Planning the content and assessments for your semester is one thing; planning the first week of school is entirely different. Most of the time we have standards to meet and curriculum to get through. But during the first week, we’re pressured to establish procedures, build relationships, and set the tone for the rest of the year. Choosing your back-to-school activities can be so stressful!
How do you decide what to do? How do you balance “fun” with meaningful activities? In this post, I hope to offer a few ideas that will do just that! Many of these back-to-school activities can be used in any high school class, but they’ll work especially well for high school English courses.
Back-To-School Activities #1: Classroom Scavenger Hunt
This is my favorite first day of school activity and you can use it for any high school class–not just English.
The Classroom Scavenger Hunt requires a little bit of prep work. You need to know your own classroom expectations and procedures first. Then, you’ll need to create labels with those procedures on them to place around the classroom. Lastly, you’ll need to create a worksheet with a question about each label on it.
If you create ten or so labels for around the classroom, you’ll have a pretty good scavenger hunt! This is a great way to go over classroom procedures without lecturing students for the whole first day.
Students get up and get moving, get to chat a little with their new classmates, and grow familiar with their new space. Plus, if you hand out some small treat for finishing the scavenger hunt, you’ll get some “favorite teacher” points from kids nice and early in the year!
How To Prep
For example, one item I label in my classroom is my pencil bucket. I have “Pencil Bucket” typed and centered in a large font. Beneath it, I describe my procedure for borrowing pencils: “This is the pencil bucket. You do not need to ask to borrow a pencil; just grab one! Be sure to return it at the end of class when you’re done.”
In order for students to correctly answer the question, they’ll need to move around the room, locate the pencil bucket, read the label with the procedures, and then write down the answer.
On the student worksheet, I might have a question that reads something like, “True or false: you should always ask to borrow a pencil first.”
Back-To-School Activities #2: Back-to-School Stations
Back-to-school stations pretty much single-handedly helped me deal with my own back-to-school anxiety. I hate having to lecture for an hour or read through a boring syllabus during the first week. What a lame way to start a year, right?
But then I started doing back-to-school stations. It’s a way to get through all of the first week’s “must-dos” without losing momentum right away. Stations allow students to get up and move, gather information for the semester, and start getting to know each other (and you!).
Plus, stations are super customizable! For my English classes, one station is looking through the classroom library to choose some interesting titles for independent reading. You can add whatever activities make sense for your content area.
How To Prep
To prep your own stations, first, decide how many stations you’ll have. This will depend on how long your class periods are and how many things you want students to do. I recommend having at least three: a getting-to-know-you station, a getting-to-know-the-teacher station, and a preparing-for-class station.
But you could of course have many more!
Each station will need directions as well as supplies for each activity.
One of my stations includes reading a letter from me to the class, so I leave several copies of my letter at that station. After students read my letter, they are to write a letter in response to me. So there’s also blank paper and pencils at that station.
Another station I do is a reading inventory questionnaire. Students must log into our Google Classroom and complete a survey through Google Forms. In my directions, I leave the classroom code. Not only do I get valuable information about what my new students like to read, but I get them all logged into my Google Classroom as well.
You can create a station for anything you want students to do early in the year. If you’d like to try some back-to-school stations, but aren’t sure what kind to create (or simply don’t want to create any!) you can grab my Editable Back-to-School Stations right here!
Back-To-School Activities #3: “I Am” Poem
Having students write an “I Am” poem is an especially great first-week activity for English or Creative Writing classes. I personally hate fluffy getting-to-know-you activities; this one at least gets students doing some thinking and writing!
“I Am” Poems follow a very simple structure. Even students who hate poetry can write one easily. All they have to do is fill in some blanks about themselves.
Once students have finished writing their poems, they can be displayed for everyone in the class to see. I have students hang up their poems (if they want to be anonymous, I let them). Then, I give all of my students several post-it notes.
They fill out positive comments or personal connections on the post-its and stick them to the corresponding classmate’s poem. (This gallery walk at the end of class is another way to get students up and moving during that first week!)
How To Prep
To prep for this one, you’ll need an “I Am” Poem graphic organizer for each student. You can grab mine for FREE right here!
You should also write your own “I Am” poem about yourself to share with students as an example before the day they write their poems. Not only does this provide some scaffolding for students through modeling and an example, but it lets them learn a little something about you!
Back-To-School Activities #4: Email Writing
As I said, I hate fluffy getting-to-know-you activities. Having students write an email to the teacher, however, is not fluff. It’s a great way to engage with students, establish communication, and set up procedures and expectations for communication.
During the first week of school, you can have students send you an email. Students can tell you about themselves, their prior knowledge in your content area, or even share information you may want to know–like their workload outside of school or their interests.
Secretly, though, you can use student emails as a pre-assessment for their writing abilities. Are they capitalizing sentences and using end punctuation? Are they correcting spelling? Reading through student emails may offer a heads-up on essential skills that need to be reviewed.
How To Prep
Before you assign an email to students, make sure you go over the email writing process. You’d be surprised by how little some of our students actually know about technology (even though they really should know better than us!).
You’ll want to go over expectations for sending emails to a teacher, as opposed to a friend. You may even want to go over the parts of an email. Formal emails should still include some kind of salutation and a sign off. And many students have no idea what the difference between “bcc:” and “cc:” is at the top of emails.
Then, give students a reason to email you. Give them a topic or a questionnaire to fill out and send. (Students will never be able to say they didn’t know your email now!)
Back-To-School Activities #5: “Why Grammar?” Lesson
This back-to-school activity is specifically for English teachers, but it’s a great first-week activity. If you plan on teaching grammar throughout the year or semester, it’s helpful if students first know why they should bother with conventions and mechanics at all.
If students value clear communication and correct punctuation use, they’ll be much more likely to sit through grammar drills or sentence diagramming.
You can approach trying to build up an appreciation for grammar within students a variety of ways. It’s good to discuss why students will want to be able to communicate clearly through writing. But showing them funny mistakes is an effective way to make the point.
How To Prep
There are an endless amount of memes and gifs online that demonstrate how tiny mistakes can make for funny miscommunication. I recommend sharing some of these with students.
You can even assign students with the task of finding and bringing in one of these memes to share with the class!
I always give students an unpunctuated letter that can be interpreted differently, depending on the punctuation. I let them try to punctuate it to the best of their ability before showing them different ways punctuation would change the meaning.
Knowing your first-week priorities is important for choosing your back-to-school activities. Is building relationships the most important to you? Setting expectations? Establishing the tone of the class?
A great first week will incorporate a little bit of all of the above. But it will also show the class a little about you as a teacher. Be sure to choose activities and lessons that feel authentic to you, your teaching style, and what makes you passionate in your content area!