Light Up the First Day of School

You may have heard my first day of school horror story. No, not one of those nightmares from high school where you show up on the first day of school and realize you forgot to put on pants. My first day of school as a TEACHER horror story.

It did not go well. Luckily, that real-life nightmare became the inspiration for my career as a teacher, which you can hear all about in episode #1 of my podcast. 

Going over the syllabus and reading my course expectations aloud turned out to be far less scintillating to my students than I thought it would be. Wait a minute, did I just hear you chuckle?  Yes, after many years of first days I know now that my syllabi will just never light a fuse under my students, no matter how much I play around with fun fonts.

So what to do on the first day of school? How to kick the year off right? Syllabi must indeed be delivered, but what else can a creative teacher do, given that students haven't read any material or prepared for the class in any way?

Here are some of the best activities I've come up with over the years. I hope they work well for you too.

#1 Since you have to take Attendance Anyway...

Attendance can be a real drag. It eats up class time and it's so dull. That's why I flipped it to become a getting to know you activity. Every day for the first week and sporadically after that, I use attendance to ask a getting-to-know-you question. Instead of responding "here" when I call a student's name. He or she will answer my question, which is always short. For example, I might say "When I call your name, tell me what country you'd like to fly to today if you could." If a student takes too long we just skip past them. By the end of attendance we've all learned a bit about each other and had WAY more fun than hearing the word "here" over and over. For a free printable poster of questions you can hang by your desk to use all year, just click here.  You'll join more than eight thousand other teachers who have already downloaded it.

#2 Classroom Scavenger Hunt

I bet you've given some thought to the layout of your classroom. Maybe you've got a writing contest bulletin board, a collection of maker materials, a costume corner, an outside reading library, a makeup material binder, a set of art supplies, an inbox for homework, etc. Instead of wandering the room and showing each of these to your students, create a scavenger hunt handout and let them race in partners to find everything themselves. Prizes wouldn't hurt anything. Your fabulous resources and organization will be a lot more memorable this way.

#3 Sort your Students

The Harry Potter sorting is widely known these days (does everyone automatically think they'd be sorted into Gryffindor or is that just me?). A fun twist on it is to get to know your students by sorting them around the room. Give a series of directions such as:

"Go to this side of the room if you prefer studying English and history, this side if you prefer math and science."
"Go to this side if you are an only child, this side if you have siblings."
"Go toward this corner if you prefer to read fantasy for fun, this corner for mystery, this corner for love stories, this corner for nonfiction."

As your students traipse around the room, ask follow up questions. For example, you could ask who thinks they have the most siblings and get a few numbers, or call on several students to share their favorite book within the genre they have chosen.

I've put together my own questions for this fun first day activity along with a bonus follow-up activity for you over on TPT for just $1. It has definitely been my most popular product this month. If prepping for the first day is stressing you out, you might want to check it out here.

#4 Tell a Community Story

I learned this first-day strategy at Phillips Exeter academy when I attended their Summer Humanities Institute. It's an amazing activity for teaching students the value of diverse voices in building a classroom community. If you plan to push students to value their own and each others' viewpoints as much as your own throughout the year, this is really great way to introduce this idea.

Start with a beanbag (a ball will cause you no end of trouble!). Tell your students you are going to start a story, then throw the beanbag to someone else, who will continue the story, and on and on. Let them know that the second-to-last person will bring the story to a close, and the very last person will need to retell the whole story, but everyone can help. Ask students to be respectful as they choose the content of their section of the story if you think this reminder is necessary in your school.

The story will be amazing. It will feature twists and turns you never expected when you started it. The last person will be stressed out at first, but quickly reassured by the help that comes from every direction in remembering all the small details.

After you finish, ask your students why they think you did this. Help them to realize how rich and amazing the story they created together was, and how much it helped the last person that they all worked together on the retelling. Let them know that you could never have created such an amazing story alone. Focus on what this means for group discussions, group work, workshop, partner collaboration, etc. Students don't automatically realize the value of collaboration and discussion, and I find it really helps to start the year off by talking about it front and center.

