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A Simple, Powerful Tweak on the First Day of School Index Card Activity

By Dave Stuart Jr.

If you've been around for a bit, you know I'm pretty old school in a lot of ways. When it comes to deciding which instructional strategies to use, my thinking goes like this:

If multiple strategies do what I want them to do, then the simplest, quickest strategy is the best one. 

This is why I use index cards, combined with think-pair-share (another old school strategy — like yours truly, it originated in the 80s), to facilitate 80-90% of the speaking and listening that happens in my room (the other 20% would be the pop-up method for discussion or debate).

(To read more about how I use these index cards and think-pair-share, check out this article: “Every Kid Speaks, Every Day“. For an even better examination of think-pair-share, see Jennifer Gonzalez's recent post over at Cult of Pedagogy. To learn about the art of teaching kids how to speak, see anything by Erik Palmer [my favorite is Well Spoken]; I write about his PVLEGS strategy here.)

How I used to have kids create the index cards

So typically, I'd have kids come in on the first day, grab a seat and an index card, and then write their name on one side of the card, nice and large. On the other side, I'd have them write adjectives or phrases that describe who they are.

In my head this made sense — I was getting to know them, and with the activity I was telling them that I care about who they are.

And I do, indeed, care about who they are; I spend a whole chapter in Never Finished exploring the importance of building genuine relationships with our students.

But there was a problem with this activity: I'd often have my fourteen-year-old students writing things like “Loud” or “Lazy” to describe themselves. Things like this killed me — especially that latter adjective — because I was giving them an assignment that was inadvertently encouraging them to identify with bad habits. Loudness isn't inherently bad, but the way my kids mean it is usually implying a lack of self-control or a lack of consideration for others.

And then laziness — whoo, that's just straight up Bad Habit Central. I don't want that as a part of the identity of anyone I love. I build my class on the idea that we do hard things, that doing hard things is a part of who we are. And yet here I was, accidentally encouraging kids to begin their year identifying with things I hoped to help them weed out from the gardens of their hearts.

How I had my kids create index cards yesterday

So yesterday was the first day of a new semester. For my freshmen kids, this is a big deal because a lot of them end up failing at something during their first semester of high school. They may literally fail classes, but more commonly they fail to reach the GPA they were hoping for, or they fail to be the kind of friends or sons or daughters they wanted to be. I don't aim to make them feel bad about this; failure is a regular part of the lives of highly successful people; successful people use failure as a form of schooling. So I started yesterday's lessons like this, with a big smile on my face:

Family and team, I am excited for you today because today is a new start. As of right now, the things you failed at last semester can only help you to answer two questions: What did I learn? and What can I do better for next time? That's it. Any kind of thoughts like “I'm dumb” or “School's not for me” — those won't help; if you let your failures tell you those things, you are doing failure wrong. Literally picture yourself plucking those kinds of ideas from your heart right now and chucking them into the sun.

Here's what we're going to do: brand new semester, brand new index cards. On one side, I want you to write your name, nice and large. On the other side, I want you to describe the person you want to be someday. I'm not looking for that person's job description; I'm looking for the way that person's friends and family members will talk about her when she's not around. What kind of impact do you want to have while you've got air in your lungs? What kind of person do you want to be remembered as? That's what I want you to write on the other side of that index card.

You never know how things are going in a kid's head by just looking at her, but do you ever get those moments when you're pretty sure they're delighted? When you may just have breathed a little life into a dark corner of their hearts that was telling them they don't have what it takes?

What kids wrote

“I want to be…

  • a dependable friend; a kid my parents can be proud of; not the one people thinks is dumb.”
  • generous.”
  • a hard worker.”

More kids:

  • “I don't want my life to be a waste.”
  • “I want to be someone who my parents can be proud of and that they'll want to show off.”
  • “I don't want to just be known as the quiet one….”
  • “I want to be known as someone who dominated life.” (I taught that kid the prior semester) 😉
  • “I want my mom to be able to see I can make it without her.”

I barely went through my stack with those examples above. Do you see how much more I learn about the kids (and how much they may just learn about themselves) through that one simple adjustment to the index card activity?

Don't get me wrong — this activity is the first step on a 1,000 mile journey to life domination. Many are the classrooms that begin with a bang, and many are they who also go out with a whimper. But this is a much better start thanks to the tiny tweak.

