Ask around and you’ll quickly learn that most teens think the first few days of school are a complete waste of time. “All we do are the same dumb games we did in elementary school!” Or, “It’s just seven periods of my teachers reading me the syllabus!”
Both are common complaints I’ve heard from middle and high school students. So how can we make those first few days meaningful? Keep reading, because here are some real ways to build classroom community while getting to know your students in fun and meaningful ways.
1. Honesty will build community.
Secondary students are like sharks. Well, not exactly—they can’t smell prey from thousands of feet away, but they can smell stale lesson plans with shocking speed and accuracy. Instead of doing something you’ve done before, start the year by being honest.
Tell them that the first few days are about getting to know each other. You want to know them, and they need to know you so you all can have a positive year. Here are a few things you can be honest about with them:
- What behaviors/attitudes really get under your skin
- What you expect from them as they enter your room each day
- Your hopes and your fears for the school year
- What personal goal(s) you have for the school year
- What you are most looking forward to this year
2. Time to stand—try stations to get things moving.
Adding movement to your first lessons will help you stand out. There is often so much information to go over in those first few days of class, stations are a great way to cover a bunch of things in a limited amount of time—while still adding some fun and active movement into the day.
Stations ideas for secondary classrooms might include:
- Review the Syllabus – You can even add a five-question quiz to make sure they find the information you really want them to know!
- Chat With the Teacher – Set a time and trade questions for a few minutes with a small group of students.
- School Supply Scavenger Hunt – Do you have a place for where students should put their homework, sharpen their pencils, or get blank paper? Have them take a few minutes to locate those places.
- Book Speed Dating – Let them preview all the books you’ll be reading that year.
- Getting to Know You – Have a sheet you can print out that they fill out.
3. Try a few getting-to-know-you challenges.
While you may not want to risk a trust-fall activity just yet, physical and mental challenges that can be done in class are often really great ways to learn about your students’ personalities. Who is going to be a leader in class or who might need encouragement to speak up? Look at who treats teammates with respect and take note of who gets frustrated along the way.
These are all truly useful pieces of information you will learn when you watch your students work through a challenge. Need some ideas? How about:
- Tarp Flip Challenge – Spread a few tarps on the floor. Get groups of students to stand on them. The challenge? They have to flip the tarp completely over without stepping off of it. (You’ll need some volunteers to watch to keep the groups honest.)
- Build a Boat – Divide your class into groups or allow them to choose their own for a good look at who’s friends with whom! Give each group one bag of drinking straws and one small roll of duct tape. Inform students that they have 25 minutes to construct a boat using only the straws and the tape. Have a tub or classroom sink filled up with water and ready to go to test the boats and declare winners.
- Balloon Launch – Break students into groups of between four and six students and give each group a few balloons in the same color. Each team should have a different color. Have students blow the balloons up as much as they want and hold them without tying them closed. Have students stand in the front of the room and let the balloons go. The team with the balloon that flies the farthest wins.
4. Try student-to-student interviews.
Putting one student in charge of interviewing another student can be an amazingly powerful tool. As a class, brainstorm a list of unique but revealing questions and then ask each student to pick three or four they’d be comfortable talking about with someone else.
Give students time to interview each other and then write a short piece about the peer they interviewed. Have them take a photo of the student to include with the piece. Display these in your room as a way to give students ownership in the class. Possible revealing (but not intimidating) questions might be:
- What is one of the biggest problems facing the world today? How do you think we should deal with it?
- Whom do you respect most and why?
- If you could be someone else in the world, whom would it be and why?
- What makes you happiest?
- What’s tough about being a teenager?
5. Give your students a say and then sit back and really listen.
This one is often difficult for teachers. We want our classrooms to run smoothly, and we want them to run the way we plan them to run, so handing control over to a pack of middle or high school students can feel like an invitation to chaos.
But when we give our students some (managed!) choice over the way their classroom works, it often increases their feeling of agency and control in the room. Since they made the decisions, they’re more invested in making sure those decisions are abided by. Here are just a few things you could try leaving up to the students:
- Seating arrangements – With the understanding that seats can be changed by you, if necessary.
- How or when music is allowed – By having this conversation with them, you can voice concerns about work being done while still respecting their desire to listen to music at appropriate times.
- Beginning-of-class procedures – Ask them how they feel students should enter the room and get to work.
- Procedures for restroom use, water fountain use, etc. – Even though they’ll probably come up with something that you’d choose yourself anyway, it’s amazing how much more seriously they’ll take it when it’s their idea.
- What should be done with cell phones – You can begin by saying that having them out on desks at all times is a definite no, but you might be surprised by how strict they can be on each other on their own.
Middle and high school students want the additional responsibilities and privileges of being older, more experienced students. When we show them that we recognize that during those important first few days of class, we begin to foster a classroom culture of respect and caring. Taking the time to do activities that are engaging and meaningful will help ensure we have a great school year!
What middle school icebreakers do you use? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook!
Plus, check out 5 Ways to Increase Student Ownership in Your Classroom.