A post about firsts – First impressions and first activities on the first day of the semester

Bitten all nails this week…. as usual (photo by Maxwell GS / Flickr – CC)

First day of classes always make me super nervous… Well, to be quite frank, so does presenting, but that doesn’t happen so often. So it’s first days that drive me crazy, because I have those (and a number of them if you take into account I have many groups) every semester. At first I thought it was because of being a new, inexperienced teacher, and that it would get easier with time. It didn’t. I’ve been teaching for nearly 18 years, and I’m afraid I’ll feel like that as long as I have first days of class 🙂 It’s a mix of “Will they like me?” and “Will I like them?”, “Will we ‘click’?”. So I try to plan activities that will allow me to get to know students better, while giving them the chance of knowing more about me and also breaking the ice and having some fun. Start our relationship – and the semester – on a positive note.

This semester’s first day(s) went really well and I am fortunate to have great groups filled with great students, apparently eager to learn and motivated. So I decided to share here some activities I used on my first classes. The 2 first ones are not my creation. I can’t remember where I got them from – except for the “I have never” one, which I have recently been reminded of in a in-service workshop by Scott Chiverton – and I regret not remembering, because I wish I could give credit for them. I hope you like them!

• Classroom Crossword:

Before the class started I put a big piece of paper on the board and wrote my name in capital letters, some space between the letters. in the middle of it. I told the students this would be our class crossword, because a crossword is made on words that mix to form a whole, and our class was made of individuals that made a whole as well. And then I told them I’d tell them what the clue to my name would be. And I said something (maybe not exactly this, but along these lines):

She’s been teaching English for over 17 years and loves teaching. She is fascinated by languages and the power of being able to communicate. She has 2 beautiful children and in her free time she reads avidly, watches TV and films as well as spends time in the virtual world. She lived in Kansas as an exchange student and that was a life-changing experience for her. She’s not happy if she’s not studying and learning and she truly believes we learn more effectively if we have fun, if we enjoy coming to class.

After I had done this I told them they should all do the same I had just done, telling us things they thought defined them, after putting their names into the crossword. They all did it and we ended the activity with a poster that symbolizes our class – as well as a handy reminder of the students names, which I’m sure will help me memorize their names in the first weeks 🙂 Here’s one of them:

This is the Class Crossword for one of my High Intermediate 2 groups

• I Have Never

This is a game I have played with friends for fun (at parties) and have recently done in a workshop for the teachers in my school, as an activity to use with students. I used it in the first class as an opportunity to have fun and at the same time learn about each other, getting to know everybody a little.

I divided the students into groups of 5 or 6 people, trying to mix and put students who hadn’t been sitting together (and therefore most likely weren’t close to each other – yet) in the same groups. I did this so they’d be with people they didn’t know very well. Then I explained the activity and modeled it, to make sure they understood it.

Everybody should have their hands and five fingers spread out open, and students were standing in a circle.One person starts the activity by saying something he/she has never done. Anybody in the group who has done what was said should lower one finger. Then the next person says something he/she has never done and the game goes on until only one person still has at least one finger up.

After it was over, I asked students to take turns sharing something interesting they had learned about a classmate. The students had a lot of fun doing the activity. It also gave me an opportunity to check their language ;-)!

Note: For groups in lower levels – who haven’t learned the present perfect yet – I adapted it and their statements should start with “I don’t” or “I didn’t”.

• Setting a Personal Goal

On first day of all my classes I like to ask my students why they are studying English, what is their objective. A very common answer is: “It’s important for my future.” Well… I don’t accept this answer. It’s a “too-automatic-that’s-what-people-say-I-should-learn-it-for” answer. So when that comes up, I ask them why is it important for their future, what is it they’ll do in their future that they’ll need English for? I also tell them it’s better if they find a use and reason for learning English for their present. So I talk to my students about motivation and objectives for a while.

