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Helpful Back to School Ideas for Launching a New School Year in these Uncertain Times

Here are some ideas and tips for coping with the challenges of returning to school in these uncertain times.

Our hopes for starting a new school year as a normal year appear to be disappearing as of this writing. Masks will be back for most students. A vaccine for the younger crowd (under 12) is not far off but too late for back to school. So how are we to launch back to school with all this uncertainty? Let me offer you some back-to-school ideas, tips, and resources for coping with this extraordinary new school year!

Ideas for Back to School in uncertain times

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. No one does. What we can do as teachers is to offer ideas, then adapt, and finally cope as we welcome kids back to school. In this post, I offer some ideas for back to school in this uncertain time.

A Lesson Learned from the Past

Back in the 80s and 90s, I experienced two major earthquakes here where I live and teach. One happened about 10 minutes before school was about to begin. You can imagine how traumatizing earthquakes can be to anyone, especially children. I remember I was prepping in my room with some student helpers then the room began to shake. We quickly dove under the desks. I heard screaming outside as parents dropped off kids or kids had lined up.

Many kids went home with their frightened parents right after the school bell rang starting the day. Those who stayed with me, I had us all sit together. We discussed how we felt. We discussed what to do if it happened again. Then with some reassurances in place, I did an impromptu lesson on earthquakes. Once my students understood how earthquakes are triggered and why we have aftershocks, they seemed more reassured and calmer.

Teacher under desk during earthquake

Why am I bringing this up? The valuable lesson to take from any trauma or event such as an ongoing pandemic is to be educated. Be educated on how to stay safe. Find out about how pandemics evolve. Learn skills so we can manage our feelings. And finally, reassure our students the school is doing everything it can to keep them safe.

Will Students be Engaged Upon Returning Back to School?

Last year, teachers became very creative with back-to-school ideas on Zoom. However, as the year progressed, our Zoom meetings turned into a gallery view of ceilings, tops of heads, kids in hoodies, cameras off, show and tell pets, noisy backgrounds, or students leaving the Zoom. BUT – I always had that one student who always participated with the camera and mic on, had materials and assignments ready, and was engaged. It helped keep us going!

But now, most will be back to school in person. Do you think our students will know how to engage and conduct themselves in a physical classroom? Depending on the grade level, maybe, maybe not. I’m certain the youngest students in grades 1, 2, and 3 will face the hardest challenge regarding engagement. Why these students? Because this particular cohort of students has not had a complete “normal” year in school. If they’ve spent an entire year or more in a virtual setting, a physical classroom will be something new to them.

3 types of students excited - anxious - disengaged

Excited? Anxious? Disengaged? Depends!

Older children already have had classroom experience pre-pandemic. But it doesn’t mean all of them will be eager to engage when back to school. Many students will bring memories of bad experiences and trauma from the pandemic which might spill into the classroom. Some students may even have lost family members to the pandemic.

My prediction is about one-third of the students will adapt and re-engage for this back-to-school season on their own. One-third will be anxious and worried about the new year and will need reassurances before feeling comfortable engaging. Finally, the last third is the one we should worry about. These are students who became chronically disengaged, dropped out, or disappeared. But we’re going to need back-to-school ideas to support all these types of students.

Back to School Starts with the Parents

If you already have the email addresses for the families of your new class, I’d suggest emailing the parents up to one week before school starts with information to lessen their anxieties for this year. In the email, you may want to include:

  • list the district protocols for COVID (mask wearing, sanitizing, etc.)
  • describe how the room will be set up to make it safe for all
  • explain how school supplies will be used to make it safe for all
  • give examples how you will support the social-emotional growth of the students
  • provide a sample of some first week activities
  • schedules and protocols for drop-off and pick-up
  • explain how technology will be utilized
  • detail lunch and recess routines
  • list a calendar of important dates for parents
  • provide your contact information – including codes to sign up for ClassDojo, Remind, etc.
Family with 2 children ready for back to school

Back to School Ideas to Lessen Anxieties

We can’t engage students if they don’t feel safe. Begin building those teacher-student relationships and trust from the start of day one. But, what makes students feel welcomed and safe?

  • if you’re required to wear a mask, draw a big emoji smile on the outside – nothing is as welcoming as a smile (you can also draw one on construction paper and tape or glue it to a mask)
  • take a feeling check by having each student take a sticky note, write their name and attach it to a “How I’m Feeling Today” chart as they walk into the room (don’t forget to include yourself). Use it to have morning meetings or to know who needs more reassurance.
  • as students walk into the room have calming music playing. On other days play fun dance music so kids dance into the classroom or marching music to march into the classroom. Moments of silliness can lessen anxiety especially if you participate!
  • as students get situated on the first day provide a coloring sheet (free coloring pages at crayola.com). Some kids don’t like to color so instead they can cut out shapes from the coloring sheet or let them draw on a blank paper.
  • during the first week take roll as a game: I spy a name beginning with the letter ___ and ends with the letter ____ (you can also add details such as rhymes with or has a certian number of syllables). Yes, this will slow down a simple task, but maybe slow is good?
2 students holding up a back to school sign

The point of any activity on the first day or week is to lessen anxiety and fears as the students get to know you and begin to trust you. By providing a calm, fun, and caring environment, you build those relationships with the students.

Letters and Words of Encouragement!

Another one of my go-to back-to-school ideas I think would work well this year is to have a letter. Every year I had my previous class write a letter to my students for next year. The letter would include exciting things they would learn about, important rules, etc. If you don’t have welcoming letters, you can write your own. You could even personalize it for each student.

If you have the parent’s email or addresses for your new class, ask them to write an encouraging note to place in students’ backpacks. Or have them email you an encouraging note you can print out to put on the student’s desk. Don’t leave anyone out! If you have a class mascot, have the mascot write encouraging notes to students.

