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7 Ways to Get to Know Your English Classes

August brings a daunting task: learning the names, personalities, needs, dreams, and abilities of 120+ students as quickly as possible.

In addition, many of our schools expect us (teachers) to get benchmark assessments and quantify growth with data, writing samples, or other diagnostics, which makes learning more visible at the end of the year. But it's equally important to get student information that can't be easily quantified.

I'm using many of the following tools to get to know my students this fall. Some of them will take place in the first days/weeks of school, and others are meant to be used at any time in the year.

Grab this Freebie!

Thanks for reading! Enjoy this FREE Vocabulary Pre-Test, which has 14 common test-taking terms AND room for you to add your own words/questions.

#1: Diagnostic Tests

Easy-to-grade assessments can give you an early heads-up about students' starting points and where you may need to spend extra teaching time. One example is my grammar diagnostic test, which scatters song lyrics throughout the example sentences to keep students engaged in an otherwise-dry assessment.

Bonus: Google Forms is a great way to make your diagnostic a self-grading one! You can use Google Classroom's self-grading options, or just make a Google Form and grade it with the Flubaroo add-on.

(PS: You might like this blog post, "5 Diagnostics to Get to Know Your English Classes")

#2: Writing Samples
We need to know where our students stand as writers, BUT on a practical level, you never know when an administrator or intervention specialist might need you to provide a sample of a specific student's writing.

It can take a class period (or maybe less) to give a timed writing diagnostic, especially if you reassure students that this will not be graded and is just a get-to-know-you moment. (Make it fun with a prompt that will get students riled up!)

#3: Surveys & Check-Ups

Asking the right questions in your back-to-school survey is critical, but it's also helpful to follow up by checking on students throughout the year. Use this (free) check-up form to see how students are doing today.

#4: Informal Discussions
An alternative (or add-on) to surveys is using fun AND serious questions to have brief discussions. If you have a homeroom or want a conversation-starting bell-ringer for your first 30 days, try this paper chain of discussion prompts.

#5: Goal-Setting

Knowing what goals your students have - both academic and personal - can give you an early heads-up about where their motivations lie and how certain lessons or topics might go. But goal-setting is also one of the first, best forms of differentiation you can do in your year.

Try it on a small scale with (free) Goal-Setting Bingo, or make your own Bucket Lists and conduct credible research about what it would take to complete them.

#6: Fun Demonstrations
Sometimes it's best to resist the urge to pre-teach and just let students SHOW you what they are able to do as of this moment. That may be particularly true for public speaking.

My all-time favorite public speaking game is called 15 Minutes of Fame, in which students draw real-world scenarios and take on a character to imitate that kind of speech. It's an informal genre study as well.

#7: Book Talks

It's a win-win if students recommend books for each other AND you get a diagnostic public speaking assessment! Get more ideas here.

Next: Using the Data
Capitalize on the information you've gathered NOW by doing meaningful reflection on student growth at the END of the year. Get ideas in this blog post: How to Show Off Student Work at the End of the School Year

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10 Lessons to Teach at the Beginning of the Year

The bloggers of the Secondary English Coffee Shop are sharing our favorite lessons to teach at the beginning of the school year.  Read below to get ideas for your first day, week, or even month of school!

One of the very first lessons I teach my high school English students is about email etiquette. While this soft skill might not be one of the hard-hitting, content-driven, frequently-tested concepts in our content area, knowing proper email etiquette is a crucial skill for our students. Especially as our older students begin applying for jobs, college, and internships, this is a life skill that they take with them beyond the classroom.  - The Daring English Teacher

Are you bored of the same, "Write about your summer" activities the first week back? I was! So I came up with a more creative way to have students reflect on their summer adventures by answering the question: What if your summer was a movie? You can have them do everything from just writing a title and a plot synopsis, to designing the storyboard, writing a scene script, or even making the movie poster! I do find this works best (and generates the least inappropriate titles ;-)) with middle school students, and it is a fun, engaging, creative way to start the year. - Stacey Lloyd

