ACTIVITIES & LESSONS
When it comes to meeting new people, first impressions matter. Learning your new students’ names and faces is challenging enough, but with the first day of school also comes the need to form relationships, set expectations, and develop a classroom culture. It gives the teacher a chance to introduce themselves and encourage students to get to know each other. Finding an effective way to set the tone and learn about one another can be an invaluable first step in your students’ school year.
When the first bell of the season rings and you are faced with a sea of new learners, try out some of these welcome-back-to-school activities from Teachers in America podcast guests to usher in the new year.
Activity 1: Play a Getting-to-Know-You Game
Many of us have experienced an icebreaker activity at some point in our lives. Maybe the goal of the activity was to help you remember the names of your classmates or colleagues, or maybe it was just used to lighten the atmosphere of a room. Either way, there are several icebreaker options for teachers of every subject to try.
Teachers can use these fun back-to-school icebreaker activities for elementary students in the classroom or remotely.
Shaped Executive Editor
Use these classroom icebreakers to have students introduce themselves to you—and each other—without using the traditional "Hi, my name is..." activity.
Associate Learning Architect, HMH
These icebreakers for students in Grades 9-12 will help them get to know one another while having fun and also getting creative.
Shaped Executive Editor
Fifth-grade teacher Stacy Salter likes to begin her year with a “getting to know you” game. She and her students start by sitting in a circle on the floor together. The rules are as follows:
- The student to the teacher’s left goes first by stating their first name and something they like. Example: “My name is Jasmine, and my favorite color is green.”
- Then the student to their left will go next, stating their name and something they like. They must then repeat all the other names of students to their right and their favorite things. Example: “My name is Alex, and my favorite food is pizza, and her name is Jasmine, and her favorite color is green.”
- This continues around the circle, with each new student added to the list. The third student in the circle will state their own name and like, plus the ones before them. Example: “My name is Tim, and I love turtles, her name is Alex, and her favorite food is pizza, and her name is Jasmine, and her favorite color is green.”
- Once the circle has been completed, the teacher will go last. As the teacher, you must remember all the students’ names and likes.
For Stacy, this activity not only serves as an introduction for the class but also as a lesson to show the importance of active listening, eye contact, and giving everyone equal time to share. It also boosts student confidence when they realize they can rise to the memory challenge.
“I have never had a time when they, or I, cannot do it,” says Stacy. “But if that [were to happen], students are always actively listening and helping me out, which shows teamwork.”
“I have never had a time when they, or I, cannot do it...But if that [were to happen], students are always actively listening and helping me out, which shows teamwork.”
By the time the game is complete, students have made connections with their classmates and know a little bit more about who everyone is and what they like.
Activity 2: Create Classroom Decorations
Encouraging connections between students is a good first step toward building a classroom community, but establishing a structured and comfortable environment will allow those relationships to flourish. For elementary teacher Kitty Donohoe, building a community is a primary back-to-school goal.
“I’ve been trying to incorporate more mindfulness into my daily teaching,” says Kitty. “Because I usually loop from second to third grade, I take a long time establishing routines and a calm, structured, and accepting atmosphere in my classroom.” She starts slowly with her new classes, making sure to connect to individuals by asking questions and giving compliments, all while kneeling at a student’s eye level.
“Because I usually loop from second to third grade, I take a long time establishing routines and a calm, structured, and accepting atmosphere in my classroom.”
The students also have a say in the decorations in the classroom. Kitty has her students write their favorite subjects on sticky notes and then adds them to a poster for her room.
The décor that students craft oftentimes comes from reading lessons as well. For example, Kitty has her class collage self-portraits for her bulletin boards using colorful paper and materials, a craft inspired by the cover of How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Another book she uses for lessons in her class is Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed. Kitty then models an identity map activity for her students before having them create a map of their own using books and topics they are interested in.
Surrounded by their favorite subjects, books, and their own self-portraits, students help create their own environment and community together.
Activity 3: Ask Students What You Should Know
In 2015, elementary teacher Kyle Schwartz tweeted an image of an orange notecard with the words “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework” on it. It was a note that one of her students had written in response to Kyle’s simple back-to-school question: what is it that you wish I knew about you?
The question yielded unexpected and revealing results for Kyle, who was able to use the answers to kick off the school year with trust and empathy. Besides sending pencils home with the students who needed them, she was also able to build a supportive space for students to share their answers with their fellow classmates.
“I really wanted to connect with kids,” says Kyle. “I just wanted to find out what was happening in their lives. And instead of making assumptions about them, I just let them tell me.” One student’s answer that she read aloud was, “I wish my teacher knew that I didn’t have any friends.” Following this revelation, Kyle watched her class react to the statement by offering to befriend the student, and before long, she was surrounded by new companions.
“I really wanted to connect with kids...I just wanted to find out what was happening in their lives. And instead of making assumptions about them, I just let them tell me.”
The “I Wish My Teacher Knew” lesson went viral for its simplicity and effectiveness, and Kyle continued to use the question to open up a dialogue between her and her students each back-to-school season. For this activity, you could allow students to remain anonymous amongst their peers while only sharing their responses with you. If you plan to have everyone share their answers with the entire class, ensure students are aware of this before starting the activity so they might consider what they write down.
Activity 4: Write Yearlong Goals
As the year progresses and you and your students establish routines and expectations, your classroom community will evolve and grow. Before you know it, the back-to-school excitement will be replaced with end-of-year activities and lessons. One of these activities, however, can harken back to the start of the school year, before you had your students’ names memorized and your walls decorated.
“On the first day of school, I like students to create a time capsule of their school-year goals,” says Bianca. “I pass out a note card, and they list one academic goal and one personal goal. Then they write a note to themselves about what makes them ‘cool’ or what they are really into at that particular moment.”
“On the first day of school, I like students to create a time capsule of their school-year goals.”
Bianca collects the notes from her students and seals them in an envelope with the words “Do Not Open Until [DATE]” on it. The students vote on the exact day during the last week of school they want to open the envelope together. The anticipation, Bianca says, lasts all year long. Read our blog on helping students set realistic goals they can achieve.
More Back-to-School Welcome Ideas
We hope you enjoyed our welcome-back-to-school ideas for students from our Teachers in America podcast guests. Do you have any activities you love to use at the beginning of the school year to help build community? Share your ideas with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook, or email us at email@example.com.
View more back-to-school welcome ideas and resources for educators on Shaped to start the 2022–2023 school year off right.
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