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.
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 ways to have students 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 activity, 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 activity 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!
You can also find more lesson plans and classroom resources on Shaped.
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