward that goal, so make sure you have them available.

Modeling Excellent Work

In a perfect world, teacher expectations would be clear and universal. Tragically, we know that there are nearly as many grading scales as there are teachers, no matter how many rubrics you use. Take the first few classes to show how you grade your work so you can reduce potential frustration.
  • Work Samples: Dust off some assignments from last year and have your class examine them. Have them guess what the grades were. Ask them analyze the differences in assignments that are incomplete, do not contain full sentences, or do not follow the instructions. Make sure they also see examples of excellent work, so they have exemplary work to imitate.
  • Review Rubrics: Do you have a rubric you use for particular assignments? Have your class break down the rubric and understand how you will grade their work.

Grouping Strategies

Logistically, seat assignments and group work are always messy at the beginning of the year. I like to jump straight into group work, but I also want to prevent social stratification. Sure, you can assign seats randomly, but then every change seems reactionary on your part. Here are a few ways to start off your classroom seating arrangements while everything is still fluid.

  • Group Shuffle: If you work with groups early in the year, hand out playing cards at the beginning of the class and have the groups split by the cards they were given. It keeps kids from feeling like you're biased, and it gives you a reason to change up groups regularly.
  • Split Groups in Half: If you split groups in half, have everyone cross their arms over their chest. Split the room by those with their right arm on top and their left arm on top. (This also works with the right and left thumbs when you interlace your fingers.) Believe it or not, this will almost always split a group evenly, and kids will think it's so cool.
  • Class Project: Start your class in an informal arrangement. This can be used to discuss beginning-of-the-year details and expectations. Then have the class rearrange the desks, chairs, or tables, into the set-up for the rest of the year. This gives them a chance to move around on their first day back and take ownership of the way the classroom looks.

Lesson Planet Resources:

A lesson plan on "Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros. This is an excellent middle school text, and can be used as a discussion starter for a variety of beginning of the year issues—how your past affects you, how assumptions from teachers and others can hurt you, and how to move through difficult situations. This is a great text to start the year, even if you only have an informal discussion.
Use identity maps (similar in format to semantic mapping) to chart different aspects of yourself. This is a good reflective tool, and one that is very visual and converts well to poster format. It can also be the basis of a presentation to get a jump start on your speaking and listening standards.
While this is a pretty low-level activity that could be merely an assimilation of facts and family trees, you can also scaffold this up to even a high school level. Make your categories less concrete and more idea-driven. For instance, instead of listing family members, discuss personal strengths and weaknesses, or post-secondary goals. You can adapt this project to any complexity you want in order to get to know your classes.