Making the Most of Day One in a College Writing Course
Denise K. Comer, Associate Professor of the Practice of Writing Studies and Director of First-Year Writing, Duke University
Think back to your very first day in a class in which you were a student. What did the instructor do on Day One? What did the instructor ask students to do? What were you feeling? What were you wondering? What did you find compelling, effective, ineffective, or otherwise memorable about Day One?
Day One of each semester holds enormous potential. While this is true in any course, it has particular valence in writing classes, where Day One emotions can run rampant. Students are likely excited, and also perhaps nervous, to meet one another and the instructor. They probably want to make a good impression on their instructor and classmates, and are thus thinking meta-cognitively, if self-consciously. They may feel nervous about their capacities with writing or their ability to contribute to class conversations. Students may also have concerns about fitting in culturally or socially with others in a writing class. Depending on the context, some students may be frustrated or disgruntled over having been ‘placed’ into a particular section or level of a writing course. Still others might be disinterested, having perhaps adopted the role of passive recipient rather than active participant in educational settings.
Complicating these affective dimensions are the complex histories and experiences with writing and learning that students bring to Day One: positive and negative experiences, prior struggles and successes, perceived and actual self-perceptions and assumptions about writing and learning. Surrounding each student—not actually present though occupying a powerful presence anyway—are prior writing teachers and their responses to drafts or final versions, previous classmates and their peer feedback, and many others who may have judged or responded to previous writing.
The instructor, meanwhile, not only grapples with all of these Day One student-related matters, but also likely brings their own complex aspirations and emotions as well. Most faculty want to make a good impression on their students. Many hope that students become inspired and motivated in the class. Depending on the context, faculty members might feel nervous (or confident) about pedagogical prowess or content-based knowledge. And, instructors, like students, also carry with them rich histories and experiences—as teachers, students, and writers. Prior teaching evaluations, writing experiences, learning occasions, and teaching moments all subtly and explicitly impact an instructor’s decisions, behaviors, attitudes, and strategies.
It would, in fact, be difficult to overstate the importance and potential of Day One. Day One can set the intellectual and affective climate for the course, orient students to the course content, facilitate the kinds of interactions and atmosphere that you hope to accomplish as an instructor, and motivate or inspire students.
With first-year college writing courses in the fall semester, Day One can sometimes be a student’s very first post-secondary class—ever. This one class, then, bears the privilege of introducing a student to higher education.
An occasion as momentous as Day One—whether it be a Very First Day One Ever or a Recurrent Day One—should not be insouciantly dismissed or squandered. Some faculty, truth be told, do squander the opportunity: they spend Day One asking students to briefly share their names (as a way of checking the roster), and then distribute and review the syllabus, before dismissing students early and planning to begin the course on Day Two. While some syllabi might actually be so exciting that reading through them on Day One really does provide a compelling in-class activity, it is far more likely that spending Day One time in this way will not only be boring (for both instructor and students), but will also make poor use of opportunities for making Day One as productive as possible.
- Class Atmosphere/Dynamics: Determine what kind of class atmosphere/dynamics you would like to emerge in your course and then aim to construct them on Day One. For instance, if you want students to interact with one another, facilitate that on Day One. If you want curiosity to be the driving force of the course, consider what kinds of questions might you pose or invite. If you want to engage or challenge students, foster that dynamic on Day One. If you want student voices to occupy more class time than an instructor’s voice, then create that dynamic on Day One.
- Introductions: Inviting students to one at a time share their names, their hometowns, and/or why they took the course may accomplish at a baseline the task of introductions, but it will not likely facilitate in-depth, memorable interaction between students. Instead, foster introductions such that students are actually getting to know one another. Invite them to partner with a classmate and work through a series of questions or a text together. Or, allot time for students to interview one another about their histories as writers and readers. Then, the interviewers can each introduce their interviewees.
