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5 Engaging First Day Science Activities (ESL Accessible)

Five engaging first day activities that are science-specific and ESL accessible are science-specific icebreakers, establishing classroom rules and norms, lab safety, creative “all about me” projects, and collaborative projects.

In this blog post, I’ll walk you through ways to engage all students from your first lesson. These activities are not only specific to science but are also accessible to all students regardless of English language proficiency.

Importance of the First Day of Science Class 

The first day of school is exciting for both students and teachers. Fresh starts, new goals, and blank slates fuel this excitement. 

Specifically, the first day of your science class is important for several reasons. First, it is a chance to begin forming important relationships with your students. The first day of class also introduces your students to your teaching style, expectations, classroom culture, and daily routines.

Text reads: Specifically, the first day of your science class is important for several reasons. First, it is a chance to begin forming important relationships with your students. The first day of class also introduces your students to your teaching style, expectations, classroom culture, and daily routines.
Image of three girls standing in front of yellow school bus smiling.

While we’re typically excited to do those first day of school activities with students, planning for them can be a little overwhelming. In addition to racking your brain about the range of activities you could do with your new students, there is also the challenge of engaging students who may be new to the country. 

While you may be thinking, I’m not an ESL teacher! How do I do this? Lit Science exists for this very reason. We firmly believe you amazing science teachers can teach grade-level content to all your students, including your English learners. 

We also understand you may need support in doing so. What better time to start than the beginning of the new school year? Let’s explore science-specific first-day activities that are accessible to all students, including your English learners!

Activity #1: Scientific Icebreakers 

An icebreaker is a great activity to help ease the nervousness your students may be feeling on the first day of school. Icebreakers can come in many different forms, such as games, collaborative activities, scavenger hunts, questionnaires, etc. 

As icebreakers are meant to make students feel welcome and comfortable, they are worthless if they are not accessible to all students, including your English learners.

Importance of ESL Icebreakers in Science

If you’re reading this, chances are you fall into one of the following categories. 1. You are an ESL teacher who pushes into a science classroom. 2. You are a science teacher with a few or many ESL students in the same classroom, or 3. You are a science teacher with a classroom that is 100% English learners.

Regardless of which category most accurately describes you, if you teach science to English Learners in some capacity, you have an ESL science classroom. As science teachers, we are responsible for teaching grade level science content to all our students, including our English learners.

Image of students working together. Young man smiling in the middle.

Using icebreakers that are accessible to all students sends a strong message and sets the tone that all students, regardless of skill levels, are important and active members of the classroom community.

By intentionally beginning with accessible icebreakers, you begin to create a positive classroom culture that is inclusive of all students, including English learners.

Moreover, icebreakers are a great way for your ESL students to engage in your classroom activities before science content is introduced. While icebreakers are low stakes, they are an important means of building confidence and classroom culture. 

I am particularly partial to science-specific icebreaker activities because not only do they begin to expose students to your teaching style, classroom routines, and expectations, they expose students to skills that are important in science classrooms. 

Science-Specific Icebreaker Activities for Your First Classes

I did my best to start with science-specific icebreakers because I wanted my students to understand that I valued scientific concepts, content, and practices from day one. Here are two examples of science-specific icebreaker activities that are differentiated and scaffolded for English learners.

  1. Science Chalk Talk: In this activity, students answer the question, ‘What would make this the best science class you’ve ever had?’ First, students are given a chance to think and answer the question individually. Next, students place their answers on poster paper, the whiteboard, or even an old school chalkboard (hence the name, chalk talk). After students write their answers, they read and respond to their peers’ answers without speaking. They are only allowed to respond on the chart paper (or board). The end of the activity includes a set of reflection questions about the chalk talk. 

I like this as an icebreaker because it is a nice way to “break the ice” for students who may be intimidated or nervous about speaking in a second language to share their ideas through writing.

It also informs me of their interests and goals for my class.  It is easily differentiated and scaffolded according to different learning needs. 

Science Chalk talk is an example of ESL first day activities. Image : 2 differentiated, scaffolded versions of Science chalk talk. Poster paper with question what would make this the best science teacher you've ever had written in the middle. Text reads: science chalk talk. Scaffolded for new comer English Learners.

For example, in Lit Science’s Science Chalk Talk resources, students are given customized graphic organizers to aid in the completion of all parts of the activity. The resource includes two different versions of customized graphic organizers. 

One was created with English learners in mind. This version includes word banks, embedded visuals, and sentence frames to support English learners in coming up with their answers and replying to their peers.

In this version, the directions explicitly state that students can use their native languages to brainstorm ideas and respond to classmates’ ideas. 

Because students produce all of their work on the customized graphic organizers (with the exception of the work done on the poster paper or board), students can hand in their packet of graphic organizers, which also serve as a fantastic formative assessment for the teacher and an easy way for students to earn a high grade to start the new school year off strong. 

2. Science candy game: Through this fun game, students pick a colored candy (like Skittles) and respond to a prompt that corresponds to their chosen color. The prompts are about students’ interests, interesting things they may have done in past science classes, and feelings toward science. 

This activity is inherently engaging because students get to speak about themselves and their own experiences. This is also important because it signals to students that their interests matter.

The science candy game is a beginning of the year activity that is differentiated and scaffolded for English Learners.

