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As I prepare this post, I hear excited voices of children. Outside, I see a class from the nearby elementary school. That is what you want, excited chatter rather than fearful silence. Not only are they getting some fresh air and a chance to get up and move, for some of them this is a way for the teacher to help them check out their new neighbourhood.

The first days of school can be quite intimidating for learners, even those who attended the same school the previous year. For those new to the school it is doubly so. For those new to the country and new to the English language, overwhelming comes to mind. It helps these learners in particular to immediately begin to acquire two anchors to get them off to a good start – knowledge of their place in the school and their place in your classroom. Helping them feel comfortable in class and school will take time but is most easily facilitated by active engagement in relevant activity from the very beginning.

Each classroom situation is different but here are some ideas. In the secondary system, you will have to adjust what can be done within the block system. In an abbreviated form, here is what I have done with groups of students in the first few days. These activities are not necessarily a one-of as students may need several repetitions and more than one chance to explore their school to feel comfortable with finding their way around.

In preparation, before school begins, I do my best to have the following items on hand. Just exactly how and when they will be needed varies with each group but not having to find things under pressure sure helps you enjoy the process.

  • writing, drawing and constructing materials such as pencil crayons, fine point felts, highlighters, scissors, tape, etc.
  • paper for various purposes – drawing, origami, construction, doodles, etc. – also looseleaf or other lined paper
  • copies of school floor plan [per student]
  • legal sized paper to make a mini-booklet that will highlight key learning or be used as a commentary on/visual response to a learning experience you have created.[ for the youngest students you would be wise not to have them construct the booklet themselves. Instead fold and staple paper to create the booklet.]
  • several visual experiences I have vetted and prepared [picture gallery or video clips to respond to in writing or with drawings] [see below for some examples]
  • political world map – on SMART Board or a wall map [or atlases per two students]. In less technically prepped classrooms or small group spaces, I have projected a map of the world on the wall on paper and traced it – a huge job that students can help complete once you have the outline set up.
  • Name tag cards or construction paper to create a ‘name prism’
  • things to do or play with, particularly for the speedy ones [those who finish other tasks very quickly]. This could be a puzzle or [foam] dice or just plain paper for drawing or sketching. Word search pages, mazes, mandalas to colour, etc, may also be appropriate. [free mandalas ]

Here is some of what we will do during the first week, in brief. I have written these tasks out to deliberately alternate group/pair focus with more individual focus time. Observing your new learners closely will allow you to monitor and adjust tasks and activities appropriately.

  • INTRODUCTIONS with or without the aid of quickly created name tags/cards. Having something to hang onto and point to when practicing ‘My name is….’ really helps. Alternatively use clapping rhythms to call out student names [ a more ‘hip’ version of the primary song]. Start with a simple pattern and when all have joined in, start calling out some names you remember: Clap clap clap, Ms Helmer clap clap clap Hee Son, clap clap clap Jo-nel, clap clap clap, Young Ha. Alternatively have them write their names out on what will become a name tag/card that they can opt to hold up when their turn comes. Once they get the hang of it, simply point to them, prompting each to call out her/his own name. This will be repeated in various ways during the week to help students get to know each other’s names and to feel comfortable speaking aloud.
  • CHANGING GEARS. Whenever you notice students starting to get restless or their attention is waning, it is time for a change in focus. For example, I have old copies of National Geographic that I allow students to browse any time. Alternatively, I have a collection of picture books and/or easy graphic novels from the library. On the first day, I have these actually on their desks when they arrive. Though many students, including ELLs, cannot read them, they love browsing the pictures and leafing through the pages. You, on the other hand, can learn a lot about your groups by taking a few moments to observe their interactions with these materials.
  • GETTING TO KNOW YOU MORE While students are browsing or doodling, circulate and assist to get students started. Some may actually be afraid to open the books or doodle or use the materials in any way without your express permission. Briefly engage each learner in any way you can. Do your best to ensure you have had at least one brief one-on-one interaction with each student by the end of the first day.
  • LEARNING BOOKLET With much exaggerated modelling help students make their mini-booklets [or have them prepared ahead of time for younger learners as noted above]. On the cover they will print their names and the date. From the beginning I find ways to help students think about what they are learning each day and record it in some way. These booklets or something equivalent is something they will see again and again over the term, different formats and approaches, but the point is to help them [and their parents] note their learning progress. A brief video for making the booklets can be accessed at this link  . Ask students to decorate their booklet covers as they choose….that is their ‘down time’ after struggling to get the booklet completed correctly. Their first entry will come later. As they complete them, collect them for later use.
  • WHERE ARE WE? Now it is time for a get up and move break. Give each learner a map of the school and with help as needed have them highlight their present location. Ideally each learner has an exercise book, clipboard – or one of those books for browsing you had out – upon which the map can rest. Ensuring each pair has a highlighter between them, go on a walk around the school. [ yes, you may have to tell/remind them about quiet hallway movement during class.] At key locations stop and have students mark these locations – e.g. library, washrooms, office, gym. [NB: some schools have more than one gym], etc.
  • I have learned . . . Now it is time for page one of the booklet. After some oral review [miming as needed] of the now marked up school maps, model some potential sentences to go on the first page of their booklets, or simply script what you want students to write. [The gym is downstairs. We are in Room 102.] Allow time to complete this, complete colouring the cover, browse in books, doodle etc.
  • TIMETABLE? Depending on the group, it may be important to walk them through their schedule at this point. Secondary students are often faced with a large and somewhat confusing campus, one they have to negotiate independently. Having taken a walkabout with you now allows time to study their schedules [now or when they have been issued to students] and locate rooms, maybe even do a bit of scouting to find them on the map as well as walking through the school again now or during break. Having two or more students who are all going to  eg Room 304, go together with a map in hand, then report back may work for some groups. For elementary learners this may be a later exercise and engender a language lesson that would include labelling and illustrating different subjects for a large in-class version of the schedule.
  • LISTEN AND THINK Choose a short video clip that will garner some response, whether written or visual/drawing. Whether the learner group has some English skills or not, I try to choose short clips that engage and are rich with potential for writing, discussing and/or drawing. My love affair with clips that are minimal in verbal, maximum in visual impact and hold much depth of meaning, began with the  National Film Board’s Rights of the Child Series from the early 1990s. These animated shorts have tremendous depth of meaning, are a maximum of 5 minutes long and have no ‘language’ to get in the way of thinking about the visual input. After viewing the video clips [sometimes twice in quick succession] students respond at a level they can manage. This could be drawing, writing, talking about, etc. A first personal response can go into their booklets and in time further [scripted as needed] responses can become part of class learning and ‘conversation’. All NFB films are listed here though not all are accessible for free. Some I have used with beginners include An Artist, Boogie Doodle and The Animal Movie. In a more advanced class I like to use Anansi the Spider as it will lead to our first unit on folklore.

I have not yet mentioned the map/s. This post is quite long enough.The next post will provide some sample ideas.

Have a great first week and if you choose to use any of these ideas, I would love to hear about it.