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Activities for the First Day of Class in English Composition - Tips for Teachers

Updated on July 2, 2016
Stacked English Books
Stacked English Books | Source

Get off on the right foot

As a teacher, you have your semester planned, but how do you get started? You have lesson plans, assignments and essays sketched out, but what do you do with new students the very first day of class? At the college level, students often expect that the first day of class is about their getting the syllabus, meeting the instructor, and being let go early (and many instructors comply.) I remember days like that back in college, but I have never followed that practice in my own classes.

What makes sense in an English Composition class is for the students to do at least some writing the first day in order to introduce them to what they will be doing all semester. Having taught English Composition at the college level for over ten years, I have used some strategies that not only get the students in writing mode but also help them to feel comfortable in the class.

Unlike college instructors, high school teachers may not have the challenge of breaking the ice with new students. Generally, students in the high school English class know each other, some for many years. Still, there are activities that teachers can implement to facilitate a pleasant learning environment right from the beginning.

Writing is scary for a lot of students—and people in general. Whatever teachers can do on the first day to alleviate some of the nervousness will do a lot to set the tone for the entire semester. This article gives teachers--whether at the high school or college level--a potential lesson plan for the first day of class in English Composition.

Take care of "housekeeping" tasks

Get those necessary “housekeeping” tasks out of the way. Call names, check the roster, and go over the syllabus, briefly hitting the highlights, encouraging students to read the rest on their own. The purpose of this is just to give students a general idea of what the semester is going to entail. I always pass out note cards for students to write their personal information out for me: their legal name as well as what name they actually go by; phone number and email; hobbies and interests (just to get to know them a little better). The notecard also gives me a place to jot down notes to help me connect a name to a face rather quickly.

I like to give a mini-lecture on the importance of the course. I point out to the class that, although English Composition is a required course for students, it has value now and in their future careers. I tell them how being able to express themselves well on paper can also translate into better verbal expression. When I’m finished with my “preaching,” then we move on to some activities to get every student in the class involved.

Icebreaker and introductions get students involved

I don’t always ask for introductions the first day of class, but, when I have, it has gone over very well. Try a simple icebreaker by asking students to introduce themselves, plus give a little more information. Direct them to say their name and the first thing that comes to their minds about writing, for example. Even an “I hate writing” is bound to get some laughs and loosen up the class.

Add anything you want, such as their sharing something unusual about themselves. If it feels more comfortable, put them in small groups or even pairs. Give them a few minutes to talk and then ask them to introduce each other to the class.

Composition notebook with writing pen
Composition notebook with writing pen | Source

Have students write the very first day

Since English Composition is a class focused on writing, set the tone early on with an in-class writing assignment. Have students write a short essay about their past experiences with writing and what they hope to get from this class. Tell them to write this in essay form, complete with title and paragraphs.

Having students write on the first day of class engages them and gets them to utilize critical thinking skills. Encouraging them to write about where they have been and what they want is also a way to make students feel as though the teacher cares. This assignment also gives the instructor a baseline writing sample of each student.

Give the class a certain amount of time in which to complete this assignment. Learning to manage time is important in taking tests throughout school and college. Career-based tests and licensing exams are also timed. Learning to perform with a deadline looming is a valuable skill students can take with them.

When all students are finished, take up the essay. I don't give a grade for this assignment, but I hold on to the papers to review later in the semester in order to assess students' progress.

Freewrite if Extra Time

If you have extra time, instruct the students to do a freewriting exercise. I do this often, giving students random topics or no topic at all. Freewriting is a quick exercise that engages students in thinking and transferring their thoughts to paper. Instruct students to start writing until time is up without picking up their pens and stopping. Tell them to write about anything—what they did last summer, their families, or even how they are feeling now after the first day of class. Tell them when to start and stop them when time is up.

Time Schedule for First Day of Class

Time Allotted
Housekeeping, Syllabus, etc
20-30 minutes
Importance of Writing lecture
5-10 minutes
10 minutes
In-Class Essay
20-30 minutes
time remaining
Times are flexible, as you adjust for length of class. All of this could easily be fit into an 80 minute class. Many classes are 50 minutes, which might require giving less time for the syllabus or essay and leaving out the freewriting.

End on a positive note

End the class on a positive note with your feedback on how well the class went and how you are looking forward to the semester. Ask for any questions or comments before you dismiss the class.

It is important to have a definite plan for the first day of class. Giving students the information they need along with actual writing practice on the very first day of class will give them confidence as they feel more sure about what is expected of them. Icebreakers and writing assignments go a long way in setting the stage for a successful semester in the English Composition course.

© 2012 Victoria Lynn


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    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      klanguedoc--Yes, starting a class always makes me nervous, too! I'm so glad this is practical and helpful for you!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      KduBarry03--Yes, I think all students should be made comfortable up front . . . . .I took a writing course where we had to share our work, too. For composition classes, we do have peer review classes where they critique each other. It seems to be very helpful. Thanks for the vote, inputs, shares!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      CC--Takes one to know one. I bet you are (were?) an awesome teacher, too!! Thanks so much, Sis!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      suzettenaples--It's great to have your validation of my first day! I love meeting teachers--current and former. Thank you so much for your wonderful comments.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, sholland! Yes, showing the students their progress later is a good idea, too. Thanks so much for coming by--and the votes and shares, too!

