Setting the Tone: Engaging Lesson Ideas for the First Class of the Year

For many high school students, the first day of school is - all too often - a monotonous time loop. They move from room to room, listen to numerous teacher introductions, collect a pile of course curricula, hear rules and expectations, and have to answer that predictable how-was-your-summer question (again, and again, and again). Not a great way to generate enthusiasm and excitement for the year.

So here are five more engaging ways to start the year right in the high school ELA classroom; they work for all grades from 8-12. If you really have to hand out course descriptions or go over rules and expectations, why not leave it for a couple of days into the course?

IDEA ONE: Guided Creative Writing

One of my all-time favourite first-lessons: jump right in and get students writing, writing, writing! By the end of class, students will have a whole page of writing generated, which works to eliminate the pre-writing anxiety, provide you with a sample of their written proficiency, and set the tone for creativity and productivity in your room!  

1. Arrange the room so that students are sitting individually. As students enter, hand them each a blank piece of paper, and tell them that there should be nothing else on their desks except a pen or pencil. 
2. Jump straight into the exercise without any introduction. Simply instruct students to divide the page into 6 squares. 
3. Tell students to pick an object (any one!) and write it in the top left corner of the first square (write small). Allow about 20 seconds for this. 
4. Now, work through the rest of the squares the same way, with the following guided prompts: in the second square, write an action (a verb); in the third, write an adjective; the fourth, an onomatopoeic word (sound); the fifth, an animal; the sixth, a number.
5. Next, instruct students to turn their attention to box one, and use that word in a sentence: write it small at the top of the box (allow about a minute for this).
6. Now instruct students to move on to box two, to use that word in a sentence; even if they were mid-sentence in box one, it doesn’t matter, they must move on. Again give them a minute for this. 
7. Repeat with all six boxes. 
8. Now, guide students through each box again, telling them to carry on where they left off, writing as much as they possibly can. This time, give about 3 minutes a box. 
Break here as students’ hands may be cramping! 
9. Now, hand out lined paper and explain to students that they have to take those boxes and weave them all into one coherent story! *For differentiation, you may want to give the option of only picking 3 or 4 boxes. 
10. Students may be shocked or exclaim that they can’t! Take the opportunity to emphasise a growth mindset, to encourage them that it doesn’t matter; it is not graded; it is just for fun, and that you expect their story to be completely bizarre! 
11. In the last 10 minutes of class, allow time for editing, or for perhaps reading stories out loud! 

For more ways to get to know your English classes, check out this blog by Secondary Sara.

IDEA TWO: Behaviors and Expectations for Learning

Student buy-in is key at the high-school level. They should be developing their own voices, and we should be encouraging them to use them! Therefore, flip the script and have them make their own goals for learning, and define their own expectations for the learning environment. After all, it is their education; encourage students to take ownership of it. Download these free printable cards for students to write their own mission statements and goals for the year, or use the following lesson:

1. Print out a set of these posters, and place them around the room: stuck on whiteboards or chart paper. 
2. Instruct students to walk around and write examples around the posters, or on sticky-notes attached to the posters. 
3. Then when they are done, put students into four focus groups: one per poster. 
4. These groups have to read all the contributions and then come up with 2 or 3 of the most common points or ideas (or combine different ones into these points). 
5. Then review and discuss. Take down the 2 or 3 main points from each group and write these up in a list of positive "Class Norms" on the wall.
6. Throughout the year, keep coming back to these to make sure all students are adhering to the expectations they agreed on.

IDEA THREE: Literature Close Annotation

As an English teacher, one of my key goals is to have students fall in love with words! I want them to engage with language around them in a meaningful way: whether that is the metaphors used in sports commentary, the subtle rhetorical techniques in political speeches, or the poetry increasingly popular on Instagram. Therefore, I often start the year (or course) by having students spend a whole lesson reading a range of extracts: annotating, finding connections, and making observations.

Before Class
1. Lay out the desks of the classroom in groups of 4 or 5. 
2. Collect and print sets of random pieces of text: poems, speeches, fiction, etc. You could print this set, or curate your own (one set per group). 
3. Place these sets in the center of each group, along with colored markers/pens. 
During Class
1. When students enter, assign them to a group, and tell them to keep their desks free from distraction: all they need is pens!
2. Now, instruct students to turn to the pile of extracts on their desk; they are to spend time passing them around, reading, and annotating.
3. Instruct students that they should annotate for content (questions they have, thoughts, links to other texts, etc.), for structure (line structure, punctuation, repetition, etc.), and language (figurative techniques, word choice, etc.) - You might want to write these prompts on the board.
4. Allow plenty of time for students to share the extracts around, each annotating multiple ones.
5. Now instruct students to discuss the extracts at their tables: Which did they like? Why? Can they make connections between any of them? Which were the most different? Which did they not like? Why not? Any notably interesting phrasing or word choice?
6. Project a few on the board, and annotate with the class: discuss and demonstrate things to look for; talk about why you like them; what’s beautiful about them; what’s clever or interesting.    

Get these LEARNING GOAL cards HERE

I hope your school year gets off to a great start; definitely check out our best Teacher Hacks for Back-To-School, and if you are looking for more ideas, make sure you read our list of nine of the Best Resources for Back to School.

If you are still hungry for inspiration, you may be interested in these resources:

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