Activities & Lessons
As summer dwindles down, middle school students (and teachers!) are likely starting to think about the much-anticipated first day of school.
For students, the first day of school is a combination of many emotions. Some may wish they were still enjoying their summer nights of freedom, while many look forward to returning to the comfortable familiarity of school. In either scenario, it’s critical to plan a first day of school that welcomes students back, instills an eagerness to learn, and sets the appropriate tone for your classroom.
Fun Beginning-of-the-Year Icebreakers for Middle Schoolers
So, how can you accomplish these goals while showing your students that coming back to school can be fun? Using icebreakers will help ease everyone back into the school routine. Here are three first-day-of-school icebreaker activities for middle school students to introduce themselves to you as the teacher—as well as each other—without using the traditional “Hi, my name is...” icebreaker.”
1. Goal Setting
Turn setting goals and creating a growth mindset into one of your first activities on the first day of school! After discussing with students what a growth mindset is and how having one can help them achieve their goals, students should set specific goals for the school year. These can be academia related, such as “Reading one book a month,” or more aligned to routines and practices, such as “Arriving at school on time” or “Keeping an organized binder.”
For this middle school icebreaker, I usually ask students to write two goals of their choice and then list a few bullet points under each goal that shows the steps they will take to make their goal achievable. Once students are finished, this is an excellent opportunity to have your first conference with them to discuss what they have written. This also provides time to initially get to know your students and personally welcome them back to school.
To ensure that students keep their goals in mind throughout the year, I always hang up their goal-setting sheets. I make a big, round circle on bright, neon paper with a template for students to fill in their goals. Once I have had the chance to conference with students, they cut out their circles and hang them in an area of the room. Having all of my students see their goals throughout the year is a constant reminder to strive toward achieving them. (Also, all the bright paper perfectly cut into circles looks super cute as decorations in a classroom!)
2. Reading Picture Books
It doesn’t matter how young or old your students are—every student loves a good picture book! Listening to someone reading a picture book—whether a teacher or a classmate—may bring middle school students back to the sweet days of sitting in a circle on the carpet of their elementary classrooms. Carefully selected picture books are an excellent instructional tool because they are short yet hold powerful lessons for students to think about.
Two of my personal favorite picture books to start the year with are Dr. Seuss’s The Places You’ll Go and Barbara Emmons’s Through the Cracks. The former connects with the previous activity of establishing goals and setting a growth mindset. Using this picture book as a follow-up or the closing of a lesson may really reiterate the importance of setting goals to strive toward. Through the Cracks presents more of a serious lesson to be learned about students who “fall through the cracks” of school. I use this as an opportunity to discuss ways I can help them, what they need from me as their teacher to succeed, and the importance of communication between us.
Delivering a powerful message to students in a familiar way, such as a picture book, helps them receive a message more effectively. You can take this icebreaker for middle school students one step further by asking students to complete a writing task associated with the picture book you’ve read. Students may enjoy having an opportunity to use a journal to reflect and share their thoughts about what you just read. This is also an opportunity for you to informally assess their writing and gain initial insight into whom your students are as young people.
3. Establishing Routines and Rituals
One of your most important tasks during the first week of school is to clarify classroom rituals and routines. Establishing rules and consequences sets the appropriate tone for your students, and it’s important for students to know your expectations.
During the first week, I always allowed my students to work in small groups to create a list of routines and rules they believe are important to student achievement. I also encourage students to frame their thinking using positive growth mindset. For example, instead of students writing “No talking when the teacher is speaking,” I would encourage them to write “Students will raise their hand before sharing their thoughts.” Taking out negative words like “no” reframes the rules to be more like routines students should follow.
Students enjoy working together in groups to use chart paper and colored markers for this activity. This also allows students to meet each other and start becoming familiar with working together—an expectation that needs to be set early since students will probably work together frequently. When all the groups are finished, each group shares their routines, and as a class, we establish one set list of routines to follow. Everyone in the class signs the final class poster, and it gets hung up for everyone to refer to throughout the year!
4. Silent Greetings
The first day of school can be daunting for students in middle school. To break the ice gently, I suggest the activity “Silent Greetings.” Use a whiteboard if you have one, or you can try the free Google app Jamboard like I do. Each student will need a laptop and access to Jamboard. The premise of this activity is that students can build connections and common interests with peers, without the pressure or anxiety some may feel when starting a conversation. (See below for a tech-free approach to this activity).
Prior to the first day of school, I set up several slides within Jamboard, with questions for students to answer. Some questions I use are:
- What is your favorite food?
- What artist do you like listening to?
- What book do you enjoy reading?
Then, on the first day of school, I display the Jamboard on a projector or interactive whiteboard and allow students to access it. Students answer the questions independently using the tools of the app. Icons that look like sticky notes appear with students’ answers to the questions. The coolest part is that students can comment on each other’s posts, helping to build common interest and community. Students especially love to see their responses pop up in real time, creating an interactive and engaging lesson.To end the lesson, I may call on students who wish to share aloud or extend their responses. This lesson works especially well for back-to-school since students can engage with each other in a way that makes them feel socially and emotionally safe in their classroom while getting to know each other. Feel free to print the Jamboards and display them during the first week of school.
If your students don’t have one-to-one computer access, you can try a tech-free approach. Write one getting-to-know-you question at the top of each of three pieces of chart paper and hang them around the classroom. Provide students with sticky notes for their response to each of the questions. Remind them to write their name on the sticky notes before adding them to the chart paper. Once all responses are posted, allow time for students to read the responses and discuss with classmates.
5. Which Side Are You On?
Students may not be ready to sit at a desk the day they come back from summer vacation. To remedy this, and build on classroom community, try the activity “Which Side Are You On?” The activity is a simple yet powerful way to get students talking, moving, and making friends.
I start by having students stand in the center of the classroom. I then give them a "would you rather" question, such as: Would you rather eat ice cream or cookies for dessert? As I ask the question, I indicate that if they choose ice cream, they should move to the left of the classroom, and if they choose cookies, they should move to the right of the classroom. Students quickly see what they have in common with their peers based on which side of the classroom they are standing.
I then extend the activity by calling on students to answer follow-up questions: Which flavor of ice cream is your favorite? or What is your favorite cookie? This allows students to find even more in common with students in their group. Other "would you rather" questions I may ask include:
- Would you rather be a bird or a horse?
- Would you rather go to the moon or Hawaii?
- Would you rather dance or sing?
There is no rhyme or reason to the "would you rather" questions, other than to be silly, fun, and make students feel relaxed on their first day of school.
Teachers, feel free to join in on the game too! Students love to see what they have in common with their teachers. This builds student-teacher rapport, making for an excellent ice breaker activity!
More Icebreakers for Middle School Students?
Got any ideas for fun first-day-of-school icebreakers for middle school students? We'd love to hear your ideas! Share them with us via email at email@example.com or reach out on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Explore additional first-day-of-school icebreakers for all grade levels. Take your icebreakers to the next level with these 5 social-emotional learning activities for middle school students.
This blog, originally published in 2019, has been updated for 2023.
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Nikki La Londe
Director of Services Content Development, HMH