Back to school has always been my favorite time of year as a middle school ELA teacher. There is a buzz of excitement in the air as students enter the hallway for the first time, a little nervous and unsure, but fresh and ready for a new year of learning.
I’ve always seen back to school as a huge opportunity for teachers and students. Starting the school year off right provides us with the chance to build a strong community where kids know they’re ideas are valued and their voice matters. For readers and writers, an atmosphere of respect and acceptance is key.
Here are five of my favorite back to school ideas for middle school ELA that help to build community and start the school year strong:
Create simple name bookmarks instead of name tags or tents.
Way back in the day I used to have my students create name tents for their desks. Learning students’ names is essential, especially learning nicknames and pronunciations, but this year instead of name tents, I’m having my kids create name bookmarks they can use all year long. Bookmarks help us to learn each other’s names while also learning a little about our interests.
To create bookmarks, each student gets a piece of blank cardstock cut into a bookmark.Students are tasked with writing their name, nickname and/or pronunciation on their bookmark. Then, they add quotes from their favorite books, songs, and movies and images that symbolize them. Make bookmarks a warm up to ELA skills by asking students to add a metaphor or simile that describes them.
At the end of class, students present their bookmarks sharing their name, nickname, and interests. Designing bookmarks is so easy and effective, and it’s a great way to get to know your kids and show them they are valued from day one.
2. Set goals in Google Slides by creating vision boards.
Vision boards are so easy to create in Google Slides. All students need is a computer or ipad. Vision boards provide students and teachers with a visual representation of their goals for the year. To create a vision board in Google Slides, students simply add a background, then answer the following questions:
What is your goal or vision for getting smarter this school year?
When you envision this school year, what is something you can’t do yet that you hope to accomplish by the end of the school year?
What failures did you encounter in the past that you hope to learn from? How do you envision overcoming these past failures?
Create a vision of how you will strengthen your brain this school year.
Students then share their vision boards with the class. Not only does this activity help us to get to know each other, it’s a great way to start the year by setting solid goals.
Check out this three day Building Community lesson that guides students through the vision board process.
3. Get to know your students with reading and writing autobiographies.
By the time they come to middle school, our students have years of experiences with reading and writing. These experiences have shaped our kids and their attitudes towards ELA. Having students write about those experiences is a great way to get to know each other and build community.
To implement reading and writing autobiographies, I ask my students to brainstorm a quick list of ten things they like and ten things they don’t like about reading and writing. After writing their lists, students choose one item from each list to focus on. Then, they write about their experiences through that lens. For example, this student focused on the pressure to read a lot while also acknowledging the power of reading:
“One year, I challenged myself to read 25 books. It was a great idea in theory--I would be motivated by the numbers and that would help me to build better reading habits. However, I am not a fast reader and I am certainly not a binge reader. I found that the pressure to read so much and so fast took the joy away, like a deflated balloon.
Instead of numbers, I’d rather focus on the stories. I’d rather slow down and get lost in someone else’s world. I’d rather crack open the pages of a new book, breathe in the smell of the fresh pages, and lose myself in the rivers of Jamaica or the halls of Hogwarts. What I love about reading is that it provides me with an escape. I’ve been side by side with Freedom Riders and wizards. I’ve traveled to the Hunger Games arena and felt the fear of death row in Anthony Ray Hinton’s The Sun Does Shine. Reading has provided me these windows into other worlds and other people’s experiences.
Reading has the power to change the world because it helps us build empathy. My goal today is not to pressure myself to read a certain number of books like some Olympic athlete, but to peer through as many windows into as many different worlds as possible so I can grow as a person.”
4. Catch students’ attention with a reading experiment they’ll never forget.
If you want to grab your students’ attention and really get them excited about your class, implement this activity! It is so much fun and super easy. Share the following passage with your students by either printing it on a slip of paper or displaying it largely in class:
The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step; otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will just become another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one can never tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more, and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is a part of life.
Give students 60 seconds to read the passage, and then hide the passage or tell students to flip it over. Then, ask students to tell you what they just read. Very few students can recall even the slightest detail. After a few attempts, reveal to students that this passage is actually about doing laundry. Kids will go nuts! They can’t believe that this complex paragraph is about a topic they are so familiar with.
Display the passage again, students knowing the passage is about doing laundry. Give them another 60 seconds to reread the passage with background knowledge, then turn off the screen a second time. Ask the students again, what is this passage mostly about? This time, students will be able to share a detailed summary.
The conversation that follows is my favorite: Kids recognize that they don’t understand the passage the first time, but eventually, they get it. They understand the power of tapping into prior knowledge. They understand the importance of reading a passage multiple times. They understand that sometimes even the best readers struggle. Every year after this experiment, the students and I talk about the experiment and what it shows us about reading, growth, and strategy. It’s the perfect way to establish a community that values growth and learning over judgement.
5. Instead of giving your kids rules, create a class motto together.
“I play it cool, and dig all jive, that’s the reason I stay alive. The reason as I live and learn is dig and be dug in return.” --Langston Hughes, Motto
In his poem, Langston Hughes shares his motto to dig and be dug. I display this poem in my classroom all year because it’s so simple and so much fun. The first days of school, I also share a poster of Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter a desegregated school in the middle of the Civil Rights movement in the south. In the picture, she is being screamed at by white students. My students and I examine the picture, first discussing things we notice and wonder. Then, we talk about who in the picture is acting as a bystander and who is acting as an upstander. We talk about the power of being an upstander.
This conversation inspires us to write our class motto. This motto takes the place of any classroom rules and covers all the stops. Usually, our motto ends up being some version of “Be an Upstander.” I write our motto on a big poster, and we refer to our motto all year. I also encourage students to recognize classmates who act as upstanders.
Click here to download this bulletin board for free.
Have a stress-free back to school with Back to School ELA Essentials from Read it. Write it. Learn it. Includes everything you need for the first 5+ days of school, from five digital or print syllabus choices to a 3 day Building Community Activity that gets kids on their feet to student-created classroom decor--this bundle has it all!
Everything can be used print or digitally. Everything is completely editable. Everything can easily be shared in Google Classroom or your school's LMS.
5 Digital or Print Editable Syllabus Styles
Building Community Three Lesson Activity for the first few days (106 slides with three lessons, classroom posters, and digital vision board activity)
Mystery Student Posters Inferencing & Get to Know You Activity
Design Your Own Bookmark Activity to help learn names
Reading and Writing Autobiographies first writing activity: Get to know your students as readers and writers!
Over 150 pages of materials to get your school year started on the right foot!