The center of the image reads Give a cheer for the new school year! as if on a chalkboard. Around it: an apple and a pen on a stack of notebooks, two wide-eyed cats, a teenage folklorico dancer twirling her yellow skirt, and a pen sketch of a girl's face.

Creating a welcoming classroom for high schoolers

Hey, Fellow Superheroes! I’m Ashley Burkart, a high school Senior STEM teacher in Phoenix, and I’ll be using this space to share some activities and teaching ideas throughout the year ahead. I can’t believe I am beginning my fifth year in the classroom. Time really does fly when you’re having fun!

I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to begin a new school year. However, getting students excited about a new school year can be a daunting task! Here are three activities that I do with my students to start the year off on a positive note and start to create a safe, welcoming space for them to learn. 

I really want to stress the importance of that last bit. Making the classroom a safe space is the foundation of a conducive learning environment – and that means every voice is heard, everybody is treated respectfully, and every student feels like they belong. 

Classroom Playlist

I recently heard the saying, “Where words fail, music speaks,” and I instantly thought of this first activity. In my experience, students tend to be nervous at the beginning of the year, and so they are usually not super talkative. That’s okay, though. We begin communicating with one another with music by creating a classroom playlist. 

I invite students to add their song requests to a Google sheet (just like this one), and I use those suggestions to create a Youtube playlist that I can play before class, during passing periods and sometimes in class, too. Not only does this provide a deeper insight into how eclectic my students are, but this playlist enables us to connect with one another on a more personal level. This activity also helps the students feel like the classroom is their space, too, and this is crucial for creating that sense of safety and belonging. Plus, you all get to listen to great music! It’s a win-win for everyone.

Picture of Me

Another activity I use to help students feel more comfortable in a new classroom. I know it sounds corny, but students love corny (and this activity, too)! Students use a double-sided template like this one, and paste a (school-appropriate) picture that represents them on the front, and then explain what that picture means to them on the back. 

My students’ pictures have included memes, collages of their friends, family and/or teammates, and quotes from their favorite musical artists, poems and movies. Students submit the finished product as an assignment, and I print them out on brightly colored paper to post around our classroom. Here are some of my favorite examples. 

A Guide for Making a Positive Classroom

This activity lets us talk about how we can support each other to create the best possible learning environment. To begin, each student needs a pen or pencil and 3 sticky notes. While the students are passing around the sticky notes, you can divide the whiteboard into 3 sections and label as follows: 

1) What (teacher name) can do to create a positive classroom

2) What my classmates can do to create a positive classroom

3) What I can do to create a positive classroom

Then, I ask each student to write out their answers to these prompts on the three sticky notes – one sticky note for each prompt. As each student finishes, they bring their sticky notes up to the board, and place them under the correct headings. When everyone is done, we discuss the answers as a group, and I create a master copy to print out and hang up in the classroom. Check out my Class of 2022’s Guide for inspiration. 

These activities are fun, require little-to-no prep and materials, and help create a warm and welcoming environment for everyone. The pictures, music and laughs are a sure-fire way to bring your classroom to life. 

Welcome to a new school year, my friends!

About the author

Ashley Burkart is a Senior STEM Teacher at Bioscience High School in Phoenix. STEM research was her first passion as she holds a Masters in Biomedical Science from Midwestern University. When she isn’t teaching tomorrow’s leaders, she is either hanging out with her dogs, Raven and Bailey, or hiking the beautiful mountains of Arizona. 

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