I teach World History to 10th Graders in Florida, and our first unit is about the River Valley Civilizations (Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China). Instead of boring my students with the rules and regulations (which they get in every other class) on the first day, we do a simple in-class project. I assign students their seats in groups of three or four. Each team is given a supply of newspaper and a roll of masking tape. They are then given ten minutes to build the tallest newspaper tower that they can manage. Then I ask them to write a quick HOWTO about their tower-building technique. In a later class, I'll introduce the Five Characteristics of a Civilization, and relate them to their experience building the towers. It's a fun day, and the kids quickly realize that my class is... a little different. Even better, it gives them something concrete that they can hook the abstract Characteristics onto.

Rules? Those are for Day Two!

here's a summary of my opening activity for grade 11 english/history. the core of the activity is mostly history based.

The first unit is studying Native American History, Religion, & Literature. So they come into my class on day one, and we get right into the unit. No rules, no syllabus, just one handout that is covered with pictographs from the Walam Olum, a (supposed) Leni Lenape creation myth story. With only cryptic images, no words, the students are told they have just been given a story. In small groups, the activity for day one is: tell us what the story is!

Homework for Day Two: Write four pictographs that tell your own creation story. Day Two activity: trade and interpret.

Around Day Three is when a syllabus gets handed out...but even that isn't "typical", on the back of it are the opening prompts to a discussion to wrap up the Walam Olum activity:
Expectations for Each Student Can Be Summarized by the Following Hopi Sayings:
“Don’t Go Around Hurting Each Other”

“Try to Understand Things”

The activity hits hard at Primary Source Analysis, as well as Interpreting an Unseen Text. And it's all done with lots of Collaboration.

The story of this opening activity can also be read here.