The Most Essential ELA Lessons

With the beginning of the school year right the corner, it is time to start thinking about which lessons will be most valuable for our students. Starting the year on the right note and with lessons that will help your students thrive throughout the entire year is one way to set-up your students (and you) for a successful school year. These lessons are the ones that they will use throughout the entire school year and even after they leave your classroom.

One recommendation I have for planning your first few weeks is to think about and list your teaching pet peeves. If there is something that grinds your teacher gears, teach that. For example, the word “a lot” is one of mine. I cringe every single time I see a student write alot. To alleviate this issue, toward the beginning of the year I tell my students that a lot is two words. Then I write the word “a” on one side of the board and the word “lot” on the other side of the board. Then I have all of my students stand up and put their hands in the air. They wave their hands to the side written “a” and say “a.” Then they wave their hands in the air to the other side, the “lot” side and say “lot”. We probably do this for about two minutes or so, and it probably looks quite peculiar from the outside, but it works.  However, as I said, it is one of my pet peeves. Figure out your top pet peeves and teach those concepts first. By doing so, you’ll significantly reduce your stress level throughout the year.

The First Week of School
I usually start my first day of school with this emotional and powerful icebreaker activity that shows my students that they are not alone. I was first introduced to this activity in a creative writing class in college, and when I became a teacher, I knew it was something I could use to begin to establish a positive and empathetic classroom community from day one.

From there, I like to use the first week to get to know my students and get a feel for their ability levels. To get to know my students, I like to use some of the activities in my Back-to-School Activities Packet. One of my favorite activities is the classroom scavenger hunt because it forces students to talk to students whom they might not otherwise. I also like assigning my students a square for our classroom quilt. I usually display our quilt on the wall before back-to-school night, and the students, parents, and administration all love it. Incorporating growth mindset activities at the beginning of the year is also a great way to begin the year.

Another thing I like to do at the very beginning of the year is to assign a writing assignment. In a previous blog post, I discuss why assigning writing at the beginning of the year is so beneficial for both students and their teachers. For the first writing assignment of the year, I usually assign a personal narrative to my underclassmen, and for my juniors and seniors, I like to assign a personal statement because it helps them prepare for their college admissions essays.

Email Etiquette
As I mentioned earlier, it is beneficial for teachers to think about their pet peeves when planning out the first few weeks of their curriculum, and in addition to students writing a lot as one word, I also cringe when I receive ridiculous ill-formatted emails from my students. And, to be realistic, most students probably send these terrible emails because text messaging is one of the only digital formats they know. It’s entirely possible that they’ve never received formal instruction on email etiquette and writing emails before. I created my Email Etiquette Crash Course mini-unit as a way to help students write better emails. This mini-unit includes an editable PowerPoint for teachers to use for direct instruction and many different handouts, organizers, and assignments to help students learn how to write properly formatted emails while maintaining excellent email etiquette.

Annotating Text
I’ve written before several times about why teaching text annotation at the beginning of the year is so important. You can read this blog post about why I teach it at the beginning of the year, and you can also read this blog post about different strategies to use when you teach text annotation. When I teach text annotation at the beginning of the year, I use my Annotating Text Made Easy lesson to walk my students step-by-step through the annotation process. In doing so, I give my students a method for annotating text, and I also use the PowerPoint to guide them through a class annotation exercise for President Abraham Lincoln’s speech The Gettysburg Address.

Embedding Quotations
It is entirely possible that teaching students how to embed quotations in their writing properly is one of the most daunting tasks ever. However, if students learn how to integrate quotes at the beginning of the year correctly, it makes essay writing that much easier. Last year, I started something new with my sophomores, and it was a complete game-changer in the classroom for the entire year. My students only wrote a single three-sentence response for each of the short stories we read: a topic sentence, a sentence with a properly embedded quote, and a simple analysis sentence. I gave students either an A or an F on their assignment, and I allowed them unlimited times to revise their responses. You can read more about how I managed this in my classroom in this blog post about scaffolding literary analysis. In addition to assigning a three-sentence response for each of our short stories in our short story unit, I also taught my students my Quote It! mini-unit that I've filled with examples of how to properly embed quotations and examples of properly embedded quotations.

MLA Format
A final thing that I like to do at the beginning of the year is introduce my students to MLA Format. I usually introduce MLA Format to my students as they begin their first major writing assignment of the year. MLA Style and Format is something that my students seem to struggle with throughout the year, and so I’ve created several lessons and activities to help them. For starters, I use this MLA Format PowerPoint presentation for direct instruction. As I teach the content in this PowerPoint, my students take notes. Also, I have my students assemble, decorate, and review these MLA Format Mini Flip Books. I have my students hold on to these mini flip books throughout the entire year. Much to my delight, they still refer back to these booklets toward the end of the school year. Finally, to try to make MLA Format and Style more interesting, and to also try to help make the content stick, I have my students work together in teams to complete an MLA Format Escape Room activity.

For more information about how I format my first unit, visit my previous post My Curriculum for the First Six Weeks.