Our Day One Writing: Personal User Manuals

I’ll be honest. I’ve started this post three times. At first bemoaning why I can’t believe summer is over. Then whining that I didn’t get enough done, and finally, justifying why I can’t seem to get in a writing groove. None of it matters. I started back to school yesterday. Kids come next Monday.

I will be ready. And I’ll love it.

I’ve spent hours working on my new room. It’s almost done (I’ll post photos soon), and I classroom culturefigure if I can get my room perfect, everything else will fall into place. Misplaced priorities? Maybe, but that’s how I roll. The aesthetics in my classroom matter to me, and if you’ve visited (and many teachers and admin from around TX did last year), you know what I mean. Book shelves just right. Colors and furnishings that invite. Places to chart skills taught and showcase students’ thinking. All of this matters to the culture I work hard to cultivate in my classroom.

And while I’ve worked, I’ve thought about the students whose names rest on my rosters. Who are they as readers and writers? Who are they as individuals with needs and wants and passions? How can I help them know of their potential and of the possibilities that await them not just this year but beyond?

I’m teaching seniors for the first time this fall. Since my school is on an accelerated block schedule, I will have these students for one semester. Just one. One semester at the end of their high school experience. One semester to create a community, build a culture, bridge gaps, shape literacy identities as individuals about to face the big wide world — hopefully as citizens unafraid to face their fears, and the frightening things in our society.

One semester to read and write and think — together. One semester with a dream for a lifetime.

I’ve read a lot about the importance of building community lately, and I’ve talked a lot about the first day of school in most of the pd I’ve facilitated. I used to think, especially with my AP Lang classes, I had to knock ’em dead with my syllabus the first day, list my expectations, explain my grading policy, discuss my plan for how and what they would learn. Scare them into understanding the complexities of my AP class. I blew a lot of opportunities over the years. That “my” got in the way a lot.

How can it be “our” learning community if I am the one laying out all the learning plans? If I am the only one talking about what the learning must look like?

I wrote this post Talking about the First Day of School in 2015. Funny because I’m in the same canoe this year, wondering about how I will welcome students on Day One. The last thing I want is to ignite the fear, flight, freeze response, which so often happens with that same ole same ole flood of student expectations. Students are already experiencing high levels of stress the first day of school. I do not want to accelerate it

I’ve thought about reading the poem “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymorzska. I wrote about how my students and I used this poem to begin our understanding of rhetorical analysis last year. I’ll do that again, but it’s probably better as a week two activity.


author bio, Linda Sanchez, Wylie ISD

I’ve thought about reading author bios and asking students to write their own. Lisa and I wrote about our successes with students writing author bios last year and even modeled writing author bios with our teacher friends during pd this summer. So many talented teacher writers! Author bios are a new favorite, but they’re probably not for day one.

I’ve thought about jumping right in and setting up our writer’s notebooks. I stocked up

composition notebooks

I bought 170. The cashier at Walmart scanned them one by one.

and have one for each student ready at the bell. Now, I’m wondering if setting the notebook up is as important as just writing down some thinking on the first day of school.

Susan Barber wrote about her First Day of Class activity, and the idea of beginning with reflection resonates with me. I just don’t know about a trek to the football field — our students graduate at the UNT Coliseum miles away, and TX weather means it’s still hot hot hot. I can already hear whining. I love Susan’s idea though and want to think about this more.

I keep coming back to community. And culture.

My instruction works because of the community we build as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers. Or is it a culture we create as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers? Is it possible to have one without the other?

When Lisa was in town, we sat in my car in a parking lot and talked about this very thing. Lisa shared her wisdom: “Community is the classroom. It’s more immediate.” Mentioning her teaching before her move to workshop, she said,  “I built community to help us get through the things students didn’t like — like Huck Finn.”

Interesting. So community is good — sharing likes, dislikes, working toward a common goal, getting along, respecting one another.

We talked about get-to-know you games, icebreakers, we’ve all used on the first day of school. Many of them good ideas for building community. Then Lisa asked: “Do we get-to-know for the get-to-know — or the value of learning who are students are as readers and writers?”

Ah, the beginnings of building a culture.

“Culture is more pervasive,” Lisa said, “A culture of learning in an English class values reading, writing, talking, and thinking that goes on — that has demands beyond the classroom.”

And now I’m wondering:  On the first day of school, how do I build a community that begins creating a culture, a culture that validates, shapes, and inspires my students’ identities as thinkers, readers, writers, citizens, and humans that goes beyond the classroom?

Not an easy feat. But maybe there’s an easy start.

I don’t know why I clicked on this headline, but I think I’ve found my first day of school: “Completing this 30 minutes exercise makes teams less anxious and more productive.”

