Monday, September 10, 2012

On The Breaking of Ice …(OR What I did in class on the first day of school)


Strike that. I love icebreakers when they’re well thought out and carefully executed, but that almost never happens in classrooms on the first day of school.  What typically happens is some token "get to know you" game or ice breaker that no one, the teacher included, is particularly invested in.  Students get bored, the teacher gets annoyed with the students’ boredom, and the year gets off to a lame start. 

I refuse to start my classes that way.  

In its infinite wisdom, the School District of Philadelphia decided that the 2012-2013 school year would begin on a Friday and moreover, it would be a half-day.  I actually really like the idea of having a the first day be a half day as it allows for time to run through the entire schedule and work out any kinks (of which there were some)… but why we started on a Friday is beyond me.

Nonetheless, I agonized over what I would do with five thirty-minute classes (I teach one of each English 1, 2, & 4 and 2 sections of English 3).  Also, I do have some students who are enrolled in two of my classes, so I didn’t want to do the same thing in each class. I knew I didn’t want to go over the syllabus or do any contrived icebreakers.  I wanted to hit the ground running.  We are an accelerated school and I was determined to come out swinging.  

I decided to organize each class around the BIG IDEAS that all I suggested we integrate across all of our academic courses: Comprehension, Critical Analysis, and Argument.  I set about finding four unique texts to use with these big ideas on day one. I went with one of my old standbys (and absolute favorites), spoken word poetry. 

Much like the use of hip hop in urban classrooms, I feel like spoken world or slam poetry is an exceptionally effective tool, but it requires a lot of preparation and is easy to do poorly.  Again, like hip hop, teachers sometimes have a tendency to use slam poetry as a hook or as a sort of gimmick to teach some skill in isolation. [More to come later about the use of hip hop in the language arts classroom, but in the meantime, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill's text Beats, Rhymes and Classroom Life is an amazing resource]  I feel that the poems have a lot to offer on their own and deserve to be examined just as we would a traditional text  (of course, the novelty certainly was welcome on the first day of school).  

I selected two poems that I’ve worked with in the past and two that I discovered over the summer.

English 1: Lamont Carey’s “I Can’t Read” (def Poetry Jam)

English 2: The Steinmanuts’ “Counting Graves” (Louder than A Bomb)

English 3: Daniel Beaty’s “Knock Knock” (def Poetry Jam)

English 4: Tha Truth (Lamar Jorden)’s “The Shooter” (Louder than a Bomb)

(I cannot recommend these four poems highly enough.  If you haven’t seen Louder than a Bomb yet, get it.  It provides a great look at what poetry can offer high school students.  Def Poetry is also a great tool for spurring discussion and analysis of poetry). 

For each, I created a worksheet with the lyrics and a space for student response and reaction to the poem.  I decided that we’d watch each poem twice, pausing between the viewings to discuss basic comprehension.  After the second viewing, we would discuss the poem, focusing on the text and the thematic elements. 

While every poem went over very well, “Counting Graves” and “Knock Knock” absolutely killed it.  Both poems left many students speechless and empowered for discussion at the same time.  This certainly set the tone for the critical analysis that I’ll be pushing my students to this year and I’m very glad that I chose to defer my introductory syllabus/ housekeeping stuff until Monday. 

On day one, I made my students a promise that, just as I didn’t want them to waste mine, I would not waste their time.  I feel that using our first class period in this fashion, rather than for a token icebreaker or a lecture on procedures & policies, demonstrated my commitment to their academic and personal development. 

And I’ll admit that the groans of “TeacherMan you’re the only one making us do work on the first day…” made me smile. [Though I know I wasn’t the only one of my talented colleagues requiring critical thinking on day one…]


  1. Great Post! I totally agree that the first day should be an exciting and thought provoking time, not a boring, contrived day. I had my students think about an analyze different quotes about what it means to be American, and they remarked, much like your students did, "awww...we have to do work on the first day". You sure do, my friends.
    Here's a cool article from the Washington Post, I especially like the part from Frazier OLeary, who is an amazing English teaching in DCPS. He led my AP training. I highly recommend the Edward P. Jones short story, The First Day, also.
    Those def poetry pieces were so moving, I'm definitely going to use them when we discuss poetry.

    1. Thanks bro. My English 3 students are reading The First Day tomorrow. The course focuses on American Challenges and I like to use it as a way of connecting and inferring. A great, short, complex piece.