High School English Teachers: I Planned Your First Week Back To School

High School English Teachers: I Planned Your First Week Back To School

Whether you’re a brand new teacher or you’ve been at this for a while, the first week of school is a crazy, roller-coaster ride of a week. Students' emotions are intense this week, and so are yours as their teacher. Plus, a lot more administrative stuff is asked of you. It can be a tough week, to put it mildly. 

What you need to make that first week run smoothly is a strong plan that allows everyone to feel safe.

So, I went ahead and planned that week for you. I’ve laid it all out here. It includes ways to connect with your students (on their terms); it also allows for you to begin equipping them with what they need to be successful in your class. 

banner that says "high school english teachers I planned your first week back"

I taught full-time for 13 years, and here’s what I found matters most during the first week of school:

  • That students get a sense of who you are--that you are knowledgeable and caring
  • That you start building relationships and rapport with your students, but on their terms
  • That you start establishing class norms, routines, and expectations
  • That you start getting into the material of the course in a way that sets them up to do well in your class

Everything you do that first week should have one or more of those elements in mind. I've got a lot of FREE LESSONS in this post. If you want to jump straight to those, click here

Without further ado, here's your first week of school, planned.

Monday: Welcome and Writing

When I was a brand-new teacher I did icebreakers that first day and then I would talk for a solid 30 minutes about my syllabus. Whatever you do, don’t do that. That was not a great plan because it threatened some students (icebreakers are hard), and then it bored all of them (syllabi are boring). 

Here’s a much better plan that I discovered over the years with help from colleagues:

Save your syllabus for the second day of school.

The first day of school is filled with so much listening for your students, and it’s exhausting for them. But when I say “listening,” I don’t really mean that they hear and register what the teacher is saying. It’s more like the listening that appears to be happening when a group of students is sitting at desks silently. They aren’t talking, but they aren’t listening. Because who could actually take all that information in when they’ve heard 5 other syllabi presentations that day? 

What’s more, why even bother listening if all that information is printed on the syllabus? They can just read it when they have questions. 

If you do your syllabus the first day of school, that's fine, but only spend 10-15 minutes on it. 

Instead of talking at length through your syllabus, have them do this first-day-of-school activity. This activity allows you to give your students either a set of questions geared toward their history as a reader and a writer or a creative writing opportunity to see what their writing style is like (which can work great for more advanced classes or creative writing classes). 

You can grab this lesson and over 100 more resources when you become a member of the English Teacher Vault!

first day of school activity handouts

My History as a Reader and Writer Assignment

One of the options in this activity asks students a set of questions about their history as a reader and as a writer. These questions are broad as well as specific and work great with 9th-11th graders. Have them write for a pretty big chunk of the class period. 

Then, over the next several days you can read through these and get a sense of who your students are in a way that did not require them to embarrass themselves or think of something clever that rhymes with their names. 

Having students create name plates on that first day of school that they then bring back all week is also incredibly helpful as you start learning names. 

I go into a lot more details about this lesson in this blog post “Want An Outstanding Activity For The First Day of School?”

One added benefit of this activity for the first day of school is that it immediately gets students writing in your classroom, and they will start to relate your class with a place where meaningful writing is going to happen. It sets the tone. I like to start with a narrative writing unit early in the school year, and this first-day activity is narrative writing. Some students could later draw from what they’ve started here and develop it into a longer narrative writing piece. 

Tuesday: Syllabus, Accounts, and Norms

Briefly, cover your syllabus.

For Tuesday, hit the high points of your syllabus if you didn't go over it Monday, but do not read the syllabus to your students. I find it best to explain the late work policy, when you are available to respond to emails, and what your “office hours” are. Besides these things, students can read what’s on your syllabus. 

It’s also helpful to have your syllabus designed as an infographic that draws students’ attention to key places and lets them take the information in quickly and easily. We have an editable syllabus template in the English Teacher Vault that you can make your own when you become a member! 

Set up accounts.

If students need to set up any type of account for your classroom, this is the day to do it. Set aside 10 minutes for students to do this and then move on. 

Establish classroom norms.

