- First-Day-of-Class Activities
- “Who Are These People?” First-Day Activities That Build Community
- Writing a Recipe of Yourself: By Anke Geertsma
- Icebreakers in Pairs or Small Groups
- “How Will the Class Run?” Establishing Expectations
- Classroom Agreements
- Annotate the Syllabus
- “What Will the Class Cover?” Piquing Curiosity and Initiating Learning
- First-Day Freewrite: By Luke Waltzer
- Exploding the Text: By Wendy Tronrud
- Question Your Assumptions: By Miranda Fedock
- Short In-Class Activities to Check for Understanding
- Creative Activities
The first day of class is an opportunity to set a tone for the semester, to begin to establish rapport with your students, and to help them understand the kinds of work you’ll be doing together. The suggestions below offer creative alternatives to the bland “syllabus day” approach, and have been drawn from Graduate Center faculty and students, as well as additional resources. Some of these originally appeared as part of the Teach@CUNY series on Visible Pedagogy. Activities are organized around three questions students commonly have on the first day of class: “Who are these people?” “How will the class run?” and “What will the class cover?”
The activities in this section are designed to provide casual and friendly opportunities for students to learn a little bit about each other and to encourage students to start learning each others’ names and speaking to each other starting on the first day of class. This helps establish quickly that the class will be multidirectional, rather than focused solely on exchanges between each individual student and you as the instructor.
This semester I’m trying out a new first day of class activity. Rather than just asking for students to briefly introduce themselves, I want to ask them to write a recipe for themselves. I’m thinking of titles such as “Recipe for Sweet Steven” or “How to Make a Delicious Helen.” I’ll encourage students to be creative: tell what has gone into making them, such as personal or ethnic backgrounds, languages and experiences, but also what they care about and what motivates them. They can include a photo of what the recipe looks like when it’s ready (a selfie or something that stands for who they are).
I’ll explain the activity and ask them to write down some thoughts in our first class. During this first class I also plan to have them share some thoughts in small groups so that they can get to know each other already. I’m teaching a hybrid class with a course site, so I’ll ask them to publish their recipes online, but this type of activity would of course also work in a regular class by asking students to bring their recipes to the second class and sharing them (in small groups or with the whole class).
Beyond introducing themselves, I also hope to direct my students’ focus to different genres of writing, for, while most students won’t immediately think of the recipe in these terms, it’s a genre just like the essay or an epic poem. I’ll ask them to consider the genre’s components (list of ingredients, directions, cooking time) and mimic these features in their recipes for themselves.
Taking the time to help students introduce themselves and engage with each other can help your students do better in the course, as social engagement and community-building are crucial parts of learning. There are hundreds of icebreaker activity ideas available online. We encourage you to be strategic about which activity or activities you choose. For example, if you choose a silly icebreaker, give students permission to be goofy by modeling and embracing the goofiness, and know that choosing this type of activity communicates to your students that fun and playfulness is welcome in your class. If you choose a simpler or more serious icebreaker, consider connecting it to course content in some way. For example, as part of introducing themselves to partners or small groups, students might talk about their personal experience with your course topic or a central theme in your course, or you might encourage students to find one thing they have in common with each other in relation to your course (for example, least favorite musical genre in a music course, or favorite previous math class in a math course).
If your class is online, design an icebreaker using the tools and platforms you’ll expect students to use or become familiar with in the course. Here are some ideas:
- Photo Dump: Share photos in response to prompts, such as “favorite food,” “current mood,” or “something that brings you joy right now.” Photos can be pasted on a shared Google Doc or Padlet, anonymously or not, with the option for students to comment on each other’s photos.
- Cliche Poll: Get all those cliche icebreaker questions out of the way, such as “cats or dogs,” “sweet or salty,” or “tea or coffee.” Use a tool like Zoom’s poll feature, PollEverywhere, Kahoot, Quizziz, or collect timed emoji reactions on Zoom or on a pre-recorded video platform such as Loom. Acknowledging that the questions are cliche helps your students buy into the activity and embrace its cliche-ness.
