It’s the first day of class for my Composition I class. I have a group of twenty-odd first-years who have no idea what this class is going to be like. They think it’s going to be like their English classes in high school. They’re wrong.
Composition, First-year Writing, Introduction to Writing, Rhetoric: this type of course goes by a lot of names, but the focus is on teaching and practicing effective communication — primarily through the written word, but not only so. One of the activities that I do on the first day of class helps to align the students’ expectations of the class with reality.
After taking attendance and introducing myself, I hold up the textbook and ask them to spend a few minutes making a list in response to the question:
‘What would you put in a book called Everyone’s an Author?’
Some of the students who brought their books with them will crack open the book to look at it, but I stop them. ‘What would you put?’ I emphasize. What do you think will be in a textbook like this one?
Then I ask them to compare their list with a partner, and then for two set of pairs to compare and put together a table of contents for the textbook. When all of the groups are finished, they share with the rest of the class what their table of contents looks like.
It’s interesting to hear what topics are repeated, which ones are unique to each group, and what order the students put the topics in. Some emphasize grammar, others organization, others on examples from literature. It helps me to get an idea of what the students expectations are for the type of topics we are going to study over the semester.
Then I introduce them to the real textbook. I tell them which of the topics they named will be covered in the book, which won’t be (e.g. we won’t be studying Shakespeare, alas), and what the focus of the class will be. This exercise allows me to identify where the students are coming from in their understanding of what a writing class will include, and to adjust their expectations so that they are not thrown by the first set of readings and assignment.
There are additional benefits: this activity gets the students collaborating on the first day and demonstrates the type of teaching they will experience throughout the semester, that of thinking individually, discussing in small groups, and regrouping as a class. (My variant of Think, Pair, Share.)
It’s a useful exercise that I have used every semester since my first year of teaching. I wish I could claim credit for it; I found a version of the activity when scouring the Internet for ‘first-day of class’ ideas, on a forum or a blog somewhere. But it fits well with my overall teaching style: students will usually have some idea of what we will be doing or whatever the topic is, though it will not always be an accurate idea. Rather than assume they know nothing, I prefer to find out what they do know (and what they think they know) and work from there.