All aboard! Effective starters for your first lesson with a new cohort

First impressions can be powerful, particularly in the complex terrain of teaching! Starting off on the right foot with a new cohort of students can help achieve not only academic and behavioural engagement but emotional engagement too.

There are so many ways to start your lesson. The search for effective strategies is often about finding inspiration rather than direction because we, as teachers, know how to assess the outcomes of an activity.

Hopefully, these strategies might be that spark for you:

  1. Plan your lesson (and then jot down what went well).

    There is a great ballroom analogy provided by Ronald Heifetz about being able to analyse the bigger picture while participating in it which applies aptly to the role of a teacher.
    Teachers need to both be on the dance floor, participating in the activities and learning, but also on the balcony, observing the overall structure and managing what’s happening. Going back and forth between the two requires a clear understanding of the overall lesson plan or ‘dance’.

    Make your lesson plan fit on one page so you can glance at it on the table and see quickly whether you’re on track. At the end of the lesson, develop a discipline of taking a quick note after class to reflect: What went well? What didn’t go so well? What will I do differently next time? This is a habit that you have to work to form. It can be done on a post-it note or as a quick comment at the bottom of a word document. Making that quick note will help make sure you don’t lose a learning moment, and it will also help you to close off the class mentally without your thoughts lingering on some aspect of the class.

  2. Learn your students’ names.

    Start by using name tags and drawing a visual summary. First, introduce yourself and your background and let students know you’re interested in knowing a bit about everyone in the room. Tell them you will make a quick map on the wall for everyone to see as we go. Suggest what they might tell you: perhaps their name and their reason for doing this course. Quickly sketch out the names as you go in a way that visually shows where everyone is seated. (Remember, it’s just as important to your students to learn one another’s names as it is for you. It is hard to have a flowing, effective discussion without this.)

  3. Use an icebreaker, such as ‘Find Someone Who’.

    College classes often throw together groups of students who do not know one another. As Cult of Pedagogy observed, too many classroom icebreakers require students to take massive social risks with people they barely know, don’t actually facilitate familiarity or are just painfully cheesy.

    A great icebreaker that gets students talking, with little social risk, about topics that help them get to know each other is ‘Find Someone Who’. It works like this: Use a Bingo table with a characteristic in each cell such as ‘Has a birthday in February’ or ‘Knows someone famous’. Pick some characteristics that are relevant to your students, such as ‘Has worked in the field of [Animation]’, for example or ‘Shares the same concern about [this Animation subject]’. Students and teachers move around the room trying to find a person who has a certain characteristic.

    If it is working well, you can overhear great follow-ups like ‘Wow, and what did you do when you worked in America?’ or ‘Did you see that movie too?’ After 5 or 10 minutes, use one of the questions to take students into a relevant discussion. For example, if you asked students to find someone who shared a concern about the subject, ask people to share what they or their classmate were concerned about and write a dot point summary. As you write, ask: ‘Does anyone else share this concern?’ At the end of the activity, the students will have familiarised themselves with one another and established some shared issues or concerns they want to explore in class.

The content in this post summarises just one part of a workshop by the Learning and Teaching Services team for some returning teachers revisiting effective teaching practices and reflective teaching.

A couple of useful websites full of ideas on how you can start a class are the Honolulu community college website and Faculty Focus.

Drop us a line if you have more effective activities to share!