12 Free Back-to-School ELA Ideas

Many of us are returning to school under unprecedented circumstances. Some of us are returning virtually, some hybrid, and some in-person with many new limitations. Regardless of how we return, I'm sure we can all relate on the apprehension, confusion, and stress that is involved in every part of our daily decision-making.

Twelve English educators got together to compile this blog post featuring 12 free back-to-school ELA ideas in hopes that you might found some value in them and be able to incorporate them into your classrooms.

While there is much uncertainty, one thing we can continue to do is uplift and help one another as we navigate these many unknowns. Below, you'll find some great ideas from English educators with free resources included and linked for each.

If you haven't seen my last blog post, I discussed five short stories that you can start your year with.

Using reflection activities, especially during distance and virtual learning, can be incredibly helpful for our students. I took a grad course on how the brain learns, and one activity our professor always had us do is a weekly reflection sheet. In this assignment, we were asked to reflect on the material, identify what we were most interested in, and synthesize our learning. I found it so beneficial that I started using this strategy in my own classroom.

You can grab the free reflection activities here. These can be used on a weekly basis or on an as-needed or unit-based approach as well.

Ashley Bible at Building Book Love uses a literary themed student survey sheet to get to know her ELA students in a creative way. For example, one of the prompts on the sheet is “The Imagery of You” where students fill in their sensory language favorites. You can get this FREE back-to-school resource here: Free ELA Profile Sheet and learn how to convert it to a digital resource here for at home learning: How to make your worksheets editable online.

Another fun back-to-school idea is to have students fill out a form with 3-5 “fun facts” about them. These facts can be used throughout the year as a quick “Who’s Who?” game when you have a few extra minutes at the end of class to spare. Shana Ramin from Hello, Teacher Lady wrote about how she uses this idea on her blog, and it can easily be adapted to a digital or hybrid environment. Simply take a fact or two and turn them into a descriptive statement — “This person is a vegetarian who loves windsurfing” — and have students try to guess which person is being described. Shana says it’s super fun and a great community builder!

Emily Aierstok, from Read it. Write it. Learn it., works to build a classroom community with her students from day one. The key, Emily says, is making sure students feel ownership. The classroom is THEIRS, not the teacher’s. The very first activity Emily does with her students is share the following paragraph from a 1972 schema study by Bransford and Johnson:

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.

After reading, Emily hides the paragraph and asks her students to recall what they just read. The kids nervously laugh and discover the paragraph is very hard to remember. Then, Emily tells her students that the paragraph is about doing laundry. Lightbulbs go off around the room. Emily shows her students the paragraph again, gives them 60 seconds to read, then hides it. She asks her students to recall what they just read. The students can all remember specific details.

This whole “experiment” is not only fun, but it also shows kids that they are all learning and growing and that with basic strategies (tapping into prior knowledge, the power of context, reading a text more than once), they can understand some of the most challenging texts.

After the experiment, Emily’s class has a discussion about their individual learning goals, their individual strengths, weaknesses, and failures they’ve learned from, and how they will work to empower each other as learners. By the end of day two, students feel more connected. You can read more details about Emily’s first days here.

A fishbowl discussion is a great way to encourage students to practice sharing and listening. Jenna Copper (@drjennacopper) loves using a fishbowl discussion format at the beginning of the school year to practice these valuable skills.

Here’s how it works:

Choose four to five students to sit in the “fishbowl” circle and discuss a given topic. For the beginning of the year, icebreaker topics are a great way to build classroom community. As they discuss, the outer circle must be silent as they listen to the discussion. Rotate students in and out of the fishbowl so they get practice in each role.

To add an extra layer of accountability, download Jenna’s free fishbowl discussion accountable talk guide. This graphic organizer will encourage student participation and make giving a participation grade more manageable.

With the uncertainty of this upcoming school year, Abby from Write on With Miss G is planning flexible back-to-school lessons that will work in any setting, whether that’s virtual, hybrid, or in-person. To do this, she is using Google slides to create activities that can be completed anywhere.

For example, she is planning on facilitating “back to school” learning stations on the second day of class. You can easily create these and adapt them to fit your needs, but here are her stations:
  • Station 1: Students review the syllabus and answer some essential questions.
  • Station 2: Students set goals with learning objectives written in student-friendly language.
  • Station 3: Students design a slide to creatively represent their “one word” that will represent the 20-21 school year.
  • Station 4: Students complete a practical Google forms student survey that gathers essential information.
  • Station 5: Students complete a “get-to-know-you” Padlet selfie activity.
To learn more about Abby’s adaptable back-to-school plans, check out this blog post. For help on structuring virtual learning stations, head to this post.

Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching tries to focus on activities during the first week of school that “double dip” between fun and practicing crucial classroom routines. In this blog post, Amanda outlines the way that she structures her first ten days of school in a way that hits all three of her focal points for the year: relationships, routines, and rigor. Two of her favorite activities include a letter to the teacher and some time of small group team-building challenge.

