Sara Malchow
First-grade teacher
Glenbrook Elementary School
Pulaski, Wis.

I love the beginning of the year and try my best to find ways to start building my classroom community even before school begins. Here are a few of the things and activities that I do.

I send each student a letter in the mail prior to school starting, welcoming them to my class and sharing a few of my favorite things with them so they know a bit about me. I also add a QR code to this letter so students can scan it and hear my voice reading the letter as well.

We have an open house prior to the school year where students can meet the teacher, bring supplies, etc. At this night, I always speak to each child individually and begin making connections, asking about their favorite things, and what they’ve done over the summer. I also have some sort of a gift for them to bring home, like a glow stick bracelet with a card that says “Can’t wait to see you SHINE in 1st grade!” They each bring home an empty brown paper bag that I ask them to place five items in that will help us get to know them. They bring these bags to class on the first day and each child gets a chance to share their bag of items with us.

On the first day of school I always read the story First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, and then I serve Jitter Juice—Diet Sprite with a dash of sprinkles in it—to my students to help calm their jitters. Students then go on a scavenger hunt around our classroom to find their mailboxes, the iPads, the birthday board, pencil sharpeners, etc.

I really work hard to make the first days special and build our classroom community, or what we refer to as our School Family.

Matthew Winner
Library media specialist
Ducketts Lane Elementary School
Elkridge, Md.

We kick off every school year with a school-wide celebration of International Dot Day, where students are reminded to “Make your mark and see where it takes you!” International Dot Day is celebrated globally every September 15th-ish, but we’ll spend the entire week doing dot-related activities and skyping with classes across the country. It’s a chance for my students to celebrate their individuality as well as know that their voice matters in the world. What better way to start off the school year than with feeling connected, right?

In addition to skyping a ton throughout the week of Dot Day, all of our library classes do different dot-themed activities, many of which are shared with schools across the county.

The one that always seems to have the greatest resonance with the students is the project I do with fifth graders. After reading The Dot by Peter Reynolds to the class, I ask each student to make a list of three things they love that they think others should try: Try karate. Try dipping your french fries in a chocolate shake. Try reading the Wings of Fire series. We then create trading cards that will include these try statements. Each student creates three cards containing a different one of their try statements and a dot illustration. The students then set aside one card each in a pile for us to mail to the school with whom we skype for Dot Day, as a way of saying thanks and making a connection with them—the idea being that if you make something and share it with someone, you make a connection. If that person reads your card and decides to try it out, you’ve had an influence. And if you can both share that experience with one another, you’ve made a difference. That last one is tricky to find out, so we usually schedule a follow-up Skype session with the class a few weeks later to see if any of them tried out our suggestions. It ends up being a powerful experience for the kids and teachers involved, and it’s one that students have looked forward to year after year.

Barb Fecteau
High school librarian
Beverly, Mass.

I guess the most welcoming things that I do might not be considered too welcoming, but they do amuse my students.

The first—and least amusing thing—is that everyone turns in summer reading projects and we (middle school librarian Alix Woznick and I) set up a summer reading art show at the public library with the help of the YA librarian there, Allison Babin. This is a fun event, and we have been getting larger numbers attending every year. We have an opening night with wine and cheese—except it is grape juice, because they are kids—and we have art on display along with performances by students who have done musical projects. We also run films of projects that are digital. It is my favorite night of the year.

The entertaining—and weird—thing that I do is I write a song about the rules of the library that I sing for the seniors who come in for senior seminar. The rules are just one, don’t eat; two, don’t move the heavy chairs; and three, be nice. It is brief and painless and amuses me.

I also clean up and put up displays of new books that came in over the summer, but that is kind of a no-brainer!

Alix mentioned to me that she visits all the incoming sixth graders in our district in the spring, and I meet with the eighth graders who will be freshmen so that they know a friendly face in the high school in the fall.

And Allison, the young adult librarian at our public library, reminded me: “We all [local public librarians] welcome new teachers at the New Teacher Orientation with brief spiels about our libraries and services for kids and teens. Also, Alix and I do the public library card sign-up drive, where I come to the middle school and we work together to make sure every eligible student has a public library card.”

Denise Witmer
Second-grade teacher
Milton Hershey School
Hershey, Pa.

Starting the school year can be overwhelming for a new group of students. Getting-to-know-you activities are great ways to lessen anxiety and have students find commonalities with each other. Here are some of the activities I use for students to get to know each other:

1. I put numbers in a basket. Students pull out a number. The number indicates how many things they must tell the class about themselves.

2. Classmate scavenger hunt. Each student is given a paper containing a list of statements. Examples: I have a pet. My favorite color is blue. Students then need to go around the room and find classmates who can sign their names next to the statement, or statements, that correspond to them.

3. Math about us. Students complete a math sheet that has to do with numbers, shapes, and equations that let us know about them. It might contain their age, birthday, favorite shape, etc.

4. Students write about a superpower they have—e.g., runs fast, makes friends easily, helps others, etc.—and read it aloud to the class.

5. Four corners. The teacher reads a statement with four choices—I like math, reading, spelling, science—and the students go to the corner that pertains to them.

Paula Willey
Baltimore County Public Library, Parkville Branch
Parkville, Md.