Like the science chalk talk, The Science Candy Game is also composed of graphic organizers that have been customized to the task. 

It is differentiated and scaffolded for English learners  – including embedded visuals and sentence frames, as well as opportunities for students to work in small groups and use their home languages during their discussions.

As an added bonus, students have the option to eat candy (if you allow them to, of course). While this may not be the healthiest icebreaker,  it’s a surefire way to get students excited about your class. 

Activity #2: Establishing Classroom Rules and Norms

Even adult learners benefit from understanding classroom norms. Establishing classroom rules and/or norms is imperative for the middle school science classroom. While I’m a proponent of student-centered learning, I also strongly believe that in order for student-centered learning to thrive, classroom rules/norms must be established and consistently enforced. 

Time and experience have taught me that lecturing off of a list of rules and consequences in front of the room to students is equally boring and ineffective. That is what I did my first year because that is the advice I got as a first-year teacher. “Make sure kids know who the authority is and start with the rules!”

While I still agree that starting with classroom rules on day one is okay, my approach has changed. Classroom rules and norms can and should be established in collaboration with students. 

Image: Beginning of the Year Activities - Creating class rules and class norms. Text reads Creating Class Rooms and Norms. Background image of the word rules written with the numbers 1,2,3.

Through a simple protocol and customized graphic organizers, students are asked to tap into their hopes and fears for the school year. They then collaborate with their classmates to come up with a set of norms.

Next, the whole class comes together to create the class norms for the year.  All students sign off on the norms, and they are posted in the classroom for the entire year.

As the year progresses, students are held accountable to those classroom norms and are reminded and revisited as often as necessary.

Activity #3: Introducing Lab Safety

As science teachers, we have the unique job of facilitating lab activities. Therefore, we have the added responsibility of covering lab safety in that first week of school.

Image of student doing a titration.

While giving a lab safety lecture in the front of the class can be a total snooze, especially for middle schoolers (been there, done that), there are creative ways to get students familiar with the lab and understand the importance of lab safety. 

Student-Centered Lab Saftey Activity

In this activity, parts of the lab are set up as stations. Students work in groups as they travel to different stations and make observations and inferences about how specific parts of the lab are used and how to ensure the lab is used with safety in mind.

This is a good way for students to be introduced to a student-centered approach to the lab. It gets kids excited about science while simultaneously keeping them responsible and accountable for their behavior in the lab. 

Activity #4: Creative “About Me” Projects

Getting to know your students is a central part of back-to-school activities. Not only is it important to know your students’ science backgrounds, but it is also important to understand more personal information, such as your student’s goals and interests, as this information will strengthen your instruction.

While getting to know your students is a process that happens throughout the school year, you can start with a simple survey that is sent home with students for homework. Or students can complete a creative “all about me” project like The Science Superhero.

Another example of one of many esl first day activities is the science superhero getting to know you project. Image of 2 versions to the science super hero get to know you product. Text reads scaffolded & differentiated.

In this project, students create their science superhero profiles. They write out their academic and science-specific strengths and challenges.

While this project is great for getting students used to creativity in science, the students’ information can also be used as a diagnostic to understand what science topics students may struggle with and which they are most excited about. This information can help you to plan out your units accordingly.

Activity #5: Collaborative Projects

Students collaborate in science. Whether it’s a lab, a project, or class work, collaboration is an important academic and scientific skill.

By introducing students to collaboration from day one, they understand the importance of collaboration and how they are expected to collaborate in your classroom.

It is better to introduce collaboration through low-stakes first day/week of school activities rather than during a project that involves rigorous science content. In other words, you don’t want students learning how to collaborate while simultaneously learning the science content and skills.

Therefore, collaborative projects during those first few days of school are a great way to teach students how to collaborate from day one.

Collaboration is especially important for ESL students because it allows them to practice English through low-stakes activities. Collaboration is also beneficial in that it provides students with opportunities to use their home languages.

A great example of a STEM-specific collaborative project is an engineer design challenge.  Not only are they engaging, but engineering design challenges expose students to the principles of engineering and model the importance of collaboration to complete a task. 

Images of students next to slides they constructed made of card stock. The marble slide engineer design challenge is a collaborative project and one of many ESL first day activities.

In Lit Science’s Engineering Slide Design challenge, students are tasked with building a slide made out of materials provided by the teacher.

A set of differentiated, scaffolded, and customized graphic organizers walk students through the process of planning their designs, creating their prototypes, and competing with other groups as they test their slides. 

Similar to the Engineering Slide Design Challenge, in the Marshmallow Tower Spaghetti Engineer Challenge, students must create a tower made from tape and spaghetti. The tower must be able to hold a marshmallow on the top!

Conclusion

In conclusion, the five engaging first day science activities that are accessible for ESL students are science-specific icebreakers, establishing class rules and norms, introducing lab safety, creating “about me” projects, and collaborative projects. 

Taking the time to plan your first day (or new semester) and first week activities will help build relationships and classroom culture. While all of these activities are beneficial, they can take a long time to plan.

The goal is to get to know your students and build a positive classroom culture. It is NOT to burn out on week one. Lit Science has got you covered. Our back-to-school resources save you time and let you focus on what you do best – teaching!

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