- Make A Shape: If you teach your class on Zoom or a similar platform, randomly assign students to small groups in breakout rooms, and tell them they have X amount of time to connect their arms on-screen to make a particular shape (triangle, circle, line). One person in each group will be the “caller,” telling the others how to position their arms, and will take the screenshot, to be shared with everyone afterwards. Consider leaving time for groups to do this at least twice, making a different shape, with different “callers,” to give multiple people in each group a chance to lead.
Here are some additional ideas for breaking the ice with your students.
The activities in this section help your students understand what to expect from the course, what you and their peers expect of them, and what they can expect from others. This is important to do on the first day, as students are often “shopping around” for classes on that day and want to strategically plan their semesters. The activities below give students some agency over course expectations, creating space for them to make suggestions, give feedback, and advocate for their needs. We invite you to take all student comments seriously, while emphasizing that this does not mean changing your course expectations to satisfy every student’s comment. If the situation arises, be honest with your students about the pedagogical intent behind certain expectations that you’re not willing to change.
Provide a space for students to voice what they need from you, their classmates, and themselves in order to do well in the course. This goes a long way towards establishing an atmosphere of trust, transparency, and compassionate accountability in the classroom.
This activity can take several shapes. You might first provide some initial suggested agreements, addressing what you would like from the students for the class to run smoothly, and what in turn the students can expect from you. For example, if arriving on time for class is important for you, express this to the students, explain why, address what you would like them to do if they cannot arrive on time, and vow to arrive on time yourself. Then, create space for students to brainstorm additional classroom agreements. Ask students to brainstorm on their own for a few minutes, write down their ideas, and then brainstorm with a partner. Students can then write some or all of their ideas in a shared space, anonymously or not, on the classroom’s whiteboard or on a shared Google doc or Padlet. Group together similar ideas, and then discuss them with the class. Together, decide which ones to keep and which ones to put aside (for now - classroom agreements can always be revisited as needed). Affirm that each person in the class agrees to abide by these agreements. After class, add them to the syllabus.
Alternately, you might decide to scaffold the brainstorm session a bit more, by providing specific prompts to which students respond. For one example of how to do this, see “First Day Graffiti.”
Be aware that students might initially say only what they think you want to hear. Do your best to encourage diverse voices and opinions during this process, and openly question common classroom agreements you don’t support.
Share your syllabus with your students as a Google doc, and give them permission on the doc to make suggestions. After giving students some time to look over it, ask them to annotate it, adding their questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, and other ideas directly to the doc. They can do this on their own or in pairs or small groups (breakout rooms if teaching on Zoom). Discuss their annotations as they arise and as needed. Be willing to make some changes to your syllabus based on what your students share, but do not feel obligated to make all or even any changes. If your class involves text annotation, this activity has the added bonus of introducing students to this kind of work right at the beginning of the class. This can also be done as homework and discussed on the second day of class.
Think about your learning objectives for the course. Fundamentally, what do you want your students to take away from this course? Consider doing an activity connected to your answer to this question. Doing so will get your students learning on the first day, and can help spark their interest in course content. Here are some activity examples to do this:
My hope for the first day of class is to help students see how we’ll move as a learning community towards the goals of the course. After we all briefly introduce ourselves, we review the syllabus. Students should see the arc of the semester, the logic of selected readings, the intentionality and connection of assignments, and the space that’s available for modification. They should see a structure, but also how we might improvise.
A syllabus review is not enough, however. It’s crucial that students begin the course with an understanding of their roles and responsibilities. I ask them to do some freewriting about their points of entry into and goals for the course, and then they share what they’ve come up with. This exercise makes clear that they will be expected to be active participants in the classroom space, engaging, contributing their thoughts, bolstering the structure. This sometimes makes students uncomfortable, which is not necessarily a bad thing; good things can happen in a classroom when one grows comfortable with one’s own discomfort.
