Meeting our students on Day One

I tweeted this today and was asked to share my process by a couple of people. Here, in rough outline, is how I spend part of the first day of every class getting to know my students. It’s a pedagogical stance that has proved invaluable over the last fifteen years.

On the first day of class, I pass out index cards to my students. I ask them not to write their names on the cards. Instead, I write 5 probing and/or silly questions on the board (favorite historical figure, choice of superpower, best book or movie of the summer, why you chose your major, etc.) and give them time to write down their answers.

I collect the cards and pass them back out to others. I explain all of this beforehand; I don’t want anyone putting personal information on a card before they know it’s going to end up in someone else’s hands (learn from my experience: I’ve made this mistake before). Then everyone walks around to find the person whose card he/she has by asking only yes/no questions (but NOT “Is this your card?”). I ask students not to sit down until they’ve found their person AND the person with their card has found them.

Then, we all introduce each other (sometimes I throw a card with my information into the mix). I make ridiculously abstract notes on the roll sheet next to each person’s name (“Spiderman,” “went to Costa Rica,” “loves Hillary Clinton,” “hates the welfare system”) to start connecting their interests, their names, and their faces. I pause the introductions a lot to ask more questions. Everyone claps after every introduction. It sounds silly, but somehow, it works.

After that, students take their own cards back, and I ask them to give me names, alternate email addresses, and cell phone numbers (those are voluntary, but I explain why sometimes it’s helpful for me to have them). I also ask them to answer two key questions: 1. What have you always liked and/or hated about English classes, and 2. What might I need you to know about you, personal or not, as we go through this semester together?

Most people skip that last one. But here are some things I’ve gotten in the past: “I’m pregnant; I just found out,” “I have epilepsy,” or, “my mom is going through chemotherapy, sometimes I might have to miss class.”

Going through these at the beginning of the semester is invaluable. It helps me remember names (which I try to have completely down by the end of class #2), humanizes me to them and them to me, gives me useful personality and life situation data, and identifies potential problems, pitfalls, and hot button issues.

This process eats up lots of time on the first day (which is sometimes difficult), but I have never regretted doing it. I did it on my first day of teaching high school in 1999, and I have done it every other first day since. I hope that it reveals a little of my pedagogy to the class, that writing requires community and community requires personal investment, contribution, and curious, idiosyncratic details.