    • klanguedoc profile image

      Kevin Languedoc 

      8 years ago from Canada

      This is great advice. I often give professional training to technology professionals. Actually I have to train a sales force in September and I will definitely use your advice to get the class started. You have presented the information in a very structured way that makes assimilating the information very easy. I am always so nervous starting a new class, your advice will definitely help. I am posting to FB & TW.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      These are excellent tips for any English or writing class. It is definitely important to let the students know that they can be comfortable with their writing. I remember in one of my creative writing classes, we had workshops where the whole class read each other's work and practiced constructive feedback and criticism to improve each other's, and their own, writing in the future. Perhaps that could be used for one of the papers around the midterm for other classes if they are not workshop oriented?

      I have to say, I thought of this hub as informative and interesting. Voted up as such and sharing!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      8 years ago from Western NC

      Fun! I can tell you're a fabulous teacher. I wish I could take your class, Sis. :) These are great ideas for any composition teacher. Nice!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      8 years ago from Taos, NM

      Oh, what memories this brings back! I am a recently retired teacher - English and Spanish. I think we are teaching soul-mates! LOL This is exactly, and I mean exactly how I started my high school writing classes each year. It is most important to set the tone on the first day as you say. I always had my students write something on the very first day. I always used those essays as their baseline examples. I always read them, commented on them, and passed them back the next session so they could see what I looked for and how I graded. I usually had great feedback from my students when I did this. I also did freewritings in my classes. Again, most of my students loved freewriting. I also did a lot of group and pair work with them when writing also. Enjoy your classes and students and your time teaching. It goes so quickly. I bet you are a great teacher. Thanks for sharing tyhis with us.!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      haha rcrumple--I'm sure I was around, just not teaching yet! Dang, sounds like a horrible first day of college. I'd be scared to death!

      Thanks for the compliments. Much appreciated!

    • sholland10 profile image

      Susan Holland 

      8 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Vicki, you are so right. Having students write does let them know what is expected and gives you an idea of the level each student is on in the beginning. As you said, grading it is irrelevant. Looking at it later in the semester shows their growth. That is another exercise: showing them their progress by having something they can compare it to.

      Great hub! Votes and shares! :-)

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Yep, Josh, I'm an English teacher at the local community college. Only one course per semester, which I've been doing for a while now. I love grammar, do you? Thanks for the comments!

    • rcrumple profile image


      8 years ago from Kentucky

      Where were you when I was in school? (Yeah, I know, not yet born.)

      My first period class of my freshman year was Algebra. As students, we were talking and such prior to the teacher's arrival. The bell rang and still no teacher. Then, the door flew open, slamming againt the wall. In walked this square headed, long sideburned monster. He walked straight to his desk, turned and grabbed a piece of chalk, and threw it with all his might. It shattered against the back wall. "My name is____ and I don't take any crap from anyone. While in my class you'll shut up unless I ask you to speak! You'll do homework every night. If you don't, I will fail you." And he went on for about ten minutes before finally starting to teach. Half the class flunked that year! Summer correspondence couses were a must for most of us.

      How nice it would have been to have a teacher as you've described. Great Job!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Effer! I hate computer issues!

      I'm not a highly organized person but I had to be when teaching in the classroom! I've been teaching online now the last few years, so that's a lot different. I always loved English Comp, too! Good to see you again! --Vee

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      I totally agree, Beth, about pen and paper helping the mind flow. That's what is so great about journaling with pen and paper. Thanks for your input. Means a lot!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, Bill. I'm sure you were a firm, fair, and fun teacher! Thanks for the input!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      donnah--A pre-assessment test is a GREAT idea! I agree that downtime the first day sets a bad tone. Thanks for the input!

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania


      Excellent advice here! I didn't know you were an English teacher! People always tell me I should teach the grammar aspect of English, and I do not know, maybe I should! LOL Very informative Vicki, thanks for sharing!

    • fpherj48 profile image


      8 years ago from Carson City

      Hey, Vee....I'm back! and in far better shape than the last time I emailed you!! Whew, what a struggle getting through the issues.

      You must be an absolutely super teacher....or "were".......sounds like you're so disciplined and organized! "English Composition," was one of my very favorites......I suppose it was for all of us aspiring writers!!


    • Beth100 profile image


      8 years ago from Canada

      Excellent suggestions! I love the fact that you are suggestion writing with pen and paper versus typing on a tablet or laptop. I firmly believe that technology has its place, but not when it comes to writing. There is value to writing manually -- it teaches the writer to think, process, plan and write clearly.

      The first day with your students would be a great one!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My first day of any class for any year was perfectly scripted...the kids were back in a routine from the opening bell after summer vacation ended....all of your suggestions are excellent. Well done Vicki!

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 

      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      I agree that jumping right in is a good idea. Allowing down time or dismissing a class early sets the wrong tone for a course. It is a good idea to have some kind of on task activity, assignment or assessment on the first day of any course. I teach HS English, and we start the first day with a pre-assessment test.

      Voted up.


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