First Day of School

A teacher recently wrote to me asking if I assign seats in my no desk classroom (click here if you want to see what my room looks like). Here is my response, which describes how I handle my first day. Some people may be surprised that I place such an emphasis on discipline and control in the first days.


Thanks for getting me to think about this, I feel like I do it differently every year with varying degrees of success.

Last year I had the chairs in four groups arranged in a semi-circle. Nogroups more than two deep so that I can reach any chair at any point. Above each group was the name of a country and as they came to class I assigned a country but let them sit anywhere within that country. My thinking was to give them limited choice as to where to sit, but since friends often arrive walking together I assign them separate countries to separate them.

Important psychological note: I stand in the doorway as each kid comes in. There is not much room, so they have to file in single file & they have to interact individually with me. That immediately sets the tone that I am in control of my classroom. I do not move aside so that two can enter at a time, even if the bell has already rung. I do not hurry conversations, even if there is a clump of kids outside my door. There is a written personality inventory that I hand them as they come in that takes them 10 minutes to fill out, so while I am meeting new students at the door everyone else inside is busy. If you want you can even pre-write the name of a country on top of each personality inventory so that it seems like it is impersonal, but I like assigning on the spot.

When they walk in (while I am in the doorway) there is a power point projected on the board that tells them (in English): Take out a pencil and notebook. Place everything else on the tables bordering the walls. Place all phones inside backpacks; if I see them, I take them. Complete the sheet thoughtfully and quietly.

Within five minutes after the bell all students are sitting in groups and writing. If a student has placed their bag on their lap or under the seat then I start immediately in Spanish, pointing at the sign that says place bags on the table and then pointing at their bag. Perhaps this is uncool since it is incomprehensible, but once again it establishes my authority in my classroom and silences any rebuttals in English about why I have the rules I have. I will, of course, explain that later, but the first day is all about demonstrating that they have a teacher who is in control. I might circle the phrase Pon las mochilas sobre la mesa, writing on the board and referring to my question words (that are taped right over the board with English translations). And thus starts the CI.

At a certain point, maybe 5 minutes after I have seated the last student, I have everyone turn over their paper & write their name on it in BIG letters that I can see and draw one thing that they want. I then do a variation of Ben Slavic´s Circling with Balls, except I refer to what students want rather than like to do. Not as powerful, but my problem is that I know zilch about sports and always have a problem doing PQA with sports, so instead we end up talking about cars and burritos. Of course I am really getting to know their names. That is my first day… syllabus can wait until the second week.

Ah, I also have two stools that I place in the center of the semi-circle. One might be for me if I want to take a rest from walking around the room (for the first few days I make it clear that there are no back rows and I will squeeze between chairs, stand next to everyone regardless where they are located. Again, psychological control, but also important to make sure every student feels like they can be the center of the class). The other stool is for the kid whose chair needs to be moved. Jason Fritze has a great process… when he moves a kid from one country group to another for discipline reasons he calls it immigration. Nonetheless my classes are packed, so if I move one kid for discipline there is someone else I have to move just to make room, and that second person almost always has this WHY DO I HAVE TO MOVE I DIDN´T DO ANYTHING victim attitude. So I start by placing the offender on the stool, talking to him or her (in Spanish), getting to know that person and then moving them. The time between discipline and reseating seems to take the sting out of the process.

Martina Bex has a great way of seating kids on the first day of school:


  1. Mike, thank you for sharing your wonderful ideas and photos! I am feeling a bit like Chris, above, a little overwhelmed and “out of sorts” with my upper level classes. I teach levels 1, 3, and 4- but it’s very tough because many of them come from non-CI/TPRS colleagues. At any rate, I’m always struggling with how to begin and where to go with them. I would be most grateful if you would also send me your course guide that you developed for your level 3 class. By the way, I’d love to be able to go “deskless”- I totally agree with your philosophy on that! A colleague at another school has done so, and he loves the results it has produced! Thank you again- your blog is amazing, inspiring, and thought-provoking! I’m learning about things I never knew were out there!