This semester I am trying something that I’m serious to know how it’ll go. After this little discussion I mentioned, I gave each of them a slip of paper that started with “By the end of this semester I hope I’ll be able to…” and told my students I wanted them to complete the sentence with something specific they weren’t able to do now that they wish they could do by the end of the semester. It should be a realistic goal. Something like “I’d like to be able to write a formal letter to a company” , “I’d like to understand what the character in my favorite video game says” or “I want to get a XX score on the TOEFL”. I also said that no one but them would see it, and that on the last day of class we will get those papers back and they’ll see if they can do it then. After they had written on their slips I gave each a sticker to close the folded slip and put them all inside a bag labeled with the name of the class (the code we use).

This might backfire, but I am anxious to open those bags on the last day of class and see what happens. I think it can trigger some good reflections.

The bags with their personal semester goals in it and the blank slip

• Positive Tunes

At the end of the lesson I did an activity with the song “Good Riddance” by Green Day. First because everybody likes music, but most importantly because I think this song has a very positive message to it. As a group the students had to put the song in order (each line was printed in a big piece of paper), and after it we sat around the lyrics to discuss what was the positive message each of them saw in the song.

You’re welcome to use any of these activities, and please share how it goes and any adapting you do! 🙂

53 comments on “A post about firsts – First impressions and first activities on the first day of the semester

  1. Great post as usual Ceci!!
    Loved the analogy you used to present the crossword activity to your students. I’ve also done the I’ve never activity quite a few times, though I’ve never tried the way you do. I usually have students sitting on chairs in a circle with one student in the middle of the circle standing up. This student shouts out one thing he/she has never done and whoever has done this, has to stand up and swap seats. It’s fun and good for bringing movement to the classroom.
    Great idea to set personal goals on the 1st day. I love Good Riddance too! It’s beautiful and makes students reflect on the lyrics. The video is very nice too.
    Thanks for sharing your ideas Ceci! Wish you an amazing semester with all your groups =]


  2. Very useful ideas that I wasn’t familiar with – thank you again!

    I know exactly what you mean about feeling nervous – same thing every year even though I will now begin my 26th year!

  3. Dina Dobrou says:

    Hi Ceci!

    I can relate to how you feel on first lessons. I particularly feel that way when I have to teach Advanced or Proficiency students. You know, when they have already reached a level where they confidently use the language and they want to see if “this teacher” can stretch them to go further.

    Well, to add to your “firsts” concept: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”, so first lessons are really important. I will be in your place in a couple of weeks from now and I will try a couple of your ideas. A question: How many students do you normally have in your classes? And a comment: Setting a personal goal will not backfire I feel. It’s a great way to introduce self-assessment which I know you are committed to. I think I’ll try it too alongside the “can-do-statements” from the European Language Portfolio we use in my school (http://europass.cedefop.europa.eu/LanguageSelfAssessmentGrid/en). The students’ personal goals will take it to the next level. Let’s see how it goes…

    Thanks for your great post and hope you have a great semester filled with success and wonderful ideas to share with the rest of us…;)


    • Hi Dina mou!

      I feel morerelaxed with advanced or proficiency levels… just because very likely they have been my students before!!!!! LOL! I think one hting that makes me feel confident when teaching such levels is hte knowledge (and admitting) that I don’t know anything – but I know a lot more than them, as long as English is concerned!

      Answering your question, I usually have anything between 6 and 18 students in class. I like classes with about 10-12 students 🙂

      Still waiting to see how the personal goals acitivity goes… my fear of backfire is fundamented in pure chance. Chance they will say (as they open their personal goals in 3 months) that they cannot do it…. Let’s wait and see…

      Wishes for a fantastic semester yourself.
      Hope to see you again soon.

