For most everything we do in school, students have two ways to demonstrate their understanding of a topic: verbally or through writing. With 100 or more students, back to school meetings, the crush of new initiatives beginning, and more, teachers usually start with asking kids to write.

The famous, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” may have evolved, but our first writing assignment is the time to get a quick glimpse of the general ability of all the students in your classes. Goodbye free time you have 100 or more pages to read and react to hello coffee pot. So what can you do? We love this idea:

Do set a tone of learning you want for the year. Don’t waste the first day of school covering rules and procedures it can wait a few days. No student comes home motivated and positive about school when on the first day they go to six or more classes hearing about rules and procedures.
Do create groups of 3-4 students. Have them begin a discussion on a hot topic (this will vary by region, but it should be relevant and easy for kids to have an opinion- sports are good! Should Brady be suspended? Taylor Swift or Katy Perry is good! Which is harder: no wifi password or no texting is good!). The benchmark of a good one is whether there are legitimate, contrasting opinions on the topic.
Do provide paper and have some extra pens. Begin: 5 minute discussion in which you model the OR concept. M&M’s or Reese’s? Grass or astro turf? Dodgers or Angels?; then writing; then switch perspectives or topic; then writing down their opinion on the subject; then whole group sharing (just the topics they discussed); tell each group to pick a new topic to discuss. Choose from what they heard or create another.
Mill around, be lively, engage with kids, and model the tone you want your class to have. The goal: get kids talking and engaging with each other. If you can get them to stand up and take a deep breath between activities even better. Yes, model that.
Keep the welcome back writing assignment. Have them start writing in class about one of the topics and their opinion on it. Some teachers believe and we agree assigning real homework on the first day is appropriate to setting an academic tone to your classroom.
The next day, have them discuss what they wrote with their peer group. Do remember to tell students what you are going to do before doing it. Ask them to react to each others’ and recommend new ideas. Have students share one piece of advice along with the student’s name who gave it. This sharing is a great model for learning names and treating new students to other student’s names.

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