At the start of the year, I always try to incorporate a fun writing assignment that teaches students the writing process, but also allows them to show their creative side.  One fun lesson/assignment that works well for this is having students invent their own school!  Each student creates a school from scratch.  They decide where the school is, what they will learn, how they are evaluated, who the ideal student is, who the teachers would be and the list goes on.  They write a narrative "day in the life" piece from the perspective of a student on the first day and develop an advertisement to recruit potential students.  The project also allows you to get a glimpse into the students' interests and what they think a perfect school would look like.  The best part about this lesson is that it comes with a hand-drawn video to introduce the project (created by John Spencer) that hooks students in and gets them excited to design their school. - Presto Plans

I like to teach my 9th graders to embed supporting quotes properly, and it feels like a year-long process! 😉 The first time I expose them to this concept is when we read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I give students a quote, and they build the frame and the claim. Then, they work on building a strong connection between their claim and the chosen quote by brainstorming and writing in pairs. This approach is super scaffolded, but it provides a strong foundation for more source-supported analysis down the road. - Nouvelle ELA

At the start of the year I like to get to know my students and get an idea of where they are with their writing skills. One of the first activities we do is Personal Narrative Writing. Students get to share a little bit about themselves and I get to see how they work through the writing process, how well they can peer edit, and how they problem solve through editing and revising. Because I work with the students through the writing process step-by-step it's a non-threatening way to start off the year. - Addie Williams

I find the year to go much more smoothly if I start with the proper way to cite in writing. Teachers in other content areas expect the students to know this skill, so going through exercises and giving them a flip chart to use for the rest of the year has been beneficial for not only my class but for others. - Tracee Orman

Students arrive in our classrooms with mixed abilities as writers, so it's important to get on the same PAGE (ha) with an Editing Checklist that makes your expectations clear. This flipbook can be used for ANY genre (informative, argumentative, AND narrative), and it includes pointers for document formatting, citations, and grammar! I can't wait to use this to help my students become better independent editors and see better final drafts come in. - Secondary Sara

Like many teachers, I enjoy starting the year with short stories. If you are looking for a creative way to teach the elements of plot, as well as the basics of writing a short story, then I recommend this short story writing flip book. This short story flip book is not only fun to make, but it’s also a convenient size that can be stored in a desk, binder or interactive notebook for quick reference when writing! - The Classroom Sparrow


Whether you are using reading workshop or teaching a full class novel, students need to do some literary analysis, something they struggle to do well. After years of reading poorly done responses and essays, I realized my students were just blindly following a formula without really understanding what they were doing. So, I created a series of lessons and activities designed to help students understand the process. I use them at the beginning of the term, so students have both the language and understanding for everything else that follows. You can read all about it on this blog post. Room 213

Espresso Shot: Our Best Advice for First-Year Teachers

Ten years later, I still remember my first day of teaching! One of the best tips I can give new teachers would be to set out time to get to know your students and make connections as early as you can. Once the semester starts rolling (and you have piles of work to grade), this is easy to forget to do. Designate a few days each week to spend with each of your students. It does not have to be long, even a minute or two. Check in with your students and see how they are doing. Ask them what kinds of books they are reading, ask them what they are most looking forward to in the class or simply make a comment about their progress on a recent assignment or activity. The smallest compliments can really change their day and trust me, they notice the small things. You will not regret the time spent getting to know them on a one-on-one basis!

Congratulations on your new teaching job! My biggest piece of advice is to find someone on staff who can be a mentor. Someone to help you navigate paper work, challenges with students / parents and someone to help with the myriad of questions you are going to have. If you’re not comfortable asking someone see if your department head or principal can facilitate a partnership. I am forever grateful for a wonderful colleague who mentored me through my first few years.

