From “Quick Before it Dries,” some good points on first day of class.
Start students talking several times during the first period.
Begin with an easy exercise and then progress to more challenging levels of involvement. Going through the syllabus at the start of class, I pause on the first page after the comments about active participation. Here I ask the students to introduce themselves briefly to the people around them-just to say hello and exchange names. This gets people speaking for the first time early on, breaks the pattern of my doing all the talking, and starts forging the community that I want to develop in the classroom. (Even when the instructor knows them, students hesitate to speak out if their classmates are total strangers. We tend to forget what it feels like to sit in a roomful of people who all seem infinitely wiser, wittier, and more confident than we and who are just waiting for us to make fools of ourselves. It is much easier to talk with people we’ve begun to know, however superficially.) Emphasize from the start that students will be talking with each other, not just reciting to the instructor. If the enrollment is small enough, have students pair up with someone they’ve never met, chat with that person for a few minutes, and then introduce her/him briefly to the rest of the group.
Sometime after the icebreaker, propose a substantial discussion topic for what remains of the period.
This topic might address their knowledge of and preconceptions about the course content (e.g., what do you remember about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman from high school or previous college courses? Formulate two hypotheses about these poets that we will test during the quarter). Or the topic might concern the students’ own expectations and wishes for the class. (What knowledge and skills do you want to receive from this course? List five specific objectives that you hope to accomplish here by the end.) This discussion not only generates active participation from the start, but it also gives students a sense of owning the course, and it provides motives for working conscientiously during the following weeks. Since many students at this early stage are not likely to risk exposing themselves with individual contributions, ask them to form minigroups of twos, threes or fours and together to come up with a couple of points to contribute. They find it much easier to work quietly with a few classmates who will share responsibility for the ideas. After sufficient time for discussion, call the class together again as a large group and poll each mini-group for one suggestion.