Our favorite back-to-school activities

It's that time of year again, and some of you are getting ready to go back to school. To help you with that transition - and hopefully save you lots of time - we're sharing our go-to resources for the first days of school.

Secondary Sara

Some of my favorite activities and diagnostic tests are listed in the blog post 7 Ways to Get to Know Your English Classes.

In addition, I love getting started with public speaking by doing our “15 Minutes of Fame” project, because it’s the least scary, most fun speech we do all year; it becomes a group bonding experience as well as an individual confidence booster! Plus, the real-world relevance draws in students who might not normally care about ELA. 

The Daring English Teacher

One of my all time favorite lessons to teach at the start of a new school year is my
email etiquette lesson. Teaching email etiquette at the start of a new school year is a great way to dive into content and teach your students all about proper email communication -a skill they’ll be using a lot as more and more schools switch to a 1:1 classroom. When I first start this unit, I briefly use the included presentation to directly teach the essential content. Then, the fun begins! As a whole class, we review really bad email examples (all inspired from student emails I’ve received in the past) and point out the errors and suggest ways to correct them. From there, I like to assign my students an introductory email where they briefly introduce themselves to me while practicing all of the email etiquette they just learned. You can read more about how I teach email etiquette in this blog post

Room 213

Because I always begin with reading workshop, most of my mini-lessons at the beginning of a semester focus on literary elements. I use these lessons to introduce or review the ways writers use them in fiction writing:opening lines, setting, point of view, tone, characterization, theme and author style. After each mini-lesson, students explore each concept in the novels they are reading.

Creative extensions also allow students to extend their understanding by experimenting with each concept in their own writing. You can check out these lessons here.

Tracee Orman

While I spend the first day of school doing icebreakers and getting to know my students, I make sure the next day (or few days) I thoroughly go over rules and procedures. Just handing students a syllabus isn't enough. They will tuck it away and next thing you know, they are asking you, "Can I chew gum in class?" "Do you accept late work?" "Do I have to wear a mask?" "Can I listen to music while I work?" and so on. That's why I created my "Can I Chew Gum in Class?" Beginning of the Year Rules & Procedures Activity. It will help you thoroughly answer all those questions in a less boring way than simply reading a class syllabus. It's completely editable and shareable in both Word and Google Docs, so you can customize it to suit your needs. I also included sample answers so you don't have to work as hard. It's especially helpful for new teachers who might not think of half the questions students come up with! 

The Classroom Sparrow

I usually begin my new classes with some sort of getting to know you activity, but as I don’t enjoy the pressure being put on me to answer personal questions in an oral group setting, I avoid giving similar types of activities to my students! For this reason, I created a DIGITAL back-to-school flip book. The various parts of the flip book comprise a different element, such as goals, favorites, a quick questionnaire, this or that prompts and two truths and a lie component. This resource is a great way to make connections with your students during the first few weeks of school. Also, because this is paperless, students who want to share this with their friends or new classmates, can easily do so!

Presto Plans 

After the first week get-to-know you activities, I like to get my students to write a personal narrative essay. Having them write about their own lives at the outset gives me insight that will be useful throughout the rest of the semester. By giving them the choice of what to include, I can immediately learn more about each of their unique perspectives and backgrounds without being too intrusive.  It also gives me the opportunity to examine their individual writing abilities and serves as a benchmark from which I can plan some of my curriculum. I share information on how to write a personal narrative, do an activity that allows students to consider brainstorm different topics to choose from, and provide them with a planning page to scaffold the process for students who might need more support.  

Nouvelle ELA

I read Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain in early 2020, and it totally transformed the way I want to start off the semester. Now, I’ll start with this Asset-Based Profile activity. Students begin by reading a story about three gamers. They assess each gamer’s soft skills (creativity, flexibility, problem-solving, etc.). Then, they move on to examine their own character traits. I will have students present their profiles to help build classroom community. If you want to know more about this activity, check out this blog post about using Asset-Based Profiles to help students value their soft skills. 

Addie Williams

I love to find ways to connect with my students at the start of the year and one of the best ways I have found to connect with kids is through music.  My goal at the beginning of a new year or semester is not only to get to know the students, but also to assess their writing skills and identify early on where I need to focus future lessons.  One of the ways I can do this is through my
Soundtrack of My Life (or Summer) activity which is available in both print and digital formats.  This resource asks students to create the music that best represents their entire life or just their summer (I let them pick which one they want to do).  Not only is it fun to hear them talking about their music picks, but I can easily share their favourite songs with the class as they’re working.

Thanks for reading! We hope you've found something to ease your transition back to school.

Weaving Art into the ELA Classroom

Weaving Art into the ELA Classroom

Teaching during the pandemic was something different.

After 11 years of teaching in the secondary ed English classroom, I found myself at a roadblock in trying to figure out how to effectively teach during this season. However, I soon found out that authentic teaching never fails. Whenever you give your students relevant and authentic opportunities to create and to learn, you will see great impact. I wasn’t as confident about that as we approached the 2020/2021 school year with the hybrid and all digital classes. I felt the same with my face-to-face class too because of the pandemic protocol, but there was a component that brought about an effective year for us.