- Intellectual Content: Consider how can you orient students to the intellectual content of the course. Aim to do so in such a way that will enable them to actively explore complexities, discover interests, and encounter pathways of access to the material and ideas. Sometimes, inviting them to draw on their own experiences will enable them to find connections; other times, you might invite them instead to think through a perplexing aspect or a more accessible entry point. Since writing is itself part of the intellectual content of a writing course, you might also integrate a low-stakes writing activity or hold a discussion about writing. Encourage students to engage with the kinds of writing and reading that will be on the table for the semester: begin with a brief text, ask them to practice writing in a particular genre or with a particular reader in mind, etc.
- Compelling In-Class Activities: Vary the day’s class activities among large-group, small-group, individual, and pairs. Develop compelling activities so students become invested and engaged. If possible, get students moving.
- Teaching Persona: As authentic as you may be, teaching also entails constructing a teaching persona. This persona includes such aspects of your personality and demeanor that contribute to others’ perceptions of you. Consider, therefore, what you will wear, the kind of diction you will use, how you will show your own intellectual investment in the course content, how you will demonstrate interest in getting to know students, where you will position yourself in the room, how you will convey an accessible, authoritative, and/or knowledgeable ethos.
- Course Documents and Logistics: Syllabi are, in fact, important documents. They help students become accustomed to the course and its logistics. Through course documents, students can learn what you will be expecting of them across the course. Consider, though, whether this material needs to be reviewed during class, or if it can be reviewed after class and discussed on Day Two. Or, perhaps portions of the syllabus are more important than others. Or, invite students to read segments of the syllabus or you can even assign and distribute particular elements of the syllabus to pairs or small-groups, and ask them to then present these elements to the others in the class.
Still seeking concrete examples to inspire your Day One considerations? Below are a few ideas, each of which integrates writing and content, invites students to get to know one another in a substantive way, and invokes a dynamic set of class activities. Even more so, though, each of the following Day One suggestions positions students as advancing knowledge, able to draw on their own experiences and engage with one another to exchange and build ideas.
For a college writing course about travel writing:
- Ask students to embark on a ten-minute mini-trip (perhaps around the room they are currently in, in their imaginations, or somewhere else of their choosing).
- Invite students to write briefly about that trip in the genre of a travel narrative (you can provide an example or two before hand perhaps, or ask them to do this without any prior models).
- Ask students share their work with a partner or in a small group (either directly or by talking from it), generating a list of the challenges, joys, and decisions they made when generating the text.
- Invite students contribute to a large-group conversation to generate collaboratively a list of concepts, challenges, and components of travel writing.
For a college writing course about visual texts (or about a theme that can be visualized):
- Locate and share a few visual texts (i.e., photographs, paintings, postcards, advertisements, etc.) that you feel capture some of the complexities, variances, and significances of the ideas you hope to address over the course. You can use one visual text for the entire class, or find several visual texts to distribute.
- Ask students individually to each examine one visual text, and then to write for five minutes about the image—what they see, what they notice, what feelings it evokes, what is outside the image, etc.
- Ask students to partner with another student who has also examined the same visual text and then share what they have each noticed/observed.
- Reconvene as a large group and invite the partnerships to each contribute an insight or pose a question related to the visual text, drawing on their conversation.
For any writing-based or English Composition course:
- Ask students to write individually for ten minutes based on a prompt about writing (i.e., I am a writer …; What are the joys and pains of writing?; What are your most memorable writing experiences? Why writing matters…; etc.)
- Ask students to partner with another student to share what they have written, either directly or by talking from it.
- Reconvene as a large-group and invite each partnership to contribute an insight or pose a question related to writing, drawing on their conversation.
Significantly, none of the above Day One plans include reading a syllabus and dismissing students early. What you choose to do on Day One matters. It sets the scene, tone, and content for the semester. Still, however, it is, in the end, only Day One, which is really part of the greatness of Day One—you have plenty of days left to recalibrate, redirect, create, facilitate, and engage.
Readers: Share your Day One teaching activities, ideas, or experiences.