Hook ’em on day-one

First day of school!

First day of school!

Although I have conveniently forgotten most of my student-teaching experiences (oh, the magnitude of what I did not know that I did not know), there is one critical piece of advice that I have tried to heed each year since: on the first day of school, do something that makes the students want to come back on the second day. Our students might be required to return to school the second (and the third and the ninety-third) day,  but that certainly doesn’t mean that they want to. So instead of boring my students out of their minds on the first day of school with rules, policies and a curriculum map, I try to engage them in at least one activity that will surprise and intrigue them enough to bring them back to class the next day curious about what is in store for them in 8th grade English this year.

In an effort to motivate my students to read good books, I begin every class period with Storytime. Rather than read an entire novel to them (one chapter per day, which makes me a little crazy when repeated with all five of my classes), I read aloud one compelling excerpt from one really great book each day. (Here’s a list of books we have loved.) That way my students are exposed to a huge variety of books and authors, and hopefully are enticed enough to check out a few of them. This year, I decided to greet my brand new 8th graders with a hilarious (and a bit scandalous) excerpt from John Green‘s Paper Towns. I introduced the reading by telling them that although Paper Towns has some inappropriate-for-school language that I will edit out as I read, it is a great story that I am sure they will enjoy.

So here’s the gist of the excerpt:  four teenage boys are traveling in a van, on a very tight time schedule, in an effort to find and help a friend they think might be suicidal. They have so tightly calculated the timing of the trip that they will only stop for gas, where they will also stock up on food and take necessary bathroom breaks. Unfortunately, one of the teens has some bladder trouble and needs his potty break a good two hours before the next scheduled stop. What follows includes great panic, warnings to “hold it!”, the frenzied opening, emptying and refilling of a beer bottle (quickly followed by a second bottle) and the disposal of the refilled bottles. The combination of the potty humor, taboo content and high school situation has my students fully engaged, their mouths open in shock and laughter — which is pretty exciting to see on the first day of school. And so all went well when I read to my 1st period class.

I gave the same pre-reading explanation to my 2nd period class and started the chapter. Just as I read, “I think I’m going to cry and pee tears will come out,” my classroom door opened and in walked my principal. I stopped reading, assuming she needed to see a student, but she said she was just there to observe. So… I kept on reading. My students couldn’t decide who would get in more trouble, they or their teacher, so they kept looking from me to my principal and back again, hiding their laughter behind their hands, their eyes dancing with delight. When I finished, my principal smiled and said, “I think you got their attention,” and walked out.

I’m pretty sure I’ve got my 2nd period class hooked for the year, but I’m afraid I may have set the bar a little too high on the first day. (Check out my 8th graders’ list of favorite books here.)