#5 Let Students Tell you What Matters on your Syllabus

Yes, you need to pass out your syllabus, course expectations, academic honesty policy, etc. Whatever you use to guide your course, the first day is a logical time to pass it out. What you DO NOT need to do (a mistake I still regret from that arduous first first day) is to read the entire thing out loud.

Put your students in partners and let them go through your papers and pick what they think are the three most important things. Have them create a mural across one chalkboard or whiteboard with what they would say really matters about your course.

Or have everyone choose just one vital point and then call on partners randomly to share what seems most important to them. Let them teach it back to you - you set a tone for active learning right away, and perhaps even more importantly for you, you avoid that terrible, awful experience I call "the glaze," in which your students simply stop seeing and hearing you.

By the way, if you'd like a little help with your syllabus creation, I've made two fun customizable syllabi you can use! Just sign up for the free download and you can plug in your own info for a quick and easy, attractively designed syllabus.

#6 Name Cards

I LOVE this first day activity. Ever since I invented it, I have never failed to do it. I print the name of each student in a large font size on the bottom half of a piece of card stock. Each section gets its own color (first period - blue, etc.).

I pass these out and have everyone fold them into table tent name cards to sit on their desks. Then we take ten minutes to decorate them. I ask every student to make a few drawings or add a few words and quotes to represent themselves. Finally, I take a photo of each student holding up his or her name card. I study these photos and I can always get my students' names down within forty-eight hours (I used to struggle for weeks!).

As a bonus, I keep the table tents and use them to randomize seating every once in a while throughout the year if I feel like we are in a rut. I simply lay out the cards wherever I want them before students come in, and they sit where they find their name cards.

I hope these activities help you get your year off to a GREAT start. AND I hope you decide to share your results, inspiration, and struggles with our growing community over in Creative High School English on Facebook. We'd love to learn from you and share with you. Once you click to join you can always post your questions and share your favorite resources with this awesome collaborative group.

Have you joined my e-mail community yet? Sign up below for insider freebies, fun classroom ideas, and podcast and blog post highlights delivered to your inbox, and you'll also get four free one-pager templates with complete instructions!


What ELA Teachers can learn from Scandinavian Playgrounds

When my son was tiny, I tried to convince the boarding school where we were working to install a children's playground for all the little kids in the area. I researched all kinds of amazing playscapes, but as I combed through photos and articles, one name stood out in particular.


Sounds kind of scary, doesn't it? Don't be fooled.

(Image from the Monstrum Website)

Monstrum is an incredible Danish design company that creates playgrounds based on stories. For example, they created "The Crooked Houses," to reflect the history of the neighborhood Brumleby in Copenhagen.

They made the "Playground Cosmos" to represent the experience of being in the Russian Space program. How much do you suddenly wish you were a kid so you could go play there? I, for one, really want to climb up that long silver slide into the top of the rocket.

You might be asking yourself, so what? How can this possibly relate to my English classroom?

Well, here's the thing. Most playgrounds in the United States today look pretty similar. I have taken my tiny tots to playgrounds from California to Pennsylvania, and the colors, structures, and feel of the playgrounds are generally the same. They are brightly colored, relatively safe, and story-free. In a word, unoriginal.

Which brings me to the topic of today's post and podcast, Creative Assessment.

What are we really looking for in our assessments these days, to be relatively safe and blend in, or to build on the stories of our own communities? To extend the comparison, are we going to make our classrooms safe and story-free, or embrace the ideals of Monstrum?

I vote Monstrum all the way. We need classroom activities that students can dive deeply into, assessments that engage students' imaginations and inspire their dreams, not just prove that they read from page one to page seven. A reading quiz doesn't have to be ten multiple choice questions that don't require any critical thinking or creativity. A final project doesn't to be a standard literary analysis paper.

There are lots of other ways to find out if students are reading, thinking deeply, and learning to communicate what they know.

