Social Sundays: A great first day of school

As a researcher I've been privileged enough to see the first day of school in many classrooms. It's a funny thing, I realized, that most student teachers don't see the way their veteran teachers open the school year, and yet once you start teaching, you truly understand how important that first day of school can be. It sets the tone and expectations for the year. Like I said, I've seen many but among my favorites came from a social studies teacher who happened to be teaching U.S. History that year. 

Once the students were settled in, the teacher quickly introduced himself and then pulled out a battered suitcase and put it on a table in front of him. He asked the students to make observations: it was brown, it looked old, there were tears on the edges. This activity was a chance to set the tone for how to be part of the class community. He called on students that raised their hands. He asked their names and always thanked them for their contribution. He also added a quick comment that was personal - not "good job", but something like "that's a detailed observation" or "I appreciate your insightful comment". This was quick. Each observation was written on the board. 

When exterior observations were complete, the teacher opened the suitcase and began pulling out objects from the top layer (separated) by cardboard from each layer - items included thick socks, a tattered journal with difficult to read notes in it and a shaving brush, with each layer revealing a bit more. Students were encouraged to make observations about what they saw and what those observations or clues might indicate about a person. 

The students were completely hooked and the teacher had shared a whole lot of information about his class without ever reading off a list: 

  • He expected polite participation;
  • He valued each student and the contribution s/he could make.
  • His class involved active learning
  • Analytical thinking would be key to success in the class. 
In subsequent visits throughout the year I saw that these early expectations rang true. I also saw him use this exercise with specific historical figures. He brought in a wonderful old leather bag for Benjamin Franklin and even had students pack suitcases for famous and not so famous civil war figures: Abraham Lincoln, a confederate soldier, an escaped slave on the Underground Railroad. 

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Later, I had the opportunity to try the activity out in an enrichment class I was teaching, but I changed it up a bit to become a back to school get to know each other activity. I packed my bag (note the picture). Among items in my suitcase: a passport application, running shoes, a Carnegie Mellon mug, and a homemade dark chocolate chip cookie. The students had a blast making observation about my bag and got to know me a little on that first day of school. I, then, had students pack their own bags and bring them in later that week. We unpacked them in small groups and learned a whole lot about each other. That first student share, which I later called Guess Who?, went okay, but I have since tweaked and clarified it. If you want formal directions/ideas, grab the information here. Or just let this inspire you to make it your own. How will you engage your students and open your year? Share your thoughts below.  



  1. It is SO true that the first days of school are important. In the Book, "The First 100 Days of School", which also shares fun ideas like the one you mention above they talk about a female teacher who would not wear her hair down until after the Christmas holiday. I suppose that seems extreme, but it made sense as far as using whatever you can to set the stage. Great post!

  2. This is inquiry based learning and classroom management at its finest. I'm going to share this with my teachers and start the conversation about how we never see the way each other set the tone for the school year. Maybe I can create some creative rotations to make this happen and create a more supportive professional community. Thanks for posting this!

    1. I hadn't thought of using it with teachers, but I bet it would be great. Thx for sharing.

  3. This post makes me think of Indiana Jones- the tattered brown suitcase- I don't know maybe I'm crazy. What a great way to open a class with students who don't know you. I will be having a group of those students this next year- 3 classes of juniors. I might have to try this out.

    1. When I first saw it, it did feel a little Indiana Jones. I, of course, do not send an Indiana Jones vibe with my running bag. Still, the investigation sets a strong tone for the expectations for the class and of course, it's fun. I love when the students pack their bags. I learn so much about them.

  4. I was fortunate enough as a student teacher to experience the first day of school and the Meet the Teacher night, which helped me tremendously my first year teaching. I was also fortunate enough to intern in a Kindergarten classroom and seeing that first day... LITERALLY their first day of school EVER... was such a valuable experience. Wish more college programs had their student teachers start from the beginning.
    Daisy Designs


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