How To Start The School Year (In Four Steps) 


It’s funny how those back-to-school-butterflies afflict rookie and veteran teachers alike. They quietly creep up in August, send us into tizzies as we prepare for that first day back in action, and then quickly melt away as that first bell rings. As you consider how to start the school year this September, be sure to incorporate the four crucial steps that follow.

How to start the school year: Read a poem

Sure, some icebreakers can be fun, but more often than not, they’re cheesy, they’re redundant, and they’re cliché. Rather than kicking off the school year by splashing your students with everything you’re striving to inspire them to avoid, give them a hearty dose of culture.

In short, the culture of your classroom starts with the moment students first lay eyes on you. Your choice to either greet students in the hallway, to hand them a piece of paper as they enter the room, or to sit in silence behind your desk will have a significant impact on how your students perceive you, your class, and your mission.

Start by selecting a poem that speaks to the culture you wish to foster in your classroom. If you’d like to let an AP or Honors class know that they’ll be turning up the heat this year, you might opt for Charles Bukowski’s “so you wanna be a writer?” If you’re looking for something a bit less abrasive, especially for that group of AP Lit students who believe that a rose is, sometimes, just a rose, bring in Billy Collins’ “Introduction To Poetry.” Wanting to emphasize the significant of human relationships? Consider C.K. Williams’ “On The Metro.” Maybe something uplifting, something to unite you as a class? Check out Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today.”

Bring in a spotlight, flashlight, or single-bulb lamp. As your students take their seats, set the stage – fluorescent lights out, spotlight on, and poetry in the air.

Then, take things a step further. Give your students time to think, to savor the poem, to write down their thoughts, to discuss their ideas with their neighbors, and to share their insights with the class. That, my friends, is an icebreaker.

How to start the school year: write the rules together

As a natural extension of your effort to build a powerful classroom culture from the get-go, set some time aside to write your classroom rules (or “norms,” or “guidelines,” or whatever you’d like to call them) with your students.

The power of collaborating with your students on the production of classroom rules is ridiculously undervalued. The difference between pointing to a rule that’s taped to the board (e.g. “Do not talk when others are talking”) and referencing a collaboratively drafted guideline (e.g. “Remember, we all decided that it’s important to respect the person who is speaking”) is tremendous. Students will have a much stronger “buy in” to rules they organically craft at the start of the year, and will appreciate the collaborative, learner-centric process of writing them as a class.

This is easy to implement by brainstorming in small groups and sharing out to the chalkboard – or, if you’ve got the tech, via shared Google Doc!

How to start the school year: surveys

Getting to know your students is critical to having a highly successful year. It is the foundation upon which many of the facets of deep learning are founded – especially in the way of drumming up student interest, fostering engagement, and building rapport. So don’t wait. Start immediately.

Give your students a survey to learn more about their interests, their hobbies, their expectations of your class, their previous experiences in English courses, their first impression of you, their hopes and fears for the year ahead, their most recent reads, and more.

They key is to move beyond simply perusing the surveys once and locking them up in some soon to be forgotten desk drawer. One week later, when a student fails to submit her first assignment, reread her survey to gain a more complete picture of who she is. You will instantly be better equipped to help that student love reading, writing, and the entire experience of your course – by recommending books, writing prompts, and strategies that are closely aligned with her preexisting interests.

How to start the school year: assess

The sooner you’re able to gain an understanding of each student’s ability level, of each student’s individual needs, you’ll be in tip-top shape to help them learn. Traditionally, this kind of understanding didn’t happen until several essays were submitted and graded – usually sometime in November. Nowadays, having realized the importance of assessment, we have a variety of best practices to consider for implementation. Here are a two easily implementable assessment ideas for your first few days:

Assessment #1: Ask students to write – whether it is for ten minutes, for forty minutes, or for homework. Any of the following prompts will function as extensions of the poetry reading activity, and are sure to provide worthwhile insights into students’ command over the conventions of English, stylistic maturity, and general needs:

  • What is the author’s purpose in writing this poem? Is there a specific message that he or she is trying to send? If so, who is the intended audience? Use textual evidence to support your claims.
  • What is this poem about? What did this poem mean to you? Which parts did you enjoy most? Which parts do you consider the “strongest” writing?
  • Rewrite the poem as a short story. You have creative freedom in how you choose to approach this writing task, but be sure to anchor some critical part of your story (i.e. the theme, or the message, or the characters) in the poem.

Assessment #2: Ask students to read — anything.  This could be their first independent reading book, something they’ve selected from your classroom library, or the first core novel you’ll be reading as a class.  After a specified amount of time has past, ask students turn in a slip of paper that includes (#1) how much they’ve read so far, and (#2) an answer to a single, text-based, critical reading question.  A little bit of insight here will go a long way.


A solid kickoff is important, but it’s only the beginning! To start receiving highly engaging resources for teaching English with pop culture all year long, sign up below!



related posts:

Close Reading and Rhetorical Analysis of Kanye’s “Hurricane”

Close Reading and Rhetorical Analysis of Luke Combs’ “Forever After All”

The TeachArgument Roadmap: Engage Your Students All Year

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