Today's Podcast (number ten!) is about finding ways to let students show what they have learned that matter to them. That engage them in creative, fresh ways that relate to their own lives.

Listen here or on iTunes for dozens of ideas on how to keep your activities, quizzes, and final projects creative and relevant in a world that values creativity and innovation far above the ability to memorize and color inside the lines.

When it comes to creative assessment, it’s easy to get intimidated. You may feel like your colleagues will look at you funny if you deviate from the norm, that you are too tied to certain standards and types of writing to try something new, or that you can’t afford the technology or materials to be creative in the way you want. Well, this episode is for you. I’ll be sharing ideas for creative quizzes, daily activities, and final projects that you can be proud of. There’s no reason students can’t show the same skills in rigorous creative work as they do in whatever assessments you are feeling pressure to conform to.  In my first two years of teaching I had students enmeshed in creative projects every month and I won my school’s new faculty award at the end of my second year.

So let’s get into it.

Your students come in after reading chapters one through five of whatever text you are reading. Do you…

      A) Hope they have read it? Hope really hard?
      B) Suspiciously call on students without their hands raised throughout the discussion in an effort to discover who has actually read?
      C) Give them a reading quiz with ten plot-based questions after checking to be sure those answers aren’t readily available in online summaries?
      D) Create an engaging reading check activity in which students write a blog post recommending or not recommending the book, based on those chapters, to other students around the world?

Not to pressure you, but I hope D seemed like a good choice.

Reading check quizzes are a force as old as time. We all want to know that our students are keeping up with the material. I remember being so mad in college when I listened to a classmate fake his way through class discussions, knowing the whole time he had not read our novel.  Day after day. The professor appeared to have no idea. Of course none of us want to be that professor.

But at the same time, quizzes that lean on memorization of reading facts don’t give our students much of a reason to engage. This type of quiz feels a bit confrontational, and definitely lacks creativity.

If you’re ready to kick the old reading quiz to the curb, here are five creative alternatives. Each of these alternatives builds more analysis and creative thinking into the way students process the material to show that they have read it.

1. The High and the Low: Have students write about what they loved and hated from the reading the night before, defending their choices with specific evidence (of course!). 

2. The Coffee Shop Script: Have students get creative as they write the script of a conversation between three or four characters from the reading. They can discuss anything, so long as they sprinkle in plenty of details from the reading. 

3. Reading Blog: Have students write a blog post either recommending or not recommending the book to other students around the world, based on the reading. 

4. E-mail from one character to another: in a world stuffed with e-mail, writing a good one is an important skill! Let students write from one character to another, including a few key details from the recent action in the novel. 

5. 5 Headlines for a News Website: Let students imagine they are editing a news website covering the action in the novel. They need to hit the highlights for their readers. 

The big thing with each of these alternatives is to stress in your instructions that your students explain their ideas with DETAILS from the reading. They need to show you they have read as they work through these creative prompts.


Classroom Activities can also easily fall into a rut. You want to assess student work in class, but how can you do it creatively, in a way that will matter to them? One great way is to talk to them about their interests in your discipline, and work toward those interests in your daily assessments. For example, here are three student interest threads and three activities for each.

If your students are interested in video creation, create an in-class assessment in which they…

      Imagine they were creating an instagram account for the novel you are reading, and they need to create a live video for each major character responding to the events of the reading.
          Imagine they were in charge of a Youtube channel for high school students that were struggling with reading, in which they share the most important moments in the text in any way they choose
      Create a video response to the author, discussing what they do and do not like about the text and how it relates to their own lives

If your students are interested in radio broadcasting, create an in-class assessment in which they…

Write and record the pilot episode of a podcast hosted by a character from the novel

      Imagine NPR was bringing on one character from the novel to interview in a news-style show. Record the interview.

      Mix a soundtrack for the chapters they’ve just read, explaining in an accompanying paragraph how the music represents critical themes in the text.

