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What’s your best first day activity for high school math classes, that isn’t covering all the policies and procedures?

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My favorite: “the handshake problem.” High school math is often when students mingle with other grade levels (or when middle school students blend in high school). I ask how many of them can name everyone in the room, at least 10 people in the room, at least 5 people. Most can’t name at least 10 others. I use this as an opportunity to point out to them that you these are their coworkers, partners, assistants, and colleagues. We should know each other. “Let’s start by introducing ourselves individually to each other.” We discuss how to meet people, looking each other in the face, showing active listening, smile genuinely, shake hands (with demonstrations of bad examples, like the wet fish, fist-pumpers, hand-crushers, etc.), and include comments about being open to new people. I also imply there will be follow-up questions afterward; so please pay attention. Then we get into a circle around the room, and I start (but anyone confident could). I explain that I will work my way around the circle. As I go around the circle, the students follow in order behind me, going to their seats once they have completed their handshakes. Now, I have always found this activity by itself to be very worthwhile. I have spent an entire class period just doing this part. Sometimes I will have students provide specific information about themselves (where born, favorite out-of-school activity, etc.) to give them a start. I can get a great feel for how loquacious or reticent they are as a group. And I have a chance to look each and every student warmly in the eye. But it goes to a whole different place when , after everyone is seated, I ask, “How many handshakes just took place in this class?” (not counting the bad demo examples). Depending on the level of math the class is, the “answer” can be found by adding, geometrically, graphically, and algebraically. How many handshakes would it take if all 435 members of the US House of Representatives shook hands with each other? How’s that for a first day activity that includes SEL, interdisciplinary info, and some serious math?


Variable pictures. Students choose the first letter of either their first or last name. (They have more options if they have multiple last names.) This letter is their variable. To me (and sometimes to each other) they’re an unknown quantity. Once they have their letter, they draw it in the center of a piece of paper. Then they have to define their variable with four words. The words must start with their letter and each word must somehow describe them. Each word must also have an illustration to go with it. You can do a lot with stick figures. I make markers and colored pencils available. I have places in the room where I hang up all the pictures. Full names are on the back. The students have fun looking for their picture in the sea of letters and trying to guess who belongs to which variable. Plus it gives them some ownership in the room.


I never teach policies & procedures day 1 because I figure everyone else is. I love to assign the kids their seats & have them work out a problem in groups (think like a math puzzle) as I walk around and listen/facilitate/answer questions. I’ve found that for me it sets the tone for the year!


I have them fill out a data survey which includes finding their height. I have 4 areas where measuring tape is at so they get to get up and ask people to help them. I have yet to end the year measuring themselves (thanks Covid). I added the height when I started to teach freshman. I wanted to show linear regression with growth data.


I do a team sudoku challenge. Each team has a chance to earn early bonus points and get to know each other better. Consolation prizes are candy bars, chips and sodas.

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