When I was a first-year high school English teacher, I had no idea where to even begin planning and getting ready for my first year. It probably took me a whole three years of teaching before I had a grasp on what essentials I needed to prep before the first day of class. With another year about to begin, I thought I’d share what I’d learned the hard way. In this blog post, I’ll share the 5 things you need to prepare to teach your new English class!
Teach a New English Class Need #1: Kick-Butt First Week Activities
You want your students to know from the first day that this class isn’t going to be boring, routine, or predictable. But you also want to begin practicing routines and establishing expectations early.
Think about what teaching practices are important to you and how you want your classroom culture to feel. Try to incorporate those ideas into your first week, if not your first day, activities.
If discussions will be important to your class, make sure students spend some time speaking to one another during those first few days. If your teaching style includes hands-on activities, make sure you have students manipulate something with their hands early.
I used to do a long slideshow on the first day. I’d introduce myself, then present class rules and expectations, and end with some kind of “About Me” questionnaire for students.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it wasn’t authentic to me or my teaching. I would essentially lecture for an hour on the first day, but never again during our semester.
And those questionnaires? I would glance at them, but they never actually helped me to get to know my students or put personalities and faces to names.
Plus, I’m a pretty extreme introvert. That first-day lesson always left me anxious and drained.
Now, I start new semesters with a classroom scavenger hunt. I place policies and expectations around the room. Students label a blank classroom map and find the answers to classroom policy questions.
On the second day, we do Back to School Stations. Students still learn about me, the classroom, share information with me, set up their folders, etc.
But instead of students being bored listening to me drone on and on for an hour, they’re active participants. They get to move and be creative. They are forced to interact with my classroom library and touch and flip through books they’ll be able to read.
The best part? I get to walk around and interact with students. I’m not just standing at the front of the room running through slides, but I’m able to discuss books with students and comment on their “About Me” sheets as they work on them.
By the end of the first couple of days, I’ve learned a few names. I know my “readers” and “non-readers.” And students know that in my class, they’ll have to move, participate, and know that I will be asking them questions about books!
Admittedly, this year will look a little different since I’m starting virtually. Instead of these stations, I’ll have students use FlipGrid to introduce themselves. I’ll also be using the first week as an opportunity to teach some email basics and have my students write me a formal email about themselves.
Those first few days set the tone for your class, your expectations, and your relationships with students. Don’t forget to put the same level of effort into them that you would for any content-driven lessons.
Teach a New English Class Need #2: An Independent Reading Program
I’m sure that others will disagree with me, but I believe that an independent reading program is essential for any English class. If we are to turn students into lifelong readers, then we need to teach the skills around independent reading.
Before your new semester begins, you should know how you want to incorporate independent reading into your class.
Some teachers do independent reading as a whole unit. Others weave in independent reading through their whole calendar year. (I think the latter is best, but start where you need to!)
You can have students read independently at home or in class. I do one a week for thirty minutes because it works well with my schedule and curriculum. Others do ten minutes at the beginning of each class period.
If you’re not sure where to even begin, there are plenty of resources you can read to help you get started:
You can either utilize your school’s library or create the classroom library of your dreams. Or both!
Once you know when and how you’ll use independent reading in your class, you also need a way to assess it.
I’m not a big believer in book reports or tests for independent reading (I feel that independent reading should reflect real-life reading as much as possible). But student follow-through is often difficult to acquire when there are no points attached.
So how are you going to make independent reading “worth it” to students who wouldn’t otherwise read on their own?
There are countless ways to do this. Some teachers do projects. You could have students write book reviews and post them online or share them with other students.
One way I put a “value” on independent reading is with quick exit tickets. They are fast and easy, but pretty much impossible to complete if you don’t read. I have some that focus on reading strategies and others that focus on story elements–skills and knowledge that is universal, regardless of students’ novel choices.
I also use a fun “#Bookstagram” activity. My students are obsessed with Instagram, so I knew incorporating some social media would catch their attention.
Teach a New English Class Need #3: A Writing Framework
No doubt your students will be writing in your classroom.
But how are you going to teach writing? How will you scaffold it?
While frameworks don’t always reflect real-life writing, they’re a great place to start. Frameworks make writing easier for struggling or unconfident writers while making writing easier to teach.
There are so many kinds of frameworks. I recommend talking to your colleagues to see what they use. (A framework used by the whole school will be easier to implement than expecting students to piecemeal different strategies from room to room.)
Also, consider the writing you plan on assigning. The writing students will do in a creative writing course, for example, will require totally different scaffolding than argumentative writing.
Personally, I use a claim, evidence, and reasoning framework. My whole building does, so we can strengthen and scaffold student writing across all four years–not just one.
Because I know my framework, I can use its language every time I create a new writing assignment. My students know what is expected every time they write.
Teach a New English Class Need #4: Beginning of Class Routines
Knowing how you want your class to begin every day is crucial. If your class begins the same way every day, it eases anxiety for students. They will know your expectations and how to meet them.
Should students grab their independent reading books first or their folders? Should they get out their homework for review or grab a new assignment?
I’m a big fan of daily warm-ups or bell ringers. English teachers have so many possibilities when it comes to beginning of class warm-ups!
For my regular English courses, I have students correct or label parts of sentences. (Think D.O.L style.)
An easy option that’s especially great for creative writing is a five-minute journal writing. You can have students free write about anything they want for a no-prep bell ringer. I find my students often want some direction, however, and coming up with new writing prompts every day can take a surprising amount of mental energy and time.
If you like the idea of journal writing, but don’t want to panic the night before class daily about writing prompts, you can grab this totally editable Google Slides resource. Included are enough prompts to have two new ones for a whole quarter (plus, you’ll have the ability to edit them or add your own!).
A more rigorous example of a daily warm-up is to do a poem of the week. The concept is that each week, students study a different poem. Each day, they analyze a small piece of it. Then, students can even write a poem of their own based on that mentor text. (You can read all about this method of daily poem analysis here.)
If this sounds appealing (or you just need some quick, poetry activities in your back pocket), be sure to check out my Poem of the Week Bundle.
Knowing how you’ll begin each day not only makes planning easier, but it’s especially helpful for grounding high-anxiety students.
Teach a New English Class Need #5: A Solid Curriculum with Meaningful Assessments
Obviously, the clearer your curriculum map, the easier planning will be. Now, your hands may be completely tied by your district; or, you might have total freedom.
Either way, you should try to get a deep understanding of your curriculum before the school year or class starts. This means knowing what you’ll read, what skills your students will work on, and how you’ll assess them.
Again, depending on your mandated curriculum, you may be required to assign certain essays, projects, or novels.
If you’ve never personally chosen a new novel to teach, don’t worry! I’ve got tips for you here.
If you are able to choose the books you teach, I encourage you to have at least one unit outside of the canon. Try to get some diverse voices in your curriculum. Choose a novel that will engage students and connect them to their immediate reality.
Try and do the same for your assessments–assign one that is a little unusual. I highly encourage you to try at least one authentic assessment.
With my The Hate U Give unit, we do a final discussion in which I bring in other staff members to have deep conversations with my students. In my Internment bundle, the assessment is a Social Justice Leaflet, in which students can create a leaflet around any social issue that’s important to them.
Authentic assessments are just that: they assess students as they perform a real-world (authentic) task. You can learn all about authentic assessments in detail here.
Whew! I know. This list seems like a lot to do for only 5 things!
But I promise, if you spend some time mapping out each of these five essentials, you’ll start your new English classes stronger and with way less stress.
I used to arrive to school on the first day two hours early because I had so much to do and so much unplanned. Now, I arrive at my normal time, coffee in hand, and a smile on my face.