Best Tricks for Back to School

We asked teachers to share favorite back-to-school traditions. Then we gave each idea a special tech twist. Read on to discover a new tradition of your own!

1. "We learn a clean-up mantra."
U get it, U use it, U clean it, U put it away-for middle school teacher Allison Wiesel, the "4 Us" mean the difference between a science lab strewn with test tubes, microscope slides, and students' notebooks, and a neat, orderly space where children can truly learn. So she introduces the mnemonic device early in the year, and repeats it every time her students do an experiment. She also has the 4 Us posted clearly in her classroom. The charm is in the rules' simplicity-they're easy for kids to remember and repeat to one another. "One parent told me they were going to institute this rule for their child's bedroom," jokes Wiesel.

Another Can't-Miss Tradition
"My students make up a motto to live by during the year. I put this on the bulletin board."

2010 Twist
If you have a mnemonic device that you use to help students remember your classroom rules, invite children to set it to music. Have small groups brainstorm a chant, rap, or song and record their efforts on a computer using a microphone and a simple program like GarageBand. Play the various recordings when it's time to clean up for the day.

2. "We go on textbook treasure hunts."
A textbook can be an invaluable learning tool-or a ready-made doorstop. To help students get to know the textbooks they will use throughout the year, former elementary school teacher Dorit Sasson sent students on a "treasure hunt" during the first week of school. "I prepared a one-page list of questions based on the book," says Sasson. "Then students searched through the book to find the answers." Sample questions included: "How many units are in this book?" "What are the four elements in the Writing Appendix?" "What page explains how to write a human interest story?"

The End Results
"Students get to know their new book in terms of the learning goals and activities."

2010 Twist
Try the same technique for classroom tech. Come up with a treasure hunt that will familiarize students with your interactive whiteboard. Or devise a list of questions about a website you will use frequently. 

3. "We put together mystery grab bags."
Fourth-grade teachers Nicole Thorpe and Linda Rusthoven like to begin the year with a little mystery. They give brown paper bags to each student and ask children to fill the bags with items that represent who they are and what they like to do. An artist might include a paint set and a medal from the art show, for example, while a soccer star slips in her favorite Matt Christopher novel. Every morning during the first few weeks of school, the students open one or two of the bags and try to guess the identities behind them. This activity works especially well with kids in upper grades who have been attending the same school for a number of years, but if you want to try the activity with children who don't know each other as well, have students write down two or three clear hints (like their initials or hair color) in their mystery bags to help narrow down the possibilities more quickly.

Why It's Become a Tradition
The kids love it! "It's such a fun getting-to-know-you activity," say Thorpe and Rusthoven.

2010 Twist
It's easy to make a virtual grab bag on an interactive whiteboard. Kids can find appropriate images online and hide them in a bag or box onscreen. Try uncovering only one image at a time. Can students guess the identity of their classmates with only one or two clues? 

4. "I love to read Chrysanthemum."
For seven years, first-grade teacher Elizabeth Kennedy has read Kevin Henkes's cherished picture book Chrysanthemum to kick off a special project about her students' names and what makes them unique. After reading the story together, Kennedy sends home a letter asking parents to share how and why children received their names. "Then we do a writing activity with the prompt My name is special because...," says Kennedy. Finally, the children make self-portraits out of felt, needle, and thread, stitching their names underneath their faces. The portraits hang in Kennedy's classroom all year long.

Why It's Become a Tradition
"I have learned so much by doing this project-one of my kids' names was Sophia and she was named after Sophia Loren. So sweet!"

2010 Twist
Help children to research the historical meaning of their names online, at a site like behindthename
.com. Take a digital photo of each student and compile the information they have learned and their writing into a class slideshow to play at back-to-school night. Later in the year, you can use the show as a handy reference for visitors and guests. 

5. "I grow a preschool family tree."
Breanne Melikan teaches Head Start in Falls Church, Virginia, and she visits each child's home before school begins. "During the visit, I take a photo of the child's family," Melikan says. Next, she cuts out a butcher-paper tree for her classroom wall. During the first week of school, she invites students to share their family pictures and add them to the tree. Melikan and her assistant post snapshots of their own families, too. The wall serves as a reminder of classroom community all year long.