Here's why I share this

  1. Lightning won't strike if you don't show up. This was one of those rare moments when you decide on the fly — like, literally, as you're talking — to tweak an activity, and the tweak works. It doesn't happen often in my classroom, but I would say that it happens with greater frequency the longer you stick to this job. We have to keep teachers teaching longer so this happens in more classrooms more often. This isn't a magical thing, but it's the stuff magic is made of. For a couple of kids, this might have been magic.
  2. Our ideas are better when they're rubbing up on each other. Knowing the fine community of educators that gathers at this blog, you will take something from this post and make it way better. Do that. And then share in the comments.
  3. Celebrate. Small. Wins. I'm not talking about throwing a party; I'm talking about a momentary pause where you're like, “Sweet.” Too many teachers think it's the administrator's job to motivate us or the nation's job to respect our work and stoke our passion. No. That's our job. And one of the key ways to keep yourself motivated is to focus on the things that are going well; be grateful for them; build on them. And then lace your work boots back up because you've got big problems to wrestle with in your work, and there's a lot at stake.

Do me a favor — celebrate a small win this week. Recognize that hard work in this job does pay off when we choose to focus on what we do control. And the next time you look in the mirror, realize that you have an awesome calling; every single day holds the potential for a new discovery.



P.S. Thank you for all of the kind words and prayers and thoughts for Crystal. She's having more good days than bad now; hopefully we're past the worst of the headaches, etc. Thank you so much.

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24 Responses to A Simple, Powerful Tweak on the First Day of School Index Card Activity

  1. Erin January 21, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    Love it! This would be great to do with my underclassmen, who are still working to find their groove and recognize failure as an opportunity for learning and not an obstacle for defeat.

    I do a similar activity with my AP Language students on the first day (admittedly stolen from the teacher blog WhereTheClassroomEnds.com). We read “On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs & talk about the power of words, the power of labels, and the importance of taking power over the labels that might define you. Homework the first night is to think of a word to define yourself & give a quick (less than 1 minute) informal speech about how your word fits who you are. It sets the tone for being actively engaged in my class, allows me to get to know them very well right away, and I write down the list & keep it in my desk. When kids start asking for college recommendations, it’s one of the pieces of evidence I use to help describe the student in my recommendation letter. Some of the words I had this year were eagle, tenacious, optimistic, indecisive, unorthodox, rainbow, underdog, outgoing, musical note, kaleidoscopic, runner, and sprouting.

  2. Kim January 21, 2015 at 8:20 am #

    A great tweak, Dave. I may do this tomorrow! Are you presenting at the staff PD sessions in February? You should. 🙂

  3. Shelby Denhof January 21, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    Nice article, Dave. I like your modified idea with the index cards. What a good idea to have the students verbalize who they aspire to be. The new semester starts next week here at the school I was just hired that and now I’m convinced I should do this with my new students on Monday!

    • Shelby Denhof January 21, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

      *hired at

  4. Aniseh (Vanessa) Ghaderi January 21, 2015 at 11:07 am #

    Hello, Dave. I want to thank you for taking time not only to explain the tweak that you made to the simple index card activity, but for taking the time to explain why the tweak is so important. We are helping to shape the world when we work with our students, and I’m all in favor of anything that promotes greater care, better self-image, and more confidence. Thank you.

  5. linda janney January 21, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    Your ideas are so helpful. I am going to try this & I love Erin’s tweak, too!

  6. Megan Ellis January 21, 2015 at 1:36 pm #

    We are doing semester 1 grade checks in Advisory today. Normally, I have them set SMART goals for semester 2 after we do grade checks, but I think I’m going to ask them this question instead, then follow with “What steps can you start taking TODAY to become that person?” Nice work, as always, Dave!

  7. Melissa January 21, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    Great piece! I plan to do this with my 8th graders ASAP. Maybe to start the second semester here in central, NY? I love it! For MLK Day I passed out an elementary handout that said, “MY dreams for the world….my family….myself.” Students were dumbfounded: “I don’t get it.” I told them this is a simple exercise and I don’t have the answers for them. I want to know their dreams. I was blown away by some of the things students wrote, and with their approval, I’ve decided to post them around the room.

  8. Ashley Bishop January 21, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

    I just finished an absolutely miserable class, full of students who actively work to disrupt, distract and keep us off track. I was sitting here feeling angry and defeated. Miserable.