The most important thing you will do on day two is to establish your classroom norms for the year. 

If you are not familiar with the concept of classroom norms, this will revolutionize how you handle classroom management, especially with secondary students. High school students are transitioning between childhood and adulthood, so it’s important they have some voice in what the expectations are for them at school. They have more ownership this way and more buy-in.

If this is all totally new to you, please jump over to this blog post and take 5 minutes to read all about what classroom norms are and the benefits of using them in your secondary classroom. 

Banner that says "After 12 years of teaching, I've found that norms are better than rules."


In this blog post, my former colleague, Sam Bradford breaks down what norms are and how you can set them up early in the school year. 

Essentially, norms are principles decided upon by all your students--they are not rules that the teacher created and imposes on students. 

They are short and easy to remember, and they should also be revisited frequently. 

You can have your students brainstorm individually, and then work in small groups to start developing the classroom norms. As a class, you will ultimately decide on a handful of norms that will be your guiding principles every day. These norms might change later in the school year, and that is totally fine. They are dynamic! 

Here is a great free resource that walks you through how to set up norms in your high school ELA classroom: Norms Construction – A Process of Negotiation – School Reform Initiative

Wednesday: Get Into Grammar

Now that you’ve set up your classroom norms, you can jump into the content of your class. It’s important to get to meaningful learning in that first week to set the tone that this is a place where purposeful learning will happen. 

A focus on grammar is a way that students can be successful that first week, get needed review, and have the essentials that they will need to do well in your class going forward. 

By teaching a few highly-engaging grammar lessons this first week of school, you will set your students up for a clear path toward powerful writing for the rest of the school year. 

Teach vivid verbs on third day of school. Verbs are familiar to your students, but most students don’t realize the power of using action verbs instead of linking verbs. This lesson gets them there. 

I’ve put together a free parts of speech unit that I’d love to give to you, so you have nothing to prep on this day at all (and for several other days those first few weeks). Each lesson includes:

  • Direct instruction on the concepts of action and liking verbs, strong nouns, adjectives, and adverbs
  • Amazing mentor sentences that showcase the power of each part of speech
  • Sentence frames for students to start practicing using parts of speech well
  • A video writing prompt that will further instruct students in using the concepts in their own writing
  • Quick writes to follow up the lesson and to allow students to work with each part of speech

The free lessons will give students a sense that they have a path to becoming better writers, and your classroom is the place where that will happen. 

picture of a large computer screen that says "free parts of speech unit"

Thursday: Build On Grammar For Writing Success

For the fourth day of school, continue teaching grammar in a way that is engaging, purposeful, and with a clear purpose: for students to become better writers. 

From time to time, it’s good to start class with a very short hands-on game to review grammar concepts. These games should be low-stakes, and early in the school year they should not be competitive. Remember, you’re working hard to create a safe place that first week. 

This hands-on grammar game allows students to look at mentor sentences and then determine if each sentence has a linking verb or an action verb. Students can do this activity in pairs, or you can do it as a full class. There are several variations of how you could use this game depending on the size of your class. 

This activity comes with the free parts of speech unit! 

action verbs game

After this game, jump into a lesson on using strong nouns.  I know what you are probably thinking, “My high school students know all about nouns.” And I hear you, and I get that. They do know a thing or two about nouns, but let me tell you what this lesson does and does not do:

It does not:

  • Require students write down the definition of nouns
  • Require students do tedious worksheets finding nouns

It does:

  • Challenge students to think about how to use nouns intentionally
  • Remind students of the difference between concrete and abstract nouns
  • Immediately give students a chance to write meaningful prose using nouns intentionally
  • Let students have a little fun thinking about and playing around with nouns

If you’re worried that around this time (two grammar lessons in two days) your students will start to moan, whine, and complain that “grammar is boring,” or that they “know all this already,” or that “there’s no point in knowing grammar,” let me say this can be your response:

Grammar is a tool for better writing.

It is my strong belief that knowing grammar is indeed useless if you are only memorizing a bunch of terms (i.e. an adjective modifies a noun or pronoun). It's also useless if students are only working with grammar in isolation on worksheets or drills that don't affect their writing.

