Book Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School

Walton Burns (2016) 50 Activities for the First Day of School. Alphabet Press. US $1.95 ebook. $6.95 pbk.

You know me. I am cynical. I am down on every kind of thing. I do not review products – I rail against the status quo. I only do Dogme and task-based teaching because of their cool, outside-the-mainstream-ness. I don’t do book reviews.
I had never been asked before, and while I more or less knew that Walton Burns’ book would not be my kind of thing. His Alphabet Press indie publishing venture is an admirable thing; some say that self-publishing is vanity publishing but I think this is a myth put out by big publishers to avoid doing anything worthwhile but keep selling dreck. Anyway, he asked nicely, I said are you sure you want me to tear you apart and then stich you back together with gravel where your soul once was and he said he was sure this wouldn’t happen. I am trying to be less of a negative person, so I said yes.
Still, the book is not my thing really though there are some things I really like.

Things I liked

It is obviously rooted in practice. You can imagine that these activities have been tried and tried again. The variations of the activities are good, and usually more difficult than the original. Some activities are quite contrived but they get students talking. Though I say contrived, it’s no bigger a contrivance than the average EFL classroom. There is also a lot of moving around which can be good for young-ish learners. There is a very good activity about having learners talk about their strengths in the language. The time capsule activity is good as an activity to later compare to the baseline to see progress. There were rough time limits, too, and I’d think about making these subheadings (of which more later).

Things that weren’t for me

I knew the book wasn’t my thing. It’s very icebreaker heavy and I’m not an icebreaker kind of guy. I normally ask learners to find out about each other but not “five things”. Life isn’t constantly numbered.
I think the memory chain activities were rather over represented, too. Memory chains for names in particular. There could have been more for vocabulary (there are some, however).
The English names thing has always made me feel a bit uneasy as it’s often an excuse for monolingual teachers to get out of trying to actually pronounce real names. “Yasuhiro? OK: Joey.” Sometimes I think this is a (this specific) teacher annoyance more than a student one but I honestly don’t know. I’ve taught on courses where students were obliged to pick an English name and there were some amazingly bizarre ones, possibly picked as a piss-take.
The learning myths bit was a bit less student-centred than most other activities.

Would I buy it?

No. But I have been teaching since before my hair was grey. I have seen almost all of these activities before in one iteration or another in various in-house resource books in language schools or just from observing other teachers.

Would I recommend it to anyone?

Yes, maybe. If someone is new to teaching, fresh off a certificate or just on-the-job ‘training’ it might be useful and saves them reinventing the wheel, especially if they have a real academic year (unlike most EFL language schools who take all comers all year). I’d say the ebook would be useful for planning on public transport. There are worksheets available to download for some of the activities which might be nice for those with little experience.
So, I hope this was a fair review. If you write materials and have a desire to have your dreams torn to shreds you can always get in touch.

6 Replies to “Book Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School”

  1. Interesting review and deconstruction of some of the ideas around it. I was amazed at an old DoS who told me he didn’t bother learning students names as he’d had so many. I could understand as a director but that was for classes he taught! I have a couple of name games that I use more for myself than the other students so that after a quick 5 minutes, I’ll know there names for the rest of the year (more of less).
    I have seen my fair share of awkward moments when students who have both been in the group for about a month suddenly realize they don’t know their partners name and they **have** to use it.
    I wonder if *creating* you’re own 50 activities for the first day of school, could be a good idea for the more experienced teacher? I think I might have a go at that actually.

    1. Thanks a lot, Chris.
      Learning names is important and something I’m still fairly bad at but seating plans and trying consciously to learn names gets me there in the end.
      That list of one’s own is a great idea and I look forward to seeing yours!

    2. Although it probably will cost me book sales, I think teachers collecting their own activities is a brillant idea. Every teacher should have a DIY teacher resource book with their favorite go-to activities written down clearly somewhere. That’s basically why I started blogging to start with, which is what led me to have the audacity to think I could put out a book of activities.
      Writing the activities down gives you a chance to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, to list variations, and feedback from students, and get the directions down well, too. File them away with whatever handouts or materials you might need (if any) and you have a go-to set of activities.

      1. I actually do this and find it extremely helpful. If I have to cover a last-minute class, I always know where to look for ideas. Plus my file only contains activities that I’ve tried and tweaked if necessary to suit my students needs or my own taste.
        I’d say this is something all teachers should do, as Mark said it’s incredibly practical but it’s also a form of CPD.

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