Setting the Scene

01Sep11

The first lesson with a class is always a challenge. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching, I think – you’re still aware of the need to make a good first impression. Because in many ways it’s the first few lessons – what Bill Rogers and others call the ‘establishment phase’ – that set the tone for the rest of your time together. I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to do too much in my first hour with a class is counter-productive. After swapping some ideas on twitter about what the first lesson should cover (although I’m sure there are many other suggestions out there) I wanted to blog my own routine. As tends to be the case, the summer has gotten away from me so I’m now doing this in a rush, but so it goes. Whether you already use some of these ideas, or think they’re crazy, I’d love to read some comments below.

Of course, in some schools (including my own) some classes will have a ‘pep talk’, perhaps including some statistics or previous rsults, to inspire the students to do well. How constructive you think this is will of course vary.

Introduction

Some students will know who I am, by reputation or by having been taught by me before. I still introduce myself and explain my specialism (Physics), and tell them that I’m looking forward to working with them over the next year.

Seating

I use a seating plan with my classes, which I aim to mix up fairly regularly. In practice it often takes a while, as it helps to provide some stability to start with – and makes learning names easier. I use targets and SEN info to help me plan the seating, so that I can readily assist (or have TAs within reach of) those students who are likely to need support. This will usually need modifying, as I find I’ve inadvertantly sat deadly enemies next to each other, or that I have an entire row of effectively silent students. But it’s a start.

Administration

There are some really boring jobs that still need to be done sooner rather than later – a bit of thought will help them to go more smoothly. Folders may need to be issued and names written on the front, perhaps textbooks (and the numbers collected in), dates of exams flagged up, targets issued and recorded. I try and use this time to pick up a few names, especially for those students at the top and bottom of the ability range. It’s also a chance to praise kids who can listen to the instructions (which ideally should be on the board/IWB as well), so setting a precedent. If you’re new to a school, ask someone who isn’t about tips and tricks for what matters most, where book numbers are recorded and so on. Trying to catch up at Christmas isn’t fun.

Routines

How you tell students about what is expected of them will vary between teachers and between schools. If there is a school code of conduct, it’s perhaps worth discussing how this will be applied in the science lab. I’ve posted before about how I try to negotiate the wording of the rules, so that students feel ‘ownership’. It’s important they understand that teachers as well as students are bound by the agreement. Some teachers will have students sign a copy for display; others will save an electronic version, and return to it from time to time. I find emphasizing that the lab is for learning, and asking students how we can make that happen, is a useful approach. Learn, Enjoy, Achieve are three separate aims that cover most of it, and students find it hard to object to these goals. Be prepared for questions from the students about consequences for those who don’t follow agreed rules, and be ready to emphasize that right now they all have the chance to leave bad habits behind them. I sometimes have them write out the agreed rules and underline the one they think they’ll have most trouble with themselves.

Trailer

If at all possible, you want there to be something in the lesson telling the kids what the subject is going to be like. This doesn’t necessarily mean a flashy demo – it’s a pain to set up and might set expectations a little high. Talking about what science is all about can be useful; I’ve emptied out my pockets on to the demo bench (a nice way to show you’re human, too) and talked about how the coming topics are applied. Credit cards (chips and magnetic strips), mobile phone (EM, materials, electricity), keys (metals, chemical reactions), karabiner keyring (forces), pocket torch (light, energy), chocolate bar (nutrition)… all kinds of possibilities.

This year I plan to use the “I know a place” speech by Phil Plaitt, who among other things writes the Bad Astronomy blog. If you’ve not read this before, I really think you should. I’m hoping that this will set the scene nicely for my students in terms of telling them what science is all about. Of course I’ll also tell them the topics for the next year, how they’ll be assessed and all that. But it’s the big picture that I want them to have, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the universe.

EDIT: @alomshaha has reminded me of his Why Science? site, with all kinds of useful introductions to the best subject in the curriculum. 🙂 I’d probably use small sections for this purpose rather than the full version, but I should emphasize that’s about time constraints!

If you want/need to start teaching content, remember a few basic things. You’ll be pushed for time. They’ll want to catch up with friends more than they want to make a good impression. Some won’t have pens or pencils. Several will swear blind they’ve never covered the material you know they did last year. So if you must, I’d suggest an assessment exercise, auditing previous knowledge. This could be a comprehension piece, perhaps with some HSW elements or, as Lauraj987 suggested, a research activity where they use textbooks to remind themselves of what they’ve already done. That way those with good memories don’t have a particular advantage.

Enjoy it. Get off to a good start in September and life will be much easier in March. I don’t agree with the old “Don’t smile until Christmas” rule but it’s much easier to relax later in the year than get stricter. You’ll be with these kids for at least a year, perhaps two – make the most of it.

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3 Responses to “Setting the Scene”

  1. 1 lauraj987

    Thank you so much for writing this post and thanks for the mention. The advice is really helpful, as always. You’ve made me feel better about the first time I meet my classes. I’ll let you know how it goes next week.

  2. I have a number of routines depending on the school and year group. I do normally run through a very simple rights and responsibilities chart with almost everyone in lower school and all the classes get a seating plan … my full colour mugshot ones are so geeky but I love em 😀

    I think my most unusual habit is reading an excerpt from a book to my y12s. This is SO not me … but the paragraph of Feynman’s intro lecture where he discusses what his approach will be to teaching is right on the money for setting the kids’ expectations and preparing them to build heavily on the atomic models they understood at ks4. We’re so good at getting kids at ks3 to evaluate the strengths of models but we’re rubbish at (finding the time to) do[ing] it at ks4 and the inevitable and inaccurate cries of “you lied to us” do my head in 😀

  3. Like you I also use the Welcome to Science piece by Phil Plait – and also the first half of A Prayer for my Daughter by Richard Dawkins – but I stop it after the evidence bit and before he really lays the boot into religion…. DM me if you want a copy.


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