The purpose of grammar is for students to understand how language works, so they can apply those concepts to their own writing, creating powerful pieces of writing that let their voices be heard and even effect change. 

That’s it in a nutshell, but if you want to read more so that you are ready for your students (totally valid) questions regarding the point of grammar, check out this blog post, "Why Teaching Grammar Matters,"  that goes into much more detail about why grammar is so important. 

As a side note, I will say that in my experience, students don’t complain as much this first week of school. They generally have not gotten comfortable enough to complain, so I find that grammar earlier in the year works better for this reason as well. 

Friday: Quick Writes and First-Chapter Friday

As I mentioned above, grammar only matters if students take those concepts and use them in their own writing. 

So, on Friday give them a quick-write writing prompt that allows them to focus on using their nouns and verbs in a meaningful way. 

I’ve designed these quick-write prompts with open-ended questions; any student should be able to choose one and respond without much wracking their brains for a response. Then, they will look back over their writing and craft a few sentences with their nouns and verbs in mind. These prompts are scaffolded, meaning that I have a prompt that only focus on nouns, one that focuses on verbs, and another on adjectives. Then, there are ones that combine multiple skills. 

quick write writing prompts

These writing prompts also provide a safe way to start getting to know your students better and build more rapport and community. 

Ask volunteers to share their response if they’d like, but don’t force anyone to talk. You’ll start to get a feel for everyone’s personalities by just opening it up to volunteers. This is day 5 with your students, so they will likely feel much more comfortable sharing about who they are on this day than they would have on day one or day two. 

For the rest of the class period, do a “First Chapter Friday” where you read students the first chapter of a book and allow them to jot down initial observations. Or, don't read the first chapter--instead have the actual author do it! 

Check out Now Spark Creativity's compilation of First Chapter Friday video reads HERE

It’s important students have some type of independent reading they are doing that they are not being quizzed on, and so it’s critical those first few weeks that you get them thinking about a book they can be reading on their own. 

For many years I started class with 10 minutes of sustained silent reading and this was when students would read their independent reading books. 

Why Do Grammar The First Week Of School

If your students have a strong understanding of basic concepts they will be set up for success in your class. 

Many teachers realize the importance of teaching writing concepts like organization and the difference between analysis and summary, but few teachers realize that without a clear and direct explanation of grammar concepts, students will struggle all year with how to write a concise idea in an articulate way. 

  • If a student can see the difference between a vivid verb and a linking verb, they’ll start to grasp how vivid verbs can make their writing more interesting and far more concise. Their sentences will be packed with meaning instead of packed with words just taking up space. 
  • If students grasp what modifiers are, they’ll start to think about ones that can be placed in different parts of their sentences to make their writing more compelling.
  • If students know what a clause is, they can work with using multiple clauses in their sentences; they can create compound and complex sentences that are punctuated correctly. This helps them become more fluent writers! 

Most students have a lot of thoughts about a lot of topics, but they don’t know how to harness those thoughts into powerful sentences that someone else can understand. Grammar helps them do this. 


pull out quote that says "most students have a lot of thoughts on a lot of topics, but they don't have the tools to harness those thoughts into powerful sentences."


Now, I’m not saying you're going to tackle modifiers and clauses that first week of school, but I am saying, the sooner the better. 

If you’re not feeling confident with how to teach grammar in a way that engages your students and sets them up for successful writing for the entire school year, check out my full-year grammar curriculum that gives you every single lesson you need. It provides you with a pacing guide as well so that you can confidently move through the lessons knowing that concepts are building on each other. 

You get access to the whole curriculum when you become a member of the English Teacher Vault!


grammar for high school students curriculum



That first week of school focus on building a strong rapport with your students through

  • Getting to know your students on their terms
  • Giving students a sense of who you are (you are a knowledgeable and caring teacher with clear expectations)
  • Establishing classroom norms
  • Teaching grammar so that students have a clear path toward mastery in your class

I hope these first-week of school lesson plans have given you clarity and a sense of excitement as you get ready for the amazing students who will be in your class this school year! 

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Free Parts Of Speech Unit

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