Rekindling a Sense of Connection in the New School Year
Activities middle and high school English teachers can use to emphasize community and collaboration as the school year begins.
There were days in the 2020–21 school year when teaching meant logging on to Google Meet and engaging with little black boxes with students’ names next to little icons of muted microphones. Teaching meant greeting students at the door with a clumsy elbow bump and delivering material while they sat six feet apart, unable to see their smiles. These were the days that reminded me of Christopher Emdin’s powerful words on the importance of teaching with magic, and I couldn’t help but note how little wizardry I was able to conjure.
Many of us were still able to capture that magic, though it likely looked different due to distance or hybrid learning and safety protocols. But despite our best efforts to make this past school year effective, a wall—taller than in previous years—had inevitably formed, hampering our ability to make those personal connections with our students. They were there, of course, but I certainly noticed that I had to clear that wall more frequently.
I believe there is a desperate need to rekindle the magic for the 2021–22 school year, and I will be ready to stir the cauldron on day one. Let’s dismantle the wall and do the opposite of flipping through bulleted sections of “Required Materials” and “Grading Policies” in thick, soulless, stapled packets written in Times New Roman.
Recapturing a Sense of Community
On day one, let’s focus on those experiences we couldn’t quite capture this past year that ignite a sense of community and collaboration while fostering inquiry and discovery—real-world skills that guide our instruction.
To help foster those personal connections, here’s a glimpse of what day one (or even week one, if necessary) in my classroom will look like.
Collaboration: Day one will consist of mini-activities completed at several stations across my classroom. Groups spend roughly seven to eight minutes at each station, most of which will encourage students to discuss, clarify, problem-solve, and connect with one another. At one station, for example, groups will choose a value word (trust, respect, friendship, honesty, etc.) and create a small poster for it, paired with their vision as to what they want that value to look like through written lists or illustrations.
Having students work as a group from the start sets the tone on day one that our classrooms are a place of community and student-centered collaboration.
Reading: At another station, students will participate in a book tasting (an activity I learned from Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s book 180 Days). I place what I think are the best books in our classroom library on a table and encourage students to sample as many of them as they can. Some read the first two or three pages, and some read the back of the book or the “About the Author” section. Afterward, they write down possible titles they’re interested in reading in their writer’s notebook and discuss their selections. I’ll also use this time to conduct book talks, gauging my students’ reading interests, which reveals more about them than we may suspect.
Inquiry: In a separate activity, instead of presenting a bland PowerPoint slide of family photos and lecturing about who I am, I ask my new students to explore our room to get to know me. Supplied with flashcards or sticky notes, they go around the room and note as many “clues” as they can find that may reveal something about my life or personality.
They look at the framed pictures on my desk, the student artwork on the walls, the St. Louis Cardinals decor on the shelves, the record collection near our classroom library. After gathering evidence, they write a brief bio about me, followed by whole class sharing. Not only are students getting to know their English teacher, but I learn about them, too—how they interact with groups, what hobbies pique their interest, their ability to gather evidence and write claims.
This activity can easily be turned around to focus on the students themselves by having them gather evidence (a household object or a few chosen pictures from their phones) from one another and then write bios of their partners or group members.
Writing: Giving students the space to write on day one serves several invaluable purposes. Whether you use it as a form of baseline assessment or as reflective pieces, student writing is ultimately how we get to know our students best. Tailoring the writing to the specific needs and experiences of a class is beneficial, too, as they gather the diverse insights that are unique among our classes entering a new school year.
My ninth graders, for example, will write letters to themselves about their hopes for high school, which I’ll return on their last day as seniors. My seniors will write about where they’re at mentally as they begin their final chapter of high school.
Daily routines and procedures, of course, will be stressed and practiced, but what we prioritize on these first few days sends a clear message about who we are and what we value as educators. Do we prioritize individual work and teacher-centered classrooms, or do we want collaboration, student voice, and discovery at the forefront? If it’s the latter, we can structure our first days to reflect that belief.