    1. It was not so much a curriculum guide as a simple plan for the week. It turned out a little rigid for me to stick to, but the essence was to dedicate a day or two each week entirely to activities related to El Internado and at least one day per week to pure story-asking (often with a story going home with them to read as homework and a short comprehension quiz the next day). FVR is a big part of my course for level 3, but if you do not have a class library then try to get several TPRS novels that could be read as a whole class activity. We read 3-4 novels together as a class, but I tend to speed through them (and two of the novels are super-easy level 1 novels that I use so that I can focus on super sixteen verbs). Next year I am going to follow Blaine’s suggestion for upper level classes (from his green TPRS guidebook) and spend part of Wednesdays with conversation prompts followed by personal essays written in class every other Friday.

      As for the students coming from non-CI classes, I would recommend focusing on the sweet sixteen verbs at the beginning of the year to make sure every student has a basic foundation. Heterogeneity is a characteristic of all upper level classes, so I start there at the beginning of the year too.

      1. I laughed at your reflection on your guide as being “a little rigid” to stick to! I have found myself doing the same thing. I have a “sketch/outline” of what I’d like a typical week to look like, but it always gets thwarted for whatever reason- sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s outside forces. I do have quite a collection of books for my classroom and have already been considering which ones to read as a class. Before we got out for the summer, I made verb posters like the ones you have in your photos for the sweet 16. Thank you for your suggestions and ideas. Last year was really hard because we switched bell schedules. We are now on an A/B schedule with a “skinny” on Mondays- I’ll see my classes for about 50 minutes on Mondays, then every other day for about 85 minutes. It makes routine, continuity and “flow” very difficult to maintain- at least for me.

  2. I know that you’ve probably answered this a million times, but I’m getting pretty close to throwing in the towel on my desks. I’m so sick of them!! On the first day, when they are filling out their forms, what are they writing on? When they do their free writes?

    I was thinking of buying those foldable 8-ft tables and keeping them stored somewhere until I need them for an exam…but then someone in my dept reminded me that we are going to have 1:1 technology next year. Thoughts? What have been the kids’ reactions?

    1. Every year there are some complaints, and I send THIS LETTER home to parents. I have one student desk in the back of the room for parents who insist that their child needs a desk, and within the first day or two I catch their child doing math homework during the lesson or using their cell phone and hiding it by using the desk. That is why kids want desks; thus far the most I have needed to do is a call home re-explaining that this class is different & we really need students to be 100% engaged to learn the language, not doing homework for other classes. Within a week or two no kid asks about the lack of desks.

      When kids come in on the first few days of school I explain why we have no desks, using the reasoning in that letter. I pretty much circle the information, most quickly agree that students do use desks to hide their cell phones in class. After a few days I work it into a story, it becomes a class joke, no complaints after a week or so.

      The 1:1 tech gives me pause, though. Will your admins expect to see kids using their tech in class?

      Everyone in my department went deskless, but many have discreetly gotten tables to put on the outside of the circle of chairs so that they can use the tables when they want. This tends to be for “game days”, I suppose, but I do not have game days. Stories, theater, reading, music… that is my core workout. I never feel the need for tables or desks; I ask students to simply bring a notebook and write on that. If they don´t have a notebook then I have a few hardback children´s books that double as a writing surface. We do not write for more than 10 minutes per class (usually a minute to copy target structures and 5 minutes to do a quick write, which is not even every day, and then maybe 2 minutes for an exit quiz). I like that kids have to put their notebooks under their chair during the class because I don´t want them referring to their notes to answer questions… I want to know what is in their heads! I don´t give exams either… would rather use that time to tell stories. I feel like I get enough assessment back through good TPRS, that my instruction is more closely informed by my students needs this way. but if you are working in a department where that approach is too radical then maybe the desks are necessary to keep the peace with colleagues.

  3. Hi 🙂 I am a member of Ben Slavic’s PLC and got linked to your excellent blog! Just wanted to chime in re: El Internado and upper levels. Try getting in touch with Dustin Williamson. I know he uses this and has developed materials. Here is a link to his blog.

    Re: deskless…YES! I went deskless 2 years ago and have never looked back. I went to Home Depot got a huge sheet of that white smooth board cut to 9″x 12″ size. I use these for individual white boards and also lap desks if they need them for writing. The fewer barriers we have between each other physically helps break down other barriers as well. We are using language to connect, so why separate ourselves?!