Have clear, laid out routines for self-care. Trust me, you will need your go-to strategies in place for these first few years of teaching: be that making sure you always have a pint of your favourite ice-cream in the fridge, or knowing that after an exhausting day you need a long bath, or perhaps it is making sure that you have some non-teaching related podcasts ready and a clear walking loop identified. Whatever it is, be intentional about knowing how you disengage, relax, or recover after a long day or week, because you will need these routines to be easily accessible - you can't just wait for vacations. Teaching is a rewarding, fulfilling career, but let's be real: it can also become all-consuming if you aren't careful, and it can take an emotional toll. Start your career off right by being intentional about work-life balance.

Welcome to the wonderful world of teaching! When you meet your first class, be yourself and show your students that you are a real person with a sense of humour, with hopes and fears, and with a tendency to make mistakes. Don't go in there trying to be this perfect, polished person who knows it all. There's nothing more powerful than showing your students that you don't know something -- and then what you do to change that. However, while you're being "real" with your teens, remember that you are the teacher. Be friendly, be ready to take a stand and draw the line when you need to; you are the adult in the room who has a very important job to do. You can be fun to be with, but in the long run your students will respect you more if you give them structure and discipline.

Congratulations on your first teaching job. One of my biggest pieces of advice for new teachers is to not be afraid to ask for help. On top of having your own classroom and students for the first time ever, you’ll also be navigating a new school and new district. It is perfectly acceptable if you don’t have all of the answers or don’t know all of the school policies. Reach out to your department chair or to teachers in your department and ask for help planning. Ask to collaborate. Ask someone to explain the school’s beginning of the year procedures. Most importantly, ask for help before you get overwhelmed. You have an entire community of teachers, and don’t forget the online community as well, who are there to help you thrive as a new teacher.

Congrats! You made it! One of the best things I did during my first year of teaching was to make a core group of teacher friends. We dedicated time to hang out each week {it was pub trivia!} to relax and connect. But here's the catch... we made a "no shop talk" rule for that time. No complaining about students, no sharing lesson ideas, no stressing over admin... no nothing! Just a chance for us to connect as friends.

Congrats on your new job! One mistake I made getting ready for my first teaching job was spending too much time on how my classroom looked and not enough time planning and preparing for instruction. When people told me to over-plan and over-prepare, they weren't kidding. It's much easier to cut your lesson short than to finish with 10 minutes left in class. Your picture-perfect classroom can come later; for now, utilize this time to focus on your instruction and on building relationships with your students during those first few weeks.

Congratulations on entering this wonderful profession! While I completely agree that it’s important to set routines and procedures in place, I’ve also learned to make sure all of the promises and expectations you set are sustainable. Don’t “bite off more than you can chew”, especially before you’ve met the students and have a clear vision of what they need. It’s almost better to underpromise and overdeliver in this early phase when students and families are still getting to know you!

There is so much to learn from your colleagues. Inspiration, classroom management tips, and professional development can be found right down the hall. Ask teachers if they mind you sitting at the back of their class during your preparation period from time to time. Tell them you admire them as a teacher and want to learn from them, and bring some marking, so you are also being productive! Every teacher has a different style, and observing many different teachers helps you to reflect on what methods you want to use, routines you want to establish, and atmosphere you want to create.

I would also recommend you share your work. When you create something bring it to someone who teaches the same subject that you do. Don’t expect them to always use it or even assume you will get anything in return, but in my experience, this almost always leads to that teacher reciprocating and sharing their work with you. This leads to a more collaborative school climate and also helps you grow your bank of resources.

Woohoo! Congratulations! This is going to be a year of teaching that you ALWAYS remember, so let’s make it the best. My biggest tip is to not lose yourself on a personal level. It is so easy to get overwhelmed with meetings, grading, and making sure you’re upholding all of your standards in the classroom, but the work-life balance can be a challenge. Set aside specific times during the work week to treat yourself. It doesn’t have to cost money... it can be something as simple as taking a bubble bath, taking a spin class, or meditating. This will help you reset your priorities and you’ll be a much more effective teacher if you are feeling rejuvenated and happy in all facets of life! Best of luck!