I work at the public library, so we don’t so much welcome kids back to school as briefly say good-bye to them (sniff!) as they get acclimated to a new school year. We do have one back-to-school ritual, though—helping panicked parents find copies of those summer-reading books that their kids put off until the last minute! You can spot them the minute they come in the door, towing their sullen spawn: “He has to read Persepolis before next Monday.” So we call around until we find a library that has one last copy of Salt to the Sea or The Great Gatsby, or we’ll introduce parents and kids to the wonder of e-books if there’s a digital copy available. I’ve even shown kids how to use Project Gutenberg when they have to read A Tale of Two Cities and there are no copies to be found otherwise.

Shannon Anderson
Third-grade teacher and children’s book author
Van Elementary School
Rensselaer, Ind.

Since I love writing and want my students to love writing, I encourage them to create an author throne for our classroom. I purchase a simple wooden chair at a garage sale each summer and sand it down. On the first day of school, I have the kids go through various fun stations in small groups. One of the stations is to paint a section of the chair. They can use any colors, any designs—polka dots, stripes, you name it! Once everyone has been through all of the stations, the chair is completely painted. We let it dry overnight, and the next day the kids all get to sign it with a black Sharpie marker. This fantastically decorated chair becomes our author chair.

At the end of our writing time each day, I let a few students share a portion of something they have written, and they get to sit in the chair of honor as they read their work. It becomes the most special piece of furniture in the classroom.

Throughout the year, I have kids enter their names in a raffle-style drawing when they are doing nice things for others. On the last day of school, I draw out a name, and that child gets to keep our special chair forever. Then I buy a new chair that summer and start all over.

Mary Ann Scheuer
Berkeley Unified School District
Berkeley, Calif.

We always start the year talking about being responsible, respectful, and safe in the library and online—digital citizenship is very important, especially as we encourage our third, fourth, and fifth graders to use digital resources more.

I’m excited to start this year by reading aloud Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier. I’ll show it on the document camera so everyone can see. I know all my students will want to read it, and I won’t have nearly enough copies to satisfy demand. I’m also excited to engage kids in thinking about the characters and themes. I want to explore going a little deeper with graphic novels, applying many of the strategies the students use in their reading workshops.

Roshawn Lawrence
Second grade teacher
Saugatuck Elementary School
Westport, Conn.

The beginning of every school year is a time to build relationships and for everyone to get to know their classroom and their classmates. One of the ways students introduce themselves in my classroom is by bringing in two or three favorite books that they have read and a book they are reading now. Over the first few days of school, students share their favorite books with the class with mini-recommendations or book talks. Some recommendations are shared orally, and others are written on index cards and tucked in the inside cover. These favorites make up our classroom library for the first several weeks, as the actual library doesn’t open on the first day of school. In the center of each table group, I have a small book bin where students place their books for others to browse, select, and read.

I have found that this practice starts conversations about books early on. The placement of these minilibraries is important. As students look for a book, their peers will offer more reasons to choose one that they brought in; this often sparks a longer discussion about a text, genre, or author. I spend a lot of time listening in on these conversations and examining the books students have chosen. This gives me a chance to get to know students as readers, which is crucial, as I am always adding to my classroom library and building individual book bins for each student. The process of getting to know each student as a reader is one that continues throughout the year, since a student’s interests and needs are constantly changing.

Carey Johnson
Third grade teacher
C.K. Burns School
Saco, Me.

I love the beginning of the school year! My favorite way to welcome my third graders back to school is with a name assignment. On the first day of school, I read the class the book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, about a little mouse who doesn’t love her name. We talk about our own names, and I send home an assignment for the students to ask their parents to tell them the story of how their name was chosen. They come back with really interesting stories, and sometimes learn that they are named after a favorite older relative, or that their mother had always loved the name, or that they were named after a character in a book. I love that it gives them the opportunity to learn something about themselves, and they really enjoy sharing these stories with the class. It also helps us to get to know everyone’s name!

The second part of the assignment is an art project. I trace each student’s name on a large rectangular piece of paper. Then I have the students choose their favorite colors of construction paper, which they shred into tiny bits of confetti. They paste the confetti onto the letters to make a really beautiful and unique name collage. I laminate each one and hang them on the classroom walls.

I love this project because it isn’t difficult, it keeps little nervous hands busy during those first few days of school, and it helps us all to get know each other a little better.

Terry Stoufer
Third grade teacher
Citrus County, Fla.

One of my favorite welcome-back routines is to find out as much about my students as I can. I’ve done “all about me” bags, where they put things that represent them into a bag that I’ve provided. They fill out a paper and explain how the object represents them. Then they share it orally with the class.

I also ask the parents to write me a letter and describe how they see their child as a learner. Their perspective is important.

For the first time ever this year, I won’t have my class designed yet. I want to make it a very student-centered classroom and give them ownership. So this year they will be helping with the design. I have empty walls and not even an alphabet. It is a blank slate. I was feeling a little nervous about it, wondering what parents would think, and whether I disappoint the kids. For Meet the Teacher Night [August 4] a sign hung up: “Under construction: This student-centered classroom will be designed by the learners who will think, create, and grow here.”Not sure if this will work well—but I’m excited!