FTWs are your BFF: Using “First Thing Work” to Get Off to a Good Start

party dont startThis post was originally featured on Thought Partners,a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.


“All beginnings are difficult.”

  • I remember the horrendous, red track-suit I wore on the the first day of sixth grade – and discovering that it did very little for my social cache.
  • I remember the anxiety of the first day of fifth grade; I was terrified I’d be assigned to the homeroom of the witchy-looking lady I’d seen in the hallways and I prayed I’d get the the tall, gangly guy. I got my wish, but it turned out that the tall, gangly guy was sort of mean. The witchy-looking lady, I later learned, only looked witchy.
  • I remember the first day of fourth grade, where our teacher introduced us to an octopus, pickled in a jar of formaldehyde. It lived in his supply closet. If he caught anyone messing with his supplies, he said, he’d lock us in there with “Octy.”

All beginnings are difficult.

This sentence, written in the Talmud, and which I learned on the first day of my Educator’s Program, helps us to anticipate difficulty – and to grasp that the emotional challenges that accompany new chapters are normative.

Indeed, every class, four years of study, and 12 years of teaching later, features difficulty — I am both nervous and excited. I am prepared but I never feel utterly prepared from my head to my toes: there is unknown in every class.

The first 10 minutes of class is the time when students are most unruly, you are most vulnerable, and where getting down to business is most challenging.

The solution is First Thing Work. It is posted in the class agenda, it’s ready the moment students walk in, and their job is to do it first. My job is to avoid distraction, set up my computer, take attendance, and check in quietly with students who have emergencies.


Here are a few models for FTW:

Model One: Looking Forward

  • Offer one or two prompts on a theme related to class. For example, in a class on Hamlet, the prompt may be: “Write about a time when you wrestled with a difficult choice, where the stakes were high. What happened? How did it turn out?”
  • Carefully compose prompts that the vast majority of students could answer.
  • Offer a second, more general prompt: “How do you deal with making a difficult choice?”
  • A third, more general prompt, might be, “What advice do you have for people facing a difficult choice?”
  • After writing on their choice of prompts, students then work on “Anchorwork.” Anchorwork is, as it sounds, work designed to keep students focused — and not to drift away from the environment for learning you and they have created for the last five minutes.
  • Anchorwork can be a drill, a fascinating article, a creative project they have been working on for a few weeks, or even a headstart on the homework.
  • After five to seven minutes of quiet writing, ask students to share their stories, ideas, and conclusions. Offer a few summary remarks, and move on to your lesson plan.
  • Additional benefits: many students have reported in my classes that these sharing sessions help them learn about their classmates’ lives – people they see and interact with every day but don’t always really know. This bonding contributes to a warm class atmosphere and to better learning.
  • Alternate model: use an online service like Polleverywhere.com (or jerry-rig a low-tech silent poll with dry-erase markers on the board – each student leaves a check next to their choice) to poll students about something in their lives.
  • Offer a second prompt where they assess or speculate about the results of the poll. For example: why did 75% of the class feel that Kale is the new broccoli? What factors might have contributed to this? What might lead to a shift in these results?

Model Two: Looking Back

  • Use FTW as a time for summative assessment. (For those watching at home, “summative assessment” refers to mini-quizzes you do during a unit to see how students are coming along, evaluate your strategy, plan interventions, etc.)
  • For example, use an online service like exittix.com or socrative.com to have students answer some simple questions about the homework and, through the miracle of the internet, see their scores immediately. Students who struggle meet in a seminar with you for clarification. Students who “pass” move on to the next step.
  • (If you need a low tech version, prepare answer keys students can grab when they are ready – or have them grade each others’ work).

Summary

No matter what you do with your FTW, the following principles apply:

  1. Students must be able to access it immediately upon entering the room, whether it’s online, in a binder on your desk, or rested in stacks in the students’ work area.
  2. It should be work students can do with minimal questions or clarification, since you’ll need that time to check attendance, set up your computer, launch ClassDojo, etc.
  3. It should not be work that needs grading. You have enough to grade as it is. That said, I do have colleagues who collect and grade them and, well, I trust their rationale.
  4. Teach students, at the beginning of the year, that FTW factors into their Student Ethic Modifier. If a student is slow on the draw one day – misses a class – or misses FTW due to tardiness, s/he doesn’t need to make it up, necessarily – as long as it is not a pattern. For more on Class Ethic Modifier, I invite you to my blog, “The Most Helpful 3% In the Class.”
  5. While bell work can, without much planning, make beginnings of class “less difficult,” with practice and effort, it can become an effective way to introduce ideas and materials for a powerful class experience.
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