      • Dina Dobrou says:

        Hey Ceci,

        yes, if you have taught the students in previous levels it’s easier. It’s the students coming from other schools that don’t even know you that still gives me the creeps on the first few days of class, but a little “stage fright” is always good. 😛 And “knowing more than them, as long as English is concerned” is always a nice thought to keep on the back of your mind. In fact it’s what kept me alive when I set out to teach my first ever Advanced class years ago.

        On the number of students, I’d say 12 is the magic number for me too. You can do anything with that number: pairs, groups of 3, groups of 4 and even divide them in two groups of 6 for a class debate! I had to teach large classes this summer (between 17 and 24 sts) and that was a bit of a challenge as I’m used to, on average, 7.

        Catch you online soon.

        Dina x

  4. Ann says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.

    Very best,


  5. Dara says:

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas Cecilia!! I’ve tried the “goals set” and it’s incredibly useful; we did it on post-it notes though and students had to sign their own goals (most of them were achieving a specific final mark, as they were preparing to sit an exam). It creates a sense of commitment and responsibility, a mindset and a “goal achieving” attitude.
    Let us know how it goes for you!
    As soon as I start my term, I’ll share with you 🙂

    • Hi Dara!!!

      Thanks for giving me such a wonderful future to look forward to!!! Let us hope my students feel the same thing and have the “goal achieving attitude”! Will keep you posted, and keep an eye out for your sharing of how it goes with you!

  6. Lu Bodeman says:

    Hey Ceci!
    Loved the idea about the semester goals in ‘time capsule’ style. Thinking of trying that out this sem with an upper-intermediate 2 group I have (my fav, but shhhhh ;-)). Again, an excellent post! And on being nervous…I think that if we ever stop feeling that way, something is definitely wrong. The butterflies are actually a sign that what you are about to do MATTERS, and you want to do it so well that anxiety, curiosity – and excitement! 🙂 – set in. My take.

    Have a great semester! And let’s set up another tweet-up soon. Guys R already talking about it.

    • Thanks for reassuring and supporting me Lu!!! Loved what you said about the butterflies happening because I feel what I am about to do matters!

      Have a great semester yourself. Looking forward to that next tweetup!!! How about next week?

  7. Josefa King says:

    Great post Cecilia,

    I know what you mean about first day jitters. As Dina said: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”, and I am always very aware of that on the first day of classes.Thank you for the wonderful ideas. I have used the crossword activity before, but it was many years ago and I had forgotten about it. The other activities are new to me.

    God bless you,
    Sister M. Josefa

    • Hi Josefa,

      thanks for the wonderful, positive feedback! Am happy to have shown you some new acitivities as well as reminding you of one you already knew. Sometimes we use good activities, substitute them for new ones and then forget all about the first ones. Always good to revisit, eh?

      God bless you too. I’ve been more than blessed.
      Thank you,


  8. Hi, Ceci!

    I`m always nervous on first days too and I`m sure that`s a good thing because it means we care….
    I also loved the activities you did, especially the “I Have Never” one.

    I do one slightly related to the crossword one so that students get to know me: I write about 20 words or phrases or numbers related to my life on the board (e.g: 1992, Yoda, 2, Jazmin, gymnastics, etc) and students ahve to come up with questions to which these are the answers, such as “When did you get married?” (1992), “How many children have you got?” (2), etc.
    It`s a good way of practising questions and allowing students to know a bit more about me!

    Vicky S

    • Hi Vicky!!!

      Yes, I guess being nervous only happens because we care…. I could still do without it 😉

      Thanks for sharing your activity!!! I used to do that for a couple of years too, but then I got bored – funny how we get tired of the same thing, even when it works great with the students – and left it aside for a bit. maybe it’s time I revisit!!! I especially like the activity you shared with lower levels…

      Thanks for sharing Vicky!

  9. seburnt says:

    That ‘I Have Never’ is called ‘Never Have I Ever’ here and is a drinking game that’s so revealing. I do think it works better with more straightforward language though.

    I really like the personal goals in bags activity because you’re right, it clearly defines something usually so open and vague. It’s a great idea to force students to think about the present rather than always focusing on the future.