I think we will write personal user manuals. It’s a task business leaders are using to help


I’d like a better name than “user.” Any ideas?

their teams work better. Why not try it in the classroom?

The article states, “The user manual aims to help people learn to adapt to one another by offering an explicit description of one’s personal values and how one works best with others. This shortens the learning curve for new employees, and helps everyone avoid misunderstandings.” Since student talk and collaboration is central to my instruction, I think writing one-page user manuals about ourselves might put us on the fast track to better communication and the culture that fosters better learning.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, states: “My User Manual is one of the ways I practice leading out loud. It’s a living document that describes my innate wiring and my growing edge, while putting it out to the world that I know I am – and aim to always be — a work-in-progress.” And the article includes the structure Abby used to write her manual and a link to the manual itself. Mentor text, y’all!

Abby’s user manual centers around these six topics:

  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. How to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me

I’m thinking of including prompts that probe other topics more specific to what I need to know about my students literacy histories — kind of like a reading/writing territory — and topics that can jump start connections and trust between students. Maybe things like:

Describe yourself as a reader.

What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite author?

Write a simile about your writing life. 

When it comes to English class, where do you feel you want to grow the most?

List ten things you like to do in your spare time.

Of all your memories, which three are the most indelible?

What five adjectives describe your disposition?

I also like these questions I read regarding building trust in Adolescents on the Edge by Jimmy Santiago Baca and ReLeah Cossett Lent, a book I just started and am already loving for content, stories, and ideas:

Have you experienced fair treatment, either by family or by the system?

How do you express appreciation? Do you often receive appreciation for your acts?

How important is it for promises to be kept, either those made to you or those you make to others?

Do you feel that you are a part of decision making that affects your life?

Are you dependable? Do you feel others are dependable?

How do you generally resolve conflicts?

How important is truthfulness to you?

Too much? Maybe. But students will have choice in what they answer — and how. And like any time we write like this, we will talk first. Talk matters in a writing classroom.

Of course, I will write my own user manual. If I get my act together, I’ll have it ready on Day One as a way to introduce myself to my students. Hopefully, I can write it in a way that lets them know that while I am intense, passionate, and purposeful in helping them grow as readers and writers, I am also pretty vulnerable, and an introvert on a stage cast in the role of extrovert.

I’m thinking we will use our user manuals a lot. I’ll include a copy of each students’ in my conferring notebook for easy access and review when I meet with them. We’ll share with our table mates. We’ll share in our book clubs and in our writing groups. We’ll share when we do group projects or collaborate on writing.

We will use our manuals like leaders in business do because “the ability to share your thoughts and ideas openly, honestly, and without fear of judgment—has been repeatedly proven the key to innovative, happy teams. Whether you’re a manager or young employee, writing and sharing a user manual has a clear business payoff. The better a team knows one other, the easier it will be for them to navigate conflict, empathize with one another, and feel comfortable sharing, critiquing, and building upon one another’s ideas.”

What do you think? How will you (or did you, if you’ve already gone back) start building your classroom culture?


Amy Rasmussen is the mother of six amazing young adults, grandmother of five smart and sassy little people, and wife to a brilliant marketer, sales exec, life coach, and dog lover. She teaches readers and writers in AP Language and English IV in North TX and facilitates professional development on the workshop model of instruction at every opportunity. She loves God, her family, the U.S.A., and all humans everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass



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16 thoughts on “Our Day One Writing: Personal User Manuals

  1. […] Three Teachers Talk just posted the superlative just-in-time idea. Go through the post which wanders… […]


  2. […] for our students. Of course, this resonated. This is how we find mentor texts like author bios and user manuals. But Mr. Couros got me thinking about shifting the finding to my […]


  3. […] 3 we created aPersonal User Manual. I  loved the idea of students writing guides to what matters to them. I shared the mentor text, […]


  4. gstevens1021 September 4, 2017 at 10:15 am Reply

    Hi Amy, I wrote a guest post about my experiences with starting workshop last week and students writing personal user manuals. Where should I submit? Thanks!


    • Amy Rasmussen September 4, 2017 at 12:49 pm Reply

      Great. Can’t wait to read it!! Lisa, schedules our guest posts, so please email her at lisa.dennis@franklin.k12.wi.us

      Thank you for reading 3TT and your willingness to share your thoughts with us.



