7 Virtual and Face-to-Face Activities for the First Week of School

As we go back to school this fall, many teachers are faced with changing school policies because of the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts that originally planned to go back full time to their brick-and-mortar buildings may have to change their plans at the last minute depending on the COVID-19 statistics in their state. Many teachers are planning for both face-to-face and virtual classrooms because their districts are implementing a hybrid model.

I think teaching during a pandemic is the biggest challenge modern teachers have ever faced. Many teachers will be meeting their students for the first time in a virtual classroom. Getting to know students is a necessary step for all teachers in setting up a safe and caring environment, whether it is virtual or face-to-face.

On the first day of school, before teachers begin to teach their academic content, they will need to attend to the trauma their students may be feeling. Social-emotional learning is crucial. During the first week of school, introduce activities that will help you get to know your English learners (ELs). It is especially important to devise activities that ELs can complete either virtually or face-to-face with their classmates.

Here are some of the ideas I have gathered to help K–8 teachers learn more about their students from the first day of school. These activities can be modified for the grade level you are teaching.

1. Design a Virtual Locker

Virtual lockers allow students to display their ideas, preferences, and thoughts.To see examples and instructions, see GoTeachTheWorld.com’s tutorial at “Starting the School Year [Virtually!]” and this YouTube example, where students can actually design their locker on YouTube. You can also download a free virtual locker template to get started on your own. (Just copy the template into your own Google Slideshow and add text and images.)

Virtual locker from GoTeachTheWorld.com.

Teachers can compile a list of ideas for ELs. Customize your list so that it is appropriate for younger students of different ages or English-language acquisition levels. This locker could also be a paper-and-pencil activity in a face-to-face classroom. Here are sample types of topics that will help teachers learn more about their students:

  • Pictures of family/friends/pets
  • 3 words that describe you
  • Name of your school
  • Languages you speak
  • Where you were born
  • Favorites
    • Movie or TV show
    • Song/singer
    • Sport and/or team
    • Food
    • Subject in school
  • What you like to do for fun
  • Something you did over the summer

A variation of this activity that is suitable of elementary age students is “design your own virtual cubby.” There are also ways to create virtual classrooms that you can share with students online to provide your students with a “visual” virtual classroom space.

2. Ask the Right Questions: What Students Wish Their Teacher Knew About Them

Teachers need to build a supportive environment for ELs coping with adversity. Kyle Schwartz, a Colorado teacher who wrote the book, I Wish My Teacher Knew, suggests that schools have “grief and loss” inventories for students who have gone through a crisis, with input from families so that the child’s future teachers know what that student is dealing with. You can read some of the amazing examples that her students wrote by following the book link. You can also read more about her experiences in this New York Times article.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many ELs were not able to attend virtual instruction. They may not have had devices or Wi-Fi connections. Their families may have faced loss of employment, food insecurity, and poverty. All of this is traumatic for children. Asking students to write or draw what they wish their teacher knew about them is an excellent way to learn what your students have been dealing with during the pandemic. This can be done virtually or in a face-to-face classroom. Here are some easy questions you can ask to help you learn more about your students:

  • What is your favorite school subject?
  • What worries you about starting school?
  • What are you looking forward to this year?
  • What is your best school subject?
  • If you had a superpower, what would it be?

3. Using Flipgrid: Introduce Your Family

Flipgrid is a free online app that allows students to record quick online videos. These videos can be made as a response to a teacher question. At the beginning of the school year, ask ELs to respond to a prompt, such as “Draw a picture and introduce me to your family.” The capacity for ELs to make videos will greatly enhance their engagement in the classroom.

It is really worth the the time spent teaching ELs to use Flipgrid. It will also provide many opportunities for them to participate in classroom discussions. Teachers have told me they have used this with students ask young as third grade. This could also be a paper-and-pencil assignment with students presenting their drawings either virtually or face-to-face.

4. Post a Video: “What Are You Good At?”

Ask student to post a short video that demonstrates something they are good at. Brainstorm ideas with students and post the suggestions so that ELs have a starting place. Examples of a recently brainstormed list with elementary-age students included

  • playing a video game,
  • dancing,
  • cooking a recipe,
  • dribbling a soccer ball, and
  • drawing a picture.

Ask students to plan a script before filming and to choose what props they may want to use. Teachers can help students make this video on iMovie or on a cell phone. If you have access to breakout rooms on a virtual platform, students could do this project in groups. Students could also plan this activity and present it in person in their classroom.

5. Using Storyboards: “What Is Your Favorite TV Show or Movie?”

Storyboards can be a means for students to show a reflection of self. They can be made individually using technology or can be done with paper and pencil in the classroom. Try Padlet to have students create a storyboard during the first days of school. Brainstorm with students their favorite TV show or movie. They can have virtual classroom discussion in small groups, write reviews,or design a storyboard display of their choice.

6. Virtual Scavenger Hunts

Seesaw can be used as a place where teachers can post a scavenger hunt for students to do remotely or face-to-face in school. Hunts can be planned so that older students take a picture of what they found, and they can be based on colors, numbers, shapes, food, and so on (e.g., Find three things that are red). Here is a sample from which you can create your own hunt, and here is a TESOL Blog post on scavenger hunts that can be easily adapted to remote learning. I suggest that you make your items something that will help you get to know your ELs, such as favorite food from your kitchen or favorite toy, book, or game.

7. Create a Podcast: “What Did You Do Over the Summer?”

WeVideo podcasts is a good way to introduce your ELs to podcasting. This can be taught virtually or in your classroom. Design a question that you want students to answer about themselves. For example, “Tell us what you did over the summer break. ” Teachers should brainstorm the question with students or make a sample podcast to show them what they did over the summer.

An example is important here because very few students have been able to visit friends; go swimming; travel; or go to movies, concerts, or camps. Podcasting can give students a way to be more creative and communicate effectively. You want to encourage our students to share their ideas, feelings, and stories with you.


If you have other ideas and want to share back-to-school activities, please write in the comments section below.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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