Letter to the Teacher: this is a simple exercise that Amanda assigns students after providing a brief introduction of her own life with students. The activity “double-dips” as a relationship builder (getting to know her students) and serves as a preliminary writing sample.

Small Group Challenges: One common classroom routine in Amanda’s classroom is moving from large group instruction to small group instruction and back to large group again quickly and efficiently. For a first practice with this routine, Amanda sets up some kind of challenge (in-person she does this really cool thing with marshmallows and virtually she does a breakout room survival challenge). The kids are getting to know each other (building relationships) and also practicing the logistics of an important classroom routine.

For more ideas that will help you “double-dip” your lesson planning for the first week or so, check out Amanda’s podcast Brave New Teaching and listen to this episode all about going back to school!

Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom gets to know her students through the power of literature. No matter the age of your students, they will love read-alouds. With First Chapter Friday, you can introduce students to new authors, genres, and subject matter.

Here’s how it works: Earlier in the week, “advertise” your book to students. If the book has a trailer or if the author has done an interview, show students an interesting snippet. Then on Friday, read the first chapter to them. (Spend approximately ten minutes reading.) Then encourage students to check out the book or a similar read.

Start to build relationships with students that center on discussions around similar genres or storylines. Ask students to contribute their favorite books for First Chapter Friday. Reading aloud for a short period of time will connect you with students at the beginning of the school year. Ready to get started? Download this free First Chapter Friday starter kit.

As a lifelong reader, Tanesha, of Love Tanesha, enjoys experiencing the fluidity of her reading and writing habits. Reflecting on how her reading and writing identities have grown over time is an experience she has brought to her classroom to refute the binary belief that you are either a reader or not. Tanesha teaches students how to reflect on their reading interests by noting what they have read, topics they enjoy reading, and books they want to read.

The beginning of the year is the perfect time to capture student perspectives on reading and writing. It’s very simple! Teachers assign the profiles and allow them to complete it based on their experiences. As a best practice, teachers should share their reading profiles with students. The goal is to discuss the critical concept that our orientation with reading is an evolving process. We have high and lows. We read books we love and dislike, and these experiences shape us as readers. Here are templates to get you started. The model intentionally uses pictures because Tanesha believes in the power of allowing students to use different formats. Additionally, opening the range of what’s acceptable increases the likelihood of students being honest. Some students might want to write, while others might want to use bullets. This activity should be revisited and updated throughout the year.

As much as we want to know about our students, building a classroom community means that teachers also need to share their interests, experiences, and goals with students. Staci over at Donut Lovin’ Teacher remembers that the teachers she felt the most connected to were the ones that told stories about their lives outside of the classroom. She loves getting to know her students through Back to School activities but always remembers to reflect and share about herself as well.

One way teachers can introduce themselves is by writing a letter of introduction to their students and then asking students to write one too. Plus, it is a great informal assessment of their writing! Try starting the first or second day with a K-W-L-H chart to find out student perceptions (and prior knowledge) about you, as well as what they are curious about. Then give students the letters you wrote to them (folded in an envelope with their names on it is a nice touch, but not necessary). Revisit the K-W-L-H to show how learning happens and potentially talk about credible sources. Finally, discuss the focus, style, content, or organization of the letter (whatever you want to tackle) so students have a sense of what is expected of them in their letter of introduction.

Provide students a couple days to write these letters, as you want them to ease into the school year and really think about what it is they want to share with you, but keep in mind that how much you share with them may impact how much they share with you in return. This free Top 3 Activity will also give you a glimpse of how Staci shares who she is with her students to build relationships in a digital classroom.

It’s important that we work hard to create a classroom culture in which students feel SEEN, APPRECIATED, AND UNDERSTOOD. This is challenging, especially for middle and high school teachers, because of the large numbers of students we work with on a regular basis. Add to that the element of distance learning, and we really need to get creative!

Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven wrote about 12 practical ways to build a virtual classroom community on her blog. One of the easiest ways to get started is to invite parents to partner with us. Whether we are...
  • opening our synchronous meetings for guardians to sit with their students
  • asking parents to share how they are using reading and writing in life
  • or creating asynchronous situations in which adults and their teens can celebrate learning together,
we can build a relationship that enhances the classroom community.

Melissa created this FREE parent interview you can use to give parents a voice at the beginning of a new school year. Survey guardians about their children. They will be able to provide valuable insights you can use to connect with students which you might not otherwise be aware of in the physical or virtual classroom.

*This parent interview is in Google Form survey format to make it convenient for distance learning!

One way that Christina, The Daring English Teacher, likes to start the new school year is by getting to know her new students. In order to do this, she has her students fill out an informational, back-to-school student survey.

Christina created this free student survey with purpose and intention. This student survey includes important information that helps teachers get to know their new students, including questions about preferred names, birthday, and pronouns.
And now with starting the school year remotely or in a socially-distanced setting, it is even more important to take time to build a classroom community. As a way to start this school year remotely, The Daring English Teacher used this free About Me Student Presentation activity in her classroom on the first day of school.


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