    So is this your post for Eva’s blog carnival? I’m trying to get one done for it too.

    • Hahaha!!! That is the way I had played before, but since it had no educational purpose I was subtle when I mentioned it on the post.

      Happy you like the personal goals in a bag / talking about the use they have for the language in the present rather than always focusing on the future… I find that especially helpful with teens, because the future is something they don’t really think about (at least not 90% of teens in Brazil don’t), it’s just something they repeat because it’s been said to them over and over…

      This will definitely be a post for Eva’s carnival… but am trying to write another one with other first day activities that I sometimes do 🙂

      Cheers Ty!

  10. […] A post about firsts – First impressions and first activities on the first day of the sem… […]

  11. Lu Bodeman says:

    I do that one quite often, Vicky!! Always works out great in my classes. 🙂

  12. 太好啊 = great post !

    Like Ty, I’ve had a few very funny nights with “never have I ever”. Some games are just fun no matter the context.

    cheers, b

  13. Huge thanks for the great post and tips, Ceci! I loved the idea that students setting up their goals, which will def. trigger their motivation! I’ll be back at work in September, and planning to use it with my students! Maybe I can convince them to write their goals on our class wiki, with a simple statement of “I want to…” 🙂



    • Thanks Isil!

      I like the idea of your students writing on a Wiki… my intention of keeping them in the bag (and not even I have looked at them) was to give students to really put some thought and write down a very personal goal, feel free to write anything knowing no one but they will read it – and also that in the end of the semester when we open the bag again, no one but themselves will know whether they have achieved or not.

      First time I try it… let’s see how it works in about 4 months! 🙂

  14. Martha Mendoza says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    Lovely post! and thank you for sharing your ideas. First day of classes are always a cause of anxiety no matter how long you’ve been teaching or how well you’ve prepared your lessons. 😉 However, you’ve definitely found an amazing way to cope with that and show your students you care. I especially loved the class crossword activity and how you presented it!
    Looking forward to reading more of your posts and learning from you!



    • Thanks for such a great, positive feedback Martha! Hope to continue writing posts that can help people reflect and refresh ideas 🙂

      I really hope I can find sometime to post more often… I’ve been missing it!!!



  15. Arjana says:

    Dear Ceci,
    I thought I was the only one who feels nervous on the first day of school, even after so many years of teaching! But there are so many of us out there who feel the same!
    Thanks for sharing these wonderful acitvities:-)

    • Hi Arjana!

      I had already talked to a few teachers who would say they felt the same whenever I mentioned how nervous I got… but the amount of teachers who did so after I wrote this post was really impressive! I guess we all are very similar in many ways. And it’s like Vicky said… I guess it happens because we care about our students.

      🙂 X

  16. Hello Ceci

    It was sheer pleasure to read this post! I’m starting the new term in a couple of weeks (September) and I already know that the four groups at uni that I’ll have are all new, so I’m already starting to feel pre-first-class nervous! I agree, first impressions are extremely significant!
    I loved your idea of class crossword! I’d also like to try out your goal-setting activity, I have been doing something similar to that as first and last class questionnares (with a couple of other questions).

    Have a great semester!


    • Hi Anna!

      I am sure your groups and classes will be great 🙂 I hope the activities helped and the intention in sharing is always, as you know, pitching in the concept, the idea. But we know we always have to adapt to our different realitites and students.

      Good luck with your new term!!! Have a fab one!


  17. k. liz says:

    Thanks for sharing these ideas Cecilia! I’m only in my second year, and getting a bit nervous though I’m still three weeks out!! I guess there’s not much hope for me!!

    • Nope… sorry to be the one to break the news to you, but as far as I can see, there’s not much hope at all 😉 You will feel nervous as long as you teach. It does get better though… Now I don’t start feeling it until the day before classes start (maybe a couple of days before)… But I went through the 3 week phase just as you are right now.

