The "First Day" letter

The “First Day Letter.” Every year, I agonize over what to say. It is, after all, the first time my students will hear from me – it will set the tone for the year ahead, along with our actual first day together.  Although it takes a year of togetherness to truly knit a class of all kinds of sixth graders into a cohesive learning community, that first day begins our journey and in many ways sets our course.  So, back to the agonizing over that letter.
I know that I could simply xerox last years’ letter, but I like the idea of composing a new letter each year. And this exercise coincides with unpacking and getting our classroom ready.  With each book I return to the shelf, and each piece of furniture I maneuver into position, I begin to imagine what the room will look like filled with new students – no longer just names on a list, but living, breathing, squirming- in- their- seats sixth graders.  What lessons have I learned from years past that I want to have in mind this year? What books that I’ve read, conferences I’ve attended, conversations with colleagues that I’ve had will influence this years’ teaching and learning? Each year is different, and my first day letter is a chance to turn the page and mark that new year.
The ideas for this year’s letter come from one of my favorite quotes in “The Phantom Tollbooth” – it’s on the door to our classroom, and my kids have had many questions about it over the years (there it is, on the right – impossible not to notice!):
That quote has led to many wonderful discussions about learning, and the way we go about the business of learning in our classroom.  I want my kids to know that there is a meaning and purpose behind all we do in the course of our sixth grade year, and that I put a great deal of thought into all my plans for them.  I want them to know that what they say and do, and how they learn to think and analyze matters.   So, this year, I thought of incorporating this quote into the three points I need to make clear in my first day letter:
  • classroom rules
  • my expectations
  • the tone of our year

And this is what it looks like:

September, 2013

Dear Sixth Graders,
Welcome to sixth grade, block, and the Middle School! We have a wonderful year ahead – sixth grade is awesome, and I am so happy to be your block teacher.  We learn a lot about reading, writing, history, and ourselves in this important year.   
Our first few days will fly by as we learn how to navigate hallways, figure out locker combinations, get comfortable with the ever-noisy cafeteria, and adjust to life in the middle school.  So much of what makes you nervous in those first days will become “old hat” sooner than you expect, and you will settle in to our routines and begin to enjoy life in our middle school.
When you walk into 202, you may notice this quote from one of my favorite books, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” on the door:

“But there’s so much to learn,” he said, with a thoughtful frown.
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”
“That’s just what I mean,” explained Milo as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep. “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all.”
“You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, “but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way.”

The words, especially the ones in bold, say everything I feel about the work we do in 202 this year: we learn a lot, we figure out why we learn these things, and then what we can do with all our learning. We work hard, we have fun, we enjoy our classroom community. Here are three rules we all follow (and yes, that includes me!):
  • we are kind to each other
  • we give our best efforts to every task
  • we are honest about when we need help

Here are two things you need to know about me:
  • I am here to help you make this year a great learning year – notice that I used the word “help,” that’s because you need to be a part of this, too!
  • I work very hard, and I expect you to work hard, too.

This evening, I would like you to share this letter with your parents.  And then I would like both of you to complete the short survey attached.  Please bring it back with you tomorrow, so that I can begin putting together my snapshot of each of you.  Please also take some time to explore our class web page – this is a very important tool for you and your parents to know what we are up to in class every day, what our homework is, and when our projects are due.

It’s going to be a wonderful year…let’s get started!

Mrs. Smith

I will also include a Student/Parent survey this year.  I kept it brief, but I think the responses to these questions will yield some helpful information – especially from the parents.  My kids are pretty forthright (quite often) in offering up information, but I think I will learn a lot from the way in which their parents respond.  That is my hope, anyway!

Parent/Student survey


What are you most looking forward to about middle school?

Name two goals you have for sixth grade.

What is “easy” about school?  What is challenging?

What would you like your child’s sixth grade year to be like?

Now, to print 50 copies and address each!

6 thoughts on “The "First Day" letter

  1. I love that you incorporated the quote into your letter, Tara. So many times I felt that if I didn't make a 'conversation' about it, kids would not even notice what I put up in the room. We always write letters to both students and parents in the summer & ask that they write back before the beginning of school conferences (happening this week). This is similar to your surveys and they do help learn so much about the students and the families/parents. Thanks for sharing & I think I'll keep to show new teachers how you wrote & included your quote. Busy, busy!

  2. I had a comment and it disappeared when i left to sign in but here's a better one: LOVE the letter! Too bad I can't steal it for my first day of school 😦 I especially love the PT quote. Can you be my teacher?Bonnie

  3. Tara, great letter. I think I'll incorporate one of my favorite classroom quotes into my letter. Lucky for me (since I teach 6th grade too), you are one of my digital Dumbledores! Have a wonderful year.

  4. I think it's great that you write a new letter every year. It illustrates that bit of extra effort that you give the whole year long (and that you ask of your students).

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