It seems like every August the question on every teacher’s mind is: what am I going to do with students during the first few days of school? No matter how long we have been teaching, that question never gets any easier. 

I cringe when I recall my very first day of school as a new teacher. Still trying to get my feet under me, I listened eagerly as the more experienced teachers shared their first-day plans. A survey!—a number of them concluded. A long, long survey that would take the entire period to complete. Three pages long, 12-point font, single-spaced. Not knowing what else to do, I had my students join in on the fun, filling out paperwork until their fingers ached. When all five blocks had completed their paperwork, I was the proud owner of 450 pages of survey forms. You can imagine how thoroughly I looked over all their hard work . . . 

I’ve learned a lot since those early days, including the importance of giving students a break from the endless form-filling that occupies nearly every instructional block of their first day back. But the first few days of school have still remained a bit of an outlier for me: days filled with getting-to-know-you activities, grade-level assemblies, mandatory videos pushed out by the district, and preassessments. Real instruction often takes a back seat until the dust settles, usually two weeks after school starts. And then an urgency kicks in: we are required to have nine grades each quarter but the first quarter schedule doesn’t factor in all the instructional time lost to administrative tasks. Students spend the next seven weeks getting content crammed into their heads as quickly as possible so we can meet the required number of grades on time. 

A New Approach

This year, I am determined to do things differently. To do things better. This year, I have designed the first few weeks of instruction to include the getting-to-know-you activities as part of the core content. No more lost learning: the back-to-school activities are integrated right into instruction, becoming part of the content itself.  

So what were the changes I made? Most importantly, I began by thinking about the first couple of school weeks the same way I think of the rest of the year: as opportunities for learning. Once I shifted my thinking from getting-to-know-you as separate from core content, I was able to design an instructional unit that treated those beginning of year activities in the same way anticipatory activities at the beginning of units are treated. From there, the lesson planning was pretty straightforward. 

In designing my beginning of year unit, I thought about what I ultimately wanted my students to be able to do, and how I wanted to move them to that point. In my case, I wanted to incorporate the following skills, which are commonly taught in my school in the first quarter: 

  • Close reading 
  • Literary analysis 
  • Narrative writing 

Using the ice-breaker activities as a launching point, I designed my unit, The Stories We Tell to progress seamlessly from the first few days to the culminating summative assessments. Along the way, students will be introduced to some technical vocabulary, literary analysis, multimedia texts, and narrative writing. 

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Rather than filling out pages and pages of surveys, on day one of class, time has been built in to introduce ourselves and to go over the syllabus, but also to engage in a short reading and analysis task that challenges students to consider the role of storytelling in our lives. The day closes with a 6-word memoir which, yes, helps me get to know the students, but which we will also return to in upcoming classes to deepen learning.  

Within a few days of school starting, students will already have engaged in nonfiction reading and analysis and creative writing. They will also have begun critically exploring short stories to help make connections between their learning experiences. And within 2-3 weeks, the timeframe where instruction is usually only just beginning in earnest, my students will already be preparing a multimedia project which will fuel a personal narrative. 

Making Connections

The key is that the summative assessments (in this case, a multimedia presentation in the form of a “Me Museum” and a personal narrative writing) tie directly into the getting-to-know-you activities from the first few days. But instead of those activities simply functioning to help us learn about each other, we will be able to transfer those activities into culminating tasks that move students through core content while also deepening our understanding of each other. 

From there, it’s a quick transition to move from personal narratives to an exploration of characterization in the fiction unit that follows, making clear connections between the ice breakers, the introductory unit, and the units to come. 

By reimagining the purpose of those first few days of school, I was able to finally design opening activities that serve the same objectives as my other units while still respecting the need to form relationships and ease students back into learning routines. 

Downloadable Resources

If you’d like to use The Stories We Tell in your own classes, you can access the full lesson plan by clicking the button below. 

You can download a copy of the first creative writing activity from this unit here.

About the Author

Andrea Yarbough is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of Artfulness: Formula-Free Creative Writing Explorations for Secondary ELA Classes. Trusted by major organizations with curriculum design and professional workshops, she has extensive experience developing meaningful, effective instruction for students and teachers, resulting in better outcomes with less work. 

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