The First Days of a New School Year

(Lee Dieck, August 2022)

Some years ago, a colleague asked us to think about what we wanted to accomplish in the first day of classes with our students. I thought about it for a minute, and responded that I wanted the students to be excited about coming back to my class. For years, I had watched kids slog through that first day, going from one class to the next, being handed course expectation sheets, hearing about the books they were going to use, and generally enduring the onslaught of information that, while necessary, didn’t really engage them. 

I was teaching General Chemistry at the time–a required class that many of my students feared/dreaded. They felt a lack of control, a lack of confidence, and anticipated a year of facts and formulas that they might not be able to master. I recognized at the time that for my students to have any measure of success, I needed to make overcoming those obstacles part of my approach to teaching the subject. 

So on that first day, I brought stacks of newspapers in from home, and put them out on the lab tables. When the students came in, I introduced myself, welcomed them, and told them to spread out and dig through the newspapers to find something that related to Chemistry (spoiler alert: everything [and I do mean everything] relates to Chemistry). I wandered among the tables as they looked…tentatively at first… Eventually they were talking to each other, and finding potential articles. I brought them back to the Harkness table and asked them to share what they’d found. In the process of sharing, they learned more about each other. It was the beginning of creating a classroom community, the beginning of understanding the relevance of Chemistry to the world, and the first opportunity for them to choose their focus, even in a small way. For the most part, they were smiling when they left class that day, and were enthusiastic when they came to the next class. Yes, we got to atoms, ions, moles, energy, and equilibrium, but we did so together, with assignments that gave them some choice and agency, with encouragement to work together to solve problems, with exploration of the ways in which they learn best, and with an emphasis on real world applications to what we learned. I wanted them to know that I cared–that my commitment was to them as people and as learners. 

It was shortly after this that I was introduced to Self-Determination Theory which is at the core of everything we do at Heart of Character. All humans have three basic psychological needs: the need for autonomy, the need to belong, and the need to feel that they can increase their competency in various situations. Research shows that attention to these three factors in schools not only improves academic results, it also helps to internalize motivation and improves school culture. There are many simple approaches that truly make the difference for students and teachers, alike. Click here for just a few practical ideas.