I’ve always loved teaching ELA because the possibilities are endless when it comes to what other subjects we can incorporate in the classroom. ELA has always served as the backbone of education with its strong hand in literacy and voice. Unfortunately, worldwide, we have seen fairly low percentages in student proficiency in reading and writing. I often refer to middle schools and high schools as the 3rd and anchor leg of the education journey or race. Whatever ‘batons’ were dropped with the 1st and 2ng leg ‘runners’, we have to figure out a way to go back and grab the batons and help our students finish the race. It’s a tough job. I know that not all educators have the same experiences, but the incorporation of this component in the ELA classroom will help all students.

This element is a very foundational yet authentic way to learn, but it has been written out of some ELA curriculum. It has been forgotten. As we’re headed towards the new school year, I want to encourage you to add this to your bowl of Classroom Teaching Gumbo. The Classroom Teaching Gumbo is just another way to say Teacher Toolbox. I just like the idea of talking about ingredients. Every educator has their own way of making ‘gumbo’- of creating their classroom experience. This is just a simple ‘ingredient’ to think about as I have used it in ELA general education courses, ELA honors courses, adult ESOL courses, community courses and juvenile detention center ELA courses. And I can’t explain the wonders it did for my students and the Classroom Experience.

The Beauty of Art in the Classroom

There are a few ways you can use Art in the classroom, concerning learning THROUGH Art. One way you can use it is by placing a Google image of a piece of art on the Smartboard or projector and have the students write about the first thoughts that come to mind when they see it. They can write about the meaning of the image. I do this quite often during journal time for the first 3-5 minutes of class. It is a timed assignment, but it really helps them get into the mode of ‘thinking’. It can be an image used to introduce a topic or continue a topic.

Another way you can use Art in the classroom is through an Art Gallery Walk. I have a Creative Writing assignment I do towards the beginning of the year, and this is when I do the Art Gallery Walk for the first time in the classroom. For the digital students, I had to upload pictures, but throughout the years and with the face-to-face students, they were able to look at the actual paintings. I connected with our school Art teacher, and she let me borrow about 7 paintings to bring into my classroom. I placed them around the room to give my students a ‘museum’ type experience, and they walked around to look at the pieces. They had to write a response to the painting. They wrote about their perceived meaning and even gave it a new title. At first, some of the students found it hard to ‘think’ about a piece of art. There were no words there to TELL them what to think. It was so abstract, but it tugged at their brain. It wasn’t long before my students who disliked writing started to look forward to those exercises. We would later use those paintings to connect with texts that we read in the classroom. I remember that my friend gave me an old picture she found in her garage. It was a picture of an old man in a rocking chair. I brought it in as one of the paintings. Later in the weeks, some of the students connected that painting with a poem we were reading entitled, “The Ex-Basketball Player” by John Updike. It was a great learning moment.

In the ELA class, students can also create stories from paintings. They can connect significant quotes to paintings as well. During this past school year, while there were some challenges with absenteeism, these were the assignments that I found most of my students to be fully engaged. These assignments were great primers for what was to come in the curriculum.

Throughout the year, we move to a more ‘structured’ way of looking and analyzing the paintings by using the OPTIC chart. 

This is a pretty thorough process of analyzing the painting. Again the connections that the students can make with poems and speeches and quotes and music lyrics and stories are endless after dissecting Art in the ELA classroom.

On the other side of this, students can also display what they’ve learned from ELA content creating Art. I’m going to be honest. Over the past 2 or 3 years, I haven’t come across as many student artists like I used to. I actually talk about this more in my latest book entitled The TV Broke My Paintbrush: A Book for Educators, Parents and Youth Advocates.

The concept of the book is really about how the overload of entertainment has diminished the value of creating and thinking and exploring in the eyes of some of our youth. Through analogies and research, I share some insight and ideas for educators on how to tackle this in the classroom. Using Art in the ELA classroom would definitely be a major help in igniting that innate ability all students have to create and think. There are many factors to consider with this issue, but sometimes it’s just about giving students the opportunity to use Art in this way, whether it be stick figures or not. In the beginning, the students may be hesitant because they feel that they can’t draw or paint well. However, that’s the beauty of Art. It’s really not about perfection. It’s about the students being able to creatively display what they’ve learned through drawing or painting. It’s a reversal of the Art Gallery Walk. Now they can take excerpts or quotes and create from there.
I will never forget this story. About 6 years ago, I had a student in my 5th period class. He was considered the class clown. He was very funny, and it was great to have him in class. We did have a slight issue. He wouldn’t really complete classroom assignments. I would notice that he would start getting into his jokes after I gave instructions. I had a conversation with him after class one day. He admitted that he couldn’t do some of the assignments. He talked about how he was often compared to his older brother who took AP classes. He just felt that he wasn’t smart, but he believed that his humor was all he had. His mother eventually placed him into another school to make up his credits. About three weeks before he left, we were well into another round of the Art Gallery assignment. And he did the assignment. I watched him. And when it was time for the students to discuss their observations, he listened. Then he raised his hand. A couple of his classmates started to laugh because they were expecting him to say something funny, but he didn’t. He gave a very profound and unique response to the chosen painting. I certainly celebrated his willingness to put a voice to his thinking, and he spoke again and again. I may never know, but I believed the activity showed him that he does have the ability to think. This is what education is all about so I just want to encourage my fellow educators to think about these ideas for your classroom, even for the first day of school. Weave Art into your curriculum, and watch your students create ART, whether it’s by the pencil or the marker.

You can find Darrian on her website and Instagram!

Weaving Art into the ELA Classroom

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