    1. Hi!

      Yes, Dustin has a lot of great ideas. I was just looking through his song packets 🙂

      Very cool idea about the multi-use lap board, thanks.

  4. Thank you so much for these insights. Coincidentally I am reading PQA In a Wink by Ben Slavic and I am feeling a little a little intimidated having to PQA on baseball and football on my first day…Also, I had read your post about your classroom layout and had already decided to adopt it for my 7th grade class this year. First semester, we barely do any writing so why have desks? Brilliant, muchas gracias! I enjoy following you.

    1. Great read! TPRS in a Year (also by Ben) is my department´s guidebook and is constantly being reread by faculty members. Thanks for the comment… keep in touch! 🙂

      1. Oh, of course, I read that on your blog! I have been hearing so much lately about Sabrina Sebban-Janczak that I can´t wait to find an opportunity to watch her teach. Maybe I need to plan a trip to France next summer…

    2. Just my two cents worth and my own personal experience, you can start with what they love to do. You will surely hear sports but also reading and drawing and….

      I believe that Ben uses sports to get a handle on discipline with the popular, sporty and active types in the class. Your own improvisations can work just as well. I am a fan of learning what their passion is and talking about them (we make up weird stories about them reading too many books on the moon or whatever, of course) Hope you find this comment helpful and can jump in unintimidated at the beginning of the year! Bonne chance!

  5. Me encanta la organización, me imagino que para este tipo de estructura el orden es primordial.

    1. All we need are pencil and notebook. About 40% of my kids are living in poverty, so I keep extras. Really, I just want them to attend class and listen, that is enough.

      1. thank you. I teach in a school with about 47% economically disadvantaged, so I know how it is. Last year I tried doing binders with dividers, notebooks, etc. but I”m not the most organized person so I never even did “binder checks” or anything and I don’t think the binders even really helped so I”m debating on what to do this coming school year. I’ve been following your blog religiously though trying to figure out what the heck to do in my Spanish 4 classes. I teach Spanish 1 and Spanish 4. I like to think that after 3 years of teaching middle school (teaching exploratory and level 1) I am pretty good at teaching level 1. However, last year was my first year in high school and my first time ever teaching level 4. I flopped, badly! I had no clue what I was doing and we ended up watching more El Internado than what we should have simply because I didn’t know what else to do. So I use your blog to get ideas on what and how to teach that level. This year matters more than last because now 50% of our evaluation is based on “student growth” and I have 3 Spanish 4 classes rather than just one last year. I think El Internado has contributed to growing the program from 14 kids in level 4 to almost 40. So I want level 4 to be based heavily on El Internado, teaching vocabulary and grammar based on the episode snippet that I will be playing on Friday. And then taking occasional breaks from it to do a novel, such as La Hija del Sastre, to do a Spanish Civil War unit.

        What levels do you teach? I’d love to see any syllabi or beginning of course handouts you give students in level 1 and 4, if you wouldn’t mind sharing.

      2. I loved Hija del sastre… I read it in the middle of a Las Vegas casino during NTPRS 12 and, honestly, the book was much more interesting than the circus around me! I fumbled it somehow when I read it with my kids last year though and their reviews were mixed, but I am positive that the problem was me pushing them too fast without enough support.

        I have the impression that a lot of people do that with El Internado… students start mentally dropping out if they think that all we´re doing is watching the show. I´ll send you a course guide that I built for myself for Spanish 3… it is not a syllabus in the traditional sense but you´ll see how I build the week so that I am not leaning too heavily on El Internado and I incorporate a lot of other topics into the school year. In fact, this year we are beginning to reap the benefits of making the switch to a 100% TPRS throughout the department and I hear that my incoming level 3 students are far superior to years past, so I am revisiting-simplifying some level 4 materials to present in level 3 this year. A lot of it is posted on this website, but perhaps it will be useful to help you scale it up to your level 4 kids.

      3. I just reread your post and realized that you´re reporting a 300% increase in your upper level classes. WOW! That should be part of your evaluation.

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