August 18, 2022
What do you do in your first class of the year? What do students do for their first homework assignment? (How) do these early experiences reflect your values as a teacher?
Some teachers have beloved rituals they use to set the tone for their class on opening day and others have an annual panic attack that ends in logistical karate: “let’s review the syllabus, get oriented to the LMS, and brainstorm the class contract in forty-five minutes!” In my experience, opening days of school can be as challenging for teachers as they are for students, so having a plan heading into them can be a big win, especially if that plan lives into your values as a teacher!
For me, it always helped to take a step back and think about how I wanted students to feel after the first week of being in my classroom—not just what I had to get them to do to “start” my course. Whether my students were six or sixteen years old, my goals were the same: I knew I wanted students to feel seen and known as human beings and learners. I also wanted students to feel my humanity—I’m not just a grade-spitting robot!—and begin to develop trusting relationships with each other and me. I hypothesized that the former (making students feel seen as individuals) was a prerequisite for the latter (developing class community), so I prioritized that on Day One. Thanks to some off-the-cuff advice from a favorite Department Chair, I found my way to a ritual that was a little old-school, not especially efficient, and 100% effective.
I asked each student to write me a letter, a real, dig-deeper-than-an-ice-breaker-and-surprise-yourself-with-your-own-insights, letter. I anticipated that to Gen-Z students the concept might be mindboggling, so I bookended the ask with a model (I wrote the class a letter of my own) and a promise (I would write a letter in return to each student). Year after year, the kids loved it.
The upsides? By giving them a scaffold to reflect on, I got an unearned insight into every child’s mind and heart, fast. By reading and responding to each letter individually, I established a direct line of communication—and some inside jokes—with each student… and showed them I took them seriously. This exchange also created an artifact of our shared aspirations that we could refer back to, together, throughout the year.
The downsides? Writing my letter made me dig deeper than logistical karate ever did, and I felt weirdly vulnerable (though, ultimately it’s quite meaningful to put your purpose into words each school year!). Reading and responding to each student also took a full two weeks (by year two, I learned to tell them to expect that and not be offended by it!).
This letter-writing activity could work for any classroom where children have the requisite writing skills! The scaffold I offer below is based on my personal experience using this exercise with middle and high school students, but I would imagine it could be adapted easily for elementary students.
Step One: The Model—From Teacher to Class
Your intro letter will set the tone for the letters the students write back to you, so make it intentional, and importantly, authentic. For me, I wanted to show up as primarily committed to the work of teaching and the privilege of knowing these students—and secondarily, as deeply human myself! My opening paragraph reflects those goals:
“Hello and Welcome to English 9! I am looking forward to a year filled with the words—read, spoken, written, re-written—resources, rigor, and laughter that you will use to grow as thinkers, feelers, and young adults in English 9 this year. I can’t wait to read our way through characters and conflicts together, and I anticipate surprising ourselves by the emotional and intellectual connections we make to worlds that may seem so unlike our own! I’ll operate under the assumption that the best classes are those driven by your questions and interests, which means that I’ll count on you to come to class with your head and heart focused on the task at hand. Respecting, trusting, and knowing each other is the first step in that regard—so, I can start: Who am I? Why am I here? What are my dreams for the year ahead?”
Of course, your letter will—and should—depend on the age of your students. In this case, I was writing to fourteen-year-olds, so I shared some reflections about what high school meant for me, and how decisions I made in high school set me on this path.
Not sure where to start on these three giant questions? Here are some ideas:
Who Am I? Connect with students around universal human experiences and your shared purpose: share your best childhood birthday; something beautiful you saw this summer; advice you keep with you always; someone who inspires you and why; your favorite song. I recommend staying away from politics and faith—unless the way you mention them connects directly to your school’s mission or your pedagogy; the point here is for all students to feel some connection to you. NB: The Proust Questionnaire is a fountain of fun, specific, prompts—for you to answer and ask!
Why am I here? Share your academic journey—ending with why you teach. Here, you might consider a narrative that includes coming-of-age (who was the teacher who helped you realize you could do it? What was the content that lit you up?), content expertise (degrees, thesis topics in understandable English, and ongoing areas of curiosity), and the joy you find in this particular age of children (I became a teacher because …. My favorite moments as a teacher are when ….). This is a friendly way of establishing professional legitimacy—and you’d be surprised how often advanced students will ask about your research interests during the year!
