Part of being a great teacher is really getting to know your students. This can be incredibly difficult when you find yourself looking at thirty new faces on the first day of school.
Human Scavenger Hunt
A human scavenger hunt is one of my favorite activities to do with my high school students, but it would work well with any age group. To prepare, you need to create a worksheet with a list of different qualities, likes, dislikes, etc. on it.
Preferably, you should have as many options as you have students in the class. These can be things like "plays football" or "likes broccoli" or "has a sibling." To increase the difficulty, put things on the sheet like "can recite the alphabet backwards" or "is wearing socks that aren't white."
Then, have your students walk around the room finding people who fit these descriptions. Tell them to sign their classmates' papers next to the description they fit, and that each person in the room can only sign their paper one time. If you play, too, you can use that time to talk to your students and learn about them.
Students love this activity because they get to eat their candy when they are done. To prepare, get a big bag of multi-colored candy. Starbursts work well because few people are allergic to them, but Skittles or M&Ms are also good options.
Write on the board what each color means. Yellow could be something they did during the summer, pink could be a favorite food, orange could be something that makes them happy, etc. You can pick what you want your students to talk about. Then, make sure each student has a few pieces of candy on their desks; the number of pieces is up to you.
It is not important that they each have several pieces of different colors. If they end up with four yellow candies, for example, you can have them trade or they have to say four things they did during the summer. Go around the room and have students share their information. As they share, they can eat their candies.
Peer interviews are especially good for a speech-based class. This gets the students up in front of the room and talking to the class early on in the year. To do this activity, have the class develop five questions they will ask a partner.
You can have them each develop their own questions, or develop five as a class. Partner the students. Its best if you partner them with someone they don't know well, and the easiest way to do that is let them sit wherever they want at first (they'll prefer their friends), then pair them up with someone totally across the room from where they chose to sit.
Have them interview their partners and write down the answers. When the interview is over, have the partners stand in front of the room and introduce whom they interviewed and tell the class a little about them.
These can be essays you have your students develop into formal assignments, or they can take the form of a more casual journal entry. Ask your students to respond to several questions about themselves in writing. As you are reading them, you can learn a lot about your students' interests, what they did over the summer, as well as their writing abilities.