      Have a great semester!!!!!!!!



    • seburnt says:

      I think the amount of nerves you feel before class starts is quickly replaced by an equal or great amount of confidence after it starts. I always feel much better when I’m actually in the classroom.

  18. […] Cecilia’s A Post about firsts: Nice read about the fact that nervousness is a normal part of teaching, along with some great […]

  19. […] A Post About FirstsFirst impressions and first activities on the first day of the semester by Cecilia Lemos […]

  20. dalecoulter says:

    Hi! First time commenting on you blog… definitely not the first time I’ve read it though. I feel the same as you do on the first day and it’s nice to know that it’s not just a feeling that newly qualified teachers get. Sometimes I thrive off the nerves and it makes the class more exhilarating, but other times it really gives me a mental block. You’ve found a way to get by that feeling for sure!

    Thanks for sharing your ideas. I tried the goal-setting idea with a few of my classes a couple of months ago but few people actually took it seriously. The secret code and folder adds something extra to it. I’m going to try it out when i start teaching again in September. That and the crossword idea.

    I once tried ‘I have never’. When I played the game amongst friends we used to play ‘never have I ever’ which successfully baffled my intermediate class enough for them to just not be interested. Lesson learned.

    Thanks again,


    • Hi Dale!

      I hope the first is not the last!! 🙂 Thanks for taking the time though… I know that we read a lot more than we comment. And at other times I read, mean to get back and comment when I have more time, or after I have thought about it a bit and never do get back. Am glad you did. It’s always such a great feeling to get positive feedback and more sharing from the people who read our posts! Many times the comment thread becomes even more interesting than the post itself!

      Cheers 🙂


  21. […] activities I did on my first classes for the term that I have just started on a recent post (“A Post About Firsts“), but there are so many other activities I have used over the many years I’ve been […]

  22. Kerri says:

    First of all Ceci – I was so nervous as it was my first day teaching my class alone (I have co-taught in the past) Not only did I get a positive response – several of your activities were huge success. I am reading the responses to “By the end of the semester I would like to be able to……” I could cry….it motivates me to make sure my students improve their English…Thank you! I would like to possibly try the “Good Riddance” exercise also….How did you print the words?

    • Your feedback was the best thing after a long, hard day at work. Thanks Kerri! I am thrilled it worked so well and it helped you go through such a special landmark in your teaching life: your first class on your own!!! Congratulations on it being a success and getting a positive response from the students – you earned them! And I can already tell you’ll be a great teacher, for one reason: you care.

      The Good Riddance activity… I printed it in big pieces of papers first so they could order the stanzas (gathered into groups of 2-4) and then we talked about the lyrics and what they meant for each of them, etc… then I gave them the lyrics… I’m sending the files to you by email, ok? 🙂 Good luck with the rest of the term!!!

  23. […] comes to join us with a box of chocolate on the first day of our classes. Her two posts,  A Post about firsts –First Impressions and first activities on the first day of the semester and Bonus Round- More Activities for the First day of Class are just fantastic with loads of […]

  24. Thanks for sharing these ideas for things to do on the first day of classes! I was looking for something that can be of interest to my students who are EFL university students majoring in teaching, translation or intercultural communication. I am very eager to try your suggestion asking the students to write about what they will be able to do by the end of the semester. I am not sure how it will work but hope that it will add to their interest to the the course of academic writing they are taking. It will be interesting to see what happens as a result. Quite intrigued…

  25. Sharon says:

    Goals are good, though I often get: I want to be fluent in English. I think one way around broad goals like these is brainstorming and letting them know they need to create steps for reaching their goals.

  26. Ceci,

    I’m glad the I’ve never activity worked so well. It is one that is also really good for using in. Workshops. Keep the posts coming !!!!!

  27. […] is a blog post  by Cecilia Lemos focused on the first day of school and activities to do to help get to know […]

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