5 Non-Work Ways to Work on Your Teaching Craft This Summer

Our guest this week is Ashley Bible from Building Book Love. Ashley shares innovative opportunities for professional and personal development that won't actually feel like work at all!

I realize this title sounds like a paradox, but I promise that these ideas don't feel like work at all! Summer can be a great time to recharge and reinvigorate your teaching passion.

Here are some non-work ways to work on your English teaching craft this summer:

1. Take a road trip. 

My favorite road trip stop last summer was to the Poe Museum in Richmond, VA. They don’t allow pictures inside, but this place is incredible! I learned so much and definitely had lots of “I can’t believe this belonged to Poe” moments. They even have two black cats that live there! This museum is highly worth a visit if you are traveling through Richmond this summer!

For other English teacher road trip ideas, check these out:

2. Listen to a new podcast. 

While you are on that road trip, try out a new podcast! I recently started listening to The YA Cafe, and it has given me so many new YA book recommendations! I really like that it's divided into two segments so that you can listen to the first part without spoilers then decide to either cut it off or keep listening to the rest of the book conversation.

I'm a huge podcast fan, so you can check out my other recommendations here:

3. Read YA Books. 

I personally can't really bring myself to read hardcore professional development books during the summer, but I love using this time to catch up on my YA list! I'm kind of odd in that I prefer literary nonfiction for personal choice books, but I know that it's extremely important to read what my students are reading as well. My favorite summer activity is to sit by the pool and people watch while a YA audiobook plays in my ear. THE BEST. If you are more of a printed book person, I made some fun bookmarks for you and your summer reading list.

Download your free bookmarks here:

4. Do some bargain shopping. 

Another favorite summer activity of mine is to hit up yard sales and thrift stores. Summer is the best time to do this because it's the natural time that people want to declutter and get some work done around the house. There are lots of classroom items you can find at yard sales when you look! Here are the most common yard sale and thrift store finds for your classroom:

*Flexible seating
*Play props (think discarded Halloween costumes)

Almost every single item of my classroom decor was purchased from yard sales and thrift stores! You can see more of my classroom here: High School Classroom Decor: Semi-Flexible Seating in a High School ELA Classroom 

5. Attend a workshop or class to learn a new skill. 

What a better way to model lifelong learning than to take a class to learn a new skill this summer! Think of something you've always wanted to learn how to do and use your extra time to make it happen! For example, a local skillshare building is hosting a hand-lettering class that I'm taking this summer. If you don't have offerings in your area, you can find classes for anything on the internet if you search long enough!

I hope that you have a restful, refreshing, and reinvigorating summer!

Ashley Bible is a high school English teacher in Tennessee who loves to travel and blog about creative teaching strategies over at BuildingBookLove.com 

Create Your Own Escape Room

Hi, all! It’s Danielle from Nouvelle ELA, and I’m here today to help you build an Escape Room for your secondary ELA classroom. Hold on tight; it’s going to be a great ride!
Escape Rooms are a collaborative learning game in which students work in teams to solve a series of puzzles, collect codes or keys, and somehow compile their information to “escape” the scenario. They can be as simple or complex as you want, but an effective Escape Room doesn’t have to be difficult to create. Creating a whole Escape Room can be a daunting task, but you absolutely CAN do it.

Today, we’re going to focus on how to create one short, Mini-Escape experience. Your final game will be 10-15 minutes, and your students will get the same collaboration and critical thinking as a longer game.

Using a Secret Message

When I create games for introduction or review, I want students to engage in a puzzle that relies on information they’ve learned from a close read or from an entire unit. They figure out how to input the answers, get pieces of a final code, and somehow decode a Secret Message. You can make the Secret Message anything you want, and you can connect it to a writing activity after the game. In my Poetry Escape Room, I made this a Secret Poem students decode and then analyze. In my Lord of the Flies Escape Room, students show how the Mountaintop Message (“Fancy thinking the Beast…”) illustrates a theme present in the novel. This is a great way to move from the energy of an Escape Room into some calm reflection.

