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How I Kick-Start the New School Year in My Secondary ESL Class

I am always nervous when I begin a new school year even though I have been doing this for a while now. I usually start getting ready mid-August and plan everything out carefully, so the first weeks of school go smoothly. I know that landing a contract in a new school or changing grade level is often intimidating and stressful; therefore, this post is going to present what I do during the first two weeks in my ESL classes. Hopefully, it will give you some practical ideas to lessen the stress of starting a new school year.

First class: I present the syllabus in an engaging way.

After assigning seats and some small talk with my students, I use a Power Point document to introduce who I am and to talk about my educational background and a few personal information about me (my pet, hobbies, interests, favourite books, etc.). This is followed by the presentation of the ESL competencies, the weighting of evaluations, and my expectations. I showcase my classroom rules using memes, which make my learners smile and act as the first step toward breaking the ice.

Then, I distribute an English Course Outline brochure that includes information about supplies students need, weighting of evaluations, classroom rules, a Q&R code to my class blog where I publish assignments and the dates of evaluations, and a short Q&A section presenting the most common questions students might have. This covers bathroom policy, late assignment policy, missed assignments, and how they can retake them. I also prepare a similar brochure for parents that I provide at parents’ evening in early September. This brochure template for students is available in the Free Resources Library. If you are not a subscriber yet, sign up today to receive the password to this small treasure trove of ESL and ELA goodies.

Once students received the syllabus brochure, I invite them to skim the content. This is the moment when students may express any concerns or ask any questions they might have. Since I also teach seniors, the most recurring questions are often related to their final exams at the end of the year.

Then, I continue the class with an activity that adds movement to the classroom. Students are usually surprised when I ask everybody to stand up, and I also point out that they are not allowed to sit down during this activity. To review question words, I give a coloured card to each student (It is more appealing to learners than a white paper.) and ask them to write five appropriate questions so that they learn more about their new classmates. They need to use at least 5 question words. When the questions are ready (2-3 minutes), I ask the entire class to stand up and mingle. They have to find a partner and initiate a conversation based on their questions. I also participate, of course. This activity is perfect to assess my students speaking skills, and it is an easy ice-breaker activity to start the first class with. Every 2 minutes, I switch the lights off and on, this is the sign letting students know that it is time to walk around and find a new partner to talk to.

Your class will look chaotic for an outsider, but believe me, you and your students will have a lot of fun because they are most likely not used to move around the classroom on the first day of school. So, when they get to your room, this activity will be an element of surprise showing learners that your ESL classes will be different, fun, and interesting.

If you intend to use the conversation activity in a group where learners already know each other, you may instruct them to ask questions about the activities they did during the summer or the issues they have been following for a while. You could also replace this speaking task with a Would you rather? or Find Someone Who… activity.

I end the first class with a student survey, so I learn more about my learners’ interests. I usually use one of my student information forms that are also available in my TpT store. You can find these student surveys here: All About Me student information form (landscape) and All About Me student survey form (portrait). They both have a written component.

Next two classes: These are dedicated to a motivational and goal setting activity.

This activity helps me assess students' comprehension, speaking, and writing skills. I use Oprah Winfrey’s Top 10 Rules for Success video that you may find on YouTube. I use a listening worksheet that requires learners to write down the 10 rules they hear and explain what each rule means using their own words. Then, the after viewing activity contains questions that help learners make personal connections with the text. Once they answered these questions, they turn to their partner to compare and discuss their ideas. During this time, I walk around the classroom and monitor students' work.

After this pair work activity, learners form teams of 3-4 students and have a 10-15-minute-long conversation activity based on a set of speaking prompts related to the video lesson. This is the moment when I spot learners who might not take the work seriously and need to be refocused, and I also observe the shy students and the ones who take a lot of risks when speaking. This helps me to create mixed-ability groups later. As you may see, I let my students choose their teams for this activity, and this is not a mistake. I want to catch a glimpse of the dynamic of the teams, friendships, and the students who are somehow left out. At the end of the class, I collect the listening worksheets and provide feedback to learners.

The following class, I review with students the steps of writing a well-structured paragraph and ask them to respond to the writing prompt that is the last activity (Go beyond) related to the video. Learners have to set 3 rules for success (goals) for the year and present them in a well-structured paragraph. This activity will take around 20-25 minutes, maybe more. Once the work is done, I ask students to get into small groups and share their rules for success with their peers. I also invite them to give constructive feedback on their classmates' work. I collect the papers and read them to have an overall idea of my students' writing skills. I usually leave comments on my students' work instead of a grade, most of the time a "Good job!" note as learners normally want to do well on these assignments. If a few learners do do not manage to complete the listening activity and the writing task, this suggests that they may need extra support.

As you can see, I not only use the 10 Rules for Success motivational video activity to break the ice, but I also revise the response process and the structure of a well-developed paragraph while encouraging my learners to set goals for the year. It also helps me to assess their ESL skills.

Of course, there are different ways to break the ice at the beginning of the year, but these activities have worked well in my Grade 11 classes. Learners' engagement rate will also depend on your enthusiasm as a teacher. If the content of this video does not resonate with you, it will be hard to engage your students to carry out this activity.

Over the years, I have used different video lessons at the beginning of the year and have found that lower grade learners respond well to the TED Talk The Importance of Focus by Richard St. John. This is what I use in my grade 9 groups at the beginning of the year.

A few years back, I would ask my students to write a letter to their new teacher. Although this activity was a very good task to learn about students and assess their writing skills, working in the same school has obliged me to change things as I already know most of the learners who are coming to my Grade 11 class.

If you teach in a multicultural setting, you might also like this back-to-school lesson available in my TpT store: Raising Awareness of Cultural Diversity.

On a final note, my recommendation is to have a solid classroom management plan in place and a well-planned-out first two weeks that will set the tone for the rest of the school year. You do not need to teach your entire routine on the first day or first week, and you do not need to introduce all the fun activities all at once either. Every time you see your groups, introduce a new element of your routine, then, practice and repeat it. During the first month(s), you will invest a lot of time and energy in teaching and re-teaching your routine, but you are doing this to have peace of mind for the rest of the year. If you wish to read more about my classroom management tips, visit my blog post here: 5 Classroom Management Tips for High School ESL Teachers.

Happy teaching!

Kynga C.

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