I used to consider the first day of class the easiest. All you have to do is go through the syllabus and you're done, right? Then a psychology friend told me that studies show the first day of class is critical for setting the tone of student engagement. If students are drawn into discussion and active learning on the first day, they will be more likely to participate for the entire semester. So, now I try to do two things the first day of class: 1) have some type of discussion or activity; and 2)drive home the over-all theme of the course.
For example, my first act in Intro to Biological Anthropology, before I hand out the syllabus, is to ask students what characteristics make us human. (I swear I got this activity from John Hawks' blog and a lecture by Stephen Jay Gould, but now I can't find links to either of them. Maybe I should discuss plagiarism on the first day of class. ;P) I get a mix of answers from the students. Some, you'd expect (bipedal, big brain). Some reflect the students' understandable first-day naivete (our sense of adventure; our ability to think, instead of using instinct), and a few bizarre answers (we can swim! we have five fingers!). Anyway, I put them all on the board, then we discuss them, talking about which ones are truly unique to Homo sapiens, and which are shared with other animals.
After the discussion, I explain that all of the answers on the board are, indeed, unique characteristics of humans. Then I point out that any one of these criteria could be violated without compromising the essential humanness of an individual. A quadriplegic can't walk on two legs, a victim of throat cancer can't speak, an infant born with a profoundly damaged brain is not be capable of higher thought, or of more than a few days of life, yet each of these individuals is human. I explain that the one thing that holds us together as a species is our shared evolutionary history. I tell them that the main goal of this class is to explain how humans have been shaped by evolution, from an exploration of modern human biodiversity to the deep evolutionary history of our species, with an understanding of our adaptations within the spectrum of primate adaptations worldwide.
It's a very simple exercise, but it's surprisingly effective and, dare I say it, profound. I've had students comment on this first class in their end-of-semester evaluations! The discussion forces them to examine their own assumptions about "humanness", and sets the stage for the rest of the course. It helps that I constantly tie my lectures, labs, and activities to the theme of evolution throughout the semester.
I'm always interested in hearing about other people's experiences with teaching strategies that work, so I'd love to hear about yours! Next time, I'll talk about my strategies for the first day of my Intro to Cultural Anthropology class, and my upper-level regional archaeology seminar.