I’ve always thought Chemistry teachers had it easy. They get to blow stuff up or set things on fire on the first day of school. Ideal attention grabbers. But when I mentioned this to a chemistry teacher at school, he blew up, reminding me there was barely enough time to take roll and make it through the Course Expectations sheet.
The first day is always difficult – a room full of frightened strangers settling in to spend a year of their lives together. Emotions can overwhelm– and I’m not just talking about the students. At the end of my very first class as a teacher – a 6th grade class in Brooklyn – I nearly hyperventilated. When the bell sounded, a little boy named Jimmy stayed after to reassure me that it was all going to be okay if I could just learn to relax.
There’s something comforting about reading a script, a list of rules to establish order in the classroom. It’s a universal ritual that happens everywhere, every year, in nearly every subject. As a teacher for the past 20 years and a student 20 years before that, I’ve come to know this routine well. It’s what Nietzsche called “the eternal return of the same” and what the rest of us know as school.
One year, though, while I was reading my own Welcome to the Course sheet, my words suddenly sounded like a strange perversion of the Miranda rights: You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to visit the bathroom, but only under certain conditions. You have the right to suck on hard candy, but you may not chew gum. If you do not bring a spiral notebook to class, the state will not provide one for you.
Many teachers even have their students sign a behavior contract on the first day. I wanted to lose this legal language and get right into our class. As education philosopher Jerome Bruner says, “Legal stories are interested in the way things are; literature” – my subject – “is interested in how things might be and what might happen if…. “
So, we started with a descriptive writing exercise. We needed a short text, so I drew the letter “M “ on the board and asked students to list things it looked like-- mountains, ocean waves, a roller coaster, a crown. I drew the letter upside down and asked: Now what does it look like? Two ice cream cones, empty pockets, lovers holding hands, bicuspids. I drew the letter on its side in both directions and the images kept on coming: shark teeth, a baby bird feeding, a pair of lips.
For homework that first night, and as an on-going assignment, I asked students to see the world differently – to discover three things about the world they didn’t know before. Where they went to make these discoveries was illuminating: most went to the computer, a couple asked their parents, a few in every class left their houses and went outside to make discoveries – a spider web covering a hole in the screen door, a cicada husk by the curbside, the sudden proliferation of Cubs flags and campaign posters.
Some of the rule bound school language emerged at the start of class the next day. One boy asked if it was okay that he’d discovered four things about the world instead of three. The following Monday a girl asked, with no trace of irony, “Do we still have to discover things about the world or are we all through with that?”
“We’re never through with that. This is an assignment for the rest of your life,” I said, half-expecting her to write this life-long homework down in her academic planner.
What they discovered was secondary to me. The important thing was that they were discovering -- not how the world is but how it might be seen. Since this is the greatest challenge in any classroom, I thought, why not start the first day by igniting our students’ curiosity, setting ablaze their imagination.