The school year has hardly ended in June when ideas and excitement for the next year start popping into my mind. I know I am not the only one... I think this is an addiction most teachers suffer from 😂 You too, right?
The rush we get from returning to campus, setting up warm learning environments and then before we know it, the first day has arrived and we are still thinking about classroom decor, desk arrangements, what still needs a label and where to put the clipboards. But in fact, the most essential thing is how we are going to spend the first week with our students and making the most of that precious time together.
So, if you've spent too much time arranging and rearranging desks, don't worry, I've got you covered 😉
Here are some of my absolute favorite activities that I've used (and still turn to) in the first week of school in lower primary to build community, develop a sense of collaboration, affirm identities and build a classroom together.
I know, I know... in some ways, it's like... enough already. I've done this every year since forever ago. But hear me out...
Self portraits are more important now than ever before with growing (and much needed) attention to diversity and identity.
Stock your classroom full of Colors of the World - markers, crayons, pencils and/or paint. Get your mirrors ready and dive deep into who we really are. From what we look like, to how we present ourselves and then further into the parts of us that only we know.
To me, it's okay to start another year and another grade this way. Year after year, we can begin with reflection and looking how we are the same and different from the year before. Also, it makes great a great display and portfolio piece.
Self Portrait Journals are amazing to use throughout the year where students can create and collect their self portraits from the first month of school up until the last. Every piece of elementary art deserves a frame, and I'm putting them in with these self portrait sketch book template.
Mapping out the classroom (or the school) helps children to start understanding the space. They will be able to navigate the room and find needed resources more quickly.
This can be done independently or in pairs using a large paper (plain or grid depending on your students ages) and some drawing materials. It can be easily differentiated by providing word mats and having items labeled in the classroom for language learners. Add some challenge by having students label their maps themselves or extend their maps beyond the classroom doors and windows.
This is an easy activity that has everyone moving and feeling included. I also use this as an opportunity to teach our hand signal for, "me, too!" which saves a lot of blurting out and interrupting later in the year.
Prep includes sticky notes are small pieces of scrap paper, writing/drawing materials and facts and photos about yourself. I have always felt a bit reluctant about making an 'About Me' presentation, only for not wanting to focus on myself. However, for this activity it is great to start with a few photos or facts about yourself. Share a few, then model how to write/draw it on a piece of paper or sticky note depending on the age and language needs of your learners. Children should then do the same with as many of their passions as they can complete in the allotted time.
Collect all the kids passions and go through a bunch of them (it doesn't have to be all in one session). Read one out and everyone who also loves that same thing or activity, stands together in a group (even if they didn't write it). Continue for as long as you have time for with sustained interest! Close this activity with a discussion about how we are all different but share some many interests and passions.
Differentiate this activity by using Learning Partners, word mats and sentence starters.
Just let them play. Set some expectations about kindness and caring to start, but then... give them some unstructured play time.
Don’t worry, they’re still learning! Whether it’s puppets and storytelling in first grade or Legos and card games in fifth, the children are challenging themselves and each other in creativity, problem solving and cooperation.
I like to set up play but making sure to offer choices, making sure there are multiple open ended activities for kids to explore. Some ideas for classroom play (from youngest to oldest) include dress up, play dough, puppets and story element cards, building blocks, legos, sidewalk chalk drawing, hopscotch, jigsaw puzzles, marble run, 7-up, card games and UNO, mindful coloring and graffiti boards. Which of these will make it to your first week lesson plans?
There's little that I love more than a student designed classroom - so let the kids make their own name tags. I'm not referring to a coloring page style here. Ownership and agency is where it's at!
I find that teacher made name tags serve well on students' desks (proper letter formation, number line and alphabet) but for lockers, cubbies, book bins - let the children design. It is an outlet for their creativity, exercises fine motor skills and makes the classroom a beautiful space! ✨
And do we really ever have enough name tags? Desks, lockers, portfolios, wall of fame, welcoming door display, classroom job rotations...
Check out this collection of desk name tags I've made.
When in doubt, get the art supplies out!
This is a perfect teaching opportunity to include responsive classroom instruction for using materials. It will set up expectations and routines for the whole year and get your classroom started with a positive and creative kick.
Love these desk name tags? Check them out (and more) in the Our Yellow Bench shop.
In addition to creating art, you can get students just as engaged with following a set of instructions to make something. They can make a class set of playdough to start the year off or some slime to take home. And what follows is a perfect introduction on how we clean up our classroom 😁
From the start of the year, I always find it critical to set the tone for collaborative learning. None of us really function all on our own. If your room isn't already arranged in groups, set the desks/tables or learning partners into groups of 4-5 students and allow them opportunities and time to work through establishing rules, roles and communication challenges. Here are some simple collaborative learning tasks, ordered by lower to higher grades:
Have a tea party
Build a chair from snap cubes that a class teddy or plush toy could sit on
Plasticine floating boat challenge
Design and build a school/community out of lego
Chalk Talk - a visible thinking routine where you write a question on the wall and the students respond to you and each other, creating a visual dialogue
Be experts, find a common interest within the group and create a Keynote presentation or Clips video to share this knowledge with the class or school
Make time for it every day, starting on the first day! It sends messages loud and clear to our students that they just wouldn't hear if we say it to them plainly. And even in Grade 5, they still love it. It's part of the magic of childhood.
If you're looking for meaningful texts to get you through the first weeks, check out Back to School Read Alouds that might be different from the usual ones. It includes a list of texts, lots of activities for each and some free resources.
No matter which activities you choose, all of these provide excellent photographic moments. What better way to start the school year than sharing learning stories and connecting with parents through your class website, Dojo or Seesaw.
Happy teaching and learning!
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