The prompt I give takes different shapes depending on the nature of the class. For instance, in the Digital Humanities (DH) Praxis course, students are expected to produce a working prototype of a digital project by the end of the semester, and the process requires significant attention to the rhetorical choices that come with project development and advocacy. On the first day students composed a tweet about their proposed project, and the enabling constraint of 280 characters emphasized the need for and challenges of precision, clarity, and simplicity when discussing complex projects. Returning to this exercise throughout the semester helped students recenter their understanding of their work, which is important when things are moving quickly. Courses that are less pressure-packed than DH Praxis, such as survey-based courses, have had prompts oriented to helping students situate themselves and their histories within the context of the course. By the end of the exercise, they should feel some ownership over and investment in the space we will all build together, and a readiness to work.
On the first day of class, I like to end with an “Explode the Text” exercise. As a strategy, “Explode the Text” requires all students to participate aloud and to collaborate in the meaning making process with a complex and challenging text; it opens up interpretive possibilities, rather than directing students to answers, and it builds in differentiation and student choice. Thus as a first-day exercise it models so much of what we want students to do for the semester as a community and as individuals, and it is perfect for a class that does not know one another yet.
Step 1: I begin with a poem that is complex but relatively brief (I’ve used Hayan Charara’s “Elegy with Apples . . .” or Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”). It is helpful to have a poem around twenty lines or so. As I read aloud, students should underline any line(s) that stand out or speak to them in some way. This ensures that students have a choice as to their entry point into the poem and allows them to appreciate and respond to a smaller section of language without the pressure of having to immediately grasp the poem as a whole. The goal is to open up the complex language and connotations of a given poem through the images, associations, and personal responses students bring to it. I encourage students to freewrite directly on the printed handout of the poem.
Step 2: I then read the poem a second time, and this is where the text is “exploded.” As I get to the line a given student chose, the student interjects his/her freewriting aloud to the class. When I get to the end of the poem, every student in the class has “exploded the text” with his/her associations, ideas, images, etc.
Step 3: After this collective experiment, students share observations or reflections they have about the process, experience, or poem. For instance, a number of students may choose the same line from which to freewrite or a number of students may bring similar or conflicting connotations to various lines and all of this makes for great discussion. This part can take a more directed exploration of the text (perhaps you have questions you want students to consider), but I think what’s important is to first ask students to reflect aloud or in writing about the process of this strategy and what they noticed and learned from it.
In my course, “Introduction to World Music,” we spend a good portion of the first day trying to answer the question “what is music?” First, we go outside of the building or sit in the hallway outside our classroom, listen quietly to the sounds around us, and write down everything we hear. Back in the classroom, we share some of what we heard. Then I ask the question: are these sounds music? Initially, some students answer yes, and others no. Students then work in pairs to answer the question “What is music?” I ask them to write down at least three things that something has to have in order for it to be considered “music.” After about five minutes of this, students shout their answers out while I scribble them on the board and connect similar answers. Then, one by one, I go through each answer in turn, and play an example of a song or piece of music that does not have that particular element, if such an example exists (Spotify and YouTube are my best friends for this part). During this process, students begin to realize that the term “music” is actually pretty contextual and ambiguous, and that they have some assumptions about what music is that might not universally apply. Then, together, we arrive at a definition of music that we can all agree on, and that includes as many different understandings of music as possible. To quote one recent student’s comment to me at the end of this activity: “You’re blowing my mind with all this “what is music” stuff! Can’t wait to see what we’ll do next week!”
Give students a prompt and time (five minutes) to respond to the prompt. This prompt might address a classroom dynamic that you want to further explore, a response to a reading, or a survey. Once they have finished writing, collect them and redistribute them. Go around the room and ask students to read the response that they have.
Ask students to write two things on a notecard or a half-sheet of paper: the clearest point (from the lecture, from last night’s reading, etc.) and the “muddiest” point (the most difficult to understand). You can make this function as a quiz. You could also count it as participation or use it to take attendance. If you do this at the end of class, you can use the questions as a way to start class during the next session. Or you could generate a list of “muddiest points” for students to discuss in groups and then conduct some whole-class feedback.
