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Back to school: the first lesson

Published: Sep 2, 2016 4 min read

michael anderson

Inevitably, as the summer holidays draw to an end it is time to get busy planning for the upcoming year. As the ‘Back to school’ stationary sales reach their zenith, I’ve been thinking about my first lesson back with a new class.

Thinking back to when I was a student, there are only a few first lessons that stand out. In one, the teacher refused to speak. The register was somehow completed, seats were allocated, new exercise books were distributed and name tags were filled in. All in a bemused, enjoyable silence as the teacher mimed instructions. Eventually, we were directed to crumple up our name tags. Our new teacher pointed at us in turn and spoke our names. He’d spent the time memorising them. Lesson over, time for the next period. I’m not sure how much we learnt in that first lesson, but an impression had been made. My new teacher had intrigued us, it was different. And he knew my name.

The first lesson as an A level physics student was also memorable. A list of questions were handed out, we spent the lesson discussing things such as 'why is the sky blue?', with our new teacher prompting the conversation if needed. No formal structured teaching took place, instead we were offered the opportunity to explore the beauty of the subject.

When on teaching practice, most first lessons are marked by routine administration tasks. After those were complete, my main aim was to get to know my students. Sometimes these first lessons also had to incorporate new whole-school strategies, such as creating a classroom contract, completing pages in student planners or sharing expectations of written work. In other lessons, the department policy was to assess students - a method questioned by Jo Boaler in her new book Mathematical Mindsets:

“When students came home saying that they had a test on the first day of middle school, it was in one subject only: math… But why does this only happen in math? Why do teachers not think they have to find out what students know on the first day through a test in other subjects? And why do some educators not realize that constant testing does more than test students, which has plenty of its own problems- it also makes students think that is what math is- producing short answers to narrow questions under pressure? It is no wonder that so many students decide mathematics is not for them.”

Instead, in your first lesson, why not consider an open-ended investigation? Getting the right pitch can sometimes be a challenge, as STEM Learning’s Mathematics Specialist Steve Lyon has found:

“I always wanted their first lesson to be fun, exciting, challenging whilst not being too hard or too easy. I was never quite sure of what a new class were capable of so wanted a lesson which would give me some indication of their ability. I always spent the first few lessons doing a variety of investigations and open-ended tasks, easy enough for the more nervous student to make a start but open-ended so the more eager and enthusiastic could flourish and show me what they could do.”

To help plan you first lesson, Steve has complied the two collections Mathematics starters and Year 7 New Starter Investigations and Activities. Each contain a range of mathematical investigations, practical problems and activities to provide a stimulating start to the year.

Do you have a favourite lesson you use with new classes? You can share your ideas by adding to the discussion in our Secondary Mathematics group page.


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