Don’t Fret the First Day!

Beginning of the Year Activities to Help You Learn About Your Students

The beginning of the year is the time to learn about the students who are in your classroom. It is important and necessary to make the time to learn about the background and interests of the students. The first year I taught fifth grade, I fell to the pressure of the other teachers on the grade level. During our team meeting at the start of the school year, the other teachers, who had been working together for many years were joking about who would be the first to get to the content. One of my colleagues advised me to begin teaching math on the second day of the school year and form guided reading groups on the second week of school. Looking back on this now, it was ridiculous that I felt so much pressure to jump right into the content and not spend more time learning about my students and establishing strong routines. What can I say, I was the newest member of a strong and long-standing team, and I felt pressure to “keep up.” Over the years, I have discovered which activities work to learn the most about students, so I am going to share some of my favorites on The Literacy Teacher’s Life:

Photo by Sarah Dietz on

Self Portrait

On the first day of school, regardless of the grade level I am teaching, I ask the students to draw a self-portrait. Having the students create self-portraits is also a writing scaffold because they can use colors, lines, and shapes to communicate emotion and how they see themselves. It also allows students to show their other abilities and talents and sends the message from day one that literacy is more than words on a page, but rather how we see the world and make meaning of our lives.

Teaching Tip!

I hang the self-portraits around the room or on a clothing string line that hangs from the ceiling. Once I take them down, I do not send them home with the students, but I keep them in their files. At the end of the school year, I ask the students to draw another self-portrait. When I hand them their self-portrait from the beginning of the school year, it is always fun to see how they have changed during the year.

Going Remote?

This activity can be done virtually! Have students create a self-portrait and send a photo of the completed project to you with a few sentences either written or in a voice memo about themselves. The completed self-portraits can be featured in a Google Slides presentation so that the students can meet each other.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on

Me Bag

The Me Bag is my favorite beginning of the year activity that can be done at any grade level. The idea behind the Me Bag is that each student will fill up a bag with items such as pictures and sentimental objects that represent themselves. Then, when they are introducing themselves to the class, they can pull out the objects or photos to help explain who they are, which provides a great visual. One year a student had sunglasses in her Me Bag and I assumed she included them because she enjoyed being in the sun or enjoyed the beach. She explained that sunglasses are a very important part of her identity and she wears them daily due to the very blue color of her eyes, which are extremely sensitive to sunlight. Allowing students to explain why they included each item breaks down assumptions and gives students the space to speak and tell about themselves. Me Bags can be presented and shared with the whole class, but if students are more reluctant to speak in front of the large group, they can share in small groups, or even with one partner.

Teaching Tip!

I have the students decorate the bags. They can draw, make a collage, or put photos all over the bag. It adds another layer of personalization to the activity.

Going Remote?

Meet with students in small groups (4 or 5 students) to have them share items in their Me Bags with one another. This way, the students will learn about a few of their peers’ interests, while you also learn something about each student in your classroom.

Heart Maps

Heart Maps (Heard, 1999) capture what is closest and most dear to our hearts. Students can include illustrations and text to document what matters most to them. This is a great activity for multilingual learners because they can translanguage or write in a combination of English and their home language(s). I tend to have students create heart maps multiple times throughout the year, but I like to do this activity at the beginning of the year when students are more likely to include topics that truly interest them rather than those that would earn them social capital to fit in with the others. You can hang the Heart Maps up in the classroom so that students can learn about one another.

Teaching Tip!

Heart Maps can also be used during writing instruction, and students can go to their heart maps when they need important and meaningful writing topics.  

Going Remote?

Have your students create heart maps (here’s a pdf!) and create a Flipgrid video sharing a few of the items that they included in their heart maps and why they are important to them.

What are some activities you are doing at the beginning of the year to learn about the learners who are in your class? 

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