Why Wait? Ticking them off on the first day of school

by Mr. Sheehy

I love preparing for the first day of school, even if I don’t actually enjoy the day that much (I am not comfortable in my own classroom until I know confidently the names of every student). Each year I vow to come up with “the plan”–the perfect first day rundown that I’ll repeat each year to great effect–but each year the plan I use falls fairly flat and I want to come up with a new idea. Ultimately what has been the most worthwhile is when I scrap the fancy stuff and we all spend time learning each others’ names, but I still like to plan the fancy stuff, because, after all, it’s the first day!

This year I’m considering jumping right into assignments. Won’t students love being handed a vocabulary list that first day? Why spend time on the syllabus, which no one will remember, and put off the meat of the year’s content? Why not give it to them? At least if they receive 20 words and a homework assignment they’ll have something to complain about to their friends–a cherished bragging right for the first day of school.

The other assignments I’d like to explore consider students’ reading abilities in a multimedia age, an appropriate topic to kick off the year.  I would like to read Nicholas Carr’s article from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I referenced this article in June and won’t repeat my favorite quotes, but I find it amusingly ironic that my worry in assigning the article to my students is–can you guess?–its length.

Then, to express my view before students have a chance to share theirs, I’d like to read Steve Lorr’s 2007 New York Times article, “Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic.” The most striking example of multitasking inefficiency describes my online experience all too well:

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist and co-author . . . “If it’s this bad at Microsoft,” Mr. Horvitz added, “it has to be bad at other companies, too.”

You don’t want to know what it’s like in schools. In my classroom I watch daily reruns of the classic “download the software before the enemy gets you” scene from just about every Tom Clancy or John Grisham novel-turned-film. They’re hunched in the corner eying the entrance, desperately pleading for the machine to finish its painfully slow process before the bad guy (that’s me) bursts in and destroys them. For my students, however, it’s not classified information but proxied MySpace pages and Windows Messenger.

I’m sure reading these articles will go about as well as all my other first day plans. I suppose, however, that reading such articles will cement the sentiment that will spring in their hearts when I assign vocabulary homework.

What a first day it will be.

Thanks for reading.