Building Relationships: Activities for the First Week of Middle School

We all have heard it and we all know it: building relationships with your students is vital.

I have had years where I start the school year feeling behind and jumped straight into teaching content. The students didn’t know anything about me, and I spent half a class period learning their names before I started in on teaching sentence types.  You probably already know, but this was a total bad move on my part. Of course it was something I didn’t realize until it was too late and I didn’t have the connections I needed when attention started waning and frustration was high.

I would probably be on this same track if The Model Schools Conference didn’t wake me up. Bill Daggett and friends stood on the stage and basically let me know relationships are going to trump strategy everyday of the week.

Of course, I knew this already in the back of my mind, but I also knew I had a billion and one standards to teach to students who were several grade levels behind. I felt there was no time to waste on getting to know you activities. But, I also knew I had a rough year the year before so what would it hurt to try a new approach.

I was always under the impression that the relationship building would happen organically, but without the in intentional time set aside to build them, they just didn’t happen. It’s kind of like our relationships with our partners, right? If we do not make the effort to strengthen them with date nights and quality time, then they wither or remain stagnant. 

So after I being fired up by the Model Schools Conference, I planned for the new school year with a focus primarily on building relationships first. My whole first week was devoted to getting to know my students, and I intentionally set up systems to continuously build those relationships throughout the school year.

I have to say, it made a difference. Everyday wasn’t perfect and I didn’t have a connection with every single student (because there is always going to be one or two that resist and put up walls), but the intentional effort payed off. After the first week I had nicknames for students like Dry Noodle Dru because she loves to eat dry Ramon noodles, and I could talk to Alivia about the her favorite show, the Golden Girls, after I watched an episode or 10 with my Mimi over the weekend. These kind of relationships and connections probably would not have been made it if wasn’t for the activities I did the first week of school.

To help you out and get you started, here are the 5 activities I did the first week of school:

  1. Alpha- Autobiographies: I have to admit, this is one of the activities I would do at the end of the year to fill the time between testing and the last day of school. However, during my light bulb moment at Model Schools, I decided it would be more effective the first week.

    All this super simple activity has them do is think of something for each letter of the alphabet that represents something about them. Even though it’s simple, this one activity gives me 26 facts about each of my students, so that’s 26 opportunities to make a connection with them. For a simple example, on the C page, several students put C is for their cat. That is an opening for me to tell them about my cats, and easy connection is instantly made. I also learn about their siblings, favorite activities/food/music, and personality.

    How to do it: There are several ways you can implement this activity!

    Option 1: What I did is create a Google Slides and each slide had its own letter. They put what the letter represents to them and they even include pictures!

    Option 2: Print out a simple 26 square alpha boxes sheet and have them write in each square what how the letter represents them.

    Extension Idea: They have to find someone in the classroom that has a match to at least 3 of their boxes/slides. This will get them up, moving, and talking. It’s a perfect way to start building that positive classroom community!

Check out some of the student examples below!

If you need to save time and want something that’s already done, here is a link to this download: Alpha-Autobiographies


2. All About Me One Pager: One pagers are all over the place. All you have to do is scroll through Insta to see amazing teachers sharing drool worthy examples. If you don’t know, One Pagers are a visual and written expression about a subject that is contained to one page. In order to make it more structured for my students, and to get quality information out of it, I created a template for them with directions. Students will use the template as a guide to visually represent: Their name, favorite quote, favorite things to do, the history of their name (or the meaning), where they see themselves in 10 years, and words that describe them. This is a great first day activity since it’s low key without a lot of stress. When these are completed, they make great bulletin board displays! 

If you want the premade One Pager Activity, just click here: One Pager: All About Me!

3. Bottle Flip Question Game. This game, y’all. This. Game. As soon as tell them to bring in bottles because we are going to flip them, my cool points shoot up and they are excited to come to class!

This is a fast paced partner game where students get to flip water bottles Dude Perfect style while asking each other get to know you questions. I love walking around and hearing the answers to the random questions like, What animal best represents your dance moves, If you could ask your pet one question, what would it be, and what words of wisdom would you pass on to someone younger than you? 

  • How to Play:

    • Have your students get in random partners (it’s best if you get them to break out of their friend comfort zone for this one)

    • Have printed discussion question cards ready to go for each group. I gave each group a set of 60 questions.

    • Give each group a scoring sheet (mine is a two column sheet where they can tally their points.

    • The oldest flips first
      If they flip the bottle and it lands upright, the flipper gets two points. Now it’s time for the other student’s turn.

      If they flip the bottle and it does not land upright, they have to draw a random question. 

      If the student answers the question, then they get a point. If they say, “I don’t know” The OTHER student gets a point. Then the other student gets a turn.

    • Keep going back and forth until time is called. I have my students play for about 10 minutes and then switch partners.

If this icebreaker sounds like something you want to do with your middle schoolers, and you want all the questions and other stuff I used to make it happen, you can download it here! Bottle Flipping Ice Breaker

5. Teach the teacher: This is another activity that I would do at the end of the year, but as I was learning the news skills with my students, I realized this would be THE BEST first week activity! The gist: Students give a 3-5 minute presentation about something they are interested in (I’ve had everything from learning about different wolves to learning how to Snapchat to learning how to tap on the table with my pencil to create a beat.) In their presentation, they tell me what they are going to teach me, the history or interesting facts about the topic, what they like about it, and what they want me to learn. Then, they teach me and I try to do it.

Pro Tip: All students should get prior approval of their topics before they start working on their presentation. As long as it is school appropriate and they can supply any materials/supplies they need, I let them do it.

I laughed and had so much fun with with my students as we went to the gym and they tried to teach me how to shoot a 3 pointer, and when we went outside and they showed me the proper way to throw a spiral (apparently I’m a natural at this), and when we went to the band room to learn how to play the drums. Instead of figuring out these talents at the end of the year, it is amazing to know first hand their super skills at the beginning of the school year.

The purpose of doing this activity at the beginning of the school year is three fold:

  • It gives the students a chance to get comfortable with me by sharing and teaching something they excel in.

  • This activity also shows them that even though I terrified to try some of the tasks (the singing and free style rap lessons were the most embarrassing) I give it my all and took risks in order to learn something new. My hope is that they will be more willing to take risks and break out of their comfort zone as the year progresses because we have laid the groundwork of creating a safe environment where everyone tries, even if they are not perfect to begin with.

  • Finally, it gives the students an opportunity to shine in front of their peers. I will never forget when the super shy girl got up and came alive when she started talking about skate boarding. When she did her tricks, EVERYONE was super impressed and amazed at how good she was! They clapped and cheered for her at the end of her presentation. Even though she blushed, I could tell she carried herself with a little more confidence as she walked back to her seat.

The presentations usually take 2-3 days and the prep work of creating their Google Slides presentation usually takes 2 days. So, this is a great activity to introduce on the last day of the first week and have it carry into the second week of school.

If you would like the stuff I use, here is the link to download it! Teach the Teacher

That, my teacher friends, is my five part plan to building relationships that last throughout the school year. Feel free to use any of these ideas in your classroom!

If all of this sounds amazing and like something you totally want to do with your awesome middle schoolers, you can get the bundle here! First Week Middle School Activity Bundle!

Is there something amazing that you do to build relationships? I really want share ideas and learn all about it! Please comment below and share! 

Teach like you love it,

Savannah Kepley