We are always told to make the best first impression, and the first day of class is our first impression on students. So, it makes no sense to waste our first impression on reading the syllabus to our college students and letting them leave class early. We need to draw in our students right from the beginning, make sure they understand what the class will be about, and get them excited about the class.
We need to also start practices that we will use throughout the semester on our first day of class. For example, in a class with a lot of group discussion, I started the first day with brainstorming in groups about what it meant to be Roman. They started talking to each other and started to get to know each other, and they started the habit of talking to each other like they did for the rest of the semester. Brainstorming on the first day of class also allows you to understand what they associate with and like about your topic.
The first day of class is also when you establish your classroom policies. Some teachers like to put these in the syllabus, some like to lecture about them to the class. One very interesting strategy is that students are told, as groups, to find something that they need to know from the syllabus and then share it with the rest of the class. Students, then, covered the late policy, the students with disabilities policy, the make-up policy, etc. which were not delivered by the teacher as a lecture.
The first day is also when you establish the relationship you will have with your students. How relaxed or formal is the class? How much leeway do you want to give them in terms of speaking without raising their hand, of answering questions without raising their hand, of talking to each other during class, of disrupting the class, of texting during class, of using electronics during class, etc.? All sorts of potential behavioral and classroom management issues might need to be addressed depending on your own beliefs and the age level of the students.
The first day of class should also not be wasted in terms of instruction. There is always a foundation that you can lay. In Roman history and Classical literature in translation classes, I like to introduce students to the geography of ancient Greece and Rome on the first day so that they have a sense of where the Greeks and Romans lived. I continued this throughout the semester with maps showing the locations of important cities on my lecture slides.
The first day of class gives students impressions about what the class will be. It is good to let them be excited, and make them excited, but if you don’t follow through with it, student satisfaction, morale, and desire to work for your class will be low.
A Sample First Day
On the first day of class for my upcoming intensive Latin class, I will certainly include two major activities: (1) brainstorming in groups about their impressions of Latin, and (2) practicing pronunciation of Latin with a passage from a spoken Latin book.
First, I will ask students to share what they associate with Latin or the course title with their neighbors. I will then gather thoughts from groups, and then share my impressions of Latin and the course. I want to develop a rapport so that it is not just me telling them things, or them telling me things. I will also be able to clear up what we mean by a “dead language” and reinforce that this will be an intense class. It meets five days a week and we will be going through the textbook at twice the pace of the regular Latin 101 course.
Second, I will teach pronunciation of Latin through the first chapter of Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se illustrata which talks about the geography of the Roman empire, focusing mainly on Germania and Italia. I will read through the chapter like a modern language teacher reads introduces a reading, pointing to places on a map. Then the students will talk about the reading in groups: how much did they understand? what needs to be clarified? can they help each other clarify things? While they talk, I will walk around commenting on their pronunciation of the Latin. As the discussion dies down, I bring the class together as a whole to see if anything needs to be further clarified. For more on the rationale behind these questions, go here.
The goals of the day are to expose them to Latin, to clear up misconceptions about Latin, to introduce how Classical Latin is most relevant to ancient Rome, to expose students to some of my teaching methods, and to help students feel comfortable about making mistakes in front of each other, asking for help, and being corrected.