Pick a concept that is relevant to the course that you imagine students might have some trouble understanding. Bring a collection of diverse artifacts—books, images, magazines, newspapers, etc. Give students time to “follow” that concept across media. They can keep track in a journal of some kind or make a collage. Ask them to post or email the photos and create a slideshow with all of the ways that students thought about the concepts. Go through the slideshows asking students to comment on what they were thinking when they took the photo. Conclude with a discussion about the concept.
Identify key concepts, themes, or frames that you’d like students to think more about. Write these terms on different index cards or on the board. Ask students to categorize or match related quotes, examples, images, references, etc. that fall under these categories. This can happen as a whole class or can be done in small groups. If it is done in small groups, do a “gallery walk” and ask students to explore how groups differently categorized them.
Put signs up that say agree, disagree, or in-between. Read statements from the course material aloud—concepts, quotes, etc. and ask them to go stand under the signs that reflect their thinking. Useful for highlighting various degrees of agreement and/or disagreement, rather than forcing an either/or binary, in order to encourage more nuanced critical thinking among students. Also useful for measuring students’ change and growth over the course of a lesson, unit, or entire semester: for example, consider starting and ending a class with this activity, in order to process how students’ thinking has changed around a certain topic or issue.
Alternatively, present a debatable statement and have students position themselves on a spectrum of answers (rather than limiting them to agree/disagree/in-between). Have students explain and elaborate. Invite students to reconsider and reposition. This version of the activity is sometimes called the “human barometer.”
Invite students to share the labor of facilitating class discussion. The fishbowl structure divides the class into two groups: one group sits in an “inner circle” and the other sits in an “outer circle.” The students positioned in the inner circle are given a few talking points or specific questions they need to address during the discussion; meanwhile, the students positioned in the outer circle follow a rubric to evaluate the discussion. You can then switch the roles of the participants.
A version of “close looking” drawn from Rika Burnham's "Long Look" gallery pedagogy. Essentially, you show students an image with little to no context, and ask them to observe the image and begin to construct ideas and responses. After approximately five minutes and initial responses, give the students some more contextualizing information, and ask them to view the image for another few minutes. Ask students as they are able to move around the space, to come closer or further away, to change their perspective. At the end of the close looking time, the class discusses their insights, impressions, and questions. The instructor guides the conversation towards the course objectives for the day.
Pull a relevant quote or image (or series of quotes and images) to project onto the board. Give students ten to fifteen minutes to write and draw on top of the projected quote or image. If you are repeating this activity, take a photo of each iteration. This can be a warm-up activity before writing or discussion time or can act as a way to conclude. Digital tools for doing this activity online, synchronously or asynchronously, include Padlet (you and students can post images/quotes and comment on them), DrawChat (you share an image/quote and students write or draw on top of it), and VideoANT (you share a YouTube video, students write time-stamped comments).
Invite students to choose any text that you have read in your class and respond to it creatively. They can write creatively in a genre of their choice (poem, short story, personal reflection, or something else), or create something in a different medium, such as an image, gif, short video, other visual artwork, song, podcast, interpretive dance, or something else altogether. A brief write-up (150-300 words) should accompany the creative work explaining the connections that students made between the text and their own work.
Put up three to four posters (or write topics on the board) related to the class content or the goals for the semester. For example, the posters could say “What do you want to learn in this class?” “What do you think you could teach other people in this class?” “What are your strengths as a ______ student?” “What skills would you like to improve?” Each student gets a post-it note for each poster. They should respond to each prompt anonymously on one post-it note and place it under the question that it answers. Padlet is an ideal digital tool for doing this activity in an online format.
Have students bring in an image, a sound clip, or a video link in response to a reading or cultural text that has been assigned. Mount these images on a larger white piece of paper, so that there is room for others to write. Post these on the wall and have students walk around and look at what their colleagues have brought, adding hashtags that identify themes and keywords. These ideas can then be used as the basis for a discussion. If you teach online, you can use a variety of digital tools for this, including Padlet or Evernote, or on social media, where hashtags will facilitate easy collection of all related content.