Fess up. Have you been doing the same first-week essay since the '90s? Borrow one of these five excellent and easy lesson plan makeovers.

INSTEAD OF 25 book reports on assigned summer reading
TRY American Idol–style book talks.
Here’s how it works
: One can just see students’ eyes glaze over when they’re forced to listen to similar, consecutive presentations on the same summer novel. To kick this activity up a notch, Kendra Luss, a middle school English teacher in New York City, uses the opportunity to teach how to correctly provide peer-to-peer feedback. First, she divides students into groups and provides them with peer-review sheets. After members give their presentations to their individual groups, Luss instructs students to write one positive comment and one suggestion for improvement for each presenter. She then discusses the importance of tone of voice, proper presentation and listening skills, and how groups can provide constructive criticism (e.g., focusing on specific comments rather than general ones). Luss says her method stops kids from being passive receivers of information. “By forcing them to give comments, they not only learn a skill they will use the whole year, but are also actively involved in the presentation,” says Luss.

INSTEAD OF “What I did Over Summer Vacation” essays
TRY wrapping up the summer with your own comic book.
Here’s how it works
: Not only do students not want to write another “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” essay—we don’t want to read them! Challenge students to incorporate their interests in presentations to the class about their summer pursuits. For example, an aspiring chef may want to create a cookbook of his summer menus. A budding comic-book artist may choose to make a comic book chronicling a terrific (or terrible) summer.Extra Credit: Later in the year, when you do assign more traditional essays, encourage students to add a visual element to the written component.

INSTEAD OF creating a study guide
TRY playing Connect Four.
Here’s how it works
: “One of the most traditionally boring lessons is the test review,” says Hope Freeman, a Spanish teacher at Marlboro Memorial Middle School, in Marlboro, New Jersey. To add pizzazz to her review sessions, Freeman created her own version of Connect Four. She uses masking tape to create a seven-by-seven-inch grid on a whiteboard. Each student then receives a red or blue magnetic circle. The game begins with the teacher asking a review question. The first person to answer correctly comes to the board and places his or her circle along the bottom row (where it would fall in the traditional Connect Four game). Then the other takes a turn. The first team that gets four in a row wins.Extra Credit: To boost participation, all students on a team must answer a question before they get a second chance.

INSTEAD OF studying the graphs in your textbook
TRY creating graphs through internet research and interviews.
Here’s how it works: Invite students to interview classmates and teachers about favorite places they have visited—and worst places, most overrated, most underrated, etc. (Create a list of 10 choices to make the research easier.) Then graph the results. Afterwards challenge kids to look up key facts about each spot online (such as imports and exports, languages, and cuisine) and create further graphs from their research. “When my students interview people, do research, and create their own visual aids, they are more connected to what they learn than when they read it on the board or in a textbook,” says Kari Goral, a middle school math teacher in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

INSTEAD OF reading chapter one in This Land is Our Land
TRY grabbing kids’ attention using historical artifacts.
Here’s how it works: When Stephanie Teachout, a middle school social studies teacher at Rye Country Day School, in Rye, New York, introduces history on the first day of school, she tries to make it come alive for her students. First, she places at least eight historical artifacts, such as a wooden canteen and bamboo people, into a box. Students then take turns feeling each artifact, describing it to the class, and guessing what it was used for. After every student in the class has had a chance to provide feedback, Teachout tells the class the true purpose of each object and uses the discussion as a springboard into the history that is all around them. They talk about where the object can be found, its significance, and how students can learn from it. Also, Teachout uses the opportunity to demonstrate proper note-taking skills. She enjoys the activity because of the many areas it covers. “I like that it’s not only hands-on history but a great icebreaker as well,” she says.