Designing Your Game

We’ll follow the same principles for our Mini-Escape. We are going to choose a standard or a learning objective, decide on our Secret Message and writing activity, and then figure out our puzzle to get students there. I’m going to show you my Syllabus Reconstruction Activity to illustrate each of the steps, but you can use this puzzle for a variety of concepts!

Go ahead and download the Puzzle Template Freebie and play along. :) This is an easy-to-use template for Microsoft PowerPoint that will allow you to start creating your mini-escape right away.

1.       Decide your learning objective or standard.

What will students illustrate they can do or understand at the end of this game? For our Mini-Escape, we’re going to zoom waaaay in on an objective. For my Syllabus Reconstruction Activity, my objective is to introduce students to my syllabus in a fun and engaging way. What will your learning objective be?

2.       Decide on your writing activity and Secret Message.

My Secret Message for my game is a Growth Mindset Quote. After students complete the activity (which will take about ten minutes), I’ll have them ‘cool down’ by writing a paragraph response connecting this quote to their personal experience. (I could easily extend this into two or three paragraphs and have them do some goal-setting, too!)
To make your Secret Message, you'll need a font for your code. I used a Doodle Font for my Syllabus Reconstruction Game, and there are tons of free Doodle Fonts online to choose from. You simply install a font, select your text, and switch it over to your Doodle Font to turn it into code! SO easy! For the free template, I actually show you how to use the Pigpen Cipher. This isn't just a bunch of symbols, but a legitimate cipher that students can figure out once they have a few pieces. In the template, I also provide a place for students to record their code.

3.       Decide on your puzzle.

Creating your puzzles is the super fun part. (The possibilities are endless, but I’ve put together ideas and templates for 30+ puzzles in my Escape Room Resource Box.) In my Syllabus Reconstruction Game, I chose to make five jigsaw puzzles because my syllabus breaks down into five categories: Course Description, Expectations, Reading List, Supplies, and Important Information (contacts, etc.). You can have as many as you want for your game. :)

For this game, students separate Clue Cards into five categories. [I don’t actually tell them they’re jigsaw puzzles – they have to figure it out!] Once they have all of the Course Description clues, for example, they can put together the jigsaw. I created the cards so that each category would give them one symbol from the Secret Message. I made each symbol into an image and use ImageSplitter.Net to cut them into however many pieces I needed. Then, I inserted these into the free Puzzle Template to make the backgrounds of my Clue Cards. I then typed my clues on top and finished up my Answer Sheet.
Once students have all five symbols, they can start solving the message. I also added some bonus symbols to my Clue Cards by bolding certain words and writing them in code on the bottom of the card.

4.       Decoding the Secret Message

Once students have all of this information, they can decode the Secret Message. I usually don’t give them all of the symbols they’ll need, so they’ll still have some deduction to do. You can make this part even more challenging by giving them less information. You can create Hint Cards if groups need them, but it challenges students to think critically about the way letter patterns work.
You should always play through your game at this point to make sure everything works smoothly. ;)

5.       Finishing with Writing

Lastly, circle back to your writing choice. Make a simple prompt and rubric and have these ready to distribute as students finish the game. I also included one of these in the Puzzle Template!

Moving on to Full Escape Rooms

Now that you’ve made a Mini-Escape, you’re ready to make a full game. My games are usually 45 minutes and contain four tasks (three puzzles and the secret message), but the principles are the same: I start with an objective, figure out what I want students to write about, and then move into creating the puzzles.
If you’re interested in a template for a full game for ELA, I have one here in my TpT store. I also have templates for other subject areas. :)
The sky is truly the limit, and I’ve helped teachers build games for a wide variety of units and subject areas. You can transform your classroom and the way your students work together with Escape Rooms, and it all starts with your first idea.

What will yours be?

Escape Room Resources from the Coffee Shop teachers: Figurative Language Escape Room by Presto Plans Macbeth Escape Room by Room 213 Essay Writing Escape Room by The Classroom Sparrow Growth Mindset Escape Room by The Daring English Teacher
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