Back to School: the ice-breaking, rule-making, goal-setting blog post

Doesn’t time fly? It seems only yesterday that I was putting my kids to work on the front of a pedalo while sunbathing on the back, but September is almost upon us and that means it’s time to go Back to School.

As Will Rogers said, ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression.’ Now, this isn’t a blog post advertising my latest shampoo range and we can and should make continuous improvements, but the quote does broadly hold water for our context as the first few lessons set the tone for the rest of the year.

These are some of the vibes I like to try to give off at the start: “Hello! I’m your teacher. I’m fun. I care about you as people. I’m organised. I have high expectations of work and behaviour.”

As far as I can I want to establish a climate in class in which students feel safe and at ease with me and each other and that they know where they’re going.

With the above in mind, in our first lessons back we may include 1) ‘Getting to know you’ activities 2) Rules and expectations 3) Course content and goals. This blog post will deal with these three areas.

  • Getting to know you activities

General considerations: It’s all very well asking our students to share personal info about themselves, but we can take the lead and go first ourselves. And we can try to remember what we learn about our students and bring it up again in future lessons to show that we’ve listened to them.

  1. Write your students a letter introducing yourself

…but include five details that aren’t true. Students read the letter individually then discuss in pairs or groups which five details they think aren’t true. Once they’ve agreed, they ask the teacher questions to find out the truth ‘Are you really allergic to strawberries?’ (I’m not, I love them). ‘Have you really lived in four countries?’ (I have.)

As a follow-up, students can pick out useful structures from their teacher’s model letter and use them to write their own letters which they then read in groups and make guesses about each other’s lies. These can be written under the letter by classmates and then handed in to the teacher – this way we can learn something about our students and get an idea of their level of written English.

For five more variations on the ‘Guess the lie’ theme, click here

      2. Share a holiday snap: how many questions?

We can take turns to tell the class what we’ve been up to in the summer, but another way is to share a picture and put our students in groups to come up with questions to ask us (we can monitor and support with language). Which group can come up with the most questions? Students then take turns to read out their questions and we answer them.

Here’s one of mine from the summer. What could you ask?

Ideas: Where is the beach? What are you looking at? Why are you alone? Are you sad or angry? Are you meditating? Where did you buy your hat? Did you get wet? Do you enjoy building sandcastles? How hot was it? Etc.

Students can do the same by showing a photo on their phones if they are allowed to, or uploading a photo to a shared space (drive, padlet) with the teacher either projecting them on the board or printing them out. We can also display the photos round the room with students moving around and writing questions under them. Students then get their photos back and read out their answers. (If it’s a big class, we can do this in groups).

PS: Although it might count as one of the not-to-be-mentioned PARSNIPS and I certainly do respect all positions on the issue, my wife turned the photo into what I thought was quite an amusing meme.

    3. Speed dating

Students sit in two (socially distanced) lines facing each other, speak to their partner for (eg.) two minutes and then one one row of students stands up and moves one space along for a new partner. What do they talk about? You can prescribe questions of the ‘Getting to know you’ / ‘Tell me about summer’ kind, or you can spend a few minutes brainstorming questions with the students beforehand: with ownership comes motivation. Students can feed back afterwards what they learned about their peers or even do a piece of writing which can include graphs.

  • Rules and expectations

Students like to know where they stand and appreciate teachers who are consistent. To that end, outlining your expectations at the start of the year makes sense. ‘The why’ is important with students, so it makes sense to give a compelling reason for any rule in place. As we outlined above, giving students ownership can be beneficial, though guidance is required on our part when it comes to student-created rules. Let’s look at a couple of different ways of involving our students in the process of drawing up and explaining rules.

1.Provide the rules and have the students suggest why they’re necessary

Eg. Rule – Don’t interrupt the teacher or a fellow student when they’re explaining something

Possible reasons – If someone else is talking, people can’t hear what’s being said and won’t understand or know what to do. We want other people to listen to us, so we do the same.

2. Give students a list of ‘Class outcomes’ – some positive, some negative. With the students we categorise them giving reasons and then add to them. Then we draw up rules to ensure we meet the desired outcomes and avoid the negative ones.

Example outcomes

  1. We feel small because someone has laughed at us or insulted us
  2. Everyone gets a chance to express their opinion
  3. There’s not enough time to practice English in the classroom
  4. We all feel safe and included
  5. Our English doesn’t improve much this year

Possible rules that follow

  1. Talk to your classmates as you’d like them to talk to you: help each other with mistakes as they are part of learning.
  2. Don’t interrupt each other and ask others what they think
  3. Be on time and have your material out and be ready to go in 30 seconds! Change tasks quickly to avoid wasting time
  4. Tell someone if you’ve got a problem. If you see someone excluded, include them.
  5. Try your hardest at all times, look for ways to improve, learn from your mistakes

A note on the expectations: refer back to them regularly, with praising students who follow them just as important as pulling up students who don’t.

  • Course content and goals

Having a destination and a plan to get there is a big part of learning. Telling students some of the things they’ll be able to do at the end of the year or a certificate they can gain at the end of the year (and why it’s useful) can be a big source of motivation.

Students are also interested in how they are going to be assessed, how their grades are going to be broken down. Components and weightings can vary widely depending on your context, but most of the ongoing evaluation in the schools I have worked in largely teaching teens has centred around areas such as:

Effort and participation in class
Written homework assignments
Speaking presentations
Group projects
Unit achievement tests
End of term achievement tests
Proficiency tests (four skills)

I think it’s important to include both achievement tests (specific content covered) and proficiency tests (overall language level, think CEFR). If you only include the former you can work hard on class content but not get a realistic picture of your true level, but if it’s only the latter then students with a higher overall level but a lazy outlook can get top marks and we want everyone working hard to improve!

Later on of course each component part (eg, ‘Writing assignments’ or ‘Effort and participation’) will need success criteria outlined so students know what they’re aiming for, so that grades are transparent and, of course, so they know how to improve.

Photo by JavyGo on unsplash

What about goals? We can set goals for the year and lesson objectives, but do the students have any learning goals they’d like to set? These could be an area of English they want to feel more confident in, a qualification they want to gain or perhaps something that went poorly last year they want to improve. The best goals are SMART – specific, measurable, relevant and time-based. And of course, if we provide opportunities to ‘check in’ with students on goals, they’re more likely to be taken seriously.

If you’re using a course, you can outline the different components to your students to try to ensure they get the most from it. This can range from how the coursebook is structured (What could that Writing file at the end be for?) to other components such as online platforms with gradebooks to monitor progress or practice apps – components such as these develop autonomous learning and the time invested explaining them and their benefits can reap its rewards later.

Are there any special projects happening during the year that you’d like to whet your students’ appetites for? What about a Live Class with other groups of students from around the world? (2021-22 line-up to be announced soon!) 

I hope this blog post has been useful in providing ideas for how to start the year on the right footing. What are your top Back To School tips?

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