Image of high school students walking in to school building. Headline of blog post reads, "Want an outstanding first day of school activity?"

Want An Outstanding First Day of School Activity for Your High School Students?

I have had thirteen first days of school as an English teacher, probably a dozen or so first days as a tutor, four or five as an ESOL teacher, and a few more sprinkled throughout my lifetime. So when I say, I have had a range of first day experiences, I am not kidding. Some of those days were GREAT! Some, well, not so great. 

My Worst First Day of School Lesson

My worst first day of school was actually one in which I presented a lesson that I had actually spent a lot of time and thought preparing. I had been so inspired by a certain book that I flew across the world to an orphanage in Nepal and volunteered my summer working with the orphans of Kathmandu. It was all because of a book, and I wanted to share that with my (brand new) students. I wanted them to get a glimpse of how powerful books can be, and how, if you let them, they can change your life. 

Well, the lesson fell flat. Real flat. These 15-year-old students were bored out of their minds watching my Power Point presentation of orphans across the world. They didn’t really care what I did over the summer. They didn’t even know me. What they cared about (which I didn’t process until later) didn’t have a whole lot to do with me at all.

What Students Are Thinking About That First Day

What most likely was on my students' minds was whether or not my class would be hard, whether or not I’d be a jerk, and whether or not they got the lunch period with their friends.

I should have saved my inspirational speech for some other time, maybe a day when I brought donuts, or perhaps the last day of school, when they actually knew I cared about them and wasn’t a jerk. 

Since that day I have learned A LOT about what works and what doesn't on the first day of school. 

Picture of high school students entering a high school. Text reads "Want an Outstanding First Day of School Activity?"

How To Do The First Day of School Well

Be Sure You're Intentional About Setting A Tone

The first day of school sets the tone for your class, so the first-day-of-school activity has the potential to relay what you value. Just like we want students to “show” and not “tell” in their writing, we should “show” and not “tell” them what matters to us in our classroom. 

Spend Only 10-15 Minutes On Your Syllabus

For this reason I suggest that teachers should not spend that first class period going over every painful detail of your syllabus. Spend 10-15 minutes on your syllabus. Hit the high points. Remember, they're going to listen to five or six other lectures detailing syllabi that day.

If you make an infographic syllabus like this one you can zip through the syllabus, and your students' eyes will naturally go to the most important parts. Or, try this FREE template from Yaddy's Room, which is the one featured in the image below. 

Spend only a few minutes on your syllabus, then, spend the rest of your time on a meaningful activity that allows you to get to know your students in a low-stakes capacity and sets the tone for what matters in your classroom. 

picture of 10th grade English syllabus with the words "Spend only 15 minutes on your syllabus."

Have Students Make Name Plates, And Require They Bring Them Back

After spending a few minutes on your syllabus, give students each a sheet of card stock, have them fold the cardstock in half (hot dog style), and then have them write their names in large letters on the card stock. They can put these on the front of their desks, and you can take a picture of each student with their name plate, so you can study up those first few days. I have students bring these name plates and put them out every day for the first week, and then I'll study their pictures with them holding up the name plates when I can. 

Betsy Potash has a great take on the name plates, and you can see what she does here: "The First Day of School Doesn't Have to Be Boring."

Give A Meaningful, Structured, Writing Activity

Next, move on to the main thing for the class period. The best first day of school activity I have found for my students is for them to write about themselves. It sounds simple, but it pays dividends those first few weeks of school.

bullet list that says that first day activities can be purposeful, low-stakes, and hands on

An Autobiographical Option

I find that giving students an opportunity to tell their teacher about themselves at the beginning pays huge dividends, especially that first month when you are establishing rapport. 

  • I give students a handout with questions about their history as a reader and their history as a writer.
  • I tell them that they don’t have to answer all the questions, just as many as they feel like.
  • I also tell them that I’m trying to get a sense of who they are because I shape my class around my students. I tell them I’m also trying to see what type of writer they are. This helps me as I prepare our grammar and writing curriculum. I basically set the tone that they are helping me, and they’re helping themselves by taking the assignment seriously. This shows them that I am not a jerk; I'm a teacher who cares, but also this class is serious, and we are going to write in here.
  • I give them the remainder of the period to just write. Sure, it's quiet, and it may seem like a long time to have them write. But some students LOVE having that chunk of quiet at some point in a very exciting/stressful first day.
picture of a handout that asks students about who they are as writers and readers

A Creative Writing Option

An alternative to having students write about themselves is to give them a creative writing opportunity. Here’s how you can set this up:

  • Give each student an envelope including 6-8 intriguing pictures. 
  • Tell them to open the envelope and choose at least 3 pictures from it.
  • Tell them to spend the remainder of class (after you’ve spent 10-15 minutes on your syllabus) writing the beginning of a creative story that includes what’s in 3 of those pictures
  • Have students turn in whatever they’ve completed by the end of class, or allow them to bring it back the next day. 

This activity is great because it’s 

  • Hands on
  • Purposeful
  • Low-stakes
  • Gives you a sense of your students’ writing abilities on the first day of school

picture of several images collected on a table to be used as writing prompts

Do not grade the first day of school activity

I love doing writing assignments on the first day of school because it takes the pressure off of me to perform. It also allows me to get a glimpse of their writing from the very beginning which is useful as I begin planning

But please, do not grade these. They are intended to be low stakes. They are intended for you to get to know your students. 

What I like to do is print out a sheet that allows me to quickly jot down notes for each students writing in that class. I can make check marks detailing their depth of thought as well as their grammar and writing. This gives me a quick snapshot of the class as a whole which helps me as I prepare our grammar and writing instruction. 

If nearly the whole class struggles with run on sentences, that's good to know from the beginning. 

Want To Give It A Try?

If you'd like to try this exact lesson, I've set it all up for you, including the notes/grading sheet (remember, you're not really grading these).

When you join the English Teacher Vault, you get this lesson plus over 100 more resources. It's all customizable, so that you can make it your own, or just use it exactly as it is. 

Click the image below and rest easy knowing the first day of school activity will set your students at ease and relay what matters in your classroom: your students and their success.

picture of a handout for the first day writing activity with questions for students and an explanation of what the resource includes

A few more outstanding first-day-of-school activities

I recently ran across this lesson plan from NY Times,  "What's Your Reading History? Reflecting The On Self as a Reader,"  and I think it would work great on the first day especially if you had a group of students who already know you. If, for example, you have a group of seniors that you also taught as sophomores, I think this could work great. 

My friend Jeanmarie has some great ideas for the first few days of school, but they can really be used any time in the school year to connect with students. You can check those out on her post: 5 Back To School Units For High School English. 

Beyond The First Day

While this is a great way to start your school year and to see where your students are with their writing, after the first day you'll need to tackle some of those writing struggles. 

I've put together two consecutive years of grammar curriculum for secondary students as well as writing resources, literature resources, and more back-to-school activities that you can access immediately when you join the English Teacher Vault. Check it out here

Want to check out my method for teaching grammar and see if it works with your students, plus have your first grammar unit totally done for you?

Grab my FREE parts of speech unit here

picture of a large computer screen with a mentor sentence on it and a banner that says "Free parts of speech unit"


Here's to a great first day this year. Remember what your students have on their minds, and show them what your class will be about and what you value through that first-day-of-school activity. 

Related Reading

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First-day-of-school Activity For Highschool

Free Parts of Speech Unit

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1 comment

  • Karen Morris

    Thanks so much! The first day can be so stressful and your lesson looks amazing! Thank you for sharing :)

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