The “Don’t Teach Them Content on Day 1” Myth

I’ve often been told by teachers and administrators to neglect teaching Math to students on Day 1 of the school year. In some cases, teachers and administrators prefer to spend a full week on culture building activities. Another typical model of year-starting schedules might have, say, the Math Teacher facilitate culture building activities, the Social Studies Teacher develop classroom rules and norms, the Science Teacher curate school pride, etc.

The thinking (which I think is basically correct) is that “sure, you lose a bit of time on these activities, but then the students will soar once these activities are completed.” I totally understand that. All these are wonderful and essential things to address those first few weeks of school, particularly if yours is a new school startup. The idea is if you have a good class culture, the teaching of content will fall into place.

However, there’s a implication buried deep within this line of thinking:

My content isn’t able to build culture.

My content isn’t able to promote and develop classroom norms.

My content isn’t able to curate school and class pride.

So it has to be taught separately from these other positive things.

That’s probably not the intended message by “not teaching content” at the beginning of school, but that’s the message I hear. And I wonder if it’s the message your students hear: “Math is so boring that we’re better off building culture before we get to the boring stuff.”

Perhaps this is a benign messaging problem, but I fear it’s symptomatic of a much more ingrained structural problem: a problem with way we sometimes teach content. Because content is so often separated from school culture, they are seen as separate entities. It’s not hard to see why when you spend a week building your classroom culture with group activities and Socratic dialogue, followed by lecture,practice,lecture,practice,lecture,practice… When teaching is unengaging, you certainly need to butress it with culture and class rules and norms. But that’s probably a post for another day.

Flipping the statement from above, I can’t tell if this is an obvious statement or a challenging one: if you’re teaching content well, the class culture stuff will fall into place.

Imagine if you were able to both engage students in your content area while at the same time developing a positive classroom culture, establishing norms, fostering school pride, etc. Why not use your content area as the tool of culture-building, rather than a follow-up to culture-building? That has the potential to change students’ minds about your content area. If students see your content area as a place where you can develop these positive norms, that can have lasting repercussions for your students even beyond your classroom.

That requires getting students engaged in math (or whatever) on Day 1, not Week 2, on a level that gets them working together.

Clearly I’m not expecting an intensive investigation on vector calculus on Day 1 when your kids don’t even know where to sit yet. But if this is your first day with your students, and you want to set them up for a year-long investigation in mathematics at a deep level, then shouldn’t math be the first thing they encounter?

I’m also not suggesting that you eschew culture-building or norm-establishing entirely, but rather that it be an organic outcome of the student-centered instruction that begins from the first minute of class. Maybe at the end of the week, debrief with students, asking them what they liked and disliked about the weeks’ math activities – there are your classroom norms and expectations.

You know that famous fox-chicken-lettuce-boat (or other variation) problem? The purpose of that problem is to get students to talk and discuss a way through the problem in a collaborative manner. Ideally, once the students have completed the problem, then (and only then?) will you have the foundation to teach mathematics. But what if that were a math problem instead? What if students were just as engaged and conversational in a math problem as they are the river-crossing problem?

So this year, consider: rather than conducting culture building activities on Day 1, followed by the rushing in of non-culture-building content, think about your content as the culture-building activity.

I would consider a successful first-day/week activity something that achieves the following:

  • Gets students working collaboratively .
  • Gets student thinking about your content.
  • Allows for all students to be successful initially.

(Note: that these are also attributes of a successful 74th day activity.)

Here are some things I have done in the past and/or have discovered online that might be a nice Day 1 math activity. But keep in mind, the activity may not need be anything other than an engaging, interesting problem. Feel free to post any additional ideas for math or for other content areas in the comments below!

  • An #anyqs activity. This would be a great way of establishing the norm that you want students to be the question-askers, rather than the teachers.
  • Geometry puzzles sort of like these.
  • Something akin to The Tower. (from Action-Reaction)
  • Groups organize themselves into Venn diagrams by interests, schedules, personality traits, etc.
  • Something with Gapminder. What exactly, I’m not quite sure….. I’m thinking of having the groups research two sets of data (their choice, of course!) and present their findings about the correlation throughout the years.
  • Students research and describe themselves as kinds of numbers: rational, irrational, imaginary, improper fractions, integers, etc.
  • This, or a similar, interesting, conversation-producing activity on “squareness” from Always Formative.
  • Lots more great first day activities that will get students engaged in math here.
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9 Responses to The “Don’t Teach Them Content on Day 1” Myth

  1. Last year I had my kids take each others measurements in the first day, height, arm span, head circumference. They get to work together, move around, and we use the data all year in different activities.

  2. Well said. Last year we had our first year algebra student’s decode and predict funky patterns on the first day of class. They quickly figured out they needed each other and started to collaborate, listen, and contribute in order to discover the patterns. From their first 110 minute class with us (it flew by! They said “math class is fun! I can’t believe that was nearly 2 hours.”), we then together developed our norms and explored our school’s values like imagination and collaboration. Culture and content are intertwined … educators need to model this too in our planned activities.

  3. Jason Buell says:

    Agreed. This is 100% how I feel when I read science lessons that are like….”Use this to teach inquiry!” and they’re doing something completely divorced from anything they’re learning that year. It’s a bad sign when you can’t think of a way to teach inquiry with a whole year’s worth of content.

    Your successful attributes are spot on.

    Of course, in the beginning of the year, there’s an added level of difficulty of finding problems that are rich enough to allow multiple points of entry AND some degree of success without knowing what level of skill the students are coming in with.

  4. I’m with you. Dive in. Do meaningful work together. Have fun. Just like the rest of the year!

  5. Ashli says:

    Completely with you and well said. Thanks for the list!

  6. Wait — isn’t the fox-chicken-lettuce problem a math problem?

  7. Pingback: Weekly Picks « Mathblogging.org — the Blog

  8. Kelly McD says:

    I teach 7th grade…I set my classroom up as a coordinate plane with all four quadrants (duct tape the floor). Each student gets a notecard when they walk in the door with an ordered pair on it. They have to find their seat. It is quite entertaining to watch!

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