Back to School with Academic Learning–Setting the Tone for older students

Starting the school year can be stressful, but with all the added complexities of COVID, this year may be especially difficult. Establishing additional health related routines, addressing fears, and planning for uncertainty has just made the job even more difficult. Now, perhaps more than ever, starting the year purposefully is extremely important.

Assorted of school supplies and protective face mask on black slate. Back to school concept.

Harry Wong, guru of teacher effectiveness and presenter extraordinaire, talks about how what you do on the first day of school will determine your success for the rest of the year. Planning your first day is extremely important. If you have not read his book The First Days of School I highly recommend it. A free podcast that includes an interview with Harry Wong may be found here.

As a classroom teacher, I can remember planning and thinking I had a great introductory activity, only to find students had completed something similar in earlier hours. I can also remember a school mandate to have a written syllabus and go over it at the beginning of the year, but I can remember my own children being extremely bored after having spent an entire day going over the syllabus and norms for their classrooms. They were very motivated students, yet by the end of the day they had trouble remembering the nuances of one class verses another one. 

I believe there are the important factors to consider on the first days:

  • A great start—greet students at the door (with a smile), explain to them what they should do first (i.e. find the seat with your name on it, sit in seat #14, etc). Note:  “sit where you want to sit”  may be extremely uncomfortable for a new student or a returning student who sees no one they know or who would welcome them). 
  • Plan for how you are going to develop a sense of community and connection. I have a free resourceInterviewing, Public Speaking, or Journal Prompts  which you can download from my TPT store, that might give you some ideas in this area. There are MANY free ideas for ice breakers available on the web.  
  • Begin to establish routines and expectations. If you plan to have a daily list of targets or agenda items on the board, start it from Day 1.  This doesn’t mean today has to be all about rules and norms, but naturally and purposefully plan and establish routines. If you don’t want students to put away their materials and congregate by the door at the end of the hour, establish that expectation from Day 1.
  • Start with your content. Do something that makes it clear your content is important to you on the first day. If you are a reading teacher, you might read them a short story. Writing teachers would be certain to include a prompt/short writing activity. I believe starting to teach on the first day is one of the biggest ways to set yourself up for success. 

To accomplish these objectives, I wrote resource designed for grades 6-9 which I believe will help accomplish these important objectives. Wanting to start your class with both an academic focus AND get to know your students without giving them one of the traditional get acquainted activities they will have completed in multiple other classes before they come to yours?  This resource is for you. There are two differentiated passages. Using three readability formulas, these passages have averaged a reading grade level of 6.5 and 8.8  Select the one closest to your students or differentiate. You might even let students choose the one they want to read. Both cover the same content and prepare students to answer the same questions.

Activities covered include:

Academic questions about the article to start your class with an academic focus

  • Questions to help you know your students and their interests
  • A question to begin student thinking/discussion about rules/norms
  • A home/school connection question asking students to find out about school in the lives of older students
  • A question designed to elicit student feedback on at-home learning, perhaps providing insight into the experiences/obstacles for the student
  • A question designed to give a snapshot of student writing


Take a look at the entire resource before your purchase.  All student pages are available to view from my TPT store. Click here to be redirected to the resource. 


The beginning of the school year is difficult, but Reading Specialty has products designed to make the beginning easier for you. Check out these other products particularly designed for the beginning of the year. 

These products are available from my store, Reading Specialty.