If your students are interested in entrepreneurship, create an in-class assessment in which they…

      Create a kickstarter campaign from the perspective of a character in the novel, to help solve his or her struggle in the text.

      Design a website for a chacter’s business.

      Propose a nonprofit that would help solve a problem confronted by a character or characters in the novel. 

All of these daily assessment ideas can easily be made rigorous. Creative assessment doesn’t mean a loss of rigor. For me, it means giving students a chance to show their skills in unique ways that expand their thinking and push their limits.


Finally, we get to final projects. I’m sure you can already see that there are a million directions you could go with these. Here are three ideas to get you started.

Let your students create an App for a character. As they flush out a storyboard for the App, explain the character’s choices and business plan, and explore why the character would create this particular App, students can use their tech skills, tap into interest in entrepreneurship, demonstrate their ability to write analytically, and get creative in their thinking. It just so happens that I have created a packet for this particular final assessment, and I would love to share it with you. Subscribe with the form below and I'll send it along immediately! 

Have your students do a mock trial. Mock trials are engaging and memorable, and give students a look at a popular career too. 

Inject MAKERSPACE into your assessment. Have students create something relating to the text and then use that creation to launch into a writing project. Maybe they create a photo essay based on the novel and then use those photos as inspiration for a brand new story. Maybe they create a painting of a character that really reflects his or her inner nature, and then they write an essay on characterization. Opening up the doors of the maker movement in your ELA classroom will lead you down creative and unexpected paths. I've written a blog post about this I think you will love, featuring the inspiring book Make Writing that first got me thinking about all this. 

Thanks for listening (or reading)! If you haven't subscribed yet, hurry over to iTunes and subscribe so you don't miss the upcoming "Going Back To School Creatively" series! And remember, support is waiting for you inside our Creative High School English Facebook group as you continue on your creative teaching journey. 


The Creative ELA Teacher's Back-to-School Checklist

As you prepare for the first day, there is always so much to do. Setting up your room, finalizing your syllabi, getting your grade book set up, collecting your textbooks, attending gobs of meetings.

This post is not about those things!

Rather, it's a list of ideas for helping you put some creative structures in place early so that the many details of those busy first weeks don't overwhelm your desire to prioritize creativity. These are things you can consider and prepare for over the vacation and put into place as the year begins. 

Learn about Sketchnotes

Sketchnotes are growing in popularity but still a fresh strategy to offer your students. Take a little time to download a free sketchnoting activity or bookmark a great video about how to sketchnote now, so that as school opens you can introduce this strategy to your students and help guide them toward a more engaging way of taking notes on anything and everything that you study in class.

Create a Theater Corner

Gathering props, wigs, costumes and face paint on a shelf or two in the corner of your classroom can really up your creative game. I’m always amazed at how much high school students glory in dressing up.  A wig may be just what one of your students needs to become a Shakespearean character during a reading or perform his best during a reader’s theater group scene. 

Think Flexibly about Seating

Flexible seating is all the rage. But even if you can’t afford beanbags, cereal bowl chairs and squashy couches, you can come up with a few different ways of arranging your classroom for a few different needs. Imagine some of the scenarios you see unfolding in your classroom (literature circles, gallery walks, roundtable discussions, editing partners, etc.) and quickly sketch how you’d like to arrange your tables or desks for these days. And keep your eyes peeled at garage sales and thrift shops for benches, stools, coffee tables, and poofs that just might help you transform a corner or two of your classroom.

Build in Time for Genius Hour

Genius hour can help you connect with and empower your students. When you build in time for genius hour, you give your students the opportunity to pursue something they are passionate about. It's not difficult to create a connection to ELA (and the standards) inside almost any project (the research, reflection, video creation, final presentation, etc. makes it easy!) so ELA teachers are lucky to have this chance to tap into students' passions. Learn more about how to get started in this podcast or this blog post. 

Activate Student Responsibility with Committees

Pick up this free handout explaining the concept of classroom committees and have it ready to share with your students. Letting students take ownership over major classroom events (poetry slams, play performances, reading festivals, etc.) will make the events WAY better and take a ton of work off your shoulders.