Back to School Read Aloud Ideas

Every year, teachers have their staple of read-aloud books for the first few weeks of school. For example, I have a new favorite – The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi. Why is this my new favorite? Because I can totally relate to it! As an immigrant, I had a similar experience with everyone mispronouncing my name. I think we can all relate to some incident from our childhood making us feel nervous or embarrassed. If you have a culturally diverse class (or not), your students will identify with Unhei, who recently arrived from Korea and is nervous about making new friends in a new school.

First Week Back to School Read Alouds

Another back-to-school read-aloud book I use is Ruby the Copycat by Peggy Rathmann. For many students who feel they need to follow, copy, and not be their unique selves, this book offers Ruby, who feels the need to copy her new friend Angela. Though it’s a fun story, I use it to start students thinking critically about choices and options and learning empathy for others.

Additionally, one of my favorites to use (and start teaching some of the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts) is A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech. Mr. Keene, the principal, called all the students and teachers to announce it is indeed a fine, fine school, so from now on they’ll have school every day, including weekends and holidays! No, it’s not a horror story but quite engaging.

I developed a Companion Pack to go along with this story. Companion Packs are specific worksheets supporting the Common Core Standards for Language Arts and the book they are based on. They help support the practice of most literature-based standards. Check out all the Companion Packs HERE.

A Very Special Read Aloud

You might want or NOT want to use this read-aloud as a back-to-school idea. Why? It might be a trigger for some students who have experienced violence in the past. It is the inspiring story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who almost died fighting for the right to learn. In the book by Rebecca Langston-George, For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story, students learn how she fought to have an education, not only for herself but for everyone.

Cover of For the Right to Learn Read Aloud book

I started using this book every year at the beginning of the year because I wanted to inspire my students. I wanted to have them understand it is their right to receive a free education. So many others have fought for all of us to have the right to receive an education. We can’t take those rights for granted but instead, show our determination to use those rights to become our best selves.

Back to School Ideas for Providing Routines

In normal years we establish routines at the beginning of the year to make kids feel safe. Routines can lessen anxiety. Another of my go-to back-to-school ideas I think would work well this year is to make a Back to School Book. It’s called the Diary of the Back to School Kid. It’s also available in Spanish. I created this booklet for students to keep track of everything they had to know regarding school.

It took about 2 weeks to complete by doing a few pages a day. The booklet also provided some creativity for students to add their own coloring (especially for the early finishers). My students needed more practice with copying from the screen or whiteboard and writing with a pencil. I believe it will be especially true as so many of our students mostly used a keyboard for the past year.

Diary of a Back to School Kid Resource

The Diary of a Back To School Kid contains pages for

  • Best Memory of School
  • Worst Memory of School
  • How to Make New Friends at School
  • Who Inspires Me
  • Goals for the Year
  • Things I’m Good At!
  • The School and Class Rulesd
  • School and Class Schedules
  • About School Lunches
  • School Supplies
  • 10 Things to do at Recess
  • Advice for the Teacher
  • Advice for the Principal
  • My Best Friend at School
  • My New Friends List
  • Parent Message Page
  • Parent Response Page
  • Two blank pages to add additional topics
Diary of a Back to School Kid Resource example pages

The pages are copied back to back, so it becomes a 10-page booklet with a cover. The book covers all the important information students need to know. Once the book is finished (or partially finished), there is a page for parents. Students can write something to their parents about their new classroom and teacher. Parents can also respond with questions or suggestions. It’s an easy way to keep parents in the loop.

Back to School Ideas for Getting to Know the Students

You can find many ice-breaker ideas for back to school. Those are fine, but I wanted to get to know my students better. I came up with this idea several years ago to work on some Common Core State Standards for Language Arts and as a creative way to showcase students. I call it an iPortrait. Based on a template on a tablet (such as an iPad), students pick 3 character traits that describe them. Students have to give proof with examples of why they picked those particular traits.

iPortraits Back to School Resource

They also get to draw and illustrate a selfie. When the project is done, I have students share with partners. I also pick 3 – 4 a day to read the traits of each one while students have to guess who it is and why. It’s an engaging way for students to get to know each other while practicing character analysis.

Also, I display them on student desks at Back to School Night. I found the iPortrait to be an effective way to connect with parents without having an impromptu parent-teacher conference about their child.

Example pages for iPortraits Resource

The resource also includes six more templates to add to their iPortrait.

  • Vacation Photo Album (draw pictures and write about activities done the vacation break)
  • My Goals for the Year (students pick five goals for the year)
  • My Favorite Vacation Book (students share their favorite book read on vacation break)
  • If My Life Were a Movie (students pick a movie that describes their life)
  • Put Yourself in the Spotlight (students write and draw about a particular talent)
  • Who’s That Cute Baby? (students bring in baby pictures and add information, while the others try to guess who that baby is).

Students also have an opportunity to use the Paper Student Cut Out to make a Trait Puppet that reflects their traits. More information on the entire resource can be found HERE.

Get a FREE Sample of the iPortrait Resource!

Sign up for my newsletter and get a two-page sample of the iPortrait resource. By signing up, you’ll get the My Goals for the Year pages. Sign up below now!

More Back to School Ideas

Finally, check out these past articles for more back-to-school tips, ideas, and resources.

As teachers, we sometimes have to deal with the extraordinary – be they earthquakes or pandemics. But as teachers, we rise to the occasion by adapting. This school year will test our resolve again. In the end, we do what we always try to do – take care of our students as best we can.

What are your ideas this year for back to school?

Please share in the comments!

Helpful Back to School Ideas for Launching a New School Year in these Uncertain Times
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