Ner-Cited: A hybrid of nervous and excited

rabbitduckYou’ve seen the drawing a million times: a duck. A rabbit. A duck. A rabbit.

The brain is amazing thing: it can take ambiguous signals and interpret them in wildly different ways.

So let’s move past rabbit-ducks for a moment and consider this scenario: a teacher, Sunday evening before the first day of school. He charges his laptop, assembles his clothes. Laundered trousers. Polished shoes. Pressed shirt. Lucky tie. Goes to bed and lays awake.

Butterflies in stomach.

A few miles away, a student lays out rows of fresh, new school supplies. Pens and notebooks, a new syncing cable for her smart-phone to replace the second one she lost (one is still in her bunk and camp, and one is under the sofa cushion). She has some new, purple Chuck Tailor Converse, had her hair done, and has a new sweater for the first day of school.

She, too. Butterflies in stomach.

Are they nervous? Excited? Both?

panicThe amygdala and hippocampus, the parts of the brain that encode threatening events into memories, have done their jobs. The student and the teacher have experienced the threats of new social situations enough times to know that stakes are high. Something could go wrong: a class could be unruly. Friends you haven’t seen in three months could be fickle. Then, the unknowns: who will sit next to you in class? Who will sit in the front row? Who will make your year a living hell?

While there is no way to avoid these anxiety-provoking situations on day one, the brain has a few tricks up its grey-matter.

The rabbit can be a duck, by choice.


The feelings one gets before a big test aren’t very different than the feelings one gets before a first date, a rock concert, even opening a gift.

In all these cases: butterflies. But we call this being “excited.” Nervousness saps your energy, weakens your morale, and can spoil your day. Excitement, on the other hand, can be harnessed to accomplish incredible things. It can turn you into a superstar. Night and day. The difference, really, is just a matter of how you look at it.

As summer comes to a close, I’d like to offer the term: ner-cited. I’m nervous, sure. But I prefer to see it as excitement.

How do I feel about the new school year? Ner-cited.

How do I feel about my new classes? Ner-cited.

How do I feel about the new initiatives I’m launching? Ner-cited.

Next time we’re entering into a strange and unknown experience, lets look that rabbit/duck-thing in the eye and shout it out loud: Get down, you adrenaline-raising ambiguous stimuli! We’re ner-cited!

10 Item Checklist for Your First Two Weeks of Class is back from summer vacation with a top-ten list to get your own classes off to a good start.

An effective and positive beginning sets you and your students up for success in three ways.

  1. Logistic

Your students don’t know your system, don’t know your rules, and don’t necessarily know how to use the resources you’re going to make available. Meanwhile, they’re not signed up for the tools you want them to sign up for, you don’t have some critical contact information you’ll later need, and, well, your classroom is not “systems-go.”

2. Thematic

Students might know the name of the class, but they don’t know why they should be psyched for the class. Or what the class has to do with their lives. And if you don’t know the answer to that, well, you won’t be able to transmit it. That’s a missed opportunity to earn “buy-in.”

3. Social/Emotional

If you want the class to be somewhere students are happy to be, you’ll need to invest in the class being somewhere they feel seen, heard, and felt. This begins right at the beginning.

Here are 10 things to take care of in the first two weeks, addressing these 3 areas. Some are easy adaptations, and some you should flag for follow-up if the “ship has launched,” so to speak. There’s always the quarter break.

boringDay 1: Share the theme, get students talking, and get them registered for your preferred modes of communication

While many teachers begin the year with “reading over the syllabus,” I believe the students’ retention of this information is low, and none of our three goals above are achieved. Plus: BORING. Instead, try this:

  1. Open with one of your essential questions: something which any student is both qualified to speak about, and also inherently interested in. My two high-school classes begin with, “Is it a safe world or an unsafe world?” and “What makes life better.” I don’t talk for the first 10 minutes of the first day of class. For more about essential questions, check out this site.
  2. prezoPut together a Google slide-presentation or Prezi that you can reuse and improve from year to year, which includes interesting and amusing video clips, some topics for discussion, and some interactive fun-stuff. I’ve used this Prezi for a few years, and it keeps me on track, includes fun activities, and sets up the theme for a literature course I teach, where I’ve identified “relationships” as the main theme.
  3. At the end of the slideshow, give them homework: to sign up for Remind, to read your class norms and policies, and bring any clarification questions to the next class.

rulesDay 2: Get the students familiarized with your class norms, co-create a covenant, and begin reinforcing your values.

4. Allow students to ask questions about your class norms and policies. Clarify, and as homework, have them review the norms and policies to study for a quiz. Let them know, in advance, that any questions they get wrong they can recover points on by coming to your office with the correct answers located on the document.

Hint: consider this being the introduction to your year-long policy: quizzes can be corrected for credit!

5. Have an open-ended conversation about class values: student-to-student ethic, productivity, and responsible use of technology.

Hint: have students record their ideas on a group Google Doc Covenant like this one and have them sign it.

6. Have the students create homework passes, which look a lot like popsicle sticks with the students’ names. Talk with students about what your goals for homework are, and how you also understand that sometimes life happens – and homework doesn’t get done. That’s what the passes are for. Students can be honest about not having homework done – and the reason why won’t even matter. Twice per quarter.

This reinforces that the rest of the time, it really needs to be done.

dojo7. That evening, add any behaviors the class wants to reinforce to Class Dojo, an excellent tool for increasing positive conduct in the classroom.

Day 3: Jump into your first lesson with something interactive

8. Use Socrative or Poll Everywhere to begin class with a survey, predicting the class results, and discussing the findings. Be sure the topic is connected to the enduring understandings of the unit.

9. Be sure that you plan at least two separate sessions, in the first two weeks, where students tell stories from their lives on a thematically relevant prompt. Students who feel like people are “getting them” are more resilient to critique – both from their teacher and from their peers.

10. Have a meeting with every student who misses / forgets any low-stakes assignment (or shows signs of acting out), early on.  At the meeting, give the clear message that you are never here to judge, you are only here to support. Express how eager you are to clarify and help. Be positive and enthusiastic.

Here’s wishing you a great start to your semester!

I’d love to welcome my readers to suggest their own first-two-weeks checklist items below!