Time Well Spent: Getting to Know Our Students as Readers and Writers First

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Perhaps this school year is your very first as an educator. Maybe it’s your thirtieth. It could be that you’ve moved schools, or changed rooms, or will be teaching in a new subject area. Regardless of the circumstances, it isn’t unusual to have back to school dreams (flippin’ nightmares, if you ask me – driving to the wrong school again isn’t just embarrassing, it’s downright inexcusable fifteen years in), enthusiasm and optimism tinged with anxiety, and a bit of sheer panic that while you thought there wasn’t enough time to get ready at the start of August, now you are really, painfully sure.

However, the first day of school will come, as surely as the fireflies start to fade from warm summer evenings and the emails begin rolling in from panic-stricken students, who left somewhat less time than they probably should have to complete summer assignments.

And when that first day comes, all new outfits and nervous bellies, I’d like to ask that we all keep in mind something that I have come to see as very important in my classroom. I would ask that we all consider carefully how we spend out time.

A few weeks back, I came across a tweet from Danny Steele. He said,

I don't care

How true. How do I spend my time? How will I spend my time during pre-session? Drowning in data and prematurely exhausted by situations I cannot control, or physically and mentally preparing to welcome students to my class and the deep learning we will do?  During class, am I promoting books, writing in front of my students, talking with instead of at my students? Do I make time for my students beyond the class period? Beyond the class day, will I make time for my own reading and writing in order to live the life I sell to my students as essential?

For my students, we’ll need to discuss the very same concepts. For many, a case for becoming readers and writers will need to be airtight if it will successfully compete with loads of homework from other classes, endless hours of extracurricular practice/performance, and the responsibilities to after-school jobs, family, and friends. Thankfully, the most important job of an adolescent (discovering who he/she is and wants to be) is beautifully bolstered by time spend exploring experiences in a writers notebook and devouring the writing of great thinkers, explorers, and dreamers. My brief sermon to students very early in the year will repeatedly support good reading and writing habits by reminding them of the power of the choices they make in relation to these areas of their lives.

So, as workshop is dependent on the tenant of choice, teachers and students becoming writers and readers is reliant on choice as well, not just the choice of what to write/read, but how, when, for how long, and to what end.

This means, on day one, when I see each of my classes for only twenty minutes, I will be promoting the choice to become (continue as/make time for being/change a mindset around living a life as) readers and writers. I won’t be handing out my syllabus. I won’t be putting insane pressure on myself to know them all/love them all/build a community in one day. I will be giving students time to get acquainted with the idea that a life as a reader and a writer will be real in this class and my ultimate goal will be to make it real for them outside this class as well. In an effort to start this discussion, I’ll ask my students to write about the following:

What choices do you make as a writer and a reader?

In what ways do those choices lead you to becoming a stronger writer and reader?

When Sam suggests that his choice is not read, well, at least I’ll know. When Kara claims she wants to read but doesn’t have time, at least I’ll know. When Joe says he only reads science fiction no matter what, at least I’ll know. Because once I know, I’ll know better who and what I’m working with.

In the days that follow, my priorities will be to:

Continue to establish a workshop community that values reading and writing by talking about books, helping students select their first choice books of the year, writing with my students every day, talking about books every day, and using more pointed questions for reflection/conversation around getting to know my students as readers and writers specifically. For this purpose, I plan to use George Couros’s “5 Questions to Ask Your Students to Start the School Year” from his work at The Principal of Change: 

  • What are the qualities you look for in a teacher?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What is one BIG question you have for this year?
  • What are your strengths and how can we utilize them?
  • What does success at the end of the year look like for you?

Strongly promote curiosity as a mainstay of our work together. More to come on this in a future post. Amy and I started talking about student curiosity when I was working with her in Texas earlier this month. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it as a mandatory component to my planning that has been on the back burner for awhile. Of course the work we all do each day is to pique student curiosity, but I want this back at the forefront of my teaching. How often have you had a student answer the question above about what he/she is passionate about with a response of “I don’t know” or “I don’t think I’m really passionate about anything”? Readers and writers embody curious spirits, therefore, we need students to locate that curiosity that our traditional education system has beaten out of them by second grade.

Reflect on, discuss, dive into, write about, and work to digest the current events, perspectives, conflicts, and life-altering chaos of this summer in order to promote civil discourse and debate about how to move forward. Easy, right? Yeah. I’m sure we’ll have this all solved by the end of quarter one. Sigh. This work is going to be some of the toughest of my career; however, it’s necessary work. For my students from all walks of life, experience, and personal bias, we need to work more than ever to build understanding, empathy, and support for one another in order to send these scholars off to a life beyond high school with both hearts and minds wide open to the truth, the history and current actions that mold that truth, and how to make this nation and our world better.

And that, friends, is no small undertaking for the first few weeks of school.

At the heart of everything we do though, the grounding feature to the start of my year will be to focus on how we spend our time. What will we spend our time talking about? What will we spend our time worrying about. What won’t we spend our time worrying about? What will we promote and what will we let go of in an effort to be better students, better educators, and better people?

We will spend our time talking, I know that, because the best source of data in my room is the collective and individual voices of my students. So while I am nervous for all we have to do and be, and I’m sad to let go of the summer I am currently living (I type this on the couch in my pajamas, with my beautiful daughter curled up next to me), it’s time to spend my time a bit differently. It’s time to spend it in one of the most influential places in life. The classroom.

What will you be tackling the first few days of schools? What are your major goals for those foundational days of the school year? Please share in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her first days of school will also involve an increase in caffeine, Kleenex for spontaneous weeping at the sound of the alarm at 5:00 a.m., and an insistence that her lovely husband consider saving her life by dinner. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


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