What are my dreams for the year ahead? Articulate your hopes and fears for your course. Be open and reinforce what’s laid out on your syllabus. Feel free to say: “I know Algebra 2 isn’t going to be everyone’s favorite class ever. But I’m on a mission to make it useful, even if you are a student who wants to study creative writing. At any point, you have the license to raise your hand and ask “can you give an example of how this applies in the real world?” Or, “Every year teachers set goals for how they run their classrooms. One of my goals this year is for students to talk more than I do and ask at least five questions in every single class! I might need your help reminding me when that doesn’t happen—and celebrating when it does.” Again, the goal here is for every child to feel like they have a role to play in helping your dreams be realized and that they will find success—and ultimately, meaning—in your course (even before it starts).
Step Two: The Ask—From Student to Teacher
Students will take their cues from you in terms of tone, but there are a handful of criteria you can offer to scaffold their reflections and ensure an appropriate amount of rigor and purpose. I found that rubrics—even if they are essentially completion grades—are helpful on that front, and would specify a length (two pages, single spaced, max), require a certain number of photos (one must be a creative photo of their required course materials), and otherwise offer prompts for them to choose-your-own-adventure (choose three prompts in each category). It’s worth noting that although many teachers approach these early-days-ice-breakers lightly, I did not; to me, the work of showing up as yourself and telling your story was to be taken seriously! If students did not meet the criteria in the rubric, they did not get full credit (another important tone-setting moment).
Wondering what to ask of students? Here are some prompts to consider.
Section 1: Who are you?
- Your favorite childhood birthday memory;
- Your family structure and things your family says or does often;
- Someone you admire, and what you’ve learned from them;
- Your idea of perfect happiness; your idea of perfect hell;
- Your favorite way to spend time outside of school;
- Your favorite food, song, or place—and why;
- The thing you are proudest or most scared of;
- Other ideas: Proust Questionnaire
- Required: Please include a childhood photo that makes you smile!
*Note: these questions are specific in order to be equitable and inclusive. Asking “What did you do this summer?” may be a source of stress or shame for some students; “What is one beautiful thing you saw or experienced this summer?” is something everyone can answer!
Section 2: Who are you, as a [History / Math / Science / Literature] student?
- How do you feel about the subject I’m teaching? Why?
- What scares you about this subject/class?
- What excites you about this subject/class?
- What has been the most interesting thing you’ve learned in this subject/class so far?
- Required: Please include a “selfie” somewhere fun showing me you have everything you need for the class (binder, textbook, required course books, etc.)
Section 3: Who are you, as a learner (in general)?
- What is the thing teachers do that you find the most helpful?
- What is the thing teachers do that is the biggest pet peeve?
- What advice do you have for me in terms of being a great teacher for you, specifically?
- Where on-campus is your happy spot? If you’re new or don’t know yet, where have you felt the happiest at school before? (Yes, it’s OK if the answer is on the playground!)
- What are your hopes and dreams for this year? (Note: you aren’t allowed to reference grades, e.g. PLEASE DON’T SAY: “get all A’s.” Instead, tell me what A’s look like or mean to you!”)
Step Three: The Promise—From Teacher to Student
Promising to write each student an individual letter back is a lot—especially amidst launching a course, grading summer assignments and diagnostic assessments, etc. In my experience, it has been worth the time, effort, and even content-trade-off it takes. The insight you will have into each child will pay dividends; the trust you communicate by taking their words seriously and responding individually is an incredible foundation; the power of this letter as an artifact against which to reflect throughout the year is also important. How you respond to these letters will show students that you care about them (or don’t).
So, how can you respond effectively and efficiently? Decide if you want to hand-write or type. Students love handwritten letters, but sometimes that’s just not feasible. Develop a few templates to customize lightly—and go for it! An example is below:
Dear XYZ, Thank you for sharing so [adverb] about yourself; I can already tell that [ ]. I took special note of your comment about [something related to the teacher that works/doesn’t] and hope that you will help me help you this year. Here’s to a great year ahead! Best wishes,
For extra credit? Make a playlist of their favorite songs… and play it during group work time. Or a word cloud of words they use to describe their ideal teacher, or goals for the year. All of those “gimmicks” add up in terms of helping students feel known and a part of something bigger than themselves.
Sincerely—and with best wishes for a great back to school!
Across content areas and ages, letter writing can be a great, fun strategy for you to get to know your students deeply and quickly—and show your commitment to nurturing them as individuals—in the earliest days of the school year. Although it might slow down your first few days of logistics, it will speed up your trust-building: the foundation of any great learning environment. PS: Have fun—and happy back-to-school season!
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Liza Garonzik for Intrepid Ed News.