“I’m pretty sure my students are going to know I’m a dork,” I said to my husband last weekend, “from day one.”
I had been working on updating the pictures I include on my “Getting to Know Mrs. Dennis” PowerPoint (dork alert), and noticed how having a child has really brought out the dork I think I once tried to suppress. I’m sure my daughter, now only three, will delight in that fact someday.
I’d be lying to you if I said that I’ve lost my cool over the years. That becoming a mom turned me from Audrey Hepburn into Jill Taylor (90’s sitcom references only serve to solidify my dorkdom). To be honest, I never really had the cool. I had the kind, the careful, the detail-oriented, the poofy hair, and the braces, but not the cool.
But cool isn’t me. Watching Stranger Things with a bowl of pretzels and a glass of milk is me. Reading The Nightingale at stoplights because I can’t put it down is me. Pretending to be a bear at the zoo to make my kid smile is me.
And this week, at school, I’ve been introducing my students to the real, dorky, punny, excitable, overly-optimistic me, and it’s going really, really well.
As I told one of my classes on our very first day together, “I’m going to push you all year to share yourself with this class, on paper, in discussions, through conferences. We need to build community in here so we all feel safe enough to share things that actually matter to us. And I’d be a hypocriteif I preached that to you, but didn’t clue you in to the deeply dorkish, flawed, silly, person I am. I’ll be endlessly dedicated and passionate to our growth as readers and writers this year, and I’ll be looking for the same from you. To start, we need to get to know each other. I’m Mrs. Dennis and I promise to be real with you.”
Building community is why I teach. I want my students to feel that self expression can help make them more comfortable in their own lives and thereby help them connect to others, regardless of the differences they once perceived. In building community, it’s so terribly important to be honest (though considerate) and real (though appropriate), that I spend several class periods at the start of the year working to make that possible for my students.
Here are a few of the first day activities that have my students learning about this new community we’ve just created. I tell them on the first day that our class is about the study of what it means to be human, so we start with getting to know the humans around us, as understanding breeds trust and comfort (key components to any successful group, but especially in a workshop classroom).
- Share Parts of Who You Are: Last week, I introduced myself to students with the PowerPoint linked here. It includes plenty of pictures, a few policies and expectations, and a lot of who I am. I try to incorporate the people I love, the fun I had over the summer, and some of the background that supports the joy I find in the classroom. I encourage students to ask questions, and this year we had a few laughs over the antics of my summer with a precocious three year old. Horribly embarrassing public tantrums are hilarious in the retelling, thankfully.
- Encourage Students to Start Sharing Who They Are: I also took Amy’s advice and made time for decorating our writer’s notebooks. I shared some of the pictures and song lyrics I used to decorate mine. We discussed the power of making something their own and turning an ordinary notebook into something that they would hopefully look forward to writing in. I took song requests for work time, students laughed about my complete lack of artistic ability, and we had fun. Rigorous, no. Important, yes. But we followed up that activity with a quick write where students chose to respond to either a quote about conformity from Marcus Aurelius or a quote about the origins of cruelty from Lucius Seneca. They supported their viewpoints with an example from something they’ve read and current events. Boom.
- Keep Learning and Sharing Well Into the New Year: Over the years, I’ve done countless ‘get to know you’ activities. Three Truths and a Lie. Interview Questionnaires. Find a Friend. Scavenger Hunts (See below. It’s not pretty). This year, I combined a traditional questionnaire, a twist from a colleague, and a plan to use a little time each class period talking with kids about some silly things that make them tick. On day one, I wanted to get students writing. We have only 18 minute class periods that day, so time is precious. I had kids turn in summer work and get down to a quick write in their notebooks and chat with their classmates after drafting. To take attendance, I had students write their first names (as they would like me to call them) and last names on an index card. I collected the cards and then handed them back the next day to test my knowledge of students names. But I wanted more. I now plan to use the cards to learn about my kids and share some fun with them too. I had them flip the cards over and write:
- Personal anthems (songs that capture your soul)
- Spirit animal
- Dream job when you were 5 and today
- Book that speaks to your heart
- Extracurricular passions
So far, I’m seeing smiles and enthusiasm, and hearing lots of discussion. Students are already talking about themselves as readers and writers.
Not always so. In my first year of teaching, a colleague had me take my five classes of freshmen through a textbook scavenger hunt. They sat silently at their desks (model students) and searched their new textbooks for answers to the questions on the worksheet I’d run off for them on “fun” green paper. I’m bored just typing about it.
Thank the heavens and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice and Dorks – my forthcoming novel), I’ve grown to trust myself and the value I see in learning about my students and building relationships. The energy it brings to the start of the year has been incredible.