I was rummaging through old files recently, and I ran across the manuscript of my first published article, “Only 179 Days to Go”. It appeared in the September 1961 back-to-school issue of The Instructor Magazine, a major journal for elementary educators. I recall being very thrilled at the publication – and at the $7 they sent me for writing it.

What’s amazing is that a couple months later I received a letter out of the blue from an editor at Prentice Hall Publishing Company. He wrote that he had seen my article, liked it, and wondered if I had ever thought of writing a book. His letter blew my mind. I had hit the jackpot with my first published article. The eventual result was Common Sense in Classroom Relationships (1966, Parker/Prentice-Hall). And here I am 45 years later with 20 published books and curricular programs; and hundreds of articles, columns, and book reviews.

I thus thought you might be interested in what I had to say at the very beginning of my writing career – and you’ll note that it describes a more relaxed time in school, not buffeted by standards and assessments. To provide context, I taught in elementary schools for ten years before becoming a college professor in 1959, and the first four of these years were spent in a one room rural school with 36 students in eight grades. I also drove the school bus and served as the custodian. I paid my dues.

Only 179 Days To Go
What does a teacher do on the first day of school? First year teachers usually quiver and quake. Experienced teachers begin confidently with activities that will successfully start the year. The following suggestions should spark additional ideas in your mind:

First impressions are important, so establish a warm classroom atmosphere. Get the summer disinfectant smell out of the classroom. Make it airy, cheerful, and colorful. If students who enter your room for the first time see that you’ve gone out of your way to make the room pleasant for them, they’ll be more apt to go out of their way for you. Behavior patterns are often established during the first few days of the school year.

Discuss housekeeping with the class and decide together how it should be handled. Realize that you must also visibly participate in this shared responsibility. Discuss routines and rules, such as sharpening pencils, going to the bathroom, and chewing gum. Common sense should rule. Begin with a few clearly stated rules, rather than a multitude of specific fussy rules. Students want to know which areas are your responsibility, which are theirs, and which are shared.

Don’t focus on what your students shouldn’t do, but rather on what they should do. It’s the subtle difference between telling them to not leave their seats and asking them to remain in their seats.

Help students get acquainted with the room. For example, ask them to make crayon rubbings of the various surface textures in the room, and cut and paste them into collages.

Ask students to write their estimates of how long the room is, how heavy a desk is, how much their reading book weighs, and other measurement phenomena. See who came the closest on each estimate.

Do a few silly things. Use a ruler to measure the widest grin, a thermometer to measure the warmest handshake. Identify the humming champion. Pair off the class, and at a signal ask each pair of students to look their competitor in the eye and hum. First one to take a breath loses. Winners pair off again and repeat the process until the champion hummer is identified. It’s OK to try to make your opponent laugh.

Ask students to write a short paper that outlines their plans and hopes for the year. Collect these, and file them unread until the last day of the school year. Then return them. It’s always interesting for students to read and discuss in June what they wrote last September.

Ask the students to write something interesting that they did during the summer, but to not sign their names. Gather the papers and randomly pass them out to be read aloud. See how many of the authors the class can guess.

Give them a quiz on your life and see if they can guess where you were born, your parents’ occupations, how many siblings you have, where you went to college, etc.

Divide the classroom or an outside area into 12 zones, and ask students to bring a pencil and sheet of paper to the activity. Make a series of statements such as: (1) Everyone whose birthday is in January goes to zone I, February, zone 2, etc. Ask them in each activity to write the zone number on the paper. (2) Count the number of letters in your last name and go to that zone number. (3) Count the number of people in your immediate family and go to that zone number. (4) If your last name begins with A or B, go to zone 1, C or D, go to zone 2, etc. When you’ve completed the individual activities you developed, ask the students to add up all their zone numbers. Line students up from lowest to highest score and go for an exploratory walk around the school.

When you return to the classroom, ask the students to count off in line so that you’ll have four equal size teams. Give your class a preview of factual information they’ll study during the year with a quiz game that uses a format similar to a radio or TV quiz game. Two teams compete on answering 12 or so questions, such as: How do you spell separate, What’s the product of 25 X 25, and What’s the capital of Greece. Students on competing teams signal that they know the answer by slamming a hand on their desk. First slam responds, but a wrong answer subtracts points. After the other two teams have competed, the two winning teams compete to identify the champions. The game will give your students a sense of what they’ll be studying, and it will give you a sense of how much they already know.

It looks like we’ve taken care of the first day. Only 179 to go.