Another Can't-Miss Tradition
"Reading The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn is a must each year!"

2010 Twist
Have a video camera? Grab some footage at an open house or back-to-school night. Record families saying hello to their child, then compile the video clips in a short movie to play for students. 

6. "I host a mixer."
This oh-so-happening party is just for the elementary school set. Preschool teacher Sheri Goad suggests inviting children to write the name of a favorite pet, color, or food on an index card. Then she collects the cards, mixes them up, and passes them out randomly. Kids mingle until they find the person who "belongs" to the favorite. The children can then introduce each other-and their respective favorites-to the rest of the class.

Another Can't-Miss Tradition
"Have each child bring in a baby picture. Kids try and match the baby face to their friends."

2010 Twist
As a follow-up activity, create a matching game on an interactive whiteboard. List students' names on one side of the board and their favorites on the other. Then invite children to come up to the board in pairs and match names to favorites. 

7. "We talk about why we go to school."
New Jersey math specialist Bob Krech has worked with students of all ages over his long teaching career. And come fall, he doesn't shy away from the big questions. "With second grade and above, I always discuss why we are actually in school," Krech says. "A lot of times we don't talk to kids about why we are doing things. We may teach fractions and never explain why you would need to know anything about fractions. Or talk about famous people, but never give kids the big picture of why it might be important to know who Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln were. An even more basic question is, Why do you show up in the first place?" What your students have to say may surprise you, so don't forget to take notes on chart paper or an interactive whiteboard. And every now and then, take the time to revisit what students said, because their feelings will undoubtedly change throughout the year.

Why It's Become a Tradition
"The question provokes kids to think about their roles and responsibilities as learners. It also makes teachers think about the purpose of being in a classroom and being responsible for these young folks."

2010 Twist
With older students, talk about the changing nature of our society and how school fits into the bigger picture. What function do physical schools play when more and more students are taking classes online? Do students feel like their school is keeping pace with technology and will prepare them for real life? Why or why not? 

8. "My students tell me about themselves."
Shelbi Galeria teaches special education at Palm Bay Community Charter School in Palm Bay, Florida. She invites students to fill out a questionnaire about their favorite subjects, hobbies, and things to do. "If a student is having behavioral problems, I use this information to help motivate them," says Galeria. As a twist, Galeria sometimes invites students to create a shield with the school mascot in the center and illustrate the edges with their favorite things to do and hopes for the future.

Another Can't-Miss Tradition
"I have students play Two Truths and a Lie, where they write down two things that are true about them and one lie and other students have to guess which is the lie. They love it!"

2010 Twist
Model your questionnaire on a social networking profile. Include space for a photo and "status update," where students can write what they're feeling about the new year. 

9. "We're inspired by The Dot."
Peter H. Reynolds' The Dot is the story of a frustrated artist who tells her teacher she "just can't draw." She then discovers that a single dot can be the beginning of a world of artistic expression. Falls Church technology specialist Lynne Gaines shares The Dot with her first and second graders, and then has them use Pixie Software to create their own art

Bold Twist
With grades 3-5, Gaines has students use Kidspiration to introduce themselves to their class through an activity called "‘All About Me.'" 

10. "I set kids loose with a digital camera."
Jan Hudson coordinates her school's yearbook committee in Easton, Massachusetts, and during the first few days of school she invites kids to roam the hallways with a digital camera, taking pictures of themselves and getting to know how the camera works. Hudson then posts the pictures in her classroom-"it helps to make it their special place," she says. This activity could easily tie into your first curricular unit: Send younger kids on a scavenger hunt to take pictures of colors, shapes, numbers, or letters; older ones might snap self-portraits or photos to illustrate a piece of their own writing. If you're nervous about little ones handling a camera, divide the class into groups and invite parents to join the activity.

The End Results
With their photos hanging on the wall, Hudson says her classroom feels like "home" to her and her students.

2010 Twist
Post the photos to your classroom home page or blog and share the link with families. Start a free blog at And sign up for a free home page at 


Scholastic Teacher Magazine

Six issues per year filled with practical, fun, teacher-tested ideas for your classroom. Keep up with classroom trends, get expert teaching tips, and find dozens of resources in every issue.