The first day of 6th grade in my school is a challenge. The 6th graders get the school to themselves for a day since they are new to the building: a great idea in theory. The day begins with a tour, which includes the expectations our middle school has set forth at each destination. This means that at each location (be it the library, cafeteria, hallway, or bathrooms), the 6th graders will hear how to be Respectful, Responsible, Make Good Choices, and Safe in that particular area of the school. There are about 10 stops on this tour. It is a tedious process that, unfortunately, many 6th graders will remember as the worst first day of school ever. After this tour, they go through their schedules to practice getting from classroom to classroom. With A and B day schedules, the kids go to eight different 15-minute classes and hear the same phrases repeatedly: how to be Respectful, Responsible, Make Good Choices, and Safe in the classrooms of our school.
In an attempt to liven things up a bit, give my new students something interesting to remember, and set the tone that “Yes, we will be reading and writing every single day in my classroom,” we work together on somewhat goofy first week reading and writing assignments.
Ruining the First Day of School
In past years I have introduced the novel Top Ten Ways To Ruin The First Day Of School by Ken Derby. I heard about this book from a Choice Literacy article written by Shari Frost. I used it based on the article and have since added my own twists.
Simply showing the kids the cover and the title of this novel gets their gears turning. Here they are sitting in a classroom on the first day of school (a day that for many is turning out to be pretty boring) and I know they have already thought about how this day could go terribly wrong. They all probably dreamt about it the night before! Now I’m telling them it’s okay to think about all the terrible things that could go wrong. While their brains start working, I launch the fun.
I tell them to take out a sheet of paper (they don’t have their writer’s notebooks yet) and create their own list of the “Top 10 Ways to Ruin the First Day of 6th Grade.” They write, and then share the best items on their lists with their table mates. Each group discusses the most creative ideas generated by their peers, while we all laugh and think to ourselves “yes, that would be a great way to ruin the first day of 6th grade.” When the lists are done, and the sharing is complete, we settle in for a short reading of the first chapter of this book. It ends with the narrator (Tony) sending David Letterman his own top 10 list. The kids and I laugh together and talk about it for a few minutes . . . then we get to writing.
Each child has to take an idea from his or her top ten list and begin to write the story of how exactly this fictional first day of school got ruined. I allow the students to write for about five minutes, but then they have to switch papers. Each child gives her paper to the person on her left. The new person reads the beginning of the story that has been placed in front of him, and then he continues the story. This second writer is given about three minutes to write, then the paper is passed to the left again and so on. Finally, each person in a four-person group has had a chance to read and add to the story started by the previous table mates. When the stories have gone through the group, they are all read aloud. Table group members choose the one they think is best to share with the class. This is a wonderful way to get kids laughing and comfortable with each other on that first day.
Hello and Hola!
This year, I will do a similar activity on the second day of school. This one doesn’t involve as much laughter — but it lends itself well to getting to know new friends.
We will begin by using Avis Harley’s poem “Ways to Greet A Friend” from the Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems (edited by Georgia Heard). The poem begins with these words:
Hola is the Spanish Hello, Italians go for Buon giorno. . .
The writing continues in this friendly, breezy style, explaining how people greet each other in twelve different languages. In my middle school we have 33 languages and 30 countries represented, so a poem like this is inviting to those who are multilingual and/or still learning English.
My plan is to read the poem aloud, then share a short free-write about one of my memories of making a new friend. I might tell about the time I met the twins, Patsy and Theresa. I will tell about how we were three years old and we were too shy to talk so I just kept bringing my new friends My Little Pony toys to play with. Eventually we started giggling and playing. We are still friends to this day — 27 years later. Or maybe I will tell about meeting my friend Sarah. I was a new kid in a new middle school when my family moved in October of 8th grade. I will tell how she talked to me at lunch, and later, how she waved me over to sit with her during science class. I might tell my students how she invited me to her Halloween party, and I invited her to the circus with my family. I might share how we still see each other about once a year when I visit back east.
After I share my story, I will give each student an index card with one of the “hello” greetings on it (Hola, Konichiwa etc). After they get their greeting word, my students will mill around the room, looking for the classmate who has the same greeting written on his index card. When they meet their new partner, they will introduce themselves. They may talk about other ways they know to greet a person, and then they will sit down to chat about a memory they have of making a new friend.
After they are done telling their stories, each child will begin writing their story of making a friend. They will share their writing with their partner. When the story writing and exchange is over, we will go around the room and each student will be responsible for introducing her partner and telling one interesting fact about him or the story he wrote. For example:
“Hi, I’m Rachel, and this is my partner Seth. Seth likes to skateboard and he learned a lot of new tricks this summer.”
These activities not only allow for reading and writing on the very first days of school, but they help my students get to know one another when many of them don’t know their classmates at all. If I wait too long to get the group and partner work started, kids already have their cliques formed, and it becomes “weird” for kids to be partnered with classmates outside their social circles. They may feel awkward because they’ve been in the same classes together for weeks but haven’t spoken to each other or even learned everyone’s names. I try to make sure that my students are really interacting with the whole class, not just the three kids who share their table group. It sets the tone that we are a community, and we will support each other for a long time to come – even beyond the 6th grade.