Starting the New School Year by Putting Relationships First

Monday, August 29, 20168:18 PM

Tomorrow is the first official day of the school year. For the first time in many years, I’m teaching freshman, along with my usual sophomores, and I’m excited. Sure, the end of summer is always bittersweet, but I worked hard this summer and I’m excited to bring my new knowledge and skills back to my classroom.

A few weeks ago, I reflected on purposeful change for the upcoming school year. In 5 Big Shifts for My Classroom in 2016, I explored my thoughts on rethinking grading, student publishing, project-based learning, moving from engagement to empowerment, and failing forward. One of the throughlines in this post that’s stuck with me all summer is finding ways to build stronger relationships with my students both with and without technology.

I always survey students for interests in the beginning of the year and try to find ways to connect with them, but this year I wanted to rethink my practice. I wanted strong relationships and class climate to be a focus from day one for all of us.

To that end, I plan to focus the first few days of class strictly on this goal. Through critical thinking, communication, and collaboration, I hope to lay a strong, transparent, and powerful foundation for the school year. If we build the relationships, the learning will follow and become even greater because of it.

Here are three ideas that I plan to use to get started. I haven’t worked them all out fully, yet, so consider this both a plan and reflection for my first week of school

Icebreakers That Matter!

Over the years, I’ve relied on icebreakers less and less. We’ve just jumped right into curricular collaborative activities to get to know each other. But it always takes me a while to learn students names--and for them to learn each other’s sometimes.

My goal for the first day of school is to learn every single student’s name. I used to ask students to sit in the same seats for the first few days. This year, I want them to switch constantly, to push me, test me, and keep me on my toes. I want to invest in getting to know every individual on day one.

With that in mind, I truly appreciated Jennifer Gonzales’ article, “Icebreakers that Rock” from Cult of Pedagogy. She argues that so many icebreakers are problematic because they push students to take risks before they know anyone, aren’t about bringing us together, or are just plain cheesy. She then lays out some icebreaker ideas that are really, really solid. They facilitate conversation, collaboration, and help build relationships. I haven’t picked one just yet, but I think I’ll use multiple throughout the week. She also writes about the importance of building relationships in another article, "Are You Really Connecting with Your Students?"


I love #BreakoutEDU. I wrote all about my experiences playing, facilitating, coaching, and creating in June with Ending the School Year with #BreakoutEDU. One of my colleagues and partner in 9th grade planning has pushed me to design a game for our 9th graders to start the year. On the first full day of school, they will walk in and jump into a magical world of collaboration and critical thinking, exploring issues of identity.

We plan to use Kid President’s videos and message to develop our themes and essential questions for the course, starting with his pep talk for teachers and students. I’m not sure how it will work in the game but for now I know that the message below matters.

In tenth grade, I plan to use an existing game from the sandbox for similar purposes to get students working together and thinking differently in week one. It’s tools like this that will hopefully set the tone for the year: it’s time for something different.

The #MarshmallowChallenge

The #MarshmallowChallenge was another activity I explored last year, using it in the first week of school. Students created their structures, documented progress on social media, and reflected on their successes and challenges in Google Classroom. I wrote all about it in Everything I Know I Learned from the #MarshmallowChallenge.

If the ice breakers facilitate individual and whole group relationship building and #BreakoutEDU focuses on both whole or small groups, it’s the Marshmallow Challenge that I hope to use to really focus on small team building. My students desks are grouped in clusters of four or five, and they collaborate and talk daily. This will be the start of their team building to make that work better and lay the foundations for meaningful collaboration.

There are so many ways to start the year and so many strategies for building relationships. For now, I plan to use these three ideas to get started. I’m sure all write more about some of them and continue to reflect on my growth and the growth of my students.

What are your favorite ways to build relationships with students? To have students build relationships with one another? Share in the comments or on Twitter @MrSchoenbart.

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