Back to School Ideas for Middle SchoolJun 22, 2021
If you are reading this, that means that the wonderful, amazing, slightly anxiety-producing time of year is upon us - back to school! Even if it is still 90 degrees and 70% humidity on your first day of school, your first day lesson plans can be as cool as the slightly chillier weather you are wishing for!
The beginning of the year can be, for lack of a better term, a lot. Between setting up your classroom, staff meetings, new procedures, and meeting students, the first week feels wonderful and like a whirlwind all at once. In this article, I hope to bring you some peace of mind with a few tips on back to school lesson ideas, ice breakers, and class expectations you can incorporate and establish at the beginning of the year. So, even if you are a veteran teacher looking to spice up your current beginning of the year routine or a newbie looking for ANYTHING to help get you started, this post can help you and anyone else who falls in between.
1) Lesson Ideas
Ah, lesson plans--the love-hate relationship I have with lesson plans could fill a book! If you are anything like me, you may have this back and forth relationship with lesson plans. I love the structure and peace of mind that they give me, but I also worry, constantly re-do them, and dread getting them written and started. Now, add in the uncertainty and excitement of the beginning of the school year, and you may have a mess on your hands if your lessons are not well thought out and planned!
Plan Backwards: Now, as for planning my lessons, I have found that planning backwards works best for me. I ascribe to the Understanding by Design (UbD) format for planning. I like to set a goal and objective in place for each unit. After this, I like to set a goal and objective for each week… and then each day. After all of this is when I finally begin to flesh out my lesson plans. Even though this sounds time consuming (and it is) it saves me in the long run. It let’s me know what I am exactly doing, when and how long I am doing it, and what I need to accomplish in order to move onto the next lesson/unit. If I find that I need to tweak things at the end of the year, I will add notes to my lesson planner or google sheet or anywhere where I can go back before school starts and begin to tweak what is needed.
Re-establish Rapport and Musicality: Now, here’s the secret to back-to-school lesson plans though: they DON’T have to be hard. My lesson objectives for the first few days are “establish rapport, create a safe environment, encourage students to create, learn, and question.” And THAT’S IT. Nothing else. For me, I also like to lean into that sometimes, not-so-helpful stereotype of “music teachers are the fun teacher,” just for the first few days of school.
Once you establish some classroom expectations, getting into music games or activities that review learning can be a nice way to ease children back into the swing of school. In my district, my classes are structured so that I see my students every day for a full marking period, and then I don’t see them again until the next year. This means that it can be challenging to pick up EXACTLY where I left off the previous year, as I might have had a student the first marking period of their 7th grade year and then not again until the 4th marking period of their 8th grade year.
This is why I rely so heavily on re-establishing relationships, rapport building, and playing review games and activities to have them adjust back to the classroom. At the middle school level, this can be playing a music game students enjoyed the previous year, or having them do an activity with instruments that they did the previous year that was a hit! It will look different for every student, but these activities have them doing, actively learning, and also re-establishing knowledge that may not have been accessed in a very long time.
I am convinced that there are two types of people in the world--people who actually enjoy ice-breakers and people who despise them. I happen to fall into the former categories. I love games and getting to know people. However, I know MANY people (my husband included) who fall into the latter category. The question that always comes up is how you can create an icebreaker that doesn’t come across corny or cheesy? Another, more important, factor to consider is, “how can you have every student participating without having them feel uncomfortable?”
Think about a common icebreaker like, “What did you do this summer?” On a surface level, this may seem easy enough to answer. However, this question can pose difficulty for students who did not have a good summer and have either experienced trauma, hardship or loss. Other students who are painfully shy may be hesitant to participate in activities like this and shut down. So, how do we even do anything like an “icebreaker” in the classroom? By thinking of deliberate, meaningful ways to engage students and get to know them.
Game Ideas: Some games and activities I like to do as icebreakers actually center around music. I have two games that I like to do. One game is “This or That: Music Edition,” where students can vote between two songs or artists and which they like better. How I modify this for all my students depends on the situation I am in.
If I am with students in a hybrid setting, I have students listen to both artists/songs and then put 1 finger up if they liked the first song/artist and 2 fingers up if they liked the second song/artist. Likewise, for my virtual students, they have to put a 1 or a 2 in the chat for their preference. This is a very non-threatening way to have all students participate. It is not calling on the shy student to share their opinion or singling out any student to say why they like one artist over the other. By playing the music in the classroom as well, the students can all hear the music and make their judgments in the moment (so even if they had never heard that artist or song before, they could choose!)
Another game I love to play is “Would You Rather: Music Edition.” Like the “This or That” game, students will pick between two scenarios using a 1 or a 2. The scenarios all center around music-themed questions (i.e., “Would you rather meet your favorite artist or band for 5 minutes, or go to a live concert to see them?”) Students absolutely LOVE this game, and this usually gets some discussion going as well.
I try to keep the questions fairly neutral, so that I don’t single any students out (i.e. I would not ask, “Do you like Drake better or Meek Mill?” since not all my students listen to those two artists). The bottom line here is, any game that is deliberate, will garner discussion, will not isolate students, and will develop some rapport is a great go to for these games.
3) Classroom Expectations
I am careful NOT to say classroom “rules” because I feel the term “rules” already carries a punitive and negative connotation. Contrary to some teacher’s beliefs, we are in a classroom to learn, grow, question, and create--NOT to punish. If you are not familiar with the Restorative Justice (RJ) approaches to discipline and classroom management, I highly suggest doing a bit of research on the subject.
While I do not consider myself an expert, nor do I implement the RJ model with 100% fidelity in my classroom, I do take elements of this practice and use it within my classroom management model. One of the reasons I like using RJ practices in my classroom is that students actively participate in creating classroom procedures and expectations as well as helping to brainstorm ways to repair any harm done within the classroom.
Circle Up and Let’s Do This: I like to use “restorative circles” in my classroom to help brainstorm procedures at the beginning of the school year (or marking period, for me). Usually the first day or two, after an icebreaker, I will sit students in a circle and ask them what they would like to see in the classroom. We define a few terms. What does respect look like? What does patience look like? What does disrespect look like? We write these terms down (exactly as the student’s state them) and I make sure to keep note of them to share with the class as well.
If you are unfamiliar with a restorative circle, it is a practice from the RJ model that helps to “build self awareness, self-management, social awareness, and develop relationship skills”. One “rule” I do have during these circles is that only one student talks at once so each person can be heard and reflect. By using this practice, I have found that students feel responsible for their classroom expectations, and also feel more invested in adhering to them. It is also teaching students a type of civic responsibility that they will use in the future, such as being an active participant in a community.
If you have never tried this with middle schoolers, I challenge you to bring this into your classroom this year. If it doesn’t work for you, go ahead and scrap it and do what you normally do. However, I think you will have great success with this as a middle school teacher. Students are able to show their autonomy and create something as a community, and that is a powerful tool. Having these definitions, expectations, and procedures written down really help to go back to when things seem to go off the rails as well (after breaks or a long weekend!). This practice has really done wonders for me in terms of classroom management, and I feel it is a great thing to offer your middle schoolers.
The last thing I will leave you with today is, you are the BEST music teacher for your students. Believe it and feel it, and your kids will know it, too. I hope that these tips bring you some fresh ideas or help build onto some already amazing ones that you have. The beginning of the year can seem huge in so many ways. However, as long as you remember that you are here for the kids, you are here for the music-making, and you bring your joy and energy with you each day, the year will be incredible and go by in a flash. Have a great year!
Lauren (Mrs. M) @theempatheticteacher