Gather Books for your Reading Library

Creating an independent reading program in your classroom is no overnight feat. Taking the time to gather great books from your own shelves, your friends' shelves, library book sales, and ideally, the library at your school, is an amazing gift you give to your students. Opening up their eyes to the huge range of books out there is an incredible way to foster their creativity and their language skills. In my experience, a great reading program also creates a much deeper connection between teacher and student. Learn more about setting up a classroom library here. 

Schedule Guest Speakers

It’s easy to forget the power of guest speakers. Summer is the perfect time to talk to friends and friends of friends who might want to come in and visit your classroom. It can be as simple as a series of short books talks, in which adults from around your school come in to give a two minute spiel about their favorite book. Or as complicated as that actor friend of yours coming in to run a week-long theater workshop while you’re studying drama. Contact a variety of guest possibilities over the summer (ELA careers series? Creative writing workshops? Interdisciplinary connections?) and schedule them before life gets too busy.

Collect Materials for an Art Station

Every primary teacher has his or her collection of amazing art supplies – but what of the secondary crowd? Though not every student who comes through your door will want to take advantage of it, having a section of great art supplies will help bring one-pagers (grab your free templates here!), storyboards, graphic novels, political cartoons, murals, and more to life throughout the year. No one HAS to use them, but everyone CAN.

Find a Collaboration Partner

If you’ve never tried a collaboration before, this is your year. It’s an amazing way to broaden your students’ horizons and give them an authentic audience for their work. Listen to this podcast chock full of ideas for collaborations and then hop into my Facebook group, Creative High School English, to find a partner or just share ideas with thousands of other creative teachers.

Build in a Small ELA Makerspace

Give students a chance to combine making and writing when you prep a small section of your classroom with maker materials. Index cards and rolls of paper can help students who want to do maker drafts of their writing, scrawling ideas everywhere before arranging them. Colorful chalk and whiteboard markers, paints and an easel, legos or clay – any of these can help students “make” settings or characters before imagining a story around them. A summer trip to the dollar store or the Target Dollar Spot will easily and inexpensively get you started gathering materials. Read more about this amazing option for a creative classroom right here.

Consider One-Pagers as an Opening Day Strategy

One-Pagers are such a great way to process texts - podcasts, films, literature, and even vocabulary. The combination of visuals and text helps students to think critically about what they have taken in and remember it better. You can use a wide range of one-pagers throughout the year, but starting out with one about the students themselves is a great way to accomplish many goals. You will introduce the pedagogy, learn a lot about your students, and get the makings of a beautiful student-centered display for one of your classroom walls. 

Create Interdisciplinary Connections

The world gets more interdisciplinary every day. I’ve got one cousin who got his PHD in Engineering who now runs his own artisan perfume company, Sfumato (so amazing! Check it out here!) and another who majored in theater and is now helping Santa Fe turn garbage into biodiesel and compost with her environmental non-profit, Reunity Resources. In the modern era, students will combine their interests with their environment and draw on all the skills they have to be successful.

We can’t know what they will do, exactly, but we know it will probably draw on multiple disciplines. Working that into your curriculum in intentional ways will help it feel more relevant and exciting for your students. I love creating projects like “Literary Character Designs an App” and “The Literary Food Truck Project” that connect different disciplines and student interests. Spend a little time considering how you could incorporate an interdisciplinary project this year and reach out to a teacher in another subject to plan before the mad rush of fall. 

I hope this turns out to be your most creative year as a teacher. I find that the more I think of myself as a guide seeking to unlock student creativity, the happier I am. I don't want to be their guru, because they won't have me forever. I want to show them the amazing creative potential waiting inside them. 

Have you joined my e-mail community yet? Sign up below for insider freebies, fun classroom ideas, and podcast and blog post highlights delivered to your inbox, and you'll also get two great editable syllabus templates to help streamline your work at the start of the year.

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