    This post was a small chink of light in a dark room. It was a little push, a reminder to stand up. Keep stepping forward. It’s what I expect of my students, and it’s hard. but it’s my job.

    thanks for the push.

    • Erin January 27, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      Ashley, I was just about to write almost the exact same thing. I have a super challenging class this semester, and reading this post was a bright spot in my day. Time to lace up the ol’ work boots, I guess.

  9. Angela February 5, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

    I am loving this tweak to the index card activity and thank you for providing some examples from your students too! I also love the version that Erin described and the addition that Megan included to get students to take action towards becoming that person.

    Since I work with the adult learners in the building, I would love to do something like this at our next staff meeting or maybe even just put it in their boxes with instructions. I would like them to voice what kind of teacher they want to be and what they want their students to remember about them/their class when the year is over. And then, like Megan suggested, I would like them to write down one thing they can do the next day as a small step towards becoming THAT teacher. As always, reading has been a bright spot in my day and I am really loving the comments people are leaving. This is an AWESOME community!

  10. Karen February 16, 2015 at 6:09 pm #

    This is a great idea, which I will try! I wanted to let you know I’ve been using the Think-Pair-Share and index cards all year with my 7th and 8th graders, as well as the Article of the Week. Both have been successful in increasing student achievement, so thank you! I’ve also modified and meshed these two ideas into a Poem of the Week and poetry discussion activity. Going to attempt the pop-up debates next. Your website is a fantastic resource and inspiration!

    • Beth August 13, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

      Karen, Would you be interested in sharing how you do the Poem of the week? I teach 9th & 12th & I’d love to hear what you do with your poems. Thanks!

      • davestuartjr August 14, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

        Very cool idea — I’d love to hear more, too.

  11. Trimonisha August 2, 2015 at 10:34 pm #

    As I prepare to go back to work tomorrow this is perfect! I know it will set a positive tone in my class! Thank you a million times over.

    • davestuartjr August 3, 2015 at 5:36 am #

      Trimonisha, I am so happy to hear that. Let me know how it goes!

  12. Heather August 7, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    thank you for giving me a springboard 🙂 I will be using this with my 6th Graders this year. It is never too early to encourage them to ponder some deep things -can’t wait to see the answers and then make good use of them to help these students reach their goals

    • davestuartjr August 11, 2015 at 7:56 am #

      Best of luck to you, Heather — when I think back to my year of teaching 6th grade, I think they would have loved this. Cheers!

  13. Mrs. Thompson August 17, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    23 years of teaching, and this is one of the best “tweaks” I’ve ever made to opening day. It sets the tone perfectly. Thank you!

  14. Katey August 20, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

    I like this a lot … like, A LOT a lot. I think it would be cool to post these around the room with just the back showing. This would let all the kids see what their peers are thinking and maybe even give them some ideas they hadn’t thought to strive for. Thanks, Dave!

  15. camille September 15, 2015 at 10:10 am #

    Love the focus on what they hope to be!

    In an intake survey, I had students describe themselves as students and as humans. These adjectives, along with details from their introductory letters, are the first things I listed in my class roster. Every single time I meet with them or put down notes about their performance, I am reminded of the people they hope to be. I also based some of their personal goals on any negative adjectives (e.g. “disorganized” or “timid”).

    These notes are especially important this year as I pilot a new grading system based partially on the 3Ps (Participation, Progress, Performance) described by Steve Peha.

  16. Julie Housum November 1, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    Dave, I loved this idea so much I am doing a unit on Purpose. I’ve put together an initial text set – I’m going to try 2 articles to compare about Jack Andraka, the Cain’s Arcade video, The Gettysburg Address, Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. (Oh, I just noticed I have all males!! Better fix this fast!!) This is my first shot at creating a text set – I know I won’t have all the right pieces this year, but will take good notes for next. My ss teacher and I are also doing AOW with our shared 7th graders – challenging but worth it. Thanks so much for your humor, your groundedness, your ideas, and your support. I feel it way up here in Maine!

  17. JoAnna Witzig July 26, 2016 at 9:33 pm #

    I teach at an alternative high school, and most of my students describe themselves as mistakes, problems, trouble-makers, stupid, etc. I love the idea of giving them a fresh start, a clean slate, and a positive and hopeful environment as they begin a new journey with school. Thanks for this idea! Teachers have such a powerful role in inspiring hope in students on the margins.

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