In many parts of the world, a new school year is beginning, which means starting over with new classes and new students. In this month’s post, our resident blogger David Dodgson shares some of his favourite activities to get a new academic year or course of study underway and highlights the purpose behind each one.
As I write this, both my son and I are preparing for our first days in class in our new schools tomorrow. A mixture of nerves and anticipation encircles us both but for quite different reasons. “I hope my new teacher and classmates will be friendly and the lessons will be fun,” my son says. Meanwhile, I’m hoping that I will be able to set the tone for a year of rewarding but hard work for all.
There is no reason the first day (and indeed first week) cannot encapsulate both of these ideas, however. While it is nice to ‘break the ice’ with a fun activity, it is also an opportunity to learn about our students – not only their interests but also their learning experiences, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and fears. While surviving the first week is an important objective, we should reach the end of it with ideas about how to best meet our new students’ needs.
In this post, I will share some of my go to introductory activities and the reasoning behind them.
1. Learn about them… and each other
Naturally, when faced with a new class of students who do not know each other, one of our initial aims should be to get them talking. We need to establish a good class rapport and create an atmosphere conducive to learning. There are many classic ‘ice breaker’ activities designed to achieve this, and my favourite is one of those classics: two truths and a lie.
How it works: Ask the students to write down three facts about themselves. One, however, should be untrue. It is then the task of their partner(s) to discover which one is the lie. It is best to encourage questions here – get them to ask each other for details and be on the look out for any contradictions, hesitations, or body language that might give it away. Make sure the student answering expands on the lie as well.
Why it works: This gets students thinking about unusual and/or unexpected truths about themselves and how they could trick their new classmates (one of my favourites was a ten year-old boy who claimed he had sung live on TV to an audience of millions – it turned out to be true… kind of. He had in fact been in the crowd at a Champions League football match broadcast live across Europe and had sung football chants on the terraces!) I find students often remember these stories throughout the course, much more so than if they had told each other their favourite food or previous school’s name. In terms of language, it is also a good opportunity to see how effectively they can form questions, elaborate with details, and use their voice to sound convincing.
Ways to make it work better: It is usually worth allowing time for students to think and make some notes. You may also consider modelling a lie to give a clear example of adding more details. Also, with any initial pair work task, it is important to make sure the class rotates so everyone gets to know each other a little. Either re-run the activity with new partners or get the students to tell the rest of the class what they learned about their partner.
2. Introduce yourself
It is also important for the class to get to know you, the person who will be guiding their learning over the coming weeks and months. This is especially true in cases when you are the new one in the class with the students already familiar to each other from the previous school year, or even term. In such cases, I like to get the class thinking about ‘Knowns and Unknowns’.
How it works: Put three columns on the board labelled ‘Know,’ ‘Think,’ and ‘Don’t Know’. Invite the students to work with a partner and make a list of what they know about you, what they think they know, and what they don’t know. You can then confirm or correct the ‘knowns’ and field questions to answer the ‘unknowns’.
Why it works: Again, it gets students thinking a little deeper. They may initially say “But we’ve only just met you!” in which case I advise them to focus on the facts. At the very least, they can list my name and occupation. The more observant ones may add that I’m married (wedding ring), English (accent), or that I’ve played Minecraft (diamond sword keyring). The unknowns can easily be turned into a question writing activity with the information requested by the learners and not delivered by the teacher.
Ways to make it work better: It’s good to keep this short so you might want to limit each pair or small group to 3 items per column. Mixing groups up is also a good idea to get them to compare and justify ideas (and perhaps get some of their questions answered immediately). This activity can then be repeated between students, especially those that don’t know each other as well as they should.
3. Find out about the course
The above is also a great way to get students thinking about the course and discover what they know, correct their false assumptions, and answer the questions they have. However, I usually favour another approach that really gets them into investigative mode.
How it works: The vast majority of courses will have plenty of sources of information offering details about the programme, whether those be marketing materials for a language school, a coursebook contents page, or an exam syllabus. Present your students with questions and direct them to resources around the class, school, or online to find the answers. This may take the form of a quiz (asking, for example, how the students are assessed) or a questionnaire (for instance, getting students to look through the syllabus and highlight which areas they view as strengths or weaknesses).
Why it works: This engages the students in an act of discovery as the find the information for themselves. It also facilitates collaboration as they work together and emphasises that the class and school are full of learning resources beyond books, boards, and teacher-presented information.
Ways to make it work better: Get the students to come up with questions themselves! Ask them what they want to know about the course and get them to find the answers. If they struggle to access the information they need, investigate it and suggest to the powers that be that it is made available in the future!
4. Reflect on learning skills and experiences
The above activity focuses very much on content and general outcomes. However, it is also important to consider how we can learn and what group and individual goals can be set. Simply asking students to think about such things can often draw a blank so it is best to frame the discussion. One of my favourite ways to do that is through a four corners activity (or more if you use the wall space in between!)
How it works: Simply display a question or statement in each corner of the room (or at regular intervals on the walls if you have more than four discussion points). These should focus on learning preferences (e.g. Reading is the best way to improve your vocabulary) or experiences (e.g. Describe a time when you struggled to express yourself in English). Assign small groups to each display and give them a minute to share ideas. Rotate the groups until they have discussed their thoughts on each statement/question and then lead a whole class review of some of the ideas.
Why it works: This helps students reflect on past learning experiences and how those might influence their learning in the course. It can help them consider expectations for the course and personal goals for their learning.
Ways to make it work better: Capture those ideas! Leave space under each statement or questions for students to write a summary of their ideas. These can then form the basis of the discussion for the next group, who can then add their own thoughts. This gives a reference for you and the class to look back at later on and can provide a starting point for those personal goals. It is also useful to repeat a similar activity later n the course and compare notes to see how ideas have changed.
So there are some of my trusted activities. I could go on but please excuse me now while I finish preparations for tomorrow – there are statements to discuss, assumptions to be challenged, and lies to be told! There will be more ideas and things to think about in my next blog post, don’t worry. In the meantime, what are your favourite start of term activities? Please share them in the comments section below.