  5. Stacey Goldblatt August 23, 2017 at 10:28 am Reply

    Hi Amy. First: This is such an important blog. I always come away from these posts thinking, stewing, questioning. I love the idea of the user manual! Brilliant. I teach 8th graders. Choice is a biggie for our classroom community. For more literal, linear thinkers, numbered items would help them contextualize their needs in a list. For those who are more messy, I’m thinking it’d be fun to use Gary Soto’s EATING MEXICAN FOOD as mentor text (it’s basically a “how to” in stanzas). I love that these user manuals push away the normal “survey” approach and allows students to inform us in a form that is more fluid. I also like the expository multi-genre possibilities.

    Yesterday was our first day of school. I have three goals on the first day of school to get our classroom culture moving: read, write, share. (It’s basically what we’ll do each class session.) I always start with a Poem for the First Day of School…yes, a bit teacher-centric, but each year I write a poem for my incoming students. I gleaned this idea about fifteen years ago from a local poet/teacher who shared his own and cemented my love for this sort of benediction/invitation into the year. It’s been a beautiful way to challenge myself to think about what I want to say to my incoming students each year…the writing of it always gets me excited to step back into the school year (and at the end of the year I write a poem for the last day of school as a way to harken back to our first day together). I also love that it models the fact that in our classroom we speak poetry, we speak writing, we speak heart, we take risks, we speak what we know without the constrictions of right or wrong… At our school we only have ten minutes with each class on the first day of school (it’s a put-your-toe-in-the-water day). So yesterday, after the poem, I asked them to write on a post-it one thing they know to be true (an idea I stole from Sarah Kay’s TED Talk) and then we do a whip-around and share. Those who are uncomfortable sharing can “pass” (surprisingly, only 1 or 2 do) but by the end of our 10 minutes, we have a poster paper plastered with post-its of what we know to be true. Each class has its own. Even those who didn’t share verbally have a voice on that poster paper. In that 10 minutes yesterday I learned that: one of my students is sad to see her sister go off to college; a few students are dedicated to “do better” this year; another student found out who her true friends were this past month; another knows that she likes to lay in the grass and look at the sky; another knows that he doesn’t know what he knows…so many collective voices in so little time! They leave on the first day, and I know a little bit about them. I see their writing. It’s on the wall. I like that. (I’m going to save them and see if, at the end of the year, they can find their post-it and add to it/reflect on it.)

    I hope that it’s not inconsiderate for me to babble on here. I’ll stop! Bottom line: thanks for inspiring me to think!


    • Amy Rasmussen August 23, 2017 at 1:37 pm Reply

      Love. Love. LOVE this! I am a sticky note frantic. Thanks for the reminder to use them to collect student voices on day one.

      Hey, would you consider writing a guest post for us? Your voice and passion are fantastic. Let’s amplify it, please.


  6. Shana Karnes August 23, 2017 at 8:55 am Reply

    AHHHHHHH THE CASHIER SCANNING THE WNBs one by one…oh, goodness.

    I love all the love I can feel in this post. I wish, not for the first time, that I could be one of your students!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] This year, I approached the beginning with less of a scarcity mindset.  At least, I tried to.  I mean, a great classroom culture–much like Rome–is not just “created,” it’s built, isn’t it?  It is.  Especially if we want a culture, not just a community. […]


  8. Smith-Chavira Terri August 22, 2017 at 10:01 am Reply

    I just love your voice! I wish we had worked together more! I keep posting your posts! I do pray harvests abound in R3! Thanks Amy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Rasmussen August 22, 2017 at 6:59 pm Reply

      Ahh, Teri. You know how to build my confidence. For sure! Thanks for your support. Would love to work with you again someday!


  9. Amy Estersohn August 22, 2017 at 8:15 am Reply

    What a neat idea! I can see how these are best used as living documents, because answers to questions can grow and change over time.

    I might add questions like:

    – Where and how do I like to read? What kinds of reading or reading situations are difficult for me?
    – How, when, and where do I get my best work done as a writer? What do I do when I get stuck or I feel like I don’t have any good ideas?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Rasmussen August 22, 2017 at 8:32 am Reply

      Great questions. Thanks!!


    • Amy Rasmussen August 22, 2017 at 8:34 am Reply

      I agree about living documents. I wonder if these business leaders use them that way. Might be cool to revise at semester.


      • Amy Estersohn August 22, 2017 at 9:36 am Reply

        I mean, these are the questions I return to myself 😉

        For example….

        … my listening comprehension for audiobooks is pretty low
        … I’m an effective skim reader (magazines, newspapers) but sometimes I struggle to slow down for deeper meanings. I’m that person who shows up to book club and feels like I didn’t appreciate half of the book.
        … my early drafts feel very poetry-ish because that helps get me writing “flow” and I put in paragraphs and full sentences in later drafts.
        … I love making lists and crossing things out.

        Liked by 1 person

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