I had my first day with kids this past Thursday. We had only 30 minutes with each of our classes, so I went back and forth about what I wanted to do. Some years, I like to get them in their groups and we start right away. I have a compelling question or *something* that starts the first unit, and we charge ahead. When I do this, I’m thinking “I want kids to see what we do every day in class. We do math. We work together. We don’t waste time.”  Kids seem to enjoy that. They are usually revved up and excited to start, even though we’re all a little sad that summer is over. (Okay, very sad.) But there’s energy in the air.
This year I decided to do something different. A colleague of mine did this for a class we both co-taught years ago, and I really thought it would be a great way to start this year.
Part I: The Initial Card Sort that Sorted My Kids Into Their First Groups
I said hello for literally only one or two minutes, and then I shared the activity we were going to do for 15-20 minutes. We were going to do a puzzle-y card sort to figure out who was grouped with whom. But in order for the class to be successful, they all needed to work together. I projected a sample card. I said anyone is allowed to use a calculator. But some of the cards might require some laptop assistance. So they had a little laptop symbol on it.
So in this case, for example, I knew almost none of my kids would know what binary numbers are, but using google they could find a converter online that would say this was actually “170.”
Each card had a kid’s name written on back. So each kid got “their” card. And their goal was to find others who were in their group because their cards formed a logical group. Here’s a sample group to show you what the cards looked like and how they link:
See if you can tell what the link is among these four cards…
I’ll give you a second.
I will reveal the answer in the next line, so don’t keep reading until you are sure you want to know.
Okay, the link is the number “ten.” So 10! is the number of seconds in six weeks. When the kids type those equations into desmos, they will see the number 10 show up. Neon is the 10th atomic element. And “X” is 10 in roman numerals.
You can see why kids are going to need each other and the class is going to have to work together. Because until someone recognizes that “ten” is a category, these all seem very unconnected. But as soon as you know someone’s card represents “ten,” then things like the neon symbol or the “x” make sense.
I’m kinda proud of these, so I’ll show you another:
The theme? “Pi.” The first one is circumference over diameter, the second is a recipe for pie crust, the third is an approximation for pi, and the fourth is a world record holder for reciting the digits of pi.
(If you want to download my cards, here you go: Group Card Sort! And the explanations are Group Card Sort Explanations.)
I only had allotted 15-20 minutes for this. I had no idea if this would go quickly or take forever. In all four classes I did this in, I was able to get them to finish in 20 minutes but only through some careful prodding/help. If I were a bit more hands off, I could see this easily taking 40 minutes and it being time well spent. But alas, I didn’t. Here’s how I intervened:
- After 7 minutes, I stopped everyone. I asked who knew what they had. A few people did.
- Throughout the time, I gave a “few” hints where I could, but mainly I was acting as facilitator to help others help each other. So for the pie crust recipe one, I had the person go around asking if anyone was a baker (or I would shout out to the room if anyone liked to bake, and had them come to us).
- When someone wasn’t doing anything, I had them go help others. They might have been confused about their card, but they could help others (and get help from others).
- Sometimes when a kid “got it” but still had some uncertainty, I would put them out of their frustration and tell them they got it. If I didn’t have time pressure, I wouldn’t have done this, but it didn’t ruin the activity or anything.
- After 15 minutes, with my proddings and connecting, kids were doing pretty well. So I stopped everyone and had people who knew what their card represented be quiet. There were always three or four people who were stuck. So I had them share their card or write their puzzle on the board and see if anyone could figure it out in the remaining few minutes. (We wrote the different “solved” categories on the board, so sometimes they could figure out their card by seeing what it might be.) They gathered, talked, and some classes barely finished in time and others didn’t. I didn’t focus on that. For the ones that didn’t get them all in 20 minutes, I quickly went through the explanation of the remaining few cards.
It was really fun for me to watch, and I saw kids really getting into the puzzle-aspect of things. The first time a kid figures out their card and finds someone else with the same thing, it’s just a wonderful feeling. It honestly feels impossible to kids at the beginning. They literally start looking for anyone with the exact same card as them, or if they have a picture they’re looking for other people with pictures. But as soon as they realize it’s more challenging and more interesting, I get to see how they react and what they do. Do they sort of back down? Do they go help others? Do they hope someone comes to them? My big goal was having kids realize they can’t do this alone and most cards won’t tell you what they are so you need to hear about others and help others.
Oh! One big thing. I realized in the first class that kids were just kinda sitting with their cards. So I made a rule that until the card sort was over and everyone in the class figured out their cards, no one was allowed to sit down — not even when using their laptops. This actually got kids up and moving. It was a small thing, but I know it was super helpful to making this a success.
I wish we had time for kids to say hi to their first group and do a little group norm setting, but alas with only 10 minutes left, I had to transition.
