Many students struggle with the transition to high school, a four-year period that often starts with a little dose of fear, thanks to teen drama movies and gossip from older siblings. For the first time in many of their lives, students are being held accountable for passing classes and staying organized. They are also navigating changing relationships with peers, family, and longtime friends.
As a ninth-grade teacher, I make sure to set a solid foundation built on mutual respect, and the strategies I use might be helpful for new teachers. I take my time to get to know the students and to let them get to know each other and feel safe being themselves. In order to build this foundation, I create two weeks of intentional team building. To an outside observer, it may look like fun and games, but these lessons have great power because they allow me to get to know the students and build off of their strengths while supporting their weaknesses.
Creating Community the First Week
Each day, I greet the students at the door. This helps me to remember their faces and names faster. On the first day, students are given assigned seats, which sets a tone of order in the classroom. They come into the classroom knowing that there is structure and that I am the leader of the room.
Throughout the first week, the students create a name tent or nameplate. Each day, they add something personal to it, based on a given prompt. This allows me to remember their name quickly, along with small facts that will help me to connect with them. For example, Johnny has a basketball on his name tent. I can connect with him about sports and maybe pair him with Sarah, who also has a basketball on her name tent. As students work on their nameplates, I walk around and strike up conversations with them about what they are drawing or writing. Such a simple connection can build foundations and maybe even friendships between students.
One year, I gave the students a team-building exercise to complete a timed puzzle. One student stood up without any prompting and started running the show. Several students took a step to the back of the crowd. A few students rolled their eyes and crossed their arms. Students who were already friends quickly formed a group together. This one activity gave me valuable insight into the needs and personalities of my students. I took discreet notes on my clipboard and then used them to form my seating chart. These quick notes can give me a baseline for personalities and help me get our school year off on a good foot.
Here are some first-week activities that work in my class.
Most students coming into the classroom on the first day are working through some nerves. This easy, calm day allows there to be a warm-up period. Having something to do, like start the nameplate, allows them to work on something easy but productive.
Discussion: The topic is who I am and how students can contact me. You can show pictures of your family, share silly stories about your dog, or even share about your failed cookie recipe. Humanizing yourself will let students see you as a person and have a mutual foundation of respect.
Nameplate: Write your name, and draw one image that represents your personality.
Checking in with students can show them that you’re a support they can lean on. Giving students Play-Doh to build something allows them a moment to be silly. In high school, there is less time to be silly—they should have an opportunity to create something fun.
Discussion: How was your first day?
Activity: Using Play-Doh, create an animal you best connect with personality-wise, and then share out with the class or with your partner.
Nameplate: Draw the animal you chose in the Play-Doh activity on your nameplate.
As the middle of the week appears, the nerves are starting to wear off a bit. Now I am having them talk with their partner. This small peer discussion part helps with tearing down some walls. It brings lively conversations that I can listen to and even be a part of.
Discussion: How are the rules at this school different from those at your last school?
Activity: Share out with your elbow partner somebody you look up to and why.
Nameplate: Draw the person who inspires you on your nameplate. Add three to five sentences on the back explaining why you chose them.
Near the end of the week, students are getting into a rhythm. I want to make sure that all of my students are building a network of peers, so we focus on the topic of friendship.
Discussion: How has it been, making friends? What could you do if you didn’t know anybody at this school?
Activity: Start drawing anything you want on a blank piece of paper. At the one-minute mark, pass the paper to the left. You will continue the drawing for one minute when you get a new paper. Repeat several times. If a paper is completely silly or amazing, I will post it on my wall as a fun reminder of the activity.
Nameplate: What is your goal for this year? Draw one to three images showing your goals.
This is my favorite day because it’s just purely silly.
Activity: “Would you rather?” Have all students stand in the middle of the room. The teacher stands on the desk (so wild in a kid’s eyes) and gives two options, pointing left then right. The kids go to the side of the room that matches their preference. For example, “Would you rather be a giant hamster OR be a tiny elephant?” The giant hamsters gather on the left and the tiny elephants on the right, and then you ask more silly questions to get them moving around the room.
Nameplate: I intentionally leave this day open for catchup on the nameplate. With class changes or absences, sometimes we need a little wiggle room to catch up on these nameplates.
Why These Activities Matter
When my students come into class on the first day of school, we do not review the syllabus. We get out of our seats, meet one another, and play games. These games have a hidden purpose: to see what personality types are in the room and to build connections between the students. If you’re a new teacher just starting out or a veteran teacher wanting to try something new, I encourage you to find something that fits your style and engages students in building connections.