Part II: New Years
So I totally saw Howie Hua’s first day post and was in love. It was positively inspired. Often times, people post awesome things they do in their classrooms that are awesome but just not me. When I read this, I felt: “OMG THIS IS ME!” He celebrated new years with his classes. Here’s one of his students’ videos/tweets:
And it really got me thinking. The first day IS my new years. My life doesn’t go in January-December cycles. It goes in September-August cycles! And it was the perfect time for kids to make a new years resolution. They had 90 seconds of thinking to come up with something.
Then after 90 seconds, I threw up this screen, obliquely referencing the Maurader’s Map from Harry Potter (but opposite-ish) and I had them recite this pledge:
Then I gave each kid a baggie that I prepared. In it was a super fancy piece of origami paper, a mardi-gras necklace that someone had a zillion of and was throwing them away, and a noisemaker I bought from amazon. It mabye took me 45 minutes to put these all together. But totally worth it. For some reason, I believe that being given your own personal goody bag is way more exciting than having someone pass out necklaces, noise makers, and origami paper individually.
I then handed out party hats too (but those had to be returned to me). I actually always keep a stack of party hats in my office, and when it’s a kids birthday, I give them a hat, candy, and we sing a short birthday song. As I said, this idea of Howie’s fit me!!! Anyway, kids had to write their name and their resolution on the origami paper which I collected. (Later that day, I put them together in a ziploc bag and hung them visibly in the room so this doesn’t become a thing we did but wouldn’t return to. I was thinking I’d give them back to kids after the end of the first semester so they can see how they’re doing on their resolution. But I might have another brilliant idea. Who knows!) As soon as the bags were out, the noise makers were making noise. And that was a lovely cacophony of BWWWAAAPP and BAAAAAAAA noises. (That was also why I had kids pledge to do no evil with what they were given… *grin*)
In any case, I was standing at the front of the room when they worked on writing their resolutions. When they were done, they had to bring up the resolution to me and wait at the front of the room with me (with the necklace, hat, and noisemaker). After 2-3 minutes everyone was up. And then… we took a class picture, all decked out, blowing on the noisemakers and just being amazing. And oh yeah, we also took a class boomerang (which is an app that lets you take a 2 second video and plays it over and over).
The boomerang was my favorite part because kids were jumping up and ducking down and doing fun things. And I kind of am obsessed with boomerangs. So there’s that.
I think I’m going to get these photos printed and framed, and hang them up in the classroom. I don’t know what to do about kids who were missing (there were a few) or who transfer in after some schedule change, but maybe I’ll list them missing on a caption instead of some awkward photoshop job?
Our first day together. (I did post the boomerang video and our class photograph on the google classroom site in case any kid wanted it.) 
And then it was the end of our first 30 minutes together. I was really happy with how it went. I like the feeling that I left each class starting the year with good vibes. Thanks go to my chemistry teacher colleague and friend for the card sort idea which I made into something my style (with my kind of clues!), and to Howie Hua for helping me make a memorable moment to start the year.
 We do a lot of the logistics things in the following week. They read the course expectations at home and fill out a “get to know you” google form which also asks them questions that require the expectations to finish. And then each day or day, I talk about one or two things I want to be explicit about (like how to write me an email, or that’s it’s okay to go to the bathroom and they don’t need to ask, but they do have to discretely let me know they’re leaving if I don’t see them, or that they need to bring a waterbottle to class because they can’t leave to get a drink).
 I just realized this photo could be fun to have up on the screen on parent night, when parents/caretakers come in two weeks to hear me talk about our class.
Sam, would you share your google form with the ?s that require they answer from the expectations? I have tried several things, but can’t usually get them to read them – and I really don’t want to read to HSers.
Hihi, I am in the throws of just getting started so I don’t have time to do this… But it isn’t anything special. I ask them questions about themselves, pronouns they prefer, and then I have 5 or 6 questions based on what I have written in course expectations that I need to ensure they know (e.g. what do they do if they miss a test day? how do they set up an appointment with me? why do I think making mistakes a good thing, etc.). Nothing special beyond that!
When I think about my future classroom, I always wonder what to do on the first day. As a student, I hated when teachers would jump right in to the content, and it always felt like my math teachers did this more than teachers in any other subject. However, as much as I did not like diving in to material on the first day, I hated the gimmicks and ice breakers even more.
The card sort activity that you describe here sounds perfect activity for the first day. It forces students to work together and get to know each other under the framework of problem solving rather than under the framework of “breaking the ice.” Furthermore, the activity showcases the collaborative, engaging aspect of mathematics, allowing students to see that math class can be dynamic and interactive. By dealing with logistics information at a later date, you allow the first day to center around an unexpected and engaging activity. I think it sets a great tone for the rest of the year.
I am excited to try it in the future with my students!